Home > Austenland (Austenland #1)(9)

Austenland (Austenland #1)(9)
Shannon Hale

Aunt Saffronia took Jane’s arm and led her upstairs to a comfortable-sized room with a canopied bed, baby blue walls, sparsely furnished, not gothic enough to tempt her to look for “Catherine Heathcliff” engravings on the windowsill. It was exactly the kind of room Jane would have imagined. She couldn’t think why this discovery was disappointing. It was slightly more disheartening to discover that the “kerosene” lamp by her bed had a flame-shaped lightbulb and was plugged into an outlet.

Jane dismissed her properly taciturn maid, Matilda, saying that she would rest until dinner, since the jet lag was making grav_ity feel alarmingly heavy. She spent a fidgety hour on a soft mat_tress, lifted up the sheets to spy out a DEVON brand tag, then poked around in the attached bathroom and found a flush toilet and bathtub with running water. It was a relief not to have to use a bedpan, but it also made her feel more guilty than ever. The less historical vigor observed, the more difficult it was for Jane to pretend that this whole exercise was anything beyond wish fulfillment. She felt too weird to rest.

The day continued to drizzle, so she ambled the burgundy corridors, peeking into open doors. The house was perfect. It even carried the old, clean smell of a museum. Her heart pounded a bit, and she felt as if she had sneaked away from a tour guide.

She walked a long gallery with north-facing windows and matched gazes with the portraits. Men and women in stiff costumes, old jewelry, their backgrounds faded countryside, their eyes imperious. They were marvelous. She wondered if those rich people had naturally looked on the world with such assurance of their own nobility or if the painter had created it for them. An itch inside her hand made her want to give it a try, but she scratched the desire away. She hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since college.

She ran out of upstairs, so down she went, only to be stopped fast by voices coming from a sitting room. Jane wasn’t ready to face real people yet, not as Miss Erstwhile. The portraits had been intimidating enough. Footsteps scared her out of the hall and into an open doorway. It was a large, square, empty room, wooden floors, no furniture. The grand hall. The place where balls happen. The walls were an impatient green, the crystals on the chandeliers winked in the window light. If she were the type of person who looked for signs, Jane would have thought the room was shivering in anticipation of something momentous. But she wasn’t.

She turned to leave, and from the far door saw the dark outline of a man enter. He stopped. She stopped. She couldn’t see his face.

“Pardon,” he said and turned back.

She stood staring at where he’d been for a few moments, relieved at first that she hadn’t been forced to make conversation yet, then soon, actually sorry that he’d gone. Just his presence had set her heart to pounding, and the feeling prickled in her the delightful expectation of things to come.

Goody, she thought.

As she ascended the main staircase on the way back to her room, she bumped into a woman bending over her own boots, the curve in her back declaring that she wasn’t wearing a corset.

“Dratted drawers,” said the woman, straightening.

She was unnaturally buxom, in her fifties, and sported short, bleached hair heavily sprayed and an attached fake bun of a slightly different shade. Her eyes widened when she saw Jane, and her surgery-tightened skin stretched to admit a wide smile.

“Well, hello, you’re new, aren’t you? My name’s Miss Elizabeth Charming, like Elizabeth Bennet, see? But don’t you like the last name? It was Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s idea. I’d thought just to go ahead and name myself Elizabeth Bennet, because I mean to bag a Mr. Darcy, but she thought Elizabeth Charming was more enchanting. Anyhoo, my friends call me Eliza.” She stuck out her left hand, the ring finger of which still bore the mark of a recently removed wedding band. Jane shook it awkwardly with her right hand, then bobbed a curtsy.

“Hello, I suppose I’m Jane Erstwhile.”

“You’re one of those Americans.”

Jane frowned, confused. Clearly this woman was also from the United States, possibly from a southern state—the accent was unclear. Then Jane realized that she was attempting to sound British, over-pronouncing words and occasionally dropping an “r.” The effect made her sound like a little girl in desperate need of a speech therapist.

“Oh dear,” Eliza said miserably. “I don’t think I’m supposed to talk to you until we’ve been properly introduced. Let’s pretend we haven’t met.”

Eliza started back down the stairs, stuffing one breast more snuggly into her dress, then turned back again to speak low and urgently into Jane’s ear. ‘And by the way, I’m twenty-two. I told Mrs. Wattlesbrook and now I’m telling you. I didn’t forgo a new car and a month in Florence to be fifty again.” She patted Jane’s behind and trudged down the stairs, holding her long skirts above her ankles.

* * *

THAT EVENING, THEY WERE FORMALLY introduced.

“Jane, my dear, you do look lovely!” Aunt Saffronia said. Jane nearly blushed as she descended the stairs. She did feel lovely, actually, if a little too aware of her own br**sts exposed within the lower neck of the evening dress. Her maid, Matilda, had helped her with her hair, attaching a bunch of curls (she flattered herself that they looked more natural than Miss Charming’s bundle of plastic) and winding pretty little beads around her head. She had been wary of empire waists, but the feel of the fabric and the splendid rust and yellow of her evening dress made her feel so different that she girded herself up to start the make-believe.

You can do it, you can do it, she chanted silently as if she were attempting the last set in kickboxing. She hated kickboxing.

“Jane, may I introduce our house guest Miss Elizabeth Charming of Hertfordshire?”

“How do you do, Miss Erstwhile, what-what?” said Miss Charming, her tightened lips trembling with the effort of approximating a British accent. “Spit spot I hope, rather.”

“How do you do?”

They both curtsied and Miss Charming made a silent “shh” with her lips, as though Jane would out her for the stairway meeting. Jane had a burst of maternal instinct that made her want to cuddle Miss Charming and help her through this crazy Austenland maze. If she only knew the way herself.

“Miss Charming is about your age, I believe,” Aunt Saffronia said.

“Oh no, Aunt, I’m quite certain that Miss Charming, still in the bloom of her youth, is several years my junior.

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