A light snow had fallen overnight, but it was not sufficient to delay Cassandra’s trip to Kintbury. Rather, it lent a glittering look to the landscape in the morning sun. John, the Austen’s manservant, was to drive Cassandra the entire way. After breakfast, as the carriage was loaded with bundles and gifts for the Fowle family, the Austens were more solicitous than usual when one of the family traveled.
“Take care, my dear, to relate our sincere prayers for God’s watchfulness over Tom and Lord Craven. And remember that the family will be no less sorry to see Tom leave than you. Turn your sorrow into service to your new family, then. And write to us often. Whatever we may do for them, we shall do, you may be sure,” Mr. Austen said at the doorway.
“I am only sorry that we cannot do more, but we have only two jars of strawberry jam left after the three you are taking,” said Mrs. Austen, shielding her eyes from the brightness. “The strawberries have not been as plentiful this year, you know. I have thought of late to remove the strawberries to the beds at the side of the house. They may like the light better there.
“Jane, there is a project for you in spring! John will be only too glad to turn the soil when it thaws,” Mrs. Austen assured her.
“And I remind you, Cassandra, to always wear your woolen stockings to bed. I will not be held responsible if a cold catches up to you if you do not. There is no telling what manner of drafts and ill-built fireplaces and thin counterpanes the Fowles may have. I would not risk such uncertainties without stockings to bed for all the world. Indeed, I would not.”
Jane and Cassandra exchanged glances, as they often did when their mother prattled on. They loved their mother dearly, but were painfully aware of her foolishness and propensity to maneuver conversations towards herself.
“I am always sorry to see you go,” said Jane to Cassandra when the carriage was ready at last. “It will be dreary here until you return. But I shall write to you every day. Or every other day, to be sure. Three days at the very least. And you are to see Tom this evening!”
“Oh, I know not whether to be happy or to grieve that he will be leaving a few weeks hence.”
“Then I shall tell you, if you do not know.”
At last, Jane was left to wave until the carriage disappeared around the curve of the lane. Although it was a chilly morning, Jane walked a little around the gardens, looking like miniature snowy hills, and to the back where the pigs and chickens were as noisy as ever. She wrapped her shawl closer. How different Cassandra’s life would be than hers, she thought. To be married! To have children! That is where the cycle begins and ends. Perhaps that’s all there is, really. Have our lives served God’s purpose when we have procreated? How dreary. And, as if it were not sufficient for childbirth to signify the end of a woman’s worth, it often brought death, as well, to emphasize the point.
For her own life, the matter was uncertain. She tended one day towards marriage and a respectable life, and the next towards…she knew not what. Certainly love. There must be love. But to risk one’s life in childbirth was a grim bargain. Children or death. Perhaps children and death. Unlucky, indeed.
She stamped her short boots on the raised threshold at the back door, hung her brown bonnet on its hook, shook out her short brown curls, and slipped quietly into the dining room to avoid being discovered. Jane was a quick sort of person generally, quick of mind, quick of judgment, quick of movement, and quick of temper. The foibles of her family and acquaintances, and even of herself, seldom went unnoticed.
She sat down at the window table where she liked to write. It was circular and small, but it was just the right height, and she particularly liked its compactness. A larger table might have encouraged her to stray too far from her plots, to meander and lose her momentum, and to allow too many characters into her world. Yes, it was precisely the right size.
When the rest of the house was quiet, as it was now, and when she was bent over her writing, she was as fully absorbed in her world as if she were reading. In fact, if she had been asked why she wrote, she would have said that it was because then she could later read exactly what she liked. Since no one else had taken that trouble, the task had been left to her.
She lifted up the writing box that she kept next to the table. In it was the manuscript Elinor and Marianne, the first real novel she had written. Though her reciting of it had been met with general approbation by her family, she owned that the epistolary style used to good effect in her short novel, Lady Susan, had been perhaps stretched beyond its limits, and may no longer be in fashion. She tied the manuscript now with a ribbon to remind herself to allow it to rest after months of scratchings and crossings out.
Her former writings had been the diversions of a girl with an active faculty for small stories and wit. But now, the dear Dashwoods, having once been created, continued their lives in ways that were difficult to leave behind in her writing box. They continued on without her—their marriages, their children, their lives in the village. Imaginary lives, to be sure, but they would be lived.
Were this novel to be published, she thought, the Dashwoods would be out in the real world, and perhaps be loved by more than just herself. That was worth consideration. Having a few extra coins in her pocket was appealing, as well. But the notoriety to herself and to her family would be unseemly, however diverting the idea. For the present, it would be enough to allow the Dashwoods their privacy.
She closed her writing box, and looked out the window for some time with her chin propped up on her left hand. All those people in their carriages. What were their circumstances? Were they to visit some odious relatives only because they might be mentioned in their will? And then later discover that they had been slighted in favor of some other odious relatives? Or, were they the odious ones? Some of them certainly looked as though they might be, she thought. Proud, in any case.
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