Austenland Page 31

“Excuse me,” he said, rising. “I have trespassed on you long enough.”

HE TRESPASSED ON HER AGAIN the following afternoon, and Jane found she did not mind whatsoever. Surprising twist, that. The rain had stopped, the sky bashful behind clouds, and at Mr. Nobley’s suggestion, the party went walking the paths, avoiding the sodden lawns.

There was some fumbling of pairs, with Andrews and Charming at the lead, then the Nobley and Heartwright coupling turning into Erstwhile and Heartwright, which became Erstwhile and Nobley, and there the musical partners game ended. Jane glanced over her shoulder and wondered what thrills of pain and hope might be pricking Amelia as she walked with her erroneously jilted love. What fun.

“If it keeps raining all the time,” Miss Charming was saying, “I’ll go crazy. Can’t we do something more than play cards and walk around?”

She squinted at Colonel Andrews to detect if he approved of her suggestion.

“Just so,” he said, and Miss Charming beamed. “I’ve brought the very thing from London, a script from some little play or other called Home by the Sea. There are six parts, three pairs of lovers, just right for us, and it will give us something to pass the time before the ball, so let’s rehearse and put it on for Lady Templeton.”

“Oh, yes,” said Miss Charming, clasping her hands at her chest, “jolly good, rather.”

“I’ll bet our Miss Erstwhile would be keen on it as well, right? Miss Heartwright would never disappoint me, I know, and East is a seafaring man—always ready for an adventure. What do you say, Nobley?”

Mr. Nobley did not answer immediately. “I think it inappropriate to stage a theatrical in the house of a respectable lady.”

Miss Charming whined.

“Oh, come now, Nobley,” the colonel said.

“I won’t be entreated,” he said.

Jane blew air through her lips like a horse. She’d liked the idea.

“Way to spoil it, Mr. Nobley,” Miss Charming said. “Too bad Sir Templeton isn’t here to play the third fellow. Will he be back soon, do you think, what-what?”

“I think not,” Mr. Nobley said coolly.

“That’s the pits. Hey Jane, what about that guy, I mean, bloke, I saw you talking to once in the garden? Do you think he’d play the part?”

Jane felt her toes go cold. “I don’t know who you mean, Miss Charming.”

“Sure you do, that tall bloke in the garden, one of the servants, maybe. I thought he looked pretty good standing next to you. He’d be better for your partner than Mr. Nobley.”

“M-maybe it was one of the gardeners? I don’t know” Jane peeked at Mr. Nobley’s face. He was staring dead ahead, the shadows under his eyes making him look sleep deprived.

“Never mind,” Miss Charming said, already bored with the idea.

The walkers tried various other topics on for size, but the Weather fit too loosely, Mr. Templeton’s Disappearance was too short, and What Might Be for Dinner pinched a bit tight in the midsection. Then Colonel Andrews hit upon it—the fast-approaching Pembrook Park ball. They discussed the musicians that would be there, the guests arriving from other estates, the food, and the opportunity for romance. Miss Heartwright even put aside her melancholy to confer about gowns.

Jane’s heart beat impatiently. A ball—things happen at a ball. Cinderella happened at a ball. Jane might happen. She felt hopelessly and wonderfully fanciful. The sun on her face, the bonnet ribbon under her chin, a wrap around her arms, and a hattedand sideburned-man at her side, all lent itself to perfect suspension of disbelief.

She was so proud of herself! She really was diving into the world. Looking over Mr. Nobley, she wondered how this would end. It certainly was looking like East and Heartwright might kiss and make up, leaving Jane to Nobley. Or perhaps to no one. The puppet mistress Mrs. Wattlesbrook wouldn’t go to any great lengths to ensure an engagement. And without his boss insisting on it, would Mr. Nobley even bother to woo her? It didn’t seem likely.

Just ahead, the path was drenched in a puddle that could not be bypassed. The men walked through fearlessly. Colonel Andrews took Miss Charming’s hand and helped her step across. Mr. Nobley placed his hands around Jane’s waist and lifted her over. As he set her down, their bodies were much nearer than was seemly in the early nineteenth century. They held still for a breath, their faces close together. He smelled good enough to kiss. Her thoughts raged—I hate him and he hates me. It’s perfect! Isn’t it? Of course, he isn’t real. Wait, am I supposed to be falling for someone or avoiding it? What was it again, Aunt Caroline?

He was the first to step back. She turned away, and there was Martin. She’d forgotten Martin. Off and on, she realized now, she’d been forgetting the entire real world in order to let herself sink into the fantasy.

He was on his knees among some rosebushes. His face was shaded by his cap, but she could feel his eyes on her. As the party started to walk again, Martin rose and removed his cap as though the walkers were a funeral barge. None of the others seemed to notice his presence, and they disappeared into the full trees that leaned over the path.

Martin took a step forward. “Jane, can we talk?”

She realized that she was still standing there, staring at him, as though begging to be rejected again. She started to walk away. “Martin, no, I can’t. They’re waiting for me, they’ll see.”

“Then meet me later.”

“No, I’m done playing around.” She left him, that awkward line buzzing around her head like a pesky insect. And Jane thought, Done playing around, she says, as though she’s not wearing a bonnet and bloomers.

Then she saw that Mr. Nobley had stopped to wait for her. His eyes were angry, but they weren’t on her. She looked back. Martin had lowered his hat and thrust his hands back into the upturned earth.

Her heart was teeter-tottering precariously, and she almost put out her arms to balance herself. She didn’t like to see them together, Martin, the luscious man who’d made her laugh and kept her standing on real earth, and Mr. Nobley, who had begun to make the fake world feel as comfortable as her own bed. She stood on the curve of the path, her feet hesitating where to go.

Then, the light became perfect.

After Jane’s LASIK eye surgery, her perception of light had changed. In too bright light, she saw burned spots on her retina like one-celled creatures seen through a microscope; in high contrasts of bright and dark, both blurred together, the glow of car headlights bleeding into the night. But there was a certain kind of light that made the whole world 20/20—late afternoon when the sun is on a slant, pushing through the world instead of down on it. Just now, everything was distinct. Above her, all the leaves ringing like bells were individuals with cracks and curls, veins and prickly tips. Below, every blade of grass stood up in its own shadow, sharp and hotly green.

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