Gentle readers: Good news! Mrs. Elton has returned, but with a twist. Diana Birchall and I hope that you’ll enjoy this interesting development in Mrs. Elton’s life. T’ill next time, and wishing you all the best of holidays … Vic (Toby) and Diana (Mrs. Elton)
15th August, 1818
Fairweather Plantation, Raleigh
To: Augusta Hawkins, Bristol
My dearest darling Augusta,
When we parted I pledged I would refrain from contacting you until I was WORTHY of your hand. Our ambitions have borne fruit, my Angel, and of such a magnitude that I can now hold my head high as I formally ask your father for your hand. Even as I write, my man of business has sailed ahead of me to arrange for a house and carriage in Bristol. I shall leave the choice of furnishing to you, my dearest, for your taste is as restrained and exquisite as The Prince Regent’s.
Lo, all these eight years I have worn your locket with its precious strand of your hair next to my heart, as you have kept my promise ring next to yours, I’ll warrant. The last sweet words you whispered in my ear before I set sail (forever etched on my brain – “Do not return until you can claim me openly”), your pledge of unwavering love, and your faith in my abilities have kept me strong even through the darkest and most trying times. There were agonizing moments when I despaired of ever seeing you again, for the New World is as you feared – a wild and dangerous place, where a man is just a hair’s breath away from meeting his MAKER. But fate has been kind and I have emerged triumphant! It is as you predicted, my dearest – my uncanny skills at the gaming table have made my fortune in the form of a fine and thriving tobacco plantation in the Carolinas.
Expect me on the next mail packet from the Americas, for I cannot wait another moment to see your fair face and hold you in my arms.
Your loving, faithful and obedient servant, “Toby”
Tobias Evander McKiddie
P.S. I did not for a moment believe the spiteful rumours that came my way of your marriage to a mere country vicar not a half year after my departure. “You slander my faithful Augusta!” were the last words one lying cur heard after I shot him dead. However, the curious rumour persists, and we must address its origin before it DEFILES your spotless reputation.
On receiving this letter at the post-office, yellowed, water-stained, and slightly torn, covered all over with American stamps, Mrs. Elton stood for a moment, silent. This was so odd a posture for her, that Mrs.Ford (for the post-office was in a corner of the store) asked if she was well.
“Oh! Perfectly, perfectly well, Mrs. Ford. I am only surprised. It is not every day that one receives a letter from America, you know.”
“I should say not, Mrs. Elton,” exclaimed Mrs. Ford. “That is why I fetched it down for you, when you came by. In the ordinary course of things I should have sent it with the post-boy on his donkey, and you would have had it by tea-time, but this seemed so very special.”
“Yes, yes,” said Mrs. Elton, absently.
“And your man did not come for the post this morning, as he usually does. I had thought there might be illness at the vicarage, or some such.”
“Oh, dear no, Mrs. Ford. I was not expecting any thing, and did not think to tell Charles to fetch the letters this morning, when he went to the fishmonger’s. We are having a select little dinner to-night, you know.”
“Yes, I heard – the Westons and the Coles,” said Mrs. Ford, very interested. “My! I am sure you have your head full of cares to-day. No one in Highbury gives a more elegant dinner than you, Mrs. Elton. You are quite famous for it.”
“Not at all. It is only that I learnt at Maple Grove how things should be done in proper style. I do not allow any pitiful doings at my table. Meat and drink should be plentiful and wholesome, but with something more elegant, more recherche, when there is company. That was why I wanted to be sure to get the very best piece of fish the town affords…”
“To be ordering fish, and to find a letter from America!” said Mrs. Ford, laughing winningly and holding up her hands, but sticking to the subject that she was afire with curiosity to hear about.
But Mrs. Elton had recollected herself, and slipped the letter into her reticule, slapping it shut with finality. “Yes,” she said, “and I must hurry home and take it to Mr. Elton, for it is sure to be for him. A letter of business about church affairs – perhaps about converting the Indians,” she finished, in an effort of imagination.
“Well! Only think! America! Indians! But the letter,” Mrs. Ford pursued wisely, “is addressed to you.”
“That must be some mistake,” Mrs. Elton said firmly, “for I know no one in America. But my husband has such an extensive correspondence, I am sure he will not be at a loss.”
“I’ve never seen him get a letter from America before,” said Mrs. Ford skeptically, “nor anyone in this village for that matter.”
“There is always a first time. Good day, Mrs. Ford.”
Mrs. Elton prided herself on a stately glide, as befitted the vicar’s wife, when on foot, as she was today owing to the pleasant autumn weather. She now regretted not taking the carriage, as she was exposed to the eyes of the village, and she knew the story of the letter was circulating like wildfire faster than she could reach home. Accordingly, she walked as quickly as she dared, and the last few yards she might be said to be guilty of scurrying.
Not even taking off her bonnet and gloves, she stood in the entry way, tore open her letter, and read.
She only looked up, to see her husband come in, having walked back from Donwell where he had been conferring with Mr. Knightley on parish business.
“Why, Augusta, it must be true then,” he exclaimed cheerfully, “that must be the famous letter from America you are reading! John Carpenter told me of it, as I crossed the last field over from Martin’s.”
He noticed her stricken expression. “What is it, then?” he asked, concerned. “Is it really from America? What can America have to do with us?”
Mutely she put the letter in his hands. He read. Their eyes met for a moment, and he struck the letter to the ground. “That puppy!” he exclaimed.
“It is that puppy you told me about long ago – is it not?”
“Yes, Philip,” she said faintly.
He began to pace. “What insolence! Arrant nonsense. You were not engaged before we met – I know. You told me the whole story, long ago.”
Augusta found her voice. “Certainly not. You remember how I told you of my difficulty in – in getting rid of the young man. He presumed too much then, and you see it is apparent he still does – now.”
“I should say so!” Mr. Elton picked up the letter, smoothed it out thoughtfully, though his own brow was furrowed. “Augusta, this is a sort of thing that could cause some damage, if it became known.”
“Never you worry. Do you know,” he concluded, folding it up again, “it looks to me as if this gentlemen intends mischief – a breach-of-promise suit or something of that sort. This is not about sentiment. He is after money, I’ll be bound.”
“What – what shall we do?”
“I am not exactly certain, not being a lawyer myself, but I tell you what, dearest,” he looked at her resolutely, “we cannot do better than to take this to Mr. Knightley.”
“Why, yes. He is the magistrate, and absolutely safe as houses, you know. A secret is a secret with him. And Mr. John Knightley, his brother, is the very person to consult about a delicate matter, and the law.”
“But – oh, Philip, what if he tells Mrs. Knightley? Or Miss Bates! Only think! It will be all over town in an hour!”
“Don’t be silly, my dear. Men of business do not behave in such a way. Yes, I am decided. Do not worry, I say. I will walk back over to Donwell this very moment, and secure Knightley’s advice. It is the best thing going.”
“I suppose you know best,” she agreed. “Oh, Philip, you are not – angry?”
“Not with you,” he answered briefly, and strode out of the house.
About Diana Birchall
Diana Birchall grew up in New York City, and was educated at Hunter College Elementary School, the High School of Music and Art, and C.C.N.Y, where she studied history and English literature. She has worked in the film industry for many years and is the “book person” story analyst at Warner Bros. Studios, reading novels to see if they would make movies. A lifelong student of Jane Austen, whom she calls her writing teacher, Diana is the author of Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma, a charming and best-selling sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Originally published by Egerton House Press in England, it is now available in a new reprint edition from Sourcebooks. Diana’s comedy pastiche In Defense of Mrs. Elton,based on characters from Jane Austen’s Emma, was published by the Jane Austen Society in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. It forms part of the “compleat” Mrs. Elton Trilogy, which is collected in the volume Mrs. Elton in America, published by Sourcebooks.