[I'm afraid this turned out a bit angstier than I intended - apparently no one told Arabella that polyamory is an option- but I hope you enjoy it! Its sort of a blend of book and series canon]
Arabella’s visits to Lady Pole had become a regular part of her weekly routine since Jonathan had left for the war. While most assumed her visits to be pure charity, Arabella genuinely enjoyed her company. There was something about Emma Pole that Arabella found enthralling. She was prone to dramatic (and often nonsensical) proclamations that would have seemed humorous but they were made with such sincerity that they often moved Arabella. She was an intelligent, bold and opinioned young woman, and her illness had not changed that. At times Arabella found she very much doubted the diagnosis of madness. She often felt a great sorrow that she could not understand them and be of any real assistance to Lady Pole. If Arabella ever voiced these thoughts, Lady Pole (who had taken to calling her “my dear Mrs. Strange”) would always assure her that her company was treasured and brought some comfort into her ladyship’s tragic situation, even if Arabella thought herself a very poor help.
Their meetings were surprizingly varied, despite Lady Pole’s illness preventing her from leaving her house, and upon occasion even her farther than her personal sitting room. Sometimes they would take tea and talk, as Lady Pole loved to hear about the going-ons of the world outside her doorstep. She did not care too much for idle gossip, but she was desperate for news. Most often they discussed world-affairs, though Arabella took great care to avoid the discussion of Mr. Norrell whenever possible, to avoid distressing her friend. Other days Arabella would discuss Jonathan’s latest letter. On days when her ladyship was too weak to carry much conversation or when there was little news to speak of, they had taken to pulling books from Sir Walter’s (modest) library and Arabella would read them aloud for their enjoyment. In the warmer months, Arabella had asked Sir Walter if it might be possible for herself and Lady Pole to take their tea outside, for she believed some fresh air might help her ladyship’s nerves, but she was turned down. After this conversation, Stephen Black, the Poles’ butler, began setting up their tea by the largest window in the drawing room and leaving it open as much as he could. Arabella made sure to thank him for this.
Other days Lady Pole was in quite a state and would plead with Arabella to help her with some problem that was causing her strife, only Arabella could not for the life of her understand what that problem was. On these days Stephen would help Arabella with calming Lady Pole. Sometimes they were successful, other times they were not.
Once her ladyship had been so distressed that Stephen, seeing no other option, had suggested that perhaps it would be best if Mrs. Strange were to come back another day. This had upset her ladyship so much that she immediately calmed and began profusely apologizing to Arabella for distressing her. Arabella quickly reassured her that she had done no such thing and that she only wished to help her ladyship in any way should could. Lady Pole shook her head and sadly told her that it would be best for her to come another time, before apologizing once more and asking Stephen to escort her to her room. As she passed Arabella, she did a very strange thing. She grasped both of Arabella’s hands in her own and said, “You must promise me you will keep yourself safe Mrs. Strange.”
Arabella asked her what she meant.
Lady Pole opened her mouth, then closed it and shook her head. She dropped Arabella’s hands and allowed Stephen to guide her into the hallway.
“I used to detest novels,” Lady Pole told her one afternoon when Arabella had momentarily paused in her reading. “Did you know that?”
“I did not, my lady. May I ask why?”
They had been reading Madame d’Graffigny’s Letters from a Peruvian Woman. The golden sunlight of the late afternoon streamed through the windows, warming the drawing room. At the start of the visit, they had both been sitting side by side on the sopha, alternating between reading aloud and simply reading in silence, each one noting when she had finished the current page. Currently, Emma, who appeared much more fatigued that usual, had removed her slippers and laid down, her legs curled up at one the end of the sopha while her head rested on Arabella’s shoulder, while Arabella read aloud. There was a comfortable and casual intimacy between them, like two sisters, or…Like lovers, Arabella’s mind unhelpfully supplied, but she ignored it. It was only when Lady Pole spoke, had Arabella even noticed she had been absent mindedly running her fingers through her friend’s long, loose hair.
Now Lady Pole was no longer looking at Arabella. She had a far off look in her eyes and gazed aimlessly at something at the other side of the room.
“I always avoided them before,” Lady Pole placed a very distinct emphasis on the word, and Arabella understood immediately. She rarely heard Lady Pole speak of her life before her resurrection. “I preferred to read histories and books on politics and philosophy. I wanted to learn everything I could about the world. If I dabbled in fiction it was always poetry. It used to make my mother very happy, she thought novels were for the frivolous and the shallow. It was one of my only habits that please her.”
Lady Pole paused momentarily. She did not often speak of her mother, but Arabella always noticed that when she did it was with a hint of distain. When Lady Pole collected herself she continued:
“But now I find myself desperate for novels. I long to forget myself and my current troubles. I want pretend that I am an adventurer who will return home victorious and happy, or a silly girl whose only troubles are which suitor to marry. Such vapid escapes are much preferable than to be constantly reminded of my suffering.”
Her speech concluded, Lady Pole turned back to Arabella. Her eyes searched Arabella’s for some kind of understanding. While Arabella could not speak for her friend’s illness, she could relate to the desire to lose oneself in a good book. She ought to say something in response, but she found herself entranced by the intensity of Lady Pole’s gaze. Her eyes were wide and appeared aged beyond her years. In that moment Arabella did not doubt her friend had seen some true horrors, be they real or some symptom of her illness. The very thought of Lady Pole suffering so overwhelmed her. Before Arabella had any chance to think about the implications of her actions she abruptly embraced Lady Pole. At first Lady Pole was stiff and startled but soon melted into the hug, closing her eyes.
They stayed like this for several minutes. Arabella stroked Lady Pole’s hair and wept into her shoulder. Lady Pole massaged small circles into Arabella’s back. Then Lady Pole pulled back and rested her forehead against Arabella’s. She wiped Arabella’s tears away with part of her own dress.
For her part, Arabella was terribly embarrassed.
“I beg your pardon, my lady. I do not know what came over me,” she stammered. “I should not have- It was very selfish of me too ask you to comfort me in your present state. It is I who should be comforting you and I fear I have done a rather terrible job of it.”
Lady Pole shook her head and said “You cannot always be the strong one Mrs. Strange. You have brought me so much comfort these past months, it is the least I can do to provide some in return.” She placed a tender kiss to Arabella’s forehead before pulling away. Arabella wanted to stop her, but knew that was out of the question.
“You are too kind, Lady Pole,” Arabella said, still quite flustered.
“Oh I wish you would not call me Lady Pole.”
“What would you have me call you?”
“I would have you call me Emma, if that is not too forward. It has been such a long time since anyone called me Emma. It is always ‘Lady Pole this’ or ‘Lady Pole that’. I am afraid one morning I will wake up and find I have forgotten my own name.”
“But surely Sir Walter calls you by your first name?” Arabella asked.
“My husband can hardly bear to be in the same room as me let alone hold a conversation with me. I am ‘his wife’ or I am “Lady Pole’ or I am not spoken of at all,” she replied.
There was an inherent weariness in her voice that gave Arabella pause. It reminded her of her own husband. With Jonathan away at the war, she had not her heard her Christian name spoken aloud in over a year (when her brother had last visited her). She sympathized with Emma’s loneliness and though she did not wish to dwell on it, she knew that she was just as lonely as her friend.
“If it pleases your ladysh- If it pleases you, I shall call you Emma,” Arabella said.
Emma smiled. “Thank you Mrs. Strange,” she said.
“Oh but you must call me Arabella,” she blurted out without thinking. She had the decency to blush as she hurried to correct herself. “I mean to say, it would be very odd for me to refer to you by your Christian name, and for you to refer to me so formally.”
“Of course.” Emma nodded as though that was the most sensible thing in the world, quite oblivious to Arabella’s nerves. “My dear Arabella,” she said trying out the name. She paused, as though she was savouring the taste of the name. She gave Arabella a small smile, and laid her head back on her shoulder. “Would you be so kind and indulge me in a little more of Madame d’Graffigny’s delightful satire?” she asked softly, as though Arabella could ever deny her anything.
Arabella, her heart fluttering and her thoughts in a whirl, nodded and continued.
That evening Arabella was in quite a state. She hardly ate any dinner and readied herself for bed far earlier that she would normally. Her maid, Mary inquired as to whether she was ill. She replied that she was not, thanked Mary for her concern and then dismissed her. She was not in the mood for conversation or company.
Arabella was troubled by Emma Pole. More accurately she was troubled by her own actions around Emma. Arabella was a practical woman. It was something she prided herself in, if she felt inclined to pride herself in anything. It was practical and good to comfort one’s friends. It was practical to spend most of one’s time with one’s lonely housebound friend while one’s husband was away at the war. It was not practical however to begin to develop romantic feelings for one’s friend.
One’s married friend.
married female friend.
It was one thing for her to be married and feel attracted to another man. That was sin enough, and it hurt her heart to know that she was torn between Jonathan and another, when she had promised to devote herself completely and wholly to Jonathan. A promise she had fully intended to keep. And still do, she reminded herself, but a small nagging part of her was no longer sure how true that was. It was not that she did not love Jonathan, she did. She loved him with all her heart. Her affections for Emma did not dull these feelings, which only served to confuse her more. She did not think it possible to feel such affection for more than one person. She tried to explain it to herself, but no explanation made sense. Her feelings for Emma did not seem to come from Jonathan’s absence; they were not the result of simple loneliness and a desire for intimacy. Nor were her feelings a result of boredom or unhappiness with married life, which are the cause of many such affairs. She was forced to conclude that she simply had the misfourtune of falling in love with two people at once.
Of course, even if she was the kind of woman who felt comfortable engaging in extramarital affairs (which she was not), that did not even begin to cover the dilemma that the object of her affections was a woman. Arabella was from a religious family and she knew how the church and society frowned upon such things. For a man it would mean prison or worse. For women like herself (and Emma, should she reciprocate) it meant the madhouse. It was that thought which distressed her most of all. She would not have Emma sent to a madhouse on her account. She had started visiting Emma out of the desire to help her cope with her illness; to help keep her from being locked up in such a place as Bedlam. The thought of her dear Emma locked away, where one might pay to mock her sickness disturbed her. She decided that her personal feelings were of no importance. She had to keep Emma safe and she would not allow her emotions to get in the way.