The following excerpts are from chapters two and three of my NaNoWriMo novel, What Would Elizabeth Bennet Do?
Elizabeth carried just one bag as she went up the gangplank of the S.S. Catagonia. Her favorite books, Bible and drawing materials were stowed in it, as was a shawl in case she became chilled on deck. For she intended to spend as much time up on deck, breathing the sea air, as possible. A shiver of excitement danced its way up her spine and tingled through the roots of her hair. She was embarking on a journey, alone, on what might be the most fascinating adventure of her life.
She was going to England.
A middle-aged steward with a dry face met her on deck. “Miss Elizabeth Markette? May I show you to your stateroom?” Elizabeth followed him through a heavy oak door and down through narrow corridors, all the while wondering how he knew exactly who she was. Modern travel was indeed a marvel. And while she was on the subject of marvelous things, the interior of this ship was a sight to behold. A floating hotel! She supposed it was not quite so grand in the lower parts, where the second-class and steerage passengers rode. Or could it be possible that the entire ship was a floating palace?
Mr. Howe had purchased her a first-class ticket; perhaps he was under the impression that she possessed a well-filled bank account in addition to her one hundred and fifty. If that was his notion, he was quite mistaken, but of course Elizabeth could not bring herself to tell him that his client’s granddaughter was practically penniless. Certainly, there were people in the world to whom one hundred and fifty dollars would seem a fortune, but she now retained far less than one hundred and fifty dollars. Her one-way steamship fare, her train ticket to New York and her overnight stay in the New York hotel had left her with little more than twenty dollars to her name.
The steward opened a door and Elizabeth found herself in a well-furnished stateroom with one small porthole looking out at the very deep, very wet, very cold water. She straightened her shoulders and tore her gaze away from the porthole. “Miss Markette, this will be your room for the duration of your journey,” the steward was saying. “My name is Elijah, and I shall be attending to your needs. Is there anything you require at the moment?”
Elizabeth looked around the stateroom. There was a bed, firmly attached to the wall. There was a table, firmly secured to the floor. There were a washbasin and pitcher, which were not attached to anything at all. Elizabeth imagined a stormy night, the wind-tossed ship, the bowl and pitcher clattering off the table and onto her head as she lay shivering in the bed—
“Is there a great deal of—er, motion during storms?” she asked in a small voice. Then she reproached herself for asking such a childish question. Of course the ship would toss about in a gale. She was not in a solid building, after all.
Elijah seemed accustomed to dealing with passengers’ silly fears. His expression did not change as he said, “No, madam, the first-class staterooms are positioned as near to the middle of the ship as possible, to be within the ship’s center of gravity. Our passengers complain of very little discomfort during storms. And, madam, may I add that we do not expect to see many storms during this journey. The weather appears to be quite calm.”
Elizabeth was reassured. She nodded her head regally and pretended that she had known that all along. Inwardly she wished she had not asked such a foolish question.
“Your trunk, madam,” Elijah continued, “will be delivered to your stateroom later today. I trust you will find everything in order. Please do not hesitate to alert a steward if there is anything you require.” He bowed and left the room. Elizabeth wished he would stay, even if was the most boring person she had ever met. She suddenly felt very much alone.
The room was too quiet. All she could hear was the chug of the ship’s engines. The blank walls stared her out of countenance, and the uncarpeted floor was unfriendly to her foot. She decided then and there to go up on deck and watch New York fade into the distance. At least on deck there would be plenty of fresh air and sunshine.
Of course, if she wanted fresh air in her stateroom, she needed only to open her porthole, but seeing the vast expanse of water through such a tiny glass made her feel very odd inside—very odd indeed.
Someone bumped Elizabeth from the side, but she was so interested in watching the horizon fade that she hardly noticed. She thought she should feel more regret at watching her homeland disappear, but the only emotion she could conjure up was excitement.
“I beg your pardon,” said an elegant, lemon-like voice at Elizabeth’s elbow. Elizabeth turned to see a tall young lady with regal blonde hair, dressed like a fashion plate, smiling in a stiff way that did not convey any kind of friendliness. “I did not mean to jostle you,” the lady continued. “You must, however, realize that you are taking up a great portion of the rail.” She adjusted her hat with an immaculately gloved hand and turned pointedly away from Elizabeth.
Startled, Elizabeth jerked herself upright. Leaning on the rail with elbows extended was not at all a ladylike position. She began to apologize and then stopped herself. Who, after all, was this woman, reproving her for her stance at a ship’s rail? She drew her mouth into its haughtiest expression. “I do beg your pardon,” she said in her most arctic tones. “I had no idea I was inconveniencing those around me so grossly. Forgive me.”
The young woman’s head revolved back to face Elizabeth. Her dark brown eyes regarded Elizabeth with a mixture of surprise, disdain and amusement. “I don’t believe we’ve met before,” she said.
Of course they had never met before. They had been on the ship for only an hour, Elizabeth thought. Nevertheless she said civilly, “No, I don’t believe so.” She considered introducing herself, but decided that this young woman was not someone with whom she wished to be acquainted. Haughty creature! So, she too, began to turn away, but the young lady stopped her.
“As we have no mutual friend to introduce us,” said the young lady, her eyes suddenly sparkling, “I suppose we shall have to do it ourselves. It is quite a bore, but Mamma is watching me from her chair over there and will think me abominably rude if I walk away from you without a proper greeting. To be sure, I believe Mamma is sleeping at the moment, but I am convinced that she can see with her eyes shut. I am Lavinia Solange Vivian Bancroft, en route to my home in London, and I am charmed to make your acquaintance.”
“Elizabeth Markette of Philadelphia,” Elizabeth said stiffly. She still harbored no desire to strike up a conversation with Miss Lavinia Solange Vivian Bancroft. Nor would she say that she was “chahmed” to make Miss Bancroft’s acquaintance.
Miss Bancroft smiled, this time with far more affability than before. “Now we are friends,” she said, “or, at the very least, acquaintances. I am very glad, for this is to be a horribly long voyage and I don’t fancy spending it entirely alone. Mamma will be seasick half the time, and Papa is in London waiting for us. There is nothing for me to do but sit on a wicker chair and stare at the water, perhaps occasionally twirling my parasol. It will be a great pleasure to have someone of my own age to talk to. For you must know that I will be likely to do nearly all the talking if we are to spend much time together.”
Elizabeth hardly knew what to say. She did not think she could like Miss Bancroft, but Miss Bancroft—the same who had been so rude only moments before—seemed determined to like her. She could not just turn on her heel and leave. Grandmother would never have done something so ill mannered. The only thing to do was to stay and listen to Miss Bancroft—who seemed quite ready to natter on about everything under the sun—until a convenient diversion arose.
“Do walk a little with me,” Miss Bancroft was saying, lifting Elizabeth’s surprised arm and tucking it into the crook of her own silk-clad one. “There is nothing to see from this point but a dirty smudge below the skyline, and we may as well walk a little. I am a great believer in frequent exercise. I do not care to sit idle on a couch.”
They made their way around a multitude of other well-dressed passengers, who took not the least notice of them. “I was sure you must be an American,” said Miss Bancroft, hooking her parasol over the crook of her other arm. “Naturally your dreadful accent would give you away in a moment, but I knew from the moment I saw you draped across the railing that you must be a vulgar Yankee.”
Elizabeth’s throat constricted and her eyes widened.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” said Miss Bancroft, before Elizabeth could express her horror. “You must think me terribly rude, I know, but it is only my way. You will become accustomed to it in time. I mean no disrespect to Americans, you understand. I just think them vulgar. New money, as Mamma says. But of course I do not say that you yourself are vulgar. I feel sure that we shall be the closest of friends, my dear creature.”
Elizabeth reflected that Miss Bancroft must be of the habit of forming hasty and unfounded opinions. She tried to recollect if she had said anything thus far to endear herself to Miss Bancroft, but could think of nothing. And yet here she was Miss Bancroft’s “dear creature”, whether she liked to be or not.
“Who is traveling with you?” Miss Bancroft inquired. “I should dearly love to meet your family or friends. I shall have to introduce you to Mamma as soon as she wakes up. She will love to meet you.”
Elizabeth hesitated. “I have no family or friends with me,” she said at last. “I am traveling alone.” She hated to admit such a thing, but at the same time a spark of impishness, deep down, eagerly awaited Miss Bancroft’s reply. For the reply was sure to be very interesting.
Miss Bancroft did not disappoint her. “You cannot be serious!” she squeaked, stopping abruptly and dropping Elizabeth’s arm. In her haste, she dropped her parasol as well, but did not seem to notice. “You surely are teasing me, Miss Markette. How very horrifying! No, no, you cannot be traveling alone. That is not proper. It is just not right.”
She sounded truly distressed. Elizabeth was embarrassed. “I assure you that it is true,” she said. “I am going to England alone. I have recently lost my grandmother, who had been my guardian since I was a baby.”
“Your guardian? But surely you are of age! You seem quite as old as I am. Of course,” Miss Bancroft conceded, “I should not like to ask your age, as it is not at all the proper—”
“I am just one and twenty,” said Elizabeth, smiling to herself. “So yes, I am of age. I am quite capable of taking care of myself, Miss Bancroft. I wish my grandmother could be with me, but she is not, and I have no one else in the world. So I am traveling alone; indeed, that is why I am traveling. If I had a maid—”
“Do you mean to tell me you have not even a maid?” Miss Bancroft seemed to be the kind of person whose voice was never raised to an unmannerly level, but now it seemed to coming dangerously close to such a level. “Miss Markette, I am deeply shocked.”
“Are you really?” inquired Elizabeth, feeling very much as though she were at Rosings Park, under the interrogation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her embarrassment was nearly all gone and she was beginning to enjoy herself. Perhaps this would be an excellent time to interject something witty. “Please don’t be shocked, my dear Miss Bancroft. I have never traveled with a maid before and, ah, do not intend to. Fuss and bother, maids.”
“But surely you cannot be without a chaperone!” cried Miss Bancroft. A lady on a deck chair nearby turned to look at them with an accusing and quizzical eye, and Miss Bancroft hastily lowered her voice. “Then you truly are alone, Miss Markette. How very disagreeable. You must stay with my family for the duration of your journey. I simply insist upon it. It is not right for a young lady to make a sea voyage without even a maid to attend her. You may share my maid, Catherine—she will be happy to dress your hair and put away your gowns, I am sure.”
“Where is your stateroom? I shall send Catherine down immediately to help you press your gowns for dinner tonight. You must of course dine with my family. I will not take no for an answer, Miss Markette. When you get to know me well, you will know that without being told. It is hopeless to argue with me.”
“I see that clearly,” said Elizabeth. She was entrapped in a friendship, whether she liked it or not. And she was not sure which were her feelings.
Dinner was a stately meal, long white-clothed tables lined with well-dressed passengers. Friends of the captain sat at his own table, along with those of high rank. The Bancrofts and Elizabeth fit into neither category, so they sat a little away from the captain’s table. Elizabeth was glad, for she would not know what to do in such lofty company. Under Grandmother’s austere eye, she had not attended many balls or social gatherings, and hardly knew how to behave herself among people of importance. Of course the Markettes of Philadelphia descended from the Founding Fathers, but they were not People of Consequence in Society. At least, this was what Elizabeth surmised after hearing Miss Bancroft rattle on about her associations with Lord This and Lady That and Sir Periwinkle Snodgrass Flopbottom. (Naturally there was no person with such an outlandish name, but Elizabeth was fond of creating eccentric titles for people whose names she could not remember.)
Mrs. Bancroft was genuinely delighted to meet Elizabeth, just as Miss Bancroft had said she would be. But, like her daughter, she was distressed at the idea of Elizabeth traveling alone. “Surely your parents would not consent to such a thing,” she kept saying.
“My parents lost their lives in a train wreck when I was an infant,” said Elizabeth.
“Oh!” Mrs. Bancroft put a plump hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry, Miss Markette.”
Miss Bancroft took a delicate mouthful of soup. “And so you are going to England for the first time?” she interjected.
Miss Bancroft had tact. Elizabeth was grateful for that. She, too, took some soup. It was not very good. “Yes, I have never been out of the United States,” she replied. “I am—” She stopped, considering whether it would be wise to tell these people her entire story. They seemed friendly enough—Miss Bancroft perhaps a bit too friendly—and quite respectable. She needed to talk about her plans to someone, after all.
She took a deep breath. “My grandparents served as my guardians,” she began. “My grandfather passed on when I was twelve, and my grandmother invested his money in the Vienna Stock Exchange.”
Mrs. Bancroft’s eyes widened.
“And when it collapsed in 1873,” Elizabeth continued, hardly noticing the waiter as he set down a plate of roast beef before her, “my grandmother’s money was almost completely lost. She had some savings in the bank, and we lived off of those until her death last month. She left me just one hundred and fifty dollars, all that remained of her fortune. Because, you see, after the Exchange collapsed, she never trusted another investment.” Elizabeth knew perfectly well that it was not polite to discuss matters of finance, especially at the table, but the Bancrofts seemed very interested. Miss Bancroft’s clear dark eyes were focused on Elizabeth’s face. She seemed to be hanging on every word, and had not even touched the dinner before her.
Elizabeth carefully cut off a piece of beef, chewed it, and swallowed it. It was underdone. “My uncle Rushworth was the only other relation I had, to the best of my knowledge,” she said hastily, setting down her knife and fork. “But we lost him five years ago, and now I am alone in the world.”
Mrs. Bancroft made a small sympathetic noise around a mouthful of cabbage. Miss Bancroft took a tiny sip of water, her eyes still fixed steadily on Elizabeth’s face. Elizabeth took a deep breath, for she did not know what kind of a reaction her next words might produce. “And so I am on my way to England to seek a position as a governess,” she said. “I have always wanted to visit England, and I had just enough money for my fare. And so here I am.”
Miss Bancroft had not said a single word since they had sat down to table, prompting Elizabeth to wonder if she was feeling ill. Now she spoke up, with no little vehemence. Her perfectly formed mouth had dropped open into a most unladylike gape. “Miss Markette!” she cried. “You cannot be serious!”
Elizabeth smiled impishly. “I seem to recall you saying that earlier.”
Mrs. Bancroft looked at her daughter. Miss Bancroft’s upper lip was raised just enough to bring an expression of disgust to her lovely face. “To be a governess is to be a servant,” she said. “Clearly you have not thought this through, Miss Markette.”
“Oh, but I have,” Elizabeth shot back. Any liking she had harbored towards Miss Bancroft was fast slipping away. “I have to earn my living, Miss Bancroft. I am not left with a choice. I have had an excellent education and am fully qualified to tutor young children. I need only to find a position, and then I shall be a full-fledged governess.”
She sat back in her chair.
Now it was Mrs. Bancroft’s turn to speak. “Lavinia, you cannot condemn Miss Markette for what has befallen her,” she said unexpectedly. “Miss Markette, I admire your spirit. There is no disgrace in earning one’s living.”
“Mamma!” said Miss Bancroft. “She is going to be a servant. How perfectly horrid. Miss Markette, you have not even a position waiting for you. You have no place to go. You would do much better to come with us to London and meet some eligible young man with a great fortune.”
“I have no desire to throw myself at eligible young men, Miss Bancroft,” said Elizabeth, thinking of Jane Bennet. “I would rather do anything than marry without affection.”
“Those are your own sentiments, you know, Lavinia,” said Mrs. Bancroft.
Miss Bancroft looked abashed for a moment. She sat in deep thought, then lifted her head and smiled dazzlingly. “Mamma is right—I hate being presented to rich, arrogant fops as if I were an apple they could just pick up if they chose. When I marry, I shall marry for love. Or at least for interest. I couldn’t bear a dull husband.”
Elizabeth’s eyebrows furrowed.
“And now it is your turn to be shocked,” said Miss Bancroft merrily, all her disgust completely gone. “You don’t know what to make of me, I think.”
“No, I don’t,” said Elizabeth slowly.
“Then don’t worry,” said Miss Bancroft, reaching across the table to give Elizabeth’s hand a squeeze. “You don’t need to make anything of me, because I am perfectly perfect as I am. Am I not, Mamma?”
Mrs. Bancroft looked heavenward and Miss Bancroft’s laugh bubbled up like water in a fountain. “Why, Miss Markette—no, I think I shall call you Elizabeth and you must call me Lavinia—you shall come and stay with us when we arrive in Liverpool. We live in London, you know, and you may taste the delights of the Season; it is just beginning. You should not want to stay in a boarding house—they are ghastly places. I’ve never been in one, of course, but I feel in my bones that a boarding house must be simply ghastly. Do say yes, and we shall have such a time together.”
“Yes, Miss Markette,” Mrs. Bancroft added cordially, not at all alarmed by her daughter’s haphazard invitation. “We shall be delighted to have you for as long as you wish to stay with us.”
“Mrs. Bancroft, Miss Bancroft, I—” Elizabeth knew not what to say. She did not wish to offend these kind people by refusing their invitation, yet she did not feel quite right imposing in that way. And she was not at all sure that she wanted to pay an extended visit to Miss Lavinia Solange Vivian Bancroft.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Miss Bancroft interjected. “I shall not talk your ear off completely, I promise. And I shall be nothing but sweetness and light. I promise that as well. You will find out in time that I am not very good at keeping my promises, but I promise you will like me nevertheless. We shall have such a good time together. But I have already said that, have I not? I’m afraid I have a very bad habit of repeating myself. You will get used to it in time. What do you like to do to amuse yourself, Elizabeth?”
Elizabeth hardly knew which remark she should answer; Miss Bancroft had thrown at least six different topics into the conversation. “I enjoy reading,” she began.
“I do not,” said Miss Bancroft cheerfully. “But I hold no grudge against those who do. What do you like to read?”
“Novels,” said Elizabeth, warming to her subject. “That is, the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte. And Charles Dickens—a few of his. Why do you not like reading, Miss Bancroft? It is one of the best habits I’ve ever formed.”
“It is far too dull,” said Miss Bancroft, forking a bit of asparagus into her mouth. “I much prefer going out into town and meeting people. And you must not call me Miss Bancroft; I’m Lavinia to you. If we are to be under the same roof, we must be friends and not merely acquaintances.”
The matter was, apparently, decided.