Doubt: A Short Persuasion Story
Anne Wentworth wasn't worried when Miss Cordelia Manwarring became the darling of her social circle. Many of the other wives were, for Miss Manwarring was astoundingly beautiful and she enjoyed flirting, especially with older me. She relished the effect she had on them. Her compliments fell on ears unaccustomed to such attention, and they flushed with pleasure. Who could blame the men? Cordelia had what poets would call a "rose petal complexion." Her skin was pale and delicate, unmarred by freckles. Her hair was soft and flowing, a gentle chestnut river that she wore pinned loosely so that locks fell to frame her face. An errant curl always seemed to fall just so as to draw attention to her comely neck. Her eyes were a gentle green and they always seemed completely innocent, even when she whispered the most daring endearments. Those eyes were the secret to Cordelia's power. The gentlemen were drawn to her childish, naïve air. They were flattered by her compliments and her air of purity blinded them to how inappropriately she acted. If she had played the daring seductress, Cordelia would not have had half as many conquests. The ladies of Anne's neighborhood hated her.
They gossiped about her over tea. They exchanged stories of her when they met shopping. They compared their tales of woe in the ballroom. Cordelia Manwarring worked her way through the men of the neighborhood, and still, Anne Wentworth did not worry. It was true that she had grown older, and it showed in her looks. It was true that even in her youth she could never have compared to Cordelia's loveliness. However, Anne did not worry about Frederick. He had not considered her lovely when he had fallen in love with her. She still remembered the comment, although it had long since lost its sting. He had said she was so altered he would not have known her again. He had fallen in love with her anyway and, because he loved her, he now considered her beautiful. Secure in his love, she did not concern herself with silly girls who liked to feel important by charming married men.
Anne did not worry, even when Cordelia turned her attention toward Frederick. The other women fretted and clucked and offered their sympathies, but Anne's serenity was not disturbed. She refused to pay attention to rumors that Cordelia had accosted Frederick in the market. Frederick himself had told her that he had seen Miss Manwarring struggling with her packages and had offered her to escort her home. She was not concerned that Cordelia showed an undue amount of attention to Frederick at social gatherings. Most of Miss Manwarring's conversations with Frederick had taken place when Anne was present. When Frederick decided that Miss Manwarring's outrageous behavior was merely loneliness and decided that he should be the one to "adopt" her, Anne felt her first flicker of anxiety. Still, she pushed aside such thoughts because she trusted her husband. Soon Frederick was spending a remarkable amount of time with the young lady. He attended more social events than had been his wont, in order to "support" Miss Manwarring. He invited her to tea at their house. On fact, he spent so much time with her that rumors spread of the "spotless" Captain Wentworth's new mistress. The town was shocked, for Frederick Wentworth had been a paragon in the community for years. He was upheld as an example of the virtuous man to every young man in town. The women genuinely pitied Anne, although many had been jealous of her marital happiness when she first settled in the neighborhood. Her gentle, giving nature made it impossible for anyone to hold any ill will towards her.
Anne did not believe these rumors, for she knew her husband would never be unfaithful to her. His honest, upright character would not allow it. Still, self-doubts would surface, and she wondered if he wished to. It saddened her to think that he might long for someone else. She knew he loved her, that he would always love her, but she wondered if he sometimes wished for a prettier wife. Frederick Wentworth had never been skilled at reading his wife's emotions, and although twenty years had taught him much, he did not notice her grief. He noticed she was quieter of late, but she passed it off as a desire to see their son Charles who had lately started his first term at school.
One day, Anne was walking in the garden when she heard Frederick's voice and Cordelia's laughter coming from the parlor. Entering from the outside, she stood in the doorway, unnoticed for a moment. Cordelia was wearing a particularly flattering blue dress that complemented her complexion and brightened her eyes. She was laughing appreciatively at a comment Frederick had made and his face was turned towards her, glowing at her reaction. He turned at noticed her standing there, and Anne saw his eyes flick from her, in her simple gown and her freckled face, to Cordelia, overflowing with youth and flawless beauty. In that moment, Anne knew that what she had secretly feared for weeks was true. Frederick had fallen for Miss Cordelia Manwarring. Although in a frenzy of pain and grief, years of habit kept Anne composed. Frederick had been saying something that she had not attended, and Anne smiled and asked him to repeat himself. He asked how her time in the garden had been and Anne told him that it had been perfectly pleasant. She then mentioned a slight headache, refused Frederick's proffered assistance, and excused herself. She secluded herself in her room and sat numbly staring out the window. She did not know how much time passed, was unaware of anything but her anguish, when she heard familiar footsteps in the hall. Anne tried to compose herself, and soon, Frederick entered the room. "Feeling better, Anne?"
Anne tried to smile, "A little, thank you." Her weak effort did not fool him. He crossed the room and sat beside her on the window seat, drawing her into his lap. Softly he began stroking her hair, "You should have told me you were in this much pain. You know I would have come to you."
"You had a guest." Frederick's tenderness was tearing Anne's heart. How could he be this caring and this attentive when he loved another? Why did he have to make her love him so much when she no longer had him? Silently, tears began to drip down her cheeks.
"Her? Anne, you're not being sensible. How could you possibly think that I would rather spend time with that silly little peacock than be with you when you were in pain?" He kissed her hair. "When you stood in the doorway today, with the sun streaming in behind you, oh G-d were you beautiful. You know I always think you are lovely, but today I was just reminded again how amazing you are. I couldn't help comparing your elegance and grace with Cordelia's showy outfit. Poor child. She tried too hard, and ends up looking ridiculous Someday she will learn what's truly important. As I have." He dropped his voice and pulled her closer, "Oh, Anne, how did I ever end up with such a treasure? How was I lucky enough to receive a second chance?"
Overwhelmed, Anne said nothing, but settled close in his embrace as the late afternoon sun streamed in on both of them. Frederick Wentworth never learned of his wife's torment or how his unwitting words had soothed her tortured heart and Anne never doubted her husband again.