Time was racing along at a pace, which Jane thought was typical considering how much she wished it could slow down and delay the dinner hour. She pulled on her evening dress over her head and examined her reflection feeling quite pleased with the result. Dr Lyford’s sister had bought the dress in Gorringes’ winter sale a few years ago in London, and whilst it was not quite in the first fashion now, Elsie Lyford said she thought it would not look too shabby to be worn at the dinner table or at a dance, black being most suitable and practical. It could always be livened up with a bright scarf, a string of pearls or one of the new long necklaces, and turned into at least three different outfits, not that Jane had any jewellery to try that out. It might even be possible to alter it and lower the waist though Elsie added it might not be the done thing for a governess to attempt to out-do her employers in the fashion stakes. The satin dress felt smooth as silk, it was embellished with a few tiny jet beads and black fringe just below the bodice line, which was still quite high, and had a cape of sheer Georgette sleeves. Looped at the sides the dress felt very elegant and Jane decided she didn’t look too bad after all. A check on her hair scraped up into a bun on her head, followed by a spritz of cologne, and she was ready to face the family.
She almost got lost in the rabbit warren of staircases and passages on the way down, but catching sight of the gallery with its glimpse down into the quadrangle of the spacious hall below, Jane felt she was on the right path at last. With little idea of the time she ended up running down the last set of stairs anxious that she would be late. With minutes to spare Alice was there to meet her. Jane felt relief flood through her when she saw her waving across the hallway; she’d feel so much better not walking into a room on her own.
We’re having drinks in the drawing room first,’ Alice said. ‘Come on through and I’ll introduce you. It’s just the family tonight … Lady Milton thought that would be ordeal enough for you, and she’s keen for you to get to know everyone.’
Jane detected no animosity in Alice’s voice towards her stepmother, but she wasn’t surprised. Though it must have been very difficult feeling like a stranger in her own home when they’d first come back to Manberley, Jane thought that if anyone could have coped with little fuss it would have been Alice.
As if she could read Jane’s mind, Alice spoke. ‘My stepmother means well enough, Miss Austen. She has always been kind to my siblings and me, and naturally she is disposed to favour her own children. Lady Milton would like us all to be off her hands, I think, well married and in our own homes, which I suppose is the natural desire of most mothers.’
‘And are any wedding bells to be heard soon?’ Jane asked as they entered the room. They were the first arrived after all, so she need not have worried.
‘I’m afraid not. William is oblivious to any of the girls that are presented to him, Mae has such high ideals that any suitor is snubbed on his appearance alone, and the younger girls have only just come out. My stepmother’s anxiety levels in that regard are reaching fever pitch. She’d like them to be presented at court, but my father says, as Mae and I never had that privilege it will have to be forfeited. They have horrible discussions about it sometimes, but he seems to think there are enough suitable gentlemen in the local area that would make good husbands.’
‘Is he right?’
‘Of course there are not so many young men left, but rather older men, one or two widowers who lost their sons in the war, keen to take new wives and carry on the line. And then there are local landowners like Jonathan Keeling at Buckland Priors, and Captain Bartlett of Sherford Park lives just a mile away; I’m sure you will meet him sooner or later. He’s a friend of my father’s though he is a younger man, about thirty-five. There are soldiers staying in the village too, part of the army stationed here.’
‘And which one will steal your heart, Miss Milton?’
Jane saw Alice’s expression grow sombre. ‘The one that stole my heart has gone forever, Miss Austen.’
‘I’m sorry, I should not have asked.’
Alice smiled. ‘I think I would like to tell you about him sometime if you’d care to listen.’
‘I would like that very much.’
The room, which had been a haven of peace, was suddenly alive with people and chatter. Lady Milton burst through the door with two girls hanging on her arms, all talking at once, with another trailing behind, her nose in a book. A man who could be no one else but Lord Milton came in next with another young woman whom Jane guessed must be Mae from the cold stare she received. A beautiful girl, and clearly a very spirited one, her features were temporarily spoiled by her sulky expression though she seemed to smile at her father and patted the seat next to her on the sofa for him to sit down.
‘Ten minutes, and then dinner!’ boomed his lordship ignoring his daughter and moving to a small table where a silver tray of drinks was set out. ‘Can’t abide cold food. Now, what’s your poison?’
‘Albert darling,’ called Lady Milton, ‘come and meet Miss Austen. She’s here to help me look after the girls.’
‘Not that we need a nursemaid,’ said Mae glaring at Jane. ‘It’s too bad someone of my age has to have someone trailing after them watching everything I do. Anyhow, I’m not having someone younger than me telling me what to do. Daddy, tell Flora I won’t have it.’
Nobody seemed shocked or embarrassed at this outburst, except Alice whose pleading expression as she looked anxiously at Jane begged forgiveness for Mae’s rudeness.
Lord Milton ignored his daughter again and crossed the room with his hand outstretched. Jane noticed the lapels on his dinner jacket were rather shiny from age and too much careless pressing of an iron. ‘Miss Austen, I am delighted, Flora’s been telling me you’re a miracle worker, and Lord knows we need one at Manberley Castle.’
‘Oh, Albert, things aren’t that bad, don’t exaggerate,’ said Flora Milton with a pretty, affected laugh. She perched on the arm of a sofa and crossed her long legs. ‘Miss Austen is here as another pair of hands, as a companion to us all, and as a sort of lady factotum. She’s a wonderful listener, you know, and it will be so nice to have someone to hear all our troubles.’
‘Where’s Will?’ Lord Milton paid no attention to his wife, and picked up a bottle of gin from the tray.
‘He’s gone out,’ said Mae.
‘Gone out and missed his dinner? I never heard such a thing. Drat the boy, and the damned butler who announced after he’d finished dressing me that he had urgent business in the village. I daresay he’s slipped out with Will to one of their usual haunts. You can’t get the staff these days, Miss Austen. Never mind, I’ll make ’em myself. Is it Atty’s all round then?’
Jane was beginning to think she’d landed in the middle of a novel in the making, and though it was quite interesting to watch the family dynamics she’d begun to realise that she wasn’t an outsider merely looking on, but was expected to become part of the scenario, which was a very frightening idea. And as she watched his lordship sloshing gin and vermouth in large quantities into every glass she felt quite alarmed. Though she wasn’t averse to a glass of wine or two, a cocktail was quite another matter. It would only go to her head and she might let anything she wasn’t meant to mention slip out.
‘Not too heavy on the absinthe or crème de violette if you please, Albert,’ said Flora selecting a cigarette from a silver box and fixing it into a long scarlet holder to match her dress. ‘I do not wish to see green fairies dancing at the end of my bed tonight.’
Lord Milton was getting flustered as he topped up the cocktails and handed out the drinks. ‘He’s never here when you need him. I daresay he’s gone on pleasure bent.’
‘Well, you’re only young once,’ said Lady Milton, ‘isn’t that so, Miss Austen?’
Jane smiled, and nodded a little, feeling that to answer truthfully she’d have to reply in the negative. She’d had to lie about so much lately, but she felt a certain justification. The truth would certainly horrify them all, especially Cora who would, no doubt, imagine her in the direst sense as a walking corpse or worse. She sipped at her cocktail which she thought hideously perfumed, and ignored Lord Milton’s urgent pleas to ‘drink up quickly, we must hasten to the dining room!’
She was listening to Lady Milton loudly bemoaning the expense of new silk stockings and their scarcity in Devon when Jane noticed she was being scrutinised by Cora. A tall slim girl who looked about eighteen, she was sitting on a leather pouffe with her legs outstretched, her girlish organza dress billowing over the sides, a book folded in her lap, but with one finger keeping its place on the page. The one touch to modernity was a low-slung sash round her hips in apricot silk, but Jane was pleased to see her appearance befitted her age. Her hair was short but curled into her neck, and a pair of forget-me-not blue eyes gazed wide-eyed between two rows of dark lashes. A pretty girl, but clearly an intelligent one, and when their eyes met Cora quickly looked away, as if she knew she’d stared too much for politeness.
‘May I ask what you’re reading?’ asked Jane.
Cora looked up. ‘It’s a novel by Walter de la Mare, about a very small girl who at twenty could be taken for a child of ten. At times awfully strange, but terribly good and it’s simply enchanting. I’ve read it before … the images created get stuck in your head, Miss Austen. There’s a particularly vivid one near the start where the tiny heroine, Miss M, is sitting in a tartan frock on her father’s pomatum pot on his dressing table.’
‘So she’s very tiny, like an elf or fairy.’
‘Yes, in a way though size isn’t really the point of the book, I don’t think. It’s more about how we view the world, and how overwhelming it can be, and all wrapped up in the most beautiful sentences.’
‘I should like to borrow it when you’ve finished, if you wouldn’t mind. And if you’d like to discuss it further when I’ve read it, I should enjoy that very much.’
‘I’d like that,’ said Cora putting the book down and drawing up her legs to hug her knees. ‘It’s always fun to get another opinion on a book; hardly anyone at Manberley reads, Miss Austen.’
Jane smiled. ‘Can you recommend a good bookshop nearby? I have only one book with me and I should love to start a new collection.’
‘There’s a most delightful bookshop in the village, Miss Austen. I should love to show you, I think you’ll like it very much. It’s such an old-fashioned place with a brass bell that tinkles above the door, shelves upon shelves of books lining every wall, and tottering piles covering what’s left of the floor. There are so many books that it’s hard to find the proprietor sometimes, though he’s generally to be found at the back of the shop in a cosy chair oblivious to the world. I shouldn’t wonder if he doesn’t get lost one day amongst the mountains of books.’
‘I can’t wait to see it. Are you free tomorrow? I’d love to walk down to the village.’
‘We could all come,’ said Beth who’d been listening to their conversation. ‘Alice told me you need one or two things for your room, Miss Austen. Mother said we should buy whatever is required, and I’d love to show you the village and help you pick something out.’
‘Oh, how kind of you,’ said Jane noticing Beth for the first time. A younger, more attractive version of her mother unadorned by heavy make-up, she was a striking looking girl, perhaps a couple of years older than Cora. Dressed in a modern gown in vibrant yellow, which suited her glossy brown hair, her very dark velvet eyes and the fine arching brows above them, Jane warmed to her instantly.
‘And we’re bound to meet some of the officers,’ said Emily, nudging her sister. ‘I think Lieutenant Dauncey is rather sweet on Beth, and she on him. I am dying to get them together.’
‘Emily, I am not interested in Lieutenant Dauncey or anyone else, whatever you think,’ Beth said quite crossly. ‘I’d rather you didn’t meddle. One of these days your match-making schemes will land you in trouble.’
‘But I’m so good at it,’ Emily insisted, tossing her mane of blonde curls over her shoulders. She was the only one of the girls to be so fair, and with her long, unrestrained hair and green eyes flecked with hazel she had an otherworldly quality. ‘You must admit, if not for me Mr Stephens wouldn’t have even noticed Daisy Stocks, and now they’re married. Mr Stephens is the local vicar in the village, Miss Austen. And as for the vicar at Moorford, Mr Wallis, I’ve got someone lined up for him too!’
Jane saw Alice rise to her feet. She looked a bit flushed, and her hands trembled as she spoke.
‘We really should go into dinner, cook hates it if the food is left to go cold.’
‘Let’s not discuss the Wallis’s, Emily,’ said Flora Milton in a low warning voice, rising to her feet. ‘You know how much it upsets your sister.’
Everyone stood up then, and Alice led the way out to the dining room. She was noticeably upset, and it clearly had something to do with the mention of the Moorford vicar. Jane couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, and wondered if he’d been the young man to break her heart though she dismissed that idea when she remembered she’d been given the impression that her sweetheart was no longer living. Perhaps she’d learn more in time if Alice chose to confide in her, but what she’d be able to do to help she couldn’t think. Being in love with someone who could never be yours was a wearing business, Jane knew from past experience, and as she followed the others into the dining room, she suppressed her own memories and the associated emotions rising from the past.
Jane noticed the details of white linen, gleaming silver set for several courses, white candles guttering in the breeze from an open window, and the dying evening light slanting through French windows onto flocked walls, green as the velvet interior of a jewel box. It was a picture of a dining room from an age of opulence, though on closer inspection she could see that the crystal glasses were rimed with dust, there were stains on the cloth and tarnish on the cutlery. It did not bode well.
‘Miss Austen, come and sit next to me,’ said Alice, and Jane tried very hard not to show her sense of relief. Beth sat on her other side, and she felt pleased she’d have a chance to speak to her again.
Jane looked round the table. Lady Milton was trying to engage Mae in conversation but she was being completely ignored. At every attempt Mae turned her head as if she hadn’t heard her stepmother, and was soon talking loudly to Emily on her other side. Lord Milton was chatting away to Alice, looking rather fondly on his daughter, as his wife attempted to interrupt them, shouting across the table that she couldn’t hear what was being said.
‘I ought to warn you,’ Beth began in a low voice inclining her dark head toward Jane’s ear, ‘that besides the fact that we’re a disparate bunch, dinner is a bit of a hit and miss affair, and between you and me, rather lacking in content and variety. It’s not cook’s fault, in the old days when money was plentiful meals were absolutely splendid, but like everywhere else in the castle cutbacks have been made.’
‘Please don’t worry, Miss Beth. I have been used to frugality most of my life,’ Jane answered truthfully, ‘and of course, we are living in very difficult times.’
‘Though not everyone in Stoke Pomeroy seems to suffer as we do,’ said Beth. ‘Mr Keeling at the Priors has the most splendid dinner parties to which we are occasionally invited. We stuff ourselves when we go there because the food is so marvellous. There was lobster to start last time we went, and roast lamb, followed by rhubarb crumble with jugs of custard. I have dreams at night of dining there when we’ve had a particularly poor dinner. Mr Keeling is from one of the old families and he seems to have pots of money left.’
‘Is he a young man?’ Jane asked.
‘Well, he’s of marriageable age, I suppose, if that’s why you’re asking, though no one here would consider him like that, however much my mother would wish it. We’ve known him since we were babies, Miss Austen, and he’s like a doting big brother. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon; he’s always here. The castle is like a second home to him, he says. He’s very generous and often sends us a gift of venison, beef, or fish when in season, and his gardens produce the most wonderful fruit. Then it feels like a holiday, and everyone is happy because we go to bed with full stomachs.’
Jane was just wondering if she dared ask what had happened to the Milton sugar fortune when the first course arrived, a huge tureen of soup, carried in ceremoniously by a footman who proceeded to dole out ladlefuls of watery consommé into the dishes before them. There was a faint taste of something meaty, which surely came from the bones that had been boiled to produce it, though Jane could not decide exactly what. It was lukewarm, and the accompaniment of a slightly stale bread roll did nothing to improve it. Jane was still getting used to the fact that not all the courses arrived on the table at once, and though trying to embrace every facet of her new life, she thought there was a lot to be said for being able to miss out certain dishes if they were not to your liking.
‘Civility costs nothing, Mae,’ Lady Milton was saying in an exasperated tone. ‘I just asked you a perfectly reasonable question.’
Jane saw Mae roll her eyes, but she sat tight-lipped, behaving as if a response wasn’t expected.
‘Albert, talk to your rude daughter, please. I will not be ignored in my own home.’
Jane saw Lord Milton pick up his wine glass and drain it. The room, which had been lively with chatter, was suddenly silent.
‘Come on, ladies, let’s not squabble,’ he said without looking either of them in the eye. He dabbed at his moist forehead with a large cotton handkerchief.
‘I am not squabbling, Albert. I am trying to have a conversation with your daughter and I am having no luck. I think you need to be firmer, and tell her that she is behaving like a spoiled child. I cannot do anything about the fact that her mother is dead, and that you chose to marry me, but I do not see why we shouldn’t be able to sit at the dinner table and be polite, even if we hate the very sight of one another.’
‘Flora, for goodness’ sake, let’s not have a quarrel now,’ said his lordship, beckoning to the footman to fill his glass. ‘I’m too tired for all this nonsense. It’s got to stop.’
As the dishes were cleared in preparation for the second course Jane couldn’t help feeling sorry for Lady Milton. Whilst the dinner table wasn’t the place to start an argument, she could see the lady was at the end of her tether, and Mae, who clearly had her father wrapped round her little finger, was enjoying the fact that he and her stepmother were at odds. It was obvious that Mae was playing a little game, one she thought she’d easily win every time. But, despite the fact that Jane thought her behaviour was uncalled for, she suspected Mae was not coping well with life and lashing out at anyone who tried to show they cared. Whilst Alice had accepted her mother’s death and the idea of her father being happy with someone else, her younger sister was railing against the world, and anyone she thought might divert her father’s attention from herself. Lord Milton wasn’t helping. He didn’t seem to be engaged with any of the women in his family, particularly, though Jane detected a slight preference for Alice and Beth.
The dollops of macaroni cheese doled out with a serving of cabbage did nothing to lighten the atmosphere, and though Alice and Beth started up a conversation on some new music they’d heard about, the dinner limped along to its inevitable dismal conclusion along with some stewed apple and lumpy custard for pudding, watered down to a runny consistency.
Jane excused herself as soon as she could leaving the disgruntled company in the drawing room, who were now pretending that nothing untoward had happened. Lord and Lady Milton were knocking back more cocktails, and sitting next to one another on the sofa, she laughing girlishly at everything he said.
It was rather eerie finding her way up to her room in the dimly lit passages, but when she entered her room she was struck by the beauty of silver moonlight shining through the windows and the sight of the sky studded with stars, twinkling like diamonds. She felt suddenly revived and thought how she would make the best of the moment by using the time before bed for some writing. Jane sat down at the desk and switched on the lamp, which flashed too brightly then promptly popped with a loud crack. A new bulb would have to be added to the shopping list, she thought, and wished she had a candle to write by. These new fangled lights were all very well, she thought, but a candle was always reliable. The moon chose that moment to hide behind a bank of cloud, darkening the room to black velvet and feeling quite deflated, she decided it was time to give in and go to bed. Tomorrow was another day, and her new book could wait until then.
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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