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COD, 10

October 02, 2017 10:53PM

The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 10: Dastardly Ambush

Frank Churchill had never been a very industrious boy, his aunt had always been too opinionated and managing for him to exert himself likewise. After all, there was no point in bothering to form an opinion or to announce a resolution if he would only be forced to retract it later.

And so he became agreeable and charming. He learned not to care too deeply on a number of subjects. He became adept at getting his way through inaction, such as by not proposing to Emma Woodhouse. And besides, he was too young to marry anyway.

But Jane Fairfax made him see things differently. Marriage did not seem so distant or undesirable, but rather an end state to strive towards. He proposed. Fitting for a young man who was very good at making no commitments of his own, he was not exactly refused nor was he accepted. Rather, he was given a goal.

When he returned to Donwell Abbey, he was changed. It was hard to see, nearly imperceptible, and his old habits and ways of thinking often reasserted themselves, but he wanted to improve himself. He was, unfortunately, ignorant of how to go about the necessary self-improvement. He knew -- secretly he knew -- that his uncle and aunt would never allow the marriage to take place, that Jane Fairfax would not satisfy them as the next mistress of Donwell, but if he did not think too long about it, perhaps it would simply resolve itself. Indeed, with an industrious and clever friend like Emma Woodhouse, it was easy to believe he would eventually marry his secret love.

He set himself, through Emma’s gentle coaxing and stern instruction and his own occasional insight, on a course of gradual correction. He took greater interest in the estate of Donwell and in its people. Mr. Endicott, the steward, drew him into the business that his uncle ignored. He lapsed frequently at first but less often with time. He knew he would never have the carefree existence that he had been raised to expect if he married Jane, but if he looked to Emma’s brother as a model, he could see an attainable happiness.

All that stopped rather abruptly when Jane's guardian refused his proposal. What was the point of all Frank’s hard work if it didn't end with her at his side? Whereas before he had only relapsed briefly, now he gave up entirely. Taking a leaf from his uncle's book, Frank avoided Mr. Endicott at all costs.

This was more than unfortunate. The steward had begun to hope for the next generation of Churchills and did not want to see this defection as anything other than one more momentary aberration. He forgave Frank and waited for his return. Something had plainly happened; the young man was obviously at odds with Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, and that no doubt carried over into the managing of the estate.

The steward made no mention of the change in Frank’s activities to Mr. Churchill, not wishing to exacerbate whatever grievances lay between the two.

Similarly, Mr. Endicott made his excuses to the tenants who, having received a small sample of an attentive landlord, had quickly developed a taste for such pampering. Mr. Churchill and his nephew were very busy with some very pressing business, he explained, and would deal with other matters as soon as they could.

On the other hand, Frank’s uncle had been too busy actively avoiding all conversation to learn about this. He did not want to notice that Frank had begun to shirk duties, and was thus blindsided by two farmers after Sunday services a month after the dinner party that started it all.

Mr. Calvin and Mr. Waters had long been at odds with each other. Their differences were exacerbated by their proximity to each other and by the lack of an active authority to settle arguments before they escalated into feuds.

Mr. Calvin approached his landlord directly as the Churchills exited the church. He began to state his case in clear, loud terms. Mr. Waters, fearing that his nemesis was gaining the upper hand, joined the duo and offered his interpretation of the situation, making certain to correct any half-truths from Mr. Calvin’s version. Mr. Calvin, however, had not been raised to be meek or to endure any slander against himself, especially when it was spoken in front of him, even if he was in a churchyard.

Poor Mr. Churchill stood there mutely as the two farmers argued with increasing volume and implied threats. His dear wife was reviewing the sermon with Donwell’s vicar and thus did not see he needed aid; Frank was still avoiding his family in general and did not realize how quickly the situation had escalated. It was Mr. Endicott who stepped between the men to defuse the tension, and it was Mr. Endicott who was pushed aside with unexpected force. The steward stumbled back into his employer and both men went down in a heap.

There was a collective gasp from the congregation. Even Calvin and Waters knew they had crossed a line. Robert Martin would certainly have stepped in before now to calm both men except that he and his family were no longer living in Surrey, having offended the Churchills much less seriously than by knocking one down in front of the entire community.

The farmers attempted to right their wrong by helping Mr. Churchill to his feet and dusting him off, practically falling over themselves in their zeal. By now, the beleaguered landowner found his voice and shooed them away in uncharitable terms.

Mrs. Churchill arrived and demanded to know what had happened. Both Calvin and Waters had suddenly lost their tongues. They cast down their eyes, unable to find a ready excuse.

Mr. Churchill was more indignant than humbled, however, and declared that those two men had accosted him with nonsense. The farmers tried to protest but Mr. Churchill was deaf to them and his wife glared them into silence.

“Frank!” called his uncle. “Come along. We are leaving now.” And with that he limped to the waiting carriage, more injured in dignity than body.

The ride home was agonizing. Mr. Churchill was stonily silent but Mrs. Churchill spoke more than enough for two. She was shocked and appalled by the manners; her own husband was rudely handled, and right outside a house of worship; the vicar had stood by worthlessly while it happened. That would be the last people saw of the Churchills at Donwell’s neighborhood church for a good while! Dear Augusta Elton had been begging her friend to come to Highbury for Sunday services, and next week the denizens of Highbury were in for a treat!

When she had exhausted that line of thought, she turned to what possibly could have provoked them. She made plans for her husband to speak with the steward at his earliest convenience to get to the heart of the matter, for men did not turn savage overnight. And if this was part of a larger pattern… Well, they had just replaced the Martins at Abbey Mill; surely the rest of their tenants knew what could happen.

As the carriage rolled to a stop before the abbey’s grand entrance, Mrs. Churchill instructed her husband to send for Mr. Endicott at once. That worthy put his foot down, gingerly. He explained that the pain from his injuries, which at first had seemed so trivial, had only intensified during the ride home. He was only fit to lay quietly in his room for now. It would expedite matters to have Frank deal with Mr. Endicott.

Thus it was decided. And Mrs. Churchill had so many more words of instruction for her nephew as they waited for Mr. Endicott to answer the summons, that Frank was relieved when the steward finally arrived.

Once the two men were ensconced in the office, however, Frank began to feel differently. Embarrassment and awkwardness wiped away his cheer, leaving him strangely in sympathy with his uncle.

Mr. Endicott tried to set him at his ease by talking only of the business before them but Frank’s conscience demanded him to make some apology. He stuttered through it poorly, ending with a claim that he was singularly unfit for this work, being convinced it would profit him nothing.

Bygones were gone, and the steward would not hold past neglect against him, but perhaps Mr. Frank could apply himself to the present embarrassment for a speedy resolution?

“Oh, none of it matters anymore to me, sir,” said Frank. “I shall not be married after all. And without a wife, there can be no future generation of Churchills to run the estate.”

Mr. Endicott was too polite to point out, based on the example of Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, that a wife was no guarantee for children, not was the lack of children an impediment to declaring an heir. Instead he tried a more diplomatic approach, arguing that while it mattered very little to Mr. Frank, it mattered a great deal to Mr. Calvin and Mr. Waters who were both by now convinced that they were to be sent away like the Martins. A word from Frank would go far toward easing their worries.

“Oh, but it does not matter,” Frank protested.

“Surely that cannot prevent you from going,” prodded the steward who had already ordered two horses saddled and made ready for a ride.

Thus was Frank Churchill slowly coaxed and lured to visit the farmers, and to hear their individual grievances and apologies, and to admonish them gently, and to rule in favor of neither (or so it appeared to them).

Frank took no personal satisfaction in these visits, but he could see their fear give way to something like ease as wives began to scold their husbands again and eldest sons sneaked out to the barn to criticize their foolhardy fathers and to vow that they themselves would never be so recklessly thoughtless with only the cart horse or the cow to witness.

As the two men rode back to the abbey, Frank listened to the steward touch on a variety of small troubles that had grown up during his month of inattention. It became clear to him that, while his life might have no more joy, there was still much to fill his hours. It was certainly a more effective way to pass the tedium that was to be his existence rather than hiding in unused rooms at Donwell Abbey between mealtimes. It was a life though it brought him no pleasure.

“Would you be terribly disappointed,” Frank said, interrupting him, “if I sold Donwell after my uncle and aunt died?”

“Mr. Frank!” the steward was aghast. “Why would you do that?”

Frank sighed and did not answer. The real question was what would he do with himself when that day arrived.

From that day on, he treated his time at Donwell as one of indentured servitude. He slowly resumed his activities for managing the estate but without any expectation that he should enjoy the fruits of his labors. Between his family and Jane's, that was impossible.

What he would do with himself when his uncle and aunt had passed on and he had finally ridden himself of the estate was a curiosity to him. He had no idea what Donwell Abbey would be worth to a buyer, what amount of money he would take with him when he left, what kind of life he could afford for his later years. Indeed, if he did not earn enough to carry him through to the end of his life, what could he possibly do? His uncle and aunt had seen to his education, but they had been clear to his tutors that Frank did not need an employable skill. He was to be a wealthy landowner, and the only tools he needed for that were land and money. By their own examples, Frank could not determine what he might do to earn food and shelter. He supposed if it came down to it, he would finish his twilight days as Mrs. Bates currently did.

He was taking tea at Randalls one day when Mr. Weston took him aside to announce that the Westons were expecting a child before Christmas. Frank was to be a half-brother.

Frank was overjoyed on their behalf and quickly wished them every happiness.

“I hope you do not mind,” said Mr. Weston, “if I hope to be a better father to this child than I was to you.”

Frank started at such sentiments. “How can you say that, sir? How can you think that? You have done for me all that was in your power. You have provided for me as well as your lot would allow. And when you feared that would not be enough, you entrusted me to those with better means. What greater sacrifice is there?”

These words were a great relief to Mr. Weston who, in contemplating a second child, had looked back upon his old decisions for Frank with self-reproach and condemnation. A manly silence fell in the room and it was several minutes before Mr. Weston trusted himself to speak again.

Having satisfied himself that his son bore no ill will toward him and his second family, he spoke again at last. “Mrs. Weston now feels comfortable to share the news with our friends and relations but perhaps the first reaction in the Abbey should be private. Would you mention it to the Churchills tonight? Mrs. Weston will call upon your aunt tomorrow officially.”

It was a wise plan and Frank promised to fulfill his role in it. His uncle and aunt had been especially sensitive ever since the incident in the church yard and he did not know how they would react to the announcement.

This led naturally to Mr. Weston inquiring into the health of Frank’s guardians and how they were fairing.

“My uncle’s leg is still bothering him,” said Frank. “It was an unfortunate accident and I do not blame the men involved, but I think there are still some hard feelings to be worked through. I have taken over a more active managing of Donwell during my uncle’s convalescence, and I suppose I shall continue in that role until I can sell it.”

“Sell it!” exclaimed his father in surprise, and Frank spent several minutes attempting to retract those fateful words. Nothing less than a full explanation of what had provoked them would satisfy Mr. Weston, whose countenance grew darker and more gloomy as Frank tried to justify everything that had happened without laying blame on anyone. He even revealed that he had fallen in love with no hope of gratification although he again refused to divulge her identity other than confirming that she was not Miss Platt.

“Well, I fail to see how selling Donwell Abbey will set anything to rights,” declared Mr. Weston after hearing all Frank had to say.

“Nor does Mr. Endicott,” said Frank, regretting his outburst. “Once Donwell is mine, I should be autonomous, but by then she will doubtless have married someone else. To think what happiness it will have cost me, I do not want to hold onto the place.”

“These are grave words, indeed,” declared Mr. Weston, “and I cannot reconcile them with the kind absolution you offered me at leaving you in the care of your mother's family. How can it have been right for me to do such a thing that has brought you such unhappiness?”

The relief Frank had felt in sharing some of his feelings was snatched away and instead he felt the guilt of heaping this burden on his natural father.

“Please, sir,” he begged, “do not let my present circumstance give you unease. I could never forgive myself if I troubled or distracted you in this joyous time. If my situation is pitiable, it is only because I have let it become so. Why should you -- a man who defied my uncle and aunt twice to marry for love -- why should you suspect that I lack the capability to do the same at least once?”

“But I had an independence from the Churchills, something I failed to give you. Frank, I -- ” Mr. Weston would have continued to argue for his share of the blame but Frank forestalled him.

“Sir, if I had known that this would upset you so much, I would never have mentioned it,” Frank said. “Pray, think of it no more. I shouldn’t have come here today.”

Mr. Weston realized that to continue speaking of it would only force Frank into silence. This accidental confidence could be the first of many, or the last. With new understanding, he saw that fatherhood, an adventure upon which he was about to embark again, never truly ended.

Mr. and Mrs. Churchill were not pleasantly surprised to hear of the Westons’ news. They did not hide it particularly well, but Frank had every hope that they would have more control over their reactions when Mrs. Weston called the next day. Indeed, he knew his aunt thought too highly of herself to allow any such lapse of breeding to be observed by outsiders. Mr. Churchill could bemoan the loss to Frank’s inheritance but he knew there was nothing to be done about it. If the child was a girl, the Westons would need enough money to raise her, launch her into society, dower her to attract a good husband, all expenses that would subtract from what would be available to Frank. If the child was a boy, however, the child would siphon even more money until there would be nothing left for Frank and the abbey.

Mrs. Churchill was composed if not congratulatory as Mrs. Weston sat across from her and confirmed over tea what had been suspected at the Abbey since the assembly that welcomed Mrs. Elton to their neighborhood months ago. Frank was there as well to chaperone if necessary but there was no cause for him to intervene. And, although he had already congratulated his stepmother the day before, his sincere compliments acquitted any coolness from his aunt.

Mrs. Weston, sensing that her welcome would be short, did not linger over her cup. She shared her news and said that she would begin to let the rest of Highbury and Donwell find out about their newest addition.

Knowing that his aunt was only waiting for the departure of her guest to give vent to her feelings, Frank offered to escort his stepmother home or to her next destination. The gesture would surely demonstrate the Churchills’ approbation while also saving him from an unpleasant scene.

Mrs. Weston was touched by the offer and responded prettily. She could well guess -- and correctly -- Frank's motivations but there was no harm in accepting. She had originally thought only to visit Donwell Abbey and then to return home, but in light of Frank’s companionship, she extended her circuit, taking in the Coles, the Eltons, the Montgomerys, and even the Bateses in her route.

Their audiences were all welcoming of the news; weddings and christenings were delights to the entire community. Mrs. Weston received more efforts at help and announcements that someone would begin a knitting project than she was sure she would know what to do with.

Still, the unending offers of tea and cake, the rattle of the carriage, the stream of good wishes began to exact their toll, and Mrs. Weston was relieved when they turned up the drive to Hartfield to see Emma Woodhouse.

In truth, Mrs. Weston was reluctant to inform Mr. Woodhouse of her news. He was still referring to her as “Poor Miss Taylor” a twelve month after she had last signed that name, and he viewed infants as willing carriers of disease, but he must be told by her for certainly he would hear about it from others now.

Emma rose to greet her guests, extending her hospitality to them in the usual form. Mrs. Weston eschewed the standard cup of tea for a brief visit to the water closet, leaving Frank alone with Emma for the first time since the Platt Debacle.

Miss Woodhouse lost no time in asking how his courtship progressed. She tendered her condolences to hear that it had ended. It was sad to hear, but it explained much of his behavior.

“I must apologize as well for neglecting our friendship of late but I am afraid it cannot be helped,” he said. “Our former openness, along with my aunt’s well-known expectations, have hurt Miss Fairfax immensely as the letters from her family contained stories of my public attachment to you and the general expectation that we would be married.”

Emma was shocked to hear such nonsense, and that Miss Bates would spread such gossip. Then she realised that Miss Bates could never be intentionally malicious; the woman had only shared kind stories of her neighborhood, never realizing how those untruths had hurt her niece.

“But if you explained to Miss Fairfax --” she began.

“I was not afforded that opportunity,” said Frank, still smarting from being dismissed by the colonel. “I must behave as if news of my every action will be carried to her -- not to deliberately bring her pain but with plenty of possibility for unfortunate misinterpretation. I was sent away because I appeared to be doting on you, but if Mrs. and Miss Bates write that I am still seen with you constantly, does that not imply to Jane that the accusations were just? How does that not bring her further suffering?”

“Are you serious?” was all the response Emma could muster. She had expected some lovers’ quarrel to have prompted his flirtations toward Miss Platt. She had realized -- long before Frank -- the importance of quashing Mrs. Churchill's hopes to unite the young people. But Emma hadn't known how much sacrifice would be expected of her. “Frank, we are friends. We have known each other all our lives. We cannot be expected to drop all connection in perpetuity.”

“No, not all connection,” Frank agreed, “but I must be more circumspect. Our time for private teas and secret scheming is over.”

Emma wanted to argue, to find a compromise that allowed her more of Frank's companionship than that of an indifferent acquaintance. She had lost Harriet Martin to Enscombe, and Mrs. Weston would never go back to being Miss Taylor. And, while Miss Bates was a cheerful old woman, she too closely resembled a warning of Emma's own distant future. Isabella was too far away in London, and too wrapped in the concerns of her husband and children. Mrs. Elton would never be a sincere friend, and so many other women in the neighborhood were either too old or too young, or beneath Emma 's intimate friendship. Frank felt like her last true friend, and he was turning his back on her.

Emma wanted to argue, but before she could marshal her arguments, Mrs. Weston returned and claimed all attention with her wonderful news. Emma, who had only been awaiting the official announcement from her former governess, expressed her good wishes by presenting a delicate, lacy cap, suitable in size for only a newborn.

“I have been expecting this, you see,” Emma smiled. “And I have had plenty of practice with Isabella. Come, let us tell my father. He will be surprised, but you are too familiar with his habits to expect otherwise.”

COD, 10

NN SOctober 02, 2017 10:53PM

Re: COD, 10

AiOctober 05, 2017 02:42AM

Re: COD, 10

KateROctober 03, 2017 11:49PM

Re: COD, 10

GretchenOctober 03, 2017 06:58PM


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