Happy Valentine's Day!
We're celebrating over at Austen Variations with some writing - excerpts from our books and a poem by Diana Birchall, plus there are links to authors' websites for their special contributions!
Here's an excerpt from Project Darcy which follows on from my piece at Austen Variations - I hope you enjoy it. Jane Austen and her friend, Tom Lefroy, are falling in love at the Manydown Ball!
My spirits were dancing in silent rapture just as much as my feet when Tom escorted me to the dance floor. I think something of the joy we felt on the occasion pervaded the whole room like the fragrance lingering on the air as the atmosphere lightened. There was laughter and movement and flurries of white muslin as dashing young men spun their partners round, satin slippers kicking up the chalk. As the musicians played faster the handclaps and boot stomping grew louder. Everywhere looked a blaze of colour and sparkle under glittering chandeliers as the dancers skipped and hopped, galloping down the set to reach their place in time. It was wonderful to feel his hand in mine, to catch his eye, and to have his fingers linger in the small of my back like a caress.
By the time the supper bell rang, we were all starving hungry. Such a spread, like a king’s feast, was laid out on the dining table. My brother James carved the turkey with great perseverance, whilst Henry made it his job to help all the young ladies. He was on fine form and had encouraged his brother to dance every dance. Catherine and Alethea exchanged smiles with me. I knew Catherine would tease me about Tom as soon as she had the chance. Catherine’s brother Harris was helping James. He was growing up, and looked quite the young gentleman in his evening attire. I saw him look up and catch my eye. He was very shy, but I knew that he liked me. Knowing that I was one of the few people he preferred to talk to, I gave him my best smile back again.
‘Come on, Jane,’ whispered Tom, ‘surely there’s a corner where we can sit without the whole world attending to our every word.’
‘Tom Lefroy, you will have people talking about me, if they are not already, but there is a little place in the greenhouse where we might find a seat.’
I led him from the room and along the corridor. Everyone was so busy eating, drinking and swapping gossip that I was certain we would not be missed, but I knew we should not be long. At the back of my mind, a voice told me I was behaving badly but it felt we were the only two people in the whole world who mattered. We abandoned our plates and glasses, and ran tiptoeing, hand in hand, as soon as we were out of sight. Amongst the Persian orange trees and exotic plants, I found my rustic bench, a favourite spot where I often took a book when staying with my friends. Screened by greenery, we could not be seen. The space was a cosy one, warm from the glow of candles set in coloured lamps that lent a magical glow to the darkness of the interior.
‘Thank you for making this Christmas visit so enjoyable,’ said Tom, turning to face me. ‘I must admit that I was truly dreading being away from my family.’
‘I, too, have enjoyed every minute of your company … even when you were behaving like an arrogant coxcomb.’
‘You wound me, Miss Austen, and in more ways than you will ever know.’
I fiddled with my reticule and thought of the picture hidden inside. ‘You will have to go away soon, I think.’
Tom nodded. ‘I have to study, and I have a long way ahead of me before I shall be started in my chosen career.’
‘And I suppose you will not stop at being a mere lawyer. I can see you as a judge, Tom, with a long white wig on your head looking rather stern.’
Tom threw back his head and laughed. ‘If my Uncle Benjamin has anything to do with it, you’re right. He is my sponsor and I do so hope to make him proud. I wish to do the best for my family. With so many children, you know yourself, money is stretched to its limits.’
‘I wish you weren’t going away,’ I said. The words were out, and the secrets of my heart were unleashed. It was too late to go back.
‘But, I will go and you’ll soon forget me. It’s probably for the best, you know. Besides, you have so many ardent suitors I could not flatter myself that you would wish to confine yourself to me alone.’
He took up my hand between two of his own and turned it, as if studying my fingers before entwining his in mine and holding them up to the curve of his mouth, pressing his lips against the kid leather. I wanted to feel his mouth on mine, and I knew I might never have another moment so exquisitely right.
‘Kiss me,’ I dared to say.
‘Jane … we should not.’
I heard his words but I did not believe them. I tried again. ‘Do you not wish to kiss me, Mr Lefroy?’
Tom stroked the flesh exposed above my wrist where he hooked a finger beneath the buttoned opening of my glove. ‘Jane, it’s not that … but I do not think kissing you is a good idea.’
‘It would just be a kiss between friends. I am always kissing Catherine and Alethea. It would signify nothing more than a seal to friendship.’
Tom shook his head. ‘Oh, Jane, you have no idea how much I’ve dreamed of kissing you, and it would be a terrible thing if I did.’
‘I don’t understand. If we both wish it, why is it so wrong?’
Tom gazed into my eyes and I saw his anguish. ‘Because I do not trust myself to behave like a gentleman.’
‘Kiss me, Tom, or I will kiss you.’His hand caressed my face and a finger traced my mouth before he placed his lips on mine so gently that tears filled my eyes. I touched his cheek, threaded my fingers through his hair, and felt our lips and our breath join as one. I fell into his arms and he drew me closer with kisses of love and tenderness.