Saturday, December 15, 2018

AMELIA WEBSTER: Chapter 4 of a forthcoming novel

Here is the fourth 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.

Such was the meekness of Sally Hervey’s demeanor that no one gave serious consideration to her committing any impropriety; for surely, quiet and as demure as she was, any tendency towards the illicit was beyond her.
And yet Sally Hervey was on her way to meet her lover.
She was not entirely lost to respectability; she did not exult in the certain knowledge that those she passed on her way out of the village would never—in the unlikely event that they minded her at all—suspect her of such wildness. She did, however, thrill to her own guilt; for Sally Hervey was a romantic, and what she loved best were transports of feeling, and no matter whether those feelings caused her pain. 
It is difficult to account for this strange cast to Sally’s character; for she had passed her sixteen years without anything occurring to threaten the regularity and respectability of her upbringing. Yet perhaps it was exactly this; for where another girl—such as her sister Maud—might find solace in so sheltered an existence, Sally found it an abyss of boredom. She craved excitement and danger, and took exception to the quotidian rounds of Rovedon society, which offered her nothing but a dreary, chirping sameness. She took her revenge upon such banalities by withdrawing into herself, refusing to participate or even, to the extent possible, to bear witness to the communal life that played out all around her; hence, her reputation for stillness.
But within her breast there was fire and fury, and a longing for the kind of ecstasies earned only by the embrace of great risk. And so she had rejoiced to receive, from a small village child sworn to secrecy, a note from Mr. Bar, requiring her to meet him this morning at three-quarters past eleven, on the back road from the village that led to the Barrett farm, beneath the shelter of the willow just south of the mill stream. It was a place Sally knew well—it was a place everyone knew well—yet it was a road rarely traveled, and the willow would provide them cover. It was not safe—discovery was entirely possible—but that lent the prospect its exquisite flavor.
As Sally crossed over the stream, her breathing quickened and her heart sounded in her ears, for she could just see the outline of Mr. Bar’s form against the light filtering through the drooping branches. With each step he came into greater and clearer focus; and Sally was once again surprised by the phenomenon of Mr. Bar being in actuality so much less appealing to her taste than he was in her imagination—for he was very tall, very gaunt, and very respectable. He bowed when she parted the curtain of willow sprays to join him, and in bending seemed half likely to break; he was a stiff, brittle man, careful and circumspect. His love for Sally was, it seemed, the only daring thing about him.
And Sally’s love for Mr. Bar? Tellingly, she had found him wearisome company when he first had paid court to her. Yet when he persisted in his attentions, past the time when his uncle, Mr. Lewes, urged him instead to pay court to Miss Webster, Sally’s appreciation for him blossomed. He had, in defying his benefactor (albeit in secret), shown himself to have a nature sharply at odds with the dutiful, dignified character he put forth as his public face. Mr. Bejnamin Bar, to her sheer wonderment, was a creature of passion.
And yet today, behind the veil of willow, obscured from view and more isolated from society than they had ever been before, he did not seize the opportunity to pull her into his arms and steal a wanton kiss. He greeted her, in fact, no differently than he might were they to cross each other in the high street: a briskly doffed hat and an inquiry after her health, and those of her family.
When he was reassured of her relations’ continued salubriousness, he said, “I thank you for having agreed to this rendezvous, Miss Sally Hervey; for it shows that you are an excellent walker.”
“Why, Mr. Bar,” she asked, “should my proficiency at walking be gratifying to you?”
“Because,” he said, “a distressing alteration has been made to our previous arrangement. Young Lynch”—the apothecary’s boy who had been their trusted go-between—“has achieved sufficient age to comprehend his value to us; and so he has demanded that henceforth he be paid tuppence for each message he carries.”
“Ah,” said Sally, already weary at the mere mention of figures, which she detested. “And is that so mighty a sum?”
“Not remotely; all the same, I must not pay it—for it will inspire him to ask for yet more, and then more thereafter. I will have no hand in feeding his nascent avarice.”
“That is very commendable, Mr. Bar,” she said. “But I do not see what relation this has to my being a capable walker.”
He directed her attention to a knot in the trunk which had partially rotted out, so that a depression was at its center; a cavity, Sally saw at once, just capacious enough to enclose a note, if folded small enough.
“I mean for us, henceforth, to communicate through missives secreted in this willow,” Mr. Bar explained. “And such a scheme will only succeed if it is within your power to come to this spot, and retrieve my letters to you, and deposit yours to me.”
Sally could not but frown. “I am glad that such an excellent scheme need not be abandoned by any infirmity of mine; but I think, Mr. Bar, you might have evaded such a risk entirely by choosing a tree closer to Rovedon, which would not commit me to so lengthy a walk as this. For we are some two-and-a-half miles beyond my father’s house, and”—the thought now occurred to her—“but a quarter-mile from your own abode.” Indeed, she could see the topmost gable of his father’s house, just peering above the roof of the Barrett farm.
“A tree nearer to Rovedon would involve an increase in risk,” he said—rather drily, Sally thought; for the notion of increased risk was very thrilling to her. “Aside from which, my dear Miss Sally, I cannot but think your delicate constitution might benefit from regular exercise, and that your color and general brilliance will be improved by daily, or twice-daily excursions.”
“Twice-daily!” Sally exclaimed. “Mr. Bar, were I to come twice daily to this tree, I should not have time to read your letters, much less reply to them. I should be forever on the path, going one way or the other.”
He smiled. “How prettily you exaggerate! But come once a day, if that is the limit of your ability; we shall thus learn to endure expectation, and that cannot be a bad thing.”
Sally, who had thought at first that Mr. Bar’s tree might provide a destination for every second day, or third, permitted herself an unworthy thought of giving Mr. Bar a lesson in expectation that exceeded his most liberal notions; but then she banished it. For she had news to impart.
“I am glad you entreated me to meet you this morning, Mr. Bar,” she said, “for my sister Maud has just told me that Mr. Webster is to host a dance in Hadway, and that Miss Webster means to use the occasion to choose at last between her suitors.”
On the path to the willow, Sally had rehearsed this scene in her head; and each time she did so, Mr. Bar had responded to the intelligence by growing quite crimson in the face, and swearing that he would never demean himself by submitting to being selected from a lot, like a stallion, and then insisting that Sally run away with him that very night, to Gretna Green, where they would make Miss Webster’s impertinence a thing of the greatest possible irrelevancy.
Sally was in fact not certain wanted to run away with him; nor that, if petitioned to do so, she would be persuadable. But she was very, very certain that she wanted him to ask. So she was rather crestfallen when, instead of succumbing to a passionate lover’s choler, he merely smiled and waved away the news, as if it were a midge that offered no more than mere annoyance.
“That is a thing easily avoided,” he said. “I will simply send my regrets.”
“You mustn’t,” said Sally; “that will only postpone Miss Webster’s decision! And it may do worse yet, Mr. Bar; for you do not know young ladies’ minds. We are always certain to want that which we cannot have. With my brother George at hand, and you far away, Miss Webster will be certain to think longingly on you, and despise George for his availability.”
He frowned. “It may be as you say. I will come, then. But I have paid Miss Webster only the most perfunctory of suits. It is very vexing that she insists on ascribing to me more ardor than I have shown.”
Sally blushed; for it felt to her, at times, that she had seen not much ardor from him, herself. “You know her character,” she said. “She will see what she wishes to see. She always has done.”
“Well,” he said, reaching into his waistcoat pocket, “I will think on it. In the meantime, Miss Sally, I ask you to do me the favor of accepting a small token of my esteem.”
Sally hoped he might produce something warm and fragile, like a robin’s egg he had fetched from a nest by climbing a tree on his way here, or a small spray of wildflowers he had stooped low to pluck while thinking of her. But what he produced instead was a miniature, set in a locket; it was a portrait of himself, not very well done, alas. The set of his features made him appear to have just swallowed something not altogether agreeable.
“Look upon it when you wish me with you,” he said grandly, “and it may do something to ease the longing.”
Sally was beginning to realize that in fact, she most longed for Mr. Bar when he was right in front of her; for he rarely accommodated himself to the Mr. Bar she required him to be, and that she maintained him to be in her absence. But she thanked him all the same, and by the time she returned home, her youth and natural optimism, along with the feeling of the sun on her face and arms, had persuaded her that the interview had been a successful one, and that Mr. Bar’s reserve was actually a carefully tended barricade, erected for her safety, lest she be overwhelmed by the power of his feeling for her.

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