Chawton, Hampshire: May 12, 1810
The slender young woman hurrying along a lonely woodland path beyond the village of Chawton this night seemed heedless of the falling moisture that sprinkled her hair and dampened the shoulders of her light cloak.
It had rained in the afternoon, a hard spring shower that had passed over the wood in no more than ten minutes. And though the downpour hadn’t lasted long enough to muddy the path that Jane now followed, the leaves of the overhanging trees were still shedding droplets that glittered like jewels in the cold moonlight.
As she moved through the silent wood Jane imagined the scandal that would erupt should a neighbor happen upon her in this lonely place. For she was a respectable young woman by any standard, the unmarried daughter of a clergyman with aristocratic family connections, and youngest sister to the owner of the great country house on which the village depended. Which circumstance rendered her midnight foray all the stranger. For Jane had never before dared or even considered an adventure such as the one on which she was now embarked.
Yet here she was, gliding wraithlike through the dark forest, en route to a clandestine meeting with a man — a mysterious and possibly dangerous man — whom she had known for scarcely five days. She prayed that he would be at the appointed spot, as he had promised. And she felt her heart thundering in her breast at the mere thought of what she had committed to share with him this night. She who had long since abandoned all hope of ever finding love.
She was 34 years old — an unremarkable spinster who lived an unremarkable life in a house provided by her devoted brother and shared with an elder sister and their aged mother. And, until fewer than 24 hours ago, she had never known a lover’s caress.
But last night that had changed. Now Jane wanted nothing more than to be again with the man. For he had reawakened her girlhood dreams of love and romance, all the lovely dreams she had so carefully preserved on countless sheets of neatly inscribed vellum that she kept hidden away in the deepest recesses of her closet.
Of course, she fully realized, going to meet him like this was madness. But then, she reminded herself, madness had been the hallmark of their brief but intense relationship, a relationship that had been doomed from the start. For she could not go with him and he could not stay.
And if they were found out, she knew to a certainty, scandal and disgrace would be her only reward.
But love knows not reason. And Jane did not care what consequences might ensue. For, in her mind, the risks she was taking to meet with her new found lover tonight were as nothing compared to the dread she felt, of slipping into her old age without ever having tasted love.
After a few more minutes she came to the edge of the wood which bounded a broad meadow. Covered now in swirls of mist frosted by the light of a near full moon, the grassy field had taken on an otherworldly look, like one of the fairy tale landscapes she was forever imagining in her dreams. At the end of the path she hovered like a frightened deer, huddling in a pool of darkness beneath the dripping trees, until he should appear.
Presently, she heard the drumming of muffled hoof beats from the far side of the meadow. Willing her joyously thudding heart to be still, Jane boldly detached herself from the sheltering shadows and advanced into the open, anxious not to waste a precious moment of the brief time they would have together.
Slowly a horseman emerged from the mist. Spying her moving through the grass, he altered the course of his great black steed to intercept her. Within seconds he reined to a halt beside her. His face was obscured beneath the brim of the tall hat he wore, and she ran forward to meet him as he dismounted. “I prayed you would come,” she laughed, prepared to throw herself into his arms.
But instead of the joyous response she was anticipating, the rider nervously swept the tall hat from his head. The moonlight struck his plain, sun-reddened features and she saw to her mortification that he was not the one for whom she had so anxiously waited, but an awkward young servant named Simmons.
“Sorry, miss,” the nervous messenger stammered, “the gentleman went away in a great hurry after the troops came. He had asked me to come and tell you if he could not get here himself tonight.”
Jane felt herself flushing beneath the servant’s questioning gaze. Her bitter disappointment at the broken rendezvous was overlaid by a sudden pang of fear. For young Simmons was a groom from her brother’s stables, and she wondered how much he knew…or would tell.
“Oh… I see,” she said, forcing her voice to remain calm, and wondering what motive the servant must be imagining had brought her to the lonely meadow at this ungodly hour. “Thank you, Simmons.”
His unlined, honest features betraying no hint that he thought the situation odd or particularly scandalous, Simmons fumbled in the pocket of his greatcoat and produced a folded letter sealed with wax. “This is for you, miss,” he stammered, bowing slightly and extending the letter to her.
“From him?” Abandoning all pretense of calm, Jane eagerly accepted the envelope and attempted to read the address in the dim light.
“No, miss. It’s the letter you sent to him,” Simmons replied. And in his voice Jane heard something that sounded like sympathy as he hurried to explain. “The gentleman had already gone before it could be gotten to him.”
Simmons paused then, as if considering his next words carefully. “There was such a row up at the manor house,” he finally continued. “Well, I thought you’d want to have your letter back…”
Jane tucked the letter into the folds of her cloak and looked up at him, realizing that in the groom she had found an ally who would not betray her indiscretion. “Thank you Simmons,” she said again. “That was very thoughtful of you.”
She hesitated awkwardly, aware that such loyalty should be rewarded. “I am afraid I have no money with me at the moment…,” she began. But before she could suggest that she would have something for him on the morrow Simmons cut her off with a wave of one big work-hardened hand.
“Don’t you worry, miss,” the young groom assured her with dignity, “I didn’t come here for money. The gentleman was very good to me while he was here.” Then his broad features creased in a smile and in a gentler tone he asked, “Shall I see you home now, miss?”
“Thank you, no,” Jane replied, the little catch in her voice promising that tears would very soon follow. “It’s only a short walk. You have been very good.”
Simmons bowed again, then, taking a step backward he put his tall hat on and climbed back onto the black horse. Once mounted he looked back down at Jane and leaned closer so she could hear. “I never met no one like him,” he said softly. “He’s the best gentleman I ever knew.”
Jane nodded in silent agreement, feeling the hot tears welling up in her eyes and wondering what magic her mysterious lover had wrought to engender such regard on the part of this simple country lad. For it had suddenly occurred to her that Simmons was also at risk, both for having slipped away from her brother’s manor at this late hour, as well as for having allowed himself to become an instrument in her conspiracy.
She had no time for further reflection, for the black horse was stamping its hooves, impatient now to be back in its warm stable. “Do you think the gentleman will ever come back again, miss?” Simmons’s voice was a barely audible whisper above the snorting of the animal.
Jane slowly shook her head. “I fear he may not be able, Simmons,” she replied. “You had better go now, before you are missed.”
The servant straightened, touched the brim of his hat, then wheeled the horse around and rode away across the meadow. Jane watched him until he was once more swallowed up in the mist.
A bright tear ran down her cheek as she looked up at the lowering moon. “So this is how it is to end?” she asked the cloud streaked sky.
Turning to the wood, she ran into the trees and back along the moonlit path the way she had come. Soon the dark outlines of a large stone house appeared through the trees. Warm light was shining from an upper window, and Jane knew that Cassandra had awakened and discovered her gone.
Making her way across the broad lawn at the rear of the house, Jane quietly let herself in through a low wooden door. Inside the kitchen the glow of embers in the fireplace provided the only light. Moving as quietly as possible across the flagged stone floor, Jane removed her cloak and hung it near the fireplace to dry. She took a candle in a copper holder from the mantle and lit it with a broom straw. Then, pausing just long enough to brush her tears away, she left the kitchen and walked through a dark hallway to the center of the house.
She had just reached the foot of the wide central staircase when she heard a footstep and saw the glimmering of another candle on the landing above.
“Jane, is that you?” Cassandra, her heavy plaits of golden hair falling about the shoulders of her nightgown, stood peering down into the dark stairwell, her soft features filled with concern.
“Yes, Cass, I am just coming up.” Fixing a cheerful smile on her lips, Jane hurried upstairs. She reached the upper landing to find her older sister regarding her with frank amazement.
“Surely you have not been out again at this hour,” Cassandra breathed. “It is well past midnight.”
“I felt like walking in the moonlight,” Jane replied, brushing past the astonished Cass and making quickly for the door to her room.
“The moonlight?” Cassandra, who could always tell when she was lying, moved to block her way, forcing Jane to look directly into her steady gray eyes. “Jane, what have you been up to?”
Jane shrugged, attempting to inject a carefree note into her voice. “I have heard it said that Lord Byron highly commends the moonlight, when he is courting the muse,” she replied brightly.
“And I have heard that the wicked young lord goes abroad at night only to court ladies of dubious reputation,” Cassandra retorted. “What have you been doing, sister?”
Once again Jane felt her tears threatening to burst forth. She shook her head stubbornly. “I have done nothing either very dubious or very wicked,” she replied. And in her mind’s eye she glimpsed the handsome features of the man she had gone to meet. “I was not given an opportunity,” she murmured with regret.
Cassandra’s mouth fell open. But before she could find adequate words to express her shock, Jane kissed her on the cheek and pushed past her. “Goodnight, Cass,” she whispered as she reached the door to her room.
Cassandra’s lined features softened and she regarded her younger sister with concern. “Dearest Jane, you know you can confide in me,” she said softly. “Won’t you tell me what has happened?”
“Oh Cass, I am not yet certain,” Jane replied, feeling the salty wetness beginning to sting her cheeks. “Perhaps my foolish heart has been broken at last.” She sniffled and managed a little smile. “I shall have to reflect on it and let you know in the morning.”
Then without another word she entered her bedroom and firmly shut the door behind her, leaving Cassandra alone in the hallway to wonder.
Lit only by her single candle, the large cheerful room that Jane loved so well by day was now a warren of leaping shadows. They danced impishly across the flowered wallpaper and pooled deep in the corners behind the bed as she walked to her mirrored vanity by the fireplace. Placing the candle on the table, Jane sat at the table and began slowly taking down her elaborately curled hair, allowing the shining dark tresses to fall loose.
When she was done, she regarded her dim reflection in the mirror, deliberately raising one pale hand to touch the silvery looking glass with her fingertips. “Only one of us is real,” she said quietly to that other Jane who sat gazing at her from the glass, “the other is but an illusion. The question is, which am I?”
Removing the undelivered letter from her gown, she placed it on the dressing table before her and stared down at the address she had so neatly written there a lifetime ago. She was startled from her reverie by an insistent knocking at the door.
“Jane, please do let me in,” Cassandra entreated. “I will not sleep a wink until you have told me what has happened.”
“What has happened?” Jane repeated in a voice so soft that only she could hear. “That, dear sister, is one thing that I will never tell you.”
She scooped up the letter as Cassandra knocked again. “Jane!” she called, demanding now to be let in.
“Just a moment, Cass.” With a heavy sigh Jane pushed back from the vanity, bowing to the inevitability of admitting her sister. Since they were both small children Cass had always been the one who had soothed her hurts and given her the courage to go on. That would never change, certainly not now that he was gone.
Picking up the letter, she looked quickly around the dimly lit room. “And what am I to do with this?” she wondered aloud. For she could not reveal its contents, even to Cass, nor did she dare destroy it because of the secret it contained.
Jane caught her own worried reflection looking back at her from the shimmering depths of the mirror as Cass’s knocking grew louder.