Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Jane Fairfax: a novel Chapter One

Jane Fairfax had no intention of ever marrying. Although she was more accomplished than most young women in all those degrees of accomplishment that can be acquired by diligence or natural aptitude, she yet lacked the most important factor that befits a marriageable woman--money. Having acquired a strong sensibility at a particularly young age, she understood that, despite her many accomplishments, great personal charm and beauty, the absence of a dowry overshadowed her every other virtue. She was orphaned before growing old enough to retain a memory of her parents. Good fortune had secured her an upbringing and education far better than Mrs. and Miss Bates, her grandmother and maiden aunt, could have provided, but that fortune did not extend beyond the capacity of preparing her to work for her own support during her remaining years. Her guardians, the Campbells, loved her as their own daughter, who loved her even more. But their income failed to extend any further. Jane's stoic disposition had helped her to accept her fate without complaint and almost without spoiling her enjoyment of each present moment. Still, it was with greater than usual trepidation that she prepared her toilette in anticipation of the evening's entertainment.

The process of beautifying oneself is not a particularly difficult mental challenge, and Jane struggled to keep her mind on the task. It insisted on straying back into the memory of a few evenings previously when her dear friend and bedfellow, Miss Clara Campbell, had made the acquaintance of one Mr. Dixon, a landed gentleman of no little income who had shown a definite preference for her company. Miss Campbell, often spoken of as a plain, good sort of girl, was delighted with the attention, and Jane, with all the goodness of her unselfish heart, was pleased and happy for her friend. The accompaniment to this prelude, however, now began to cause Jane more vexation than she had anticipated. Mr. Dixon had come into the party with his good friend, Mr. Frank Churchill, a name Jane had known almost since her infancy, although she had never met him until then. Since Mr. Dixon had turned his attentions to Clara, and Jane was the only young lady in the room to whom Mr. Churchill had been introduced, it was only natural that he would solicit her conversation during the course of the evening. What seemed to Jane as most unusual, however, was that he seemed to prefer it, that he did not seek other introductions when the general subjects of conversation had been exhausted, and, most extraordinary, that she was glad. No other young man had ever inspired so much as a vague curiosity for better acquaintance. But Frank Churchill--he was no other young man.

She had returned home that evening in high spirits, although she managed to conceal them from all of the Campbells, and spent an hour in contemplation. In the end, she concluded that it had been the most delightful evening she had ever spent, and that it would henceforth be nothing but a pleasant memory to look back on during her solitary days to come. But the Campbells, excited by the interest Mr. Dixon had shown in their daughter, had invited him to join their dinner party that evening, and he had asked to bring his friend along again. Faced with the prospect of seeing him again, and the possibility that he might renew his attentions to her, Jane found it more difficult to keep her resolution. Her hair might be tamed and pinned into place, but her female mind, for all its stoicism, refused to be directed.

As soon as she had completed her preparations, there was a knock on the door. Jane looked up to see Clara rush into the room and sink down on the bed with a pathetic sigh. "Oh, what am I to do?" she cried. "What am I to do?"

"Whatever can you mean?" soothed Jane. "There is nothing to do but sit and look pretty and that will be enough."

"Suppose he asks me a question? He is intelligent, you must admit, and will be wanting to ask me something or other. I mean, beyond the weather and the dancing. He will want to talk about books or music or philosophy or politics. And then I must answer him. But I shall be so afraid of sounding like a ninny that I won't be able to say anything at all. And then I will surely look like a fool who can't even answer a question when she is asked."

"You will do no such thing," Jane insisted. "Listen, and I will tell you what you should do and what you shall say. If he asks about a book you have read, you tell him it was interesting and ask him what he thought of it. If he wants to know about music or philosophy, you profess that you love both of them and then ask him what he thinks of them--which is his favorite--which one he despises (for he is sure to despise one or the other, even if he will not admit it at first). If he asks about the weather, you can tell him that it is not so nice as Bath but surely better than London---"

"Oh, but he will see right through that!" interrupted Clara. "Surely he will know that I am just trying to turn the attention back to him."

"He will be so happy to tell you what he thinks that he will not stop to think about what you think." Jane smiled. "Depend upon it, my dear, that I think Mr. Dixon is a fine young man and a good prospect for you. I really do. But I am positive that he is no different than other fine young men with good prospects."

"What do you mean?" Clara demanded, sitting up. "Do you mean that he is vain? He has some pride, I am sure, but is not unattractive in one so educated and brought up."

"Of course not," said Jane with a smile. "I simply mean that he, like other men, will prefer the woman who smiles to the woman who speaks. And you need have no worries in that department, for you have the most beautiful smile that ever lighted upon any man or woman. As long as you smile, he will adore you."

Clara laid back down on the bed and stretch out her arms. "You sound so sure. But you are always sure of everything. Oh, Jane, why can't I be more like you? You always know exactly what to say and what to do."

Jane leaned forward and whispered, "I will tell you my secret, shall I?" Clara lifted her head up and look at Jane expectantly. "When you don't know what to say, say nothing. When you don't know what to do, just sit still and look pretty." Clara laughed and laid her head down again.

"You don't believe me, but it is true," Jane continued aloud. "You cannot call good or bad fortune to yourself by sounding intelligent or by saying or doing the right thing. If chance is to smile upon you, then she will smile upon you whether or you frown or laugh. So you might as well be caught laughing, my dear, because she is going to visit you soon. I promise you that. Now, shall we go downstairs?"

"Are you finished?" Clara asked as she stood up, smoothing her dress and touching her hair in the mirror.

"I am," replied Jane. "I could sit in front of this mirror for another hour without it making a single difference except that I would be even more sick of looking at myself." She reached out her hand and Clara grasped it.

"Thank you," she whispered. "You always save me."

"Not at all," Jane whispered back. "It is you who are saving me."