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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Ten

 Searching for Captain Wentworth
A Timeslip novel inspired by Persuasion
Chapter Ten

Dear Sophie,
I’ve been going through the catalogue of exhibits this afternoon. I’ve just popped over on my break because there’s a painting here I’d like you to see that I think might interest you. I finish work about five, so if you’d like to come over to the museum then, I can show you.
I hope you didn’t think I was too intrusive today – I apologize, I’m just a very nosy person.
Anyway, if you’d like to, I’d love to see you. Just ask for me at the desk and someone will show you the way.
Oh dear, he’d obviously mistaken my earlier vacant musings for wounded sensibility. He’d been direct, but I hadn’t thought he was being overly inquisitive, just very interested and I’d really enjoyed the fact that he’d wanted to talk. I wondered what the painting could be that he wanted to show me. I felt very curious despite the pangs of gnawing hunger, so I grabbed a biscuit before deciding to postpone eating until I returned.
The lady at the reception desk was clearly expecting me. Whether it was my imagination or not, I cannot say for sure, but she seemed to take a great interest in my appearance. Looking me up and down, staring at my embroidered bag and my slouch boots, she appeared to be memorizing every last detail to tell her colleagues about the girl who had come to see Mr Strafford. I knew exactly which way to go, but of course I pretended that I didn’t know where I’d find him. She took me upstairs leading me to the exhibition space that was starting to look much more promising with one or two pictures on the walls or propped up along the sides and empty glass cabinets placed in a line waiting to be filled with exciting objects. We stopped at the door of a room at the back, just off on one side. Josh was seated behind a desk; his head buried in what looked like a good deal of paperwork. The room was dim, only the glow from his laptop was giving out an eerie, but totally inadequate light.
‘Mr Strafford, you’ll ruin your eyesight,’ the receptionist scolded in a playful way, and switched on the lamp in front of him.
‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to put it on for ages, the time has just run away with me this afternoon,’ he said, pushing back a handful of curls from his forehead. He looked up and our eyes met. For the first time I looked straight back at him hoping that I didn’t look as out of my depth in this place as I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not stupid, and I love anything historical, but I wasn’t an expert, not like him. It unnerved me just a little, especially when I admitted to myself that I wanted him to think I was intelligent and worthy of his interest in my family.
‘Sophie, you came!’ he announced brightly and he sounded so pleased that I felt myself grin with pleasure.
‘Thanks Alison,’ he said to the receptionist, ‘what would I do without you?’ Alison almost fainted with delight, even when he handed over a pile of post. ‘Would you mind taking care of these for me?’
The effect he had on Alison was the same I’d witnessed in the Pump Room on the other women. She gazed at him with sheer adoration as if he’d just given her the crown jewels for her own personal safekeeping.
‘Can I get you any tea for you and your guest?’ she asked.
‘No thanks, Alison, we’ll only just be a moment.’
Satisfied that she was no longer needed Alison beamed at him again before departing, albeit rather reluctantly I felt, with the vast pile of letters.
There was an awkward moment when neither of us knew what to say.
‘You said in your note that you had a painting you wanted to show me,’ I said, breaking the silence. It was so very quiet in the room, which was making me feel more nervous than ever.
‘Yes, I think you’ll be really interested to see it. I’ve done a little research; it was sold in an auction at Monkford Hall sometime in the early 1900s.’
He said no more and gestured towards the exhibition space. I walked out of the room and on the opposite wall in front of me I could see a large oil painting that I must have walked past on the way in. Its subject was of two women in Georgian dress and the plaque at the bottom of the painting was inscribed with a title and the date, 1782.
‘The painting is of your ancestor, Mrs Elliot of Monkford Hall, and her cousin Mrs Randall,’ Josh said. ‘Do you know anything about them?’
‘No, not really, I don’t know anything very much about the family. I should think this was one of the paintings that had to be sold in an effort to raise some money before it all had to go.’
I was mesmerized. Mrs Elliot stared out of the painting looking every inch like an older Sophia with her hair bundled under a satin cap. She had a kind face.
‘Poor Mrs Elliot died in childbirth in 1788,’ Josh continued. ‘I looked her up in the archives. She had three daughters, Emma, Sophia and Marianne. Her last child was a stillborn son.’
‘All I know is that I was named after her middle daughter. It’s so sad to see her looking so young and full of hope without any idea of her future fate.’
I was moved emotionally by her story, but not entirely by the portrait of Mrs Elliot alone. The painting fascinated me in a way that made me feel most peculiar. It was the likeness of Mrs Randall that intrigued me most of all, for I knew her face almost as well as I knew my own. I had that feeling again of goose pimples all over; accompanied by the sensation that Josh and I were not the only people in the room. I stared and stared unable to say a word.
‘Is anything the matter?’ asked Josh. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘I have,’ I muttered inaudibly.
‘The painting of Mrs Elliot reminds you of someone, I can tell.’
I shook my head. ‘No, it’s not Mrs Elliot’s portrait, but Mrs Randall’s that is remarkable. She is the very image of my mother. It’s quite uncanny. I wish my Mum were alive to see it, she’d think it so funny to see such a resemblance of herself all dressed up in satin.’
I couldn’t tear myself away and I couldn’t imagine why I had not realized the likeness before, but then the Mrs Randall I knew was twenty years older than the lady who gazed at me with the same wistful expression my mother always wore. I’d not seen my mother grow older, and it seemed to me that perhaps twenty years in those days left a far greater impression on a lady’s looks than it would now. Mrs Randall was seated on a mahogany chair and dressed in a gown of steel-grey satin with a vermillion shawl around her shoulders. An organza cap covered her hair, ruched and ribboned in front to match the frills about her throat and the fabric at her décolletage. Mrs Elliot looked just as elegant on a matching chair with a tasselled cushion in russet silk. There was a table between them where tea was being made. A silver teapot, sugar box and milk jug took pride of place beside a steaming kettle with blue and white teacups scattered over the tabletop. But there was one more surprise, which really set my heart beating so fast I was sure Josh would be able to hear it. Behind them on a desk was a box that I recognized. Made of rosewood and inlaid with mother of pearl, the lid was open and a pair of white gloves was draped over its edge.
‘Oh dear,’ said Josh, ‘the last thing I wanted was to upset you.’
‘No, I’m not upset in the least, not the way you mean, anyway.
In fact, I’m thrilled.’ I turned to look at him again, and was met once more by his frank expression, his dark eyes showing concern.
‘Thank you so much, Josh, for inviting me to see the painting. I’ll have to text my dad and tell him. He’ll think it’s wonderful.’
‘And you’re not too disturbed by it?’
‘I am, but in a good way.’
‘Well, thank you for coming, Sophie.’ He was still looking at me as if he thought he’d done something dreadful. I suppose the surprise must have shown in my face, because he reached across and took my hand holding it between his two large ones. ‘You still look in shock and I’m thinking it’s all my fault.’
I didn’t move my hand. I couldn’t for one thing and for another, he’d started patting it softly as if he were trying to get my circulation going or something. It felt lovely and I felt cherished, which sounds silly, but I really did feel that he cared.
‘I’m absolutely fine, but I suppose I’m a bit hungry,’ I said at last. ‘I haven’t really eaten very much since breakfast.’
He let go of my hand. ‘Sophie, you should have said. Look, I feel totally responsible. Will you let me take you for supper? My treat. Lara does the best food this side of the bridge and it’s not far to go. We can be eating in ten minutes.’
I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t really want to go to the pub. Besides, Lara and the rest of the locals might put two and two together making up something about our relationship that just wasn’t true, and I was worried that the glove might be mentioned. I was feeling very guilty about it and didn’t know quite how I was going to resolve the situation. As time was moving on, it was getting increasingly difficult to return it to him. I couldn’t think how I was going to explain that I had the glove and to be perfectly honest, I wanted to keep it just for a little bit longer.
‘Would you mind very much if we didn’t go?’ I said, thinking quickly. ‘I’ve got some chicken at home that needs cooking and I’d love it if you’d share it with me.’ I wondered if that all sounded a bit intimate as soon as I’d said it, but Josh answered without any hesitation saying he’d love to have supper with me.
We left straight away and headed home. I was enjoying his company and he did seem a nice guy, but even as he took my arm to guide me over the road, I had a memory, as clear as if it had happened yesterday, of Lucas being similarly attentive when we first met. Well, I was sure someone as good-looking as Josh would have a string of casual girlfriends anyway and I was not about to let my guard down. Not that he appeared to be attracted to me in any way. He seemed genuinely friendly, but I felt a sense of detachment about him that I couldn’t quite explain.
I left him in the sitting room with a glass of white wine, whilst I got the chicken pieces ready smothering them in Dijon and arranging the bunches of tarragon in the tin. I hesitated over the garlic, but then broke it up and added that too. It wasn’t as if I was going to be kissing him or anything and I told myself off for even having the thought. The French beans and potatoes were set in saucepans with a covering of water ready to be put on later, so I made a quick detour to my bedroom. I ran a comb through my hair, sprayed on my favourite perfume and persuaded myself that I didn’t look too haggard.
When I came back into the sitting room Josh was standing by the fireplace. I could see at once that he was admiring the clock on the mantelpiece, not staring at his reflection like Lucas would have been.
‘This place is wonderful,’ he enthused, ‘it’s got such an amazing atmosphere.’
‘You’re very polite,’ I said, ‘but what you really mean is that it’s like being in a museum. I doubt it’s changed very much since the very first Elliots’ occupation.’ I didn’t add that actually I knew for a fact it was little altered. Apart from the modern sofa and the odd chair, most of the furniture was a couple of hundred years old.
I perched like a timid bird on the sofa and gulped at my wine. All of a sudden I realized I was alone with a man I hardly knew and one who seemed so sophisticated that I felt utterly out of my depth. He relaxed into the winged chair looking completely at ease.
‘So, do your family still live in Somerset?’ he asked, putting his glass down on the little table next to him.
‘No, London … Camden. How about you? Where’s your family?’
‘Oh, lovely. I always associate Dorset with holidays. Which part?’
‘Lyme Regis. Well, just outside on a cliff-top overlooking the town.’
‘Oh, I love Lyme. I always think of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Louisa Musgrove falling off the Cobb.’ As soon as I’d spoken, I wished I hadn’t. I was sure he was going to look at me blankly like most guys do when you mention Jane Austen. And even if they’ve heard of her or about any of the books it’s most likely to be Pride and Prejudice. Plus, it’s a sad fact that most men think all you’re interested in is Colin Firth or Matthew MacFadyen in wet shirts and tight breeches, which is only partly true.
But he didn’t look at me. He simply closed his eyes as if he were trying to remember something. ‘There was no wound, no blood, no visible bruise; but her eyes were closed, she breathed not, her face was like death.’
I was utterly astonished at Josh’s quotation. ‘You know
Persuasion very well!’
‘It’s a favourite book of mine. I studied it when I was younger and had a part one year in the school play.’ He cleared his throat and stood up, fixing me with those dark eyes that twinkled with amusement. His voice was soft and he spoke to me as if he meant every word. ‘You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago.
Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.’
I felt my cheeks grow warm and in an attempt to cover up my blushing face, I burst into spontaneous applause to which he bowed deeply.
‘I played the part of Captain Wentworth, you might have guessed. That’s some letter he wrote. It really is one of the most beautiful love letters I ever read.’
I laughed. ‘Possibly because it was written by a woman.’
Josh grinned and nodded. ‘I can’t deny that, but do you mean to say that you don’t think men capable of writing romance or pouring out such heartfelt feelings in a letter?’
He was looking at me so seriously that I knew I couldn’t be flippant. ‘I suppose I don’t really know. No one has ever written me a love letter. Maybe there are guys out there who could write the equivalent of a letter like that but, if there are, I’ve never met one. Anyway, I’m not sure it would be quite the same in a text or email. I think romance died with the laptop and the mobile phone.’
I felt I’d said too much, that there was more than a hint of bitterness in my voice, so I excused myself to go and turn on the hob and rattle the saucepans as if I was busy. The chicken was beginning to smell delicious though my appetite seemed to have left me. The trouble was I didn’t really feel at ease with Josh, and I just felt that everything I’d said so far must sound pathetic. Trying to think of a topic of conversation that would make me feel less like an idiot, I collected a couple of plates, selected some cutlery from the dresser and turned to see Josh standing in the doorway watching me.
‘I’ll take those,’ he said. ‘Where would you like them?’
‘There’s a Pembroke table in the living room. I thought we could pull that out and eat there as the dining room is a bit chilly.’
I followed him with placemats, napkins and water glasses to the table behind the sofa. Josh put the plates down, tucked his hair that was flopping into his eyes behind his ear and pulled out the table, securing one of the leaves in place. Relieving me of the placemats he started laying the table. He seemed happy enough as he arranged everything carefully, so I turned back to the kitchen, stabbing a fork in the potatoes and putting the beans on. I fetched out the chicken pieces, leaving them to rest on a beautiful willow meat plate, then made some gravy and drained the vegetables which I assembled round the crisply roasted meat. Satisfied with my presentation, I carried it in thinking that at least I might impress with my culinary skills even if I might not with my conversation. I nearly dropped the plate when I saw what Josh was doing.
He was sitting in the chair next to the little table where I kept the rosewood box. But it was not on the table; it was in his hands.
I held my breath.
‘This is such a beautiful box,’ he said, studying the decoration along its side.
The key was on the table, and I remember thinking how I’d replaced the glove but hadn’t locked the box again, being too distracted by the painting of Sophia and my thoughts of getting it mended.
‘I’ve got this really strange feeling of déjà vu,’ he said, a frown wrinkling between his brows. He stroked the surface of the box with those long fingers as if he were caressing something or someone precious to him.
‘You have seen it before,’ I answered, putting the food on the table, ‘in the painting you showed me this afternoon.’ I hardly dared watch in case he opened it.
He stood up and to my relief he put the box down, turning to me with an excited expression. ‘Oh, gosh, that’s incredible. Then, it’s at least two hundred years old. It’s still here looking exactly as it did then. That’s the strange thing about old objects, isn’t it? They have an eternal existence, at least if they are looked after. Doesn’t it make you feel weird to think about that? You and I will come and go, as others have done before us, but this box will remain long after we are gone.’
‘Yes, it’s a peculiar feeling to think about that. It’s like when you go into an old building, or an ancient church that has stood in the same place for hundreds of years. I always think about the people who must have lived there or who sat on the same pews. There’s a sense of time not being so long, somehow, if you think about the lives of the objects in a place and the people who used them.’
Josh joined me at the table. ‘Yes, I know exactly what you mean. And it’s not just objects or buildings that have that effect on me. Landscapes, especially those that are unspoiled can make me feel the same. I have often stood on the end of the Cobb at Lyme and wondered about all the people who have gazed out over the water, watching the same view as they admired the lines of cliffs. Things change, of course, but the basic lie of the land and the rhythm of the sea is hardly different from when Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot took a stroll along the top of the harbour wall.’
‘You talk about them as if they are real people,’ I said, with a little laugh. ‘But I feel like that too. It’s what made her such a fantastic writer, I suppose. You love the characters and they are so true to life, you feel as if you know them.’
‘Of course they’re real, I don’t know how you could suggest anything else.’ He raised his glass. ‘Thank you, Sophie, for this truly, incredible meal. To you,’ he said, clinking his glass against mine, ‘and to Anne and Fred!’
I started to feel much more at ease and was glad that the meal was proving to be as delicious as it looked, even if I still could not face eating too much. There was silence as we ate for a minute or two, but it didn’t feel like an uncomfortable pause brought about by a lack of conversation. Josh was clearly enjoying his chicken.
‘I’ve forgotten what it is to eat home-baked food, a fantastic roast like this,’ he said. ‘I can never be bothered myself. It’s a real treat and you are an amazing cook.’
It was lovely to be praised even if I knew the chicken had practically cooked itself and that I really felt I’d cheated by buying ready prepared vegetables. But then, it was nice to feel that I was good at something.
‘How’s the writing going?’
Somehow, I’d known that feeling wouldn’t last. ‘How do you know about my writing?’
‘Lara told me you’re a writer and that you’re in Bath to be inspired.’
‘The truth is that I haven’t even really started.’
Josh nodded sympathetically. ‘Well, you haven’t been here very long. It’s a novel you’re researching, isn’t it? What’s it about?’
I didn’t know exactly, but I really didn’t want him to think I was clueless. ‘Yes, it’s a novel inspired by Jane Austen, but also a kind of personal exploration.’
‘Not really, it’s an historical novel, though there will inevitably be some of myself that will reveal itself, I’m sure. Don’t you think anyone who writes a book leaves a little of themselves in the pages? I’m sure Jane Austen did.’
‘Do you think she was Anne Elliot, then? And if so, who was Captain Wentworth?’
‘Mmm … I don’t know about that. I’ve always wondered if it was the theme of the book, of love being lost and found again, that was more important. Besides revealing the snobbery of Anne’s father and some of the people in Bath that she so obviously wanted to expose in all their awfulness, I imagine that she wanted to write a happy ending for herself – perhaps with the man she’d truly loved, whoever that might have been. Someone told me that she wrote Persuasion when she was dying. She knew she was never going to marry at all, let alone marry the man who Captain Wentworth was based upon.’
‘Somebody is bound to have a theory about it. I do know that the time she spent in Bath is shrouded somewhat in mystery. She wrote endlessly to her sister, but for some reason there is a complete gap in the correspondence between 1801 and 1804. Nothing, not a single letter, not even really much writing! “They” say that her sister burned them all.’
‘I’ve always wondered why she placed her most emotional novel in Bath. I remember reading that she disliked Bath but, if that was true, why would she set her most romantic book here? And why the mystery? Do you think she had a love affair or something?’
‘That’s it! Josh thumped his fist down on the table in a triumphant gesture. ‘That’s what you should write about, a novel about Jane Austen’s unrequited love. I bet you could find masses of information for research, here in Bath.’
I couldn’t help laughing at his enthusiasm and I was surprised how closely his ideas mirrored my thoughts. It set me thinking.
Maybe there might be a way I could find out what I was curious to know, as well as find out more of Sophia’s story. But there was only one way to discover what I wished to know about my ancestor and that particular method would, of course, involve the use of a certain white glove. Yet, I knew that I was feeling very uneasy about still having it. And I also knew that in the unlikely event of Jane Austen ever choosing to confide in me, I would never betray her secrets.
‘I expect someone’s already done that, anyway. But, I really would like to find out more about her life. I’d like the answers to a few questions I have. Everyone has their own idea about Jane Austen and I’d like to explore that in some way.’
The meal was over. I hadn’t any pudding to offer, but Josh said he couldn’t eat another thing, thanking me again for a lovely meal and for my company.
‘It was so lovely of you to ask me to supper. I’m always on the move with my job and I don’t usually get to meet anyone much, let alone be invited home for a meal.’
‘I really find that hard to believe. I would have thought there’d be females falling over themselves to take you home.’
I could have bitten off my tongue the moment I’d said it.
He gave me a long look, almost quizzical. ‘Would you?’
I felt my cheeks burn. ‘Well, I just meant that women always seem to hone in on blokes on their own. It’s like a primeval instinct somewhere between wanting to mother and ensnare them.’
Josh regarded me from under dark brows, his eyes questioning. ‘Is it?’
My friends at university used to despair because I never did know when to shut up, especially when it came to conversations with the male sex. I had a habit of saying totally inappropriate things at the wrong time and I knew I’d just made a classic one.
Josh was really staring at me now. I couldn’t believe what I’d just said. All I kept thinking was that he would assume I’d lured him to my flat in a sorry attempt to seduce him. Suddenly, it seemed terribly important to inspect my fingernails in minute detail. When I finally glanced at him, he looked away as soon as our eyes met. I stood up to start clearing the table. It wasn’t my imagination. There really was an awkward silence now.
‘I’ll wash up,’ said Josh at last, rising to pick up the plates I’d collected together.
‘Oh no, please don’t, I’ll do them later,’ I said. I was starting to wish he’d go. All my feelings of self-doubt and of being an absolute failure at everything were returning. I just kept thinking how he’d probably tell the lovely Alison at the museum all about his narrow escape from the lecherous clutches of his neighbour who had delusions of becoming a writer. In my head, I could see them laughing. ‘No, I’m sure you’ve got other things to do, places to go.’
Everything I said just seemed to make it worse. Nervously, I rubbed my forehead and ran my fingers through my hair desperately trying to think of something to make it better. My face must have given away how I was feeling, because in the next moment I heard his voice, soft and gentle.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve had a long day, and I’ve talked you to death just now.’
I’d only gone and made it worse. I didn’t know what to say to put it right so I kept quiet. The silence in the room was deafening.
At last, Josh spoke. ‘Well, I must be going now, I’ve still got a bit of work to do, and I promised to catch up with an old friend later,’ he said, avoiding my eye and taking out the plates. He reappeared moments later, standing at the door with his jacket over his arm. ‘I’ll leave you now to get some rest. Thank you very much for having me.’
He sounded so formal, almost solemn. As I approached, he seemed to lurch down the passageway for the front door and opened it before I managed to get anywhere near him.
‘I’ll see you around, then.’
I managed a smile. ‘Yes, see you around.’
I felt a bit deflated when he’d gone. The sound of his door shutting made me feel worse and all I could think about was how he must be congratulating himself on his early escape. Then I told myself not to be so silly, that he’d probably got stuff to do, as I had, even though I knew I’d practically told him to leave.
I’d got a book to write and I hadn’t even started. It wasn’t going to be easy having no laptop, internet connection or even a pen and paper, but I thought I’d start with a bit of thinking about my characters. The heroine, obviously, was going to be a lot like me, but I was having a bit of trouble with the invention of my hero. Despite every effort, I couldn’t see beyond a naval uniform. And I’m slightly ashamed to admit, the breeches figured quite prominently too. My eyes strayed to the little table. Opening the rosewood box, I took out the white glove looking for inspiration. It was then that I heard Josh’s door shutting downstairs, and the front door being opened. What happened in that short window of time, I’m not sure how to explain, but a sudden pang of overwhelming guilt made me shove the glove in my pocket, grab my coat and run downstairs.
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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