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The Man Who Loved Jane Austen
By SALLY SMITH O'ROURKE
Copyright © 2006
Sally Smith O'Rourke and Michael O'Rourke
All right reserved.
Chapter One New York City Present day
"Oh, now I do like this!" Eliza Knight exclaimed, though there was no one within earshot.
She brushed a thick layer of dust from the mirror of the scarred little vanity table and peered into the silvery glass. The sudden appearance of her own reflection startled her and she paused for a moment to regard the hazy image. The familiar face looking back at her was, she thought, if not exactly beautiful, then slightly exotic, with its high cheekbones, straight if somewhat narrow nose and full lips. Her dark eyes were, she confirmed, still her best feature, though she also liked her glossy black hair, despite the longish, flyaway cut she'd let her hairdresser talk her into a couple of weeks before.
Grimacing at the hair, Eliza stepped back to take a better look at the old-fashioned rosewood dressing table. In the hour or so that she had been poking through the clutter of the shabby West Side antiques warehouse that was allegedly open only to the "Trade," the vanity was the only thing that had caught her eye. She had spied it just moments earlier, crammed between an art deco floor lamp and a Jetsons pink 1950s Formica coffee table, and had immediately felt herself drawn to it.
Taking her eyes from the dulled mirror, Eliza scanned the rows of dusty merchandise stretching in every direction like a bad Cubist painting. She finally spotted Jerry Shelburn three aisles away. He appeared to be taking stock of an ancient gasoline pump with a cracked glass top.
"Jerry," she called excitedly, "I want your opinion. Come over here and take a look at this!"
Jerry had gotten them admitted to the wholesaler's warehouse through one of his clients, who ran a small freight-forwarding business. Now he smiled good-naturedly and waved back. He carefully replaced the brass nozzle on the gas pump before starting toward her, the round lenses of his wire-framed glasses glittering like little moons beneath the cold fluorescents of the overhead fixtures.
Eliza sighed inwardly as she watched him picking his way through the maze of old furniture, noting the extraordinary care he took not to soil his Old Navy khakis and spotless cotton pullover. They had met two years earlier, through an artist friend of hers, when Eliza had been looking for someone to manage the small investment portfolio her father had left her. Jerry had turned out to be an excellent manager, increasing the value of her stocks by nearly thirty percent in the first year and then shrewdly using the capital to secure the down payment on the condo that also served as her studio, thus eliminating more than half the taxes she'd been paying as a renter.
Somehow while all of that was going on they had started dating and then, occasionally, sleeping together. It was marginally comfortable and definitely low maintenance on both sides. There had been a few times in recent months when she had felt as though the relationship was either going to progress into something more serious or end altogether, and had to admit that it wouldn't really bother her that much if it did end. Feeling slightly mercenary, she consoled herself with the thought that at least her net worth had never been higher.
Turning her attention back to the vanity table, Eliza dragged it out into the aisle and slowly ran her strong artist's hands over the marred top. Despite its numerous scratches, the old wood felt comfortably warm to her touch. The slightly formal, squared-off design vaguely reminded her of a Georgian piece she'd seen in one of her antique guidebooks, and she wondered how old it really was.
"So, what rare treasure have you uncovered?"
Eliza raised her eyes to the mirror and saw Jerry adjusting his glasses to peer over her shoulder.
"Look," she said, stepping away to afford him a clear view of the vanity, "isn't it adorable?"
"I thought you were looking for a floor lamp," he said, barely glancing at the table.
"I was," Eliza replied peevishly, "but I really like this. It's kind of charming, don't you think?"
"Hmmm ..." Frowning as if he'd just been served a piece of tainted fish, Jerry leaned over and examined a tiny pink sticker that Eliza hadn't noticed adhering to the side of the vanity. "At six hundred dollars it's not that charming," he sniffed. "Besides, the mirror's a mess." Jerry straightened and gave her a patronizing wink. "As your investment counselor, I heartily recommend going with a lamp."
Chapter Two Fresh from a scalding shower, swaddled in her threadbare, old terry robe with her hair wrapped in a towel, Eliza stepped barefoot into her bedroom and regarded the prized vanity, which looked right at home among the mismatched collection of antique furniture filling the room.
"I really want your honest opinion now," she said, turning to look at the figure sprawled carelessly across the colorful patchwork quilt covering her Victorian-era four-poster bed. "Do you think I made an awful mistake?"
Wickham, an overweight gray tabby with a severe personality disorder, spread his considerable jaws wide and yawned to demonstrate his complete indifference to her question.
Not to be so easily deterred, Eliza scooped up the cat in her arms and crossed to the corner by the window, where Jerry had somewhat sullenly deposited the antique dressing table two hours earlier. The hazed rectangular mirror stood on the floor beside the table, leaning against the wall. After admiring the newly acquired pieces for a moment Eliza sank cross-legged onto the carpet before them, cradling the squirming cat in her lap.
"I think the whole problem with Jerry and our relationship," she explained to Wickham, "can be summed up in this table. Because when I look at it I see something warm and beautiful. But all Jerry sees is a piece of used furniture. You're a creature of discerning taste. What do you see, Wickham?"
Eliza smiled and scratched the special spot between Wickham's ears. The cat's yellow eyes rolled back in his head and he stiffened and moaned in ecstasy.
"My point exactly!" Eliza gloated. "Because, unlike you and me, Jerry has no soul, just a bottom line." She released her grip on Wickham, who leaped out of her lap and settled himself comfortably on the carpet.
"It really is a lovely piece," she said, gently reaching to stroke the satiny finish of an unscarred table leg. It needed major cleaning and some linseed oil but she was pretty sure that it was very old.
As Eliza carefully removed the single drawer from the table, setting it on the floor before her, she noticed that it was lined with now-faded pink wallpaper that still retained a floral pattern. Ignoring the liner, she turned the drawer around and examined the outside corners, which had been fitted together without nails.
The slightly irregular dovetails holding the sides of the drawer together meant they were obviously cut by hand, reinforcing her belief that the table was old, crafted before the age of machine-made, mass-produced furniture.
Eliza smiled ruefully, for though she was entirely correct about the dovetails, she had also exhausted virtually the entire store of knowledge she remembered from the NYU evening extension class she'd taken two years earlier on appraising antique furniture.
Nevertheless, she turned the drawer over to inspect the bottom, vaguely recalling something about being sure the wood colors matched or didn't match or something. The pink liner fluttered to the floor, coming to rest upside down on the carpet.
Interested at last, Wickham swatted at the crumbling paper. Eliza shooed him away and then stared in surprise at the liner. For adhering to its underside was another strip of yellowing paper densely covered in cramped black type.
"Look, Wickham, it's a piece of ... old newspaper!" she exclaimed, squinting to read the oddly shaped and embellished letters. "Listen to this," she breathed, tracing with her index finger a heavier line of print bannered across the top of the sheet: "THE HAMPSHIRE CHRONICLE, 7 APRIL, 1810 ... My God, that was almost two hundred years ago!"
Her attention now riveted by the partial sheet of ancient newsprint, Eliza carefully lifted it onto the top of the vanity and spent the next few minutes curiously poring over several tightly packed columns of ads for "Gentlemen's best quality silk cravats," "beneficial beef extracts," "drayage and forwarding" (whatever they might be), and a host of other mysterious products with names like Gerlich's Female Potion, calibrated boiling thermometers and India rubber goods.
When finally her eyes tired of squinting at the strange, old-fashioned print she gave the sturdy little table another cursory inspection. Then she knelt beside the mirror and stood it upright, noticing again with some dismay that the silvered surface was, as Jerry had pointed out in the warehouse, badly worn.
Cheerfully dismissing the hazing as enhancing the overall charm of the piece, she experimentally tilted the mirror toward her and was distressed to see that the wood backing on one side was pulling away from the frame. "Oh, great! The backing seems to be warped," she murmured to the cat. "Now give me some support here, Wickham. I'd hate to have to admit that Jerry might have been right after all."
Wickham stretched and meowed.
"Thanks," Eliza grinned. "I needed that."
She pulled the mirror to her and turned it around to get a better look at the damaged backing. To her relief, though, the visible gap appeared to be no more than six inches long. "Well, it's not as bad as I thought," she said. "I think it only needs to be reglued." With her fingernail she experimentally lifted the edge of the backing from the mirror frame in an attempt to determine how far the separation extended. As she did so, something fell out of the mirror and landed on the carpet with a soft plop.
Attracted by the sudden motion, Wickham leaped onto the fallen object and hissed menacingly. Eliza pushed him away and stared at the thing in surprise. She slowly leaned the mirror back against the wall, then reached down and lifted the fallen object into the light.
She remained frozen on her knees for several seconds, gazing at her hand while she tried to reconstruct what had just happened. For she was holding a slim packet of thick, sepia-toned paper tied together like a Christmas package with a crisscross of bright green ribbon.
"Good Lord," she whispered, letting her eyes dart back to the mirror and glimpsing her own puzzled expression.
Something swatted against her hand and she looked down to see Wickham resolutely batting at the end of the bright ribbon. Snatching her hand away from him, she got to her feet and examined the packet more closely. Held together by the broad ribbon, she saw, were two rectangles of folded paper. The one on top was smaller than the other and had been written across in reddish brown ink, the words obscured by the ribbon covering them.
"Letters!" she exclaimed.
Eliza turned the packet over and saw that the larger of the two letters had been sealed with a blob of shiny red material that she guessed must be sealing wax, though it looked like no other wax she had ever seen, having more the consistency of brittle plastic. Intrigued, she carefully untied the ribbon securing the packet, so that she could read the address on the top envelope.
"'Miss Jane Austen, Chawton Cottage' ... Jane Austen!"
Stunned by the name of the famous nineteenth-century author, Eliza paused and took a deep breath before she could read the remainder of the address on the letter. Jane Austen! Again she had to pause as her eyes raced ahead of her trembling lips. "'Jane Austen ~ Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Chawton Great House,'" she squeaked.
Eliza stood there on her bedroom carpet for several more seconds, silently reading and rereading the words inscribed neatly across the front of the smaller envelope.
The thoughts racing through Eliza's head at that moment were somewhat difficult to define. For although she would not have classified herself as a voracious reader, she was well-enough read, her tastes running largely to popular fiction with a smattering of respectable old favorites, ranging from the works of Agatha Christie and Damon Runyon to a few major poets and several classical novelists.
And, like many women, one of Eliza's very favorite novels, numbered among half a dozen well-worn books occupying the small shelf beneath her bedside table, was Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's timeless story of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's uncompromising quest for a perfect love.
Which is only to say that Eliza Knight knew precisely who Jane Austen was, and she certainly knew who Fitzwilliam Darcy, the purported recipient of the letter she now held in her hand, was, or at least who he was supposed to be.
With the letters in her hand she went to the bed and sat down. Gazing at the window, her reflection surrounded by a moonlit halo, Eliza's imagination swirled with what ifs and could it bes. She smiled to herself. Jerry would be laughing and berating her for such romantic notions and, in truth, as wildly romantic as the idea was, it was ludicrous, patently absurd; because the relationship suggested by the enigmatic address on the letter was flatly impossible. Darcy was, after all, a fictitious character, wasn't he?
Looking down at Wickham, who had followed her to the bed, she said, "Well, there's only one way to find out: read the letters."
In spite of her well-founded skepticism as to the authenticity of the letters, Eliza felt her heart trip-hammer in her chest and her hands tremble as she opened the larger of the two letters: the one that was addressed to Jane Austen from Fitzwilliam Darcy with the broad, scrawled pen strokes of a man's hand. She read aloud:
12 May, 1810
The Captain has found me out. I am being forced to go into hiding immediately. But if I am able, I shall still be waiting at the same spot tonight. Then you will know everything you wish to know. F. Darcy
Eliza paused to consider the meaning of those few sparse sentences. And when she began to read it over again there was a slight quaver in her voice. For this was not at all what she had expected. Though, on momentary reflection, she was not quite sure exactly what she had expected to find in Darcy's letter-some flowery romantic tribute, perhaps, or a poetic declaration of undying love to a lady fair. How odd ... being found out, going into hiding. What did that mean? Maybe the other letter was Austen's reply and so held the answers.
Slipping the first letter behind the other in her hand, she examined it with awe. The lovely feminine handwriting flowed across the page and, turning it over in her hands, she saw that the sealing wax was still intact, a fanciful letter A impressed into it. This one had never been read, maybe never sent. Why? Tracing the curves of the seal with the tip of her finger, she curiously experienced a tingling sensation that shot like a jolt of electricity through her body.
"Wickham, can you imagine what it would mean if the letter really was written by Jane Austen?" She looked at the cat, who was unconcernedly applying his long pink tongue to one of his wickedly clawed front paws. Eliza sighed, "No, of course you can't, you poor thing, you have no forehead."
Looking at the letter she turned it over and over again in her hands. If it was genuine and she opened it, she would forever be known as the stupid artist who ruined a historic document.
Before she burned her bridges, Eliza decided she needed to try and find out something about the fictitious Mr. Darcy. Maybe the Internet would give her the answers she sought.
Chapter Three In sharp contrast to Eliza's bedroom-which, with its eclectic collection of old wooden furniture, framed prints and warm fabric accents, could only be described as cozy-the living room of her small condo (actually the workroom and studio where she created her art and operated her Internet gallery) was all twenty-first-century business.
In front of the large window that allowed her to look directly into the wheelhouses of passing freighters on the East River were arrayed her white IKEA computer desk and drawing board, and beside them the wide steel filing cabinets, airbrush, paints and other equipment necessary to her work.
Hanging on the otherwise bare walls were several meticulous illustrations of the idyllic, flower-filled country landscapes and other natural and whimsical subjects in which she specialized.
Excerpted from The Man Who Loved Jane Austen by SALLY SMITH O'ROURKE Copyright © 2006 by Sally Smith O'Rourke and Michael O'Rourke. Excerpted by permission.
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