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Jane Austen’s Reading Salon is the board where we freely showcase our writing: short stories, excerpts, deleted scenes, poetry, and other assorted samples, both Austenesque and beyond Austen’s world. This is a “read-only” board. Read to your heart’s content and check back periodically for new posts.A A A
February 10, 2017
Longbourn Estate, Hertfordshire, June 22, 1801
John Lucas leaned his forehead into the trunk of the ancient oak in the garden behind the Bennet manse and buried his face in the crook of his elbow. Even though he had hidden his eyes, young Lucas, Harrow-bound for his first Michaelmas term, scrupulously squared his honor knowing that his integrity would always be measured by those seeking to fault a first-generation gentleman, and squeezed his lids tightly as he began his century count. He could hear muffled giggles receding as his playmates raced away all-the-while avoiding Mrs. Bennet’s cherished rose beds.
John and the three Bennet girls—Jane, Lizzy, and Mary—along with his best friend, Walter Goulding, had been allowed the extraordinary boon of being able to play outdoors after their dinner on this, the longest day of the year. Twelve-year-old Jane, as the eldest host youth, had been designated Commander-in-Chief of the Longbourn Irregulars by her Papa, understanding that his first-born would never suggest any course of action that would ruffle maternal sensibilities.
Mr. Bennet had been anticipating a pleasant meal with his closest friends and their wives throughout the few days since his wife had announced her plans. Charlotte Lucas, all of seven-and-ten, returned now from her first London season, would dine with the adults and later provide the distaff side with ample fodder for post-prandial conversation as they explored the mysteries of fashion, drawing rooms, and dance. While the young lady had not attracted the matrimonial interest her mother had so ardently hoped for, père Bennet knew that his lady wife would have more than enough advice to offer both mother and daughter even though her own girls would not be entering the marriage mart for years.
To promote a congenial atmosphere inside the manor house, the Master of Longbourn had decreed that the five children, ranging in age from nine to twelve, would celebrate midsummer as the Druids at Stonehenge had, with outdoor food and games. Thus, Mrs. Hill and Cook had set up tables in the garden gazebo, filling them with taste treats to tempt younger palettes. Allowing the youngsters to burn off excess energy in the early evening countryside, cooling now after the heat of the day, meant that the adults could dine as they had when all three couples had been newlyweds back in the Eighties.
Without the burden of the littlest Bennets, Lucases, and Gouldings, left behind in their nurseries under the watchful eyes of housekeepers and nurses, the children quickly agreed that a game of hide-and-seek would be a famous way to celebrate the beginning of summer. Rather than endure a debate over who would be the first Seeker, John asserted his prerogative as eldest male on site to arbitrarily announce his assumption of the role. He could not help but notice that this did not sit well with ten-year-old Lizzy whose rich brown eyes flashed dangerously beneath beetled dark brows.
However, Lizzy chose to restrain her natural impulse to object to John’s presumption as she was still a bit in awe at how her old friend now towered over her. Young Master Lucas had enjoyed an springtime adolescent growth spurt which left his mother despairing about the speed he was outgrowing his clothing.
On second thought, there are some obvious advantages to having John try to chase us down! While he may be taller than anybody else, that size could be a liability. He has become dreadfully clumsy, tripping over his feet all the time! I imagine that even Jane, encumbered by those horrid stays Mama insists she wear, could beat him in a footrace to safety. And do not even think about his voice…that is unless you want to break out laughing and embarrass him terribly.
With those thoughts lightening her footsteps, Lizzy watched as Jane, holding onto Mary’s hand, flew toward the stables. Walter had loped off behind old Mr. Wheatfield’s[i] cottage. Lizzy pondered her best hiding spot. The only rule they had agreed upon was that anything beyond Longbourn’s main grounds was out-of-bounds.
The contestants had assumed that meant that the estate’s lawns, gardens, and outbuildings were fair game. Nothing had been said—either for or against—about inside the house!
That gray area appealed to Lizzy’s particular view of sportsmanship. If it was not expressly against the rules—as when Papa stated that he did not wish to learn that she had been climbing trees in the orchard—then it could be done!
Chuckling to herself at her cleverness, the ten-year-old dashed through the kitchen door and crept noiselessly through Mr. Hill’s pantry to slip into Papa’s book room. Scanning the library which took up one end of the ground floor, Lizzy searched for the perfect place to curl up and fool everyone!
Daring to peek out of the french windows, thrown open to allow the early evening air to cool the chamber, she could see John continuing his count to one hundred. As he called out seventy, Lizzy began to consider her options with a greater sense of urgency.
She feared concealing herself under Papa’s desk as that represented his authority and power over the entire family.
If I managed to break anything or disturb his papers, I might be reduced to bread and water for a week eaten standing up because I could not sit down!
The space hidden beneath the window seat was a possibility, but Papa had stacked so many books on the cushions that she knew she would be unable to move them quickly enough to lift the lid, jump in, and secret herself.
That left just one choice.
Lizzy had never seen the intricately decorated marquetry doors open so she was unsure of what was to be found within. However, she was certain that this cabinet, like the one in the chamber she shared with Jane, held nothing more interesting than clothing. And, clothing was the perfect shield behind which she could hide.
She would not close the doors so that if John entered the library searching for her, he would assume that nobody was inside the wardrobe for she would surely have closed it up.
He will never imagine I am in here!
And so the brave girl reached out and firmly planted her hands on the doors intending to push them inward to release the latch. Instead
A thousand bees buzzed and the pressure built…
“Little Alice fell
bumped her head
and bruised her soul”[ii]
Through The Looking Glass[iii]
Matlock House, London, August 10, 1907
Jacques Robard stood arms akimbo in front of the antique Wardrobe gracing the Earl’s study. The boys—his twelve-year-old Maxim and the Fitzwilliam’s ten-year-old Thomas—were due home later in the day from their camping expedition with Lord Baden-Powell at Brownsea Island.[iv] With the light staff thoroughly occupied in closing up the London household, the square-cut Frenchman had decided that he would be responsible for packing the cabinet prior to the second wave of departures for the Beach House in France. Jacques, his wife Maggie, Maxie, and the young Viscount Gladney, Tommy Fitzwilliam, would accompany the Wardrobe onto the Fitzwilliam steam yacht Persephone and travel directly to the Deauville quay lying in the shadow of the Casino.[v]
Over a week ago, the Earl and Countess, along with their five-year-old daughter and her same-aged cousin, Georgiana Darcy, had boarded the Dover Ferry and had later motored from Calais to Deauville. Maggie had confided to Jacques that Lady Kate felt that Eloise needed some special time with her parents given that her older brother was enjoying the opportunity to explore the wilds of the island off the coast of Dorset. The little girl was feeling left behind. The Fitzwilliams had decided that putting the focus on her at the family’s summer getaway would buoy sagging spirits.
The Wilson twins, Liam and Sean, had carried the disassembled custom packing crate down from the attics and deposited the tightly crafted pieces in Lord Henry’s office. The two giant footmen had then used furniture-moving straps to gently lift the cupboard from the floor so that Jacques could slide the especially shaped base beneath the Wardrobe’s ancient feet. With Jacques’ insistence that he could complete the work needed to secure the Wardrobe, the Wilsons had departed to attend to other luggage duties as directed by Mr. Anderton, the senior butler for all Matlock properties.
I am surprised that Henry allowed me to supervise the packing of the Wardrobe. He is usually so finicky about moving this old thing wherever they want it to be whether it is Selkirk, Pemberley, Thornhill, Longbourn, or here. I know it is over 200 years old…but he treats it more carefully than his mother’s beloved Louis Quinze chairs.
Jacques carefully joined one oaken side with the equally stout back using several cleverly designed hook-and-eye fasteners. His tradesman’s eyes discerned that every component—from the hardware to the reinforced panels—was handmade, apparently by the same master who had constructed the Wardrobe. Everything fit together perfectly, and the velvet-covered dunnage cradled the great piece as a babe in a mother’s protective arms.
Never one to be in a hurry, especially when working with his hands, the forty-five year old paused before fitting the front of the crate over the Wardrobe’s unusually—what did Henry call it, ah, oui, marquetry—decorated front doors. He strode over to the sideboard where his friend kept his supply of potables. Pouring himself a healthy splash of Monnet Cognac, Robard turned to the French doors overlooking the verdant garden stretching behind the great townhouse. The masses of greenery reminded him mightily of the garden behind Pierre-Auguste and Aline Renoir’s home on the Montmartre, Le Château des Brouillards.
Hien…that is Lady Kate’s influence. She has spent these past fifteen years making Matlock House her own. And, she always found more than a measure of peace under the Renoir willows. How often have I seen Henry gazing out into this wilderness, a drink in one hand, his other fisted behind his back? And, he always says the exact same words when I ask him what he is thinking.
‘Thinking, Jacques? You know me better than that. As my wife says, I think far too much. Non, mon ami, je me souviens…I am remembering…that remarkable May day when all of you tumbled back into my life.’
All other thoughts were suddenly deferred when a loud pop followed by the sound of the Wardrobe’s doors flying open cast them aside. The echoes of the pop and bang had barely subsided when they were replaced with a child’s loud oof!
Jacques spun, his drink sloshing over the edges of his glass, to discover a young girl seated on the polished mahogany, legs splayed under a long green cotton dress, hands planted behind her looking up at him with rich chocolate eyes. Those orbs were widened mostly in astonishment and, apparently, only a little in fright. Her bonnet was pushed back to reveal luxurious dark locks, a few tumbling onto her forehead.
The wee sprite’s chest was heaving as if she had competed in one of the footraces to be featured in next year’s London Games.[vi]
The two persons in the study—the adult standing stock still by the window and the child with her backside still planted on the floor—considered each other warily. Jacques was momentarily unmanned by the fear she would burst into tears and loud wails. The girl, however, gave no indication that she would disintegrate. Rather, she tipped her head to one side and, shielding her eyes from the light pouring in around the Frenchman’s figure, gravely considered his aspect.
Then, in a move that belied her age, she lifted her left hand toward Robard clearly wanting him to assist her into a more dignified standing position. Fifteen years of association with the Earl and Countess of Matlock had smoothed most of the paysan’s rougher edges. He acted as was right and proper, softly walking to the youngster’s side and, gently grasping her hand, lifted her from the floor.
In quick, but controlled movements, the little lady smoothed the wrinkles from her skirts, pulled her sleeves down around her wrists, and tucked those errant curls back under her bonnet.
Then she cleared her throat and, clearly seeking to sound more adult than she was and in control of her emotions, used measured words colored by a deeply accented English, with her “r”s rolling deeply from the back of her tongue, to address Jacques.
“Good day, sir. I am afraid that you have me at a disadvantage as I am unaware of where I am and what time of day it is. As there is nobody else in the room to properly introduce us, I imagine that I must be forward.
“My name is Elizabeth Rose Bennet of Longbourn in Meryton.”
Longbourn! At the sound of that mystical name coupled with the equally magical Bennet, Jacques jaw dropped open, and he gaped at the sight before him.
[i] Hiram Wheatfield (1723-1802) had served as Longbourn’s steward under Richard, Samuel, and Thomas Bennet before his retirement.
[ii] Lewis Carroll, Accessed 6/30/17.
[iii] Lewis Carroll, originally published by Macmillan in 1871 as a sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
[iv] Lord Robert Baden-Powell had launched the Scouting movement with a camp for twenty (or twenty-one) boys from all social classes at Brownsea Island, August 1-8, 1907. The putative minimum age for attendees was twelve, however several reports suggest that at least one ten-year-old attended.
[v] Persephone is modeled after the 1893 iron yacht El Primero whose 7’ draft would fit comfortably into the Deauville harbor.
[vi] The games of the Fourth Olympiad of the Modern Era were held in London from April through October, 1908.
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