Home > Austenland (Austenland #1)(8)

Austenland (Austenland #1)(8)
Shannon Hale

“Indeed,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

Blunder, Jane thought, glancing at her partner. What must he think of her? A woman who memorized Austen books and played dress-up? She’d enjoyed a bit of flirting as they danced, but she was too embarrassed to meet his eyes again. When they finished, he left the way he’d come in.

Jane sat that night on her hard mattress in the inn’s guest room, feeling loose and pretty in her clean white chemise, her arms around her knees. The English countryside was framed by her window as though it were a painting, blue and purple, abstract in the low light. She grimaced as she thought about the dance, remembering how fun it had been until she’d spoiled it at the end. She didn’t want that for this experience. She needed a good ending, the best ending, though her imagination couldn’t dredge up exactly what that should be.

The endings of all her relationships had displaced any previous loveliness. In memory, the jokes faded, the personalities of the various boyfriends blurred together, weekend trips were truncated in thought to as long as it took her to scratch her neck. The entire relationship was condensed and reformed in her mind to be solely about its ending.

Here she was at the beginning of something, her toes curled over the edge of the diving board. She was ready to plunge. Good-bye to her awkward list of numbered boyfriends and her mutated, Austen-inspired intensity that had pushed her from one ending to another. She was determined that this vacation, this holiday, unlike any of her relationships, would have a very good ending.

Let‘s glance back a moment and remember: Jane’s First Love

Alex Ripley, AGE FOUR

Alex declared to Jane’s preschool teachers, both their parents, and Cindy (the girl with self-cut bangs) that he and Jane would marry. After a rousing Easter egg hunt in the park, he ran with Jane behind a tree.

“I want to give you something that means we’ll be together forever.”

He kissed her on the lips seven times. It reminded Jane of a chicken pecking. A soft chicken.

That summer Alex’s parents moved to Minnesota. She never saw him again.

dddday 1

THE NEXT MORNING AFTER A huge, meaty breakfast, Jane climbed into a carriage (A carriage! she thought), her trunk fastened to the back. Mrs. Wattlesbrook stood in the doorway, dabbing a handkerchief to her dry eyes.

“Do have a good time, Miss Erstwhile, and remember to wear a wrap and bonnet when you go out!”

The day was gray, and patchy rain nudged the carriage roof. Jane watched the hilly country bounce by, a row of river trees huddling in a line. The fresh landscape encouraged her artist’s eye to see in paint colors—leaves of sap green, the distant roofs of a small town in burnt umber and cadmium red, the sky cerulean blue. They passed a gate and guard station, and rolled up an unpaved private drive. The carriage slowed then halted in front of a stately Georgian manor, yellow bricks, white gables, and sixteen facing windows. It looked clean and square and full of something secret and wonderful, a solidly wrapped present.

“That’s a fair prospect,” Jane breathed, giving herself chills.

The front doors opened and a dozen people filed out. Despite the weather, they stood patiently in two lines, blinking against the thin rainfall. From their attire, Jane guessed they were mostly house servants plus a few gardeners in rougher clothes. Theodore was difficult to miss, a head taller than any other.

The carriage lurched to a stop and gave Jane a sinking feeling in her middle. Now that it came to it, she didn’t know if she could role-play with a straight face. She was used to having clothes that touched her waist and her hips, hair loose around her face, pants with a back pocket to keep a few bucks handy, shoes that allowed her to run. She felt so ridiculously phony riding up in a carriage in this Halloween costume, pretending to be someone of note, all those servants and actors knowing she was just a sad woman with odd fantasies. She felt naked and pale in her empire-waist dress.

One of the manservants opened the carriage door and held out his hand. Jane made a muted whine in her throat, then hoped he hadn’t heard her.

Okay, okay, I can do this, Jane said to herself. Of course I can do this. I should be used to making a fool out of myself by now. This will be the last big one. Just three weeks and then I can leave this part of myself behind and get on with my life. And maybe it’ll be fun. It might even be fun.

She took the servant’s hand, stepped down from the carriage, breathed in a steadying breath, and caught an anachronistic whiff of Polo. Somehow that smell was reassuring.

“My dear Jane, you are very welcome!” A woman of perhaps fifty years approached the carriage on the arm of a red-cheeked, chubby man. Her blue dress and red umbrella were bright and inviting against the dreary backdrop of servants and rain.

“I am your aunt Saffronia, though of course you do not remember me as I haven’t kissed your cheeks since you were two and your widowed mother married that American and took you off to the New World,” she said neatly in one breath. “How we mourned your loss! My, but it is so good of you to come and visit at last. This is my husband, Sir Templeton. He is near expiring in the anticipation of your arrival.”

Sir Templeton blew up his cheeks and chewed on some invisible cud.

“Go on, Sir Templeton, say hello,” Aunt Saffronia said.

Sir Templeton at last fixed his wandering gaze on Jane. “Yes, well, hello,” he said.

He blinked lazily, and assuming he meant it as a nod of greeting, Jane curtsied as Mrs. Wattlesbrook had taught her.

“Hello, Uncle. How are you?”

“I had some ham for breakfast. I do not get ham much, what with pigs such dirty beasts and not on the property.” His gaze wandered.

Jane tried to think of some appropriate response to that. She came up with, “Hooray for ham!”

“Yes, lovely,” said Aunt Saffronia. “Lovely, indeed. You are lovely. It has been a long time since we have had lovely young people at Pembrook Park.. .“ Her voice trailed off and she lifted a fingernail to her mouth, then pulled back abruptly. Jane thought it was a small error—the actress bit her nails, but Aunt Saffronia did not.

Sir Templeton cleared his throat with a bit more phlegm involved than made Jane comfortable. “Young people? Lady Templeton, you forget Miss Charming.”

“Ah, yes, of course! How could I forget Miss Charming? She is the daughter of a dear friend and only arrived yesterday. What fortunate timing for you, I think. It is so nice for young people to share each other’s company.

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