Read Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House Online

Authors: Stephanie Barron

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional British

Jane and the Prisoner of Wool House (6 page)

“There is Mrs. Aubrey,” my companion observed, as we attempted to cross to the far paving, “with her hair newly-dressed on the strength of her husband's prizes! I do not think Sophie Aubrey has exchanged two words with me this winter; however, Captain Aubrey is not without troubles of his own. One ship at least has sunk under him, and he has been a prisoner of the French; there is some muttering, as well, regarding debts and a recklessness at cards. We may assume that Mrs. Aubrey avoids us out of sympathy for my husband's case, or horror at the threat of commiseration. She is a proud creature, Mrs. Aubrey—but not one of those who would laugh behind their hands as I attempt to pass. I assure you, Miss Austen, that there are many who would! Captain Seagrave may not chuse to regard the abuse— or perhaps he does not perceive it; he hears them call him Lucky,' and believes the word to be hurled without enmity. But I have quite given up promenading alone. I do not wish to invite insult. The women of Portsmouth forget whose daughter I am!”

She possessed intelligence, for all her self-absorption; a woman possessed of less might have suffered less pain.

When the rain commenced to fall, we hurried up the street, rejecting several sailors' taverns before achieving a pastry shop of Mrs. Seagrave's preference. She had fallen silent by the time we turned into it and secured a table; her gaze was fixed on the street beyond the window. Such a description suggests an attitude of placidity, however, and that would entirely mistake the case. My companion's fingers moved restlessly over the surface of our table, and her grey eyes were grown feverishly bright I almost suspected a hectic fit, or the onset of fever. Certainly, from the aspect of her thin face, her mind was much disturbed.

“Are you unwell, Mrs. Seagrave? Have we attempted too great an exertion?” I enquired, as she pressed one shaking hand to her lips, and closed her eyes.

“A faintness—there is a bottle? in my reticule—”.

I reached for the embroidered bit of silk, and withdrew a flask of elixir—
Dr. Wharton's Comfort.
“I shall fetch you a glass.”

“With water, if you would be so good—”

She poured a quantity of drops into the water I procured, and drank it down entire. I surveyed her countenance with some anxiety, but forbore from interrogation; and in a few moments, she had recovered herself. Her skin was still as sallow, but the restless activity of body and brain had eased.

She did not replace the bottle of medicine in her reticule; but neither did she speak of her indisposition. “A little refreshment is all I require. Will you take tea?”

“With pleasure.”

“Mrs. Huddle! A pot of tea and some fresh cakes, if you please!”

She was determined to proceed as though nothing untoward had occurred; and as her guest, I could not do otherwise than to oblige her.

“I understand that Captain Seagrave has been lately much at sea,” I ventured. You must have endured long periods of confinement with your children. How do you pass the hours, Mrs. Seagrave?”

“I read.” She glanced at me swiftly, as though in expectation of mockery; the naval wives of Portsmouth, I must assume, could not regard a patron of the circulating library as worthy of their notice.

“And which do you prefer—prose, or poetry? Letters, or horrid novels? For my part, I find littleto choose between Mrs. Radcliffe or Madame d'Arblay, and the verse of Scott; they are all words enough to surfeit on. Were I to face extinction by flood or fire, I should spend my final moments immersed in a book.”

“I could not admire
The Lay of the Last Minstrel,
tho' everyone would be talking of it; I far prefer Southey to Sir Walter Scott. What think you of Coleridge?”.

“He is a poet more to a gentleman's taste,” I replied, “and I cannot like his habit of eating opium. But Southey's
Madoc
is certainly very fine.”

“Do you believe so?” she enquired with an air of penetration. “I enjoyed the first quarto; but I detect a falsity in the Azteca girl—who in aiding the White Man, destroys her husband, her father, and herself. Such cataclysmic vengeance cannot be credited. The variations in life and fortune depend as much upon coincidence as design. I will not accept a Fate that exists solely for the convenience of the Author.”

Here was matter for the strictest debate; and so we whiled away the better part of three-quarters of an hour, over tea and marzipan, in the liveliest conversation. The rain's cease at last occasioned a consultation of our watches, and the recollection that. I was to have met my brother at the Seagraves' some time since.

Louisa fortified herself with a second dose from her little bottle before proceeding home; but when I would express the most active anxiety, she would hear none of it. “You have been a greater tonic, Miss Austen, than a gallon of Dr. Wharton's,” she declared. “I am starved for good company—the conversation of interesting people, with a wide knowledge of the world and a liberality of ideas!”

“That is not good company,” I gently replied. “That is the best Pray do not hesitate to call, Mrs. Seagrave, if you happen to visit Southampton. Though we are at present quite cramped in hired lodgings, we shall be settled in Castle Square in a fortnight, with all our books about us. You and I might look into them together.”

A brisk walk of seven minutes achieved her doorstep; and there we found the two Captains settled in chairs drawn up to the parlour fire. The little Seagraves had not yet returned, though they must be wet quite through, in standing upon the seawall as the
Defiant
slipped her moorings. With an exclamation of annoyance, Louisa Seagrave despatched the slattern Nancy in search of her sons, and accepted the charge of her infant in return.

We exclaimed over the baby, a fine, fat little girl of seven months; and made our
adieux
not three minutes later. I had time enough, in turning back for a final glance, to observe the animation dying from Louisa Seagrave's countenance as she followed our progress through the window; and I felt a pang. I had cheered her solitude a litde; but her troubles were too fixed to dissipate entirely in an afternoon. I wondered that such a mind—restless for matter, and admirably equipped for discernment—should succumb so completely to an oppression of spirits. If I might be forgiven such a judgement, Louisa Seagrave had no
right
to encourage weakness. Its ill effects were evident all about her: in the neglect of her home, the mismanagement of her children and servants, the suppressed violence of her husband. Where she might have done measurable good through a determined strength, she merely contributed to the oppression of the household.

“Well, Jane?” Frank enquired, as we hurried through the misty air to the Portsmouth quay, “how do you like my friend?”

“I like him very well indeed,” I said with effort. “He is all that you describe: open, warm in his expressions, and manly in his spirit But I cannot think him happy in his choice of wife, Frank. They are both strong-willed, and must vie for dominance. It cannot be a peaceful household.”

“Seagrave was never formed for peace, Jane,” my brother replied satirically, “and remember that he is much at sea. I do not think that he and Louisa have spent more than a twelvemonth, all told, in each other's company—and they have been married fifteen years! I could wish her capable of greater support, however,” he added, “in Tom's present pass. He don't admit it, but he is more anxious about the court-martial than I should like.”

I studied my brother's countenance as he handed me once more into the hoy. An expression of trouble had replaced his usual cheer; his brother officer's concern, it seemed, was catching. We should both have much to hide from little Mary.

“Is the Captain aware that you have been offered his ship, Frank?” I asked him quietly.

“I would not tell him for the world, Jane.” Frank did not tear his gaze from the open water beyond the harbour's mouth; Portsmouth was at his back, and I fancied he preferred it so. “Pray God I am never obliged to.”

Chapter 3
The Lieutenant's Charge

Tuesday,

24 February 1807

~

I
FIND MYSELF RATHER UNWELL THIS MORNING, OWING, IT
must be assumed, to the thorough wetting I received yesterday evening, as Frank and I returned up the Solent It was a weary, tedious business, with the rain pouring down and the wind in an unfavourable quarter. The hoy's master was forced to come about with such frequency, that we might all have been sailing on the carapace of a giant crab, sidling backwards into Southampton Water.

Owing to the lateness of the hour, a great fuss was made of us in Queen Anne Street, when at last we achieved our lodgings; Mary was anxiety itself, believing us both gone to a watery grave off Spithead, or set upon by pirates, and threatening to advance her labour on the strength of it. My mother went so far as to quit her bed and appear in the parlour to remonstrate with Frank—a gesture she has not considered of since the New Year at least. The most sensible member of the household, our landlady Mrs. Davies, proffered steaming soup and a fresh cutting of cheese, which we gratefully accepted. But it cannot have been earlier than ten o'clock by the time we mounted the double flight to our rooms, our candles guttering in the draughts; and I had been shivering with chill for an hour since.

And so, the morning not yet advanced to eight o'clock, the rain still coursing against my windowpane, and Frank alone abroad of all the house, I have propped myself against the bed pillows and taken up my little book. My nose is streaming and my head feels as though it has been stuffed inside a sack of goose feathers, the mere thought of which ensures a breathless sneeze. A cold in the head is nothing, of course, compared to one which chooses to settle in the lungs, and I must account myself fortunate—I shall certainly look far more ill than I truly am. But that thought fails miserably to comfort me. I had passed most of the autumn in poor health, having contracted the whooping cough after an unfortunate exposure in Staffordshire. My ailment occasioned considerable alarm in my mother's breast—her anxiety rose the higher with every whoop— so that by Christmas she was grateful to count me among the living, and herself impervious to such an ignoble complaint. Had I malingered any longer, she might have insisted upon carrying me off to Bath, for a medicinal turn about the Pump Room; and that I could not have borne.

I sneezed once more, and reflected on the efficacy of hot liquid in banishing all manner of ills. I might have ventured downstairs in my dressing gown and petitioned for a pot of tea—but a bustle from the hall suggested that our very own Jenny, the excellent creature who has been with us since our days in Lyme, and who shall serve as maid in the hired house in Castle Square, had already procured me one. I called admittance at her knock—her freshly-scrubbed face, pink from the ice in the washstand this morning, peered around the door—and the heavenly scent of steeped China leaves wafted through the air.

“Writing again, miss?” she enquired, as though much inclined to scold. “The time I've had, scrubbing black ink from your bed sheets! And no fire, yet, in the grate— what does that foolish Sara do with herself, I'd like to know, when she should be tending to you all? And you perishing from that drenching you got at Captain Austen's hands, I've no doubt! I'll look to the fashioning of a mustard plaster this morning, if you will be so good as to keep to your bed. There's little of advantage to take you abroad today, I'm thinking, with the weather so wet and nasty!”

I thanked her through the muffled folds of a cambric handkerchief, and sent her to the depths of the kitchen in search of mustard. The tea was ambrosial. I sipped it contentedly as my pen moved over the page.

The weather has often been wet and nasty in Southampton this winter; so sharp and chill, in fact, that on the worst occasions we have not ventured out-of-doors even to attend Sunday service. Such a moral lapse in the wife and daughters of a clergyman should be deemed inexcusable, did we possess a team of horses and the conveyance suitable to our station; but we do not, and a slippery progress through the ice and mire of the streets is not to be thought of. My brother ventures out to skate in the frozen marshes, and kneel alone in his Sabbath pew; on every street corner he may meet with a friend, and learn all the most urgent naval gossip.

In returning from church, Frank will often carry in his train a solicitous acquaintance, come to comment on his wife's blooming looks, and enquire about his mother's health. These occasional bursts of friendship and information do much to break the monotony of our routine and loosen the stranglehold of winter; but they are too brief and narrow in their content. Our acquaintance in Southampton is mostly derived from Frank's professional circle, and though I possess a fine naval fervour, and will assert that sailors are endowed with greater worth than any set of men in England, I must admit to a certain weariness in their society. They are entirely taken up with battle and ships, and with the advancement of themselves and their colleagues up the Naval List; and though dedicated to the preservation of the Kingdom, and possessed of noble hearts and true, they are, in general, a population whose schooling ended at roughly the age of fourteen. I had forgot, until my chance encounter with Louisa Seagrave, how much I craved the conversation of intelligible people—of those whose world is made large by the breadth of their ideas. As the years advance upon me, and my monetary resources grow ever more slim, I have begun to feel the walls of these rooms—whatever rooms I chance to inhabit, they are all very much of a piece—press inwards upon me. I am stifling from the limitations penury must impose, like a candle shut up in a coffin. I am desperate to lead a different life, and yet know that all possibility of exchange is denied me.

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