By the time they’d walked back to the castle along winding lanes with the smell of the sea on the soft summer air, it was time for the dressing bell. Jane almost ran up the stairs to her room knowing she had two whole hours to indulge in a little writing. Seeing her last manuscript in published form had been most inspiring, and she couldn’t wait to read it and start writing again. It wouldn’t take her long to get ready, she only had one dress to choose from, and she could hardly mount the stairs for her growing excitement. Even if she could only manage two hours a day, it would be enough to write several pages, and at least she’d make a start.
Throwing back the bedroom door she was not prepared for such a change of scene, and her mouth formed a little ‘Oh’ in surprise. Someone had been into her room and arranged all the purchases from the afternoon. The bed looked sumptuous with its starched pillows and colourful eiderdown, and the pretty rug before it was placed just where her feet would find it. The little clock sat on her bedside table, and there were candelabra studded with fresh candles scattered round the room, on the mantelpiece, on the bookshelf, and on her desk. Above the mantelpiece a beautiful painting of a seascape had been hung, and below it on the shelf was a fragrant arrangement of roses in a cloisonné vase. A fire flickered in the grate, an indulgent luxury, for though the day was cooler as the sun lowered in the sky Jane knew she’d not be there for long to enjoy it. There was only one person who could be responsible for this heavenly space, and her name was Alice, Jane thought.
Remembering the little she’d learned that afternoon she wondered how Alice was faring. That she’d accomplished all this whilst not feeling well and after what must have been a distressing experience, Jane thought showed just another aspect of her extraordinary character, and she was determined to thank her. Putting aside her own selfish desire to indulge in some time on her own for her writing she decided she’d go and find Miss Milton and thank her in person, and on the way downstairs she could leave the magazine she’d bought for Mae with one of the maids. Jane had written a little note to say she was sorry about her accident and hoped she’d soon feel much better. She wasn’t sure it would do any good, but she hoped Mae would see it as a gesture of friendship.
The fashion paper dispatched, it was easy to find Alice’s room, next to the statue she’d mentioned, but when she got there Jane hesitated. Was she being presumptuous? It was only a moment before she decided to take the risk, and knocked on the door, but when she heard Alice’s friendly voice telling her to go in she was sure she’d done the right thing.
‘I just wanted to come and say how wonderful my room looks and to thank you for all your kindnesses to me,’ said Jane standing just inside the door.
Alice was sitting in a pretty chintz covered chair by the window in a room where time stood still. Pale pink satin and ruffled lace were draped over the bed and at the windows in ruches and flounces, with a profusion of over-blown flowers in paintings and in vases that filled the room. Sunlight filtered through ornate lace panels dotting the Aubusson rug, highlighting the swags of tea roses and sage green garlands.
‘Come and sit down, Miss Austen. I am so glad you like your room, but I’m also sorry it did not give you the same welcome when you arrived. It’s a work in progress, and we can make it finer yet.’
Jane took the opposite seat. ‘Oh no, Miss Milton, please don’t trouble yourself further, it is utterly delightful. I don’t think I ever had such a pretty room in all my life. I do hope you’re feeling better, headaches are so tiresome.’
‘I only seem to suffer from them when I cannot face life. It’s as if I allow myself to become ill when I could just as easily run away given the chance.’
‘I think we all do that to a greater or lesser degree. Sore throats are my weakness, and nobody ever suffered as much or had such bad ones.’
Alice laughed. ‘It is easier to be ill than to deal with one’s emotions, I find, and if I tell the world to go away and lie in bed for a day or two it passes for a while.’
There was a silence and Jane could see Alice was deep in thought. She didn’t want to press her to talk, thinking that she when she did, she’d be ready to confide in her.
‘We were engaged briefly,’ she said at last. ‘Frankie came home horribly injured in the last year of the war. Manberley Castle became a hospital and I helped nurse him back to life. We fell in love during the spring, and in the summer when he was almost fully recovered we spent whatever time we could together. He’d always had ambitions to become an actor, I knew that from the start, and wished him well. When he asked me to marry him I didn’t hesitate, though I knew the news might not be received with enthusiasm from my father.’
‘Did your father consider his profession unworthy of you?’
‘Yes, you might say that,’ Alice said. ‘Frankie and his brother, who is the vicar at Moorford, were genteel enough but poor, and though my father welcomed the brothers to Manberley at Christmas and on special occasions, they were never mentioned in the same breath when prospective husbands were discussed. Frankie had no money then, of course, but I knew he’d be successful, whatever he chose to do with his life. He was ambitious, and hardworking, and determined to be the best actor that ever lived. I admired his drive and purpose, but my father couldn’t see it. I suppose in hindsight I understand he was worried for me. He thought I’d live a life of poverty, but I was very young, and I couldn’t understand. Suddenly, it seemed to me that my father was sitting in judgement on the Wallis brothers. They were two young men who’d sacrificed so much, willing to give their lives so that we might live our useless existence. But still the old snobbery survived, and Lord Milton wasn’t going to allow a daughter of his to marry a bohemian.’
‘I understand how hard that must have been. You could see qualities in Mr Wallis that your father failed to acknowledge.’
‘Quite … and I felt his objections misplaced. Who were we to set ourselves above our neighbours, a dear clergyman and his brother? The Miltons were frittering away a dwindling fortune squandered by my father and his new wife, contributing nothing except providing a building for the wounded whilst we carried on our idle lives.’
‘But, yours was evidently a very useful one if you were caring for the wounded. Nursing is hard work, I have had a little experience of it myself.’
‘Did you nurse in the war, Miss Austen?’
‘No, Miss Milton, but once my brother Henry was dangerously ill, and I stayed with him in London until he was right again. But, that was nothing to the suffering you must have seen.’
‘I hope never to see the like again. Frankie was injured but he made a remarkable recovery, and though we were surrounded by death and pain every day, just being with him and talking to him was wonderful. We were so close at one time, I knew his every thought, and he mine.’
‘What happened then?’
My father refused permission for us to marry, and Frankie wanted me to leave with him … elope together, but I couldn’t leave Mae, and I realise now I was too much of a coward to go and face an uncertain future. How I have regretted it since, but it felt the right thing to do at the time, and I dread to think what might have happened if I’d gone. Mae is a complicated character at the best of times, even with all the love we try to lavish on her.’
‘I think you did the right thing,’ said Jane. ‘You acted as your conscience dictated, and put your sister first. If you’d run away your father and Mae would have both been distraught. You did what you thought was best and no one could blame you for that.’
‘But, if I’d followed my heart and married Frankie, we might have been able to persuade my father to change his mind.’
‘You might have, but Frankie might never have been so resolved on proving himself. You let him go, gave him the freedom to pursue his dreams, which was a great gift. If you’d married, life may have been difficult especially if children had come along.’
‘I suppose so, though there will always be a part of me that will wonder how it might have turned out.’
‘In any case,’ said Jane, ‘he is not married, and he has come back.’
‘And all hope is lost,’ said Alice before Jane could say any more. ‘There is no longer any spark between us, or any feeling … our meeting confirmed that. He might as well be married, and I think if my sister Emily has her way that might be a possibility before the end of the summer.’
‘Have you no feelings left for him?’
‘I don’t think I will ever recover from the love I had for Frankie, Miss Austen. But, neither of us are the same, and we are as changed as if our love affair never happened. Besides, I do not think I could marry anyone now. Like so many of the women of my generation, I fear it is too late.’
Jane reached out and placed her warm fingers over those of her companion. ‘It’s never too late, Miss Milton, please don’t give up hope so easily. Believe me, though it has its compensations the life of a spinster is a dreary one.’
‘You are young, Miss Austen, I should not put myself on the shelf if I were you. I am twenty-eight next birthday, and cannot fool myself any longer that I am of marriageable age. I have plans to leave, perhaps get some employment in London and lead an independent life. If I could just see Mae settled. All she needs is someone to love her.’
‘Promise me you won’t do anything hastily,’ said Jane feeling comfortable enough to offer advice. ‘London is not a place where many survive, and it can be the loneliest place in the world. Forgive me for speaking out, but I spent quite some time in the capital and nothing would ever induce me to live there for all its fine attractions.’
Alice smiled. ‘I don’t think I could ever be happy being too far away from home … at least, from Will and Mae. The truth is if I wanted to be independent I would have to move away. No one would treat me seriously here if I declared my intentions. I have a fantasy of working in an office and learning how to use a typewriter, though it is just a dream.’
‘There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,’ said Jane, ‘though if being completely independent would mean moving away, it must be seriously considered. I have seen the advertisements for typewriters, but I have never seen one used. I must admit I would love to own one.’
‘Do you have ambitions to be an author like your namesake?’ asked Alice. ‘I’ve written a little poetry myself, but couldn’t possibly attempt to write a novel.’
‘I confess I do, though it is a great secret and must not be shared. I have written one or two things in the past, and it is my dream to write something new and see it published. But, I am not sure your stepmother would be pleased to learn of my spending time scribbling away when I should be supervising your sisters.’
‘Oh, I’m sure Flora would not mind what you do in your spare time, Jane. I hope you don’t mind the informality, but I feel we are becoming such friends.’
‘Not at all, Alice, we are friends, indeed. I’ve always said friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love. How wonderful to discover you are a poet, I should love to read some of your poems.’
‘And my confession is that I too have nurtured an idea to see them published. What fun it is to find someone with such similar tastes.’
‘I shall enjoy having you to discuss writing and books,’ added Jane. ‘We seem to have so much in common. Tell me, do you enjoy dancing?’
‘That seems such a pity. Dancing always seems to take me out of myself. I enjoy it so much, though like you, I have not had the opportunity to dance in recent years or learn the new dances I heard Emily talking about today.’
‘But, you will have the chance to do just that this evening,’ said Alice. ‘The Wallis parties are usually very good, and there is always music and dancing.’
‘And you’ll be able to dance too,’ said Jane watching Alice’s face. ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’
‘I do not think I can face it. There are too many memories, too many emotions that might come spilling out, and I do wish everybody else to have a wonderful time.’
‘I understand perfectly,’ said her new friend, ‘though you will be sorely missed.’
‘If I could just persuade Mae to rest her injuries I should have an excellent excuse, but I have a feeling that seeing Julius Weatherfield again will be high on her list of priorities.’
‘Even if she can’t dance.’
‘I am certain my sister will be more than happy to sit out every one for a chance to get to know Mr Weatherfield better, though I feel sure Captain Bartlett will get his nose put out of joint.’
‘Is Captain Bartlett in love with your sister?’
‘He has not declared himself, but it is very obvious that he likes her. He is in his thirties, and a very sweet man though Mae thinks he’s as old as the hills.’
‘Oh dear, I pity the poor captain. At least if she cannot dance then she won’t be able to disappoint either of them.’
‘Oh, Miss Austen, if only that were true.’
Alice didn’t make an appearance at dinner as Jane suspected might happen, but all the other Miltons were in attendance along with Lady Milton’s friend King Zoot. Despite the mutton stew, which was tough and thin in equal parts, everyone was already in a party mood, except for Lord Milton who complained that he had better things to do than frolic at functions.
‘I see quite enough of the local village vicars on Sundays,’ he said, ‘without having to socialise with them.’
‘Albert, you are such a spoilsport,’ said Lady Milton. ‘I am longing to meet Eddie’s brother again, he’s quite a celebrity in Hollywood now, and filthy rich, I’ve heard.’
‘I don’t hold with the stage, as well you know.’
‘Well, it didn’t stop you from courting me, did it, dear? You weren’t so fussy when you used to come calling at the Gaiety in the old days, or at the KitKat club.’
‘Ha, hardly the same thing, and everyone loves a bit of harmless hoofing. You were a wonderful Gaiety girl, my dear, and I was the envy of every aristo in the land. No, my objection to the theatre and those ridiculous silent films is that they are crammed with so-called actors, and aesthetes from objectionable backgrounds who set themselves up as stars and such-like. And then they expect their audiences to fawn on them as if they were royalty … well, I’ll not be a party to it, if you’ll forgive the pun.’
‘Just as you please,’ said Lady Milton. ‘Zoot will be happy to take me and dance all night if he doesn’t thrill the crowd with a performance. The boys are coming, aren’t they?’
King Zoot’s brown eyes twinkled as he let out a baritone laugh which seemed to bubble up from the depths of his very being and shake his large frame like one of Mrs Wickens’s jellied confections.
‘They haven’t let me down yet, and with the added attractions of a few free nights at the Tolleywicks Inn in the village I’m assured if charabancs and high spirits combine to play their part, we’ll see them yet.’
Zoot’s news was rewarded with loud cheers from Emily and Cora who couldn’t have been more pleased and excited. From across the table Jane discovered Will was staring at her once again, and from the way he winked at her and gave a little laugh, she was sure he’d been able to read her every thought.
Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six
Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine
Travelling to Devonshire aboard a steam train, Jane Austen remarks to her companion and physician: ‘Dr Lyford, if I can survive embalming, the subsequent resurrection and the effects of transdifferentiation, I will live to tell the tale …’
Laura Boyle Jane Austen Centre Online Review
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