I brushed my hands over the blue and white checked poplin of my morning gown, and despaired. The hem was spattered with mud from the walk but more than that I knew my faded dress had seen better days, and would have been improved for having another three inches added to its length. My hair, always unruly and curly to the point of being wild, was threatening to fall entirely down my back from the knot on top of my head, and tucking stray strands behind my ears was not doing a very sufficient tidy-up. Though why I was so keen to impress the stranger come to Ashe, I could not think. I’d lived in the world for twenty years and had not yet worried about my appearance when meeting any single young man. But, I’d heard enough from my dear friend, Madame Lefroy, to be exceedingly curious about her nephew Tom – his coming to visit his aunt and uncle had often been talked about, but never accomplished. When at last he’d been expected, every morning visit in Steventon had included a mention of the well-composed letter his aunt had received. Every lady in the village had been full of the news.
‘I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr Tom Lefroy has written to Madame?’ said Mrs Bramston. ‘I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mrs Harwood told me of it. Mrs Harwood saw the letter, and she says she never saw such a splendid letter in her life.’
We knew that he hailed from Ireland, which lent him an air of romanticism. I loved some of the country airs and songs that were composed by his countrymen, and I suppose I had imagined him to be something of a romantic figure. We were told he was clever, and I remembered someone saying that overwork was the reason for his visit. After a suitable rest, he was going to study law in London and until then he was to spend Christmas with his relations. When the invitation came, I couldn’t believe I was to meet him. He’d achieved almost mythical status, and he surely couldn’t live up to the nonpareil of my imagination.
‘Jane, your hair!’ my mother exclaimed. ‘Why did you not let Rebecca see to it this morning?’
‘I do not like to be always asking her to be looking after me with tasks I can do for myself. She has quite enough to do with running errands for Nanny Littleworth and Nanny Hilliard.’
‘You will have to do, I suppose. Just remember not to talk too much and run on like you do at home.’
We entered by the parlour door, and saw a young gentleman sitting with Madame. The Tom Lefroy so long talked of, so high in interest, was actually before me. He was introduced, and at first, I did not think too much had been said in his praise. He was very tall and fair, his hair the colour of buttercups in sunshine. But, it wasn’t his shock of yellow hair that drew my attention. It was his eyes I noticed straight away. They were the colour of the sea on a winter’s day and as restless as the waves crashing to the shore. The grey coat he wore intensified the shade – one minute they were as lavender as sea thrift, the next as pale as pebbles in sand. He was a very good-looking young man; and his countenance had a great deal of spirit and liveliness. I felt immediately that I would like him; but as the afternoon wore on I found I was completely deceived in my first impressions. There was no well-bred ease of manner, or a readiness to talk, which convinced me that he had no intention to be really acquainted with me. Taciturn and proud were the words that sprang to mind. He looked as if he were there on sufferance, that the invitation from his aunt was most unwelcome.
My mother and Madame did most of the talking, but on feeling that perhaps we were a little overwhelming for someone who was not entirely well, I moved from my chair on the opposite side of the room to sit next to him.
‘You have come from Ireland, I understand, Mr Lefroy.’
‘Yes, from Dublin, Miss Austen.’
‘Ah, and is Dublin the town where you were born?’
‘No, that is Limerick.’
‘Thomas has been studying at Trinity College,’ Madame offered, as she caught our rather one-sided conversation.
Thomas nodded in assent, got up and walked over to the window where he stood looking out. It was then that I gave up trying to engage him further. Every now and then, I felt his eyes on me, and when once I dared to look back at him, he stared at me in such a way as to make me feel decidedly uncomfortable. I did not know what to make of him.
‘Well,’ said my mother on the walk home, ‘what a very proud and conceited young man. And never to open his mouth the whole time … Irish airs are all very well, but he’ll not make many friends if he looks down his nose at his aunt’s Hampshire neighbours. I suppose his father is a Colonel and fancies himself very high and mighty, and there I was thinking that I’d heard his mother was a very sensible woman.’
‘I understood from Madame that Thomas has been ill, that he is suffering the effects of too much work and that his eyesight has been affected.’
‘A poor excuse to behave badly, in my opinion,’ answered my mother. ‘He is most disagreeable, and rude. Why, I should have given him a dressing down if I were his aunt. To stand up and walk away when you were trying your very best to converse with him, I never heard of such a thing!’
He was dressed in a dark coat and satin breeches for the Basingstoke Assembly just a day later, a distinguished figure who seemed to have no wish to join in either the conversation or the dancing, merely standing at the edge of the dance floor with the Lefroy party almost as if he looked down on anyone who chose to take part. He walked here and there, occasionally whispering something in his cousin Lucy’s ear, which despite his serious expression seemed to make her laugh heartily. Nevertheless, there was something about him I could not dismiss, and I was intrigued by his haughty manner. It seemed improbable that he’d look my way, and yet I wished he would. I wanted him to notice me. He intrigued me in a way no other person ever had, and yet, he made me cross. I was angry with him for being so superior in his manners, but I loved a puzzle, and there was no doubt, Tom Lefroy was an enigma. I could not help staring at him, enjoying the way his yellow hair curled into the collar of the coat that closely fitted broad shoulders and skimmed over neat hips. He didn’t smile; he only observed the other dancers. I wondered if he knew that I watched him, but all I could see was his static expression, and an eyebrow twitching in response to his observations.
My admirers were plentiful, and I sat down not once, getting up with Mr Heartley, Reverend Powlett and Mr John Warren, to name but a few. As I danced, I felt him watching me, those grey eyes of his followed me about the room as I whirled and skipped. Once, I glanced towards him and our eyes met. He made the smallest bow before looking away so I could not be sure if it was intended for me at all.
Sitting at the edge of the ballroom my mother observed everything, gossiping with the other Hampshire mamas, punctuated by complaints of being too hot. I was tempted to say that was bound to be the case if one sat almost on top of the fire, but I bit my tongue and offered to fetch her fan. That meant I had to run back through the cold, narrow passageway that separated the ballroom from the inn, and I shivered in my thin, muslin gown. It was there that I bumped into him. We were alone in the dimly lit space with hardly room to pass the other, and I was so shocked to see him, so conscious of every unspoken thought of mine, that I jumped.
Tom nodded, and clearing his throat, muttered, ‘Miss Austen’, the smallest smile curving upon his lips. He could see my discomfort and for a moment I felt he held all the power. It was just that the space was so small; we were so close, almost intimate. I knew I would have to be the one to speak, but then he surprised me.
‘I have been to fetch my Aunt Lefroy’s fan,’ he said, waving the forgotten accessory, by way of explanation.
‘And I am on my way to collect my mother’s,’ I rejoined, unable to suppress a laugh at the absurdity of discussing nothing in particular and in such polite terms in the freezing, draughty corridor. The balance of power was shifting.
Tom bowed and moved to walk past me as I stepped the same way, more by design than accident. He instantly coloured, and made another attempt to escape after a cursory, ‘Forgive me’. But I was in a teasing mood and moved again, springing with a light foot to block his path once more. I was determined to get a reaction from him, one that was real and human. When he saw me laughing with such open friendliness, he could not help but smile also. It lit up his eyes, the flint-grey warmed by tones of sapphire.
‘Why, we are almost dancing, Mr Lefroy,’ I said, adding with a serious expression, ‘but, I am quite wrong, I think, because you do not dance … or perhaps, cannot dance.’
This time his glowering eyes met mine. ‘Indeed, you are quite mistaken, Miss Austen. I enjoy dancing quite as much as you do amongst my own friends and neighbours who would be only too happy to assure you of my pleasure in the activity.’
‘So, you do not consider yourself to be amongst friends, Mr Lefroy? I am sorry to hear it, for the generous hospitality of Hampshire folk has often been remarked upon. Indeed, I hoped that my own efforts to welcome you into our small circle yesterday would satisfy.’
‘I was very happy to be introduced to you by my aunt, Miss Austen.’
‘Yet, I daresay you are used to finer company in Ireland. In Basingstoke we are a little rougher round the edges, I think. Perhaps we are too countrified for your taste. No doubt, Limerick and Dublin have far finer assemblies to boast of than a country dance in an upstairs room above an inn, and far more rarefied company.’
Tom Lefroy looked completely shocked at my speech. I felt I had done all I could to startle him into conversation and made my way to leave.
‘Please forgive me, Miss Austen, if I have given the impression that I am above my company or that I have no desire to dance. Nothing could be further from the truth.’
He hesitated. I felt a little shame-faced. Now that he’d spoken and hinted at his wish to dance in a most gentleman-like manner, I felt I should not have been so frank. I detected something more from the grey eyes that peered at me under fair lashes. Was there a reason for his rudeness?
‘I confess, I am apt to be ill at ease with strangers. I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.’
He looked sincere and suddenly, I had a change of heart. Could he be shy, after all? My judgement that he considered himself too good for the company could be false. Perhaps Tom’s behaviour was understandable if he was attempting to protect his shyness from being exposed, shielding a vulnerability within. Yet, his whole manner had led me to believe that the idea of dancing was the furthest thing from his mind.
Well, even if he’d contemplated asking me before, I felt certain he would not ask me to dance now. On the other hand, I decided, how was I to have known that his haughty demeanour, which I had first decided was the result of misplaced pride was a mask he wore to hide his diffident nature?
I turned to go. Tom held out his hand, touched my arm slightly to arrest me. ‘Miss Austen,’ he faltered, ‘Will you dance with me?’
My first inclination was to say no, to spite him. I reminded myself that he was the son of a gentleman, Colonel Anthony Lefroy, and as such, had received a fine education and was now taking a step on the ladder of his chosen profession. He could not be ignorant about the ways of the world. Being shy was a poor excuse. Why would a man of sense and education, who has lived in the world, be ill qualified to recommend himself to strangers? Was it simply the case that Mr Thomas Lefroy had forgotten his manners until I reminded him of them? I hesitated, and willed myself to refuse him.
‘I have promised to dance with Mr Powlett next,’ I said promptly, unable to completely dismiss his request yet avoiding those steel grey eyes I felt regarding me steadily.
I met his gaze with an expression of defiance.
‘But, Miss Austen, do you think it would be wise to dance with Mr Powlett for a second time this evening?’
I looked up to regard the eyes that looked so intensely into mine. Mr Lefroy’s countenance bore such a serious expression that I couldn’t think what his thoughts must be. Surely he did not disapprove of dancing twice with the same gentleman, though I admitted to myself that dancing again with Charles Powlett was not an event to which I looked forward. That young clergyman was the clumsiest partner I knew.
‘I … do not think it imprudent to step up with a gentleman for two dances, Mr Lefroy. Perhaps in Ireland it is not the custom, but I assure you, that here in England it is quite good form.’
‘And does good form and fashion allow for the abuse of one’s toes whilst dancing? I could not help but notice that yours were thoroughly and most cruelly mistreated the first time round.’
I could not help laughing especially when Tom’s eyes crinkled at the corners and he grinned, unable to keep his serious expression.
‘Mr Lefroy, you are provoking me, I think, for your own amusement, and I cannot agree with your wicked observations though I will allow that dancing has its hazards as well as its joys.’
‘Then, on the grounds of safety, and the preservation of your good health, I implore you, Miss Austen, to forget your promise and to dance with me instead.’
I could not help but be amused by Tom, and was almost prepared to forgive him anything, even his pride.
‘I cannot break my promise to my dancing partner, Mr Lefroy, but I will dance with you directly afterwards, if you wish.’
To my complete surprise Tom took my hand and raised it to his lips planting a kiss as he observed my expression with an intensity I found most disconcerting. I felt scorched, almost branded: my heart was hammering so loudly I feared he would hear it. These were not the manners of a shy boy; I could not make him out. And whilst in the midst of such thoughts, he seemed to vanish as quickly as he had appeared. I hurried away to retrieve my mother’s fan and though the temperature in the corridor was somewhere approaching freezing, I felt the heat upon my cheeks as if I had been standing before an open log fire.
Entering the ballroom once more, I was struck by the fact that there appeared to be a heightened expectation in the very air of the place, a sense of excitement in the vibrations of the fiddles tuning up again, and in the incessant chatter of the observers and dancers, as they frantically rushed for places on the dance floor. Everywhere looked fresh and bright, a picture of Christmas celebration in the evergreens strung along the mantelpieces at either end of the room, and in the looking glasses above them reflecting green wreaths and scarlet berries winking like ruby jewels in amongst the towering plumes of the dancers and the twinkling lustres of the chandeliers.
Mr Powlett claimed his dance and my hand. I felt a sea of faces turned in our direction as the country dance began. I noticed Mrs Terry who had travelled from Dummer turn to her neighbour and pass comment as she fixed her eyes upon us. Whilst I loved dancing, being scrutinised by all the ladies eager to marry off every single young woman or gossip about her particular prospects with a partner was most disagreeable. And, I knew every dance was remarked upon and my partners numbered. All this could be endured, however, if I could just make sure that the one person I most minded watching me dance with Mr Powlett could keep his countenance. I would not seek him out, I would maintain eye contact with my partner and take little notice of those who sat or stood at the edges of the ballroom.
But, I might have known it would be impossible. Far from behaving as he had before, silently regarding the scene with an expression of hauteur, Mr Thomas Lefroy did not once remove his eyes from my face and every time I passed once more along the dance, he merely inclined his head towards me with such a saucy expression I was sure the whole room observed it! Far from keeping my head, I became flustered even to the point of moving the wrong way down the set to my utter mortification.
At last, the tortuous dance was over, Charles led me back to my place and I waited for Tom to claim me. Looking about, he was nowhere to be seen, and as the seconds ticked by, I perched up out of my seat looking eagerly round for him. He simply wasn’t there. Oh, I was so vexed! To think I had been looking forward to dancing with that proud puppy, and now, he was going back on his word. Well, I was not going to be fooled like that again, I decided. Miss Jane Austen was not to be toyed with by some upstart with a honeyed Irish lilt to his voice that was such pleasure to my ears that I wondered if he’d bewitched me by fairy means. I swore there and then I’d never be taken in by such fairness of face or feature again. How dare he!
‘Are you by chance looking for someone?’ whispered a voice very close to my ear that had me jumping out of my seat.
Tom Lefroy was standing behind me, bending his handsome head down toward mine to tease me yet again. On seeing my expression he merely bowed, and holding out his hand said, ‘Miss Austen, I do hope you will do me the honour of dancing with me.’
I could not refuse him, however much I wished. And when he took my hand and led me out onto the floor, I knew he would be the perfect partner. Tom and I danced three times together during the course of the evening, and though I knew I should not, I could not help myself.
‘Miss Jane Austen of Steventon has found a new beau,’ I heard the gossiping neighbours whisper. ‘My, she is a lively one tonight. How many times has she stood up with that young man? She is certainly setting her cap at young Mr Lefroy, and well, she might!’