The teashop was closed in their honour, Mrs Foxworthy insisted, especially as some of the young girls outside waving autograph books still pressed their noses up against the bow windows trying to see into the dim light of the wood-panelled shop. Alice saw him straight away, but she couldn’t look longer than the two seconds it took to establish where he was in the room, and then Will was pushing forward, hugging Frankie like a long lost brother and there was a lot of noise and exclamation over meeting old friends, as the introductions took place, that she was grateful it gave her a bit of time to catch her breath. When Alice and Frankie came face to face and shook hands there was a moment of awkwardness, as she observed a look from him that she recognised as pity in his grey-green eyes. Apart from the fact that it felt so horribly formal, Alice imagined that he hardly recognised her, the striking girl he’d once known was now replaced by a frump in dowdy clothes of a style long gone by. There were no words, and she was thankful that everyone was still talking at once. The worst was over, thought Alice, and it was all so surreal.
Mrs Foxworthy showed them all to a large round table at the rear of the shop, and they sat down to pore over the menus as the initial small talk dwindled into self-conscious observations on the state of the weather. Emily and Cora took over the conversation wanting to hear all about Frankie’s life in Hollywood as a star of the silver screen, and Alice tried to look as if she attended to the conversation instead of dwelling on the past. Staring absently at a glass vase filled with sweet peas on the crisp, damask cloth, her mind wandered back to another time and a different landscape where the man who now held his audience captive was tenderly holding her hand and saying how much he loved her.
‘And you know Laurette Taylor personally?’ Emily was asking. ‘We loved her in One Night in Rome, didn’t we, Cora? Mrs Wickens said she saw you both together in Lovers’ Dream at the Torbay cinema when she went to visit her sister in Paignton. She said you were on the newsreel before the film started, dancing a foxtrot and looking so very happy together.’
Frankie shook his head. ‘Oh, we do all sorts for a bit of publicity. You wouldn’t believe the number of stars I’ve been linked with, and coincidentally, have fallen passionately in love with just before the film was released. The studios insist on it, they say it encourages the fans to buy cinema seats.’
‘So, none of it’s true then,’ asked Cora, looking most put out.
‘Not a word,’ he said, shaking his head and smiling.
He was more handsome than Alice remembered him, his hair more golden, and now with an American accent, stronger than the one her brother had acquired in the states, he was even more impossibly glamorous than her memory and imagination could have pictured him. Frankie’s clothes were impeccably tailored, and the gold watch he wore on his tanned wrist was clearly expensive, yet typically understated.
‘What about ‘Young Doug’, Mr Fairbanks junior? How well do you know him?’ said Emily who kept abreast of all the film stars.
Alice remembered seeing a picture of Frankie and Douglas Fairbanks junior pictured together in Mrs Wickens’s film magazine. They’d had their arms round one another, and she thought Frankie had never appeared so good-looking.
‘I know most of the stars,’ Frankie answered, ‘but we all live in the same place, so it’s a bit difficult not to spend all our time together. It’s probably boring for everyone else, all our ‘talking shop’, but acting is our life.’
‘Are you joking?’ said Emily, sitting as close to him as possible. ‘I wouldn’t be bored, it would be a dream to be an actress in Hollywood, and attend all those parties. I know I could certainly get used to the money. Oh, what shopping I would do!’
Frankie looked amused. ‘You’ve never seen stores like the ones they have over there. In New York you can’t see the tops of buildings from the ground, they’re so high they call them skyscrapers, and the stores are filled from floor to roof with everything you could ever want.’
‘Oh, I wish I could see it,’ Emily enthused. ‘How did you break into films, Frankie, was it easy?’
‘Not at first, I can’t say it was a piece of cake. I had to work hard, do a lot of jobs I hated whilst I was trying to get noticed, but I kept going, and in the end it paid off. I spent a miserable time in repertory here for a few years after the war, living in dingy bed-sits, and taking bit parts, but once I arrived in America my luck changed, almost overnight. Anyway, enough of me, I want to know what you’ve all been doing … a lot of growing up by the looks of things. I wouldn’t have known you, Emily … and Cora, you were still in pigtails the last time I saw you.’
Alice remembered that fateful afternoon too well. She’d known her father hadn’t really approved of Frankie, as a friend of Will’s, least of all as someone qualified to court or, heaven forfend, marry her.
‘Cora’s coming out this year,’ Emily announced on her sister’s behalf, ‘to join Beth and me at all the dances, not that there have been many in sleepy Pomeroy. Alice and Mae come with us sometimes, though it’s hard to drag them away from the castle. I’m so glad you’ve come, Frankie, we need more men to come dancing, but I suppose it might be a bit difficult if you stop the traffic every time you go out.’
Frankie laughed. ‘But, I’m sure you’ll be the one doing that from now on, Emily Milton. With such stunning sisters, Will, you must have your work cut out.’
Emily flicked her hair over one shoulder and beamed, staring adoringly into Frankie’s eyes. ‘Say you’ll come to the next dance, Mr Wallis.’
Beth stepped in, aware that her sister needed her flirtatious behaviour curbed. ‘Are you staying here long, Mr Wallis?’
‘Please everyone, we’re old friends, just call me Frankie. I’ve got a couple of months off before we start shooting in the fall,’ he said, and as he said the words Alice felt his gaze. Even the way he said “the fall”, instead of “the autumn”, sounded so thrilling. She looked up for a moment and wondered if the perceived look of sorrow in his eyes was just in her imagination.
He’d been sent home injured from the front at the beginning of spring in 1918, and Alice had nursed him alongside a ballroom of soldiers at the castle through April showers and on through a gloriously hot summer, but by autumn the falling leaves and the onset of winter saw him anxious to get away, especially when it was made clear to him that he was not good enough to marry Alice Milton. She could never smell damp leaves underfoot without feeling the pain of such sadness when they parted. Looking back, she knew he’d been determined to prove himself both to her and her father.
Mrs Foxworthy appeared with plates piled high with food. Alice looked nervously at her slice of ham and salad of lettuce leaves and sliced tomato, feeling that she wouldn’t be able to eat a morsel. They were quiet for a moment whilst Frankie charged their glasses with the wine he’d ordered, and raised his glass to them all.
Will was just getting up to make a speech when a loud knocking on the glass pane of the door alerted them to the sight of one of the policemen hammering at the door. Mrs Foxworthy rushed to open the door and in the next second, they saw another young man waltzing through with Mae in his arms. Her clothes were stained with blood and her trouser leg ripped to the knee, which was bandaged. He set her down on the chair, pulling another forward to rest her injured leg on. Despite her dishevelled appearance Mae still looked devastatingly beautiful even with her cheeks smudged with dirt and greasy smears of oil. Though they could see she was hurt, she didn’t appear to be in much pain, and was grinning with pleasure at all the attention.
‘Mae, what on earth has happened - are you injured?’ said Alice in a concerned voice, rising to her feet and dashing over to her side.
‘What on earth’s been going on?’ said their brother calmly taking in the situation, and coming forward with a hand outstretched. ‘I’m Will Milton.’
‘Julius Weatherfield, Mr Milton … how do you do. I’m so sorry, your sister’s been in an accident,’ he said taking Will’s hand and shaking it firmly. ‘I’ve done what I can, and there don’t appear to be any breakages … we had a bit of a collision on the Cockington Road.’
‘It was my fault,’ Mae insisted, as she was instantly surrounded. ‘I’m perfectly well; there’s no need for alarm. A lady in a nearby cottage helped dress my arm and bandage my knee.’
‘Oh no, you poor thing,’ said Alice, ‘and I don’t expect your poor bicycle came off too lightly, either.’
Mae’s hand flew to her mouth and her eyes clouded with tears. ‘Please don’t be too cross with me Will, I have a dreadful confession to make. … I was riding your motorcycle when it happened.’
Will looked thunderous for a second or two, but Mr Weatherfield stepped in again.
‘I took the liberty of sending it along to my mechanic, and it seems the little damage will be easily rectified at no cost to anyone. He owes me a few favours, and was glad to do it. I hope you don’t mind, but I couldn’t leave it on the road, and we were just yards from his garage. It seemed the sensible thing to do.’
‘That’s jolly sporting of you,’ said Will. ‘Are you sure there will be no costs involved? I couldn’t have you putting yourself out.’
‘No, I’m happy to help. What an incredible machine … American, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, I was lucky enough to buy it over there a few summers ago just after the war.’
‘How wonderful … it’s a dream of mine to travel to the states.’
Mae breathed a sigh of relief as she watched them chatting away sharing a common passion for speed and motoring in all its guises. Julius was so charming and kind, however cross Will might feel inside, his own good manners wouldn’t betray him.
After all the excitement and drama of the afternoon, there wasn’t much time left for shopping. It was three o’clock before they’d finished Mrs Foxworthy’s rhubarb crumble and custard, and then Will insisted on taking Mae home immediately, for despite her protests to the contrary, he said she should really be resting after such a shock. Frankie excused himself saying he needed to go to the post office because he was expecting a telegram, and he’d promised to be back by late afternoon to help his brother plant out some seedlings in the garden.
Alice couldn’t imagine the glamorous film star getting his hands dirty, but she remembered he’d always loved pottering about in the rectory garden he’d shared with his brother before he moved away. He seemed to have a special way with plants and animals, she thought, they always responded well to the love he lavished on them. Come to think of it, he was just the same with people, and recalled how he’d made her feel cherished like never before. But that was then, and now he’d hardly acknowledged her, all those old confidential glances and secret looks exchanged, long gone.
‘Look, I know it’s a bit late notice,’ Frankie said, standing to his feet and throwing his jacket round his shoulders, ‘but we’re having a bit of an impromptu party up at the rectory tonight. I don’t suppose you’d be able to come, but I’d love it if you could. It’ll just be people from the village, the old friends I’ve bumped into, and some of those army chaps who seem quite spiffingly up for anything. Oh, do say you’ll come, and Julius, you must come too.’
Will glanced over at Alice whose quiet nod gave him the go-ahead. ‘We’d love to, that’s awfully kind, old chap.’
‘That’s settled then, and if your Ma and Pa wish to come, ask them too. Shall we say eight o’clock, and bring your dancing shoes … we’ll dance the night away.’
Emily and Cora clapped their hands together in unison. ‘A party, how exciting!’
Alice was surprised he’d invited Flora and her father, but such was his confidence that he probably knew he wouldn’t be rejected again by them, and wouldn’t care if they did. She didn’t think she’d be able to cope with the idea of a party, and besides, she hadn’t a thing to wear. She could feel one of her migraines coming on, and that would suit her just fine. When Frankie left, Alice said she’d return to the castle with Will and Mae, and handed Jane the shopping list, with instructions to Beth to help where she could.
‘I’ve a little headache, I hope you’ll excuse me, but I should like to take Mae home, and make sure she’s comfortable,’ Alice explained.
‘I quite understand,’ said Jane taking the list and folding it in two, ‘take care of yourself. Perhaps you would benefit from having a lie-down, and then you’ll be fit for the party.’
Alice smiled rather weakly, Jane thought, and couldn’t help wondering if her headache had been a direct result of seeing Frankie Wallis.
In the end, only Beth and Cora accompanied Jane round the shops but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had such an enjoyable time. They stopped in the newsagent’s first where the girls chose the latest film magazines, and Jane selected a fashion paper for Mae in the hope that it would cheer her up, and go some way towards offering a hand in friendship, though she had little hope that anything much would be accomplished by one small token.
They carried on to the linendraper’s and haberdasher’s where Jane felt very spoiled as she chose new sheets, a soft cream blanket, matching pillow cases, a satin eiderdown with a paisley pattern in pastel greens and shell pinks, and after she’d picked them out the proprietor promised to send them up to the castle that very afternoon. A new light bulb was purchased from the ironmonger’s along with a small alarm clock, and a few candles, which Jane requested, saying she was used to candlelight at home. Beth insisted she chose a rug to put next to her bed from the selection of rolled up carpets in a corner of the shop, and Jane managed to find a pretty rose-covered one on a pale ground, with loops of blue forget-me-nots round the edge. Alice had also included a new bookshelf on the list, and having put their order in from the carpenter further along the high street, Jane looked forward to visiting the bookshop to find some volumes to fill it.
‘Isn’t Frankie the most handsome man you’ve ever seen?’ said Emily with a sigh. ‘I hope I get a dance with him later … and though I would die to dance the Charleston with him, a slow tango might be more thrilling.’
Cora laughed and Beth scolded. ‘Emily, you must not be such an outrageous flirt, you’ll get a reputation.’
‘I bet he’s used to more than a mild coquettish teasing,’ Emily retorted, ‘and at least I wasn’t behaving like some of the girls with their noses pressed up against the window … I was positively restrained.’
‘Well, just behave yourself this evening, and don’t try and hog all his attention. You never know, he and Alice may want to spend some time together, it’s been years since they saw one another.’
‘I doubt that,’ answered Emily, ‘they hardly spoke to one another, if at all, and I didn’t see him looking at her, not once.’
Jane didn’t quite agree with that assumption. She’d seen the moment their eyes had met confirming her suspicions that once upon a time they had meant a great deal to one another.
The bell tinkled above the door of the bookshop when they walked in, just as Cora said it would, and Jane was delighted to see the shop was exactly as she’d described. It was like an Aladdin’s cave, shelves of books lined the walls, and further piles lay in random stacks in front so there was barely room to put one foot in front of the other.
Mr Quance, the bookseller came out from the back of the shop to greet them. Although a fairly young man, he was short, and pale in complexion, having the pallor of one who didn’t sit outdoors very often. He wore a maroon velvet frock coat belonging to another age, which lent him a bohemian air, rather worn on the cuffs and lapels, slim trousers, and a velvet smoking cap on his head with a long gold tassel.
‘Good afternoon, ladies,’ he said peering over the top of a pair of pince-nez, ‘I hope the Miss Miltons are well?’
‘Yes, we’re very well, thank you, Mr Quance,’ Beth answered politely. ‘We’d like to introduce you to Miss Austen who is staying up at the castle. She is a great reader, and we knew she’d love to come and visit your shop.’
‘That is most kind, Miss Milton,’ said Mr Quance scrutinising Jane from head to foot. ‘How do you do, Miss Austen … is this your first time in Devon?’
‘On no, sir, I spent one or two holidays in the near vicinity when I was a child, though I know Dorset slightly better.’
‘I am very partial to Lyme Regis and Sidmouth myself.’ He took off his spectacles but continued to stare. ‘And a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.’
Jane started in surprise for she remembered penning those very words when writing about the seaside resort in Persuasion. But, it was not such a profound statement, and surely many people must have heaped similar praise, and uttered the same words about a place that was so beloved.
‘Do you know your namesake’s work, Miss Austen?’
‘A little,’ said Jane, knowing she was not telling the whole truth. She felt it imperative to change the course of the conversation as soon as possible.
‘You have a look of her,’ he said, almost as if he’d known her, though Jane knew that couldn’t be at all possible. ‘It’s quite uncanny.’
He shuffled away to the back of the shop, and appeared again moments later with a book. He opened it up at the frontispiece, carefully peeling back the tissue paper that protected it. Jane recognised it at once as a copy of the little portrait her sister had once painted. Cassandra had wanted to paint her so badly, on several occasions, but Jane disliked sitting still for long, and didn’t like seeing her painted image, not wanting to be reminded that her face was too round and her cheeks always so red. To think this hideous picture was actually printed in a book. Even Cassy had acknowledged that it wasn’t her best work, and now here was someone who seemed to recognise a likeness from it.
‘May I?’ she said.
Mr Quance handed over the book for Jane’s inspection. It was a biographical work she noted, and feeling very intrigued longed to peruse the pages properly. Though Dr Lyford had told her about some of the success as an author she’d had since she died, she’d not been shown any work of this nature. Had they been kind about her, she wondered?
Beth leaned over to see the picture. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘I can’t see any resemblance. Do you know of any past relationship to the author, Miss Austen?’
Jane felt her cheeks glowing brighter as she denied it. ‘No, though I suppose there is always the possibility of a distant connection.’
‘Besides, this portrait of Miss Jane Austen makes her look more than a little bit cross,’ Beth continued, ‘and that cap is most unbecoming. There is a likeness in the eyes to an extent, and in the curl of her hair on her forehead, but her lids are rather puffy, not at all like our Miss Austen.’
‘Quite,’ added Jane in complete agreement, ‘and I’m sure if Miss Austen were alive today she would not recognise herself from that dreadful daub.’
‘Perhaps I was too hasty,’ said Mr Quance closing the book, ‘though I cannot help thinking what an exquisite possession a good picture of her would be! I would give any money for it. I almost long to attempt her likeness myself.’
Jane regarded the little man with suspicion. There he was again, quoting Emma at her. What did he mean by it?
‘Well, I will allow you ladies some time to look around … I shall not be far away should you need me.’
He disappeared once more to the back of the shop. Jane couldn’t decide whether to purchase the book or not, then decided against it. After all, it was highly likely she’d read something she didn’t like or find out an error or a collection of mistakes, and she didn’t need to read a book someone else had written about her life to tell her what had happened. What she really needed was a little book on Devon and its resorts. At the end of her life she’d been writing a book set in a seaside town, and she had an idea to update it in a contemporary setting. A novel or two for some light reading would also be good, though her funds were limited. In the end, unable to decide on a novel, she chose a book on Devon and its Environs by a local author, and carrying her newfound treasure she took it along to Mr Quance seated in a chair at the rear of the shop, almost drowning in books. He wrote down the title in a ledger, and noted the price.
‘I wonder whether you should like to read a couple of articles about Miss Austen I found in a paper published last year,’ he said, removing his cushion and producing the newspaper beneath it. ‘E M Forster is a self-confessed admirer of her work, and a noted novelist … I am sure you know. Have you read A Room with a View?’
Jane shook her head. ‘I have not, Mr Quance.’
‘I’m sure it would be to your taste, Miss Austen, indeed, he learned all he knows from your pen.’
At that precise moment a black kitten sprang onto the desk and looked up at Jane with green eyes. Reaching out she fondled the top of his head and he began to purr loudly.
‘Quince is very particular about whom he befriends, Miss Austen, but he’s an enormous fan of your books. He loves nothing more than to hear them read out loud.’
She must have misheard him, Jane decided, but now Mr Quance was scrambling round on the floor, searching through pile after pile to find the right book. Perhaps he’s not quite right in the head, she mused, because it just wasn’t possible that he should know anything about her.
‘Ah, here it is,’ he said at last, popping up from behind his desk. ‘I think you’ll find the characters and the plot development very interesting, and whilst he is a great imitator, I’ve no doubt it was done from love. Take the paper too, and be not afraid to read it, he is exceedingly complimentary.’
Oh, thank you, most kind of you.’
‘And, I have just one more book I think you’ll find interesting, though I will admit, I have some hesitation in showing you.’
He gave her what Jane could only describe as a meaningful look before he opened a drawer of his desk, and pulled out a volume with the title, Sanditon, by Jane Austen, encased in blue-grey boards.
Jane gasped and plumped down on the little chair just in front of the desk. She couldn’t help it, for there, in his hands, was the novel she’d started just before her last illness took hold.
‘It was published at the beginning of the year.’
‘But it’s not finished, and besides that, it was to be entitled, “The Brothers.”
‘Yes, indeed. Please do not upset yourself, Miss Austen, but you must understand that the six completed novels you wrote, whilst works of genius in themselves, were not enough to satisfy the appetites of your adoring public. They are always wishing there were more.’
Jane was now fully on her guard, and looked around her to make sure Beth and Cora were still out of earshot. ‘Who are you, Mr Quance, and what exactly do you think you are saying?’
‘I do apologise most profusely, but I had to be absolutely certain I was addressing the real you, and no one else. We have a mutual friend, Miss Austen who has your best interests at heart.’
As the little kitten sprang onto her lap and settled down, purring louder than ever, the light suddenly dawned and Jane knew in an instant he could only be referring to one person. ‘Dr Lyford … yes, I see.’
Mr Quance nodded. ‘We were at the same university, and I moved in some of the literary circles where your work was much admired. Do not blame him for not telling you all you should know. He thought it best for you to learn a little at a time.’
Jane nodded, and took the proffered book to stroke its cover. Her eyes filled with tears. ‘Thank you for showing it to me, I never thought I’d see it in print.’
‘It’s yours, my dear, perhaps you will be inspired to finish it.’
‘But, I must pay for it. Please, how much do I owe you?’
Mr Quance covered her hand in his, and gave it a gentle pat. ‘Not a penny, my dear, and if I can serve you again in any way, please do not hesitate to call upon me.’
Jane started to protest, but the shopkeeper raised an index finger to his lips. ‘Please, Miss Austen, for all the pleasure you have given me and so many others I beg you will accept my small gift. We’ll keep this to ourselves … I should not like the Miss Miltons to get wind of it. I wish you to know I am here if you ever need me, as is my dear friend at Dawlish who hopes you are settling in well.’
Beth and Cora walked up just then, with a book each. Feeling terribly guilty that she’d not paid a penny for her books, she watched the sisters pay for theirs as Quince stretched and yawned before dropping off to sleep.
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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