Searching for Captain Wentworth
A Timeslip novel inspired by Persuasion
I held the card up to the light turning it one way and then the other. Surely I must be mistaken. The brown ink was a mystery, but there was no confusion about the handwriting. Even by comparing it closely with Sophia Elliot’s writing on the journal flap, it was evident that different people had written both samples of script. And I did know my own writing as well as I knew myself and I couldn’t know anything more than that. Could I?
As I puzzled over the small card that set my heart racing to the point where I felt so light-headed I thought I might pass out, a nagging voice at the back of my mind said that I knew perfectly well what it meant. Yet, this amazing idea was so weird and momentous that if I were to speak it out loud or if I were to tell anyone they would instantly have me locked up. But, I knew I must have been there. I must have owned the subscription card to the Assembly Rooms in 1802 and, in my heart, I knew that the episode in the gardens was not a figment of my imagination, however much I tried to tell myself that it had been. It was time to reassess what had happened. It wasn’t very easy because the whole thing just seemed so ridiculous. All I kept thinking was that to prove it to myself, I would have to go back to the gardens and find out. I would pass through the white gate once more, even though the very thought filled me with a sense of foreboding so strong I could almost taste it on my tongue. Nothing could be done until the morning, and inevitably, a fitful night followed with harrowing dreams. Once, in the night, I swear I heard the turning of the door handle to the bedroom, but I couldn’t wake up enough or even turn on my pillow to look. When the light speared through the shutters to coax me into opening my eyes, I started when I saw the door was really open. I was sure I’d shut it before jumping into bed, but on the other hand, I didn’t feel very sure about anything any more. I was up and dressed in no time, carefully tucking the subscription card into the back pocket of my jeans. I wanted to do my own research before I hurled myself back through time, if that was in fact what I was going to do, and I knew the Holburne Museum in the gardens might help with my detective work. Just thinking about the possibility of time travel was surreal, but I’d got enough to think about before I made any further attempts!
I found what I was looking for straight away on a glass cabinet shelf, upstairs in one of the small galleries. Full of trinkets, I saw beautiful examples of the enamelled patch and snuff boxes made for the eighteenth century tourists who’d flocked to Bath. Amongst the “Trifles of Bath” were silver subscription medals just like the one I had found and, most spookily of all, several subscription cards for “Dress Balls” and “Cotillion Balls” exactly like the one in my pocket. I took it out for comparison. There was no mistake; it was the real thing, which made me feel very strange.
Ignoring my hammering heart, I explored the upper floors and as I made for the staircase to go down to the café, I passed a large poster at the entrance of the exhibition room showing the paintings, ceramics and decorative items that were to be in the new display, set against an enormous portrait of a Captain Holburne who’d been in the Navy in the 1750s. I will never know what possessed me to do it, but the door was irresistibly ajar. I popped my head round for a sneaky look.
The door made a horrible noise as I leaned on it and immediately a figure appeared from a side door, lit like a silhouette from bright lights at the back of the room. Even as I ran away like some silly teenager, I knew it was Josh even if I hadn’t seen enough to make out his features. I would have recognized his physique from a mile away. I’d never moved so fast and almost running downstairs made me laugh out loud, partly because I felt like a naughty schoolgirl, partly to relieve the tension.
Relishing a muffin and hot chocolate in the café with its wonderful views of the gardens all around me, I contemplated and cogitated on the pros and cons of what I was about to do. There seemed so many sensible reasons not to go back and venture through that gate, but I knew that if I didn’t, I would always regret it.
Once outside, and through the gates into the larger part of the gardens, I tried to convince myself that I just needed to walk, and have a think about things. At least the weather was better. The whole place had a far friendlier feel about it in the sunshine. When I got to the laurel hedge, my heart began to pound again so I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. I decided to do exactly as I had before. I stepped through the gate and down the steps to the canal side. Everywhere was quiet, thankfully, not even a seagull in sight. I turned, marched up the steps and put my hand on the gate, which scraped reassuringly as before. But, this time, nothing happened. No matter how many times I crossed the entrance, or held onto the gate, placing my foot on the stone threshold as I had that last time, I was disappointed. And that’s exactly how I felt, strangely. I felt really let down and as I walked home I began to doubt that what I thought had happened last time, about actually travelling through time, was for real.
I didn’t want to go home. I was feeling really fed up. It was being on my own, I decided, that had given me all these daft ideas about talking to Jane Austen in 1802. It was time to forget all that nonsense and do something else. I’d been in Bath for two days, but I’d seen nothing of it yet. I veered off back down Pulteney Street, thinking that I would walk into town, do a bit of sightseeing and pick up some shopping on the way back. But where should I go first? I wandered towards the imposing Abbey, immediately recognizing the scene from my favourite Persuasion film.
Just walking through the revolving door under the Pump Rooms sign was as good as stepping back in time and it did look as wonderful as I’d hoped. A sea of tables dressed in crisp white linen stretched the length of the room, each decorated with arrangements of white lilies scenting the air, along with the evocative aromas of Earl Grey tea, pungent morning coffee, the fragrant smells of cake and toasted Bath buns. From the lofty ceiling, a dazzling chandelier glittered above the throngs of tourists. Spangled with strings of crystals like sprinkles on winter cobwebs, every pendalogue dripped prisms of rainbow light to illuminate the glossy hair of a young girl, or to wink in a clinking, silver teaspoon. Fringed, terracotta hangings in the Regency style framed the long windows and, on the opposite side, the brass dogs in the fireplace gleamed against the dark marble of the chimney-piece making the perfect foil for the rich green of a potted fern. There was something so very English and genteel about the whole place, not quite Jane Austen perhaps, but lovely, nevertheless. The room was buzzing with chattering people whilst a trio on the stage entertained everyone with music from a piano, viola and violin. Presiding over it all was the statue of Beau Nash who along with the portraits of stern gentlemen looked as if he might climb down from his stony pedestal at any moment to remonstrate with the table underneath him, a noisy family who were gathered to catch up with their gossipy news. At the water fountain in the bow-windowed alcove, a man in fancy livery was dispensing water into glasses. A little queue was forming and there was a lot of laughter and pulling of faces as people decided whether they liked or disliked the taste of Bath’s spa water. I made my way to the counter, pulling off my gloves and hat and leaving them to one side. The steaming water frothed from an urn into the mouths of copper fish, green with verdigris, as the Pumper filled the glasses placing each one before reticent customers. He put one before me with an enquiring look. I couldn’t really come to Bath and not try the waters. After all, I was sure Anne and Captain Wentworth had managed, as had Jane herself, so I handed over my money. I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled by the smell and I did end up holding my breath so that I couldn’t taste the warm, sulphurous liquid. But, I managed to get to the bottom of the glass, which I felt was an achievement, though I wasn’t sure I was going to do it again. I was just about to leave when I was suddenly aware of someone standing too closely behind me, right by my elbow, wedging themselves in between the person next in line and myself. I think I probably looked a bit cross when I turned round, but I was sure that they were rudely barging in.
‘Does this belong to you?’
I started and stared, both at the glove in his hand and the face looking down at me. Although I’d never seen this face before, I immediately recognized the mop of chocolate curls. Registering the lightly tanned skin and deep velvet eyes; brown as the bed of the brook I paddled in as a child, I watched sensuous lips curve into a smile revealing white teeth. I’m sure my mouth fell open in surprise.
‘I’m sorry if I made you jump,’ he said, ‘but I just saw your glove fall to the floor a moment ago and someone tread on it. The next thing it had been kicked to one side, and I thought you might not notice, or find it yourself.’
I managed to say thank you, but I couldn’t utter another word.
‘Are you sure you’re okay? You know, you look really pale.
Would you like to sit down?’
I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Josh whatshisname. Though I hadn’t seen his face before, I knew the rest of him so well. Standing right next to me, he was so close, I could have put a finger up through one of those long, loose curls that tumbled in dark, unruly waves. I could just imagine what Lara would have said about his leather jacket, the silver chain he wore round his neck and his snug fitting jeans. I admit I was slightly over-awed; he had such presence. He was one of those people that command attention, who everyone stares at when they enter a room. His large, expressive eyes were looking at me in concern, but he smiled again, a sort of funny, half smile that just hinted at a sense of humour. I was shocked, utterly dumbfounded. I just kept thinking, he must wonder if I’m totally stupid as I stood with my mouth open doing a very good impression of the copper fish on the water pump behind the counter. It was so unexpected.
‘Have you come for your usual, Mr Strafford?’
‘Yes, line them up, Toby,’ Josh said, thumping the counter, ‘I’m ready and willing!’
Toby, the pumper, poured three glasses of spa water and placed them before Josh. I watched him drink the first, draining the glass without flinching once. I noticed his hands, like artist’s hands I thought, with long, slender fingers. He looked at me again with those eyes that seemed to acknowledge the effect he was having on me and he winked playfully.
I felt myself blushing but, at last, I found my tongue. ‘You’re not going to drink them all, are you?’ I asked, before I realized that I’d actually spoken my thoughts out loud.
He paused to turn and grin at me. ‘Every morning without fail, I’m here to take the waters. Isn’t that right, Toby?’
‘That’s correct, Mr Strafford,’ replied the pumper, with a tone that suggested a certain pride in what he obviously thought was a very admirable habit in his customer.
‘But, do you actually like it?’ I persisted. Drinking one glass had been quite enough as far as I was concerned.
Josh licked his lips and grinned, his eyes sparkling mischievously. ‘Don’t you?’
I wanted to say yes. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I really wanted to agree with him. I hesitated.
Picking up the next glass, he threw back his head in a theatrical manner and I watched his throat move as the liquid disappeared. ‘One to go,’ he cried, dashing the glass down noisily upon the wooden counter top.
Then he suddenly leaned towards me, which surprised me so much that my immediate reaction was to back off, but there was nowhere to go as I was up against the edge of a tall column. He buried his face in my hair and I remembered thinking how sorry I was that I hadn’t had a bath or shampooed my hair that morning, but hot water was something in short supply and I’d just had a quick wash. Thank goodness I’d drenched myself in perfume, I thought.
‘The water is disgusting,’ he murmured, ‘but don’t tell Toby, it would break his heart.’
I couldn’t help but laugh. Toby, I noticed, was on the other side dispensing more water to hopeful clientele. Josh now turned away looking straight ahead as if there had been no communication between us, all innocent and quite like a small boy who has just been very naughty.
‘Can I get you another?’ he asked, with a twinkle in his eye, just as Toby passed by.
‘Oh, no thank you, but it was delicious,’ I said, loud enough for Toby to hear and be rewarded with a smile.
‘I’m Josh,’ he said, putting out his hand very formally, the smile friendly, but less conspiratorial.
I should have said, ‘Yes, I know, you live in the flat below me.’ But I didn’t. Why didn’t I do that one thing that would have made everything simple? Perhaps if I’d explained, it would all have been fine. But, I didn’t. And, I knew why. Because the irony of the situation was that he’d gone out of his way to return my glove and as I had gone out of mine to steal his, I was feeling very guilty. So, I put out my hand and pretended I knew nothing about him instead.
‘Hi, I’m Sophie.’
‘Are you here on holiday, Sophie?’
I hesitated. ‘Yes, I suppose so.’
‘Are you not very sure?’
‘Well, it’s a sort of working holiday, meant to be, anyway.’
‘I’m intrigued. Doesn’t sound much like a holiday if you’re meant to be working.’
‘No. Well, I haven’t really started doing anything very much.
I plan to, of course.’
I looked down at the floor, knowing that I wasn’t making very much sense, or being very forthcoming and thought how boring I must sound. By the time I looked up again, he was checking his watch and looked as if he had had enough. ‘Well, Sophie, I have to be getting back to work now. It was nice to meet you.’
‘And you. Thank you for retrieving my glove.’
For a moment, I wished he’d ask for my number, or question me about where I was staying, though I was relieved when he didn’t. I wasn’t sure I could feign surprise when he realized we lived in the same building. Watching him depart, I saw him weave his way through the tables of middle-aged ladies nudging their friends and casting admiring glances at him as he passed by. Well, at least it was over, for the time being. However, the thought struck me that if we ever did meet in the pub, it might be pretty embarrassing if Lara were to start talking and he’d be sure to realize that I already knew about him. I would just have to avoid them both was all I could think.
I left as soon as I could. I didn’t want him to think I was following him, though I had to walk that way myself, and I saw him turn right by Upper Borough Walls. I couldn’t see anything of him by the time I’d got that far up and turned the corner and, in any case, I needed to head off for the supermarket. I selected a couple of ready-meals that I could heat up in the ancient cooker, thus avoiding the necessity of going to the pub and bumping into him. Adding grapes and clementines, milk, butter, a camembert cheese and a loaf of bread, I selected a bottle of wine from the chiller cabinet, feeling rather decadent.
I took my lunch, a plate of crusty bread and cheese, into the sitting room and filled one of the beautiful lead crystal glasses I’d found in a kitchen cupboard with the cool, gold wine. I thought about the meeting I’d had with Josh. He seemed nice; and then scolded myself for the use of that insipid word, which Jane Austen surely would not approve of after she made Henry Tilney tease Catherine Morland about it in Northanger Abbey. I admitted to myself that I liked Josh. He’d really cheered me up and made me realize quite how much I’d begun to miss human contact.
I felt guilty about the glove and stared at the box on the table, imagining I could see through it to the contents within. Perhaps I should just be brave, come clean and tell him the whole truth. Now I’d met him, I could just say how I’d tried to return it, but he’d never been in, or something like that. Taking it out of the box, I turned it over in my hand. I’ve always loved the smell of leather and the touch of the fine kid made me lift it to my face to stroke it against my cheek. I wondered who it had belonged to, and if it had been some illustrious captain in the Navy in Jane Austen’s day, perhaps Captain Holburne himself. Slipping my fingers inside, I hoped to get a sense of its owner.
I was feeling very light-headed from the wine, but the sensation that the room and all my surroundings were beginning to blur grew stronger. I could see the looking glass above the mantelpiece quite clearly and hear the distinctive tick of the clock, but now I could see that there were flames in the unlit grate, which was strange, as I’d not even raked out the coals from the night before. The light from the windows shone very luminously, forcing me to blink back the tears that welled at the overwhelming brightness. When I brushed them aside, I could see that although the room had reverted to the dim afternoon light of before, now there were other people in the room with me.
Jane OdiweFurther links: Chapters One,Two,Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve