Of all the scenarios Captain Wentworth expected to play out upon his arrival, with his man of business in tow, at Mr. Elliot's elegant, West End townhouse, the very last was to find Mrs. Clay presiding over the drawing room. So taken aback was he at the sight, that the confident Captain was momentarily rendered completely dumb, a symptom only worsened by the conscious blush, obscuring any and all freckles ever attributed to the lady, that confirmed his worse suspicions. Mr. Elliot, on the other hand, seemed quite unmoved by the awkwardness of the situation, and greeted Captain Wentworth with a degree of composure that quickly restored the latter's powers of speech, outrage overcoming his shock. Looking away from his future sister's former companion, he said tersely, “Elliot, I have business to discuss with you, of a nature quite unfit for the lady's ears. Might we adjourn to your office?”
All graciousness, Mr. Elliot escorted the men into a lavish office, the condition of its interior attesting to the owner's sense of his own consequence, while showing little sign of being used on any regular basis. “To what do I owe this unexpected surprise, gentlemen? If I were engaged to a woman as fine as my cousin, Wentworth, I certainly would not be tempted to leave her unattended.”
At such provocation, the Captain's umbrage got the better of him. “What is the meaning of this, Elliot? Why is that I find Mrs. Clay here, when all reports have her attending a sick sister's children?”
A sardonic smile spread across his mien. “Surely a man of the world, such as yourself, does not require an explanation. Mrs. Clay and I have an arrangement. It is unfortunate that you came upon her here, but she shall soon be installed in her own lodgings. You need not concern yourself with her welfare.”
“I am astounded that you could undermine the hospitality shown to you at Camden Place in such a manner,” was the determined retort.
“Come now, Wentworth. Surely you do not rate the attractions of Camden Place so highly? Other than Miss Anne, there is not a member of the family deserving of such consideration. I assure you, I have rescued Mrs. Clay from a most untenable situation.”
“Do not insinuate that this is an act of gallantry. You have ruined the woman's respectability!”
“And saved us both from the indignity of Sir Walter making a most unequal marriage. But come now, Wentworth, surely this is not why you honored me with your presence this morning. I do have engagements to attend to, so you had best present your business.”
Though his indignation at the current situation was great, Mr. Elliot's words reminded the Captain of the pressing needs of a far more deserving lady, and he decided to remain focused on his purpose. “I come to represent the interests of Mrs. Smith, another lady whom you have unconscionably wronged.”
For the first time, Mr. Elliot displayed signs of chagrin. “And may I ask what business it is of yours?”
“She is the friend of my future wife, and has empowered me to act upon her behalf.”
Mr. Elliot, who had grown rather white at these words, stood from his chair and began to pace the room in agitation. He did not know that Anne was still in contact with her old school friend, whom he was well aware resided, at present, in Bath, and he began to wonder if it was not this outside force that decided his cousin against him. As he mulled over this development, anger at his current situation built. If Smith's widow had indeed turned Anne from him, than it was her fault that this other man, an interloper, now was in possession of her affections, while he was straddled with an unwanted mistress, for whom he felt little affection. While mere disinterest had prevented him from assisting Mrs. Smith in the past, he now felt a malicious desire to revenge himself upon her.
Mr. Elliot being clearly consumed by his own meditations, which were obviously not of a charitable nature, several moments passed in silence before Captain Wentworth again spoke, “Mr. Johnson, my lawyer, has advised me that if you are unwilling to act in the role of executor assigned to you, you may consign the responsibility to another party. I volunteer myself. He already has the necessary papers in order. All you need do is sign your consent and relinquish the will, as well as any accompanying documents, and you will be free from the burden. However, if you do not agree to sign and continue to refuse to act on Mrs. Smtih's behalf, she has legal recourse to remove the task from your hands. I have offered to fund the proceedings, should such an undertaking prove necessary.”
At this Mr. Elliot turned on the Captain with a look of such animosity that, had Frederick not felt an equal degree antipathy for his host, might have shaken his resolve. Instead, he rose to his feet and confronted the man, who was several inches shorter than himself.
Mr. Elliot would have liked to strike his opponent, but though he was trained in the art of fisticuffs, discretion told him that he was no match for the battle-hardened sailor. Reassuming his hauteur, though with far less composure than was his wont, he returned to his seat. Best to sign and be done with the business than subject his person to the indignity of a nasty, and certainly public, court proceeding.
“Where do I sign?”
At this, Mr. Johnson took control of the proceedings, delving into an explanation of the relevant documents with relish, blatantly relieved that the encounter had not turned violent. Captain Wentworth, on the other hand, remained standing, glaring at the heir of Kellynch with all the silent disgust he could muster. Though Mr. Elliot felt his censure, he never again met his eye until the visitors' departure, when the Captain said, “I do not look forward to having to explain Mrs. Clay's situation to your family.”
For the first time, Mr. Elliot looked somewhat ashamed of himself. He too did not savor the knowledge that Anne's opinion of him would sink so low. His feelings for her were very real, and the only emotions of the sort he had ever entertained. However, habit and breeding got the better of him, and he said with a good deal of his usual ease, “Perhaps you will not be obliged to. Bath is hotbed of gossip. The news may proceed you.”
Mr. Elliot's prediction proved accurate, though the manner in which the residents of Camden Place received the information was not through the questionable attentions of their acquaintances. Rather the deception practiced upon them began to be revealed when Mr. Shepherd arrived, while Captain Wentworth continued in London, in order to make arrangements for Anne's settlement.
“Let me congratulate you on Miss Anne's fortuitous match, Sir Walter. The marriage of a daughter to an eligible gentleman is always a cause for celebration.”
“Yes, Shepherd, and Captain Wentworth is a very well-looking man, especially for a sailor. He has not been forthcoming on the matter, but I would like you to look into a possible connection with Strafford family. Though at present unknown, if a connection can be found, I will, of course, be instrumental in making the proper introductions. The issue is rather pressing, as it would greatly raise the consequence of Anne's engagement, and I would like to verify the situation as soon as possible.”
“Of course, Sir Walter. I will see to it immediately,” said Mr. Shepherd with a smile, privately allotting the task to the bottom of his priority list. “Now, if I may presume to embark on the subject of the settlement ...”
“Yes, yes. Of course it is most inconvenient timing. Anne is to have ten thousand, but such a sum cannot possibly be parted with at present, as I have already instructed the Captain.”
“Indeed, I am very pleased to learn that you have addressed the matter, as, of course, a man of your forethought most certainly would. The question is precisely how much can be spared. The removal to Bath has certainly gone some way to improving your finances - which reminds me, by the by, to mention how very fortuitous it is that this marriage puts Kellynch back in the hands of the family, so to speak – but there is still much to be done. I fear that any sum over two thousand will be nearly impossible to raise at this time.”
“Then two thousand it will have to be, Shepherd, and the Captain will be very well pleased to get it, I am sure. He is, after all, marrying an Elliot, and whatever his connections may or may not prove to be, it is a great deal more than he could possibly have anticipated. My influence with my tenant, the Admiral, will further advance his career. At the rate the Crown bestows titles these days, I would not be surprised if Wentworth should not, one day, be made a baronet himself. Though I am no supporter of these new creations, if they must be made, they should at least go to the deserving, and you will go a long way before you see a man with Wentworth's natural bearing, of that I can assure you.”
It was at this moment that Mr. Shepherd first thought of his daughter, for it was on such occasions that he had come to depend on her talent for flattering his client. Instead, he was forced to provide the awkward assurances that he enjoyed the rare distinction of being in the presence of such a man quite often himself, before hastily returning the subject to the business at hand. Two thousand pounds was agreed upon, with that same amount to be provided every two years until Anne's settlement was paid in full. Furthermore, Shepherd volunteered to take upon himself the explanation of the arrangement to Captain Wentworth, freeing Sir Walter from the awkwardness of the business, while providing the opportunity to ingratiate himself with a potentially valuable new client.
Their business conducted, the men adjourned to the larger drawing room, where Elizabeth, Anne, and Lady Russell were situating themselves, following a tiring morning of necessary calls. All of Bath was fascinated with the upcoming marriage, and the ladies were in high demand. Mr. Shepherd was greeted with composure by Elizabeth, and far more warmth by Lady Russell and Anne, the latter of whom spoke the fatal words, “And how is your daughter, Mr. Shepherd? We hope her family is mending from its indisposition.”
Mr. Shepherd looked confused, replying, “The children were perfectly well when I departed for Bath, Miss Anne. In fact, I was just about to inquire into Penelope's whereabouts myself, as I bring letters for her from home.”
“But do you not know? Mrs. Clay departed several days ago for London, in order to attend her sister's children, who are apparently quite struck down by a bout of the measles. I am sorry to be the bearer of such distressing news, but I thought you surely would be aware of the circumstances.”
Mr. Shepherd turned quite white, and, forgetting his carefully honed deference, lowered himself into a seat without first being invited.
Lady Russell, believing him to be ill, took command of the situation by calling for a restorative. Sir Walter, affronted by this unaccustomed behavior, demanded, “What is all this, Shepherd? What ails you?”
Somewhat recollecting himself, and a bit revived by Lady Russell's administrations, Mr. Shepherd was able to respond, “Excuse me, Sir Walter, but I know not what to think. Are you certain of your information, Miss Anne? My daughter has departed for London?”
“Indeed she has,” Elizabeth intervened. “She insisted her sister's children were quite ill, and, despite of the inconvenience to us, departed for town the next morning.”
“But this is impossible,” declared the distraught father, all concern for his standing with his most important clients forgotten, “for I have no daughter in London. Sarah resides in Essex!”