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Never Love an Anchor

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Anne had not thought the identity of the person who was to take Kellynch Hall could make any difference to her feelings, or bear any relevance to her. Leaving Kellynch would be a painful wrench, even though she accepted it as necessary. That she would be obliged to spend some part of the year in Bath, she could not easily resign herself to. When she was walking through the streets of Bath with the glare of sun on paving stones in her eyes, she would long all the more for her favorite tree-shaded walk. She would miss the peaceful seclusion of the back sitting room where she played piano—far enough away from the rest of the house that Elizabeth and Sir Walter were not bothered by the sound.

Her father’s ungracious speeches on the subject of his would-be tenant made Anne inwardly wince because they were reflections on his vanity. He was more concerned with his furniture than with his duty as a gentleman to discharge his debts as speedily as possible. This, to Anne’s mind, was a greater embarrassment than having a navy man, out of every gentleman in England, as tenant of Kellynch Hall.

Hearing Mrs. Croft, the Admiral’s wife, described as the sister of Mr. Wentworth sent a shock down Anne’s spine. For a moment, she could hear nothing else. The rest of the conversation continued without her, the words rendered meaningless and unintelligible.

The sister of Mr. Wentworth! Was it truly she—could it be she who would soon be once again entering Anne’s home, this time under such different circumstances? Could Frances truly be the wife of this Admiral Croft?

As soon as she could, Anne slipped from the room unobserved to seek the comfort of the gardens, and the privacy to think.

Miss Frances Wentworth, the youngest of three siblings, had arrived with her brother when he was installed at Monkford as curate. She kept house for him and performed the duties that would otherwise fall to a clergyman’s wife—teaching at the little parish school, visiting the sick, bringing gifts to deserving families. “Sometimes,” she told Anne, “I wish my brother would find a replacement for me already.” But in the schoolroom at least, Anne had never seen any teacher more patient with her pupils.

Frances, married. This was a good thing, Anne told herself. It meant that Lady Russell was right. Without Anne, Frances had settled down, married, just as she ought. She was now a wealthy, respectable woman. All those plans that Frances had spun out when they lay together in this grove, Anne’s head in her lap, had been ridiculous fantasies. If Anne had not put a stop to their folly, Frances would not be where she was today. Anne would not be the person she was now.

In her mind, Anne could still see the curl of Frances’s lip as Anne tried to explain. She still remembered the painful conversation the last time they met. Anne had tried to speak to her after church one Sunday, wishing only that Frances would look kindly on her. Instead, Frances informed her in clipped tones that she had accepted a position as governess, and she would be leaving Somersetshire. Shortly.

Anne took a sharp turn away from the trees and into the shrubbery. She willed the feeling of the wind on her face and the crunch of gravel under her shoes to sweep the memories away.

It was not Mrs. Frances Croft who came to Uppercroft to return Mary’s call; it was Mrs. Sophia Croft. Anne feared that a flush would betray all her surprise and embarrassment at her mistake. Nevertheless, she was somehow able to speak to Mrs. Croft with the appearance of calmness. The resemblance between Mrs. Croft and her sister was not overwhelming, but Anne saw it. The look of keen intelligence and vigor in her smiling eyes, combined with her easy and decided manner, reminded Anne of the sister. Both the Crofts seemed to be friendly, rational, unaffected people. Anne found herself conversing easily with Mrs. Croft, her nervousness forgotten, until she heard the Admiral saying to Mary, “We are expecting a sister of Mrs. Croft's to come here soon.”

When Mary returned from dinner at the Great House, little Charles was sleeping soundly, Anne sitting by his bedside with a candle and her lap full of sewing. It had taken some time to get the child comfortable, and she expected that he might wake again in the night. Mary came tripping into the room to exclaim quietly over the beautifully domestic picture of her sleeping child, kiss him upon the forehead, and having asked if he was well, and half attended to Anne’s answer, she launched into a description of the dinner. Anne picked up her sewing, took the candle off the bedside table, and steered her sister out of the room so that Mary would not wake little Charles. When they were sitting in the guest room where Anne slept, Mary could relate the evening’s happenings at length.

Mary began with a variation on the theme of Mrs. Musgrove’s lack of consideration toward her, then moved on to the subject of Miss Wentworth. She was decidedly not pretty, too weather-beaten and brown like Mrs. Croft was—though not, she supposed, unhandsome, and rather tall—and Mary would have been embarrassed to own that she had been a governess for eight years—indeed, if she were such a woman, she would not put herself forward so—but apparently it so happened that the family Miss Wentworth had worked for had gone abroad to India, and took her with them, and she was full of little stories about living there, and the Miss Musgroves, at least, had been completely taken with her.

Anne was grateful, now, that Mary was not the sort of sister to perceive Anne’s discomfort and seek to force a confidence. Once they were seated, Anne had resumed her stitching, bending her head down. She was mending a tear in little Charles’s shirt, and Mary could have no objection to that. Mary did not notice that the first mention of Miss Wentworth’s name made Anne freeze mid-stitch.

How could Anne explain, if she were asked? What would she say—that once upon a time she was in love, and the one she loved was a woman? That she had once nursed dreams of making a home and a life with her? That she had not exchanged a single letter with Frances in almost eight years—had not known her address or even that she was in India—but she thought of her every day?

“How long will you stay at Kellynch with your brother and sister?” asked Louisa, twining her arm through Frances’s. They had left Winthrop behind them and turned back toward Uppercross, Louisa and Frances forging ahead of the walking party while Anne, Mary, Charles, and Henrietta followed behind.

“I have not decided,” Frances said. “I have found such agreeable company in the neighborhood that I have been enjoying my stay too much to think seriously of going.”

Louisa smiled, as if she caught the implied compliment to herself.

“I must look about to find you a husband in the neighborhood, to convince you to stay forever,” Louisa said.

Frances managed to suppress a laugh, though no doubt Louisa could see the half-smothered smile. Not for the first time, she wondered what Louisa would say if Frances were to hint that she preferred only feminine company. Louisa seemed to hold her in the affection and esteem a girl held for an older, wiser sister. Innocent enough, but such feelings sometimes hid deeper desires.

“Are you fond of matchmaking?” Frances asked.

“I am not yet an old maid or a mama,” the girl said in offended accents, “to be constantly making matches and predicting marriages simply because some man stands up for a dance with some girl. But in this case, I have a good motive for matchmaking.”

“I promise, I did not take you for an old busybody,” Frances said.

“I can tell you one match I would have liked to meddle in if I could, and would have arranged better,” Louisa said, with the tone of someone coming back to an old annoyance. “We all wish that Charles had married Anne instead of Mary.”

In that moment, Frances was sharply aware of Anne not far behind them.

“You mean that she refused him?” Frances said, after a moment.

“Oh, yes, certainly.”

“When did this happen?”

As soon as she said the words, Frances was annoyed at herself for asking. What did it matter? What did it matter to her if Anne Elliot had turned down one offer of marriage or a hundred?

“I do not know exactly, but I believe about a year before he married Mary,” Louisa said. “I wish Anne had accepted him. I heard Mama say once that she thought it was Lady Russell’s doing that she did not.”

Lady Russell’s doing, indeed, and Anne had been all too willing to take her advice. Frances knew how easily Anne let herself be persuaded.

It was some time later that the walking path came to right angles with the fence-lined lane. From around a bend in the road, in the opposite direction to their travel, came first the sound and then the sight of the Admiral’s little gig rolling down the lane. The Admiral pulled up in front of the walkers, and he and Sophie hallooed to them cheerfully. They then kindly offered a seat to anyone who might be particularly tired, as they were going to Uppercross themselves, and it was a full mile yet. The invitation was politely declined with various murmurs.

Anne was quiet was quiet during the exchange, Frances noticed, but she was tired, though she might not admit it. Her cheeks lacked the healthy flush of exertion Frances had seen on them when the two of them walked alone together, a lifetime ago—she looked worn down, as she had sitting at her piano the other evening. Frances found herself hurrying up to the gig.

“Sophie,” she said in her sister’s ear. “Persuade Miss Elliot to ride with you. She needs the rest.”

Her sister’s eyes flickered toward Anne, she nodded, and then in the next second Sophie had raised her voice to urge Anne. Frances was grateful that Sophie’s husband was quick to join in. She watched Anne’s face until Anne had bowed to the polite urging. A sharp elbow from Sophie, and Admiral Croft got out of his seat to help Anne up.

As Anne rose, her eyes met Frances’s gaze. Frances almost wanted to look away, but did not. She did not want to be thanked. She did not want to question why it had been so important to her that Anne should take a rest, or why she wished that it had been she who took Anne’s hand and lifted her up.