My 2016 novel, Jane Austen Lives Again was such fun to write and I hope you enjoyed the first three chapters posted here - Prologue and Chapter One Chapter Two and Chapter Three. Published online for the first time is Chapter Four below - I hope you enjoy it. Wherever you are in the world, I wish you joy and send lots of love across the miles!
Jane Odiwe December 2016
When Jane woke the next morning she was delighted to see a remarkable change in the weather. Sunlight poured through the long windows leaving golden lozenges in bright bars across the carpet and over her bed. She stretched, arms overhead, feeling quite deliciously happy for a moment as she luxuriated in the warmth and sense of wellbeing, having slept well despite the lumpy mattress. Leaping out of bed she went to stand at the window, and fiddling with the catch on the last pane at the end where the glass had been divided to make it into a casement, she flung it wide open. The smell of the sea and the sound of gulls mewing up above could do nothing but fill her with a sense of pleasure, making her instantly remember holidays spent in Lyme and Sidmouth in another place and time.
Leaning on the sill she could see the blue expanse of sea and sky, across to the valley and the village on the other side, glittering after the rain, and down to the steaming garden below. Breathing in lungfuls of air, she’d never felt so alive. The memories of her last illness were so fresh that every morning since she’d been brought back she was filled with such a sense of hope and elation as she felt the blood coursing through her veins by a beating heart that felt stronger than she’d ever known.
Down in the garden she could see a twisting path following the line of a stretch of water at the bottom of the tower, and she watched a white swan fly in to land, spraying foam in an arc upon the moat, thick with water lily pads. She was watching the bird preening with a golden beak when along the path she caught sight of Alice and Mae emerging between the rose bushes whose blooms drooped like crushed tissue after the rain. Dressed for the day, Jane noticed the absolute contrast in their styles, Alice in a gown of white lawn flowing down to her ankles, Mae in a pair of trousers with a loose blouse tucked into the waistline. Though still an unusual sight, Jane had seen women occasionally wearing trousers, and thought how comfortable they looked. Mae’s were wide-legged, looking very masculine, and she wondered if they’d been altered from a pair of her brother’s. Jane could just imagine the sort of rows that would ensue when Lady Milton clapped eyes on Mae’s outfit, and she’d bet money on the fact that her stepmother would find fault with her appearance.
Alice and Mae were deep in conversation, their heads bowed, and though she couldn’t hear all that they were saying, odd words, and snatches of conversation drifted up to her on the summer breeze.
‘Will thought you should know … you mustn’t be upset … with luck you may avoid him,’ Mae said.
‘I do not know why Will should say … I’ve long given over thinking of … I would happily see him, what have I to fear?’ Alice answered.
‘I think Will might be relieved to hear that … they were always such friends.’
‘And if I make it easy for everyone, you’ll still be able to meet … I’ve no wish for awkward scenes, Mae … you coming down to the village later?’
‘No … not be told what to do.’
‘I wish you would … not Miss Austen’s fault …’
They rounded the curve of the path and Jane could hear no more. There was a little mystery about someone Mae thought Alice might not want to see, and it looked as if there’d be another day of scenes between Mae and Lady Milton. Jane felt a little uncomfortable at having eavesdropped, but really it was very difficult not to hear those intriguing snatches of conversation. Wondering whether she’d come to learn what it was all about, she left the window on the latch to allow the warm air to circulate, and hearing the clock striking eight, decided she’d better hurry and get herself dressed for breakfast, though after last night’s meal she wasn’t expecting much culinary excitement. There didn’t seem to be any sign of hot water left outside her room so she filled the jug with cold from the basin in the bathroom for a wash, and set about getting ready for the day.
Jane hurried along the corridors and passages, down one staircase after another. She saw one or two maids bearing breakfast trays groaning with teapots, silver food domes and racks of toast, which made her wonder whether many of Manberley’s residents would be joining her in the dining room. It was empty when she walked in, but there were several covered serving dishes on the side, which rather surprisingly held a vast variety of breakfast treats, until Jane reasoned that the Miltons probably farmed the land, and would keep pigs and hens. Jane helped herself to sausage and bacon, scrambled egg and fried bread, thinking that it might be an idea to stock up on food if dinner was to be another poor affair.
She was just enjoying her solitude when the door opened, which made her start a little, especially when she saw who was walking in. It was the driver who’d picked her up from the station, looking as if breakfasting in the dining room at this hour was a regular habit. He mumbled something, which Jane thought might have been “good morning”, before coolly helping himself from the side. With his plate heaped high, he sat down on the chair opposite her, and spent the next ten minutes without another word, eating his way through a mountain of food in silence. Jane couldn’t help thinking his presence was most unusual, even taking into account how times had changed. In her day servants ate in the kitchen, and though she’d been surprised to discover that she was invited to eat with the family, she decided the Miltons must be most unconventional to allow the chauffeur the same honour.
It felt very uncomfortable sitting there without any attempt at conversation. Jane observed her companion who was now unfurling a newspaper from his pocket, and spreading it open on the table, with hardly a pause from the movement of his fork from food to mouth. He was very well dressed in a suit of country tweed, no uniform today, and she couldn’t help noticing how well the greenish flecks in the tawny cloth complimented his tanned skin. He was broad-shouldered, yet she detected a slim torso beneath the waistcoat he wore, and with long limbs and strong, capable-looking hands he could be described as a very good-looking young man. Dark, unruly curls had been fixed as well as they could into place with a neat parting and brilliantine, but those at the nape of his neck where they met the collar of his shirt refused to be tamed.
He must have been aware she was staring because he suddenly looked up which made her jump a little out of her seat. She saw a wide mouth curving into a generous smile at her obvious discomfort, and a flash of white even teeth.
‘Not run away yet, Miss Austen?’
His accent had a faint trace of something she couldn’t make out, but it was a friendly voice, and she couldn’t help smiling too.
‘No, not yet, Mr … I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’
‘It’s Will Milton.’ There was a pause during which his eyes connected with hers. ‘Just call me Will … everybody does.’
Jane felt the blood pound in her temples, and knew her face was flooding with crimson. Will Milton? A hundred thoughts flashed through her mind, as she wondered if she could have done or said anything yesterday that she should now regret. He was no ordinary chauffeur she realised in that moment, but the son and heir to Manberley castle. Of course she had been a little snooty, telling him off for discussing her employers, but he’d been obviously playing a trick on her and that was hardly her fault. Besides, he’d had the nerve to drop her at the servant’s door when she knew he should have treated her as a lady and escorted her through the front entrance. Jane thought she detected amused arrogance in the curling of his mouth as he continued to read. She went from embarrassment and shame to downright livid indignation in the time it took for Will to close his paper.
‘Do you always dress up as the chauffeur and pretend to be someone you’re not?’ she said crossly, unable to stop the thoughts coming out of her mouth.
Will seemed to find this funny, and threw back his head to laugh out loud. ‘I don’t have to do it very often, pick people up from the station, I mean, but I thought it might put you at your ease, and I hoped to learn a bit more about you and what you were thinking about coming to work here. We don’t have a driver any more, and on the few occasions I’ve taken on the job, I must admit it’s always fun to listen to the conversations of incoming guests. I’ve learned a lot, and then the moment of realisation is always worth the wait … and such a hoot.’
‘I’m glad you think it’s so funny,’ said Jane, already deciding that she’d never met anyone more unprincipled. Above all things she disliked this sort of trickery, having fun at others’ expense. These Miltons were an odd lot, and she’d best keep her wits if she were to keep her sanity.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you,’ he said and she caught that drawl in his voice again. His eyes were pleading with her but she would not be drawn into the depths of those dark brown eyes. ‘Please forgive me, Miss Austen, I would hate to disappoint my new governess.’
He was making fun of her again. ‘I am not your governess. Your stepmother has made it quite clear to me that you’re a law unto yourself. I am here merely to advise Lady Milton and help with the girls.’
‘I expect she’s told you I’m a wicked stepson,’ he said, his eyes twinkling with amusement, ‘with no morals and a string of women in the village.’
‘Lady Milton has said no such thing, and even if she had I would not repeat it.’
That made him laugh again, and Jane couldn’t help wondering, as she stared at him, whether there was some truth in what he’d said. She saw that arrogance again, and imagined the confident heir to Manberley leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him amongst all the young women of Stoke Pomeroy. Well, he wouldn’t be charming her with his good looks and fine eyes, she decided, not that he’d be interested in anything about her except as a vehicle for his jokes and what he imagined was wit. Jane thought it wouldn’t take her long to put him in his place now she knew what he was like, and looked forward to having the opportunity again sometime.
‘I wonder if I could ask something of you, Miss Austen.’
‘Well, you could try,’ she answered rather stiffly, knowing she wasn’t being very friendly.
‘Could you keep an especial eye on my sisters? Alice is a sweet girl, and she’s been through so much, always taking it upon herself to try and fill the place of the mother we lost. I don’t want to go into detail, but something imminent might just throw her off course a little. She’s been bruised in the past, and though I shall do all to protect her against further hurt, it would be so nice to know someone else was looking out for her. And Mae is lovely too, when you get to know her. Alice told me her behaviour last night left a lot to be desired, and that she’s been rude within your hearing. We talk to her all the time, but we’re at a loss to know what to do for the best.’
‘Of course, I shall do all I can to help,’ said Jane in a warmer tone, slightly revising her thoughts about him. At least he seemed to care about his sisters. ‘Please don’t worry too much, Alice is such a kind young woman, and I’m sure Mae just needs time, Mr Milton.’
‘I knew the moment I set eyes on you that you’d be good for Manberley, Miss Austen, thank you for taking us all on. I’m glad you’re not about to run away, but if you ever consider it, will you discuss it with me first?’
Now it was Jane’s turn to laugh. ‘Mr Milton, I hope that will not be the case just yet, but I’d also hate you to think I will have a solution for every problem. I am ill qualified as a counsellor though I’ve had a little experience with young people in my own family. It will be as much trial and error for me too.’
‘No, I won’t have that. You’ve made a difference already … even Mrs Naseby has a good word for you, which is saying a lot. You may be young and inexperienced, but you’re a breath of fresh air, and that’s what we all need.’
Jane didn’t say a word; she could hardly contradict him. But she felt young, even if her mind still held onto the past of an aging woman. She watched Will dab at his mouth with a napkin before he stood up, pushing the chair behind him.
‘I hope I’ll see you later, at dinner.’
‘Yes, Mr Milton.’
‘Will,’ he said with a knowing wink. ‘Please call me Will, everybody does.’
Mae didn’t want to hang around being told what she could or couldn’t do on such a glorious day. She’d already decided to go out on her bicycle, and take a little picnic down to the beach. Mrs Wickens, the cook had made her a packed lunch and even though she knew it was fish paste sandwiches and a flask of tea, it would be better than enduring an insufferable afternoon at the tea shop in the village with her sisters and that new governess who was so prim and proper.
She went down to the old stables where the stalls had once been full of horses. Now there were only two left, her brother Will’s chestnut thoroughbred, Achilles, and a pony, Valentino, which all the girls were meant to share. Valentino whinnied when he saw her, and reaching inside her trouser pocket she fetched out a sugar lump for him. Leaning her head against his noble one as he munched, his velvet nose sniffing for more, she felt the warmth of him melt her heart.
‘No one understands me like you do,’ she said, draping her arms round his neck. ‘But I’m sorry, my darling, I can’t take you with me today, I shall be gone for too long, though I promise we’ll ride along the sands tomorrow.’
Mae kissed his neck, and stroked his mane, as he nuzzled her fingers in hopes of another sugar lump. She fed him one more, and went in search of her bicycle. Propped up in the last stall, she put her packet of sandwiches and thermos flask into the basket at the front, and backed it out. Will’s motorcycle gleamed in the next stall. It was a beautiful object, an Indian scout he’d bought in America a few years ago when he’d been to stay with their Uncle Harry who’d treated him to the exotic machine and even shipped it home for him. Uncle Harry, their mother’s brother was a very wealthy man who divided his time between his brownstone in New York City and his summer mansion at Newport, Rhode Island. He had sons of his own, but the hope was that Will might still come into some of Uncle Harry’s money. Mae knew that her mother had come from a prestigious family, but she’d never met any of them though she was intrigued by the idea of her exotic American relations. They hadn’t wanted Edith to marry her father who they’d considered a pauper compared to the families with whom they associated, and when she eloped with him to England, they’d cut off all ties. It was only after her mother’s death that Uncle Harry had expressed a wish to meet Will, and though the visit had been a success, lasting two years, in all that time he’d never asked to meet the girls.
Mae wished she could try out the motorcycle. When it was running, it was like a beast. Will had let her try it once and she’d loved the purr of the engine and the feeling of power. Resting the bicycle against a post she wandered over to admire the sleek lines and the scarlet paint. She’d watched Will start it up many times, and wondered if she could do it herself. Leaning over, she turned on the gas, as Will called it, pulled on the choke, adjusted the advance and the throttle, and then leaning her full weight on the handlebars tried to kick-start the cycle. It took three attempts before it sputtered into life, and then, as the engine ticked over, Mae thought it would do no harm just to try it out for size. Remembering to kick her leg high she eased into the saddle, and the moment that was done, the most daring thought entered her head.