By Elizabeth Fust
Word Count: 1789
Summary: When Anne slips away from her aunt in the art gallery to peruse a bookshop, she meets a most unexpected person.
Hatchards. Green painted wood and crisp, swirled gold letters stood out on Piccadilly Street, even though Anne could barely see through the crowds jostling along. Anne held the brim of her bonnet closer to her cheek, her blue cotton glove obstructing her face and only allowing her eyes of the same color to study the street. Her aunt could not be seen, and Anne assumed that she was still in the Egyptian Hall across the street, analyzing art and artifacts from exotic lands and pretending to make intelligent remarks. Anne would not be missed; she would complete her errand in little time and wend her way back to the exhibition before her aunt would notice she had lagged behind.
A gentleman held the door open for a lady as they exited the shop, and Anne slipped in. Her steps were slow on the plush carpet as she gazed about her. Books and pamphlets, the written words practically seeping out from the pages and into the air, calling to her.
“Terribly sorry!” she gasped, tripping over the hem of someone’s skirt.
“Indeed, I hope not. No one should be so sorry when they are distracted by books,” her victim replied.
“Yes, I was rather distracted by the shelves. Floor to ceiling with books; I’ve not seen anything like it. I suppose I was rather paying attention to the highest shelves and didn’t see you.”
The corners of the woman’s mouth twisted upwards, as if locking away a secret in her smile. “Then it is a wonder you didn’t see me, for I am rather tall, and yet your upturned gaze was still too high to see me. Ah, the lofty ideals of books that pull our heads and gazes with them.”
The stranger’s hazel eyes were uplifted, as if propelled to the ceiling by her sigh, and Anne couldn’t help but chuckle. She drew her gloved hand to her lips as she and the lady slipped into silence, suddenly aware of their breach of etiquette, conversing without introduction. Anne bobbed her head and began to turn.
“I normally wouldn’t beg on with you, propriety and all,” the lady said, pulling at Anne’s hand, “but you seem lost.”
Anne’s foolish decision seemed to be catching up with her. There was no mutual party to introduce her and the lady, who must have seen by now that Anne was unaccompanied, on Piccadilly Street at that. Anne had no face for cards or charades; she was sure the lady could see her cheeks turning rosy.
“Indeed, I seem to have, to have…”
“Misplaced your chaperone?”
“Have you any idea where you misplaced them?”
Anne wasn’t sure how much to say, for she did not know who this lady was or how she might get her or her aunt in trouble. She clutched at her purse, her hands perspiring in her gloves.
“Dear, your face has already revealed that you’re up to no good; I recommend your lips follow suit and tell me how so.”
The merry eyes and rosy full cheeks of the woman lent her a sense of youthful merriment, but the way she took Anne’s elbow and let her to a quiet corner of the shop showed her a woman of age and determination, like a formidable aunt. Which made Anne feel none the better, as she had deserted her aunt.
The lady said nothing, waiting for Anne to begin speaking.
“Well, I, I may have misplaced my chaperone at the Egyptian Hall.”
“Then I can understand why you came here, and at the risk of propriety, too. Nothing is so dull as trying to appreciate art and having to listen to people ruin it with their opinions.”
“I do enjoy art.”
“Yet you escaped here. Why is that?”
“Well, why else does one come to a bookseller?”
“To meet respectable people, catch a gentleman’s eye, hear the latest gossip.”
“No, none of that.” Anne’s bonnet was loosened, she shook her head with such intent.
“An old-fashioned heart. You came to buy a book.”
Anne hesitated. “There’s so many to choose from.”
“You mean you didn’t have a title in mind?”
She didn’t. There were so many and they all blended together.
“What is your favorite novel? Perhaps I can help you in your quest for a new book.”
Yet Anne was still silent. Novels were frivolous, according to her aunt, with whom she lived. Sermons, now that was what ought to be read.
“Do you not have a favorite novel? Surely you must; life without one would be intolerably dull. Or at least the pretense of one.”
“Pretense of a favorite novel or pretense of a life?” Anne asked, regaining her tongue after having lapsed into silence for what must have been a considerable amount of time.
“Either. Perhaps both.”
“It’s just that I’m not sure I have a favorite novel. My aunt doesn’t really approve of novels, you see. She doesn’t disapprove, not with words or rules, but with the way her mouth turns down and her nose turns up.”
“Yes, I know the look. So what would she have you read?”
“Sermons. Not that I find anything wrong with those, yet I feel as though they only tell one perspective of life. And that’s hardly a well-rounded story.”
“Ah, so you seek truth.”
That made Anne hesitate again. “No. Just stories. I suppose a glimpse into how one person sees life, sees people, sees circumstances. Sees characters in the midst of all the trials and tribulations and triumphs that the sermons talk about, but do not always show. Then to move on to another novel and see another writer doing the same thing in an entirely different way, another different perspective.”
The lady was studying her.
“Perhaps I have rambled on. I’m sorry I’ve kept you from your own book perusal; I won’t keep you. I don’t think I am ready to make any purchases here today.” Anne bobbed her head and turned back to the door.
The lady beckoned for her to follow, led her into a nook of the shop, pulled a book from a shelf, and handed it to Anne.
“The Female Quixote?” The title of the book peeled off of Anne’s lips.
“Yes. You see, Quixote was a knight who went on these adventures. Oh, he went on quests and saved the day and won the fair lady. Or so he thought. Imagined rather, for that was his problem. He wasn’t a knight, and his quests led to more problems than triumphs and there never was even a fair lady; she was only in his imagination. His perception was distorted by dreaming, and no one around could stop him and make him see that, and he went traipsing around Spain under the impression that everything he imagined was real. Miss Lennox copied this narrative, in a way, for her The Female Quixote, but I shan’t recount that, for it would spoil this novel for you, though I will say there is a bit of romance and it’s all about stories and people, expectations and truth. A theme I myself am rather drawn to. Perhaps it may help you find your balance of story and truth, as well.”
“That does sound intriguing.” Anne held the novel, a perfect size to fit in her reticule where it would go unnoticed by her aunt. It had been risky coming here, unaccompanied, with the shillings she had scrimped and saved from her pin money, but she was holding a novel in her hands and it was all worth it. “Thank you, thank you very much. I shall enjoy reading this immensely.”
They curtsied to each other a final goodbye, and Anne approached the proprietor to make her purchase. He raised a grey eyebrow behind his wire rimmed glasses when Anne went to pay, yet an unaccompanied woman making such a large purchase in small coinage was not enough to rouse him to conversation. With the novel tucked snuggly in her reticule, she turned to the door with a deep breath, ready to brave Piccadilly Street again.
The lady was standing at the door next to a gentleman who shared her same sly smile and sparkling eyes. “I hoped to catch you. I’ve noticed you seem to be alone; perhaps my brother Henry and I could accompany you to the Egyptian Hall?”
“Oh, yes that would be lovely!” Anne said, even as Henry pushed open the door and ushered them out of the shop, offering each lady an arm.
Anne did not do much talking as they pushed through the crowds, but listened to the lady and her brother comment on all the Londoners passing by. Finally they reached the museum with its edifice of Egyptian god statues and hieroglyphics, which they paused to wonder at, for it seemed the brother and sister pair were not keen to return Anne to her aunt so quickly.
However, it was not long before the happy trio overtook Anne’s aunt who was studying Napoleon Bonaparte’s travelling carriage on its display. Her aunt did not notice them at first, for she was intently squinting through a pair of lorgnette glasses, which, after glimpsing the swish of Anne’s skirt, were turned upon the trio.
“Anne, dear! How quiet you’ve been; I’ve hardly noticed you were here,” her aunt said, putting the lorgnette glasses away, but now studying the lady and Henry.
“Forgive me, Aunt, I…” Anne did not know how to explain.
“I’m afraid we’ve kept her. Old friends,” the lady spoke up.
“Yes.” Anne’s eyes darted to the lady.
“Old friends from an Almack’s ball, where a mutual friend introduced us.”
“Yes…” Anne agreed, though she had only ever been to one ball at London’s Almack’s Assembly Rooms, and had made no new acquaintances.
“Well, dear, do introduce me,” her aunt said, straitening how the ribbons of her bonnet framed her face as she eyed Henry.
Anne had not been introduced properly to the sibling pair and did not know how to go about introducing them to her aunt.
Henry stepped in. “I’m afraid when my sister introduced Anne to me, she was too excited by seeing her friend to do it properly. I am Captain Henry Austen and this is my sister, Miss Jane Austen.”
As Anne stepped in to introduce her aunt, the name of the lady weighed on her mind, not unlike the weight of the book now hidden in her reticule.
*The author of this piece apologizes for any historic inaccuracy in the portrayal of Hatchards Booksellers, The Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly Street, Georgian economics and etiquette, or Jane and Henry Austen.