As soon as he entered Mrs Charles Musgrove's drawing-room, Captain Wentworth heartily wished himself anywhere else in the world. He had expected to find Mrs Charles within, and the Miss Musgroves, attending on the injured little boy; but instead there was only the little boy himself, and Anne Elliot.
Too startled at finding himself alone, or nearly alone, with Anne to do or say what was proper, he heard himself stammer, "I thought the Miss Musgroves had been here: Mrs Musgrove told me I should find them here …"
"They are upstairs with my sister; they will be down in a few moments, I dare say," Anne replied, in a tone of confused dismay. He saw her eyes dart toward the door.
"Aunt Anne!" called the little boy, and she hurried toward him.
Angry half with himself for his want of wits, and half with her by habit, Captain Wentworth turned away, and stepped to the drawing-room window to recollect himself. He had thought himself able to be near her, even to speak to her, with perfect insouciance; was he to lose his composure now, merely for lack of anyone else for either of them to speak to?
"I hope the little boy is better," he said at length. He was now able with some effort to adopt a tone of calm politeness; but he was not sorry when Anne, busy about the child, made him no reply.
The sound of the door opening came as a great relief to him, and he turned almost eagerly to speak to the newcomer, though it proved to be not the Miss Musgroves at all, but their cousin – Hayter, yes, that was the man's name. "How d'you do, sir? A fine day, is not it?"
But Hayter, who wore the look of one oppressed by some strong irritation of spirits, repulsed his attempts at conversation by the expedient of walking to the other end of the room, and taking up the newspaper that lay upon the table; and Captain Wentworth, for want of anything else to do, that did not involve addressing Anne Elliot, returned to his window.
There very quickly came again the sound of the door, and again he turned: but again the newcomer was not the Miss Musgroves. Instead he beheld Mrs Charles's younger son, toddling forward determinedly with a glad cry of "Aunty!"
He would not watch them, would not even seem to watch them; it was distressing to him to see her with these children, though he would not understand why this should be so. Still he must hear the smaller boy's piping voice, the elder's protesting in rising tones, and Anne kindly but firmly representing to the former that he must not tease his sick brother, and should not be let stay in the room with him if he persisted.
A few moments' quiet ensued; and then Captain Wentworth heard Anne's voice again, oddly muffled, in tones of increasing vexation – "Walter, do get down!" – and looked round to find that the child had climbed upon her back, flung his arms about her neck and bent down her head. Despite the noise they were making, and Anne's very evident need of help, Charles Hayter did not look up from his newspaper.
"Walter!" said Anne at last, "get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you."
The newspaper rustled; and "Walter!" Charles Hayter cried, "Why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak?" Severity availing him nothing, he changed his tone, held out his arms and said cajolingly, "Come to me, Walter! Come to cousin Charles."
The little boy however, had evidently no intention of being dissuaded from his game.
The man had no sense at all—or else no manners, thought Captain Wentworth, irritated by the fellow's lack of action. Very well then: he must do it himself, though it was hardly his place – he scarcely knew the child! – and a pretty mess they should be in, if it should take fright and begin howling.
Two strides brought him to Anne's side; he bent down to her, caught the little boy under the arms as one might grab at a young midshipman seeking to escape into the shrouds, swept him up into the air and bore him away. It was the work of a moment; and though the little boy gave a gasp of surprise, he afterward seemed not at all discomposed at his sudden translation, regarding it perhaps as all part of the game.
Little Walter was not such a very dreadful child, Captain Wentworth decided, enjoying the little boy's shouts of delight as he was tossed into the air and caught again, and swung to and fro by his ankles. It was his misfortune to be the namesake of such an empty-headed popinjay as Sir Walter Elliot, but one might hope he had inherited more of his father's energy and good sense than of his mother's pride and fractious temper. How Anne could bear with her sister so patiently …! He could not have done it; but the influence of family was very strong with her, as he had cause to know.
"Again! Again!" cried little Walter, and Captain Wentworth obediently hoisted him up once more. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Anne still bending over young Charles, petting and soothing her young patient in what seemed to him a deliberate effort not to be spoken to by anybody else. Well, he had certainly no wish to speak to her, for the matter of that.
"Why, Captain Wentworth!" Here were the Miss Musgroves at last, and Mrs Charles Musgrove with them. The bustle of "How do you do?"s and bows and welcomes, of exclamations over the children, of surprise at meeting him here, occupied several minutes; and when next Captain Wentworth glanced that way, Anne had gone, and Charles Hayter was looking at Miss Musgrove with a dissatisfied air, which she seemed determined not to remark.
"We are just going for a walk together," said Louisa; "you will join us, Captain Wentworth, will not you?"
"Oh! certainly," said he, with a ready smile; such sweet girls the Miss Musgroves were! how they chattered and laughed together! – it was a pleasure to be with them, and quite distracted one from melancholy and irritation of spirit. "I should like it of all things. Tell me, where do we go to-day?"