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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Eight

Searching for Captain Wentworth - A Timeslip Novel inspired by Persuasion
Chapter Eight

I stared at them, not knowing quite what to feel. Even though I had no idea who they were; I didn’t feel frightened immediately, it was as if they belonged in the room. I can’t explain it any other way, but I felt a part of the whole picture. There was a man standing by the windows talking to a lady who looked so familiar, I immediately felt at ease even if I couldn’t think why. Dressed in a long gown of dark, printed cotton, her grey hair curled under a lace cap. The man in breeches with a dark blue coat over a frilled shirt wore his short hair brushed forward and was very animated as he talked, waving his arms about. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it clearly had something to do with the very pretty girl who sat on a chaise longue on the other side of the fireplace. Dressed in sheer, embroidered muslin, she wore a silk shawl around her shoulders with her hair swept up onto the top of her head in elaborate curls that fell around her face. A pink slipper nudging under her hem was beribboned with a silk rose, which trembled as her foot tapped up and down with more than a little impatience. As if trapped in a dream that felt far more real than any dream I’d ever had, I watched them become more than the shadows they had appeared at first.
Then, to my great shock, the gentleman turned to me and spoke. For the first time, I could hear him.
‘And, where have you been all morning, Sophia?’
Tall and with an imposing air, his whole appearance suggested fastidious observance of fashion. From his carefully dressed “Grecian” hairstyle and elaborately tied neckcloth stiffly arranged above an exquisitely embroidered waistcoat, down to his coat and tight, moulded breeches cut with precision, I wondered how he would manage to undress. No wonder he had such a pained expression – his breeches were clearly causing him grief.
‘I’ve been out walking in the gardens with the Miss Austens, Papa,’ I heard myself say.
‘Yes, I saw you in company with them from the window. They are a respectable enough family, I suppose, if one wishes to be seen with a country curate and his spinster daughters, but a clergyman is nothing in society. He has no influence or importance, and no one wishes to know him better. His daughters will frighten away your suitors if you allow them any kind of intimacy. Such independent creatures, and what airs they give themselves considering their questionable position amongst the noble families of Bath. As for the mother, who lets everyone know of her far distant connection to the Leighs of Stoneleigh, her society is intolerable. I heard her braying at someone in the Pump Rooms the other day, pronouncing in a loud voice that she is very proud of her aristocratic nose. Gentlefolk do not have to degrade themselves by resorting to such devices in order to get introductions. If you see them again, I would prefer that you cut them.’
I stared, not knowing how to answer the disagreeable man that I had just addressed as my father, but whilst I hesitated, the words were already being spoken.
‘I have an engagement, Father, with the Miss Austens on the morrow. I am looking forward to it very much and I have every intention of fulfilling their most kind invitation.’
The room was suddenly quiet except for the ticking of the Sèvres clock on the mantelpiece and the fire crackling in the grate, which at that moment seemed to be the dearest sounds in the world for their domestic familiarity. The gilt clock, with its painted pastoral panels, was the very same clock left behind in that other time. At that precise second, it prettily chimed the hour with four silver strikes of the bell, as if we’d all paused to hear it.
‘Father is quite right,’ said the young woman seated in the winged chair by the fire. This must be Emma, I thought. ‘If you are seen going out and about with the Miss Austens, your ability for attracting suitable attachments will be negligible. I am sure they cannot help being so very poor, but they already appear to be very much left on the shelf. Spinster sisters for company will do you more harm than good if you wish to find a husband. You should not be in such a hurry to ruin your chances of matrimony.’
She was obviously worried about what effect Sophia’s friendship with the Austen sisters might have on her own relationships, and it was clear that this was really behind Emma’s defence of her father’s outburst.
‘I am certain that being friends with two such pleasant young women cannot have any detrimental effect on your ability to attract the very best of suitors,’ I began. ‘No young man truly interested in marrying you is going to be concerned with anything or anybody connected with me. Besides, you know yourself, whenever we are in company, heads turn to stare at you. You must have more partners at a ball than any other girl in the room.’
I did wonder if this was entirely true, but I guessed Sophia was probably doing her best to soothe her sister.
The lady sitting opposite on the chaise longue had remained silent during these exchanges, and although her eyes were sometimes averted from the conversation, she didn’t look in the least embarrassed. She was obviously used to the confrontation and knew them all well.
Mr Elliot stood in front of a pier glass set between two windows and tweaked a curl into place on his forehead before admiring his reflection in profile, first one way and then the next.
‘Mrs Randall, may we have your opinion on the subject?’
She looked up and gave me a smile, making her vivid blue eyes sparkle. I knew straight away that she loved Sophia as a mother loves her child. I had the sense that I knew her well, but could not explain it.
‘I think that the Austen girls are fine companions for Sophia, Mr Elliot. I understand your concerns, but intimacy with a respectable gentry family who have aristocratic relations, as you stated yourself, cannot be harmful. Perhaps they will be visited by some of their distinguished connections, who may have sons on the lookout for a pretty wife. Let us not be persuaded against the acquaintance just yet by reservations that cannot be justified.’
Mr Elliot turned from the glass to address Mrs Randall. ‘I suppose there can be no real objection to you seeing these people occasionally, but you must understand, Sophia, that I only have your best interests at heart. You and your sister are not getting any younger and suitable husbands must be found.’
Something about the way he made this last pronouncement, as if his real concern was ridding himself of the daughters he clearly thought were a burden, produced a shiver all over to make every hair on my body stand on end. That was his priority, to see the girls married and as soon as possible. Their happiness seemed secondary, even an unnecessary consideration.
‘We have shopping to do this afternoon, do you remember, Sophia?’ Mrs Randall rose, fixing me with a look that suggested if I should like to make my escape, here was a chance.
‘Of course,’ I answered, feeling for the first time that I had actually spoken for myself. ‘I will be ready in a moment.’
I remembered just in time to curtsey before I left. All the bobbing up and down, the formality of behaviour and the strain of being so attentive to everything, not to mention feeling that I was about to burst out of my clothes was making me feel as if I wanted to say something outrageous, swear out loud and tear off my corset.
I made my way up the next flight of stairs, my heart thumping in my chest. I wasn’t sure where to go but I could still hear the murmur of voices downstairs, so I opened the door that was mine in the time I’d left behind. Of course, I might have known it was Mr Elliot’s as it was the biggest room with the view over the gardens. There were an enormous number of looking glasses of varying sizes adorning the walls and a dozen carefully arranged wigs on the dressing table, which made me immediately wonder if he had any hair at all. I quickly shut the door and investigated the next room. It could be mine I thought, taking in the gowns hanging from a tall press and noting the floral, enamel boxes upon the washstand, but there were no definite clues. With fear and panic rising inside, I was suddenly aware of clipping footsteps upon the staircase. My first instinct was to hide behind the door, but I realized how stupid I would look if I were discovered. And then, before I could do anything else, Emma flung back the door and marched in.
‘What are you doing in here?’ she demanded, her face flushed red with anger.
‘I took a wrong turn,’ I muttered, without thinking. I could have kicked myself for being so silly.
‘If I find you have taken anything belonging to me, you will be in more trouble than you can imagine,’ she hissed. ‘You know you’re not allowed in here. Now, go away!’
Hurrying out of the room, I was only too pleased to be gone. I had an idea that Sophia and Emma did not share the close relationship that their neighbours did. It was a pity, for I felt sure that they were missing so much from having each other to confide in.
The last room at the end of the corridor turned out to be Sophia’s bedchamber. It was half the size of any of the others, but had an interesting view looking out onto the short row of Daniel Street with the stables in between. There were only three houses built along the road, (Lara’s pub being one of them) which seemed very strange to see. The backs of the houses down Pulteney Street looked much the same even if they did look out onto open spaces and distant crescents curving loftily above Bath.
The small, half-tester bed was not one I recognized, but the dressing table and oval toilet mirror were the very same that still occupied a corner of my bedroom in that other time. I sat down with relief, glad to have a moment to myself. Peeling off my gloves, I opened my reticule to safely store them before venturing out again. There to my surprise was the white glove safe inside, but there was something else which made me curious. At the bottom of the bag was a small, netted purse, rounded off at both ends with tassels. I reached inside to fetch it out and, in doing so, pulled out the white glove before I could prevent it from happening.
Jane Odiwe
 Further links: Chapters One,Two,Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve

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