"I say, Ned," Frederica exclaimed, "ain't that the prettiest girl you ever laid eyes on?"
Ned glanced across the street, then looked again, before shrugging slightly. The warmth of the day was staggering him, and he would clearly much rather be back at the vicarage drinking tea than ogling young woman in the village. It was almost hot enough to make Frederica miss skirts, but she'd gained too much when she'd traded them in for this male disguise, wool coat or no.
"They're all as one to me, Freddy," Ned said plaintively. "Which one do you mean?"
The pretty one, clearly. The one with the slender curves and the chestnut hair, who Frederica was fairly well sure could walk on grass without bending a blade. Ned had never had a proper eye for these things, so Frederica simplified: "Light green dress, dark green ribbon, middle of the bouquet."
"Ah," Ned said, and gave the situation a more considered look. "Well, you can't tell me that a commander on half-pay is setting his sights too low. She's a baronet's daughter. Old Sir Walter has that big house in the park, Kellynch Hall it's called, but might as well be Blenheim, for all he talks it up."
Frederica bumped his shoulder into his brother's just hard enough to stagger him. "What's her name, you fool?"
"See if I'll tell you now," Ned laughed. "And you, sir, are unfair. As a man of the cloth, I am bound not to strike back. From a gentleman and an officer of His Majesty's Navy, too. What deplorable morals young people have these days."
"Yes, I can see how you are without recourse," Frederica sallied, but her attention was still on the group of young woman across the street, and one in particular. Well, it wouldn't be hard to find the name, not in Somersetshire.
Ned tugged her away, but when Frederica took one last backward glance, the baronet's daughter was looking right at her.
Not a week later, Ned dragged Frederica out on visiting rounds, chiefly to other men of the cloth, mostly senior ones. "What," asked he in the privacy of a secluded lane, "is the point of having a sister who's sailed through the risk of ruination and loss of life and limb, only to come into the fair waters of heroics and promotion, if she can't be trotted out to win her poor brother acclaim."
"If your sermons be as dense as that," Frederica rejoined, "had you not better look to them to advance your prospects, not to my poor honours?" She was pleased though. There had been a time, some five years before, that Ned had come near to disowning her over giving up skirts for breeches and joining the navy. There had been invocations of their departed mother, threats of exposure, threats of damnation, and a good deal of sulking. "Yet," she added, "I'm happy to repay your hospitality. I can't put up in Portsmouth lodging houses forever."
"Ha. Not with the way you spend. But say! Ain't that the lady that so struck you on market day? Why there she is turning out of Dr Shirley's with her sister."
Indeed, walking around the bend in the lane were two young ladies, the principal of whom Frederica had since learned was Miss Anne Elliot. "Introduce us," she hissed at Ned, and slid off her horse in order to properly bow to the young ladies.
"And we were just speaking of sailing too near to ruin," Ned replied, but under his breath. He too dismounted and bowed, then replied to the elder girl's good day with one of his own. "Miss Elliot, may I have the pleasure of introducing my brother, Captain Frederick Wentworth, of his His Majesty's Navy. Frederick, this is Miss Elizabeth Elliot of Kellynch Hall, and her sister Anne."
Frederica would much rather have bowed to Anne first, but she did the duty of a proper gentleman. "Have you just been to see Dr Shirley?" she asked after an exchange of comments on the fineness of the day, and inquiries into how each did.
"As you can see," Miss Elliot said, eager to be on her way, but Miss Anne softened her by adding, "Poor Mrs. Shirley has a toothache. We thought to take her a tincture that our father holds in the highest regard."
"This is some way," said Ned. "You young ladies must be credited fine walkers."
"Indeed," Frederica agreed. "I would that we were in a gig, not ahorse, and could offer you the use of it for your return." She would certainly be delighted to sit thigh to thigh with Miss Anne.
"It is not so far, truly," Miss Anne said, and Frederica hoped it was not merely wishful thinking that she was smiling at her in particular, not just generally. Then her sister ruined it by insisting that though it was not far, they were expected back, and ought to be on their way.
"I'm glad you fancy the middle Elliot girl," Ned told him once they were again alone in the lane. "Miss Elliot would shoot the horse from under a man and not flinch at the blood, save it ruined her dress."
Frederica could just about picture that, but she didn't care to. She was already engaged imagining what Miss Anne would look like on the deck of a ship, the wind her curls free, and not incidentally smoothing her dress over her breasts. She glanced back down the lane, but the sisters were out of sight. Well. It was a small county.
"Come, brother," Ned said, and they led their horses the rest of the way.
It was midsummer's eve, and Sir Walter was enjoying standing as gentleman of highest note within thirty miles and offering a more general invitation to his fête than customary: local clergy and officers were to be included, provided they were fit to be seen in company and had tolerable manners. Elizabeth was pretending boredom, though even she could not entirely disdain the idea of new beaus with which to dance. Mary was beside herself.
Anne would not admit that what she wished for of all things was the presence of one particular face amidst the press. The quartet her father hired prevented her from hiding behind the pianoforte until she saw him, and she'd stuck to first lady Russell and then Elizabeth to keep from being asked to join any dance.
Yet there he was, at last: the dashing Captain Wentworth, with his brother, as always. He was tall and lean, his narrow jaw and broad cheekbones giving him a slightly fox-like face, offset by his curling blond hair. That hair had been longer and less well ruled when he'd lifted his hat to her in the lane, but he'd cropped it for the dance. Anne took a moment to admire the way the cut of his coat tapered in from his broad shoulders to an admirably trim waist. She could not help but admire how his stockings showed off his calves. Save perhaps during Miss Hamilton's dancing lessons, she'd never conned what Elizabeth meant by a neat ankle, but she did believe that she observed one now.
She could not help but be gratified when Captain Wentworth's gaze settled on her and he immediately started to work his way through the press towards her.
"Miss Elliot," he said, reaching her just as the reel aired its closing bars, "May I have the privilege?"
"Oh on, Captain; Anne never..." Elizabeth started, only to be contradicted as Anne curtseyed and said she'd be delighted.
Anne did not spare Elizabeth's astonishment a second glance.
The next dance was a cotillion, and Captain Wentworth begged her forgiveness in advance. "I've been at sea so long, I've missed all the new figures. My brother is no help, neither, so I fear I shall not be able to do justice to such an elegant partner."
"You do me too much credit, Captain," Anne said, feeling her face warm with gratification, "and yourself a disservice." She leaned in as much as she dared, heart pounding before they'd taken a step, and said in an conspiratorial tone, "In truth, I merely walk through many figures."
She could feel the roughness of Captain Wentworth's hand through both their gloves. Sir Walter would be appalled, but Anne thrilled at the idea of it. What would his touch be like were his hands bare? "Then we shall walk together," said he, "and if a moment of daring strikes, I shall signal a skip in advance thus." He winked broadly, and she laughed as they drew apart.
The music began.
Some weeks later found them part of a walking party near Monkford, the July sun burning away the heavy dew and stifling the air. All went slowly, but Anne and Frederick had lagged more than most, in part because Anne didn't want the walk to end, and after that because of Anne's reluctance to make her appoint with Lady Russell, who did not quite approve of Frederick. Though they kept Mr Wentworth in sight, just across the field, they had as complete a privacy in conversation as any decently courting couple could hope.
Frederick was in the middle of telling Anne how much he admired her, his usual pastime in such situations. Today, however, his voice held a nervous tone, not at all the in keeping with the bold commander she had come to know.
"Is something troubling you, Captain?" she asked, when Frederick had had done with skirting outright stating that he thought her the prettiest girl in Somersetshire.
He paused to examine a late briar rose, twisting it between his fingers before letting it be and turning back to Anne. "Already you know me so well," he said. "I truly have not met a woman of such discernment. Sometimes I almost believe that you,"—here another pause—"but no. How can you know?"
Anne was not a great reader of novels, but such a halting near-confession had her imagining all manner of family ghosts and prematurely deceased fiancées. Whatever could lie so heavily in Frederick's thoughts? She couldn't imagine a crime, but perhaps a family history of some illness? "I am sure that nothing you could have done would change my feelings for you," said she. "You do not have to speak of it, my dear captain,"
"I believe that I do," he replied. "I believe that you know that whatever you may feel, my heart is now engaged in such a way that I can only hope...." He had to take a breath. "If I am to have hope, it must be that when you know my secret, that you will retain the feelings you have so far expressed."
Had such clarity of feeling been expressed without qualification, Anne would have leapt to embrace him, and decent courtship could hang, but now she felt her heart in her throat, beating like a sparrow's wings, joy and trepidation so mixed as to make her dizzy. She could find no words, but waited, and hoped her expression conveyed her keen attention.
"Dash it all," Frederick murmured, then took a sharp breath before saying, "I was born, and remain to my family, not Frederick Wentworth but Frederica. I have for the past six years maintained the guise of a man in order to serve in His Majesty's Navy, but in truth I am as much a woman as you yourself. I would that I could offer proof without immodesty, but my brother will vouchsafe what I have said. He and my sister are the only living souls who know my true identity, and now you."
"You,"—Anne wet her lips—"you astonish me, sir." Yet that was not right, was it? The sun seemed to glare down on her with thrice the heat of a moment before, yet at the same time she felt a shiver running through her. "Madam," she corrected. "Oh dear, I think—" She put a hand to her brow, and it felt as cold as her hands, colder even, and damp with perspiration. "I think I feel faint."
"Anne!" Frederick—no Frederica—exclaimed, and took her elbow in order go guide her to the grassy verge. Anne was aware that Frederica was waving at her brother, and then muttering something under her breath before kneeling in the mud next to Anne, quite ruining the knees of her fine pearl-grey trousers. "Anne, I am sorry. I should,"—she bit her lip, a lip plumper than most man's Anne now noticed—"I ought not to have spoken so."
"This is a cruel jest," Anne said, weekly, "to so engage my affections, and then reveal that you felt... you felt only what? A sisterly affection? That you do not... that your heart is not..." She would have wept, but she felt too faint. She thought she had felt for Frederick what she had felt only for Miss Hamilton and never for a man. "I had thought you a gentleman," she concluded bitterly, and then blushed at her double meaning. The initial shock having passed, she at least felt stronger now, even if her mind was speeding as if sent from Marathon to Athens.
Frederica reached out—as though to take Anne's hands—and then withdrew. "I swear that my heart is true to you," she said warmly. "I have concealed my true sex from you as from all the world, but this past month I have been courting you in earnest. I am as Diana and her maidens." She hesitated, then asked, "Or perhaps you have heard of the ancient poetess Sappho who loved maiden and gallant alike? Wait, are you certain you ought to stand so soon?"
Anne was holding a tree branch in order to rise, but she did feel steady on her feet. She realised that they were almost back in Monkford, and that if she rounded the next corner, Lady Russell would be waiting. Frederica must have waited so long so that if Anne wished to flee her company, it would be but a short step on. A thousand and one questions whirled inside her head along with an examination of every moment spent in Captain Wentworth's company, but she could no more speak than she could come to a conclusion. "I would walk alone this last little way," she said at last.
Frederica nodded miserably, still kneeling at Anne's feet. "I understand," she said.
As angry and confused as Anne's heart felt, she found it was not a heart to leave Frederica thus. Before she turned away, she said, "I need time to consider what you have told me, Captain. Do not necessarily see this as an ending."
"Thank you, Miss Anne," Frederica said, and that was all. She had not risen by the time Anne left her sight.
There were not many times that Frederica Wentworth had cursed herself as a fool—one notable occasion had involved a wounded captain, a change in wind, and a Spanish privateer—but she was surely making up for it for it this past week.
"You ought not to have told her," Ned commented, without much sympathy. "What if she tells her father? Man's the worst gossip in the duchy."
Frederica considered wailing that he didn't understand, but managed to stop herself. He didn't understand though! When had Ned ever felt as deeply as she?
"I could no longer lie to her," she replied instead. "Would you have me engage in an understanding, and only tell my wife who I am on consummation?"
"It's certainly an idea," Ned said contemplatively. "Granting how little they teach girls about such things, would one know the difference?"
No, the man had no respect for heartbreak, and so Frederica rode to the cliffs near Lyme, where she sat on the sea edge and thought and rethought every word that had ever passed between Anne and herself, and tried to forget the paleness of Anne's face and how nearly she had fainted.
Frederica missed the sea. She'd been applying to the Admiralty for a vessel these past two months, but there were too many commanders and not enough sloops to go around. The Lord only knew how long she'd be ashore. How much longer would it seem if Anne never spoke to her again? She'd take the king's shilling if that were the case, purely to escape England.
Dark thoughts thus occupying her, Frederica didn't return to Monkford until well after dark, and only a rising moon saved from sleeping in a hedge.
It was almost ten by the time she'd settled her horse, and Ned had turned in. He had, however, left a letter on Frederica's pillow, which was directed to "Captain Wentworth" in a feminine hand that Frederica had not seen before and at once knew instantly.
She set her candle down and took a breath to keep her hands from shaking. The last thing she wished to do was to tear so precious a page.
There was no salutation, only a dozen lines of verse and a postscript.
Blest as th' immortal Gods is he,
The Youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile.
'Twas this deprived my Soul of Rest,
And raised such Tumults in my Breast;
For while I gaz'd, in Transport tost,
My Breath was gone, my Voice was lost:
My Bosom glowed; the subtle Flame
Ran quick through all my vital Frame;
O'er my dim Eyes a Darkness hung;
My Ears with hollow Murmurs rung.
In dewy Damps my Limbs were chil'd;
My Blood with gentle Horrors thrill'd;
My feeble Pulse forgot to play;
I fainted, sunk, and dy'd away.
As you can see, I have read the poetess of whom you spoke. If you call on Tuesday before eleven, my father will be home.
Frederica read the poem three times and laughed so loudly that Ned got up to see what was the matter.
"Your father does not approve," Frederica commented. It was not half an hour after her interview with Sir Walter, and they were taking a turn in the garden.
"He did not deny us," Anne replied, but her tone was pensive. She'd broken a switch off the willow hedge and was cutting the air briskly enough to whistle. "I would have his blessing though," she added, sighing. "Lady Russell's as well."
That was the first Frederica had heard of Lady Russell not approving, but she supposed it followed. For all her luck off San Domingo, Captain Wentworth had not yet made his fortune. She did not even have a command, and the prize money she'd come home with had largely been spent. "What matters that?" she asked suddenly, to spite her misgivings. "It shall be a longer engagement, is all. A year or two. Time to win a few battles and take a few prizes. My luck will hold, and I'll have fortune enough to last the peace, if it ever comes."
Anne hesitated for a moment longer than Frederica would have liked before she turned and took her hands. "Yes," she said, and she did seem glad, for all her doubts. "Yes, I'm sure you are right."
She was so delicate, so slender in Frederica's arms, and Frederica would have traded the whole fleet for permission to kiss her just then. They were in sight of the house, still, and Sir Walter already had enough reservations about his daughter marrying a sailor. She contented herself with drawing Anne's joined hands to her lips and kissing first one and then the other through her gloves. Oh, what it would feel like when she could peel away those gloves.
Anne let her hands be kissed once more before she drew away. "When shall we meet again?" she asked. "Don't say this evening, for I am to dine with Lady Russell. I must tell her of our engagement."
"And I must tell my brother," Frederica agreed. "Let it be tomorrow then, in town, bring Miss Elliot, if you must."
A woman who knew Anne less well would have missed the way her lip twitched down at that suggestion, but she nodded, and agreed easily enough. They would have to go through Lady Russell and the Elliots for now, and there was nothing to be done about their disapproval.
"Oh, Anne," she whispered, "we'll be so happy together. You'll see. All we must do is stand firm." If Frederica could face down a French three-decker and hold her gun crew firm, if she could face down her brother and his threats of disavowal and disgrace of six years ago, a few lesser lords in Somersetshire would come to no account.
"Yes," Anne said. "Yes, I think we will."
Yet when Frederica looked into her eyes, she saw doubt still, and her heart filled with dread.