JANE AUSTEN'S FIRST LOVE
Jane Austen, lively, clever, and fifteen years of age, is traveling with her sister Cassandra and brother Charles from Godmersham to Goodnestone Park in Kent, to attend the festivities celebrating
the engagement of her older brother Edward Austen. Their carriage is proceeding down a small incline, when it suddenly pitches to one side and sinks into a muddy rut.
The postillion picked up the reins and spoke sharply to the horses, urging them forward; but although they strained and pulled, the chaise did not move. A few minutes passed thus engaged, with no more promising outlook. I was feeling very discouraged, and wondering how we should ever be liberated from the mire, when I heard the sound of horses approaching.
Through the window of the chaise, I caught sight of two riders coming towards us across the empty fields. As they drew nearer, I became aware of their distinguishing features. They were young men, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age, and from the quality of their clothes, hats, and tall leather boots, and the way they held themselves in the saddle, I knew them to be the sons of gentlemen. The first had a ruddy countenance which, although pleasing, was not regular enough to be called handsome. My full attention, however, was directed at the young man riding beside him, who was so good-looking as to make it difficult to look away.
“Good morning,” said he to the postillion, drawing up beside our disabled carriage. “My cousin and I could not help but see your predicament. I hope no one is injured?”
“They are not, sir,” responded the postillion.
The young man had a long, oval face; dark eyes flashed beneath arched brows; his nose was perfectly straight; his lips were full and well shaped above a determined chin. His complexion was clear and a shade or two darker than my own, suggesting that he had recently spent time in sunnier, foreign climes, or spent a great deal of time out of doors. His hunter green coat and dark brown breeches were so perfectly tailored as to shew off his fine figure to great advantage; and contrary to fashion, he sported no wig or powder; rather his hair, which fell in a haphazard manner to just below his ears, was as sleek and silky as the mane of his magnificent horse, and in precisely the same shade of deep auburn.
Nimbly dismounting, and unheedful of the mud (his tall, sturdy boots giving him some protection), the young man walked around the vehicle, and bent to study the half-submerged wheels. “From what I can determine, the wheels are not broken, but only stuck in this quagmire. I have already sent a servant to fetch two dray-horses. They should be here momentarily, and can pull you out.”
“Why thank ye, Mr. Taylor, sir. We’d be most grateful, for surely otherwise we’ll be stuck here till nightfall and beyond.”
The young man inquired as to wither we were going and who was on board, to which the postillion replied, “I am taking Mr. Knight’s house guests to Goodnestone for a visit, sir. There are two young ladies, sisters as they are, and a lad.”
“Well, let us get them out. Even with our dray-horses, it will be a piece of work to pull this chaise from the mire, and harder still with three people weighing it down.”
Sam pulled down the steps and threw open the chaise door. “You’d best all step down.”
Charles moved dexterously to the opening and hesitated, frowning. I perceived the difficulty: the chaise was positioned at such an angle that the doorway partly faced the sky, and the steps led more to the side than down, complicating one’s descent; moreover, the road was deep in mud.
“I have got you,” said Mr. Taylor; without further ado, he picked up my little brother and carried him to the safety of the road-side.
Cassandra was next.
“Take my hand, miss,” said the postillion.
Mr. Taylor’s as yet nameless companion leapt from his horse and crossed to the carriage’s open door, silently offering his own assistance—an action no doubt prompted, I deduced, by my sister’s beauty.
Both men held out their gloved hands to Cassandra and helped her out, although so awkwardly as to result in her landing in a deep pocket of mud, which engulfed her feet to the ankles.
“Oh!” cried she in dismay, raising her skirts as she was assisted through the mud to the firmer bank immediately adjacent.
While Cassandra’s rescuers quietly apologised at the road-side, I attempted to determine my best means of exit; but before I could proceed, Mr. Taylor walked back to the open doorway of the chaise and stopped before me. With an accent and inflection on the final appellation so flawless as to resemble (at least in my imagination) a native Italian speaker, he said,
“May I help you down, signorina?”
I froze; I could not avert my gaze; Mr. Taylor’s handsome countenance was but a foot or two from mine, and his arrival, like a knight in shining armour, had been so unexpected, his eyes were so dark and sparkling, and the overall effect was so appealing, that for the space of a breath, I forgot where I was or that any action was required of me.
“Miss? Are you quite well?”
“May I help you descend?”
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “Thank you.”
“I ought to carry you. Otherwise, you will ruin your shoes, as did your sister.”
“Carry me?” A picture formed in my mind, as I envisioned his proposal: my arms were wrapped around his neck, and my face was against his silken hair, as he swept me into his arms and brought me to the embankment. The notion caused my heart to beat with more rapidity than usual and a warmth to rise to my cheeks. Such familiarity would be most inappropriate. “I think,” replied I quickly, “I had rather climb down myself.”
He looked dubious. “Well then, if you want to avoid the mud, I only see one option. You must climb out past the back wheel and over the rear platform. From there I can jump you down to the bank.”
I stared at him in quiet disbelief. “A daring proposal, sir, and one which I imagine you could execute with ease. But it will be rather difficult to accomplish, wearing a gown.”
“I imagine you can find a way, mademoiselle. But it is up to you, and whether or not you wish to sacrifice your shoes.”
I paused, considering. His suggestion involved some risk, as the vehicle lay at a very marked pitch; but it was admittedly preferable to walking through the mire. Moreover, his tone, and the look on his countenance, seemed to me akin to the throwing of a gauntlet. “Very well. I shall try it.”
“Jane!” cried Cassandra from the embankment where she waited with Charles and the other gentleman. “Do not attempt it. You might fall.”
“I will not fall,” answered I, with more confidence than I truly felt.
Not wanting to soil my new gloves, I removed them and stowed them in my reticule; then, holding up my skirts, I placed my hands on either side of the carriage door, and propelled myself up and out. It was a precarious business; by supporting myself on the large, very muddy wheel, I managed to scramble from the steps onto the rear platform, but so precipitous was it, that I nearly slid off. Throughout my exertion, Mr. Taylor stood close by (I suppose to catch me if required); but with the greatest of efforts I was able to right myself, and from there to jump down as directed, onto the bank into his waiting hands.
I was vaguely sensible of a cheer (from Charles) and applause from Mr. Taylor’s cousin; but these sounds melted away, so overpowered was I by the circumstance in which, for an instant, I found myself. My hands were pressed against the soft wool of Mr. Taylor’s coat, and his large hands were firmly clasping my upper arms as he looked down at me. There was a fluttering in my heart and stomach such as I had never before felt or imagined, and my cheeks burned—from fear or exertion, I knew not which. Did he feel a similar emotion? I could not say; but during the brief interval in which he held me thus, as his dark eyes gazed down into mine, I imagined that they held a look of deep interest which matched my own.
Releasing me, he said, “There. That was not so hard, was it?”
“Not at all,” lied I, relieved that the exercise was completed, that I was safely on the ground, and that there was again some physical distance between us, so that I might regain some semblance of composure. It was ridiculous, a voice in my head cried, to swoon so over a total stranger, no matter how handsome he might be; but at the same time, another inner voice exulted over this unexpected meeting—for was it not exactly the sort of circumstance of which I had been dreaming for many years? These inner musings were instantly terminated when Cassandra, shaking her head, said:
“Thank goodness Mamma was not here to see that.”
Mr. Taylor now turned to her and Charles. “And how are you,Miss? I trust you both have suffered nothing worse in this misadventure than a pair of muddy—” (glancing down at Cassandra’s shoes with mock alarm) “very muddy—slippers?”
“We are quite well, sir. Thank you for stopping to assist us.”
“Yes! Thank you!” cried Charles, regarding our rescuer with undisguised gratitude, wonder, and veneration.
Mr. Taylor only shrugged his shoulders. “It was my duty. You broke down on the road passing my family’s estate. I could not ride by and do nothing. It is just lucky it occurred today, while I happened to be at Bifrons—I am not living here at present, but with my cousins at Ileden, a few miles distant—and a fortnight ago, I would have been out of the country.”
“From whence have you returned?” inquired Cassandra.
“From Italy. My family is still abroad.” He paused then, and with a smile, removed his hat. “Forgive me, here we are chatting away without a proper introduction. It is very awkward—but I trust that the necessity of the case will plead my excuse—it seems we have no choice but to circumvent convention. This fellow here—” (waving his hat towards his companion) “is my cousin Thomas Watkinson Payler, Esquire.”
Mr. Payler bowed, with a particular smile for my sister. “A pleasure to meet you,” said he quietly but elegantly.
With a bow of his own, our rescuer added: “I am Edward Taylor.”