Austenland Page 15

expiring, Mr. Nobley, to see what charming bit of fun you will come up with this time.

You must, of course, outdo yourself, or what will we have to talk about next year?” He bowed, polite but by no means offended. “I am your willing servant and shall

have no other object than to seek your amusement.”

“Well, that is neatly settled then.” Aunt Saffronia was all grin. “What a breath of

fresh air you are, Miss Heartwright! You must visit the house every day, as often as you

like.”

Jane glanced at Miss Charming, who in the past half hour had withered like a

carrot forgotten in the back of the refrigerator. She was hunched in the sofa, glaring at her

embroidery, twisting her foot around, around, around.

Boyfriend #2

Rudy Tier, AGE FIFTEEN

Rudy was hil-ar-i-ous and so fine. Wherever he went in school, crowds scooped back, forming into spontaneous audiences, waiting with ready smiles for his wit. Or maybe, Jane considered later, drawing back out of fear?

After four months of school dances, mall movies, and afterhomework phone calls with Jane, Rudy’s repertoire began to suffer for lack of afresh subject. Without warning, the heat of his humor veered toward her.

“We were making out, and suddenly she licks my mouth like a cat!” he told a group lunching on the lawn. “Lapped me up like milk. Meow, little pu**ycat.”

In the dizzying weeks that followed, Jane read Pride and Prejudice for the first time.

At her ten-year high school reunion, three people remembered Jane as “tiger tongue.” Good old Rudy was there, sporting an impressive potbelly and spouting jokes that just couldn’t bring in the laughs.

day 4, continued

THAT EVENING (TO MAKE HERSELF feel better after the embarrassing breakdown, not to mention the Heartwright intrusion), Jane donned her favorite evening gown, pale peach with a flattering V-neck and cap sleeves. These last three days, she had been seesawing between giddy headlong rush into fantasyland and existential terror, but sometimes when she slipped into a new dress, the only word that really applied was huzzah.

The addition of a fourth woman threw a wrench in the precedence. Aunt Saffronia declared she would dine upstairs, and then it was Jane’s turn to say that was nonsense and that she would simply walk from the drawing room to the dining room unescorted. At the back of the line. Like an unwanted puppy. Well, she didn’t actually say the part about the puppy. She did enter alone, behind Miss Heartwright and Colonel Andrews, but she told herself she did it with style.

When the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room, Miss Charming was quick on the draw—”I’ll pout all evening if you don’t, Mr. Nobley, and I’m a very effective pouter”—and secured both the single gentlemen at the whist table. Quite a coup. Miss Heartwright, as the guest that day, naturally made up the fourth.

Jane tried to amuse herself by starting a new embroidery sampler~ though the product itself was soon much more amusing than the occupation. Sir Templeton, usually too engaged with his drink to do more than grumble to himself, was particularly attentive to Jane. He stared at her until she was forced to acknowledge him and then topple into his staccato conversation.

“Do you shoot much? Mm? Birds? Miss Erstwhile?”

“Uh, no, I don’t hunt.”

“Yes, of course. Quite, quite.”

“So, uh, do you shoot much?”

“Shoot what?”

“Birds?”

“Birds? Are you chirping about birds? Miss Erstwhile?”

Aunt Saffronia wasn’t as quick as usual in detecting uncomfortable situations. She

sat by a lamp, an open book on her lap and a glazed expression in her eyes. It made Jane wonder how many breaks the poor woman got. The men were often off doing man things, but Aunt Saffronia always had to be on.

“Aunt Saffronia.” Jane sat beside her so the others wouldn’t hear. “Can I persuade you to retire early? You do so much for all of us, all day long. I don’t think anyone would deny you a little rest.”

Aunt Saffronia smiled and patted her cheek. “I think I may, just this once. If you promise not to tell.”

It was gratifying to see the woman go get some me-time, but of course it meant Jane was left alone on the sofa with Sir Templeton and the sloshing noise of his cud. She sat straight in her corset, shut her eyes, and tried to drown out the sticky sound by concentrating on the voices in conversation at the card table.

Miss Charming: “Crikey, Mr. Nobley, but that was a barmy play!”

Mr. Nobley: “I beg apology Miss Charming.”

Miss Charming: ‘Apology? Don’t you know that means it was good? Right smashing?”

Mr. Nobley: ‘As you say.”

Colonel Andrews: “You must take care with Miss Charming, Nobley. She is a sharp one. I wager she could teach you all sorts of things.”

Miss Charming (giggling): “Why, Colonel Andrews, whatever do you mean?”

And whenever the speed of conversation slowed a tad, Miss Heartwright was there to buoy it back up.

“Oh, good play, colonel! I didn’t see that one. Well done, Mr. Nobley. You have a fine hand, I wager. Valiantly played, Miss Charming, and what lovely skin you possess.

Miss Heartwright wasn’t just nice. Oh no. She was astonishingly engaging. Even Mr. Nobley seemed more responsive than normal. He still hadn’t spoken with Jane since she broke character, and she watched him now, wondering if he’d tell Mrs. Wattlesbrook how her break muddied up the Experience. He glanced at her once or twice. That was all.

Meanwhile, Miss Heartwright continued to effuse.

The room had begun to seem unnaturally crowded, the lamps too bright but the light they made too dim. Jane caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror, propped up in that ridiculous dress, gawky and silly, a clump of brown bun and curls pinned to her head. Just the sight was enough to tip her back again.

“What a crackpot,” she whispered to herself. In all the years Jane had fantasized about an Austenland, she never considered how, once inside its borders, she would feel like an outsider.

When Sir Templeton started to snore and no one was paying her any mind, she stuck her theoretical pillowcase under her chair and slipped out.

She should’ve gone to her chambers. There was that Regency rule that single women weren’t supposed to walk out alone except in the morning, but Jane had a headache, and nothing goes worse with a headache than rules.

Prev Next