The Jennings – Chapter Two

Uninvited

No Daughter of Mine

Christopher Jennings slowly mounted the staircase to Lady Morton’s second floor, to the room where Elizabeth had been recuperating for three days.

“She is much improved,” Lady Morton had told him when he arrived.  “She is able to eat and to converse for short times.”  Her expression darkened as she continued, “Dr. Pemberly was quite aghast at the extent of her injuries.  He spent nearly three hours cleaning and stitching that monstrous cut on her side, and she bore it so stoically!”  Her eyes filled with tears at the memory.  “But he was here again this morning, and he expressed great relief and hope at how she has mended so far.”  She smiled then, and, putting a kind hand on Mr. Jennings’ arm, she guided him toward the stairs.  “She will be quite happy to see you, I’m sure,” she said warmly.  “She is all gratitude.”

Jennings managed a small smile in return, but inside he was consumed with guilt.  If only he had returned home to the slate sooner; if only he had run faster!  If only he had thought to look in the park before returning to the house.  If only … well, it did him no good to dwell on such thoughts, since he had done the best he could, but his steps were heavy as he approached the door to Elizabeth’s room, and his hand when he raised it to knock was shaking quite badly.

“Come in,” a woman’s voice said in answer to his tentative knock.  The voice was much stronger than he expected to hear, and when he opened the door he discovered that it belonged not to Elizabeth, but to her stepmother, who stood by the side of the bed looking down on Elizabeth with undisguised concern and affection.  When Jennings entered, both women turned to look at him, Elizabeth inclining her head slightly on the pillow and peering out through eyes that, even after three days, were still swollen and bruised almost to the point of being closed over.

“Mr. Jennings!” Charlotte Carlisle said brightly, gesturing at her stepdaughter with a small wave of her hand.  “You see she is doing much better!”

Jennings surveyed the girl lying in the bed, dwarfed rather pitifully by a mountain of pillows and blankets.  Her arms were wrapped in lengths of bandage, and there were cuts and bruises all over her face and neck.  Her hair, tousled around her pale face, had been cut haphazardly in a few places, since the blood that had caked onto it proved too difficult to wash away.  She lay still, and when she moved at all it was with extreme care.  If this was “doing much better”, then he was indeed surprised that she had survived the attack at all.

“Miss Carlisle,” he said softly, his voice threatening to break with his stifled emotions.  “I am so, so very sorry!”

Elizabeth attempted to open her eyes a little wider; Mr. Jennings stood solicitously beside her bed, looking down on her with such tenderness and concern that her heart was quite touched, and she felt tears of gratitude stinging her eyelids.  “Mr. Jennings,” she whispered haltingly, her throat still ravaged.  Her hand lifted slightly off the bed and reached toward him, and he quickly bent and took the hand in his own.

“When I realized,” he said, and cleared his throat.  “When I saw that you needed help, I ran as quickly as I could to you.  I – ”  He cleared his throat again, and looked down, unable to meet her gaze, and his jaw stiffened as he struggled with his feelings.  “I should have been faster.”

Her fingers squeezed his as much as they were able.  “No!” she said, her face showing the forcefulness that her voice could not manage.  Her brows drew together, and tears slid down her cheeks.  “You saved my life!”

Jennings did not know what to say, or how to argue the merits of asking Elizabeth to blame him as thoroughly as he blamed himself.  He stood in silence, still looking down at her and holding her hand, wanting to wipe away her tears and to erase all of her hurting.

Mrs. Carlisle spoke into this silence, her expression and tone at once pleasant and yet guarded, as though she felt obliged to share unhappy tidings.  “It is quite fortunate you were there, Mr. Jennings,” she said, smiling at him.  “Almost miraculous that you knew she would be in the park.”

Jennings lowered his eyes, bowing his head and replying diffidently, “I had a feeling, ma’am.  I – I can’t explain it.”

“Because,” Mrs. Carlisle continued as though he had not spoken.  “As Lizzie’s father asked me just this morning – what on earth was she doing in the park at such an hour?”  She gave a nervous sort of laugh, and reached out and took Elizabeth’s other hand in hers.  “I tried to explain to him what you explained to me, Lizzie – I really did – but you know how he is.”  She gazed at Elizabeth with an almost desperate pleading in her eyes.  “How am I supposed to explain to him, when he does not wish to listen?”  She seemed ready to burst into tears, and her elegant hand, wrapped tightly around Elizabeth’s, shook slightly.

Elizabeth well understood her stepmother’s dilemma: Sir James Carlisle was not an easy man to talk to about anything, certainly not about things that fell outside the common.  How was his wife to press him on this matter – that had created an extraordinary amount of gossip in the town – when she could not even successfully debate with him on changing what he ate for breakfast?  And, of course, it could not be expected that she would take sides against her own husband, for several reasons not the least of which was Sir James’ great ire were she to do so.

“Do not distress yourself, Charlotte,” Elizabeth murmured.  “I understand.”  She turned her face away from her stepmother and went on in an even smaller voice, “I know my own father.”

Mrs. Carlisle gave way then to a sob, quickly stifled behind the lace handkerchief she held in her free hand.  “He began to question me!” she said, her eyes glistening.  “Asking me why I was not with you.  I did stand firm on that, I can assure you! – it is perfectly permissible to walk onto the balcony unattended, in full view of everyone!”  She paused, composed herself and forced a new smile.  “But he would not entertain any other word that I said,” she added, shaking her head.  “When I said that something had carried you off the balcony, he – he said that it was total nonsense.”  She blinked away the tears that still threatened to spill over.  “He said it was preposterous,” she said, shaking her head again.  “But if he would but come here and see you, dearest! – he would know that only some great monstrous creature could have inflicted these injuries upon you!”

Mr. Jennings listened to this wordlessly, feeling increasing confusion, but at this last he felt compelled to interrupt.  “Surely, ma’am,” he said, looking at Mrs. Carlisle with a puzzled frown.  “Her father has come to see her?”

Impossibly, Elizabeth suddenly looked even more pitiful, and she sank low into the pillows and closed her eyes.  Her stepmother’s smile faltered for a moment, and she answered with resigned sadness, “Indeed no, sir.  He is … sure … that whatever the nature of the attack, it would not have occurred if she had not run off unaccompanied.”

A sound like an angry sob came from Elizabeth’s tortured throat, and she opened her eyes again to stare at Mrs. Carlisle.  “I did not do that!” she protested weakly, and, as this pronouncement was made with the last remnant of her strength, she gave way to a fit of coughing that shook her battered body and caused her to grimace in pain.  “I … did … not!” she gasped in between coughs.

Lizzie!” Mrs. Carlisle cried, leaning over her stepdaughter and gently stroking the side of her face.  “You mustn’t do this to yourself!  You know I believe you, and that Lady Morton believes you!  Anyone who has ever met you would believe you!”

“I believe you,” Mr. Jennings said quietly.  He had released her hand when she began coughing, but, now that the fit was subsiding, he impulsively took her hand again.

“You see?” Mrs. Carlisle said triumphantly, smiling in earnest.  “You are not abandoned, dearest, whatever notions your father may get into his head!”  She looked out of the corner of her eye at Mr. Jennings. “Sir James is … old-fashioned,” she explained delicately.  “He does not favour women to be unaccompanied – even on a balcony where everyone might see them – but he did allow that such behaviour did not violate propriety.  He will not, however, no matter what I say to him, believe that any sort of creature or person could have spirited Lizzie away from the balcony unseen.  He feels that she has fabricated such a tale in order to protect the identity of someone he assumes is Lizzie’s clandestine lover.”

Sir James’ interpretation of events seemed to Jennings to be, at the least, ridiculous, and decidedly unfair.  Good Lord, it was his own daughter! – even if she had in fact been in the park with someone, did she then deserve such a horrible fate as she had suffered?  Hoping he was successfully hiding his disapproval of her husband, Jennings asked Mrs. Carlisle, “Does he think, then, that this supposed lover attacked Miss Carlisle?”

“I do not know for certain what he thinks about that,” Mrs. Carlisle admitted sadly.  “But I believe that he feels Lizzie’s lover should be the one who takes care of her now.”  She sobbed again, and squeezed Lizzie’s hand.  “He feels that her behaviour – he thinks she went into the park on her own, you see – he feels that she has brought about her own ruin, and that this person he imagines she went to meet should take equal blame.”

Jennings did not know what to say to this.  He gazed down at Miss Carlisle with great compassion and worry writ plainly on his face.  For her part, if she had attended to any of their conversation she gave no sign, and the tears that hovered at the corners of her eyes were accompanied by neither sound nor any change in her expression.  “How can I fault him?” she said finally, her voice hoarse.  “He judges all the same; why should I be any different?”

Mrs. Carlisle abandoned all attempts not to weep openly.  “Because you are blameless, dearest!” she cried, still wiping at her eyes with her handkerchief.  “You should not be judged!”

Jennings’ jaw tightened as he watched Miss Carlisle’s bruised and woebegone face: clearly she had no hope that her father would alter his opinion, and the life that now lay before her was perhaps even more frightening in its uncertainty than all that she had already endured.

__________________________________________

Lady Morton came to Elizabeth’s room late in the afternoon.  She was evidently incensed beyond the point of articulating thoughts, and she stood for a moment with her hands clasped almost desperately in front of her, and silently struggled to control her agitated breathing.

“My dear,” she said, when she at last found her tongue.  “A trunk has been delivered here for you, from your home.”

Elizabeth looked at Lady Morton with curiosity.  “I believe,” she said, pausing frequently to catch her breath.  “That my stepmother was sending some of my things, since I will likely be here for some days.”  Realization struck her, and she added, “Is that upsetting to you, ma’am?  If it is, I readily understand, and am more than happy to arrange to be brought ho– ”

Lady Morton held up her hand to stop Elizabeth talking.  “Dearest girl!” she said with a tone that would not brook argument.  “You may stay here as long as you wish!  You are certainly in no position to travel even down the hall! – and I will not allow you to have any silly notions of ‘arranging’ anything!”  She shook her head.  “Indeed, it is quite the opposite, Elizabeth!  It is not your stepmother, but your father who has sent the trunk.  And he has sent it with this note.”  She pulled two folded sheets of paper from her sleeve with a hand that trembled in anger.  She opened her mouth to read the note aloud, but then apparently reconsidered, and looked at her young guest with an expression of utmost compassion.  “I fear that it will upset you, my dear,” she said more quietly.  “Perhaps I shall not read it to you?”

Elizabeth lay completely still, a crushing weight on her chest.  Although she wanted very much to believe that her father had changed his mind, had somehow found the place in his heart where she ought rightly to be, she could not imagine, on having known him her whole life, that he had written anything in the note but his continued disapproval.

“Do not distress yourself,” she said, her voice still hoarse, and now quite forlorn.  “I am prepared, I think, to hear whatever is written there.”  She was not sure that she believed her own words, but it seemed better to know for certain than to wonder what it said.

Lady Morton gazed at her for another moment, her heart breaking for Elizabeth’s sake.  Then, her voice trembling now more than her hands, she read Sir James’ message aloud.

“My dear Lady Morton,” it began.  “That you have sheltered Elizabeth is a kindness that shows the goodness of your heart, but it also shows, I believe, a tendency to place kindness above Christian duty.  Despite my best efforts, Elizabeth has clearly defied all my moral teachings, and has brought her fate upon herself.  I would be remiss to forgive her a transgression so easily avoided had she simply followed ordinary feminine modesty; her denial that she went into the park for a clandestine meeting, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, has made the situation even more ridiculous.  If you wish her to stay in your care, I can only think that God will reward you for your inordinately giving nature.  When she has outworn her welcome, however, do not think to send her here, for I cannot in good conscience allow such a wanton girl into my home.  As far as I am concerned, the girl I have raised is dead to me, and this girl you now entertain, whose scandalous behaviour is so far outside what is acceptable, has replaced her without any regard for my feelings or for the honour of our family name.  I have sent some things to you for her – at the request of my wife, who has, unfortunately, a weakness of spirit when it comes to her stepdaughter – but for my part, I must assert most strongly that Elizabeth Carlisle is no longer any daughter of mine.  I remain, in all other endeavours, your most obedient servant, Sir James Carlisle.”

The silence following Lady Morton’s reading of the letter was for several seconds broken only by her own breathing, still drawn sharply in and out of her nose as she quivered with disgust for Sir James – a man she had, until today, considered a friend.  For her part, Elizabeth did not know what to say or how to feel.  Her heart had broken entirely in two upon hearing her father’s sentiments delivered so coldly – not even to herself but to Lady Morton!  Had she been such a wretched daughter that he could find no affection for her at all? – could he not even oblige himself to come and see her and tell all this to her face?  His opinions of what he dismissively referred to as the “weaker sex” were well-known to her – and to anyone of Sir James’ acquaintance – but that he would be so single-minded as to give her no benefit of the doubt seemed to Elizabeth to be unfairly cruel.  “I have always been honest with him,” she murmured, her ragged voice suffused with emotion.  I have always been the best daughter, and the most honourable person, that I could be.  And he treats me now as though we have never met.

Tears flowed over her cheeks, stinging the scratches and cuts that so harshly decorated her face.  What would she do now?  Where could she turn?  She could hardly stay with Lady Morton forever; even if her ladyship were to suggest it, Elizabeth could not bear the thought of hurting Lady Morton – who would certainly feel the disapprobation by society of her sheltering a ruined girl.

A soft cough from the doorway startled both women, and Lady Morton turned quickly to look behind her.  “Oh, Mr. Jennings!” she said.  “I did not know you were there, sir!”  She smiled and reached out a hand to him.  “Do come in, sir!  I believe Miss Carlisle would greatly love a visit from a friend!”

“Indeed, ma’am,” Mr. Jennings said, stepping into the room.  His stern expression suggested that he had heard all that Sir James had written, and that it had caused in him a great and crushing anger, but he ignored that for the moment, and smiled warmly at Elizabeth, holding out to her the bouquet of wild flowers that he had brought.  “Flowers for you, Miss Carlisle,” he said.  “I hope they might bring you at least some measure of cheer, if nothing else.”

Elizabeth looked up at the man who had been her saviour, the man who had been all kindness and friendship, who had asked no questions and made no judgments, even though her story – as she readily admitted herself – was improbable.  She saw in that instant, as Mr. Jennings stood there offering her flowers, a great truth: not everyone felt as her father did, and to judge herself by her father’s standards was unfair.  She had always known it, but had hidden it away in favour of pleasing the only man who had been a part of her life.  Why had she done that? – when she had disagreed with him in so many things, why had she stayed silent?  Why had she considered his views ahead of her own, when his regard for her had always been so … conditional?  Why had she done that?  Well, because that is the way it is done, and parents should be honoured … but should she not have been honoured as well?  Looking into Mr. Jennings’ eyes, she caught a glimpse of a happier world where her father was wrong.  How wonderful, she realized, tears still pouring from her eyes.  How wonderful to shrug off undeserved disapproval, and to meet people – like Mr. Jennings and Lady Morton – who believed in her, who cared for her, who liked her.

“You will not believe me, Mr. Jennings,” she said.  “But your flowers have cheered me more than you can know.”

Jennings stepped forward, setting the flowers on the table beside the bed and sitting down carefully on the edge of the bed next to Elizabeth.  His countenance had become even more stern, and something in his demeanor suggested that he was pondering a great decision.  He took her hand and brought it to his lips, and for a long moment he considered what he wanted to say to her.

He was tormented by the thought of her in the park, struggling for her life while he made his leisurely way home.  He had, to some extent, accepted the logical truth – that her injury was not his fault – but he could not shake his lingering feeling of partial culpability.  He must, at the very least, improve her situation now, especially since her father had heaped further harm upon her by disowning her in this fashion.  This lovely girl who had so recently danced with him, smiling and laughing, captivating him with her guileless charm – she was now brought low by circumstances he had been, even with the slate’s timely counsel, entirely unable to prevent, and, if Lady Morton could not take her in as her ward, then Elizabeth would frankly have nowhere to go.  Jennings feared that she would end up on the streets, and he found such a notion to be completely, overwhelmingly intolerable.

Well, he decided.  There’s nothing else for it.

He took a deep breath, summoning his courage as best he could in that brief second, and, still holding her hand in his, began speaking to her.

“Miss Carlisle,” he said, watching her rather intently.  “I realize that I have only known you a very short time, and that you have no particular insights into my character or manner; I know that what I am about to suggest to you may seem ridiculous to you – and if it seems repugnant to you, I will gladly seek some other solution – but I believe that it would be the best course for you given your circumstances.”  He coloured slightly, and looked away for a moment, but then brought his compassionate gaze back to hers.  “I was not able to stop your attacker, Miss Carlisle,” he said.  “And I cannot flatter myself that I could prevail upon your father to change his long-held opinions.  But I believe I can offer a solution to your current predicament, by giving you a new home.”

Behind him, Lady Morton gave a low gasp, but Elizabeth’s only response was to look plainly confused.  “I – I do not understand, sir,” she said.  “What do you mean?”

Jennings discovered that he no longer needed courage, and that his next words came very easily to his lips.  “Miss Carlisle,” he said, smiling gently.  “Elizabeth.  If you will accept it, I am offering my home to you, that you might become its mistress.” When he saw that her expression, though openly incredulous, was not one of disgust or alarm, he took heart and leaned closer to her.  “However odd it may seem to you, Miss Carlisle,” he said.  “I am most humbly asking – if it pleases you to consider it – for your hand in marriage.”

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