Posted at May 8, 2020

Victorian Era Fiction to Get You Through COVID-19 (Chapter 6)

Chapter Six

Now that her nephew and the Kingstons had been introduced, it was not long before Mrs. Johnson made sure Mary and Ruth were always in Anthony’s way. The Kingstons were invited to every luncheon, dinner and dance that she or her neighbors hosted. He had made the acquaintance of everyone in London, but he had seen the most of the Kingston family. Mr. Kingston was quiet and disinterested in him, Mrs. Kingston always made certain to include the virtues of her youngest daughter into every conversation, Randolph boisterously spoke to him about cards, wine and Harriet’s beauty. As for the daughters, who were placed even more in his way than the others, their interactions with him were completely opposite of the other. Ruth was always in good humor and he always found her pleasing. Mary, however well described she was by her family, never ceased to be terribly nervous in his presence. Mr. Chamberlain could never be sure if it was shyness or a dislike of him, and Mary’s behavior did not encourage him in the least.
Because of this, he had developed a close friendship with Ruth and preferred speaking to her above all others most of the time. He was careful not to show too much preference for her in the presence of others, lest rumors of their upcoming nuptials begin to circulate. Mr. Chamberlain was extremely fond of Ruth and Ruth extremely fond of him, but they both believed they had not known one another long enough or talked deeply enough to entangle themselves.
It was only when Ruth continued her frequent walks in the park as the weather grew finer, that Mr. Chamberlain could come across her more often and speak to her privately. Randolph always chaperoned his sister and Mr. Chamberlain his, and each gentleman swapped his lady when they were all together. Randolph and Harriet often outstripped Anthony and Ruth and the latter two were left to dawdle and chat. They grew quite close to one another, to the point where Anthony insisted on her calling him as his friends did, Tony. And when he was in the best humor, he called her “Ruthie” as her brother often did. It was hard to tell for Ruth if their relationship was more similar to that of siblings or lovers and her own feelings of Mrs. Johnson’s plans began to scramble in her own mind.
They teased each other as a brother and sister might and yet began to speak of topics they felt strongly about. Anthony was always taken in when Ruth spoke. Her well informed opinions always amazed him and he more often than not agreed with what she had to say. They learned just how much they had in common from their taste in music to their best liked hobbies. They only differed in their taste in reading. Ruth enjoyed all sorts of novels while Anthony avoided reading whenever he could. He preferred a concert to reading, while Ruth insisted a person could take pleasure in both a concert and a book.

Anthony grew less and less cautious of concealing his admiration for his friend and often deigned to compliment her beauty and intelligence. Ruth was always flattered by his compliments and while she did truly like him, felt always wary that he was not quite as forthcoming as someone with real intentions would be. This nagged at her as they came to know each other better, and as he spent more time with her than any other lady, she finally decided to ask him about his situation.

During one of their usual walks in the park on a sunny summer’s day, when Randolph and Harriet had once again strolled a long distance away to enjoy each other’s company, Ruth told Anthony she was quite hot and would like to take a seat in some shade. He hurriedly escorted her to the bench she had been sitting on when they had first met.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked. “Do you need anything?”
“Oh I’m fine,” she answered. “Just a bit warm. My parasol wasn’t enough shade.” She smiled warmly as she said it and he smiled back. Ruth felt a tug at her heart when she looked at him and felt that she was in danger of falling for him if she did not clarify if he was not promised to someone else.
“Tony,” she began, looking out over the pond instead of at him. “What do you think of our walks?”
“I always enjoy them,” he answered readily. “I put off my business as long as I can when I walk with you. We always have fun together, don’t we?”
“We do! I wanted to tell you how glad I am that we’ve become such good friends.”
Anthony nodded but made no reply. During this pause, Ruth mustered the courage to be direct with him.
“May I ask you something a bit personal?”
“Of course,” he said, not at all startled by the question. Ruth was welcome to ask him anything she liked.
“I couldn’t help but notice that your aunt wanted you to meet all of the eligible young ladies in London but you have yet to be engaged. In fact, is it proper to spend all of your time walking with me? Are you…perhaps…engaged to someone who is not in London?”
Anthony was silent, which only surprised her somewhat. She half expected him to laugh at the idea and insist he was unattached, but he did not. This could mean only one thing.
“Engaged…” he said, deep in thought. “I’m not sure if I am…”
Ruth’s brow knitted and she took the opportunity to keep her cool and tease him.
“I thought that in general, a man was aware if he had proposed or not.”
She laughed but Anthony did not join her.
“I had,” he said. “That is I proposed to a lady some time ago, but we’ve been separated by distance for some years. I hardly know if there is any affection left between us.”
She had not expected him to be so candid about this, and hoping for more details to settle her mind, questioned him further.
“I find it odd that your aunt would not mention it to any of us, and try to marry you off to my sister no less.”
“She doesn’t know,” Anthony replied. “No one does, in fact.”
Ruth was bewildered by this information and did not know what to say.
“I might have known you were clever enough to see right through me,” he added. “I hope you don’t think I was out to purposefully deceive any of you.”
“How could I? You only offered us all friendship and did not spend time with the other families’ daughters. I suppose it’s because you trusted me.”
Ruth thought she might have gone too far and overtly flattered herself here, but Anthony replied that she was quite right. They always enjoyed themselves together and he knew she would not expect him to propose at any moment as the much younger ladies might believe a man should do. Ruth was unsure whether to be complimented or insulted by this, but Anthony had clearly not meant it to be any slight.
“Why have you not told anyone?” she then asked.
“We were engaged before I set off to Africa a second time which was some five years ago at least. I was twenty-two and she was younger still at only seventeen. I realized gradually with each leave I was allowed how little we had in common and I thought she would tire of me, but she never did.”
“You did not tire of her?”
“She was always pleasant at first but we began to argue. Still, she was determined not to give up on the engagement. And I cannot give up on my word.”
“That’s honorable of you,” Ruth said, hoping to comfort him in this melancholy state of affairs.
“Honorable or stupid?” he chuckled.
Ruth repeated that it was, in fact, honorable and she had no doubt that everything could come right. She said that maybe if he could spend enough time with his fiancée that they might rekindle their flame in due time. She encouraged him in being kind to her and to write to her and visit her often. Anthony listened but Ruth was unconvinced that he would follow this advice.
Once she was placed back on the arm of her brother and they walked back toward their house, Ruth felt she had dodged what could have been a treacherous heartbreak and was glad she had asked Anthony about his being engaged. They could be friends as ever they were and she did not need to think of what he felt for her when they met. She happily strolled along back to the house. Yet when she reached her bedroom to change, a pang in her chest made itself known. She knew he was attached, but it was too late. Ruth had already begun to love Anthony.

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