Jane Austen Short Story
Hartfield Manor was alive with frantic activity.
Preparations had begun for the imminent arrival of its eldest son’s return. Much to the excitement of both his parents, Harrison Stafford was returning home on leave to celebrate his new position having just purchased his commission as Lieutenant. Mrs Stafford at this moment was accosting the Hartfield’s cook, Mary in the hallway with a list of goods that must be purchased ‘at this instant’ from the village. Well accustomed to Mrs Stafford’s fits of frenzy, Mary bore this with an enduring amount of patience and bit her tongue just long enough to return to the safety of the kitchen before beginning her own tirade on an underling. Kitty, who knew better than to speak back to her own formidable mistress, listened in quiet, attentive silence to the turbulent monologue that followed.
“And if she don’t know by now that I am well aware of what will and won’t do for the return of Master Harry I’d have just as well to hang up my apron and let her manage her own kitchen, see how well she likes that. At this rate, she’ll work herself into such a fit of the vapours she won’t be able to receive him at all.”
Mr Stafford, who was never one to rise to the heights of his wife’s anxiety, was in an uncharacteristically unsettled mood. He had locked himself away in his library and spent the morning practising what he might say to his eldest (and, truth be told, favourite) child. It was clear that in the case of young Harrison Stafford, the apple did not fall far from the tree, so alike were father and son in appearance, disposition and temper. So much so, that the latter point had often led them to butt heads on the most trivial of matters and had a habit of beginning a row in the house and cause Mrs Stafford to dissolve into floods of tears. However, Mr Stafford had always admired this characteristic in his son, believing it showed a ‘true strength of character,’ which he found severely wanting in the rest of today’s youth. Nothing had pleased him more than when Harrison had expressed his wish to enter into the navy. It was an ambition Mr Stafford had held himself but had been unable to pursue due to weakness in his lungs that had left him prone to sickness from a young age. However, despite his pride, there mingled the ever-present fear that harm would befall his cherished son. The relief he felt to once again clap eyes on Harry was what at this moment left him unable to settle.
The only person in the house who was not stirred to activity was Isabella Stafford who, in attempting to escape the commotion of the house, had sequestered herself in the drawing room and was attempting to finish the last chapter of her book when she was pounced upon by her younger sister Eliza. Isabella was three years younger than Harrison and what her father deemed to be a strength of character, she found to be odiously moralising. Now 24 years old, she had enjoyed the last few years of Harry’s absence as somewhat a breath of fresh air. Of course, she loved her brother as most sisters did, but she found it much easier to love him from afar. Having been the closest in age to Harry before he had left for schooling, she had been the sole witness to Harry’s consistent need to be right in all things. She was sure that his new position would have only made him more confident in his own world view.
Eliza, at 15, did not know her brother in this way and viewed him as much a hero as Nelson himself. Pawing at Isabella’s hands for attention, she was reciting the virtues of her brother and gleefully speculating on the lives of the handsome men who must serve with him.
Isabella attempted to remember what it was like to be a 15-year-old girl in the throes of amorous passion and defeatedly sighed to herself and let her book fall to the floor.
“But do you think Isabella, that Harry will bring any of his friends with him?” Eliza pulled at her sister’s dress hopefully.
“It will be quite thoughtless if he has, because I know as well you that he has said nothing of it to Mama and Papa.” Isabella said, attempting to wrestle her dress back into place.
“Perhaps he has planned a surprise though and Mama shan’t mind … especially if he wishes to introduce one to you.” Eliza’s eyes gleamed as she saw the red rise to her sister’s face.
Before Isabella was able to lose her temper with the youngest Stafford, she was interrupted by the arrival of the second youngest Stafford on the threshold. Thomas (Tommy to his sisters) at 17 years old had not quite grown into his tall frame. Too lean for this commanding presence, his countenance was still that of a boy rather than a young man. In Tommy, Isabella found at least one ally who, as Harry’s younger brother, was never able to escape the reminder of this fact. However, Tommy seemed to bear it with a light-heartedness that Isabella could not. He was also of a sweet temper and never seemed to be troubled by the opinions of others. Isabella had worried that this would have been beaten out of him by schooling but he returned every year just as gentle and seemingly oblivious to the machinations of school politics. She felt most at ease with Tommy but as he was still so young, he was not quite an equal. She had never been happier to see him though than at this moment.
“Tommy, don’t just stand in the doorway! Enter with purpose if you are to enter at all.” Isabella said, impersonating her father to divert the conversation.
Tommy smiled and folded his frame into the armchair opposite, making it appear to look like the chair had instead been made for a doll.
“You are half right Liza. Harry will be bringing some companions but they shan’t be staying with us.”
Eliza almost jumped out of the sofa, landing rather hard in Isabella’s side, causing her to stifle a gulp of pain.
“Ooh sorry!” Eliza briefly offered before hurtling back into her excitement.
“Truly?! But where are they to be staying if not with us? How many people? Oooh, do you think there will be a ball?”
“This last point I cannot answer but the previous two I can uncover to you. Papa has just received a letter from Harry, which was delayed in the post.”
Isabella again stifled a noise, this time a laugh. Despite all of Harry’s ‘noble’ qualities, timely correspondence had never been one of them. Tommy, catching Isabella’s eye, gave a small knowing smile and continued.
“Apparently Harry must have talked so much of Lincoln, his Captain has also decided to visit and plans to spend the summer here. Not only that, he has family here, and will be staying with Lady Arlington.” Tommy watched both his sisters’ eyes widen at mention of this grand dame.
“Lady Arlington!!” Eliza shrieked, “Oh, then there must be a ball.”
Eliza did not stop for any more of Tommy’s news and catapulted out of the room to find her Mama to ask for a new dress for the hypothetical ball she was now sure she would be invited to.
Isabella, having been pushed to the side in this hurricane of movement, collected herself on the sofa and nodded for Tommy to continue.
“Turns out the Captain … Captain Lockley I believe his name is … is Lady Arlington’s nephew on his mother’s side. Harry also says he shall be bringing his sister with him.”
Lincoln, the village within whose bounds Hartfield Manor lay, was a small village of not much significance except for the presence of Arlington Park, a grand residence presided over by Lady Arlington herself. Her husband, having passed some years ago, had left her as its overseer and no-one could be found to say she had not done just that. The gardens had been expanded and impeccably kept, the rooms updated, and her tenants satisfied in the care given to their properties. No-one had a complaint, the estate attracted many visitors, but none knew her Ladyship too well. She did not often participate in the social affairs of Lincoln and although not a recluse, her true character appeared to the village’s occupants to be a mystery. This, of course, could do nothing but add an air of fascination to any mention of her name.
“Tommy you have done well for yourself, just when I thought this day was spent of good cheer. Now at least we have some intrigue to concern ourselves with.” Isabella chuckled to herself.
Isabella felt no deep attachment to her home village. Any friends she had had were now married. They had moved from the village or had remained there raising a brood of their own. Isabella dutifully visited them as much to escape her own home than to continue their connection but abhorred the inevitable conversations about when ‘it would be her turn.’ She yearned for a confidant who she might be able to share her true self with.
“Perhaps Harry’s return will not be so tiresome after all,” she thought to herself, suddenly looking forward to the possibilities her brother’s visit might entail.
Isabella’s good humour about the promise of Captain Lockley and his sister was soon dashed upon Harry’s arrival when he did nothing but spend the whole evening singing the Captain’s praises and holding court about the virtues of life in the service. So annoyed was Isabella that she was determined to detest the Captain on sight when they were to meet him on the morrow for tea.
Set in her determination to hold him in immense dislike, Isabella was once again forced to change her opinion and retract her distain when she found Captain Lockley to be perfectly amiable and all things charming. She found his conversation easy, he paid close attention to her mother (which charmed Mrs Stafford considerably) without any obvious revulsion to her lack of tact, and listened to her father’s stories with patience. Isabella was so impressed that when it was time for the Captain to depart, she was deeply sorry for it. As the Captain went to take his leave, he bowed to Miss Stafford and addressed her.
“Miss Stafford, my sister Charlotte, Miss Lockley is most sorry she could not attend with me today. She has some business with my aunt she had to attend to but hopes that you might call at Arlington Park tomorrow. She is most excited to meet you.”
Isabella could not hide a smile, which lit up her eyes and she expressed her wish that she would like nothing better. As she did so, she caught the sight of Harry from the corner of her eye. He was watching them intently and she perceived a wry smirk twitch at the corner of his mouth. Isabella knew well that this was the look that Harry was known to give when he had achieved some goal that he had put himself to. Isabella in this moment realised that she was the goal Harry had in mind. She took a step back from Captain Lockley and bid him farewell. As soon as he had departed, she left the room, hurrying to the safety of the garden.
Harry was not far behind her and called after her.
“So Bella, what do you think of the Captain hey? He is a fine man is he not?” Harry could not hide his pleasure but he was surprised when the face that turned towards him wasn’t one of amorous gratitude and rather one red with anger.
“How dare you!” Isabella thundered back at him.
“Bella, what is all this?” Harry was genuinely taken aback by his sister’s violent outburst.
“Is this why you convinced the Captain to visit Lincoln? Am I some toy for you to improve your standing?” Isabella shook with rage.
Harry stopped and gestured in a calming motion to his sister, “I have nothing but the highest respect for the Captain and it was my deepest wish that he should meet those I hold most dear.”
“In the express wish that he should marry one of them, is it? Was I to have a say in this delightful piece of matchmaking? A regular cupid you are.” Harry had never heard his sister speak to him in this manner before and was deeply rattled.
“You could do a lot worse my dear, it would be an excellent match for you. After all, your prospects are not as rich as perhaps they once were,” Harry pointedly remarked at her age.
The colour heightened to an even redder hue on Isabella’s face and she could not stop the words tumbling from her mouth.
“Do you think because I am your sister, I deserve any less liberty than you? That I must be content to accept any man who would deign to look at me? That if I do not marry, I am beyond your care? You might buy your future Harry, but you cannot, and I refuse to let you, purchase mine.”
Harry could not comprehend this amount of feeling in his sister. He had believed he was doing her a service by this introduction, that should all go well it would help her to a more comfortable life. He was becoming indignant with his sister’s perceived lack of sense.
“Would you rather then live looking after our mother and father until you are an old woman? What sort of a life is that?” He spat back at her.
“One that would at least be my choice.”
Silence fell between the two of them. Isabella wrestled with her temper and after a breath continued, “I shall visit the Captain’s sister tomorrow because it is my wish to make her acquaintance. Do not think I do it because I hold any of your matrimonial notions in any esteem.”
Not waiting for a reply, she raced off further into the garden and further again into the countryside.
Harry stared after his sister in a mixture of shock and awe. He did not fully comprehend what had led her to such an outburst, but he found himself feeling uncharacteristically guilty about it.
After a somewhat restless night, Isabella woke the next day determined to make the most of her promised visit to Arlington Park. She was feeling a good deal of shame about her conduct with Harry the previous day but she also felt that it had been the inevitable result of his years of overbearing tendencies. She recognised that her brother meant well by her but there had been something in his intentions that hurt her deeply. She did not know exactly why the concept of marriage revolted her so, but it did. She could not even bring herself to consider it, no matter how amiable the man may be.
These thoughts were the closest in her mind as she arrived at the doors of Arlington Park and was received inside by the footman. She was shortly borne away to a drawing room where she was welcomed by Miss Charlotte Lockley. It took Isabella a moment or so to recover from the spectacle that had met her eyes inside Arlington. Never before had she beheld anything so grand and, in comparison, she felt so small. Miss Lockley saw the stunned look on her face and led her gently to a chair, which tea had been prepared beside.
“It is quite extraordinary isn’t it? A little French for my tastes but Aunt refuses to believe style resides anywhere else but France.”
Miss Lockley lolled over the French inflection and smiled at Isabella who shook away her stunned distraction and for the first time was able to truly notice her hostess. Miss Lockley was perhaps two or three years older than Isabella and slightly taller. She was simply and elegantly dressed but her hair had been carelessly pinned up, a rogue strand now being pushed behind her left ear as she poured the tea. Isabella had never believed she had met anyone who could have been described as the feminine pinnacle of ‘A Great Beauty’ (and though Miss Lockley could not have been said to be described by the poets as such) in the combination of the brightness in her eyes, her wry smile, her easeful sense of humour and the deep way she seemed to regard Isabella, she thought that she was the most beautiful woman she had ever beheld.
“You cannot know what a pleasure it is to meet you and once again have some company that is not my brother. Cherish him as I do, if I hear tell of one more navel anecdote I swear I shall scream. I have never wished - nor do I ever wish - to learn how to tie a knot, try as he might to teach me.” Miss Lockley passed the teacup to Isabella and smiled knowingly at her.
Isabella already sensing that Miss Lockley was a friend she had hoped for so long for, nervously stuttered, “I am most grateful to you Miss Lockley, good company is somewhat scarce in Lincoln.”
“Please do call me Charlotte, Miss Lockley makes me feel like my aunt Hester, and it is not a comparison I wish to indulge.”
Charlotte lounged back in her chair, regarding Isabella for a moment.
“You poor thing, you seem a little unsettled.”
Isabella felt a mounting anxiety about the conversation she had had with Harry. Was Charlotte privy to Harry’s plan? Indeed, was it what Captain Lockley anticipated as well? Had this invitation been to see if Isabella would make a fit wife?
“I … I wish to make clear … it is just that my brother seemed to think …” Isabella was clearly struggling to find the right words to approach this delicate subject when Charlotte interjected.
“Oh gosh, let us not say a word about it. Pardon my saying so but your brother is a fool … oh how rude of me I really shouldn’t say that … but you must know Isabella - may I call you Isabella? - that despite what Harry might think, James’s affections lie elsewhere. James is very close with your brother and we thought it a good opportunity to visit our aunt. No more sinister motive than that, which seems to be a relief to you.”
Charlotte smiled, noticing the marked relaxation in Isabella’s countenance.
“It is not often I meet anyone who is so relieved to delay marriage as I am.” Charlotte chuckled to herself as she spoke and saw a smile rise to Isabella’s face.
“I must confess, it frightens me to no end,” Isabella replied.
Isabella laughed and regarded her hostess again, stifling a blush she felt rising to her cheek. In the face Isabella saw looking back at her was a sense of complete understanding. Their conversation was easy, Charlotte spoke of her circumstances: that she spent the majority of her time in Bath, her parents having left their house to her and her brother, but with James away so often she was mostly its sole resident. Charlotte pressed Isabella about her life and her particular interests. She listened deeply, prompting when Isabella felt as though she had taken up too much of her hostess’s attention. There did not seem to be a limit to what she wished to know. They discussed art, poetry, their shared hatred of needlework and what it was like to see the worlds of other’s shift around you.
Isabella had no notion of the time that had passed until, in a rare moment of silence, Charlotte seemed to regard the hour.
“Isabella, I would we could continue all evening but I am very certain if I do not return you to your mother, she shall think I have kidnapped you. I very much hope you will visit again though, perhaps tomorrow. If the weather is nice, we shall go for a walk.”
Charlotte stood and extended her hand to Isabella. Isabella took it, feeling its warmth pressed into her own. She allowed herself to be led across the room and thanked Charlotte for her hospitality before leaving.
The grandeur, which had so overwhelmed her when she had entered, now seemed to pale in comparison to the occupant she had found within its walls. Isabella felt a lightness she had not experienced for some time. It was not until after she had returned home and dined with her family and was once again alone in her room that she allowed herself to contemplate the day she had with her new friend, and the feeling of her hand against her own.
The two weeks that followed were unequivocally the happiest of Isabella’s life to date. She visited Charlotte almost every day and they were sometimes joined by the Captain and her brother, but she most relished the times she was able to be alone with Charlotte. They never seemed to run out of conversation and even when they fell into silence, it was never strained. Lady Arlington had been called away to visit her daughter and so the four had been left to their own devices about the estate. At the end of the fortnight, Lady Arlington sent word that upon her imminent return a ball was to be held in honour of her niece and nephew’s visit.
When Isabella imparted this knowledge to Eliza, she was thrown into such a fit of excited hysterics that Isabella was forced to seek refuge by barricading herself in her bedroom.
The date of the ball approached quickly. The village was lively with the prospect of such entertainment and when the Staffords arrived at Arlington Park on the appointed evening, they found it aglow with laughter and music radiating from its walls.
It was some years since Isabella had set eyes on her Ladyship and never before in this style. At the end of the long ballroom she stood with her niece and nephew, watching the proceedings hawk like. She managed to catch Isabella’s eye and beckoned her over. Charlotte also caught her eye and smiled broadly. She was dressed in a turquoise silk that flattered her bright blue eyes and Isabella thought that she had never seen anything finer. Captain Lockley waved jovially and the Staffords made their way to greet their hosts.
Mrs Stafford expectedly was over enthusiastic with her greeting, Mr Stafford politely silent, Eliza eager to commence dancing, Tommy oblivious to the formalities expected of him and Harry and Isabella left to make the proper deferments expected by her Ladyship.
Lady Arlington, though not a tall woman, had a commanding presence. She looked at Isabella once she had made her bow.
“Miss Stafford, you are much taller than when I last saw you. My dear Charlotte has said you have made a most excellent companion and I am grateful to you for keeping her out of trouble.”
Charlotte feigned outrage. “Dear Aunt you do me a great disservice, I should be allowed at least one troublesome activity a day. Come Isabella, let us see what mischief we can make.”
Her Ladyship chuckled at this. “I shall not stand in the way of entertainment of the young, but please Charlotte, I hope to find the walls still standing by the end of the evening.”
Charlotte threw her head back in a laugh and immediately led Isabella away through the throng. Isabella allowed herself to be led but was surprised by the interaction she had just witnessed. She had expected to find her Ladyship a cold and commanding figure and had not expected the light-hearted manner she addressed her niece in. Commanding though she was, cold she certainly was not.
Charlotte, pausing her flight across the room, saw this revelation flood Isabella’s face. “You had expected her to be different, didn’t you? Don’t let her humour fool you, she is a wicked old thing.”
Charlotte threw her head back again in laughter, to which Isabella knew meant she was joking.
Isabella thought for a moment before replying, “In truth I did not know what to expect, I know so little of her. I had just expected that all great ladies would be …”
She could not find the words without potentially offending Charlotte.
“She enjoys fun like the rest of us. Truly she is the best of aunts, she is just shy.”
Isabella could not believe that a woman of such extraordinary wealth could be ever be shy but she returned Charlotte’s smile and they wove through the party in search of dancing.
Later in the evening, Charlotte was called away to do her duty and greet the guests and Isabella was left to her own devices. She found herself catching her breath outside the billiards room. The door was left ajar and she could make out voices from within and smelled the stale cigar smoke wafting past. She caught the familiar tone of her brother who was, as usual, the centre of the conversation. About to roll her eyes and move on, she suddenly made out what he was saying.
“Oh yes, very close with the family. I serve with the Captain you see and am now very well acquainted with Miss Lockley. I wouldn’t be surprised if they inherited from her, quite favourites … oh I think she is a most amiable woman, any man would be so lucky … Well she has not said as much but I have been a frequent guest there.”
Isabella’s heart began to pound. She pressed her hand against her chest as though to keep it contained and began to feel sick. A million questions flooded her mind. Had what she heard been real? Did Harry truly mean to marry Charlotte and, worse still, did she return his affection? Had Charlotte been indulging Isabella’s friendship merely to make Harry happy? She had thought that Charlotte did not like Harry. Her stomach churned with horror. ‘Why did she so despise this thought?’ She chastised herself. She knew the answer, but could not bear to admit it to herself.
She raced back through the party. She spied Charlotte across the room who glanced across at her, seeming to beckon her over. Isabella ignored her, instead catching the eye of a partner to dance with. She just saw a look of confusion fall over Charlotte’s face.
Isabella managed to avoid Charlotte for the rest of the evening and made as simple a goodbye as possible when the time finally came to depart. This was not lost on Charlotte who gave Isabella a searching look. Isabella rushed away, chiding Eliza for taking so long to enter the carriage.
As they pulled away from Arlington Park, she hid her face and the tears began to well in her eyes.
Charlotte called on Hartfield as soon as possible the next day. During her acquaintance with Isabella, she had only visited the residence once and, as such, it was a shock to Mrs Stafford to find Miss Lockley on her doorstep without receiving prior knowledge of it.
“Miss Lockley you catch us unawares. After the festivities last night we are all quite out of sorts. A marvellous party, you must thank her Ladyship again for us. More fun I do not think I have had in all my days, but it has left me with quite a headache you see. I shall have to fetch Mary and see what she can do for you. Are you hungry? I find I am ravenous after so much excitement.”
As Mrs Stafford drew breath for the first time, Charlotte interjected, asking if Miss Stafford was at home.
“Oh yes, been in her room the whole morning, did not even come down for breakfast. Who knows what goes on in that head of hers?” Mrs Stafford replied.
“I had hoped we might go for a walk. It is so pleasant outside. Would it be too much trouble to see if she will join me?” Charlotte glanced up the stairs, hoping to see Isabella suddenly appear.
“Of course, I shall fetch her.” Mrs Stafford hurried away.
Charlotte waited for what seemed an eternity for Mrs Stafford and Isabella to return. She had been up the whole night, wondering what had so troubled Isabella at the ball. Had she said something to offend her? She could not imagine what it could have been. She had hoped to be calling on Isabella with what she trusted to be exciting news today, but now felt ill with trepidation. She was worried Isabella was angry with her, and though she could not comprehend what for, it made her sick. Since meeting her, she cared for nothing other than Isabella’s good opinion and company.
Finally, Isabella emerged. There was a darkness bearing over her countenance and given the dark circles under her eye, it was clear she had also not slept the past night.
“Hello Miss Lockley, how kind of you to visit. Let us walk,” Isabella said with far too much formality and led her outside.
Charlotte waited until they were well out of the bounds of the house before beginning to speak.
“Isabella, please tell me what is wrong. I cannot bear to think you are upset with me. Please let us be honest with each other. You know you might tell me anything.” Charlotte stopped and clasped Isabella’s hand with urgency.
Isabella looked down at her hand. The touch that had once filled her with so much happiness now filled her with despair.
“I think it is you who might be honest with me. You might have told me of my brother’s affections towards you.” Isabella kept her eyes down, unable to look at Charlotte in the face.
Charlotte stopped dead in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“I heard Harry speaking of it last night. I was surprised Charlotte that you would not be honest with something that concerns the future of my family.” Isabella found it hard to conceal an acid tone.
Charlotte came down to Isabella’s level forcing her to meet her eyes. “If you are to speak with me like this, you might do me the courtesy of meeting my eyes. The future of your family? Have you considered my future? Have you considered my feelings in this information you have discovered?
“You have not considered mine. Has my friendship with you been merely to please Harry?”
Isabella’s eyes were wet with feeling. Charlotte stared at her, the smile gone from her face and a fire lit her eyes.
“That you know me so little, to think that, is perhaps the greatest pain I have ever felt.” Charlotte paused, tears welling in her own eyes and continued, “Whatever story you have heard, I am able to relieve your mind that it is false. In no universe do I mean to marry your brother.”
Isabella started and lost control of her emotion. She crumbled to the ground, a flood of tears rolling over her cheeks. Seeing such anguish come over Isabella, Charlotte also fell to her knees and embraced her. Through the tears all she could make out was the sounds of “I’m sorry” over and over again. Isabella finally regained some composure and lifted her face to look Charlotte in her eyes. The fierce fire, which had lit them just a moment ago, had been replaced by compassion. Without knowing what she did, Isabella reached out and tucked a loose curl of hair behind Charlotte’s ear.
“I was so overtaken with jealousy. I couldn’t control it, it was so silly but I couldn’t bear to lose you, not to him … not to anyone.” Isabella said quietly. “Please, please forgive me, I have been such a fool. Of course, I should know better.”
“Perhaps you had better always ask me first when you take such a ridiculous notion into your head. My silly creature, surely you know your feelings are requited.” Charlotte leaned slightly closer to Isabella and gently kissed her on the cheek.
“Well thank goodness that terrible business is out of the way. I had meant to come today to ask you a question.” Charlotte said.
She pinched the cheek she had just kissed and wiped away the last tears from around Isabella’s eyes.
Charlotte continued, “James is to return to service and I to Bath soon. It occurred to me that I might be much more content with a companion to keep me company. My Aunt thinks it is a famous idea. Do you think your parents could spare you?”
Tears once again flowed from Isabella’s eyes. She had never cried so much in her whole life and if she had not felt so alive in this moment, she would have been overcome from exhaustion.
“Truly,” said Charlotte.
She took Isabella’s face in her hands. She wiped the tears that had found their way down Isabella’s lips and sealed them instead with her own.
All baggage finally loaded, Isabella stepped into the carriage and took her place beside Charlotte. The carriage set off with a jolt, knocking the two of them closer together. Charlotte giggled at this and once they were out of view Hartfield, took Isabella’s hand in her own.
Finally, they were truly alone. Just the two of them.