Author's Note: And so we find ourselves on the last chapter. And it's a mega-chapter! I hope everyone was satisfied by the previous installment—I feel I may have rushed to the proposal, but, honestly, I just wanted them to get together already. And you knew it was coming!
I know I said my "goodbyes" in the last chapter, but I just wanted to reiterate how incredibly gratifying it has been to hear from everyone over the course of the past almost-a-year (wow, I've been writing this story for like a super long time). Whether you've been reading since September, or just rushed through it today; whether you've commented on every chapter, or haven't left a single review; the fact that you're reading my dorky little story makes me indescribably happy. I'm over-the-moon grateful for everybody's support, and have honestly had a total blast writing this thing. As the first multi-chapter piece I've ever finished, Miss de Bourgh in Bath will always have its own small niche in my affection, and I couldn't have asked for kinder, more encouraging readers. So, again, thank you all so so so much for reading, and I'm glad I was able to entertain you even a little.
I hope everyone is enjoying the summer!
Anne led Theo along her favorite path to the parsonage, which wound through the back gardens, down a grassy slope and through a quiet glade of trees. It was a rather longer path than any of the others, but Anne had always found it charmingly green and tranquil, and now, with the late afternoon sun emerging from the clouds and the rain still dripping from the leaves, she thought it perfectly lovely.
They walked, at first, in silence, she with her hand curled upon his arm, he stopping to help her, ever so carefully, over puddles and branches knocked down by the storm. The wet grass whipped at her skirts, and his hat was knocked askew by the wind more than once, but Anne could not bring herself to mind these little annoyances, so pleased was she, every time she glanced up into his face, and caught him gazing down at her, with such a look about his features.
Before very long, however, Theodore being Theodore, the silence was broken. "I do hope," he began, sounding oddly bashful, "that your friends will not be offended by my attire.—I had not anticipated any dinner engagements on this journey, and brought only traveling-clothes."
"I daresay they will not mind," Anne assured him. "Mrs. Collins is quite without any pretensions of grandeur, which I believe is one of the reasons my mother likes her; she is so very willing to appear impressed, even when she is not."
"Your mother," said Theo in a low voice, as though he had just been reminded of Lady Catherine's existence. "May I ask, my dear, how she responded to the news of our" (he blushed, to Anne's delight) "engagement?"
"Quite as I expected," Anne replied breezily, feeling rather giddy at the endearment. "With fury and outrage, a declaration that I shall be removed from her will, and assertions that I cannot be in my right mind—as I say, quite as I expected."
"I am sorry," Theodore responded, after a pause, and he did sound it. "I am so very sorry."
Anne stopped in the path, and turned to face him, taking both his hands in hers. "You mustn't say so," she exclaimed.
"But I am," Theodore repeated, also coming to a halt.
"You cannot regret—" she cried.
"I have no regrets," he interrupted. "How could I? But you must understand—" He paused, and took a long moment to collect his thoughts.
"There was a time," he began again, "after I had realized my—affection—for you" (Anne did not think she could ever tire of that blush) "when I was considering making a proposal. This was after our first dance together, at the Assembly Rooms, and after you had described to me your mother's firm belief that she should find you a husband while in Bath, and your confusion on the matter. Do you remember our walk together, in Victoria Park?"
It was now Anne's turn to blush, for a rush of memory had swayed her: a gentle touch of the hand, and a voice. I hope you will not take it amiss, if I tell you that I really am very glad that you have come to Bath. "I do," she admitted.
"I had meant to propose that morning, but my courage failed me," Theo went on, looking rather disgusted. "I cannot recall what I said instead."
"I can," Anne breathed, quite shocked at his admission. To think that she might have been married by now—! But, she thought, perhaps it was better this way; perhaps her loneliness had given her a certain perspective, a certain understanding of what it meant to be happy and to be loved. It sounded rather foolish to her, of course, but that did not mean it was untrue.
"I resolved, as I was leaving you, that I must absolutely make my intentions clear at the next opportunity. Then as now, dearest Anne, I was perfectly in love with you. The circumstances of your being not only a lady of exceptional grace and goodness, but a particular favorite with all my family, and, in addition, charming and clever beyond compare, had convinced me that our union could only be a source of happiness to all the world—"
"What fine rhetoric!" Anne declared, laughing. "My Theodore, I believe you are stalling."
Theo smiled. "The story, if it can be called such, is less happy from this point," he warned her. "Shall you still like to hear it?"
"I am not afraid; I know already how it ends."
"After I had made this resolution, then," Theodore continued, "I awaited my opportunity; but, to my great misfortune, Colonel Fitzwilliam's engagement to Miss Finch was announced only two days later, and shortly thereafter, your mother's feelings on that matter became quite publicly known."
Anne's stomach sank.
"In all my lovesick idealism," he went on, "I had entirely forgotten about the fact of your being Miss Anne de Bourgh of Rosings Park, and my being Theo Hart, the doctor's son. The divergence of our ranks and fortunes in that moment became clear to me, and on that basis I was obliged to conclude that the chances of my proposal being accepted were very small indeed."
They had begun walking again, Anne's hand settled firmly on Theo's arm, and she now gave his bicep a gentle squeeze.
"Furthermore, I realized that, by making a proposal to you, I would be placing you in an exceedingly difficult position. Your mother plainly disapproved of such unequal matches as that between Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Finch, and ours should be even more disparate, our social circles being separated by a much greater distance than theirs, for your family shares no acquaintance with mine. If I were to ask for your hand, then, as I had intended, I should be asking you to directly oppose your own mother's wishes—even to flaunt your opposition—and doubtless causing no end of domestic hostility between you and your mother, which I had no wish to do. That her Ladyship should disinherit you for such an act, perhaps even banish you from your home, I was quite certain, and I did not think I could bring myself to cause you such pain.
"When next we met, I noticed a certain—coolness in your manner towards me; a certain unwillingness, on your part, to meet my eyes, or to walk with me, in the way we once had; and I convinced myself that I had done you some injury of which I was unaware. I wondered if you had perhaps noticed my preference for you, and, out of deference to your mother, were determined to refuse any future advances. I did as I thought you wished me to do, and I left you in peace, though, as you later discovered, I was not satisfied." He paused, swallowed. "It was at this time, I believe, that Miss Cates first caught my attention."
Anne gazed at him. "That, then," she said, quietly, after a long pause, "is why you became so strange—why you no longer spoke to me."
"Do you deny, then, that your manner also changed?" He did not sound angry; merely curious.
"Not at all," Anne admitted at length. "As you, in love with me, had convinced yourself that I should refuse you, so I, in love with you, had convinced myself that you should never want me."
"Never want you! My love, that is quite impossible."
"It did not seem so," Anne objected, blushing. "I have never thought myself handsome, or charming, or particularly attractive in any way; and I was quite aware" (she raised her voice somewhat, for Theo looked very much as if he wished to interrupt) "that Miss Cates possessed all of those qualities, in addition to many fine accomplishments. And she is well-liked among your acquaintance, and she has always been such a particular friend to Rosamond—"
"My sister no longer has that honor," Theo broke in, rather shortly. Anne glanced at his stony face.
"They are no longer friends?"
"No, indeed; not since you left Bath. There has been some falling-out between them."
"Indeed? How so?"
Theodore met her eyes. "I do not know the particulars; Rose, you know, cannot be induced to discuss anything she does not wish to. I know only that Miss Cates is no longer a welcome guest at Hart House, and for my own part, I am glad. I have come to realize that her character is not what I thought it, and that she is not a suitable friend for my sister. I am pleased that Rose has also come to that realization, for I should hate to have separated them against their will, or persuaded my father to drop the family acquaintance."
"Her crime must be very great indeed, if you would have done so." Anne could not entirely keep the rather ghoulish satisfaction from her tone.
"It is only the crime of deception, and of treating people poorly. I do not believe Miss Cates' affection for my sister, or indeed myself, has ever been genuine.—Is that Hunsford Parsonage?"
There was relief in his voice as he asked the question, and Anne, confirming that it was indeed, realized that the subject of Miss Cates must not be a welcome one to him. She was sorry to have mentioned the young lady, but could not deny the small joyful thrill that ran through her at Theodore's obvious displeasure where Adele Cates was concerned.
Mrs. Collins welcomed them pleasantly, though her husband was less composed. The privilege of having Miss de Bourgh in his home, to dineat his table, provoked in Mr. Collins the greatest effusions of gratitude and admiration, for never before had such an event occurred. He was only too flattered, too elated, to make the acquaintance of Miss de Bourgh's friend, for whom he was pleased to have the very highest respect; for how could one not respect a gentleman, when Miss de Bourgh thought him agreeable? (This would not be the case upon the following morning, when Mr. Collins would learn, to his horror, of Lady Catherine's tremendous disapproval of the gentleman whom he had had to dine the previous evening, and would think it wise to conceal the fact of Mr. Hart's having been a guest at the parsonage, so as not to provoke her Ladyship's fearsome censure.)
The party sat in the little parlor before dinner, talking cheerfully over nothing in particular. In the absence of Lady Catherine, Anne was amused to find herself, instead, the object of Mr. Collins' sycophancy, for the clergyman agreed earnestly with her every commonplace utterance, and made many valiant efforts to turn the conversation to the de Bourghs' magnanimous condescension. A remark on the ferocity of the earlier storm prompted him to praise the sturdiness of the cottage, which was no doubt due to the many improvements which Lady Catherine had deigned to make upon his arrival at Hunsford; a reference to a picture which Anne had drawn incited a long description of Miss de Bourgh's many accomplishments, including her astonishing gift for drawing and her natural artistic eye, and the exceedingly generous gift she had made to the parsonage of a few drawings of hers, which were to be hung in the nursery. Anne's mention of Theodore's career gave Mr. Collins some little trouble, but he at last managed to inform Mr. Hart that he had never met a gentleman more admirable to him than a barrister, and that a barrister who could count Miss de Bourgh among his friends, was certainly one to be trusted; furthermore, Mr. Collins assured Mr. Hart that if he should ever have need of any legal advice in any quarter, Mr. Hart should surely be his primary source—"after, of course, my patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who possesses really an exemplary knowledge of the law, for never having studied it."
Yet Anne felt strange, sitting beside Theo, and having a perfectly ordinary conversation, as she had so many times before at Hart House. Among such commonplace talk of the weather, and of village gossip, there seemed no room for the more compelling events of the afternoon. "We have had such fair sunny days this past week; I do hope it won't rain tomorrow" seemed miles away from "I do love you, Anne, as I could never love anyone else;" Theodore at her side, amiably answering Mrs. Collins' polite questions about his journey from Bath, seemed as though he could never have knelt before her, clasping her hands in his. It was as though she had been on the other side of the world, and only just returned, or as if she had woken from some long dream. Indeed, she thought, turning to study Theodore's calm visage, which gave no hint of the passion it had earlier displayed, perhaps it had been a dream. She wondered if she were delirious.
But then Mrs. Collins turned to ask her husband some question; and Theo turned to meet her eyes, and smiled, and shifted so that his arm rested warm against hers. In that moment, Anne wanted more than anything to throw her arms about his neck, and rest her cheek against his strong shoulder. And, she realized feverishly, she could, she had the right, to embrace him if she liked, whenever she liked. But she had not yet told Mrs. Collins of their engagement, only of his being at Rosings, and anyway, such public intimacy was in poor taste, and so she refrained.
The meal was agreeable, but lasted rather too long, in Anne's opinion. And then the plates were taken away, and the ladies adjourned to the sitting-room, while the gentlemen sat and discussed—Anne didn't know what—politics, perhaps, though she suspected that the views which Mr. Collins expressed would be less his own, and more Lady Catherine's.
She and Mrs. Collins had scarcely been alone for half a minute when, having taken her customary seat in the armchair (Anne took her own, upon the settee), Mrs. Collins said pleasantly, "So this is your Mr. Hart, then, Miss de Bourgh?"
Anne blushed to hear him described so. "Indeed," she replied, rather shyly. "Do you—like him?"
"I do," Mrs. Collins replied simply. "I think him very agreeable."
"Is that all?" Anne asked, rather disappointed. Mrs. Collins smiled.
"We have an acquaintance of only two hours or so; you must not expect me to form an expert opinion in such a short time. I may add that he is also possessed of clear intelligence, and is not so excessively charming as to be suspect. He is good-humored and well-mannered, and though I cannot say so definitively, having had no opportunity to test them, I believe his principles to be perfectly sound."
Anne was thoroughly dissatisfied with this unromantic description of her intended, though she had hardly expected Mrs. Collins to produce an ode to him. Sensing her frustration, Mrs. Collins went on,
"At any rate, Miss de Bourgh, it matters very little what I think. Do you find him now as gallant as you did in Bath?"
"Oh, yes," Anne answered, her smile returning. "I—I rather—adore him." She blushed hotly, casting her eyes to her hands, which sat folded in her lap.
"That is unfortunate," Mrs. Collins said carefully, "for did you not tell me that he is married?"
Anne looked up. "No, no," she said hastily. "It was a misunderstanding, for the young lady whom I thought he would marry, is quite—out of the question. And besides, he tells me he has only ever loved me." She lowered her eyes again, unable to keep the smile from her face. "He proposed to me this afternoon."
"Indeed? And did you accept?"
Anne looked up again, this time with some indignation. "Of course!"
Mrs. Collins was watching her with mild amusement. "Then," she said, "you have indeed managed to find some gentleman whom you could tolerate, day after day?"
Hearing her own words parroted back to her, Anne laughed. "I believe I shall enjoy every day I spend with him. Or almost every day; he can sometimes be rather quarrelsome."
"I daresay you shall not even notice, after the first decade or so," Mrs. Collins said, an uncharacteristically broad smile breaking across her placid features. "My heartfelt congratulations to you, Miss de Bourgh—truly."
"Thank you," Anne answered, feeling rather delirious once more.
"I did suspect it," Mrs. Collins continued. "His affection for you is quite apparent. I was beginning to be rather offended, on behalf of his absent wife."
Anne blushed, but thanked her again; and they passed the rest of their time, before the gentlemen joined them, in discussion of wedding-clothes, china patterns, linens, and other such domestic matters.
"What an odd gentleman, is your parson," Theo remarked, as they were walking back to Rosings. Anne had insisted that Theodore, who had taken lodgings at the inn in the village, use one of the de Bourgh carriages, rather than walking from the parsonage. Though the hour was rather late, and the stars had begun to emerge, faint gleams of red sunlight still hung in the summer sky.
"I do hope you were not very bored," Anne said worriedly.
"Not at all," Theo assured her. "I found him rather amusing, if it is not unkind to say so. He has a certain eloquence, and appears to possess a particular admiration for your mother."
The mention of Lady Catherine returned Anne's thoughts to their earlier conversation, and she was lost in thought for a moment, before at last she turned to her fiancé.
"You must realize, Theo," she began, apprehensively, "that her Ladyship will almost certainly keep her word. There is no entail upon our property, for it lapsed when my father died, and my inheritance is entirely dependent upon my mother's will. The only money I have in the world is my dowry; I shall never be mistress of Rosings, and you shall never be its master."
Theo glanced at her, a strange look upon his face. Anne swallowed, awaiting his reply.
"I am sorry," he said quietly, "that this should be the case."
And he said nothing further.
"But," Anne began, carefully, "you do still intend to marry me?"
His look grew even stranger. "Is that an honest question, my dear?"
"It is," she said indignantly.
"Then it deserves an honest answer: I do indeed, and you are a fool for thinking otherwise."
Relief flooded her all at once, and she nearly sank against him with the force of it; but she was not entirely reassured. "Yet you are disappointed?"
"I am disappointed, for your sake, that you shall be obliged to live rather more simply than you are accustomed to, for I am afraid my income shall not support the keeping of a park, unless there is some sudden and unprecedented rise in the number of legal cases in this country. I am disappointed that you shall be forced to keep house upon a barrister's salary, rather than a baronet's."
"I imagine I shall not mind it," Anne murmured. She did not think she had ever been so happy.
"I am most especially disappointed, and now I am being exceedingly grave and serious, Anne, so you must stop grinning—stop—how difficult you are. I am most especially disappointed that you will be forced from Rosings, and obliged to live all the time in Bath, perhaps with some short stays in London or tours of the countryside, when we have the time and money for them; for I know" (and now he truly did sound grave and serious) "that you are fond of these woods and hills and flower-gardens, and that they are your home. I should hate for you to be unwelcome in your home."
The thought of leaving her quiet countryside did, indeed, sound rather unpleasant to Anne; but she looked up at Theodore, who was watching her with concern. In reply, she tucked her hand more firmly about his arm, leaned against him, and set her head against his shoulder. His frame was warm and solid, and the cloth of his coat tickled her cheek.
"You told me," she said, "that you abandoned your idea of proposing to me, because you did not wish to raise hostility between myself and my mother. But, in case you did not notice, my dear, you did in fact propose to me this afternoon."
"Did I? How stupid of me."
She lifted her head from his shoulder, swatting at his arm affectionately. "It is evident that something has occurred, between our last meeting in Bath and your arrival at Rosings, to change your mind."
There was a long silence, during which Anne wondered if this were another painful topic for her Theo; but, at last, he answered:
"I beg your pardon?"
"It was the twins, who forced me to confront my—my feelings for you. I told you that Rose was distressed when she had no word from you, and she became convinced that she had injured you somehow, or given you some offense. She indeed became almost ill about it; she re-examined her conduct on every occasion of your meeting, searching for signs in your behavior or hers that would provide some hint."
Anne felt rather guilty, at this, and cursed herself for not writing Rosamond some little note, explaining that she had not received any letters, and expressing her own concern.
"At this point, Robert, who is rather more perceptive than any of us believe him to be, and who truly hates to see his twin so distraught (though he could not care less about the rest of us—ouch—that was a joke, my love)—Robert apparently reached the end of his patience, and at last snapped at Rosamond to stop tormenting herself, for heaven's sake, because it was my fault you wanted nothing more to do with us."
"I cannot believe it," exclaimed Anne, who, though she thought Robert Hart as amiable as the rest of his family, had never received much notice from him.
As though reading her mind, Theodore said, "He does like you, my dear; but he is reserved, and not given to shows of affection, and indeed rather unpleasant in general, so you may not have—ouch—will you desist?"
"You are very unkind to your brother," said Anne, who had swatted him again.
"He is the only brother I have; I am obliged to be unkind," Theodore replied, as though it were obvious. "What sort of man will he become, otherwise? Too soft and indulged to truly live in the world, I'll wager.—But to continue. Robert was the first to give Rosamond the idea of blaming me for your unhappiness; once he had, she was quite unshakable. She had, for some time, disapproved of my—conduct—towards Miss Cates with increasing openness; I did not know it then, but the friendship between them was already strained. She accused me of pursuing both you and Miss Cates at once, 'like a true blackguard,' as she put it. Never having realized that she was aware of my affection for you, I was quite shocked, which unfortunately gave her time to add a few more choice insults before I regained my power of speech.
"I told her of my dilemma, where you were concerned, and she informed me that I am quite unforgivably stupid, and insisted that, rather than disguise my cowardice as nobleness, I give you the opportunity to make your own decision in the matter, as is your right, for, as she claimed, your wit is undoubtedly superior to mine. I believe she also assured me that I am utterly blind and clearly unfit to live in the civilized world, and asked me how I thought to make a living in a profession which requires so much thought and understanding, when I possess neither."
"I am sure you are exaggerating," said Anne, laughing. "I cannot think sweet Rose capable of being so merciless."
"She is more than capable; she is positively eloquent, when she puts her mind to it. As you are soon to become a member of the family, I must warn you again to guard yourself against my sister's barbed tongue. She may appear perfectly amiable and harmless, but she is not to be trifled with. At any rate, as I told you, she did request that I come to Kent after my exam, 'to inquire about the letters, if nothing else,' but she also strongly hinted that a mere inquiry about the letters would be insufficient, as far as she was concerned. And so, because I am afraid of my sister, and because, as it happens, I am in love with you, Anne, I proposed."
"And I accepted."
"You did indeed, my dear; and now we shall be married, and live happily ever after.—Or almost happily ever after, for you are sometimes rather obstinate, and you do keep hitting me on the arm, in the same place, and I am sure you shall leave a bruise."
Anne apologized, attempting a grave air, though her lips twitched with a smile she was entirely unable to suppress. They had by this time reached Rosings Park, and, Anne having called for a carriage, they faced one another on the steps. Theodore smiled, and took Anne's hands in his own, the way he had that afternoon; but this was not enough for her, and she put her arms carefully about his neck, resting her cheek upon his chest. She could hear his heartbeat. He wrapped his arms tenderly around her small frame.
"You need not seem so sad, my love," Theodore murmured, and his voice rumbled against her ear. "We will see each other tomorrow."
Tomorrow, Anne thought, and the day after that, and the day after that, and so on into forever. She closed her eyes, feeling foolishly, incandescently happy, and tightened her embrace about him.
The carriage arrived then, the driver and footman looking rather embarrassed to catch Miss de Bourgh in such a private moment, and Anne separated herself from Theo with some difficulty. He took her hand and pressed it gently, as he had in the park, on that long-ago morning; but this time, he was not so quick to let go.
He did, of course, eventually, but not before the driver had cleared his throat twice. The carriage bore him away to the village, and the inn; and Anne, watching him go, at last turned and went into the house, and up to her own room.
She went immediately to the window, and looked out. The last dying stripes of sunset had faded into blue, and the stars gleamed quietly on the diminishing puddles that dotted the garden paths. A soft wind rippled the leaves and the dark grass. The moon was on the other side of the house, but Anne could see its chalky shadow on the tops of the trees and the flowers. The world, she thought, looked entirely peaceful, and somehow enchanted, and she was going to marry Theodore.
Her sleep that night was undisturbed, and she could not remember any of her dreams when she woke.
It was decided, the next morning, that they should be married from Bath, rather than Hunsford: first, because such proximity to Lady Catherine could not bode well for the wedding; second, because all of their friends were in Bath; and third, because Anne thought it rather cruel to oblige Mr. Collins to perform the ceremony, when he should surely spend all of it quaking in the face of his patroness' disapproval.
All that remained, then, was for travel arrangements to be made. Anne insisted that she pay for the expense of coaches and inns—"While I am still rich," she joked, and then could not believe she had dared to say it, but, to her delight, Theo laughed, and did not seem offended. He did attempt to insist on shouldering the costs himself, but Anne, aware that he had already spent a fair amount of money on his journey to Kent, waved away his protests and declared that their journey should serve as her mother's wedding-gift, since it was unlikely another would be forthcoming. They agreed to hire a post-chaise; from Kent to Somersetshire was two days' drive, if they were not obliged to linger overlong while changing horses, and Anne, despite her certainty that she should very much enjoy being a barrister's wife, nonetheless balked at the idea of riding in a crowded stage coach, or, worse, traveling cheaply by the mail.
They fixed upon the following morning for their departure, both of them being eager to return to Bath and having no real business to detain them in Hunsford. Anne wrote a hasty note to the Fitzwilliams, explaining the situation to them and begging leave to stay with them until the wedding, if it were not a great inconvenience. And, with the practical arrangements made to her satisfaction, Anne was obliged to begin the task of bidding farewell to Hunsford.
Her departure from Bath had taken up an entire week, and had been marked by activity. There had been calls to pay, notes to write, furniture to be packed, servants to be supervised. She had made the same pretty remarks to every body, and received the same pretty replies, in fine drawing rooms that blurred together in her memory, to the sound of rustling silks and measured voices: I am exceedingly sorry to leave, but I shall always look back on my time here with great fondness. I am so especially glad to have made your acquaintance. I do hope we will meet in London; I daresay we shall spend the entire Season there.
Here in Hunsford, however, there was only Mrs. Collins to be called on. Anne and Theo walked to the parsonage through the village, Anne pointing out favorite shops and little landmarks along the way, hardly feeling as though she were leaving forever.
Mr. Collins was busy in the back garden, and Mrs. Collins was sitting peacefully in her sunny parlor, knitting. She rose to curtsy as Anne and Theo entered, and reclaimed her customary armchair, near the hearth. Anne took her own usual place on the settee, and Theo sat beside her.
"I imagine," Mrs. Collins began pleasantly, "that you have come to say good-bye."
"How did you guess?" Anne asked, smiling, though a lump had begun to form in her throat.
"Martha, one of our kitchen-girls, was in the village this morning, and overheard you ordering a post-chaise at the inn," Mrs. Collins explained. "Besides which, I did not imagine you should remain here much longer, now that matters between you have been—settled." She met Anne's smile with her own.
"I shall be sorry to leave you, Mrs. Collins," said Anne honestly.
"We shall certainly see each other again," the lady replied placidly. "Our common acquaintance ensures it. Mrs. Darcy is forever extending invitations to Pemberley, whether or not her husband shares her inclination for visitors."
"Still," Anne said, wistfully. "I do wish I could have been here, to see the baby."
"Do you think you will never come back?"
"I doubt my mother will be inviting me to Rosings in the near future," Anne replied, rather sadly. Theo, who had wisely kept silent, laid his hand upon her own.
"Rosings? No, I imagine you will not be welcome there, at least for some time. But, Miss de Bourgh, the door of the parsonage shall always be open to you, whenever you begin to pine for the Garden of England. And to you, Mr. Hart," Mrs. Collins added, smiling at him.
"Thank you, madam, for your kind invitation."
"You speak of Mrs. Darcy extending invitations, against her husband's wishes," Anne objected, laughing in spite of herself. "If Lady Catherine does not want me here, then surely Mr. Collins—"
"—can be prevailed upon," Mrs. Collins interrupted, looking rather mischievous. "You need have no fear of him."
"I am very grateful to you, then," Anne said, and the lump in her throat had grown rather thicker. "Good-bye, Mrs. Collins; you have been a most valuable friend." She rose to make her final curtsy, and Mrs. Collins rose also, but somehow, instead of curtsying, Anne found herself folding her arms about the parson's wife in a brief embrace. She could feel Mrs. Collins' surprise in the stiffening of her spine, but the lady responded within a moment, resting her own hands on Anne's back. They pulled away from each other, smiling (rather tearfully on Anne's part). Mrs. Collins curtsied.
"I am glad we have grown to know one another, Miss de Bourgh," she said kindly. "Your friendship has truly been a pleasure to me." She turned to Theo, and curtsied again. "Our acquaintance has been a brief one, sir, but I am pleased to have met you, after hearing Miss de Bourgh speak of you so ardently."
"Is that how she spoke of me?" Theo replied, with a raised eyebrow, looking rather pleased with himself. Anne blushed.
"Only on one occasion; after that, I believe you were quite forgotten," Mrs. Collins returned placidly, though there was a twinkle in her eyes. "Do treat her well, Mr. Hart; care for her."
"I could not do otherwise." He was looking at Anne as he said it.
"My dear! Mrs. Collins!" came a voice in the passage, and Mr. Collins burst into the room, looking very much out of breath. He halted in his tracks when he caught sight of Anne and Theo, and his face paled, but he dropped into a hurried bow. "Miss de Bourgh—Mr.—er—"
"Hart," Theo supplied, amused.
"Is something the matter, my dear?" Mrs. Collins asked calmly.
"Lady Catherine, Mrs. Collins," he hissed, still staring at Anne and Theo with horror. "She is only now coming up the garden path, and I daresay she is rather put out." He seemed entirely uncertain whether to treat Anne with her mother's disapproval, or his own deference, and he looked away. "I believe she wishes to—"
"So," Lady Catherine's voice drawled from the doorway. "Here you are, Anne."
Anne's heart fluttered nervously, but she mustered her courage and turned to face her Ladyship. "Here I am, mother," she replied, willing herself not to sound timid.
"My daughter and I require privacy," Lady Catherine said imperiously to Mr. Collins. "I desire you and your wife will take a turn about your garden."
Mr. Collins bowed, and took his wife's arm, pulling her towards the door. Mrs. Collins afforded Anne a sympathetic glance, but allowed herself to be led from the room. Anne watched them go, her heart in her throat. Lady Catherine surveyed her daughter, and then turned to Theo, who stood at her side. Glancing at him from the corner of her eye, Anne was unable to determine his feelings; his features appeared perfectly calm, though Anne thought she detected a slight tightening around his eyes.
"And you, I take it, are the cherished Mr. Hart," Lady Catherine sneered, at last.
"Your Ladyship is very kind."
"Do not attempt to be witty; I loathe wit in a young man."
"I am sorry to hear it. I have always prided myself on my wit."
Lady Catherine's eyes narrowed. "Your insolence," she said coldly, "is no surprise to me. I quite expected you to be arrogant, and impertinent, with ambitions far above your station, and I am not disappointed."
"I beg your pardon, your Ladyship, but I have said nothing of my ambitions."
"Your appearance at Rosings, unlooked for and unwelcome, has told me everything I need to know. Your presumption, evident in the mistaken belief that you could persuade my daughter to accept a marriage so unsuitable for her, speaks volumes."
"Again I beg your pardon, your Ladyship, but I am not the one who is mistaken: Anne has agreed to be my wife."
"She is foolish," Lady Catherine snapped. "She is romantic and idle, and does not know what is good for her. She is a child."
"She is old enough to speak for herself, and I believe she has done so."
Lady Catherine sneered again, and fixed her eyes on Anne. "I do not know what you see in him, Anne. I suppose you may call him handsome, but only in the very loosest sense of the word. He has no apparent charm, and only thinks he is clever. He is proud without reason, and he is quite clearly interested only in your fortune. I warn you, sir," she went on, returning her attention to Mr. Hart, "that if Anne should marry you, she will be completely disinherited. As a lawyer, you must be aware that there are a great many strategies I can employ, to make my money completely inaccessible to you."
"It is your money, Lady Catherine," Theo replied coolly. "You may do what you like with it."
There was a long silence. "As I say, Anne," Lady Catherine said at last, her tone icy, "I do not know what you see in him."
"That does not matter," Anne answered, "for what I see in him pleases me very much."
"You are a stupid little girl."
"You will regret this decision."
"Once you are married," Lady Catherine insisted grimly, "and discover that a marriage is not a fairy-story, and that you are not a princess to be rescued, and that he is not a hero—then you will wish you had married well."
"I am marrying well, Lady Catherine, and I have never considered myself in the role of the princess. I have not the figure for it."
Theodore let out a snort of laughter, which he made no effort to disguise. Lady Catherine glared at him.
"What an idiot you have chosen, Anne."
"Lady Catherine," Theo broke in, straightening his shoulders, "I believe it is my turn to make some of these grand pronouncements, of which you seem so fond. Here is one: I am in love with your daughter. Here is another: I am going to marry her. Here is a third: we are going to argue sometimes, and sometimes we are going to grow quite sick of each other's company, but we are never going to stop loving one another. I am good at many things, Lady Catherine, and making Anne smile is one them, and another is making her laugh, and my favorite talent is making her happy."
Lady Catherine was staring at him, but Anne could not gauge her reaction, for she herself had turned to stare at her fiancé, whose features were set in a fierce mask. She could not help herself; she took his arm, and raised herself on her toes to press her lips against his cheek.
If Anne were a princess, and Theodore a hero, then Lady Catherine would have let out a sigh, and allowed a smile to break through her frigid glare, melted by the hero's warmth. She would have bowed her head to Theo's "pronouncements," admitted that perhaps Anne's marriage was not to be so disastrous as she had predicted, and recanted her threat to disinherit her daughter. She would have gained a new respect for Theodore Hart, and for Anne de Bourgh, and would have assured them of her attendance at the wedding, and of the generous gift which she intended to make them, for having shown her that true love does indeed conquer all.
But Anne was not a princess, and Theodore was not a hero. "You have until tomorrow morning to change your mind, Anne," Lady Catherine said instead. "After then, you are no longer welcome at Rosings Park."
"If you choose to leave, you may pack your clothes, but nothing else, and I am being charitable. By rights, all of your belongings in fact belong to me."
"I understand. Thank you, your Ladyship."
"Do not thank me, Anne; it is not for your sake. I refuse to have the world saying I turned my daughter out of my home without even the clothes on her back." There was a long silence. "I have nothing more to say to you, Anne. I pray that you make the right decision."
"I am confident that I shall, Lady Catherine."
"And you, Mr. Hart: I am not honored to have made your acquaintance, nor do I send any compliments to your family. I find you a thoroughly disagreeable young man, whom I shall not even call a gentleman, and I hope we may never meet again; if we do, I shall take no pleasure in it."
Theo only bowed. Lady Catherine gave them one last cold look, before turning and striding out of the Collins' parlor.
"I am heartily sorry for every time I have teased you about your mother, Anne. She is hardly as innocuous and comical as I imagined her," Theo remarked that evening, as they walked back into the village.
"How did you imagine her?"
"Oh," he replied, vaguely, "as the usual sort of bachelor-seeking mamma, whose first object in life is to marry off her daughters to lords and baronets, and whose second is to boast of her matchmaking to her envious friends. I did not imagine her quite so fearsome. And you have lived with her your whole life," he added, in a wondering tone.
"I have grown used to her," Anne said, smiling. "I have learned how to appease her, though pleasing her has always been rather beyond my skills. She only grows fearsome when she is opposed."
Theodore made no answer, but touched her hand lightly with his own, as they stepped through the doors of the inn. They had dined with Mrs. Collins, much to Mr. Collins' dismay (he himself had followed Lady Catherine back to Rosings, eager to reap whatever approval he could by sharing in her displeasure). It had been decided that Anne should spend one last night at Rosings, and Theo one last night in the inn, before meeting the post-chaise in the morning. Anne had her clothes to pack, after all; and besides, despite her mother's condemnation of her marriage, she did not intend her marriage to be a common elopement. She insisted on separate quarters for herself and her fiancé, until they were husband and wife, and to her relief, Theo did not argue.
They separated, then, Anne returning to Rosings and slipping up the stairs as quietly as she could, though in fact she had no fear of meeting anyone. Lady Catherine was certain to be avoiding her, as was her habit when they quarreled, and none of the servants were likely to speak with her, so subdued they would be by their mistress' vexation.
Anne's room was as strange to her now, as it had been on the night she returned from Bath. The furniture and decorations that had surrounded her for nearly twenty-five years, the things with which she had lived all her life, seemed at once familiar and alien. She found herself running her hand over the posts of her bed, the doors of her wardrobe, the surface of her writing-desk. The sheets on her bed, the familiar embroidery at which she had never really looked; these she would never see again. She would never again see her curtains drawn by her maid in the morning, or the fire lit in her hearth at night. And yet she did not feel regretful—she thrilled at the prospect of new familiarities, new habits, and new everydays. Her life, she realized with sudden piercing clarity, was about to change in one of the most fundamental ways it could. Her heart was pounding so, she wondered she could even breathe.
Anne jumped, startled, and turned towards the door. Her maid had opened it, and was peering in.
"Forgive me, miss," Sarah said, blushing. "I—I was not certain—whether you needed me to undress you?"
"Not yet," Anne breathed. "But do come in, Sarah; you can help me pack."
Whether or not the drive to Bath, along the Guilford road, is in fact any longer than the drive from it, is a question for cartographers. Certainly, one passes through the same counties in each direction, and certainly one travels at approximately the same speed; but to Anne, who kept peering out of the window, hoping for a first glimpse of white stone buildings, it seemed as though they should have been in Bath hours ago. Theodore laughed at her impatience.
"Perhaps they have moved it," he teased. "Perhaps all of the ladies and gentlemen of Bath have developed a sudden taste for the sea, and we are now forced to go all the way to the coast, to find our city."
They were not in fact obliged to go so far, and Anne's heart leapt when they came over a hill, and the city spread out beneath them. From there, time seemed to go much faster, and they were soon passing along Wells Road, and crossing the river onto Charles Street, and turning into James Street, where the Fitzwilliams had their lodgings close to the center of town.
Her cousin and his wife afforded Anne and Theo an affectionate welcome. Indeed, the Fitzwilliams urged the young couple to dine with them, that Mrs. Fitzwilliam might surreptitiously press Miss de Bourgh for details on the proposal, the engagement, the wedding plans—indeed, the whole affair. Anne answered the lady's questions blushingly, though with a certain satisfaction, and was particularly glad to receive her cousin-in-law's advice on wedding-clothes and arrangements. She had never planned any event; indeed, she had attended very few, for a young lady of her age; and the details of menus, decorations, the hiring of musicians, and even the issuing of invitations, was quite beyond her.
They had arrived rather late in the day—too late, Anne noted with a mixture of disappointment and anxiety, for them to visit Hart House. She dearly looked forward to seeing the family again, particularly her poor Rose, whom she had so neglected; but the circumstances of her departure and of her return, and of the cold silence which she had unwittingly issued in the meantime, left her rather nervous of her reception there.
"I would not concern yourself," Mrs. Fitzwilliam assured her, when Anne confessed her fears. "It takes a very great offense to induce Miss Hart to hold a grudge, and her father is the same. Besides which, you and Miss Hart are such particular friends."
This had also been the case, Anne thought uncomfortably, for Adele Cates, whose position in the Hart household was now, apparently, somewhat more than precarious.
"Depend upon it, my dear cousin: you have Mr. Hart's love, and the warmth of the family will naturally follow. And they like you already," Mrs. Fitzwilliam continued, smiling.
They had also, once, liked Miss Cates. Anne slept ill that night.
Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, her visit to Hart House was to be the first event of the following day; Theodore was kind enough to collect her from the Fitzwilliams' in the morning, and escort her to Widcombe. Anne had resolved to give no hint of her apprehension, but she could not maintain the easy flow of chatter, which Theodore was attempting; at last, her fiancé inquired, and she confessed, rather sheepishly.
"Hart House," he told her gravely, "is the same as it ever was, and ever will be, and its inhabitants are no different now than when you left them. The one change is that they shall be greeting you as a sister, rather than a friend, so you must prepare yourself to be quite smothered with affection."
"But are they not displeased with me? I have behaved so abominably!"
"Indeed you have not; you have only been misled, and occasionally you have misjudged; you are guilty only of being human, my dear."
"I am afraid," Anne said, feeling quite foolish, "that your brother will mock me. I recall he is rather given to sardonic turns."
"He almost certainly will, for that is his nature. You may feel free to ignore my brother; it is what the rest of us do. Besides which, Robert will say nothing too unkind: he knows perfectly well that I am in love with you, and that I am both taller and stronger than he is."
Anne was rather comforted by this, though not entirely, and she clung more securely to her fiancé's arm. It was odd to be back in Bath, under such changed circumstances: it was as though she had never left, and as though she had been gone an age. The late summer sun warmed the pavement; a soft breeze rustled the trees; the flowers were grown a little thicker, a little heavier, and some of them were already dropping their blossoms. Anne imagined every lady who passed them to be admiring her Theo, and, while she did not know it, Theo was imagining every gentleman who passed them to be admiring his Anne. They walked on in comfortable silence, enjoying the fine weather together.
As Theo had assured her, Hart House was the same as it ever was. Anne's heart beat wildly in her chest as she climbed the familiar stairs, and she reflexively raised her hand to knock on the door, but Theo laughed and opened it for her ("I do live here yet, my love," he teased). It felt strange, to enter the house without a maid, without being announced, as if she owned it.
"Well," Theodore announced cheerfully, as they entered the sitting-room, "we are here."
Anne had forgotten, in the long months since her departure, how lovely Rosamond Hart truly was. The young lady was seated in her usual chair, a book in her hands; her golden hair, her large gray eyes, her slender form and her smooth complexion (perhaps grown a little browner over the summer) would have excited distinct envy in Anne, as it had on their first meeting, if the joy and the trepidation of seeing her friend again had left any room for further emotion. As it was, she could only stand and stare, as Rosamond lifted her eyes, and smiled.
"Anne," she said, calmly and kindly, and stood to curtsy.
It was not the exuberant welcome for which Anne had wished, but neither was it a cold dismissal. Rosamond was watching her, an odd expression in her eyes, and Anne had the clear impression that she was being somehow tested. An awkward moment passed, and it occurred to her that she ought to return the curtsy; but that was not what she wanted to do, and, quite unable to help herself, Anne instead took three steps forward and put her arms about Rose's frame, pulling her close.
Rosamond returned the embrace immediately, and Anne was delighted to hear her friend's much-loved laugh at her ear. "There you are," Rosamond exclaimed, pulling away, though she held onto Anne's hands. "Dear Anne! And you said we would never meet again!"
"I said we should not meet for a very long time," Anne corrected her gladly. "I am so sorry, Rose—I should have written, as I promised I would—"
Rosamond waved away her apology. "Theo has explained every thing to me," she replied breezily, "and I am not angry; I could not be angry, for we are to be sisters, Anne!" And she laughed, and embraced Anne again, before pulling her to the settee. "There is so much for us to discuss! I have missed you terribly—and I know that is the sort of thing which all fashionable young ladies say to one another, Anne, but you must believe me, for it is painfully true, in this case."
"I can believe it," Anne answered, with feeling, "for I have missed you more than I could—" And, to her horror, she felt tears gathering. Rosamond smiled.
"You had better never go away again, Anne, for it seems we are a very sad pair of creatures, when we are separated. Robert tells me I have been particularly irritating these past months, and I imagine that is your fault. But you must tell me about your summer in Kent, and with a great deal of description, and indeed embellishment, if it makes things more interesting. You may feel free to lie to me; I shall not know the difference."
"I feel as if I am being ignored," Theo declared, in a wounded voice, still standing near the door. Rosamond looked up at him, startled.
"Theo! I had quite forgotten you were there." (Anne could not help laughing at the glare which Theodore aimed in his sister's direction.) "Do make yourself useful, brother, and go fetch the others. They are somewhere about the house."
Theo looked as though he wished to object, but Anne smiled at him, and he conceded without protest.
To be alone with her dearest friend was a pleasure which Anne did not think she could ever take for granted; to have Rosamond's rapt attention, to be free to speak and to listen to such a valued companion, was more gratifying even than Anne had remembered. She talked of Kent, of walking in the park and of visiting Mrs. Collins, of reading novels and of her first attempts at drawing. Rose appeared quite enchanted by Anne's descriptions of the gardens, and the thunderstorms, and the quiet glades where Anne had spent such peaceful afternoons. Of course the topic most on Anne's mind was that of Theodore's arrival at Rosings, and his proposal, of which Rose was glad to hear—though she did curtail Anne's more romantic descriptions of the way Theo had looked when he came in from the rain, when she met him in the study, when he had knelt before her, and so on. "I am glad you think Theo so handsome, Anne," Rose interrupted apologetically, looking amused, "but you must remember that he is my brother, and I can only hear so much praise of him, before I begin to feel rather queasy."
In this way they passed the time very pleasantly, until Theo returned with his brother and youngest sister in tow (Anne suspected that Theo had perhaps taken longer about his errand than was necessary, to allow her plenty of time to enjoy Rose's company). Anne rose to greet them, and was shocked to find Juliet's arms almost immediately flung about her shoulders, and a sweet kiss placed to her cheek. "I have written you a wedding-poem," the child declared solemnly, pulling away. "I think it is my best work."
"I have no doubt of it," Anne assured her.
"How ridiculous of you, Anne," Robert drawled, "to have made such a fuss about your going away forever, only to return again before six months have passed. I do hope you will not expect such fanfare for all of your comings and goings." But he was smiling, and at a bit of jostling from Theo, he came forward and clasped Anne's hand companionably.
"Out of all the young ladies who might now have been marrying into this family," he added conspiratorially, "you are by far the least repulsive."
"Robert," his twin said, in a tone of rebuke.
"Anne is to be our new sister," he protested, moving to sit on the settee. "I cannot treat her any differently than I treat the rest of you; I should hate for her to feel left out."
"As I told you, my love," Theo said grandly, handing Anne into a chair, "you are perfectly within your rights to ignore every thing he says."
Anne thanked him, laughing, but in fact was rather pleased by Robert's teasing; for how many times, when her acquaintance with the Harts was yet new, had she envied their easy repartee, and the fond, good-natured way in which they ridiculed each other, and laughed at each other, and argued with each other? She was well aware that such teasing was, for this family, a manner of showing affection, and that she no longer merited particular politeness or formality was, she thought, perhaps the highest compliment she could have been paid.
The five of them remained in the cheerful sitting-room for some time, and Anne began to grow rather nervous. She was uncertain, at first, why she should be so troubled; but upon closer examination of her feelings, she concluded that she was unconsciously marking how much time had passed, and how much time she had remaining until Mrs. Jenkinson grew suspicious. What a relief, what honest joy, to remind herself that there was no Mrs. Jenkinson to check her enjoyment, nor Lady Catherine waiting at home—that she was free to sit with the Harts all morning, to walk with them in the afternoon, and to dine with them in the evening, with no fear of being missed, seen, or suspected. Never before had Anne been so liberated from the constant shadow of what Lady Catherine might say: she had no longer to worry that the freedoms she claimed for herself might lessen the freedoms she was granted by her mother. Anne, at last, belonged to herself.
Or almost—for nobody could really belong entirely to themselves. Anne belonged now to Theo, to Rose, to the rest of the Harts; she belonged to the Fitzwilliams, to Mrs. Collins, and a bit, she admitted grudgingly, to the Darcys.
Yet there was a difference, Anne reflected, between belonging to someone, and being owned by someone. Naturally, she much preferred the former.
Dr. Hart, who had spent the entire day with various patients, returned home in the evening to dine with his family, and he greeted Anne with all the affection for which she could have hoped. He seemed entirely unsurprised to find her at his table, and his features, while expressing obvious pleasure in meeting Anne as his future daughter-in-law, remained quite composed throughout the meal. Anne, glowing with happiness at his calm approval, mused that if she should ever introduce them, the serene Dr. Hart and the placid Mrs. Collins would likely become fast friends.
The next two weeks of Anne's life were a blur to Anne herself, and can hardly be recounted with any degree of faithfulness in the details. A pattern emerged: much of the day was generally taken up with wedding-planning and paying calls, while evenings were spent at Hart House. Though most of the more fashionable families had departed from Bath, much of the acquaintance that Anne had met through Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Harts yet remained; and so there were still friends to see and invitations to issue.
Anne was glad, and somehow not entirely surprised, to discover that Rosamond had begun making wedding arrangements almost as soon as her brother had left for London and Kent. "It was an act of optimism," Rose admitted, rather sheepishly, but Anne, who had no genius for preparation, was overjoyed to find that the wedding plans were not to be left entirely to her own management, for Rosamond proved a most efficient, and enthusiastic, organizer. Furthermore, both of the Hart sisters, and occasionally Constance Fitzwilliam, were more than willing to escort Anne throughout the city and its environs, like loyal handmaidens, assembling a menu, hiring musicians, selecting a church (Bath Abbey, to Anne's disappointment, proved rather too expensive), purchasing wine and, of course, choosing wedding-clothes. (The last item on this list was, naturally, Anne's favorite.)
Far from neglecting her kind hosts, Anne was encouraged, by Dr. Hart himself, to invite the Fitzwilliams to dine at Hart House whenever they pleased. The Harts and the Fitzwilliams had been previously connected, Theodore and Colonel Fitzwilliam sharing mutual acquaintance and Rosamond counting Constance among her friends; but everybody was pleased to pursue the connexion to a greater degree of intimacy. Indeed, the two families discovered a great many common interests and enthusiasms, and the evenings they spent together were jovial affairs.
There were moments, of course, when Anne was not paying a call or keeping an appointment, and Theodore was not engaged with a client or running some errand, and neither of them had been claimed by another member of the family, that the two were able to be alone together; and it was for these moments that Anne lived. That she had so quickly come to depend upon Theo's smile, his laugh, his quiet conversation and his closeness, was rather alarming to her, but it could not be helped. The short walks which they took together were becoming Anne's favorite part of each day, and she had privately decided that these walks must remain a tradition even after they had married, and set up house together, for she could think of no greater pleasure than promenading through the park on her Theo's arm.
There was only one thing needful to make Anne's inclusion into the Hart family quite complete; and even this was taken care of, a week before the wedding, when Anne's usual visit to the household was interrupted by the sound of a rattling carriage stopping outside, and a flash of bright color outside.
"It cannot be," Rosamond murmured, her wide eyes fixed on the window—but Anne had no time to ask what could not be before the door to the sitting-room opened and the maid entered, announcing, with a curtsy, the arrival of Mrs. Bontecou.
"You ought to say Madame, Lucy," said a lady's voice in the passage, "for really it is more correct," but the lady was laughing, and within an instant she had swept into the room.
Mrs. Bontecou's fair hair and gray eyes were enough to distinguish her almost immediately as a relation to the Harts; and if that were not enough, her joyous exclamation of "Dear little Rosie!", and the familiar manner in which she swept Rosamond into her arms and even, to Anne's shock, spun her in a circle, as if they were dancing, were evidence of Mrs. Bontecou's being part of the family. Thus, when Rosamond, laughing, her cheeks red, introduced the lady to Anne as Helena, the long-absent eldest sister, Anne was quite prepared to believe it.
Mrs. Fitzwilliam had once declared Helena the true beauty of the family, and Anne could see how such an estimation might be made. Helena Bontecou was taller than her sister (who was admittedly rather diminutive), and slender, with exquisitely formed features and fair coloring that matched the rest of the family. At seven-and-twenty, a year older than Theodore, she had yet lost none of her fine girlish complexion. Her bearing was graceful, her conduct charming and vivacious, her wit and energy readily apparent. She had, it was clear, the ability which Anne had always found elusive, to gain the attention of a room from the moment she stepped into it.
Yet Anne had also heard rumors of Helena's wildness, and indeed it was true that the lady resembled her animated brothers more than her tranquil sisters. She spoke energetically, she laughed unreservedly, she flitted carelessly between French and English, and she seemed quite unaccustomed to sitting still. When Juliet, hearing her sister's voice, tripped into the room, Helena was only too glad to swing her about as she had Rosamond, laughing and pinching the child's cheeks, to Juliet's delight. Indeed, that she had succeeded in addressing Rosamond as "Rosie," an endearment which Anne had once heard Theodore employ, and for which Rosamond had given him a very dark look, was proof that the family was accustomed to Helena's eccentricities. The lady's dress was unlike anything Anne had ever seen; if the streets of Bath were far removed from the country lanes of Hunsford, then the promenades of Paris must be another world entirely. Mrs. Bontecou was a fashion plate of bright colors (her shawl was green, her gown was pink, and her bonnet sported a yellow ribbon), layers, gathers, and intricate embroidery, a distinct contrast to the simpler muslin gowns in which her sisters, and indeed most of Bath's ladies, usually dressed.
Anne was, quite frankly, rather intimidated by this lively, fashionable figure, and was glad to go unnoticed by Helena while that lady exclaimed over how her sisters had grown, and how well they looked, and demanded what they had been doing with themselves, and inquired of little Julie whether their sweet Rosebud had any beaux that she could be teased about, and wondered as to the whereabouts of their troublesome brothers. It was only after all of these sisterly formalities had been covered that Helena happened to glance in Anne's direction, and immediately rebuked her Rosie for not introducing them earlier.
"But I know who you are, bien sûr," she continued matter-of-factly, "for your look reveals it all; is this not Theo's Anne, Rose?"
"Indeed she is," replied Rosamond, smiling, "but he does allow us to borrow her sometimes."
"How good of him! You look far too kind and sensible," this to Anne, "to be marrying my brother—I am sure you must be greatly deceived in his character. He is hardly as clever as he pretends to be."
Anne, blushing, thanked her for the compliment, but assured her that she was quite undeceived; Mrs. Bontecou was delighted by the blush, and declared Anne to be charmante, as sweet a creature as ever she saw, and afforded her the same fond embrace which she had given her sisters (though, to Anne's relief, there was no spinning in circles).
"But Helena," Rosamond interjected, "what in the world are you doing in Bath?"
"Did you not receive my letter? La!—I suppose I left it rather late, as I posted it on the morning of our departure from Paris. How encouraging, to know that a person may travel faster than a letter!"
"Encouraging indeed," Rose agreed.
"My Gabriel had some business in London, which he is even now concluding; and as I thought it would be a crime indeed to come to la belle Angleterre without once catching sight of my own kin, I persuaded him to extend our visit by a fortnight, that I might come to Bath and stay awhile. We arrived in London on Thursday, and I left there yesterday, and Gabriel will join me here tomorrow. Are you thrilled to see me, ma petite?"
"Perfectly so; and you know, Helena, that now you shall be in Bath for the wedding."
"C'est magnifique! How enchanting! Do you imagine Theodore would have me thrown out, if I disrupted it? I have never been thrown out of a wedding, and it would be such an accomplishment to be thrown out of my own brother's.—Poor Anne! You need not look so worried, for I never mean anything I say, do I, Rosamond?"
"You certainly must not, for I remember you used to talk of your own wedding a great deal when we were young, and then for some reason you chose not to have one at all!"
"Indeed! But what is life for, if not to surprise oneself?—Ma foi! I had quite forgotten about him!"
The man to whom Mrs. Bontecou referred was the driver of her post-chaise, whose face had appeared at the window; and the lady immediately rushed out of the house, coin-purse in hand, to settle her account with him. The room seemed a great deal quieter, once she was gone, and Rosamond met Anne's eyes cheerfully.
"I adore my sister," she confessed, "but her society does often make me rather tired."
Anne smiled at her. "I think I shall call you Rosie from now on. It suits you well."
Juliet thought this quite amusing, but Rosamond looked highly affronted, and declared that it certainly did not, and Anne mustn't dare.
"Rosebud, then?" Anne suggested.
"I shall never speak to you again!" But Rose was laughing. Mrs. Bontecou returned, and the conversation was quickly resumed, as Rosamond pressed her sister for details of Paris, and Helena pressed Anne for details of the engagement, and Juliet pleaded with them all to say nothing of great interest, until she had time to run upstairs to the play-room and retrieve her little writing-desk.
Lengthy and minute descriptions of weddings are all very well in theory; but in practice, they are more often tiresome and slow than romantic and satisfying. Suffice it to say that Anne, despite a lifetime of plainness, was declared by all who saw her to be a charming bride. The ceremony was neither longer nor shorter than most other wedding-ceremonies, and the church was neither too full nor too empty. Out of courtesy, Anne had extended invitations to her mother's circle, including the Hammonds and Dalyrmples; but, as she had expected, those invitations had been politely declined. Instead, the event was attended by the friends she had met through Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Harts, who were able to take more real joy in the union than any of her better-connected but less-beloved acquaintance would have done.
The party that followed was an enjoyable one: the food was excellent, the music lively, and the company merry. Anne was much engaged in receiving congratulations and kind wishes from every body, which she did with good grace, though she would rather have been with her husband (the word did not yet seem to fit Theodore, though she felt a distinct thrill every time she used it). The Bontecous endeavored to teach several of the younger ladies and gentlemen one or two French dances, which were then danced with varying degrees of success. Anne took great pleasure in dancing two cotillions with Theo, as she had done at the Assembly Rooms so long ago, and then attempted the Scotch reel, though she found it rather more difficult.
On leaving the dance floor, Anne found herself swept again into the crowd to receive blessings and goodwill, and it was some time before she managed to extricate herself; but, at last, Robert appeared to witness her distress and arrived to engage Anne's latest well-wisher in conversation, allowing his grateful sister-in-law to slip out of the ballroom and into the cool night.
She leaned against the wall, breathing deeply, her heart pounding. The city was still; only the calm wind and the distant rattle of carriage-wheels disturbed the peace. The smell of flowers yet hung in the late summer air, although a few of the trees had begun to change colors, and Anne realized how very much she looked forward to seeing Bath in the autumn, and the winter, and again in the spring. She rested her head against the stone, closing her eyes for a brief moment, and smiled.
"Am I disturbing you?"
His voice sent a thrill down her spine, and Anne turned her smile in his direction. "Never."
Theodore came towards her, and took her in his arms. "That is not true, my love; I will disturb you sometimes. It is inevitable. We are married, and married people are forever disturbing one another."
Anne laughed, and buried her face in his chest. "Say that again."
"I will disturb you sometimes."
"You know what I meant."
She knew he was smiling, though she could not see it. "We are married."
"Yes," Anne whispered, breathing him in, happier now than she could ever remember being, "we are."
The Darcys had been unable to attend the wedding, due to Mrs. Darcy's coming confinement; but they reiterated their autumn invitation to Pemberley, and were kind enough to include not only Mr. Hart, but Miss Hart as well. Rosamond seized with alacrity the opportunity to travel, even if it was only to Derbyshire.
"I am sorry that it is not Paris," Anne told her honestly.
Rosamond shook her head. "It is not," she agreed, "but neither is it Bath."
The Fitzwilliams had also come to Pemberley, as had Mrs. Darcy's mother, with two of her younger sisters in tow. It was a cheerful party, though even with the addition of Theo, poor Mr. Darcy was still, as his wife had predicted, very much outnumbered. Yet he bore it with good grace, and Anne was surprised to find that he and Theo got along very well indeed, despite the differences in their manners.
Mrs. Bennet was at first quite disinterested in the Harts, one of them being a married gentleman and the other being an attractive young lady, and therefore neither of them being particularly useful to her own campaign to see all her daughters married; but once she discovered that there was a second Hart brother, she resolved to pursue the acquaintance in whatever manner she could. She appeared to have a potential co-conspirator in Rosamond, who confessed to Anne that she hoped to have her twin married before very long.
"After all," she said serenely, "we will be twenty in the spring, and I am determined that Robert will at least have an understanding with some young lady, before we are twenty-two. For that is the age when I imagine I shall begin to want a husband, and I cannot find one with a protective brother looming over me. Theodore has grown much more accommodating in that area since your marriage" (this with a nod to her brother, who was seated with them), "and I am hopeful that the same effect can be achieved with Robert."
"I understand," Anne intimated, amused, "that Mrs. Bennet hopes to have the elder Miss Bennet married within roughly the same timeframe. Miss Bennet appears to be of a steady, sympathetic nature, and I believe she is your age."
"Do not encourage her, my love," Theo pleaded, though he looked ready to laugh.
Miss Bennet was, at that moment, settled in an armchair with her head bent over a volume of Fordyce's. Rosamond gave her an appraising look. "If only she would read fewer sermons, and more novels," she sighed, "she might do very well indeed. Do you not agree, Theo?" But Rosamond was at that moment called away by Kitty Bennet, who was doing her best to teach Miss Darcy a new dance, and urgently required Miss Hart's assistance.
Georgiana appeared much improved since Anne saw her in the spring. She had at first been rather obviously discomfited by the multitude of people at Pemberley; but Rosamond's gentle kindness, and Kitty's frank friendliness, in addition to the undoubtedly comforting presence of the Darcys and Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Anne's own amiability, appeared to have lessened her timidity somewhat. Georgiana was now quite capable of laughing and chattering with Kitty and Rosamond, and the three of them were often to be seen together, traipsing the halls and gardens. (Unfortunately, she yet seemed rather afraid of Mrs. Bennet, whose excessively eager admiration of Pemberley and every thing in it, including Miss Darcy herself, rendered her society rather daunting.)
The Harts spent two idyllic months in Derbyshire before Theo was obliged to return to his practice. Upon their departure, Mrs. Darcy extracted a promise that the Harts should visit again in the spring, to see the baby; and Mrs. Bennet, still intent upon claiming the acquaintance of the younger Mr. Hart, mentioned that she and her daughters might come to Bath for the Season, if Mr. Bennet would allow it. With such comings and goings to look forward to, Anne was not at all sorry to leave Pemberley.
And so they returned to Bath, and to Hart House, though their residence there was to be temporary. Between Anne's dowry and Theodore's wage, they were soon able to procure lodgings of their own in Carlton Road, well-situated between Widcombe and the center of town, only a few minutes' walk from a very pleasant little park which formed the ideal setting for their evening rambles. The rooms were smaller than at Rosings, or the Royal Crescent; the walls were papered cheaply, and there was a distinct draft in the kitchen and in the second bedroom; but there was a study for Theodore, a sitting-room for Anne, and the large windows offered a great deal of sunlight and an interesting view of the street below. Anne set vases of fresh flowers on the window-sills, and enlisted her sisters-in-law to embroider pillows for her new chairs and settee, and in truth, when all was arranged to her satisfaction, she could not imagine a place more agreeable or homely. (It was rendered all the more so, of course, by virtue of belonging to herself and to Theodore, of being theirs together, a fact which she thought could make even a prison-cell seem attractive.)
Anne had sent Lady Catherine a polite note, informing her of her marriage and of her new address, and from this act of kindness arose a terse correspondence between mother and daughter. Lady Catherine prevailed in addressing her letters to Anne de Bourgh, rather than Anne Hart, and never made any mention of Theodore or his family; her letters were indeed more like lists of events, offering the news from Hunsford without very much commentary. There was no intimacy, no warmth, no affection, in her Ladyship's letters to her daughter, and Anne, who had never been a great letter-writer, responded in kind; but it was nonetheless a correspondence, and Anne was glad to find that Lady Catherine had not entirely eliminated her daughter from her life.
Whether or not Anne had indeed been eliminated from her will was another question, but Anne suspected that her Ladyship had made good on this threat. Occasional letters from Mrs. and Miss Darcy gave the impression that Lady Catherine was attempting to take Georgiana under her wing, as the heiress of Rosings in Anne's place; but Anne, recalling to her mind the image of Georgiana walking arm-in-arm with Kitty and Rosamond, thought privately that her Ladyship's hopes were certain to be disappointed.
It did not signify, at any rate; for while her new home could not compare to the splendor and luxury amidst which Anne had been raised, she could not bring herself to pine for Rosings Park. Anne and Theodore took long walks in the evenings; they dined simply, often with the company of various friends and family members—as the reader might have expected, both the Harts and the Fitzwilliams were frequent visitors to Carlton Road. They attended parties and assemblies, and even the occasional concert; they often met at tea-shops during the day, when Theodore had a moment of respite in between clients and Anne had a moment of respite in between errands.
Marriage, as Lady Catherine had ominously declared, was not a fairy-story. Anne was not a princess in exile, and Theo was not a hero in disguise. They were, quite simply, a lady and a gentleman, a man and a woman, who had fallen in love and combined their fates, and were doing their best to live well in the world. Anne's life, after her wedding, did not dissolve into happily-ever-after: there were yet appointments to be kept, bills to be paid, chores to be done and errands to be completed. Anne had to learn how to keep a house of her own, with only the help of a cook and a single scullery-maid, rather than the bevy of servants to which she had long been accustomed. (She found Rosamond a great help in this, for her friend had been keeping house for Dr. Hart since Helena's marriage, and was an exceedingly adept manager.) She had to learn how to select goods for their worth, rather than their attractiveness; she had to learn how to hem her old gowns, rather than ordering new ones. Anne had never before given much thought to such words as economy, or frugality; but she was quick to learn that while their finances did ensure a comfortable living, they could not afford to squander their money.
Anne and Theodore argued, usually in good humor but occasionally with a fierceness that left Anne with her eyes red and watering, and Theo with his face pale and stricken; but they always forgave one another, usually before so much as an hour had passed. They worried together: over money, over Theodore's practice, over the prospect of having children, over each other, over the younger Harts (for, married or no, Theo would always be an attentive eldest brother). In between these worries and arguments, they laughed a great deal, and talked, and teased, and kissed.
But Anne's favorite moments were the quiet ones, when she was absorbed in a novel which Rosamond had lent to her, and he was poring over the papers of whichever client had the most pressing need, and the only sound was that of the fire crackling in their hearth. It was in these moments that she could set her book on her lap, and simply look at him. And usually, as though feeling her gaze, Theodore would lay down his papers, and turn to her, and smile.
"I hope, my dear, that all is well?" he would inquire.
And Anne would return his smile, for she could never do otherwise. "I assure you, my love," she would reply, "all is very well indeed."