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COD, 14

October 16, 2017 10:45PM
The penultimate chapter!

For the record, this year's Halloween prompt is not my friend.

And while I have recently considered cross-posting on DWG and other FF sites, I have never thought about posting on Amazon in part because no one I know IRL knows about this hobby of mine.

The Churchills of Donwell

Chapter 14: Irrevocable Break

An unseasonable fog clung to the valleys on Tuesday morning and Frank nearly despaired, but the sun quickly burned off the offending mist and preparations continued for the outing to Box Hill. He had written to Colonel Campbell and, if all went well, the colonel would be in Highbury this evening to meet with him and hear his application for Jane’s hand in person.

While he had told no one of this beyond his father and Jane’s family, he had accepted the position with his father and was scheduled to appear in London in August. That would give him plenty of time to break the news and to bid farewell to his friends and family in Surrey. He knew it would come as a shock to many but he wanted to wait for his aunt’s health to improve before advertising his change. And he also wanted to include in his announcement that he would be marrying Jane. And for that, he needed first to speak with the colonel.

Despite the colonel sending Frank away months ago, it was not that the colonel could prevent Jane from marrying him; Jane was too old to be under her guardian’s thrall although it was wise of her to comply with his decisions while she remained under his roof. But Frank wanted the older man’s opinion on when he would be ready to marry Jane. Mr. Weston had estimated it would take ten months for Frank to be established enough to afford a wife -- possibly sooner if Frank advanced quickly within the business -- but that estimate sounded far too conservative to the young man. Perhaps the colonel, who lived in London, had better insight into how long these things took than Mr. Weston living at his country estate.

It bothered Frank that he had not told his uncle anything since before the ball at Randalls. Mr. Churchill knew nothing of the job in London or of the fact that Jane had accepted him although had Mr. Churchill bothered to observe his nephew, he would have noticed a happiness that could only mean one thing.

But Frank did not want to mention it to his uncle. They never seemed to have a pleasant conversation anymore. They never spoke except to argue and disagree. It always ended in offense and insult, and Frank was simply too happy to put himself through it. His uncle would find out soon enough, and learning sooner would not change the outcome in the slightest.

So he was more worried than surprised when his uncle appeared at breakfast and announced that he too would be joining the excursion to Box Hill.

“But if you and I are both going,” asked Frank, “who will sit with my aunt while we are gone?”

“The housekeeper will do it,” he answered. “I have already spoken with her. I find I need to get out of doors today. I have been cooped up in the abbey for too long.”

Frank could not disagree with that. His uncle had been living practically as a hermit since the argument between Calvin and Waters at Donwell’s church. He looked pale. The fresh air and sunlight would do him well, but Frank feared his uncle would make things difficult. Jane and Mrs. Campbell had extended their visit although Mrs. Campbell expected to return to London tomorrow with Col. Campbell while Jane stayed behind, ostensibly to be with her family. Jane, her guardian, and her aunt were to attend the picnic today. Frank was to drive them. He was certain that there was physically enough room in the carriage for his uncle to join them, but Frank had already explained to Jane and Mrs. Campbell how vehemently opposed his uncle was to the marriage. He could not imagine his uncle wanting to ride there and back with such company, nor did Frank want to expose Jane to any unpleasantness from his uncle.

He dispatched a note and the carriage to Mrs. Bates’ rooms, explaining the reason for the change. Then he sat briefly with his aunt, mentioning the excursion today. She had forgotten about it. She seemed unable to remember much these days. Perhaps it didn't matter who sat with her today after all. Still he sketched a note asking Perry to come to the abbey today.

The drive in the gig with his uncle was painfully silent for the first half-hour. Mr. Churchill had no wish to say anything that might lead the conversation to Miss Fairfax who he knew was still in the area and suspected of being in the group of people traveling to Box Hill today. Fewer people were coming to this picnic than had been invited to Donwell's strawberry party but, as Mrs. Churchill was no longer in control of choosing the guests, no doubt that grasping Jane Fairfax had swindled an invitation from Miss Woodhouse and Mrs. Knightley.

Frank was likewise disinclined to talk when he knew talking only led to argument. However, as they rolled over the countryside, it occurred to him that his days at Donwell were numbered. He should attempt to reduce the acrimony and discord before he moved to Town. From then on he kept up a stream of inane chatter that eventually elicited a response that slowly warmed into an actual repartee between the two men.

This easing of tensions lasted until Mr. Churchill saw one of Donwell’s carriages at the site and saw three women handed down from it. Mrs. Knightley greeted the youngest woman with a cheery, “Miss Fairfax!” and Mr. Churchill could only glare at his nephew in betrayal.

Mr. and Mrs. Elton engaged him in conversation but he kept one eye on Frank at all times, watching as he first approached Mr. Weston before making his way closer to Miss Bates’ niece. Just when he realized he needed to intervene, Miss Woodhouse suggested that everybody pair up and take a walk. They had ridden a distance and could use the opportunity to stretch their legs while the servants prepared the area for their picnic.

The idea was greeted with general approbation although Mrs. Elton declared she was not much of a walker. Most of the people formed groups of two or three and began to wander about in search of admirable views. Mrs. Elton then distracted Mr. Churchill with some superficial enquiry into the health of his wife and while he was answering, Frank slipped away, no doubt with that confounded church mouse!

In truth, Frank was with not only Miss Fairfax but Mrs. Campbell and Miss Bates as well. Luckily -- or strategically -- Mrs. Campbell and Miss Bates paired up and soon were far behind the younger couple. He was able to acquit himself satisfactorily to his love and even be commended for such quick thinking. They both possessed a certain nervousness for the interview with Col. Campbell that awaited, and they soon gave up on conversation as they took in the sights before them.

Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley were a natural pairing, and their brother gave them privacy. Years of marriage and a growing brood of children had not tired them of each other’s company. It was a pretty domestic scene and George watched them go with a bachelor's pang of envy.

For her part, Emma strolled off with the Westons. She had spent the ride with the Knightleys and believed it was in the best interest of harmony to be around someone else right now. Mrs. Weston certainly appreciated another arm in case her footing was unsteady, but she made a slow companion when Emma longed to dash about. Likewise, Emma knew her former governess had a mental library of poetry and could easily recite some phrases to enhance the views before them, but Mrs. Weston could talk only of babies. Mr. Weston was no help at all to Emma because he was so solicitous of his wife. He matched her plodding pace and took delight in her every hope and observation in the child they were expecting.

It was a bad combination of too much and too little, and she politely excused herself from their company when she spied George Knightley taking in exactly the view she wished to see.

She spent a pleasant quarter hour with him, admiring sights she had never seen before for all that they were an hour from where she had lived her entire life, while listening to him compare the countryside in Surrey with that around Enscombe where Harriet Martin now lived. Emma was even inspired to remember some fragment of Cowper although she was disappointed when Mr. Knightley interrupted her and caused her to lose her place, but he more than made up for it by picking up where she had left off, recalling more lines than she was sure she had ever learned.

They were quite alone and out of sight of everyone when they finally redirected their steps back in the direction of the picnic and Miss Woodhouse realized that it was not a chore to spend time with George Knightley, although she never would think of him exactly as Isabella did.

When they returned to the gathering place, there were rugs and food set out and a few had already returned -- or, in the case of Mr. Churchill, had never left -- and had begun to enjoy the work of various kitchens. They joined the others in the meal.

After a while, some had already finished their meal while others were still savoring their last morsels, and people began to grow restless. It was still too early to prepare for the return trip but there would not be enough time for everyone to take a walk as they had before the meal. To distract them all, Mrs. Weston suggested a game, and Mr. Elton declared himself a ready sport if someone would name the activity. A few people proposed ideas but nothing met with general approval. Mr. Weston then suggested they appoint a young lady as their judge and everyone else would compete for her favor. “We can say either one thing very clever, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull indeed, and our fair judge will laugh heartily at them all and appoint a winner."

There was a murmur of agreement at this, for not everyone could run the fastest or jump the farthest or even say the most clever thing, but three chances to make one of their number laugh was within the reach of everyone.

Indeed, even Miss Bates declared she, "need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I?”

A ripple of laughter greeted her self-deprecating remark. Had a queen yet been crowned, Miss Bates might have won the contest then and there. But there was no one to rule them and Mr. Churchill was in no mood to be pleasant.

The Bateses were a low family and to tie them to the name of Churchill was an indignity. He had spent little time in their company heretofore, but it had been more than enough for his tastes. They were poor and, whatever their origins, considered themselves above nobody. Mrs. Bates was practically an invalid and her daughter was the worst sort of bore. Listening to the others signal their amusement at something Miss Bates said was more than he could stomach.

“Pardon me, Miss Bates, but there may be a difficulty. You see, you will be limited as to number: only three at once. No one who knows of you will believe you can stop at three."

Miss Bates, deceived by the general seriousness of his manner and the rarity of his attention, did not immediately catch his meaning but it was clear to the people around her. And when at last comprehension dawned on her, she did not grow angry. She was hurt rather than offended although her guests were more than offended on her behalf.

She stammered out a painful apology for being so tiring and disagreeable while her niece quietly assured her that nobody could think such a thing.

Mr. Weston attempted to salvage the situation by calling for someone to nominate the queen of the day. There were very few single women in attendance and the honor was soon bestowed upon Emma Woodhouse who could be counted on to be a just and gentle ruler.

Next Mr. Weston asked for a someone to begin the competition. Mr. Churchill volunteered a conundrum he had thought up recently. "I doubt its being very clever myself," he forewarned his audience. "It is too much a matter of fact, but here it is: What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?"

He eyed Frank meaningfully as several people attempted to unravel it. After a few failed guesses he put them out of suspense. "Ah! you will never guess. I will tell you: M. and A.” He paused to wait for Frank’s reaction. “M-A. Em-ma. Do you understand?"

Frank frowned at first; his uncle was not subtle. He glanced at Jane to see how she bore the slight which only blackened his mood further before he covered it with a smile when he heard some scattered laughter.

It might be a very indifferent piece of wit, but Emma bore the responsibilities of her title well and found a great deal to laugh at and enjoy in it.

Mr. and Mrs. Elton, however, took no pleasure in such favoritism, or such a favorite. If flattery and pandering were needed to win the queen's prize, they wanted none of it. Out of respect to Mr. Churchill, they did not immediately walk off but made plans to slip away with quiet dignity after one or two more offerings.

But no more volunteers were immediately forthcoming. Between his barb at Miss Bates and his bold compliment to Emma, Mr. Churchill had thrown a pall over the joy of the outing. Miss Woodhouse might be willing to be pleased with all, but no one wanted to subject themselves to Mr. Churchill's disapprobation.

Mr. Weston tried to recruit others to perform for the queen but the game was dead. Frank declared that no one could best his uncle and his “perfection,” then gallantly offered his arm to Miss Bates. It was not so late that they could not see a little more of the area before the carriages were ready, and it might be a long while before he was here again.

Miss Bates was momentarily profuse in her thanks before remembering certain criticisms and silencing herself. Mrs. Campbell linked arms with Miss Fairfax and followed them.

Mr. Elton saw this as their chance and mumbled a humble excuse to the remaining assembly before escorting his wife in the opposite direction.

Miss Woodhouse's domain was rapidly diminishing. “I am afraid, Mr. Weston,” she said lightly, “that I must abdicate. It was a lovely idea, and I certainly enjoyed my reign, but we were not able to profit from it.”

The ease with which she relinquished her crown gave other picnickers leave to wander and explore, and soon very few were remaining. Those who stayed behind -- Mr. Churchill and the Westons -- got out of the way of the servants who made short work of the mess and soon had everything packed away in the carriages which were now being hitched to the horses again for the journey home.

Having abandoned all illusions of power, Emma Woodhouse walked with her sister through the sloping fields. It had been a lovely adventure on the whole to travel so far from Hartfield. Had she not secured Mrs. Bates’ company for her father, Emma would have begun to worry about him being alone. Still, her feelings underscored that she could not join her sister in even a brief London trip despite Isabella's plans and entreaties.

Isabella laughed. “You worry about Father. He worries about me. And I worry about you. The circle is complete!” She tugged on her sister's arm. “Just come for a brief visit. Just one night. It is already arranged. How long have we awaited this opportunity? When shall it come again?”

“Oh, why bother for just one night?” Emma asked. “What could I achieve in so short a time? And what if something happened to Papa while I was away?”

Mrs. Knightley shook her head. “Emma, we have planned this. John and the children are here to keep Papa company, and George is here as well. Nothing bad will happen while those two are here to watch over Hartfield. Let's run off to London, you and I, for a quick adventure. If you are truly uneasy, we can come back the next day. Even then I am certain we two can make the most of it.”

Miss Woodhouse did not surrender but as she had already agreed to the scheme, it was not necessary. She offered no vehement opposition. Her sister took it for encouragement and began to plot how she might renew Emma’s earlier enthusiasm during the drive home.

Mr. Churchill and his nephew had a frosty drive home. Neither was pleased with the other which did not need to be discussed as it was so obvious to both. As it had been in the morning it was Frank who broke the silence, but now his words did not ease the tensions between them.

“I have spoken with my father,” he began with his eyes on the horses. “I will move to London in August. You need not think of Miss Fairfax or myself after that.”

Mr. Churchill felt his fears escalate into a cold and dense panic. He had given Frank an ultimatum but had failed to sway him. Soon Frank would be lost to him forever. “This will kill your aunt,” he said.

Frank had no desire to bring his aunt to further harm. Surely she would be sufficiently recovered by then to hear of his departure. And he knew that asking for the Churchills to accept Jane as Frank’s wife would be just as fatal at this point. He was very sorry he could not please them and be happy, he was grievously pained. They had forced him to make a choice and he had made it, and he was not about to unmake it.

Mr. Churchill argued with him, pleaded with him for sanity. Had they been at home, one of them would have fled the other’s company by now, but the carriage forced them both to remain and finish this had not they finally reached Donwell and the staff.

It was immediately apparent that there was an uproar in the abbey. Mr. Perry was there and Mrs. Churchill had suffered a sudden decline. A lad from the stables had been preparing a horse so that he could ride out and urge them home sooner in case every second counted.

The two men put aside all animosity and rushed to Mrs. Churchill. She was still alive but it was only a matter of time. They sat with her throughout the night. She was dead by morning.

COD, 14

NN SOctober 16, 2017 10:45PM

Re: COD, 14

AiOctober 17, 2017 07:16PM

Re: COD, 14

TobeOctober 17, 2017 03:12AM

Re: COD, 14

GracielaOctober 17, 2017 07:24PM

Re: COD, 14

TobeOctober 19, 2017 10:07AM


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