That evening, following an awkward departure from Mr. Shepherd, who, upon Anne's advice, driectly followed his daughter to London in hopes of tracing her whereabouts, the Elliots gathered around their dinning table, accompanied by only a rather smug Lady Russell. After the blow to her understanding delivered by knowledge of Mr. Elliot's perfidy, the correctness of her instincts regarding Mrs. Clay provided an understandable source of gratification, especially as the threat Elizabeth's companion posed to Sir Walter proved unfounded. “I never was able to trust that woman,” she confided to Elizabeth. “In the future, I hope you will choose friends from more acceptable quarters.”
Elizabeth, properly indignant at the disgrace attendant upon Mrs. Clay's defection, nevertheless resented the implications of Lady Russell's speech. “That's all very well, ma'am, and I happily acknowledge that I was misled regarding Mrs. Clay's character, but such censure coming from the lady who encourages my sister's visits to Westgate Buildings is rather questionable indeed.”
“Mrs. Smith's circumstances are not of her own construction, and I have great hope that Captain Wentworth will return with news of her improving fortunes. Poverty is not a reflection of character, and it is precisely Mrs. Clay's character that has always been subject to question,” retorted Anne, though how much of this sentiment was heeded by Elizabeth, consumed as she was with her own displeasure, and, furthermore, in the habit of dismissing her sister's comments, is highly questionable. Sir Walter, it is certain, heard not a word, as made evident by his contribution to the conversation.
“If one thing is certain, it is the lesson to be derived from this shocking episode. A clear countenance is a sure reflection of a proper mind. Blemishes, such as freckles, should be held as a warning of deeper impurity,” he said with great satisfaction, eying his own remarkable features in a large mirror, conveniently hung directly across from his seat. “I must say it bodes well for your captain, Anne. Lady Dalrymple continues to remark on his very favorable aspect, but of course we Elliots have always been known for our impeccable taste. When do you expect his return? It would be convenient if he could join us for the concert this week. Since Mr. Elliot's departure, our party includes far too many women. It is unfortunate that Colonel Wallis feels unable to leave his wife at such a time, but such devotion is to be expected when one is married to a beautiful wife. Perhaps she will be well enough to attend your wedding ceremony, Anne?”
“Have you thought to invite the Crofts, Father? I think they would make a most welcome addition to our group.”
“My tenant, the Admiral? I had not thought of it, but yes, I suppose, under the circumstances, it would be appropriate to extend an invitation. I shall consult Lady Dalrymple. Unfortunately, their attendance will not alter our male to female ratio.”
“I do so enjoy Mrs. Croft's company, Sir Walter,” said Lady Russell. “Such a practical, good natured lady is not what one often meets. I shall be very pleased to spend the evening in her company.”
“I fear the concern must be that the Crofts are already engaged,” said Anne. “They have such a wide acquaintance here in Bath.”
“I am sure the honor of our invitation will supersede all others, Anne. It is not often that the Admiral has the opportunity to be seen in public with such exalted personages as our cousins, the Dalrymples.”
“We shall see, Father. I am sure, regardless of their current plans, that they will appreciate the overture.”
“Of course they will, Anne!” exclaimed an exasperated Elizabeth. “Will you not allow that my Father knows the ways of the world far better than you? The Crofts will be delighted to join us, I am sure.”
Anne exchanged a skeptical look with Lady Russell, but said no more.
It was not a cheerful party that adjourned to the drawing room while Sir Walter enjoyed his after dinner drink. Elizabeth, neither of the other ladies' preferred companion in the best of times, was very nearly surly in her behavior on this evening. A knock on the door was a welcome distraction from the stilted conversation Lady Russell was taking extraordinary pains to maintain, and it was with great excitement, much surprise, and a good deal of relief that Anne heard Captain Wentworth announced. She stepped forward to greet him with a girlishly enthusiastic step, quite unlike her usual, sedate self, but was quickly checked by the disturbed look in his eyes. He bade the company hello with all due propriety, but his manner was distracted and lacking in the rigid formality he typically adopted when interacting with people for whom he harbored mixed emotions, into which category both Lady Russell and Elizabeth fell. As soon as the formalities were complete, Anne ushered him into a private corner of the room and asked with urgency, “What has happened Frederick? Was Mr. Elliot unwilling to cooperate?”
“No, Anne. You may rest assured that my mission was successful. I am now empowered to act upon Mrs. Smith's behalf and have already begun inquiries into the reclamation of her property.”
Anne felt somewhat appeased at this information, but she could not be easy when a weighty matter so clearly weighed upon the Captain. “Then what is it that troubles you? You have not been summoned to duty, have you.”
Frederick managed a small chuckle at this, “No, my dear Anne, you will not see me wear such a troubled expression when mobilized by my superiors, even if such an event should happen so close to our nuptials. Nothing would please me more than to return to sea, assuming you will stay by my side.”
“I have told you I will.”
He smiled, “Then we have nothing to fear from the Admiralty.”
“But clearly something is amiss. Will you not confide in me?”
“I rather think I ought to speak with your father first. It is a matter of some delicacy.”
“Come now, Frederick. You know as well as I that, when matters of delicacy are at hand, my father's counsel will prove thoroughly ineffectual. You had much better rely on me, or Lady Russell, if you will trust her.”
“I do believe what you say, but on this particular matter, I think propriety can only be served by my speaking with Sir Walter before relaying my shocking tale into ladies' ears.”
Anne turned pale. “Shocking? Oh, Frederick, what on Earth could have happened? If you feel so strongly that my father must be the first informed, it must be horrible indeed. I have no doubt whom it concerns. My cousin's behavior can never be … ” she paused mid sentence, her skin loosing even more of its color. “Mrs. Clay!” she declared, looking to Frederick for confirmation. His abashed countenance confirmed her suspicion, and she said no more. They sat in silence, each contemplating how this revelation would be born by the remaining inhabitants of Camden Place, and each watching the clock in hopes of Sir Walter's speedy arrival.
They did not have to wait long. Sound of a visitor hastened Sir Walter appearance in the drawing room, and pleased he was to discover Captain Wentworth, though his obviously travel worn condition caused something of a jolt to the fastidious man's sensibilities.
“Captain Wentworth! You haven't just returned to Bath? Well, I have heard of the impetuosity of lovers, but never before did I imagine to see such evidence of it in my very own drawing room!”
“Sir Walter, I came directly to Camden Place from London. Forgive my appearance, but I have a matter of some delicacy to discuss with you. Might we adjourn to a more private location?”
“By all means, Wentworth! I have just been enjoying a spectacular brandy, quite old and rare. Will you join me in a glass?”
“That would be most welcome, Sir Walter. Thank you.”
The gentleman departed, and Lady Russell looked to her goddaughter with concern. “Anne, is something amiss?”
“I am afraid so, Lady Russell. It appears we are to learn of Mrs. Clay's whereabouts much sooner than expected.”
“Whatever could the Captain know of Penelope?” exclaimed Elizabeth. “He saw her in town, I suppose?”
“I believe so,” replied Anne, tentatively. “We shall have to wait for the full story in order to understand the matter, but I fear her situation is far worse than what we had expected.”
“Oh, Anne!” exclaimed Lady Russell. “She has not done anything completely untoward, I hope?”
Even Elizabeth showed signs of great discomposure, and Anne wondered if her purpose in providing such hints, intended to brace her companions for the revelation, was not mistaken. “I do not know the details, only what I have surmised. For the moment, we must be patient.”
All three ladies settled down to their needlework, though not one set a single stitch.
Captain Wentworth anticipated Sir Walter's reaction – that it would be less concerned with Mrs. Clay, the lady whom he had interacted with daily for the better part of a year, and who had formed a member of his household, than with the disrespect Mr. Elliot's actions displayed towards himself. Mrs. Clay had formed her own fate, and he happily relegated the lady to it, but that his heir, whom he had openly accepted after long estrangement, and after having so publicly, once again, taken him by the hand - even introducing him to the Dalrymples! - should deliver such a blow to his consequence was unforgivable. The man raged quite openly, and while his tirade only confirmed Captain Wentworth's perspective on his vanity, he felt more sympathy for his future father-in-law at this moment than he had ever done so in the past, even taking it upon himself to refill the older man's glass when he finally collapsed in his chair, such an unaccustomed display of emotion having drained him of energy.
“Thank you, Wentworth. I do now understand your haste in making an appearance here this evening. But what is to be done? He will parade her quite openly in London, and soon all of our acquaintances will know of the ill-use we have suffered at both of their hands. There is no way to stem the tide of gossip, is there?”
“I am afraid that I do not know of one, Sir Walter. The best that can be done is for you to display a face of unconcern to the world.”
“True. I am Sir Walter Elliot, and what such disreputable relations do cannot diminish my position. Nevertheless, it is a blow, and I feel it, I do assure you, as will Elizabeth. But we will hold our heads high, as we Elliots always have. I will consult with Lady Dalrymple tomorrow. She will know how to proceed.”
“We must tell the ladies, Sir Walter. It will not due for them to learn of these events from an outside source.”
“Yes, yes, you are right,” agreed the weary baronet, showing his age far more than usual. “I do appreciate the service you have rendered, Wentworth. You are a most welcome addition to the family, and I must say that the timing of your wedding could not be better, as it will give the gossips something else to think of.”
This was as high praise as the Captain had ever expected to hear from Sir Walter, and while he could not help but censure the man's principals, it was an understandable source of satsfaction to be sincerely embraced by his beloved Anne's father.
After making some adjustments to his appearance and steadying himself to putting the best front on the situation he could, Sir Walter led Captain Wentworth back to the drawing room, where three blatantly uneasy ladies rose expectantly at their entrance. Elizabeth came forward, “What has happened, Father? Anne believes the Captain has learned of Mrs. Clay's location.”
“Yes, indeed he has, my dear. Do sit down. I have some unpleasant news to share. We have been most ill-used, but we must remember who we are and not let it discompose us. The duplicity of others is not of our concern.”
“Certainly, Sir Walter,” concurred Lady Russell. “If you have been mistaken in Mrs. Clay's character, the fault lies entirely with she who worked so hard to insinuate herself into your good graces. Do not let it trouble you a moment longer.”
“I am afraid this goes beyond Mrs. Clay,” replied Sir Walter. “Wentworth, will you tell your tale?”
The Captain nodded his head and proceeded bluntly, in much the same manner that he delivered reports to his commanders when at war, “While in London I called upon Mr. Elliot. It was in his home that I found Mrs. Clay ensconced. She is under his protection, and soon to be settled in quarters of her own, which he will provide.”
“No!” cried Elizabeth, much to the shock of the entire room. Captain Wentworth had been most unhappy in being the bearer of such tidings, but was surprised to learn that in discomposing the arrogant Elliots, he found them to be far more human than he ever had before.
“I am afraid it is true, Elizabeth. She was your friend, and you do not deserve to the recipient of such treatment, especially by one who ought to be grateful for your patronage,” consoled Sir Walter, rather missing the point.
Anne rose and went to her sister, saying quietly. “Do not give him the satisfaction of learning of your hurt, Elizabeth. He is beneath your contempt. Do not let his actions trouble you.”
These were the words with which to work upon Elizabeth Elliot, and she quickly composed herself. “Indeed,” she agreed, moving to her father's side, “they are both undeserving of our concern.”
“Very true,” agreed Lady Russell. “We will not give them another thought, though someone ought to write to Mr. Shepherd and tell him what we have learned.”
“It will be taken care of, Lady Russell. Though it leaves us in something of a predicament. Shepherd has handled my affairs for decades, and it would be a sad loss to have to replace his services with that of another.”
“As long as he renounces that dreadful daughter of his, Sir Walter, I see no reason why you cannot maintain the relationship,” was Lady Russell's retort.
“Quite true. I will write to him in the morning.”
Though Captain Wentworth had long bemoaned the Elliot pride, on this evening it was impressed upon him how useful such self-consequence could be. The family would stand together, an impenetrable wall guarding their humiliation from the eyes of the world. As he said good evening to Anne that night, he reflected aloud, “You know, though they would certainly object to the consequences to their complexions, your relatives would make excellent sailors.”
Anne was happy to smile after the tumultuous events of that night, “And what makes you say so?”
“They rise to the occasion. I may not agree with their values, but one cannot deny that your sister, in particular, displayed great strength of character this evening.”
Such words acted as a balm to Anne, so long had she been disappointed in her family. Rather than comment, she hugged his words close to her heart, and said, “Shall we visit Mrs. Smith in the morning and share our good news?”
“I shall collect you after breakfast. Look for your new laundaulette, which should have been delivered to the Croft's today.”
“Oh Frederick!” she cried in happy surprise. “There was no need for you to do that!”
“Tell your father and sister. It is a very handsome equipage, if I may say so myself, and will be sure to provide a pleasant distraction to their woes.”