In the Clutches of Lady Susan
Jane Austen's scheming villainess Lady Susan is more than a seductive gold digger. Her daughter, Miss Frederica Vernon, is caught up in the sorceress's schemes.
It was one of those bleary-eyed hours where the shadows are at their deepest. The only people on the streets were libertines who still hadn’t gone to bed yet, and Miss Frederica Vernon.
The terms of her imprisonment had forbidden her from exiting Miss Summers’ School for Young Ladies by any door unless accompanied by one of her mother’s agents. So, she had been obliged to oil the hinges of the large windows of the school’s ground floor drawing room and open it silently at night. She lowered a chair down to the pavement, and then clambered out with the chair’s assistance. She even tossed the chair back into the drawing room, once she was free.
Frederica drew her shawl close to ward off the February chill. She started walking down Whigmore Street. Now, where could she go? Almost every acquaintance she had ever made could fall into her mother’s clutches at any moment.
Frederica had no money, and nothing of value but a single necklace from her late father: a demur chain with a golden pendant shaped like a bunch of jasmine blossoms. Perhaps her most sensible next step was to sell her necklace for travel fare. Then she could go somewhere her mother couldn’t reach, perhaps Scotland or even across the Atlantic.
After walking a few blocks, Frederica started to wonder what was wrong with her situation, but couldn’t quite figure it out. She saw no one else on the street, not even a watchman on late night patrols. On such a silent night, it ought to have been easy to hear if anyone else…
She stopped short. She took another deliberate step, and her heeled shoe fell silently on the pavement. She stomped, but could not make noise. She looked around wildly, scanning the shadows, certain that one of these buildings would reveal her mother’s face. She startled at the sudden appearance of a carriage passing her on the street, its horses’ hooves soundless on the cobblestone.
Frederica bolted. She ran until her lungs burned and her shoes rubbed her ankles raw. She ran until her legs ached and her bodice became itchy from sweat. She ran until she could hear her own footfalls, and kept running until that malevolent silence was far behind her.
She turned a corner, and came upon a very dapper-looking gentleman consulting a pocket watch. Suddenly aware of her flushed cheeks and disheveled hair, Frederica attempted to right herself before he looked up and noticed her. Too soon, the gentleman shut his watch and gave her a disarming smile. Frederica could not help but wince as she recognized Edmund Manwaring. Frederica and her mother had, at the latter’s insistence, spent the autumn in the Manwarings’ home. She was by no means pleased to see him again.
“Please forgive me if I startled you,” he said. “You came upon me very suddenly indeed.”
“Not at all,” Frederica replied, inwardly coaching herself to be brave and composed.
“I say, Miss Vernon, it’s a devil of an hour for a young lady to be about,” Manwaring said. He took a step towards her.
She turned on her heel and attempted to run again, but Manwaring’s arms quickly wrapped around her waist. He tossed her over his shoulder, deaf to her cries, and carried her up the steps of a nearby building. Could no one hear her screaming? Was the entire city asleep? Or were the good people of London awake in their beds, staring at their ceilings in the darkness and waiting for the young victim in the streets to stop calling for help?
In a few seconds, she was roughly thrown onto a sofa. Frederica caught her breath and watched as a woman with a round, friendly face poured salt on the carpet between them, finishing a circle that had been begun before Frederica’s arrival.
“Aunt Johnson,” Frederica said flatly.
“Hello, my dear,” the woman replied gently. “Can I get you some tea?”
Frederica ignored the request. She glared at Manwaring, who adjusted his impeccable suit and then stood nearby, his hands folded meekly.
“I thought Mamma left him back at Langford with his wife,” Frederica said.
“Oh, Mr Manwaring is such a dear,” Aunt Johnson said warmly. Manwaring smiled blankly. “He came to town on business, just in time to be helpful.”
“Is Lady Susan coming?” Manwaring asked.
“She is some thirty miles away,” Mrs Johnson answered. “Lady Susan will be here in time for supper tomorrow. Why don’t you come back then?”
“Very well!” Manwaring beamed like a schoolboy. He bowed a formal farewell to Frederica and Mrs Johnson, said, “Ladies,” and left the drawing room.
“If not tea,” Mrs Johnson pressed, “How about a bite to eat? I imagine you’ve been through quite the ordeal today.”
“Let me go,” Frederica said.
Mrs Johnson did not offer this request a direct response. “A glass of wine?” she offered. “Perhaps just a little brandy.”
“Why do you do it, Aunt Johnson?” Mrs Johnson’s smile faltered, so Frederica pressed on. “Why do you follow her orders?”
Mrs Johnson blinked rapidly a few times. Frederica expected, but did not see any tears. After a moment, Mrs Johnson replied, “I love my sister.”
“I don’t,” Frederica said.
Mrs Johnson sighed. “You would, if you knew...” she trailed off. Frederica gave her a skeptical look. Mrs Johnson rallied her spirits. “May as well settle in, my dear,” she said. “I’ve followed your mother’s orders to the letter. That circle has you snug and tight.” She gestured at the salt on the carpet. “I’ve left a few books in there for you, if you don’t want to pass your time sleeping. Shall I leave a lamp?”
Frederica glanced at the volumes beside her on the sofa. Either Mrs Johnson had chosen them at random, or it was a cruel joke to offer Frederica the distraction of an atlas and a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “No, thank you,” Frederica said bitterly.
“As you wish, my dear,” Mrs Johnson said. “Rest well. Mr Johnson will not be making an appearance tomorrow, so it will just be us girls.” She bustled out, taking the oil lamp with her.
Once Frederica felt assured she was alone, she got down on hands and knees and inspected the salt circle. Her aunt had been thorough. No irregularity in the carpet allowed for a gap in the salt. Frederica could not even extend an arm beyond the invisible wall. She returned to the couch and crossed her arms, determined to stay awake and hate her mother by the firelight.
Frederica woke in the late morning and spent the day pacing inside the salt circle. Mrs Johnson’s mute, sullen maid tended to Frederica’s needs without responding to her requests for help. The only other person she saw before suppertime was Mrs Johnson.
At six o’clock in the evening, Frederica overheard Manwaring’s arrival and well-bred chat. Every word traveled through the drawing room door with perfect clarity. Soon, the door opened again.
“Lady Susan! How can I express my delight?” Manwaring’s voice was cloying, sycophantic. Frederica heard with some disgust his effusions about her mother’s beauty and charm.
Lady Susan chimed her usual, melodic, insincere laugh. “Mr Manwaring, you are too much! Please, Mr Manwaring, what would people say? I am not nine months a widow.”
“It is improper,” Manwaring agreed. “I castigate myself for the boorish timing of my inflamed heart.”
They carried on for some time. Then, Mrs Johnson cleared her throat, and Lady Susan said, “Oh, Alicia—you’ve gotten even fatter.”
“Good evening, Lady Susan.” Frederica thought she could hear tension in her aunt’s voice.
“And Mr Johnson?” Lady Susan asked.
“I gave him the draught you provided. Do you care to dine with us?”
“Perhaps you could eat with Frederica in the drawing room,” Lady Susan said. “Mr Manwaring and I can talk in the dining room.”
Frederica doubted they would talk in the dining room.
“Certainly,” Mrs Johnson agreed.
After a moment, the mute maid rolled in a tea tray with dinner. Mrs Johnson came in after and dismissed the girl. She made up a plate for Frederica and held it out to her.
Frederica stared at Mrs Johnson’s hand. “Why doesn’t it work on you?”
“Pardon, my dear?”
“The salt,” Frederica said. She took the plate in one hand and grasped her aunt’s fingers with the other. “You can cross the circle, and I can’t. It holds me. I thought because I am a witch’s daughter—but you are a witch’s sister—you have the same blood! How...?”
Mrs Johnson looked panicked, but squeezed Frederica’s hand warmly.
“You are my sister’s daughter,” she insisted. “I’m almost certain of it.” This threw Frederica further off balance. “You have Susan’s eyes.” It was the first time Frederica had heard her aunt say “Susan,” like a sister, instead of “Lady Susan,” like a stranger.
“Yes,” Frederica said. “I am your sister’s daughter.”
Mrs Johnson’s voice dropped to an urgent whisper: “But your mother is not my sister.” Then her eyes opened wide with terror. “Good Lord in Heaven,” she said. “Please, do not tell her I said anything. Please, in the name of Heaven, please, for all that is good, please do not tell her.”
Without understanding fully why, Frederica promised. She had never had great affection for her aunt, but it was impossible to see that friendly round face white with fear and not empathize.
Aunt Johnson squeezed Frederica’s hand again. “Your father was a good man, Lord rest his soul,” she said. “And you… you can be a good woman.” Color returned to her cheeks. “Eat your beef, my dear. You’ll need your strength.”
Frederica was hungry enough to not need further prompting.
In due time, the maid cleared away the dinner things. Mrs Johnson ordered the girl to fetch a broom and leave it with them. She obeyed, and if she found the order strange, she kept it to herself.
Lady Susan finally made her appearance. As usual, her hair was impeccably styled and her neckline stopped just short of scandalous. A thin ribbon of black silk wound around her left sleeve in a stylish display of mourning. She closed the door behind her and did not bother to acknowledge Manwaring’s absence.
Lady Susan glared at Frederica with narrowed eyes. Her expression caused Frederica to wonder if this woman would, in fact, murder her. It was not the first time the dire thought had crossed her mind.
“Alicia,” Lady Susan said flatly. Mrs Johnson recognized it as a dismissal and left without a word.
Lady Susan removed another black ribbon from her pocket and tossed it over the salt. Frederica caught it.
“Tie a knot,” Lady Susan commanded, “And as you tighten it, swear to me that you will never run away from me again.”
“And if I refuse?”
“The human body can shrivel and die if trapped without food or water.” Lady Susan’s lip curled. How could anyone ever think her capable of a charming smile?
Frederica tied the knot. “I, Frederica Susanna Vernon, swear to never again run away from Lady Susan Vernon.”
“Tie another knot. Swear to marry the man I choose for you.”
Frederica dropped the ribbon unceremoniously. “It may take a few days for me to starve to death.”
“You would die of thirst first,” Lady Susan said. “I will settle for a promise not to marry a man I forbid you.”
This left Frederica free to choose spinsterhood. She picked up the ribbon and began tying. “I, Frederica Susanna Vernon, swear not to marry a man explicitly forbidden by Lady Susan Vernon.” She looked at her mother expectantly.
“One more,” Lady Susan said.
Of course, these things always came in threes.
“Swear to me that you will never speak an ill word against me to your uncle, or to any member of his household.”
Frederica bit her lip. Lady Susan must mean to take her to Churchill. She only barely knew her father’s brother and his family. But, would this fate truly be worse than eloping alone to Scotland?
She tied the knot. “I, Frederica Susanna Vernon, swear to never speak ill of Lady Susan Vernon to Charles Vernon or any member of his household.”
“Give me the ribbon.”
Frederica tossed it back to her mother. Lady Susan tucked it away into her bodice. Then she picked up the broom and carefully swept a break into the salt circle.
“I don’t have to be your enemy, Frederica,” she said in her most motherly tone. Still, her eyes squinted ominously. “I do very well by the people who are loyal to me. Why, look at your aunt’s lovely home here! Her wealthy old husband is a proper dotard. She’s got fashionable furniture and stylish clothes. My influence gave her everything she has.”
Frederica stepped out of the salt circle before Lady Susan could decide to seal it again.
“I am good to the people who are good to me,” Lady Susan said.
“And the people who are not good to you?”
Lady Susan chimed her false, merry laugh. “Oh, I’m positively awful to them. Alicia?”
Mrs Johnson reappeared.
“Give Frederica a room for the night, will you? I intend to leave early. I want us to make Churchill by dinner tomorrow.”
The next morning, Manwaring, Mrs Johnson and the maid accompanied Frederica and Lady Susan out to Mr Vernon’s carriage. The driver took the basket of provisions the maid carried. Manwaring handed Lady Susan into the chaise, then Frederica.
“Promise me you will write?” Manwaring begged of Lady Susan.
“I will write,” she said, “But we must be discreet. I will address my letters in the usual way.”
Manwaring kissed his hand to her.
“Lady Susan?” Mrs Johnson called out, apparently afraid. “When will you...?”
“Very soon, I expect. You will receive word.”
Lady Susan signaled to the driver, and the tense, mostly silent drive began.
Frederica spent hours staring at the passing landscape, wondering when her mother would bring up Sir James Martin, and what she had to say about it.
Lady Susan had enrolled Frederica—a grown woman of sixteen!—in school in the hopes that humiliation would make her more pliant. She had spent two months of tutelage side by side with girls several years her junior. All the while, she heard scandalous whispers of the months she and Lady Susan had spent with the Manwarings, and of her mother’s hasty removal to Churchill. Then, Lady Susan’s plan revealed itself in the form of Sir James Martin.
Sir James, who had courted Manwaring’s sister until shamelessly transferring his affections to Lady Susan. Sir James, who had famously bought a new barouche, lost it in a game of cards, and bought a second one identical to the first. Sir James, who arrived uninvited at the door to Miss Summers’ school with a bouquet of hothouse flowers, declaring that he had fallen in love with Frederica and already attained her mother’s permission to propose marriage.
As Frederica thought about it, Scotland did sound rather attractive.
The driver stopped to rest the horses around midday. Frederica and Lady Susan ate cold soup in gloomy silence, and the journey continued placidly. Threatening clouds massed above them, and a chill rain started to fall as they proceeded up Churchill’s elm-lined drive.
The family received them in a drawing room that was rather more comfortable than elegant. The sight of Mr Vernon, whose dark hair and regal nose perfectly matched his late brother’s features, warmed Frederica’s heart instantly. She took his hand more eagerly than she had anticipated, and his polite smile gave way to a more familiar grin.
Mrs Vernon’s expression was harder to discern. Frederica got the sense that she distrusted Lady Susan, and had not yet decided if Frederica was the viper’s victim, or another viper herself. Lady Susan fussed over Mrs Vernon officiously—“You look pale, dear Sister! Has the rain made you cold? I do hope your throat is not sore! Frederica, you have not heard music until you have heard your Aunt Vernon sing!”
Mrs Vernon and Frederica only had enough time to greet each other before Lady Susan’s charming effusions turned towards the children. “And these are your cousins, Frederica! This strapping young huntsman is Mr Charles Vernon.” The five year old boy bowed. “This lovely young lady is Miss Catherine Vernon. Does she not look just like you did at her age?” The four year old girl curtsied. “I cannot but sigh over young Frederick. He looks so like your father!” The three year old boy clung to his mother’s hand. “And how I do dote on sweet little Lucy!”
Lady Susan dropped to her knees and embraced the two-year-old girl with angelic blonde curls. Lucy kissed her on the cheek, and Lady Susan rewarded this little display by slipping her a sugar cube. A shiver ran down Frederica’s spine. She looked to her hosts. Mr Vernon smiled indulgently at his sister in law’s affection for his youngest child, but Mrs Vernon regarded the scene with cool composure.
For one brief moment, Mrs Vernon and Frederica locked eyes. Frederica desperately wished she could convey a warning without words.
Then a capable-looking governess swept the children away in an orderly manner, and the adult Vernons all took to the dining room for dinner. All evening, Lady Susan carried the conversation—extolling the virtues of Mr and Mrs Vernon, listing the beauties and conveniences of Churchill, and answering questions on Frederica’s behalf. She claimed that her daughter was painfully shy.
Frederica found it impossible to contradict Lady Susan. Pointing out her lies must count as “speaking ill of her,” because Frederica’s mouth was sealed by that morning’s knot-oath.
After dinner, they retired to the drawing room and Mrs Vernon prepared a table for Whist. Lady Susan begged Mrs Vernon to be her partner, and the four sat down to the game. Frederica’s attention wandered, to the detriment of Mr Vernon’s tricks, until a servant rolled in the tea things.
“Excuse me a moment,” Mrs Vernon said, apparently responding to a subtle cue from the servant. They spoke in an undertone just outside the door. Mrs Vernon was perfectly composed when she returned. Mrs Underhill served the tea and bowed out in polite silence.
Lady Susan stirred sugar into her cup. “No luck finding that jasmine tea?” she asked archly. Frederica looked up suddenly. Lady Susan leaned over to Frederica as if sharing a great secret. “Mrs Vernon boasted to have very fine jasmine tea, which came here all the way from China. But apparently, it vanished from the pantry before she could offer me a drop!” Frederica realized with a start that Lady Susan had narrowed her eyes again—she wasn’t glaring. She was squinting.
Mrs Vernon responded with her characteristic, statuesque smile. “I’m afraid every household must have one or two embarrassments. Surely one of the maids took a fancy to the jasmine tea, or even one of the children.”
Frederica noticed her right hand had absent-mindedly strayed to that certain spot on her left shoulder, hidden under her sleeve. She could almost hear the echoes of an argument her parents had had a dozen years ago, just at the edges of her memory. Her father had purchased flowering shrubs and had them planted in the garden, but her mother had ordered them to be uprooted and burned.
“I’ve no doubt we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Mr Vernon assured his wife.
“Well, it could not have been Little Lucy,” Lady Susan insisted. “She is a perfect angel.”
At the time, little Frederica had been heartbroken to see the pretty flowers burned. Her mother had slapped her for crying over a noxious weed. She turned to her father for comfort.
“Indeed,” Mrs Vernon agreed, “And she does not yet drink tea.”
“Are you absolutely certain of Mrs Underhill herself?” Lady Susan asked.
“Absolutely,” Mr Vernon said. He sipped his tea with apparent enjoyment. “Mrs Underhill has never earned a word of reproach from us.”
Frederica could still clearly see the astonishment on her father’s face, twelve years ago, when he performed the one act of cruelty Frederica had ever experienced from him. He had thrust the jasmine blossom pendant of her necklace into the coals of the fireplace. Once the pendant was hot enough, Sir Frederick Vernon had used it to brand his own daughter’s skin.
“What a shame,” Lady Susan said, grinning like a satisfied cat. “Jasmine isn’t exactly common here in England.”
Stop weeping over a noxious weed. Frederica wanted to throw Lady Susan’s own words back at her. The knot-oath sealed her lips. She couldn’t even sip her tea until the urge to reveal Lady Susan’s hypocrisy passed.
“My poor niece,” Mr Vernon said indulgently. “Between your journey from London, and all the excitement surrounding your travels, it’s no wonder you are tired and quiet.”
“Oh yes,” Lady Susan added. “My sweet Frederica must be tired.” She sprang to her feet. “Please, allow me the liberty of showing her to her room myself.”
“Not at all.” Mrs Vernon rose, too. “You traveled twice as much, after all, Lady Susan.”
Lady Susan sounded her false laugh. “I don’t feel the least bit fatigued.”
“I could never impose my duties as a hostess on a guest,” Mrs Vernon insisted politely, offering Frederica her arm. “Please, enjoy yourself, dear sister.” Mrs Vernon managed to make the last word bite. “I’d be delighted to show my niece to her room.”
“Yes, please,” Frederica added, rising and taking Mrs Vernon’s arm. She bid her mother and uncle good night and had left with her aunt before any further objections could be made.
They walked up the staircase quietly. Frederica wanted to see what Mrs Vernon’s first move would be, then found herself wondering if Mrs Vernon was waiting for Frederica to speak first. Well, she had more than enough of power play with her mother; she didn’t want to engage in any more.
“It is such a comfort to be with family,” Frederica said.
“I hope you will not miss the bustle and activity of being in town,” Mrs Vernon responded politely. “Sometimes I fear that quiet country living cannot offer Lady Susan enough excitement.”
“London has rather too much excitement for my tastes,” Frederica said honestly.
“Your room is the second on the left,” Mrs Vernon said as they reached her door. “You have a view of the garden.” She opened the door and led Frederica into a comfortable chamber with a crackling fire.
“Do you ride, Miss Vernon?”
“I used to, back at Vernon Hall...” Frederica could say no more. The debts that had forced Sir Frederick to sell his family’s ancestral home, and the pride preventing its sale to his younger brother, had both originated with Lady Susan.
“I take my exercise every morning with fair weather,” Mrs Vernon continued, as if Frederica had not just referenced a familial pain. “You’re quite welcome to join me. We have a pair of sweet brown mares perfect for women to ride, but Lady Susan doesn’t care for horses.”
“I’d be delighted.”
The two women wished each other good night.
Check out Part 2: