Jane Austen Lives Again

When Jane Austen’s doctor discovers the secret to immortal life in 1817, she thinks her wishes have come true. But when she wakes up from the dead, a penniless Miss Austen finds herself in 1925, having to become a governess to five girls of an eccentric and bohemian family at the crumbling Manberley Castle by the sea. Jane soon finds she’s caught up in the dramas of every family member, but she loves nothing more than a challenge, and resolves on putting them in order. If only she can stop herself from falling in love, she can change the lives of them all! 

Inspired by Jane Austen’s wonderful novels and written in the tradition of classic books like Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Jane Austen Lives Again is an amusing fairy story for grown-ups. 


When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal.
Jane Austen

Miss Austen’s eyes flickered open. She was aware of soft pillows under her head, the fragrance of fresh linen tucked about her, the sputter of a crackling fire and the ticking of a clock. It was a moment before her eyes could focus and other senses quickened into life. The iron taste of blood in her mouth and a bitter tang of something she could not recognise made her long for water. All these sensations, scents and sounds were unfamiliar. Where was she?
‘She’s awake, Doctor Lyford!’
Jane turned her head to see a young man rushing to her side. He had a look of Doctor Lyford but this was not the physician she knew. This man was younger, slimmer and had a shock of thick, dark hair, which lay in damp, greasy curls on his forehead. He wore only a shirt tucked into outlandishly long breeches and with his sleeves rolled up like a working man, Jane was not altogether sure what she thought about him. He looked wild, his eyes flashing with a topaz light in their depths.
‘Miss Austen, can you hear me?’ The agitation in his voice was plain to hear.
‘I am not deaf you know, there is no need to raise your voice.’ Jane struggled to sit up.
‘You must not move. Here, drink this.’ The doctor placed a teapot with a long spout to her lips.
For a second Jane felt frightened and although dying to quench her thirst she felt so ill at ease in these strange surroundings. The taste in her mouth was disgusting. Was he poisoning her?
Aware that her lips, which were compressed firmly together, were not about to part, Doctor Lyford tried again. ‘Please drink, Miss Austen, it will do you good.’
Looking up at the young man, Jane’s expression softened. There was real anxiety in his eyes and she saw something else. In those brown eyes flecked with sage green and amber, she saw that he cared deeply. Jane did as she was told whilst taking the opportunity to look around her at the room that seemed filled with a plethora of furniture and furnishings. The walls were profuse with intricate patterns on a dark russet ground – roses spilled from elongated vases that dripped with swags of pearls. Carpets on the wooden floors swirled with sensuous curves of acanthus and exotic flora whilst floating in this sea of overblown elegance were tables, sofas and chairs be-decked with frills and furbelows. It was a strange land and Jane had never seen anything like it. 

Chapter One

I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.

Jane smiled wryly at the recollection of penning those words. Published in 1815, her darling Emma (of whom she wrote that no one would like but herself) had been written in another time, another place. A hundred and ten years later, and having sold herself into the governess-trade, the irony was not lost on her.
Looking out of the window, she gripped the arm of her chair with both hands as if doing so would help slow down all sensations. The metal monster roared ahead belching thick clouds of hot, black smoke. Like a dragon consumed with fire, she thought, as its sleek body snaked through the countryside at an alarming speed.
She knew her companion, Dr Lyford was studying her face, and determined to look unconcerned by the sight of trees, fields and houses flying past her window, she released the grip on the arms of the chair, folded them in her lap and assumed an expression of nonchalance.
‘I know this is all terrifyingly new to you,’ he said, ‘but there is no quicker way to travel than by train.’
Having always found great amusement in watching people, she observed him searching for the right words, as he paused, and then saw him smile nervously instead. Jane knew she was expected to answer, to assure him that she was fine, but she was in a mischievous mood. Ever playful, she wanted to see what would happen if she remained silent, she wanted to imagine how the scene would play out. The pleasure of waiting for him to continue was coupled with the knowledge that she’d already guessed exactly what he would say.
‘It was the best I could do in the circumstances, and it will, at least, resolve the problems of employment on the one hand, and time for your writing on the other. Your sister left no other instructions … the money she’d put aside was never going to be enough, even taking into account the royalties and the interest you’d earned.’
‘Dr Lyford, I do not blame you, nor do I blame myself, or Cassandra. My sister knew my wishes plainly enough and carried them out to the best of her ability. I can never express my gratitude enough to you for the services you have rendered me. It was no small feat to make me healthy once more or bring me back from the dead, and I will ever be grateful.’
‘But, it can never have been your plan to become a governess to five girls on a country estate. Nor to have found yourself in a time that is completely unknown to you. A hundred years is a long time, Miss Austen, and a lot has changed. I fear that a month’s recovery and a few hastily read newspaper articles may not be enough to prepare you fully for life, let alone for the new role you will assume.’
‘Dr Lyford, if I can survive embalming, the subsequent resurrection and the effects of transdifferentiation, I will live to tell the tale, if you will forgive a little punning. I am quite the Turritopsis dohrnii, and if not for your great work on that immortal jellyfish, I would not be here today.’
In many ways, it had been a relief to discover that some things were not changed. She was not essentially altered. Her mind, her habits, and her delight in the absurdities of life, were exactly the same. In the four short weeks she’d been returned to life, this realisation was a source of comfort.
‘I wish there had been a greater opportunity to make some more notes, Miss Austen, a further study of the effects of the process. This is pioneering work, and I must be sure that there are no ill effects of which we may not yet be aware.’
‘I understand your concerns, doctor, but I am perfectly happy with myself and feel twenty years younger! What forty-one year old female would not be delighted to have the hand of time turned backward? You see, I am vain enough to tell you that I am enjoying the fact that I look quite twenty-one again.’
‘Every cell in your body is that of a young woman half your real age. And that is what I am concerned about and longing to research further. What will happen as you age? How lasting are the effects? There could be complications.’  
‘Doctor Lyford, do not concern yourself. I’ve never felt better. I feel as if I am about to start a new adventure, even if the thought of five little girls is a disquieting one. More than anything, I will have the time to write all the novels I thought were to be denied to me, and I will endure anything to that end.’
The doctor knew it was useless to argue. He’d only known Miss Jane Austen a short time but that he had quickly learned. It simply was not possible to get the better of her.
‘But you must promise me that you will write or telephone if there is anything at all that does not seem right.’
Jane nodded in agreement knowing she had no intention of taking up any more of the young doctor’s time if she could help it and she certainly had no plans for ever picking up a telephone. Perhaps she would get used to it in time, but the infernal instrument seemed such an intrusion on one’s privacy, though she admitted that she and her sister Cassandra might have preferred conversing through such machinery, compared to the interminable letter writing on the occasions when they’d been separated. That was one thing she could not get used to, and thought she never would. Cassy had always been such a huge part of her life, and the idea that she would never see or hear her again was too much to bear. She caught her own reflection in the glass and started. Sometimes it felt almost as if Cassy were there, a part of her. Occasionally she caught a look of hers in her own image, in the expression of her eyes or in the turn of her head. But Cassy was gone. That was how she’d wanted it. Her practical, pragmatic sister had lived her life to a grand age and was happy at the last to leave in the usual way. Jane was slowly coming to terms with the fact, but life without her beloved Cassy would never be the same.
When Doctor John Lyford had initially hinted that he was experimenting with some success on his work in transdifferentiation at the beginning of her last awful bout of illness, she had not dreamed that it would take several generations to perfect the process. And once she’d first discussed the unthinkable with Cassy, the idea that she might one day cheat death to write again, she’d not considered the possibility of how she would feel at leaving so many beloved people behind. After the sisters removed to Winchester for her final illness, she had every hope that Dr Lyford might cure her, or at the very least keep her alive for a few more years.
Knotting her scarf around her neck and smoothing her skirt in a bid to distract her mind, she wondered when she would get used to her new clothes. Jane was shocked when she saw that young women in 1925 were not only exposing their ankles but their knees as well, and though her dress and simple belted coat were mid-calf, just as short as she found comfortable, after a few days she’d begun to appreciate the freedom that the clothes gave her. Of course, becoming a governess precluded any attempt at being fashionable for which she was thankful. Others might sport the new bobbed hairstyles, but Jane was glad she could still wear her chestnut curls in a simple bun pinned into place on top of her head and hidden under a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a feather.
Her borrowed valise was stowed in the luggage rack containing all her worldly goods: a copy of Sir Charles Grandison - her favourite book, two extra day frocks plus one for evenings, a bottle of Luce’s eau de cologne, and a present from the doctor’s sister of a box of scented talcum powder, as well as a fountain pen, ink and notebook from the doctor himself. This last present was a most treasured gift, and Jane wondered if she’d ever get used to the miracle of having ink flowing endlessly from a nib that didn’t blot.   
‘Are you absolutely certain you are ready to take on such a challenge?’ said Dr Lyford, watching her closely. In the short time he’d known her he’d decided she was a hard nut to crack, but every now and then he’d glimpsed a certain vulnerability, the merest hint of fragility to the woman behind the mask of strength and assurance she wore.
‘Quite sure.’ Jane continued to stare out at the fields flying by. ‘To do anything else would be unthinkable. I have been given the greatest gift, and to squander it would be sinful. Besides, I am looking forward to seeing Devon again and I love the sea. I am used to small children, Dr Lyford, having supervised my own nephews and nieces on many occasions. Dear little Neddy, precocious Anna, and darling Fanny were the delight of my days, to name just three of them. They used to love my fairy stories … strange to think that they are all dead.’
Dr Lyford wondered what she might think if she knew that some of her brothers’ descendants had taken it upon themselves to write her biography and publish her personal letters. Fanny, whom Jane had once described as quite after one’s own heart, had taken to criticising her aunt in later life saying she was very much below par as to good society and its ways”, and that Fanny’s father’s influence and superior connections had rescued Aunt Jane from “commonness and a lack of refinement”. Dr Lyford had shied away from telling her very much about her large family of descendants. He’d concentrated instead on telling her that her work was loved, and how her books were still being published, bringing comforts of home to the troops in the war still so fresh in all their minds. Though pleased to be so well regarded, one hundred years after publication, she remarked on the fact that she’d missed out on a fortune, which would have been more than useful in her present predicament.
‘Your memories are very clear, Miss Austen.’
‘Yes, I remember everything. Being twenty-one again, Dr Lyford, and seeing my face in the glass as that young girl brings back many bittersweet recollections. I recall the sense of heartbreak and loss when we left Steventon for Bath as if it just happened. And then later on, the memories of finding our beloved home at Chawton, revising my books and sending them out into the world, quite as my own darling children, are still fresh in my mind. I could not forget such dancing spirits when my dearest of them all appeared in print. I am gratified to know Elizabeth is still a heroine my readers admire.’
For a few minutes she was quiet as the train sheared through the scenery like scissors through fine muslin. She didn’t want to think about the past, she must look to the present and the future if she were to survive. Looking out through the window she noted the sky clouding up above. The landscape was changed beyond recognition in the towns, she thought, and tried to imagine the lives of those weary looking individuals waiting at grim stations who were so tightly housed together in back-to-back houses, blackened by soot and smoke. The countryside offered a glimpse of a landscape she recognised, and though the people she saw were dressed in the fashions of the day, Jane was sure they were still the same in essentials. Human nature didn’t alter, even if their clothes, their hairstyles and their use of slang changed. People still loved and hated, won and lost, struggled, succeeded or sank.
The train came to a halt in a village station, and she saw three children. Dressed in country clothes, white pinafores on the little girls with large black bonnets on their heads, long shorts and a tweed cap on the little boy, she watched them swinging on a gate, back and forth, until the guard shooed them away with a wave of his flag. It was like watching herself with Cassandra and one of her brothers. Henry was the most likely to have been found swinging on a gate with her, she decided. He was always her favourite brother, always eager for fun and games. The children disappeared, running off before the train lurched once more enveloping the platform and the bright pots of marigolds, lovingly displayed, in plumes of white smoke.
‘Manberley Castle sounds like a title for one of my books,’ Jane said at last, pushing all memories of the past from her mind. ‘The Miltons of Manberley has a lovely ring to it, perfect for a novel.’
Dr Lyford smiled. ‘I believe it dates back to the twelfth century, though I’m assured there are more modern additions. The last building took place in about 1815 so you should feel quite at home.’
‘And how did the Miltons come by their money?’
‘Well, they’re sugar millionaires, so I’m guessing their family history and wealth was built on the misery of others.’
‘Ill-gotten gains, how perfectly dreadful, and at the expense of so much human suffering, though in my day those who profited from the trade of their fellow men had no qualms in doing so. It is a fine thing to learn that such abhorrent practices are completely stopped. I hope the Milton forbears had a conscience, and helped to put right the wrongs of previous generations.’
‘I couldn’t say, Miss Austen. I am certain Sir Albert Milton is like most men of his class since the war; still trying to hang on to the life he’s always known and enjoyed, that of squire and landowner. But times are changing, and their way of life, though seemingly luxurious to many, is not quite as lavish or extravagant as it was once upon a time. I believe Sir Albert is still very much the gentleman of leisure, though his heir seems to have a lot more about him. He runs the estate, providing much employment for local farmers and workers. By all accounts William Milton is very much a modern man, not afraid to get his hands dirty.’
‘Quite right, too. I’m not certain I could be in the employ of a feckless family content only to laze away their days. You mentioned there is a lady of the house … is she an idle creature or am I to expect hidden depths? Is Lady Milton a useful sort of person or one inclined to lie out on a sofa?’
‘With five girls I expect she has her hands full, but I’m afraid I don’t know anything much about her ladyship or her children.’
‘Though you say she is a second wife, and I suppose William must be the son of his first.’
‘William is in his late twenties, I believe, and though I’m not certain, I think the succession of younger girls are the offspring of the latest Lady Milton.’
‘But you do have a list of their names? I must try and familiarise myself with them.’
Dr Lyford took out his wallet from his jacket pocket, pulling a piece of paper from inside. ‘Yes, here we are. I’ve written them out and made some brief notes. I was able to talk to the housekeeper on the telephone. Her name is Mrs Naseby; rather an abrupt and evasive woman, but seemed able to distil the essential personalities of the children in one or two words. I thought it might help … give you an idea before you meet them.’
Jane grasped the paper and read. ‘Alice … kind and considerate, Mae … needs a tight rein, Beth … headstrong, Emily … has rather too much her own way, and Cora … reads excessively. Goodness, if I’d read this before, I’m not sure I would have agreed to your plans, though Alice sounds promising and Cora is clearly a little girl I could get along with.’
‘Which is precisely why I haven’t shown you this previously. I did wonder if it was a good idea, but I do think Mrs Naseby has probably not painted the Milton girls in the best light.’
‘I should say not. Heavens, whatever shall I do?’
‘Think of this job as a temporary measure. I couldn’t find you any other employment with your limited experience, and at least if you can stick to it, you’ll gain some valuable skills along with a reference at the end of a year or two.’
‘A whole year … or two.’ Jane found it hard to keep the dismay from her voice. She couldn’t help thinking about her dear friend Anne Sharp who’d been a governess to her niece Fanny. Sweet Anne who’d always been a constant source of pleasure, a clever, witty woman, cheerful and capable, the most uncomplaining person she’d ever known, and always determined to get the best out of life. If Anne had managed it, then so could she.
The train was pulling into the station. Dark, sullen clouds up above were brimming with raindrops like the tears she felt welling inside, and before she’d gathered her belongings, the heavens opened. Water fell in torrents, pattering on the roof of the Victorian waiting room, gurgling down the drainpipes and running in streams along the platform, dribbling down the name painted on the station sign. Jane rubbed at the misty glass with a gloved hand, and peered out anxiously. Stoke Pomeroy looked grey and unwelcoming, cold and dark, despite the fact that it was the beginning of June.
‘This is where we part company, Miss Austen,’ said Dr Lyford. ‘Now, you have my address and telephone number in Dawlish if you need me. I shall be there for six weeks before heading back to London.’ He looked at his companion of whom he’d grown very fond in the last few weeks. ‘Do call or write if you need anything.’
Jane took a deep breath. ‘I shall be perfectly fine, Dr Lyford, do not worry.’
‘Sir Albert said there’d be someone to meet you.’ The doctor opened the door, stepped onto the platform briefly and called the porter to take her suitcase.
‘Thank you, Dr Lyford, thank you for everything.’ Jane knew the words were vacuous, but it was impossible to express just how she felt. If only she’d written him a letter, she thought, the written word always came so much more easily. She watched him step back inside the train, shutting the door with a finality that left her shuddering with fear at the thought of being alone. Jane told herself to stop being so silly and extended her hand through the window, shaking his vigorously.
The guard appeared, doors slammed, a flag waved and the great beast ignited once more shunting off in loud roars leaving a trail of dragon’s breath behind it. Jane watched her doctor being taken away, and suddenly felt rather alone. No one else had got on or off the train apart from herself and she wasn’t quite sure what to do, as she waited. Struggling with her umbrella to prevent getting any wetter, she got it up at last and walked up and down the platform. There didn’t seem to be anyone waiting for her and then she wondered if perhaps there’d be a pony and trap with a trusted servant waiting outside beyond the gate. Handing her ticket to the man at the exit she stepped out of the safety of the station to discover there was nobody waiting for her there either, but there was a bench under a shelter so she took a seat and watched the rain gurgling in the gutters and bouncing off the road like large pennies.
Nothing could have surprised her more than the sight of a sleek black motor drawing up a few minutes later, and a liveried chauffeur stepping out to address her. Dressed in navy with a smart peaked hat and leather gauntlets, he took her case and opened the rear door with a flourish. ‘Miss Austen, please take a seat.’
Jane had never been in a car before, though she’d taken a trip into Winchester with Dr Lyford’s housekeeper on the omnibus. She was relieved to be sitting in the back of the vehicle and glad to see a glass partition dividing her from the driver in front. Forced conversation with a stranger was never a very useful activity to her mind, and she didn’t want to chat to the chauffeur. He didn’t look like the talking sort, and for that matter, wasn’t quite what she’d expected at all. He had a very cock-sure way about him, and an arrogant air, which made her feel most unsure of herself. Jane needn’t have worried; he didn’t speak though once or twice she caught him watching her through the rear view mirror which was unnerving, to say the least. She noted his dark hair underneath the cap, and the way he drove with his head on one side, his elbow resting on the window and one hand casually holding the wheel. He was speeding down the narrow lanes, which made Jane shut her eyes and hold onto the strap as she swayed from side to side. It wouldn’t do to be ill, she thought, as she opened one eye to see the world flashing past in a blur of green hedges and cow parsley.
They were ascending out of the valley when she saw her first glimpse of the sea, a slice of lavender ribbon under an oppressive sky, and as they wreathed along the cliff top road she saw the greater expanse below, white horses crashing down on the beach, and a strip of sand stretching along an endless coastline.
The car finally slowed and she saw the chauffeur’s hand reaching for the partition to slide it open.
‘I’m sorry if my driving is a little fast,’ he said.
Jane met his gaze in the mirror. He was staring intently again and she didn’t know where to look. It made her feel very uncomfortable and she had the feeling he was enjoying her discomfort.
‘I must admit I prefer a slower pace,’ she answered, ‘I am not used to being driven about.’
‘I’ll try my best to drive as you wish,’ he said, his eyes still on her face. Jane wished he’d watch the road, and although there hadn’t been another vehicle anywhere since they’d left the station, she was sure they’d meet with an accident sooner or later if he persisted on staring into her eyes.
There was silence for a while for which she was glad, and then the car turned off the road into a drive between tall rusted gates with ornate gateposts topped by crumbling stone urns. A gatehouse looked neglected, ivy climbed over the windows, which were fogged with green moss and mould. There was no keeper to welcome them or wave them through; there’d clearly been no occupants for a while.
‘Have you been a governess long?’ he said at last.
‘Not very long, no.’
Jane thought his questioning impertinent and pursing her mouth stared determinedly through the window at the overgrown tangle of laurels and rhododendrons on every side, bursting into flower and dripping in the rain. Her first impressions of the place were not exactly reassuring, but she hoped things might improve as they reached the house.
‘The Miltons are an undemanding bunch,’ the driver went on, ‘though what some folk might call slightly odd or eccentric, I suppose.’
Jane regarded the back of the young man’s head steadily. ‘I prefer to make up my own mind about people, I thank you, but in any case, I do not think this is a subject for conversation. I dislike gossip and I would appreciate you refraining from further discussion on my new employers.’
‘Just as you please, Miss Austen.’
He appeared to find her amusing, she noted, as he made no attempt to disguise the laughter in his voice. He kept his eyes on the road after that and as they drove up the long drive the house made an appearance at last in open ground, a gloomy Palladian façade that time seemed to have forgotten with rows of windows on either side of a central pediment. Crouched on a cliff top, the house would enjoy astonishing sea views, Jane thought, and with the stunning scenery of hanging woods on the other side where the village of Stoke Pomeroy could be seen happily nestled in the valley, she decided she’d never seen such a splendid situation. A tower, the only remains of the oldest part of the ‘castle’ formed an extension on the west side with crenellations, and gothic windows clearly added at a later date. But for the peeling stucco and an air of abandonment, the house should have been the jewel in the crown. Lashing rain and skies as green as gunpowder added to the general sense of despondency and Jane felt her spirits sink. The chauffeur swung the car round to the left and to the side of the building.
‘You’ll find the servant’s door at the bottom of the steps,’ he said, and without another word handed her out of the car and deposited her suitcase at her feet before getting back into the vehicle to roar away over the gravel drive.
Jane stared after him hoping she wouldn’t have much occasion to see him again. He thought far too much of himself, she decided, and with his brooding good looks she was sure he must create havoc amongst the maidservants. Overhead she heard the mournful mewing of wheeling gulls, and tasted the brine of the sea on her lips.  Taking a deep breath, she picked up her case, and opening the cast iron gate at the top of the stairwell made her way down the steps until she reached the small door at the bottom.

Chapter Two

The housekeeper opened the door. Mrs Naseby beckoned her in to a dismal corridor, lit by a single gas lamp that sputtered and hissed, providing a totally inadequate light.
‘Take a seat, Miss Austen, I’ll take you to her ladyship in a moment. They’ve just finished luncheon and she’s expecting you in precisely ten minutes. I’m glad to see you’re punctual, I can’t abide tardiness in any form, though I’m somewhat surprised to see you at the servant’s door.’
Mrs Naseby looked just as Jane’s imagination had pictured her. She was a spare, thin woman dressed in a long black gown of Edwardian tailoring, a harridan from a former age with a set of keys dangling from a belt round her waist. Small, piercing eyes looked shrewdly down a long nose, examining every aspect of Miss Austen’s appearance. Her complexion was pale, as a result of spending a lifetime inside this prison-like fortress, Jane thought, and couldn’t help thinking about one of the housekeepers of her own creation, Mrs Reynolds, with her warm personality and devotion to her master Mr Darcy. What a contrast, but then she decided Mrs Naseby might have far more in common with another character of her making, the domineering and opinionated Mrs Norris of Mansfield Park. Scolding herself for jumping to first impressions too soon, she sat down on a bentwood chair and heard the housekeeper mutter something to do with seeing to the maids about clearing the dining room before striding away down the dimly lit corridor. Jane noted the row of bells on the opposite wall, labelled for the upstairs rooms all jangling at once, and a succession of pantries, sculleries and kitchen rooms where a flurry of maids beetled from one to the other or up and down the steps at the end with trays of half-eaten food, empty wine bottles, and towers of porcelain plates.
Was it too late to run away, Jane wondered? This was a world that felt so strange. She’d always helped out at home with daily chores, but she’d been used to being looked after by their own maids, and they’d always had someone to help with the cooking. Besides, Cassandra had always made sure she had time for her writing, and as much as she hoped there’d be time to devote to writing still, the fact was that she would now be part of this new world, almost a servant, unable to have the freedoms she’d always enjoyed.
But before her mind had a chance to even think how she might slip back up the stairs to run away down the drive, the housekeeper returned, and with a single nod of her head, and a long finger wagging in her direction, beckoned her to follow.
‘I will take you to see her ladyship, and presuming the interview is successful we will proceed to your new quarters. You will be required to serve the family every day from nine o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon, unless you are needed in the evening, which is a distinct possibility. I have been advised to tell you that you may dine with the family at every mealtime, which to my way of thinking is a great honour. I hope you’ve brought something suitable to wear in the evenings.’
‘I have one dress I could wear for such an occasion, Mrs Naseby, but really, it would be no hardship for me to have something in the kitchen with the other servants, or even in my room. I am happy with my own company, and I do not wish to be a bother to the family or anyone else, for that matter.’
‘If Lady Milton wishes it, you will dine with the family.’
Jane realised that the old housekeeper meant her to know she no longer had any choice about anything she might want to do, and all she could hope was that her new employer would be more flexible than she was being painted. Her idea of spending the evenings writing in solitude seemed to be a dream that was fading fast.
‘You will have one day off every third Thursday of the month, unless her ladyship requires you for duty,’ Mrs Naseby continued. ‘I am sure I do not need to tell you there is to be no fraternising with any male servants, and as an employee discretion and loyalty to the family is paramount at all times.’
At the top of the servant’s staircase they entered a short corridor and Mrs Naseby opened the green baize door at the end, which separated the rest of the house from the domestic quarters. They crossed the large hall where a grandfather clock ticked the hours away, and an empty fireplace looked cheerless with two sagging armchairs on either side. Faded damask on the walls from a previous age was fraying and worn away to reveal pink plaster in places, and in the middle of the room a circular table held a bowl of scented pot-pourri, the faint fragrance of lavender and roses making up for the lack of any fresh flowers. Jane could see the lobby where the coats were hung next to a brass stand filled with umbrellas and walking sticks, and the front door beyond which was open to the elements. The rain was falling harder than ever, pinging loudly into strategically placed zinc buckets, as puddles of water were forming on the flagstones. Following Mrs Naseby up the wide staircase Jane tried not to be judgemental, remembering what Dr Lyford had said about the difficulties that families of great houses were facing after the war. Still, she couldn’t help feeling that the general atmosphere of the place exuded more than the neglect from a lack of money. Cobwebs as thick as a man’s arm trembled between the balustrades on the staircase and piles of dust rolled in fluffy balls along the stone steps, and where windows easily reached could have been cleaned with a pail of soapy water, they were misted with green mould like watered silk and traced over with spider’s webs.
At last they entered the drawing room with its peacock blue walls glowing in the dim space. A slice of light from curtains barely parted glimmered on silver frames, on photographs and portraits, highlighting white muslin and a gash of tan leather glove, the staring eye of a bloodhound and the flash of a sword at a soldier’s side. There was a smell of dank flower water and dusty cinders in the grate, offset by sweet peas wilting in a crystal vase and faded peonies dropping their petals from a Chinese jug to stain the linen cloth below.
Jane didn’t see Lady Milton immediately. Lying full-length upon the sofa in a scarlet kimono embroidered with a design of blossom trees and cranes in coloured silks, she was camouflaged by the red of the satin couch that enfolded her like a hothouse tomato. It was her mouth Jane noticed first, like an impish red bow curving into a smile which made dimples in the soft pale face that brought to mind the pictures of Hollywood film stars she’d seen outside the cinema just a few weeks ago in Winchester.
‘Miss Austen, how much we have been looking forward to meeting you,’ Lady Milton drawled with a little shake of her head, her perfectly bobbed hair gleaming as black as the lacquered table beside her. She paused to tap her cigarette on a long holder into an ashtray.
‘Thank you, Lady Milton, I’m very pleased to be here,’ Jane answered as politely as she could.
The housekeeper rushed over to the windows, pulling at the heavy curtains until light flooded the room.
‘That’s better, we can’t have you sitting in the dark, your ladyship.’
‘Thank you, Mrs Naseby, you may leave us now. I trust you’ve informed Miss Austen of all she needs to know.’
‘All but the particulars of the children, ma’am. I thought it best for you to do that.’
Lady Milton visibly sighed. Now that the room was lighter Jane saw her employer was not as young as she’d first thought. Though her hair and make-up suggested a young woman in her late twenties, it was obvious from the lines etched on the plump features that Lady Milton was probably nearer forty if not older.
‘Take a seat, Miss Austen,’ she said.
Sitting down on a wing chair Jane watched Mrs Naseby walk from the room without a backward glance, closing the door firmly behind her. Lady Milton dragged on her cigarette holder and blew rings of smoke into the air. Her ankles were crossed, and as the scarlet Louis heeled slippers with pom-poms of swansdown tapped against the other in agitation, the kimono fell away from her knees to reveal pale shapely legs. Jane thought she must have been very beautiful once, and stared with fascination at her heavily made up face, powdered and rouged, with kohl-black eyes lined with paint. She wondered if Lady Milton had forgotten she was there for a moment until her ladyship swung her legs round in one perfect move to sit up and face her.
‘Now, Miss Austen, where shall we begin?’
‘I am very much looking forward to meeting the children,’ said Jane thinking it was a prompt for her to speak. ‘I was educated both at school, and at home by my excellent father, and can offer a thorough grounding in most subjects suitable for young girls, your ladyship.’
‘I’m sure you can, Miss Austen. Dr Lyford wrote very highly of your accomplishments. But I have a confession to make, and I must do it now as Mrs Naseby has chosen not to do it for me.’
Jane waited as Lady Milton puffed once more on the holder and watched her raise a glass tinkling with ice to her lips.
‘Would you care to join me in a White Lady, Miss Austen?’ she said agitating the glass and swirling the creamy liquid. ‘I find it’s such a pick-me-up in the afternoon, and revives wonderful memories of dancing at Ciro’s.’
‘No, thank you, Lady Milton. I think I’d better keep my wits about me for dealing with small children. I hope I shall be able to spend some time getting to know them this afternoon.’
‘Yes, indeed, if we can find them.’
‘Goodness, are the children lost, Lady Milton?’
‘Not exactly. The fact is, Miss Austen, I have you here on quite false pretences. My children do not really need a governess.’
‘Oh, I see,’ said Jane who didn’t understand one bit. All she could think about was how she would have to break the news to Dr Lyford and the inconvenience she’d put him to when she threw herself once more on his mercy.
‘My children are not the young creatures you imagine them to be. The truth is they are quite grown-up, and indeed, some are past the age where one might consider them even to be marriageable, let alone in need of a governess. Lord Milton’s first wife was the mother of the eldest three - William who is the heir to Manberley, Alice now nearing the age of twenty-seven and quite left on the shelf, and Mae who is twenty-five and absolutely unmanageable. I should not say it, but they were given far too much freedom in their youth, and think themselves beyond reproach. Of my own children, sadly I lost my eldest and dearest Teddy to the perils of the Great War.’
Lady Milton paused to dab at her eyes with a silk handkerchief.
‘I’m very sorry to hear of your loss,’ said Jane, filling in an awkward pause in the conversation. ‘I think there is scarcely a family in the land who has not suffered in some way.’
‘I thought my own children would be a comfort to me,’ Lady Milton continued, ‘but Beth is turning out to be quite as headstrong as her father, Emily declares she will never marry, and Cora never has her head out of a book. Their father quite spoils and indulges them all, you see, Miss Austen, and I am at my wit’s end. My nerves simply cannot cope, and that is why I am asking for your help.’
‘I’m not sure what I can do, Lady Milton.’
‘I need someone to manage them, to help steer my children back on the right track. A girl like you, the daughter of a clergyman from a respectable background, is just the sort of person I think will do the job admirably. Please say you’ll help me, Miss Austen.’
Lady Milton looked very young at that moment, and though Jane was sure she was probably inclined to silliness there was something about her desperation that struck a chord. Hadn’t she always been an adviser to family and relations? Hadn’t they all confided in her, and she rather prided herself at helping many of her younger nieces, particularly in regards to young men. And surely, given the age of the children, she wouldn’t be expected to be a nursemaid to them, which might free up some more time for her writing? It was something to be needed, and without doubt, Lady Milton, and it seemed Manberley Castle itself, was in need of much assistance.
‘Yes, I will,’ she found herself saying, and was pleased to see Lady Milton smile for the second time. It was easy to see how she must have captured Lord Milton’s heart, Jane thought, as she glimpsed a much younger girl in the sparkling eyes that watched her own.
Lady Milton rose from her couch, instantly animated with jangling bracelets and sheer relief. Crossing the turkey carpet in two strides she flung her arms round Jane who was taken aback at such a demonstration of affection, and rose awkwardly to receive it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been hugged in such a way and whilst she felt slightly overwhelmed, not least by the fug of scent that enveloped her, she had to admit it wasn’t unpleasant.
Lady Milton let her go at last. ‘I cannot thank you enough for your generosity, and I do hope you’ll forgive my little deception. I could hardly advertise their ages, could I? People would have thought me completely mad! Now, I shall call Naseby to show you to your room. Heaven knows where the young people are now but they generally make an appearance at dinner. You will be dining with us, I hope.’
‘I will be present at dinner if you wish me to be there, Lady Milton, but I would like to ask if I might occasionally have an evening to myself.’
‘Shall we see how we go along, my dear? I’m afraid your presence will be required when there are social events, and though we’ve not entertained lately, I have plans to alter that. The girls need to have husbands found and in that process I will want you to act as chaperone to them, you must understand. You needn’t worry about William, of course. In any case, he is a law unto himself. However, I should like to accommodate you and your wishes … I’m sure we might find you an evening occasionally.’
Jane did not feel comforted by the idea of having little time to herself, and after her initial elation at feeling flattered she was needed so much, was now feeling rather nervous. How did she think she was going to be able to tell young women her own age or even older than herself what to do? She’d temporarily forgotten that she wasn’t forty-one any more, and had all the appearance of a much younger person. The idea of taking on what might prove to be an impossible task weighed heavily, and she doubted she was up to the job. But there was nothing to be done. She must face facts and realise she had no choice. Without money or a home of her own, she had to earn a living somehow, and for the time being she had no option but to accept the job and do the best she could.

Mrs Naseby was summoned and led Jane up the back stairs to her room. There were several poky staircases giving glimpses of a gallery and bedrooms leading off endless passages, and landings to be crossed on the way, until they found themselves in the oldest part of the building where the corridors were built of stone.
‘You’ll be in the tower room,’ said Mrs Naseby, ‘where the old nursery used to be. Of course, you’ll know by now there aren’t any children up there any more.’
‘No, I hear they’re all quite grown-up.’
‘Well, that’s a matter for you to judge yourself, Miss Austen. I find them to be quite juvenile in many respects, though Beth has a little more about her, and Alice is the kindest girl that ever walked the earth. But then, she takes after her sweet mother who was just the same. What a sad day that was for the Miltons when she passed away.’
‘And Mae is Alice’s sister, is that right?’
‘Yes, poor Lady Milton died shortly after her birth. It’s not her fault she’s turned out to be so wild, Miss Austen, she’s never known the love of a mother, though William and Alice have been the best kind of brother and sister any girl could ask for. After her ladyship’s death the children were sent away to stay with their aunt, Lady Celia Broughton. Their father couldn’t stand to see any of them, not even William his heir. He said he was reminded too much of their dear mother, but it broke Alice’s heart, and Mae never knew what it was to have a mother or father. His lordship married again within the year, and the new Lady Milton had her own children very swiftly after that. After Teddy was killed, Lord Milton came to his senses and the children were invited back to their rightful home. But, it’s not been easy, I can tell you. Well, I daresay I’ve already spoken out of turn. Here we are … the last set of steps are the steepest and the narrowest, but I think you’ll enjoy the views when you get to the top.’
Jane was surprised the old housekeeper had confided in her so much, but perhaps she was now one of them, she’d decided to unbend a little. She followed her up the dark and twisting staircase until they reached the top where a gothic door stood open to reveal the stone tower. Jane’s imagination had conjured up a gloomy room rather like a cold prison so she was pleasantly surprised to find a comparatively light and airy space despite the awful dark weather which had set in for the day. It was a large room, simply decorated in white distemper, with a fireplace on one side displaying an empty mantle above and a basket of logs below shrouded in a grey film of cobwebs. There was a single bed, a chest of drawers that held an ornate Victorian dressing mirror along with a plain jug and basin for washing, and a small oak wardrobe in the corner. A bookshelf on the opposite side held a few dusty books, obviously left over from the previous governess and a glimpse of the nursery adjoining showed a sad looking room with a few discarded and forgotten toys. There was an abandoned dolls’ house with a few sticks of broken furniture looking quite as uncared for as Manberley itself, and a rocking horse with just a few wisps left to its tail.
But despite the general lack of luxury there were two features of the turreted room, which made Jane’s heart beat with gladness. The splendid gothic window was made up of five long glass panels set in sinuous tracery like piping on an iced white cake, giving different views from each one towards the sea on one side and the valley on the other. Set before it was a mahogany desk with a leather chair, a most magnificent sight to behold.
‘Sally will bring you hot water in the morning. There is a bathroom with hot and cold running water on this floor, but his lordship only has water heated once a week on a Sunday, and you may find by the time the water gets up here it’s not so hot. Breakfast is at half-past eight, except on Sundays when it’s served at nine, and lunch is at one in the afternoon. The dressing bell rings at five, and dinner is served at seven. Do you have any questions?’
‘I can’t think of any at present,’ said Jane feeling overwhelmed, ‘I expect I’ll get used to everything in time.’
‘Well, you’ll be the first at Manberley to do that!’ said Mrs Naseby, ‘Don’t be late for dinner, Lord Milton gets in an awful rage if people don’t know how to be punctual.’
Mrs Naseby turned on her heel and left. Jane picked up her case and deposited it on the bed. She took out the bottle of perfume and the tin of talcum powder and placed them on the chest of drawers, hung up her clothes in the wardrobe, and set her book on the little table next to her bed in an attempt to make the room look more cheerful. There was a small electric lamp with a mica shade on the desk, another miracle of the modern age, which would be invaluable in the evenings if she managed to escape and do some writing. Fetching out her pen, ink and notebook, she arranged them with pride before she sat on the chair to take in her new domain. It wasn’t much, she thought, and it didn’t feel exactly homely, but she was sure she could make a few improvements in time. It was to be a paid post, after all, and perhaps she could cheer the place up with a few more books, or buy some fabric to make a colourful coverlet for the bed. She’d made a beautiful patchwork quilt once with her mother and sister, sitting at leisure in the evenings perfecting her fine stitches, and matching the diamond patterns, but she pushed that thought out of her mind very quickly. It was too painful to think about memories of home, she decided. She must concentrate on facing new challenges and doing what she could to embrace her new life as positively as possible.
The desk more than made up for the lack of homely touches, and she felt very inspired sitting there and thinking of all that she might write of next. She was just admiring the view and thinking how beautiful it might look if the sun was shining when there came a knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ she said, wondering whom it might be, and stood up immediately, feeling a little guilty for enjoying such pleasant selfish thoughts of her writing.
The door opened and a young woman looked in rather timidly. ‘Miss Austen? Welcome to Manberley. I’m Alice, by the way.’
Alice stood on the threshold with a nervous expression. Jane saw a kind smile forming on the girl’s lips, and liked what she saw. Dressed rather plainly in an old-fashioned gown Alice’s long hair was piled high on her head, which lent itself more to a late Edwardian style than the present fashion. Jane recognised someone for whom time had stopped after the Great War. She’d seen other young women like her, scarred forever from the losses of an entire generation of men, and wondered if Alice had lost a sweetheart like so many others, in what she’d heard was the most terrible of all wars.
‘Alice, how lovely to meet you. Do come in, it’s so kind of you to come all the way up here to meet me.’
Gesturing to her chair Jane watched Alice take the seat whilst she perched on the end of the bed.
‘I just wanted to make sure you had everything you need,’ said Alice looking round the room. ‘Goodness, it’s a few years since I’ve been up here, and nor has anyone else by the looks of things. It’s rather lacking in creature comforts … I shall see what I can do straight away. And you really need a fire lit on this cold day. Heavens, look at the cobwebs. I am sorry, but we’re all muddling along as best we can and sometimes the obvious things get overlooked. I was sure someone had been up to get everything ready for you.’
‘Please don’t apologise, I have everything I need.’
‘Except a cosy fire, a warm counterpane on your bed, fresh towels, and a jug of flowers, at the very least. It is no excuse … it has been hard since we lost so many staff, but this is no welcome. I shall go this minute and make improvements.’
‘Please do not worry,’ Jane insisted, ‘I should prefer you stay and talk to me, if you have time.’
Alice looked up and smiled. ‘I should enjoy that, if you’re sure I cannot help. I was so excited to hear that you were coming as a companion to us all. Since we left London I have not enjoyed the same discussions on books, literature and art that I used to share with my mother’s old friend, Lady Rivers. My sisters do not share my love of classic works, and though William loves to read too, he is always so busy about the estate to spend as much time with me as he once did. Cora is a great reader, but unfortunately only likes to scare herself with horror stories and gothic tales.’
‘It is her age, I imagine. I daresay she’ll grow out of it and widen her interests in time. What about you? Do you have a favourite book, one that you read over and again?’ asked Jane. ‘Mine is Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, though I’m also very fond of Frances Burney’s books. I believe Camilla is the most delightful heroine in creation.’
‘I confess I’ve never read Richardson or Burney, but I’d love to try them. Like you, I enjoy the writers of the past more than modern novelists. My favourite book is Persuasion by another Miss Austen, your namesake. Are you related, by any chance?’
Jane could feel the warmth of a sudden blush making her normally pink cheeks even redder. ‘I do not think so, Miss Milton, it is a common enough name … I know of the book you mention, it happens to be one I am fond of myself, though of all that author’s works I feel sure it would have benefitted from a little editing.’
Persuasion is quite perfect to my mind, though I read once that it was Miss Austen’s last book and her brother published it posthumously. Perhaps she did not have time to work on it as much as she would have liked.’
‘I daresay there is some truth in that,’ said Jane thinking of Henry who she missed with all her heart. ‘And I’m sure she had an idea that time was running out. She had a story to tell, and was determined to reach the end.’
‘It’s such a poignant tale, that has me asking many questions. I’ve often wondered if Miss Austen ever experienced the kind of love that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth found. There is such truth in her writing, as if she must have known the kind of longing that Miss Elliot suffered through the years when she and the captain were separated.’
‘I am sure most authors write about what they know and have experienced to some extent, even if their imaginations are also used to great advantage. If a writer truly experiences life and love, it will inevitably reveal itself in the written word.’
‘And in Persuasion those experiences are so movingly described that I feel in my heart she must have suffered.’
‘Only someone who has loved and lost would say such a thing, but forgive me, I am being presumptuous.’
‘Not at all. I was in love once, Miss Austen, but there the comparison with Miss Elliot must end. My story has no happy ending.’
There was silence for a moment. Jane wished she’d not spoken out of turn. ‘Real life cannot always mirror the happy endings we find in a book, Miss Milton, but I’m sure you would agree that to have experienced such love even with the associated pain is better than to never have known it at all.’
There was another pause during which Jane was sure their thoughts ran on similar lines. She wondered if she’d said too much, but her companion looked up and smiled.
‘Miss Austen, I’m so very glad you’re here. I look forward to many more discussions, but I must go and see to one or two tasks before dinner. And, if you ever need me, you’ll find me on the gallery floor in the room next to the niche where the statue of Athena resides.’
Alice Milton started to walk towards the door, but turned at the last minute. ‘I do hope you won’t mind too much if my sister Mae seems out of spirits. She doesn’t mean to be rude, but she has a habit of saying exactly what comes into her head, and no amount of correcting her from Will or myself seems to do any good.’
‘I expect she thinks she’s too old to have a governess, and quite rightly so,’ said Jane. ‘I hope Mae will realise that I have no wish to treat you all like children. I came here expecting to be a governess to five little girls so I’m rather getting used to the idea of my new position in the household.’
‘On the contrary, Miss Austen, whether you’re a governess or a lady’s companion, I think we all know the Miltons need someone to help glue the family back together. I have a feeling you may be the very person to do just that.’
Jane watched her walk away feeling more unsure than ever about what she was being required to do. She was feeling very nervous about meeting them all at dinner, but Alice had turned out to be so lovely she decided the evening really couldn’t turn out to be as bad as all that.

Chapter Three

Time was racing along at a pace, which Jane thought was typical considering how much she wished it could slow down and delay the dinner hour. She pulled on her evening dress over her head and examined her reflection feeling quite pleased with the result. Dr Lyford’s sister had bought the dress in Gorringes’ winter sale a few years ago in London, and whilst it was not quite in the first fashion now, Elsie Lyford said she thought it would not look too shabby to be worn at the dinner table or at a dance, black being most suitable and practical. It could always be livened up with a bright scarf, a string of pearls or one of the new long necklaces, and turned into at least three different outfits, not that Jane had any jewellery to try that out.  It might even be possible to alter it and lower the waist though Elsie added it might not be the done thing for a governess to attempt to out-do her employers in the fashion stakes. The satin dress felt smooth as silk, it was embellished with a few tiny jet beads and black fringe just below the bodice line, which was still quite high, and had a cape of sheer Georgette sleeves. Looped at the sides the dress felt very elegant and Jane decided she didn’t look too bad after all. A check on her hair scraped up into a bun on her head, followed by a spritz of cologne, and she was ready to face the family.
She almost got lost in the rabbit warren of staircases and passages on the way down, but catching sight of the gallery with its glimpse down into the quadrangle of the spacious hall below, Jane felt she was on the right path at last. With little idea of the time she ended up running down the last set of stairs anxious that she would be late. With minutes to spare Alice was there to meet her. Jane felt relief flood through her when she saw her waving across the hallway; she’d feel so much better not walking into a room on her own.
We’re having drinks in the drawing room first,’ Alice said. ‘Come on through and I’ll introduce you. It’s just the family tonight … Lady Milton thought that would be ordeal enough for you, and she’s keen for you to get to know everyone.’
Jane detected no animosity in Alice’s voice towards her stepmother, but she wasn’t surprised. Though it must have been very difficult feeling like a stranger in her own home when they’d first come back to Manberley, Jane thought that if anyone could have coped with little fuss it would have been Alice.
As if she could read Jane’s mind, Alice spoke. ‘My stepmother means well enough, Miss Austen. She has always been kind to my siblings and me, and naturally she is disposed to favour her own children. Lady Milton would like us all to be off her hands, I think, well married and in our own homes, which I suppose is the natural desire of most mothers.’
‘And are any wedding bells to be heard soon?’ Jane asked as they entered the room. They were the first arrived after all, so she need not have worried.
‘I’m afraid not. William is oblivious to any of the girls that are presented to him, Mae has such high ideals that any suitor is snubbed on his appearance alone, and the younger girls have only just come out. My stepmother’s anxiety levels in that regard are reaching fever pitch. She’d like them to be presented at court, but my father says, as Mae and I never had that privilege it will have to be forfeited. They have horrible discussions about it sometimes, but he seems to think there are enough suitable gentlemen in the local area that would make good husbands.’
‘Is he right?’
‘Of course there are not so many young men left, but rather older men, one or two widowers who lost their sons in the war, keen to take new wives and carry on the line. And then there are local landowners like Jonathan Keeling at Buckland Priors, and Captain Bartlett of Sherford Park lives just a mile away; I’m sure you will meet him sooner or later. He’s a friend of my father’s though he is a younger man, about thirty-five. There are soldiers staying in the village too, part of the army stationed here.’
‘And which one will steal your heart, Miss Milton?’
Jane saw Alice’s expression grow sombre. ‘The one that stole my heart has gone forever, Miss Austen.’
‘I’m sorry, I should not have asked.’
Alice smiled. ‘I think I would like to tell you about him sometime if you’d care to listen.’
‘I would like that very much.’
The room, which had been a haven of peace, was suddenly alive with people and chatter. Lady Milton burst through the door with two girls hanging on her arms, all talking at once, with another trailing behind, her nose in a book. A man who could be no one else but Lord Milton came in next with another young woman whom Jane guessed must be Mae from the cold stare she received. A beautiful girl, and clearly a very spirited one, her features were temporarily spoiled by her sulky expression though she seemed to smile at her father and patted the seat next to her on the sofa for him to sit down.
‘Ten minutes, and then dinner!’ boomed his lordship ignoring his daughter and moving to a small table where a silver tray of drinks was set out. ‘Can’t abide cold food. Now, what’s your poison?’
‘Albert darling,’ called Lady Milton, ‘come and meet Miss Austen. She’s here to help me look after the girls.’
‘Not that we need a nursemaid,’ said Mae glaring at Jane. ‘It’s too bad someone of my age has to have someone trailing after them watching everything I do. Anyhow, I’m not having someone younger than me telling me what to do. Daddy, tell Flora I won’t have it.’
Nobody seemed shocked or embarrassed at this outburst, except Alice whose pleading expression as she looked anxiously at Jane begged forgiveness for Mae’s rudeness.
Lord Milton ignored his daughter again and crossed the room with his hand outstretched. Jane noticed the lapels on his dinner jacket were rather shiny from age and too much careless pressing of an iron. ‘Miss Austen, I am delighted, Flora’s been telling me you’re a miracle worker, and Lord knows we need one at Manberley Castle.’
‘Oh, Albert, things aren’t that bad, don’t exaggerate,’ said Flora Milton with a pretty, affected laugh. She perched on the arm of a sofa and crossed her long legs. ‘Miss Austen is here as another pair of hands, as a companion to us all, and as a sort of lady factotum. She’s a wonderful listener, you know, and it will be so nice to have someone to hear all our troubles.’
‘Where’s Will?’ Lord Milton paid no attention to his wife, and picked up a bottle of gin from the tray.
‘He’s gone out,’ said Mae.
‘Gone out and missed his dinner? I never heard such a thing. Drat the boy, and the damned butler who announced after he’d finished dressing me that he had urgent business in the village. I daresay he’s slipped out with Will to one of their usual haunts. You can’t get the staff these days, Miss Austen. Never mind, I’ll make ’em myself. Is it Atty’s all round then?’
Jane was beginning to think she’d landed in the middle of a novel in the making, and though it was quite interesting to watch the family dynamics she’d begun to realise that she wasn’t an outsider merely looking on, but was expected to become part of the scenario, which was a very frightening idea. And as she watched his lordship sloshing gin and vermouth in large quantities into every glass she felt quite alarmed. Though she wasn’t averse to a glass of wine or two, a cocktail was quite another matter. It would only go to her head and she might let anything she wasn’t meant to mention slip out.
‘Not too heavy on the absinthe or crème de violette if you please, Albert,’ said Flora selecting a cigarette from a silver box and fixing it into a long scarlet holder to match her dress. ‘I do not wish to see green fairies dancing at the end of my bed tonight.’
Lord Milton was getting flustered as he topped up the cocktails and handed out the drinks. ‘He’s never here when you need him. I daresay he’s gone on pleasure bent.’
‘Well, you’re only young once,’ said Lady Milton, ‘isn’t that so, Miss Austen?’
Jane smiled, and nodded a little, feeling that to answer truthfully she’d have to reply in the negative. She’d had to lie about so much lately, but she felt a certain justification. The truth would certainly horrify them all, especially Cora who would, no doubt, imagine her in the direst sense as a walking corpse or worse. She sipped at her cocktail which she thought hideously perfumed, and ignored Lord Milton’s urgent pleas to ‘drink up quickly, we must hasten to the dining room!’
She was listening to Lady Milton loudly bemoaning the expense of new silk stockings and their scarcity in Devon when Jane noticed she was being scrutinised by Cora. A tall slim girl who looked about eighteen, she was sitting on a leather pouffe with her legs outstretched, her girlish organza dress billowing over the sides, a book folded in her lap, but with one finger keeping its place on the page. The one touch to modernity was a low-slung sash round her hips in apricot silk, but Jane was pleased to see her appearance befitted her age. Her hair was short but curled into her neck, and a pair of forget-me-not blue eyes gazed wide-eyed between two rows of dark lashes. A pretty girl, but clearly an intelligent one, and when their eyes met Cora quickly looked away, as if she knew she’d stared too much for politeness.
‘May I ask what you’re reading?’ asked Jane.
Cora looked up. ‘It’s a novel by Walter de la Mare, about a very small girl who at twenty could be taken for a child of ten. At times awfully strange, but terribly good and it’s simply enchanting. I’ve read it before … the images created get stuck in your head, Miss Austen. There’s a particularly vivid one near the start where the tiny heroine, Miss M, is sitting in a tartan frock on her father’s pomatum pot on his dressing table.’
‘So she’s very tiny, like an elf or fairy.’
‘Yes, in a way though size isn’t really the point of the book, I don’t think. It’s more about how we view the world, and how overwhelming it can be, and all wrapped up in the most beautiful sentences.’
‘I should like to borrow it when you’ve finished, if you wouldn’t mind. And if you’d like to discuss it further when I’ve read it, I should enjoy that very much.’
‘I’d like that,’ said Cora putting the book down and drawing up her legs to hug her knees. ‘It’s always fun to get another opinion on a book; hardly anyone at Manberley reads, Miss Austen.’
Jane smiled. ‘Can you recommend a good bookshop nearby? I have only one book with me and I should love to start a new collection.’
‘There’s a most delightful bookshop in the village, Miss Austen. I should love to show you, I think you’ll like it very much. It’s such an old-fashioned place with a brass bell that tinkles above the door, shelves upon shelves of books lining every wall, and tottering piles covering what’s left of the floor. There are so many books that it’s hard to find the proprietor sometimes, though he’s generally to be found at the back of the shop in a cosy chair oblivious to the world. I shouldn’t wonder if he doesn’t get lost one day amongst the mountains of books.’
‘I can’t wait to see it. Are you free tomorrow? I’d love to walk down to the village.’
‘We could all come,’ said Beth who’d been listening to their conversation. ‘Alice told me you need one or two things for your room, Miss Austen. Mother said we should buy whatever is required, and I’d love to show you the village and help you pick something out.’
‘Oh, how kind of you,’ said Jane noticing Beth for the first time. A younger, more attractive version of her mother unadorned by heavy make-up, she was a striking looking girl, perhaps a couple of years older than Cora. Dressed in a modern gown in vibrant yellow, which suited her glossy brown hair, her very dark velvet eyes and the fine arching brows above them, Jane warmed to her instantly.
‘And we’re bound to meet some of the officers,’ said Emily, nudging her sister. ‘I think Lieutenant Dauncey is rather sweet on Beth, and she on him. I am dying to get them together.’
‘Emily, I am not interested in Lieutenant Dauncey or anyone else, whatever you think,’ Beth said quite crossly. ‘I’d rather you didn’t meddle. One of these days your match-making schemes will land you in trouble.’
‘But I’m so good at it,’ Emily insisted, tossing her mane of blonde curls over her shoulders. She was the only one of the girls to be so fair, and with her long, unrestrained hair and green eyes flecked with hazel she had an otherworldly quality. ‘You must admit, if not for me Mr Stephens wouldn’t have even noticed Daisy Stocks, and now they’re married. Mr Stephens is the local vicar in the village, Miss Austen. And as for the vicar at Moorford, Mr Wallis, I’ve got someone lined up for him too!’
Jane saw Alice rise to her feet. She looked a bit flushed, and her hands trembled as she spoke.
‘We really should go into dinner, cook hates it if the food is left to go cold.’
‘Let’s not discuss the Wallis’s, Emily,’ said Flora Milton in a low warning voice, rising to her feet. ‘You know how much it upsets your sister.’
Everyone stood up then, and Alice led the way out to the dining room. She was noticeably upset, and it clearly had something to do with the mention of the Moorford vicar. Jane couldn’t help feeling sorry for her, and wondered if he’d been the young man to break her heart though she dismissed that idea when she remembered she’d been given the impression that her sweetheart was no longer living. Perhaps she’d learn more in time if Alice chose to confide in her, but what she’d be able to do to help she couldn’t think. Being in love with someone who could never be yours was a wearing business, Jane knew from past experience, and as she followed the others into the dining room, she suppressed her own memories and the associated emotions rising from the past.
Jane noticed the details of white linen, gleaming silver set for several courses, white candles guttering in the breeze from an open window, and the dying evening light slanting through French windows onto flocked walls, green as the velvet interior of a jewel box. It was a picture of a dining room from an age of opulence, though on closer inspection she could see that the crystal glasses were rimed with dust, there were stains on the cloth and tarnish on the cutlery. It did not bode well.
‘Miss Austen, come and sit next to me,’ said Alice, and Jane tried very hard not to show her sense of relief. Beth sat on her other side, and she felt pleased she’d have a chance to speak to her again.
Jane looked round the table. Lady Milton was trying to engage Mae in conversation but she was being completely ignored. At every attempt Mae turned her head as if she hadn’t heard her stepmother, and was soon talking loudly to Emily on her other side. Lord Milton was chatting away to Alice, looking rather fondly on his daughter, as his wife attempted to interrupt them, shouting across the table that she couldn’t hear what was being said.
‘I ought to warn you,’ Beth began in a low voice inclining her dark head toward Jane’s ear, ‘that besides the fact that we’re a disparate bunch, dinner is a bit of a hit and miss affair, and between you and me, rather lacking in content and variety. It’s not cook’s fault, in the old days when money was plentiful meals were absolutely splendid, but like everywhere else in the castle cutbacks have been made.’
‘Please don’t worry, Miss Beth. I have been used to frugality most of my life,’ Jane answered truthfully, ‘and of course, we are living in very difficult times.’
‘Though not everyone in Stoke Pomeroy seems to suffer as we do,’ said Beth. ‘Mr Keeling at the Priors has the most splendid dinner parties to which we are occasionally invited. We stuff ourselves when we go there because the food is so marvellous. There was lobster to start last time we went, and roast lamb, followed by rhubarb crumble with jugs of custard. I have dreams at night of dining there when we’ve had a particularly poor dinner. Mr Keeling is from one of the old families and he seems to have pots of money left.’
‘Is he a young man?’ Jane asked.
‘Well, he’s of marriageable age, I suppose, if that’s why you’re asking, though no one here would consider him like that, however much my mother would wish it. We’ve known him since we were babies, Miss Austen, and he’s like a doting big brother. I’m sure you’ll meet him soon; he’s always here. The castle is like a second home to him, he says. He’s very generous and often sends us a gift of venison, beef, or fish when in season, and his gardens produce the most wonderful fruit. Then it feels like a holiday, and everyone is happy because we go to bed with full stomachs.’
Jane was just wondering if she dared ask what had happened to the Milton sugar fortune when the first course arrived, a huge tureen of soup, carried in ceremoniously by a footman who proceeded to dole out ladlefuls of watery consommé into the dishes before them. There was a faint taste of something meaty, which surely came from the bones that had been boiled to produce it, though Jane could not decide exactly what. It was lukewarm, and the accompaniment of a slightly stale bread roll did nothing to improve it. Jane was still getting used to the fact that not all the courses arrived on the table at once, and though trying to embrace every facet of her new life, she thought there was a lot to be said for being able to miss out certain dishes if they were not to your liking.
‘Civility costs nothing, Mae,’ Lady Milton was saying in an exasperated tone. ‘I just asked you a perfectly reasonable question.’
Jane saw Mae roll her eyes, but she sat tight-lipped, behaving as if a response wasn’t expected.
‘Albert, talk to your rude daughter, please. I will not be ignored in my own home.’
Jane saw Lord Milton pick up his wine glass and drain it. The room, which had been lively with chatter, was suddenly silent.
‘Come on, ladies, let’s not squabble,’ he said without looking either of them in the eye. He dabbed at his moist forehead with a large cotton handkerchief.
‘I am not squabbling, Albert. I am trying to have a conversation with your daughter and I am having no luck. I think you need to be firmer, and tell her that she is behaving like a spoiled child. I cannot do anything about the fact that her mother is dead, and that you chose to marry me, but I do not see why we shouldn’t be able to sit at the dinner table and be polite, even if we hate the very sight of one another.’
‘Flora, for goodness’ sake, let’s not have a quarrel now,’ said his lordship, beckoning to the footman to fill his glass. ‘I’m too tired for all this nonsense. It’s got to stop.’
As the dishes were cleared in preparation for the second course Jane couldn’t help feeling sorry for Lady Milton. Whilst the dinner table wasn’t the place to start an argument, she could see the lady was at the end of her tether, and Mae, who clearly had her father wrapped round her little finger, was enjoying the fact that he and her stepmother were at odds. It was obvious that Mae was playing a little game, one she thought she’d easily win every time. But, despite the fact that Jane thought her behaviour was uncalled for, she suspected Mae was not coping well with life and lashing out at anyone who tried to show they cared. Whilst Alice had accepted her mother’s death and the idea of her father being happy with someone else, her younger sister was railing against the world, and anyone she thought might divert her father’s attention from herself. Lord Milton wasn’t helping. He didn’t seem to be engaged with any of the women in his family, particularly, though Jane detected a slight preference for Alice and Beth.
The dollops of macaroni cheese doled out with a serving of cabbage did nothing to lighten the atmosphere, and though Alice and Beth started up a conversation on some new music they’d heard about, the dinner limped along to its inevitable dismal conclusion along with some stewed apple and lumpy custard for pudding, watered down to a runny consistency.
Jane excused herself as soon as she could leaving the disgruntled company in the drawing room, who were now pretending that nothing untoward had happened. Lord and Lady Milton were knocking back more cocktails, and sitting next to one another on the sofa, she laughing girlishly at everything he said.
It was rather eerie finding her way up to her room in the dimly lit passages, but when she entered her room she was struck by the beauty of silver moonlight shining through the windows and the sight of the sky studded with stars, twinkling like diamonds. She felt suddenly revived and thought how she would make the best of the moment by using the time before bed for some writing. Jane sat down at the desk and switched on the lamp, which flashed too brightly then promptly popped with a loud crack. A new bulb would have to be added to the shopping list, she thought, and wished she had a candle to write by. These new fangled lights were all very well, she thought, but a candle was always reliable. The moon chose that moment to hide behind a bank of cloud, darkening the room to black velvet and feeling quite deflated, she decided it was time to give in and go to bed. Tomorrow was another day, and her new book could wait until then.
©Jane Odiwe

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