1803. Trinity College.
"Darcy! Darcy! Darce!"
Inside a darkened second-floor lounge, the din of voices rose above a distinguished crowd of Trinity College scholars and their best students conversing on the lofty subjects of politics, philosophy and religion. Nobody in the room heard, or paid attention to, a hissed appellation coming from the outside, barely audible through the half-cracked window. The lounge swam with clouds of cigar smoke and lively conversation; the appelee, a tall young man with an unruly mop of dark hair, stood too long a way from the window, and was too engaged in discussing the rebellious natures of Milton's angels with his favorite English professor, to hear what went on behind the window.
Unfortunately for him, for the person behind the window was literally behind the window, crouched on an oversized ledge just outside it. When his half-whispered pleas went unnoticed, the gentleman on the ledge took a considerable exception to being thus ignored. For he could see his friend all too well, looking entirely too happy at the opportunity to discuss the span of Archangel Michael's wings with Old Bennet.
What rankled the person on the ledge even more than Darcy's clear intention of ignoring him was that so did his partner in their animated conversation.
Good Lord, the person on the ledge thought. Look at him blabber away. At home, he says not a word about anything but dinner and how much Hill spends. Perhaps there was something akin to jealousy in the watcher's gaze, but he downed it quickly enough. This was not about exacting retribution; but rather, about making sport of Darcy where he roundly deserved it. Such an opportunity-not to be missed. From the back pocket of his breeches, he extracted an artfully made birch slingshot and a fairly large piece of paper, which he, with a generous application of saliva, made into a tight little ball.
In a matter of minutes, the clandestine watchman was armed to his teeth.
The only thing left was to take aim.
But such was his ill luck that even as he loaded his weapon, his friend-his treacherous friend, he thought grimly-turned to take another glass of red wine from a footman's tray. The watcher on the ledge considered which part of Darcy's body should suffer punishment. After all, you did not up and ignored your best friend for a goodly two hours. He would have liked to wallow him upside the head; but unfortunately, Darcy was wearing that ridiculous mortarboard of his. The hat made him look like a walking umbrella, but its wide edges would serve to deflect any volley aimed at his head. The watcher sighed and rubbed his forehead, ruffling his own dark curls rather mercilessly.
Well, his friend's behind would have to do, then.
"Here we go," he whispered, loading his weapon. Squinting viciously, pulling back the string, he aimed and-
--inside the room Darcy turned and grinned amiably at someone. Hell's bells. The young sniper sat frozen and cramped, the string pulled tightly, waiting for the right moment. Ah, here we go, he thought with satisfaction as his quarry turned his back on him once again. Here we go.
Tiiiiinnnnnnnng! The string sang and the projectile hurled through the air. It struck its aim without fail. Perhaps the shooter had underestimated its size or density, for he had never seen his best friend jump quite so high and make quite such a sound. Indubitably, had he been warned an assault on his ... um, dignity was coming, Darcy would have weathered it with far more fortitude; but it was the suddenness of it that got him. He jumped, in a manner most undignified, and he did make a sound, which, upon reflection... which he'd rather not reflect upon at all. Unfortunately, his mortification was not limited to making a joke out of himself in front of a gathering of Trinity professors and fellows; rather it was augmented by the fact that in the process of jumping, he splashed most of his wine down Professor Bennet's shirtfront.
Oh, it was perfect. On the ledge, Jamie watched his best friend scramble for a napkin, beet-red in the face. It was even funnier because clearly, Professor Bennet had no wish to be dried off in public, not even by his star pupil, and he yanked the napkin out of Darcy's hands, rather roughly, which cast the poor young man into a further abyss of misery and shame.
Having feasted his eyes enough on his friend's mortification, Jamie deduced cleverly that it was time to, to put it none too subtly, beat it. Because turning around on the ledge was clearly out of the question, he endeavored to retire backwards. A grave mistake, indeed. For, in the process of so descending, a piece of stone crumbled under his foot, thereby making him lose his purchase on another chunk of moss-covered brick; with a stifled cry, he fell backwards into the bushes.
Inside the room, Darcy stewed quietly. He knew perfectly what had happened, he did not even need to turn around to see who it was that had upstaged him so. Goddamn Jamie. His friend had declared that he would never step inside a faculty lounge, not even to sample the most excellent wine that such a reception would feature. "I should rather choke on it," he had declared. Moreover, Jamie had argued to stop him from going-fruitlessly so, for Darcy would never miss an opportunity to argue with old Bennet. The old man had such quaint, bizarre ideas, and he defended them so passionately. It was pure pleasure to speak with him outside the classroom.
"You mean to say," Jamie had asked him earlier, "that you would rather discuss angels with my father than come box with me?"
"I can box with you any day," Darcy had replied, setting the mortarboard firmly on top of his head in front of the mirror, squishing his curls under it. "But your father will not always grant me the time to speak with him."
Thereupon the young Bennet had called him an unprintable word and exited through the open window. It was a habit of his that unnerved Darcy immensely. It was as if the fellow had grown up in the house without doors. Doors, windows, windows, doors. Darcy smiled grimly to himself. Deciding that in due course his friend would pay for this travesty, he contrived to remove himself from the reception, claiming a headache. Old Bennet, his shirtfront ruined thoroughly by wine, was only glad to let him go.
By the time Darcy made it down the stairs and out of the front doors, his best friend was nowhere to be seen. Still, he knew where to find Jamie, and walked quickly across the wide lawn, his long black robes, undone, flying in his wake. He ripped the mortarboard off his head and ran one hand through his hair, muttering angrily to himself. Vengeance, when it came, would most certainly be his.
He tore through the hallways, furiously rounding each corner, watching-or rather, not watching-the underclassmen scatter as he went. He was taller and larger than most, and that helped, too. Still, by the end of his progress, the ridiculousness of the situation began to dawn on him; and, by the time he reached a hidden staircase in the back of the building, he could not help smiling. He only had to imagine what his undignified leap must have looked like to a casual observer, to break into the idiotic grin. Good Lord, he thought, this time his friend Bennet had really gotten to him.
He kept smiling as he climbed the dark spiral staircase, and even as he pushed a heavy metal door. But he fought to replace the silly grin with an appropriately severe frown as he stepped outside, onto a large, flat, sunlit roof. On all four sides, graceful Elizabethan turrets rose, throwing long afternoon shadows. Blinded for a second, Darcy turned around on the spot, looking for his friend, knowing that he'd be there.
And sure enough-
"No need to look like an owl out of its tree, Darce." Jamie Bennet stepped from the shadows. In his shirtsleeves, he grinned blithely at Darcy, who glowered back at him. After a long pause, Darcy rudely flung the mortarboard aside. Thereupon, he quickly stripped to the waist, tossing the black robes flying the way of his mortarboard. His waistcoat, his cravat, and his pristine white shirt followed.
"Very well, Bennet, you wanted a fight, come and get it." He stood in position, scowling, fists clenched. With an affected sigh, Bennet followed his friend's example, lazily taking off his waistcoat and shirt. Then, he stepped forth, prepared to parry any attack that might follow.
"Shall we, then." He assumed the position almost lazily, all the while taunting his friend with brash laughing eyes.
Darcy nodded, grimly, and purported to hit young Bennet in the chin, an intention that was not misunderstood. Nimble and quick, his adversary evaded his rather substantial fist, immediately delivering a blinding upper-cut to Darcy's own jaw. For an instant, it seemed to Darcy that his head would snap back on his neck; but the moment he recovered, ready to fight back, a young ringing voice pierced the silence on the roof.
"Belay that, you two!"
Both of them turned around, squinting against the sun, Darcy's head still buzzing from Bennet's sure blow. There, arms crossed on the chest, Bennet's younger sister Elizabeth stood and glared like an avenging angel.
"Bennet, for Christ's sakes!" Darcy was deadly embarrassed, his mortification quite multiplied by the fact that he knew himself to grow very red at times of stress. At the age of thirteen, Elizabeth Bennet was growing up to be a proper urchin, always following her brother, constantly occupied with unladylike things like climbing up trees and building rafts in his company; nevertheless, she was a female, and Darcy found himself standing in front of her without a shirt. Remembering himself, he leaned and quickly grabbed his shirt off the floor, before dropping it hastily over his head.
"What is she doing here?" he demanded of Elizabeth's brother. Somewhat shamefacedly, Bennet shrugged and slipped into his own shirt.
"I can only surmise she did not come to serve as my knee-man," he offered with a weak chuckle.
The little chit, however, saw no shame in ogling two (almost) grown, bare-chested males. Her intrigue did not lay in simply observing; clearly, she was there to read them a lecture.
"I simply cannot fathom with how little dignity you conduct yourself, Jamie," she said angrily. "Can you not find anything of use and sense to occupy you?" She shook her head ruefully at her brother. "And you, Mr. Darcy!" she added, turning to his friend. "My father seems to think very highly of you-for some reason. I am certain he should be rather disappointed to see you getting your face rearranged by our Jamie!"
Darcy flushed deeply, he did not know whether with shame or anger. He had intended that this fight serve a bit of a lesson for his rash young friend. Bennet's vicious uppercut was certainly not in his plans! Now this brash little chit had become a witness to his disgrace. Clearly, today was the day for humiliation.
"Perhaps," she added somewhat poisonously, "he would be interested to know how his pet pupil spends his free time. Certainly not reading Milton!" She paused, considering, then sighed. "I shall tell him," she said, with a little less conviction than before. "If you do not stop forthwith and promise me never to attempt anything of the sort."
Clearly, tattling was not in her book of virtues.
"Do you hear me?" She inquired, sounding a little less sure of herself than before. Neither of them moved, nor said anything, and then, as if by a mutual agreement, the two lunged after her.
"Come here, you little-You blackmailer-Yesssss, sir, it is for our own good Darcy that this little baggage threatens us! Get her feet-What shall we do with her?"
"Put her down a chimney," Darcy suggested, holding Elizabeth's feet firmly as she bucked and tried to kick him in the groin. Naturally, he did not mean those words; but even uttering them gave him a thrill of pleasure.
"I think-not," Bennet replied. He was holding Elizabeth under her arms, having secured them behind her back and keeping clear of her snapping teeth. "I think that might be too boring for our adventurous little Bess."
Elizabeth stopped struggling and now hung limply in her brother's arms, looking grimly from one friend to the other.
"I shall scream," she promised half-heartedly.
"And be punished for climbing all the way to the roof?"
"Right," Darcy agreed. "After all, who would believe we have invited her?"
"So I think we ought to stick her in a dark closet. What do you think, Darce?"
"I am in agreement," Darcy said. "For as long as it has rats in it-"
"No," Elizabeth said quickly. "You would not dare. No. All right, all right!" she said hurriedly, watching Darcy's imperious mien. Looking up at her brother, she said in a meek voice. "All right, I promise I shall not tell Father. Just put me down. Please."
"Promise?" Bennet asked severely, and the girl nodded. The two friends let her down on the roof, and she scrambled off, huffing and rearranging her long white skirts. Near the exit door, she stopped abruptly. Glaring at the two men, she said sullenly:
"You've all but made me forget! Mr. Darcy, your father is here, and everyone is looking for you!"
His father's arrival was not unexpected-for indeed, it was a day away from his commencement, and Mr. Darcy had written that he was coming up-but it did not fail to set Darcy to a high degree of nervous agitation. He had been worrying about this for weeks, and had told himself he was not. Indeed, he knew himself to be a good son to his father; he had been justly proud of his success at Harrow and at Cambridge and beloved by his professors-especially by Old Bennet, his father's particular childhood friend. He was respected by his peers, in the very least, and those who knew him better also did not fail to like him. His marks were excellent; he had garnered award in every manner of sport, as well as in theater and chess. There was nothing, nothing that could displease his father (well, except, perhaps, this idiotic fight).
Still, he worried. All through his life, he felt he had fallen short of the shining example his father had set for him. His mother, by now, was but a delicate watercolor image in a portrait. She had died while giving birth to his only sister, Georgiana; but even when she was, she was no more than a distant smile and a cool hand he kissed, ever since the time he was tall enough to kiss a lady's hand. She had called him, Fitzwilliam, never William or Will, and her voice, too, had been distant, a slightly tired whisper of a voice, a stranger's voice. Did he love her? Most likely he did, with a child's quiet adoration of a thing beautiful and superior. But he had called his nurse, Reynolds, mama, until he was old enough to know better. His mother had been lovely; but the children had been an inconvenience, a messy and unpleasant intrusion upon her peace. They had racked her body, made her tired and ever more distant. Finally, her daughter took her life.
He had loved her, at twelve. Darcy did not know whether he would still love her, had she lived long enough.
But his father, his father. His father knew him, knew him like no other person in the world, not even Georgiana, who adored him, nor Bennet, who was his best friend. His father had concerned himself with his problems, listened attentively to his tutors, and came to visit him at Harrow. His father taught him to shoot, ride, fence and play chess, had given him books to read, and, during Darcy's visit home two years back, had taken him along to an exclusive London address, to see a woman as beautiful as she was knowledgeable. That Darcy survived the embarrassment of that experience was a testament to his youthful enthusiasm.
Still, he had never come to visit him at Trinity. It pained Darcy, if only a little. His father claimed that he was too preoccupied with estate matters. Darcy oscillated between feeling hurt and worrying about his health (for surely something must have been wrong for his father to have abandoned him so?).
His father was everything to him. He was precisely the sort of educated, worldly man and a generous and fair landlord and master that Darcy himself aspired to be-one day. Right now, he felt terribly inadequate and not a little guilty. He knew Mr. Darcy to disapprove of the kind of bare-knuckled, bare-chested fighting that could leave a man scarred forever. He did not know why it struck him to fight Bennet today of all days; what wild madness possessed him, on the very day his father finally condescended to visit him at school.
"I must go," Darcy murmured, frowning, furiously tucking in his shirttails. He tied, fumbling awkwardly, his cravat, and slipped into his waistcoat and robe. Bennet's deft blow had set a peculiarly unpleasant reverberation to his jaw, but he hardly thought of that now. "Do I look presentable?"
Sitting down on the ground, Bennet grinned and nodded. "Do not worry so, old chap," he said. "Your old man is bound to burst with fatherly pride. Faith, Darcy, think on it: if only I had done as well as you, I should have been the favorite child of the Old Bennet!"
Darcy failed to see the humor in his friend's words: for it had been his belief that Bennet, innately clever, could have done far better than he had, that it was his happy-go-lucky laziness that had made him a poorer student than he could have been.
"I shall see you later." Darcy waved at his friend and took off in wide strides, deeply displeased at himself.
Below, Elizabeth Bennet peaked through a loosely hanging wall-covering. She knew it was wrong to spy on people; her father had told her as much, and more than once. But her natural curiosity won over every time: after all, if people hid things, they must have had their reasons-and that alone made those things more interesting.
"But secrets can be dangerous," her father once said. "You might regret knowing some secrets."
There were things that frightened her, but they were all out in the open (rats were one such thing; but who could call them a secret? Everybody knew that Trinity had rats). She could not imagine being afraid of a secret.
Right now, she rocked a little on her heels and peered, enchanted, at a young golden-tressed girl, hiding her face on the chest of a tall, gray-haired gentleman.
"Now, now, Miss Georgiana," the man said. "Let go. Georgie. Be a good girl and let go." Elizabeth had heard her father address the man as Darcy, and had deduced him to be his father's old friend, Mr. Darcy from Derbyshire, and Fitzwilliam's father. She had never seen the girl before and now studied her person with keen interest; she had guessed her to be the gentleman's daughter. Right now, little Miss Georgiana did not seem to heed her father's cajoling. Her little hands clasped his jacket sleeve all the tighter.
Mr. Darcy-still very handsome in his sixth decade, a statelier, heavier, more distinguished version of his son-looked lost. He was lost, indeed, at the sight of his young daughter's discomfort. It had seemed like a grand idea to bring Georgiana to Will's commencement; but the day in the carriage with her had turned oppressive, for she cried after the old Reynolds, and the young nurse he had taken along knew not how to calm her.
He had known how to behave around his son, for there were rules for gentlemanly upbringing with which he was intimately familiar. Rules, which he had known to impress upon Fitzwilliam from the earliest days of the boy's life. In his son, he had seen himself forty years ago, and he had molded him after himself, with the benefits of mistakes made and lessons learned (for one, he had taught him to stay away from a gambling table). But girls-girls mystified him, and none more so than his own daughter. They were dainty delicate creatures, difficult to please; the greatest weapon they held against a man was their ability to break into beautiful tears at the slightest provocation. Such had been his late wife; he had loved her, and she had held his equanimity in her hand, always threatening with one treacherous pout of her beautiful lips. He knew Georgiana would be like so, too-without sense, without reason, and holding some man's heart in the palm of her hand.
Yes, he had loved his wife. Since the death of Mrs. Darcy three days into Georgiana's life, Mr. Darcy had not so much as looked at another woman; but now, looking down at his daughter's bowed head, feeling the tenacious hold of her fingers on her sleeve, he thought that perhaps, he had ignored female acquaintance at a price to his child. Perhaps, she might have favored having a woman around. Certainly, he would have favored the company of someone who knew how to deal with such sullen fits (indubitably, he would have known how to behave if his son had been like so; but with Georgiana, he was utterly helpless). Worst came to worst, he could whip his son. A girl was a different matter altogether.
Naturally, all of this was lost on Elizabeth, who thought the girl a bit of a ninny for clinging to her father in such an infamous manner. Still, she paused to dwell on it but for a second: she was captivated far more by Georgiana's clothes. Elizabeth herself had nice sensible dresses, suitable for a gentleman's daughter, but made of only the sturdiest, most washable materials. She had not minded it, not as much as she minded that she could not wear a jacket and breeches (for it would have much eased her progress up a tree, and as to progressing down a tree...whew!). But the little Miss Darcy was dressed exquisitely: the cornflower velvet of her traveling habit had an almost magical shimmer to it, and she had a lovely blue bonnet to match and a tiny lace parasol, now opened awkwardly and lolling on the floor. Elizabeth felt the stirrings of feminine envy, a desire for the beautiful, an urge to stroke the silky iridescent velvet of the girl's dress. But she did not know these feelings as such and she did not like the way they felt. Therefore, she downed them quickly, rather than to wallow.
"What are you doing here?" a voice whispered behind her. She whipped around. Jamie was standing in the shadows, squinting at her accusatively. "Spying on them, are you, little sister?"
Elizabeth felt a shameful blush stain her cheeks. She knew how wrong it was, what she had done, but the visitors in her father's study were of a different ilk altogether. They were not the dusty dons and clergymen Professor Bennet usually entertained in his chambers. They were worldly, and handsome, and therefore, fascinating.
"I was not," she lied, but then, deciding against the compounding of sin by dishonesty, sighed and whispered. "I just wanted to look at her dress."
"Well, you did, now go." Jamie took her by the shoulders and turned her around, pushing her lightly towards the stairs. "Go, go, Bess." She scowled at him, and whispered mutinously:
"And me-e-e-e..." He winked at her. "That is for me to know, Miss Bess, and for you never to find out." She gave him another surly look and stalked towards the stairs. "I'll not tell if you do not tell," he whispered in her wake. Failing to acknowledge this generous offer, Elizabeth slipped out of the room.
Elizabeth gone, Jamie Bennet watched the goings-on behind the curtains for another moment; then, pushing them aside, he entered, just in time for the flustered, winded Darcy to appear from the other side-Darcy, whose shock at seeing Jamie was well-nigh comical. He had left their impromptu fighting rink a quarter of an hour earlier, and fully dressed, and had left Jamie lazing about in his shirtsleeves on the roof, evidencing no intention to go down. But, as Jamie had told him before, Darcy had not grown up at Trinity and had not learned all the secret rooms and doors and passageways. Jamie grinned broadly in response to his friend's scowl; such they always were, one always smiling, the other always grim, and yet inseparable.
"Father," Darcy said, carefully. He knew that it befitted a gentleman to show restraint, even with those he loved most. Men of his position did not embrace in public. He had learned to measure his emotion when around his father, and only his eyes spoke the truth. His heart overflowed at seeing the two beings he loved most in this world. Still, he held himself back and bowed politely, as if his very heart did not ache to clasp his father in his arms. It was simply not done.
Georgiana, however, knew of no such politesse. Upon hearing her brother's voice, she finally released her father's sleeve and quickly scrambled off his lap, only to throw herself at Darcy. He leaned and she verily leapt into his open arms, locking hers around his neck. Straightening up, he laughed and swung her around, her legs dangling gaily.
"Have I grown frightfully big?" she inquired of him. Darcy laughed shortly, but then feigned distress, nodding somberly.
"Awfully big," he confessed, gently setting her down. "Soon you will be too heavy for me to cart about." Quickly, she ducked behind him, firmly attaching her hand to his.
"Do stop pestering your brother, Georgie," Mr. Darcy said, but his daughter seemed to ignore him, and his son threw him an imploring glance.
Georgiana, obviously of a mind that Darcy's attention could be monopolized further still, tugged on his sleeve:
"Are you to come home now?" she asked, staring demandingly up at him. Darcy hesitated, throwing a questioning glance at this father; he and Bennet had planned on going to the Continent soon after graduation. Mr. Darcy coughed discreetly and said:
"For a while, my girl. He is to come home for a while."
Georgiana seemed to find that satisfactory. A child of eight, she was living in the here and now, and the prospect of her brother's eventual leave did not serve to take away from the joy of his immediate presence.
On his father's sign, Darcy sat down. Daring, he patted his lap in invitation, and Georgiana clambered up, clinging to him. From his chair, he studied his father's beloved countenance across the room. Mr. Darcy seemed to have grown older since Darcy's visit home at Christmastime. Darcy felt a cold pinch of worry deep inside: his father was still splendid in height and shoulders, but his face looked more drawn and haggard than before. The son shuddered inside, always acutely conscious of his loved ones' mortality. He forced his mind back to the conversation.
"-to congratulate you on Fitzwilliam's excellent success-" Old Bennet droned. "-sailed through his Tripos-"
Behind him, leaning against the wall, Jamie Bennet grinned sardonically.
"I had nothing to do with his success," Mr. Darcy said with dignity. "The labor was all his, so must be the honor for it."
Darcy felt himself color. He knew that he had done well, and that he deserved all manner of praise. But something about the way his father said that unnerved him. It was as if Mr. Darcy wanted no part of his son's success.
Professor Bennet must have felt it too, for he watched his old friend keenly, and then he said, in too gay a manner, as if trying his hardest to dispel the unease that now prevailed in the room:
"Well, and not an inconsequential labor it was, I must say! In our day, I dare say, it was all much easier!" He smiled indulgently, remembering. "No tripos, no bull-dogs."
Mr. Darcy smiled at that, but said nothing, looking thoughtfully down at his exceedingly well-polished boots. Darcy watched his father with quiet dread, his suspicion that something was very wrong ripening into a conviction now. He felt it, like a wedge of glass, stuck between them; and yet, he had not been given leave to ask questions-particularly not in the presence of other parties. He would have to wait for his father to tell him what was wrong.
Darcy was severely uncomfortable, and torn between a growing compulsion to grasp his father by the shoulders and shake him hard, and a desire to flee the room immediately. He had wanted to inquire after the goings-on at Pemberley, after Reynolds, after his favorite horse Suleiman. Still, his father's dark silence had thrust him into gloomy reserve as well.
Luckily for him, Georgiana provided him with an answer, having dozed in his arms, her head pillowed on his shoulder (as a result, his whole left side fell numb; he sat still as a rock, longing to escape, frightened and tortured inside). Old Bennet was the first to notice and suggest that the girl's nurse be summoned.
"Tell her to meet me near the guest rooms, sir." Darcy rose awkwardly. The sleeping child slipped, heavily, and he caught her and heaved her up in his arms. She whispered and whimpered mutinously, but did not wake.
"I shall see you tomorrow, Fitzwilliam," Mr. Darcy said, sounding more tired than before. Darcy nodded politely over his sister's sleeping form; this was a sign to him that tonight, his company was no longer wanted. This was a greater relief than he could have imagined.
"Have a good night, sir." He turned to Old Bennet. "And you, Professor. Bennet, will you come?"
"Of course." Having bowed to the older gentlemen, Jamie Bennet held the door for him, and the two friends quitted Professor's study.
Mr. Darcy and Georgiana were to be situated in Professor's own comfortable apartments. Neither of the two friends said a single word as they walked down the hallway; an oppressive silence seemed to have followed them all the way from the study, floating above them like a dark mantle of discontent. Luckily, Darcy was occupied by carrying Georgiana, and his friend-by opening and holding various doors.
Georgiana's nurse Polly, a freckled young woman, vaguely familiar to Darcy from his last holiday at Pemberley, was waiting for them at the door to the guest bedchamber. She looked out-of-place and frightened, as if expecting a host of dark spirits to assault her anytime in this place that was so old, as old as the River Thames, as old as the world. She looked vastly relieved to see them, and colored becomingly at the wink sent her way by the flirtatious Bennet.
Inside the bedchamber, Darcy gently laid Georgiana on the bed. She woke, immediately, and wound her arms about his neck, refusing to let go.
"Will you be there when I wake?" she inquired. He promised that indeed, he would, his heart squeezing painfully at the way her heart was open to him. He wondered if one day, she, too, would prove impenetrable and foreign, like his mother once, like his father tonight.
"Nose-nose," she said, sleepily. He touched his nose to hers, obediently, in an old childhood gesture of affection.
"I shall see you tomorrow," he whispered. She did not hear him, already fast asleep.
Bennet was waiting for him outside the bedroom, leaning against the wall.
"Well, my friend," he said conversationally. "What have you in mind for tonight? A little more Milton?" He rolled his eyes and held a hand to his heart, in an imitation of a poet's affected posture. "Shall we learn an angel's soliloquy by heart?"
Darcy scowled at him.
"Or..." Bennet paused for effect, turning around on one heel. "Shall we give the bulldogs something to worry about?"
Darcy nodded, sullenly. He rarely drank, but tonight, of all nights, he could not bear to remain sober. He could not bear to dwell on things, to question the reasons why his father, on his first visit to the University in the last three years, evidenced so little joy at seeing him. His father's dark silence brought to mine his mother's coldness and her loss, and the pangs of conscience that still tortured him over their estrangement. He wanted drink, wanted the oblivion it brought. He wanted, most of all, the warm reassurance of a woman's pliant arms and her welcoming smile.
"I am your mortal soul tonight, Bennet," he said with a little grimace. "Corrupt me as you will."
"Finally!" Bennet exclaimed, grinning. 'Well, I shall do my best, my friend... Let me tell you, I know of a bawd in town-don't make that face-excellent girls, very clean-"
Their voices drifted away under the tall vaulted ceilings, and soon the two friends were gone. They would spend the night in mild debauchery, on the premises of Madam Claudette in Cambridge. The yellow house in a row of more yellow houses looked unremarkably respectable; nobody would mind as they emerged from it in the early hours of the morning, suitably exhausted and not a little in their cups.
Thereupon, they would stumble home; for they shared rooms, a very short walk away from Trinity. They would sleep where each fell, and nearing noon, wake just about in time to bathe and dress for their graduation.
Still, neither would know what was wrought while they slept.
After their sons left their company, the fathers sat in gloomy silence. For a long time, they remained, each in his chair, as if stopped from all movement by an invisible puppeteer. Professor Bennet stared, steadfastly, at the play of light and fire in his wineglass, while his old friend regarded his tall black Hessians, superbly shined, with a little too much attention.
It was the Professor who spoke first, his voice scything the silence into myriad brittle pieces.
"So you are come, finally."
Mr. Darcy looked up, a crooked smile twisting his handsome mouth.
"You have summoned me, have you not?"
"True," the Professor agreed, chuckling. "I have. I suppose your son's graduation would not be reason enough for you to visit."
"What need was there for my visits?" Mr. Darcy shrugged. "Listening to you, his time at Trinity was one long triumph."
"A string of small triumphs, rather."
"No doubt your shining influence."
In contrast with the bitter irony in Mr. Darcy's voice, the Professor's laugh sounded open and carefree. "Come, come, Ned. He had worked hard for every single one of them. But even so. Even small triumphs need to be shared with those we love most."
For a moment, Mr. Darcy seemed to have retreated back to dark silence. Then, looking up at his host, he asked, sharply:
"Enough of this! Why did you write to me? Why invite me here, now?"
"Can you not guess?" Professor Bennet asked softly.
"I do not wish to guess!" Mr. Darcy snapped.
"Very well, then, Ned. I believe it is time you informed your son about our agreement."
Mr. Darcy said nothing to that, but his countenance evidenced a great upheaval inside. For a long moment, he sat as if held in place by a stone hand upon his shoulder. Still, the man across from him had no doubts his last words had reached home.
"Our agreement," Mr. Darcy whispered finally, brokenly. "A vile bet."
"A bet you made, Ned."
"I did not know better," Mr. Darcy said pitiably. "I was desperate, I should have contracted with the Devil himself to return what I had lost-"
"All excuses, Ned." The Professor's voice was harder than Damask steel, colder than the ice on a December night. "Unfit for a gentleman."
Mr. Darcy straightened up in his chair and fixed the Professor with a haughty eye. "How dare you lecture me on what befits a gentleman, you, who hold me to this execrable bargain-"
"I hold you to your own words, Ned-no more, no less. If they were rash, it is no fault of mine. They were your words, after all."
"I have never tried to deny that!"
"To deny it would be dishonor, and well you know it!" The Professor's voice was biting now, and his eyes flared in a manner almost diabolical. "The evidence of it exists still. One need only go to White's, open the Betting Book and flip it a dozen years back, to see what you bet and that you lost!"
Like Fury personified, Mr. Darcy shot out of his chair and stormed around the room.
"You need not remind me of it, Tom!" he cried. "A day does not pass that I do not remember it, that I do not regret it!"
"Regrets are futile and only eat at your heart," the Professor said softly. "You must make the best of it, Ned. You must tell the boy tomorrow."
"Tomorrow!" Mr. Darcy echoed. "You choose tomorrow to tell him of my perfidy!"
"Hardly perfidy. You could not bear to see Fitzwilliam disinherited, that is why you agreed to my offer."
"I should not have gambled with McDougal in the first place. I should have rather bet my soul than Pemberley."
"And yet you did. Youthful rashness of the worst kind."
"If you think it mere rashness, Tom, why not release me from this obligation?"
"Because you owe me, Ned," the Professor replied, candidly and harshly. "You are what you are because I helped you."
"Oh bollocks, Tom! You were all self-interest! You call yourself my friend, but oh Tom, you have used me ill!"
For the first time during the conversation, the Professor seemed hurt.
"Ungrateful wretch!" he spat out, furiously. "I should have left you to rot, dispossessed and alone! Should have let you put that bullet in your head, Ned-just as you'd intended!"
"It is undisputed-you have saved my son's inheritance from McDougal's clutches-you have won it back, having bet-what was it that you have bet, Tom?"
" 'Tis Immaterial."
"But you would not give it back to me-to him. I have asked you, begged you-"
"-hired men to steal the deed from my solicitor's office-" The Professor added. He still sounded angry, but the malice in his voice had disappeared, replaced by sharp, wry notes. . "-time and time again, and all I receive from you is this mockery! You, who once called himself my friend-"
"I remain your friend, but I also remain a good father to my daughter. I should be remiss in my duties to her if I did not held you to the agreement we made."
"Naturally so! She is not bloody likely to make a catch like that again!"
Once again, the Professor's eyes flashed as he said, too quietly and evenly:
"Do not insult my child, Ned, she knows nothing of it. She is only thirteen years of age, and is not likely to realize the advantage that will come to her from this match!"
"But you are, naturally, which is why you hold me to this bargain, made years back-"
"And yet it was made, there is evidence of that."
"I have offered to pay you off!"
"What can you give me that should equal a life of distinction and comfort for my most beloved child?" The Professor asked quietly. Mr. Darcy fell in a chair, heavily, and shook his head in despair.
"And what of my child?" he inquired.
"Do not make it sound as if his very life is forfeit! He will receive a woman of character and virtue for his wife-he could not do better if he were choosing a wife from all the beauties at Almack's!"
"That we shall never know, Tom, for you take that choice away from him."
Professor Bennet smiled again, and all the world's contempt was in that smile. "The question of who took that choice away from him is better left aside, my friend. But you make it sound like such tragedy, Ned! Betrothals are arranged every day. I daresay Elizabeth will make him a better wife than any society daughter. She will bear him healthier sons. And she is likely to grow up far prettier."
"Large enough, if you tell him so." Professor Bennet leaned back in his chair, fingering his chin softly. "He is an obedient son, and values your opinion greatly. He will do your bidding."
"And will Elizabeth?"
"You can have no doubt of that." The Professor sighed, thoughtfully. Reaching out, he touched the side of a leaning candle, gathering the dripping yellow wax with one finger. "I care for Fitzwilliam. He was my brightest student these three years, and a good man at that."
"Spare me your hypocrisy, Tom."
"Believe me a hypocrite if you must," the Professor replied with a shrug. He kneaded the warm wax in his fingers absently. "But I do not want the boy hurt. I do not want him making an alliance, I do not want him courting other women or falling in love. He must know he is not free. Now, before he is to go off on his own, is as good a time as any."
"As you wish," Mr. Darcy replied flatly. "As you wish, Tom."
He pushed himself out of the chair and stood, unsteady on his feet. He sounded drunk when he said:
"Would you mind terribly if we let him go through with the graduation ceremony before telling him?"
The Professor said nothing, but merely shook his head. As his unfortunate guest turned to go, he reached to ring for a footman, but Mr. Darcy stopped him with one imperious motion.
"Do you forget that you and I once roamed these halls, Tom?"
Already at the doors, he turned and said, on a sudden furious breath:
"Tell me why, Tom?"
"Why?" The Professor looked up at him, squinting blindly.
"Why not take Pemberley from me outright? Why torture me all these years, threatening ruination? You can have it for your daughter, but why did you not take it for your son?"
The Professor shrugged. "James stands to inherit Longbourn when I am gone. We let it now, having no need of it, but it is his. And it is a good enough living for a country squire. He would not know what to do with a place like Pemberley."
To Mr. Darcy's incredulous little laugh, the Professor added:
"And, believe it or not, I want both our children to have it. Fitzwilliam was dear to me. I never wished him disinherited. ."
The candle on the table sputtered, threatening compleat darkness.
"I am, after all, your friend."
On the morrow, the day was breezy and sun-dappled. Considering his state after a night of carousing with Bennet, Darcy thought himself lucky that he did not lose an eye in the process of catching his mortarboard. Despite the headache tearing viciously at his temples, he had managed to wink at Georgiana, who was sitting primly next to his father, sending her in a fit of giggles.
They stood, then, under a graceful stone arch, full of mad excitement, discussing the lives they were about to begin. These lives, of course, would be of various degrees of grace and distinction. Indeed, Darcy thought giddily, in another ten years, the young men around him would have become the pillars of the English society: they would be clergymen and writers, politicians and barristers. And some would become simply gentlemen of property and consequence, landowners and courtiers. After a few years of riotous shenanigans, they would fall prey to avaricious-and anxious-mamas and marry, advantageously so. Though perhaps, some would be luckier than others, and would not marry at all. (Faith, he did not see himself marrying anytime soon.) As he stood amongst his classmates, Darcy fully intended to take his place within that pantheon.
The world lay before him, open and his to devour.
The thought of himself at the top had a particular appeal. Before, he had known himself to be a scion of two very grand families (for, if his father's family was simple landed gentry, though highly respected and very wealthy, his maternal grandfather was the Earl of Matlock himself); he had known that his would be a life of privilege, and had never questioned it. Still, it had felt a little like cheating. Just a little. The others had earned the distinction for him, through the ages. But this, this, he thought, this was his only. He had known himself to have worked exceedingly hard at Trinity, and was proud-justifiably so-of his success.
He thought again, with pleasure and joy, of having graduated from one of the greatest Universities in the world (doubtless the greatest in England). This was his. Something he had earned, something he had contributed to the family fortune.
"Darcy." He turned around, embraced his best friend tightly. Last night, on their way to their nighttime entertainment, the two friends talked of their impending continental tour. It was undeniably exciting to be traveling in the time of such an upheaval. Napoleon was gathering forces in Europe, and the war, already, seemed inevitable. But it was not yet, not for a while... they could still go. They still had time, and the world balancing on the edge of a catastrophe had its particular brittle appeal.
They would go, then, across the channel to France, and Spain, and the glorious, sun-drenched Italy. And, perhaps, Greece, to look at the sparkling white temples and sail the azure waters of the Adriatic. He had imagined it far too often-glorious art, glorious weather, glorious ruins. And the women! Indeed, from what he had heard of them, no other word could describe the Southern women. Twenty-one years of gentlemanly upbringing were certainly no match for centuries of carnivorous maleness: as he thought of all that awaited them, Darcy felt a mad rush of excitement through his veins. They would tarry in Europe, taking in every pleasure to be had. Indeed, it was an enticing prospect.
"Congratulations to you," Bennet said. He was grinning from ear to ear, having lost his mortarboard somewhere. Darcy knew that now, upon graduation, Bennet's prospects would be quite different from his own. Indubitably Professor Bennet was a man of consequence and property; but Longbourn, the Bennet family estate, was nothing to Pemberley. Yet, they had been the closest of friends at Trinity, and Darcy hoped that they would remain so afterwards.
And even if not, even if their circles never intersected, they still had this summer, this glorious summer advancing upon them, where they would remain friends and companions, if only for several more months.
"And to you," Darcy murmured, slapping his friend's shoulder. He wished to God it did not matter that Pemberley was the richest estate in Derbyshire, and that Longbourn was lowly compared to it. To him, it did not. Bennet had been his friend for the past three years; he would remain one forevermore. He told himself he did not care if it mattered to the rest of the world.
"Will you come drinking with us, now?" Bennet spoke exuberantly. "We are all going. Not even the strictest of bulldogs will dare to drag us out of the pub today!"
Darcy hesitated. He wanted to call on his father first.
"I shall catch up with you later," he said, smiling. "Save a seat at the table for me."
Bennet made a face. "Very well, if that is your wish. But come as soon as you can."
Still, as he turned around to go, Jamie Bennet came face-to-face with his father's valet.
"What is it, Huffington?" he asked, rather impatiently.
"Professor wishes to see you in his study, sir."
Bennet frowned in incomprehension. "Me?"
He grinned and ruffled a hand through his curls, honestly trying to recollect what particular indiscretion he had committed during the ceremony. Or perhaps... he cast a wary look at Darcy. Could it be that the news of their excursion the night previous had reached his father's ears? But no, it could not be. Jamie simply could not believe it. Not today. The Professor, always rather lax with his upbringing, would not choose the day of his graduation to read him an obnoxious lecture.
"And Mr. Darcy is to come, too."
"Very well, then." He turned to go. "Sheffield," he cried to someone. "Save Darce and me a spot, will you?"
The two friends exchanged another look of incomprehension as they followed the valet.
Professor Bennet stared out of the window of his study, following the progress of the two young men across the courtyard. Fitzwilliam Darcy was still wearing his black robe, but Jamie had lost his. He was always like this-wild-haired and grinning. Nothing seemed to trouble him much; the Professor had hardly seen a sturdier spirit in his whole life.
He hoped it would serve his son well just now.
They walked in, both of them smiling, all promise of life written in their faces. Both bowed politely. Young Darcy was taller than his friend and arrestingly handsome; but Jamie was fine-looking in his own right and possessed of a good deal of easy-going charm that his friend lacked. Professor Bennet knew that his son possessed the happy manners, which opened people to him, making them smile, making them his friends, wherever he went.
"Come in, come in," he said, pointing to two chairs, facing himself and Ned Darcy (who sat in dead silence, and whiter than his pristine necktie). They edged into the room, cautiously, before sitting down; both looked obligingly polite and only slightly worried. Both, no doubt, were keen to leave this room and go drinking with their friends. The Professor felt something akin to pity. He knew that the news he was about to bestow would not be taken kindly; he hoped that it would not serve to taint the friendship between the two young men. Faith, whatever he said to his friend, he would be most sore were he in Fitzwilliam Darcy's place... Still, what he did, he did for Elizabeth's benefit. And what father would possibly forgo the opportunity to secure a match so advantageous for his beloved daughter?
Elizabeth herself would be told in due time (another steep battle, he anticipated-he could not imagine her wanting to marry young Darcy). He would not think of it just yet. First things first.
"You wanted to see me, Father?"
His son's prompting tore him out of his reverie.
"Yes, yes," he said. "Both of you. Mr. Darcy and I have something to tell you." He paused. "Will you, Ned, or shall I?"
Mr. Darcy, still frowning, looked up at him in seeming incomprehension. As if he has only just heard it for the first time.
"Oh, yes, of course." Mr. Darcy rose and walked to the window, so that he now stood behind the two boys. Neither turned back to follow his progress across the room, both studying their shoes with far more attention than called for.
Darcy felt that something was amiss the moment he had walked into the room. It was the continuation of last night's meeting with his father, so bizarre and disheartening. So there it was, his father had not been merely tired from his journey. He had convinced himself that it was only fatigue that had made Mr. Darcy so disagreeable, so cold to him the night before. But here it was, again. Something was genuinely wrong.
The most obvious possibility was also the most ridiculous: that their trip to the Continent had been cancelled. His father had advised him against it this summer, and, for the first time in his life, he had disobeyed. Had chosen not to take his advice. As he had expected, Mr. Darcy had found it acceptable. Perhaps he had reconsidered? Still, Darcy could not imagine that he would choose now, only a few days before they were to depart for France, to curtail his plans in such an abrupt manner. It simply was not like him.
"This goes back years," Mr. Darcy said behind them. "You were but a boy... Winter of 1790. I was in London for the Season-that year, I was the member for Derby... my last year in the Commons."
"Ah," Darcy said faintly. He remembered all too well the occasion of which his father now spoke. All too well, indeed. He was eight years old then, and would have much preferred to be left behind at Pemberley, but instead, had been dragged along to London and promised various attractions, should he do well with his tutor. He had, garnering praise from Mr. Peterly-who had been a good teacher and had inspired him with his passion for geography, zoology and the logic of numbers-and had anticipated those promised delights eagerly. But his family's sojourn in town ended abruptly, when Mr. Darcy was brought home overcome with some severe fit. He had not understood it then, but his father was ill for several days, and his mother was inconsolable; the sound of her weeping haunted him for days, and he spent most of his time in the attic, hiding from it. Following Mr. Darcy's mending-though perhaps, Darcy thought, he had never truly mended, not in spirit, at least-the family left London in such a hurry that they had left Mrs. Darcy's maid behind and had to send for her. He scowled at the painful memory.
"I was fortunate that winter. My politics was successful, I have formed a number of alliances, and strengthened a number of others."
The tone of his father's voice-listless and hushed, as if muted by a felt throw-set Darcy to an inward shudder. He fought to contain it, but in vain; very soon, it overtook his entire being. He had to clench his teeth to stop them from chattering, and he drove his nails into his palms to prevent himself from shaking piteously.
Mr. Darcy went on, his tone biting now, full of loathing for something-someone-that could only have been himself.
"I was favored then," he said, and the manner in which he said that word, favored, made Darcy cringe. Yet, he could not allow himself to dwell on the peculiar mocking lilt in his father's voice. Theories, one more disturbing, more sickening than another, flittered through his mind. The most obvious one now, was, of course, infidelity. What else could he mean by "favored'' but that he had been unfaithful to the late Mrs. Darcy?
But then, Darcy thought with a shock, then why tell him now? Why raise and disturb the ghosts of betrayals long past? Moreover, why invite Bennet to listen to such infamy?
Nothing made sense, nothing added up. Darcy ground his teeth and made himself stop theorizing. He would listen to his father, pure and simple.
"I felt invincible," Mr. Darcy said, bitter mockery in his voice. "I thought nothing could touch me."
"One wild night at White's, I wrote down a wager in the Betting book. It was-I am ashamed to admit now-for a horse. A rare pureblood Arabian. Bred from desert stock, one of the very few in England. I wanted it, I coveted it. I had never wanted anything quite so much. Neither money, nor land, nor a woman." Mr. Darcy chuckled dully. "It was named Izmir." He sighed. "It was like a white dream."
"A horse," Darcy murmured dumbly. He simply could not credit that the story his father was about to tell him dealt with a horse. It seemed to torture Mr. Darcy profoundly. The son had a farmer's appreciation for a beautiful stallion, but he could not imagine that his father was so distressed over a horse. Faith, Pemberley's stables were full of them. There were even some pretty, graceful Arabians amidst their stock.
"Do not laugh, young man," Professor Bennet said quietly. He was like a dark shadow in his robes, almost one with the multitude of books on the wall. Darcy almost forgot he was there, indeed, absorbed in and bothered by his father's strange story. Now, the sound of his voice startled him so much, he well-nigh jumped in his seat. "Every one of us will face ultimate temptation, once in our life. It does not matter so much what form it takes."
"The horse belonged to Charles MacDougal, a notorious rake and gambler. I asked him to sell Izmir to me, told him to name his price. I was wealthy, Fitzwilliam, I had a great estate, I had an heir to it. I had felt like Croesus, like I could buy the world."
Darcy could not help it, and murmured: "I suppose he did. I mean, named the price."
"Oh, he did." Mr. Darcy's laughter was harsh, jarring. "He did." He paused, leaning his forehead against the glass. "Pemberley," he whispered.
"What?" Darcy asked sharply, forgetting all proprieties.
"What's not to understand?" Professor Bennet said, as sharply, from the shadows. "MacDougal had no desire to sell the horse. He named a price he knew your father would not pay."
Darcy felt a trickle of cold sweat down his neck. Next to him, Jamie Bennet said frozen into salt, staring at the tips of his shoes. Darcy shut his eyes tightly and asked, quietly:
"Pray tell, what happened next?"
"MacDougal could have simply refused me, could have told me that the horse was not for sale. But he found a particular perverse pleasure in amusing himself-and his idle cronies-at my expense. His chief occupation consisted of sitting in that window, at White's, making light of everyone that passed. He found it damned amusing that a man could be so attached to a piece of soil." There was a smile in his voice, a wistful frozen smile, like a jonquil blossomed too early, caged and smashed by the last breath of winter.
There was a long pause, during which Mr. Darcy stood, stock-still, leaning his forehead against the glass in the window. Darcy sat, very straight in his chair, no longer daring his father to continue.
"I made a bet," Mr. Darcy said, then. "I wanted to teach the fop a lesson-wanted to show him I would take the horse from him if he did not sell it to me. My friends had warned me, telling me that MacDougal was as merciless at the card table as he was on the dueling field." He sighed. "I would not listen. I challenged him to a game of faro at White's one night, and I lost. I lost a great deal of money to him then, but I could have walked away... I should have walked away."
Professor Bennet said, losing his patience: "Enough of that, Ned! You can mea culpa yourself all you wish, but it will not turn things around. Just tell the boys the truth, and be done with it."
Mr. Darcy nodded. "Very well, then. I shall tell the truth. I gambled, then. I no longer thought about the horse, but about returning what I had lost-with interest. MacDougal had insulted me, made light of me, publicly. I wished to punish him for it. I challenged him to another game."
"Oh, no." It was not Darcy, this time, but Jamie Bennet who said this, sounding absolutely fascinated.
"I lost again." Mr. Darcy said. "And again. And again. Every time, I would bet more-until it became imperative that I return the money I had lost. Finally," he said after a heavy pause. "There was only one thing I could bet to return all I had lost."
Darcy gasped, sickened, disbelieving.
"Pemberley," he said.
"Yes, Pemberley. In the famous-some say infamous-Betting Book at White's, I have recorded my final bet with MacDougal."
Jamie Bennet never moved from his spot, looking as if he was trying his hardest to disappear into the back of his chair.
"I lost," Mr. Darcy whispered. "I lost Pemberley that night. I lost your inheritance and your future."
At first, Darcy evidenced no reaction to such a tale. It seemed, for some time, sitting still and dark, head bowed. When he looked up, finally, there were tears in his eyes.
"Father!" he said, his voice brimming with emotion. "I cannot-I cannot fathom-why have you kept it from me all these years? I cannot believe it," he repeated. "Not you. Not you, sir!" But he did believe it, he already had, had accepted that the one person he loved and admired so much could be so terribly, dangerously fallible. He sank back in his chair, biting his fist to gain better control of himself.
"And you," he whispered, addressing himself to the Professor next, after the first painful surge of emotion had passed, "you called himself your friend, could you not stop him? Did you calmly watch him go to his ruin?"
The Professor exhaled sharply, furiously, shaken at such unfairness. He turned to Darcy and said, in a voice his student had never heard him use before, but with which his son was intimately familiar: "Let it be known, young man, that I was not there to stop your father from gambling his life away. All of this happened during the stretch of one night. I returned to find your mother in hysterics, and Darcy locked in his office, holding a loaded pistol to his mouth."
Darcy grimaced with disgust. With a terrible shock, he remembered that day, again, remembered the commotion in the house and his mother screaming, hysterically, begging someone to kick in the door, then begging-frantically-not to do it. Servants whispering: almost swallowed a bullet. To escape Lady Anne's wailing, he had disappeared up in the attic, putting his hands over his ears, trying his hardest not to hear. How was it that he only just remembered this?
He twisted in his chair, drilling his father's back with his eyes. He was still shaken, still incredulous, but now, also, he was angry.
"You wanted to kill yourself?" he asked, growing whiter by the second. "You had lost everything we had-then you should have abandoned us?!"
Mr. Darcy proffered no reply to that, for perhaps, too much emotion rang in his son's voice. Instead, Professor Bennet coughed, clearing his throat. Rather stiffly, he said:
"Honor commanded that he do so, Fitzwilliam."
"Honor," Darcy whispered. "You call it honor! He should have left us to starve!"
"Well, you have not starved, have you, Mr. Darcy!" the Professor said sternly. "= It would behoove you to keep quiet, to listen!"
Gloomily, Darcy slid back in his chair. His face burned in shame. Had the shameful story he had only just heard come from someone else's lips, he should have never stood for such an affront. Indeed, he should have declared that person a liar. Called him out, even. To imagine that his father should sink so low! That he had gambled away his inheritance, like the most profligate of scoundrels! It is not true, it is not true, it cannot be true, he thought desperately. Mr. Darcy was the kindest, cleverest, most honorable of men. What Professor Bennet had spoken about was not "honor", but pure cowardice. This was not like his father, who hardly ever came near a card table; indeed, he had proven impossible to lure into a diversion so respectable as a game of whist. Darcy went cold inside at the thought: this is why, this is why he never gambles...
But apparently, this story, shameful as it was, was not yet complete. He gripped the arms of his chair, scowled, and listened.
"Do go on, Ned," the Professor said quietly. He watched his own son, far more than he watched Darcy. He wondered how Jamie would react to this, to the news that he could have been made wealthy beyond his dreams, and wasn't, and that his sister would be favored instead?
"No," Mr. Darcy said bitterly. "No, Tom. 'Tis your turn now. I have bared enough of me today, now you must speak of yourself."
"Very well," the Professor agreed. "I shall tell the rest." He walked behind his desk and sat down, heavily. He was getting old, he thought ruefully. Yet another reason why the question of Elizabeth's betrothal-including a binding contract-must be settled soon. Had we but world enough and time, he thought, but we do not have enough. Therefore, it had to be done.
"Fitzwilliam," he said. The dark head in front of him snapped up, and he found himself staring straight into the pair of the most disquieting dark eyes he had ever seen. Professor Bennet shivered, involuntarily. He had heard people say that young Darcy had a nasty manner of looking at you, unblinking, as if he would stare a hole through your soul. But Fitzwilliam Darcy was always easy around him, and he had never had a chance to see him as anything but a very proud, very shy young man.
"Fitzwilliam," he repeated. "I could tell you a long story, but I am afraid your patience is badly tried already."
"I should-" Young Darcy cleared his throat, uncomfortable, and said, darkly: "I should like to know why my inheritance is still my own."
Perhaps, there was no way to put it but bluntly. "Because I won it back for your father."
"You won it back, sir?" Jamie asked, curiously. "In cards?"
"Yes," the Professor replied. "My last card game, to this day."
"I have you to thank, then, for restoring my inheritance," Fitzwilliam Darcy murmured, but Jamie, ever the perceptive one, asked:
"But Father, what did you bet that MacDougal fellow?"
The Professor shifted, uncomfortably, in his chair. How he hoped Jamie would not ask that, and yet, he had known that his nosy, clever son could not miss this incongruity. That, in order to have won Pemberley back from MacDougal, he had to have bet something of an equal value, and he had nothing of the sort. Not even Longbourn would measure up to a estate so great in size, beauty and richness.
A pound of flesh. "I bet my own person, James," he said, sharply.
They stared at him, shocked, saying not a word, their minds refusing to admit all that such an arrangement would entail.
"Mr. MacDougal was known for his unusual predilections," he said dryly. He had hoped he would not have to reveal this. For the rest of his life, he would remember the tension of that mad gamble: Charlie MacDougal's repulsive assessing narrow-eyed stare at him over the card table, you are a handsome fellow, all right; the cold realization that should he lose, he would be facing MacDougal, with his deadly aim, across the dueling field-for he would never consent to honoring this bet; a deep collective breath held, and released at the last, by the crowd around them. He shook his head, shaking off the memories as well.
"I had nothing else to offer him." He hated how he sounded: thick, apologetic and guilty, as if he should explain himself to these boys.
Jamie, who, for the first time since the beginning of the conversation, turned noticeably white, murmured, addressing himself to no-one in particular:
"What if you had lost!"
"It is of no import, James, because I won," the Professor said sharply. He had thought the same over the years, and the possibilities frightened him exceedingly. Jamie said nothing in reply and sank deeply back in his chair, shielding his face with one hand, as if wishing to hide from the world. The Professor had not seen him so distressed in years; not since his mother died thirteen years ago, in fact.
Young Darcy, however, seemed moved between overflowing gratitude and the deepest shame. Looking up at the Professor and said, gloomily:
"I shall never be able to repay you."
Suddenly, the Professor could not make himself look the boy in the eye. He had not expected the poor fellow to be grateful to him. After all, he had not acted unselfishly, having used his friend's terrible mistake to his own considerable advantage. Studying his nails with unqualified attention, he said, slowly, forcing the words that had to be said: "Do not be too hasty, Fitzwilliam, in thanking me. I did not act selflessly."
"I do not understand." Young Darcy looked between his father and his teacher, seeking an answer, but receiving only grim silence in response.
"When I won Pemberley back from MacDougal, it passed into my possession, at least on paper. Let it be said, first, that I had fully intended to give it back to your father. I had gone against MacDougal with that intention-of restoring your rightful inheritance to you. Something that your father was not able to do, at the moment." He exhaled, quietly. "But I had my own children to think of."
Another silence, fraught with unbearable tension; the air in the room felt brittle, like the thinnest glass cracked all through from a careless stone and about to shatter.
"Therefore, your father and I made a deal."
"A deal?" the young man murmured. Jamie said nothing, looking up at his father, frowning in incomprehension, and then, stricken by a sudden understanding. The Professor bit his lip at the expression of dismay on his son's face. He said, slowly, words rolling like stones down a hillside.
"That you should marry my daughter Elizabeth in exchange for the full restoration of Pemberley to you."
Jamie had taken his hand away from his face and stared at him incredulously. "Father," he murmured, as if in disbelief. The Professor ignored him: there would be time to deal with him later. Not that he could hope to explain anything to him, not right now. His son had always been the greatest mystery to him, a friendly, easy child who was sometimes as impenetrable as a stone wall. He had developed, from early age, an ability to hide pain and disappointment behind lighthearted gags and wild antics. Try as he might, his father could not always read him.
At any rate, he told himself, it was young Darcy who was of more import now.
"Fitzwilliam," the Professor heard himself saying. "Do you understand?"
He had hoped for a glimmer of understanding, had convinced himself that what he had done was, in so many ways, reasonable and forgivable. He had forgiven himself long ago, and the guilt he was feeling now was new and doubly painful. After all, what loving father would have done differently? Had it been the other way around, would not Darcy have done the same for Georgiana? He had wanted a good life, a better life for Elizabeth, wanted to spare her the humiliations of being only poorly dowered. Longbourn was their home-though one to which they had never returned after Mrs. Bennet's demise-but it would not serve to provide her with as handsome a dowry as she deserved. She was his most beloved thing in the entire world, so small he wished he could keep her in the palm of his hand, sheltering her from the entire world. So big, there was hardly a space for anyone else in his heart. Even then, when he hardly knew her, he had already loved her. He had only wanted the best for her, the Professor kept telling himself. A father's folly, prompted by the desire to do well by his child. He had hoped that Ned would understand, and that most of all, that this boy would understand. This dark boy with his troubling, penetrating dark gaze and his lips pinched narrowly in anger.
But indeed, it had been a folly to hope so. Fitzwilliam Darcy was not simply angry, he seemed deeply shaken, saddened and profoundly hurt. He jumped to his feet, leaving Jamie still slumped in his chair. He was so tall, he filled up the room naturally, leaving it too small and too dark for everyone else. As he spoke, his voice was soft, like felt, but it contained a dagger inside, a deadly cutting shard of glass.
"Oh," he said. "I understand.". There was so much poison in his voice, the Professor felt ill at the sound of it. Young Darcy paused, as if considering something. "I only wish," he said, finally, gravely, "that you had told me of it earlier, Father. It might have given me more time to accustom myself to the idea of having been bartered for a horse."
They remained silent, each in his own private hegira. Ned Darcy looking out of the window, where, behind an ornate Venetian glass, Trinity unfolded in all its Tudor splendor like an ornate lacy cake. The Professor remained at his desk, studying the ornate pattern that made up the edge of his desk, tracing the peculiar mahogany twirls and eddies with one finger. The furniture-maker had thought to create the effect of a wave, ebbing and flowing. Now, unthinking, he let his hand follow the curves and grooves of the wood, slipping down into its smooth hollows and rising upon its tall crests.
He knew a reaction like this was to be expected, and yet it pained him unimaginably that Elizabeth should be married to this man unwanted. Elizabeth, he thought, my Lizzy, marry him? He should be happy to marry her, he thought angrily. That stupid pup, he could never hope to find a wife of so much sense and goodness. For a brief moment, moved by his anger, he even considered giving up the venture. But only for a minute; and then, reminding himself of all Elizabeth stood to gain, he felt within his right once more. After all, they could not be married now, Elizabeth being so young as she was. The next five or six years should serve to reconcile Fitzwilliam Darcy with this marriage.
If he knew Elizabeth better, how could he fail to love her?
His mouth a bitter line, Fitzwilliam Darcy bowed. "With your permission, sir, I shall take my leave now."
His father said nothing, waiving his hand weakly, as the young man stalked out of the room. He had said nothing to the Professor, had not acknowledged him or bowed, and he had not called Jamie to follow after him. The Professor watched as his own son rose and bowed, before turning silently towards the door. On an impulse, the Professor called after him:
"James!" he said sharply. "James, do you understand, at least?"
The young man opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head. "You will forgive me, sir. I do not. I do not understand. I cannot fathom you would have Elizabeth betrothed in her cradle, without giving her a chance to make her own choice."
The Professor bit his lip, painfully. He had pondered the same question, and had convinced himself that he knew what was good for his child. But Elizabeth was clever, thinking, already now. Would she chafe and curse his name, married to a man she did not love, did not choose? But could he afford to think of it, such frivolities? All of her further life hung in the balance. He knew, far too well, that the young Darcy, who was as proud and obstinate as his unlucky father, would never marry Elizabeth of his own accord.
Would she ever forgive her father for what he had done?
"Perhaps when you have a daughter of your own," he said, weakly. He was glad that Jamie had not found fault with him for returning Pemberley to the Darcys. He knew that many would; but not Jamie, who was as easy as he was generous. For his son, he felt gratitude for remaining the fine man he was in the face of temptation. He felt guilt, too, for he tried to do well by his children, and had failed, again. Oh what a fool's errand it was.
"Perhaps," Jamie said, sadly. "Though I do not see how. I love Darcy, father, he is like a brother to me... but I should not wish him on my worst enemy, much less our Lizzy. He is cold, Father, and they detest each other. Marrying him could not but make her unhappy."
Now, anger, irrational, swelled within the Professor's chest, clamoring to silence the awful, nagging guilt. "Well, then, she will stop detesting him! She will do like so many other women do and obey her father! She will learn to like him, and if she fails at that her marriage will be no worse than most! Certainly not worse than mine ever was! I have arranged for her to marry young Darcy, and marry him she will!"
He had almost yelled out the last phrase. As it ended, the silence was absolute. Then, there came a quiet gasp, and then a sound of guilty feet, rushing away, no longer caring to conceal their clandestine presence. Jamie gasped, too, then turned around on one spot and darted, at lightning speed, towards the door in the back of the room.
"Damn it, Bess," the Professor heard him say, desperately, "damn it, child, I have told you not to eavesdrop!"
Jamie Bennet stood in the shade of a large oak on the green, looking up into the crown, where, he had just discovered, his sister Elizabeth was hiding from the rest of the world.
They had searched for her, high and low, for the past five hours. He had quitted his father's study in a rush, only to see a light shadow turn the nearest corner. He ran after her, but she was too quick by far. He stood in the hallway, wondering which of the doors on the left now concealed her. Then, frustrated, he stomped his foot and strode away.
She could not, after all, hide all day.
Three hours later, no longer certain of it after having searched for Elizabeth all over Trinity-he did not like the thought of her venturing into town-he returned to seek his father's audience.
"Come in," the Professor said, voice muted behind a massive oak door. Upon entering, Jamie found his father in the business of looking over some correspondence. He did not look up. Jamie thought that his father looked peaceful like that, and everyday: it was as if he had not only just delivered the most shattering news. Jamie felt anger welling up inside. He swallowed, not quite trusting his voice.
"Elizabeth is gone," he said darkly. The Professor looked up, startled, and the young man felt a flutter of dark satisfaction: that caught your attention, you old bastard, he thought.
"Gone?" His father whispered. "Gone?"
"Father, I think we ought to mount a search," Jamie said in a voice which he used only rarely, and which meant anything but a simple opinion. Insistence was hardly in his nature; he found it a dearly bought favor when he had to force someone to do something for him. Ask, he knew, and ye shall receive; ask kindly and ye shall receive tenfold. But occasionally, in matters of grave importance, he could be as commanding as his father.
Two hours later, after a search party made it all around Trinity, he found her by pure happenstance. He was passing a large oak, having almost convinced himself that Elizabeth had run away, when his ear caught a dull thump! He turned sharply, looking around. Something lay in the grass, where the prodigious tree roots rose and melted into the lush spring grass. Jamie leaned, looking at it.
At first, he well-nigh gasped in horror. It was Elizabeth's slipper. He gathered it from the ground with shaking fingers. Has she been carried off?
Then, reason intervening, he remembered the thump. Looking up into the crown, he saw one white stockinged foot, clearly missing a shoe, and a pair of mournful eyes. He felt like he would cry with relief. He said, scowling at her:
"Bess, you eegit, come out of there at once!"
Not saying a word, she shook her head at him. Jamie considered climbing up himself, to bring her back down by force. Still, he thought, it was most unlike Elizabeth to hide from anything. She must be seriously distressed by the news her father had so thoughtlessly bestowed upon them.
"Lizzy," he said, gentling his voice, though he wished to both whip her and kiss her silly. "Do not shake your head at me, girl. Come down at once."
Instead of answering, she regrouped on the branch, standing up and neatly tucking in her skirt, clearly intending to climb higher.
"Lizzy," he repeated, getting angrier. "Stop that! Don't you dare-Lizzy, do you think I cannot bloody well climb a tree?!"
There was no answer but a sullen "leave me be," muttered under her breath. Still, she crouched on the branch again, awkwardly, holding on to the one above her.
"If you only knew the fright you gave us," he said. She murmured something, he could not quite hear, but he could swear it was "good." He thought to tell her how much their father had worried, then decided against it.
"I thought the gypsies had carried you off," he said.
"What would the gypsies want with me?" she asked crossly. Good, Jamie thought, talking is progress.
"They would make you dance in their traveling show."
"Dance?" she repeated, curiously. "Do tricks?"
"Will they have a bear?"
"A dancing bear."
"Will they make me walk the tightrope?" He thought he discerned a hint of a smile in her voice.
"Most certainly." He sighed, sitting down in the grass. "Not that you could not manage, just look at your antics up there." Looking up, he said, "Veritable monkey, Bess."
"Well, good." She sounded defiant now. From where he was sitting, he could not see her very well. Only the slight ripple to the leaves, and that one white stocking-no longer quite so white. As far as he could see, she had torn it at the heel. "Good," she repeated. "Maybe I could be with someone who cares a twopence for me."
"You know 'tis the truth!" she said hotly. "I could hardly credit my ears-Father must be going daft with age!"
He could not help snorting at this irreverence. This was the quintessential Elizabeth. At thirteen, his beloved younger sister was so straight-backed and sharp, it hurt to look at her. How will she walk in the world, he thought; how will she marry a man such as Darcy...
"Lizzy," he repeated helplessly. "How can you-oh demmit, Bess, I daresay I do not know why he did it..." He sighed, leaning his head back against the tree. "Or rather, I do-Darcy's Pemberley is grand indeed... It is a boon to be a mistress of such an estate."
"Do you know how much I care for your precious Pemberley, Jamie?" Elizabeth asked grimly from amidst the leaves. "Do you know what your friend Darcy can do with it?"
"Elizabeth," he reproached her. "No need to be vulgar, girl. Father wanted the best for you." Making an ass of us all in the process, as parents often do. "Perhaps you could like Darcy sometime?" he suggested feebly. "He is not a bad sort of fellow, likely to make as good a husband as any."
A sound of consummate disgust came from the tree. "Husband!" Elizabeth cried out. "Husband! Whoever told you, Jamie, that I should wish to marry anyone-much less your pompous fool of a friend?"
"Well, then," Jamie said, more amused by the moment. "What were your plans for the rest of your life, Bess?"
"Why, to travel, of course! I wish to see the world, Jamie! I wish to see-everything! Greece, and Turkey, and the Sphinx! And the Orient, too! You are to go, now, soon, and I am to stay here and read Father's travel books and miss you dearly-but one day, one day, Jamie-"
Her voice trailed off, and he thought he heard a sniff or two. She knew, even now, at so young an age, that she would have to marry. Dreaming of travel was all very well, but one could not travel all her life. Marriage was the only available, accepted road for the girl of their class. That, or pathetic, disrespected spinsterhood. Jamie frowned at the thought. He could not imagine his sister spending the rest of her life a spinster, a bluestocking, someone's pathetic lonely cousin. An object of everyone's pity and amusement.
"My darling girl," he said gently. "Perhaps-one day-" He sighed, seeking the words that refused to come. "Take my word for it, Bess, you may one day see marriage in a better light. All-well, most-most women do." He sighed again and ruffled one hand through his hair."
"Well, I am not most," she said stubbornly. "I do not wish-I have no desire to marry... anyone! And especially not your friend Darcy!" She scoffed derisively. "I should rather become a nun!"
Jamie laughed, despite himself. "Darling sister, you cannot become a nun-you are not Catholic!"
"Oh, well, all the same. Surely they would take me? It would be preferable to marrying him."
"What an admirable sentiment." The voice came from behind the tree, making Jamie jump and turn. "Darcy!"
"Indeed." Darcy was standing there in a pose of dejected poet, arms folded defiantly on his chest. "Bennet, I find that your sister and I have a remarkable meeting of the minds. She does not wish to marry me, and I dread the day this little savage of yours enters Pemberley as its mistress."
"Darcy," Jamie said, a warning in his voice against his best intentions. "Take care! I do not like-"
"I care not for what you like or dislike, Bennet," Darcy said coldly. "You should accustom yourself to that."
Jamie shrugged and sat back down on the ground. "I do not like," he repeated evenly, "the tone of your voice. I do not particularly care for the words you are uttering. But I shall write it off on the fact that you were distressed by my father's announcement."
"Yes," Darcy said, grimacing, "no doubt a surprise announcement to you, my friend. I should really give it to you, Bennet-you play admirably well. Had you tried for Count Orsino in Twelfth Night, doubtlessly you would have been chosen!"
"Wait just a moment," Jamie said, jumping back to his feet. "What are you saying? That I knew about my father's-"
"Oh hell, Bennet." Darcy did not often cursed; and it served to apprise Jamie of his friend's great emotional upheaval. "Do stop playing the fool! At any rate," he said, waving his hand at Jamie's outraged expression. "This is not why I am here. I wish to inform you that I am to leave for Dover tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Jamie frowned. "But-"
"I hope to book a passage on a different ship a few days earlier." Darcy's words were clipped, hard, his voice haughty.
"Oh." It dawned on Jamie in all its hurtful clarity that he was being left behind. "I see." Still, he could not help asking: "And what about our plans for this summer?"
A cold silence was his answer, his friend eyeing him haughtily from his substantial height.
"Darcy," he murmured, shaken. "You know, it is no fault of mine-" He was hurt now. He could not credit Darcy would think so ill of him. It all seemed a mere misunderstanding, something that could be cleared up and fixed. One more word, it seemed, merely another word, and Darcy will understand, he could not fail to understand-
"Darcy, I swear to you-I knew nothing-" he started, only to stumble over his friend's gaze, full of ice. "You do not believe me," he said, incredulously.
"I wish to have nothing to do with you or your family, Bennet, until I am forced into this travesty of a marriage," Darcy announced.
"I had no part of this!" Jamie hissed. He was livid now, anger clouding his judgment. "If only for Elizabeth's sake! Do you think I should want her to marry you?"
"Oh!" Darcy laughed outright. "No doubt you would not. It would be such a misalliance for your sister, Bennet! God forbid she should marry up!"
Jamie started and for a second, the two young men stood chest to chest, each eyeing the other meanly, not unlike two fighting cocks.
"I'll thank you to leave this subject alone," Jamie said, coldly. As if obeying, Darcy stepped back, hiding his eyes. Seeing that, Jamie felt his anger evaporate. It had never been his intention to fight with his best friend: if nothing else, he felt for the poor bastard. It was rotten of his father to do what he had done. He said, his tone gentle and meant to assuage and to calm:
"If you wish to talk about this... allow me to take Bess back to the house-"
"No matter, Bennet." Darcy's tone was still biting, and Jamie felt something inside him clench like a fist. "I've nothing to say that my future wife is not fit to hear."
"Your future wife," Jamie murmured, stunned by the venom in his friend's voice.
"As I said, Bennet. I wish to limit my dealings with my future relations, who are by now so repugnant to me, until I absolutely have to. I shall thank you not to talk about this in society. I wish to lead a normal life and have no desire to become a laughingstock."
"Darcy," Jamie said, a warning in his voice. "Take care what you say."
With a shrug and a superior grimace, Darcy ignored him and went on. "No-one needs to know that your father has palmed off his daughter on an unsuspecting fool. Who knows what people might think?"
Like a coil unwinding, Jamie flew to his feet. Grabbing Darcy by the shirt, he swung him around and slammed him against the tree.
"Will you stop talking this rot?" he asked through his teeth. "Do you think I want her to marry you?! Sink your bloody Pemberley, and your wastrel of a father together with it, and sink you most of all, you god-awful bloody idiot! "
Darcy did not take kindly to being touched, nor did he seem to like the substance of what was said. Pushing Jamie away with all his might, he lunged after him in turn. Jamie parried, bloodying Darcy's fist, and landed a heavy punch at his friend's shoulder. Another moment, and the two were swinging furiously at each other, snarling profanities into the bargain. A gentleman passing by might deduce from the accompanying conversation that one of the combatants, a rotten bastard, would be dammed lucky to have her, and that his counterpart, a goddamned lousy liar, hailed from a long line of frauds and swindlers.
Finally, in the heat of the battle, Jamie did become aware of something, someone grasping at him, pulling him back. He glanced, only to see Elizabeth, in stockinged feet upon the grass (clearly she had lost her other slipper somewhere). She had grabbed his tails and was yanking at them with all her insubstantial might.
She might have as well poured a bucket of ice water over his head. He released Darcy's shirt, stumbling back. Something trickled down the side of his face, and he wiped it with a back of his hand.
"I am sorry-Bess-" he murmured. "Dearest Bess!"
She let go of his coattails and stared at him, white-faced and trembling.
"You fools," she said, biting her lips, fighting her hardest to keep from bursting into tears. "You idiot fools, you both. Mr. Darcy," she said to the man in front of her (he was sitting on the grass now, gingerly touching his bruised cheekbone). "I do not wish to marry you, any more than you wish to marry me. I shall never force you-"
"Enough," he snarled, jumping back to his feet. The contusion on his cheekbone had grown an alarmingly purple hue. "I shall take no more of this drivel! If you are your father's daughter, Miss Bennet, you will not fail to grasp at the opportunity to make yourself rich! I take it that deceitful and avaricious natures are passed from parents to children."
Elizabeth shrank back, her valiant attempt at combating tears failing immediately. Thoroughly hurt by so grave and unfair a condemnation, she quickly wiped at the two clear rivulets streaming down her cheeks. Turning her face away and biting her lip, struggling-and failing-to hide her misery from her accuser.
Jamie rose and wrapped one arm around Elizabeth; immediately, she pressed her tear-stained face into his side, her shoulders jerking with the effort to keep quiet.
It is strange how quickly camaraderie crumbles, Jamie thought. He stared at Darcy, so pale and proud and somber, despite even his ruffled appearance and his bruised face, and it was as if he was looking upon a stranger. He had called Darcy cold: but it was merely a reflection of how poor a match he was for Elizabeth. He was cold compared to her; fundamentally, Jamie believed, he was as good a fellow as any. He had not thought-could not imagine-to see such cruelty in him.
"Sh-sh-sh," he whispered to Elizabeth, his fingers soothing on her shoulders and hair. "Sh-sh-sh, Bess. You need not marry him if you've no wish to."
Dark eyes flashed as she pushed away from his side. "I should rather die!" she cried hatefully. "You are the last man in the world I could possibly marry!"
Darcy said nothing to that, but his countenance expressed the deepest contempt. Jamie pulled Elizabeth back against his side.
"I have always thought you arrogant, Darcy, and rather princely at times. But I have never thought you cruel, nor did I think you a fool. 'Tis a cruel awakening to learn that you are both."
Darcy drew himself up, obviously furious at the insult. Holding up one hand, Jamie said, in the softest voice possible.
"Pray hear me out. You are correct, of course-we children take after our parents. But if deceit and avarice are passed from parent to child, then so are wastefulness and imprudence! You lay blame at the wrong door, Darcy."
"How dare you!" Darcy snapped. "Take care what you say, Bennet!"
"No-I have asked you to take care. You did not heed me. Now it is too late." He cradled Elizabeth tighter against himself, his voice never rising above the softest murmur; yet, there was a peculiarly eerie quality to it. "You have insulted me and my family, had behaved abominably towards my sister, who is but a child. You should have spared Elizabeth, if only because you, too, have a sister that someone might hurt one day. Sadly for us both, there seems to be only one way to teach you the proper address for your grievances." He raised his eyebrows, knowing that his meaning would not be misunderstood where it mattered.
It was not.
Darcy nodded, eyes narrowed. "Most certainly. I will expect to hear from you on that, Bennet."
"Soon as may be."
He turned sharply and walked across the green in large strides. Jamie watched him, absent-mindedly, his fingers still moving, instinctively, through his sister's hair. Finally, he patted her awkwardly on the shoulder.
"Come, Bess. Father worries about you. Come on home, darling. Find your shoes, Bess. Come on."
Clasping his sister's hand in his, Jamie Bennet strode across the green. Elizabeth's feet skidded on the grass, and she made little protesting sounds, well-nigh forced to run after her brother. Stomping furiously towards their father's apartments, Jamie seemed to pay her no mind. Finally, she caught his attention by yanking her hand out of his grip. He stopped and turned on one spot, glaring at her.
"What is the meaning of this, Bess?"
"Did you call him out there, under that tree?" she asked abruptly. He seemed lost, if only for a moment. He had not thought she would guess. But she eyed him meanly, arms crossed on her chest. "Do not think me stupid, Jamie!"
"I do not-" he began, and stopped, for it was precisely what he had thought: that she would not understand when their rowdy exchange had drifted into deadly civility. Her perception caught him off-guard. "Very well," he said stiffly and hurried to add: "But you are not to tell Father!"
"You are a fool!" Elizabeth said, a bitter grimace twisting her features. "Mr. Darcy will kill you!"
Jamie hastened to reassure his sister. "Have no fear, Bess," he said. "Maybe I shall kill him." He essayed an encouraging smile, only to have it shatter against the wall of stone in his sister's eyes.
"You do not amuse me, Jamie," she said grimly. "You know Mr. Darcy is an incomparable shot."
Jamie had to admit that there was a grain of truth to her words. Darcy, indeed, excelled at shooting; but then again, this was only a sign of his overall excellence, for he rarely did anything halfway. Jamie shivered a little inside, images of his own death intruding, for the first time, into his thoughts. But it was not in his nature to be afraid for himself; and so he sought to drive the dark thoughts away by comforting another.
"Lizzy, my heart," he said, kneeling next to her on the grass, putting his hands upon her shoulders. "You know I should never let him kill me. I should never leave you all alone."
He spoke with conviction, but she remained dubious.
"And what if you should kill him, indeed?" she asked resentfully. "What then? You should be jailed, banished!"
"But you would be free of him," Jamie said quietly.
"Freedom dearly bought!" she snapped. Suddenly, there seemed nothing more to say. For years, she would not admit to this; but already now, Elizabeth knew that Jamie's readiness to fight his best friend stemmed, in some measure, from his desire to bring to resolution this impossible deadlock.
"He is your best friend," she whispered incredulously. "You two have been thick as thieves ever since your first year-"
Elizabeth's words affected Jamie more than he could say. Unexpectedly, he felt lost, dreading what was to come, mourning the passing of a great friendship. Awash with grief and guilt. He took a deep breath, willed the tears to disappear.
"Perhaps he is," he said. "But I do not recognize a friend I have loved. I did not call out Darcy my friend, Bess. And if I did, if that man was my friend, then my friendship was wasted on him. If that man-that blackguard today was, indeed, my friend Will Darcy-then I have been blind these three years." He paused, biting his lip, clasping her hand in his. Having, in some small measure, taken control of himself, he said, "Be it as it may, Bess. I cannot let him abuse you. He must be taught a lesson." He looked, searching, in her eyes. "Do you understand, my love?"
Moved beyond words, the girl threw herself at her brother and wept. Quickly, Jamie picked her up, rising, and carried her towards their father's apartments, thankful that she could not see the tears that had welled up in his own eyes.
At their very doorstep, sensing the joyful commotion inside-for surely they had been spotted by Hill, or a maid, as he had carried her across the lawn--he held her aside and looked intently in her tear-stained face.
"Promise me," he said. "Promise me you will not tell Father."
She hesitated, dark lashes in clumps from weeping, lips trembling.
"Why should I?" she asked him, spitefully.
"Because you have never betrayed me," was his reply. She kept silent for a moment longer, and then she said, vehemently:
"Very well, but if you go and get yourself killed, I shall never talk to you again!"
Professor Bennet evidenced no emotion upon seeing his daughter safely returned to him. He said not a word to Elizabeth, which suited her perfectly, for she had no wish to speak with him herself. Therefore, the two parted their ways, Elizabeth ushered to her rooms and into a bath by a disapproving Hill, and the Professor returning to the correspondence that had been interrupted by Jamie and Elizabeth's return.
Jamie, on his part, remained certain that Elizabeth would not betray his secret. The last thing he needed was his father attempting to interpose himself between him and Darcy on the field of honor. Duels were not uncommon, certainly, and yet Jamie had no doubts that the Professor would be livid, had he found out. Most certainly he would attempt to prevent it, using all his leverage at Trinity.
But, for all her threats of exposure yesterday morning, Elizabeth had never informed their father of any mischief Jamie might have wrought. She had been witness to a considerable amount of it. Indeed, she could have made his life hell if she so wished. Yet, Jamie knew, his sister was a veritable safe when it came to keeping other people's secrets-an invaluable quality in one's sibling when one is bent on mischief. He trusted her like he trusted no-one else, not even Darcy. Perhaps an older woman might question the misplaced loyalty of silence at such a moment. But at the age of thirteen, Elizabeth would be absolute in her devotion to him.
He retired to his apartments, outside the walls of Trinity, reaching his door just as the sun rolled leisurely behind the horizon. It drowned the street in gold and porphyry, and for a moment, Jamie stood outside his door, greedily drinking the beauty of the sunset. Though not given to sentimental musings, he could not help wondering whether it was to be his last. He hoped not; he had never wanted to live quite so much as he did tonight. Once again, he willed the dark thoughts away. Sighing, he shook off his reverie, and went inside, wondering, with no small measure of apprehension, whether Darcy would be there. They were, after all, roommates as well as best friends.
He walked up the stairs, and fumbled with the key. It became apparent to him, straight upon entering, that Darcy had come and gone already-for some of his things were missing, most prominently-his rapier, which usually hung upon the wall. Jamie could bet his life that a black velvet box with Darcy's Manton dueling pistols (which he had never truly used) was gone as well. He knew that as the affronted party, he would have the choice of the weapons. He meditated a bit about the protracted bloodletting of the swords, as opposed to the clean, quick, efficient violence of the bullet. The choice was his. He could also choose the place and time of the duel. Yet he could not think of it, not now. The thought that he was about to meet his best friend across a dueling field was all of a sudden, all too real. Come tomorrow, he would shoot at Darcy, whom he loved like a brother, would kill him or be killed himself. Jamie shivered, the loneliness of his room excruciating, the waiting intolerable.
No more games now, he thought. He was not afraid, merely overwhelmed and deeply pained. Perhaps he could leave all the small decisions to his second, he thought, for he did not wish-could not bear-to dwell on them right now. He rose and paced around the room. Yes, he thought, a second. He needed a second. Someone to deliver his choice of the weapon, and the place of the assignation to Darcy.
He wondered whom he could ask to be his second. The first one to come to mind was, naturally, Darcy himself. Jamie laughed aloud at his folly. What an idiot he had been, what a wretched, miserable fool. His friend-his best friend-despised him, thinking him the lowest of the low. His father's perfidy had thrown a dark shadow upon him, and perhaps, Jamie could see the wrong Professor Bennet had done. But such was Jamie's nature that he did not apologize for those he loved. He would not grovel before Darcy, begging his forgiveness; would do nothing to prove his innocence where he had done nothing to make Darcy doubt it. After all, his friend already believed him complicit, guilty. It rankled Jamie more than he could say; but at the end, he could do nothing, would do nothing to change his friend's opinion of him. If it pleased Darcy to think him disloyal... well, then, so be it.
Thereupon, with a heavy heart, he sat down in front of his writing desk and penned a letter to young Lord Alex Gregory, a mutual friend of his and Darcy's, asking him to be his second. "Perhaps you might consider relaying these particulars to Mr. Darcy on my behalf," he wrote, already envisioning the amazement on the part of the recipient. But then again, he thought, it is always the closest friends who hate the fiercest. When he finished, the darkness had fallen behind the window. He posted the letter with a servant and settled into a gloomy silence, waiting for the answer. The only candle in the room soon sputtered and died, but he did not rise to light a new one. Darkness, inside and outside, suited him quite well.
Darcy had, indeed, visited at home; but he could not remain there, for he had no desire to run into Bennet. Nor did he wish to see his father, or the Professor; he did not return to Mr. Darcy's lodgings. As he had quit his own apartments, he was, at first, lost. Still, he rallied soon enough: there was but one place for him to go now, and thither he directed his weary steps.
It occurred to him, as he knocked at the door, that he might be intruding. In all likelihood, his friend Charles Bingley had family visiting as well. But he knew, all too well, that in matters of exigency, such considerations were moot. Hopefully, he would be forgiven. Still, he was relieved to see that he did not infringe upon a scene of family reunion (at least partly, for fear of meeting Bingley's simpering sisters, who were, he could swear, two of the most repellent adolescent females he had ever come across). Bingley's valet saw him in, casting a wary eye on the rapier sticking out from under Darcy's cloak.
"Please take a seat-" The valet began, but a voice carried down the hall:
"Is this Darcy? Just have him come in, Mannering!"
Darcy swept past the troubled-looking valet (who had tended to his Master since he was a boy of five and saw this nighttime appearance of a mysterious, cloaked and daggered Darcy, as a most worrying event. God knows to what misfortune it could lead), and was, a mere minute later, admitted to his friend's private chambers.
The owner of which, easily dressed and in stockinged feet, stopped his pacing across the rug. As the door opened, Bingley turned towards it and cried, rather impetuously:
"Jolly good, my friend, jolly good to see you here!" Charles Bingley was the same age as Darcy and Bennet, but at heart, a much greater child than either of them. Both friends had genuinely liked the fellow, despite the fact that they had failed, repeatedly, to corrupt him. Now he strode towards Darcy, holding out a piece of paper, covered with multiple lines of writing, not a single one of them completed. Some of the lines were crossed out, half-sentence, furiously scribbled out, as if the writer had felt overwhelming disgust with himself and his insipid verse. "Perhaps I could tap your incomparable eloquence and wit, Darce..."
"What is this?" Darcy took the piece of paper. He was still holding the box with the Mantons under his cloak, the pistols a solid, lethal weight, every ounce of it commanding absolute respect. Words tumbled down the page, in Bingley's schoolboy hand: "Miss Forster..." "...dear madam," "heart" and "dare hope." It was a love letter. "A billet-doux, Bingley?" A sardonic smile curved his mouth. "You are becoming a regular cicisbeo, I see."
Bingley blanched and quickly yanked the letter out of Darcy's hand.
"What on Lord's earth is the matter with you, Darcy," he muttered, scowling. "I find myself unable to put my heart on paper in words eloquent enough to show my-my-" He waved his hand, a hopeless gesture. "I wanted your help."
Seeing the emotion in Bingley's face, Darcy felt a quick stab of shame. He checked himself. Why had he spoken so callously? 'Twas most unlike him...but the imminent duel with Bennet weighed heavily on him, as did the ghastly news he had learned this day. It seemed ironic that Bingley should want his help with composing a love letter. Darcy could not imagine wanting to write a billet-doux, ever again.
"Forgive me," he said simply. "I am not myself today." Bingley's face softened a little. He thought to offer to proofread the letter, but that would be lying. He had come here on business, after all. He could not prance about, checking Bingley's love letters, full of clichés and misspellings. He opened his cloak and held out the Mantons.
Bingley's jaw dropped.
"Who?" he asked. "Who are you fighting?"
The challenge came in the morning. A very proper Lord Gregory appeared, bringing with him a letter from Bennet. How he knew where Darcy was staying, God only knew. All parties behaved with admirable politeness, concluding the matter within minutes. They would meet that same day, at six o'clock in the evening. Bingley had suggested waiting until the morning, but Darcy thought it inadvisable: he would not risk his father and the old Bennet finding out. If they had found out, surely they would act to prevent the duel.
Dead he would be, a laughingstock-never.
Of course, it remained to be seen who would die tonight. He was a better shot than Bennet, by far, could take a sparrow right out of the sky. He would manage, somehow, would force himself to see the man before him as just another bull's eye target-not as his friend, his companion of challenging days and wild nights. The thought of killing Bennet chilled him to the bones; but the thought of apologizing made him ill to the depths of his heart. He had done nothing wrong. If he was angry, it was justifiable. It was righteous anger, at the ill joke this whole-goddamn-family had played upon him. If he had spoken out of turn to Elizabeth, the little brat deserved worse. Impertinent little chit!
He would offer Bennet no apology. He could not believe that Bennet knew nothing of his father's insidious plans. Bennet knew everything, always. He was as shrewd and curious as a hawk flying high above. Nothing escaped his notice, or at the very least, his inquiry. Something deep inside him whispered that surely, Professor Bennet would guard such a secret most watchfully, and perhaps not even his clever son would know... After all, the voice said, unbidden, you knew nothing of your father's secrets... he swept those thoughts aside.
Perhaps, if Bennet offered his apologies first (for what? The voice murmured inside, he knew nothing!), perhaps then... but Darcy could not imagine that happening. Not after the way he had spoken to Bess.
So shall it be, he thought darkly. Bingley would be his second. The young man seemed a little shocked at the importance of such an office and spent that day reading, carefully, the Code Duello, murmuring to himself, "the seconds shall... the seconds shall..." He had never been anyone's second before. He would be meticulous, would insist on every single detail, every single propriety.
Darcy, leaving him to it, went to spend the day with Georgiana. He had no other attachments left. He had no wish to speak to his father. Certainly not to Professor Bennet. His classmates no longer mattered; he wished for no lady's company, intimate or friendly.
He found her with her nurse, walking the grounds, looking morose. Her parasol had a regrettable propensity to fall behind and drag on the grass. The nurse would stop and right it, and a moment later, it would tip backwards again. The girl made no effort whatsoever to keep it upright; by the time Darcy found them, the white lace edge of the parasol had acquired a grimy green hue.
Then, at the sight of him, she threw the thing behind her on the grass and ran towards him, tripping on her long skirts. Darcy took a step forward, stooped and gathered her quickly in his arms. It healed him, a little, to hear her exuberant laughter, and it also made his eyes sting with only a hint of tears. How unwilling he was to leave her!
Without asking permission, he took Georgiana away from the nurse. She dared not protest, though she looked mutinous. The brother and sister walked across the green, back towards the town. Darcy did a cartwheel for Georgiana's amusement, and she laughed and clapped her hands. He put his sister on his shoulders and walked like that, listening to her laugh. He was just tall enough, and she just small enough a child, to effect such a feet. Passerbys in the streets looked back at them, some smiling, some scowling in disapproval. At the confectionary, two pairs of eyes stared at the sweets laid out on the counter covetously.
"Nurse does not like me eating sweets in the middle of the day," Georgiana said bravely, testing her brother's goodwill more than anything.
"Nurse need not know everything," Darcy said, before buying an assortment of confections, nougats and sugared fruit. After that, they stood in a crowd, and he held her on his shoulders again, the better to enjoy a puppet show that went on in the square. On the draped stage above, two knights, one dark and one fair, fought to the death with wooden swords. Fought, as far as Darcy could see, for the privilege of courting a pretty painted princess, who fainted conveniently for most of the fight, but came alive as the villain received the obligatory coup-de-grace. Above, Georgiana laughed in delight. He held her tighter, hoping, fiercely, that this was not the last blithe afternoon he would spend with her. Finally, his arms and shoulders tired, he maneuvered his way out of the crowd and gently, slowly, let her down.
"Are you pleased, little one?" he asked her. She nodded, eagerly, quickly claiming his hand as they walked back towards Trinity. For the remainder of their walk, skipping next to him, she waxed poetic about how beautiful the princess was, and how brave her champion. Darcy managed to stay in the moment, the sun-spattered, beautiful, truly happy afternoon. Here was a being who loved him, would love him always, no matter what. He had not a shred of a doubt that Georgiana's heart would always be his, regardless of whether he remained in possession of Pemberley.
On the lawn, under a shady oak, they sat down and ate the forbidden sweets.
"Promise you'll not tell your nurse," he said. "For she will tell Reynolds, and she will skin me alive."
Georgiana threw an awed look at him; it had not occurred to her that you could hide things from the grown-ups. But the appeal of sharing a secret with her brother was far too great. She promised, fervently, that she would not tell.
"Will," she said. He looked down at her: she was nestling comfortably against his shoulder, looking sleepily up at him. His heart squeezed painfully at the sight of her.
"What is it, little one?" He gently moved a long golden tress out of her face.
"Today was the most wonderful day ever." Such conviction rang in her voice that Darcy knew: she was telling the absolute truth. He wondered how lonely she had been, alone at Pemberley.
"And for me," he said, seriously. He would talk to his father about finding her a better nurse; perhaps, about moving her to where he would be. He wanted to tell her about that, but felt her slump against him. She was fast asleep, leaning her forehead against his forearm.
He wrapped the remaining sugared plums and peach slices in a pristine handkerchief, and put it in his pocket. As he rose, Georgiana slipped onto the grass; quickly, he leaned to pick her up in his arms, and she did not wake, only sighed and murmured something angry in her sleep.
The sun was rolling towards the horizon as he took Georgiana to Professor Bennet's apartments. He was lucky to miss both the Professor and his father; instead, eyes narrowed, Georgiana's nurse stared at him furiously from a rocking chair in the corner of the girl's room, her disapproval at such liberties with a child's schedule palpable (She would dare say nothing to him, but she could glare). At the sight of them, she hurried to take Georgiana out of his arms, but he walked straight past her. He laid the sleeping child upon the bed, then stood for a moment, watching her. Her hair, matted gold draped across the pillow, shining majestically in the rays of a setting sun. The nurse knelt by the bed, taking off her shoes, and soon enough, Darcy was forced to quit the room.
He well-nigh run back to Charles Bingley's apartments.
Bingley was already dressed and waiting for him, pacing furiously up and down the room. The box with the Manton pistols stood open on the dining table, the metal gleaming menacingly in the light of the first candle lit tonight. It looked like Bingley had checked and rechecked the pistols more than once.
"Do not distress yourself so, my friend," Darcy said. "I shall not spoil your first duel by being unfashionably late."
Bingley said nothing to that, only threw him a glance which served to show Darcy that another word, and he would have the shy Bingley vying with Bennet for the right to put a bullet in his head. Darcy smiled darkly and squeezed his friend's shoulder.
The place for their meeting had been arranged by Bingley and Lord Alex Gregory. It seemed Jamie Bennet had impressed upon his second the need for absolute secrecy of the whole enterprise. The spot chosen, therefore, was a mere clearing in the woods, wide enough for two men to stand twenty paces away from each other. Not even Darcy himself had known where they were going. It was also agreed that Lord Gregory would bring with him a physician. Bring a clergyman, too, Darcy thought darkly.
"Shall I offer him an apology?" Bingley asked. They had taken his carriage, and it was not a new carriage, and not the most comfortable one. On the unpaved country road, it was positively a menace. Jumping up and down on the hard seat, Darcy felt as if all his bones had somehow disengaged and now flew about inside his body, every which way.
An apology. One did not offer an apology first, if one did not offend first. He had not offended first. Whatever harsh words he had said, whatever unkindness he had committed towards Elizabeth, it had come after the evil that was done to him. Bennet had lied to him, he must apologize first. That whole family had used him exceedingly ill.
"No apology, Bingley," Darcy said coldly.
Bingley sighed torturously. As the fateful moment neared, the considerable honor of being asked to second a duel had started to wane upon him. Now, it seemed that he would rather prevent a duel than second one. A kind heart, he could not bear to stand by and let carnage happen between his two friends.
"Will you at least accept his?"
"Yes," Darcy said. "If he offers it." He knew his adversary very well, better than Bingley did. Indubitably, Jamie Bennet was the most stubborn man walking this earth. No apology would be forthcoming. He sat back, hoping to God he would not get ill in this awful bone-shaking carriage. It would not do to embarrass himself. It would not do.
Much like the rest of his life, death-his own or his best friend's-had better be dignified.
Elizabeth Bennet had spent the afternoon pacing her room. They had locked her in here a day ago. She had barely slept last night, turning and twisting fitfully, her dreams full of monsters and loss. Then, having risen, she expected that orders to release her would come; but they did not, and so she paced, and paced, and paced. She had picked on her breakfast for a while, then set it aside, barely touched. Up and down and across she went, her mind in upheaval, her heart in confusion. She had prided herself on being a good and honest friend, trustworthy and loyal. She had never told on Jamie in all his exploits. At Longbourn one summer, she had stood by and watched as he let the pigs out of the pen, the biggest boar decorated with a purple plume and ribbons. She had heard him telling Darcy last year that he planned to "borrow" a full-size skeleton from the office of H.G. Herbert, the professor of physic, for the express purpose of dressing it up in robes and sitting it down in class, in place of his friend Thomas Smiles (out ill that day). She had seen him break a thousand rules, all in plain view of her, as if daring her to tell. She looked on, disapproving; but running to their father, so that she might report his insupportable behavior-that was far beneath her.
Besides, she had given him her word. Women, she heard, were called fickle. Elizabeth, for her part, did not see how and why women were more fickle than men. She refused to prove it true, and had never broken her word, given to anybody. Much less so, her word given to Jamie.
Hill, charged with watching her, lest she should escape again, had grown weary with her incessant striding up and down and across the room.
"Will you do something useful, Miss?" she snapped, finally. "Read a Psalm or two? Finish that screen you were covering the other day?"
Elizabeth marched up to the door and flung it open. Hill started from her chair, but Elizabeth stood in place, pointing:
Hill's countenance expressed utter bewilderment. Planting her hands on her hips, Hill regarded the girl indignantly from above.
"Oh, very well, you ungrateful thing!" she cried, finally. "If you think I have nothing better to do than to sit here watching you!"
Thereupon, she quitted the room, very vexed. Elizabeth, turning away, heard the door slam, and then the key turn, locking her in. Coming up to the window, she looked down three stories, down to the flat stones of the courtyard. This was stupid of you, she thought. Now she is gone, and you will not get anyone to come here, not unless you scream and scratch the door until there is blood under your nails. She turned and paced some more. Hill had been correct: it was most unlike her to spend her hours so idly. Usually, she would read or trace her imaginary future voyages upon a large old atlas. But now, she could not sit still. Deep unease plagued her, keeping her attention on the duel that was to happen-when? Indeed, if she were to tell their father, what exactly would she tell him? She knew neither the place, nor the time of her brother's deadly rendezvous with Darcy. She swept the thought aside. She had given Jamie her word.
But as the hours passed, it began to dawn on her that it was not merely a childhood prank she was covering up. Jamie could get killed. Killed. The word echoed in her mind, hollow. For some time, she treated it like so: a mere compendium of letters, without meaning. Then, no longer able to evade the terrible truth, she forced herself to understand and accept what was too terrible by far. If Jamie were to die (Jamie! To die! Her heart squeezed painfully, in deep agony at the thought), she would remain all alone in the world...
Elizabeth shuddered and took a step towards the door. No. You are not a snitch. She returned to her bed, climbed atop it, kicking her shoes off, reached for her atlas. Sitting cross-legged like a Turk, she stared, dumbly, at the map of the Atlantic. Often, she would see a ship, going ahead full force, sails full of wind, and herself at top deck, with a long glass, watching the horizon. But today, no such fantasy came to her. Instead, other images came, unbidden-gray mists rising slowly from the grass, and her brother, falling slowly onto the ground, a bullet in his heart. She shook her head, willing the ghastly picture away. It left her with another: she and her father, alone and orphaned after Jamie's death. What would happen to them, how would they live?
Who would protect her from Darcy? Would she have to marry him if he killed Jamie? She pictured, in the dreariest colors, having to live with that man, with nobody to protect her.
It was that thought, the selfish fear for her own future, that tipped the scale. Snapping the atlas shut, she flew off the bed in her stockings. Running up to the door, she banged on it with all her might. Stopping for a second, she dashed back to her bed, to yank on a long cord. Back at the door, she stood and listened, the silence of the long, dark hallway beyond insufferable. Elizabeth bit her lip and leaned her head against the thick oak. It was a mistake to order Hill out; now, mortally offended, the woman would take her sweet time before coming to rescue her.
After a good twenty minutes of running between the door and the bed-after the skin on her hands was scraped raw-there was a quick shuffle of steps in the hallway, and Hill's nasal voice muttering something about how spoiled and ungrateful children were nowadays.
"I must speak with Father!" she cried as the door opened. Then, anticipating a fierce resistance, added, "Please!"
"And what will you tell the Master?" Hill inquired, arms crossed on her chest.
"Something important," Elizabeth murmured. She felt tears come, unbidden, and blinked them back stubbornly. "Please, Hill." The servant hesitated, and Elizabeth added pleadingly. "Listen, I am every so sorry for being rude to you."
Pursing her lips, Hill said: "You will not sweeten me up, Miss, if that is what you think to do!"
"Please," Elizabeth repeated. "It is important! Have I ever lied to you, Hill?"
The servant hesitated. "You likely have," she said. "Just that I've yet to catch you!"
But she did hold out her hand. "Don't you think of running off, Miss," she warned.
"I shall not," Elizabeth promised, fervently, as Hill clasped her hand and well-nigh dragged her down the hall.
At a quarter to six, Bingley's carriage stopped in a wood, on the road just to the side of a small clearing.
"Well, we are here," Bingley said weightily. "Darcy-" he started, laying a hand upon his friend's sleeve.
A dark, pointed stare from Darcy stopped him in his tracks. Bingley shrank back fearfully, quickly removing his hand.
"We must go."
Bennet was already there, standing in the middle with his hands on his hips, studying the grass under his feet with entirely too much concentration. He turned at the sound of the carriage arriving. He was dressed in all black and cleanly shaven, his unruly hair, too long, pulled back and away from his face. Which served, Darcy thought, to make Bennet look weary and almost... almost old, his high cheekbones in sharp relief under pale skin, his light eyes no longer laughing, grave.
The two young men alighted from the steps with all the impatience of eager suitors. The thought occurred to Darcy that perhaps they were suitors, courting Death itself. He dismissed the thought as ridiculous, for he had no flair for romantic exaggeration. There was nothing romantic about this meeting, nothing romantic about the sentiment that drove him: hurt pride and bitter anger. Like a Spartan's fox cub, his fury curled at the pit of his stomach, gnawing on his insides, not letting up, slowly eating its way to his heart.
There were five of them in the clearing. The duelists, their seconds and a young surgeon-the closest thing to a physician that Gregory was able to procure on such a short notice, and with requirements of absolute secrecy in place. The surgeon could not be older than one-and-twenty himself. Darcy regarded the man dubiously-his slightly ruffled appearance, his mended shoes, and particularly, his hands-which were, at the moment, shaking. Catching his gaze, the surgeon-Mr. Perry, it turned out-colored furiously and quickly thrust both hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking. Darcy opened his mouth, to remind Gregory that he had promised to bring a physician, but then decided not to. It did not signify, after all.
"Mr. Perry, will your ready yourself?" Gregory spoke flatly, addressing himself to the surgeon, who nodded fervently and scurried over to the side, tugging a heavy trunk after him. Nobody paid him any mind. "Very well, then," Gregory said, turning back to the company. "Mr. Bingley and I are both of the opinion that this matter-whatever it is-may be resolved by the offering of a-eeeeeh-verbal apology."
Somewhere at the beginning of it all, there stood, making any reconciliation impossible, Elizabeth. Darcy knew, from the look in Bennet's eyes, that his best friend would never forgive the insult dealt to his sister, the harsh words he had said to her. He had implied deceitfulness on her part, had all but said that she was complicit in her father's treachery. Darcy knew just how damning such an accusation was. He thought, calmly, that he would gladly kill anyone who laid such charges at Georgiana's door.
And then, he thought, he did not feel much like apologizing. After all, the first injury was done to him. Every time he thought about the origins of this fight, he felt bile rising, shame and fury, his hopes and dreams-ashes in his mouth. Perhaps, if Bennet begged his forgiveness, for what his father had done, perhaps if he declared himself at fault-for covering for his father, for associating with him, for being his son. Because this was not done to him, because his father had not bartered him for a purebred horse. Darcy shook his head, mutely. No, he thought, no apology would do. The anger inside him demanded that violence be done.
Bennet said quietly, gravely: "It is an undisputed rule, gentlemen, that first offense requires the first apology. I am not at fault before Mr. Darcy. I've nothing for which to apologize."
The rest remained unsaid: it was now up to Darcy to bow down and express his regrets. The latter decided the matter with a curt shake of his head.
"Let Mr. Bennet proceed as he chooses."
Bennet said, through gritted teeth: "Get on with it, then!"
Alex Gregory sighed unhappily. "Very well, then. Mr. Bingley, arms." Thereupon each second took a pistol from Darcy's box and commenced loading. They did it in each other's immediate presence, crouching on the grass; but neither looking in upon the other. They were both gentlemen, and honorable, though young. They were also both grieved, terribly, at the thought of what was about to transpire.
While the two unwilling seconds fumbled with the pistols, the two young duelists stood a few paces away from each. Bennet turned away sharply on one heel, walking away to the edge of the clearing. There, he stood, one hand on a tree trunk, looking down. Darcy stole a surreptitious glance at his friend before turning away. For they had been friends, though one was as wayward as the other straight. They had been equals and companions, had spent most of their free time at Trinity in each other's company, had helped each other in moments of need. What had happened, Darcy wondered, that they should be driven to this? He wondered at the briefly, before stopping himself forcefully. It would not do to dwell on that. Their friendship was gone, dead and gone, regardless of whether this duel occurred or not. The images of their friendship, of comfort and warmth and laughter, flashed once through his mind and disappeared, lost in anger and confusion.
Darcy looked: Bingley stood next to him, holding the pistol, presumably now loaded and ready to kill, out to him. He took it with his left hand, as the rules demanded, thanking his friend with a small bow. Bingley's face twisted, a little, as if he was about to cry. He spun away sharply and stalked away, just as Alex Gregory joined him on the edge of the clearing.
Darcy moved the pistol to his right hand and stood, with the muzzle pointing down.
"Gentlemen, twenty paces!" shouted Lord Gregory from the edge. He sounded furious. Bingley had long abandoned saying anything, staring sullenly at his feet. Darcy felt a hint of amusement: Charles Bingley was a genuinely wonderful fellow, but he made a poor second. I should remember it if ever I chance to fight again.
They came together in the middle, avoiding each other's eyes, pistols in hand, only to turn about immediately and walk, briskly, ten paces each away from each other. The pistol was heavy in Darcy's hand, which had grown cold and damp around it. The clearing ended a step, away, abruptly, in a small ravine. This is where I shall fall, he thought, before banishing such maudlin sentiments in utter horror.
"Are you ready?" called Lord Gregory from the edge.
No answer from either side. A fat green caterpillar hung in the air, the thin filament of a cobweb supporting it almost invisible. Darcy moved his hand in the air, cutting it off, and watched it descend, slowly, upon the ground. It vanished, immediately, blending with the lush grass under his feet.
Spinning around, Darcy quickly cocked the pistol, his finger slipping, awkwardly, on the cold metal. For a second, he caught sight of Bennet's white face, his eyes, as he raised his own weapon, and then, his finger clenching on the trigger as if by instinct, he shot first.
The shot rang out furiously, tearing the quiet apart, and then, like an echo, another. There was much smoke. It was done. He had expected to feel some satisfaction in the aftermath, but only a curious emptiness remained. Spilling blood had done nothing to assuage his anger.
"Darcy!" He looked up, only to see Bennet, looking shaken, still holding his pistol in one hand. "Good Lord, Darcy!" I have missed. The thought gave him neither joy, nor disappointment, only that curious emptiness again, as if nothing mattered anymore and never would. Behind Bennet, he could see both seconds, looking at him, looking at him- What has transpired, why are they all looking at me like that?
He was feeling faintness so strong that when he attempted to take a step forward, it well-nigh felled him. He grabbed onto the nearest tree, shaking a little. What was happening to him? He felt strange warmth in his left arm, felt it growing until it burned; frowning, he turned his head to look.
The sleeve was torn raggedly just below the shoulder. Gingerly, he touched the tear and saw his own blood stain his fingers.
I've been shot.
Pain exploded, the worst he had ever felt, making him weak in the knees, and faint, and ill to his stomach. The pistol slid out, heavy, from his hand, landing on the grass. The clearing, the slowly dimming sky, his friends' grim faces-all of it began to spin around him, very quickly, so that he was forced to close his eyes and lean heavily, against the tree.
His friends' voices sounded dimmer, more remote. Darcy felt their hands upon him, gently forcing him onto the grass, and then Bennet's angry voice, do something, do something, for goodness' sake! And Gregory's soft whisperings, that he could not quite make out, but that were, he knew, meant to keep Bennet away from him. We must take him-was the last thing he heard.
Elizabeth Bennet sat on the bed, looking down at her gloved hands, folded in her lap, at her feet in sturdy walking boots. Her feet did not reach the soft blue rug on the floor. She felt uncomfortable, wondering whether she had tracked mud into this impeccable, lovely room. A quick inspection of her soles revealed none. It was all clean, crisp snow outside, fallen for the first time three days before Christmas. It must have melted straight away as she entered the house. Not so when she had left Hertfordshire: it had rained then, poured viciously and relentlessly, cold lashing rain as she stood by her father's grave. She choked on the memory, on the pain it brought with it. It has only been four days, and already, she felt a world away from it.
A world away, and all too near. She could not think of her father without a stab of pain in her heart. She could not stop thinking of him.
This year, nothing had portended disaster. All of that autumn, Elizabeth awaited, eagerly, a letter from Jamie. When it came, telling them-oh joy!-that he would come to England by summer, she jumped for hours, reading it to all the domestics. She had not seen him for three years, not since the day she had run, breathless and weeping, after the carriage that was taking him away. They had not talked for two days following the duel, for she was furious with him. Not so much for wounding Darcy-who, she had thought then, squarely deserved it, and worse-but for making it so that he would have to go away to the other end of the world. They had told her that a lieutenant's commission in the Army was an enviable situation, even if it were thousands of miles away. But all she knew was that he was leaving her. She had reconciled herself to the thought that he was going to the Continent, and that after that, he would be back. But India! He might as well have been going to the Moon.
So, when he came to say good-bye to her that morning, she would not speak with him. She turned her face, morosely, to the wall. He stood by her bed, quietly, and then he said:
"Good-bye, Bess"-and was gone.
She heard him thunder down the stairs. She forced herself to remain on her bed for as long as she could, telling herself that he was selfish, selfish, selfish, that he was leaving her alone, that he did not love her. Then, all resolve abandoning her, she flew off it, stuck her feet in her slippers, and rushed out of her room. Outside, her father was standing on the steps, watching the carriage take Jamie away. She pushed past him, past Hill, who was crying softly, and ran, weeping, after the carriage.
She thought that she would never catch up with it, but then it stopped, in the middle of the lane. Jamie alighted and ran towards her, his boots crunching the gravel beneath. He swept her up in his arms, and she clung to him, fiercely, hid her wet face on his shoulder. He cradled her like a little girl.
"I shall be back, Lizzy," he whispered. "I am not leaving you. I shall be back." And then he added. "Do not marry him in my absence."
He left her, then, standing there in the middle of the lane, and walked back to the carriage, to be taken away. She stood there, feeling her tears dry on her face, gluing her eyelashes together, watching the carriage as it rolled away from her. Then, it rounded a corner and was gone.
In the wake of his son's duel, the Professor lost his position at Cambridge. The scandal associated with the duel was great. In the aftermath, most of the information about it came out. Everyone knew the duellists' names, the seconds' identities, and that of the incompetent physician who had almost cost Fitzwilliam Darcy his arm. The only thing no-one seemed to know was the reason for the duel. Everyone's guess was a lady's favor.
After Jamie's departure for India, both seconds, too, took themselves from Cambridge with all the possible speed. Darcy was the only one remaining, as he was very ill and delirious and could not be moved; but as the news spread that he had well-nigh lost his arm (some say, well-nigh died), the authorities found that he had already paid his due. That he should escape prosecution, while Jamie was forced to seek his fortune on the other side of the world! Elizabeth chafed at the thought of it.
The Professor's dismissal was not official; but, two days after the duel, the Master of Trinity appeared, personally, in Thomas Bennet's study. Their conversation took place behind closed doors; but as the Master quitted her father's office, Elizabeth, watching from the stair landing above, knew-they would have to leave. She then regretted, bitterly, her earlier insistence on keeping Jamie's secret (she had appeared, already winded and crying, in her father's office, and blurted that Jamie was going to shoot Darcy! and saw her father's face crumple helplessly. Where, he asked her, do you know where? She did not, and neither did anyone else. There was nothing left to them but the intolerable waiting, a painful pause in all activity that seemed to last a lifetime. She remembered, vividly, how her father sat on a sofa, hands folded limply in his lap, how Mr. Darcy paced and paced, until she could not stand it anymore, and ran out-only to see, coming up the stairs, her brother, ashen-faced, but alive.). Had she told Professor Bennet earlier... they would not have to quit Trinity, and Jamie would not have to go to India. She could not quite regret the fact that the duel had almost left Fitzwilliam Darcy an invalid, but it would have been better if that had not happened.
So they returned to a Longbourn, with apologies to the present tenants, whom they uprooted so unexpectedly. It was strange: here was the place she was supposed to call home, but she barely knew it. Having grown up at London, and then-at Cambridge, Elizabeth had never really been back at Longbourn, and found it, at first, small and boring. In the face of stout modern architecture, she found she missed the graceful soaring spires and turrets of the Trinity Chapel. She missed the Great Gate and the river, the tree-shaded alleys and the ornate, delicate fountain in the courtyard.
Still, soon enough, she forgot them all. A child's heart is not so much attached to geography, and Longbourn had plenty of its own beauties. It had an old enough attic full of things, and fields and lanes a-plenty to wander. It had a library which did not, of course, compare to the library at Trinity, but which would do, as it had accounts of foreign lands and several maps and a serviceable atlas. It had large, old trees with sturdy branches, perfectly suitable for climbing (oh! but how she wished for Jamie, for there was no-one to build her a tree-house). It also had a coop of chickens and a nameless gray cat, whom Elizabeth immediately loved.
Life was not all so bad. If only Jamie were here.
And now, three years later, he would be. He was coming back. The morning after receiving it, she reached frantically under her pillow, to check that she had not imagined it all. Then, re-reading it, she broke into a wild jumping dance, startling Cat (who had remained nameless all these years, perfectly content with its anonymous state, but who did graduate to sleeping in Miss Elizabeth's covers). For the next two months, Elizabeth occupied herself by counting off the days, marking them off in her diary, as she bubbled with happy anticipation. She thought of all the things she would do with him, of showing him her books, her maps. And the stories he would have to tell! Of his journeys! Of crossing the ocean! Of India!
Then, one morning, as the household readied itself for Christmas (having already chosen the hog to slaughter for the boar's head dinner), the Professor fell face-down in the church. Elizabeth had stayed home on account of indisposition; she would gladly have gone, but for she felt not the littlest bit indisposed, but it was Hill who ushered her into bed and insisted that she stay, threatening that she would tell Master his daughter was not behaving like a proper young lady. Elizabeth could never understand why it was incumbent upon a proper young lady to remain in bed for the duration of her monthly courses; after all, she did not see the rest of the women around her suspending their daily activities and lounging in bed, and she was willing to bet they had indispositions, too.
But there was something to it, too-to stay in bed on a cold rainy morning, sipping tea and reading. Of course, she was not feeling the slightest bit indisposed.
They brought her father in at half-past eleven. Apparently, he fell just exiting the church. He was insensible, and Elizabeth sat, blankly, by his bed, listening to his hoarse breathing. The physician, summoned immediately, gave her little hope. Apoplexy, he said. Elizabeth asked him when her father would recover; to that, he only shook his head as he exited the room. Elizabeth bit her lip, swallowing her tears. She would not cry, she told herself. He will get better, and Jamie will come back. She reached for his hand in the sheets, and felt him squeeze her fingers, ever so slightly. He will get better, she kept repeating to herself, stubbornly.
But he did not get better. After the first shock, he was able to speak, though every word seemed to tire him, and the chore. On the third day, he ordered her, weakly, to take down a letter for him. Thinking that he meant to write Jamie, and welcoming any activity in him, Elizabeth sat at the small escritoire by the window, her back to the bed.
"Dear Ned," the Professor said weakly from the bed. Ned? Elizabeth thought. "Dear Ned," the Professor repeated. "I find myself now an invalid, and I fear my days are numbered."
Elizabeth shook her head, feeling the tears gather. "Please, sir, don't," she murmured, but he went on, ignoring her:
"Finding myself thus, I cannot help worrying for the future of one creature in my care-my daughter. I must beg you, when I am gone, to welcome her at Pemberley."
Elizabeth spun around in her chair. "Father!" she cried. "I shall not go to Pemberley!"
He shook his head, breathing heavily. His voice was quiet, his words slurred. "You will ease my heart-you will go-I shall not leave you here all alone-"
"No, please, do not say things like that!" she begged. Tears were now streaming down her cheeks. "You will get better, Father, and Jamie will come home-"
"I shall not live long enough to see him come home, girl," the Professor said. Elizabeth bent her head to the letter, weeping, knowing the truth of his words. He was dying, and if her heart had yet to accept it, her brain had already understood the signs of his impending demise.
"Ned-Ned will be kind to you... he is not a bad sort of fellow-"
The quill shook in her head, nicking the paper, spraying it with ink. She laid it down, carefully, murmured her excuses and took herself outside of the room. She walked, quickly, and then she ran, until she reached the door outside. Pushing it blindly, she walked outside, into incessant lashing cold rain. She stood there, crying, no longer feeling her own tears, washed away by the rain. Hill ran out after her, grasping her arm, pulling her inside. She put up no resistance to being led inside, to being stripped of her wet clothing and wrapped in blankets. Half an hour later, she returned to her father's side and completed his letter.
That very night, the Professor breathed his last.
If she could think of it at all, Elizabeth would imagine that Mr. Darcy would send a carriage for her. But, bowled over by her grief, and feeling very much alone in the entire world, she did not venture quite so far in her thoughts. After her father's funeral, she sought seclusion in her room. Her only companion there would be Cat.
Her first impulse, upon closing the door behind her, was to burrow deep under the blankets, and never leave their sanctuary at all. But there was one pressing matter. She had not given it enough thought in the days before, for she could think of one thing only. Dropping into a chair in front of her writing desk, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote:
"Dearest Jamie." It hurt her to even write the words on paper: father is dead. But he must be told. It occurred to her, then, that now, Longbourn belonged to him. Perhaps, he would then return to England, not for a stay or a leave, but for good. With renewed hope and vigor, she scribbled on paper, begging him to hurry back, to her. They were now all alone in the world, the two of them; he would come back to me, she thought, he would come back to me, come back to me... Feverishly, she sprinkled the letter with sand, for she could hardly wait to post it.
Returning to her room, her hands empty of the letter, she saw Cat, staring at her from the top of her bed.
"He will come back for us, Cat," she said, aloud. Evidently, Cat did not think he would, or it did not think it was worth its notice, for it sighed, curled into one perfect orange circle in the middle of Elizabeth's bed and went to sleep.
A short burst of exhilaration caused by the idea of Jamie's return passed quickly. For the next three days, Elizabeth remained in bed. Or, rather, she remained on her bed, curled up in a ball similar to Cat's. Hill had convinced her to eat, but she would not change, bathe, or quit her room, or, for that matter, her bed. Inside, too, she was coiled tightly, cradling her pain deep within her. Cat was her only companion, curled up against the backs of her knees, a warm circle of feline reassurance.
Then, one afternoon, she was drifting in and out of sleep to the comforting murmur of the rain, debating whether she could remain like so until Jamie came home, or whether she would become irreparably filthy and would have to be deloused. Or rather, how much time had to pass before Hill forcibly dragged her off to a bath.
The door opened. From her angle, she could see a pair of riding boots, wet with rain and somewhat muddy, but not too much-clearly, their owner did not ride to Longbourn. She sat up, groggily, her head spinning from so much lying about. Behind her, Cat stirred and made a small sound of dissatisfaction at having been thus disturbed.
"Miss Bennet," said the man. He looked much as Elizabeth remembered-very tall and heavyset, with heavy dark eyebrows and a forbidding expression-except perhaps a little older. She remembered how, three years ago, he was beside himself with grief and fear after Lord Gregory and Mr. Bingley had brought his son in unconscious and bleeding. She found she did not like to think of that. Her feelings for Fitzwilliam Darcy had not changed. If anything, every day of Jamie's absence, the very fact that she was alone now, in her hour of need, intensified her dislike of the man. Thinking of him as someone's beloved son upset her carefully-constructed dislike of him.
Mr. Darcy bowed to her. She knew she should come off the bed and welcome him properly, but she was afraid to move, thinking she might careen and crash if she stood up.
"Mr. Darcy," she murmured, nodding as politely as she could.
"I came as soon as I received your father's letter," he said. He sounded out of breath, just a little. "My most heartfelt regrets." He looked distressed, earnest, and she felt surprised and a little bit embarrassed. For me? This man is sad on my account she thought, incredulous. She did stand up, finally, and immediately, swayed a little on her feet, grabbing for the canopy post. Mr. Darcy asked, looking alarmed: "Are you well enough, Miss Bennet?"
She nodded, straightening. "I am, thank you."
"Very well." He looked uncomfortable, as if suddenly aware that she was no longer a child, that he had found himself in a lady's private quarters, quite inappropriately. "Do you know why I am here?"
She nodded, dully. "My father's letter," she said weakly. "He dictated it to me."
"Then you know." He regarded her for a moment. "You are to come with me to Pemberley."
All of a sudden, it seemed such a monumental absurdity-that she should leave her home, again; that she should go live with this man-whom she did not know, did not like-at Pemberley, of all places. At the very house, the name of which she could hardly bear hear. She had never seen it, and yet, she hated it, for because of it, her father would have her married to that odious, odious- Now, she was to be uprooted, leaving everything she had ever loved behind? She was to go to Pemberley?
Well, not if she could help it.
She said nothing, only lowered her eyes stubbornly. Somehow, it was easier to say what she wanted to say without looking him in the eye, for he was a tall man and a trifle terrifying. Much like his son, she thought.
"Mr. Darcy," she murmured, slowly. "I thank you for your care... but I should rather stay at Longbourn."
Elizabeth looked up in his face. He was looking at her curiously, as if he had not heard what she had just said. Perhaps he had not heard it; perhaps she had it said so softly, she alone heard it. Perhaps her voice had not risen above a whisper, and she'd never even noticed. How appropriate that it should be so. She had never felt so small, so weak, so alone in the world. This man's solicitousness should have made her feel warm and thankful; but it only served to show that she was an orphan. Something inside of her gave at this thought; she bit her lip and resolved not to show it. Standing up straighter, Elizabeth raised her chin and said:
"Mr. Darcy-I am thankful that you came all the way here, but the truth is, I did not think you would. I thought you would send a servant for me."
He kept staring at her, as if not understanding.
"I wrote the letter to please my dying father. I never intended to go with you to Pemberley. I am sorry for your trouble."
"Pardon?" He stared at her in disbelief. "You would defy your father's deathbed wishes?"
Now that he put it like that... Elizabeth felt intensely uncomfortable at the idea. She knew that she had not intended to deceive her father. She had not intended anything at all, unable to refuse him a dying wish.
"My father worried about me needlessly. I am perfectly fine at Longbourn." The last was a lie, for she was anything but fine; but she would be damned if she let him see that.
"You are fine," he repeated scornfully. He narrowed his eyes at her. "Your nurse," he said, pointedly, enunciating the word, "your nurse told me, Miss Bennet, that you had-" He paused. "How long have you been like so?" he made a vague sign, indicating the general disarray of her hair and clothes, her sunken eyes and exhausted countenance.
She shrugged, pursing her lips. "I am sure I cannot see what you mean, sir."
"You know you are not fine, Miss Bennet," he said hotly. "You know that. Just-just look at yourself!"
"You are one step away from being thoroughly ungentlemanly, sir!" she hissed.
"And you are behaving like a spoiled, petulant child!" he retorted. "Faith, if you were my daughter-"
"Perhaps you would have me whipped?" she asked. He rolled his eyes heavenward.
"Miss Bennet, I see I have given you far too much credit for being a reasonable adult. You are behaving in a manner unfit for your age and, I assume, intelligence. You may not care about your father's dying wishes, but I do. Mr. Bennet asked me to take you to Pemberley with me, and I shall not leave without you."
Elizabeth had a sinking feeling that this was precisely what was going to happen. He stood there, so large, dwarfing the rest of her room, and stared her down. Technically, having Mr. Bennet's letter with him, written in her own hand, he could easily have her put in a carriage by force. The servants would never contradict him. She hoped he would not resort to such an indignity.
Still, aloud she said:
"I should rather wait for my brother."
"From what I understand, Miss Bennet," he said evenly, "your brother is not expected in England until the end of May. Possibly later."
"It is not such a long time."
"Oh, it is, when one is talking of a sixteen-year-old girl living all alone-"
"I am not all alone-"
"-Do not interrupt me-living all alone in a house in the dead of winter. Or even with three decrepit servants, as I see you have."
Elizabeth scowled resentfully, but could say nothing to that. Her servants, including the loyal Hill, would not be much in the way of protection.
"At any rate," Mr. Darcy continued. "It could be a lot longer. Despite your childish behavior, you are an adult enough to understand that travel across Mediterranean is uncertain even at the best of times. Now, with the French on the high seas, your brother may not come at all."
She threw him a panicked look. "No!" she said. "He would not have promised me, had he not been certain!" She shook with contained fury. What an awful man, she thought, to say things like that! He only says that to rankle and frighten her! To make her do as he wants! Perhaps, the penchant for cruelty ran in the Darcy family! To imagine that this is how he sought to bring her to Pemberley... She shuddered with hate.
"You need not worry, sir," she said coldly, making sure all the rancor she was feeling rang clearly in her voice. "My brother will be here as promised. He always keeps his promises!"
He smiled, a soft, moving smile, and two dimples on his cheeks, making him look about thirty years younger.
"Do you?" he asked.
Elizabeth bit her lip. Touché, she thought. "My brother will come back from India in May, perhaps earlier."
"Perhaps," he agreed, easily. "In that case, you will be free to go back to Longbourn with him."
She hesitated. It was true-she could not imagine being held at Pemberley against her will. They would hardly want her there, she thought, remembering for a second the contempt in Fitzwilliam Darcy's face. If-when-Jamie came back, she would go back with him. She would certainly go back with him.
Mr. Darcy must have sensed her hesitation, because he said, quickly. "It is unseemly-and unsafe-for a young woman to remain all alone in a large house like that, Miss Bennet."
"But if-when-Jamie comes back-"
"I shall gladly commit you to his care until such time you are to marry Fitzwilliam." He smiled again, a different smile this time, a sour smirk that made him look instantly like his son: "It is not yet the time for you to come to Pemberley for good, madam. You will merely be our guest now, not its Mistress."
She hesitated. "And-" she said. "Your son-"
"Is not at Pemberley at the present," he assured her wryly. "Fitzwilliam does not visit quite so much, these days."
She sat down on her bed, hands folded dejectedly in her lap. Mr. Darcy cut her a curt bow.
"I shall give you all the time you need to get ready."
Quite rudely, she shrugged.
He sighed, and with another heavenward roll of his eyes, quitted her room.
Behind Elizabeth, Cat stirred and yawned, showing a pretty pink mouth with needle-sharp teeth. Elizabeth turned and scratched the cat behind its left ear.
"What do you say, Cat?" she asked pensively. "Shall we go on a journey?"
It took her all of two hours to get ready. After all, she did not have so many possessions. Over the next year, she would hardly wear any of her girly dresses, only the hideous bombazine ones Hill had bought to her at Meryton two days ago. Mr. Darcy stood in the parlor, watching Hill and Huffington, late Professor's old valet, maneuver Elizabeth's heavy trunk down the stairs.
"What is in-there?" he asked, frowning.
"My books," she said. She stood next to him, already dressed, holding Cat in her arms.
The trunk's handle slipped out of Hill's hand. The cumbersome box clunked down the stairs. Huffington made an urgent sound, fighting to stay on his step. Elizabeth put Cat on the floor and rushed towards the stairs, afraid most of all that the old man might topple headfirst down the stairs. On her way there, she was overtaken by Mr. Darcy himself, who quickly ran up three steps and grasped the free side of the trunk, heaving it up.
Elizabeth stood by and watched them carry it down. It did not seem strange that Mr. Darcy should help a servant, for Huffington was older and clearly too weak to manage alone. Nothing special, she thought. Anyone with a bit of compassion would have done it. Her father might have done it. Jamie, she thought, Jamie surely would have done it.
At the door, a fat coachman grabbed solicitously for her trunk, murmuring apologies that he had not come to pick it up earlier. Mr. Darcy frowned, dismissing the man. Turning back to Elizabeth, he said, wryly:
"Miss Bennet, savages that we are, there are a few books to be found at Pemberley."
Elizabeth shrugged. She did not care if Pemberley had the grandest library in the world! The books and atlases in her trunk were Jamie's more than they were hers.
"Well, then." Mr. Darcy turned to her. "Are you ready to go, then, Miss Bennet?"
She nodded, and leaned to pick up Cat (who was weaving a perpetual figure eight around her feet, from time to time disappearing under her skirts). Hill raised her hands, indignant:
"What are you about, Miss Elizabeth?" the good woman reproached her. "Surely Pemberley has cats of its own? Will you drag this wretched thing with you to Derbyshire?"
Taking quite an exception at being called "wretched," Cat threw the servant woman a disdainful glance and put its paws squarely on Elizabeth's shoulders.
"Cat is coming with me," Elizabeth said coldly. As if realizing that it was the subject of her conversation, the carroty-colored beast attached itself ever tighter to its mistress' bosom.
"Find a basket," ordered Mr. Darcy gruffly. Hill huffed, pursed her lips, but dared not disobey. Thereupon, a covered basket, lined with an old blanket was, indeed, produced. It was imminently suitable for feline transportation, and Cat seemed to think so as well. As soon as Mr. Darcy took it from Elizabeth's hands, it hung limply, graciously allowing the man to lower it in the basket and close the lid. A sound of contented purring emanated from the basket forthwith.
Good-byes followed, tearful, but short. The servants were not being dismissed, of course: they would stay at Longbourn and wait for Master James to come home from India. Elizabeth was sure that Jamie would deal with them kindly and fairly; in the meantime, they could weather the winter very well, if only they closed off three-quarters of the house. Rooms, of which they would have no need: Professor's study, the formal sitting room, Elizabeth's own bedroom.
Inside Mr. Darcy's plush carriage, Cat's basket installed, with much pomp, on the seat beside her, Elizabeth looked out the window and saw her house-her home these last three years-and bit her lip to keep the tears back. Pemberley, she thought disdainfully. Here was where she belonged, and here she would return. No matter what.
She pressed her hand to her lips and then to the window, in a gesture of good-bye. Not "farewell," she told herself. Good-bye.
They had hardly said a word over their day-long journey to Derbyshire. The roads were awful; once, they almost got trapped in the freezing mud. Or rather, they did get trapped-and it was only their uncanny luck that it happened next to a local tavern. The driver was able to procure some local help to dislodge the carriage, while Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy rested in the tavern. He occupied himself by writing a letter, while she peeked into Cat's basket, thinking to see green glowing eyes, and seeing absolutely nothing. She asked the proprietress for tea, and received a large tablespoon of brandy in it.
Wrinkling her nose, she refused to drink it.
"Drink it," Mr. Darcy said. "It will warm you up and help you sleep." He sounded exasperated with her, and she obeyed, reluctantly. Immediately, she felt the heat of it coursing through her, roaring merrily in her head. I am drunk, she thought incredulously, and wrapped herself tighter in her fur-lined winter cloak. By the time Mr. Darcy's carriage took off down the road to Derbyshire once again, Elizabeth was fast asleep, leaning her head against the wall.
She woke, startled, when the carriage stopped. It took her a second to orient herself; where was she, what was she doing here? Then, she saw the man across from her, and remembered.
"I trust you have slept well," he said mildly. She nodded, uncomfortable that he had watched her sleep. It seemed an intimate enough thing to do; she had not slept in the presence of another human being ever since she was a child. "We are at Pemberley," he informed her, smiling.
She would have wished to react coolly, with all the composure a true lady might exhibit. After all, what was so special about this place? Nothing. Only that she had been bought and sold for it. She would have liked to show her contempt, to show how little she cared for it. But instead, she moved quickly to the window, yanked the curtain aside.
What she saw, made her gasp and hold her breath in wonder.
It looked like a fairy-tale. A great house, a palace, really, greater than she had ever seen, every window alit with warm golden light, six tall footmen with flaming torches forming a blazing corridor. For me? she thought, shocked and-quite despite herself-touched. Then, she caught herself: nonsense, they are merely welcoming their Master home. The snow fell in large soft flakes, melting on the men's shoulders, on their stern immovable faces, on the gloved hand of the one that had reached for the door, swinging it open.
Winter night swept into the carriage. At the wave of cold air, Elizabeth drew a sharp, pained breath, shrunk back. Her eyes stung immediately, and she screwed them shut for a second, then opened them again, only to see Mr. Darcy alight quickly, and with a spry jump, belying his age. He turned and looked at her as she peered out into the night.
"Will you just stay in the carriage, Miss Bennet?" He grinned at her roguishly. He was still a handsome man... a very handsome man, Elizabeth thought, as she reached for Cat's basket.
"Leave that," Mr. Darcy said. He extended one hand to her. "They will take good care of it."
Elizabeth hesitated. She felt uncommonly, strangely shy and reluctant to insist on anything. She was someone's guest, for the first time in many years, and though she truly had not wished for this... she felt it was incumbent upon her to behave. In addition, she had no reason to doubt his words. If he had wanted to separate her from Cat, he would have done so at Longbourn. She stood up in the carriage, awkwardly swathing her cloak about herself.
"I must have Cat in my room," she warned Mr. Darcy. He shook his head at her, disbelieving.
"Will you hurry up, madam? My men here are freezing! Good Lord, I am freezing!"
Appropriately shamed, Elizabeth hurried to step out, leaning on his proffered arm, careful not to slip. It would not do to fall into the snow, face forward, before all these imposing people. The snow crinkled freshly under her foot as they walked towards the house. There, on the tall, broad steps, stood a small group of people: a man wearing a long cloak over a handsome livery, and a small, pert woman, in a starched white cap, and another one-a fat and jolly-looking matron. (This must be their Cook, Elizabeth thought.) Two or three maids, clearly freezing (she felt a sharp stab of guilt, though, she told herself, what vanity makes you think they are here for you?), shaking a little, and between them all, a girl. A slight wisp of a girl, wrapped in a fur cloak, much taller than when Elizabeth had last seen her. Georgiana, Elizabeth thought, and then, his sister. She tried not to feel any hostility at the thought.
"Welcome home, sir!" the small, lively woman said, stepping forth and dropping him a curtsey. "We have missed you here at Pemberley."
"I hope not too much, Reynolds," he said, laughing. "As I have only left yesterday morning. I trust all is well here?"
"Very well, sir, very well," the old lady announced cheerily.
"Perhaps you do not need me as much as you say." He looked at his daughter then, arched one eyebrow, and beckoned her towards him.
Miss Darcy came forward, small dainty steps, stepping gingerly on the slippery stone. She raised her face to him to be kissed, very ceremoniously. She looked like a porcelain doll. He leaned and swept her into a quick embrace, turning her into real live girl, who squealed and giggled. Her feet dangled when he straightened out.
Mr. Darcy feigned displeasure. "What is this cold welcome, Miss? I am gone two days and already you have forgotten me!" He laughed into her hair, and then, quickly, spun her around, her skirts and her long fur cloak flying about them. She laughed, too, and put her arms around his neck, and kissed him on the cheek, again and again.
At the sight of such familial felicity, Elizabeth remembered, once again, that she was all alone in the world. An icy hand crushed the heart in her breast. Watching someone else's happiness, she found, was unbearable; it lead, inevitably, to the contemplation of her own unenviable fate. An orphan. She looked away, focusing on the little cap of driven snow atop the stone railing.
"Miss Bennet?" she heard. Elizabeth looked. Mr. Darcy seemed to be studying her, as if trying to read into her countenance. She tried her best to put on a polite smile. He put one hand on the small of her back and prodded her, gently, forth.
"Allow me to introduce my daughter Georgiana to you." The girls curtseyed formally to each other. Miss Darcy was reed-thin, and rather tall, taking after her father and brother. She was, however, a fair girl, quite unlike the two of them, and with a face that was as likely to turn out rather handsome as it was to become entirely plain. Mr. Darcy said to her: "Miss Bennet is a dear guest at Pemberley. Treat her like a sister, Georgie."
"Yes, sir," the girl chimed in obediently. Elizabeth wondered whether she knew. Perhaps not; she was but a child and oblivious to everything but her dolls when the whole distasteful business had transpired three years ago. Indeed, had Elizabeth not eavesdropped her way into this mystery, she, herself, would still be unwitting of it (and wouldst that she were).
The rest of the introductions were perfunctory: Mrs. Reynolds the housekeeper, two upper maids, Cook, and the butler, Henderson. One of the maids, Molly, was in service to Miss Darcy; and Mary, Elizabeth was informed, would be hers. Elizabeth thanked Mr. Darcy, and wanted to tell him that truly, she had no need of a lady's maid-after all, Hill could hardly pass for one, and Elizabeth had been using her just fine. But the girl Mary beamed with pride, clearly very happy at being thus advanced in the household, and Elizabeth clamped her mouth shut.
"Come, come, Mr. Darcy," urged Mrs. Reynolds, "let us go inside! You would not wish the young misses to catch a chill-"
"You are, of course, correct." Mr. Darcy ushered the girls inside, the servants following them. Elizabeth threw one quick glance behind her, only to see a footman reach inside the carriage for Cat's basket. Somewhat becalmed, she went inside.
Inside, Pemberley House was even grander, all polished wood and endless hallways and a magnificent wide stairway. Full-length portraits on walls, of people with dark hair and eyes and familiar arrogant, cannot-be-bothered expressions. Elizabeth fancied she could see her betrothed in any and all of them, what with the same manner of looking down their noses, the same thin, pursed lips. She wagged her head, shaking off all thoughts of Fitzwilliam Darcy. He was not here (indeed, she mused, where was he?), and it was just as well. She would not think of him.
Mr. Darcy, by now entirely easy, offered her a tour of the house.
"Perhaps tomorrow?" Elizabeth asked. She had slept so much in the carriage, but now, all of today's strain was bearing down on her, making her weak on her feet. She felt as if she might sit down on one of white marble steps and fall asleep right there, leaning her head against the railing.
"Miss Bennet is tired, Father," Miss Darcy volunteered. "May I see her to her room?"
Mr. Darcy smiled, softly. "Of course," he said. "Miss Bennet, I bid you good night."
She followed Miss Darcy and Mrs. Reynolds, who carried a large candlestick-unnecessarily so, for the hallway was quite well-lit. Immediately, the girl fell back and walked next to Elizabeth. She seemed eager for some conversation, stealing surreptitious glances at Elizabeth, but would not initiate it, for she was, Elizabeth saw, exceedingly shy. Elizabeth, on her part, simply had no strength left for any social niceties. She felt slightly guilty for it, and, having wracked her brains for something to say, came up with a lame:
"Has it snowed much today?"
Miss Darcy smiled sheepishly. "Some," she said. "Although I cannot say I enjoy it quite so much."
"Truly, why not?"
"Reynolds does not allow me quite so much play in the snow, Miss Bennet."
Mrs. Reynolds threw the girl a stern glance, and said:
"I only have your best in mind, Miss Georgiana. Suppose you should fall into snow and catch a cold! What shall I tell Master Fitzwilliam when he comes home?"
She might as well have dumped a bucket of cold water over Elizabeth's head. Her mood, almost tolerable before, was ruined thoroughly. Fitzwilliam Darcy was not at Pemberley, but he most certainly would return...it was, after all, his home. Elizabeth felt the deepest mortification at the thought of meeting him here. Perhaps, Jamie could return from India before then?
She turned at the voice, forcing herself to smile at this girl. She wondered whether Miss Darcy loved her brother like she herself loved Jamie. It could not be: Jamie was all goodness and warmth and kindheartedness. But this man... Elizabeth shuddered inwardly at the thought of having him for an older brother. Not unlike a wall of ice, she thought, digging in her memory for his cold expression, haughty voice, forbidding visage. And so cruel, so careless with his words! Miss Darcy, that poor girl.
"This is your room," little Miss Darcy said. "I hope 'tis to your liking." She smiled shyly. "My-my room is just-down the hall."
"I thank you." They each dropped a polite curtsey; thereupon, Elizabeth was installed in a very handsome room, with a lovely blue rug on the floor, and a vase of fresh roses on the night stand. Fresh roses in the dead of winter! In amazement, Elizabeth drew her fingers over the tender petals, checking if they were real. Catching her bewildered glance, Miss Darcy smiled sheepishly and said:
"From the conservatory."
At that, Mrs. Reynolds bustled, ushering Miss Darcy out of the room. The girl went, though somewhat unwillingly. Elizabeth wondered at that: ever since Jamie had gone away to India, she had not much in the way of companionship. Still, she thought, she was never truly lonely...not until now. She felt sharp sympathy for Miss Darcy who, it seemed, did not even have a brother to love and comfort her. She waved at the girl as the door closed.
For some time, she simply sat on the bed, looking down at the rug, at her boots, musing on the oddity of it all. Thinking how gauche and ugly she must look in this beautiful place. Invariably, turning in her thoughts to her father's death. That, she found unbearable. It tore at her heart-but she could no more stop thinking of it than she could stop breathing. Perhaps, if she occupy herself somehow... she rose from the bed.
Looking around her, Elizabeth thought: I do not understand how momentous this is, not yet. Perhaps, tomorrow it would sink in. She sighed in disbelief: she was at Pemberley! She simply could not credit it, not yet. Pemberley had existed in her mind as the sum of all fears and desires. For Pemberley, Mr. Darcy had well-nigh put a bullet in his head. Her own father had bet... something for it, she thought, something important enough, something she could not quite understand, but which had made Jamie gasp in true horror-and very few things ever did. Faith! Her brother had almost killed a man for it!
She came to the window, drew the curtain aside, put her hands against the cold glass. It was snowing in earnest now, the sky pink in color, heavy with snow-laden clouds. It was so light, she could see far, all the way towards the purple, enchanted woods. The grounds were lovely: their pristine expanse rose and fell like a snow-covered sea, only to melt into lavender shadows at the edge of the clearing. She could see all the way to a round, frozen lake. Only a black swan is missing, she thought, or I should think the place is charmed. She sighed unhappily. She would have been glad to find it ordinary, merely a large house full of rich furnishings. But it was magnificent, unusual and magical. No wonder it drove men out of their minds.
She sighed again and drew the curtain back over the window.
No sooner had she sat down on the edge of the bed than a knock on the door announced the return of her maid (her maid? When had that girl become her maid?). She said "enter!" in a voice that sounded, even to her, unnaturally high and frightened. As if she was a charlatan, an impostor here at this beautiful place, terrified of being discovered and denounced. Oh how she longed to be at Longbourn again!
The maid curtseyed at the door.
"Shall I fetch some water for your bath, ma'am?"
Elizabeth shrugged. She felt awkward issuing orders to this girl. At Longbourn, Hill ran her as much as she ran Hill.
"Y-yes, do. Please."
The girl-Mary, Elizabeth told herself, willing herself to remember-curtseyed again and disappeared without a trace. Elizabeth continued to sit on the bed, contemplating the room about her. It was daintily, thoughtfully decorated, a lady's room, warm from a large fireplace glowing softly, and swimming with the aroma of roses. There was an escritoire in the corner, and on it-a stack of writing paper and a quill, no doubt well-sharpened. Someone had devoted much thought to it; or perhaps, every guest-room at Pemberley was this immaculate. The bed was decorated with indigo-colored pillows, stitched richly with golden thread. From India, she thought, immediately thinking of Jamie, and sharply-of her own loneliness. Taking a pillow, she slid face down on the bed and cried a little. It was only a bit of silent tears, for she had spilled much in the previous several days and she had little left; but they did serve to lighten her heart.
Calming down, she thought she should rise, that the girl Mary would be back soon with her water, but found she had no strength left. All of a sudden, the fatigue of the day's journey bore down on her. I must see to it that they bring Cat here, she thought, before huddling on the bed and slipping, quietly, away.
Waking up to brightly streaming sunshine, Elizabeth watched a dust bunny twirl in a torrent of light. She noticed to herself that it had stopped raining. The thought made her very happy: perhaps, she might take the carriage to Meryton this morning. There was always something new at the bookshop. True, it had only been two weeks since she had last visited there, but she had already read everything she had bought. Surely Papa would not refuse her?
She heard the door open, and then, an unfamiliar voice said, cheerily:
"Good morning, ma'am!"
With a sharp intake of breath, Elizabeth sat up in bed. It was a terrible shock to remember it all: her father's death, and Mr. Darcy coming for her, their rain-clogged journey and their arrival to Pemberley. Pemberley! She shot out of bed, past Mary, and straight to the window. Hoping, perhaps, that bright sunshine would detract somewhat from the magical picture of the night before.
Not so. The picture behind the window was nothing short of glorious. Now that it had stopped snowing, sunshine played brilliantly on the sprawling white grounds. The majestic silvery woods rose in the background. Casting her eyes upon the pond, she gasped: there was, indeed, a black swan, waddling awkwardly across the ice. She almost laughed at that, wondering whether every room in the house had a view so pretty. Perhaps it was merely Mr. Darcy's indulgence that provided her with such a vista.
Behind her, Mary the maid cleared her throat delicately, making her turn.
"Will you have your bath now, ma'am? I had the water warmed up."
Elizabeth glanced quickly over her long white nightshirt. She did not remember undressing last night. Mary caught her eye and smiled, sheepishly:
"Last night you fell asleep in your clothes, ma'am. Mrs. Reynolds and I, we took the liberty-" She made a vague gesture with her hand.
"Thank you," Elizabeth murmured in deep consternation. Faith, she was not a child to be undressed by others while she slept! "I shall take my bath now, Mary. Thank you," she repeated, to the girl's retreating back.
Mary looked back at her and grinned, a lopsided smile, showing a missing tooth to the side. A catching one, at that: Elizabeth could not help smiling back at the girl.
"My pleasure, ma'am," Mary said.
The bath itself was awkward. Except for enlisting Hill's help when it came to washing her unruly hair, Elizabeth was accustomed to bathing herself. To have a strange person soap her arms and legs felt rather odd and not a little thwarting.
"Were you a lady's maid before, Mary?" she asked, trying her best not to feel too self-conscious.
"Oh no, ma'am." The girl scoured her back with such vigor, Elizabeth worried she would take the skin off. Still, it felt wonderful to get clean again. "An upstairs maid. 'Twas quite unexpected, this, when Master came and told me I should be a lady's maid now." She sighed. "I hope I should not disappoint."
Elizabeth assured her she was doing as excellent a job as any might do. Back in her room, she found her trunk already unpacked, and her dresses hanging in the closet. She pulled one out blindly: it served no purpose to spend time choosing one, for they all looked the same. Mary proved quite adept at dressing her hair, and, quarter of an hour later, Elizabeth looked presentable again.
"Mr. Darcy and Miss Georgiana are in the dining-room, ma'am." Mary dropped a quick curtsey. "Will there be anything else?"
"Yes," Elizabeth said, frowning. Something was bothering her excessively, but she could not quite put a finger on it. Something-"Cat!" she exclaimed. "Mary, why did they not bring my cat here?"
"Oh." Mary frowned. She did not seem to know the answer to that. "Ma'am-"
But Elizabeth had already swept out of the room.
She found them in the dining-room, breakfasting. At the sight of her, Mr. Darcy rose. Immediately, a giant footman moved a chair out for her.
"Ah," Mr. Darcy said, smiling at her. "Miss Bennet! Good morning! Did you sleep well?"
From her chair, Miss Darcy gave her a shy smile and a wave. Elizabeth dropped a stiff curtsey. "Good morning." Abandoning further preliminaries, she attended to the business straight away. "Last night, you promised me to have my cat's basket up in my room-"
He frowned at her in incomprehension.
Her voice broke, suddenly, ringing with tears. "Where is he?"
Mr. Darcy shrugged, his expression turning sterner at her accusative tone. "Somewhere at Pemberley, I presume. I chose to cede my duties with respect to your animal to the housekeeper. I hope that is acceptable to you." In dismay, she felt tears gather. His face, his eyes softened at the sight of her confusion. He pointed at the chair, at the footman holding it out for her. "Sit down and eat, Miss Bennet. We will find your cat after breakfast."
But she remained standing, biting her lip. With a resigned sigh, he rose and motioned for her to follow.
"Come," he said and walked out of the dining-room. Elizabeth darted after him, Miss Darcy following close on her heels.
Mr. Darcy, being a large long-legged man, walked too quickly for them to keep pace with him. Both girls were well-nigh forced to run as he strode below stairs, but he did not turn around once. By the time they reached the large kitchen, a sizeable throng of curious help formed behind them.
Swinging the kitchen doors open, Mr. Darcy marched inside. The kitchen itself was vast, pots and pans hanging, gleaming in the cheery way of well-shined metal. It smelled as if something was baking, and Elizabeth's mouth watered immediately, for she had not eaten since the afternoon before. Cook herself, and a bevy of kitchen maids and kitchen boys started from their various tasks, from washing and cleaning and boiling and chopping and mixing, all bowing politely to the Master.
Who stopped so abruptly that Elizabeth almost ran into him from the back. Peeking from behind him, she saw Cat, reclining comfortably on a chair in the immediate proximity of a young kitchen maid and her chicken, freshly plucked.
"Here is your precious treasure," Mr. Darcy said darkly, even as Elizabeth shot past him, scooping the animal up in her arms, cradling it tightly against her chest. Cat issued a few disgruntled murmurs for being thus uprooted. She thought that she saw the kitchen maids exchange a few curious glances, clearly thinking her very odd.
"I should appreciate it if you did not bring this beast into the dining room, Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy said, distaste and amusement mixing in his voice. "I should just as soon not have cat hair in my tea."
Thereupon, he turned around on one heel and strode out of the kitchen, leaving them all behind. Elizabeth, once again, felt tears gather, but this time, they were tears of shame. She was embarrassed, deeply, for making such a spectacle out of herself, especially since Cat evidenced no desire to leave the kitchen, its inducement obvious. Indeed, after another moment, the animal twisted out of Elizabeth's arms and landed, gracefully, on all fours, assuming, immediately thereafter, its all-important post near the chicken.
Elizabeth bit her lip and screwed her eyes shut, thinking, mortified, what must they think of me! But when she opened her eyes again, no-one in the kitchen was paying her any mind, for every person returned promptly to his task. Nobody was looking at her, everyone intent at his work. Elizabeth exhaled, her embarrassment lessening somewhat.
"Miss Bennet." Miss Darcy smiled at her bashfully. "Shall we return to breakfast? You have not eaten anything since yesterday! After all," she added, "we can come back here to claim your cat. I guarantee you, he will not as much as stir from here!"
Elizabeth nodded, knowing the soundness of it. That, and her stomach was now positively growling.
At breakfast, yet another person at the table was a young lady in a tasseled dress of a particularly dun gray color. Elizabeth had not seen her when she first came down; so, she thought, she must have come to breakfast while they were in the kitchens. Because she had sat down next to Miss Darcy, Elizabeth recognized her to be the young lady's governess. As to her appearance, Elizabeth was ill-fit to pass judgment, other than to note that she was of an undeterminable age, though obviously young, and neatly, though boringly, dressed.
She thought Mr. Darcy would introduce them to each other; but he kept a resolute silence all through the meal. Elizabeth bent her head over her food, hardly tasting the eggs and the toast, awash with embarrassment. She dared not lift her eyes at her host, mortified by her earlier behavior. What must he think of her? She had to own it, he had not mistreated her. Her lodgings were excellent and comfortable, she had been given her own maid-what a luxury!-and Cat had been treated with kindness. Indeed, their conduct towards her was nothing if not hospitable and obliging.
The Darcys had not deserved her incivility. Upon their return to the breakfast room, Miss Darcy quickly moved her plate to the other side of the table, so that she now sat next to Elizabeth-who was pleased being shown favor, despite herself. The governess lifted a disapproving eyebrow, but said nothing as her charge abandoned her. Elizabeth threw a clandestine, curious glance at the girl, trying to guess in her the features of her brother, but met only with a smile, shy and sweet and heartfelt. Oh, she thought in utter amazement, she is nothing like him. She felt her shame recede, just a little bit, in the face of such forgiveness.
Mr. Darcy did break the silence once: to ask the governess-Miss Lucas, it turned out-what lessons she had planned for Miss Darcy today.
"We start with poetry, sir," the young woman replied. "It is Herbert today."
"Very well," the gentleman agreed. "To inspire the appropriate Christian devotion in my daughter."
He looked wry, Elizabeth thought-and Miss Lucas looked dubious, as if uncertain whether her employer was truly serious. Mr. Darcy tugged his napkin from behind his stock, tossed it next to his plate.
"An hour of arithmetic, an hour of history, an hour of French. An hour of drawing after lunch."
"Most edifying. Miss Bennet," Mr. Darcy said, turning to her. It was unexpected: quietly wallowing in her misery, Elizabeth had not thought he would talk to her. She gulped down too much of her hot coffee, scalding her mouth, and tried her best to look a polite young lady she ought to be. She wanted, badly, to recompense for her earlier behavior.
"You are welcome, of course, to accompany my daughter to her lessons, if you so desire." Elizabeth hesitated. She felt a little uncomfortable at the idea of such intrusion, but perhaps it would do her well to occupy her mind with something other than her father and Jamie this morning.
"Thank you, sir, I believe I shall."
That morning, she sat next to Miss Darcy in the girl's schoolroom. None of it, of course, compared to a grown-up, educated discourse she would have had with her father, or even with Jamie. The late Professor, a Miltonian scholar, had read her George Herbert's whimsically structured poems before. She was also reasonably well-versed in mathematics and felt a bit impatient as she listened to Miss Darcy stumble through the familiar account of the Venerable Bede and his sparrow. But her French was abysmal-she could read and understand, but she saw Miss Lucas, who was apparently half-French, cringe at her pronunciation.
"You are to roll the r's softly at the back of your throat," the governess commanded. "Like so: rrrrrrrrrrrrrr," she purred softly. "Now you try." Listening to Elizabeth's attempts to do the impossible, she frowned and shook her head. "Perhaps you should just say it... however you can."
Elizabeth felt her face crimson with embarrassment. Still, she was not discouraged and made a mental note to practice the elusive soft r. She was even worse at drawing; looking at the nature morte that Miss Lucas had placed upon a silk-covered pedestal-a laurel-crowned Roman bust with chiseled cheeks and an indescribable expression, and a single green pear at its base-she saw no possible way to transfer the image upon the paper in front of her. Her lines came out crooked and uncertain, as her hand had faltered, uncertain. Faith, a child could do it better (a child did do it better, she thought, peeking over her shoulder at Miss Darcy's drawing). Miss Lucas, too, was not encouraging.
"You were never taught drawing, I take it?" she asked kindly.
Elizabeth shrugged. She would own there were many things her father had not taught her. But there were also many she knew far better than any gently-reared young lady. What did it signify, after all, if she could draw a silly pear?
She rose from her chair and stretched. "Forgive me," she said to Miss Lucas," but this is a fruitless exercise." She nodded at the pear. "Pardon the pun."
"Clearly so," agreed the governess. "Perhaps you would care to occupy yourself with something else while Miss Darcy finishes her task? There are all manner of books here-"
But Elizabeth already saw that, which drew her fancy: on a small table in the corner, a globe. Small enough that she could pick it up, but in all other respects-an exact replica of the one her father had had at Longbourn.
"Ah," Miss Lucas said approvingly as she saw Elizabeth lay claim to the world. "Very good. Geography."
Elizabeth carried the globe, cradling it, to a large window seat. Climbing in, tucking in her feet, she gave the world a whirl. Continents, oceans, countries flew by, blending together in one long, faceless brown mass. She stopped the globe's revolution with one finger. Jamie's last letter had come from Madras... here. The smooth papered orb was cool under her fingers. India, she thought, land of spices and elephants and widows burned alive. Somehow, it was better this way: the small globe did not look quite as daunting as the large map in her old room at Longbourn. Her brother did not feel quite as far away. Faith, she could span her hand merely two times, and here he was, Jamie, at her fingertips.
"Isn't it lovely?" Miss Darcy said, smiling at Elizabeth from her station. "Will sent it to me from London last year, so that I know of the world a little better."
"Ah," Elizabeth said faintly. "What a kind brother he is too you." She checked the bitterness in her tone, immediately, hoping that the girl had not noticed it. Surely it was not Miss Darcy's fault Elizabeth loathed the name of her intended?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of much scratching at the door; thereupon, Cat was admitted (with much excitement from both Miss Darcy and Elizabeth). He had somehow found his way to the schoolroom from the kitchen, had somehow known where to look for her. Jumping with lithe grace upon the window-seat, he curled next to Elizabeth, shying away from the cold glass. A furry circle of sun on the blue pillows.
As it often happened, Cat's comfortable purring served to set her mind at rest. Elizabeth leaned her head back against the wall, letting the day sink in, lifting her face to the shy rays of December sun. It was a curious feeling-the glass in the window was cold from the outside, the cold biting even through the long sleeve of her dress, but the short afternoon rays caressed her face almost lovingly. The contended drone of Cat's purr at her side, Miss Darcy's soft humming as she drew... Elizabeth felt at peace. She knew that this was only temporarily, that any peace she found would be fleeting. She was a stranger here, and, before long, she would go. She did want to leave, wanted to return to Longbourn, with all her heart. But for now-for now- She sighed in mild relief. Eyes closed, she cupped her hand over cool papered India in strange comfort. Jamie would come for her. And in the meantime, she would be well enough here. In the meantime, she would be content.
If, on a late wintry afternoon, as the sun rolled at its leisure towards the horizon, a passerby walked in front of Charles Bingley's Grosvernor Square townhouse, he would have witnessed an unsettling sight. A carriage, emblazoned with an ancient-looking coat-of-arms, stopped by the steps. The door opened, disgorging its passengers: a tall dark-haired gentleman, a lady wearing a black veil, and an unattractive, sallow-skinned girl of about seventeen, also in mourning. The gentleman alighted first and handed both women out with great care. All three now stood in front of the steps, looking rather lost. Behind them, another carriage with the same coat-of-arms expelled two maids and a valet who scurried, nervously, up the stone steps, leaving their employers standing in the cold.
The party's mourning attire clearly showed all the effects of a lengthy journey in the carriage. The veiled lady threw a quick glance at the house, then said, turning slightly to the gentleman at her side:
"Can you believe it has scarcely been a month since we left? How different is our arrival from leaving!"
He said nothing to that, merely bowed his head, evading her eyes. The lady dropped him a polite curtsey.
"You will forgive me, Mr. Darcy," she said. Her voice was low and scratchy with unspilled tears; beneath the misery in it, it was possible to guess-maybe-someone very young and lovely. "Caroline, will you go inside with me?"
But she did not wait for either of them to answer. Instead, she turned and almost ran inside, holding up her black skirts, her heels rapping on the stone steps.
"In a moment," the girl murmured to her retreating back. Darcy touched, reflexively, the brim of his hat.
"Caroline," he said, using her first name. "You should go inside. It was a long road, and you need your rest."
She looked up in his face, her own crumbling. "Will you not come in? I cannot imagine how dreary it is inside!"
He shook his head. "Not tonight. I shall call at you tomorrow. Caroline." He bowed, politely, over her gloved fingers. She squeezed her eyes shut, bit her lip, fighting the tears and losing every step. Another moment and she burst into loud, inconsolable weeping, covering her face with her hands.
Biting his own lip, he put one hand on her shoulder and drew her to him, pressing her face against his coat.
"Sh-sh-sh," he said. "Caroline."
Moments passed. His broad back sheltered her from the street, from the curious eyes of the passerbys who might see her, and judge her, for standing so openly, so intimately with a man who was not her intended, nor her relation. She cried her fill, without stopping, soaking the front of his greatcoat with her hot, bitter tears. Finally, the paroxysmal jerking of her shoulders subsided, and she slowly pushed away from him. He reached under his great-coat and produced a monogrammed handkerchief, which she took from him gratefully.
Looking up at him, she essayed a brave half-smile, her eyelashes in dark clumps, her lips trembling.
"I should call on Louisa," she said, after a pause. "I am certain Malvina's letter has reached her already. Still, I should tell her." She heaved a huge sigh. "Will you come with me, Mr. Darcy? I am afraid Malvina will not-and I have not the heart to do it myself."
"Tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow I shall. Now please, Caroline, go inside." He took her elbow, urging her gently up the front steps. She stumbled, and he held her up, before handing her to the throng of servants at the top step. As they led her away, Caroline looked back and threw him such a pitiful glance, his heart almost turned over in his chest.
Turning away, he walked up to the carriage. They had spent three days in it, and most of the long, cold nights, during their grueling journey from Cornwall. Caroline Bingley cried most of the time; after the first two hours in the carriage with her, Darcy thought he would run mad from all the quiet sniffling and moaning. He scolded himself for being so unfeeling; but the truth was, were it not for the bitterest cold, he would have ridden instead. As it was, he had had no desire to repeat the fate of his friend, who had fallen victim to pneumonia at the age of three-and-twenty. He shivered a little against the piercing, freezing wind. Still, he could walk to his father's town-house, only a few streets away, without risking death. If nothing else, the cold should serve to refresh him. He told his man to drive to Brook Street and strode home alone.
As he walked, he reminisced on another cold day, when they had left from this very house, having taken his carriage (because it was larger, newer, and more comfortable). Bingley and the lovely Malvina, Caroline and he, and a carriage with two valets and two maids that followed them. They were going to Willets, Lord Alex Gregory's ancestral estate, for Christmastime festivities. Darcy had written to his father, begging leave to remain away from Pemberley this Christmas. He knew that Mr. Darcy, Georgiana in tow, would come to London first thing in the new year; therefore, he did not need to go to Pemberley (or so he told himself). They had all been primed to enjoy the few carefree days, with friendly company, excellent music and food, all manner of amusements. Gregory was an easy fellow and a generous host; he had always picked his guests carefully, to ensure a perfect mix of personalities and a maximum enjoyment for all. They had left here with jokes and drollery, planning to have a capital time of it.
And have a capital time they did-that is, until Bingley fell ill. Bingley's illness, his death was everything sudden and terrifying, enough to set even the most robust man thinking of his own inevitable mortality. One evening, following a hunting excursion, he was seized by a fit of coughing and retired early, followed by his solicitous, worried young wife. The next morning, he did not appear at breakfast; Malvina, Mrs. Bingley, looking like death herself, came out instead and begged Gregory to send for a physician. Who arrived promptly, but pronounced only, in the self-important manner of any talentless Aesclepius, that time would tell. He prescribed the universal-and universally futile-measure of bleeding. Poor Bingley grew steadily worse, slipping from severe chills into heated delirium. Malvina spent three sleepless nights by his bed, until succumbing, finally, on the sofa in the drawing room-only to awaken a widow some two hours later. Mrs. Bingley was all of nineteen years old, only a Mrs. for six months before her widowhood. They had been newly-and very happily-married.
It was beyond shocking.
To everyone's surprise, Mrs. Bingley insisted that her husband be buried in Cornwall. She explained it like so: Bingley had not a family estate of his own, was not connected, through family and tradition, to any particularly piece of land. She did not wish to bury him in the stone well of the city. She and Bingley had come to Cornwall on their honeymoon, having accepted Lord Gregory's generous offer of his lovely sea-side estate. She told Darcy he had adored the sea.
"He told me," she explained to Darcy, calmly, though her eyes were red, and her hands were shaking, "he told me that he would like to be buried in a wild place like this-over the roaring waves."
Darcy frowned, then smiled wistfully. It was just like Bingley to say a maudlin thing like that. He tried talking to her, cautiously, out of it; but she proved implacable. It would be unfathomable to argue with a widow. He and Gregory concurred with Malvina's wishes in this case, which only served to further distress young Caroline-who, on her part, had begged them to take Bingley's body back to London.
The rest of their sojourn at Willets Abbey was utterly joyless and miserable. All, who could, left. Mrs. Bingley was waiting, however, to see the marker set upon her husband's grave, and Darcy and Caroline were waiting with her. Finally, the marker was set, commemorating Bingley's short, warm life. That very morning, they left for London.
Caroline's constant, quiet whimpering had almost driven him mad during their journey. On her part, Bingley's widow had hardly shed a single tear in anyone's presence. But, on the second night of their ride, as they stopped in a small snow-drifted inn, only one room was available for the three of them. Then, for the first time since Bingley's death, his widow cried for him-long after his sister had stopped, long after she had fallen asleep. Darcy, wracked in an uncomfortable chair, listened to her forlorn lament. Feeling, all the while, like the worst kind of an intruder.
He walked all the way to his father's town-house, almost running up the front steps. The servants' carriage must have long arrived; they would be ready for him. This was his home. At Pemberley, he was still Master Fitzwilliam, the young Master. Because he spent the majority of his time in town, the staff at the town-house had come to regard him as the Master. Within minutes of his arrival, a delicious repast would be prepared for him. Within a quarter of an hour, his bath would be ready.
The change in him, from the last time they had seen him, was startling. He had left in excellent spirits, smiling and happy, anticipating all manner of enjoyment. He now returned, sweeping in from the frozen street, in mourning and minus a friend. Poor Bingley's demise was so sudden, Darcy had not had the time to grieve him. Having never imposed himself on others during his life, Bingley had died as unobtrusively as he could, succumbing to pneumonia within days of contracting it. Darcy felt little pain at the knowledge of his friend's death, only great astonishment. Soon enough, he knew, the shock would pass and the grief would set in. Indeed, he had occupied himself so much by tending to Bingley's sister and his widow, he had hardly stopped to think about his own loss.
Now, as he stood by the window in his room, having shed his shoes and coat, leaning his forehead against the cold glass, he felt sharply, suddenly, alone. He had not had so many friends to begin with... having just lost another one, he felt the deprivation all the more strongly. Such thoughts led, invariably, to Bennet; and that was one subject that tugged at his heart most painfully. He could not bear to think of it, not now, not when he was already on the brink. His face was flaming, and he pressed his forehead harder against the cold glass.
A discreet cough behind him alerted him to the presence of his valet.
"Your bath is ready, sir."
He pushed away from the window. He would not think of it, not tonight, would not dwell on his loneliness. Tonight, he was in need of sleep, rest, restoration. He felt himself to be on the brink of something terrible, his spirit-much in need of mending. He strode towards the dressing room, yanking his cravat from around his neck, tugging at his cuffs. He paused by his escritoire, and tossed his cufflinks carelessly on top of it (he had always been meticulous about clothing, such liberty unthinkable, but tonight, the little details galled him). By the time he had reached his bath, a trail of clothing formed behind him. Having shed the last and tossed it all in an untidy heap, Darcy slid into hot water with a pitiful sigh.
All in all, he had had a singularly bad holiday.
Having quitted his bath, he stepped into a robe Cassidy was holding out for him. Now to bed, he thought. He did not know what time it was-nor did he care. He had spent three nights, alternating between a mattress with springs sticking out, a thin straw mattress, and a chair. He yearned to fling himself into bed and forget it all.
He did not think anything could possibly spoil his mood any further tonight. But then, stopping by his desk to retrieve his cufflinks, he saw the post. On a silver tray, together with a few calling cards (that he shoved rudely aside), and a perfumed pink square (that he did not even need to open to know its contents)-there it was. Like a demmed trap, a furious thought shot through his mind, waiting to snap at him. Recognizing his father's seal, he knew, suddenly prescient, that it brought him no glad tidings. He reached for the silver letter opener, did not find it in its usual place (why? why?) and then, short of patience, simply tore the letter open.
He read it with the deepest displeasure. I write to apprise you, my son, that I have brought Miss Bennet to Pemberley, following the death of her father. So the Professor was dead. Horrified, he shut his heart to the news, uncertain of his own ability to process such an intelligence. Tomorrow, he would think of it. Tonight, he must be able to sleep, lest he should run mad. He forced himself to focus on the rest of the letter. He read the words again...and again...letting their meaning sink in.
I have brought Miss Bennet to Pemberley..
So, he thought, here it was. He had spent the last three years pushing it away in his mind. He did not feel any obligation to her, for he had made her no promise. Still, as a man of honor, he would take no action to get out of it... and, after a while, a strange apathy had set in. If not she, then Caroline Bingley, when she grew old enough, or some other society daughter, provided he made a good enough bargain. Perhaps, he thought, grinning unhappily to himself, he could even marry into a titled family. Or rather, could have, had this not been wrought. The thought failed to touch him. Indeed, it was not the relative modesty of Elizabeth Bennet's dowry that had galled him so much, but the fact that his father, through his criminal imprudence, had taken all choice away from him. He had thought so at one-and-twenty; the thought had infuriated him. Three years later, having seen just how truly little choice he would have, Darcy had come to think that it was just as well. Indeed, he could choose between dowries and family names, one more illustrious than another, and perhaps, he could choose a pretty wife over a plain one. But in the essential, they were all the same-same limited education, same cultivated silliness, same lack of common sense. Any one of the polished debutantes of the London season would bore him to death within days.
Might as well let his father's choice rule his life.
But he had shoved all knowledge, all thought of it aside. He had forced himself to not think of it, if only unconsciously. He wanted nothing to do with her, having not written to her once. He had not asked himself why: but perhaps, it was because the very mention of her name tore at his heart with memories of a great friendship, lost. Little by little, his anger at Bennet had evaporated; he had come to see that his friend, a man of a simple and forthright nature, could not have plotted against him. But the pain was worse now, for it was mixed, to a great degree, with severe self-recrimination, with a spoonful of regret added for good measure. No, he could not think of Elizabeth Bennet without a shudder inside.
Of course, it did not help the matter any that the last he had seen her she had screamed and railed at him, in a manner as vicious and unladylike as they come. He had very little faith in the improvement of her character and manners over the past three years. She had been brash, tomboyish, acerbic at thirteen; he shuddered to think of her now. Could she have grown up into a lady fit to govern Pemberley at his side? Indeed, he could not imagine she ever would.
But oh, how close it all was. He had always thought of his impending marriage to her as a distant, though dark, possibility; now, it could not have been closer. He did not question his father's decision to bring Miss Bennet to Pemberley: it was, after all, a sensible and responsible thing to do. He agreed with him that a sixteen-year-old girl could not be expected to spend a long, dark winter in the company of three decrepit servants. Still, the news did not fail to bring his worst memories to light, turning his dark countenance positively thunderous. His father begged him, if only between the lines, to stay away from Pemberley for now-for apparently, he thought with a huff, the little miss did not wish to see him. Well, hang him if he wanted to see her. She would be a living reminder of the only time in his life he had taken pains to forget.
He closed his fist, crumpling the letter in his hand, then flung it, meanly, into the flames.
La, he thought bitterly, what a lark. Could he hope to fall asleep now? Surely he would not find his way into Morpheus' arms tonight. He stood for a while, leaning on the table, and then, with a furious sweep of his arm, cleared his desk, sending his papers flying and the inkwell toppling onto the rug. Damnation.
Pushing away from the escritoire, stepping over the sheaves of paper on the rug, a book, a broken taper, he went to ring for his valet. He would go out tonight, however tired. Valerie, he thought, as he went to rifle through his closet, almost savagely. Perhaps, it took a woman to put his heart to rest on such a night.
Elizabeth wished, from the bottom of her heart, to have found Pemberley ordinary and dull. She willed herself to think it was a mere house. Perhaps even wanting in a few respects (thought what those might be, she did not know). Of course, it was rich enough, and large enough, and handsome enough... but it was only a house. Still, she could lie to herself all she wished: for it was a mere house, and yet it was not. There was something about it that had touched her heart the very first time she saw it. Something that moved her still, every time she cast her eyes on it. It was gracefully styled and tastefully, thoughtfully furnished, each room a little gem, different from all the others. It had a conservatory full of most lovely and exotic flowers, including twenty varieties of white roses, in all their blooming glory that took her breath away. It came with an excellent staff: a multitude of servitors, all of them as capable as they were discreet. She only had to think of a thing, and her wish was fulfilled forthwith.
But it was Pemberley's magnificent grounds that captured her heart most. The white rolling land, acres and acres of it, which turned brown, then green almost overnight, beckoned the walker in her.. In the old, he majestic wood, a certain slant of afternoon light made her feel she had stumbled into an enchanted world. And, with the help of some seed cake, she made fast friends with the pair of black swans that lived (as it turned out, with Mrs. Reynolds' generous patronage) by the round mirror pond.
For the first time in three years she saw reason behind her father's actions (though she had yet to approve of them; and perhaps, she never would). It was impossible to see Pemberley and not covet it.
Of course, any such luxury came with a price-in this case, marriage to the most disagreeable man of her acquaintance. Before she fell compleatly in love with the place, Elizabeth reminded herself, constantly, that she would have to marry Fitzwilliam Darcy to be the mistress of it all. Indeed, she thought bitterly, this was too high a price to pay, even for such a lovely, lovely place as Pemberley.
Then, too, there was the family. She fought against her growing attachment to them. Eventually, she knew, they would part ways, for she would never stay with them. It was no use to let herself get too attached. To keep herself in check, she told herself, again and again, that Mr. Darcy was Fitzwilliam Darcy's father. He could not be but a little culpable for the abominable man his son had become. And then, she reminded herself, constantly, he was also the man who had come to Longbourn and torn her away from everything dear to her heart. The man who had imposed his will on her, without any consideration, having well-nigh threatened to drag her off by force if she did not comply (she knew it was not exactly the truth; but her mind was keen to believe what she wanted it to believe). That if they were suffering at all, it was all because of his initial folly so many years ago. Perhaps as a consequence of her youth, she was apt to acquit her own late father of any folly with the same vehemence, with which she fought to convict his friend. Her dearest, most secret-so secret she would hardly admit to it herself- wish was that Mr. Darcy prove mean and cold, and that his daughter behave like a spoiled princess she had seen at Trinity three years ago. She did not want to like them, tried her hardest not to.
But she could not help it. To her dismay, she could find nothing at all to dislike about them. They were gracious. They were generous. They treated her like their dearest guest. Mr. Darcy was indulgent of her-even when she was at her most uncivil, rendering her bright-red with shame every time, killing her with his kindness. Sometimes, when she caught him looking at her, she saw her father's look in his eyes. His goodness tore at her heart, leaving her in deepest confusion.
Miss Darcy, on her part, was as far from a spoiled heiress as one could imagine. Elizabeth found the girl terribly shy, but still very desirous of making friends with her. Because of Georgiana's natural diffidence, Elizabeth often found herself making the first step. But when approached, Georgiana-for since their second day of acquaintance, the girls had banished their formal appellations-proved a gracious hostess. She was eternally available to give endless tours of the house, happy to share her toys and her books, always an eager audience for Elizabeth's stories of travels and gothic horrors, sitting on her bed with her legs crossed and her eyes wide listening to Elizabeth's retelling of Jamie's letters. For all her shyness, Georgiana had a quick mind and a lively enough personality. They talked about everything in the world-or rather, about everything they knew (for Elizabeth had to allow, there were many things they did not).
On her part, Georgiana plied to Elizabeth her own stories, most often of various Pemberley ghosts. It seemed there was a missing wing that kept repapering on moonlit nights, a forgotten cellar where someone had died centuries ago, a room that nobody ever went to. Elizabeth did not believe any of it, of course, even though an eerie chill did run up her arms; but she did find it endearing that someone so young and shy could find ghosts so exciting. Naturally, the stories remained the stories, and that was it: as they had no hope to locate the reappearing wing, and since Georgiana would not be prevailed upon to go looking for the abandoned cellar, the girls remained very pleased when they managed to scare themselves silly by simply talking about it.
Elizabeth, being of a free nature and a great enthusiast for walking, often seduced her young friend into a long promenade. Georgiana was always game for a walk in the park (which grew longer as the snows melted, to the consternation of the maternal Mrs. Reynolds, who doted on Miss Darcy and was terrified of her catching a cold). Elizabeth knew-she could see-that Georgiana was sometimes too slow, her legs too weak to walk as quickly as herself. Still, she would not complain, bearing up. Thereupon, Elizabeth stood and waited for her-as long as need be. She liked the girl, despite herself, despite her desperate attempts to search for-and find-similarities between this shy, sunny child and her forbidding haughty brother.
Increasingly, they spent hours of time in each other's company, from which relationship Elizabeth reaped her own benefits. She found the instruction of Miss Lucas most enlightening-if only in certain areas. She had never had a governess before. All her education was, indeed, that of a boy. Granted, it was the superior one to have, the edification of an average female rather limited in the day. But now she took an unexpected pleasure in mastering her French (the treacherous r did get easier with time and practice), and learning how to play duets. She did not like her voice-which she had always thought too high and weak-but found it sounded well enough next to Georgiana's deeper contralto. She read more poetry, too, and learned three new country dances. Miss Lucas praised her, aloud and to Mr. Darcy, who seemed glad of her successes.
Elizabeth found a particular pleasure in tweaking Georgiana's taste in books. She thought it to be a dire necessity: for Georgiana was reared on sickeningly-sweet moralistic literature. No book Georgiana read was ever compleat without a lesson at the end. Elizabeth felt her duty by the girl was not done until she taught her to read for simple pleasure. One morning, Elizabeth climbed the ladder in the library, pulling down all her favorite books, one by one. Down went Robinson Crusoe and Ivanhoe, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, poetry of John Donne and the Greek myths, Arthurian legends and Gulliver's Travels. Georgiana seemed shocked and pleased by such treasures, stacking them neatly on the floor. Having ascertained with Elizabeth that proper young ladies did, indeed, read books of suspense and adventure, she happily called a footman-to have the treasures carted to her room.
Georgiana picked the first book blindly, and spent nearly the entire day reading it. It was Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. She read it, sitting in the window-seat for the longest time, cross-legged; she read it in place of her pianoforte practice, upsetting Miss Lucas into a near-fit; she read on the swing in the garden; and had Mr. Darcy allowed for it, she would have kept reading at supper as well.
That very night, Elizabeth had already gone to bed, when a scratching at the door announced the arrival of her young friend. Elizabeth slipped out of bed and padded, barefoot, to the door. Georgiana peeked through the crack in the door, looking sheepish.
"Elizabeth," she said. "Forgive me-Are you not asleep yet?"
Elizabeth bit down a smile. Well, she thought, not anymore. "As you see." She moved aside, letting Georgiana inside the room.
"I thought I might-" The girl shivered as she stepped across the threshold. "Do you suppose I could-" She sighed, hiding her eyes.
Elizabeth knew, perfectly well, what had happened. She closed the door behind Georgiana and pointed at her bed.
"Cannibals?" she asked, kindly. Georgiana nodded fervently and made a dash for the bed. Climbing in, she chattered gaily about how kind Elizabeth was to let her sleep in her bed tonight. Elizabeth sighed, slipping in next to her.
"Do not worry, Georgie," she said. "Cannibals cannot get you here."
She was already falling asleep, when Georgiana's loud whisper startled her:
She sighed and peeked over her shoulder. "Yes?" she asked, trying to sound kinder than she felt.
"Do you suppose "Friday" is a Christian name?"
Elizabeth laughed sleepily, cuffed Georgiana over the head with the nearest pillow, and then, having thought about it, said:
The next morning, having roused the house in search of Miss Georgiana (conspicuously missing from her own bed, and only a tome of Daniel Defoe left in her stead), Mrs. Reynolds found her curled up in Elizabeth's bed, sharing her pillow with a round circle or orange cat-and the owner of the said bed, and the said cat-sitting with her feet in the window-seat, scribbling a letter on a lap desk. An inkwell, precariously, next to her on a stack of books, threatening ruination to the sky-blue drapes. She turned her head to see a company of servants-Mrs. Reynolds, Georgiana's maid Molly, a tall footman with an unnecessary candle-freeze on the threshold at the sight. She put a finger to her lips and raised one eyebrow.
"Sh-sh-sh," she said.
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