Will Lady Russell ever be able to have a conversation with Anne that is not painful and difficult?
Lady Russell sipped her tea but Anne merely stared at hers. Something was on Anne’s mind—something more than the family’s impending change in circumstances, something very troubling. Perhaps she should mind her own business. That was an appealing thought. But if she did not ask, she knew there was no one else who would take interest in Anne’s distraction.
“Has Elizabeth had another…ah…discussion…with you?”
Anne set her tea cup aside and walked to the window. Silhouetted in the sun light, she was the spit and image of her dear mother. Lady Elliot has been one of those rare women for whom economy and sense were things of beauty and her daughter was little different, whereas Elizabeth was her father’s daughter and made it her sworn duty to point out Anne’s insufficiency in all things.
“I can see she has. Is she complaining again of—”
“No, no, it is not that. Not exactly.” Anne ran her hand along the edge of the curtain and fingered the tassel on the silk tie. “We disagreed, but not over the usual things.”
“Then what?” Oh dear, this could be nothing but bad news. Lady Russell gripped the arms of her chair.
“Oh, it is hard to say.”
“Hard to say what you quarreled about? In that you do not know or that it is a difficult matter to talk about?”
“Oh, I do not know. In any case, am sure I was wrong.”
Lady Russell hurried to Anne. Her intuition was excellent and she was very rarely wrong. “Do not be so quick to make that judgment. Tell me what happened.”
Anne turned and leaned against the window sill. “No, I am being silly and small minded.”
“Those are two words I have never thought to describe you with and I doubt anyone but your sister and father might. Please, my dear, I cannot help you if you do not tell me.”
Anne sniffed and her gaze wandered to the ceiling.
Oh, this was bad. Anne never failed to look her I the eye unless something was heart wrenchingly wrong.
“You are familiar with Mr. Shepard’s daughter?”
Lady Russell’s face went cold. “Mrs. Clay? She is just out of her mourning, is she not?”
“She set aside her mourning gowns just a few months ago I believe.”
“And she has two small children, but that is nearly all her husband left her?” All that was common knowledge, but she had to say something to buy enough time to regain her equanimity.
“Correct. The debts he left to settle took most of what she should have had to live on, that is why she has returned to her father’s house.”
“She told you all this?”
Anne laughed, sad and a little bitter. “Lady Russell, you might be shocked at how much people tell me. I do not understand why, but on the whole, people make themselves free to unburden themselves to me as if I might somehow know the answer to their problems or be able to make a material difference. I know and have heard far more than I would have ever cared to.”
Just like her mother, dear child. Lady Elliot had always been such a repository of wisdom and solace for all those we went to her.
“So Mrs. Clay—”
“Penelope, my sister calls her, and the courtesy has been extended to me as well. She is ‘Penelope’ in our home, now.” Anne rolled her eyes.
“Oh dear, I had feared such a thing.” Lady Russell bit her knuckle and sank onto the window bench.
“Am I to gather than that you experience little fondness for Mrs. Clay?”
How to put it discretely? “I find it difficult to discern anything of value in her company.”
“Her understanding is shallow, her opinions mean, and her admiration of my…my…”
Lady Russell squeezed her eyes shut. “Father?”
“I had thought to say family.” Anne shook her head sharply.
“It is exactly what my father and sister prefer, but I find the admiration is much too much, beyond the bounds of all good taste.”
“Yes, that too.” Anne pinched her temples and screwed up her face. “I made mention of it to Elizabeth.”
Ah, of course! “And that was the point over which you quarreled?”
“Yes!” Anne threw her hands in the air. “It is the most inexplicable thing. I cannot understand. Mrs. Clay is not the kind of company I would have thought valuable to Elizabeth. The woman has nothing to recommend her and so much against her. She has no fortune, no connections—either of which I could abide, but not my sister. Forgive me, but she has no good looks, no style, her manners are barely this side of tolerable—all things that matter to Elizabeth very much.”
“And to your father as well.”
“Absolutely! It astounds me that he would permit her so much in his company when, if he met her on the streets, he would pronounce her a fright.”
“You do not like her?”
“Not at all. I suppose she is not a bad sort of woman, but we have nothing in common and see things very differently. Her only opinions are to agree with whomever is speaking. She has read nothing, absolutely nothing, no poetry, no prose. I suppose she reads a few pieces from The Lady’s Magazine and the scandal sheets, but I hardly consider those an admirable source of information.”
“Though it would contain enough information for her to follow most of your sister’s conversations.” Lady Russell laid a hand on Anne’s arm. “I am afraid I would go so far as to call her ‘not a bad sort of woman.’”
“What do you mean?”
“I have been hesitant to bring it up, but I too have concerns about Mrs. Clay’s presence in your household.”
Anne sagged back against the window frame and puffed a shallow breath. “So then it is not just me.”
“Not at all.”
“And the funny little feeling in the depths of my stomach…”
“I share with you.”
Anne dropped to her knees beside Lady Russell and clutched her hand. “Please, tell me everything, everything you have thought or felt in regards to Mrs. Clay.”
“Oh my dear, it is difficult.”
“Why? You have told me far more difficult things I am sure.”
Lady Russell winced. That pain would never go away, would it? Her advice had been sound and would have proven out had things gone the way they were most likely to have gone. “I am afraid the matter of concern to me is rather…indelicate…”
Anne’s brows knit, the thoughts whirring through her mind clear upon her face.
“Whilst I should not speak of it to you, it would be wrong of me not to speak of it at all.” Lady Russell pinched the bridge of her nose. Bad enough to speak of this with Anne, but to meet her eyes too? No. “My dear, consider Mr. Shepard.”
“What of him, other than I do not particularly like him either and find his advice rather self-serving.”
“Self-serving…that is exactly how I would describe the man.”
“You do not trust him or his motives?” Anne asked.
“He flatters far more than he advises and when he does advise, I find I am often in disagreement with his recommendations.”
Enough delicate hinting. Lady Russell swallowed hard. “Why do you suppose he might position his daughter to be your sister’s particular friend and so close to your widowed father?”
Anne gasped. “No! You do not suppose…”
“That is exactly why I said it was an indelicate thought. That is precisely what I suppose.”
“But why would father even consider…her?”
“Men are far stranger creatures than you realize, Anne. Their vanity is as pronounced as a woman’s. Perhaps Mrs. Clay’s plainness is an advantage in this situation. She garners no attention to herself, leaving it all for your father and sister. It seems to me that would be a material advantage. Not to mention her flattery and devotion to both of them could easily put her in the way of offering…let us say more to him.”
Anne pressed a hand to her chest. “More? Surely not…my father?”
“He is a man my dear and I should be surprised if he has lost the taste for baser pleasures.”
“Oh dear.” Anne rose, hands shaking.
It was a rather jarring thing to consider one’s father in such a light, poor child. “Please forgive me, I know I have caused you distress.”
“Only a little more than I had already been feeling. Lady Russell, what am I to do? I do not…I cannot…but she…what am I to do?”
Lady Russell took her arm and guided her to a chair. “I do not think this is something you can approach directly, but it must be handled with a very delicate hand. Perhaps if you make yourself more useful to your father…”
Anne’s look would have shattered glass.
“Then again, perhaps not…your sister then…no that is equally unlikely. If you were to gently begin remarking on how it looks to be seen with Mrs. Clay, to have her in the house so much?”
“Yes, that might do. Perhaps there is something to be said now for going to Bath. I can be much more in favor of it as it distances us from Mrs. Clay.”
“That is an excellent thought indeed.”