The irrepressible heat of the summer afternoon had taken its toll on Miss Jane Fairfax. Again, she managed to fend off yet another offer of employment from the equally irrepressible Augusta Elton.
"But Jane!" the vicar’s wife exclaimed. "Think of the superior advantages of such a position! Mrs. Smallridge is so charming, so delightful, a fixture in the first circles and a mere four miles from my dear sister at Maple Grove. As I just said to your dear aunt, there is not a superior nursery in the world save the one at Maple Grove itself, or Mrs. Bragges’. Mrs. Smallridge’s three dear girls are in need, and who better than Miss Jane Fairfax - the very model of a steady, reliable young lady - to be their governess. I do so enjoy assisting worthy young people to find their place in the world. And my friends do say I have quite a knack for singling out those unseen blooms most in need of my advice and connections. The Smallridges - who are so intimate at Maple Grove! - will quite rave about you, Jane. Such a modern household, such a well-equipped schoolroom! At my recommendation, they agree to have you on the spot - and at a generous salary - for such a position. Give me your word and we shall close the offer immediately, in tomorrow’s post!”
Jane sighed almost imperceptibly, though her features and tone of voice expressed a somewhat greater degree of vexation, and once again repeated that she could not accept any offers of employment at present. She was truly upset, and not merely because the exhausting Mrs. Elton refused to take no for an answer. Mrs. Smallridge’s offer was a stark reminded her that she had very little time left before needing to come to terms with her still-secret engagement to Mr. Frank Churchill. Jane did not truly want to work for any of them - not the Smallridges, the Bragges, nor even the exalted Sucklings themselves - but there was a distinct, devastating possibility that Mrs. Elton in all her misapplied exertions had actually provided Jane the best option for her future happiness and comfort.
The day of strawberry-picking at the famous patches of Donwell Abbey had been tiring in so many respects. Frank was late, as usual, and his new stepmother, Mrs. Weston, repeated her fears about his usual mount, the skittish black mare he favored. Jane had hoped that she and Frank would be able to steal some time for candid discussion of their situation, but the prospect of such a meeting was seeming more and more impossible as the party finished gathering and settled near the house. The sweltering gardens of Donwell made her weary of her secret, her company, and her prospects.
Jane and Frank Churchill had been acquainted months earlier in Weymouth. Frank had fallen quickly and madly in love with her elegance and dark, striking features, insisting that she consent to marry him. In turn, she was captivated by his easy charm - and his good looks.
For a lady normally considered measured, proper, and practical - as Jane was - this was a rather perplexing course. She very much questioned her choice, particularly of late. After all, this wasn’t some ridiculous plot from a silly novel, to be hewn and smoothed into place by some benevolent author-god with the power to bless penniless orphans with happy endings. This was reality…wasn’t it?
There he was, entering her life at a time of transition, just as she was most vulnerable. All considered, Jane felt she loved Frank, and, well, truth was that he was probably her last chance to avoid a life as a glorified servant. She had to try.
Jane, an orphan, was now grown, and obliged to make her own living apart from the generosity of her father's old friend, Colonel Campbell. Her plan, prior to meeting Frank Churchill, had been to find a position as governess to a family of rank with young children. Though the Campbells seemed happy to keep Jane with them, Miss Campbell’s marriage marked a change in household circumstances that made Jane useful to no one. Feeling it inappropriate to stay, Jane determined it was time to make her own way in the world. Her education and temperament were well-suited to work in the schoolroom, even if it meant seclusion from the kind of society her friends and remaining family felt she deserved. The demotion of sphere it offered did worry her, though Jane would never admit that such things mattered much. Not that she ever aspired to some grand match. She hadn’t the dowry nor the title, and besides, becoming a possession of some great gentleman was no answer to the questions posed by circumstance. There must be regard. If not love, at least, something very near it.
Poor Jane Fairfax, she imagined they all thought. And while Jane had no desire to think ill of her kind aunt, she knew that they must be drawing comparisons between her own circumstances and those of Miss Bates. Her Aunt Hetty had been born a gentlewoman, the esteemed daughter of a respected vicar, and was now living in reduced circumstances with her mother in a small set of rooms in the village. There was nothing genteel about poverty, no matter how romantic it might seem on the pages of novels.
While gentle society might be taken aback by the speed of an attachment like Jane’s and Frank Churchill’s, the real trouble was the inevitable disapproval of Frank’s guardians. The particular trouble lay with his uncle's haughty wife, who had never approved of the marriage of Miss Churchill to Frank's father. While Frank was past the legal age of majority, his inheritance still very much depended on the moods of his Aunt Churchill, whom Frank knew led his uncle's decisions in virtually all matters. Given their feelings about Mr. Weston, Jane’s situation in life could hardly satisfy someone in the Churchills' exalted sphere.
And so, Frank persuaded Jane to consent to a secret engagement to last until the imminent passing of his sickly aunt - his very dear aunt, a surrogate mother whom he could not bear to burden with such disturbing news in her condition. Frank assured her that once his aunt had passed her suffering, his Uncle Churchill - and his own father - would surely bless the union.
On some level, Jane always knew that Frank was in some degree of denial, but she joined him in that denial for quite some time. Frank had that kind of power over her. It wasn’t his original intention for things to be this way. It was just how it was between them, and he learned to use it to his advantage.
Frank Churchill was formidable in that he made a habit of prevailing in everything that mattered to him, but not in the dark ways one might expect from a gothic villain. He simply overpowered her. With his energy, his attention, his promises. She believed that it all came from a good place, but she knew others might never understand.
Since October, no one but themselves had known of the affair. They were obligated by circumstances to limit their contact to correspondence, as Frank had his duty to his aunt and uncle at their estate, Enscombe, in Yorkshire, and Jane was required to accompany the Campbells in Ireland. In February, Jane returned to Highbury to stay with her Grandmother and Aunt Bates, with great hopes of finally being able to solidify the state of her plans with Frank.
Frank's letters had, till the present summer, been frequent and consistently affectionate, though his view of their future together was imprecise at best. He gave her continual assurances that all would end to their satisfaction, though his notions of procedure were vague and ever-changing. It was all due to the nature of his Aunt Churchill’s illness, he reassured her, but Jane’s practical side questioned this, at least in part.
At last, he decided that he would make a long-awaited visit to his father in Highbury, on the pretense of desiring to meet his new stepmother. Frank had always intended to acquaint himself with his Highbury roots, but had always had one obligation or another - often to his aunt and uncle - to preempt his attention. Having been raised by the Churchills upon his mother's death, he felt that he had a special duty to repay their devotion. And considering the fragile state of his aunt's health, he felt obliged to cater to her wishes. Jane's presence in Highbury, however, was all that was necessary to force himself to make time to return for a visit to Randalls, his father's estate.
Their time together at Highbury, however, was strained and limited, as both Jane and Frank could barely acknowledge even their acquaintance without fear of blundering into revelations amongst their families and friends. Keeping up the appearance of disinterest was exhausting for Jane in particular.
In the spring, the Churchills had removed to Richmond, near enough to Highbury to make it easier for Frank to come and go nearly whenever he pleased. So Frank, under the pretense of business or his aunt's health, could frequently escape the scene of their charade and thereby return with renewed strength to the deception. Jane, however, had no intimate society other than that of her inquisitive aunt and her grandmother in the general vicinity, and nowhere to go save their small home in the village. Her only escape lay in fetching the morning letters, in hopes of receiving a message from Frank or perhaps her friend Mrs. Dixon, the former Miss Campbell. Most recently, even Frank's letters were growing sparse and brief.
Jane felt increasing doubt as to the prudence of their subterfuge. She was increasingly ashamed to be a party to such a disguise. It was not simply a lie; it forcibly altered all her intercourse with others, particularly when he was near. While she became more cold and withdrawn, Frank became more animated and prone to mistakes. It hurt her especially to be perpetually held from him at arm's length, while he formed affectionate relationships with the unsuspecting others about them. At times, it was more than Jane's sensibilities could bear to see him paying the most earnest attentions to Miss Emma Woodhouse, whom he insisted felt nothing for him. "After all," he had reminded her in one brief moment of privacy, "a young man who is truly unattached will mingle and flirt with young ladies, perhaps with one in particular more than with the others."
To this, she could only reply, "You have too much energy and inclination for it," before he was off again. Sometimes she wondered if he was enjoying it all too much.
So, Jane had borne the secret for months without a slip. At times, however, Frank's easy manners and inclination to relaxed spontaneity risked its security. Most recently, he betrayed an intelligence conveyed through one of her letters regarding Mr. Perry's plans for a carriage, a secret of which only she, her aunt, and her grandmother were aware. At first, he admitted that his stepmother, Mrs. Weston, must have written the information to him. When she denied any awareness, he attributed the knowledge to a "dream." At the moment that it seemed his charming absent-mindedness had cleared him, Miss Bates wondered out loud, as she often did, how great the coincidence between Frank's figment and the particular secret which Mrs. Perry had imparted to herself, her mother, and Jane several months before. Though the connection seemed excruciatingly obvious to Jane, no one else seemed to suspect a thing. She hung at the back of the party as it approached Hartfield, the Woodhouse estate, adjusting her shawl and struggling to retain a tranquil countenance, and in doing so, realized that Mr. George Knightley had not only forged the connection, but was intent upon perceiving any reaction on her part as proof of its veracity. As that day at Hartfield progressed, Jane grew more and more uneasy. At Frank's suggestion, the young people sat down to word puzzles. Frank immediately endeavored to engross himself in Miss Woodhouse, but not without extending to Jane a message of relief in the word "blunder."
A blunder, indeed, Frank, she thought, her visible flesh coloring as she pushed the letters back at him a bit too forcefully. The blush grew deeper as she noticed the intensity with which Mr. Knightley regarded both Frank's puzzle and her own reaction. Jane hoped that her own guilt was causing her to overestimate both the level and cause for his suspicion. She had perceived on other occasions his anxiousness at Frank's particular attention to Miss Woodhouse, and fancied that this was the reason for his careful observance. She could not blame him, for the very same attentions which so engaged his interest also gave her great pain. She remembered the evening at the Coles’ when they had both watched uneasily as Frank and Miss Woodhouse sang together at the pianoforte. As Jane had struggled to maintain composure, she noted how Mr. Knightley had gripped his chair, pushing himself deep into its back, with an expression of displeasure on his face.