The Author had been giving us his views, at some length, on England’s fortune at having such a rich endowment of talented lady novelists, when the Mathematician interjected,
Indeed! Indeed! And that is only the ones who achieved fame. There must have been many others, mute inglorious Miltonesses, as it were, born to blush unseen. As a matter of fact, I came across one such only the other day.
My dear sir, exclaimed the Physicist,
how intriguing. Pray tell us about it. There was that about his tone which led me to suspect that it was not an interest in literature which motivated him so much as a desire to see the Author abashed. It was not unknown for him to conspire with the Mathematician towards this end.
The Mathematician readily responded.
I was browsing in a junk shop in a small North Yorkshire town. Among a pile of mouldering magazines I found a book. It had been bound in pale beige leather — I say had been because the binding was now falling apart, the stitching loose, the leather dried and peeling apart. I opened it cautiously. The pages inside were thick and coarse — almost like blotting paper. The typeface was gothic and smudged. One might have imagined that it had been set by Caxton himself. The title page read
Bride and Avarice, by An English Gentlewoman
. There was no publisher’s name or publication date. I gingerly turned the page. The opening line read
Last night I dreamt I went to Pemberley again.
The Author’s chin jerked up.
Don’t you mean . . ., he began.
The Mathematician checked him with an imperious hand.
I saw at once that here was something of considerable interest, and maybe value. I offered the man fifty pence for it, which he accepted immediately. I took it home and spent the rest of the day reading it at one sitting.
It was the story of a young woman, Jane Airey, one of five orphaned sisters. Her early years were impoverished and hard, but improved somewhat when she found employment as a governess for the son of a titled widower, Maxim Darcy, the Earl of Winter. Mrs Nellie Deanvers, the housekeeper of his stately home, Pemberley, tells Jane that Maxim's first wife was a social climbing gold digger named Rebecca Sharp. Jane sets her cap at the Earl and traps him into marrying her. Mrs Deanvers then reveals that Rebecca is not dead, but has quarters on the upper floors, where she is regularly visited by the Earl, implying that he is running a ménage à trois. This is a malicious lie, the truth being that Rebecca is out of her mind and is kept confined for her own safety. That night Jane goes upstairs to investigate. Rebecca makes a mad attack upon her, in the course of which Jane's candle is knocked from her hand, resulting in the house catching fire. Jane rescues Maxim from the blaze, but the searing heat has blinded him. Full of remorse, Jane leaves Pemberley, and takes a lease of Wildfell Hall, much to the anger of Moorcliff, the owner of the neighbouring property of Dithering Depths, who covets Wildfell Hall, and did not want to see it tenanted.
There was a sudden interruption as the Author stood up so abruptly as to overturn his chair.
I am not listening to any more of this nonsense, he declared, and stalked out.
Pity, said the Mathematician.
He might have enjoyed the ending, in which Jane, unable to withstand Moorcliff’s animosity, once again ups sticks, and travels to Brussels to be with the officers of Wellington’s army. There she runs into Rebecca, who, it appears, had escaped the Pemberley fire, with her wits restored by the trauma of that event. The two girls settle their differences and go into business together as high-class camp followers, once again proving the old adage.
And which old adage might that be? asked the Physicist.
The Mathematician smiled.
All’s well that ends well, he replied, and he looked toward the door through which the Author had departed.
The door, however, had reopened, and the Author had returned in time to hear the Mathematician's last remarks.
I came back, he said,
to remind the company, lest any of you be misled by ill informed stories, that Thackeray was a man. Which proves, he added,
another old adage, the one about he who laughs last.