Home > Austenland (Austenland #1)(6)

Austenland (Austenland #1)(6)
Shannon Hale

Indoors was cozy and hot, both effects produced by an unseasonably large fire. A woman in Regency dress and marriage cap rose from behind a desk and led Jane to a seat beside the hearth.

“Welcome to i8i6. I am Mrs. Wattlesbrook. And what shall we call you?” “Jane Hayes is fine.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook raised her eyebrows. “Is that so? You are certain you still wish

to retain your Christian name? Very well, but we mustn’t keep our entire name, right? We shall address you as Miss Jane Erstwhile.”

Erstwhile? “Uh, okay.

“And how old are you, Miss Erstwhile?”

“Thirty-three.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook leaned on her arm with an air of impatience. “You

misunderstand me. How old are you?” she asked, raising her eyebrows significantly. “You are aware that at this time a lady of thirty-three would be an affirmed spinster and considered unmarriageable.”

“I’d rather not lie about my age,” Jane said, then immediately winced. Here she was entering Austenland where she’d pretend the year was r8i6 and that actors were her friends and family and potential suitors, and she worried about shaving a few years off her age? Her stomach shrank, and for the first time she feared she might not be able to see this through.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook was watching her shrewdly. Jane gulped a breath. Could she know? Did she have that uncanny Carolyn intuition, did she sense that Jane was here not as an idle vacationer but because she had a nasty obsession? Or did she assume even worse—that Jane was seeking a fantasy in earnest, that she believed she might find him, find love, on this It’s a Small World ride?

Jane’s mother often told the story of how until Jane was eight years old, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she still answered with conviction, “I want to be a princess.” Perhaps because of her mother’s pleasant mockery, by her adolescence, Jane had learned to hide her desires for such wonderful impossibilities as becoming a princess, or a supermodel, or Elizabeth Bennet. Bury and hide them until they were so profound and neglected as to somehow be true. Sheesh, she was feeling ready to stretch herself out on a Freudian couch.

No matter. Mock her if you will, but Jane was determined to dig up those weedy issues and toss them out. She would enjoy this last trip to fantasyland so utterly that it’d be easy in three weeks to put it all behind her—Austen, men, fantasies, period. But in order for it to work, she had to be Jane, experiencing everything for herself, and so she clung stubbornly to her actual age.

“I could say ‘I’m not yet four and thirty’ if you prefer.” Jane smiled innocently. “Quite,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook with firm lips, insistent that there was no humor

to be had. “For the duration of your stay, there will be one other guest at Pembrook Park—a Miss Charming, who arrived yesterday. When Miss Amelia Heartwright arrives, she will stay at Pembrook Cottage, so you shall see her often as well. I expect all of you ladies to maintain appropriate manners and conversation even when alone. In other words, no gossip, no swapping university prank stories, no yo’s and ho’s and all that. I am very strict about my observances, hm?”

She seemed to expect a response, so Jane said, “I read your warning in my social history notes.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook raised her eyebrows. “A reader? How refreshing.” She made a show of sorting through Jane’s papers, humming theatrically, then looked up, half her eyes hidden under the flap of her cap. “I know why you are here.”

She knew!

“We receive extensive financial statements, and I know you did not pay your own way, so let us put that drama out of the way, shall we?”

“Is it a drama?” Jane said with a laugh, relieved the woman was just referring to Carolyn’s bequest.

“Hm?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook would not budge from her intended course of conversation. Jane sighed.

“Yes, my great-aunt left me this vacation in her will, but I don’t know what you mean by drama. I never intended to hide—”

“No need to make a fuss.” She waved her arms as if wafting Jane’s exclamations out the window like a foul odor. “You are here, you are paid in full. I would not have you worry that we will not take care of you just because you are not our usual type of guest and there is no chance, given your economic conditions, that you would ever be a repeat client or likely to associate with and recommend us to potential clients. Let me assure you that we will still do all in our power to make your visit, such as it is, enjoyable.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook smiled, showing both rows of yellowing teeth. Jane blinked. Economic conditions? Usual type of guest? She made herself take two deep-rooted yoga breaths, smiled back, and thought of men in breeches. “Okay then.”

“Good, good.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook patted Jane’s arm, suddenly the picture of hospitality and maternal tenderness. “Now, do have some tea. You must be quite chilled from your journey.”

In fact, the temperature of the limo, unlike this pseudo-inn, had been quite comfortable, and in the blazing heat the last thing Jane wanted was hot tea, but she reminded herself to play along, so she sweated and drank.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook settled down to quiz her on the items of study—how to play the card games whist and speculation, general etiquette, current events of the Regency period, and so on. Jane answered like a nervous teenager giving an oral report.

Then off to the wardrobe where she put on a calf-length, nightgownlike chemise and over it tried on a series of push-up bra corsets. This exercise made swimming suit shopping seem like a walk in the park. Eventually they did find one that didn’t dig her under the arms but gently encouraged posture and did her the voluptuous justice all Regency br**sts demanded.

“I’ll just keep these for you until your return,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said, picking up Jane’s purple bra and panties at arm’s length and handing her an awkward pair of white cotton drawers. To properly enjoy “the Experience,” Jane was to understand, even the underwear must be Regency. A lot, apparently, must be sacrificed to fully benefit from the Experience, except makeup. The Rules of Pembrook Park, Jane was realizing, were not overly concerned with creating a true historical setting.

The proprietress opened a wardrobe and revealed that Jane’s measurements had been transformed into four day dresses, three evening dresses, a ball gown in white and lace, two short “spencer” jackets, a brown fitted overcoat called a “pelisse,” two bonnets, a bright red shawl, and a pile of chemises, drawers, stockings, boots, and slippers.

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