Mrs. Clay’s affections had overpowered her interest, and she had sacrificed, for the young man’s sake, the possibility of scheming longer for Sir Walter.
Of as little importance as Anne had ever been to Sir Walter and Elizabeth, her marriage made a difference to them. She was gone on her honeymoon, to the seaside of course, as befitted a sailor and his wife; to Plymouth, in fact, where Captain Wentworth could overlook the refitting of the Laconia on the stroll from their boarding house every morning.
Yet they rated the loss of Anne, with her obliging manners and gentle sympathy, as nothing compared to the absence of Mrs. Clay who was, they believed, at her father’s house in London, visiting her children. With both ladies gone, there was no one to keep Sir Walter and Elizabeth company at breakfast, or to accompany them to pay calls, or to be generally helpful in a thousand little ways. In the evenings their absence was felt even more, as they had no entourage to help them make an appropriate entrance into the best drawing-rooms in Bath. The Musgroves had gone home to Uppercross, Lady Russell likewise had returned home, and then there was Mr. Elliot, called away by business to London.
It was altogether a quiet and rather anxious time for the father and daughter. They were much straitened as to money, worried about the servants’ wages, and the new finery so needed to make a good appearance in those drawing-rooms. Sir Walter was concerned at not hearing from his man of business, Mr. Shepherd, though his rents were due; and Elizabeth was most concerned at not having any letter from Mrs. Clay, his daughter, though she had been gone a fortnight.
“So assiduous as she usually is in writing, when she is away!” she complained for the tenth time. “And when she knows how very cut off from every thing we must feel, with no daily companion. I do wonder why she does not write.”
“It is very bad my dear, to be sure. Mrs. Clay is the only one who knows how to do up my cravats; the servants are useless. At least, the poor articles that are all we can afford, are not equal to the task.”
“And then Mr. Elliot,” Elizabeth lamented. “Really I thought he was growing most attentive – Mrs. Clay did assure me of it, she was always so useful at interpreting those little things that may mean something, or not.”
“Well, well, we must not mope,” put in Sir Walter. “I believe it is almost the Wallises usual time – yes. A little society will be good for our spirits, Elizabeth; I know mine are rather low. Do let us call on the Colonel and the beautiful Mrs. Wallis.”
“Very well,” answered Elizabeth indifferently.
“We may hear something of Mr. Elliot,” Sir Walter reminded her. “You know Colonel Wallis is his closest friend; he may have heard from him. Do put on your blue pelisse, it is less worn than the others.”
“I will,” she said, brightening a little.
It was not a long walk to Marlborough Buildings, and on entering the handsome rooms they found themselves being greeted almost at the door by the pretty, silly Mrs. Wallis, who came hurrying to meet them. Only confined a few weeks earlier, she was generally languor itself, so that to see her off the sofa, was a surprise.
“Madam, I do not have to ask you how you do,” began Sir Walter, surveying her sparkling eyes, freshly curled hair, and pink silk gown that set off her blooming complexion. “You are the picture of health and beauty.”
They were scarcely seated on her fashionable new striped silk chairs, and Mrs. Wallis had gone through the calling for refreshments more hastily than usual, as if her mind was not on what she was doing. She faced her guests, her blue eyes dancing.
“You have some news to hear!”
“Have we? It would seem like good news, judging by your expression,” advanced Sir Walter.
“Perhaps you have heard from Mr. Elliot,” Elizabeth ventured to ask.
“You might say so,” their hostess began, but was interrupted by the entrance of her husband, the tall, handsome colonel, his brow furrowed in amusement.
“My dear! Our guests have not been here two minutes, and I’m blessed if you are not already telling them the news!” he exclaimed fondly. “No wonder it is always said in Bath, that Colonel Wallis cannot keep a secret. You tell every thing to every one!”
“Well, it is not a secret,” she protested. “Every body knows it, and it is quite a scandal, so it ought to be public knowledge.”
“But what are we to hear?” asked Elizabeth, beginning to feel vaguely worried.
The Colonel nodded indulgently at his wife, and she burst out, “Oh! It is only that Mr. Elliot, and your Mrs. Clay, are together in London, and,” she leaned forward, whispering confidentially, “she is under his protection!”
Elizabeth recoiled, and Sir Walter looked shaken.
“But can it be true?” he asked.
Colonel Wallis nodded. “Indeed it is, I am sorry to report, there is no mistake. I heard from Elliot on business this morning, and he says it as clearly as possible. It is beyond question. She is established – not in an establishment of her own, as might be more discreet, but is actually living with him, as mistress in his own house!”
“I could not have believed it!” burst out Sir Walter. “Mr. Elliot! My own heir! To bring disgrace upon our honoured name like that! It is beyond belief!”
“And Mrs. Clay,” Mrs. Wallis put in. “Was she not your great friend, Miss Elliot? How disappointed in her you must be! And there were some that said she was to marry your father.”
“Certainly not!” he said in disgust. “The daughter of my lawyer – faugh! I hope I should remember what is due to the name of Elliot better than that, and better than my heir does. I wonder what Shepherd has to say to all this. No wonder I have not heard from him. He must be too ashamed to write.”
“But there is a worse disappointment nearer, I know,” said Mrs. Wallis. “Were not you supposed to marry your cousin, Miss Elliot? To be sure, you and Mr. Elliot were a match, and now it can never take place.” She shook her head with sympathy that might or might not have been genuine.
“No,” muttered Elizabeth with difficulty, “we were not engaged.”
“Not engaged! Well, there’s for you. But perhaps I am wrong, and it was your sister Anne he wanted to marry. Well, if she could have had him, I believe he is a richer man than the one she did take.”
“Now, dearest, we do not know how things were between them, so do not be tittle-tattling,” her husband said with a fond smile. “Elliot won’t be harmed by this development; why should he not have a mistress if he likes it, and she is a saucy, plump piece – hey Sir Walter?”
Sir Walter, who had visited Mrs. Clay’s bed in the middle of any number of furtive nights, reddened. “She was never to my taste, Wallis,” he said stiffly. “A bad complexion.”
“Of course, of course. Well, Shepherd comes to Bath later this week, and we will hear the whole story from him. I wonder if he is pleased with his daughter trying for such a catch, or angry at her disgrace.”
“I can hardly wait to find out!” chortled his wife.
Want to refresh your memory with Jane’s Austen’s original work? Read Persuasion on Austen variations HERE.