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Historical Fiction Romance

“You must not tell a single soul!”

Jane said nothing as her friend sat opposite her, grasping the fine bone-china teacup between her delicate fingers. Emily was animated, her eyes glittering with barely suppressed excitement. Jane found her friend’s enthusiasm for intrigue exhausting at the best of times, but since coming to suspect her own delicate condition, she found such exuberance almost unbearable.

“Swear it! Say, I solemnly swear that I shall not breathe a word to a single soul!” Emily pressed, her words tumbling out in a breathy rush.

Jane complied. Really, there was no other option when Miss Emily Manning insisted upon something. “I swear, most solemnly, that I shall not breathe a word to a single soul. My lips are sealed.”

Emily studied Jane with a decidedly sceptical expression, as if trying to determine the veracity of the declaration. Surely Jane’s word was enough. It was her mother’s sister who was the notorious gossip, not Jane, and she was to be quite unjustly tarred with the same brush by familial association.

Miss Emily Manning, it seemed, had come to a favourable conclusion as to Jane’s capacity for secret keeping, as she breathlessly delivered her news.

“Mr Sherwood has returned from London and was seen in Linham’s Jewellery store just this morning.”

Jane took a sip of her tea, laced quite liberally with sugar, hoping that it would settle the uneasiness of her constitution.

“Mr Sherwood?” She set her cup shakily upon its saucer and contemplated the merits of a second helping of cake. “What possible interest could you have in the comings and goings of Mr Sherwood?”

“Well, the rumour has it that he was in Linham’s looking at very specific jewellery.” Emily raised one eyebrow in curious speculation, leaving Jane to wonder in suspense as to the specificity of the jewellery in question.

“And why must I not tell a soul about Mr Sherwood’s location this morning? If the rumours are to be believed, it would seem as if such information is common knowledge.”

“Mr Sherwood was purchasing a posy ring, sized for a female hand, a delicate female hand.” Emily waved her ringlessleft hand for emphasis, her slender, well-manicured fingers wiggling suggestively.

“Do you suspect that Mr Sherwood has made such a purchase with a specific lady in mind?” Jane clasped both of her own ringless hands in her lap, her face a careful study of casual interest.

“It cannot have escaped your notice that Mr Sherwood paid specific attention to me at the Waltham Ball last month. He sought my hand for two dances, a country reel and a quadrille.”

It was to be assumed that Mr Sherwood had paid many a lady ‘specific attention’ that evening. Jane had been a fool to believe the words of ardent infatuation that he whispered warmly in her ear, as they wandered dangerously among the manicured topiaries and ornate fountains decorating the gardens of the Waltham estate.

Jane pressed her lips together in as pleasant an aspect as she could manage in such a situation and hoped that her friend was less than observant. Emily was usually quite self absorbed and not very perspicacious. Hopefully, for Jane’s continuing peace of mind, her friend’s ability to discern the discomfort of someone other than herself, would remain conspicuously absent.

Mr Alexander Sherwood had arrived in Bath with the express purpose, or so all the mamas had believed, of finding a wife. He was young, possessed of considerable charm and all the most admirable qualities that rendered him an instant object of affection among the young ladies. His countenance was compared favourably to the Greek statues that Lord Elgin had displayed, his eyes were declared striking, his nose proud and noble, and his smile neither too ready nor too absent.

The dowagers had whispered among themselves and declared him to be even more handsome. It was rumoured that he had an income of over five thousand a year! Such riches doubled his attractiveness and increased his eligibility, until every young Miss had thrown her heart or handkerchief at his feet. He blithely accepted their homage and be-spelled them all.

In conversation, Mr Sherwood possessed a natural ability to engage others in captivating discourse displaying an eloquence of speech, polished articulation and an extensive vocabulary, which he employed with a delightful wit and intelligence. It was this wit and intelligence that had captured Jane during their dance and subsequent midnight stroll through the secluded gardens. Such articulate discourse had lifted her skirts and tempted her beyond her ability to resist. It was only the following day, as the morning room had filled with flowers and gentlemen, that Jane had realised her own folly. Mr Sherwood was conspicuous in his absence, and she became aware, with a poignant realisation, that she had been an unwitting participant in the gentleman’s artful game of deceitful machinations.

“I do believe such marked attention, coupled with his subsequent visit to Linham’s will result in a proposal.” Emily’s bright curls bounced with barely suppressed excitement.

Jane felt the edges of her world ripped from beneath her and she tumbled into a chasm of echoing despair and fear, her face frozen in a rictus of disbelief. If Emily was correct in her summation, then Jane would need to bear the presence of her seducer or surrender her dearest friend. If her friend was mistaken about Mr Sherwood’s motivations, then Emily was destined for heartbreak and ruin. That the same gentleman would be the ruination of both girls was insupportable. With a ruthlessness born of determination, Jane suppressed the third reason for her despair. She refused to acknowledge the pain she felt upon hearing her friend’s proclamation, refused to name it. It was not heartbreak; she told herself sternly. She was most certainly, most definitely, and absolutely not the least bit in love with Mr Alexander Sherwood.


***


“There is a Mr Sherwood asking if yer at home, Miss,” Nellie said the next day, as she peered around the door. Jane sat in the comfortable armchair by the window, making the most of the weak afternoon light in order to complete her embroidery. So startled was she by that gentleman’s name that her finger, once untouched, now bore a crimson mark. She gasped in dismay as a drop of scarlet, akin to a solitary ruby teardrop, stained the pristine fabric.

“I am not at home this afternoon, Nellie!” She pressed the damaged digit against her kerchief to stem the bleeding.

“I would think that might be unwise, Miss.” Nellie spoke with the impertinence and familiarity permissible only from an old family servant. “If this is the gentleman who is responsible for yer lack of courses this month, then p’haps t’would be pertinent, like, to see him. And if he’s not the gentleman responsible, p’haps you could make him responsible if you take my meaning.” Jane closed her eyes in mortification. There was nothing secret from the help, and Nellie was very conscientious in her duties as a lady’s maid. “You’d do well to secure him quickly, Miss, is all I’m saying.”

“I can only beg that you refrain from sharing your gossip with anyone, Nellie.”

“My lips are sealed, Miss. But you won’t be hiding it for much longer. Best you see him, chick, let him make an honest woman of you before it’s too late!”

Jane nodded, unable to formulate a response through the rising dread that stole her breath and caused her heart to both gallop and halt at the same moment. A most disconcerting feeling, and she felt the compelling urge to swoon.

Before she could begin to sort through the quite tumultuous array of emotions and decide upon the perfect physical response, Nellie announced her gentleman caller.

Mr Sherwood strode through the door with confidence and bluster, making an elegant show of bowing before her. At her feeble gesture, he settled into the settee opposite and suddenly seemed unsure how to proceed.

“Tea?” Jane asked.

“No, I thank you. I thought, perhaps, we might stroll toward Sydney Gardens. The weather is quite fine.”

Jane’s gaze was drawn to the window, with the assumption that she had perhaps missed a miraculous reversal of the weather. The sky was still a dull grey in colour, the feeble sun desperately trying to peek through the dismal clouds.

Upon seeing her incredulity, Mr Sherwood had the grace to look somewhat abashed. “Perhaps quite fine is rather an exaggeration. But the weather is not totally inclement and a constitutional turn about the gardens would be beneficial to good health and allow for a modicum of private discourse.” He spoke quietly, aware of the presence of Nellie, comfortably ensconced in a chair on the other side of the room.

“I do not wish to draw attention to myself by being seen in your presence, sir. Anything you wish to say may be said within these walls. Nellie is the very soul of discretion.”

“Very well.” Mr Sherwood was not so impolite as to sigh. However, his voice was moderated in such a way as to imply his unwilling acquiescence. “Miss Doncaster,” he began, pitching his voice low and leaning close. “I must inquire of you… I mean, I am honour bound to ask… have there been any consequences as a result of our last meeting?”

Jane drew in a breath and held it, her eyes searching. What to say? She heard the quick, in-drawn breath from the other side of the room. Nellie had exceptional hearing. If she were to follow Nellie’s unspoken demands, she would admit the consequences, demand this gentleman repair the damage he had caused. On the other hand, a husband who needed to be trapped into marriage, well, was that the kind of husband she wanted? But did she have a choice? She lost her ability to choose when she allowed this articulate master of eloquence and persuasion to lift her skirts.

“Miss Doncaster, I only ask, as I wish to ascertain how precipitous I must be. If there are no lasting consequences, I would seek your permission to court you in the manner and style that you deserve. However, if there have been consequences, then I fear that I must forgo any courtship and seek to have a private conversation with your papa immediately. I have these last weeks, been to London to speak with my great uncle who is a Bishop, and have in my possession a special license.”

The words were spoken with utmost sincerity, and a profound sense of relief flooded Jane’s heart. She had not realised until that moment how heavy her trepidation sat upon her shoulders, and how burdened she had become.

“I believe Papa is in his study. May I suggest that you speak with him immediately?”

Mr Sherwood paled a little before he nodded his understanding. He stood, and taking her hand in his, sank to one knee before her. “I would be honoured if you were to accept this token of my esteem and allow me to speak with your father at once.” She nodded shakily as he slipped a delicate posy style ring onto her finger. He bowed over her hand, placing a daring kiss upon her wrist, before he left the room.

Jane barely heard Nellie’s effusive exclamations. Her own thoughts were too loud and invasive as she studied the fine gold and ruby ring. “Oh dear,” she thought. “Poor Emily!”

June 01, 2023 14:07

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30 comments

Evelyn Griffith
19:12 Jun 06, 2023

As a die-hard Jane Austen fan, this was truly a wonderful read. You managed to capture the essence of the style which in itself is very challenging, but what I'm more impressed with is the way you managed to compress the story into such a short amount of time without it feeling rushed. I think something that Jane Austen does amazingly well is that she takes the time the story needs in order for the audience to truly feel the longing that the women in her stories often do. I think if you were to extend this into a longer short story, that wou...

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Michelle Oliver
22:25 Jun 06, 2023

Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on this story. Telling the story in a short story format is quite challenging when you consider Jane Austen’s rich language use, so thank you for the lovely compliment. Extending it might be something for me to consider, but perhaps in another lifetime.

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Chris Miller
18:00 Jun 06, 2023

Really nicely written, Michelle. Lovely use of language which does so much of the work in setting the scene. We see the costumes and settings, the whole aesthetic, without the need for any laborious description. The brief but highly effective use of Nellie really pulls it together and ups the ante. Very good.

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Michelle Oliver
22:28 Jun 06, 2023

Thanks for reading and leaving feedback. I’m glad the visuals were clear even without the florid use of descriptive language of the time. I was very deliberate in the words I chose to try to convey that sense, so I am glad it worked.

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Delbert Griffith
21:59 Jun 02, 2023

Well done, Michelle! Or should I say, the second coming of Jane Austen. You have a mastery of the vocabulary of the period, and you understand the mannerisms and mores of the time as well. This, my friend, is a feat that few can pull off. You did it quite well. About one-third of the way through your tale, you have a paragraph beginning with: "She pressed her lips together in as pleasant an aspect as she could manage in such a situation..." I think that you should consider replacing the first word (She) with "Jane." That "she" was Jane wasn...

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Michelle Oliver
23:04 Jun 02, 2023

Thank you so much for the pick ups, you have an eagle eye my friend, and I’m so glad that you noticed them while I still had time to make the corrections. As for the names, yes a deliberate nod to Austen and Brontë. The happy ending was for Mary this week, who was saddened by the ending of my last story. The words you picked out are the ones I enjoyed using to try to create a sense of a different era. I’m glad it worked. Thanks for reading and leaving detailed feedback.

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Michał Przywara
20:45 Jun 02, 2023

The language perfectly fits the setting and characters, and the theme of proposals among the society youth is fertile ground for rumours :) There's a lot of drama here, with a night of flirting leading to a secret due in nine months, and a love triangle threatening to tear apart two close friends (although Emily sounds a little narcissistic), but honestly my favourite character is Nellie. She's there to do a job, and by George, she's going to see it done - impertinence be damned! She's looking out for her mistress and knows when to cross b...

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Michelle Oliver
23:09 Jun 02, 2023

Thanks for reading Michal. I think the servants of the time knew the ins and outs of their family’s business better than the family members themselves. I like your oak and grapevine analogy.

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Mary Bendickson
19:01 Jun 01, 2023

Oh so delicately phrased. A superb capture of the time period.

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Michelle Oliver
22:55 Jun 01, 2023

Thank you, a happy ending just for you this week

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Mary Bendickson
22:58 Jun 01, 2023

Why,thank you so much. But you know I love 💕 all you write.

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18:17 Jun 01, 2023

Poor Emily indeed! But i think she'll get over it! Beautifully written, the language choice is perfect for this and it all flows smoothly. Well done!

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Michelle Oliver
22:55 Jun 01, 2023

Thank you

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Zatoichi Mifune
09:01 Jun 09, 2023

As someone who has only read a few Jane Austen books (but studied and read them probably more than is healthy), I sincerely congratulate you! If I had been given this story in a Jane Austen cover I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. She wouldn't have been able to do it better herself! Well done!

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Michelle Oliver
09:56 Jun 09, 2023

Thank you for reading this and leaving such a beautiful compliment.

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Zatoichi Mifune
17:00 Jul 17, 2023

Coming back to read I find that I've already read and commented! It certainly felt familiar... Can't believe I didn't like it though. Great work!

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Sherry Bazley
09:41 Jun 08, 2023

Michelle, though I'm not a strong Jane Austen fan, your story truly reminded me of her style, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! The character Nellie really stood out, I think in part because her accent and dialogue were so well written. I could just SEE her sitting there across the room whilst Jane and her SO conversed! Great job!

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Sherry Bazley
12:21 Jun 08, 2023

You did it, and you did it well!

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Michelle Oliver
10:09 Jun 08, 2023

Thanks for giving this one a read and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I was hoping to evoke that certain somewhat is Austen.

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Susan Catucci
15:28 Jun 07, 2023

Michelle, what a delight this is - beautifully laid out on crisp linen with embroidered edges, with at least one stain that stands out, really stands out! In a word, I'd call this perfection. Speaking of words, I now have a new favorite: perspicacious. Thanks to you. Wonderful story.

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Michelle Oliver
15:44 Jun 07, 2023

Thanks Susan, I love finding words to use that try to hint at the setting, character or time. I’m a bit of a bower bird for interesting words and love finding ways to use them. Glad you enjoyed them too. Thanks for taking the time to read this story and leave a response.

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Susan Catucci
16:03 Jun 07, 2023

Ah, and since you have aligned yourself with the wonderful bower bird - I absolutely love them and their resourcefulness, little clowns - I will be back to read you again and again. :)

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J. D. Lair
01:19 Jun 07, 2023

My my, what a wonderfully spun tale. I am not normally one for romance stories, but this was very good! I learned a lot of new words, whenever I read stories from you, and this one was no exception. :) you have a real knack for this genre, I think! Though there were many great lines throughout this, my favorite was: “Mr Sherwood was conspicuous in his absence, and she became aware, with a poignant realisation, that she had been an unwitting participant in the gentleman’s artful game of deceitful machinations.” so much rich vocabulary here

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Michelle Oliver
09:03 Jun 07, 2023

Thanks for reading, especially as it’s not your preferred genre.

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J. D. Lair
14:09 Jun 07, 2023

Anytime! :)

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Wally Schmidt
16:12 Jun 05, 2023

Can hardly wait for the next installment of this. The language you use here sets up the time period so well and you can just feel the awkwardness as Emily babbles on about Mr. Sherwood. The one thing I found a little off-balance was the presence of Nelly. If she does not afford the couple privacy during the proposal, I am wondering how she let them alone in the garden in the first place. (A night off?). Despite the lack of explanation about her absence at that point, I truly enjoyed this Bridgerton-esqe tale Michelle.

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Michelle Oliver
22:45 Jun 05, 2023

Thanks for reading it. As far as Nelly goes, she’s a ladies maid. They do not get to go to balls and assemblies. Jane would have had a chaperone who was perhaps a little distracted. Somehow I believe that if Nellie had been allowed to go to the ball, there would have been no situation, as she would be very conscientious in her role.

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Amanda Lieser
20:19 Jun 21, 2023

Hi Michelle, What a wonderful twist on this prompt I really like that you turned expectation on its head. Well, I can’t imagine how disappointing it was for Emily, I imagine Jadon had her own happiness, and I think that it manages to tell a moral within the story-sometimes it’s simply best to just know some thing and not have to speak about it. I remember when I was waiting for my own engagement and how excited I was. My husband teasingly mentioned that afterwords he considered adding a day to how much wait time I had left for each time I as...

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Tom Skye
22:39 Jun 07, 2023

Really enjoyable read. I agree with some other commentators about the cool Jane Austin vibe, but I also thought the pacing had the feel of a charming Oscar Wilde play, which I love. Good job

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Michelle Oliver
22:50 Jun 07, 2023

Thank you Chris. Oscar Wilde, indeed. The Importance of being Earnest? That is a complement, love that play. I might have to draw on some Oscar Wilde witty dialogue and banter for my next instalment.

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