In the summer of 1806, Anne Elliot and Commander Wentworth are thrown together.
He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly any body to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted … – Persuasion, chapter 4
Anne Elliot put on her white straw bonnet and made a bow of the blue ribbons under her chin. Summer was really here at last, and the soft warm air outside warranted a change to lighter clothes of a sprigged muslin gown with an embroidered Indian shawl. She sat in the window waiting for the familiar sight and sound of Lady Russell’s carriage and the expected visit of that lady and the curate, Mr Wentworth, who would be joining her for their customary rounds of visiting those in need. Today it was the turn of one of the elderly spinsters in the village, Dame Staples, who had succumbed to a severe bout of influenza. Privately, Anne considered that the old lady might have enjoyed better health if her cottage was not so damp, but she knew her father spent the least amount of money on repairs and improvements for his tenants. Anne and Lady Russell did what they could with the help of kind Mr Wentworth, but they all knew it was not enough.
Alone in the house, her father and sister Elizabeth were out shopping, and it was strangely quiet but for the ticking of the mantel clock striking the half hour. Lady Russell was late and Anne was beginning to wonder if she’d been forgotten when instead of seeing the familiar crested coach, she saw Mr Wentworth’s gig coming down the driveway at some considerable speed. He was alone or so it seemed, but as he drew the horses up sharply with a spray of gravel, Anne saw it was not Mr Wentworth at all. It was his brother, Commander Wentworth!
Anne’s feelings threatened to overwhelm her. On every occasion of their meeting she’d been drawn by his warmth of character, his wit and charm. Whether in church or at Winterthorpe Manor, the following ball at Kellynch or helping out at a garden party in the vicarage, Anne had been attracted to him and he to her. With their growing acquaintance, her esteem was intensifying. His brother was always a pleasant young man, but Frederick Wentworth was quite different. It was difficult to consider exactly what it was that set him apart, but he enthralled Anne. It wasn’t just a matter of his good character, and his good-looking countenance, which made him an amiable companion, but his air, coupled with his sense of confidence, exuded a certain self-belief.
She did not wait for him to be announced and set off for the door, anxious to know what had happened to her friends.
‘Captain Wentworth, this is an unexpected pleasure.’
The commander bowed. ‘Good day, Miss Elliot. I have no good news; I’m afraid, though do not be alarmed. I have been sent to convey you to Dame Staples’ cottage. Unfortunately, my brother has been called to administer last rites to an old gentleman over at the neighbouring parish of Marlcombe, and Lady Russell thought it prudent to accompany him.’
‘Oh dear, that is sad news, indeed.’
‘Lady Russell wondered if, in the circumstances, Elizabeth might accompany us.’
Anne saw, at once, the difficulty of the situation but there was no way round it. Dame Staples must be visited, she was too sick to neglect on a matter of propriety. ‘Elizabeth is not here, Captain Wentworth, but it is vital that I take Dame Staples her basket of victuals and some freshly made medicine.’
‘In that case, Miss Elliot, I hope you will allow me to accompany you.’
Anne smiled by way of assent, and he quietly obliged her to be assisted into the carriage. She was soon set on the high seat; his hands placed her there in a moment. Feeling the touch of his strong fingers, his thumbs under her rib cage, and the consequent warmth left behind, caused such a sensation inside that Anne felt completely at odds.
The gig lurched, and they were off. To cover her confusion, Anne busied herself with the basket, lifting the snowy cloth to check the contents. She saw it did not escape Commander Wentworth’s notice.
‘That’s exactly the sort of fare I miss when I’m at sea,’ he said. ‘A ship’s biscuit soon loses its novelty, especially when the weevils have their way with it, and I am apt to dream of fruit cake slabs, scones and pots of strawberry jam.’
‘Life must be so very different on board ship without the comforts of home.’
‘It’s not so bad, Miss Elliot, and a sailor soon gets used to the life. Yet, there are some things I miss more than others.’
‘What do you miss most of all, Captain Wentworth?’
‘Civilised company, Miss Anne.’ She blushed when she heard him say her name. Frederick Wentworth turned to look into her eyes and smile. Deep and dark as velvet, looking back at them made Anne’s heart beat faster. ‘I miss the company and conversation of the fairer sex.’
Anne was amused. ‘And, on which particular topics do you enjoy conversing with the ‘fairer sex’?’
‘After being on board ship for months, sometimes a year together, just listening to the softness of a woman’s voice is all the pleasure I require, Miss Elliot. Sailors are apt to be noisy and boisterous, and when I am home, there is no greater delight than in sharing a conversation where an honest exchange will not result in ridicule, and where a quiet voice can soothe with a few syllables.’
‘So, you are not exactly interested in what women have to say, Captain … but, merely how they say it.’
‘Not at all. I did not mean to offend, Miss Elliot. Indeed, I find the conversation of many intelligent ladies to be far and away of a superior nature to that of gentlemen’s discourse. My sister Sophie is a great talker on many subjects that I know would interest someone clever and thoughtful like you. I wish you could meet her, but she and her husband, Admiral Croft, are abroad, as I speak.’
The subtle praise did not escape Anne’s notice. ‘I would like to meet your sister very much, and the Admiral too.’
‘I hope, Miss Elliot, that they will return home soon to delight in the pleasure of that possibility.’
Anne considered that he was being polite, but she couldn’t help feeling pleased that he wanted to bring her to the attention of his sister. If she was a clever woman, he had meant it as a compliment and the very thought gladdened Anne’s heart.
Dame Staples was very grateful for the visit and the thoughtful presents. Under the care of such notice, she was sure to make a swift recovery. Miss Elliot loved being with Commander Wentworth in such intimate circumstances, finding her companion to be attentive and kind to the old lady, even managing to make her smile.
Watching the couple going about their business from her downstairs bed in the corner, with views onto the cheerful cottage garden, provided her with much entertainment. Her shrewd and piercing eyes missed nothing and when on one occasion the two young people’s hands accidentally brushed one another as they smoothed the counterpane, Dame Staples laughed when she saw them jump apart.
‘He’s a handsome gentleman, Miss Elliot, and you’ve grown into a very pretty young lady. Now, just see that you look after one another,’ she said as they took their leave. ‘Summer is a lovely time for a wedding. Love one another and you’ll be happy, mark my words!’
Settled in the gig once more with feelings even more disordered than on the journey there, Anne felt she had to speak. ‘I’m sorry about Dame Staples, I’m sure she did not mean the things she said. She is getting rather old and is disposed to confusion.’
Commander Wentworth shook the reins and stared ahead. ‘There is no need to apologise, Miss Elliot. I, for one, enjoyed her misapprehension.’
Anne could not find her tongue to answer and did not speak until Commander Wentworth asked her if she was attending the assembly ball on the following Friday. As the green leaves of the trees bent over their heads along the lane, she wished the drive home would last forever and though they didn’t speak again, it felt just right. As the afternoon sun filtered through the trees making a pattern of lace to dance in their eyes, each seemed to glory in the silence and the unspoken words that passed between them.
The Angel Inn in Monkford was illuminated with coloured lanterns and candles, and a central chandelier that glittered above the fine company. Wreaths of roses and swags of green foliage decked the mantle of the chimneypiece at one end, whilst a supper table set out with turkeys and hams, jellies and syllabubs, was stationed at the other. When Sir Walter, his two daughters and Lady Russell entered the rooms, Anne gasped at the beautiful sight. Looking about, she could see no sign of Commander Wentworth or his brother and it was impossible not to feel a little disappointed.
The musicians were tuning up and gentlemen were looking for partners. Charles Musgrove, the son of a local farmer, presented himself to ask Anne to dance. She hesitated, looking to the door, but it was becoming clear that the commander had changed his mind about attending. Seeing Elizabeth being ushered onto the floor by the son of a landowning family, and with the enquiring looks of Lady Russell, Anne knew she could delay no longer. Accepting Charles’s hand, they stepped out to join the dance. Mr Musgrove was a very pleasant fellow, but his conversation consisted of the usual comments about the number of couples and the state of the weather. Miss Elliot found her mind wandering, and though she tried hard to be attentive it was very difficult not to let her eyes stray to the door in hopes of seeing another.
The first dance was over at last. Anne kindly thanked Mr Musgrove before finding her father again. Mr Elliot was stationed by the mantelpiece where he could lean back and observe the company, telling all who were close enough to hear him that he’d never witnessed such an ugly rabble since he’d walked into the rookery slums of St. Giles, by mistake, on a trip to London.
They were standing opposite the entrance so that anyone who arrived could be seen, another diversion which seemed to amuse Sir Walter greatly. When the doors opened to admit Commander Wentworth and his brother Edward, Anne started, so surprised was she to see them. The room turned as one to stare at the latecomers.
Sir Walter lifted his eyeglass to peer at them and announced in a loud voice, ‘Oh, it is only the curate, what’s-his-name?’
‘It’s Mr Wentworth, Papa, and his brother, the commander,’ Anne gently replied.
‘These assemblies are becoming rather tedious, attracting the very menial orders. I remember a time when the lowest rank of person attending was at least a gentleman. With all these trades people and professions, one wonders where it will all end.’
‘Our British sailors must be commended for their bravery in these times of war,’ said Anne. ‘Without them we would perish. They give their lives that we might be free to live ours, and I would be the first to honour them.’
‘I daresay,’ answered Sir Walter, ‘but why do they have to come dancing here? They should stick to their hornpipes on board ship!’
Anne could listen no longer. Overcome by the heat and feelings of distress, she wanted to get away, aware that the stillness of the room meant that their conversation was being observed and listened to by everyone in the room. Making her way to the cool of the corridor outside, she slumped against the wall, relishing the cold sting of the rough brickwork against her back. Feeling quite mortified, she was sure he would never seek her out now. In the darkness a candle guttered, and the sounds of music starting up again, with people clapping or hollering during the country dances, came faintly from a distance.
It was with some surprise that Commander Wentworth emerged out of the shadows to come and stand at her side.
‘I heard your pretty speech on the British Navy … that was most kind, though I must ask if you have a personal interest.’
Anne felt flustered. She watched the candlelight play across his cheekbones, and dance in the hollows of his dark eyes, which sparkled like the flames. ‘I do not know what you mean, Captain.’
‘You defended our British sailors with such passion that I thought you must have a private reason for doing so.’
Looking into his eyes, she saw them crease with amusement. His face was extraordinarily handsome, and for now, she could not think of a ready answer. Anne saw him watching her, and his eyes held hers with such intensity that she wondered if he could see inside her heart and was privy to all her innermost thoughts.
He lowered his voice and dipped his head until he was whispering softly into her ear. ‘I hoped I might be the reason you spoke with such passion and compassion, Miss Elliot.’
He returned his gaze to hers, and lifting her head towards him, tilted her chin between thumb and forefinger. Anne almost stopped breathing.
Commander Wentworth looked down at the girl he admired with love in his eyes. ‘Would you do me the honour of dancing with me?’
Miss Anne Elliot of Kellynch Hall felt the happiest she’d ever been, and as she took his arm to re-enter the ballroom, she could not help feeling excited about the future.
I hope you enjoy the above – if you do and would like to read more of my writing inspired by Persuasion, there is a short story, Waiting, that I wrote for Laurel Ann Nattress’s anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It, which tells the tale of what happened at the vicarage garden party, and a novel that I loved writing with all my heart – Searching for Captain Wentworth, which tells the tale of a young woman who goes back in time to meet Jane Austen and her brother Charles and finds herself torn between love in the present and love in the past …