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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Thirteen

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

Time seemed to pass slowly before the ball. Over the next few days it was impossible to get out. I was thwarted at every attempt to escape; I saw nothing of the Miss Austens and could only hope that Mr Elliot hadn’t upset them too much. On Saturday morning Emma spent the entire time trying on dresses asking my opinion about which gown she should wear for the ball and how to dress her hair. It was impossible to concentrate on anything. As far as I was concerned, there was only one thing to think about. I had an idea that if I could get to the gate in Sydney Gardens, I might be able to get back to my own time. It was the only hope I had. After nuncheon, I chose my moment carefully, when Mr Elliot’s snores resounded loudly from his favourite chair and when I knew that Emma and Mrs Randall were closeted away upstairs discussing gloves and fans. I slipped away out of the house and across the road.
It didn’t take long to find the white gate, although I knew as soon as I saw it that it was hopeless. The gate was locked, and in my heart I knew it had been a futile exercise. Without the glove, it was impossible. There was nothing for it, but to return to the house.
I wandered along the gravel paths trying to convince myself that I’d been given an opportunity that most people only dream about. But the world was changed beyond anything I had ever imagined, and I tried not to think about the fact that I could be imprisoned there forever. I felt so completely alone. 
It was then that I heard a voice calling me. ‘Miss Elliot, you are not lost, I hope.’
Charles Austen was hurrying towards me. I had to smile. ‘Lieutenant Austen, I have not yet ventured into the Labyrinth, and can safely find my way home, thank you.’
I wondered if I’d sounded rude, but I didn’t want him to think that I was a helpless female who couldn’t walk round a park without needing male assistance. He touched his hat and I thought he might walk away, but then he seemed to change his mind.
‘My sisters are clambering up Beechen cliff this afternoon,’ he said. ‘I must admit I had not the energy for such a jaunt today. I wanted peace, solitude, and a level walk.’
There was more than a hint of laughter in his voice. I wondered if he was finding it difficult being in the company of such strong-minded women after being on a ship completely dominated by men. When I thought about Mrs Austen’s apparent hypochondria and her interfering ways, I could understand why a profession that took you away from home for months and even years at a time might be such an inviting one.
‘I enjoy being on my own, and the gardens are so convenient,’ I began.
‘Do you always prefer your own company to that of being in society?’ His face looked serious for the moment, though his dark eyes twinkled as if there were some hidden secret only he delighted in.
‘Oh no, but I do love to have time to think,’ I said, knowing that this was perfectly true, ‘and I can never think so well in a room full of people as I can on my own.’
‘Your thoughts mirror my own, exactly. And even if you do manage to slip away with your thoughts in a crowded room, there is always someone who wants to know just what you are about. In my house, Miss Elliot, it is impossible to have private thoughts.’
I imagined that it would be far more difficult. At least in the twenty-first century you could be in a room full of people watching television and no one would know whether you were far away with your own thoughts or whether you were taking in everything on the screen. It was much more difficult in a time where conversation ruled the day and where you needed to be taking notice of what was being said at all times so that you could respond. I was learning how different it was to have your attention constantly demanded.
Opinions were always required, and yet, I was beginning to feel that the only opinions considered worth having were those that matched everyone else’s.
‘Being out of the house and walking are what I enjoy when I need to think,’ I said. ‘And, if you can walk and see nature in all its glory; that is all to the better. When I am at home and can only see the grey buildings of the town, I long for the countryside. To see vast landscapes with fields stretching away before you lifts my spirits like nothing else.’
‘Forgive me, Miss Elliot, but I believe I have been mistaken in thinking your family home is in a country village in Somerset.’
I suddenly realized what a silly mistake I’d made. ‘It is in Somerset,’ I said, thinking quickly, ‘but we are often in London for the Season, and then the countryside seems so far away.’
Oh dear. I knew he was looking at me with a puzzled expression, and as I didn’t know what else to say, I thought now might be the time to move on.   
‘Would you take a turn with me, Miss Elliot?’ Charles Austen held out his hand, and I couldn’t help noticing the tan leather of his gloves, suspecting that he kept his white ones for more formal occasions. ‘Take my arm, like my sisters do.’
Without another thought I held out my hand, which he took up linking his arm with mine. We walked in silence and I wondered what he could be thinking about, if he was enjoying the chance to have a few private thoughts without being asked about them.
‘It’s good to be walking on dry land again,’ he said at last. ‘I do not have the opportunity for much exercise when I am away at sea. Of course, on the occasions when we put into port, it’s a different matter. I love to go exploring if I get the chance.’
I looked up at him and smiled. ‘Your sister told me that you are a lieutenant on the Endymion. Is the life of a sailor as adventurous as it sounds?’
‘Miss Elliot, my life on board ship has been an exciting one thus far, and I have travelled to many parts of the world that I never thought to see. I have been extremely lucky.’
‘But it must be a perilous one also in times of war.’
‘The life can be dangerous, but not all my duties involve fighting at sea, whether it be attacking gunboats or capturing privateers. Awhile back I had the good fortune to accompany Prince Augustus to Lisbon for the sake of his health. The climate is milder and the young prince was to spend winter there. I spent three pleasant days in Portugal’s capital and found my royal passenger to be jolly and affable!’
‘But the conditions on board ship, they cannot be as comfortable as one might enjoy at home, can they?’
‘Not perhaps as home comforts might be, but the accommodations are very adequate. It is true, life in the Navy would not suit everyone, but like my brother Francis, it suits me very well. If I could convey to you, Miss Elliot, the sense of pride I feel when we put out to sea and the great satisfaction felt by us all when the tasks our Admirals set for us to do have been accomplished, you would comprehend my devotion to the job in hand. And, once engaged in our mission and our duties, any sense of danger or peril just disappears.’
‘How wonderful it must be to have a career where you feel your every action makes an important difference.’
‘Well, I do not know that I have yet proved myself to be indispensable, but I hope I will establish in time that my superiors were right to believe in me enough to set me on the road I have chosen. With luck and hard work I hope to make my mark. The opportunities to make a career in one of the noblest professions are there for the taking. I am not rich yet, Miss Elliot, but one day, I trust there will be a chance to earn my prize money.’
‘Your sisters told me that you have earned some prizes already, but that you spent it all on them.’
‘It was nothing to spend a little to see the delight on their faces, I can assure you. My sisters do not have much in the way of treats or luxuries and when I saw the topaz crosses all I could think about was how much delight they would give.’
‘Your sisters are very lucky, I think, to have such a thoughtful brother, Lieutenant Austen.’
‘You do not have any brothers, Miss Elliot?’
‘No,’ I answered. ‘I always wished to have one.’
He said no more. We walked on with our own thoughts as we came back around the gardens to the entrance once more. I’d enjoyed being with him. He made me feel safe and I knew instinctively that he was someone I could rely on. I’d never had a brother and hadn’t Jane said I could have my share in one of hers?
As we said goodbye, and Charles repeated his wish to see me at the ball on Monday, I reflected on the fact that despite wishing I could really go home, I had enjoyed a lovely afternoon.
The day of the ball held the promise of the first truly warm spring day. Blue skies and sunshine lifted my spirits and I tried not to think about how I might never be able to return to my own time again. I’d stopped trying to work out how I was still able to be there without the glove I’d managed to give away, and although apprehensive about what might happen next I couldn’t help feeling curious and even a little excited at the idea of going to the ball. Jane’s books were always full of balls, and I longed to know if the reality would be as satisfying as my imagination. A Mr Mancini arrived in the afternoon to dress our hair. As I sat and listened to the plans for frizzing and curling Emma’s hair, it struck me that one thing has not changed very much in two hundred years. The anxiety that goes hand in hand with cutting and arranging hair and the horrors of placing your trust in someone, who could as easily be responsible for making you look completely hideous or stunningly beautiful, have not changed. When the tongs came out, the smell of Emma’s hair being singed into rolls of artificial curls was enough to send me running. Thankfully, my own curls needed only piling up on top of my head. Mr Mancini seemed to understand that I would prefer a more natural, simpler style, pinning my long hair into place and threading through an arrangement of white gauze flowers on a silk ribbon. My gown was laid out on my bed along with a beautiful fan in silk and spangles. The dress, in a shade of apple green silk, was ruched around the décolletage and on the short puffed sleeves. There were long kid gloves and a fringed stole, and I couldn’t help but be pleased with the way I looked.
I met Emma coming out of her doorway as I came out of mine. She looked wonderful, and I told her so.
Her eyes travelled lengthways from the top of my hair to the bottom of my gown. ‘Thank you, Sophia. I believe I was correct in choosing the blue satin after all. Green is such a difficult colour to wear, is it not? And Mr Glanville always favours me in blue saying it brings out the matchless sapphire of my eyes. He always notices things like that, you know.’
‘I am sure that Mr Glanville will not be able to resist you, Emma. I hope you will enjoy a dance or two with him.’
‘I’m sure I shall, but pay heed. Should he ask you to dance, you must refuse him. Is that clear?’
I had no intention of dancing with Mr Glanville or anyone else for that matter. I hadn’t a clue how to dance, and as I thought about the number of times I’d watched any kind of Regency dancing on television, I wondered if I might be able to fool anyone if I was forced to get up and join in. The thought didn’t fill me with confidence and my hesitation to speak seemed to agitate Emma even more. As she waited for an answer, her eyes narrowing in suspicion, I finally nodded. We were all to gather in the drawing room before the carriage was called. Emma ignored me as she perused the paper. Unless her father was in the room she didn’t seem to have much interest in anyone else, and I was beginning to learn that he was always last to make an appearance. Candles were just being lit when Mrs Randall bustled in through the door.
‘Girls, what a picture you look! Do get up and let me see you twirl. Your dear mama would have been so proud. Well, we’re almost ready; there is just one small matter to attend. I have your new monthly subscription cards here for you to sign and then I can hand them into your possession.’
Despite the warmth of the fire and the glow from the candles in their sconces, I felt a sudden chill.
‘Sit here, dears, there is ink and a freshly mended pen, and the light is quite good enough.’
I waited for my turn, and then sat down at the little table before the window where beyond the half closed shutters I could see the darkening trees in Sydney Gardens opposite. Dipping the pen in the ink, I carefully wrote my name and when I’d finished felt my heart pitter pat at the recollection of seeing it just like this in another time and place that now seemed so far away. 
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 Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen

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