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COD, 11

October 05, 2017 10:17PM

The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 11: Seasoned Blackguard

Mr. and Mrs. Churchill could only observe their nephew with increasing dismay and alarm. His behavior had been erratic since that infamous dinner party. No, if they were honest with themselves, he had been acting strangely even before he received his first ridiculous haircut.

His hair, thankfully, had returned to its usual length and style although his moods were still not fit for company. What was more, he had lost his taste for good company, avoiding his family except mealtimes and consorting with the tenants at all hours. Mr. Churchill had even caught Frank hurriedly leaving the abbey to attend the birthing of an animal! The young man had also gradually resumed his visits to Mrs. Bates and her spinster daughter in Highbury but had deliberately avoided Emma Woodhouse at Hartfield.

To Mrs. Churchill, these acts of defection were as if she had gathered a serpent to her bosom all those years ago. That her precious little boy -- Mr. Churchill's dead sister's only child -- who had only ever wanted to make her happy should now act with such cold indifference! She had not understood how some people viewed a large family as a blessing rather than an expense, but she was beginning to see the strategic advantage of numbers in case one offspring -- or more -- proved undeserving of their inheritance.

Frank’s uncontrollable behavior was not offset by his growing maturity. In fact, it was worsened. Frank had nearly taken over the entire running of the estate. The mundane concerns of Donwell Abbey had never held much allure for Mr. Churchill, and he considered it as beneath a true gentleman to do more than dabble with such business. He had tried to instill these values in his nephew but Frank was now perversely growing more interested in it. And while Mrs. Churchill could count on her husband to bring to her attention all the pressing matters so that she might share the burdens of Donwell with him, even to the point of deciding for him, Frank was disinclined to seek her opinions. And when she volunteered her views on pertinent topics, he disregarded them.

She had only to recall those ruffians who brutally accosted her husband and her nephew's gentle treatment of them to feel fresh outrage. Frank had met with the two blackguards that same day and, rather than turn them out immediately, he had accepted their apologies on behalf of the Churchill family. The miscreants were to stay! When she heard of it a few days later from her dear friend Augusta Elton, she was appalled. What did Frank think he was meant to do about it other than remove them forever from the area at all possible speed?

“But we have already chased off the Martins, ma'am,” explained Frank when she had cornered him after Augusta had returned to the vicarage. “Should we lose two more in such rapid succession, people would begin to think it was us and not the tenants’ families who are to blame.”

“They threw your uncle bodily to the ground!” she reminded him.

“That is not what happened,” Frank corrected her. “They accidentally knocked into Mr. Endicott who fell onto Uncle. No one intended for anyone to be hurt.”

“That hardly excuses their behavior,” she retorted. “Your uncle is still not over the ordeal. Just knowing that those farmers are still on our land must hamper his recovery.”

“I am sure he is stronger than he realizes,” Frank said, trying to keep fatigue from his voice.

“He has not the resilience of youth,” Mrs. Churchill countered. She was unaccustomed to the need to still be arguing her point. Frank should have bowed to her wishes long before now.

“When he is feeling up to receiving them, I am sure Mr. Calvin and Mr. Waters will personally tender their apologies in whatever manner he dictates,” said Frank. “In the meantime, the example of Robert Martin will certainly keep everyone in line. Now, if you will excuse me.” He offered no competing claim on his time but left the room just the same.

As frustrated as Mrs. Churchill was by Frank’s uncharacteristic distance, she found no relief for her feelings in Miss Woodhouse. Her neighbor was deaf to any concern that Frank was no longer his usual self, a delightful mix of obedient and carefree. It seemed to Emma to be a natural progression of maturity, a sign that he was becoming more deeply involved in the Abbey. Besides, did not Mr. Churchill want his heir to show more interest?

Worse, Frank had slowly evolved from mutely listening to his aunt's plans of installing Emma at Donwell Abbey as her successor to actively voicing his opposition to such a scheme regardless of whoever might be listening. Mrs. Churchill had given up even hinting at it for fear that a servant would catch wind of her nephew's denial and spread the gossip as fact. Not that it mattered much as she rarely saw him anymore; with all his claims of “estate business” she spent more time in the company of Augusta Elton than with her own nephew! And while that dear woman was infinitely sympathetic with whatever complaint or observation that Mrs. Churchill made, Mrs. Elton lacked the long understanding of Frank to know when or how to tease her out of her moods. As such, she increasingly complained of headaches and flutterings, and Mrs. Elton could only repeatedly recommend the salubrious delights of Bath.

Mrs. Churchill was sure that a reconciliation between Frank and Emma would immediately restore her to health. But as much as Mrs. Churchill tried to bring them together, she failed. The two young people seemed to have entered some unspoken pact that one would never appear before Mrs. Churchill while the other was present. Miss Woodhouse was as obtuse as ever to her hints and refused to find it odd that she never saw Frank any more. “After all,” opined the young woman, “we never much intentionally met at various places; it was always accidental, and I am inclined to believe it is accidental now. And, as you say, he is now heavily involved in running the estate. Doubtless that business erodes the time available to him to make social calls. I commend him for his industry. Donwell is so much larger than Hartfield, it must be so much more challenging to run.”

Mrs. Churchill could not be more plain, for she knew it would signal to her friend that Frank was presently determined not to marry, and she worried Miss Woodhouse would second that lunacy. She could only watch and cringe and massage a tightness pulling on her chest as these two dear people grew further apart.

“Oh, Mrs. Churchill, you will never guess who I saw today in Highbury,” announced Mrs. Elton one day in early June.

“Was it the Knightleys?” Mrs. Churchill knew they were expected soon.

“No!” said the vicar's wife, brimming with excitement. “It was Jane Fairfax and her guardians, Col. and Mrs. Campbell. The ladies were so fashionable that I had to be introduced, and when I found out who they were I could barely contain my shock.”

“They are all here?” inquired Mrs. Churchill. That was unusual. In previous years, Miss Fairfax had always traveled alone, rather like a servant.

“Well, I am sure the colonel is gone by now,” decided Mrs. Elton. “He had only come to drive his wife and Jane Fairfax to Surrey on his way to Southampton. They will be here a week or longer before he collects them on his way back to London.”

“The poor Bateses, I wonder how they will find the room to host them,” Mrs. Churchill mused. “You know how little they have the wherewithal for overnight guests.”

Mrs. Elton could only nod. She had taken tea with Mrs. Bates before. “I suspect Miss Woodhouse will step in. She has a penchant for strays and charity cases,” Mrs. Elton added conspiratorially.

Mrs. Churchill could only murmur a response.

“To be fair, Miss Fairfax did not appear as grasping as I imagined,” Mrs. Elton observed. “Of course, I had little opportunity to form my opinion. But if she were grasping, this is a prime time to be in Highbury for not only is your nephew here, but George Knightley is coming as well. And the fact that she had not already secured a position as a governess somewhere makes me inclined to believe she aims for more. I wonder why the Campbells are not more firm with her.”

Mrs. Churchill could only wonder when exactly the interlopers would be gone. She had already invited Emma Woodhouse and her extended family to Donwell Abbey for a strawberry-picking party, and the party had grown to include several young people. Young was perhaps a relative term, but Mrs. Churchill viewed them as such. She had even spoken with her housekeeper on multiple occasions on the importance of occupying the children and keeping them separate from the grown-ups as Miss Woodhouse’s nieces and nephews would be there. Mrs. Churchill was not overly fond of other people's children, and she could imagine many adults felt similarly, especially when their white muslin was marred by strawberry-colored fingerprints.

The date had only been provisionally set in case the weather should be discouraging but whenever it was to be, a supper would be served at the Abbey afterwards. This was to be the first such party at the Abbey since the Platt debacle and Mrs. Churchill shuddered to imagine what would happen if another unattached and pretty young woman should be in attendance this time. Frank was still not reconciled with Miss Woodhouse and it was unclear how his present self would react to the newcomer. It would be best for everyone not to find out; it would be best for Miss Fairfax not to come to Donwell.

“It is a shame the two will miss our little strawberry party,” said Mrs. Churchill, confident that the Londoners would not be invited. Why would they expect to come when no one had invited the Bateses?

Mrs. Elton nodded in tacit agreement. She did not trust herself to say the right thing given her relationship with her cousin. She certainly didn't want to remind Mrs. Churchill that it was the Eltons who had last brought a stranger to the Abbey. On the other hand, Mrs. Elton wondered how Frank Churchill would react to the new young woman -- whether he would flirt outrageously with her, proving beyond doubt that he was not attracted to Miss Woodhouse, or whether he would receive her with distant civility, proving beyond doubt his attraction to Miss Platt. In either case, Mrs. Elton found herself wondering whether events might conspire to allow Frank to meet Miss Fairfax.

“When does your nephew make his neighborhood calls?” Mrs. Elton asked aloud. Surely Frank would call upon the Bateses before their visitors returned to town.

The look on Mrs. Churchill's face showed she had the same thought although with different emotions. “Oh,” she said, then once again, “Oh! Pardon me, Augusta, but I suddenly do not feel well. I think I need to lie down.”

When Mrs. Churchill felt unwell, the best and surest cure was always the complete and undivided attention of her nephew. It was folly to expect she could keep him confined to her rooms for a week or longer. She could not think of a wiser plan at the moment but all she needed was time -- a few days at most would be all she needed to come up with a way to protect her dear boy from this impoverished interloper.

In the meantime, she massaged the tightness in her chest and let Mrs. Elton make sympathetic noises before curtseying herself out. Alone, she wasted no time sending for Frank and moving with heavy steps to her boudoir.

Shortly after her maid had made her comfortable, Frank came to see her. “What is this I hear?” he asked. “You are feeling poorly? This has been going on for a month or longer. Shall I fetch Mr. Perry?” He had been cloistered with Mr. Endicott all morning and had heard no other news.

“No,” said Mrs. Churchill firmly. If Frank went wandering all over Donwell and Highbury, who knew what he might find? “No, just sit and read to me. I am sure all I need is a little rest.”

As Frank was in need of a break from Endicott, he was amenable and picked up the book he had been reading during his last time in this room. By mutual accord, he reread the five pages before the chapter he had dogeared, which provided all the background necessary to remember the characters and plot.

As Frank kept reading, he became engrossed with the story, and his aunt could devote her mental energies to finding a way to keep him there.

It was perhaps too late to invent some errands to take him elsewhere. No doubt, wherever he went there would be unsuitable females trying to entrap him. And if he went alone -- and Mrs. Churchill could hardly send her husband as a chaperon -- he would be so unprotected against wiles and machinations.

To keep him here, however, guaranteed that he would meet this Jane Fairfax, for she could hardly keep him locked in the family wing until Colonel Campbell took her away again. No, Frank was bound to meet this stranger, and it was up to Mrs. Churchill to make sure his opinion was already decided against the young woman before any introduction to place.

During a pause between two chapters, Mrs. Churchill casually mentioned that Mrs. Elton had been to see her today.

“How were you feeling before her visit?” asked Frank, trying to determine if the vicar’s wife had carried some cottagers’ illness to his aunt.

“As well as can be expected,” she answered. “Mrs. Elton had run into Miss Bates just this morning.”

“Oh, did she?” asked Frank. “I was there a few days ago.”

“Oh, Frank, I wish you did not spend so much time with that family,” she said petulantly. The tightness in her chest made her perhaps too candid. “The tenants of Donwell have greater need of you. Let Emma and Augusta take care of the poor of Highbury.”

“Have no fear that I neglect our tenants; Mr. Endicott sees to that. And I do not visit Mrs. and Miss Bates out of pity,” Frank said calmly, trying to soothe her. “I like them.”

“Do you like them more than your own family?” She had not meant to sound so small and hurt but the pressure on her chest was not easing.

“Of course not!” he replied immediately, not even wondering whether it was true.

“Then stay here and keep me company,” she pleaded. “I do not want to think of you being far away from me right now.” She did not want to think of him meeting Jane Fairfax in some cramped parlor. Frank was too good, too friendly. He had no natural immunity to unsuitable young women.

“Of course,” he said and pressed her hand affectionately. “Do you want me to call for Uncle? Do you want to see him as well?”

She shook her head and nestled deeper into the pillows. “No, not now.” Frank was the one who worried her. Frank was the one she needed to keep close.

She closed her eyes, done with conversation for the moment. She could not yet think of how to extract a promise from Frank to avoid Highbury without arousing his suspicions. She needed to handle this carefully, and she was not yet ready for it. After observing her briefly, Frank picked up the book and found his place again.

He remained with his aunt the rest of the afternoon but at a certain point he began to feel restless. He tried to hide it from Mrs. Churchill and was unfortunately too successful. He worried that her present indisposition was more rooted in fact than usual.

When a maid came in to clear away the tea tray, he dispatched a summons to Mr. Perry. He waited until she was in a light doze before slipping out to find his uncle and appraise him of what was happening.

Mr. Perry came and went but the headache and the tightness remained. He declared his diagnosis to be a “simple indigestion,” prescribing a temporary diet that implied Mrs. Churchill suffered from gout. She did not leave her rooms for the evening meal, preferring instead some beef broth served in a teacup. The two men dearer to her than anyone else in the world came to see her after their dram of port.

Mrs. Churchill lectured them both about Mr. Perry and Mr. Churchill was somewhat bothered to learn that the apothecary has been called. He had, after all, offered to his wife nearly daily to call the man to the abbey, and she had rebuffed his petitions. But Frank had simply done it without consulting anyone. The presumption! He knew that he would have received a stern admonishment had he taken such liberties.

And to find out that it had been for the most part unnecessary! Mrs. Churchill was no worse than Mr. Woodhouse, that perpetual hypochondriac. She had eaten something that had disagreed with her and needed to show some restraint in the next couple days. Mr. Churchill knew he was being petty, but there was satisfaction in hearing his wife tell Frank not to overstep like this again.

After the gentlemen left her to rest, they returned to the library and the port decanter. Mr. Churchill decided to further drive the point home. His nephew had begun displaying an alarming independence and it was time for an end to it.

“Frank,” he began after refilling his glass, “you were out of line in calling for Perry. Your aunt and I have spoken on this topic before and she is firmly opposed to it.”

“Perhaps she does not see the need for Mr. Perry,” Frank countered without malice, “but I did. She clearly looked like she was ailing this afternoon. I know I shall sleep better knowing it was nothing serious. Besides, how was I to know she had decided against it?”

“How, indeed!” exclaimed Mr. Churchill. “How are you to know how your aunt is doing or what her wishes are if you avoid us at every turn?”

His uncle’s words were too near his aunt's earlier complaints that he spent too much time with other people. Frank flushed and tried to stammer an excuse but Mr. Churchill was enlivened to be winning an argument for once. “Don't try to deny it. You and I both know why. Or should I say whom. And we both know that your aunt would have a legitimate need for Perry should you ever tell her.”

“I have no intention of her ever finding out,” said Frank, chastened.

“And why not?” pressed his uncle. “It cannot be concern for your family that holds your tongue.”

Frank felt his uncle was being unfair. He was tempted to call him on it. He settled for taking a steadying breath and saying, “There is no reason for Aunt to know. I shall not marry, so why list out all the girls I shall deprive of the honor?”

“What?” cried Mr. Churchill in confusion. “Not marry? Why would you say such nonsense? Surely your little church mouse -- ” He stood up straighter. “She refused you?”

Frank sighed but admitted nothing. She had not refused him directly after all. “If I cannot marry Miss Fairfax, I shan't marry anyone.”

“But, but what about Donwell?” asked Mr. Churchill. “We did not raise you to be a bachelor.”

“Donwell does not need an heiress,” said his nephew. “It only needs vigilant management. Why do you think I've been working so closely with Mr. Endicott? Look at Miss Woodhouse's brother over at Enscombe; he needs no heiress, or any other kind of wife.”

“What does George Knightley have to do with anything!” exclaimed the exasperated man. “And he has a brother with sons to inherit should he fail to produce his own issue. Who do you have, Frank? And, so help me, if you dare mention your father's expectation -- ”

“Please stop, Uncle,” Frank was quick to interrupt him. “You have said enough. Excuse me.” And he retired for the night before more words could only lead to discord.

COD, 11

NN SOctober 05, 2017 10:17PM

Re: COD, 11

TinaOctober 06, 2017 05:23PM

Re: COD, 11

AiOctober 05, 2017 11:36PM


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