An occasional series detailing the fictional misadventures of the Misses Austen, their dearest mother, their newfound Chawton friends and neighbours, a donkey called Gerald, and not forgetting the spirited Miss Harriet Brown and the haughty Mr Eckley.
Psst…Chapter One can be found here…http://austenvariations.com/a-little-bit-of-ivory-two-inches-wide/
Chawton Cottage, July 1809
These days, my sister Jane tries to ensure her hands are always busy. I know her so well that I can easily see what she is about. She keeps her body industrious in an attempt to numb her thoughts, to quieten the stories in her head. There has been plenty to do since we came to Chawton, she has had no end of tasks to distract herself with. We have all of us worked ourselves into exhaustion as we attempt to make this house a home. Our mother fails nightly in her struggles to keep her eyes open and this evening she snores by the fire, while Jane and I sew.
Yet now, as the light from the window fails, and I have to lean towards the candle to complete a particularly difficult stitch, I notice Jane’s own pretty work has fallen into her lap. At last her hands are still. Her imagination is too mighty, it cannot be supressed. She stares into the fire, unseeing. The logs glow, crackle and spit as they burn; a sound that ought to be comforting and soothing, but there is no rest for Jane.
Her foot is near mine and I kick it gently to gain her attention. The smile she gives me is soft and melancholic.
“Where do you go to on your travels?” I ask. “I know you are not really here, but in some distant place, a grander room perhaps. With grander strangers, who are by far more interesting than mother and me. Do not think me offended by your neglect, but if your mind will wander, I wish you would write it all down, so others might be entertained by it too.”
“Cass,” she sighs. “I cannot.”
“There was a time when you could do nothing but. When every moment that pulled you away from your writing made you cross.”
Jane nods. “That was once true, but of late I find every sentence I compose inadequate, every paragraph trite and dull. It is my own fault, I ought to have known my limitations. I was flattered, my vanity bolstered by my family and friends. How ridiculous was I to think myself good enough; to believe so completely in the compliments of those who are bound by familial ties to tell me I am clever, that I have talent.” She shakes her head and her soft smile turns wry. “I daresay I should you love you a good deal less, Cassandra, if you were to hate Eleanor and Marianne. So, you have to say you do, or I would not like you anymore.”
“But I truly do, and someday, so will a great many other people. For I prefer your stories far better than any published novel I ever read.”
“Your partiality is borne entirely out of your affection for me. I have the proof of my uselessness. I have a rejection letter, and somewhere in a publisher’s office in London, “Susan” languishes—perhaps it lays beneath a dozen other rejected submissions, perhaps it has been put under the leg of a table to make it steady again. Perhaps it has been thrown on the fire.”
Jane gets out of her chair and swiftly moves to a corner of the room where her little writing desk sits atop a table. From it, she pulls out a large bundle of paper. Some of its pages are yellowing already – and I know it is a tale begun at Steventon, so many years ago, before our father died. She crosses back over to the fireplace quickly, loosening the threads that bind it as she walks. “This is fit for nothing more than kindle too.” She takes the first few pages into one hand and throws them into the flames.
I react before any rational thought can take hold of me. Foolishly, I dip my hand into the fire to pull the pages back out. I drop them onto the hearth and stamp on them. They are singed at the edges, as is my hand.
Jane gasps, waking our mother who screams in fright. Jane rushes to a jug of water that sits on a nearby table and plunges her handkerchief into it. She returns to wrap the cool cloth around my hand.
“I am well,” I assure her, for my sister looks terribly guilty. “These hands are well used to scalds from the bread oven. They have suffered much worse. I will barely feel it by morning.”
“Why would you do such a ridiculous thing?” she asks.
“Because they are a part of you. You are “my sister Jane”, and “my sister Jane” is a writer.”
“What has happened?” Our mother demands, a hand to her chest, her mouth hanging open in surprise.
“Nothing Mamma, I got too close to the fire. Go back to sleep,” I tell her.
“I was not asleep,” she says, indignantly. Jane and I smile at one another, recalling her snores. “But I may go upstairs early,” she adds. “All your carryings-on have rattled my nerves. You have put me off my supper, I could eat nothing. Not a single morsel.”
“Goodnight mamma,” Jane says, dutifully. “I did think I would ask Meg to bring you up a little bread and honey, but if you cannot manage it—”
“No,” our mother says, then quickly adds. “Though send it up anyway, I might be persuaded to try a little.”
Jane’s smile grows broader, but she hides it, bending her head to tend to my wound. My hand is hot but it is nothing serious. Once our mother has gone upstairs, I shrug Jane’s ministrations off and take her face into my hands, forcing her to pay attention and meet my eyes, ensuring she can see me clearly in the rapidly dimming parlour. “Ordering the meat, arranging the furniture, overseeing the maid and the cook, looking after the tea. Yes, these are all important, but Jane, you have other work to do, and you must get to it. Take your satisfaction from the endeavour itself. When your success comes, and I am sure it will, you will be able to enjoy it all the more because of the disappointments you have suffered. A triumph that comes without struggle and tears must be a hollow one, do you not think?”
“I think I could be content with just a little success, if it meant just a little less struggle,” she says. “And now, I only want these pages to go away and stop mithering me.”
“Make me a present of them,” I say.
Jane is startled. “A present?”
“Yes. Is that not a better solution than throwing them on the fire? Give them to me, for my amusement. If you do not want them, cannot work on them, give them to me.”
She bends her head to side, looks into the fire again, considering for a moment. We are no great beauties, either of us, but Jane does have some very fine features—a long, slim elegant neck, a trim figure, pretty eyes. She has had suitors, many more than I, yet she has never married. Thus far, she has been wedded only to her pen.
“Very well,” Jane says and goes back to her writing desk and pulls out her manuscripts, one by one. Weighed down with the bundles of paper she crosses the room and puts them into my waiting arms. Then she throws her shoulders back and gives a deep, raucous laugh.
“Is that better?” I smile.
“Much, I feel lighter. I am set free.”
“Then you will sleep well tonight, and tomorrow we shall be feckless. We shall forget our domestic cares and explore the countryside, run through the fields and pretend we are girls again.”
“Run? Oh no, Cass, we can do better than that.”
Gerald and I look at one another with distrust. His eyes are doleful, but even so, he looks far too wise to be hitched up to a cart. “There is an air of devilment about him,” I say to Jane.
“He is a donkey, Cass. Aren’t they Godly creatures? Didn’t one carry Mary to Bethlehem?”
“If this ass were charged with the mission, I fear the tale might have ended differently.”
“I have always longed to drive such a cart,” Jane says, clambering quickly up the steps. Do you remember Madam Leroy riding around Hampshire in hers when we were children? I always thought her so daring, so independent. How I envied her spirit, and we might we be like her now; now we have such a vehicle, we might go to all the good shops in Alton, as often as we like.”
I glance carefully at my sister as she mentions Madam Lefroy, a neighbour of ours from long ago, from Steventon, but the name—which once gave her painful remembrances—does not seem to trouble her as deeply as before. Is he now all but forgotten? Does she no longer pause to be sad about Tom Lefroy?
“But Jane, will we not take someone with us, to drive? You have little experience.”
“We will have no difficulties at all, Cassandra. If we considered all the dangers that might befall us before every adventure, we would never set foot out the door.”
With shaking hands, I climb up next to Jane on the seat. She flicks the ribbons neatly. To my astonishment, Gerald walks on and the cart lurches forward. I grab for the rail behind our backs, but once we have left the track beside the house, we settle into a calm trot along the main road. I begin to feel easy again, as Jane confidently controls donkey and cart—as if she drove every day of her life. We hear a shout of “good afternoon” from one of our neighbours as we pass their door, and Jane offers a regal wave in return. We quickly leave the main road and turn into the narrow lanes, up into the hills and down through the valleys. Gerald pulls ahead, eager to go faster. Jane does not rein him back, but urges him on. We are country girls, and should never again be made to live in towns. The midday sun warms us, the fields are a deep, healthy green. The speed thrills us and the fresh air makes us giddy.
We enjoy an hour or so, ridding about nowhere in particular, before deciding we ought to return. It is our first outing, and as wonderful as it has been, we quickly agree that it would not be wise to further test our luck. We also go back in consideration of our mother, who is nearly seventy—neither of us care to leave her alone for very long—and she will worry for us.
Yet just as we are nearing home, our luck does take a turn for the worse. Coming towards us, at furious speed, is Collyer’s daily coach. Its postilion, riding on the lead horse, is out of his saddle, waving his arms frantically at us to move clear of the stage’s path, but there is no room for it to pass us cleanly by, and only a miracle will stop the enormous coach, such is its incredible pace.
I close my eyes, hang on and offer up a prayer, waiting for the collision, hoping it will not be so bad. I count the things I ought to be thankful for as I am jolted, but it seems we are not to be upended. Instead, we veer wildly to the right. I had expected the crunching of metal and wood, the scream of people and horses coming tragically together, but there is merely a splash and then I feel the cart come to a halt. A great deal of swearing assaults my ears, as the postilion rages at us, but the coach is already thundering away, unhindered and unbothered by the distress it has caused us. Forced off the road, we are in the middle of the village pond. Jane stands up in the seat and plants her hands on her hips. “How dare he, such wanton and furious driving, and such language! Why, if I should ever meet the man…”
“It is Dickey Dung Prong,” a voice calls out, and we both look to see Miss Harriet Brown on the edge of the water. “He is quite famous and well known for his daring. They say he can stand on the back of a horse while at full speed, and the driver is Mr Falkner from Alton. He goes at a cracking pace, and ‘Falkner’s Car’, as they call it, waits for no one. He prides himself on always arriving on time.” The young girl sits down and begins to unlace her boots.
“Oh, Miss Brown, thank heavens. Would you be good enough to fetch help, perhaps from the blacksmiths?” I ask.
“I think they will they have closed up and gone home already.”
“Where are the men?” Jane cries out, not for the first time since we arrived in Chawton, and indeed, it does seem to be a village of women. With the exception of the Reverend Claypole and a couple of servants, we have met with hardly any men. Jane tries to urge Gerald on, to pull us out of the water, but he stubbornly refuses to move and merely lets out a loud “Eeyore”.
“I am severely disappointed in you Gerald, that you should let me down in this time of great need. To think, I stole away carrots for you yesterday, and this is the thanks I receive. I may have to reconsider our friendship,” Jane admonishes. Yet Gerald will not move.
Harriet Brown, having removed her boots completely, is now hitching up her skirts. “Oh, but you cannot possibly mean to wade in. Please do not, Miss Brown, you will ruin your petticoats,” I plead.
“They are quite ruined already.” She laughs. “I am returning from a visit to an elderly aunt of mine who has not been well. As she lives nearly three miles away, I thought to take the most direct route over the fields. A little dirty water will make no discernible difference. I am already knee-deep in mud.”
She splashes over to us to take hold of the nosepiece of Gerald’s harness and after a few strong tugs and some persuasive calls, he allows himself to be led from the pond. Having regained the road again, Jane and I are able to get down from the cart. We are shocked, but we are dry and unharmed. Miss Brown is thanked most earnestly.
“Would your mother approve? Of you wading into the stream, Miss Brown, I am sure you shouldn’t have done it.”
Harriet Brown sits down to put her boots back on. “I am sure she would be horrified, but I confess it is not the first time I have been in the pond.” The sulky, bored and sullen girl who called upon us to welcome us Chawton a few days ago now wears an open, friendly expression. She is most likely more suited to physical, outdoor pursuits, and extremely unsuited to sipping tea and sharing news. Once she has made herself almost respectable again—nothing can be done about the mud on her hems—she stands and we give her our thanks again.
The sound of an approaching horse causes us all to look up—and we have to look a long way up. For atop the magnificent stallion that stops besides us sits a tall, magnificent-looking gentleman. Broad shouldered, a noble face, dark eyes and hair, he is as fine a specimen as the horse he rides.
Harriet Brown says nothing but offers him a low curtsey. It is too low. It seems mocking in its deference. He, in turn, tips his hat. There is silence and the gentleman frowns while he takes in Miss Brown’s appearance. At last he greets her, though it is just by a mummer of her name, and I remember her telling us how much she disliked him, of how he refused to dance with any of the local ladies at a ball.
Miss Brown introduces us. “Miss Cassandra Austen, Miss Jane Austen, this is—”
“Mr Eckley,” Jane interrupts before Harriet Brown can finish. “You are acquainted with our brother Edward.”
“Yes,” Mr Eckley replies. He nods towards both Jane and I. “I am on my way to the house now, in fact, as he has asked my advice on an agricultural matter.” His countenance softens and a hint of a smile graces his lips, though it is not an expression that sits easily on him. It is as if he is not used to happiness. “I am to stay to dinner, where I hoped to also make your acquaintance.”
“We are very glad to meet you,” I say. Mr Eckley offers no further social niceties. His eyes constantly flicker back to Miss Brown, to her dirty petticoats, and her hair—several of her pins are loose and it has come partly down. He seems all at once fascinated and repulsed by her.
“You find us not at our best, Mr Eckley,” I tell him. “I am afraid we have had an accident with our donkey cart, and it has left us all in disarray, though we are all well.”
“Oh, I see. I would be honoured to offer my assistance. Are you in need of a gentleman?
“Do you know of any nearby?” Miss Brown’s words are sharp, her smile supercilious.
Mr Eckley’s frame stiffens. He is no doubt offended by her effrontery. With a dark look, he repeats his offer of help, which we decline. He then wishes us a good afternoon and rides away.
“Miss Brown is really too rude.” I whisper to Jane as the young girl helps us manoeuvre Gerald and his cart back into the gardens of our cottage.
“Yes,” Jane nods. “But there is a goodness about her too. I am not certain whether to admire her, or to be appalled by her. Mr Eckley, I suppose, is similarly perplexed.”
When we are in the safety of the parlour once again and recovering from our ordeal—self-medicating our spirits with good, strong tea—I am startled again by Jane getting quickly to her feet and crossing to her writing desk. She catches me looking at her and shakes her head.
“You are to be disappointed if you think I am writing anything more than a note.”
“To Edward. I am going to suggest he also invites the Browns to dinner today. I am wicked, but I cannot resist. Miss Harriet Brown and Mr Eckley, they are so blind, so unsuspecting,” she muses. “Watching them make both love and war will be so much fun.”
I ought to scold her for her meddling, but I do not, deciding that a little mischievousness might do her much good.
So do we want to continue… give us a yea, or a neigh:)