Anne has learnt from a visit with her former governess that an old schoolfellow is currently residing in Bath.
Anne pressed her temples and winced. Elizabeth and Father were in rare form today, both unleashing their well-developed Elliot tempers upon their personal servants.
Father demanded his valet press his shirt a third time—his ruffles must be flawless. Elizabeth shrieked at her lady’s maid for what could only be intentional neglect of attention to Elizabeth’s hair. The poor girl dressed it no less than four times. The curls were uneven…the pins were too tight…no that was too plain!
Did Elizabeth have to threaten to sack her main, again? With a much difficulty as she faced replacing her last maid, one might think she would be a little more careful of the way she treated her staff. She would be very fortunate indeed if the girl were still there when Elizabeth returned from tea at Laura Place.
Father and Elizabeth had been engaged for tea with their cousins, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret. These were acquaintances worth having, despite the sad truth that Father would never have tolerated their dull appearance and awkwardness at Camden place, save for the accident of their birth.
What would they say about the call she was planning to make this afternoon? Surely it would, at best, elicit very little interest from them. At worst, they might censure it. Best keep her agreeable plans to herself.
Her dear schoolfellow, once Miss Hamilton, now Mrs. Smith, stayed in Westgate Buildings, but severe rheumatic fever kept her to her lodgings. In the days following Lady Elliot’s death, when Anne had been as sent to school, Miss Hamilton’s friendship eased her loneliness and suffering considerably.
Since there was no way for the enfeebled Mrs. Smith to call upon her, she must call upon her friend. Happily, Lady Russell heartily approved her desire to renew the acquaintance and offered to convey her to Westgate Buildings.
But what was she to say? So many years had passed, and now their situations were so…so reversed. Then, Miss Hamilton had been the superior girl, taking notice of the young, dispirited Anne. But now, Anne was in the decidedly elevated position. Would that ruin their friendship?
Mr. Elliot’s words still rang in her mind, Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regards to education it is not very nice. A little shiver ran down her spine. Surely that was not what she was walking into, was it? Miss Hamilton had always been clever and well-informed, though her sense of humor had been a bit wicked. Anne bit her lip to hide a giggle. That had been one of her most appealing qualities.
Lady Russell’s carriage stopped and the driver handed her out at the street corner nearest Westgate Building. The fine carriage would attract enough attention on the street. Best not make a spectacle of her arrival, when the event was somewhat awkward as it stood.
She drew her cloak around her and stepped brightly down the dirty, crowded street to the number to which she had been directed. Pausing only briefly to gather her courage, she knocked on the door—paint peeling and dusty—and waited. After an interval which would have mortified her father, a rough looking, stooped woman admitted her.
“So’s you here to see to Mrs. Smith, eh?” The woman sported a gap-toothed smile, but seemed well intentioned enough.
“I had no idea of her having such fine friends. Mighty nice of you to come away from your fine place to see the likes of us. She’s just in the parlor here.” She shambled down a short hall and pointed into a dark room.
Anne nodded and preceded her into the parlor, a bit uncertain of how to respond to the odd little woman. How did one reply to such remarks? Father would have considered them impertinent at best. Elizabeth would have dressed the woman down without hesitation. Perhaps silence and a pleasant expression were the best option at present.
The parlor’s few, small windows faced east, leaving the room dimly lit and vaguely cold. The smell reminded her of the Harville’s lodgings, only far more pronounced. How many people must share this house?
“She’s on the daybed, there in the corner. Having a particular bad day today, I would say. She ain’t one to tell you directly, you know, but you seem like the kind of lady who’d want to know.” The woman shuffled to the corner of the room. “Look who I brung ya’.”
“Miss Elliot!” Mrs. Smith sat up a little straighter, her voice weak, but full of warmth. “How delightful it is to see you!”
“Indeed it is.” Anne dipped in a little curtsey.
The woman dragged a chair close to the daybed and dusted off the shabby seat. “Here you go, Miss, enjoy your call.”
Mrs. Smith pulled herself up a little higher against the back of the daybed. “Thank you, you are too good to me, Mrs. Lance.”
Anne sat down. How frail Mrs. Smith looked, covered with a threadbare blanket. Though she smiled, pain lined her face, and her color…there was hardly any at all.
“I was not certain that you would come, Miss Elliot. I know these are not the kind of lodgings that you would find particularly comfortable.”
Whilst it was true, best not remark upon it. “I am most happy to see you. It has been far too long I think. I regret that we did not maintain our correspondence.”
“I must bear the blame for that. I fear I was a most negligent correspondent. But now you are here and we may forget the time we have been apart.” Her gaze drifted over her shoulder and she lifted her hand in a weak wave. “Nurse Rook just walked past.”
“She and her sister, Mrs. Lance, have been my blessings, my angels of mercy here in Bath. You see, when I had just arrived, I suffered another desperately ill spell. Mrs. Lance set her dear sister to care for me when I most needed it, despite knowing that my means are meager and friends few. She has nursed my body with tonics and carrying me into the hot baths; she had cheered my spirts with news of the outside world; and given my hands useful employ with threadcases pincushions and card holders to make, and sell, and teaching me to knit that I might be a little helps to those in the neighborhood whose situation is poorer than my own. I am indeed most blessed.”
Blessed? In these circumstances, blessed? “I…I…forgive me, I should have thought…”
“That I was quite the brown study? I suppose I was at one time, feeling quite sorry for myself. Certainly when I first came here, I was. But with the help of my new friends, I have regained my good cheer.”
“Forgive me, but have you not found it difficult?”
“Indeed I have, have no doubt about that. In truth, there have been days indeed I have been entirely ungrateful and thoroughly churlish to manage. You may have Mrs. Lance’s word on that.” Mrs. Smith made such a face and laughed.
Anne laughed along with her. What else could so do? Such good humor was truly infectious. “Have not your losses been—”
“Oh, they have been. Sometimes there seem too many to count: my husband, of whom I was exceedingly fond, our fortune, our connections, my health. Yes, they are heavy burden indeed.”
“But you are so cheerful. Forgive me for saying so, but I know so many whose situations are far better…” Oh, perhaps that was not the most gracious of things to say.
“Better than this?” Mrs. Smith gestured to the dilapidated little room around them and chuckled. “I am indeed aware of the meanness of my circumstance. You offer no offense by drawing attention to it, I assure you.”
Anne muffled a little sigh. It would have been unthinkable to have offended her friend. “I cannot help but think of my sisters, though I should not say so. Mary has a husband, a comfortable home, children, and her husband’s inheritance of Uppercross to look forward to. Yet she is forever fancying herself ill and unhappy.”
“She would not be the first, nor the last to do so would she?”
“I suppose not. But consider my father and Elizabeth, worrying themselves into a dither over whether our cousin Lady Dalrymple would cut them or not! How very petty it all seems…forgive me, you must think me utterly insensitive—”
“Hardly, my friend. It is refreshing to be able to speak openly of things. You have always known that I am apt to speak bluntly rather than with tact and elegance. It is a relief to share that with you. We have always had that, have we not?”
“I suppose so. But enough of my own circumstances, you must tell me, what may I do for you?”
“Tell me…oh, of anything. Of places I have not been, people I have not met. I quite rely on such intelligence to carry me through those moments when I fancy myself more miserable than I am.”
Of all the things she would ask, it would be that, would it not? “I have not been many places, nor done many things, nor know many people…”
“And you have many regrets?”
Anne turned her face aside. Mrs. Smith was astute as she ever was. Sickness had not taken that from her.
“We all have regrets, every one of us. Just because some around you will pretend not does not make them immune. What matters is not your regrets, but that you have the elasticity of character to rebound from them and have a disposition to be comforted in whatever your circumstances. We must go forward, for we cannot go back. Today, and tomorrow are only ever as pleasing as we choose to make them, are they not?”
As we choose to make them…as we choose…we choose…. Mrs. Smith’s voice faced into the background hum of the noisy room as Anne’s awareness narrowed around a single word: choice. She had the power of choice. She could indeed choose. She had been persuaded in the past, and while perhaps it was not wrong for her to have been so, today she had the power to choose for herself. Choose what she would do, with whom she would associate, what she would think, what she would approve.
She was not a victim of the whims of others. She could choose…and today she would.