Austenland Page 27

She rose and curtsied to the room.

Captain East smiled broadly. Mr. Nobley coughed. (Laughed?) Jane sat back on the lounge and picked up her discarded volume of sixteenth-century poetry.

“That was . . .” said Aunt Saffronia to the silence.

“Well, I hope the weather’s clear tomorrow,” Miss Charming said in her brassiest accent. “How I’ve longed for a game of croquet, what-what.”

THEY PLAYED CROQUET THE NEXT morning.

“Won’t you show me how to use your mallet against the balls, Colonel

Andrews?” asked Miss Charming, her eyebrows raised so high they twitched. Colonel Andrews had trouble unplasticizing his smile.

Captain East chatted away the discomfort, his working-boy build meets

gentleman grace working for him every inch. Not that Jane was looking at every inch,

except when his back was turned. He kept the conversation on the weather, but did it in a

very beguiling manner. To Jane’s mind, clouds had never seemed so sexy.

As the game progressed, Andrews and Charming took the lead with professional zeal,

followed by Heartwright and Nobley, an impressive pairing. Lingering in the rear,

Erstwhile and East talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. The worse they played, the

more Jane felt inebriated on bad sports and her partner’s undulating laugh. Captain East

looked like he could play pro football, but he held the mallet in his hand as though being

asked to eat steak with chopsticks, which Jane somehow found hilarious. He hammed it

up for her benefit and made it very easy to laugh.

He straddled the ball and pulled the mallet back.

“Careful, careful,” Jane said.

He swung—a hollow thock, and the ball smashed into a tree.

“I swear I’m trying my best.” The Captain’s laugh made his voice go dry and

deep, and Jane thought if he really let himself go, he might actually bray. “I’ve never

played this game before.”

“Captain East, do you see how Mr. Nobley keeps giving me that look?” Jane said,

watching the couple ahead. “Do you suppose he’s ashamed to know us?” “No one could be ashamed to know you, Miss Erstwhile,” said Captain East. It was precisely the right thing to say, and somehow that made it wrong. Jane

wondered if Mr. Nobley had heard it, wondered what he thought. Then asked herself why

she cared. The only discovery she could make was a hard bite of truth, like a bite of apple

stuck in her throat—she did care what Mr. Nobley thought of her. The thought rankled.

Why was the judgment of the disapproving so valuable? Who said that their good

opinions tended to be any more rational than those of generally pleasant people? Jane’s turn to swing. Her grip on the mallet slipped, the ball lurched forward a

dramatic two inches, and they laughed again. Mr. Nobley was still staring their way. Was

it possible that he wished he were laughing, too?

“Look, Miss Erstwhile,” the captain said. “Someone is arriving.” His voice

twinged with interest, and she guessed the actor had no idea who it could be.

A carriage and two horses pulled up at the house’s front. A new guest was big news at Pembrook Park, and all three couples abandoned the game to inquire. But soon they were able to see two servants carrying a trunk the wrong way—from the house to the carriage. Someone was going, not coming. And the trunk was Jane’s.

When she spied Mrs. Wattlesbrook hovering about the scene, Jane felt her stomach squirm as though she smelled rotten meat.

“What’s going on?” Jane asked.

“Your maid discovered an unmentionable among your things.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook dangled a cell phone between her pinched fingers. Jane glared at the maid Matilda, who smiled smugly.

Probably gets a bonus for getting rid of me, Jane thought. The little turd.

“I believe I was very clear, Miss Erstwhile. We thank you for your stay and I regret that your actions have forced me to cut it short.”

“You’re really going to kick me out?”

“Yes, I really am.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook folded her arms.

Jane bit her lip and bent her head back to look at the sky. Funny that it looked so far away. It felt as if it were pressing down on her head, shoving her into the dirt. What a mean bully of a sky;

Much of the household was present now. Miss Heartwright was huddled with the main actors, whispering, like rubberneckers shocked at a roadside accident but unable to look away. A couple of gardeners strolled up as well, tools in hand. Martin wiped his brow, confusion (sadness?) heavy on his face. Jane was embarrassed to see him, remembering how she’d ended things, and feeling less than appealing at the moment. The whole scene was rather Hester Prynne, and Jane imagined herself on a scaffold with a scarlet C for “cell phone” on her chest.

She realized she was still holding her croquet mallet and wondered that no one felt threatened by her. She hefted it. Would it be fun to bash in a window? Nah. She handed it to Miss Charming.

“Go get ‘em, Charming.”

“Okay,” Miss Charming said uncertainly.

“If you would be so kind as to step into the carriage,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

Curse the woman. Jane had just started to have such fun, too. Why didn’t one of the gentlemen come forward to defend her? Wasn’t that, like, their whole purpose of existence? She supposed they’d be fired if they did. The cowards.

She stood on the carriage’s little step and turned to face the others. She’d never left a relationship with the last word, something poetic and timeless, triumphant amid her downfall. Oh, for a perfect line! She opened her mouth, hoping something just right would come to her, but Miss Heartwright spoke first.

“Mrs. Wattlesbrook! Oh dear, I have only now realized what transpired.” She lifted the hem of her skirts and minced her way to the carriage. “Please wait, this is all my fault. Poor Miss Erstwhile was only doing me a favor. You see, the modern contraption was mine. I did not realize I had it until I arrived, and I was so distressed, Miss Erstwhile kindly offered to keep it for me among her own things where I would not have to look upon it.”

Jane stood very still. She thought to wonder what instinct made her body rigid when shocked. Was she prey by nature? A rabbit afraid to move when a hawk wheels overhead? Mrs. Wattlesbrook had not moved either, not even to blink. A silent minute limped forward as everyone waited.

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