What Miss A____ Saw
The genre of the novel is so often maligned, so often does a person, wishing to impress upon their listener the full merit of their own good sense say, "I am sure I never read novels!" indeed, so often do even those who in their hearts dearly love the wretched art, when caught in the pursuit of that love and queried as to the title declaim, "Oh, it is only a novel!" and quickly hide the offending volume from view, that I almost fear to put down on paper the account that follows, certain as I am the critics of that detested genre shall wave it before the world as further proof of its profligate ways.
Even I, who witnessed these events and who have wasted no more time in relaying them to you than was strictly required to write them down in some kind of intelligible order, begin already to recall them almost as a dream, and yet I still tell you that you must not charge to the crimes of novel writers the authorship of these events, for as much as they may strain belief, and perhaps even imagination, yet they did occur, and I have changed not one thing in the retelling of them, but for the names of some of the minor players, that they may not find themselves assailed by the armies of the curious. As for the names of the principles, these I have not changed, for as you will see, I do not think that any account I might write could at all incommode such persons.
Before I come to those events of so fantastic a nature as to warrant the above prologue, I must beg your indulgence to first relate to you a little of my own situation, in the hopes that perhaps my readers will look with leniency on my own part in this matter, and though they may not entirely be able to excuse my imprudence and indelicacy of action, I hope that they shall at least better understand what circumstances may lead a respectable young woman into such an adventure as follows.
This tale begins but a very few weeks previous to the present day, the year being 18__, and I was at that time most unwillingly resident in the city of Bath. I must entreat you not to give way to romantic notions, but rather to picture me as I was, five-and-twenty years of age, unmarried, with no fortune and never having possessed any particular claim to beauty even in the bloom of youth, now progressing quickly into that dreadful state of spinsterhood which must hold especial terror for a woman of few means. Although I will not admit to being generally ill-tempered I must own that the preceding months had found me much out of humour.
I came to Bath against my own inclination, and though for the health of my dear father I would happily have suffered a worse change of situation than that of exchanging _____shire for Bath, yet to leave my childhood home, the seat of so much domestic happiness, to abandon the pleasures incumbent there, the almost perfect freedom of activity wherein I might spend as many quiet hours as I wished in the pursuit of the writing which has been the chief pleasure of my retired life thus far, was a blow indeed. And such an exchange! To leave behind such contentment as this only to come into a society so filled with superficial acquaintances that must yet be given consequence, visited, dined with, to be ever cloyed with solicitous goodwill that has so much of pretencion and so little of actual felicity in it as to make it rather disgusting than flattering to myself, this was a sad change indeed, and I must own that I bore it ill.
The day which opened this extraordinary episode came at the terminus of a fortnight of rain, rain as only winter in Bath can produce, cold and incessant, which, while never rising to such a level as might excite romantic images of a tempest, yet neither ceased for any period long enough to admit the possibility of young ladies taking any exercise out of doors. At the end of such a period you can well imagine what a cheerful party was formed by my mother, my sister, and I! Having been two weeks together in our little drawing room, our intercourse, usually so full of sense and cheerfulness, with each day encompassing less of either. At last, on the day in question, seeing that it had ceased to rain since the morning, I flung down my needlework in disgust and announced my intention to go for a walk.
"Oh, no, Jane," cried my mother, "I am sure it will be frightfully dirty outside. Only consider how long it has been raining. You will be up to your ankles in mud, I am certain."
"Madam," said I, and I rather now blush to repeat it here, "I do not care if the mud be up to my knees, I will go for a walk, for if I do not than I will either go mad, or be quite ill-tempered enough to make me as good as such. No, I shall go for a walk- directly."
At this my sister Cassandra did indeed blush, though I know not whether her reason were the indelicacy of such a speech or impropriety of directing it to my mother. I fear I often cause my sister to blush, her being much the superior creature between us.
Yet despite such language and despite the very real likelihood of its being just as dirty as my mother feared, Cassandra agreed to walk out with me, and, fearing the return of the rain, a very short time saw us set out from our own door in a not very fashionable quarter of Bath, our object being a main thoroughfare whence I had induced my sister to go on the strength of the milliners, although in truth I myself was thinking more of the bookseller across the way.
We had progressed no more than two steps from our door when my sister was called out to, and we were stopped in our progress by Mrs. and Miss Reed, who hurried across the street to us.
Mrs. Reed was the sister of a school friend with whom Cassandra had stayed for an extended visit some years earlier, and Miss Reed had been an intimate in the home and now considered Cassandra nearly so much her relative as the cousin with whom she had been staying. And although I know the acquaintance gave her no pleasure, my goodhearted sister managed to greet the Reeds with every politeness, and looked only slightly strained when Miss Reed embraced her tightly and greeted her with, "My dearest Cassandra, you darling thing, whatever shall I do with you! To think of your walking out in such damp, dirty weather. I am sure you shall catch your death of cold and you needn't ever go out of doors just to meet us, for I am sure I should come to see you whenever you might write, and we could have the pleasure of meeting right in your own drawing room. I am sure I never saw the like!"
I ought to have stayed and attempted the rescue of my sister, or at least stood stoically by, and borne with her the trial of Miss Reed's fond affections, but in that moment I allowed myself to be distracted from my duty, for indeed, at that very moment there intruded upon my senses a sound, a sound such as I hardly know how to describe but to say that I have never heard the like of it before, nor ever expect to do so again.
What words could describe that sound, which I would come to know so well in the days that followed? I can hardly even describe my own sensations on first hearing it, except that to say that it crept like a chill across my skin, and seemed to me like the wheezing moan of some great beast coming heavily to rest after long labor. Little did I know then how nearly right I was.
The sound was issuing from a side street, little more than an alley really, built to allow the passage of servants to and from the rear doors of the adjoining rows of houses, and I found myself drawing near without knowing why I did so, except that the sound seemed to call to me, to awaken in some corner of my imagination a murmur of something, some indefinable longing that drew me on. As I came to the mouth of the alley the sound ceased, but I looked around the corner all the same, little knowing what I might find there.
The scene before me was strange, decidedly strange.
Before me, blocking the whole of the alley, was a small structure, like a shed or a closet, painted blue, and bearing a lighted sign that read 'Police Box'. Though I knew the watches of Europe went by such a name, and had even heard tell that such an enterprise was being attempted in Scotland this very year, I knew of no such force in Bath. I hadn't the slightest notion what the object might be, or how so large and heavy a thing might have come to be in the narrow alley, only that surely it could not have been there long, for it was not wet.
Then, much to my surprise, the door to the structure opened, and a face appeared.
It wasn't a handsome face, to be sure. The features were striking, but rather large, and the man, for a man it was or at least appeared to be, but I shall say no more of that matter at present, the man had hair cropped oddly close, making his ears and nose stand only further out from the rest of his face. He looked at me and smiled, indeed he grinned, and the expression so transformed his face that one almost felt as if the ears and nose might be forgiven after all.
"Hello!" he said, "I'm the Doctor. Who're you, then? Where are we?"
I hardly knew what to say to this extraordinary petition, and I admit I stood gaping a moment as the man slipped out of the strange box and took a step towards me. He spoke with a rough northern accent that could hardly belong to a gentleman, and yet his clothes, though simple and of odd design, were well made, and his bearing and speech seemed to indicate a certainty of being obeyed that could not have belonged to any servant. As I stood staring, he gave me such a look as indicated that he was still awaiting an answer, and hardly knowing what to say I stammered out,
"I am Miss Austen, Miss Jane Austen. And this is C____ street, or near it," and seeing that he did not seem to understand me -although indeed, how could he not?- I went on, "in Bath. England."
The man looked at me in a fashion so frankly assessing of my person that I blushed and felt rather inclined to take offense, but at that moment he smiled at me again, only wider than before and said, "Jane Austen. Fantastic! Rose! Rose, stop fussing with your dress and come out here! I want you to meet someone."
To my amazement, a young woman appeared from within the box, the same narrow space from which the man had just emerged, and I made every attempt to cover my shock at the impropriety of their having been inside such a place together. As a clergyman's daughter, I did not deign to consider what they might have been doing in so close a space, and yet neither showed the least consciousness of wrongdoing.
The young woman before me was quite pretty, although her face was done up in an appalling manner. She wore a lovely dress of fine make, though one or two seasons out of fashion, a white summer dress with a pattern of violets in a strikingly rich shade of blue, that was utterly inadequate to the chill Bath winter.
"Rose," the man was saying, "this is Jane Austen. Miss Austen, this is Rose Tyler."
"What," the girl said, in a voice that belied the quality of her dress, "Really? Like, the actual Jane Austen? Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Darcy and all that, that Jane Austen. You're kidding!" And then, seeming to remember that I was there, she turned to me and offered me her hand, "Brilliant! I love you, I mean, I love your work. Well, Pride and Prejudice, I liked that."
"You've read Pride and Prejudice?" the man said.
"Oi! I do read you know, I'm not an idiot." The man smirked at her. "Okay, actually I saw the miniseries on telly. But I watched the whole thing. It was really good!" This last seemed to be directed at me in the form of an apology, but I was too shocked to speak.
The strange noise that had drawn me to the alley might have been explained away. The box might have been moved thither by some contrivance or another. The man and the woman might be anyone at all- despite their strange manners and looks there was nothing otherworldly about them. And yet, in that moment I was convinced, utterly convinced, of their unnatural origins, for they spoke what they could not know, spoke words of which there was no explanation for their having knowledge.
That I had, in my little writing desk at home, a manuscript that contained as one of its chief characters just such a Mr. Darcy, was quite true. And though I had not myself called it by that name, Pride and Prejudice spoke so clearly to that story as could leave no doubt in my mind. And yet as I have said, that these strange persons, who before this moment I had never seen in the whole course of my life, should know these things was impossible. The story had been shown to no one outside of my own family, there was only one copy, locked away in my desk, and the notes that I had scribbled in its creation were beside it.
I knew not then what manner of people stood before me, but I felt a certainty, unshakable in its conviction, that they were not what they appeared to be, that before me was something supernatural.
A shadow passed suddenly and quickly overhead, like that of a bird and yet far too large to be a bird, startling me and drawing my eyes upward only to see the last fleeting suggestion of a shape disappearing over the rooftops. The man and woman followed the shape with their eyes as well, and I felt sure that they knew what it was, and that it was to do with them.
"Well, Miss Austen," said the man, looking back at me. "We've got to go. Lovely to meet you! Good luck with the writing!" and with that took the hand of the girl beside him, and the two ran from the alley at such a speed that I found myself nearly thrown back against the wall behind me.
How many minutes I stood in that attitude I can not say, for I was shocked and confused almost beyond my ability to bear it, and had I been a different sort of woman I might have succumbed to a temptation to swoon, but I soon became aware of my sister's voice calling for me, in a tone of some agitation. I managed to bring myself to my senses, and stepped out of the alley to find my sister coming towards me rapidly.
"Jane!" she cried, spying me at last. "Have you been here all this time? I almost began to worry when I could not find you. But what on earth have you been doing, and who were you speaking with? Who were those strange persons I saw go flying up the street a moment ago?"
"My dear Cassandra," I replied in a tone of some little shock, "I wish that I could tell you, but I hardly know myself. Indeed, I have no idea."
To be continued...