Soon after the arrival of Lucia’s novel, another important communication arrived, this time from Sanditon: a formal invitation extended to Charlotte and her parents to attend a ball to celebrate the formal opening of the completed construction at the resort town. Mrs. Heywood was quick to determine that Charlotte was in great need of a change, and that she, as her mother, was needed to chaperone her. Mr. Heywood expressed disinclination to attend. A small gathering at Reddings with a good friend was one thing; but gathering with strangers in an unfamiliar location was quite another.
Thus, Charlotte and her mother found themselves in Sanditon, guests of Tom and Elizabeth Parker. With them, Charlotte found their ease and companionship returned naturally; they were genuinely glad to see each other and the Parkers were delighted with Mrs. Heywood. When Charlotte inquired of the remaining Parker siblings, Tom confirmed that Sidney – still unmarried — was the only one not in residence at Sanditon at the moment; he was expected to arrive from London the afternoon of the ball, bringing with him the usual coterie of London friends. Elizabeth’s quick look at Tom, along with his sudden change of topic, suggested that the coterie would certainly include Mrs. Campion.
However, the evening of the ball, when Sidney finally arrived, he was alone. Charlotte’s private inquiries indicated that Mrs. Campion had not arrived from London. But it was not until Esther pulled her aside that she finally learned that Mrs. Campion was likely never to return to Sanditon; uncertain of Sidney’s affections and, as a wealthy widow, having no need to marry into uncertainty, Mrs. Campion had called off the wedding.
Charlotte did her best to hide her surprise and excitement; and then she did her best to stifle the memory of Mr. Stringer’s query about how she might respond a proposal from Sidney Parker’s. Esther politely pretended not to notice Charlotte’s reaction, and instead nodded her chin in the direction behind Charlotte. “It appears that your interest in the subject might be reciprocated,” she said.
By the time Charlotte looked over her shoulder, Sidney Parker was already at her side. And when she looked again, Esther had moved away.
Sidney spoke. “Miss Heywood, it is very good to see you again. I had heard you were to receive an invitation to the ball, and I hoped you would accept it.”
“I would not wish to miss a wonderful event like this,” Charlotte said. “I congratulate you and your brothers and sister. Sanditon is likely to be a success, just as Tom imagined.”
“We are very fortunate,” Sidney agreed. “In many ways,” he added, looking at her meaningfully.
Charlotte blushed. “And unfortunate in others,” she added. “I was sorry to hear that your engagement to Mrs. Campion ended.”
“I should become inured to it,” Sidney said. “At least in terms of my pride. My heart, on the other hand –”
Charlotte interrupted. Despite her earlier desires, she found now, standing before him, that she was not ready to discuss this topic with Sidney; she covered her discomfort with more meaningless conversation. “So many changes in Sanditon in the past year,” she exclaimed. “Not least of which was Lady Denham’s passing. Lady Babington was fortunate in so many ways.”
“Esther is much improved after her marriage to Lord Babington,” Sidney agreed. “Sanditon is fortunate in its patronage.”
“As I have been fortunate recently,” Charlotte said. “Perhaps you heard that I received a small portion as well.”
“Indeed, I had not heard,” Sidney said, looking at her with new interest. “We heard only that a few small distributions had been made to people outside the family. I would be happy to advise you,” he added, bringing his face closer to hers, “on investment of your funds. I am collaborating with a small but successful firm that is on its way to the West Indies to buy and manage a sugar plantation.”
“Sugar plantation? Would that not mean relying on slave labor?”
“Most of the work is carried out by slaves, yes.” He paused, and smiled. “I suppose I must have Georgiana to thank for this interest. Please do not imagine that I’m unaware of your role in her absconding to London.”
“I have no regrets in that regard, Mr. Parker.”
“I would not suppose so. You must have considered, however, that Georgiana’s wealth is built on the same slave trade that now causes you discomfort.”
In fact, Charlotte had not put much thought into the source of Georgiana’s inheritance, and she chose to continue ignoring it now. “I trust Georgiana will use her wealth in a morally responsible way. She is fully committed to the abolitionist cause, as is Otis and as are all their friends. In any event, it still gives me no impetus to invest in such an enterprise.”
“I know you well enough that I realize argument is futile,” he said with a smile. “And I have spent so much of my life courting investors that I recognize my campaign if futile.”
“The investors for Sanditon,” Charlotte noted.
“And before that. I was a very young man when I first traveled to the West Indies in search of my fortune. In fact, Lady Denham was one of my first investors.”
“I had no idea you had this connection with her!”
“It was years ago, just after Lord Denham died. She was hesitant in establishing a trust for a local young man for his education. Lord Denham raised it only as he lay dying, and the man was of no consequence and likely had no prospects. Lady Denham considered him a foolish, and was concerned that he was stealing books from their library to sell. I suggested that rather than throw the money away, she give it to me. Happily, I brought back a modest profit.” Sidney paused for effect. “I understand she used the return on her investment to purchase glass doors to place over the bookcases in the library. It was considered quite extraordinary at the time.”
“But what about the young man?” Charlotte asked, breathless with anger and shame. “Was there no consideration for his future? Or for Lord Denham’s wishes?”
“Lord Denham’s mental state was questionable near the end,” Sidney said. “And as for the local boy, Lady Denham considered him a person of no consequence, and I never discovered his identity. For most of that population, education is a waste. It little improves their minds, and it improves their station only in the rarest of circumstances.”
“Is this how you answer to ruining the prospects of a young man? I wager his worth, if not his birth, is twice, or thrice that of yours, Mr. Parker.” Charlotte’s fury made her lose her eloquence. “Or even more!”
“Charlotte! I am astonished.”
“No more astonished than I. I cannot, I will not, associate myself with you further. Your morals, your value for human life, are so different than mine that it is clear we can never make each other happy. In fact, when I think back to my first visit to Sanditon, I cannot imagine what it was that attracted me to you other than you portrayed the usual trappings of a gentleman. But I realize now that you are a gentleman in name, but not in deed. And men of lower birth are more deserving of that title, who have earned it through hard work and good deeds.”
“You were not this much of a radical when you first joined us in Sanditon,” Sidney retorted.
“When I first came here, I admit my head was turned by the promises of progress, and fortune, and health that Sanditon offered. But I have come to realize that it is based on a corrupt system based on the circumstance of birth and rather than merit. Your shifting attentions to me have demonstrated that. I do not believe I will ever return to Sanditon. Goodbye, Mr. Parker.”
She did not wait for an answer; Charlotte turned on her heel and began to run through the ballroom, ignoring the surprised looks and murmurs that followed her. She encountered her mother, and told her that she was retiring for the night, and ran on, straight out the door, without waiting for her mother’s response.
She ignored the chill in the air. She stopped thinking of Sidney Parker. The only thing on her mind was James Stringer: she measured the injustice done to him years ago, and how he had fought through innumerable obstacles to emerge a strong, determined, accomplished young man. He knew himself, and drew strength from that; and, she realized, he knew her, as well. He had detected her weakness for the promise of status and gentility that Sidney Parker offered, and could do no more than gently rebuke her for it.
He had offered his heart to her, and what a heart it was: pure, honest, open. And she had turned away in favor of a man whose heart she had seen, over and over, harden toward those whom he considered of lower birth. It might have been only a matter of time before she, too, would have felt the effects of that hardness, for she could never reach his level, either as a woman or as a person of means.
James Stringer would never harden his heart toward her. He considered her his equal in every way, and had offered her not only love but a partnership in marriage and business. What man of Sidney’s status would accept a woman’s role by his side in such a way?
Charlotte had nearly reached the Parkers’ house, where she planned to pack their belongings for departure to Reddings. Even if he had found happiness with Lucia, Charlotte could still mend some of what she had broken, and what others had broken in the past. Perhaps she could still salvage a friendship, and offer a partnership that would promote his work, his hard-earned dream of designing buildings and not just laying mortar for them. Perhaps —
She turned the corner deep in thought, and in her hurry did not hear another pair of footsteps coming around the corner. She crashed headlong into a tall, immobile body and nearly fell back, but her hand was grasped firmly to keep her upright. She gasped, more from the touch of the rough hands than from her near-fall.
“Mr. Stringer? Is it really you?”
He was still holding her right hand, and pulled her slightly closer, as though to ensure it really was her.
“I was not expecting to see you here, Mr. Stringer,” she said, her voice soft as she examined his face to counter her disbelief that the intense subject of her thoughts could materialize before her.
“Mr. Tom Parker and Mrs. Parker were kind enough to invite me to the ball,” he said. “But once I arrived, and saw my old home, I couldn’t bring myself to – I wanted to visit the old rooms, my father’s things –”
“Of course,” she said, and now she took his other hand. “It’s all right. It wasn’t a very good ball.”
“It wasn’t a very good visit, either,” James Stringer said. “So many things have happened since I was last here, and since my father died. This place is so strange to me now.”
“I hope all is well?” she asked. “You are still happy at Reddings?”
“All is very well,” he agreed. “And your family, in Wellingdon – are they well?”
“Very well,” she confirmed.
Neither found more to say, and in the same moment realized their hands were still entangled, and in the next moment released them. But they still stood quite close to each other.
“Mr. Stringer,” Charlotte began, “I must ask you to forgive me for my behavior when we last met. I grew angry with you for challenging my behavior and decisions.”
“It was very wrong of me,” he interrupted.
“You were right,” she corrected. “I had set myself on a course that I thought no one, nothing could cause me to stray from. And I did not admit to myself that there were certain things, certain persons, who could cause me to alter my opinion. You knew this to be the case. But I have come to learn certain facts that have altered my opinion even further than I could have imagined. I was hurrying to my hotel, Mr. Stringer, in order to prepare to travel to Reddings. I want to set right something.”
“Yes, Miss Heywood?”
“I was fortunate to be a beneficiary of Lady Denham’s will last year. It was a small sum, only five hundred pounds, but it has accrued some small interest, and I want you to have it, Mr. Stringer. To make you whole, after your own patronage was denied to you.”
“You are referring to events that took place years ago, that you in no way share responsibility. Why should you assume any interest in my welfare now?”
“I have learned that your circumstances, and Lord Denham’s desires for your future, were wrongfully and purposely altered, and I feel that, in my own small way, I could set it partly right. You could consider it an investment in your architectural endeavors.” She forced herself to continue. “Perhaps you would consider me a sort of informal advisor for your business plans. I am quite good at it. If Miss De Luce does not object.”
“Why would Miss De Luce object?”
Charlotte caught her breath. “Are you not engaged to Miss De Luce?”
“I am not. In fact, she has happily taken up residence in London with another liberally-minded woman writer. You and Miss De Luce share a common goal to avoid marriage altogether. She made that clear to me from the beginning of our friendship, and I had no wish for it to be otherwise. And,” Mr. Stringer added, “she has no Sidney Parker to convince her otherwise.”
Charlotte tipped her face away. “Please, do not mention his name. Sidney Parker cannot, will not ever, convince me to marry.”
James Stringer took an imperceptible step forward. “Then you do not plan to marry Mr. Parker?”
“But you would be willing to invest in a kind of … partnership with me? To help me manage my architectural work?”
“If you would be willing, Mr. Stringer.” She felt a vague kind of disappointment, that the prospect of her funding might overcome his previous feelings toward her.
“And what if I did not accept your financial contribution? Would you still be willing to partner with me?”
She could not hide her surprise and gratitude. “Why would you want to partner with me without investment?”
“Miss Heywood,” he said. He took her hands in his again. “It’s a different kind of investment from you that I’m seeking. I told you once I’d do anything to be your husband. My feelings in that regard will never change. The only wife for me is one who is daring enough to play cricket, and brave enough to help a badly injured man, who encourages a man to pursue his ambitions and stands by his side in the pursuit. And one who is lovely enough to set my heart pounding.” He pressed her right hand against his chest, and Charlotte almost wept as she felt the hammering there. “I’m hoping, Charlotte, that if you won’t reconsider your thoughts on marriage for Sidney Parker’s sake, that you’ll reconsider them for mine.”
Charlotte was so full of relief and happiness that she had no choice but to allow herself to fully weep, which she did, much to James’ temporary confusion, because it caused a contortion of her face that might be rather appalling to the uninitiated. But when she stepped forward, rested her head on his chest, and allowed his arms to rest upon her waist, his confusion ended and perfect happiness began.
We must not forget Lady Denham. In life, her personality dominated all interactions; in death, it could not be otherwise. The distribution of her wealth after her death possessed Sanditon’s residents for weeks until the primary beneficiary, Lady Babington – Esther, as she was more informally called by those who had known and despised her before her marriage — was revealed; then the propriety of Lady Denham’s decision was the subject of debate for a few shorter weeks; and then the handling of the fortune became a popular topic of conversation for some brief time, though cut short because of the careful and prudent actions of Lord and Lady Babington.
Thus, by the time that the final distribution was made, the action was neither criticized nor celebrated, for it was unknown, except to the pair of overheated lawyers who, toward the end of the summer that followed the Sanditon ball, trudged the meadow path from Reddings Hall to the small cottage they had been told sat some distance away. They felt very keenly the unfairness in having to undertake this unexpected final leg of their long journey on foot. First, they had the injustice of encountering, in the will, a reference to an unnamed boy, “resident of Sanditon, and son to a tradesman” who had once frequented the house in Lord Denham’s time. The lawyers detected, Lady Denham’s stiff language, some wrong done toward this party – the tone suggested a small wrong, but guilt having lasting for such a duration might amplify its significance. Second, they had to go about identifying the boy as a now-grown man. Third, they learned that the young man had departed Sanditon some time ago, “for an apprenticeship in London,” according to his friends. Fourth, they traced him to a tiny Sussex hamlet called Wellingdon, where they were set upon a day ago by a large group of children known locally, it seemed, as “Heywoods,” likely some derogatory phrase. Fifth, to Reddings Hall.
And finally, the cottage. This structure will look different to the reader. The main portion of remains the same, though now more flowers surround the doorway, where a dog, just emerging out of his puppyhood, lies in the sun. To the right of the cottage, an area has been recently cleared to house a charming residential development for chickens, thoughtfully-designed for both the residents and their landlord. On the cottage’s left side, the skeleton for a two-storied addition, divided into numerous bedrooms, adds the scent of freshly-cut wood to air already fragrant with meadow flowers and wind and earth. The sun being at its height, the foreman of the job has called for mealtime, and has herself brought out generous amounts of cider, bread, and cheese to her workers, who have removed to the shade of a nearby chestnut tree; the luncheon is received with amiable gratitude and a few besotted hearts.
She returns to the coolness of the house to join her husband. The inside of the house has also transformed under a woman’s touch, but the large table in the front room remains as it was before, other than the tidy organization of its previously erratic contents: papers and pencils and ledgers, perhaps some percentage more than we saw at our last visit.
One corner of the table is reserved for the daily repast that the two share in the middle of the day. Those of a more practical-minded approach to mealtimes, and to life, and to business, might point out that their proximity to each other, sitting knee-to-knee, might be the reason that the meals last longer than they should, but this pair derive every satisfaction from their routine.
Thus we find the tableaux as the lawyers trudge up the path bearing news of good fortune, from a woman capable of sharing more of it now in death than she ever did in life, toward the house already well-endowed with the non-monetary kind, generated from the two grateful, generous, and good hearts that reside within.