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Searching for Captain Wentworth - Chapter Fourteen

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

It was something of a magnificent spectacle to see all of Bath decked out in their finery at the Upper Rooms. The place was full, every passage and staircase bursting with giggling debutantes, dour matrons, and gambling card-players, waving to other revellers in recognition as they tripped along in the tide, washing them through the doors of the ballroom, the tea and card-rooms. Our party headed for the Octagon Room. Whilst Mr Elliot and Emma jostled for the best view by the fire, simultaneously grabbing the finest place from which to be admired, I glanced round to take it all in, committing to memory the beauty of the women dressed in bright silks and white muslin, the splendour of the men in dark evening dress. The looking glasses over each mantelpiece captured a cluster of fractured images displaying a handsome head, the eager glances of a young girl, or the silk-shod foot of a nimble dancer in each pane of scalloped, rococo glass. Plumes nodded, satin rustled and diamonds glistened under chandeliers sparkling with candlelight.
In the glowing room incessant chatter was the order of the evening, the rising hum of expectant voices reaching a crescendo as the rooms filled. A low guffaw, a crystal laugh, and the distant tuning of instruments were the sounds I caught above the rest. Candles guttered as the noise of a hundred voices, all talking at once, rose in the heat, along with the scents of orange blossom, jasmine and lavender, masking those other smells of warming humanity, which had my nose wrinkling at the sour odours seeping from cloth, stale with sweat.
I had a very good view of the door and saw the second that the Austens arrived. Wearing white muslin with a glossy spot, setting off her slender figure, Jane dashed through first, child-like in her movements, her bright eyes alert. With her hair swept up into a pretty arrangement of twisted silk, several tendrils escaped from her cap, kissing the base of her neck as she moved. As she quietly observed all before her, I couldn’t help wishing I could read her thoughts. I wondered if she, like me, would be storing away the evening’s conversations to be brought out and examined for inspiration later on. Also in white, her pretty sister came in next wearing an elegant muslin embroidered at the hem. Mr and Mrs Austen followed in their wake, dressed in their comfortable country clothes, both smiling and bowing to all their friends.
I almost didn’t see him at first. Charles came dawdling along at the back stopping to talk to his friends, to listen attentively, or laugh out loud at a shared joke. I imagined they must be other sailors from the way he greeted them. Dressed for the evening I couldn’t help staring as he nonchalantly strolled across the room.
Every detail of his appearance sharpened into focus. Dark curls fell on the high collar of his black coat, cut to display a flash of white silk waistcoat with buttons faced in pearl, that led the eye to the swell of satin where his breeches began. Defining his muscular legs, they finished at the knee where silk stockings delineated the curve of shapely calves leading down to a pair of gleaming dancing shoes. He looked beautiful if I can use that word to describe a man, and I knew I was not the only woman in the room who glanced his way or sat up in their chair. I wasn’t standing near the fire, but I felt the rush of heat on my cheeks as I stared. Something about the cut of his dark coat emphasized his broad shoulders, and the crisp cotton kerchief at his neck exaggerated his tanned features making him stand out from the crowd. His air of self-assurance might have come across as arrogance in anyone else, but to me, he simply looked perfect lighting up the room with a personality so magnetic, he seemed to draw everyone around him. The family took up station by the fireplace opposite. Jane glanced across with a smile, and I saw her point me out to her brother. Our eyes met across a sea of people and Charles smiled broadly. I cannot say what made my heart flutter at that moment, but I felt he’d curled a finger round my heart. I couldn’t sustain his gaze and looked away.
‘Who is that fellow over there with the Astons?’ said Mr Elliot, making me feel instantly cross that he couldn’t even remember his neighbours’ name.
‘I’m sure I have no idea,’said Mrs Randall, looking at me as if she were sure I could supply the answer. ‘He is a very fine looking gentleman. Perhaps he is a relation of the Austen family; a noble peer, I daresay, by his attitude and deportment.’
I spoke out. ‘He is the Miss Austens’ brother, Mr Charles Austen, lately returned from his duties at sea as a lieutenant on the frigate, Endymion.’
‘Oh, a sailor,’ uttered Mr Elliot, turning back with utter disdain. ‘Well, I suppose a clergyman’s son has to make his way in the world as any other. But he should be careful about giving himself such airs or he will be sorry when he is found out to be a nobody; a person of obscure birth. I might have guessed he was no gentleman for his face is the colour of my mahogany secretaire.’
‘The Navy has done so much for us that I am convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in
England,’ I said, but even as I uttered the words I felt sure I was repeating something I’d heard spoken before. They came out so naturally that I couldn’t stop them.
‘I suppose the profession has its uses but I have my own objections to the Navy’s place in society. Men who would never have been raised to honours in the past are now moving in the same circles as their betters, though I can assure you not one would find a friend in me. Besides, I could never be seen consorting with such weather-beaten creatures. A sailor is old before his time; a man’s youth is cut off in its prime. They are exposed to every sort of foul weather and as a consequence are as wrinkled as a walnut and not fit to be seen.’
I was just thinking that this speech had more than a familiar ring to it when I chanced to see that its effects on two people standing less than two feet away had been both painful and mortifying. Unknown to me Jane and Charles had walked over from their place on the other side of the room.
They’d obviously heard every word judging from their expressions, though they both assumed smiles as soon as they saw that I, too, was quite horrified by the conversation that had just taken place.
Mr Elliot did not acknowledge them for the second time and I saw Emma turn, linking her arm in his to lead him away. Mrs Randall smiled at my friends, but followed the other two, so I was left alone to think how I could possibly apologize for their abominably rude behaviour.
I didn’t know what to say or how to start. I couldn’t bring my eyes to look at Charles even though I knew he was looking at me intently and was very thankful that Jane was the first to speak.
‘Well, is there anyone here worthy of our notice, do you think?’ Her face was alive with humour, her words peppered with irony.
‘Only the first-rates, eh, Miss Elliot?’ Charles declared with a smirk and a wink.
I knew they were teasing, but I couldn’t decide if their comments were in reaction to my family’s rudeness, or an allusion to their pompous and snobbish behaviour, and I didn’t know how to reply.
‘And speaking of which, Miss Elliot,’ he continued, ‘do you see the lady over there in white whispering in the ear of the gentleman that she insists is her nephew? That’s the Dowager, Lady Nethercott.’
‘Oh, goodness,’ I said, hoping to sound suitably impressed, though from what I could see she was dressed in sheer, clinging muslin, a style for young women half her age with the bloom of youth painted on her face with a heavy hand. Her companion was gazing at her in a way I thought unlikely for a nephew to look at his aunt.
‘Do you mean the old lady both nakedly and expensively dressed, exposing far more bosom than she ought at her age?’ quipped Jane.
‘Hush, my dear sister, please lower your voice! No one is old in Bath or can expose too much flesh!’
‘Charles, you have quite misled Miss Elliot,’ Jane scolded. ‘My dear friend, it is clear that my brother has picked her out for amusement.’
Charles grinned. ‘Well, perhaps I did, but you seemed to share your part in the joke.’
‘Now look, our neighbour cannot think what to make of us,’ said Jane taking my arm. ‘Shall we start again? Let us pretend that we have not yet been introduced. Miss Elliot, it is a delight to see you again. You remember my brother Charles, I think.’
I nodded, unable to suppress a smile, and plucking up the courage to look up found him gazing steadily at me, a flicker of amusement crossing his face. ‘You have not forgotten me since Saturday, I hope, Miss Elliot.’
It was my turn to smile. ‘No, I remember you very well.’
‘You saw Miss Elliot on Saturday?’ asked Jane, looking from one to the other of us.
‘Yes, we happened to bump into one another in Sydney Gardens. Unfortunately for Miss Elliot, she was craving solace and quiet. That she did not find it is quite certain, as I am afraid I rather forced her to enjoy my company and urged her to take a turn with me.’
‘I remember you saying that you had no wish to go out walking that day,’ Jane continued, searching her brother’s face. Her eyes sparkled in a most teasing way. ‘But, perhaps the sight from an upstairs window of a pretty girl entering the gardens quite changed your mind.’
‘I think perhaps it was not so much his choice of companion that led him into the gardens as much as the desire to find a level walk,’ I said, before she could insinuate anything more. ‘I believe you were climbing up Beechen Cliff, Miss Austen, a jaunt that requires both stamina and endurance. You would have to be a very good walker to contemplate such exercise and perhaps the idea of such a testing ramble proved too much for some.’
Jane laughed. ‘How refreshing it is to find someone who can tease my little brother as well as I can. What do you think, Miss Elliot? Will he dare to give us his opinion? I cannot wait to hear his answer.’
‘I will have you know that I am an excellent walker and any time that either of you would like the challenge of a walk up that noble cliff, I will be only too pleased for you to witness my vigour and fortitude in the accomplishment.’
‘Miss Elliot, how can we refuse him?’
‘I do not think we can.’
‘No, indeed. Charles, let us meet very soon. Miss Elliot, I hope if you have no other engagements that you will be able to accompany us. I expect my sister will join us also, and if the fine weather continues, we should consider a picnic.’
‘Miss Elliot, do you think you would be able to come?’
Lieutenant Austen, I discovered, had dark brown eyes flecked with amber and gold, at once attentive and almost hypnotic as he held my gaze.
‘I hope so, though I am not certain of our present engagements.’
I could sense Jane watching us. ‘I must speak to Cassy at once, as I am sure she will be most interested to learn of our scheme. We must fix a date.’
She was gone in a moment and for the first time I felt slightly uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to explain it, but I knew I was attracted to Charles. I also knew it wasn’t right to feel like that. It felt like a secret I’d never be able to share. I didn’t belong in this time and Charles, I was sure, would have no interest in me. But, I didn’t hesitate when he asked me for the first dance, which I was certain had been prompted by Jane. It was just a dance, after all.
‘I would be delighted.’ The words were out before I could stop them. I tried not to think about what a disaster it might be, though I kept remembering that the dances I’d seen always seemed to have such complicated shapes, lots of turning and crossing in circles or figures of eight. We’d had country dancing lessons at school for a while. I would just have to do the best I could.
‘Come at once,’ chided Emma, suddenly appearing at my side and hissing in my ear, ‘Mr Glanville has arrived and if I’m not there to greet him because of your flirting with a social upstart, I shall never forgive you.’
Lieutenant Austen bowed, and as I allowed myself to be wrenched away, I hoped he hadn’t heard her. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself, or more importantly for Sophia. When I thought about how I’d always longed for a sister or a brother I hadn’t imagined it could be a relationship based on cruelty. The only comforting thought was the fact that I knew the reverse could be true. The Austen sisters clearly adored one another and I knew Charles felt the same way about his siblings. I loved the way they were constantly teasing one another and sharing jokes, not with any sense of humiliating the other, but each one knowing that they did so out of affection and love.
We could see Mr Elliot in the distance, standing with his cousin at the entrance to the ballroom. Both seemed oblivious to the fact that they had forced everyone else to a halt as the huge number of people spilled out across the reception hall. As Emma and I approached, the sea of whispering faces seemed to part as people stepped aside to let us through the throng.
‘Oh yes, those are the Elliot girls. The family is with Mr William Glanville, you know. Rumour has it that he’s looking amongst his own for a new wife!’
Emma heard them and smiled broadly. She stood very erect displaying her long white neck to perfection and sallied forth as if she fully expected to become Mrs Glanville within the week.
William Glanville seemed very pleased to see us both. With the pleasantries out of the way, he asked Emma for the first dance. As he took her arm to lead her into the ballroom he suddenly turned to me.
‘Miss Sophia, do take my other arm. I insist on your dancing with me after your sister, and I will brook no refusal.’
I didn’t know what to say. Emma would be furious if I said yes and Mr Glanville was urging me to accept. My silence only seemed to make him think that I’d agreed to it.
‘I shall look forward to our dance very much. If I may be allowed an observation, Miss Sophia, I would say that the hue of the gown you are wearing this evening is most becoming. I am no poet but your jade eyes are beautifully enhanced by apple tones.’
Needless to say, after this most embarrassing outburst, mine were not the only eyes to appear an altered hue. Emma’s were quite pea-green with envy.
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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