A very Jane Austen Christmas story; Part Nine

A Very Jane Austen Christmas
The afternoon looked perfectly undangerous. The winter sun shone bright. The peal of church bells rang the hour from the chapel on the corner, the carriages rumbled, the carts rolled, and the shuffle of boots signaled safety in numbers. Jane pulled the door closed behind her and sunk her gloves into her sable muff. The little alleyway looked slightly more sinister than the larger streets; the angles and turns of its irregular buildings all crowded together cast jagged shadows onto the cobbles. Jane walked beneath a tavern sign with the words ‘The Red Devil’, depicting a creature with a swirling, barbed tail, and a black forked tongue. The sign creaked heavily as she passed under it along the lane. She further passed a dressmaker, two printers, three more taverns, a mantua maker, a bun shop, and a bookseller before she found herself at a split in the road where she had to make a choice. She and Cassandra had never walked this way before; their visits to Aunt Phoebe always being filled with parties and luncheons.
“Hello there, Imogene!” a young lady called from a carriage as it rolled by.
Jane looked after the carriage. ‘Imogene’? The girl had been looking directly at her. What an odd coincidence. Without paying much mind to where she was walking, Jane trod forward, thinking. ‘Aunt Phoebe did say I have grown to look much the same as Cousin Imogene. I wonder….’
She wondered as she wandered and before she realized it, she was standing on the edge of a prim neighborhood green. A small pond in the center appeared like a magic looking glass. A few pairs of ducks napped with their beaks buried in their feathered backs. Small cottages dotted the perimeter looking like fairy houses from storybooks.
“Have you any chairs to mend?” a man shouted as he wandered by with a length of caning wrapped around a stick, “Chairs to mend!”
“Baked potatoes, all hot!” another man yelled. He was wearing a top hat as tall as a chimney stack and wheeling a small cart. “Baked potatoes!”
Jane realized she had wandered very far from her aunt’s address into another neighborhood altogether. “Looking for a mantua maker?” asked a wizened woman with a witchy nose and a quantity of Safflower bloom of roses napped on her cheeks. “We could use a fresh one, like you.”
“No thank you, Madame,” Jane smiled, moving on swiftly. She walked purposefully toward the little green; the buzzing streets around the square being thronged with tradespeople, dusty carts, and wagons.
“Dust a-hoy!” a man with a small coal shovel called.
Jane, feeling suddenly ravaged, turned to retreat her steps. Once the excitement of arrival and the chase had subsided, her energy and her bravery flagged, and she realized she was bone tired. She followed the sound of familiar church bells like a trail of breadcrumbs until she emerged at the Red Devil Tavern. Moments later Aunt Phoebe’s maid, Susan, was opening the door to her.
“Oh, my dear!” Aunt Phoebe gasped. “What would your mother say? You are nearly covered with soot and the dust of the road. I implore you to go lay down for awhile and recover yourself. I’ll have Susan fill the copper bath for you and hang a bathing dress on your door for when you awaken.”
A couple of hours later, after a profound little sleep, Jane donned the plain white gown and submerged into a luxurious tub of warm water. She did not believe in the nonsense that warm water made one ill, and rather luxuriated in the comfort of the sweet jasmine scent. She watched the moon come up in the mullioned window as she lay in the cooling bath, disinclined to leave. But the candles, set on the marble washstand were beginning to flicker and supper would soon be set out.
Jane dried off and twisted her hair into a chignon. She applied soft, lemon-scented Balm of Mecca to her skin and opened her silver cachou box to dot a hint of rouge onto her lips. While she prepared her visage, her hair dried a little, forming a frame of ringlets around her face. She peeled off the wet bathing gown and exchanged it for a simple striped sarcenet dress the color of cooking spices with capped puff sleeves. The uptwist of her light brown hair exposed the back of her neck to advantage. She hooked on a simple locket her brother had given her and descended the stairs.
The notes of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ being played on Aunt Phoebe’s piano greeted her on the lower landing. She entered the drawing room and discovered Mr. Godwin playing, and Mr. Wright and Mr. Atwood sitting on either side of her aunt. Jane accepted a glass of claret from Susan, bowed to the men, who were deep in conversation with her aunt, and skirted the settee on her way to join Mr. Godwin at the piano.
In between verses he whispered, “I am at once dying to talk with you about the mystery of your cousin and…yet”
“Yet?” Jane prompted when he paused his speech.
“Yet delighted to see you, Miss Austen, and anxious to hear you play again.”
Jane played along with him, four hands at once playing the lovely ivory keys. As Mr. Godwin phased out the song Jane, scooting to the center of the bench, transitioned to ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’. Mr. Godwin slid to the edge of the bench to accommodate Jane’s animated playing, but he did not get up.
“My word, Miss Austen,” Mr. Wright clapped, “You are rather marvelous.”
And that was all the time Jane and Mr. Godwin had alone before Aunt Phoebe brought them into the conversation. Sally straightened the paisley shawl over the piano and placed a tray of mince pies onto it, in accordance with Aunt Phoebe’s unorthodox dining habits. Filled with beef, currants, orange peel, sugar, and spices, they struck a Chistmastide chord.
“Aunt Phoebe is rather like a rabbit,” Jane teased, “She prefers to snack on small bits of many dishes rather than sit down to a table like a groaning board.”
“You will likewise notice,” Aunt Phoebe added, “That there is no tea in sight, gentlemen. If you are thirsty, you must keep drinking claret.”
Pickles, jellies, and soup followed, until there was no more real estate on the piano. Sally brought out cutlets in plum sauce and Aunt Phoebe gestured for her to place them on the hassock. Conversation had turned to the disappearance of Cousin Imogene, and Mr. Wright was visibly intrigued by the mystery. “Please forgive my impertinence, I beg you…” Aunt Phoebe waved away the niceties, “But you are quite sure she has left of her own accord?”
“I don’t belief she’s been abducted,” Aunt Phoebe confirmed. “And yet…” she apologized for the indelicate sentiment that would follow, “And yet she is not the sort of girl to elope with some bull calf of a fellow. I feel quite certain she has not run off to be with a suitor. She has however, taken all of her dresses, and her best hats.”
“Might she have joined some sort of religious movement?” Mr. Atwood asked.
“Lord no.”
“Gypsies?” Mr. Wright asked, apparently waterlogged with claret.
Aunt Phoebe thought. “I can’t imagine why she would. She’s a very earnest girl, far too serious for her own good. Although she’s neither devout nor romantic. I assure you I have wracked my brain for a solution that makes the least bit of sense…” Aunt Phoebe was unravelling. Mr. Wright and Mr. Atwood flew to her sides with conciliatory faces.
Mr. Godwin remained anchored to Jane. “And what say you, Miss Austen”?
“Upon my word, I haven’t a clue. I haven’t seen Cousin Imogene for nearly nine years. Although…” Jane quickly calibrated her thoughts.
“Although?” Mr. Godwin leaned in.
“Although while I was out walking a carriage passed by and a girl leaned out. She greeted me as Imogene. I thought it strange at the time. I was so tired, I nearly forgot about the incident.”
Mr. Godwin was clever. “Out walking, were you? You promised you would stay indoors.”
“I promised I would stay out of danger,” she corrected. “They are hardly the same thing, Mr. Godwin.”
“Granted,” he said, looking displeased.
“Pray tell the whole story!” Aunt Phoebe begged. “As the French would say, it sounds like a ‘clue’!”
“Well…” Jane accepted a mince pie to aid in the process of dislodging memory. “I was walking along that lane just across the way… near the Red Devil Tavern.”
Mr. Godwin cleared his throat with a subtle note of disapproval.
“I was walking along, taking in the fresh air, and a carriage rattled past. A girl leaned out of the window and shouted, “Hello there, Imogene.” She was looking me square in the face. I am certain she was addressing me. Aunt Phoebe, did you not say I lately resemble Cousin Imogene?”
“Immensely, my dear. It’s downright uncanny, the likeness.”
“Well, there then!” Mr. Wright concluded, a little prematurely.
“Were there others around you?” Mr. Atwood asked.
“There was a vulgar looking woman who asked if I was looking for a mantua maker,” Jane supplied.
“A mantua maker!” Mr. Godwin shouted, causing Jane to nearly drop her mince. “Miss Austen, do you not know what a mantua maker implies?”
Both Mr. Wright and Mr. Atwood were visibly shaking their heads, signaling him to proceed no further.
“What in heaven’s sake do you mean?” Jane asked, looking from one to the other in frustration.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, it’s 1810, isn’t it?” Aunt Phoebe asked, “A mantua maker is often a cover for an establishment where girls provide a more personal service than sewing cloaks. Does not everyone know that in this day and age?”
“I certainly did not,” Jane reported. She sank down onto the chaise lounge.
“Do you see my meaning now?” Mr. Godwin asked, sitting beside her, “We are not in Surrey anymore. London is a different beast altogether. You mustn’t go rambling off alone.”
“Does ‘Baked potatoes, all hot’ have a special, degenerate meaning as well?” Jane asked.
“It means ‘Would you like to buy a jacket potato to eat,” Mr. Atwood translated.
“And ‘Have you any chairs to mend?’—is that some sort of metaphor”?
“No, I think it’s likely a chair mender,” Mr. Atwood nodded.
“What about ‘dust ahoy’?” Jane asked?
“That’s the call of a dustman. Nothing nefarious,” Mr. Godwin laughed. He didn’t not seem to want to laugh but once Jane joined him in the joke he relaxed and regained his good humor.
“What seems clear enough,” Jane summed up, “Is that the girl in the carriage thought I was Cousin Imogene. Her manner was bright and friendly. Indeed, it gives me a feeling of lightness, Aunt Phoebe. It seems rather hopeful, does it not? In faith, if that girl was not surprised or impressed at seeing me, as Cousin Imogene, then indeed she must be quite used to seeing her. It follows, does it not?”
Jane had made her way to Aunt Phoebe’s side and was clinging to her.
“My dear, it does indeed.” Aunt Phoebe choked back a sob. “I feel better than I have done in days. But blast it all, where is that girl!”?
Jane kept her mouth quiet, realizing her best course of action would be to return to the network of lanes and brave the mantua maker, the Red Devil, the potato man, and et al. She would not utter it aloud, but in her heart, she knew what her morning plan would be.
There aren’t any entanglements to vote on at this juncture. There’s not a thing you could say to dissuade Jane from realizing her plan. Come back later to see how things turn out.
I am headed to the city myself for the next couple of days - I'll be celebrating Teddy's 12th birthday in Manhattan!
Check out the latest pattern, 'Jane and the City Streets'. I will see you again soon!