Here is the second installment of Amelia Webster—which, like my previous novel, Edgar and Emma, is based on a three-page story written by the juvenile Jane Austen.
The choice between Mr. Hervey and Mr. Bar was a difficult one for Amelia, but not because she felt sincere affection for both; indeed she would be hard pressed to name an endearing quality of either, so fully did she see them as mere appendages to herself.
The difficulty lay in weighing the variant effects of such a choice. Amelia was inclined to reward Mr. Bar’s diligence with her hand, because he would very soon be in a position to adorn that hand with every variety of bauble. She had grown up very comfortably, and would have fifteen hundred pounds a year when she was wed; but she was shrewd enough to intuit that her ambitions were beyond the range of such a sum. Mr. Bar, once he came into the bequest of his ailing uncle, would be more than able to meet her expectations.
But there were advantages to Mr. Hervey, as well; the chief of which was that in choosing him she should gratify the wishes of Maud Hervey, who was her particular friend—whereas in choosing Mr. Bar she should offend Maud and perhaps lose her society for ever. Amelia had spent many hours weighing her friend’s value to her, and wondering whether she might do just as well without her; but she had an uncomfortable suspicion (very small, but very real) that she was not a flavor to please every palate, and that absent Maud, she might find herself with no confidante of any kind.
The additional argument in favor of choosing George Hervey was the gentleman himself. Amelia had always rather liked him, and had enjoyed affectionately teasing him when they were several years younger, and he quite small and boyish. She had meant for him to answer her girlish mockery with deep blushes and pleas for mercy; he surprised her by responding instead with dignity and disdain, and shunning her society. His recent return from abroad found him unchanged in this regard; for though he consented to call on her—as of course he must, as she alone in the village merited his attentions—he displayed no warmth or regard for her, and indeed often seemed resentful of her power over him. It would be very satisfying to humble such a man by tethering him to her for ever, and rendering him her servant in all things.
But she wondered whether, over the course of many years, such satisfaction might pall; whether the delight of reducing proud George Hervey to her plaything might diminish as its novelty faded—especially should she be obliged to encounter, as surely she must, another woman filling the role she had chosen against: a very rich and very happy Mrs. Benjamin Bar, riding by in a brand new barouche, dazzling in her finery. How was that to be borne?
Even worse, such a future Mrs. Benjamin Bar was very likely to be Sally Hervey, Amelia’s junior and in so many ways her inferior—lacking brilliance, wanting spirit, and woefully deficient in accomplishment. It was not forgotten, certainly not by Amelia, that Mr. Bar had once been seen to be very attentive to Sally, and had only “given her up,” as the village gossips put it, when Amelia’s family fortunes altered so fortuitously. Since then, Amelia alone had enjoyed Mr. Bar’s gentlemanly attention. But were she to relinquish him in favor of George Hervey, it seemed likely that he would go back to dour, timid Sally—and Amelia would suffer the embarrassment of seeming, despite all her finer qualities, to have been courted by him merely for her family connexion, and not for herself.
In short, while she quite relished having two swains in active competition for her hand, the idea that her choice between them was a matter crucial to the happiness of neither, was deeply vexing; even worse was the possibility that it should appear so to anyone else.
She sighed, and for a fleeting moment wished that there were a third gentleman in the mix, whose prospects for her own happiness offset the disadvantages incurred by dispatching the others; but of course there was none. Not unless she determined to pry elderly, fussy Mr. Pierce away from his equally ancient and eccentric friend, Mr. Fitzmark—or vice-versa; though many before her had tried and failed, and by now it seemed scarcely worth the effort. Conversely she might resolve to wait for young Will Manners to attain his majority; but given that, at fourteen, Will’s preoccupation was with laying elaborate traps for highwaymen—none of which had ever ensnared anyone but once, when the unfortunate Mrs. Foster had gone off the beaten path in search of her errant pug, Julie, in an episode that became instantly infamous in the village—Amelia could not but conclude that the time required for Will to reach the age of a creditable suitor was likely insufficient to render him a worthy one.
All things considered, it seemed to Amelia that the two birds she had in hand were better than the poor, twittering specimens yet lurking in the bush.
After she had dressed, she went down to breakfast—a repast which her parents, being early risers, had already taken, but at which they lingered, nursing cups of tea, so that Amelia need not sit at table alone.
“Good morning, my dear!” said her father, both in conventional greeting and in a hopeful attempt to prejudice his daughter that the morning indeed bore no fault.
But he need not have worried, for as noted, Amelia’s temper was already set. “Good morning, Papa,” she replied as she unfolded her napkin over her lap. “I have just been thinking how much I should enjoy a dance. You will not object,” she continued as she applied jam to her toast, “to making the necessary arrangements?”
Mr. Webster knew from past experience that when his daughter spoke the words, “You will not object,” it was less in inquiry than in commandment. He also knew the consequences of resistance, which would be very long, very noisy, and very much futile.
“A dance, my dear?” he said carefully. “Why…that is a fine idea. I wonder how it might be done.” He darted a desperate look at his wife, which she understood to be his entreaty for her aid.
“That will be a challenge indeed,” Mrs. Webster offered, “for regrettably there are no assembly rooms in Rovedon.”
Amelia attractively daubed a toast crumb from her lip and said, “That is nothing; for have you not told me more than once, Mama, how when you were a girl you delighted in dancing at the assembly rooms in Hadway? And that is but three miles distant. I am certain they must be as yet available and in excellent repair; for your girlhood was not so very long ago.”
“Ah, that may be so,” said her mother, who was equally mindful of not crossing her child. “And it is an ample room, as I recall; it would comfortably accommodate ten couples.” She sighed. “Alas, I cannot for that reason but think it much too large for our present needs—as between yourself, the Herveys, and Mr. Bar, we can manage but two-and-a-half couples.” She gave forth a sad little laugh, as if resigning herself to defeat.
But Amelia was not to be thwarted. “I have given that very matter some consideration,” she said. “Mr. and Mrs. Henning have been wed but a year; and I know Diana would love of all things to attend another dance, for she has told me she finds married life rather dull. So that will be an additional couple. And Papa, does not your friend Mr. Lillian reside not far from Hadway? And do I not recall that he has a son and daughter of an age to myself?” Mr. Webster had to admit that this was so. “Well, then; another couple yet. And as for the gentleman still missing to round out the numbers to five—surely there is a young man to be found somewhere who will do us the favor of attending.” She abruptly met their eyes and said, wielding an empty knife, “That was not the last of the marmalade?”
Mrs. Webster wasted not a moment in summoning the housekeeper, Mrs. Cavett, who with all speed set off for the kitchen, while Mr. and Mrs. Webster kept their daughter calm with reassurances of her imminent satisfaction, until Mrs. Cavett returned, quite breathless, with a new dish of preserves.
By this juncture, alas, the notion of the dance had had time to settle, becoming something more established than proposed; so that Mr. Webster had a difficult time in resuming a line of gentle argument—though he must try, for there remained the uncomfortable matter of its expense. He and his wife had from Amelia’s birth got into the habit of denying her nothing; but the cost of such affection had steepened as Amelia had grown older, and now her desires very often challenged their not inconsiderable means.
“I think the scheme an excellent one,” said Mr. Webster in gentle tones, “and only wish I were able to gratify you. Perhaps next year, in Spring?” When Amelia turned a cold eye on him, he hastened to add, “It is simply a matter of finances, child. I have suffered some reverses of late, as a result of which…”
His voice drained away as Amelia glared at him. “I have it in mind,” she said in a voice like cut glass, “to use the occasion of this dance to determine which of my suitors I will encourage to declare himself. But by all means, Papa, if a few pennies are of greater importance to you than the future happiness of your only child, I would not for anything discomfit you. In fact,” she said, decidedly pushing aside the dish of marmalade she had only just set the household into a tizzy to obtain for her, “I will do my own small part to encourage a greater economy by from this day forward taking no nourishment of any kind. I know that I do not consume much”—in fact Amelia’s appetite was that of her mother and father combined—“but I think the savings, over time, will be sufficient to afford you some relief.”
This was not Amelia’s first such threat; nor, as the memory of two alarming weeks in her fifteenth year confirmed, was the threat an idle one. Mr. and Mrs. Webster again exchanged a swift glance, and due to the mutual accord they had achieved over many years of wedded life, that single glance was able to convey a most complex sentiment. “Very well,” it said; “if our daughter means to choose a husband in this manner, then we may console ourselves with the knowledge that she will soon be gone from our household and into his—by which reasoning we might tighten our belts and provide her this dance, secure in the certainty that there will never be another.”
The concession was thus swiftly made; Amelia happily and heartily resumed her breakfast, and punctuated its ingestion with observations on which color gown would best suit her.