Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Jane Austen Lives Again: Chapter Two

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If you missed Chapter one you can read it here

Chapter Two


The housekeeper opened the door. Mrs Naseby beckoned her in to a dismal corridor, lit by a single gas lamp that sputtered and hissed, providing a totally inadequate light.
‘Take a seat, Miss Austen, I’ll take you to her ladyship in a moment. They’ve just finished luncheon and she’s expecting you in precisely ten minutes. I’m glad to see you’re punctual, I can’t abide tardiness in any form, though I’m somewhat surprised to see you at the servant’s door.’
Mrs Naseby looked just as Jane’s imagination had pictured her. She was a spare, thin woman dressed in a long black gown of Edwardian tailoring, a harridan from a former age with a set of keys dangling from a belt round her waist. Small, piercing eyes looked shrewdly down a long nose, examining every aspect of Miss Austen’s appearance. Her complexion was pale, as a result of spending a lifetime inside this prison-like fortress, Jane thought, and couldn’t help thinking about one of the housekeepers of her own creation, Mrs Reynolds, with her warm personality and devotion to her master Mr Darcy. What a contrast, but then she decided
Mrs Naseby might have far more in common with another character of her making, the domineering and opinionated Mrs Norris of Mansfield Park. Scolding herself for jumping to first impressions too soon, she sat down on a bentwood chair and heard the housekeeper mutter something to do with seeing to the maids about clearing the dining room before striding away down the dimly lit corridor. Jane noted the row of bells on the opposite wall, labelled for the upstairs rooms all jangling at once, and a succession of pantries, sculleries and kitchen rooms where a flurry of maids beetled from one to the other or up and down the steps at the end with trays of half-eaten food, empty wine bottles, and towers of porcelain plates.
Was it too late to run away, Jane wondered? This was a world that felt so strange. She’d always helped out at home with daily chores, but she’d been used to being looked after by their own maids, and they’d always had someone to help with the cooking. Besides, Cassandra had always made sure she had time for her writing, and as much as she hoped there’d be time to devote to writing still, the fact was that she would now be part of this new world, almost a servant, unable to have the freedoms she’d always enjoyed.
But before her mind had a chance to even think how she might slip back up the stairs to run away down the drive, the housekeeper returned, and with a single nod of her head, and a long finger wagging in her direction, beckoned her to follow.
‘I will take you to see her ladyship, and presuming the interview is successful we will proceed to your new quarters. You will be required to serve the family every day from nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon, unless you are needed in the evening, which is a distinct possibility. I have been advised to tell you that you may dine with the family at every mealtime, which to my way of thinking is a great honour. I hope you’ve brought something suitable to wear in the evenings.’
‘I have one dress I could wear for such an occasion, Mrs Naseby, but really, it would be no hardship for me to have something in the kitchen with the other servants, or even in my room. I am happy with my own company, and I do not wish to be a bother to the family or anyone else, for that matter.’
‘If Lady Milton wishes it, you will dine with the family.’
Jane realised that the old housekeeper meant her to know she no longer had any choice about anything she might want to do, and all she could hope was that her new employer would be more flexible than she was being painted. Her idea of spending the evenings writing in solitude seemed to be a dream that was fading fast.
‘You will have one day off every third Thursday of the month, unless her ladyship requires you for duty,’ Mrs Naseby continued. ‘I am sure I do not need to tell you there is to be no fraternising with any male servants, and as an employee discretion and loyalty to the family is paramount at all times.’
At the top of the servant’s staircase they entered a short corridor and Mrs Naseby opened the green baize door at the end, which separated the rest of the house from the domestic quarters. They crossed the large hall where a grandfather clock ticked the hours away, and an empty fireplace looked cheerless with two sagging armchairs on either side. Faded damask on the walls from a previous age was fraying and worn away to reveal pink plaster in places, and in the middle of the room a circular table held a bowl of scented pot-pourri, the faint fragrance of lavender and roses making up for the lack of any fresh flowers. Jane could see the lobby where the coats were hung next to a brass stand filled with umbrellas and walking sticks, and the front door beyond which was open to the elements. The rain was falling harder than ever, pinging loudly into strategically placed zinc buckets, as puddles of water were forming on the flagstones. Following Mrs Naseby up the wide staircase Jane tried not to be judgemental, remembering what Dr Lyford had said about the difficulties that families of great houses were facing after the war. Still, she couldn’t help feeling that the general atmosphere of the place exuded more than the neglect from a lack of money.
Cobwebs as thick as a man’s arm trembled between the balustrades on the staircase and piles of dust rolled in fluffy balls along the stone steps, and where windows easily reached could have been cleaned with a pail of soapy water, they were misted with green mould like watered silk and traced over with spider’s webs.
At last they entered the drawing room with its peacock blue walls glowing in the dim space. A slice of light from curtains barely parted glimmered on silver frames, on photographs and portraits, highlighting white muslin and a gash of tan leather glove, the staring eye of a bloodhound and the flash of a sword at a soldier’s side. There was a smell of dank flower water and dusty cinders in the grate, offset by sweet peas wilting in a crystal vase and faded peonies dropping their petals from a Chinese jug to stain the linen cloth below.
Jane didn’t see Lady Milton immediately. Lying full-length upon the sofa in a scarlet kimono embroidered with a design of blossom trees and cranes in coloured silks, she was camouflaged by the red of the satin couch that enfolded her like a hothouse tomato. It was her mouth Jane noticed first, like an impish red bow curving into a smile which made dimples in the soft pale face that brought to mind the pictures of Hollywood film stars she’d seen outside the cinema just a few weeks ago in Winchester.
‘Miss Austen, how much we have been looking forward to meeting you,’ Lady Milton drawled with a little shake of her head, her perfectly bobbed hair gleaming as black as the lacquered table beside her. She paused to tap her cigarette on a long holder into an ashtray.
‘Thank you, Lady Milton, I’m very pleased to be here,’ Jane answered as politely as she could.
The housekeeper rushed over to the windows, pulling at the heavy curtains until light flooded the room.
‘That’s better, we can’t have you sitting in the dark, your ladyship.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Naseby, you may leave us now. I trust you’ve informed Miss Austen of all she needs to know.’
‘All but the particulars of the children, ma’am. I thought it best for you to do that.’
Lady Milton visibly sighed. Now that the room was lighter Jane saw her employer was not as young as she’d first thought. Though her hair and make-up suggested a young woman in her late twenties, it was obvious from the lines etched on the plump features that Lady Milton was probably nearer forty if not older.
‘Take a seat, Miss Austen,’ she said.
Sitting down on a wing chair Jane watched Mrs Naseby walk from the room without a backward glance, closing the door firmly behind her. Lady Milton dragged on her cigarette holder and blew rings of smoke into the air. Her ankles were crossed, and as the scarlet Louis heeled slippers with pom-poms of swansdown tapped against the other in agitation, the kimono fell away from her knees to reveal pale shapely legs. Jane thought she must have been very beautiful once, and stared with fascination at her heavily made up face, powdered and rouged, with kohl-black eyes lined with paint. She wondered if Lady Milton had forgotten she was there for a moment until her ladyship swung her legs round in one perfect move to sit up and face her.
‘Now, Miss Austen, where shall we begin?’
‘I am very much looking forward to meeting the children,’ said Jane thinking it was a prompt for her to speak. ‘I was educated both at school, and at home by my excellent father, and can offer a thorough grounding in most subjects suitable for young girls, your ladyship.’
‘I’m sure you can, Miss Austen. Dr Lyford wrote very highly of your accomplishments. But I have a confession to make, and I must do it now as Mrs Naseby has chosen not to do it for me.’
Jane waited as Lady Milton puffed once more on the holder and watched her raise a glass tinkling with ice to her lips.
‘Would you care to join me in a White Lady, Miss Austen?’ she said agitating the glass and swirling the creamy liquid. ‘I find it’s such a pick-me-up in the afternoon, and revives wonderful memories of dancing at Ciro’s.’
‘No, thank you, Lady Milton. I think I’d better keep my wits about me for dealing with small children. I hope I shall be able to spend some time getting to know them this afternoon.’
‘Yes, indeed, if we can find them.’
‘Goodness, are the children lost, Lady Milton?’
‘Not exactly. The fact is, Miss Austen, I have you here on quite false pretences. My children do not really need a governess.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Jane who didn’t understand one bit. All she could think about was how she would have to break the news to Dr Lyford and the inconvenience she’d put him to when she threw herself once more on his mercy.
‘My children are not the young creatures you imagine them to be. The truth is they are quite grown-up, and indeed, some are past the age where one might consider them even to be marriageable, let alone in need of a governess. Lord Milton’s first wife was the mother of the eldest three - William who is the heir to Manberley, Alice now nearing the age of twenty-seven and quite left on the shelf, and Mae who is twenty-five and absolutely unmanageable. I should not say it, but they were given far too much freedom in their youth, and think themselves beyond reproach. Of my own children, sadly I lost my eldest and dearest Teddy to the perils of the Great War.’
Lady Milton paused to dab at her eyes with a silk handkerchief.
‘I’m very sorry to hear of your loss,’ said Jane, filling in an awkward pause in the conversation. ‘I think there is scarcely a family in the land who has not suffered in some way.’
‘I thought my own children would be a comfort to me,’ Lady Milton continued, ‘but Beth is turning out to be quite as headstrong as her father, Emily declares she will never marry, and Cora never has her head out of a book. Their father quite spoils and indulges them all, you see, Miss Austen, and I am at my wit’s end. My nerves simply cannot cope, and that is why I am asking for your help.’
‘I’m not sure what I can do, Lady Milton.’
‘I need someone to manage them, to help steer my children back on the right track. A girl like you, the daughter of a clergyman from a respectable background, is just the sort of person I think will do the job admirably. Please say you’ll help me, Miss Austen.’
Lady Milton looked very young at that moment, and though Jane was sure she was probably inclined to silliness there was something about her desperation that struck a chord. Hadn’t she always been an adviser to family and relations? Hadn’t they all confided in her, and she rather prided herself at helping many of her younger nieces, particularly in regards to young men. And surely, given the age of the children, she wouldn’t be expected to be a nursemaid to them, which might free up some more time for her writing? It was something to be needed, and without doubt, Lady Milton, and it seemed Manberley Castle itself, was in need of much assistance.
‘Yes, I will,’ she found herself saying, and was pleased to see Lady Milton smile for the second time. It was easy to see how she must have captured Lord Milton’s heart, Jane thought, as she glimpsed a much younger girl in the sparkling eyes that watched her own.
Lady Milton rose from her couch, instantly animated with jangling bracelets and sheer relief. Crossing the turkey carpet in two strides she flung her arms round Jane who was taken aback at such a demonstration of affection, and rose awkwardly to receive it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been hugged in such a way and whilst she felt slightly overwhelmed, not least by the fug of scent that enveloped her, she had to admit it wasn’t unpleasant.
Lady Milton let her go at last. ‘I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, and I do hope you’ll forgive my little deception. I could hardly advertise their ages, could I? People would have thought me completely mad! Now, I shall call Naseby to show you to your room. Heaven knows where the young people are now but they generally make an appearance at dinner. You will be dining with us, I hope.’
‘I will be present at dinner if you wish me to be there, Lady Milton, but I would like to ask if I might occasionally have an evening to myself.’
‘Shall we see how we go along, my dear? I’m afraid your presence will be required when there are social events, and though we’ve not entertained lately, I have plans to alter that. The girls need to have husbands found and in that process I will want you to act as chaperone to them, you must understand. You needn’t worry about William, of course. In any case, he is a law unto himself. However, I should like to accommodate you and your wishes … I’m sure we might find you an evening occasionally.’
Jane did not feel comforted by the idea of having little time to herself, and after her initial elation at feeling flattered she was needed so much, was now feeling rather nervous. How did she think she was going to be able to tell young women her own age or even older than herself what to do? She’d temporarily forgotten that she wasn’t forty-one any more, and had all the appearance of a much younger person. The idea of taking on what might prove to be an impossible task weighed heavily, and she doubted she was up to the job. But there was nothing to be done. She must face facts and realise she had no choice. Without money or a home of her own, she had to earn a living somehow, and for the time being she had no option but to accept the job and do the best she could.

Mrs Naseby was summoned and led Jane up the back stairs to her room. There were several poky staircases giving glimpses of a gallery and bedrooms leading off endless passages, and landings to be crossed on the way, until they found themselves in the oldest part of the building where the corridors were built of stone.
‘You’ll be in the tower room,’ said Mrs Naseby, ‘where the old nursery used to be. Of course, you’ll know by now there aren’t any children up there any more.’
‘No, I hear they’re all quite grown-up.’
‘Well, that’s a matter for you to judge yourself, Miss Austen. I find them to be quite juvenile in many respects, though Beth has a little more about her, and Alice is the kindest girl that ever walked the earth. But then, she takes after her sweet mother who was just the same. What a sad day that was for the Miltons when she passed away.’
‘And Mae is Alice’s sister, is that right?’
‘Yes, poor Lady Milton died shortly after her birth. It’s not her fault she’s turned out to be so wild, Miss Austen, she’s never known the love of a mother, though William and Alice have been the best kind of brother and sister any girl could ask for. After her ladyship’s death the children were sent away to stay with their aunt, Lady Celia Broughton. Their father couldn’t stand to see any of them, not even William his heir. He said he was reminded too much of their dear mother, but it broke Alice’s heart, and Mae never knew what it was to have a mother or father. His lordship married again within the year, and the new Lady Milton had her own children very swiftly after that. After Teddy was killed, Lord Milton came to his senses and the children were invited back to their rightful home. But, it’s not been easy, I can tell you. Well, I daresay I’ve already spoken out of turn. Here we are … the last set of steps are the steepest and the narrowest, but I think you’ll enjoy the views when you get to the top.’
Jane was surprised the old housekeeper had confided in her so much, but perhaps she was now one of them, she’d decided to unbend a little. She followed her up the dark and twisting staircase until they reached the top where a gothic door stood open to reveal the stone tower. Jane’s imagination had conjured up a gloomy room rather like a cold prison so she was pleasantly surprised to find a comparatively light and airy space despite the awful dark weather which had set in for the day. It was a large room, simply decorated in white distemper, with a fireplace on one side displaying an empty mantle above and a basket of logs below shrouded in a grey film of cobwebs. There was a single bed, a chest of drawers that held an ornate Victorian dressing mirror along with a plain jug and basin for washing, and a small oak wardrobe in the corner. A bookshelf on the opposite side held a few dusty books, obviously left over from the previous governess and a glimpse of the nursery adjoining showed a sad looking room with a few discarded and forgotten toys. There was an abandoned dolls’ house with a few sticks of broken furniture looking quite as uncared for as Manberley itself, and a rocking horse with just a few wisps left to its tail.
But despite the general lack of luxury there were two features of the turreted room, which made Jane’s heart beat with gladness. The splendid gothic window was made up of five long glass panels set in sinuous tracery like piping on an iced white cake, giving different views from each one towards the sea on one side and the valley on the other. Set before it was a mahogany desk with a leather chair, a most magnificent sight to behold.
‘Sally will bring you hot water in the morning. There is a bathroom with hot and cold running water on this floor, but his lordship only has water heated once a week on a Sunday, and you may find by the time the water gets up here it’s not so hot. Breakfast is at half-past eight, except on Sundays when it’s served at nine, and lunch is at one in the afternoon. The dressing bell rings at five, and dinner is served at seven. Do you have any questions?’
‘I can’t think of any at present,’ said Jane feeling overwhelmed, ‘I expect I’ll get used to everything in time.’
‘Well, you’ll be the first at Manberley to do that!’ said Mrs Naseby, ‘Don’t be late for dinner, Lord Milton gets in an awful rage if people don’t know how to be punctual.’
Mrs Naseby turned on her heel and left. Jane picked up her case and deposited it on the bed. She took out the bottle of perfume and the tin of talcum powder and placed them on the chest of drawers, hung up her clothes in the wardrobe, and set her book on the little table next to her bed in an attempt to make the room look more cheerful. There was a small electric lamp with a mica shade on the desk, another miracle of the modern age, which would be invaluable in the evenings if she managed to escape and do some writing. Fetching out her pen, ink and notebook, she arranged them with pride before she sat on the chair to take in her new domain. It wasn’t much, she thought, and it
didn’t feel exactly homely, but she was sure she could make a few improvements in time. It was to be a paid post, after all, and perhaps she could cheer the place up with a few more books, or buy some fabric to make a colourful coverlet for the bed. She’d made a beautiful patchwork quilt once with her mother and sister, sitting at leisure in the evenings perfecting her fine stitches, and matching the diamond patterns, but she pushed that thought out of her mind very quickly. It was too painful to think about memories of home, she decided. She must concentrate on facing new challenges and doing what she could to embrace her new life as positively as possible.
The desk more than made up for the lack of homely touches, and she felt very inspired sitting there and thinking of all that she might write of next. She was just admiring the view and thinking how beautiful it might look if the sun was shining when there came a knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ she said, wondering whom it might be, and stood up immediately, feeling a little guilty for enjoying such pleasant selfish thoughts of her writing.
The door opened and a young woman looked in rather timidly. ‘Miss Austen? Welcome to Manberley. I’m Alice, by the way.’
Alice stood on the threshold with a nervous expression. Jane saw a kind smile forming on the girl’s lips, and liked what she saw. Dressed rather plainly in an old-fashioned gown Alice’s long hair was piled high on her head, which lent itself more to a late Edwardian style than the present fashion. Jane recognised someone for whom time had stopped after the Great War. She’d seen other young women like her, scarred forever from the losses of an entire generation of men, and wondered if Alice had lost a sweetheart like so many others, in what she’d heard was the most terrible of all wars.
‘Alice, how lovely to meet you. Do come in, it’s so kind of you to come all the way up here to meet me.’
Gesturing to her chair Jane watched Alice take the seat whilst she perched on the end of the bed.
‘I just wanted to make sure you had everything you need,’ said Alice looking round the room. ‘Goodness, it’s a few years since I’ve been up here, and nor has anyone else by the looks of things. It’s rather lacking in creature comforts … I shall see what I can do straight away. And you really need a fire lit on this cold day. Heavens, look at the cobwebs. I am sorry, but we’re all muddling along as best we can and sometimes the obvious things get overlooked. I was sure someone had been up to get everything ready for you.’
‘Please don’t apologise, I have everything I need.’
‘Except a cosy fire, a warm counterpane on your bed, fresh towels, and a jug of flowers, at the very least. It is no excuse … it has been hard since we lost so many staff, but this is no welcome. I shall go this minute and make improvements.’
‘Please do not worry,’ Jane insisted, ‘I should prefer you stay and talk to me, if you have time.’
Alice looked up and smiled. ‘I should enjoy that, if you’re sure I cannot help. I was so excited to hear that you were coming as a companion to us all. Since we left London I have not enjoyed the same discussions on books, literature and art that I used to share with my mother’s old friend, Lady Rivers. My sisters do not share my love of classic works, and though William loves to read too, he is always so busy about the estate to spend as much time with me as he once did. Cora is a great reader, but unfortunately only likes to scare herself with horror stories and gothic tales.’
‘It is her age, I imagine. I daresay she’ll grow out of it and widen her interests in time. What about you? Do you have a favourite book, one that you read over and again?’ asked Jane. ‘Mine is Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, though I’m also very fond of Frances Burney’s books. I believe Camilla is the most delightful heroine in creation.’
‘I confess I’ve never read Richardson or Burney, but I’d love to try them. Like you, I enjoy the writers of the past more than modern novelists. My favourite book is Persuasion by another Miss Austen, your namesake. Are you related, by any chance?’
Jane could feel the warmth of a sudden blush making her normally pink cheeks even redder. ‘I do not think so, Miss Milton, it is a common enough name … I know of the book you mention, it happens to be one I am fond of myself, though of all that author’s works I feel sure it would have benefitted from a little editing.’
Persuasion is quite perfect to my mind, though I read once that it was Miss Austen’s last book and her brother published it posthumously. Perhaps she did not have time to work on it as much as she would have liked.’
‘I daresay there is some truth in that,’ said Jane thinking of Henry who she missed with all her heart. ‘And I’m sure she had an idea that time was running out. She had a story to tell, and was determined to reach the end.’
‘It’s such a poignant tale, that has me asking many questions. I’ve often wondered if Miss Austen ever experienced the kind of love that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth found. There is such truth in her writing, as if she must have known the kind of longing that Miss Elliot suffered through the years when she and the captain were separated.’
‘I am sure most authors write about what they know and have experienced to some extent, even if their imaginations are also used to great advantage. If a writer truly experiences life and love, it will inevitably reveal itself in the written word.’
‘And in Persuasion those experiences are so movingly described that I feel in my heart she must have suffered.’
‘Only someone who has loved and lost would say such a thing, but forgive me, I am being presumptuous.’
‘Not at all. I was in love once, Miss Austen, but there the comparison with Miss Elliot must end. My story has no happy ending.’
There was silence for a moment. Jane wished she’d not spoken out of turn. ‘Real life cannot always mirror the happy endings we find in a book, Miss Milton, but I’m sure you would agree that to have experienced such love even with the associated pain is better than to never have known it at all.’
There was another pause during which Jane was sure their thoughts ran on similar lines. She wondered if she’d said too much, but her companion looked up and smiled.
‘Miss Austen, I’m so very glad you’re here. I look forward to many more discussions, but I must go and see to one or two tasks before dinner. And, if you ever need me, you’ll find me on the gallery floor in the room next to the niche where the statue of Athena resides.’
Alice Milton started to walk towards the door, but turned at the last minute. ‘I do hope you won’t mind too much if my sister Mae seems out of spirits. She doesn’t mean to be rude, but she has a habit of saying exactly what comes into her head, and no amount of correcting her from Will or myself seems to do any good.’
‘I expect she thinks she’s too old to have a governess, and quite rightly so,’ said Jane. ‘I hope Mae will realise that I have no wish to treat you all like children. I came here expecting to be a governess to five little girls so I’m rather getting used to the idea of my new position in the household.’
‘On the contrary, Miss Austen, whether you’re a governess or a lady’s companion, I think we all know the Miltons need someone to help glue the family back together. I have a feeling you may be the very person to do just that.’
Jane watched her walk away feeling more unsure than ever about what she was being required to do. She was feeling very nervous about meeting them all at dinner, but Alice had turned out to be so lovely she decided the evening really couldn’t turn out to be as bad as all that.


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