"Well Anne," Mary said the next morning, "you know I am not the sort of person to say I am right, so I will not, but rumours about you and Captain Wentworth are rampant in Uppercross village and have spread to Kellynch. Do you know what is being said? Of course you do not, for I am always the first to hear these things. It is too indelicate for your unmarried ears, but the result is just as I feared. You and Captain Wentworth must marry now. The worst part of it is how Louisa will suffer! It will break her heart! Though I suppose when seen in a different light, it is better that my own sister marry Captain Wentworth than my husband's sister."
Anne had no response to such a speech. After spending most of the night fraught with worry, she hardly needed to hear about her predicament in such a manner from Mary.
"I am sure Captain Wentworth will offer for you, as he is an honourable gentleman," Mary continued. "You must accept him; it is the only way to save your reputation and mine. And what of my little Charles and Walter, who shall be tainted by association otherwise? You have brought this upon yourself and must now face the consequences. I only hope for your sake that he eventually forgives you for this unfortunate turn of events. How terrible to no longer have a choice! I am sure I could not endure it."
Knowing the futility of arguing with her sister but not wishing to hear more, Anne hastily rose from her chair. "Excuse me, Mary. I must attend to… something." She moved towards the door to escape.
"But Anne, we still have much to discuss! Where will you and Captain Wentworth settle? You must remain close to Uppercross so you can come whenever I need you," Mary said to Anne's retreating back.
Anne went outside to compose herself. How ridiculous the entire situation had become! Nothing untoward had occurred between herself and Captain Wentworth, yet in all the perverseness of misfortune, two brief interactions lasting no more than ten minutes altogether had been misconstrued. Never had she been more disgusted by idle gossip than in that moment. She knew what she had to do. Her reputation would suffer - nay, it was already suffering - and Mary would be seriously displeased. But she would soon leave for Bath and live there for many years while her father retrenched. With her absence and Captain Wentworth's eventual marriage to Louisa, other gossip would attract interest and this one would be all but forgotten.
Still, Anne dreaded the inevitable conversation with Captain Wentworth. She knew his mind and Mary was correct; once he returned from Lyme, he would offer for her out of honour. The pain that would arise from declining him a second time was almost unthinkable. But if any scenario could be worse than refusing him again, it would be him marrying her when he loved another and despising her for the rest of his life.
Anne did not have to wait in suspense much longer, for Captain Wentworth called at the cottage at half past three that same day. Though it was later than the customary time for social visits, Mary told the servant to let him inside. He hesitantly walked into the drawing room looking dustier than usual, and Anne knew beyond a doubt that the rumours had reached him. Her heart clenched as the unpleasant moment she had been dreading loomed in front of her.
He greeted them both but did not take his eyes off Anne. Mary, eager for a prompt resolution, suggested they go for a walk together. As they strolled through Mr. Musgrove's woods, Mary immediately fell behind, allowing Anne and Captain Wentworth a chance to speak alone. The tumult of Anne's mind was great and she could not think of a neutral subject to bring forth without sounding trite. How could she ask about the condition of the roads or comment on the weather when much weightier issues surrounded them? Captain Wentworth was equally speechless as he stared alternately at the ground, the trees, and the sky. Several times, he took a deep breath and looked sideways at her as if about to speak, then turned his head away and expelled the air with an unsteady sigh. After several minutes, he finally broke the silence.
"I must apologise for my absence. I received a letter from my friend, Captain Harville, who has settled at Lyme for the winter. I was anxious to see him and regret leaving without giving you notice."
"You owe me no apology or explanation, Captain Wentworth. Is your friend in good health?"
"Yes - at least, as best as can be expected. He suffered an injury two years ago but is well considering the circumstances."
He stopped walking and looked back at Mary who, upon seeing him pause, found a seat on a bench some distance away. Anne was grateful for her sister's uncommonly good sense today.
In a lower voice, Captain Wentworth continued, "Miss Elliot, I understand that a vicious rumour is circulating in the village. I only learned of it a half hour ago upon my return to Kellynch. I came as soon as I could. You have heard it already, I am sure." Anne flushed and lowered her eyes, nodding. "I am sorry, exceedingly sorry to have placed you in such a position. I cannot imagine the mortification you have had to endure. It is my doing; I ought to have been more careful." He took a deep breath and, looking at her very seriously, resumed, "This is not how I had planned it would go, but I must tell you… I am half agony -"
"Pray do not continue!" Anne suddenly exclaimed, unable to remain silent any longer. "I am equally to blame for the present situation. I appreciate that you are an honourable gentleman, but you are under no obligation to me, and if you believe otherwise you may consider yourself released."
"But I am -"
"Please, I beg you, spare us both the unpleasantness that will arise from speaking further on this subject. I hope, when all of this is behind us, we can be friends."
He visibly paled and she wondered why, instead of being relieved at her words, he appeared quite perturbed. After a few moments, he finally said, "You... do not want to marry me." It was a realisation rather than a question.
She looked away, trying to contain the tears that threatened to spill. "I cannot abide a marriage of unequal affections. Such an union would only produce misery for both parties."
Captain Wentworth flinched and his jaw tightened. In a cold tone reminiscent of his goodbye eight years ago, he said, "I understand, Miss Elliot. I shall importune you no further. Good day."
He bowed curtly and turned to leave when an idea suddenly struck Anne. Could she have misread his feelings? Had he misread hers?
"But I do not think you understand!" She cried out.
His feet stopped but he did not turn to face her. She saw his hands clench and his body tremble as he tried to contain his raging emotions. Her heart thundered as she gathered her courage. Seeking to remove any chance of a misunderstanding, she said quietly, "I am aware that your affection lies elsewhere. Regardless of my feelings towards you, I will not stand in the way of your happiness."
A full minute passed as he continued standing with his back to her. She did not know which she dreaded more - his silence or his response. Never had she felt more vulnerable. As he slowly turned around, she thought her heart would give out. His dark eyes, reflecting a mixture of incredulity and hope, penetrated into her.
"My affections do not lie elsewhere. Only one woman has ever captured my heart; she has, in fact, had it in her possession for these eight years now."
Anne could scarcely breathe and began to feel faint, though this time not from illness. He studied her face and, encouraged by what he saw, added in a more tender tone,
"Anne, you are the only woman I have ever loved. I know my actions over the past month have belied it - I have been unjust, weak, and resentful, but never inconstant. I want to marry you, and it is not a desire borne out of honour or obligation. When you became ill, I realised what has always been in my heart. I want nothing more than to be by your side - in sickness and in health, for the rest of my life. At Lyme, I resolved to offer myself to you again. Anne, tell me, is it possible that you feel the same as I do?"
Overcome by her own felicity, Anne tried to speak but nothing sensible came out of her mouth. However, the rapid nodding of her head gave her answer just as well, and Captain Wentworth pulled her into a tight embrace.
"Dearest Anne, I love you so very much."
Though Mary was very pleased to see that Anne and Captain Wentworth had reached an understanding, she thought their exuberant happiness unequal to the patched-up nature of their betrothal. Now that they were engaged, Mary decided it was safe to give the couple more privacy and went back to the cottage alone.
As they continued walking, Captain Wentworth acknowledged to Anne how wrongly he had acted by allowing the attentions of the Miss Musgroves.
"When you ended our first engagement, I was devastated," he said. "I told myself you were not worthy of my affection, and as a result of angry pride, I attempted to attach myself to another."
"I am very sorry for the pain I caused," Anne said. "Not a day has passed since that I have not regretted my actions. Had I not been persuaded that I was consulting your good, even more than my own, I would never have acted as I did."
"What do you mean?"
"I was told that if I truly loved you, I should relinquish you. You would have difficulties and dangers enough to struggle with. You would be exposed to every risk and hardship - your home, country, friends, all quitted. And it would be very hard on you, and selfish of me, to add my feelings to all this."
"Good God! And that is why you ended the engagement?"
"Yes. The disapprobation from my father and Lady Russell weighed heavily as well, but it was the conviction that I should deny my own happiness for your advantage that induced me to give you up."
"Who told you this?"
She looked away. "It matters not. I know now that it was unsound advice. It has been a hard lesson for me. I was forced into prudence in my youth and only learned romance as I grew older."
He nodded and did not press further; he already had his suspicions about the answer to his question and knew Anne wanted to avoid more unpleasantness.
"It has been a hard lesson for me as well," he said. "Had I not courted anger and resentment all these years, we could have been reunited much sooner. It is fortunate that you prevented me from leaving in anger today."
"I feared we were operating under a terrible misapprehension."
"You thought I was trying to propose out of honour rather than love."
"Yes. Though I have long wished for a second proposal from you, I wanted you to have the freedom to follow your heart."
He paused to consider her words. "When you stopped me from proposing, were you attempting to deny your happiness for my advantage again?"
She flushed. "Yes, I suppose I was."
With a sigh, he gathered both of her hands into his. "Anne, you are too selfless and excellent a creature. I must insist that from now on, you never place my supposed interests above yours again. I am convinced the most direct path to my happiness is to ensure yours."
To subdue the gossips, one of Mary's maids, Harriet, from whom all the trouble originated, quickly and publicly acknowledged that she had fabricated the story of Captain Wentworth in Anne's bedchamber and exaggerated what had occurred in the drawing room. She had not wanted to do so, for no one would ever believe her again, but Charles' threat of unemployment with no reference induced her to speak out.
The village gossips quickly moved on to new targets, as half of them did not think Miss Anne Elliot capable of such scandalous behaviour in the first place. For the other, more vicious half, the idea of a single man who had not entered a single woman's bedchamber and was now engaged to her was hardly interesting, especially once the innkeeper's daughter was seen sneaking into the woods with the butcher's son.
Thus the happy couple were reunited, and on their wedding day, when asked if he would love, comfort, and honour Anne, and keep her in sickness and in health, so long as they both shall live, Captain Wentworth gave his beloved a meaningful smile and responded with more fervour than the vicar had ever heard before,
~~END OF STORY~~
I wrote a rough draft of this chapter a couple of days before I wrote "Her Innermost Thoughts" and hadn't yet decided if I would complete this story. Therefore, you may have noticed similarities in the part preceding the proposal, but in this story, Anne stops Frederick from leaving while in the other story, the roles are reversed.