Fandom: Doctor Who (Tenth Doctor)
Summary: At the age of three-and-twenty, Jane Austen was not a young woman anyone would have supposed destined for a remarkable life. And then she met the peculiar Dr. Smith.
Spoilers: None, really
It was the last ball of the winter season and the upper rooms of the White Hart had been done up accordingly. There were a lot of ladies in fine colorful dresses and an even greater number of gentlemen in nearly identical dark suits. There was a lively quartet of musicians, an abundance of rack punch (lukewarm) and white soup (also lukewarm), and a decided want of chairs. In short, there was everything necessary to constitute a good ball in any part of the country.
Jane noted the surfeit of gentlemen with pleasure as her party entered the assembly rooms. There were a number of faces she recognized from her previous visits to the neighborhood, but also several new ones to arouse her interest.
“How hot it is,” said Mrs. Lloyd, mopping at her brow as she surveyed the crowded rooms. “One wishes they would throw open the windows.”
Martha leaned over and spoke quietly into her friend’s ear. “Now, Jane, you may set your heart at rest, for there are the Miss Debarys with their brother Peter.”
“You are a spiteful creature, Martha Lloyd,” Jane whispered back.
The Debarys resided in the parsonage just down the lane from Ibthorpe House. The Rev. Mr. Debary and his wife were pleasant enough, if a trifle on the dull side, but their numerous daughters were flightier than a flock of sparrows. And their eldest son Peter, who bordered on the downright odious, was not at all improved by the fact that he had apparently set his cap at Jane.
“Let us make our escape quickly, before they see us,” said Jane, seizing Martha’s hand. She turned, with the intention of taking them both away across the room, and most unfortunately careened squarely into the chest of a strange gentleman.
“Hello!” said the stranger, looking more startled than perturbed. He was a tall man, skinny almost to the point of being gaunt, with a mop of exceedingly untidy brown hair upon his head and a sprinkling of freckles across the pale skin of his cheeks.
“I do beg your pardon, sir,” said Jane, blushing a deep crimson.
“Ah, my dear Mrs. Lloyd,” said Sir Thomas Williams, who had been in conversation with the gentleman into whom Jane had careened. “May I present Dr. John Smith of London?”
“How do you do?” Mrs. Lloyd gestured to the two girls. “My daughter Martha and our friend Miss Jane Austen.”
Dr. Smith started visibly. “Jane Austen!” he repeated with an odd degree of excitement. “Aren’t you just? Brilliant!”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Smith, were we previously acquainted?” asked Jane, puzzled.
“Not a bit,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Lovely!”
“Dr. Smith has come from London to study the Hurstbourne Meteor,” explained Sir Thomas.
“Oh, are you a scholar of natural philosophy, then?” asked Mrs. Lloyd.
“Among other things,” said Dr. Smith.
“And what field of study do you specialize in?”
Dr. Smith waved his hand vaguely. “Oh, a bit here, a bit there. You might say the whole universe is my field.”
“That seems rather a large field for one man,” observed Martha.
He cocked an eyebrow sagely. “You’ve no idea.”
“Have you had an opportunity to observe the fallen star yourself?” asked Jane, who’d had great hopes of meeting someone who might give her a first-hand description of the meteor.
“I have indeed.”
“Wonderful! You must tell us what you make of it.”
“Fascinating stuff! Though it’s not a star, you know, but a rather puzzling bit of trans-stellar engineering amateurishly cobbled together with elements of gravitational propulsion, magno-flux generators and astral dynamics. Amazing the thing ever made it here, to be honest.”
“I see,” said Jane.
He blinked at her. “Do you?”
“Not at all.”
Dr. Smith broke into a broad grin, flashing a mouthful of gleaming white teeth. “Perhaps Miss Austen would be kind enough reserve the allemande? Always been fond of a good allemande.”
Jane nodded her assent, and the two men excused themselves and moved off.
“He’s certainly a queer fellow,” said Martha once they were safely out of earshot.
“Really, Martha,” chided Mrs. Lloyd. “You would do well to keep such opinions to yourself. Is it any wonder you’ll end up sitting down most of the night?”
Silently Jane agreed with Martha. Dr. Smith’s manner was decidedly odd, and not a little rude. And yet... There was something about him that provoked her interest, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Perhaps it was his lively eye, or the way he prattled so bewilderingly, but with such infectious enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, Jane found herself intrigued by this new acquaintance.
“I suppose one could do worse in a dance partner,” she said philosophically.
Propitiously, Jane found herself accosted by Peter Debary, who cast only a cursory nod in the direction of Martha and Mrs. Lloyd before bestowing a whole scrape and half a short bow upon her.
“Mr. Debary, how do you do you?” she said with more affability than she felt.
“Do excuse us,” said Martha, taking her mother’s arm. “For I have just spied Mrs. Gladstone and we simply must thank her for the lovely ham she sent last week.” And with that Martha led her mother away, cruelly abandoning Jane to her would-be beau.
“It looks a very stupid ball tonight, does it not?” said Mr. Debary, casting a haughty eye about the room. He was a squat and doughy-looking man, with a proud, stately bearing unsupported by the meanness of his mind and his thorough want of elegance or amiability.
“Does it?” said Jane. “I’d thought it rather lively until now.”
Mr. Debary indicated his disapprobation with a contemptuous sniff before changing the subject. “I suppose you heard I have taken the curacy of Eversley? A most desirable position, quite convenient to town, you know. And how much do you think the salary, Miss Austen?”
“I am sure I cannot guess.” Jane’s eye wandered until she spied Martha, smirking at her from across the room. She shot a malevolent glare in her friend’s direction.
“Seventy-five pounds. What do you say to that? Not many are half so lucky in their situation.”
“How happy for you, Mr. Debary.”
“Your brother, I believe, is the curate of Deane, which is a great deal farther from town, and I am certain cannot bring a salary above fifty pounds.”
“Nevertheless, it seems to suit him,” said Jane coldly.
“Ah, I see the set is commencing. I suppose we ought to stand up together, eh, Miss Austen?”
Before Jane could form a civil response to this uncivil proposition, Dr. Smith appeared at her side, as if out of thin air.
“I’m afraid the lady is previously engaged,” he said, extending his arm. “Isn’t that right, Miss Austen?”
“Quite right,” she said levelly. “Please excuse me, Mr. Debary.” She gave a curt nod and allowed Dr. Smith to lead her away.
“I feel compelled to point out,” she said as they took their place among the other dancers, “that this is not an allemande.”
“It’s not?” Dr. Smith’s expression was all innocence, but there was a playful gleam in his eye that told her he’d known exactly what he was about. “My mistake. Shall I return you to the company of that dreadful bore over there?”
“That will not be necessary,” she said, stifling a smile behind a gloved hand.
Further conversation was unavoidably curtailed by the beginning of the first dance. Jane had little expectation of Dr. Smith’s being an accomplished partner, but on that account she was entirely mistaken. Though his peculiar manners left something to be desired, his dancing most certainly did not, and they moved through the set with enough grace and confidence to draw the jealous eye of at least two of the three Miss Debarys in attendance. Jane found that their time together passed pleasantly and, she was surprised to discover, altogether too quickly for her taste. At the end of it, Dr. Smith led her back over to Martha and Mrs. Lloyd, bowed deeply, and moved off into the crowded room.
“Well?” said Martha. “What do you think of your Dr. Smith now?”
“He is...” Jane paused to consider how best to describe her dance partner. “Pleasingly tall,” she finally settled upon.
“Yes.” She smiled. “Pleasingly so.”
The two young women shared a look that quickly dissolved into laughter, provoking a lecture from Mrs. Lloyd on acting their age.
Jane stood up thrice more that evening, once with an amiable young naval officer (who also danced with Martha), once with a kind but dreadfully tedious neighbor of the Lloyds, and once, unavoidably, with Peter Debary, who trod upon her foot no less than three times during the set. Throughout it all, she found herself periodically searching the rooms for another glimpse of Dr. Smith. Alas, he seemed to have disappeared as abruptly as he’d previously appeared, taking her hopes for further conversation with him. To Jane’s further disappointment, she met no one else at the ball that night who could claim to have seen Mr. Blount’s meteor with his own eyes.
Despite the early departure of the only interesting gentleman Jane chanced to meet the entire evening, one might right have rated the Andover ball an unqualified success. That is, until Mrs. Rolle was found face down in her soup, dead as yesterday’s mackerel.
The unfortunate woman was getting up in years and known to have a weak heart, so her passing was no great surprise, though it did put a bit of damper on the ball. Shortly thereafter, Jane and Martha submitted to the wish of Mrs. Lloyd, which took them away from the assembly rooms and off to the comforts of Ibthorpe.