A Jane Austen Christmas
An Austen Admirer
“How many times are you going to read that same book?” Accumulating snow covered the porch steps visible from the window. “Really, you have other books. Take down one of those for once and give me a little shelf space.” Samantha marked her place in between the worn pages and looked up at her older brother. “I will make room for your magazines. I should have already done so weeks ago. I am sorry.” Thomas didn’t care much for novels. They tended to have too many words. He did, however, possess an impressive collection of Field & Stream magazines, despite never having gone hunting during his thirty eight years due to a fear of guns, which is especially odd for a southern man. “You do know that those Austen books aren’t good for you, don’t you? They will only bring disappointment when you learn that life doesn’t always have a happy ending like that, what is it, Wuthering Heights?” “Persuasion,” Samantha replied softly. “I am reading Persuasion. Wuthering Heights was written by one of the Bronte sisters. It is a sad book.” “Then read the Brunt sisters,” Thomas rejoined emphatically. “You are nearly thirty now, and still single. Life will pass you by while you read and read and read by that window alone. Mr. Reid is still looking for a wife. I saw him speak to you after the sermon on Sunday.” Samantha laughed and mumbled, “Mr. Collins.” Thomas didn’t understand. “Who is Collins? No, I said Mr. Reid, the pastor. He can give you children and a good life.” Samantha rose and began to remove some of her leather bound books from the shelf. “You mean that he can give me his own children. They are quite the little devils. Besides, I don’t love him, not that I couldn’t grow to love him. Elinor fell for a clergyman and Elizabeth didn’t love Darcy at first, but…” Thomas tilted his head like a dog does while trying to figure out what its master is saying. Samantha continued, “Never mind. Pastor Reid is a nice man. I am sure that his children have their virtues. They deserve a woman who will give them all of her heart. I am just not her.” The sky was completely black now, but the snow continued to fall.
Sunday was everything but a day of rest in post-bellum Cartersville, Georgia. Nestled in between the Piedmont hills and abundant pines, the town began the day earlier than usual. Cows had to be milked, horses and pigs fed, snow shoveled, and food prepared all in enough time to wash and put on the Sunday best for the Lord’s service. Samantha dispensed with her chores and dressed before Thomas finished his work outside. She occupied her usual chair by the window and picked up Persuasion. The worn pages caused her to pause and think about her own past.
Many years ago today, on Christmas day, she saw Jaret for the first and last time. She never experienced the touch of his hand, but knew very well the weight of his glance. She couldn’t help but think of that old Ben Johnson poem, “Drink to me only with thine eyes and I will pledge with mine…” There was love there, she knew, a love requited and communicated with tacit affection. He lived and worked east of the town at Red Top Mountain across the lake. He would come into Cartersville two weekends a month for supplies. On these occasions, Samantha would look from her front window and see Jaret and his friend pass her front gate together. The taller of the happy pair strolled lazily along the wooded trail with a book in his hand, while his friend trudged undeterred using his dwarfed, crooked legs, dragging his over sized ears laden with dew. Rhett, the latter of the two, never failed to honor his given Charlestonian name; independent and stubborn, the basset hound was every bit frustrating as he was loyal and lovable to his peripatetic partner. Samantha began to anticipate his arrival. One Saturday afternoon she walked with an uncharacteristic boldness to her mail box as he approached, pretending to retrieve the mail that she had already brought inside hours earlier. Rhett saw her and let out that deep and resounding bay that is unique to hounds and ran toward her in excitement. The pedestrian looked Samantha in the eye and smiled, before whistling to his companion who ignored his master’s beckoning. Laughing audibly, Jaret approached the mailbox where the hound lay at Samantha’s feet. He placed his book on the sidewalk and reached down and picked up the stubborn dog that refused to move. Jaret began to speak when a demanding voice bellowed her name from the front door. Thomas stood there imperiously and Samantha turned and ran back toward the house with embarrassment and a tinge of humiliation.
After a sleepless night, Samantha returned to the mailbox the next day and saw the abandoned book. Opening the front cover she saw the title, Persuasion, and traced with her index finger his name written with admirable penmanship on the top right corner of the title page. She had heard of Jane Austen before, but knew nothing of her works. Opening the book she found his place marked by a photograph of the man in a Confederate military uniform and the now familiar hound. She began to read where he apparently had left off, “Now they were as strangers; nay worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted.” The impression was such that Samantha devoured the book without setting it down. After some difficulty she found another Austen book and did the same. Two weeks passed and Jaret did not return. A fortnight turned into a month, and then into a year. She never saw him again, but sat by the window every Saturday night waiting for his return, always with one of Austen’s books, more often than not the tale of Anne and her longing for Wentworth. They had never spoken, yet she loved him with a love that only Jane Austen could describe; and only in Miss Austen’s words did Samantha find comfort.
The church was filled to capacity for the Christmas day service. Samantha and her brother occupied their usual pew in the back of the wooden chapel as Pastor Reid approached. “Merry Christmas,” he exclaimed looking directly at the sister. “I would like to have a moment with you, Samantha, after the service if possible.” Samantha’s did her best to retain her composure and find the right words to let him down gently. “We shall stay as long as necessary for you, Reverend,” Thomas interposed. The church bells rang and the pastor returned to the pulpit for the commencement. “Why do you insist on meddling in my personal life? You shouldn’t encourage him.” Samantha emphatically remarked as they rose to their feet for the first carol. “You don’t have a personal life to meddle in. You can’t marry your books, dear.” Thomas declared. She didn’t hear a word of the sermon. Her mind was elsewhere. As Pastor Reid approached the peroration, Samantha thought that she heard a faint, yet familiar bark. Immediately and quite conspicuously she bolted through the chapel doors into the cold day. Her suspicion was confirmed. She covered her mouth and began to cry cathartically with joy.
Rhett trudged through the snow and lay belly up at her feet. Samantha heard a whistle and the hound’s name being called from around the corner. When Jaret saw Samantha he smiled and spoke, “That stubborn animal seems to have an affinity for you, Mrs...” The man lingered on those last syllables awaiting a response from his newly found interlocutrix. “Miss Samantha Zoeller. I am not married, Jaret.” His face lit up. “No? I assumed that day at the mail box that the gentleman was your husband. How do you know my name?” Samantha blushed. “He is my brother, a good man, but at times an interloper. I saw your name written in the book.” “What is your opinion of Jane Austen’s heroines?” Samantha earnestly inquired. Happy at any moment to discuss Jane Austen’s books, Jaret without hesitation took Samantha by the hand and declared, “I found Elizabeth Bennet to be too independent and Anne Elliot too dependent. Elinor had too much sense and Marianne with surfeit sensibility. Emma was puerile and Catherine Morland underdeveloped. There is something special and enrapturing, however, about Fanny Price. Oh, how I would love to be her Edmund.” Samantha gasped and removed her hand from his grasp. With a sigh she looked Jaret squarely in the eye and declared, “Fanny Price? Of all of the heroines you prefer Fanny Price? It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man who cannot rightly judge the superiority of Elizabeth Bennet over the rest is not fit for a woman’s affection. I could understand esteeming Anne Elliot, but Fanny Price?” With that she bent down and patted the hound and returned to the church.
I thought this was brilliant and what a great ending! Bravo Ryan!
Your affectionate friend,