A Young Lady of Common Gentility
The sleepy village of Fullerton was sleepy no more. Well, for today at any rate. The May Day fete had been anticipated by the parish and surrounding county for several months. It had been declared a holiday - the children stayed away from school, the labourers took a well earned rest, and relatives and friends had been arriving in gigs and curricles all week, eager to savour the delights of the party.
It was for this reason that Sarah Morland had now positioned herself on a mound of grass near the main road, the better to see her sister's carriage enter the village. Sarah had scarcely written to Catherine since she had married, but her affection for her elder sibling had not changed. The few letters they had exchanged had indeed been bursting with news, as if to make up for the frequency of the letters themselves. Mr. Tilney's cold, Catherine's plans for the garden, news of her sister-in-law and the high society of nobility. . . it was all there, relayed from sister to sister, and then to Mrs. Morland, who was always eager to hear of her eldest daughter's new life at Woodston.
"You know, I am so proud of Catherine," she would announce to the family. "Dear Henry as a husband, a lovely home. If only Mr. Morland and myself could see you as settled, Sally."
Sally! How Sarah hated that name now. So immature and feminine, silly and affected! She had changed it at sixteen, and she was heartily glad for it. Her friends, the parishioners, even her father called her Sarah now, and she always felt better when they did. Only her mother absent-mindedly retained her birth name, and it sometimes drove her to despair.
"Oh, to live in the country forever!" she mused aloud, surveying the landscape around; the blue sky and the lush green fields as far as the eye could see, broken only by the road snaking through over the horizon. A movement on the latter caused Sarah to jump up and clap her hands together in joy. It was a gig, her brother-in-law's handsome little gig! Picking up her skirts, she ran towards it, calling Catherine's name.
The gig slowed to a halt and Sarah did the same, gasping for breath. Her sister was seated with her husband, holding a parasol and looking very smart. In her arms was a plump baby, all pink cheeks and lace. Catherine was straining to hold her tight, as the baby's arms were held up to her father for attention; every so often Henry Tilney would catch the fat little hands and kiss them, and the baby laughed in delight.
"Sarah, what are you doing here?" Catherine exclaimed, leaning forward to kiss her sister. "All alone? Lord, to be young and free again." She glanced slyly at Henry, who smiled.
"To be sure, my dear. How do y' do, Sarah?" He raised his hat to her, and she blushed.
"I've been waiting for you, of course. Mama said I could, they're all waiting for you at the parsonage."
"With tea and cake?" asked Henry, taking out his watch. Sarah laughed.
"Well, you know Mama. Although I do believe I heard tell of currant buns this morning."
Henry picked up his whip. "Well, that settles it. We'll see you presently." The gig moved off, and Sarah saw her sister turn backwards and hold up her baby to wave to her aunt, mouthing "hurry up" at the same time.
Shaking her head, Sarah watched the image of the gig fade into the distance, and then began to skip in the direction of Fullerton. What a funny girl Catherine was! To think that such an impressionable thing had married and settled. Sarah shuddered to think what a housekeeper she was - probably as bad as Sarah herself would be. She had no desire to go to Bath or find a husband at present. What need had she for a house and children? She wanted only her comfortable home at Fullerton, her beloved countryside, and her sketchbook.
Walking into the town square, she thought of the fete as she spied bunting being wrapped round trees nearby. What larks they were all to have! All around her, the sights, smells and sounds of the fete were unfolding to her. Men were strolling around with barrels on their backs, a violin was tuning up somewhere in the depths of the inn, and the smell of chestnuts travelled on the wind with the music. Sarah laughed inwardly at the sight of a woman perched precariously on a stepladder, tying ribbon to the branches whilst pulling her skirts around her ankles. Giggling, Sarah fished out her tiny paper pad and pencil from her pocket and stood in the centre of the square, drawing this comical sight.
She had nearly finished when someone collided straight into her, causing her to drop her pad and pencil. The someone - a man, she saw - immediately professed his apologies and retrieved her belongings. She saw he was rather shabbily dressed - his coat was travel worn and his hat was faded. But none of this counted with Sarah, for it was to his face she looked the longest. He was handsome, to be sure - ruddy and although his expression showed concern for her person, Sarah was sure she spotted laughter lines around his mouth. And his eyes - well, were only the colour of the bluest May Day sky, bright and alive.
"I hope you are not hurt?" he was asking her, brushing down his trousers. Sarah shook her head, temporarily struck dumb. When she found her voice, she spoke quickly.
"Oh, I've had harder knocks, I'm sure. If I can survive my brother pushing me from the highest part of the garden wall, I can certainly withstand a situation like this." The man looked bemused, and tipped his hat and bid her farewell. She blushed, feeling very stupid and awkward. She suddenly spied a piece of paper on the ground, and picked it up.
"Pray, excuse me!" she called, and the man turned around. "I think you dropped this." The man agreed he had.
"And I should have been sorry to lose it, indeed. Thank you." Sarah felt that he meant it. He studied her face as keenly as she had done for him.
"Pray," he began, "but you look so familiar. Have we met before?"
"I think not."
"Quite so, for I am sure I should remember you." It was his turn to blush, and once again, he tipped his hat and said goodbye. Sarah watched him cross the square, consulting the piece of paper now and then.
She was conscious of something having changed, as if the wind had suddenly begun blowing in a different direction. Nonetheless, she put her pad and pencil away, and started for the parsonage, only changing to a run when she heard the church bell chime the hour.
The sloppy lane that led from the main road to the parsonage was well trodden by the whole Morland clan. The children ran up and down it daily, to collect letters and greet passing travellers. Sarah herself knew it well. She knew when and where each flower would bloom and every dent in the road under her feet.
Today, the lane was dry and gritty, and the beginnings of the summer bluebells carpeted the verges. Small trees flanked the path, heralding the entrance to the Morland residence. Sarah followed the lane and opened the gate, humming to herself, and fingering the pencil in her pocket. She was resolved to go straight up to her room after dinner tonight and turn her sketches into pictures.
Ah! but the sudden sound of a piano's melody on the wind reminded her that they had guests. Taking a deep breath, she marched across the drive and approached the handsome parsonage. It was a sturdy, red bricked building, weather-beaten without looking ramshackle. Green ivy and red roses trailed up and around the windows, and it seemed as if it was truly part of the lush landscape of the Wiltshire countryside.
The piano music was louder now, and as Sarah stepped over the threshold, she realised that it was coming from the drawing room. She opened the door, and was greeted by a thousand and one voices over the tune. Her parents stood by the fireplace, cups in hand, chatting to the Allens, who were seated. Her younger siblings, and her baby niece, were playing with a cat in the corner, and clapping in time to the song that her sister Anna was playing. Her brother-in-law was standing by the window talking to two other men, one of whom was her brother, James Morland.
The cries of "Sally, dear where have you been?" were drowned out by Sarah's shout to her brother as she ran across the room to kiss James warmly.
"Oh, Jemmie, I have missed you. I did not even know you were coming back until yesterday!" James looked acutely embarrassed, despite the approving grins of everyone in the room. Even Anna had stopped playing and was watching.
"Well, Ned here wanted to meet you all, of course," he stammered. "And there was something I wanted to discuss with Mr. Tilney." He nodded to Henry, who was regarding Sarah with a smile.
It was when Sarah did this sort of thing - running into the room unannounced, throwing herself at her brother and causing a scene - that Henry was reminded of his own wife. Such exuberance and high spirits certainly ran in the family. He started inwardly at this thought and peered at his daughter in the corner with a frisson of alarm.
Sarah did not notice Henry's smile, or the conversation starting up again around her. She was looking once again into the face of a stranger. The very stranger whom she had seen not ten minutes ago. He stared back, and then looked to James, as if asking why they had not been introduced. Sarah interceded just as her brother began to make the introduction.
"My name is Sarah Morland," she said, and she curtseyed modestly. The man bowed.
"Edward Allen, at your service, miss."
Sarah frowned at that familiar name, and glanced towards the sofa, where Mrs. Allen was showing her mother the ribbon on the hem of her gown.
"I see my reputation does not precede me. Mr. Allen is my great uncle."
"I am sorry; I have never heard tell of you in Fullerton. I always believed the Allens had no relations living."
"I was brought up in London with my godparents and elder brother. My own parents passed away when I was a boy, and just recently, I have taken a living offered by my uncle in the neighbouring village to this one. To be frank, Miss Morland, I am not surprised you have never heard of me. Since my arrival, I have learned more about lace and brocade than I thought I would ever know."
Sarah laughed heartily at this. "Only brocade and lace! But what of muslin, silks or velvets? You ought to beware, Mr. Allen. Give it a day or so, and you will find there is nothing left to talk about."
"Who is talking about lace?" Catherine interjected. She had collected her daughter from the rug, and directed a conspiratorial wink at Sarah as she spoke. "I cannot believe that you, Miss Sarah Morland, have come to appreciate the attributes of lace?"
This was a fair statement. After all, Sarah had indeed never professed to know much about fashion at all, being much more in favour of muslin gowns that did not inhibit her ability to run or climb the occasional tree. But her cheeks flushed red all the same. She did not like the idea of Mr. Allen knowing such particular details about her.
"And what of that, Catherine? I remember a time when you were fonder of a good hill to roll down that a ribbon for your hair. And yet you changed did you not?"
"Aye, at the grand old age of seventeen. A girl can read all the novels that Richardson has or ever will publish, but if she has any knowledge to her credit, she must conceal it as well as she can - preferably under well-curled hair and a profusion of powder and paint. Why else indeed would Mr. Tilney have been interested in me?"
Henry Tilney caught this last remark and began with a "Well . . ." but a raised eyebrow and crafty smile from Catherine silenced him and he turned to Mr. Edward Allen.
"And what are your plans sir? Do you intend to stay in Fullerton for long?"
"I have business to discuss with Mr. Allen," he replied. "But I hope I shall stay above two weeks. From what I have seen, I think this village has much to offer." He looked tellingly at Mr. Tilney, who laughed, but James only looked puzzled and clearly did not quite understand Mr. Allen's meaning.
Sarah stared down at the floor, feeling as if her cheeks were on fire. She was not used to young men making such remarks in relation to her, and for the rest of the afternoon, she avoided speaking with Mr. Edward Allen. He had made her feel awkward, and she was horribly sure she would stumble or make a fool of herself in front of him. She drank her tea, played a middling duet with Anna, and joined in the argument between Catherine and Mrs. Allen about the necessity of young babies wearing woolen or cotton caps. The tenor of the debate escalated to the point where the Allens hastily took their leave, including the young Mr. Edward, with promises to see them at Mrs. Allen's party on Saturday. Sarah was standing waving goodbye on the porch when she was suddenly struck by how simpering and bashful she must have appeared. How frightful! Just like all those little wallflowers that she occasionally saw down in the village. All pinched curls and fluttering eyelashes. She could have cried for shame!
"Oh, Cathy," she stammered to her sister, who had handed Eleanor to Mrs. Morland, and linked her arm through Sarah's. "Did you think I behaved oddly today?"
"Oddly, why whatever do you mean?" Catherine's brow furrowed. She seemed as if to respond when her sister sighed dolefully and spoke again.
"Well, I sometimes feel so out of place; as if I should be somewhere else. You saw me at tea this afternoon. I don't know how to talk to young gentlemen - or anyone for that matter," she added. "I do try, you know. I do want to be congenial and articulate, but I continue to find myself incongruous to the company. All I want is to live quietly somewhere like you, away from parties, away from society people, away from . . ."
"Away from life itself?" Catherine finished. "Oh, Sarah, you cannot hide from such things. Girls like us do not marry because we have to, but because we choose to, because we fall in love with our husbands, we are . . ."
"Heroines?" teased Sarah in spite of herself, and Catherine poked her tongue out in reply.
" No, you understand perfectly well what I mean. There is so much fun to be had from settling, and rewards aplenty." She gazed off into the distance and Sarah was sure that Catherine was thinking of her baby girl. "Besides," she continued, "look at Henry and me. We live quietly in the country with little to disturb us. We see the society that passes our way with fun and humour, and that is good enough for us." She paused, apparently trying to find the exact words. "You see Sarah, life is what you make it. I know you do not want marriage or children just yet, but try and see that are not evils, designed to prevent one from enjoying life, but the very purpose of life itself."
Sarah raised her eyebrows. "Wise words. Have you been reading novels again?"
"I prefer to call it one of life's lessons," returned her sister. There was a pause, and Sarah was suddenly aware of how quiet it was. No carts, no birds, not a sound. Catherine abruptly spoke up again.
"I have a wonderful idea. Why not come back with us to Woodston on Tuesday next? Henry and I would love to have you, and you have not seen the parsonage since you came last."
Sarah's first thought was of Mr. Edward Allen, but this thought was swiftly replaced by the prosperous image of her sister's new home. Weeks of delights and country pleasures spread before her, and Sarah felt impulsively heartsick to leave Fullerton. She said nothing in the affirmative to Catherine, but promised to give the matter some thought over the proceeding days.
That evening at Fullerton parsonage was thus passed in merry company. Rooms were found for the Henry Tilneys, and it was ascertained that the baby would most certainly be very comfortable in the nursery, at which Catherine's mind was relieved somewhat. Mr. Morland and his son-in-law retired to the study with a bottle of port, and Sarah herself drifted off quickly into a happy sleep, dreaming of parsonages and fetes, with her sister's words ringing in her ears.
Later that week, Sarah could not remember the last time she had filled her sketchbook with so many diverting subjects. Following the Tilney's arrival that Tuesday, Sarah closely observed the travellers, peddlers and entertainers who appeared in Fullerton in Henry and Catherine's wake. Over the next few days, she filled her spare time - when Mrs. Morland freed her from shirt making and housekeeping instruction - with blissful walks through the valley and into the outskirts of the village. She did not see Mr. Allen, nor did she seek him out; only the chats between Mrs. Morland and Mrs. Allen kept her abreast of his whereabouts. He was in Barston, the nearby village, preparing his parsonage for the period after his ordination in June. Sarah heard him praised as a man of good sense by her mother, for he had decided to place his parlour facing to the south; Mrs. Allen commended his taste when she discovered his choice of curtain material.
These meager snippets of information were all Sarah heard of Mr. Edward Allen until Saturday, when she overheard Mrs. Allen announce that the 'dear boy' was returning that day for the little party she was holding. Sarah took no notice and carried on as usual. She went down to the river at the bottom of her garden and, hitching up her skirts, she sat and dipped her feet in the water. She had brought, not her sketches, but a copy of a novel she had found in her father's study; it was then her total immersion in the narrative that prevented her from sensing the presence of someone behind her. It took a cough from Mr. Allen - for it was indeed he - to make her look up, and pull her skirt over her ankles with a blush. He raised his hat, and apologised for disturbing her.
"I was just trying out some literature," she explained, tucking a stray curl behind her ear, and raising her knees and placing her hands on top. "Catherine recommended this one a while ago." Mr. Allen read the title.
"Are you not a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe then? I heard your sister praising her most highly."
"A little too fantastical for me," Sarah admitted. "They are hardly the most realistic of stories, wouldn't you say?" Mr. Allen nodded.
"Are you not carrying your sketchbook today?"
"How did you know I carried. . .?"
"I guessed, when I saw you with it in the square that day."
"Oh of course."
Mr. Allen enquired whether he would see her at the party that evening, and when she replied in the affirmative, he engaged her for the first dance. Tipping his hat, he continued on down the riverside, leaving Sarah alone, rather disappointed and with rather cold and damp feet. Perhaps the book in her hand had caused her to expect more of the young gentleman, yet she could not but help noticing that their conversation had hardly been the stuff of romance. Indeed, if Sarah had happened upon it on the page of a novel, she doubted whether she would have troubled to read it. Such a short and taciturn conversation - however pleasant - left her confirming inwardly that the language of heroines in fiction was precisely that - utter exaggeration and fictionalized up to the hilt.
The evening's entertainment only served to aggravate Sarah's belief. She arrived at Fullerton House, and was, as promised, engaged to dance the first with Mr. Edward Allen. They exchanged pleasantries; he talked of his house, and his plans for the future - the living in Barston was a good one, and it was his wish to farm his land and make his house a home. Sarah was vaguely interested, but was finding it extremely tiresome speaking in such a reserved mode. Small talk had always infuriated her, and she longed to ask Mr. Allen exactly what he meant by this or that.
She held her tongue however, and danced on. To her mother's amazement, she did not trip up all night. For once, Miss Sarah Morland was admired by all at the small assembly as a young lady very much like her sister; plain as a child, but "blossoming" to be certain. Catherine Tilney and Mrs. Morland were positively gleeful with the pride that only a female relation who has urged a girl to wear that ribbon or curl their hair that way can feel.
Sarah herself heard none of the praise. She danced a total of six dances with Mr. Edward Allen, and then sat the evening out at Catherine's side. She could not help but notice that when she had retired from the set, he did the same, only standing up when urged to by Anna Morland, who was but sixteen this year, but appeared to be enjoying herself the best of the Morland party.
When Sarah awoke on Monday morning, it was only just daybreak, and she at first wondered what had woken her. The sounds of people downstairs reminded her of their guests, and it was then that she remembered the May Day fete.
Hurriedly, and paying little attention to neatness, she dressed and arranged her hair, and after consideration, added a length of white ribbon to her blonde curls. Hopefully, no one would notice and tease her about it, but somehow, it felt - and looked - right for today.
Downstairs, her mother and father presided over breakfast , which was heaving with bacon, warm bread and every good thing that characterised Mrs. Morland's table. Sarah excused herself as soon as was polite and made her way to the front door. She was just putting on her jacket and hat when her mother's footsteps sounded behind her.
"Sally dear, now I told you yesterday that you were not to go to the fete on your own. We are all to go together."
Sarah had no recollection of this fact, but decided it was best to comply. She stripped her jacket off, and, for the want of something better to do, went into the garden whilst waiting for the others. The grass was wet with dew, but already the summer sun was out and promising to make it a warm and sunny day. Sarah sat on the bench that overlooked the fields, and for a moment thought of getting out her sketchbook. But she did not feel like drawing all of a sudden. In truth, her desire at that moment was to see Mr. Allen. Sarah had had little contact with young men, and although never shy, she was always conscious of every error and indiscretion. At assemblies, young men danced with her, but took their leave at the earliest opportunity, leaving her to regret ever deigning to come to these wretched balls. This Mr. Edward Allen - Ned, as her brother had called him - seemed different somehow. He had seen her at her most candid, playing clumsy duets with Anna, making conversation and telling people exactly what she thought, even ankle deep in river water, reading vulgar novels; yet his regard for her seemed sound; never once had he politely turned away, rolling his eyes, assuming that she could not see. Sarah was not ignorant and she knew enough of her own feelings to sense that she was struck by this young man somehow. This sensation being foremost in her mind, she became more eager than ever to get to the fete.
It took another hour and a half for the Morlands and Tilneys to ready themselves for the outing, and by this time Sarah was rather agitated. They had promised to meet the Allens at the opening ceremony, and she was petrified they would be late.
They were not late of course. The lopsided processional line they formed along the lanes down into the village entered the town square just as the clock struck ten. The entire Fullerton population had, it seemed, condescended to attend, and the speeches were made and the ribbon was cut hastily, clearly the sooner for everyone to enjoy the festivities. Sarah soon found the Allens out for her parents, but to her alarm, the younger Mr. Allen was not to be found.
"Where is your nephew?" she asked Mr. Allen, over the noise of the fete, as well as Mrs. Allen's cries of joy over Catherine Tilney's gown.
"Oh, he is somewhere here," Mr. Allen replied. "I believe he had a letter to collect."
This information was of no use to Sarah. Still, she was resolved for the time being to act as naturally as possible. Taking hold of the hands of her nearest siblings, she proceeded to make the best of the situation, and enjoy the event's amenities. The children grew irksome and fidgety attached to their elder sister, and Sarah soon released them to chase the baby animals they had exclaimed at earlier. Once more free and solitary, she was at leisure to enjoy and observe the fete. Fullerton had done itself proud. Garlands and streamers flapped and danced overhead from trees to chimneys and back around trees again. Below, in every corner of the square, and spilling over into the adjoining streets were tables and stalls filled with food, drink and games. There were beer tents - which Sarah wisely gave a wide berth - and a large counter where the landlady of the 'Rose and Crown' was ladling out milk and lemonade to those begging for it. Near the centre of the square was a woman up from London - someone's distant cousin, it was rumoured - who was peddling rosewater, lavender wrapped in muslin cloth and other beauty aids, which Sarah also passed on by, although she laughed at the ladies of Fullerton who were clamouring to buy the woman's wares. Walking near the games stalls, Sarah could hear opposing cries of frustration and joy as people were both lucky and unlucky. Hoops and balls were thrown at bottles of port, seashell necklaces and boxes of sweets that stood on plinths that must have seemed to the player miles away and impossible to win. Soon, Sarah noticed people carrying bushels of fruit and garlands of flowers that they had clearly won one way or another; at the very least, most people had a glass of cider or punch to drink. After half an hour's observation, Sarah dug in her pocket for her purse and after spending several pennies of the money she had saved, procured various prizes on the tin can alley, to the delight of the onlookers. A bushel of green apples, a small clay pendant and a smart box of pencils were amongst her booty, and she was on the verge of rolling up her sleeves to try for the little trinket box at the back, when a sharp tap on her shoulder caused her to sigh in exasperation, and she turned, ready to loudly reproach the culprit, when she recognised the face of Mr. Edward Allen.
"My apologies if I startled you," he said, raising his hat. "But if you intend to try for that treasure box there, you really ought to aim slightly to the left."
Sarah bristled and felt slightly embarrassed, then saw the twinkle in his eye and smiled. "And yet I was doing so well, was I not? I daresay you have interrupted and my luck will now change."
"Oh, I doubt it. I must say, I have seldom seen a young woman with a better arm. I challenge an Olympian athlete to throw a shot with greater aim."
"A childhood with James, I think you will find," replied Sarah, marveling at how easy this conversation was. "But I repeat, perhaps my luck will shortly run out."
"Then shall we take this way together? I believe I saw several people escape this way for some peace, and I think five minutes in a walking mode would rest your arm."
They fell into step together, and followed the street down to where the trees closed in over their heads, and the sounds of the festivities were drowned out as their surroundings dissolved into the landscape. Here and there, small groups of people were walking down the lane, chatting between themselves, some evidently either going or returning home with their prizes.
"I am sorry I did not see you earlier," Mr. Allen began. "But you see, I had to send a letter to a friend and it was rather urgent."
"There is no need, I was looking forward to the fete anyway. It was nice to meet you again though nonetheless." She paused. "What was your letter about?"
"You are very inquisitive, are you not? And we all know what curiosity does. Since you ask, it was to my brother, advising him on a most important and delicate matter."
A smile passed his lips. "Oh, dear. I fear I have only served to increase your interest, and so I must continue. I have an elder brother, Miss Morland, in the Army at present, but it is he who will inherit the estate of your neighbour, Mr. Allen, upon his death. This brother, I assure you, is one of the best and most honourable men you could meet. Solid, dependable, but rather too trusting of everyone, I consider. He sees only the best in those around him, and you can imagine the consternation this often causes." Here Mr. Allen broke off, and stopped walking.
"Do you know of a Miss Thorpe?" He looked intently at Sarah for an answer.
"Of course," Sarah replied. "She was engaged to be married to James some while back, although I never met with her, something for which I am heartily thankful." It suddenly crossed Sarah's mind that this comment was hastily made, as she was uncertain as to Mr. Allen's relationship with her. He, however, did not seem to notice and carried on.
"You know then that she is the sister of an old acquaintance, of whom we regularly saw at Oxford. Nearly a fortnight since, I received a letter from my brother in Plymouth to say that he had formed an attachment to Miss Thorpe. She and her family are down there - for a holiday or by design, I know not. Knowing of her dealings with your brother, I wrote back, explaining the whole history of that young lady. I heard nothing for a further week, and it was only a few days ago that I received another letter, stating that they intended to marry. I instantly applied to James and we set off to Fullerton to explain the situation to Mr. Allen. Our intent was to collectively make him see sense. The piece of paper you saw me drop and so kindly returned to me that day was his letter, filled with his earnest hopes for his fiancée and assurances that all would be well."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"It was just now that I received a reply from him. James sent his version of events in Bath some time ago, and on prompting of this, he confronted her, I believe, and she has broken the engagement. I am telling you because I see that you are a person with good judgment and sense, and I want you to tell me truthfully if we have done the right thing."
"I wonder that you ask me!" Sarah replied. "when you know my feelings on Isabella Thorpe. From what I have seen and heard, I consider her sharp, devious and utterly unsuitable for any of those unhappy men. Marrying for money, broken promises and trickery - why it is all the stuff of novels! In my opinion, one had better not marry at all, and so save oneself from such hardships and pain."
Mr. Edward Allen gazed at her for a second or two and then nodded his head.
"I see." He suddenly took out his pocket watch and examined it. "Please excuse me," he announced, rising, and returning the watch to his waistcoat pocket. "Your family will no doubt be wondering at your absence, Miss Morland. You will excuse me, but we ought to return to the fete."
And with that, he bowed slightly, and walked off towards the village. Sarah bit her lip, and silently cursed herself for being so thoughtless. Instantly, she picked up her skirts and ran after him, shouting his name at the top of her voice. He stopped and looked round to see her chasing him, and come to a halt, gasping for breath.
"Forgive me, Mr. Allen. You ought to know my ways by now. I say what I think, even to strangers."
"I am not so strange, am I?"
Sarah smiled, and he did the same.
"Do you really think that one ought not to marry at all?" he asked tentatively. Sarah sighed, and pulling off her bonnet, sat down on the grass with a thump.
"I used to. I thought it was best to hide away amongst hills and trees, and avoid making an idiot of myself." She laughed suddenly, and Mr. Allen sat beside her.
"Do you know, when I first sat down at a tea party given by my mother, I spilled the contents of my cup down my dress within two minutes. Between then and now, I have also managed to trip, fall and talk my way into embarrassment at every moment. Thus, I find it easier to sit and draw what I see."
"So you only observe and never take part?"
"Exactly. But these past few days . . ."
"You feel as though you would like to?"
"Perhaps." She paused and glanced around her, at the trees, water and meadows that were as familiar to her as the back of her hand. "But I think a change of scenery would be good. My sister has invited me to be a guest at Woodston when she returns home; I am resolved to go with her."
Pounding footsteps from the path interrupted Sarah, and they both turned to see a young Morland munching a piece of fruit, calling out that it was time to go back home. Behind him, Sarah could see her family trailing up the hill towards the parsonage, and she stood up, her cheeks flushed. Mr. Allen did likewise. Sarah made a short curtsey.
"Thank you for a delightful walk, Mr. Allen. "
"It has been a pleasure, Miss Morland." Sarah picked up her bonnet and began to stroll smartly in the direction of the path. She then stopped abruptly, and felt in the pocket of her dress. She drew out an object - her treasured sketchpad, and impulsively, she tore out a piece of paper from the middle and handed it to the young man.
"This is for you," she said clearly. Mr. Allen frowned and studied the article. It was a drawing done in pencil of them both, on the day they had bumped into each other in the village square. Sarah smiled to herself - she had drawn it carefully from memory when she had returned home that day after tea. It was all there, captured in a tableau of potential and promise; garlands waving in the background, people in deep conversation at the back, and animals padding over the cobbles. But the focus of the scene was Sarah and Mr. Allen in the foreground. Both were frozen in time, Mr. Allen consulting his letter, Sarah, brow furrowed as she sketched - unaware that they were about to collide. It was undoubtedly Sarah's finest drawing, but it somehow felt appropriate to present it to him.
This small gift was accepted , and the paper went into his coat pocket. Mr. Allen raised his hat, and for a second or two, their eyes made contact. A small 'thank you" formed on Sarah's lips, and then she was gone, striding out of the copse and onto the path, humming a contented tune as she went.
The reader will perhaps excuse a few omissions in the details and daily particulars that took place between May Day and Sarah's departure into Gloucestershire; for be assured that (as so often happens in the days proceeding a party) the atmosphere in Fullerton became rather dull and uninspiring. The draper's daughter became engaged to a London clerk, and a dozen chickens were stolen from the butcher, that is all. The reader will therefore allow us to move posthaste towards our heroine's departure day.
Sarah, for her part, had been in extremely high spirits since the fete; to be sure her family scarce knew who she was. No doors were slammed in temper, no china rattled in haste, and moreover, she presented come laundry day linen that was uncharacteristically free from mud. Indeed, Sarah had not climbed a tree for nearly two weeks. She had finished her novel (and had found it unbearably boring), and sketched some of the newer summer flowers, but her time had been chiefly spent locating a suitable packing trunk, and then filling it.
Sarah had seen Mr. Edward Allen many times since their walk together, and every time he had cordially tipped his hat and asked her health; she replied equally politely. The last time she saw him was at a musical evening, where he sat beside her and heartily wished her a pleasant journey the next day, and expressed hopes that she would not entirely forget Fullerton. She was touched by his sentiments, and promised that she would be back soon, in order to inspect his new home at Barston.
The next day thus saw her removal to Woodston. There were no tender tears shed, nor sobbing remonstrates to write home often and plentifully. All the family assembled to bid Sarah farewell with tolerable control and restraint, and Sarah was extremely glad of this. Her journey spread before her enticingly and she desired nothing more than to be gone as quickly as possible.
The one person who was causing delay was Catherine, who had not only left everything to be packed at the last moment (as was customary with her), but was repeatedly badgering everyone else with questions and requests. Had Henry remembered to collect his correspondence from the table? Would Mama please reply to the letter Catherine would send as soon as possible? Did Sarah have enough gowns, for an evening at Northanger Abbey was more than likely?
However, even Catherine was ready to leave eventually and the Tilneys and Sarah clambered into the carriage and departed swiftly. All was silent amongst the travellers, as first the lane, then the main road to the village, then the little milestone at the entrance to Fullerton grew fainter and fainter in the distance. Henry Tilney then spoke:
"Well ladies, we are gone. Sarah, I observed that pensive young sigh. Are you quite well?"
"Tolerably, thank you. I am all eagerness to get to Woodston. that is why I sighed."
"Are you?" exclaimed Catherine, pulling her shawl around her daughter, who had gone to sleep. "I observed your sigh also, but thought that you were sad to be leaving."
Sarah laughed gaily. "You misunderstand me, Catherine. I am glad to be gone from home, even for a little while. I believe a change will be good."
"And so it shall" replied Catherine, "new things and variety! One cannot sit idle in the same place forever, where is the adventure in that?"
"But consider my dear," interjected Henry, "there are those to whom familiarity and routine are paramount to happiness. Without it, they feel alone and uncomfortable, wouldn't you say?"
Sarah saw the sense in this and applied it to herself. To what purpose was this journey from home? Was she seeking for a change, something different from her everyday habits; or was she going for other reasons? Everyone else had been keen to get Sarah to Woodston, even Mr. Edward Allen had wished her well on her trip. Adventure, excitement, variety seemed to be preferred - but what was so very wrong with her quiet life in Fullerton. With the village far behind her now, Sarah began to wonder.
Ironically, after changing horses at Petty France, Sarah found that she had seemingly exchanged one quiet life for another. They arrived at Woodston earlier than anticipated (the roads being unusually good), and as Henry helped his wife inside, Sarah gazed fondly at the parsonage.
It looked better than she had remembered, more homely and lived in. The plants had been given time to grow and settle, and already the garden bench looked as though it needed repainting. But no matter - it was lovely and inviting as always, and her sister and brother in law were welcoming her in.
Sarah was given her usual room, at the back of the house overlooking the garden. It was a simple room - clean, bright and someone had placed a posy of chrysanthemums on the table near the door. All this was surplus to Sarah's requirements; there was a bed, a washstand, a writing desk, so anything else was an additional benefit.
That first evening at Woodston was spend merrily - the Tilneys entertained Sarah well; after a plentiful supper, they played cards together and chatted as the world outside the window grew darker.
"Well my dear," announced Henry towards the end of the evening, "you know I must to Northanger tomorrow morning? Father is expecting me."
Catherine nodded in assent, and Sarah added, "And when might I be admitted to the hallowed chambers of the Abbey?" Henry laughed.
"Almost certainly in the next few days; I know my family are expecting you." He then stood up, and bade the ladies goodnight, adding that he would expect Catherine "soon, my dear." When he was gone, Catherine let out a giggle.
"Oh, Sarah are you not intrigued? You have never been to the Abbey before, have you? I must warn you, dearest, that it is rather . . . modern." Catherine uttered the word with more than a little disgust. "Do not prepare yourself for too much intrigue and adventure!"
"I daresay I shall cope," replied Sarah, slightly incredulous. The Abbey itself held little charms for her - what was there besides a few Gothic arches? (Sarah immediately thought of her sketchbook)
The sisters drank their drinks down, and said goodnight. As Sarah blew out her candle, and got into bed, it occurred to her that there might be something interesting at the Abbey - the inhabitants; for Sarah loved nothing better than a fresh group of people to observe, and as we have seen, observation is what she did best.
Mr. Tilney left for Northanger quite early the next morning, and Catherine and Sarah amused themselves in the morning by playing in the garden with the baby, who could not really walk, but with the help of her aunt and mother, was trying her best. It was a fine sunny morning with a light wind and the three had a wonderful time on the parsonage lawn.
Henry returned after lunch with some interesting news;
"We have all been invited to a dinner party at the Jamesons tonight, if that is agreeable to you, Catherine? Oh, and Father also invites you, Sarah, up to Northanger tomorrow night."
"Who are the Jamesons?" Sarah frowned, putting down her book with dread. The name conjured up all sorts of faces.
"A gentleman and his family who live on the other side of the village," answered Catherine adeptly. "They often try and hold a little dinner each week; they must have heard about you, for Henry and I usually go alone."
To Sarah, the day was now somewhat spoiled, for instead of being excited at the prospect of a party, she was rather nervous. A gathering in Fullerton was all very well, but she felt as though she was being fed to the wolves. Suppose these people were cold and judgemental?
Catherine noticed nothing of her sisters anxieties, and insisted on spending the afternoon finding clothes from Sarah's trunk. Marriage seemed to have turned Catherine into a terrible snob where clothes were concerned, and she dismissed virtually everything Sarah had brought.
"No, most definitely not. Oh dear, what can we do? You can wear one of my gowns, if you like?"
Sarah did not wishing to offend her sister, nor make the mistake of wearing something unsuitable (for were these not acquaintances of Catherine's?); a dress was found from Mrs. Tilney's wardrobe - a lemon coloured muslin with blue ribbon - and, when Sarah tried it on, it was not so bad after all. The neckline was lower than she was used to, and it was so tight that it forced her back straight, but it made her look very feminine, and even Henry whistled when he saw her, and said he was proud to have two such beautiful women as escorts that evening.
They set off for Elverley - the house of the Jamesons - and arrived exactly on time. Sarah was pleasantly surprised when they were shown into the parlour; they were only eight or nine other guests, most of whom were older than herself. At least six were couples (Sarah would have fun trying to match them later); one lady was clearly Mrs. Jameson, for she was currently gesturing widely at the furnishings of her parlour. Sarah had just identified an older lady and a young girl by the window, when the view was blocked by a large man with an even larger grin.
"Mr. and Mrs. Tilney! Always a pleasure, of course. And this must be your sister?"
"Yes," replied Henry. "Miss Morland, this is Mr. Jameson, a neighbour and benefactor of Woodston."
"Oh, Mr. Tilney, none of that! What else should I do but improve my little village. I was born here you know, Miss Morland, and if I did not spend my money on the old place, it would only give Mrs. Jameson more capital to spend on buying cushions."
Sarah had no ready answer to this, but tried to look sympathetic. Her reward was that Mr. Jameson saw she had a most pleasurable evening. The other dinner guests were all politeness and ease - they were intrigued by the revelation that Sarah was an artist, and one even expressed a wish to purchase her work. The dinner was a delight - nothing ostentatious, but wholesome and delicious food. Sarah could have been back home for the contentment she was feeling. As she was at the table however, she came to desire a conversation with the young girl at the other end of the table. She had also been spoken about as they ate - she had been introduced as a Miss Amelia Stevens, a friend of the family who was ward to her aunt, the lady whom she had stood with earlier. Sarah glanced over frequently at the only guest in the same situation as herself and longed to chat to her.
She got her wish when the meal was over; the ladies retired and decided to sing around the piano for a while. The two younger girls drew back from the instrument, and chose seats on the far side of the room.
"You are not musical, Miss Morland?"
"Not tonight. Perhaps when I am a little more used to the company, I might sit and thump out some tunes."
"Oh," returned Miss Stevens, "I feel much the same. I was quite nervous at the thought of coming out tonight. I live with my aunt, you see, and attend assemblies infrequently. . ."
Sarah was pleasantly surprised by the similarities between this girl's thoughts and her own. She learned that Miss Stevens was an orphan who lived in Devon with her aunt, a relation to Mrs. Jameson. This aunt was rather old, and did not care so much for balls and parties; Amelia therefore was left to her own devices, and such gatherings did make her rather timid.
They talked together for the rest of the evening, not stopping until it was time to go home, and Catherine parted her reluctant sister from her new friend.
And so Sarah found that society in Woodston was not nearly as bad as she had anticipated. The Jamesons were - amongst others in the parish - most hearty and welcoming hosts and there was some dance or dinner on almost every evening. Sarah found those who attended to be most affable and ebullient company, urging her to eat more of that game dish, dance one more time with their son, and walk out over Primrose Bridge yonder during the day; all the better for her to enjoy their beloved village.
To all this was added the society of Amelia, whom Sarah sought out every day, and it seemed that Amelia did the same. The two young ladies became not inseparable, for Sarah did not believe that spending all one's time with a person to be an expression of everlasting friendship; but they somehow attached themselves to one another whenever they met, and high spirited conversation inevitably ensued.
It was nearly three weeks after Sarah's arrival that one such conversation took place; they were at a dance in the town hall, which was a large, airy room with low black beams and a slight smell of ale. Sarah had stood up with one gentleman, and although she took pleasure in her partner's attention, one eye remained on Amelia, who sat upon a bench nearby. When the dance ended, Sarah came and resumed her seat next to her friend, and gasped for breath.
"A most energetic dancer, I declare!" (The gentleman in question had now taken up with another young woman and was dancing vigorously down the set.)
Amelia studied him. "But he is most handsome, and you looked so well together up there. Perhaps he might ask you again?"
"I should not accept anyway. I did not care for his manner - twice he asked me where I lived, and I believe he still does not know," returned Sarah contemptuously.
"He might have been nervous," ventured Amelia, who had rather liked the young man, and liked to see the good in most people. "In my limited experience, conversation when dancing is one of the most difficult things in the world to maintain. Oh, if only one did not have to speak, then all attention could be given to guiding one's feet!"
"You speak well enough to me, and I am the most demanding person I know," observed Sarah with a grin. "I am sure you find ample things to talk about to a dance partner; I find a short excursion on the topic of the weather an excellent talking point, myself. Come, is there no one whom you would like to converse with here?"
Amelia, all seriousness, surveyed the assembly, and resolved that the most agreeable man there was indeed Sarah's vigorous young partner.
"But do you not want to claim him yourself?" Amelia looked concerned, but Sarah shook her head; for there was no possibility that the gentleman could have any claims on her heart, which was already, she believed, full of someone else. They sat quietly together until the music ended with a flourish, and the gentleman appeared again, none the worse for his exertions, and asked for Sarah's hand. When she declined, he turned to Amelia, and they stood up to dance, leaving Sarah alone with a faraway look in her eye. She was not alone for long, however, as her sister soon appeared, determined that Sarah should not be on her own.
"Oh dear, Sarah, have you no partner? Still, Mr. Murray seemed quite taken with you - to ask you again, what an honour!" Mrs. Tilney looked hopeful.
"He has made no impression on me at all," answered Sarah and Catherine's face fell. She bit her lip, and alighted on a new theme.
"Can you believe that we have not brought you to Northanger Abbey thus far? I do not know what General Tilney is at - these London acquaintance cannot be so entertaining that he would snub all others who wish to meet him. I told Henry, you know, I am really quite affronted."
Sarah smiled to herself, for she knew that even if poor Mr. Tilney were to expect a objection along these lines, Catherine would never complain to the General's face. For her own part, she could not give a fig whether he wanted to see her or not. The 'London acquaintance' were guests from town, who included some people, Catherine believed, of aristocratic rank; did they feel it beneath them to greet a clergyman's daughter? Sarah truly was less than eager; on the contrary, it made her feel slightly ill.
She felt even more ill the following Tuesday, when Henry received a note from his father apologising for his tardiness in inviting them over formally, but he had been overrun, in his words, by house guests; as most of them had now returned to town, would they all care to join him for a little dinner that evening? The ultimate temptation in this letter was news that Mr. Tilney's sister had arrived that very morning with her husband, promising lively conversation and exquisite manners.
Henry, naturally, was determined to go and greet the Viscountess; Catherine on the other hand, was half flattered that the General so obviously needed their company to entertain him now the London set were gone, and half insulted that they had not been deemed interesting enough to meet said set.
And Sarah? As we have described, she fell into such an agitation of nerves that Catherine was quite afraid she had fallen ill. Once again, gowns were flung in all directions and gloves sought out as Mrs. Tilney took it upon herself to find yet another outfit for her poor sister. At half past six, the poor sister found herself shivering with fright in the carriage. Clad in a tight white gown, with a thread of red cotton running through it, Sarah looked like she was on the verge of death. Oblivious to the conversation about a black veil between her companions, she thought of the night ahead and shuddered. Sarah, for some reason, thoroughly disliked General Tilney, and had done since she had first seen him at her sister's marriage . Everyone else had bowed and scraped to him, agreeing with him, and laughing along with him when appropriate in the most awful sycophantic way; and he clearly loved it.
Things did not improve when they arrived at the Abbey. They were shown into the great parlour, where several figures stood or sat around the large figure of General Tilney. His clear deep voice rang out across the room, and Sarah heard the same voice, eating a piece of wedding cake, and booming out, "Very inferior, my daughter - that is the Viscountess, commissioned a patisserie from London for her wedding breakfast!" Right now the General stood in the centre, telling some yarn or other, while the others listened, enraptured. He stopped when the Tilneys entered.
"Ah, Henry, you're very late. I ordered dinner for a specific time - you should have been here fifteen minutes ago. Mrs. Tilney," he nodded to Catherine, almost begrudgingly. "And this must be Miss Morland." His eyes bore down upon Sarah. "You have grown, child. You were so young when I saw you last, and now I declare - quite a woman."
He licked his lips, and gestured around him. "Let me introduce you. You remember my son Lord Horton, Viscount Alderley, and my daughter, Lady Horton, the Viscountess." Sarah hid a smile - the General still relished his daughter's title, despite the fact that she seemed so unaware of it; even now, unbeknownst to her father, she gave Sarah a grin of encouragement.
"This," carried on the General, "is the Viscount's sister, Lady Augusta Lashford. A family friend," he added fondly, and Sarah regarded her, a thin, pale woman of about two-and-thirty, dressed in red fabric and holding a wine glass.
"And this fine fellow is Mr. Sullivan, an acquaintance of her Ladyship's." The name belonged to the final figure - a lithe, furtive-looking man seated next to Lady Augusta, whose black eyes were concentrated on the white figure of Miss Morland. He inclined his head, but continued staring.
The introductions were finally over and they all sat to dinner. To Sarah, who had become accustomed to the warmth and welcoming nature of the Jamesons, it was a painful experience. The food was elegant and fanciful, clearly brought out to impress the aristocratic guests, and the company was far from congenial. The dialogue was guided solely by the General, whom Sarah believed did not like anyone to talk of anything with which he was not acquainted himself. No one asked her anything about her own tastes or pursuits, and when Henry Tilney mentioned that Sarah was a good artist, the diners said nothing, whilst his father began talking about the picture frames in the upstairs gallery.
After dinner was no better; when the women retired, Sarah fervently wished that Miss Amelia Stevens were here, for only the Viscountess showed any signs of wanting to chat to her, and she was being plagued by Lady Augusta.
The men appeared after an hour or so, when Sarah was ready to fall over with fatigue. The Northanger party however, showed no signs of tiredness; the piano was opened, and the Viscount - a pleasant, affable young man - and his sister sat down and played a duet; the conversation stopped, and everyone turned to the piano to listen to the music. When they were finished and the applause had ended, Lady Eleanor got up and came and sat next to Sarah - whilst her husband continued playing.
"It is a pleasure to see you here tonight Miss Morland. I was afraid that it was too short notice - I did so long to meet with you again. Are you well? It seems an age since I saw you last."
"Yes, your Ladyship. We have not met since my sister was married," agreed Sarah, warming as she always did to Henry's sister. Heaven knew how such a man as the General had produced such gentle and amenable offspring!
"How did you find Fullerton when you left it? It was May Day beforehand - did you not celebrate?"
Sarah's mind recalled the image of her beloved home, and then of that face which was the last she saw in her mind before she slept. Nonetheless, she regaled the Viscountess with the details of the fete as best as she could, leaving out her meeting with Mr. Edward Allen. As she came to a close, she heard a sigh to her left from Lady Augusta, followed by a lazy drawl:
"Oh, Mr. Sullivan, I do not like these flowers at all!" She was standing by a small table, and toying with the petals of some flowers in a vase. She flicked carelessly at them. "I do not know what the General is thinking to have such ugly blooms in his house. I shall recommend some others - for you know I have somewhat of a green thumb, and there are so many types of flora out at this time of year. What is that one that grows underneath my parlour window?"
Mr. Sullivan, sitting nearby with an amused half smile upon his lips, confessed his ignorance; Lady Augusta, however, was unimpressed.
"Tush! What do such men know about flowers? Oh , what could they be? They are dear little pink flowers, about this big . . ." She gestured with her hand, but still there came no answer from the party. Even Henry and the Viscount looked blank on the other side of the room. Suddenly, Sarah's voice rang out, as clear as a bell.
"If they are white with pink at the edges with dark green leaves and bright yellow pollen, they might be crab apple; otherwise, I think you will find it is beech flower - they are pinker, and the leaves are bigger. Both bloom at this time of . . ."
But Sarah's sentence hung unfinished in the air as she saw everyone's expressions. Henry and the Viscount looked impressed, and extremely diverted, but hid their mirth well, save for a raised eyebrow or two. Catherine and Eleanor looked slightly alarmed, and darted looks at the General, who seemed extremely indignant that she had dared speak. Lady Augusta's countenance was a joy to behold - her was contorted into a white frown of indignation and anger. Her lips were pursed and her eyes wide - she looked absolutely furious to be upstaged by someone like Sarah.
Henry's soft, assured voice spoke up, changing the subject and diverting everyone's attention; Sarah only heard them all turn away, because she was staring hard down into her lap, twisting the hated red-streaked dress in her hands. How humiliated she felt! It was like one of her worst nightmares had been re-enacted, for no one else now would talk to her, for certain! Her sister, brother-in-law, host, even Lady Eleanor had picked up on Henry's new topic of the theatre, leaving her flushed, alone, and ready to cry; all the more so when she realised that Henry was being diplomatic for her sake.
It was indeed a long time before Sarah forgot the embarrassment of that night at Northanger Abbey. Due to the lateness of the evening, the General had invited them to spend the night rather than drive back to Woodston, so Sarah had ample time to think about it over and over, as she lay in one of the smaller guest bedrooms that night. The age and antiquity of the room - for it was the very one that Catherine Morland had stayed in all that time ago - did nothing to divert Sarah's thoughts; she could have been lying in a manger of straw for all the difference it made. How stupid could she be? No one had asked for her opinion - why would they? She was a provincial girl, and as a rule, was proud of it, but that mattered little to these people, that much she now knew. Her eyes stung with tears in the darkness, as for once in her life, Sarah Morland wished fervently that she was someone else; not Lady Augusta, but perhaps the Viscountess? Yes, she always knew exactly what to say, no one ever derided her. These musings and dreams kept Sarah awake until the early hours, when she fell asleep, exhausted.
To her immense relief, the Tilneys desired to leave early in the morning, and so it was with rather red eyes that Sarah bid farewell to the party at the Abbey. Not one said anything about the night before; the Viscountess squeezed her hand sympathetically while her father was occupied with the horse and carriage, and Mr. Sullivan emphatically wished her a very pleasant journey, but nothing else. Sarah was rather disturbed by this young man; her temper was not at its best, and she felt like asking him outright why he stared at her so intensely. Knowing however, that candour was not welcomed here, she held her tongue.
Lady Augusta was conveniently absent; Sarah privately hoped that she had somehow gotten lost in the labyrinth of corridors in the Abbey, and ended up locked inside some abandoned cloister. These acidic thoughts buoyed her as they departed in the carriage, and Sarah felt her entire body relax as they drove away through the countryside.
Henry said very little, but Catherine was full of details about the London visitors: Lady Augusta, she had been informed by the Viscountess, was a widow, her husband having died not a year after they had married, leaving her with rather a lot of money. Sarah felt that he had had a lucky escape. Mr. Sullivan, Catherine announced, was a friend of the Viscount's - they had attended Cambridge together, and despite his father having been in trade, was now a gentleman and lived very comfortably in a house near Manchester.
"What a very handsome man, I thought, did not you, Henry?" asked Catherine, and Henry nodded absently, his head buried in the newssheet he had borrowed from his father. "Do you know, sister, I think he was quite taken with you!"
"You say that about everyone," answered Sarah dully, and shivered again. This carriage really was rather draughty, she thought as they neared Woodston.
Continued in Part 2
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