Jane and the Canterbury Tale
Chapter One: Marriages Made in Heaven
“…either you or I will win My lady, and if it’s you, rejoicing in Her love when I am dead, why then you’ll have her.”
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale
WEDNESDAY, 20 OCTOBER 1813
Godmersham Park, Kent
“Ah, Miss Austen,” cried Mr. Richard Tylden as he offered me a glass of claret this evening—most welcome, as the day had been exceedingly wet, and the crush of persons in the ballroom at Chilham Castle so great as to entirely prevent me approaching the fire—”It has been an age since we met! And yet you appear to greater advantage than ever, if I may permit myself to offer so bold a compliment. That gown is excessively becoming. A shade exactly suited to a lady of your colouring.”
As the gown was new, and a source of inordinate pride—the very kick of fashion and purchased at breathless expense only six months before in Brighton—I blushed like a schoolgirl. “You flatter me, Mr. Tylden.”
“Indeed I do not!” he insisted, and raised his glass in salute. “To marriages made in Heaven,” he intoned, “and acquaintance renewed, after far too long a lapse.”
I had no intention of flirting with the poor man, who is already long since married and devoted to his country church; but I condescended to beam at him before taking a sip of wine. I could not help but be pleased with my situation—having come into Kent with my brother Edward’s entire family party in September, I had endured a headlong whirl of gaiety ever since, and tho’ excessively fatiguing, the change from the quieter pleasures of the Hampshire countryside had undoubtedly done me good. I might revisit all those treasured scenes of happier days, when Edward’s beloved Elizabeth reigned at his beautiful Godmersham Park; serve as counselor to my niece Fanny, who was caught in all the toils of young womanhood; and appear as boon companion to the affected and rather silly spinster charged with the governance of Edward’s madcap younger daughters. In the midst of which, naturally, I snatched the odd hour to jot my immortal phrases into the little books I sew up from bits of foolscap. They have a distinct advantage, in being no larger than the span of a pocket in a lady’s gown—into which mine are frequently slipped, when an unwanted visitor shatters the solitude of Edward’s great library.
There is nothing like a sojourn in the environs of Canterbury, indeed, for the refreshment and further education of a novelist—albeit a secret one, like myself. Everyone is rich here, and each his peculiar story to tell. I think I could spend my whole life in Kent, collecting my characters and assembling my comic situations; and as I am presently at work on the story of a wealthy and indulged young lady by the name of Emma Woodhouse, who orders the existence of everybody about her exactly to her liking, much as my niece Fanny does—I could not be better placed. A wedding party at Chilham Castle, for example, with all the elegance of Edward’s Kentish neighbours, must provide endless food for the writer’s imagination. Add to its recommendations, that it is the perfect occasion for the parading of my beloved wine-coloured silk—and you will understand a little of my inner exultation.
No matter if Mr. Tylden were sparse of hair and stooped of shoulder; I knew myself to be in excellent looks, and must be gratified that someone, and a male someone at that, had admired my prize on its first wearing.
“It has been some time since you were come into Kent, I think?” Mr. Tylden persisted.
“Four years, at least.”
“So long! I shall have to dispute the question of hospitality with your esteemed brother, Miss Austen—I certainly shall! I wonder you know your nieces and nephews again, after so long a lapse!”
“But you forget, sir—my brother has lately been staying with all his family on his Hampshire estate, in the village where I myself reside, so that our intercourse has been a matter of daily occurrence.”
“Just so. Nearly half the year they were gone to Chawton, and a refurbishment of Godmersham Park undertaken, I collect, during Mr. Knight’s absence. We were excessively glad to have the whole party back again.”
I frowned a little at the use of Edward’s adoptive name, tho’ it is hardly the first time I have heard it since coming into Kent. My brother must leave off the name of Austen, now that his patroness, our distant cousin Mrs. Knight, has passed from this world. In acceding to his full inheritance, Edward and all his progeny must be Knights forevermore; the Will so stipulates it. Mr. Tylden has accepted the change with more aplomb than myself; he did not stumble over his address, as I am forever doing, when some Kentish neighbour hails Edward unawares.
“And there are the fortunate couple now,” Mr. Tylden observed, setting down his glass with a benevolent look, as befit a man who had united Captain Andrew MacAllister with Adelaide Fiske. The two had just entered the ballroom, followed by our host, Mr. James Wildman, the bride’s cousin; and were receiving congratulations from every side.
“And you truly regard theirs as a marriage made in Heaven?” I enquired idly.
“Who could not? So much gallantry on the gentleman’s side, and so much beauty on the lady’s!”
These observations were certainly apt; and if nothing more than gallantry and beauty were required for conjugal happiness, the MacCallisters bid fair to enjoy a halcyon future. The Captain is a man of thirty, battle-hardened and a coming fellow—attached to the Marquis of Wellington’s staff, no less. Some six years his junior, Adelaide Fiske is just that sort of tall, raven-haired beauty possessed of speaking dark eyes, that must turn every head upon entering a room. She possesses the carriage of a duchess and a figure that should make a courtesan wild with envy—tho’ I may not utter that judgement aloud in present company; only my brother Henry should know how to appreciate it, and he is in London at present. Adelaide Fiske’s life to date, however—but it would be as well to dwell as little as possible on the lady’s sad career. The history of her first marriage and widowhood are all to be forgot, now that she is once more a bride; and I should do well to heed Mr. Tylden’s better angels, in wishing the pair nothing but good fortune—and leaving off the name Fiske for the McCallister she has vowed to cherish until death.
It is unbecoming in a spinster to dwell upon the ominous at a wedding feast; it smacks of disappointment.
“Ah, they are to dance!” Mr. Tylden cried in appreciation. “Only look how well they appear together!”
And it was true, of course. MacAllister swept his wife into the daring strains of a waltz, his dress uniform a blaze of colour against her pale blue gown. His hair might be of a fiery carrot hue and his features nothing out of the ordinary way, but his shoulders were good; and his countenance was suffused with adoration as he gazed at his wife, so that it seemed almost indecent to observe them. Here was the true article: love deep and encompassing, not the pale social convention that too-often passes for it. I read triumph in the soldier’s look, and guessed he had worked long to win his prize. In the lady’s countenance there was greater reserve; she had long ago learned to meet the publick eye with composure. Scandal is a hard school for young ladies gently bred.
“Your niece has also taken the floor,” Mr. Tylden observed.
“We must regard the waltz as approved in Kent henceforth, if Miss Knight consents to dance it.”
Miss Knight, indeed. And there was my own dear Fanny, who at the advanced age of twenty had been feverishly practicing the steps of the new dance with her brother, young Edward, the whole of the week past. Her countenance was becomingly flushed, and her gray eyes sparkled as she turned about the ballroom in her oyster silk—we had purchased the stuff for the gown in London together a few weeks past, and she was sublimely conscious of having two flounces to her hem and a bodice cut alarmingly low.
Her partner was a gentleman I did not recognise; his arm encircled Fanny’s waist in a shockingly intimate manner I must attribute to the waltz. He was tailored to swooning point in a black coat and cream satin breeches, his dark locks were windswept à la Brutus, and his cravat a miracle of complexity. Far from affecting the Dandy, however, he proclaimed the sporting Corinthian with every inch of his muscular frame. It was his eyes that must chiefly draw attention, however—brooding black eyes that fixed upon Fanny’s with a smouldering look. She had excited a dangerous emotion in the young man’s breast, I judged—one it should be as well, perhaps, to discourage before it caused general comment. Intrigued, I taxed Mr. Tylden for the gentleman’s name.
“That is Julian Thane,” he informed me stiffly. “A very wild young man, from all I hear. Sent down from Oxford in his second year, for crimes as yet unnamed.”
“The bride’s brother?” Adelaide Fiske had been a Thane before her first marriage; and this young buck had his sister’s dark looks and self-possessed air. He was the sort of man to throw all the girls of Canterbury into strong hysterics, indeed, if I knew anything of Fanny’s acquaintance. Rakes were in short supply in Kent at any season.
From the indignant looks that followed Mr. Thane from nearly every young man in the neighbourhood, I concluded with some amusement that the interloper should be treated with coldness henceforth; he had poached in other men’s preserves.
Grouped near the French doors letting out onto the balcony were three such Kentish fellows: John Plumptre, a serious young man of Oxford, with intellectual pretensions and a tendency to disapprove of frivolity; George Finch-Hatton, the blond god whom all the local girls apostrophized as Jupiter, whenever his planet swung across their firmament; and James Wildman, son and heir of our host, the most gentlemanlike member of the set. I had known them boy and man, in company with my own nephews, as the most attractive and indolent passel of gilded youth as might be met with—friends from birth, companions by schooling and inclination, and united this evening in their disapprobation of Fanny’s choice.
She could not have done better than to have accepted Julian Thane for the waltz; she must be in hot request for the remainder of the evening—provided Thane consented to part with her. He looked much as a lion might, that had felled a gazelle; and he was supremely indifferent to the rancour of his friends.
“Young Thane is heir to Wold Hall, in Leicestershire,” Tylden supplied, “tho’ he inherited little enough but debt when his father went off—the old gentleman being as deep a gambler as ever lived. All the Thanes are sadly ramshackle, indeed, tho’ it does not do to say so on this happy occasion—Ah, Mr. Knight! Is not this an excellent ball? Are we not blessed in the amiability of our friends?”
“Good evening, Tylden,” my brother Edward returned. “I have come to claim my sister for the waltz. She appears too handsome, indeed, to stand stupidly by with the rest of the chaperons. Dance with me, Jane?”
I had watched Fanny often enough in recent days to have an idea of the steps, tho’ I had never attempted the waltz myself. I might have demurred, indeed—but here was Edward, a man of consequence in the neighbourhood, still handsome at six-and-forty, and from his lost expression, acutely lonely amidst the general revels. As I allowed him to lead me to the floor, I wondered for the thousandth time why my brother had not chosen some one, among the eligible ladies of his acquaintance, to marry. Five years had passed away since the death of his beloved Elizabeth, and still he mourned her. It was not for me to trespass on such private ground, with officious suggestions of companionship and suitable matches. I could only consent to partner him about the ballroom, when wretchedness pressed too hard upon him.
“What do you think of that fellow commandeering Fanny?” he demanded, as he led me to the floor. “Is he an insufferable bounder, or a callow youth not yet up to snuff? I cannot like the steadiness of his hands, Jane—the sensation of grasping a lady’s waist ought to be novel enough to make him tremble with embarrassment, whereas that jackanapes is as cool as a cucumber! One would think he spent every evening with his fingers tangled in a lady’s bodice!”
“Perhaps he does,” I said with amusement. “But you need never fear for Fanny; she is the soul of propriety. Confess, Edward—Mr. Thane is excessively handsome, and Fanny is enjoying herself hugely! I have not seen such an elegant fellow—or such brilliant indifference to publick opinion—since…” I paused, having been about to utter the words Lord Harold died, but supplied instead, “…my time in Brighton.”
“Ah, so now he’s the equal of Lord Byron, is he? My cup runneth over.” Edward glanced darkly at the pirouetting pair. “Poor Fanny is aflame with blushes!”
“Edward,” I chided, “she is merely flushed with the exercise! You refine too much upon a trifle—the waltz is everywhere accepted at private parties now, and Fanny looks very well as she turns about the room. How her mother should have delighted in it! Such a picture as she makes!”
I had long thought privately that Fanny was too little seen, too little known, beyond the circle of her intimate acquaintance in Kent. She ought to have had a true London Season, with a hired house and vouchers for Almacks—but such an establishment was not to Edward’s taste. It was unfortunate that one of her mother’s relations did not take Fanny under her wing, and chaperone her about the Marriage Mart, for Elizabeth had been of baronet’s blood, and her family might claim the notice of the Great—but I could not raise the subject without being assured that Fanny was perfectly content with her lot. Of course she was! It was not her nature to find fault with circumstance. Fanny was apt to be grave and sober, when she ought to have been dreaming and frivolous; and for my part, I rejoiced to see her spinning about the room as tho’ her feet had grown wings. Little danger that so circumspect a child should let a man of Julian Thane’s stamp run away with her.
Edward’s eyes followed his daughter as he clasped my hand and waist. “She looks nothing like Elizabeth, you know. Too much Austen in her for real beauty. But she’ll do. By God, she’ll do. My Lizzy would be content, I think. I haven’t failed them all entirely, Jane, have I?”
But when he dragged his gaze from Fanny, I saw that the lost look had not entirely left his eyes. And I feared that it would remain with him forever.
Perhaps, I thought, as my feet found the music, there really were such things, once, as marriages made in Heaven.
© Stephanie Barron