Home > Austenland (Austenland #1)(7)

Austenland (Austenland #1)(7)
Shannon Hale

“Wow. I mean, wow,” was all Jane could say for a few moments. She wiggled her fingers like an evil miser at a horde of riches. “They’re all for me?”

“For your use, yes, though not to keep, mind. Your great-aunt’s payment did not cover wardrobe souvenirs.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook extracted a dress from Jane’s eager fingers and packed it tenderly into her trunk. “This is an evening dress. You should wear a day dress now, the pink one there.”

The pink one was hideous. Jane took the blue one off its hook, ignoring Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s offended sniff.

In a few minutes, the dressing-of-Jane was complete: blue print day dress trimmed in dark blue ribbon with elbow-length sleeves, stockings fastened to thighs with garters, black ankle boots, and there she was. She stood sideways, looked in the mir_ror, and experienced a silly, naughty feeling, like she hadn’t had since the sinful pleasure of playing Barbie dolls with her younger cousin when she was twelve and should’ve been too old. Here she was, a grown woman playing dress-up, but it felt so good.

“And there she is,” Jane whispered.

“I must have any electronic thingies now, my dear.”

Jane turned over her MP3 player.

“And?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook tipped her head up to look at Jane through the spectacles resting on her nose. “Nothing else?” She paused as though waiting for Jane to confess, which she did not. Mrs. Wattlesbrook sighed and removed the player from the room, carrying it between finger and thumb like something dead to be flushed down the toilet. While she was out, Jane hid her cell phone in the bottom of the trunk. She’d already gone to the trouble to set up international service with her provider because it would be unbearable to be without e-mail for three weeks. Besides, it gave her a little glee to sneak something illegal across the border. She wasn’t the usual type of client, was she? Then she certainly wouldn’t try to act like it.

Jane dined that night with Mrs. Wattlesbrook and practiced manners during the longest two-hour meal she had lived through since attending the eighth annual Researchers for a Better Paper Pulp (RBPP) banquet with boyfriend #9 (keynote address: “The Climax and the Downfall of the Wood Chip”).

“When eating fish, use your fork in your right hand and a piece of bread in your left. Just so. No knives with fish or fruit, because the knives are silver and the acids in those foods tarnish. Remember, you must never talk to the servants during dinner. Don’t even mention them, don’t make eye contact. Think of it as demeaning to them, if you must, but find a way to obey this society’s rules, Miss Erstwhile. It is the only way to truly appreciate the Experience. I need not warn you again about behavior with regard to the opposite sex. You are a young, single woman and should never be unchaperoned with a gentleman indoors and only out-of-doors so long as you are in motion—riding, walking, or in a carriage, that is. No touching, besides the necessary social graces, such as taking a man’s hand as he helps you down from a carriage or his arm as he escorts you into dinner. No familiar talk, no intimate questions. I am to understand from past clients that when romance blooms under the tension of these restrictions, it is all the more passionate.”

After dinner, Mrs. Wattlesbrook led Jane into the main room of the inn, where an older woman in a brown Regency dress waited at the piano.

“As you will have opportunity to attend informal dances and a ball, you must perfect a minuet and two country dances. Theodore, come in here.”

A man in perhaps his late twenties came into the inn’s main room. Jane caught a glimpse of a worn paperback novel in his hand before he stashed it behind the piano. He wore his hair a little long, though he didn’t sport the midjaw sideburns Jane liked so well, and he was, she thought, taller than a man should be if he doesn’t play basketball.

“This is Theodore, an under-gardener at the estate, but I’ve taught him the dances, and he stands in for a gentleman on the first night so our guests can practice.”

She put out her hand. “Hi, I’m Jane.”

“No, you are not!” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said. “You are Miss Erstwhile. And you are not to talk to him, he is just a servant. For the sake of the Experience, we must be proper.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook was reminding Jane of Miss April, the spiteful, tight-bunned, glossy-lipped, stick-cracking ballet teacher of her elementary school years. She hadn’t much cared for Miss April.

When Mrs. Wattlesbrook turned her back to give instructions to the piano player, Jane mouthed to Theodore, “Sorry.”

Theodore smiled, a fantastically broad smile that made her notice just how blue his eyes were.

“The minuet is a ceremonious, graceful dance,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook, closing her eyes to enjoy the music the pianist drew from the keys. “It commences each ball as a means of introducing all the members of the society. Each couple takes turns in the center performing the figures. Curtsy to the audience, Miss Erstwhile, now to your partner, and begin.”

With Mrs. Wattlesbrook calling the motions, Jane wove, swerved, minced, and spun. She had thought it might be awkward dancing with a man a foot taller than her, but this was no waltz or high school slow dance. It was a smooth combination of figures, of taking hands and releasing, turning and returning.

Jane found herself giggling when she missed a step or turned the wrong way. It was a bit embarrassing, but she took comfort in the fact that she didn’t snort. Her partner smiled, apparently amused by her own amusement. Though at a formal ball they would be wearing gloves, in this informal setting their hands were bare, and she felt the calluses on his palm when he took her hand, felt him get warmer as they danced on. It was strange to touch Someone like this, touch hands, feel his hand on her back, on her Waist, walking her through the figures, and yet not know him at all. Never even have heard the sound of his voice.

He wrapped his hand around her waist. She blushed like a freshman.

After the minuet they practiced two country dances. The first was spunky; and she had to learn how to “skip elegantly.” She had square-danced for a sixth-grade assembly once (a tragic affair involving boyfriend #i), and the second number reminded her of a sedate Virginia reel.

“The top couple moves up and down the center and the rest wait,” explained Mrs. Wattlesbrook. “In a ball with many couples, one dance can take half an hour.”

“So that’s why Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had time to talk,” Jane said, “as they stood there waiting their turn at the top.”

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