Posted on Saturday, 24 June 2000, at 10 : 47 p.m.
The Pump Room was honored that morning with the presence of the Austen women. Well, perhaps not all of them. Eliza Austen had appeared on her husband's parents doorstep at what was, for her, an unusually early hour of the morning and insisted on visiting the Pump Room to observe who had come for the holiday season. The Reverend Austen had begged off to attend his morning constitutional, and Jane had gone out earlier on a walk of her own, leaving only Mrs. Austen and Cassandra to attend Eliza. The little Comtesse would not be denied, and so the three had bundled off to the crossroads (figuratively if not literally) of Bath. So now they joined in the company come to take the waters, milling a bit like sheep, while Eliza searched out acquaintances and personages of note for their entertainment.
Cassandra longed for her sister's presence at her elbow rather than her mother. This was not an activity that Cassandra particularly enjoyed, but Jane enlivened it for her with imagined stories of this person's life or that couple's engagement. But Jane had been much taken in melancholy since the tragic passing of her particular friend Mrs. Lefroy. Truthfully, however, Cassandra's dearest companion had not been herself in quite some time. And Cassandra knew on whose doorstep the responsibility lay. Lord Harold Trowbridge
The man was defamed by all society as a rogue, a scoundrel and a womanizer, and by Jane's own pen as maliciousness and evil incarnate. So why, since his appearance in Bath a fortnight ago, had she spent so much time in his company? Attending the theatre, meeting in the lower rooms, visiting that notorious artist. She had even spent the bulk of her allowance on the extravagance of having a modish gown fashioned for her in haste, the fabric for which Cassandra still questioned the origin of. No, this man was leading her impulsive sister quickly to ruin, and if Jane was not concerned about it, her sister surely was.
As if summoned by her thoughts, Lord Harold himself appeared on the Pump Room foyer, his grey hair and sharp features standing out in the crowd. With him was a young woman Cassandra did not recognize, slender features bordering on angular, grey eyes piercing and perceptive. She hung on Trowbridge's arm as though grasping a trophy and made no secret of her great pleasure in being seen with him.
Cassandra was incensed. Her normally placid, gentle demeanor, already strained by the loss of a family friend and the slow estrangement of her much beloved sister, now bent beyond recognition. She left her mother's side without a word to confront the gentleman rogue.
He touched his hat as she approached them. "Miss Austen, it is a pleasure . . ."
"You, sir, are the most villainous creature I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. How dare you come here in this manner, flaunting yourself to the mortification of my dear sister? You are a cad, sir, and should be heartily ashamed of yourself!"
His eyes registered surprise, then narrowed to study her closely. After a moment, he leaned over to his companion, who lifted her ear obligingly to his whisper. Whatever he said disappointed her, for she gave a slight moue as she slid from his arm in search of other companions. Trowbridge himself took Cassandra's arm in a gentle but unshakeable grip and turned her into the flow of people walking the Pump Room circuit.
"I hardly think, Miss Austen, that you are improving your sister's situation by confronting me in this public and verbal manner," he said, his voice clear but quiet, with more than a trace of humor.
She did not answer, the implications of her hasty action only now occurring to her.
"Miss Jane always described her sister Miss Austen to me as a calm, reserved woman of propriety. Imaging my surprise to meet you in such a temper!" The amusement in his tone was evident now.
"Don't toy with me, Lord Trowbridge!" She tried to liberate her arm with no success. She would simply have to attend him until he chose to release her. "Your unfeeling behavior towards Jane impacts not only my sister, but our whole family! How do you think the community will treat my father when he is seen to have raised a daughter whose head can be turned by such a man as you at her increased age?"
"I would imagine that the Reverend Austen would be amused by those with so little perception as to believe Miss Jane capable of such a poor show of judgement."
Again Cassandra fell silent. Finally she spoke, this time in more modulated tones. "I confess I lack my sister's discernment in matters of human foible. Tell me what I am seeing, if I have interpreted it so poorly."
What you are seeing, Miss Austen, is exactly as you have described it. It is what you are not seeing which colors your interpretation. Please, sit." He guided her to a private but easily observed bench in a gentlemanly fashion but with a firmness of grip that brooked no resistance. Cassandra allowed herself to be seated, comforted in the knowledge that so public a meeting could be taken for nothing beyond what it was, a conversation between casual acquaintances. She would not add to the load her parents must bear from the horrid gossips of Bath.
"I am not certain how much your sister has told you of my employment in life . . ."
"She has told me you are involved in intrigues on behalf of the Crown. I assumed . . ." she faltered.
"You assumed, knowing my reputation, that that involved such things as no decent woman would discuss. No, your sister has been most circumspect regarding my secrets. But I would not have her keep it from you if it means alienating her from your affections. Miss Austen, I am a spy for the Crown. The perfidy of my reputation covers all manner of activities I must participate in as a part of my work. And, I confess, it gives me a certain edge in that my opponents don't know what to expect of me. I was functioning in such capacity when I became acquainted with Miss Jane at Scargrave Manor last year. I was impressed to find that her talent for intrigue equaled and in some ways surpassed my own!"
"Lord Harold!" Cassandra was appalled.
"You didn't know? She ran rings around me, I assure you. And surely she related to you the happenings in Lyme Regis this fall after your departure?" Cassandra shook her head slightly, but was intrigued by the look of pride on the man's sardonic features. There was something more going on here. But he continued. "Crawford's arrest was entirely due to the abilities of your sister, although I was required to take the credit of it. It was for this reason I asked her to attend my niece during her time here. Mona would not respond well to my presence, but I knew Miss Jane would be a stimulating companion for her while keeping her from any wildness, and if any intrigues pursued her, Jane would see through them quickly and diffuse them, or send for me to deal with them." Jane? "Events conspired against us before the acquaintance could be formed, however, and we have spent the last fortnight in each other's company trying to redeem my nephew's reputation, I in the legal sphere and she in the domestic. So you see, Miss Austen, I have not turned your sister's head, at least not romantically. Her reputation, in actuality, if not on the tongues of the gossips, is safe from me."
Cassandra looked into his eyes as he finished this speech, his tone derisive. For a moment, there seemed to be something else there, something . . . hurt? "I see," she replied thoughtfully.
"What you haven't seen, Miss Austen, has been your sister. Had she been born a man, I have no doubt I would see her now as a rival. Her perception, her creativity and the fearlessness I've seen in her would have made her a formidable opponent. But because she is a woman, she is able to go places I could not, ask questions I should never think of, and be trusted with answers I could never elicit. You should be deeply touched that, with all her abilities, it is you she turns to as her touchstone."
And in that moment, Cassandra had a Jane-like flash of insight. This man had real feelings for her sister, of a depth his sardonic demeanor only hinted at. Yet for some reason he thought himself either undesired or undeserving. Cassandra was flabbergasted. "I . . . I thank you sir," she stammered. "I have great affection for my sister, and to hear her spoken of thusly. . ."
"It is no more than she deserves, I assure you. I hope this assuages your fears somewhat?" The mocking twist to his lips had returned.
"It has given me much to think on."
At that moment Eliza approached their resting place. "Lord Harold, I hate to intrude on your conquest of yet another Austen woman, but Cassandra's mother is approaching apoplexy, so I thought it best if I returned her daughter to her."
Lord Harold laughed. "I assure you, Comtesse, the Austen women are entirely immune to my charms!"
"Not entirely, my dear!" she laughed lightly. "I should run off with you in a moment!"
He bent low over her hand. "Then it is a good thing I have such respect for your husband, Madam!" He turned to Cassandra. "I thank you for your time, Miss Austen. I must return to my niece now. Please convey my regards to your sister."
"Certainly, sir." She curtsied, hoping the action obscured the blush of confusion in her cheek. All this from his attending his niece!
He touched his hat and disappeared into the crowd.
Mrs. Austen bustled up to them, now that the perceived danger had passed. "How singular that he should sit with you, my dear!" she fluttered. "Such an unpredictable man!"
"Yes, Mother, quite," she responded distractedly. And within her all unbidden, she felt the first stirrings of sympathy for the gentleman rogue.
21 December, 1804
Cassandra is watching me.
I noticed it over tea. Whenever I should look her way, her eyes are fixed on me, as though she were trying to see into me, plumbing my deepest secrets. I don't know to what end. It is as though she doesn't know me. Something extraordinary must have happened today.