A Very Affectionate Brother
"Charles," cried Mary as she burst into the sitting-room of their lodgings at the White Hart. "You will never guess what has happened!"
Charles Musgrove turned over a page of his newspaper. "Your sister has new-furnished her drawing-room?" His wife had been paying a call in Camden-place; she had teased him to accompany her, but he had refused. A half-hour of flattering the old man he could stand well enough, but voluntarily subjecting himself to the cold contempt of his sister-in-law was another matter entirely. It was not as though Mary put herself out for his family.
"Do not be so tiresome. Both drawing-rooms were new-furnished when my father took the house, of course."
"Then your father has finally told Mrs. Clay that her services are no longer required and that she must go back to Somerset."
Mary frowned. "I wish he would; you know that; but no, Mrs. Clay is still in constant attendance on Elizabeth." She brooded for a moment. "Well, it has all worked out for the best. We are here in Bath with your mother, and if Mrs. Clay were to go away, we might not have been asked to stay. Now really, Charles, you will never guess my news. It is so very extraordinary!"
Charles put down the paper and looked up at his wife curiously. Her colour was high and her eyes bright with excitement; she looked very much like the vivacious girl he had courted a little more than four years previously. He smiled at her and said, "Very well. You are near to bursting with the news; pray keep me in suspense no longer."
Now that the moment of revelation was at hand, Mary clearly intended to savour it. She took off her bonnet and pelisse with deliberate care, and finally sat down in a chair opposite him. "My sister Anne is engaged to marry Captain Wentworth!"
Charles Musgrove's life was one of few surprises. Mary's piece of news served to remind him rather forcefully why he liked it that way.
Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth were engaged to be married!
His newspaper was forgotten; Mary sat watching him with the satisfied expression of a cat purring over a saucer of cream. She was happy to be the one to carry the news, and had not the least notion that it would trouble her husband in any exceptional way.
"Have you told my mother?" were the first words he could manage. "You know she will find such a piece of news very interesting."
"How could I? I have just heard it myself, and I came back directly to tell you all, but you are the only one here."
"Oh, yes; my mother and Henrietta have gone out to find ribbon for Louisa's wedding dress, or something." He had not paid much attention when they told him. He never paid attention to such female fripperies.
"I dare say they will be back soon enough. What do you think of my news?"
"It is extraordinary, indeed. I have seen no symptom of particular attachment between them; have you?"
"No, but it is not to be wondered at. Louisa is engaged to Captain Benwick; Captain Wentworth would have done very well for Henrietta, but as she is determined to have Charles Hayter, though I cannot comprehend why, then Captain Wentworth must find another wife. Why not Anne? She is the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot, after all." Mary brooded once again, chewing on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "When Anne is married, she will have precedence over me; well, I suppose that was inevitable."
"I dare say it was. What will you do when Miss Elliot marries?" Charles never dared to refer to Mary's eldest sister by her Christian name.
"I would always give Elizabeth precedence, married or not," said Mary earnestly.
"She will never have precedence at Uppercross Cottage." He smiled at her, and she laughed, still giddy with her news.
"I wonder where they will be married?" she asked, walking to her favourite station by the window, where she could watch the comings and goings from the pump-room. "I dare say here in Bath. Anne could hardly be married out of Kellynch under the circumstances. I should like to be there, Charles. Elizabeth will give a very elegant breakfast, to be sure."
"We will try to come, of course," he replied. The notion was strangely unsettling. He folded his newspaper and placed it on the table. "I am going out for some air, Mary."
"Very well," she said, absorbed by the scene outside the window.
Charles ambled down Milsom-street, taking little note of his surroundings or the hustle and bustle of the city streets. His mind was firmly in the past.
He had grown up with the Elliot girls. Elizabeth was older, and had always been superior and standoffish; Mary had seemed so much younger; Anne, though she was a year older than he, had been his favourite. He had a clear memory of repeatedly jumping his first pony over a fallen log, solely to impress Anne. He remembered her starched white muslin dress and the red ribbon that tied back her shining hair as she sat nearby in the clean grass, applauding every jump.
When Charles had reached the age of one-and-twenty, his parents, anxious to secure the inheritance of the estate, had begun to tease him about taking a wife. Charles had not given the subject any previous thought, but when he cast about for a likely young lady to whom he might make himself agreeable, the first that came to mind was Anne Elliot. Anne was always kind and friendly to him; he was fond of her; his parents liked her very much; it seemed a capital notion however one considered it.
Lady Russell had seemed to look upon the courtship with approbation. Indeed, one day Charles had called at Kellynch Lodge, knowing Anne to be there, and Lady Russell had allowed herself to be taken away by the housekeeper, leaving them alone together in the drawing-room.
Charles had hunted long enough to know that quarry, once flushed, would escape unless fired upon directly, and he did not waste the opportunity presented to him. He hastened to sit beside Anne on the sofa; he assured her of his affection, stated his expectations (though he knew she was fully aware of them; it seemed the thing to do), and made her an honourable offer of marriage. He had been proud of himself when he finished speaking; he had carried it off rather well, he thought, and waited expectantly for her acceptance.
Anne turned her mild dark eyes toward him; in the late-morning sunlight streaming through an uncurtained window, he suddenly noticed that she had lost some weight, and the pretty bloom of her skin was not as evident as in the past. "I am sensible," she said softly, "of the honour that have bestowed upon me, Mr. Musgrove. I wish I could give you the answer that you desire, but I cannot. I cannot marry you, sir. I am very sorry."
"Oh," he said stupidly, startled by her refusal, and then blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Is there something you do not like about me? Something I can change?"
"No, no," she cried, reaching out and covering his hand with her own. "I like you, Charles; I always have; you know that. I am very fond of you, as I might be fond of a brother."
He considered that for a moment. "My grandparents had an arranged marriage, you know, and they were happy enough together for some fifty years. At least we like each other; perhaps, if we were to marry, we would learn to love one another."
"Dear Charles," she said, tears in her eyes. "How I would like to think so! No; I have given my heart elsewhere. It could never be yours. I would be doing you a disservice to marry you, knowing that. You deserve so much more. I beg your pardon most sincerely." She pressed his hand once again, and then rose and ran from the room, wiping away tears.
Charles had taken his leave directly, not wishing to face any questions from Lady Russell. He went home to Uppercross and reported his failure to his parents, though he kept the details to himself.
Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were indignant that any young lady would refuse their son's offer of marriage. The affair was talked over incessantly for a fortnight, with the final determination that it must be Lady Russell's doing. The heir of Uppercross was not good enough for her; Charles was not learned and bookish enough for her; it was well-known that Lady Russell had a very high opinion of herself and of her god-daughter, Miss Anne Elliot.
Charles could have contradicted this well-meaning parental slandering of Lady Russell, and probably should have, but he was too busy licking his wounds. He was not quite convinced that Anne had refused him because she loved another man. Who could it be? There was no other eligible gentleman in the neighbourhood, and everyone knew that Anne never went to town and that she disliked Bath, where Lady Russell spent every winter. It must be him; there was something about Charles Musgrove that Anne disliked, so much that she could not marry him.
He was roused from his nostalgic reverie when he recognized two familiar figures walking a little ahead of him on the crowded pavement: Captain Wentworth, with Anne Elliot leaning on his arm. Anne turned to her fiancÚ, her head tilted up; her laughter carried back to Charles, but the side of her bonnet prevented him from seeing her face. However, Captain Wentworth's face as he gazed upon his intended bride was not obscured by his hat, and his expression was all tenderness and affection.
Anne and Captain Wentworth had acknowledged a prior acquaintance during the year six; from their vague references to that time, and their demeanour upon their first meeting at Uppercross, Charles had assumed the acquaintance slight. Watching them together, an idea occurred to him, startling in both its novelty and its wisdom: could there have been a romance all those years ago, broken then, and recently renewed?
Charles slowed his footsteps, not wishing to interrupt their tête-à-tête. They turned off toward Gay-street, and Charles made his way back toward the White Hart, lost once again in his memories.
Not long after Anne had refused Charles' offer, Miss Mary Elliot had finished her schooling. There was no great ball to introduce her into society--with Miss Elliot still unmarried, such an event would not have done--but Lady Russell was happy to escort all three Elliot sisters to the limited entertainments that the neighbourhood offered, and Charles began to see a great deal of Mary.
She was prettier than he remembered, and she had the sort of disposition that throve on a great deal of attention. Charles found himself increasingly willing to provide such attentions as the summer wore on. He would look up sometimes, and find her eyes upon him. Being a good-natured sort of fellow, he would smile and wink at her; her eyes would light up, she would laugh, and he would go and sit with her and try to make her laugh again.
In the autumn, he had declared himself. No man could have received more encouragement than Charles Musgrove, yet his first experience with the exercise had made him wary. His relief was great when his offer was accepted with alacrity. Mary gave him her hand, and offered her lips for a kiss, and the bargain was sealed satisfactorily for all parties.
The marriage state itself was pleasant enough. Charles and Mary had disagreements, to be sure, but Mary could be an affectionate wife when it suited her, and she had given him two healthy sons. He had his horses and dogs and sport, and a certain amount of autonomy as the master of Uppercross Cottage that he had never enjoyed while living under his parents' roof, even as the eldest son. Charles was satisfied with his situation in life, and never having known deeply passionate love, he did not miss it.
What must it be like? he mused, remembering Captain Wentworth's tender expression as he gazed down at Anne. To have such a love as could survive--he counted furtively on his fingers--nearly nine years of separation?
To Charles' private relief, Miss Elliot had declined an invitation to join the Musgroves' party that evening, declaring that "no one" in Bath attended the theatre. Despite her apprehension, they were put to some pains to make their way through the throngs on the pavement and in the lobby; however, they were all disposed in the box that Charles had reserved before the curtain rose.
Anne sat with Captain Wentworth, naturally. During the farce, Charles saw Captain Wentworth rise, whisper something to Anne, and slip quietly out of the box with Captain Harville. No doubt they had seen some naval connection to whom they wished to speak.
"I will return in a moment," Charles said to Mary. She nodded, her eyes intent upon the stage.
He made his way to the vacated seat next to Anne. "I understand that I am to wish you joy," he said to her softly. "Mary told us your happy news."
She smiled at him. "Thank you, Charles. I dare say it was rather a surprise to you."
"Yes," he admitted, "but a pleasant one." They sat quietly for a moment, and then Charles could contain himself no longer. "Anne, when I--when we discussed a similar subject--" He did not want to speak more plainly about his marriage proposal, especially with Henrietta glancing over her shoulder to stare at them curiously, but Anne's expression showed perfect comprehension, and he was emboldened to stumble on. "You said that you had already given your heart. Did you mean to Captain Wentworth? I know you were acquainted previously."
"Acquainted? Yes, we were acquainted," said Anne with a smile. "We were engaged for a short time in the year six."
Charles was all astonishment, and it must have shown rather comically in his expression, for Anne laughed merrily.
"It is true," she said. "I ended the engagement, and--" she grew serious again-- "I have regretted it ever since."
Charles' mind flew back to the previous autumn in Uppercross, when he and Mary had speculated in Anne's presence on whether Captain Wentworth would marry Henrietta or Louisa--indeed, they had solicited Anne's opinion on the subject--and felt a sharp stab to his conscience. "I did not know," he said lamely.
"Very few people know about it. I do not believe Mary knows, or she may have forgotten. It was a long time ago."
Charles turned over this piece of news in his mind. "You know, Anne, despite your kind assurances, I confess I have always thought that you refused my offer because there was something about me that you could not like."
"Oh, Charles," she protested. "You know how fond I am of you."
"Like a brother," he said, smiling.
"Yes," she said, returning the smile, "like a brother."
Charles looked over at Mary, who was laughing at the play, her eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the box. He turned back to smile at Anne and press her hand. "I wish you every happiness," he said, and rose as Captain Wentworth and Captain Harville returned to the box.
He took his place next to Mary, and glanced back at Anne. She was smiling at her beloved, and this time there was no bonnet to hide her expression.
There was the usual jostle for chairs outside the theatre. Captain Wentworth procured one for Anne almost immediately. They all said good-night, and the chair-men set off up the hill toward Camden-place with Captain Wentworth walking beside. Charles found stout-looking men with a sturdy chair, and gave them a little more than the requested price, so that when they saw Mrs. Musgrove's comfortable girth, they did not demur. Captain Harville helped Henrietta into a second chair, and the two chairs went off toward the White Hart with Captain Harville walking slowly behind, having refused to hire a chair for himself despite the lameness caused by his war wound.
The chair Charles had procured for Mary was caught behind a knot of others that clogged the street. For once, she did not complain about her mother-in-law having precedence. Charles knew that Mary liked to look at the other ladies' dresses, and she seemed content to wait with him, her arm linked with his.
After a moment, Charles asked her abruptly, "Mary, are you happy?"
She looked at him, her brow creased. "What do you mean?"
"Are you happy with me? With our marriage?"
Her face was a mask of astonishment. "Of course. How can you ask me such a thing?"
He began to regret that he had; and then a moment later, she asked him, "Are you happy, Charles?"
"Yes, I am." She smiled, and he added playfully, "Good thing, too, for we are rather stuck with one another."
Mary burst into laughter as the chair arrived. Charles helped her into it, and then raised her hand to his lips. She smiled at him with the same expression that she had worn during their courtship, when he would look up at odd moments and find her eyes upon him. He winked at her as he had then, and she laughed as she had then, and the chair-men exchanged knowing looks over the top of their equipage. "The White Hart," said Charles to the chair-men. They lifted and balanced the chair and moved off toward the inn with Charles walking close by Mary's side.
This story was originally published in Jane Austen's Regency World magazine.