Austenland Page 12

“You will simply adore Amelia Heartwright,” Aunt Saffronia said as the ladies embroidered in the sitting room. Jane eyed her aunt’s neat little flowers and fields of cross-stitches. She was transforming her own fruit basket sampler into a knotted mass that resembled a cornucopia beaten and left for dead. Miss Charming had abandoned her embroidery in favor of pacing by the door, ready for the first sign of the gentlemen’s return from billiards.

“She has been living in the city this past year and is only just returning to the country to tend to her mother in her declining health. Her mother, Mrs. Heartwright, is Sir Templeton’s widow aunt. It is so good of him to give her the cottage. I have not seen Amelia Heartwright in a year at least. Last she was here—” Aunt Saffronia glanced at the hallway and then at the window as if suspecting eavesdroppers. She lowered her voice. “Last she was here, I detected some attachment between her and a young sailor, a certain George East, of decent breeding but no real prospects. I do not know what became of them. Miss Heartwright returned to the city and Mr. East to the sea, I suppose. A shame, even if he was as poor as a farmer. They did seem very fond of each other, but young hearts are fickle things, are they not, Miss Charming?”

“What?” Miss Charming stopped pacing. “I mean, what- what? Just so.” The gentlemen, much to Miss Charming’s palpable elation, did conclude their billiards and join the ladies for tiffin and tea, charades and gossip. Jane sat beside Colonel Andrews. He had a dashing smile. It nearly dashed right off his face.

Another day, another night followed of pleasant meals, conversations indoors, restful afternoons watching the rain thicken the panes. No great events transpired, and Jane found that to be a relief. She still felt dried up and brittle in this new pretend skin, and she really didn’t think she could stomach false declarations of love and bogus trysts. Yet. Eighteen more days to go. There would be time to celebrate her last hurrah, to face Mr. Darcy and say good-bye forever. So for now, she relaxed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had the luxury of taking an afternoon nap. It felt scandalous.

But when the rain lifted on her third day, her muscles awoke and scolded her for so much sitting. It had been nearly a week since she had last done anything that in good conscience could be considered “exercise.” She wasn’t a health nut (those people could be so irritating), she was just a touch obsessive-compulsive, thank you very much, and if she didn’t follow her compulsion to exercise hard, her body freaked out on her and began to demand she eat enough sugar to choke her pancreas. She had wandered the grand house and found no hidden gym (Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s Ideal Client, apparently, insisted on mascara but not a StairMaster), so Jane excused herself after the sausage and jelliedegg breakfast, saying she desired a solitary walk around the gardens. She was wearing her least favorite day dress (the pink one with little rosebuds that resembled splattered tomato sauce) and so felt no fear for its ruin when, once out of sight of the house windows, she held the hem above her knees and ran.

It was awkward in her ankle boots, the slap-slap of her uncushioned feet soon insisting she tone it down to a speed walk. Even so, speed-walking in a corset was surprisingly vigorous, and soon the cool autumn day began to feel like a crispy hot Texas summer. She was sitting on a bench, her skirts bunched up on her thighs and her elbows resting on her knees as she tried to slow her breathing, when she heard a male voice.

“Um, I think I should tell you I’m here.” Jane sat upright, quickly pulling her skirts back down to her ankles. She had been wearing drawers, of course, but it still felt absurdly immodest to sit that way in i8i6 attire. She looked around, seeing no one.

“Where are you?” she asked. Theodore, her dance partner of late, stood from behind the bush directly in front of her. His impressive height made it seem that he was slowly expanding while standing up, like stretched taffy.

“What were you doing back there?” “I’m a gardener,” he said, raising the shovel and pick like a show of evidence. “I was just working here, I wasn’t trying to spy.

“You, uh, caught me there at an unladylike moment. Mrs. Wattlesbrook would probably box my ears.

“That’s why I spoke. I wanted to let you know you were not alone before you did something—something worse.

“Like what?”

“Whatever women do when they think they’re alone.” He laughed. “I don’t know I don’t know what I’m talking about, you surprised me and I’m just—” His smile dropped. “Sorry, I shouldn’t talk...I’m not supposed to talk to you.

“Well, you already have. We may as well meet for real this time, without old Wattlesbrook spying. I’m Jane.”

“Theodore the gardener,” he said, wiping off his hand and then offering it to her. She shook it, wondered if they should be bowing and curtsying, but is that what you do with a gardener? The entire conversation felt forbidden, like a secret Austen chapter that she discovered longhand in some forgotten file.

“The gardens look lovely.”

“Thank you, ma’am.

Ma’am? she thought.

“So,” he said, his eyes taking in everything but her face, you’re from the former colonies?”

She looked hard at him to detect if he was serious. He glanced at her, then down again, and sort of bowed. She laughed.

He tossed his pick into the ground. “I can’t play this. I sound completely daft.”

“Why would you have to play anything?”

“I’m supposed to be invisible. You don’t know all the lectures we heard on the matter—stay out of the way, look down, don’t bother the guests. I shouldn’t have said a word, but I was afraid of getting stuck behind that shrub all day trying not to make a peep. Or worse, you discovering me after a time and thinking I was a lecherous lunatic trying to peek up your skirt. So, anyhow, how do you do, the name’s Martin Jasper, originally from Bristol, raised in Sheffield, enjoy seventies rock and walks in the rain, and please don’t tell Mrs. Wattlesbrook. I need this job.”

“I didn’t exactly find Mrs. Wattlesbrook the kind of lady I’d be tempted to confide in. Don’t worry, Martin.”

“Thanks. Guess I should leave you to your lady stuff.” He picked up his tools and walked away.

Jane stared after him, certain he was a bit loony, if handsomely so. Then again, perhaps many wealthy and elderly twenty- year-old women had ratted on forward servants in the past. He likely had the right to be paranoid. She just wished he’d known that she was different. Speaking to a real person had been like drinking a cold glass of water after too much sugary punch.

Prev Next