An Entertainment

Chapter 11

"He is extremely disagreeable
And I hate him more than anybody else in the world
...He has a large fortune
...But then he is very healthy.
In short, I do not know what to do."

After leaving the high life of London, many young ladies felt a bit dull and listless in their hometowns because the country held considerably fewer channels for entertainment. Our own heroines where not excluded from such feelings. In fact, all the girls had gathered at Sophia's home at Sanford. They had met to decide exactly what they were to do in way of amusement.

"How about fishing?" Cosette suggested as she lazily plopped into an armchair.

"Fishing? Aren't we a bit old to do that?" Asked Greta.

Cosette informed them with a sniff that fishing was a sport that did not confine itself to any particular age group.

"I would rather stay home and put on a play!" Said Clara, the thought of getting dirt under her fingernails did not appeal to her much.

Sophia readily agreed, "Yes, that would be so much fun! I have a copy of Goldsmith in the library upstairs!"

"I was thinking Don Juan. It's so much more tragic." Said Clara. "Or, maybe we could do Othello."

"But I would infinitely prefer The Taming of the Shrew." Said Greta.

"I would prefer to do neither." Cosette voiced.

"I agree," Harriet put in. "We should go out. It's beautiful out of doors. We may not have this lovely weather for long."

"I've got it! Let's go shopping!" Cosette exclaimed.

"Yes! And we can call on Agnes and persuade her to join us." Said Clara.

The others also agreed to the scheme and each decided to go home and pick up reticules, parasols, shawls, or change into different apparel. They would meet at the green by the crossroads.

Sophia had left the small parlor where the girls had been sitting and entered the drawing room where her family sat.

"Good morning, all!' She said cheerfully. "My friends and I are going into town. Does anybody need anything?"

Nobody did but John and Myles both agreed to accompany them to town; or rather, John saw it as the perfect opportunity to throw his companion into the society of many young ladies. He was determined to win their bet and therefore, against Myles' wishes, told Sophia that they would both go out as well.

Greta and Harriet were both ready from the start and waited at the crossroads for the others.

"I wonder how long they are going to be." Said Greta. "Clara and Cosette have a ways to go and I do believe that Lotte is planning on changing into a different dress."

"We'll be here for a while, then." Said Harriet.

Clara and Cosette were walking the same way for most of the time. The same lane led to their homes, Cosette's first and then Clara's. They walked rapidly at first but found that their breath preferred a more leisurely pace.

"Clara, why don't you ask Mr. Wood to come?" Asked Cosette slyly.

"Yes, and then you can invite Mr. Newton." Her friend answered stiffly.

Cosette tried to look incensed, "How could you suggest such an odious thing? What are you implying? You are always implying something!"

Clara smirked wickedly. "Oh come, come, Lotte dear. It's all so obvious. You hate him and he hates you. Therefore, you are bound to fall in love. Beauty and the Beast and all that rot! Besides, he is a baronet-almost! You are always saying how you are bound to be a baronet's wife or die an old maid."

"Oh, bother what I said!" Said Cosette, "Girls are always saying things they don't mean."

"I beg your pardon! That is a very harsh generalization. I would hope that our sex would be a bit more sincere than you make us out to be." Clara chided.

"You are pathetic." Said Cosette.

They continued on this vein for a ways and the friendly chatter developed into friendly pinching and prodding. The pinching and prodding turned into pushing and shoving, as long as no one was around to see them. Unfortunately, Clara was on the side of the road where the ditch resided, and though she normally won these simple pugilistic events, Cosette was able to get her at last. Clara fell into the ditch and sprained her ankle.

"Lotte, I don't think I can put weight on my ankle!" She cried after trying to stand back up.

"It's not a big ditch," was the reply. "Here, give me your hand - Mr. Wood!"

"What!" Shouted Clara, as she looked into the same direction as Cosette. "Be quiet, maybe he won't see us." Clara closed her eyes tight and wrinkled her nose, somehow hoping that if she did not see him than he would not see her.

"Nonsense! He's riding this way and will be able to pick you up!" Cosette waved him over and pointed to the pathetic heap of muslin in the ditch. "Mr. Wood, as you can see, Miss Granger has wandered into a ditch and hurt her ankle. She is unable to walk and I cannot lift her. She is too heavy." Clara grunted in protest.

Mr. Wood grinned down at her from his horse. "Coming to Miss Granger's assistance would be a great pleasure." He said as he dismounted. He offered the lady his hand. Clara put her hand over her face as she lifted the other for him to clasp. He grasped it firmly and she attempted to stand with her weight on one leg. Clara stood up straight and wobbled, Wood grasped her around the waist with his other arm. She turned bright red and muttered words of embarrassment under her breath (and possibly death threats, directed at Lotte).

She tried to tell him that she was quite all right and that Cosette could help her home. However, Cosette said that she would rather not have to walk quite so far, especially if Mr. Wood was going in that direction already.

He declared himself glad to escort Miss Granger home on his horse, that it was no trouble at all. But the lady firmly refused,

"I am no rider!" She warned desperately. "I haven't ridden a horse in ten years at least."

Cosette tried to urge her, "Clara, the horse is perfectly safe! Stop acting like a baby." She then gave her friend a look as to say it was for her own good. "I must run along. I dare say you will not be able to come with your ankle in such a state. However, I cannot keep them waiting. Adieu," and Cosette began to walk away.

Clara was in a state of near panic. Her best friend had deserted her in the arms of a stranger and his dreadful horse.

"Here, I'll just hoist you up and then I'll mount." Said he.

Clara swallowed hard, "I-I have a terrible fear of horses. I do not ride them ever. I am sure I can make it home by myself. It isn't that far. I am sure that you would much rather be on your way." Clara tried to push away from him but he didn't seem to notice. She, on the other hand, noticed that he was rather muscular.

"Festus is very gentle, you have no reason to fear falling off. Come." And he lifted her off her feet and placed her on sidesaddle. She had not expected the change from standing to sitting and almost managed to fall off the other side. Next, after several attempts at mounting (Which out of sympathy for the gentleman, I will not describe), he finally mounted and spurred the animal forward. At first, the pace was slow and Clara kept on by holding the saddle. Shortly, though, she was instructed to place her arms around his waist. Fortunately, Mr. Wood was facing forward and could not see her bulging eyes and the color rush over her face.

She put her arms around him very lightly so that he would barely notice their presence. What she did not see was the smirk that etched across his face. He dug his heel into Festus' side and it broke into a trot. Clara, whose heart could not decide whether to stop or race, grabbed onto him for dear life! The blow fell like a small sock in the stomach, and Wood grunted as the air was forced from his belly. She was either stronger than she looked or more frightened than he knew.

"You could ease up a bit, lass. This is but a wee trot." He laughed after he had got his wind back. However, the lady never did loosen up till she was safely off the horse. She hoped that the others were enjoying themselves better than she was.

 

 

Chapter 12

"He seems a very harmless sort of young man,
Nothing to like or dislike in him-
Goes out shooting or hunting...all the morning,
And plays at whist and makes queer faces
In the evening."

"Good evening, Miss Parker." Said a cheerful maid. "The family is in the drawing room. Shall I take your things for you?"

Greta handed her shawl, reticule, and gloves to the maid. "Thank you, Moxie." She said.

"Right this way, miss." Moxie led her down the hall to the drawing room and announced the guest.

"Miss Parker has arrived, ma'am."

"Show her in, Moxie dear." Said Mrs. Elton, she was a short, slight woman with a friendly mien. Greta entered the room and the occupants rose to greet her. Mr. Elton was a tall, amply proportioned man with dark hair, beard and voice. Teddy Elton was built more like his mother, but sounded more like his father. Sophia, Captain Croft, and Captain Ingram were also in attendance, along with Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bennett.

"So wonderful to see you, my dear." Said Mrs. Elton.

The good evenings and how do-you-do's were passed around and everybody was seated comfortably once more.

"I am so sorry your parents could not come. Such a shame to be out of town. They have not been to dine here in quite some time." Said Mr. Elton regretfully.

"They send their apologies, they did wish to be here with you." Said Greta warmly. "However, they had a rare opportunity to be of use to a struggling half-way house. They have probably just started the opening ceremony."

"You have met Captain Ingram already, I expect." Said Mrs. Elton.

"Yes, I have." She said, nodding to him. He then moved over on the sofa to make room for her. She sat between him and Charles Bennett. Though Greta was rarely inclined to initiate conversation, she found that the gentlemen on either side appeared to be equally disinclined to prompt any form of discourse. Therefore, she started on her own.

"Have you seen much of the country, Captain?" She asked. He took a sip of wine and answered presently.

"As much as there is to see from a carriage window." His answer was short and slightly curt but she was not put off.

"You do not enjoy riding post?" She asked disinterestedly.

"Never! It is too confining and the my legs are too long."

She did not have his attention but tried again. "I am sorry to hear it. I, too, have trouble with tight places."

He did not reply and she gave up. They sat in silence for sometime listening to other people's conversations and joining in once in a while. She could not help but think, perhaps, that he was not at all pleasing in disposition or temper. Captain Myles Ingram, she decided, was a man who must think a little too much of himself. Why else would he thwart her attention, if conversation was not pleasing then why had he not gone to bed? He did not look the melancholy sufferer that John had made him out to be. She decided to stay on her guard.

Soon, however, the Captain's curiosity was raised toward her when he heard Greta mention to Miss Lawton something about a castle she had once visited abroad.

"Do you travel often, Miss Parker?" He asked.

She turned to him and replied in as civil tone as she could muster, "Not as often as I could wish. I have traveled through Europe to Rumania where I stayed for several months."

He was a little amazed, "Rumania, that is an interesting place. Why not Paris or Rome, that is, someplace more popular to the general public?"

"I am not the general public. Everybody vacations in those places, as you have said. I prefer to see places where others have not very often been. And, I was curious to see Dracula's castle."

"And how did you find it?" He asked. "I am curious to hear a woman's point of view on something so gothic."

She sighed slightly as if she had not found it satisfactory, "It was very disappointing. Really, the count lived in nothing more than a cheese box. I had to bend over just to fit through doorframes. As far as being gothic and all that, well, I am afraid I must disappoint you. I love everything and anything gothic."

"A cheese box, eh." He said, ignoring what she had said after. "True, but then you are very tall. Have you ever traveled by sea?"

She was slightly put off by this but decided that animosity would only be a waste on him. "Never, except across the channel to France, which I hardly call sea-faring."

He asked if she did not like the idea of traveling by sea.

"I would not mind, I believe. In fact, I have no doubt that I would like it tremendously. Nevertheless, I have never had a reason travel by sea; I never go to Ireland, and I've no reason to go farther." She said coolly, not knowing why he was asking her so many questions.

"How sensible of you." He said equally indifferent.

They each turned to the persons next to them and started a different conversation. His thoughts on the incident were not totally clear. He had admired her good looks on first meeting her but had not thought her worth conversing with, thinking that she was most likely very ignorant and vain. Tonight, however, she had shone that she did hold a degree of intelligence and discernment. Probably the most for not allowing him to treat her uncivilly without showing a mark of her displeasure.

The whole party soon afterward removed from the drawing room into the dining room after a servant announced that supper was served. Teddy, who blushed furiously the whole time, escorted Greta to her seat. She was, by some perverted twist of fate, seated next to Ingram. Through most of the dinner nothing was said betwixt the two, Greta mostly conversed with Agnes about what places and objects they had both seen in Europe.

However, not everyone could talk at the same time and the lady and the gentleman were without conversation. Greta felt slightly awkward and wanted to redeem herself for being uncivil (though he was not equal to such generosity of spirit).

"I was wondering, if I may be so presumptuous, you are not English born." She said.

He smiled broadly, "You are the first person in all of merry old Middleton to ask me, though I do believe many others have wondered the same."

"I do not mean to offend," she replied, more than willing to while she was ahead.

"I did not take it as such. Nay, it is of little importance." He said with a wave of his hand. "I was born in England after my parents emigrated from Norway with their shipping company."

"Then we are closely related! My mother was born in Sweden." Said she.

"I had noticed that your name was a bit foreign."

"How so?"

"Well, every other maiden in this fair land happens to be named Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, or Anne. Margaret and Jane is acceptable, but Greta. No, that name is reserved for heartier woman of the North."

She sat in silence, trying to figure out if that was a compliment or not. She decided to change the subject.

"Have you had many ships of your own, Captain?"

His whole mien seemed to loosen and open up as he pondered the question. He said,

"I have had a few. Let me see, the Arabella, Belle of Gibraltar, and the Queen Mary. All very fine ships as anyone could ask for."

"Did you meet Captain Croft on one of them?" She asked with interest.

He grinned broadly. "Nay, we met swabbing the Belle of Erin after a night of dissipation and vice."

At the sound of the familiar name of that old vessel, John Croft turned his attention to the pair.

"What are you saying, Myles? Surely you are not filling Miss Parker's head with nonsense." He said jovially, but with a hint of panic in his voice.

"I have said nothing that is not true-yet!" replied his friend.

"What happened, John?" Sophia joined in the conversation.

He colored slightly, "It isn't worth telling, Sophia dear."

His lady's eyes widened in delight, "Was it very bad, Myles? You must tell me! I had no idea John capable of acting like a rogue."

John sputtered out unidentifiable words about being called such a name.

"I'm surprised that he did not tell you, why, back in the day he was the most nefarious lad aboard. Until he got engaged, that is." Myles smirk grew as he saw that he had their rapt attention.

Mr. and Mrs. Elton looked stern, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennett looked confused. Teddy, Sophia, and Greta looked eager.

"It wasn't that bad, Mrs. Elton. He just likes to spin a yarn every now and again." Said John sheepishly, toying with his fork.

"Let him tell his story, John." Sophia said, slapping his arm. "Go on, Captain. Inform us, I would like to learn more about John's character."

"It goes like this. When we first entered the fleet, we met on the Belle of Erin. She was a rotten, weather beaten vessel with hardly anything left of her original glory. A man named Algernon Barkus; a shrewd and miserly fellow captained her. All his men despised him but none would admit it unless they wanted to taste cold steel (a wink from Myles to John and gasps all round). Anyway, we first years generally stuck together, we did. One day, old Barkus and one or two of his officers went ashore when we were docked in Portugal. We had to stay on board, naturally, on account of we were pulling out of port in a few days. The Captain had planned on spending those few days on shore and therefore we celebrated. We got out instruments, wine, and rotten fruit (looks of disgust all round). We cleared the decks and had a bit of dance and merriment. John does a mean jig, Sophia. We threw the fruit at the one's we thought were inadequate dancers. One of the mates, while this was going on, had stuffed a bunch of rags he had sewn together with odd dainties. The rag actually resembled ol' Barkus. We used dice to decide who would string the doll up the yardarm. John and I were the lucky fellows. John climbed the up to the yardarm and I held the rag babe and made a clumsy noose. Jeremy Swift produced two makeshift sabers and we held a mock duel. Whoever won got to take Cap'n to bed for a midnight snack. Unfortunately, the real captain got back on board as quiet as a mouse. He saw John with the rags hanging from the timber and needless to say, there was never a cleaner piece of floating rot in the sea. Those were the days." He laughed.

John sat in his chair looking like a dog with its tail between its legs. His face was pale and he did not meet anyone's eyes. They stared at him, though, in silence. Until, that is, they heard a faint chuckle. Mrs. Elton tried to stifle it but the more she tried the harder she laughed. The chortling and giggling spread quickly to Mr. Elton, to Sophia, to Greta and so on. John looked astonished, irritated, and then joined himself.

"You needn't worry about your reputation, dear boy. We do not expect any harm from you." Said Mrs. Elton.

"So, who did get to keep the Cap'n?" Asked Sophia.

The evening seemed to flow swiftly. John's point was carried when he said that Myles liked to tell stories. He had many adventures to relate and whether all of them are true is questionable. But there was no harm done, everyone was fascinated or at least amused by the different predicaments he and John had managed to get into.

Supper and desert ended and the card tables were produced and they played at whist and lottery tickets. Greta did not play very successfully. Her opponents were Sophia, Teddy, and Myles; all of whom were very skilled players. Greta was never very fond of cards and that only added to the fact that her head was very full of the Captain, she firmly believed that he was misleading them somehow. His behavior was guarded, at least at first. He was not naturally civil, and he appeared to be cynical. And yet, he was probably the most handsome man, in her opinion, that she had ever seen. Yes, his complexion was a bit rugged from over exposure to the elements and his hair was a bit messy, but his nose had plenty of character to make up for those things. His frame was tall, wide, muscular, but lean. What his passions and pursuits were besides sailing, she did not know. She hoped to find out soon, but then she must return to whist.

The tables were abandoned eventually and the company was ready to depart for the night. The Bennett's offered to take Greta in their carriage, and while they were waiting for it to be brought round, Greta was bidding adieu to Sophia.

"I am curious to learn what you thought of this evening." Said Sophia.

"I had a wonderful time, I did not lack for anything." Greta told her.

"I am happy to hear it. What did you think of all the stories that Myles told? He has never been so lively in front of me until this evening. I must thank you, I think."

"Whatever for? I assure you, he did not find very much pleasure in my company until he found out that I liked to travel."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that, I think he is becoming quite attached to you."

"Sophia, you are silly." And Greta laughed at her friend.

The carriage came and Greta had left without giving a thought to her friend's words.

 

 

Chapter 13

"It may be possible to do without dancing entirely.
Instances have been know of young people passing many months...
Without being at any ball...
And no material injury accrue..."

A ball, as a tool for young people to touch hands and flirt in a socially acceptable setting, always excites general interest.

The event was sponsored by the Hayter family, whose daughter Elizabeth (Agnes Bennett's younger sister) was "coming out." Why her family did not wait till next season instead of the end of the present was not completely understood. However, many of the young people were still eager to display themselves. The event was scheduled for the 14th of September and the whole community was cordially invited.

Agnes prided herself in being a chaperone at the event and bought a new bonnet to signify her importance. Charles declared that even as a clergyman dancing was not a wicked way to pass his time. In fact, he should be glad to stand up with any of the ladies in the town as a favor. Of course, he secured his benevolent wife for the first two.

By now, Cosette had placed herself at terrible odds with Captain Ingram, and she had decided that Eric Newton was the most horrid boy she had ever met. His feelings at this point are unclear but hopefully he will decide soon as it is a great inconvenience to me in relating the story.

Sophia and John would have rather spent the evening at home, but they would have time enough of that. Myles was to go and John was to keep him company while Sophia was to hunt for dancing partners for their visitor. The couple, of course, had no patience to stand up with anyone else but each other.

Clara found little pleasure in the ball as it required a great deal of conversation and she was not a particularly good dancer. Her escort was secure (for a change); Mr. Wood had especially made a point of it. Over time, he had become a part of her life, as opposed to a foreign object. She had learned to say ‘good morning' and ‘would you care for sugar?' without her voice trembling.

Phineas was always delighted in a social gathering, as his character demanded exposure. He even went so far as to recommend that poor Newton, as he called Eric, go and enjoy himself. A dance always produced such happy effects on the spirits of the ill and despondent. Of course, the sight of Harriet dressed up like a gem had quite a bit to do with it. He did not mind if other men lifted their eyes and spoke warmly in their praise of her, as long as they did not touch. She was his and the ball was an opportunity to show off. Harriet's feeling were pretty nearly engaged in the same direction. She felt that Finny worked too hard and too often and for one evening he would be all hers.

Greta was resolved to give up her mask. She admired the Captain, though her head told her he was not to be trusted. They had been thrown together repeatedly over the coarse of the month and both had acted slightly more civil toward each other. At the ball, she decided (there was a lot of deciding going on), would be a time when she could let down her guard and enjoy his company. It was only dancing, after all, and no harm would come of it.

Myles, feeling rather sullen, had actually begun to realize that John might be right. Even though the inhabitance, namely the ladies, believed him to be quite poor, they were still pleasing and amiable as ever. That is, until Miss Frazer had demonstrated that some girls still had more earthly interests in mind. But in his disillusioned state, he was not completely closed off. From the first day in Middleton, he had admired Greta though she had remained indifferent to him. He decided to catch her eye at the ball as his last experiment. He was not in anyway unwilling to let John win this one.

Wood's thoughts were quite full of the event. Clara had begun to warm up to him, he believed. However, he was beginning to doubt if he really wanted to stay much longer. Was it a paltry waste of time? There were plenty of girls who were willing to marry him. What was his rush? That question always reminded him that he was lonely. For that reason he was always in London and never at Griswald. Why Clara? She is as companionable as a statue. But then, in -shire the women were excessively materialistic. In London, on the other hand, the ladies were far too aggressive. He did not enjoy feeling like a side of beef for sale. Clara was neither aggressive nor mercenary; but what was she? Oliver decided to draw her out. The worst that could happen is either she would collapse from heart failure or she would buck up and grow to like him (In theory).

As plainly shown, some of the assemblage was in need of some sort of group therapy. A box of outrageously priced cigars was purchased by the gentlemen and smoked at leisure at Norcross Inn. The ladies, on the other hand, employed their time more healthfully. New dresses must be purchased or old ones fitted up. The dresses they had worn during the summer were too light for the wind and by now had lost the splendor that new clothes seem to have.

All was done and the 14th arrived without much mishap. All was quiet at Sanford House, Sophia's family had left earlier in their carriage. Sophia, John, and Myles were the only ones to remain. None of them seemed to mind traveling in a hired post.

The lady had just finished her toilette and put a few finishing touches on her gown before she made her way down the stairs. John had been waiting at the bottom for quarter of an hour as his attire was less intricate, while Myles had been wandering around aimlessly for three-quarters of an hour as he did not care for attire at all. Fortunately, he had an unknown talent for dress that kept him from embarrassment.
Finally, Sophia was seen at the top. "Ah, there you are, Sophia. I was wondering if you would be done in time." Said John as he watched his fiancé descend the stairs.

"I was a hasty as I could without allowing myself to appearing shabby." Said she. "Did you order the carriage?"

"Myles did, he has nothing better to do." John told her.

Sophia had reached the bottom and John took her hand. "I have never seen Myles quite so cross in the time that I have known him. He looks like he lost his best ship."

"Maybe he is in love?" Suggested the lady.

"Love does not make one bad tempered."

"Just negligent, I suppose."

"Naturally, and Myles had had no symptoms of that." Said John.

"Maybe he's gouty."

"Sophia!"

"That would certainly put him out of humor."

"A man of his age and activity does not get gouts." Chided John.

The conversation was interrupted by the ailing man himself.

"The carriage is ready, John. Good evening, Miss Elton, you like lovelier with every passing moment." He said, taking her hand.

Sophia smiled saucily and said to John, "Really, I do not think anything is the matter with our friend. He is quite charming this evening."

"Indeed, Myles! That was really very unkind. I had not the opportunity to compliment her yet, myself." Said John pitifully. "If you could in the future, please, find a pleasant girl or a severe case of the gout before you show me up!"

Carriages rumbled to and fro along the street that was home to Cambridge Inn, where the ball was to be held. Dr. Dixon stood at the doors greeting friends and introducing himself to strangers. He was rarely disliked by anybody, though he was a physician. Finny was well dressed for the occasion and was anxiously awaiting the vehicle that would produce his dance partner. At last, it did arrive and Harriet, looking equally well, joined the doctor indoors.

"The crowd is quite thick this evening, I would have thought that the young people would be tired of balls by now and would have preferred to stay home." Said Harriet.

"You under estimate them, my dear. All young people love balls no matter how many they have previously attended." Said Phineas. "Besides, I encouraged all of their mothers that it would benefit their children's health to take a few good turns about the room, you know, to keep their blood flowing and ankles strong."

"Finny, you are absurd." Said Harriet. "I hope that those poor ladies were not taken in."

"Indeed, they were. Besides, I do not see what is so false in the whole idea. Dancing is good exercise and laughter is medicine to the soul. That's from the Bible."

"Well, that was a very reasonable statement and so the subject may drop. I wonder when the girls will arrive. Look, there are the Gardiners with Mrs. Hayter and Agnes. We must go over and greet them." The happy lady and gentleman moved toward their hosts.

Cosette Frazer and her family arrived fashionably late in their barouche and were greeted with much attention at the door. Though they were not an excessively rich family, Mr. Frazer was quite talented at finding objects of value for bargain prices. The dancing had not yet begun and Cosette wanted to practice some Scottish steps in her new gown before her card was filled. She quickly slid around the room, avoiding possibly undesirable suitors, to the French doors that opened onto the balcony. The balcony led down to the garden and a little stream. Cosette, seeing nobody on the ground, walked out onto the lawn and let her imagination flow. She looked into the stream to see her reflection. It pleased her and she decided to walk farther down the lawn to make sure that she could not be seen by the inhabitance of the Inn.

She began to hum softly to herself and practiced several steps with an imaginary partner. After a time, the she began to make up her own steps and laughed over them in turn.

"You dance beautifully, sir." She said to the air.

No reply.

"I hope that you do not mind that I am very poor. My gown is not as fine as some of the other girls, but then my hair and complexion are pleasing. I must say that I also posses some qualities that are of more value." Cosette said with her best impression of the aristocracy.

"Like lunacy, I suppose." He replied.

Cosette stopped what she was doing and blushed painfully. She turned round to discover who had spoken and found that no one was there. She began to fear that she was insane. "Hullo! Is anybody there?" she called.

The voice came again. "Yes, but wouldn't be more fun to pretend that no one was? Imaginary partners are the best partners, I always say. They never step on your toes and always say just the right things."

Cosette looked up and there in the tree sat a young man. She felt her heart stop in her breast with surprise. "Who are you, and what are you doing in that tree?" She demanded.

"I am a great observer of people's character. I am currently looking for silly little girls that have nothing better to do but amuse me." She finally recognized the voice as that of Eric Newton.

"Whatever you are, you are most certainly very rude! And if I am correct, you are Eric Newton. Which means you are not a great observer, only a an ill mannered hypochondriac!"

He jumped down from his tree and stood up next to her. "I beg your pardon, what did you say?"

Cosette had not expected him to be offended by the statement and said nothing. He continued, "Let me make this perfectly clear, my dear Miss Frazer. I do not enjoy sitting indoors all day like a caged animal. I do not enjoy doctors poking at me and forcing rubbish down my throat. I do not enjoy being pitied and petted by elderly women; and I most certainly do not enjoy being mocked by my peers. I do not choke, cough, wheeze, and get migraines for my own amusement." He said angrily. Eric was not naturally quick tempered, but he had little patience when others make light of his constitution.

"You should not have mocked me first! If my pride had not been offended then I would have left yours well enough alone." Cosette turned on her heels and walked stiffly toward the house. Clara and Mr. Wood had arrived and Cosette ran over to her friend.

"Clara, I have had to most terrible conversation with that Newton boy just now and made him quite angry."

Clara was astonished and asked what Lotte had done now. Cosette colored a little but knew she could confide in her friend.

"I was practicing my steps and Eric found me talking to myself. He took me by surprise and made a joke about it. I got angry and called him an ill-mannered hypochondriac. He just blew up after that."

"Oh, Lotte, you should not have said that. I am sorry that he made fun of you, though, it wasn't kind, either. Why don't you come and get a glass of punch with me. I am trying to avoid Mr. Wood, I am a most shocking dancer and I would rather not expose myself."

"All right, and maybe I can hide from Eric. I don't want to face him just now, nor Captain Ingram, either."

"Cosette, when are you going to learn to control your tongue? Now there are two men whom you have offended."

"I know, I can't help it."

They wandered about the room till they made it to the refreshment table and found Sophia and Harriet gathered there as well.

"We are a gluttonous group of girls, are we not?" said Harriet gaily as they met. "Here we are eating and drinking while we ought to be dancing."

"I have little intention of dancing tonight, Harriet. There is only one partner who would suit me perfectly." Said Sophia.

"You at least have a choice, dearest. I am at the mercy of a stranger. Hopefully, he will not think to check the curtains."

"Clara, you are not really going to hide in the curtains! Really, it is very childish." Said Sophia.

"It worked in London. I am not a good dancer." Clara grumbled.

"If you would stop hiding and practice more then you should be as good as anybody." Said Harriet.

"Yes, but that it be far too sensible. Wait! That's it!" Clara cried distractedly. Mr. Wood was roaming the crowds for her.

They others asked her what ‘it' was, but she refused to tell them. "Cosette, maybe we had better go find some (curtains) soon." At that moment, Eric had entered the room from the balcony and was walking right toward them.

Cosette noticed him and caught his eye. He raised his hand in the air as if to signal to her. She turned round, grabbed Clara's hand and began to stride away from the table.

"He's making queer faces at me, Clara." She said as they rapidly walked away arm in arm.

"Just ignore him, dearest." Clara returned.

"I can't! Oh, he is such a dreadful boy!" Cosette hissed mournfully. The girls stood in a corner and tried to be inconspicuous. Unfortunately, Mr. Wood had been trying to find Clara for the last half-hour and had spotted her. He walked toward her briskly as the next song was starting up.

"Miss Granger, will you stand up with me?" He nearly commanded. Clara looked up sheepishly. She did not want to leave Cosette, nor did she know the dance.

"I would rather not, if you please. I do not know the steps." Clara tried to excuse herself. He was determined, however.

"They are not hard, I shall direct you." Wood took her hand and led her away. Clara peeped over her shoulder and frowned apologetically at her friend.

Cosette, meanwhile, stared at Clara. Out of the corner of her eye on the left, she saw Eric making his way toward her. On the other side she saw the Captain standing with James Hayter. The latter was about to join the dance with another young lady and was pointing Cosette out to Myles. The Captain looked at her disdainfully and said in an audible whisper, "I should not dance with such a covetous, brainless, insensible girl for a sea of guineas." Several heads turned from the Captain to Cosette who looked mortified. She had been able to keep her mouth from hanging open but her eyes threatened to leave their sockets. She immediately looked down at her feet and tried to fight back the moisture welling up in her eyes.

"Excuse me, miss." Someone was speaking to her. She looked up and saw Eric standing before her. He smiled kindly and Cosette knew he had heard Myles.

"Yes?" She asked softly.

"Will you dance with me next song?"

She did not know what to say. He had tormented her about her fake partner and chased her across the room. Now, though, he looked sympathetic and sincere. It was charity itself.

"Only if you promise to behave." She replied.

He smiled toothily. "Upon my word as a baronet."

"That's doesn't seem to mean much to me."

"Oh, well then, if I do not act like a perfect gentleman then I hope to high heaven that I die of an asthma attack on the spot!" He said cheerfully. Cosette rolled her eyes and smiled weakly.

"Oh, and I would like to apologize for what I said just now outside. I should not have frightened or ridiculed you. Please accept my sincere apology as a gentleman."

Cosette was stunned. She had always believed him to be a disagreeable, proud man but now he was apologizing to her when her offence was worse.

"I do accept them, thank you. But, you must also accept mine. I have a very fiery tongue and it has gotten me into trouble more than once." She looked over at Ingram mournfully.

"Will you dance?" He asked again.

"Alright, I am most grateful to receive such a complement after what the Captain said about me."

"Hmm?" He muttered. Cosette could have hugged him. He was acting like he had not heard the man but she knew he had to have.

The song ended and the couples separated and regrouped for the next dance. Eric made a point of leading her past Captain Ingram and bid him good evening in a loud voice. The tune was a lively Scottish air and Cosette was cheered by it. Eric was actually very good at dancing, Cosette had rather thought that he would not be. After all, he was an invalid. She doubted that his mother ever let him out of the house. Her thoughts flowed in this vein down the first half of the dance.

Occasionally, during the different turns and twists in the dance, Cosette and Eric would join a circle with other friends. Several times, they were met with Clara and Mr. Wood. They were not getting on very well. She was stiff and he was too busy concentrating on her feet to bother with his. However, Cosette could have sworn that she heard them laughing at each other. This was change, indeed. Also to her surprise, Greta had come! She rarely came to social gatherings, and she never mentioned coming to the ball. Her hair, as always, was perfect and elegant, and her dress was a very elegant and mysterious black fashion from Paris. As Cosette watched her friend enter the room, Myles walked up to Greta and must have asked her to dance because they both stepped onto the floor and joined in the reel.

"He prefers taller women?" asked Eric.

"I do not know what he likes," said Cosette as she poked her head around his shoulder. "I never bothered to find out. He is too old, you know."

Eric nodded his head toward the couple in question as they sailed by. "I believe you are right. So what is your friend doing with him, then?"

"I do not know, Greta does as she pleases and I will not try to manage her. I believe that she showed some signs of admiration for him. But he has such a sour temper that I cannot help but wonder why."

"I do not believe that that would be above her to improve."

"What do you mean?" She demanded

"She looks like she could handle him." He said jovially

"How would you know, if you don't mind the question."

"Oh, I don't really know. I merely thought that women like to say things like that. You know, it sounds like I know more than I do. Of course, you broke the rules. You should have said that you agreed so that you could appear equally intelligent." Eric said sardonically.

"Women do not do that!" she chided.

"No? Well, I am quite sorry to have thought so. Now I have lost a great source of enjoyment. I shall have no one to laugh at."

"In that case I do not pity you. It isn't nice to laugh at others." She said soberly.

"No, of course not." And they continued to dance till the song ended.

 

 

Chapter 14

"If a woman is partial to a man,
And does not endeavor to conceal it,
He must find it out."

The evenings were cooler now but still permitted walks. Mr. Wood had since left on one by himself across the grounds of the Grange. Clara, having just finished a particularly good novel, was full of energy and the house was entirely too dreary. She decided to take a walk by herself in the cool twilight before settling down for the night. She chose the grove of old oak trees that surrounded a small duck pond behind the house; it was always tranquil there and helped her to sort out her mind. Some of the brighter stars were already peeking above the purple and magenta sunset.

"Red in morning, sailors take warning, Red at night, sailors delight." She quoted. Clara looked to the stars and tried to pick out constellations as she walked, though they could barely be seen. She half expected to find a sprite or elf staring at her from behind a sapling or hiding in the long grass. Even at nineteen, fairy stories still fascinated her.

Wind whispered softly around her and stroked her hair as the trees swayed slightly. She felt strangely at peace with the world.

The ground began to rise slightly for a few minutes and she stood at the top of a tiny hill and looked down on into a small spread of land. There lay the pond and several oaks with one lonely willow. Two waterfowl were swimming in the pond and ducked under the surface to catch their dinner. Clara walked slowly around the water toward the willow whose branches were low enough to sit on. Her eyes left the fowl and turned to her favorite branch were Mr. Wood sat.

Mr. Wood!

She stopped in her tracks, frozen with surprise. Was it a change of heart or was it the peace surrounding the place itself? She felt her heart beat furiously and she was surprised to find that as they stared at each other she wanted to talk with him.

"I'm sorry to disturb you; I didn't know you came here." She said. His sharp eyes pierced through her, but she was undaunted. Clara stared back resolutely and his eyes seemed to soften.
"You do not come here often, I reckon." Wood said after a while.

"Not much anymore, but I used to come quite often."

"Will you join me?" He asked uncertainly. Surely she would refuse and he was almost afraid of being disappointed.

"If you will make room." She replied as she walked toward the low branches. He slid over instinctively, but he was quite shocked.

"I was not going to mention it, but I suppose that I may as well since we are both here." She told him. "That is, if you do not mind." He assured her that he did not mind in the very least.

"You see, I have a horrible habit of hiding. I am dreadfully shy, especially in public places." She laughed to herself. "That is why I hide behind curtains. It is a horrible habit, I know." She said hastily as Mr. Wood laughed. "Anyway, one of my friends was teasing me about curtains at the ball the other day. That's when I remembered where we met last summer. When I hid and you opened the door and I fell."

"That's right." Said he. "I am surprised you could forget such an unusual introduction."

"I was embarrassed and put it out of my head as quickly as possible." She said. "You know enough of my character to believe it."

"I was also embarrassed, but then I had other things on my mind at the time." He told her sincerely. "I thought the ball was a tremendous success last night, despite the shocking amount of left feet involved."

"How does your foot feel?" She asked him.

"Oh, the swelling had gone down, but I think in the end I'll still be able to make use of it." He said lightly.

"I'm sorry, I tried to warn you, but you would not listen." She said. "I am a shocking dancer-couldn't do it to save my life."

"Nonsense, why, you could out do a drunk Russian any day." He laughed.

"Thanks, you are too kind." Clara replied sardonically.

"Your friends all seemed to do alright." Wood said. "I did not know that Miss Parker fancied Captain Ingram, or vice versa."

"What makes you think that they fancy each other?" Clara asked very curiously.

"Didn't you watch them at all? I did while I was setting my ankle the second time. They stood up four times together-I believe that several of the other ladies were quite offended at having been slighted."

"I did not notice. Greta must have liked him a little bit to tolerate him for that long. I wonder why I never thought of it before. She never said anything. But then, she is rather sly."

"Naturally. And what about that Newton fellow and Miss Frazer? They seemed to enjoy themselves as well."

Clara's eyes bulged as she turned to face Wood. "They did, didn't they?" She said as if it were a great revelation. "I should have known. I told her that she was bound to like him, and there you have it. They were flirting prodigiously throughout the whole evening! Oh bother, sometimes I can be so unobservant."

"Why was she bound to like him?" Mr. Wood asked curiously.

"Oh, you wouldn't understand. For one, she always despised him and secondly, he is a baronet. Self-prophecy and all that rot."

"So, you're saying that she is mercenary?"

"Of course not, you know how it goes. Boy meets girl and they hate each other. Sure enough, they fall in love and get married. Happens in all the novels I've read. What's more, she always said she would marry a baronet, I think that it is more than a simple coincidence."

"Very interesting." He said, obviously confused by her simple logic.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing."

"Oh." Clara blushed at her own impetuosity.

They seemed at a loss for conversation for some time and stared at the scenery around them. Clara, feeling particularly brave broke the silence and said, "Tell me," she paused. "What do you like about this place?"

He looked at her for a moment and said, "How do you know that I like it at all?"

She smiled boldly, "If you had found my duck pond and willow without liking it, you would have had no patience to stay. Besides, I can tell by your face, it has the same expression as mine does when I am here."

"Ah, you have me. But I cannot find the right words to describe how I feel about this place, call it a male thing. And you-why do you come here?" He asked.

"I like to be alone, away from my house." She said.

"Why is that?" He asked.

She shrugged her shoulders, "I do not know how much you know about my family history, but it is not very pleasant."

"Go on." He urged.

Clara appraised him for a moment, finding him worthy, she began again. "My father is not the cleverest man alive, if you haven't noticed. He married young to a very foolish, worldly woman. They had two children, my older sister Jemima and myself. Anyway, as long as I can remember, my mother has always been frivolous and spent more than she ought. My father had sense enough to stay within his means, unfortunately, he had a weakness when it came to mother and never did keep her in check. She was also extremely negligent. Mother reckoned that her social status was more important than her duty as a wife and mother. She died about seven years ago, a little before my father's fortune failed. I'm afraid Jemima inherited my mother's feeble-mindedness. A little over two years ago, while we were in London, she eloped with an American named William Swank. Last we heard, they had settled in Massachusetts. That was about a year and a half ago. That's why I like to escape from the house every once and awhile. There are a lot of bad memories contained within its walls."

"You and I are not so different in that respect. I actually like to escape from my home also, though not for the same reason." He told her.

"Will you tell me?" She asked.

"It's not that important." He shrugged.

"Oh, come on. It's only fair." Clara was shocked by her own audacity.

"My family was very close when I was growing up. My father's name was Vincent and my mother's was Molly. I am the first-born and I have one younger brother named Colin. Like I said, my family was extremely close and we spent most of our time at Griswald. I loved being there because that's were my happiest memories all took place. About ten years ago, both of my parents were killed when their carriage collided with another. My brother and I were left with a fortune of our own and a plantation in Antigua to share. I alone inherited Griswald. I was only nineteen at the time and Colin was fourteen, we didn't know anything about running an estate or a plantation. Fortunately, my mother and father's close friends, Sir and Lady Wright, were there to help us. Sir Wright helped me to go to one of the best universities in Great Britain. Later, he helped Colin to find a school where he could be instructed in agriculture and business. About five years ago Colin was ready to leave for Antigua where he planned to reestablish the run down plantation my father gave us. I already had Griswald and a suitable trade, so I gave the plantation over to Colin completely. That left me without family and far from my good friends, the Wrights, as they live in Derbyshire. After I graduated, it was very difficult to return to that old mansion, it seemed so empty and cheerless. Now the only people there are the servants that keep it up. I stay in London.  You know, I found it amusing that your father applied to Lady Wright to find out some background information about me."

"Why is that?" Clara asked.

"Oh, Sir and Lady Wright have a ward named Miss Darrow whom they have been trying to get me to court for seven years now, ever since she came of age. The Lady probably did not know that your father was trying to find out if I was decent enough to try and court you."

"Do you keep in contact with your brother?" Clara asked, changing the subject. She was not yet equally to speaking about that point.

"Yes, as often as possible. He got married three years ago and so our correspondence has gotten better now that he has a wife to make him write. Her name is Jane; I have yet to meet her."

"I hope you do someday, Mr. Wood." Clara said.

"You may call me Oliver, you know." He replied. She looked slightly flustered but felt grateful for the exchange of civilities.

"Thank you- Oliver-it has been a pleasure." She said.

They were silent for a time. The sun had gone down completely without their notice and a night bird cooed in the distance. Far off, the rooms of the great house lit up, they watched. Oliver slid off the branch and offered Clara his hand. They walked together the whole way and parted at the base of the staircase, Clara to her room and Oliver to the study.

He entered and found the older gentleman sitting by a small fire with a book.

"Might I have a word with you, Mr. Granger?" The gentleman looked up at Mr. Wood and bade him take a seat. However, he chose to stand.

"I will not mince words with you, sir." Said Wood. "I love your daughter. Though she has opened up to me a little, it is not enough. I am going back to London tomorrow to clear up some business matters. I have lingered too long. This departure should give the both of both Clara and myself sufficient time to think clearly. Thank you for your hospitality; I shall trespass on your kindness no longer." Mr. Wood was about to leave when Mr. Granger said,

"Did you ever tell Clara why you came?"

"I informed her from the beginning." Mr. Wood replied stiffly. Mr. Granger merely nodded his head and returned to his book.

Clara had dressed in her nightgown and sat up in bed with her journal reliving the day.

Dear Diary,

My feelings, though still unclear, are decidedly different toward Oliver. I do not know if I love him, but I greatly admire and like him. These last few days have made me understand him better. I believe that if I gave him some sort positive affirmation, then we could end up in love. Tomorrow, I hope to tell him so. I always thought that I would have such a hard time detaching myself from my friends in Middleton. But, then, they have all mostly gone on without me. Agnes, Sophia, Harriet are engaged or married; and maybe even Greta and Cosette will be next. I only remain. I'm fairly sure that I have reason to believe that something is developing between Greta and the Captain. She most certainly admires him, though she is so guarded (but not nearly as close as Sophia used to be). Anyhow, I have noticed several changes in myself. As before, my feelings toward Oliver (how strange it feels to call him by his Christian name) are changing. I do not fear his company; in fact, I long for it. What could change a disgraceful prude like myself but Providence or love? I shall declare myself! Will that be very much like proposing? No matter. Scotland, or very near it. I wonder how long it will be till I can arrange for some of the girls to visit me at Griswald. Agnes and Charles will have to come first, they are Oliver's closest acquaintances here. I do not know when the Doctor and Mrs. Dixon will be able to separate from the community. Captain and Mrs. Croft will have to come before he sails again. I dare say Sir and Lady Newton will come at any time they wish. They are both idlers without any ties and plenty of assets (if anything happens to come of that little situation). La, how I am rambling over nonsense, Wood hasn't even proposed and I'm already planning our guest list.

I cannot believe how much we talked tonight, and so freely. It was like we were friends. And think, if he married he would probably go back to Griswald, and it would probably make him happier than anything would. Oh my! I had better go to sleep.

CG

The next morning, Clara woke and dressed for breakfast. While she was preparing, she thought about what she would say to Oliver Wood. She was slightly nervous but not enough to keep her from taking a step out of her shell. Clara debated whether or not she would be frank with Wood or simply act how she felt.

However, Clara's reverie was broken by the sound of cartwheels swiftly running over the gravel. She was curious and withdrew to the window. The carriage was waiting outside the great doors and servants were loading a trunk. Her heart stopped and then leapt back to life with wild abandon. Mr. Wood-Oliver-was climbing into the hack. She had waited too long! The driver got up on his seat and urged the horse forward. Oliver's horse Festus was tied to the back and followed. The hack left the long drive and into the lane. It was shortly out of sight. He had gone.
Clara slowly sat down on her bed and stared out the window without seeing.

 

 

Chapter 15

"One man's way may be as good as another's,
But we all like our own best."

It was evening and the sun had begun its decent into the west. The cool October wind blew through the trees and chased fallen leaves over the lane.

Harriet Lawton rode sturdily on her horse toward Clifton. She should have been at home preparing for her wedding the next day but the closer the event came, the more anxious she was to be with Phineas. She had had to sneak out through the kitchen door to the stable in order to avoid her mother's prying eyes.

Harriet chuckled to herself. Finny was bound to have a conniption when he saw her without a chaperone on his doorstep. That was just the way things were with him, even the day before their wedding. He was a perfect gentleman through and through.

She dismounted and tied the horse to the fence before she opened the gate to the garden. She blushed to think that it would be hers very shortly. The flowers were mostly dead but there were pumpkins and apple trees. Beside the house, stood several cherry trees. Harriet wished that it was spring and all the blossoms would be in bloom.

The light from the cottage flooded into the garden through the doorway. Phineas stood there with the door open. Aghast he said, "Harriet! What are you doing here?"

She smiled pertly at him, "I came to see you, of course." She walked closer to the door, "Are you going to let me in, or are you going to make me stand out in the draft?"

Phineas said nothing but moved aside to let her in. He closed the door behind him while she made herself comfortable on the sofa.

"Harriet, you should not be here unattended!"

"I don't understand, why not?" She asked sweetly.

Exasperated, he rolled his eyes. "Because you and I happen to both be unmarried still, you never know who may happen to be strolling along."

"Phineas, we are getting married tomorrow. I do not believe that there is anything improper about my little visit. What's more, I do not object to you having an unmarried lady in your cottage, especially if it is me. And I do not care if some horrid old gossip sees us, they could use something to talk about." Phineas only sighed.

"So, what have you been doing with yourself?" She asked.

Finny sat uncomfortably in a chair. "Nothing." He answered.

Harriet looked at him, but was too giddy to be sensible. "I never thought that I would hear you say anything like that. Why, you are always up to something." She teased.

"Hatty, you really should not be here." He tried to sound stern.

"My dear doctor, it just so happens that the sun is still shining-a bit. Not everyone is from Bristol, after all. Relax, stop trying to sound like an old headmaster. Surely, you of all people would not have dishonorable intentions."

He tried to relax, especially since he did not like being called an old headmaster. "What have you been doing all day, then?"

"Oh, I've been packing, sewing, and burning. I even made poor Mrs. Norris rummage through the attic with me. It is amazing all the things my parents kept. I found two of my old dolls which I am going to keep them for our daughters (Finny's cheeks paled). I found a cradle my mother said I could take (A faint blush began to spread). Do you think you'll need another trunk? I've filled two already, and I found another in the attic."

"No," he croaked. "One suits me just fine." He fidgeted nervously, but Harriet did not seem to notice.

"I wonder what we will be doing at this time tomorrow." She said brightly. Phineas looked at her almost frantically. Was she purposefully playing with his mind?

"Do you think I should bring more linens for-"

"Dinner!" Phineas shouted as he leapt from his chair.

Harriet was confused and startled, "Finny, what are you talking about?"

He raked his hands through his hair, "Um, er, that is-you see, I haven't eaten-dinner-yet."

"Oh! Is that all," Harriet laughed. "I thought you were having an attack or something. Let me make you something to eat. You know, I wouldn't have cared if you had gotten yourself a housekeeper. You don't seem to take care of yourself very well. I don't quite understand it, even if I lived alone I would never forget to eat. Oh well, too late now." She said gleefully as she got up to go to the kitchen.

"Uh, better yet, Hatty dear." He said as he led her toward the door. "Why don't you go home and inform your mother that I will be over for supper tonight and I'll make sure that, um, my rose bushes are-properly-pruned."

"But you haven't had anything to eat, let me get something for you." She said trying to push her way back into the parlor.

"I can get something for myself easily enough, thank you. I've done it for the last eight years. Now, hurry home." He said as he escorted her to the gate.

"Finny, why are going to prune your rose bushes? You did that a month ago and I doubt that they have recovered yet."

"Well, you know how it is, don't want the neighbors to think that I've neglected the place." He said.

"Your nearest neighbors live a mile away. I doubt that they will take great notice of the bushes from that distance." She argued.

"Yes, but they are excessively nosy."

"Phineas, you are acting strange-"

"Up you go!" He said as he lifted her up onto her horse in mid-sentence. He released the horse from the fence and gave it a solid slap on the rump.

Phineas leaned against the fence; it was going to be a long day. What was he thinking? Tomorrow, the day of their wedding, was going to be a long day. However, it would be worth it.

 

 

Chapter 16

"We live at home, quiet, confined,
And our feelings prey on us."

Time had passed and the windy month of September turned into colorful October. Cold rain and sleet brought along November. In only a few months time, however, Middleton underwent some small alterations.

Harriet Lawton had been married for two months to Dr. Dixon; therefore, she was Harriet Dixon. Their life together did little to alter their characters, save that they were perhaps, more content. The enchantment of being newly wed had not worn off at all, and it would. Two hearts more generous and cheerful probably never existed.

Cosette Frazer had her own little romance budding. Her pride still kept her from publicly admitting defeat to Clara. But, the boy, or Eric Newton, rather, was growing more and more in her esteem. She had not forgotten the small kindness paid her by him the night of the ball after she had offended him. It may seem a trifle, dear reader, but try to understand how it feels to be publicly mortified, and how it feels when honor is restored through the goodwill of another when you least expected it.

Sophia Elton and John Croft had a bit of a setback. He had received news that he might be called back to duty. She thought they ought to marry right away in case the rumors proved true. The fellow, however, was of the opinion that it would be best to wait till his commission was spent. The commission itself might not end for several years at best and there was no telling what might befall them in between that time. The two could not agree on this point. Their family and friends were not certain that they would ever make up their minds and were quite anxious to keep out of the whole affair.

Clara was, well, she was Clara. There had been no letter or any news of Oliver Wood since he left in September. She was at a loss, what could be done? She did not know if it was her place to write him, what would she say? Clara eventually decided to wait and see where luck would lead her.

A surprise attachment between Miss Parker and Captain Ingram, however, was in need of some consideration. Greta was the first-born daughter of a country gentleman of very large fortune. He was a philanthropist and scholar, who traveled as often as he could to augment those fields. While in Sweden, Mr. Parker met and fell in love with a beautiful heiress named Nora Knuteson. She was the daughter of a son of a brother of a courtier, and Parker felt that this would suffice as a "good connection". Her inheritance was not great, but then he had plenty to spare. Parker brought his new wife over to England where they resided on an estate he had newly built. They had five children and remained very active as humanitarians.

Mr. Parker was a proud man and subconsciously weighed other people's worth by income. He was wealthy and placed much self-importance on his income. He was not a cruel or miserly man, though. In fact, many of his tenants, servants and the poor found him to be a liberal master and landlord. However, he did not associate closely with them as it might soil his reputation.

Fortunately, his ostentation was not passed down to his daughter. A man's income did not, in her opinion, measure the heart. Greta also found it absurd and stupid to take so much pride in money that neither she nor her father had earned for themselves. Of course, she kept that an opinion to herself as it was not a very popular view. However, her acquaintance with Captain Ingram seemed to heighten this idea of hers.

If you recall, Captain Ingram had danced with Greta at the ball for Miss Hayter. And opposite of what she had speculated, it was more than just a dance. As foolish as it may seem, Greta had quite gone out of her head over him. She admired his firm convictions and steady character. She had learned, though no one told her that he had been deceiving them all, but it did not trouble her. No, she admired it, for she could not like anyone who was too good. The deception made him all the more real to her.

The Captain, however, was far ahead of her. He had learned to admire her when they met for the third time at the small dinner party at Sanford. The two had been thrown together often as Greta was frequently at Sanford. And Sophia seemed to sense the attraction and encouraged them to be together. Croft, on the other hand, felt slightly alarmed. He believed himself responsible for his friend and for the actions of his friend. He believed that Myles would do nothing wrong intentionally, but Croft sensed rather than saw room for mishap. But, that is beside the point.

Miss Parker was alone in a small park on her father's property. It would seem odd in the cold weather, but she did as she liked (the park just happened to connect her property to that of Sanford, how convenient). From the opposite side, she saw a figure of a man walking in her direction. She advanced to meet him feeling certain that it must be Captain Ingram. His gate quickened considerably as he caught sight of her. They met and Myles kissed her hand warmly.

"Your hands are cold," he said. "How long have you been out, I did not expect you to be."

She smiled at him, "I have not been out long; my hands are always cold. I am so glad you came to visit. Will you come in and see my family?"

"I would except that I came to speak to you particularly." She took his arm and they walked about slowly. "Miss Parker, I have a confession to make. I am not the unfortunate, poor creature John has made me out to be." He gave her a cautious glance.

She said nonchalantly, "I know."

He stopped out of shock, "You do? How?" He asked.

"You are not very good at acting, you know."

Myles grimaced slightly but smiled, "I suppose you would like to know why such a tale was invented?"

"I would."

"I was afraid of that. Be that as it may, it all came about when I was teasing John for being one of the unfortunates to find himself engaged. I must confess that I did not have a very high opinion of women then."

"Why not?"

"Er, it is of little consequence. Nevertheless, John made a bet with me that if I came with him to Middleton and pretended to be poor then I would find that other girls were not mercenary, superficial creatures."

"What did you find?" Greta asked curiously.

"It depends on whom I'm talking about." He answered dully.

"I see." Greta was not sure of what to say and kept quiet. Myles also seemed to be gathering his thoughts.

Finally, Greta asked, "Did you come here to confess all of your transgressions, or is there something else you would like to tell me?"

He chuckled deep in his throat, "No, I have something to ask of you. It is a little awkward; I am not sure how to put it."

Greta had thought that she knew what he wanted until he said that. Now she felt a bit disappointed and said, "Speak plainly, we do not stand upon ceremony here."

He looked down at her and said, "Miss Parker, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

The feeling of disappointment quickly vanished. She was surprised, and yet, she had suspected as much. It was like a jar of butterflies had been released in her stomach. They stopped walking and she looked confidently into his blue eyes.

"Yes, Captain, I will do you the honor." He swept her into his arms and kissed her gently.

Of course, the moment of kissing and cuddling could not last. Parents must be applied to and friends notified. The enraptured couple traipsed toward the house with the intention of speaking to her father, but not really caring if they ever got there.

"...You'll have to come to London directly to meet my brother and his wife." Myles said.

"I'm afraid that you'll have to make up with Cosette, as well. I do not want my husband to be at odds with any of my friends." She said.

Once inside, Greta directed Myles toward the study and waited on the staircase just around the corner. She listened intently as the interview commenced. However, the entrance of her mother from the drawing room interrupted her.

"Greta, where have you been all this time? Clara Granger was here looking for you. I told her that you must have gone to Sanford. Who is that gentleman you brought with you?" Mrs. Parker asked.

Greta had lost all sense of decorum, she jumped up from the step she was sitting on and told her mother everything.

"He proposed to you outside just now? And he's in talking to your father? Greta, we haven't even met him. How long have you known the gentleman?" her mother asked.

"He came down in August with Captain Croft, he has been staying at Sanford for the last four months."

"Do you feel like you know him enough to marry him?" Mrs. Parker asked.

"I believe that I know enough to be certain that I shall be very happy with him." Greta assured her.

"He seems a bit older than you."

"Oh, he is! Almost ten years, I believe. But it make no difference to me, I always thought fellows around my age were a bit too stupid for my taste. I wonder what is taking so long?" Greta said with a stamp of her foot.

"I am sure your father has plenty of things to speak to your new beau about. Especially, as he had never met him before and now he must consider giving his daughter over to a stranger."

"What do you think, mamma?" Greta asked. She had always been able to confide in her mother like a friend and she valued her opinion highly.

"I would have to meet him, dearest. But I do not think that you are so foolish a girl to marry just any man that asks. Speaking of which, whatever happened to the young gentleman in London. I can't remember his name. I thought you were very fond of him."

"Daniel de Bourgh, mother. I do not think of him at all. He is so dark and secretive."

"I thought you liked ‘dark and secretive' things. You have all those miniature gargoyles in your room." Said her mother.

Thus was the flow of conversation between mother and daughter. Inside the library, however, the subject was not as pleasant. Our hero had stated his case and found that the master of the house was not as delighted as he would wish him to be.

"You are asking me to give me daughter's hand in marriage to a complete stranger? And a naval officer, what's more. It may be a very fine thing for the Elton girl but they are not as well off as we are."

"Miss Parker and I have been acquainted these four months now. We agree that we shall be very happy together. Surely, if your daughter is assured on this point then you can have no doubts."

Mr. Parker did not like this speech, "How dare you be so audacious! My daughter is a capricious, head strong, girl without a clue of what is really good for her. Nor does she have any concept of rank. She is too young to know anything of such matters. How much can you possibly have in way of a fortune? Who was your father, who was your mother? You have no connections to make you worthy of Greta Parker."

Naturally, Ingram's pride was piqued, "A man need never be ashamed of common, honest labor if it provides food, shelter, and clothing. It is fortunate that your daughter does not pride herself in such foolish trifles as rank and connections."

If a gentleman should ever happen to come across this romance let him take heed: If the father of the girl you love ever happens to have any grounds to dislike you (valid or invalid) simply bite your tongue and remember to call him ‘Sir.' Unfortunately, it was too late for Ingram. Mr. Parker barked him out of the study and Ingram left without saying farewell to Greta or her mother.

"What went on in here?" Greta demanded as she stormed into the library.

"Good riddance to bad rubbish! Greta, what were you thinking of when you said you would marry such rabble? I expected more from you."

"What did you say to him?" She nearly shrieked. It had never entered her mind that her father would be so domineering.

"I told him that he was a worthless, penniless nobody and let me never see him again. The case is closed."

"How could you say such a thing! I've got to go find him!" She began to walk toward the door. Her father stopped her.

"You will do no such thing! I forbid you to ever see that man again, he is nothing to us. Your situation and rank call for a much richer, much nobler man. Besides, he is so weather beaten and leathery! I can't imagine what the sea will do to his complexion in the next couple of years." Said Mr. Parker disgustedly.

Greta could do nothing as the damage was already done. She hoped and prayed that she would be able to see him the next day and speak with him. He would not do anything rash, she hoped. But, honestly, she did not know. He had mentioned that he had thought that all women were superficial. The thought pained her as she reflected on what her father had said to him. What was his opinion of her and her family? Surely he would not think of her that way because of what her father said? Oh, how she longed to see him!

As Greta was struggling with these thoughts, Myles Ingram was storming toward Sanford. Clara Granger was unfortunate enough to meet him at the entrance.

"Good evening, Captain." She said timidly.
Had she said nothing he would have ignored her completely in his hurry to be in his room. As it was, he was very shocked to hear anything from her with his applying first.

"Good evening, Miss Granger." He noticed that she did not look very well. He forgot his furry for a moment and asked, "Are you well?"

"Yes, I am quite well, thank you. I have been trying to find Greta Parker."

He reddened visibly and Clara was slightly alarmed. Myles said gruffly,

"She was at home when I left there. But, I would not waste time going there, Miss Granger, I doubt that even the memory of your fortune is enough to appease them." And he left her standing bewildered by the gate.

Ingram stormed into the house and was half way to his room when John stopped him.
"Myles, where have you been? You left without a word." Asked John anxiously.

Ingram was in no mood for words. He was angry and despondent, his heart felt as if the life was slowly being drained away.

"John," he said. "Do not ask me questions. Do me a favor and speak to a servant about having a carriage hired for tomorrow morning. I cannot stay here any longer."

"Hold on, you tell me all this and then ask me not to ask questions? What is going on?" John asked testily.

"The story will get out in time, I do not doubt. Indeed, I do not know why it would not."

"What are you talking about, Myles? This sounds serious. What have you done?"

"Let's just say that I was right and wrong at the same time. Now, according to our bet, I get to go."

"Right and wrong? How?" John asked curiously. "If you were wrong then I need some sort of explanation."

"I found a girl who is perfect, she sees me for what I am and not what I have, just like you said I would. But, her father is the most foolish, arrogant, elitist I have ever met. Therefore, I leave tomorrow. I am going to London where my brother is staying with his family. Please be sure to give my apologies to the Eltons, I intend to be gone before sun up. I'll be sure to send them a letter of thanks when I get to London." And he raced up the stairs.

"But what about the girl?" John called after him.

Clara Granger watched the Captain stride angrily into the house. Had he just been at the Parkers? What had been the matter? Well, at least that meant that Greta was home. Clara resolved on walking through the lane to the park. It was dark now and the sliver of the moon shone brightly with the stars in the night sky. Clara enjoyed the dark quiet when she was inside her room safe and sound. But, being outside alone was rather distressing. She hiked up her frock and ran through the trees and shrubs trying not to look at anything that might resemble an animal or ax murderer.

She reached the doorway and nearly pounded it down. A maid opened the door and let her in.

"Is Miss Parker in?" Clara asked.

The maid asked her to wait a moment so she could find out if the lady was seeing visitors. Very soon, Mrs. Parker came followed by the maid.

"I am sorry, Clara, but Greta has had a bit of a disappointment. She is up in her room and refuses to come down. In short, I do not know what to do."

"Would it be all right if I went up and tried to cheer her?"

Mrs. Parker seemed to consider it, "Well, I do not see why not. In fact, I was just going to have Sally bring her some tea. Perhaps you could take it to her?"

Clara took the cup and saucer from Sally and went up to the second floor. Greta's room was not hard to find and she knocked on the door.

"Go away," came a sobbing voice.

"Won't you let me in, dearest? It's Clara, I've got some tea for you." She said.

"I am not feeling well, leave me alone." Greta whimpered.

"I can already guess what the matter is; I've seen the Captain. Please let me in. A nice hot cup of tea will make you feel a little better."

Clara heard the creaking of the floorboards as Greta moved slowly to the door. The bolt was unlocked and the door slowly opened, Greta immediately turned around and went back to her bed. Clara entered the room and closed the door with her foot. She placed the cup of tea on a small bureau and sat on the bed next to her friend.

"What happened, Greta?"

The dejected lady moaned into her pillow and began to sob all over again.

"Perhaps I oughtn't to have asked." Clara thought. She didn't say another word while she stroked Greta's hair. She waited for her friend to begin.

"He came today and asked me to marry him!" Greta moaned.

"Did you say accept him? Greta, I didn't know that you even liked him until MR. Wood pointed it out!"

"I liked him very much, and I said that I would marry him. Then (sobbing) he asked my father for permission and that old bat said no!" Greta was seized with another fit of sobs.

"Not only did Papa say that we could not marry, but he insulted Myles as well. The Captain didn't even say anything to me when he left, he was so angry. I don't know what to do!" She said despairingly.

"Oh, Greta, I am so sorry. I wish I knew what to do or say to make you feel better, and yet, I am at as much of a loss as you are."

"What do you think he will do?" Asked Greta.

"I do not know. I don't know anything anymore. We'll just have to wait and see." Clara said. "Try and get some sleep. Tomorrow we'll think of something."

The next day, after Clara had left Greta, she found herself walking to town very briskly. She out to have ordered the carriage but she wanted to keep her destination a secret. It was really no matter as it was only the post office. But then, she was sending a very personal letter to a gentleman, and she'd rather not have to explain it to her father.

She had written it to Oliver Wood who still resided in London, and through some prying, had obtained his address from her father's desk. After spending the night with a very distraught Greta, she resolved on writing to Mr. Wood. She could not explain it, but she felt that there was very little time to act and if she did not then it would be too late. Of course, she had made the decision in a fit of emotion and now was wondering if she really needed to send anything to him at all. She thought of how embarrassed she would be if he ever mentioned the note someday as it was rather sentimental.

Clara entered the town and found that the chill had kept most of the inhabitance indoors. The streets were dirty from a few dustings of snow and the few trees found along the way and on the green were completely bereft of leaves. The post office was located at the heart of the town across the street from the church.

Clara stood before the wooden door of the building and tried to muster enough gumption to step through and throw the letter at the clerk. She took a step forward, two, three steps. She was at the door; her hand was on the knob. She pushed the door open and stepped inside. The clerk recognized her and smiled,

"Good afternoon, Miss Granger. Can I help you?"

Clara looked at him for a moment without speaking, then she said quickly, "No, thank you!" She whipped around and left.

Outside of the post office, Clara stamped her foot on the wooden walk; she had lost her nerve and made a complete ninny of herself. Sophia Elton found her standing like a fool on the sidewalk. She looked rather gloomy herself and almost walked right past Clara without seeing her.

"Oh, Clara! I didn't see you. What are you doing?"

Clara held up the letter guiltily. "I was supposed to send this letter, but my cowardice got the best of me."

"Who are you sending it to?" Sophia asked curiously.

"Oliver Wood." Clara answered.

"Were you really? Clara, what are you doing? Get in there and mail it! Quit wasting time!" Sophia began to shove her friend back inside. The clerk looked up and smiled.

"May I help you now, Miss Granger?" He asked with a smirk.

"Um, just send this letter, thanks." She said briskly and walked out. "Maybe I should go back and get it." She said in a panic.

Sophia told that she most certainly would not do any such thing. "What has gotten into everyone? First, Mr. Wood leaves, then John says he has to leave, and then Myles leaves. And you can't even mail a silly little letter!" Cried Sophia.

"Captain Ingram left?" asked Clara. They began to walk farther into town.

"Yes, he left before any of us had even gotten up. John said that he was in an immense hurry to be gone. He wouldn't say why exactly, said he wasn't very sure himself. But, I went over to see Greta and she was a mess! The only words that I could make out were ‘Myles' and ‘proposed.' I can think of two possible scenarios from those words. Either Greta was in love with him and hoped that he would propose and found out that he did not love her, and he left because he felt bad. Or they were both in love and were not permitted to marry. I must say that the first sounds more convincing to me."

"It was the second one, though." Said Clara sadly. "He did propose and Mr. Parker not only refused to give them permission but also made some rude comments."

"He didn't! That's horrible! I can't believe it! You actually talked to Greta?"

"Yes, last night after I left your home. I ran into the Captain who told me that she was home. So, I walked over and sat with her all night pretty much. She was really upset, luckily she fell asleep." Said Clara.

"I used to tease Greta about how the Captain was probably falling for her but I honestly did not think that it could possibly go this far. I should have kept my mouth shut."

"You can't blame yourself, it probably would have happened just the same if you hadn't said anything." Said Clara.

They walked in silence for a while. It appeared that the tide had turned against them since that one day by the duck pond.

The shops and offices were past and they entered the neighborhood section. Sophia seemed to think of something and said,

"You know, it has been a very long time since we got together with all of the girls. These last couple of months have been so long and full that we haven't really had any time when we could all be together."

"You're right, Sophia, we haven't. I think we could all use it now more than anything. I wonder if we could collect everyone." Said Clara. "Let's stop in and see if Agnes wants to come since we're here, and we could go to my house since there is never anyone there."

Sophia agreed and said, "Then we can stop at Clifton and get Harriet before we go to Greta's. Cosette will be on the way to the Grange."

They agreed and changed direction to walk back to the parsonage where the Bennetts resided. They reached it shortly and Sophia knocked on the door. The maid answered the door and told them that Mrs. Bennett was indisposed of late and could not see them. The door closed behind them and they kept walking, this time, toward Clifton Cottage.

"Sophia, did you know that Agnes was feeling sick?" Asked Clara.

"No."

"That was pretty fast, eh?"

"What do you mean?" Asked Sophia. Clara winked at her and walked a little faster. "Clara, I don't get it, what do you mean?"

"Oh, Sophia, you are thick."

Sophia decided that it must be one of those times when Clara simply would not make sense no matter how hard she tried.

 

 

Chapter 17

"No man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman finds
In the society of one of her own sex."

Cosette, Greta, Sophia, and Harriet sat solemnly in the parlor room of the Grange. It had been several months since they had last met at Clifton Cottage to help Harriet clean. The day before, Clara and Sophia went around trying to find a time for them all to meet. Things were a little awkward, everyone was curious about one thing or other but they were too afraid to ask. At last, Clara entered the room with a tray of tea things and biscuits.

"I'm so glad that you all came today." She said, setting the tray down. "Anybody want a spot?" They each accepted a cup of tea and ate their biscuits silently.

"Does anybody have anything to say?" Asked Clara timidly. The women looked at her in silence, she lifted her brows and she nodded her head slightly. "I know, um, Sophia, did you happen to bring a ball of yarn with you?" Clara asked, trying to sound nonchalant. Sophia looked confused for a moment and then understood,

"Oh! Oh, yes. Um-here it is. Here." She gave the yarn over to Clara.

"Okay, I'm going to ask a question and then I'm going to throw the ball to someone. I'll hold the end and when that person is done answering then she will grab a piece and then throw the ball to somebody else. How's that? Sophia and I will start. Sophia, um, has anything new happened in the last couple of weeks?" Clara threw the yarn at Sophia and it accidentally landed on her head. This seemed to relieve some of the tension and they all had a good laugh.

"Um, well, not that I can think of. (Clara gave her a hard look) OH! John received another commission from the Admiralty. He has to leave and we don't know when we're going to get married." Her voice and facial features seemed to work together to appear unconcerned. Sophia held the ball and then chose to throw it to Harriet who squealed as she reached out to grab it.

"Let's see. I helped Phineas build a bookshelf when we returned from Vienna. And, we bought a dog; we named him Shadow. That's about it." And she tossed the ball to Cosette who blushed prettily.

"Well, I've been spending quite a bit of time with the Smiths (she blushed again). Eric is going to teach me how to fence. I'm really excited, I've always wanted to learn." She threw the ball to Greta.

"I don't really feel like doing this, but I will anyway. I suppose that you have all heard about the little incident with Captain Ingram. We were not permitted to marry."

"I didn't even know you cared for him at all till I ran into him on the way from your house. You kept it pretty secret." Said Clara.

"You didn't answer the question yet, Clara." Said Greta.

"Oh, there isn't really anything to tell. Mr. Wood left, and I wrote him a letter yesterday."

"You sent him a letter? Incredible, I do believe that you are beginning to grow up!" Said Cosette. "Maybe we won't have to bury you in a white dress."

"Ha, ha."

"Greta, why won't your parents let you get married to the Captain?" Asked Harriet.

"Money, naturally. Unfortunately, John cleared that up. My father was quite shocked to find out how much that Myles really has per annum. I think he almost ate his words. Mother, however, did not dislike the match at all, she was angry with my father."

"Do you know what you're going to do?" Asked Sophia.

"No, I'd rather not say anything just yet. All that I know is that he is staying with his brother in London, and this is all information that you gave me from John. I don't think that I ought to try and contact him right away, he needs time to cool off."

"That sounds like a good idea." Said Cosette.

"What's this going on with you and that Newton boy? You seem to be very cozy, without much time for anyone else. I had to drag her screaming and kicking from her house!" Said Clara bitingly.

"That isn't true!" cried Cosette.

"Right. Anyway, what is this new romance that's cooking up? You've seemed to have changed your opinion of him since you danced at the ball in September." Clara said.

"Well, I guess that I was wrong. He is really very nice if you get to know him. But it is not a romance. We are only friends. Do not suppose that I feel more than I do."

"How many times have we heard that, I wonder." Said Greta with a faint smile.

"Oh, girls. Just think, only a few months ago we all sat by the duck pond by my willow tree and we had just gotten back from London. We were so optimistic. Isn't it amazing what only a few months can do?" Said Clara.

"Yes, I remember. Think even farther back. Remember when we used to wear our hair in little ringlets or braids? I remember when Sophia climbed a tree in her knickers and bragged about it to all the little boys in town." Laughed Harriet.

"Harriet, I wish you would let me forget it. How embarrassing! Don't you ever tell John! He'll torture me!" Cried Sophia as she turned brick red.

Everyone laughed, they remembered the event quite clearly even though it had happened nearly thirteen years earlier.

"Remember when we were in your father's little rowboat for your birthday, Sophia, and we all were afraid that there was a water snake at the one end?" Laughed Greta. "We all jumped onto the one side and it tipped upward and spilled us all into the lake? I can't believe how scared we were."

"You wouldn't get out of the water, Greta, until you had your skirts on over your knickers, and we were so afraid that you were going to get snake bit!" Laughed Clara. "I kept telling you ‘It's an emergency! You need to get out!' And you wouldn't listen."

"Remember the time Sophia and Greta put gin in my punch and I didn't know?" Asked Cosette.

"Of course I do, it was a perfect waste of good gin, too. You wouldn't drink it." Complained Greta.

"It tasted terrible!"

"You're such a baby!" Said Sophia.

"You, of all people, would not have touched it!" Cosette shot back.

They laughed more and more over past events and stories. It felt good to be in each other's company again. They had missed it and did not even know till they were back together again. The future did not seem as bleak to them when they were together and they could face anything good or bad.

"Sophia, I think you should just go home and make him marry you when you say so!" Said Harriet. "Tie him up or something, get your father's pistol out."

"Easier said then done, dearest."

"NO! You just tell the Parson that you're going to get married on such-and-such a date and you show up and make sure your father makes John show up. It's really that simple. Put your foot down!" Said Clara.

"And all that just came from you?" Said Sophia matter-of-factly.

"Well, I'm growing impatient!"

"But, don't you think that that might be the job for the head of the family to make those decisions? I would not feel right ordering John around." Asked Sophia.

"He isn't the head of any family till I see a ring on your finger! How's that?" Said Clara stubbornly.

"I suppose I ought to do it then, shall I?" Sophia sighed.

"YES!" They shouted unanimously.

"But, then you and Greta have to do something!" Said Sophia.

"What about me?" Cosette demanded. "I don't want to be last!"

"You won't be, Lotte." Said Clara as she threw a log into the fireplace.

"Clara, hadn't you better let a servant light the fire?" Asked Sophia.

"Why? I can light a fire." Clara told her. The others looked doubtful. Clara placed two more pieces of wood onto the log and rolled up old pieces of newspaper to light. She picket up a packet of matches and struck several but immediately threw them into the fireplace after they were lit out of fear of burnt fingers. Finally, she was able to hold one long enough to set the paper on fire.

"There, you see? It isn't that hard. Soon the room will be toasty warm." Clara said as she rubbed her hands over the fire. She returned to her chair by the others.

However, they had not been sitting long before the air began to fill with the odor of smoke. Clara had forgotten to open up the flue and smoke was filling the room. They each, except for Greta, rushed to grab something to fan the smoke which only made the room smokier. When that failed to work, the girls tried to put the fire out.

"Quick! Grab something! Anything!" Harriet yelled.

"Here!" Cosette thrust the teapot into Clara's hands. There was only a few drops left in it and Clara cast it aside.

"Something else! Someone, open up a window!" Clara coughed through the smoke. Sophia dashed to the nearest window and threw up the sash. However, the draft that came through the window only caused the smoke to move deeper into the room.

"Honestly!" Growled Greta as she pushed the girls out of her way. She picked up the ashcan and turned it over onto the fire, which was quickly extinguished.

"How did you do that?" Asked Clara as she lifted herself off her knees and tried to smooth her hair back.

"Simple, I picked up the can and turned it over." Said Greta.

"Well, shall we try again?" Asked Clara.

"NO!" They shouted.

 

 

Chapter 18

"I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved.
Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking
In the way of dancing and sitting down together."

The day was damp and cold, no snow fell, only a few sheets of icy rain. The sky was overcast and the November sun struggled to pierce through the murky clouds.

Cosette was swaying from side to side by the shifting carriage that pulled her along the dirty road toward the Smith home. She grinned to herself repeatedly as she reflected on the conversation she had had with her friends only a day ago. She was not going to be the last one to marry if she could help it. At any rate, she was going to learn to fence. That was, in her mind, a decided step toward nuptials.

As the carriage pulled up in front of the Smith home, Cosette saw that Eric Newton was standing out on the vestibule waiting for her to arrive. "Eric!" She cried. "What are you doing out here in the cold? Won't you get sick?"

"A trifling cold never killed anyone." He said gallantly as he helped her down from the carriage. They walked arm in arm under his umbrella.

"Where are we going?" She asked as he led her past the house.

"To the stable. You don't really think that my Aunt Smith would let us brandish pointy objects in her house do you? We'd be liable to put a scratch on the wall or tear in the furniture. Why, we could even take one of my cousin's eyeballs out." He said grimly if not sardonically. Cosette grimaced at the thought.

At last, however, they stopped at the stable door and Eric opened it for her and waited for her to enter first. The stable had been freshly cleaned fortunately, though it still smelled heavily of animal, dirt, and hay. However, it was warm and dry along with space enough to move in.

"All right, let me see. I don't quite remember where I left my epees ... um, oh! Here they are. Aunt Smith was so astounded that I would actually bring these things all the way from London with no apparent reason for using them. She thought I was going to try and duel half of the village or some such rot."

"Where did you get them?" Cosette asked curiously.

He polished the epee with a clean rag for a moment and checked to make sure the safety caps were in place. "These blades were my father's. I know that they look brand new, but he bought them quite a few years ago. I remember he always took extremely good care of them. When I was little, we used to duel together. He died only a few years after and I didn't have the heart to use them, not until I was sixteen, anyway. That's when I started taking lessons again from a private instructor. My mother let me take the lessons because she thought it was a very light sport. She didn't know, of course, but fencing can be quite exhausting at best." He smiled.

Cosette listened quietly all the while. The more they were together, the more he would open up. She was glad that he would talk about his father since he probably did not do it often anywhere else.

"So, how do we begin fencing exactly?" Cosette asked as she whipped the epee over her head.

"Let's start with some basic rules." He said as he handed her a mask and gloves, trying not to get in the way of the weapon. "We are not trying to kill each other, if you please. We play up to five hits in a strip called a piste. Of course, we don't have one so we'll just use the aisle between the stalls. You can only hit your opponent with the tip of the epee for it to count..." He went on to explain more rules and demonstrate several moves and tactics.

"I didn't realize how tiring fencing could be." Cosette said breathlessly after they had practiced for half and hour.

"You get used to it after a while. I just think of it as a disjointed kind of dance with only the rapping of cold steel for music." He answered whimsically.

"That's a bit morbid, don't you think?" she teased as she managed to strike him in a vulnerable spot on his stomach.

"OUCH! Cosette, remember the object is not to run your partner through." He said pointedly.

"You said that I couldn't run anyone through even if I wanted to, the epees are too blunt." Cosette replied smartly.

"That doesn't mean that it feels good to be poked at with the one! Especially in the unguarded areas such as the stomach." He complained bitterly.

"Tut tut, little pantywaist, maybe you should have brought more padding." She teased back mercilessly.

"You are a heartless lass, completely heartless!"

Eric and Cosette spent the whole morning and almost into the whole afternoon practicing. Eric won every bout except one, which was Cosette only won by a twist of luck. He had tripped over a rope and she was able to knock the epee out of his hand, her own weapon poised over his heart. Their last bout, which was very fierce, was interrupted by the stable boy that had received instructions to send Sir Eric and Miss Frazer into the house for luncheon.

After they ate, Cosette and Eric were left alone, quite conveniently, in the loft. Angela had gone to Bath a week earlier with her father's sister and Mrs. Smith, with her younger children, went to visit neighbors. The loft was, by now, their particular hide out. Few ever ventured to so insignificant a room and it just suited as a place for private conversation.

Eric was extremely nervous this afternoon. Cosette tried to keep him on one subject after another but he could not concentrate as he pace the room and rearranged some of its contents.

"Did you like Charles Bennett's sermon last Sunday?" She asked indifferently.

"It was great." He assented equally indifferent. "My kingdom for a dry day!" He shouted as he peered out the window into the cloudburst.

"I think that the one thing he said about living courageously was very stirring, don't you." She asked.

"Yes, I've always wanted to swim across the channel into France." He said.

"I don't think that that was quite what he meant-have you ever been to Scotland?" Cosette tried again. This seemed to catch his attention and he spun around on his heels.

"Scotland! No, I have never been there. Want to go?" He asked excitedly.

"What? Sure, I suppose." Cosette answered looking a little befuddled. "Someday."

"Do you remember that thing you once said about living courageously?"

"Yes, I just-"

"So, lets do something crazy, like getting married-no! Let's elope to Scotland!" He exclaimed, "and get married!"

Cosette was not sure what to think. "Are you being quite serious?" She asked nervously.

Eric seemed to control himself finally and sat down next to her. "Of course I'm being serious. Why not?" He said frankly.

"Well, eloping is rather scandalous, is it not?"

"You once told me that you always wanted to elope to Scotland." He said seriously, reminded her of a past conversation.

"Yes, but that was before I was asked. I was simply trying to snub you for being a prodigious flirt. I couldn't live with a man outside of my family without being married to him first."

"Then let's get married and then elope to Scotland! Simply switch the order. I own it won't be a conventional elopement, but then we won't do anything wicked. Besides, shunning convention is rather adventurous!"

"Eloping is quite complicated, Eric." Cosette said. "Not to mention that it doesn't sound very safe."

"Safe? Who needs safe? What we need is an adventure!" Eric said energetically.

"Who would marry two young people like us without a parent's permission?" Cosette pointed out.

"Charles Bennett." Eric said confidently.

"What? He wouldn't marry us!" She argued.

"Well, we could just write a fake note from, um, your parents and then he'll think that they want us to marry in a hurry. Besides, it'll add a little bit of excitement back into the endeavor. Then, off we go."

"But, how would we get away with it? Won't we have to be engaged for a while, or something? To make it sound normal, I mean. How do we explain why my parents, at least, won't be there?" She asked.

"It won't be an elopement if we are already engaged! We'll say that my mother is seriously ill and we have to hurry and get married because it's her dying wish. And, it would take too long to get your whole family assembled. Then, we'll leave a nice little note at my aunt's house and we'll be off."

"What about money, and a ring, and the license and a dress? I want my hair done!" Cosette cried.

"That, my dear, has already been taken care of." Eric said quickly. He pulled out an envelope from his vest pocket and showed her its contents. It had a number of bank notes, a license and two gold bands.

"Eric, how long have you been planning this?" She asked with something like shock.

He looked slightly embarrassed. "A fortnight at least."

"Who sent you all this of these things?"

"Oh, some friends of mine, and Hill."

"Your nurse helped you? How is that? Certainly she would not support such a scheme."

"I asked for the rings, they were my grandparents and I kept them in a box at home. I told her that I was thinking of proposing but not to tell mother because I wasn't sure. I got my friends to get everything else."

"Why, you conniving little-are you really serious about eloping then?" She asked again.

"Yes, Cosette, I am. I thought about how you once said you wanted to elope and I thought about how I didn't want to have a long engagement. I reckoned that if I applied to your parents then we'd have to wait a year or more."

"Do you mean to say that you've loved me for that long? But, we were such beasts to each other. Not to mention that we've only known each other for four months." She said doubtfully.

"Nearly five, besides, I think we've seen the best and the worst of each other. How can anything but that assure us of lasting affection? How much more do we need to know?" He said.

Cosette thought for a moment, this would certainly keep her from being the last girl married. Of course, that could not be her reasoning for making such an important step. She had to find out what her real motives where for wanting to go along with Eric's plan. She closed her eyes and chewed on her bottom lip while she finished thinking things through.

Finally, Cosette rose to her feet and said confidently, "I'll need just enough time to pack a few things and write some notes to my parents and friends. When will you come for me?"

Eric jumped up and swung her around the room. He pulled a note out of his pocket and showed her the letter he had written.

"Here, I've been practicing your mother's hand writing from the invitation that she sent Aunt Smith two weeks ago. If we leave now, then we can get to the parsonage before teatime. After we get hitched, then I'll walk you to your home where you can get everything together and I'll have a hack ordered for midnight. I'll come get you then."

Cosette clucked her tongue at such rough language, trying to ignore what he said about forging her mother's name, and was determined to break him of both habits after they were married.

As outrageous as it may appear, Cosette and Eric did hie to the parsonage to try and persuade Charles to join them in holy matrimony. The response was not a very favorable one, however. Charles was too sensible a man to rely on a note whose scroll was to masculine to pass as a fine gentlewoman's; however, he seemed to believe that they ought to get married despite the matter. That is, he was under the impression that the two may have fallen into sin of some sort. Agnes, who was expecting a child of her own, could scarcely keep her mind on anything else, picked up on the idea as well and pulled Cosette aside.

"Cosette, what is going on? Why so sudden and unexpected a marriage? I did not even know that you liked that young man. Especially not enough to marry." She said in her best, grown up voice that annoyed Cosette so well. "This is a very serious step. Are you in trouble?"

Cosette had an idea. She nodded her head, blushing brightly and tried to look guilty. "We've tried to cover it up, but, alas, I am afraid that time grows short. We see the error of our ways, but even repentance will not change our predicament." Agnes gasped and turned pale. She turned her back and spoke to her husband in an earnest voice.

"Charles, it is our duty to assist this couple in hopes that we may lead them to a life of repentance and save them from further iniquity. Go get your robes, I'll sign the license as a witness." She said firmly.

"Agnes, you know that I need more substantial-"

"Believe me, Charles, we have substantial reasons for marrying them!" His wife said almost hysterically.

Both the gentlemen looked bemused. Charles left the room to prepare for the nuptials, however, and left the others in awkward silence. Cosette caught Eric's questioning gaze and winked. He mouthed a question and she patted her abdomen smartly. His eyes bulged, his mouth thinned and then relaxed into an abashed smirk. Charles entered the room with his robes on and a Bible in his hand.

"We're going to be in so much trouble when we get back, you know that don't you?" Eric whispered gleefully as they stood together before the clergyman.

"Yes." She answered happily.

It felt like hours later and still Mr. Bennett had not finished the ceremony. The ring had been placed on the Bible and the bride and groom held hands. Eric was saying, "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Then he slipped the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, after which, they kneeled down while the minister prayed. Cosette was so completely bound up in the moment that she did not notice that the ring was too big.

The marriage license was signed and Charles and Agnes both gave the happy couple several harsh lectures on sin and its effect on the sinner. Agnes shed a few tears over her fallen friend and then turned her and her new husband out the door. Eric and Cosette Newton left the parsonage trying to hold in their giggles and traipsed complacently toward the Frazer home, which was several miles off. At last, they parted with a kiss and prayed that the night would come quickly.

The day, as expected, moved slowly along. Cosette's nerves grew increasingly thin and she spent most of her time packing and re-packing her satchel. She could not decide on what to bring and what to leave, she was always changing her mind. Cosette tried to make herself sit down and write small notes to her friends and a large letter of explanation to her family. It was very difficult to sit quietly when she preferred to be standing on her head. She had the horrid feeling in the pit of her stomach that things would not work out. They would not be able to leave and then they would find out that the marriage was illegitimate.

"It resembles Romeo and Juliet too closely." She thought anxiously. "One of us will probably end up dead or banished to some far off region."

Her mother, Mrs. Frazer, came up once and knocked on the door. Cosette scrambled furiously to hide the travel things she had strewn about the room. Her mother entered only to ask if she had made any plans for the evening. Cosette's stomach lurched, did she suspect? She asked her mother why and the woman explained that they had been invited to a dinner party at Sanford.

"You do not look well, perhaps you should stay home." Her mother observed.

"Oh, I do not feel well at all." Said Cosette in all honesty.

"If you think you would rather not go, then I shall make an excuse for you. Sophia might be disappointed, though."

"Oh, yes, send my apologies. I am not well at all." She said.

Mrs. Frazer seemed to sense that something was amiss and her eyes roamed over the room. Just before they would have caught the conspicuously hidden traveling case, her attention was turned toward one of the younger children in the family.

Cosette breathed a sigh of relief and tried to hide her things better. Her heart refused to stop palpitating and she found that her eyes had started to twitch mercilessly. She lay on her bed and tried to process through the events of the day. Her family would be asleep by midnight and her parents generally stayed very late at the Eltons. However, she felt that her parents might not get back as late as normal. They might even come home around the same time Eric would be collecting her. Cosette would have prayed had she not felt guilty for sneaking off. At last, she fell asleep.

She woke several hours later from a dreamless sleep. Her mind was a bit foggy from having dozed for so long. But, she was soon wide-awake because of the sound of pebbles hitting her window. She was startled when she realized what was going on. Her new husband had come for her and she must move quickly. She threw up the window sash and saw Eric at the bottom of a ladder. He waved for her to hurry and she motioned that she had luggage to bring. Eric climbed up and took the case and went back down to hold the ladder for Cosette. She carried the remaining bag. She was half way down the ladder when the distant sound of a carriage's rumble resonated through the chill night air. At once, Cosette realized that the carriage was bringing her parents home from Sanford. Her heart beat wildly as Eric called her to hurry. She noted the sound of panic in his voice.

Before she had reached the ground, the coach that Eric had brought was rumbling away into the darkness. She cried out, but Eric quickly tried to calm her. "Shh! Cosette, listen to me." He said in a hushed voice. "I told the driver to meet us at the crossroad. He has to leave before your parents are able to see that he was here. Otherwise, we'll be far too easy to track because they'll know exactly what time we left and about how far we were able to travel. Now, come on. We've got to cut through the forest." He had grabbed her wrist and dragged her along.

"Eric!" Cosette cried. "You left my other bag behind."

"Bloody h-" He slapped his forehead with his palm. "Wait behind that tree." He sprinted back to the house and grabbed the satchel only to realize that he had not disposed of the ladder. Cosette's anxiety increased as the sound of her parent's carriage grew louder as the distance grew shorter.

Eric was struggling with the long ladder and made such a racket that it woke up one of the servants. A candle was little in the tiny servant's quarters behind the house. Eric had safely hidden the ladder in some brush and gotten out of sight just in time to avoid being seen by the butler.

"Hey! Who goes there!" The old man croaked. The satchel had been left behind and the man had seen it. He had a dog with him and it started baying in the direction that Eric had gone.

"Eric! My bag!" Cosette reminded him again.

"The bag be damned!" He exclaimed as he ran past her. "Move it, your folks are home and they've sent the hounds after us!"

Cosette struggled to run through the bracken in her dress and carry the remaining bag at the same time. Eventually, she got so far behind her husband that she had to call for him in the darkness.

"Eric! Please help me! I can't carry this bag and run at the same time!" She listened for him to reply but nothing came. Suddenly, something came up behind her and grabbed her shoulder. Cosette let out a high pitched shriek that echoed off the trees. A hand covered her mouth and the other that had been on her shoulder reached for her bag.

"Shh!" Eric commanded with a hint of laughter in his voice. Cosette would have killed him (or at least slapped him), but he planted a blistering kiss on her lips. And then muttered. "Let's go."

It was much easier for her to keep up with him now that the bag was no longer dragging her down, but the something occurred to her. "Eric," she panted. "I'm surprised that you haven't had any fits with all the running around you've been doing."

"I'm surprised, myself." He replied in between breaths.

"Will you be alright?" She asked with concern.

"We'll see." He said. "We're almost to the Green." Indeed, the trees and brambles were already thinning and Cosette could see the coach and horses patiently waiting. It seemed like hours since she had woken to the clink of tiny pebbles against her windowpane.

Without a word, Eric whisked her into the coach and signaled the driver to move. Finally, they could breathe the free air. Cosette let out a nervous giggle despite herself. Soon, her whole body was shaking gleefully as she laughed, unchecked. Eric gave her a look that implied a question on her sanity. It was not until she snorted that he joined in himself.

"It has been such a long, nerve-wracking day. I cannot believe we even made it this far." She said. "I was certain that we were done when I heard the carriage coming."

"I know what you mean." He sighed. "I was certain that my aunt would never go to bed. It was terrible. But that was nothing compared to what just happened. We are never eloping again!" He said sarcastically.

"I can't believe we're married! I can't believe we're on our way to Scotland!" Cosette squealed with delight.

"I believe that we'll arrive in London in several hours and spend a day or two there." Eric informed his bride.

"Stay in London?" Cosette asked. "Where?"

"At a hotel, of course. I did not think that we would want to stay on the road after all this. You know how it is." He said quickly. "Besides, it'll give us a chance to change the post and throw people off. They'll be on to us before morning."

"All right. Lord, I am tired. Do you mind if I rest my head on your shoulder?" She asked. Naturally, he did not. He put his arm around her and they slept.

Meanwhile, as the happy couple went on their way, the Frazer's servants were instructed to deliver notes that where found in Cosette's room to her friends in the morning. News, however, spreads quickly in a small town community and this piece of information concerning the elopement had gotten to most of the village before the notes were delivered.

Sophia ran through the lane to Clara's home while Greta trotted behind her. They were let in by the lady herself, who was home alone while her father was away on business.

"Have you heard the news?" Sophia exclaimed excitedly as she waved the note in Clara's face.

Clara held up her own note in a dejected fashion. She did not say anything, but simply frowned.

Greta was reading through hers for the first time since Sophia had dragged her out of her home before she could.

"Eloped! I can't believe it! Is she serious?" Greta exclaimed.

"Quite, from the looks of it." Said Clara.

"What's the matter, Clara, you seemed out of sorts."

"I don't know. It just seems so odd. I mean, Cosette didn't have any romantic inclinations before and Greta and I came so close. It doesn't seem fair. Besides, she's in Scotland, where I ought to be living. I guess it reminds me of it."

"I think we ought to be happy for her despite our own misfortune." Said Greta.

"I know that. It's just not easy." Clara snapped. She willed herself to calm down and said, "I wonder what got into Charles' head, anyway. How could he simply let them marry like it was buying a new bonnet? Didn't they use some discretion?"

"We could ask. Maybe they didn't know." Said Sophia.

"Let's go now. I wonder if those two were in on it. I wonder if Harriet knows."

"I'm sure that she does. Let's go the church and see if Charles or Agnes are inside."

The girls went on their way toward the town. Greta and Sophia discussed the matter without a respite and Clara listened sullenly.

 

Chapter 19

"I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved.
Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking
In the way of dancing and sitting down together."

The day was damp and cold, no snow fell, only a few sheets of icy rain. The sky was overcast and the November sun struggled to pierce through the murky clouds.

Cosette was swaying from side to side by the shifting carriage that pulled her along the dirty road toward the Smith home. She grinned to herself repeatedly as she reflected on the conversation she had had with her friends only a day ago. She was not going to be the last one to marry if she could help it. At any rate, she was going to learn to fence. That was, in her mind, a decided step toward nuptials.

As the carriage pulled up in front of the Smith home, Cosette saw that Eric Newton was standing out on the vestibule waiting for her to arrive. "Eric!" She cried. "What are you doing out here in the cold? Won't you get sick?"

"A trifling cold never killed anyone." He said gallantly as he helped her down from the carriage. They walked arm in arm under his umbrella.

"Where are we going?" She asked as he led her past the house.

"To the stable. You don't really think that my Aunt Smith would let us brandish pointy objects in her house do you? We'd be liable to put a scratch on the wall or tear in the furniture. Why, we could even take one of my cousin's eyeballs out." He said grimly if not sardonically. Cosette grimaced at the thought. At last, however, they stopped at the stable door and Eric opened it for her and waited for her to enter first. The stable had been freshly cleaned fortunately, though it still smelled heavily of animal, dirt, and hay. However, it was warm and dry along with space enough to move in.

"All right, let me see. I don't quite remember where I left my epees...um, oh! Here they are. Aunt Smith was so astounded that I would actually bring these things all the way from London with no apparent reason for using them. She thought I was going to try and duel half of the village or some such rot."

"Where did you get them?" Cosette asked curiously.

He polished the epee with a clean rag for a moment and checked to make sure the safety caps were in place. "These blades were my father's. I know that they look brand new, but he bought them quite a few years ago. I remember he always took extremely good care of them. When I was little, we used to duel together. He died only a few years after and I didn't have the heart to use them, not until I was sixteen, anyway. That's when I started taking lessons again from a private instructor. My mother let me take the lessons because she thought it was a very light sport. She didn't know, of course, but fencing can be quite exhausting at best." He smiled.

Cosette listened quietly all the while. The more they were together; the more he would open up. She was glad that he would talk about his father since he probably did not do it often anywhere else.

"So, how do we begin fencing exactly?" Cosette asked as she whipped the epee over her head.

"Let's start with some basic rules." He said as he handed her a mask and gloves, trying not to get in the way of the weapon. "We are not trying to kill each other, if you please. We play up to five hits in a strip called a piste. Of course, we don't have one so we'll just use the aisle between the stalls. You can only hit your opponent with the tip of the epee for it to count..." He went on to explain more rules and demonstrate several moves and tactics.

"I didn't realize how tiring fencing could be." Cosette said breathlessly after they had practiced for half and hour.

"You get used to it after a while. I just think of it as a disjointed kind of dance with only the rapping of cold steel for music." He answered whimsically.

"That's a bit morbid, don't you think?" she teased as she managed to strike him in a vulnerable spot on his stomach.

"OUCH! Cosette, remember the object is not to run your partner through." He said pointedly.

"You said that I couldn't run anyone through even if I wanted to, the epees are too blunt." Cosette replied smartly.

"That doesn't mean that it feels good to be poked at with the one! Especially in the unguarded areas such as the stomach." He complained bitterly.

"Tut tut, little pantywaist, maybe you should have brought more padding." She teased back mercilessly.

"You are a heartless lass, completely heartless!"

Eric and Cosette spent the whole morning and almost into the whole afternoon practicing. Eric won every bout except one, which was Cosette only won by a twist of luck. He had tripped over a rope and she was able to knock the epee out of his hand, her own weapon poised over his heart. Their last bout, which was very fierce, was interrupted by the stable boy that had received instructions to send Sir Eric and Miss Frazer into the house for luncheon.

After they ate, Cosette and Eric were left alone, quite conveniently, in the loft. Angela had gone to Bath a week earlier with her father's sister and Mrs. Smith, with her younger children, went to visit neighbors. The loft was, by now, their particular hide out. Few ever ventured to so insignificant a room and it just suited as a place for private conversation.

Eric was extremely nervous this afternoon. Cosette tried to keep him on one subject after another but he could not concentrate as he pace the room and rearranged some of its contents.

"Did you like Charles Bennett's sermon last Sunday?" She asked indifferently.

"It was great." He assented equally indifferent. "My kingdom for a dry day!" He shouted as he peered out the window into the cloudburst.

"I think that the one thing he said about living courageously was very stirring, don't you." She asked.

"Yes, I've always wanted to swim across the channel into France." He said.

"I don't think that that was quite what he meant-have you ever been to Scotland?" Cosette tried again. This seemed to catch his attention and he spun around on his heels.

"Scotland! No, I have never been there. Want to go?" He asked excitedly.

"What? Sure, I suppose." Cosette answered looking a little befuddled. "Someday."

"Do you remember that thing you once said about living courageously?"

"Yes, I just-"

"So, lets do something crazy, like getting married-no! Let's elope to Scotland!" He exclaimed, "and get married!"

Cosette was not sure what to think. "Are you being quite serious?" She asked nervously.

Eric seemed to control himself finally and sat down next to her. "Of course I'm being serious. Why not?" He said frankly.

"Well, eloping is rather scandalous, is it not?"

"You once told me that you always wanted to elope to Scotland." He said seriously, reminded her of a past conversation.

"Yes, but that was before I was asked. I was simply trying to snub you for being a prodigious flirt. I couldn't live with a man outside of my family without being married to him first."

"Then let's get married and then elope to Scotland! Simply switch the order. I own it won't be a conventional elopement, but then we won't do anything wicked. Besides, shunning convention is rather adventurous!"

"Eloping is quite complicated, Eric." Cosette said. "Not to mention that it doesn't sound very safe."

"Safe? Who needs safe? What we need is an adventure!" Eric said energetically.

"Who would marry two young people like us without a parent's permission?" Cosette pointed out.

"Charles Bennett." Eric said confidently.

"What? He wouldn't marry us!" She argued.

"Well, we could just write a fake note from, um, your parents and then he'll think that they want us to marry in a hurry. Besides, it'll add a little bit of excitement back into the endeavor. Then, off we go."

"But, how would we get away with it? Won't we have to be engaged for a while, or something? To make it sound normal, I mean. How do we explain why my parents, at least, won't be there?" She asked.

"It won't be an elopement if we are already engaged! We'll say that my mother is seriously ill and we have to hurry and get married because it's her dying wish. And, it would take too long to get your whole family assembled. Then, we'll leave a nice little note at my aunt's house and we'll be off."

"What about money, and a ring, and the license and a dress? I want my hair done!" Cosette cried.

"That, my dear, has already been taken care of." Eric said quickly. He pulled out an envelope from his vest pocket and showed her its contents. It had a number of bank notes, a license and two gold bands.

"Eric, how long have you been planning this?" She asked with something like shock.

He looked slightly embarrassed. "A fortnight at least."

"Who sent you all this of these things?"

"Oh, some friends of mine, and Hill."

"Your nurse helped you? How is that? Certainly she would not support such a scheme."

"I asked for the rings, they were my grandparents and I kept them in a box at home. I told her that I was thinking of proposing but not to tell mother because I wasn't sure. I got my friends to get everything else."

"Why, you conniving little-are you really serious about eloping then?" She asked again.

"Yes, Cosette, I am. I thought about how you once said you wanted to elope and I thought about how I didn't want to have a long engagement. I reckoned that if I applied to your parents then we'd have to wait a year or more."

"Do you mean to say that you've loved me for that long? But, we were such beasts to each other. Not to mention that we've only known each other for four months." She said doubtfully.

"Nearly five, besides, I think we've seen the best and the worst of each other. How can anything but that assure us of lasting affection? How much more do we need to know?" He said.

Cosette thought for a moment, this would certainly keep her from being the last girl married. Of course, that could not be her reasoning for making such an important step. She had to find out what her real motives where for wanting to go along with Eric's plan. She closed her eyes and chewed on her bottom lip while she finished thinking things through.

Finally, Cosette rose to her feet and said confidently, "I'll need just enough time to pack a few things and write some notes to my parents and friends. When will you come for me?"

Eric jumped up and swung her around the room. He pulled a note out of his pocket and showed her the letter he had written.

"Here, I've been practicing your mother's hand writing from the invitation that she sent Aunt Smith two weeks ago. If we leave now, then we can get to the parsonage before teatime. After we get hitched, then I'll walk you to your home where you can get everything together and I'll have a hack ordered for midnight. I'll come get you then."

Cosette clucked her tongue at such rough language, trying to ignore what he said about forging her mother's name, and was determined to break him of both habits after they were married.

As outrageous as it may appear, Cosette and Eric did hie to the parsonage to try and persuade Charles to join them in holy matrimony. The response was not a very favorable one, however. Charles was too sensible a man to rely on a note whose scroll was to masculine to pass as a fine gentlewoman's; however, he seemed to believe that they ought to get married despite the matter. That is, he was under the impression that the two may have fallen into sin of some sort. Agnes, who was expecting a child of her own, could scarcely keep her mind on anything else, picked up on the idea as well and pulled Cosette aside.

"Cosette, what is going on? Why so sudden and unexpected a marriage? I did not even know that you liked that young man. Especially not enough to marry." She said in her best, grown up voice that annoyed Cosette so well. "This is a very serious step. Are you in trouble?"

Cosette had an idea. She nodded her head, blushing brightly and tried to look guilty. "We've tried to cover it up, but, alas, I am afraid that time grows short. We see the error of our ways, but even repentance will not change our predicament." Agnes gasped and turned pale. She turned her back and spoke to her husband in an earnest voice.

"Charles, it is our duty to assist this couple in hopes that we may lead them to a life of repentance and save them from further iniquity. Go get your robes, I'll sign the license as a witness." She said firmly.

"Agnes, you know that I need more substantial-"

"Believe me, Charles, we have substantial reasons for marrying them!" His wife said almost hysterically.

Both the gentlemen looked bemused. Charles left the room to prepare for the nuptials, however, and left the others in awkward silence. Cosette caught Eric's questioning gaze and winked. He mouthed a question and she patted her abdomen smartly. His eyes bulged, his mouth thinned and then relaxed into an abashed smirk. Charles entered the room with his robes on and a Bible in his hand.

"We're going to be in so much trouble when we get back, you know that don't you?" Eric whispered gleefully as they stood together before the clergyman.

"Yes." She answered happily.

It felt like hours later and still Mr. Bennett had not finished the ceremony. The ring had been placed on the Bible and the bride and groom held hands. Eric was saying, "With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Then he slipped the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, after which, they kneeled down while the minister prayed. Cosette was so completely bound up in the moment that she did not notice that the ring was too big.

The marriage license was signed and Charles and Agnes both gave the happy couple several harsh lectures on sin and its effect on the sinner. Agnes shed a few tears over her fallen friend and then turned her and her new husband out the door. Eric and Cosette Newton left the parsonage trying to hold in their giggles and traipsed complacently toward the Frazer home, which was several miles off. At last, they parted with a kiss and prayed that the night would come quickly.

The day, as expected, moved slowly along. Cosette's nerves grew increasingly thin and she spent most of her time packing and re-packing her satchel. She could not decide on what to bring and what to leave, she was always changing her mind. Cosette tried to make herself sit down and write small notes to her friends and a large letter of explanation to her family. It was very difficult to sit quietly when she preferred to be standing on her head. She had the horrid feeling in the pit of her stomach that things would not work out. They would not be able to leave and then they would find out that the marriage was illegitimate.

"It resembles Romeo and Juliet too closely." She thought anxiously. "One of us will probably end up dead or banished to some far off region."

Her mother, Mrs. Frazer, came up once and knocked on the door. Cosette scrambled furiously to hide the travel things she had strewn about the room. Her mother entered only to ask if she had made any plans for the evening. Cosette's stomach lurched, did she suspect? She asked her mother why and the woman explained that they had been invited to a dinner party at Sanford.

"You do not look well, perhaps you should stay home." Her mother observed.

"Oh, I do not feel well at all." Said Cosette in all honesty.

"If you think you would rather not go, then I shall make an excuse for you. Sophia might be disappointed, though."

"Oh, yes, send my apologies. I am not well at all." She said.

Mrs. Frazer seemed to sense that something was amiss and her eyes roamed over the room. Just before they would have caught the conspicuously hidden traveling case, her attention was turned toward one of the younger children in the family.

Cosette breathed a sigh of relief and tried to hide her things better. Her heart refused to stop palpitating and she found that her eyes had started to twitch mercilessly. She lay on her bed and tried to process through the events of the day. Her family would be asleep by midnight and her parents generally stayed very late at the Eltons. However, she felt that her parents might not get back as late as normal. They might even come home around the same time Eric would be collecting her. Cosette would have prayed had she not felt guilty for sneaking off. At last, she fell asleep.

She woke several hours later from a dreamless sleep. Her mind was a bit foggy from having dozed for so long. But, she was soon wide-awake because of the sound of pebbles hitting her window. She was startled when she realized what was going on. Her new husband had come for her and she must move quickly. She threw up the window sash and saw Eric at the bottom of a ladder. He waved for her to hurry and she motioned that she had luggage to bring. Eric climbed up and took the case and went back down to hold the ladder for Cosette. She carried the remaining bag. She was half way down the ladder when the distant sound of a carriage's rumble resonated through the chill night air. At once, Cosette realized that the carriage was bringing her parents home from Sanford. Her heart beat wildly as Eric called her to hurry. She noted the sound of panic in his voice.

Before she had reached the ground, the coach that Eric had brought was rumbling away into the darkness. She cried out, but Eric quickly tried to calm her. "Shh! Cosette, listen to me." He said in a hushed voice. "I told the driver to meet us at the crossroad. He has to leave before your parents are able to see that he was here. Otherwise, we'll be far too easy to track because they'll know exactly what time we left and about how far we were able to travel. Now, come on. We've got to cut through the forest." He had grabbed her wrist and dragged her along.

"Eric!" Cosette cried. "You left my other bag behind."

"Bloody h-" He slapped his forehead with his palm. "Wait behind that tree." He sprinted back to the house and grabbed the satchel only to realize that he had not disposed of the ladder. Cosette's anxiety increased as the sound of her parent's carriage grew louder as the distance grew shorter.

Eric was struggling with the long ladder and made such a racket that it woke up one of the servants. A candle was little in the tiny servant's quarters behind the house. Eric had safely hidden the ladder in some brush and gotten out of sight just in time to avoid being seen by the butler.

"Hey! Who goes there!" The old man croaked. The satchel had been left behind and the man had seen it. He had a dog with him and it started baying in the direction that Eric had gone.

"Eric! My bag!" Cosette reminded him again.

"The bag be damned!" He exclaimed as he ran past her. "Move it, your folks are home and they've sent the hounds after us!"

Cosette struggled to run through the bracken in her dress and carry the remaining bag at the same time. Eventually, she got so far behind her husband that she had to call for him in the darkness.

"Eric! Please help me! I can't carry this bag and run at the same time!" She listened for him to reply but nothing came. Suddenly, something came up behind her and grabbed her shoulder. Cosette let out a high-pitched shriek that echoed off the trees. A hand covered her mouth and the other that had been on her shoulder reached for her bag.

"Shh!" Eric commanded with a hint of laughter in his voice. Cosette would have killed him (or at least slapped him), but he planted a blistering kiss on her lips. And then muttered. "Let's go."

It was much easier for her to keep up with him now that the bag was no longer dragging her down, but the something occurred to her. "Eric," she panted. "I'm surprised that you haven't had any fits with all the running around you've been doing."

"I'm surprised, myself." He replied in between breaths.

"Will you be alright?" She asked with concern.

"We'll see." He said. "We're almost to the Green." Indeed, the trees and brambles were already thinning and Cosette could see the coach and horses patiently waiting. It seemed like hours since she had woken to the clink of tiny pebbles against her windowpane.

Without a word, Eric whisked her into the coach and signaled the driver to move. Finally, they could breathe the free air. Cosette let out a nervous giggle despite herself. Soon, her whole body was shaking gleefully as she laughed, unchecked. Eric gave her a look that implied a question on her sanity. It was not until she snorted that he joined in himself.

"It has been such a long, nerve-wracking day. I cannot believe we even made it this far." She said. "I was certain that we were done when I heard the carriage coming."

"I know what you mean." He sighed. "I was certain that my aunt would never go to bed. It was terrible. But that was nothing compared to what just happened. We are never eloping again!" He said sarcastically.

"I can't believe we're married! I can't believe we're on our way to Scotland!" Cosette squealed with delight.

"I believe that we'll arrive in London in several hours and spend a day or two there." Eric informed his bride.

"Stay in London?" Cosette asked. "Where?"

"At a hotel, of course. I did not think that we would want to stay on the road after all this. You know how it is." He said quickly. "Besides, it'll give us a chance to change the post and throw people off. They'll be on to us before morning."

"All right. Lord, I am tired. Do you mind if I rest my head on your shoulder?" She asked. Naturally, he did not. He put his arm around her and they slept.

Meanwhile, as the happy couple went on their way, the Frazer's servants were instructed to deliver notes that where found in Cosette's room to her friends in the morning. News, however, spreads quickly in a small town community and this piece of information concerning the elopement had gotten to most of the village before the notes were delivered.

Sophia ran through the lane to Clara's home while Greta trotted behind her. They were let in by the lady herself, who was home alone while her father was away on business.

"Have you heard the news?" Sophia exclaimed excitedly as she waved the note in Clara's face.

Clara held up her own note in a dejected fashion. She did not say anything, but simply frowned.

Greta was reading through hers for the first time since Sophia had dragged her out of her home before she could.

"Eloped! I can't believe it! Is she serious?" Greta exclaimed.

"Quite, from the looks of it." Said Clara.

"What's the matter, Clara, you seemed out of sorts."

"I don't know. It just seems so odd. I mean, Cosette didn't have any romantic inclinations before and Greta and I came so close. It doesn't seem fair. Besides, she's in Scotland, where I ought to be living. I guess it reminds me of it."

"I think we ought to be happy for her despite our own misfortune." Said Greta.

"I know that. It's just not easy." Clara snapped. She willed herself to calm down and said, "I wonder what got into Charles' head, anyway. How could he simply let them marry like it was buying a new bonnet? Didn't they use some discretion?"

"We could ask. Maybe they didn't know." Said Sophia.

"Let's go now. I wonder if those two were in on it. I wonder if Harriet knows."

"I'm sure that she does. Let's go the church and see if Charles or Agnes are inside."

The girls went on their way toward the town. Greta and Sophia discussed the matter without a respite and Clara listened sullenly.

 

Chapter 20

"He was not an ill-disposed young man,
Unless to be rather cold hearted,
And rather selfish,
Is to be ill-disposed."

November blew into December, which turned out to be very cold and unusually snowy. Little news was received from Sir and Lady Newton since their midnight departure, but whatever they did send was cheerful and encouraging. Clara eventually reconciled herself to the match and learned to be quite happy for her friend. She never did receive a reply to the letter she had sent to Mr. Wood. Her personality was as such to be little used to making bold endeavors and she gave up the acquaintance before considering trying again. Greta, on the other hand, was not quite as daunted. She sent letters to Captain Ingram once a week, regularly, if not more. She employed her cousin, Mary Lynd, who lived in London, to "spy" on him and send back detailed reports. She was fortunate enough to receive several short, curt, replies from Ingram.

We must not forget Harriet Dixon and Agnes Bennett. The latter had been married two months when the couple was expecting an addition to their family circle. This, however, was not a breach in her duties as the wife of the Parson. She visited parishioners with her husband, brought relief to widows and their children, and sat in the front pew at church every Sunday. Charles and Agnes both visited their neighbors in the morning, spent the afternoon studying or rehearsing sermons, and frequented balls and dinner parties in the evenings. A gardener was hired when weeds began to sprout up faster than the clergyman or his wife could clear them out, but he was not needed when winter set in. Therefore, he was hired to take care of the two horses and the chicken coop. The Bennett's life together proved happy and free from harm save that an occasional fox would run off with a chicken and they still quarreled over minute concerns (such as parasols and nankeen boots).

Harriet Dixon's only regret was that she and Finny had not married in the spring so that she could spend time with him in the garden. Phineas was terribly busy in the winter, as the colds, flues and fevers came and must be attended to. Harriet, however, delighted in having a house of her own and had yet to grow tired of dusting, washing, and rearranging furniture (much to her husband's chagrin). She was constantly seeking out anybody from her own siblings to Sophia, Clara, and Greta to bake or invent new recipes with her. In short, the doctor never went hungry again.

As the engagement between Sophia and Captain Croft wore on, the ladies feelings began to dampen. She did not love him less, but she could not help feeling angry about the delay. She had tried to use force to hasten the marriage but the man was determined to wait till after his commission ceased. It is on this note that we find the young lovers.

John strode angrily across the room and gripped the windowsill while gazing intently outside.

"John, we would have been married by now if it hadn't been for the commission, I don't see why that should have to change." Said Sophia sternly.

"It has everything to do with it, I do not want to be just married and then have to leave right away." He replied exasperated.

"Surely you knew that you would have to sail eventually!" She chided.

"By then, I had hoped to be situated in a house. We would not be able to now. I am only thinking of your comfort." He said.

"Thinking of me? I only want to be with you! I would be perfectly comfortable to stay here with my family if it came to that."

"You couldn't stay with your family."

"Why not? I will be anyway. Maybe you should take your pride for a walk." She replied.

"We are not getting married till after my commission ceases and that is final!" John stormed out of the room, leaving Sophia very shaken. She had never argued with him before and she did not know what she ought to do. Instead of pursuing him, she laid her head on her hands and had a good cry.

As Christmas drew near, it was time for the Elton's annual trip to Bath. Sophia usually looked forward to it, but now it only reminded her of the matter at hand. John had left for London to see his relatives and Captain Ingram before he set sail. Sophia's parents had refused to get involved with the couples affairs, believing that it was the only way that they would learn to work together later on in life. The two had not parted on friendly terms, each shy of the other. After saying farewell to all of her remaining friends in Middleton, the family removed to Bath, where they planned to spend the rest of the winter. They had many acquaintances there, and felt quite as much at home as in the country. One of them was Lady Tugwell. She was a portly woman, who was not young but had not reached the age of infirmity. She had four daughters lately married and still celebrated weekly. Now that she had no more daughters to work on, she spent much of her time marrying off everybody else's. Indeed, she became quite good at it. However, Sophia was already engaged and quite safe from her. The two were good friends, and though Lady Tugwell was a trifle absurd, they got on splendidly.

"I am glad to see you in Bath again, my dear." Said the Lady. "If only one of my daughters were here to keep you company. Oh well, they are best off where they are. Do tell me about Captain Croft, I only had the opportunity to see him once or twice last winter."

Sophia sighed wearily, "John is perfectly fine, as far as I know. He's received another commission from the Admiralty. He leaves in mid-January."

"But when will you get married? You've been engaged for nearly a year!" Said Lady Tugwell.

"He wants to wait till his commission runs out." Sophia replied dejectedly.

"Oh dear, how long will that take? Oh, enough of this! You are going to be so busy that you won't have time to think about it. Come, we're going shopping!" Said Lady Tugwell, who lifted her large body from the chair. "Come, you are my personal charge this winter. I shall not let you out of my care. I know just what star-crossed lovers need." Lady Tugwell took Sophia by the arm and marched her through the flat, out the doors, and into an awaiting carriage.

"To the Avenue, James." She cried to the driver.

The days passed relatively quick, oddly enough. It was a week before Christmas. Sophia was sitting in the lobby of the Pump Room waiting for Lady Tugwell to finish a conversation she was having with an old schoolmate. A vaguely familiar man who seemed to remember her very well met her, instead.

"Well, bless my soul, if it ain't Miss Elton, at her service!" The man exclaimed as he bent to kiss her hand. "Such a pleasant surprise! I'll bet you weren't expecting to see Lieutenant Davies again. You, of course, shall call me Frederick." The young man rambled on and on. Sophia began to recognize him very slowly as the queer man who had practically demanded her hand a year ago. She recalled that there was something in his eyes and voice that she did not like.

"Excuse me, Mr. Davies-Frederick, would you be so kind as to inquire after Lady Tugwell's carriage out front?" She asked, trying to shake him off.

He bowed deeply and proceeded to go out to the walk were the carriages were waiting. Lady Tugwell entered the lobby just as he had left and Sophia informed her of the young man's appearance. The lady was not overly concerned, as she had been in London with her daughter at the time Davies had been introduced to the Mr. Elton. The man entered again to inform Sophia that the carriage was ready and then asked to be introduced to Sophia's friend. After Sophia and Lady Tugwell were in the carriage, the lady said,

"Sophia, I found him to be very pleasing! Everything that is polite and genteel, so affable, so well spoken! I do not know why you are so afraid of him. He certainly is handsome. Whatever did he do?"

"My father was mostly involved. Mr. Davies, um, got a little carried away. We had barely met above twice in or lives and he would write long, unpleasant letters. Once, he threw himself into a fit of rage. He thought that another man was trying to get my hand. Mr. Davies threatened to kill him. That's when my father decided to end the acquaintance."

"But he seems so incapable of violence." Said Lady Tugwell.

"You've only just met him. I reckon he's very different with his friends."

"That could be, my dear. How does the theatre sound tonight?" The lady said, changing the subject.

The next few days were spent at the ballrooms and the theatre. Sophia found that Mr. Davies was present everywhere he went and he seemed to follow her. Once found, he would never leave her side. He spoke jovially with her while he was often cold and sometimes openly hostile with others (bachelors, for instance). Sophia decided that the best way to shake him would be to inform him, on no uncertain terms, that she was engaged. They entered a tearoom that she had once frequented with John and used that as an opportunity.

"Oh, I remember sitting in this room with John last year!" She cried.

"John?" He asked suspiciously.

"My fiancé. We used to come here all the time to get away from my family. Being in here makes me realize how much I miss him." She feigned a tear on her cheek.

"I was not aware that you were getting married." He said with something like alarm. "How long have you known that man?"

"Oh, sometime after I met you. We sort of fell in love just like that." She snapped her finger. "I could never love anybody the way I love him."

A shadow passed over Frederick's face and he diverted his eyes from hers. A waiter brought tea on trays and Sophia drank hers quietly, hoping that the silence meant that he was trying to find an excuse for never seeing her again.

"Perhaps I can talk John into sending you an invitation to our wedding?" She suggested slyly. The gentleman stood up quickly and rigidly left the tearoom.

When Sophia came home that night, she sat down directly to write to John. Being with Frederick made her remember that though she was angry with him, she still valued him more than anything and that she was fortunate to have him no matter how long it took.

Dear John,

I am so sorry for the things I said the other day in the back parlor. I do not deny that my feelings have not changed, however, I am willing to lie that aside in order to be on good terms with you again. My apologies. I hope you are enjoying London and all her delights. Greet your brother and Myles for me. Come to Bath if you can manage it.

The last week has been quite possibly the busiest and most dreadful ever. I have been so fortunate as to run into an old friend by the name of Frederick Davies. He is the queerest man I have ever met. I do not think that he is quite sane, whenever he is with me, he looks at me like I am a piece of side meat and he hasn't eaten in weeks. I hoped to shake him off today in the tearoom where you and I used to sit last winter. He seemed quite put off and I doubt that even he will have the heart to pursue me.

I must go, you deserve a longer letter than this, but it is my unhappy fate to rarely treat others as well as they deserve. Lady Tugwell is here to collect me. Write soon

Adieu,
Sophia

Sophia, however, never did go with Lady Tugwell. No sooner had she stepped outside of the hotel, she was thrust into a closed carriage and it sped off into the night. Things happened so quickly that neither she nor the people around her had any time to register what had happened.

"Here, John, these letters just arrived for you." Said Myles as he entered the hotel room where they were both staying.

"This one is from Sophia, I-I haven't heard from her in a while." He said softly. Myles turned his head away politely. He knew all too well that men liked to conceal moments of weakness. John read threw the letter several times through and said to Myles,

"Do you recall a man by the name of Davies in the service with us ever?" he asked.

"Sure," said his friend. "Lots. It's a pretty popular name. Why?"

"Sophia says that there's a man by the name of Frederick Davies that's bothering her. It sounds familiar but I can't put a face to it. What?"

"Frederick Davies? Lieutenant Frederick Davies? The most conniving, womanizing, son-of-a-gun who ever should have walked the plank?" Asked Myles with shock. "He was relieved of his duties only a couple of months ago because of some scandal involving an admiral's daughter. I've heard people say that he's real nutter. Of course, they can't prove it."

John stood upright looking slightly dazed.

"Oh course, Davies is a really popular name, and there are as many Frederick's as there are John's and James'. It could be anyone." Myles tried to amend.

"I wouldn't be so sure, Myles, look here. She even seems to think that there's something dodgy about him." Myles read the letter and handed it back to his friend, each looked grim. John snapped a finger as if he remembered something.

"Myles! I knew he was familiar! Davies was one of the men that Mr. Elton had interviewed before me. He was a really crazy guy! He hadn't even met me and yet he threatened to kill me when he found out I might court Sophia!"

"The plot thickens!" Cried Myles jovially.

"Stop! This is serious! I wonder who the other letter is from?" John tore the sealing wax in two and read through the contents swiftly. His skin paled and he sank down into the chair. "She's gone." He whispered.

"What?" Myles asked, grabbing the letter. "The nutter got her, eh? Left a note? Elopement? This is insane, what is that guy thinking?"

John seemed to recover from the shock, so much, in fact, that his face was livid with anger. He tore the letter from Myles and stormed into his own quarters.

"I'm going to Bath directly! I'll pay for my share of the rent. You had better go to your brother's! I don't know where I am going to start. They could be anywhere. I swear I'll kill that b-as soon as I see him. If he laid one finger on her...." John ranted and raved for half an hour while he hastily threw things into a footlocker and order Myles around like a scullery maid.

"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"

"No, you'd better stay."

"How long will you be?"

"As long as it takes to find her."

"What about your commission?"

"Let it burn for all I care! The Admiralty can go to hell if they like."

"How diplomatic."

"Grab my pistol, will you."

"Don't do anything rash, Croft."

"I'll do what I have to. Good-bye, Myles, pray hard."

Captain Croft grabbed his footlocker and hoisted it up over his back and he left the room without another word. Myles listened to his friend's heavy, rapid, footsteps. He knew that everything would be all right as long as his friend was able to be angry, then he would not break. He would get Sophia back.

Captain Croft cursed under his breath; the hack could not go any farther without over turning. Bath was little more than an hour away by now but the closer he came, his anxiety increased. After he had walked out of the hotel and hired a hack, he tried to devise a plan for rescuing Sophia. He was not certain if Mr. Elton had notified the police or if he planned to go for her alone.

John attempted to sleep off the last hour, but to no avail. He merely sat up with her eyes closed. At last, the carriage pulled up to the hotel and John grabbed his footlocker, shoved it at the footman and ran up the stairs to the Elton's room.

"John!" Mrs. Elton cried from her seat. She had been weeping into a damp and ragged handkerchief. Her face was puffy and her eyes were bloodshot. "I hoped you would come, I knew that you would not desert us!"

Captain Croft knelt by her chair and tried to comfort her the best he knew how. "Caroline, go and tell your father that I've arrived. Mrs. Elton, I will do everything in my power to recover your daughter. You must try to hold yourself together. I am sure that Sophia is quite safe."

"OH! That scoundrel! If only I could get my hands on him!" She wept, "poor, poor, Sophia."

Mr. Elton entered the room ashen faced and bleary. The Captain stood up to shake his hand.

"I am relieved to see you come so swiftly, John. Come with me, we can discuss the matter in private." They passed into a small side room that was dimly lit. A bottle of brandy and several unused tumblers were placed on a card table. "Have a seat, John. Feel free to have a drink." Under the present circumstances, neither man touched the liquor.

"What are we going to do first?" Asked John.

"I've notified the authorities, that way someone is looking for the girl right now. I thought you and I should analyze the letter closely together and come up with some course of action." Said Mr. Elton.

Croft read the note that Davies had left. "It strikes me as odd that he would leave any note, especially one that clearly points out that he is guilty of the abduction. This man is off his head. He writes that they went to France, do you think this is possible?"

"I do not know, he is a lunatic. I realized that a year ago, in short, it would not surprise me if he were able to conjure such a thing. I did ask around for anybody who might have an acquaintance with him. Apparently, he was not very close friends with anybody in particular, but everyone seemed to know his name."

"What about Admiral Thorpe? Why didn't I think of it before? Davies served under him, perhaps he could give us some leads." The Captain exclaimed.

"Excellent idea! Only, the last I heard, he was in Southampton overseeing the disembarking of several ships." Mr. Elton told him. "Oh, I nearly forgot, you do not have very much time left, do you." The poor gentleman sounded quite dejected and slightly disapproving.

"I will go to Southampton tomorrow, I will write to the Admiral so hopefully he will have a bit of a warning. I'll see what information I can get out of him. Perhaps I can also apply for a postponement on my commission." Croft said firmly. "Perhaps you should take your family back home, they will find more comfort there."

"Agreed." Said Elton

The door opened and a little face poked in, "Papa, Belinda had brought up dinner."

"Coming, Lawrie."

Captain Croft wrote to the Admiral that day. He had complied with the wishes of Mrs. Elton and would accompany the family to Middleton. From there, he would travel to Southampton. The next day, they prepared to depart Bath. Mrs. Elton, however, could not, in peace of mind, leave the scene of her daughter's abduction.

"Mr. Elton, I cannot help but believe that the poor child will come back for us here. Don't you think that she might still be in Bath? We have not searched the place thoroughly!" She lamented.

"My love, it would be best to remove from the prying and gawking eyes of our neighbors here. At home, we can at least find solitude in our own quarters. Also, you will have your close friends to comfort you. The constabulary will be here to look out for the girl. There is little more we can do for her."

At last, the large family was off. Mr. and Mrs. Elton and their second and third eldest daughters filled one carriage while the Captain traveled with the youngest three. Young Percy in his lap, Lawrence and Mary tried to sleep on the seat opposite. Croft spent much of the time staring out the glass while he sank deep into reality. His heart did ache acutely, he feared for Sophia's safety and he felt guilty for what he believed to be his fault. He blamed himself for her abduction because if he had complied with her, then they would have been married now and out of harms way. Then he would not be sitting in doubt and misery. If only he had not spoken to her the way he had the last time the subject of their marriage came up. Why had he been so stubborn?

Eventually, Captain Croft grew uncomfortable and tried shifting around in his seat. The sleeping little boy gave a faint whimper of protest. Something fell from his cast off overcoat and he picked up the bottle of brandy that had been placed on the card table. Mr. Lawton must have slipped it into his pocket when he was not looking. Whether Mr. Elton gave it to the young man to keep himself from indulging or whether he thought Croft could use it, the Captain did not know. Yet, the amber liquid called to him, beckoning him to ease some of the mental and emotional anguish he was experiencing. No, he told himself. Not now, at least, maybe in Southampton. He had to keep the appearance of a stiff upper lip in front of Mrs. Elton. As long as he looked like there was still hope of things ending well, she would be at ease.

"Oh Lord," he whispered. "I am so completely helpless." He went back to staring out the window.

The next day, the Captain was back on the road from Middleton to Southampton. It had been almost six months since Myles Ingram had accompanied him to the -shire. It had not turned out as he would have planned or foreseen. However, it was not worth trying to figure out the ‘what ifs' and dwelling on what could have been. The future was before him and it was uncertain. All that he had figured out for sure was that he had a growing animosity toward all forms of conveyance. He was beginning to think that it was quite possible that he would have to ride forever all over England.

Croft counted how many days had passed since Sophia was taken. This would be day five and he would not be in Southampton till tomorrow. Six days had passed without any progress. It was almost more than he could bear.

 

© 2003 Copyright held by the author.

 

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