Thanks as always go to my wonderful Beta little_beloved who make sense of my rambling. Huge apologies for the delay - it was so long I couldn't remember how to upload stories! Anyhoo on with the story...
The colonel had slept but fitfully, and he greeted the dawn with a sigh of relief: At last he could rise and find some activity that might occupy his mind and drag his thoughts from the woman sleeping just three rooms away.
He had resolved the previous night to journey into Oxford to visit the coachbuilders: civility demanded that he extend an invitation to Captain Wilbraham to join him, but he knew Rafe would remain in bed for some hours to come before greeting the day, and by that time the Colonel knew his mind might have deserted him entirely. Civility be damned, he thought as he dressed, pulling on his riding boots and tying his neck cloth.
Entering the tap room, he found a sleeping groom and drowsy-looking maid cleaning up after the previous night's patrons. Rousing the groom, he ordered Scheherazade be made ready as quickly as possible. From the maid he extracted a light breakfast of bread and cheese which he ate hastily, and as he ate he dashed off two notes: one to Mrs Collins, and one to Captain Wilbraham, both explaining his destination and apologising for missing them. He could almost laugh at himself; he was acting as though the very devil was snapping at his heals.
Scheherazade, it appeared, had been reluctantly roused from a wonderful dream, for that alone must explain the tremendous bad mood she was in as they set off for Oxford. She had actually nipped at him as the groom handed over her reins, and she was rolling her eyes furiously as they left the yard. The Colonel was not about to apologise to his horse; he felt his sanity was in an already questionable state today without talking to animals, but he certainly felt contrite and promised himself that he would treat her once they reached Oxford.
As always when one's mind is occupied, the journey to Oxford passed in a blur, and the Colonel was in no time at the gate of Collins' yard. Here he enquired about the carriage and discovered that it would not be ready until Monday at the earliest. Having ascertained this, the Colonel was reluctant to return quite so early to the Red Lion, as it was not quite ten o'clock, and so he fixed upon an idea to visit his former tutor: Professor Romer-Lee.
Strolling down the High from the coachbuilder's yard, the Colonel turned on to Rose Lane and approached the imposing new building which was now the residence of his former professor. A quick inquiry at the porter's lodge of Corpus Christi had revealed that the professor had retrenched to this house upon the invitation of his great friend Dr George Williams who, as the Sherardian Professor of Botany, lived in the house opposite the botanical gardens in order to fulfil his duties as its steward.
A footman answered and invited the Colonel into the hall to wait upon the professor. It was mere moments before he heard the familiar voice give out a shout of delight and saw the now elderly man come tottering into the hallway, waving a handful of papers at him, followed by the bemused footman.
"Fitzwilliam m'boy, what a delight to see you. Come in, come in, none of this standing in the hall, dear boy. Come in!"
The Colonel stepped forward and shook the professor's hand firmly and then followed him into what he assumed was the professor's study. It was a dark room, filled past the point of reason with books and papers which teetered on every ledge and surface. Only the fireplace and two large high chairs seemed to be free of books.
"Sit, sit," the professor said, pointing to one of the chairs. "Welcome to my nest." At this, the Colonel smiled and sat down.
"How about some tea? It's not every day I get such a distinguished visitor, and that old dragon in the kitchen will just have to exceed to my demands!" Turning to the door, he shouted for the footman, who appeared momentarily and took the order for tea before disappearing once more.
At last the professor sat down, still clutching his papers which he lay haphazardly on the already over laden side table.
"How are you, sir?" asked the Colonel.
"Well, dear boy, very well. George has set me up in fine style and seems to tolerate all of this." His hands waved about the room. Again, the Colonel smiled.
"I've been following your progress and that of your brother with great interest these past…ten years, is it? Of course, I find the dispatches from the front harder to discern than the Court Circular, but I manage."
And so, the two launched into two hours of friendly reminiscence, accompanied by tea and cake from the unseen dragon in the kitchen. At last, when all avenues of conversation seemed exhausted, the Colonel asked the professor, "Sir, do you regret that you never married?"
The professor looked at him and then turned to the empty grate in the fire and paused. "What my life has lacked is someone to share the silences with… Oxford is only too full of people happy to let you hear themselves talk, but someone to sit in comfortable silence with at the end of the day… that is what I would have liked."
"Indeed, sir, that would be a wonderful thing."
The Colonel thanked the professor for his company and took his leave.
The return journey to the inn was spent mulling over the professor's words: He couldn't help thinking of the previous evening's silent walk, recalling how utterly content he had felt in Mrs Collins' company and how, despite their renewed acquaintance having only been of a short duration, he could not recall anyone else who made him feel so entirely happy.
There had been flirtations in his youth: for a time he had thought Caroline Bingley to be the star in his firmament, but her introduction to Darcy at a ball had seen him overthrown in her affections so suddenly and wholly that the Colonel resolved to be done with love and womankind in general for the all together more comprehensible business of war and soldiering.
The Colonel could not dwell on the subject of Mrs. Collins for long without seeing how ill he had behaved towards her the previous evening in never speaking a word and in running away at dawn. He deserved to be striped of his rank for such cowardly behaviour. Realizing this, he resolved to seek her out upon his return for a private audience.
Entering the inn, the Colonel found Mrs. Collins, Anne, the Wilbrahams and, to his delight, William all sat in the parlour playing games together. Dr Robertson had paid his daily visit and had allowed William to leave his sick chamber for one hour as a reward for enduring his confinement so well. The Colonel was immediately drawn to William's side and joined in the game, though his attention lay elsewhere.
Charlotte peeped up through her lashes at the Colonel, searching his face for some explanation of what had been going on. Their eyes met, and despite the furore going on about them, the Colonel saw only too plainly the hurt and confusion in Mrs. Collins' eyes, causing his heart to constrict agonisingly. Without ever saying a word, the Colonel knows that Mrs. Collins believed that it was she who has caused some offence, and for the first time in his life, the Colonel wishes his friend Captain Wilbraham and his wife anywhere but Oxfordshire.
Mrs. Collins broke away from the Colonel's eyes, sensing that an explanation would be forthcoming when the Colonel was able, and glancing at the clock above the mantelpiece, spied that William had had his hour and more.
"William, my dear, I am afraid that it is time to return to your bed chamber. You have had your hour, and unless you want us both to be told off by Dr Robertson tomorrow, you had best do as I say.
Naturally, William tried to bargain for "just another quarter hour", using every weapon in his arsenal, but begging and sweet looks were useless in this case. Mrs. Collins was intractable on the matter, saying that if she disobeyed the doctor's orders he might very well confine them both to their rooms with no visitors for a week, and then how should they like that?
The Colonel rose, offering to carry William to his room, but to his surprise, William exclaimed loudly that "No", he wanted "Captain and Mrs. Captain" to be the ones to carry him upstairs.
Charlotte knew immediately that this did not mark the overthrowing of the "Curhole" in William's affections: Charlotte suspected it would take Wellington himself to do that, but rather that like all children, William had easily marked out the most soft-hearted of grown ups whom he might bend to his will and persuade to remain in his chamber to play with him. The Captain and Mrs. Wilbraham were delighted to have such an honour conferred upon them, and turned to Charlotte for permission, which she smilingly gave. Standing to go with them, she was immediately arrested by William's cry of ,"No, Mummy, just the Captains!" All Charlotte's suspicions were confirmed in this sentence, but as it was not bedtime, she acceded to his wish.
The Captain gently lifted William from the sopha, scooping up the blankets as wel,l and led his wife, who in turn led Anne (her now constant companion) from the room, leaving Charlotte and the Colonel quite suddenly alone.
Charlotte looked down at her lap, twisting the black muslin of her dress in her hands, desperately searching the corners of her mind for some topic of conversation that might bring an end to the awkward silence that pervaded the room. She was just formulating a question about the carriage, when the Colonel coughed quietly, and as Mrs. Collins looked up, said,
"Mrs. Collins, I must apologized for my behaviour both yesterday afternoon and since. I have been so unutterably rude to you, and you have born it without complaint." Here he paused so briefly that Mrs Collins was unable to interrupt before he continued, "I treated you as though you had committed some heinous crime, when, of course, we both know it was I who… who..." Here the Colonel faltered and was unable to go on, his eyes blazing, his cheeks tinged with red. He cast his head down.
Charlotte watched him for a minute as she gathered her wits.
"Sir… Colonel Fitzwilliam..."
His eyes, now sadly dull, lifted slowly.
"Your… Your behaviour yesterday afternoon has been entirely forgiven, and if you will promise that we are still friends, I can in turn promise to forgive everything else for which you seek absolution." Charlotte could feel herself blush as she finished.
The change in the Colonel's face was instantaneous: His eyes shone once again with life and something else that Charlotte could not name, but that made her heart beat all the faster. The Colonel gave Charlotte all the reassurance in his power that they remained friends, and at once began to tell her all the news about the carriage and his visit to his old professor, leaving out just one small detail of their conversation.
The Colonel's heart seemed to have taken flight with Mrs Collin's words, and though they conversed animatedly for at least a half hour before they were interrupted by Anne Collins looking for her doll, had his life depended on it, the Colonel could not have recalled a single word that was spoken. All that his mind could conceive was that she had forgiven him
Dinner that evening was a delightful affair. Mrs Redfern had excelled herself, and the conversation, though perhaps not conducted between the finest minds in the kingdom, was so pleasurable that everyone in the party considered themselves fortunate to have enjoyed such a night.
Retiring afterward with a glass of brandy to his room, the Colonel considered his fellow diners as he sipped and changed for bed.
Captain Wilbraham was still the incorrigible boy he had met all those years ago, neither war nor marriage could dull his impish spirit, and the Colonel sincerely hoped that the Captain never met with the circumstances which could.
Mrs Wilbraham was a beautiful girl. Her kind heart could not be hidden behind any number of fashionable dresses or fripperies, and the Colonel was delighted that his friend had married such a woman. Watching the two of them play together with William and Anne this afternoon had made a charming diversion from his own cares. He could tell from their delighted expressions as they took William and Anne upstairs that they pictured themselves as parents one day soon. What fond and doting parents they would make.
Finally, his mind turned to Charlotte, "saving the best 'til last", cried an errant voice from some dark corner of his mind. In attempting to quell the thought, he had not noticed his use of her forename.
"Charlotte has forgiven me," he whispered in the darkness. He had hardly been able to keep his eyes from her all evening. The smiles she gave so freely to her children, the Wilbrahams and even Mrs Redfern, paled in comparison to those she had turned on him. The Colonel had found himself entranced by her lips; the soft full bottom lip parted company with it's thinner mate, revealing the merest sliver of the teeth behind as she listened rapt with attention to her dinner companions. When the conversation delighted her, those same lips pulled back in the fullest grin, and it was this smile that she chose to bestow upon him, always seeking out his eyes when truly amused. How his heart had filled each time, and how he longed to spend the rest of his life in company with that smile.
Laying in the comforting darkness of his room, he placed his right hand upon his chest and stared unseeingly into the night. It was plain to him now that his heart was disobeying orders and was falling hopelessly in love with a woman whom he had dismissed as plain not a week ago.
What was to be done?
AN: I had wanted Professor Romer – Lee to be a tutor at Corpus Christi, because that is where one of my uncles is a professor, but I also wanted him to live near the botanical gardens. Imagine my delight in discovering that the house on Rose lane was given to Corpus Christi in the early 19th Century, and was used by the Botany fellow Dr George Williams. I know the detail means nothing to the plot, but it amuses me.
Apologies for the unbelievably long wait between chapters. Must do better.