Skip to main content

Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Four

   Searching for Captain Wentworth -
A Timeslip novel inspired by Persuasion          
                       Chapter Four

I half wondered if I’d stumbled across the filming of a Regency drama, but there were no cameras or anything else to suggest a film shoot and, what was stranger still was the fact that the day was bright and sunny. As real as any moving image on a cinema screen men, women and children paraded, along gravel paths I no longer recognized, parasols and walking sticks in hand. Vibrant cloaks and pelisses gave a glimpse of the white muslin dresses fluttering back in the breeze beneath them and a hundred straw bonnets, feathered and flowered, were tied under the pretty chins of flirting girls in a myriad of silken, ribbon hues. The objects of their smiles looked equally wonderful, bowing before them, in breeches, frock coats and boots. I was rooted to the spot, my heart hammering in my chest, and a thousand questions running through my mind. As the image became sharper, so I became more aware of myself. I still held the glove, though the hand that held it wore a glove of its own. It wasn’t my hand, yet it moved with me and was fixed to the pale arm, which disappeared into a long sleeve, pointed at the wrist. I touched my cheek, and brushed the brim of a straw bonnet where a silk ribbon was tied in a bow under my chin. As my senses kicked in the rigidity of bone-stiffened silk, tightly laced about my body, made it difficult to breathe properly. A crisp, cotton petticoat was layered next to my skin and over that, I discovered an outer gown of fine, diaphanous muslin. A square shawl with a floral border, draped over my shoulders, complemented my beautifully tailored coat of soft, apricot wool. To complete my outfit, a reticule of silk satin, embroidered with a basket of roses, was suspended from my wrist on knotted strings. Looking down at my feet, I was glad that at least they were comfy in leather half-boots, even if every other part of me felt squashed and pummelled into shape.
There seemed no explanation except the one that immediately popped into my head. I must have gone back in time, I said to myself, but just having that idea was so ridiculous I dismissed it at first. Slipping the glove into the reticule, I took a step on shaking legs. The trees around me were moving. My feet were taking steps, one in front of the other, but I had no sensation of movement in my legs. I seemed to pass over the grass, over gravel pathways, hovering six inches above the ground without feeling the surface below my feet. The sun felt warm, everything appeared so intensely brilliant that bright tears smarted in my eyes because the light was so fierce. When at last my feet touched the ground my hesitant first steps soon quickened into quite a pace, which felt no more peculiar than wandering around Sydney Gardens dressed in nineteenth century costume would be at any other time. Feeling really uncomfortable and totally self-conscious, as the bonnet on my head wobbled about unnervingly, I wondered how on earth anyone would ever get used to this feeling of being trussed up like a Christmas turkey. I hadn’t a clue which direction to take; the gardens looked so unfamiliar until I came out from one of the narrower walks onto a wider path. I recognized the museum at the end, but even this looked different with its rotunda style front for a bandstand and wings of boxes on either side, hardly recognizable to the building I’d seen with its modern additions of glass and ceramic. The exit lay ahead and I was just wondering what might happen if I made it back to my aunt’s house in Sydney Place, when two young women came rushing through the gate talking nineteen to the dozen. One of them waved energetically before running towards me, holding onto her hat with one hand as she hitched up her long skirts with the other.
‘Miss Elliot! How pleased I am to see you,’ she cried, taking both of my hands in hers. ‘You are well, I hope, though I must add, you are looking a trifle pale.’ She hesitated and I felt her clear hazel eyes, almost amber in their luminosity, sweep over every inch of my face. ‘Miss Elliot, I must admit you do not look quite yourself.’
No, that was for sure, I thought, being completely uncertain how I looked. It was very confusing. I felt like me but I really couldn’t be completely me, I decided, because here was a stranger who knew me.
The girl whose broad smile reached her twinkling eyes had round rosy cheeks like a painted doll and unruly chestnut curls dancing under the brim of her bonnet in the breeze. Dressed in a plum, velvet pelisse which looked rather worn in places, but suited her dark colouring so well, it was cheered up by a smart, cream, Kashmir shawl with details in crimson and cobalt. Like that of her companion who caught us up, her clothes were neat but clearly not as new as mine. Just as I was struggling to find the words to speak, her expression swiftly altered, the fine arched brows above her lively eyes knitting anxiously together, as her face loomed in and out of focus.
‘Cassy,’ she called to her companion, ‘Miss Elliot is unwell. Help me!’
At that precise moment, I felt the world sway. A wave of nausea rippled through me as the ground seemed to be trying its hardest to meet the sky.
‘Quickly, Jane! Let us support her between us.’ Cassy acted swiftly, taking an arm and bearing the weight, as my legs buckled. Jane took the other side and the girls managed to lead me to the nearest bench.
As if time was moving, one moment I could see the gardens I’d left behind, and the next all was changed. Shifting in layers, the past and the present overlapped for a moment and I was left, feeling queasy, unable to focus on anything. Gulping back deep breaths of air, the feeling that I might be slipping back to my own time gradually disappeared. Jane and Cassy were talking to me, but their muffled voices were sounding far off like echoes coming from a long tunnel.
‘Oh, Miss Elliot, you’ve come back to us.’ Cassy said, as she waved smelling salts under my nose. ‘You’ve quite given the Miss Austens the fright of their lives.’
‘We thought we’d lost you,’ Jane added, ‘I’m so glad you’re still here.’
I was feeling so wretched that at first, the enormity of what I was experiencing didn’t sink in. An incredulous idea about the identity of the girl formed in my mind, as I recognized that she was one of the world’s greatest writers, a novelist of such genius that her books are still being read and loved two hundred years after her death. Even then, when the thought slowly surfaced and registered that Miss Jane Austen herself was talking to me, I couldn’t really equate that iconic figure with the slim, finely featured girl that took my hand between both of her own. I’d only ever seen one small portrait of Jane, which showed her as unsmiling, a rather stern looking spinster in a mobcap. Yet, the girl at my side seemed just like me. I saw a young woman whose love of life sparkled in her eyes and danced at the corners of her mouth.
Her sister spoke. ‘Are you recovered enough to walk, Miss Elliot? We will escort you.’
‘I could order a chair to collect you from the ticketman at the gate,’ Jane added, ‘We need to get you home where you may recover by the warmth of a fire.’
I knew that I couldn’t stay sitting mute any longer, but I didn’t want to betray myself as soon as I started to speak. I opened my mouth only to close it again. Then, just when I thought I’d never talk again, I heard my voice ring out loud and clear.
‘Oh, please, Miss Austen, Miss Jane, pray do not be troubled. I am quite well.’
It felt surprisingly natural and I knew I’d got away with it judging by the expression on their faces.
‘I did not eat very much this morning and I fear my unsteadiness is as a result of my fastidiousness.’
It was out before I could stop it. I repeated the sentence in my head. Had I really just spoken those words? I could only be grateful that it felt as if I had.
‘That is a relief of some kind,’ said Jane. ‘I had begun to think you were really ill. But, at last, the colour is returning to your countenance … “your pure and eloquent blood speaks in your cheeks!”’
I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.
‘Just like your namesake,’ added Cassandra. And when I looked at her blankly, she said, ‘Are you acquainted with Mr. Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones? It’s one of Jane’s favourite books and she is always quoting out of it.’
Cassandra looked at her sister with a mischievous glance and in a stage whisper pronounced loudly, ‘Between us, I think Miss Jane fancies her own scarlet cheeks could be compared to those of Tom’s heroine, Miss Sophia Western.’
‘Not only of my cheeks,’ Jane continued, pursing her lips, but of my sweet mouth also.
“Her lips were red, and one was thin,
Compared to that was next her chin;
(Some bee had stung it newly)”…
‘Of course, strictly speaking, that’s Suckling not Fielding, but nevertheless, I am sure they both had me in mind when they wrote that description.’
We all laughed.
‘Well, Miss Elliot, I am glad to see you better and if we cannot assist you, we can at least keep you company,’ said Cassandra.
‘And very pleased you will be to have our society when you learn our most exciting news,’ added Jane. ‘Our dearest little Charles is coming home. Except, of course, he is not little at all being at least six feet tall and thinks himself a very grown man, indeed.’
‘He is very nearly three and twenty,’ interrupted Cassandra, ‘but, Miss Elliot, it is impossible to think of him as anything but our baby brother.’
‘As soon as he is able to get off his ship, he is to come here,’ Jane continued. ‘Such excitement! Not that I ever really think returning to Bath is quite like coming home. If we were in Steventon where we used to live, there would have been a great party with all our friends and neighbours to celebrate the Peace. But our old home is no longer ours and those days of youth and comfort are quite gone.’
‘I understand how you might miss your home so much,’ I said. ‘I must admit, I did not want to come to Bath and I do not know when we might return.’
I had spoken without consciousness; yet, I was sure what I was saying must be true. And the thought emerged that somehow I’d slipped back in time to experience the life of my ancestor. I surely couldn’t be addressed as Miss Elliot for nothing, but the idea that she had known Jane Austen was such an exciting one that I could hardly take it in. What on earth had happened to me?
‘Oh, Miss Elliot, then you understand completely,’ said Jane, ‘but, at least we can visit Steventon though it might as well be inhabited by strangers for all that I feel at home in it.’
I saw Cassandra frown at Jane and a look pass between them that Jane clearly understood.
‘My brother James has the rectory now,’ she continued, ignoring her sister’s expression, which entreated her to be more reserved on the subject.
‘Jane, I am sure Miss Elliot does not want to hear our family concerns,’ Cassandra rejoined. ‘Come, if you are feeling better, perhaps we could all continue with our walk.’
I nodded and we rose together to link arms, once more assuring my companions who were looking at me anxiously that I felt absolutely fine.
‘Tell me more about your brother, Mr Charles,’ I said.
‘He is in the Navy, serving as a second Lieutenant on the frigate, Endymion,’ Jane replied, bright-eyed once more. ‘Charles has already had a taste of adventure on the high seas and won a little prize money for his efforts, though he will never be rich if he always spends it on his sisters. The topaz crosses that Cassy and I wear in the evening were bought with his very first rewards. He is such a sweet, generous-hearted brother to think of his sisters above everyone else. How he will manage coming home to a house populated by three women and my long suffering father, I cannot think, but we are all so excited to be seeing him again. Later on, my father has planned a trip to Devon and beyond. Charles will be coming with us. The days cannot pass too quickly for me, Miss Elliot, I confess.’
‘I have always wished I had a brother,’ I replied.
‘We have several we could share with you.’ Jane paused, as if picturing them all in her mind. ‘I am sure we could let you borrow one if you ever need one, though they do have a habit of running off to some far flung place just when you need them most. I’ve planned many a time on being a stowaway in a sailor brother’s boat, but they would never agree to it. Heavens, it’s as much as I can do to escape to these gardens.’
Although her manner was light-hearted, she’d expressed more than a hint of frustration. Their brothers were free to go off whenever they wished. I couldn’t imagine such restrictions, unable to go where I liked. Even taking a stroll in the park was clearly seen as daring.
We were walking round one of the bowling greens and past one of the entrances to the Labyrinth, a maze, which Jane said she had had the pleasure of getting lost in on two occasions.
‘I cannot imagine how you came to lose yourself when you must have walked into it almost every day,’ said Cassandra with a smile, ‘or how such a predicament could have been at all pleasurable.’
Jane looked wistful. ‘I wasn’t lost to the sensations of nature, exquisite in sight and smell. I assure you, I was never happier when confined within those yew hedges, brilliant after a storm.’
Cassandra caught my eye and grinned. ‘My sister is inclined to be whimsical, Miss Elliot. I promise you, the Labyrinth must be the design of a child and, for all its secret corners, is not a place to easily lose oneself. I wonder at Jane’s capricious mind, there is no limit to her inventiveness.’
It was then that I felt the first spots of rain. The sun had disappeared behind a blanket of cloud.
Cassandra sighed. ‘Oh, dear, all this talk of storms; I knew I should have brought the umbrella.’
‘It is just a little rain. April is almost here and showers like these are to be expected, nothing to regard,’ said Jane. ‘But, Miss Elliot, you must not get wet or you may become ill again. I really urge you to think about us helping you home.’
I’d been feeling more and more comfortable and I’d stopped worrying about what I was going to say because it just happened without me having to think about a single sentence, but now I knew the real test had come. Waves of anxiety washed over me. What would I find when I reached my aunt’s house? Would Sophia Elliot’s family be there? If anyone were to see through me, it would surely be my own ancestors. Perhaps they would guess something was not quite right. But, as frightened as I felt by the whole ordeal, I was excited to see them and experience a glimpse of Sophia’s life.
We were at the gate and then dashing through a gap between the smart, black carriages rolling round Sydney Place to reach the other side of the road. The buildings looked so new, the characteristic Bath stone almost white and the railings painted not their customary black, but bright blue. Everything had the appearance of spruce elegance; the houses gleaming like newly painted doll’s houses. And the streets were full of people, the unfamiliar sounds and sights ringing through the air. The heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milkmen, and the ceaseless clink of pattens on the neat pavements, confirmed the truth that I was in a place that I could just recognize, yet was completely unknown.
The Miss Austens shook hands, begged that we should meet again soon and disappeared next door. The lion’s head knocker on the door in front of me looked ready to open its golden mouth to roar and I had to muster all my courage to take it up and strike the door.

Chapters One, Two, Three Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve

Amazon UK Amazon US