Mrs. Wentworth in Portsmouth

Anne had looked forward to coming to Portsmouth with Frederick; she disliked being at Newbury Oaks when he was away, and was eager to see more of England, and then the world. She was going to Bermuda, that had never been in question, but he admitted he would prefer she stay in Somerset while the Laconia was fitting out. "Portsmouth," he said, "has its beauties, and even occasionally some elegance, but you will be more comfortable at home."

Anne had persisted, and Frederick, as she had known he would, had yielded. They found lodgings in Portsmouth, comfortable enough and in a neighborhood with other naval families, but indeed nothing like home. The initial excitement she felt upon arriving, fed by thrilling glimpses of sparkling blue harbour and the crossed yards of moored ships between the crowded buildings, gave way to a sort of disgust at the less pleasant aspects of life in a port town. Sailors, fresh off their ships and intent on spending their pay, strolled the streets like they owned them, leering at Anne even while their blowsy doxies clung to their arms. Frederick cautioned her not to go out unescorted, but Anne, secure in her status as the wife of a post-captain, did not heed his warnings until an incident that occurred while they were out walking one sunny Sunday.

Frederick encountered a naval acquaintance; they fell into an incomprehensible conversation about trim and draught and sternway, and Anne wandered away to look through a grimy window at a milliner's display. A sailor approached her, glorious in his best gear and gold hoop earring, his long queue glossy with pomade and dressed with as much care as any woman's; without preamble, he propositioned her in such coarse language that she could only stare at him in shock. Fortunately, Frederick noticed her predicament and came striding up, roaring in his quarterdeck voice, "Avast there, you lubberly rascal!"

A look of horror crossed the sailor's face, and he immediately backed away, knuckling his forehead and muttering, "Beg pardon, cap'n, I didn't know you had hoisted your ensign, sir."

Frederick stood over her, glowering at the sailor as he beat a hasty retreat. When he had disappeared into the crowd, Anne glanced up at her husband and was astonished to see that he was grinning at her. "Now do you believe me?" he asked. "To a rating six months aboard ship, an unescorted female on the streets of Portsmouth is fair game. Have a care, Anne."

"He thought I was a common doxy!" was the first thing she was able to say.

"And he does still," said Frederick. "Only now he thinks you are my doxy."

Anne stared at him, speechless with astonishment.

"He was probably drunk within a quarter hour of leaving his ship, my love. You cannot expect such a one to make out the finer gradations of dress that set off a gentlewoman." After a thoughtful pause he added, "Besides, there are some mighty fine-dressing doxies in Portsmouth."

The initial shock had worn off, and Anne could see the absurd humour of the situation, and even quiz Frederick in return. "Have you an extensive knowledge of Portsmouth doxies then, Captain?"

Frederick shouted with laughter at her sally; then he smiled at her proudly and said, "There's a brave lass." Anne knew that he disliked excessive missishness, so she returned the smile, and the incident was considered closed; but it contributed to the new strangeness of life in Portsmouth, the feeling that she walked always on sand that shifted beneath her feet.

Most of Frederick's days were spent aboard the Laconia, seeing to her refitting, and Anne felt his absence keenly. It would have been easier to part with him were it not for the obvious enjoyment that he felt at the Laconia being his once more. Anne knew it was silly to be jealous of a ship, but hearing her husband's incessant talk of this other "her," as though extolling the charms of another female, she could not help but feel a stab of envy. Certainly, she had known when she married a sailor that there might be separations, and that a significant part of him would always belong to his profession; nonetheless, her experience of marriage until then had been as Frederick's first and best object of interest and affection, and his consuming interest in the Laconia must be necessarily mortifying.

She spent as much time as she could feeding and playing with baby Neddie, but a five-month-old infant sleeps more than he is awake, and the balance of her days was taken up with the business of paying and receiving calls. The naval wives of Portsmouth had embraced Anne with warm generosity, and she was glad of their company, yet her thoughts frequently turned to Somerset.

She eagerly awaited letters from home; Mary's infrequent missives, filled with village gossip, complaints about her in-laws, and a careful catalogue of her latest indispositions, were amusing but ultimately unsatisfying. More welcome were the regular weekly letters from Sophy Croft and Lady Russell, which kept Kellynch fresh in her mind, as well as Newbury Oaks, their own home, only a few miles away. In her lowest moments, when it was raining outside and Frederick was away and Neddie was sleeping, Anne could even wish she had stayed there.

One evening, Frederick arrived at the lodgings in time for a late supper and a quarter hour of dandling his son upon his knee, solemly intoning, "Pah-pah. Say Pah-pah, Neddie," which caused the infant to shriek with laughter at "Pah-pah's" absurdity. He batted Frederick on the face with fat baby fists; far from objecting to this impertinence, which would have been a hanging offense in the Navy, the proud father said only, "He's a regular Tom Cribb, this one!" Then the nurse carried the child off to his crib, and they were alone.

Frederick crossed the room to his writing desk--even in this domestic setting, a King's officer could not forget his duty, and there was always paperwork to be done. As he passed, he lightly brushed his fingers across the back of Anne's neck, exposed as she bent over her sewing. The gentle gesture, like every time he touched her, sent shivers to her very toes.

Anne's face grew hot; a woman married for a year and a half, who had borne a child, should be well past such maidenly silliness, she told herself sternly. She tried to concentrate on her sewing, but her mind would turn to the warmth of his fingers on her skin, the place he had touched on her neck, that even now burned like fire--her needle slowed, then stopped, as she became lost in her thoughts.

She became aware of her surroundings again with a start and glanced consciously at her husband. He had abandoned his work and was watching her with a faint smile, and something in his expression that sent another shiver down her spine.

"What are you thinking of that gives you such a high colour in your cheeks?" he asked her.

Anne took refuge once again in quizzing him. "Should your attention not be confined to your dispatches and orders, sir?"

"I would rather look at you, madam."

Anne's face grew warm again. With great deliberation, Frederick rose and went to her; he tilted up her chin with one hand, and his mouth descended upon hers.

At that moment, Anne was very glad she had come to Portsmouth.