“Elizabeth,” said Lady Russell, “I wish to have some talk with you.”
There was that in her voice, that informed even Elizabeth, who was by no means perceptive, that the talk would be unpleasant.
“Oh!” said she, “surely you mean – I will send Anne. She is only scribbling and turning over some old papers. There is no harm in interrupting her. She does nothing of any consequence, I can assure you. Now that we have let Kellynch we can have no farther duties to trouble us. Do you want Anne?”
“I will see her presently,” Lady Russell replied, “but it is with you that I wish to discuss a serious subject – Mrs. Clay.”
“Mrs. Clay!” Elizabeth rose to her feet in some indignation, smoothing out her fine watered-silk skirts. “Why will people always say things about her? She, the cleverest and yet the most effacing person – and so useful to my father and myself. I warn you, Lady Russell, to take care what you say about Mrs. Clay. I will brook no unkind words about the dearest friend I have.”
Lady Russell leaned forward earnestly. “Indeed, I hope she is not that, Elizabeth. You have only known the lady a few months, if I am not mistaken. I don’t deny what you say, about her being clever; I am afraid she is altogether too clever. Her influence with your father – “
“Lady Russell, I will hear no more,” snapped Elizabeth. “My father! With his mind as clear as possible, and as unvarying in his opinions. I assure you, my father is not susceptible to even a pretty woman, and with his nice notions about position, he would never be tempted – “
At this moment, a laughter and chattering were heard in the hall, and a moment later, the selfsame Mrs. Clay entered the room, only subduing her blithe laugh on catching sight of Lady Russell. Behind her was Sir Walter, his beautifully arranged hair, and his snowy linen neckerchief, looking a little disarrayed. He appeared discomposed, and only after a moment said, “Oh! Lady Russell. I did not know you were here. I am glad Elizabeth has been entertaining you. Where is Anne?”
“She is never where she should be,” answered Elizabeth, annoyed.
“I believe she is in your library, Sir Walter, sorting your books and copying your catalogue. I made note of where she was when we passed by on the way to – the garden, you know. We were having a little walk in the garden, were we not? Nothing is more refreshing, or better for good Sir Walter’s health than a little exercise; we love taking it together, and we may as well enjoy the air, you know, as we will soon not be living in the country.”
“Mrs. Clay always thinks of the well-being of others. I am sure she has been advising me very wisely about my health,” Sir Walter said to Lady Russell. “I had an eruption that – well, it might have been unpleasant, but she knew so well what to do for it.”
“Your face is looking very clear,” said Lady Russell, taking a critical survey of his features, “I do not see a trace of any thing.”
Sir Walter cleared his throat. “It was not – that is, it was in the lower regions. But Mrs. Clay has been married, so it was not improper to consult her; and then it is all in the family, as it were, as she is almost like another sister to Elizabeth.”
“Indeed she is,” said Elizabeth, going over to Mrs. Clay and fondly passing her arm around her waist. They gazed affectionately at each other.
Lady Russell was shocked at this open preference, but found her voice. “That was what I wanted to speak to you about, Elizabeth, and I may as well speak openly. My dear Mrs. Clay, I know you will be very useful to the family in Bath, but surely Anne – Elizabeth’s own sister – deserves the preference.”
“Oh, no, Lady Russell,” Sir Walter objected, “you do not know how full of energy and capacity Mrs. Clay is, and how useful she will be in all the little business matters of settling in a new place. Anne is so languid, and would never be of any use in arranging the furniture, or helping us to cultivate the great people of the place.”
“My father is right,” nodded Elizabeth, “Anne is always off in a corner moping with her books, and she hates company. Indeed, we do not need Anne at all, she would only be a burden. Mrs. Clay will be such an addition in our society!”
Lady Russell was silent. She would not say, in Mrs. Clay’s presence, how very improper she thought it for a lawyer’s daughter, whose own marriage had not prospered, to be associating with the Elliots, or to what that association might tend.
She could only speak of Anne. “But Anne is your sister,” she said helplessly, “and so interested in every thing about your family doing well. Only think of the lists she made up for your retrenchments.”
“Yes, such a list,” said Sir Walter contemptuously. “Give up tobacco – and tea – and hair-powder – and new-lining the carriage, and velvet suits for the footmen…”
“And my own spring wardrobe,” added Elizabeth. “Only think! She wanted me to make do with my old dresses and pelisses. I almost wonder, at times, where Anne was brought up. She will be no asset in society, and never does a single useful thing I assure you.”
Light footsteps were heard, and Anne peeped around the door. In her arms was a great red book. “May I come in?” she inquired. “I have been going over these books of my father’s, and I have found a whole sheaf of unpaid tradesmen’s-bills, inside this volume of the Peerage. What would you like to do with them?”
“Oh! Anne,” said her father impatiently, “do not bother about such things. Into the fire with them.”
“There is no fire,” Elizabeth said in irritation, “she countermanded them, you know, except at night. I never heard of a younger sister doing such a thing in my life. It surpasses any thing.”
Lady Russell, distressed, looked at Anne, and saw her own distress reflected in her pale features. “I believe that was a suggestion of mine,” she said hastily. “The bills – ought not they to go to Mr. Shepherd?”
“That is a good thought,” said Mrs. Clay brightly. “If you will give them to me, Miss Anne, I will take them to my father, and Sir Walter need be bothered by them no more.”
“Dear Mrs. Clay,” sighed Sir Walter in relief, “always so helpful. No, Elizabeth and I cannot possibly do without you.”
Author’s note: I will have the happiness of being visiting in England on the day this appears on Austen Variations, but will answer any questions or comments on my return the following day!