Over the next several months, Malvina lived at Fort Sinjun as she might in an enchanted world. She did not remember herself this happy; not even the torrential monsoon rains, water crashing down from the sky for two and a half months, could dampen her spirit. She spent her days with Ruth, who had grown from a servant to more of a companion, and her nights, with rare exception, with Captain Bennet. She spent as little time as possible with the ladies of the Fort, finding them tiring at best, insufferable at worst. Peace reigned within her; and even her grief for Charles had subsided to gentle sadness most of the time.
She hardly ever saw Mr. Wickham, too, who had made sure to keep out of her way after their confrontation in the garden. Having queried Ruth several times, Malvina was finally assured that her message to the man had had its desired effect: he had not approached the girl any more. She very nearly forgot about him.
Malvina suspected that her lover's conscience was troubled by their illicit closeness far more than hers. By this time, the Captain slept at the officers' quarters on the Eastern side of the Fort only when absolutely necessary, spending all remaining nights in that ivory-carved white bed, in a beautiful frescoed bedroom with a balcony overlooking the Ghats. It suited Malvina quite well, discretion only a secondary consideration to her - secondary to having James with her every night. Malvina knew that Ruth was discreet; but she also knew that the entire Fort had long guessed just what went on between the two of them. Mrs. Howrey, who had once been kind to her, had been so very disapproving and cold to her the very last time they had spoken, Malvina decided she would not expose herself to such censure any longer and barely approached the old lady. The truth was, she could hardly feel slighted by it - after all, she knew just how inappropriate their behavior had been. She did not care. His love healed her, made her better, made her whole. His presence in her bed every night was like air to her lungs.
The Captain, however, was thinking about the future.
"Mal," he said one night, gathering her close to himself. "Mal. We ought to marry." She threw him a narrow glance over one shoulder, full of annoyance. His proposition, sensible and expected thought it might be, had the dismal effect of dragging her back into the real world. Knowing full well that he was right about the important thing, she chose to focus on the insignificant.
"We ought to marry?"
"Excuse my lack of gallantry here, ma'am, but I do believe that I should look rather laughable attempting to go upon one knee en dishabille."
She giggled. "I should like to see that!" she mused. "But no, sir, thank you."
Her answer surprised herself. For she had honestly believed that she would consent if he asked her. But now that he did - and despite the fact that she agreed that he was likely correct, for they ought to marry, indeed - she had no desire to do so. So calm did he sound when he asked her, so logical, so reasonable, Malvina almost hated him for it.
The Captain sighed behind her.
"Mal," he said with some irritation. "I do not believe that I need to enlighten you upon what occurs when two people - " he cleared his throat delicately - "do what we do."
"No," she said. "You do not. I am perfectly aware of the theoretical possibility."
"Theoretical possibility?" he repeated, sounding nonplussed.
"I was married to Charles for six months, and he did not get me with child."
He let go of her and rolled upon his back, head upon his folded arms.
"This is very bad logic," he informed her. "It might have been not enough time. It might have been Bingley's fault."
"Or I might be barren," she said simply and sat up, draping a sheet about herself.
"Why, does the possibility frighten you?" She knew she sounded spiteful, and yet she could not help it. She had wanted a baby so badly when married to Charles; everyone had told her that she needed not worry, that they had not be married a year... Well, they would not, would never be married a year. And when he died, she thought bitterly, she was left with nothing. It would be most ironic if James would get her with child now, when she was hardly thinking about it.
She spun back to peer at him. He was still in the same pose, arms folded leisurely behind his head. The room was poorly lit with a small, swinging oil lantern, and the uneven shadows painted his face so dark, his impression was unreadable. She wondered whether she had gone a step too far in her defiance of him.
He answered her after a pause.
"No," he said, rather more mildly than she had expected. "I believe I should like to marry you regardless of your ability to bear me an heir."
"Indeed," she repeated, surprised.
"The possibility of entail is far less frightening to me than that of living without you for the rest of my days."
He said nothing else, and all of a sudden, Malvina felt all fight go out of her. He had spoken in a quiet tone, still logical and reasonable, but now there seemed to be a depth of feeling in his words. Far less frightening to me than that of living without you. The realization that he cared quite this much - that the thought of not being with her frightened him and that he was willing to risk an entailment by marrying a barren woman - left her stunned. She felt deeply embarrassed, rather silly and a little unworthy of such effortless nobility. Biting her lip, she rolled back and fitted herself against his body. A humbling thing; but he was still gracious, saying nothing, merely wrapping one arm about her and dropping a kiss atop her head.
But he did not ask her again, and in the future, she thought of it with irrational disappointment. In all other respects, he was as tender and solicitous a lover as she could wish; and very soon, even that little sadness passed.
Winter came, the season of rains ending and milder weather following, with comfortable nights and cool, misty mornings. Malvina took to enjoying her morning coffee upon the white latticed balcony off her bedroom, feeding the crumbs of her breakfast to the iridescent green parrots that came down in graceful swoops to perch on the stone railing. Sometimes, the Captain joined her, and she loved it all the more for that; sometimes she was alone, treasuring her solitude like a beautiful thing.
One particularly fine, cool morning, she was swathing herself in a soft shawl, cradling her warm cup between her palms. Ruth entered, dropped an English-style curtsey and said:
"Memsahib, I have heard it that Mrs. Meadows is brought to her bed with child."
As if apologizing for spreading gossip, the girl hanged her head and started to back out of the room.
"So early," Malvina said, quickly calculating, thinking that Mrs. Meadows ought not be more than eight months along. She drained her cup, then set it down quickly. "I shall go there now, perhaps there is something I can do to help."
So she went, winding her way through the enormous, labyrinthine Fort almost by instinct, but finally arriving to Mrs. Howrey's apartments. There, she found the dowager herself, looking purposeful and important. To Malvina's offer of whatever help she could give, the older lady pursed her lips:
"You have not had your own, 'tis unseemly that you should attend to my daughter."
Malvina frowned. "I was married," she said pointedly.
" 'Tis by no means the same," Mrs. Howrey said with some importance.
"Perhaps I cold help," Malvina said, still not understanding; but it was beginning to dawn upon her that she was not wanted in attendance.
"No, my dear, I would not burden you so," Mrs. Howrey said, smiling coldly.
"I see." Malvina said, feeling very much the fool. "I wish your daughter an easy confinement."
She turned and went, strangely hurt on her own behalf and hopeful on the part of the girl. She felt uneasy for her, for the Fort surgeon had little enough experience with babies, this being his first year in service there. She hoped that Mrs. Howrey would have enough sense to send for a local midwife; but she doubted that.
She spent the day musing on the strangeness of it all. She wondered why she had been banned - was it for being unlucky, so young a widow, or for having behaved indecently in the eyes of all the ladies? She put on her floppy hat and went outside, to work in the garden, hoping that work would take her mind off things - off the danger to a young woman's life, off the snub she had just suffered, off her own barrenness and inevitably - off Charles. Ruth toiled next to her, without so much as a sound.
Slowly, Malvina's mind had eased, the minute, intense work of digging, clipping, cutting and culling taking it away from all the heavy sadness. For some time, she thought of nothing at all except her next movement; then, quick steps and an unguarded hand rapping her shoulder, and she very nearly fell backwards.
"Good god," she said thickly, looking up to see Miss Heloise Stewart. And then, rising from her low stool: "Is she delivered?" For the young woman's face was eager and almost happy - surely she was no harbinger of bad news.
"What?" Miss Stewart said, blankly. Then, without so much as a pause, she added in a whisper too stagy and loud to conceal anything:
"I have something to tell you, but pray, have your little black go away, for 'tis a secret."
Frowning, her equanimity dissipating momentarily, Malvina tossed her shears down, crossed her arms on her chest and said, her tone even:
"There is nothing you can say to me that Miss Johnson is not fit to hear."
Miss Stewart appeared briefly lost for words, and Malvina continued, hurriedly, suddenly eager to prevent the confidence that she knew was coming. "But please remember that I like secrets very ill, so perhaps you ought not to waste yours on me at all."
But it was too much for Miss Stewart - she had come all this way, to the garden that she hardly ever visited, in greedy anticipation of the shock her secret would cause, and to find that it was not wanted - oh, that was not to be borne. So she pretended that she had not heard Malvina's rebuke, nor her forewarning.
"Lieutenant Meadows has overindulged in spirits," she said, "and is shouting and carrying on that he had not lain with his wife since before Christmas!" She sniggered into her hand. Malvina sighed. She ought to have known it was something like that.
"How is Mrs. Meadows?" she asked, certain that Miss Stewart, though a maid, was far more privy to the sufferer's state than she. The girl looked at her in irritated astonishment, her very expression saying, how should I know?
"They say," she continued, "that the real father - but perhaps I should not say - could you possibly imagine? - Lieutenant Wickham! Perhaps - perhaps there will be a duel!" she suggested with glee, poorly hidden behind false horror.
"I should hope not," Malvina said in disgust. Then, "You will excuse me," she added sharply, plopping herself onto her stool again and reaching for her shears. Miss Stewart, unneeded, unappreciated, stood, lost, for another moment, then turned and with a huff was gone along the garden path.
Wickham, Malvina thought, sniping her shears furiously at a weed that looked, following the long wet season, like a thick vine. Of course - why on earth should she be surprised. She threw a sideways glance at Ruth, but nothing in the girl's countenance betrayed that she might have been disturbed by the mention of this officer's name. All the same, Malvina reached over and squeezed the girl's wrist briefly above the cuff of her gardening glove. Ruth glanced at her, smiling, and they continued their work.
That night, she asked Ruth which goddess one prayed to on behalf of women in travail. Ruth gave her an indignant look:
"I am a good Christian, Memsahib!"
"All the same, tell me."
"Shasti," Ruth said reluctantly. "The goddess of childbirth and babies. And no, I will not worship her with you, memsahib! I have no wish to imperil my soul!"
She looked genuinely shocked at the proposition, and Malvina laughed and let the good Christian go to her bed. She herself had acquired an opportunistic sentiment towards religion: she would worship whatever god it took to avert disaster; and alone in her room, she sent up a little prayer to Shasti for the young Anne Meadows' life and child.
Later, when James Bennet, face drawn with worry, loomed upon her threshold, Malvina pressed her face to the thick blue fabric of his coat and whispered his name with great longing. He stroked her hair and closed his arms about her, sensing her to be profoundly disturbed. She pushed herself out of his embrace, pushed the deep-blue coat off his shoulders, pulled him to the bed without so much as another word. He was quiet, tender, willing. Very kind. Afterwards, curled up together in the moonlit bed, her hair spread over them both like a silver fleece, they talked about the events of that day.
"The poor fool Michael Meadows got himself shamefully drunk - had accused all the officers of colluding in his wife's seduction - all because they would not confirm his suspicions to him. I was forced to put him under lock and key - very unfortunate business, that. Wickham, the dog, is nowhere to be seen, of course."
Malvina stroked one hand down the Captain's chest. The rough edge of his shirt was a sharp contrast to the smoothness of the open skin beneath. "Such suffering and misery, and all poor Anne Meadow has waiting for her is an irate husband..." She thought, but did not say - if, indeed, she lives to ever speak to him again.
"I heard her mother was uncivil to you today," the Captain said after a pause. "I am sorry for that."
Malvina made a sleepy sound. "Old Howrey has always been a bit of a hag," she said. "I care not, you know."
It was a lie, and they both knew it. She had been hurt - no, not hurt - rather discomforted by the rebuff she had suffered. But she would not speak of it, nor let him see it. Not that the front she had put up deceived him.
"I would not have you ashamed of yourself, Mal," he said, curling a strand of her long hair around his finger. "Of us."
Malvina bit her lip, suddenly moved close to tears. He wrapped his arms around her, squeezed her hard against himself.
"My offer to you still stands," he said into her hair.
She made a thick sound against his chest, speech arrested, knowing that she would cry if she said anything.
"I am not taking it away," he said very quietly, "not until you tell me that you do not wish to marry me. It is yours to take until then."
In the circle of his arms, Malvina found the Captain's hand amidst the sheets and squeezed it, tight, in gratitude. Then, feeling that something was amiss, she held up the selfsame hand and inspected it in the dim light.
"James," she exclaimed. "Your ring!"
"What?" he asked somewhat distractedly, as he had lifted her hair and was kissing her nape.
"Your ring," she repeated. "Your owl signet, where is it?"
"Oh," he said, and she thought she could hear him frown. "As a matter of fact, Mal, I do not know where it is. I seem to have misplaced it."
He kissed her neck again, but she would not have it. She had noticed the thing immediately when she met him, for Darcy had worn one just like it. It was a heavy gold signet, darkened with time and many applications of sealing wax, with a visage of an owl upon it. A curious thing it was, and Malvina thought that the two must have bought identical rings as a sign of their friendship while at Trinity. James told her later that the ring had been given to him by Darcy himself as just such a sign.
Spinning back to face him, she continued to interrogate him." Have you tried looking for it?"
"I have," he answered, patiently, as he leaned to kiss her naked shoulder. "To no avail."
He shrugged, looking up at her again. "They even searched a sepoy's belongings." He grinned at her. "Not too diligently, I trust, for no-one wishes to give offense over a trinket. Not even I."
Malvina frowned. She did not know why, but the thought bothered her tremendously. The ring was more than a trinket, certainly, it was a sign of a great friendship that was now long gone. It was not unlike the pieces of jewelry Charles had given her during the short time of their marriage. During her journey to India, she had lost a bracelet he had given her shortly after their wedding. She had cried for days after it happened. To lose one such article felt to Malvina a great misfortune; to lose the only one would have been a disaster. She sighed, miserable. Thoughts of Charles, unbidden, reverberated within like a great secret pain.
"How unfortunate," she whispered, turning her back to him again. James must have felt the sharp, anxious set of her shoulders, for he had stopped kissing her and merely stroked her arm a little.
"There is nothing for it," he said a little harshly, leaving Malvina to guess just how badly this loss had hurt him. She herself had suddenly become too disordered to say anything more, and so, they slept, fitfully, in each other's embrace.
On the morrow, the worst news. In the night, young Anne Meadows had given birth to a frail boy and died subsequently in a rush of blood. The physician was uncertain whether the child would live for much longer. Nobody seemed to need or want him - neither his bereaved grandmother, nor the man the law held to be his father, still bitterly drunk, still under lock and key.
Malvina, terribly distressed by the news, put aside her own smart and went to comfort Mrs. Howrey. The old woman seemed to have lost her backbone, unable now to stand straight. Nor did she have the strength for anything, and Malvina quickly charged herself with finding a wet-nurse for the motherless boy. With the help of other servants, the services of a suitable Hindu woman, quiet and kindly, were therefore bespoken.
Anne Meadows was buried that very day because of the heat. Her husband was released from his lockdown upon his word being given to the Captain that he would not drink. He stood, watching his young wife's coffin, the boards of it still fresh, being lowered into the ground by four soldiers. It had been a lucky streak since the Regiment's arrival to the Fort, as nobody had died - Mrs. Meadows' grave would be the first one in the small, new cemetery just outside its walls. Michael Meadows looked lost, as if he did not know who, or where he was. Malvina could not bear to look at him, her own memories of widowhood awakened suddenly, still-fresh and brutal. At the very least, she had had the unshakeable satisfaction that Charles had loved her, had been true to her. She had had the luxury of grieving after a man who had deserved it. What did the poor Mr. Meadows have?
Later that day, Malvina sat by Mrs. Howrey's bed. They could hear, in the distance, the baby's wailing. She sighed, stroked the old lady's hand and waited for the laudanum to take effect.
"They say terrible things about my Ann," murmured Mrs. Howrey, looking up in Malvina's face with feverish eyes. "Terrible things. Untrue things." The old woman seemed to look to the younger one for confirmation, as if she, herself, had not banned her from her daughter's very bedside just yesterday and for just such a prejudice.
"It does not matter," Malvina said, still stroking her hand. "None of it matters." She stroked the old woman's hand, turning her mind off to the ravages that confinement could inflict on a young and healthy person. Poor Ann Meadows, to die so ignominiously, in a rush of blood, surrounded by malicious gossipers who would besmirch her name postmortem... She saw the tell-tale signs that the laudanum was, finally, working, and Mrs. Howrey was soon fast asleep.
A day later, going about in search of the Captain, she found him, to her distress, in the company of Lieutenant Wickham. Not only him, but - she could tell by the voices emanating from behind a closed door - also the bearish Major Llewellyn, his superior officer. Llewellyn was happy enough to allow young Bennet to attend to all his duties, occupying himself instead with hunting every possible wild thing in the vicinity. Now, however, he was there, in the small bare room that James often used for an office of sorts. Malvina heard the voices just as she was going to knock; they stopped her in her tracks.
"Damned unfortunate business," she heard the Major say. "Terrible for morale."
"If you pardon me, Major," James' voice came, dryly. "It is far more terrible for morale that a man should be allowed to get away with a two days' unexplained absence - "
"I tell you," Mr. Wickham's voice came, exasperated, "Captain, I was laid up in one of the back rooms with a wicked case of -"
"You must think me a fool, sir!" James said furiously. "Why were you not at your post, do you expect me to believe you that a mere illness -"
"A damned uncomfortable illness," Mr. Wickham said.
"I believe I know the name of it," James snapped.
"What are you saying, sir?"
"Only that your absence coincided, in a most peculiar way, with Lieutenant Meadows' shouting and ranting about wanting to impale you on a stick!"
Malvina could not help grinning at the thought, but then Mr. Wickham's cold voice brought her back:
"An accusation of cowardice, sir, and no doubt you are aware that I cannot call you out without imperiling my neck - "
"ENOUGH!" Major Llewellyn shouted. "Damned nuisance, both of you! Bennet! Stop it, for Lord's sake - I can see you do not like the fellow, but - "
Malvina realized, suddenly, that she was eavesdropping. She ran away.
He came to her that night, looking mutinous and angry, and plopped himself into a chair with a groan. "So we come to it that for his abject cowardice and absenting himself from his post, Mr. Wickham is fined 10 shillings and confined to quarters 'till the end of the week," he told her with utter disgust in his voice, taking a cup of tea from her hand. "Demmit, Mal - pardon me - but I would have the fellow flogged."
She started laughing. "You know that you cannot flog an officer! Not for being God knows where for several days."
"No," he agreed, taking a sip of his tea. "In any case, Llewellyn prefers not to do anything greater to him than the fine - which the bastard took very well, I must say - and the confinement. He thinks it would be bad for the Fort morale."
"I should think so," Malvina said. "And what of the poor Mr. Meadows?"
"I have prevailed upon your Father to send him as a courier to Madras this very morning."
She nodded. "Probably wise of you."
Looking somewhat impatient, he set his tea cup aside and motioned to her. "Mal," he whispered, seriously, extending one hand. She came, instantly, perching upon his knee and he pulled her to lie against his chest. Her head resting upon his shoulder, Malvina told him about her day, about sitting with Mrs. Howrey, whose broken heart was making her more steely and imposing than before.
"But I believe she is all shattered inside, James."
"Mmmmm." He kissed the edge of her ear. "My mother died having Bess. Not yet thirty years old. I believe her mother outlived her by two months. There is nothing so terrible as that, is there - to bury one's own child?"
Malvina shuddered. "If that were my fate," she said quietly, "I would only pray that my eyes close the moment before."
Thoughtfully, he stroked her hair, then said: "No-one can prevent such catastrophes as this, Mal, but ... anything else I can prevent, I will." She said nothing, and he leaned, looking into her face. "You do believe me?"
She smiled wistfully, her fingers tracing the outline of his jaw. She was thinking about Charles. There was no creature as fragile and susceptible as a man. The Captain looked different from her late husband: more strapping and wiry and greater in height. A stronger man, no doubt about it. She sighed, feeling deeply guilty about even comparing them. She had loved one, and now loved the other, all the while trying to tell herself that loving James did not take away from the care she had for the poor Charles.
James tipped her chin up with one finger, looked, squinting, into her eyes.
"I will always protect you."
She wound her arms about his neck and kissed his mouth, deeply moved and banishing her doubts and her guilt. He drew a sharp breath and pulled her tightly against himself, whispering her name against her lips. Without another word, he pulled the edge of her saree above her knees, allowing her to straddle him in the chair. She pressed herself against him tightly, her mouth, her breasts, her - everything; his response to her attentions was a feral growl and a tightening of his arms on her, and the wild pace of his hands upon her body. Her desire for him was furious, desperate, full of fear and realization that he was only, terrifyingly, a man. The thought that he, too, may one day be lost to her made her want to howl.
On the night of the Christmas Ball, Malvina stood upon the balustrade over her Father's smallish ballroom, now lavishly decorated. The Fort would celebrate for the next twelve nights, and everybody would be there tonight in the joyful assembly. Malvina wore her most beautiful saree, deep-blue and stitched with gold, her hair set in a way that Ruth thought was most flattering to her - a heavy bun at the back of her head, wound with pearls. Her dancing book, to her consternation, was filled to the very last page, for over the last week, she had been approached by every officer, from the massive Major Llewellyn, to the shy Mr. Cranford, and asked about a dance.
"That dog Cranford!" James laughed at the idea of his timid lieutenant beginning his superior officer's lady for a dance.
"He is simply too pure to think ill of me!" Malvina coshed her lover with a pillow. "He does not know I am your lady."
Two of the dances were, of course, the Captain's, and Malvina knew that everyone's eyes would be upon them as they danced. She knew just what the Fort ladies had thought of her. Mrs. Howrey, apparently recovered from the immediate shock of her daughter's death - though it seemed utterly impossible that she should ever recover from it - and reverted to her former, disapproving, icy self. Malvina did not miss her company, though it did sting.
Even if she had not known about the women's censure, she would soon find out by way of Miss Stewart telling her. The girl nigh-on considered it her duty to give bad news. She delighted in particular in gossip, and it did not help Malvina one bit to keep telling the chit that she did not want to hear of it. Now, wrapped in her golden saree, she preferred to avoid Eloise Stewart's company at any price. She would much rather have Ruth; but the child begged her mistress' indulgence in letting her stay away from the ballroom.
"Mrs. Bingley! Are all your dances spoken for?"
She could not believe her eyes. Mr. Wickham, striding towards her, very debonair and grinning. As if they were friends, or had ever been. She pursed her lips and fixed him with a terrible eye.
"Yes," she said, not even bothering to express regret. "Come, come, dear lady," he said, flashing her a great smile. "Let us be friends." He held out his hand to her. She glared at him.
"No!" she said with utter disgust. "I am not your friend, Mr. Wickham, and I shall not pretend to be one. I do not know what deception you have practiced upon Captain Bennet's sister, so that she thinks herself to be your friend, but I am older and not quite so easy to exploit as the young Mrs. Darcy."
His easy smile all but rolled off his face, his gaze upon her turning cold and shrewd. "Well," he said. "As you wish, madam."
Thereupon he turned and strode away. Malvina, her mood thoroughly ruined now, went in search of James. She did not know why, but the meeting with this man quite unsettled her. She told herself he was a mere cad, an opportunist eager for every chance to advance himself. Not a gentleman, she thought. Most definitely not a gentleman. She thought back to what James had told her of his sister's quarrel with her husband. She was not at all surprised that Darcy, with his fastidious nature and reserved manners, had had a falling out with this fellow - though they may have been brought up together. She thought it was a stranger thing by far that they had ever gotten along.
Her Father, glowing with good health, Christmas spirit and punch, caught her up in his arms near the head of the stairs.
"Malvina, my darling!" he kissed her resoundingly on both cheeks. "How lovely you look tonight."
"Yes, Papa." She leaned forward, kissing his cheek as well. "You look very good today, too." Her good humor was beginning to seep back. "Merry Christmas. Have you seen - "
"Your fellow, eh?" He gave her an appraising look. "Will you ever consent to marry the poor chap? You ought to, you know, he is our top bachelor and for all I know may be snatched from you by one young beauty or other! How that Miss Stewart always looks upon him!"
"Father!" She groaned.
"What? Am I not allowed to wish for my daughter's happiness, and on Christmas Eve, of all days? He will move far in the Army, my dear, take heed! Marry him and you will have a general for a husband one day!"
Malvina could not help laughing, though her heart now fluttered in her chest. "Why do you even suppose he wants to marry me?"
The Colonel fixed her with an indignant look. "Credit me with eyes, my child! He is an honorable man, the kind that does not - " He pursed his lips, searching for a genteel way to put it. - " - does not endear himself to a lady, unless he intends to wed her."
Very well, she thought, you asked. Her face flamed, suddenly, at the impropriety of this conversation.
"That, and he has been at your heels ever since he's brought you through this gate, my dear, like a loyal dog."
Malvina frowned, not liking this particular description.
"Ah!" said the Colonel. "I see I discomfited you, my dear. Well, forgive the old man, I only wish to see to you happy. Oh!' he added, "but here is the man himself! Speak of the devil indeed."
Malvina turned, and there stood the Captain, wearing his deep-blue regimentals, his boots shined like little mirrors, his collar freshly starched. He had been her lover for months now, but Malvina's knees nigh-on buckled in girlish excitement at the site of him.
"Bennet," the Colonel said, and the Captain bowed politely. "Sir. Madam," Then, after a pause. "May I steal Mrs. Bingley away for a dance, Colonel?"
Her Father acquiesced, obviously approving, and James offered Malvina his arm.
"You look ravishing," he said the moment they were out of the old Colonel's earshot. "Every male in the room is agog to dance with you, and every lady loathes you for that."
She giggled and rolled her eyes at that.
"You know I am not at all interested in all that."
"I should hope so, or I would have to fight every one of the bastards, including Llewellyn - and they might just hang me for that."
Growing serious, for she had thought about this all night through and was now slightly faint with worry, Malvina asked the Captain:
"Might we step away for a moment? I have something to ask you."
He narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously, then nodded. "Of course."
They went up the long staircase and out onto the balcony. There were several couples milling there, but none of them close. He stopped, expectantly. There was a long, silent pause, during which he waited, with some barely concealed impatience, for her question.
Finally, she dared. "James. Your offer - you know of which I speak - it still stands?"
He nodded gravely, yet without delay. He was too generous, too fair a man to trifle with her, she thought. Many would torture her now, but not James Bennet.
"Then - " She breathed out, flexed and unflexed her fingers nervously. Ruth had painted intricate henna designs up and down her fingers and hands. Like a bride. "I would be honored to take it, James."
For a moment, he said nothing, and then, a slow smile appeared upon his face, a look of disbelief.
"So you are accepting me? You will marry me, Malvina?"
"Yes!" she said with a happy, breathy exhalation, and laughed giddily. "Yes, yes, I will!"
He grinned at her and tugged happily at a dark lock above his brow. "Very good," he said, taking her hand again. "Oh, very good, Mal!" He pressed it against his cheek, then, turning his face, kissed the palm with a kiss so tender, Malvina thought she might faint. "I shall speak with you Father tonight!"
Malvina did the unspeakable that night, breaking the promise to dance she had given to several men, Major Llewellyn included. Taking advantage of a lull in dancing, she disappeared, skulking up the stairs and down the gallery, hand-in-hand with James. They giggled as they ran and startled poor Ruth to hiccups by falling inside Malvina's bedchamber in a fit of laughter. The girl flew to her feet from where she had sat painting the inside of her own hand with henna.
"Ruth, oh Ruth!" Malvina cried, dizzy with joy. She was so happy! This offer had been hers for a long time, now. Why had she waited this long? She did not know. "Dearest Ruth, please wish me well! I am to marry the Captain!"
Ruth, eyes huge, folded her hands and bowed gracefully.
"Congratulations, Mem-Sahib," she said. "Captain Sahib. Much happiness to you." She curtseyed, European-style. "Will you be needing anything else tonight?"
Malvina only shook her head, unable to speak in her happiness. The moment the door closed behind Ruth, the Captain and his future bride stumbled into each other's arms and onto the bed.
They woke from a terrible, resounding crash. So loud that Malvina knew, intuitively, that something terrible had happened. It sounded as if peace itself was shattered. Both of them sat up in bed and froze, wide-eyed, staring at each other. The silence lasted only a moment, followed by another crash. Then, the screams started.
James Bennet scrambled out of bed and began to dress, moving frantically about the room, pulling on his trousers and boots, fastening his sword, cocking a pistol. Malvina sat very still, immobile, watching him. He stood by the bed and held his hand out to her.
"Come, Mal, hurry."
She climbed from the bed, tangling herself in the sheets on the way out. She had time to snatch a shawl - a frilly, beautiful thing, a strange reminder of the previous night - as she followed the Captain out the door.
"Keep close to me, Mal," was the only thing he said. She thought of Ruth, asleep downstairs in the servants' quarters, cursing herself for not setting the girl up closer to herself.
The screaming was terrible; it went on without end, so loud and desperate that Malvina thought it would drive her mad; then it stopped abruptly, as if cut off by a sword or a pistol. Then, the screams started again, and Malvina could not tell whether it was the same voice or a different one, and she thought she would run wild with this horror. Who was it, she thought, what evil force came over the fort battlements and was now wrecking havoc inside? The Tigers, was it the Tigers? The very thought had mortified the Fort's ladies for months, had made the men smirk knowingly: the Tigers were gone with their Tipoo. Dead and gone. Dead and gone. The words were like the beating of a drum in her mind. No-one had sounded an alarm, were the men of the watch all dead? How many were dead? Her Father? His quarters were on the other, Eastern, side of the Fort, with the other officers. James would have been there, had he not been sleeping in her bedchamber. The screaming was coming from there. She could see it across the expansive courtyard, the red glow rising above the Colonel's quarters.
They turned a corner at a run and were arrested, momentarily, by a burning doorway. The heat seared Malvina and she choked on the smoke. The wall nearby glowed a dull red; Malvina heard something crashing a step away. Without a word, James turned back, grasping her hand and pulling her after him. She hurried, barely able to breathe, almost tripping on her long nightshift. It was difficult to breathe, difficult to keep pace with James, whose long legs and wide strides were unencumbered by a long skirt. She was mute and dumb with fear, shaking fiercely even as she hurried after him, her brain buzzing with too many thoughts at once. The hopeful thought that the fire might have started from something as innocuous as Mrs. Howrey falling asleep with her candle; the terrible knowledge that it was something far more sinister.
Abruptly, they reached a set of stairs, and James stopped her, putting a finger against his lips. "Wait for me here," he mouthed to her and strode forward. Malvina plastered herself against the wall as he went down the stairs. Only a very little time must have passed, but she could not measure it, nor feel its passing. All of a sudden, there was a furious ringing of swords, a man screaming, and James' voice roaring with passionate wrath. Unthinking, she rushed down the steep staircase, her feet slipping in what she knew was blood. There was, suddenly, the reverberation of a pistol shot, and the sounds of swords clashing had stopped just as suddenly as they had begun, and she knew that someone had died.
She collided with James at the very bottom of the steps. He had a bloodied sword in his hand, and the sleeve of his white shirt was soaked with red.
Malvina gritted her teeth and murmured inquiries about whether he had been hurt.
" Just a scratch," he said quickly. He leaned and plucked a European flintlock pistol from the hand of a man at his feet. He cocked it and held it out to her. "When you shoot it, press the trigger with all your might."
She took the pistol, recoiling within from the warmth of the metal - a dead man's touch upon it still.
James extended his hand to her. "Come."
She had to step over the men he had killed. She tried not to look at them. There were two, dressed in long tunics with painted stripes on them. So it was them. "Come, come, Cranford, do stop frightening Mrs. Bingley with your ghosts stories," Lieutenant Wickham had said in that garden, smiling at her some months ago. Was he, too, now dead? She had no liking for the man, but she had never wished him death. How many, she thought, how many were now dead? She shut her eyes momentarily in absolute horror.
Now that they were in the courtyard, the entire eastern quarter of the Fort was afire. She could see the bright orange flames through the ornamental doors of what had been, the previous evening, her father's beautiful ballroom. His quarters, she knew, were right above it. Unable to stand the anguish of it, Malvina gave a howl of misery and rushed forward. James caught her bodily and held her as she struggled against him.
"Stop, Mal. Stop." His words were hoarse and clipped. "You cannot help him. Not if he was abed when they attacked."
She knew him to be right; the eastern quarter was now ablaze, and soon, the remainder of the Fort would be consumed. She felt her heart pierced with the most terrible grief - for her father, for the poor little Ruth in her servant's bed below stairs. She felt terrible pain, as if punched beneath her ribs, and bent with it in his arms. James pulled her up and pressed her face against his shoulder.
Eyes bleary with tears, she looked about her. The courtyard! Her beautiful rose garden! All manner of devastation became apparent to her. Some men were fighting in the courtyard, several - as far as she could see through the veil of smoke - up in the gallery, steps away from the raging fire. With a terrible scream, a figure rushed from the direction of the eastern quarters; it was ablaze, and Malvina watched, horrified, as it toppled over the gallery and crashed amidst the roses. She saw bodies - several - one of them belonging to a white woman lying face down, her long white nightshift baring her legs. She made an involuntary move towards her, mortified by the sight; but James held her back.
"Mal. We must go."
And off they went, again. She knew where he was taking her: to one of the secret passageways, leading out of the Fort. Her Father had learned of them from the maps, supplied to him by the Army; James had brought these maps from Madras. She remembered, very well, the two men studying them in her Father's office. What is this, sir, what are you reading with such rapt attention? Something that we may never need. God help us if we need them. Well, she thought, God help them now.
They passed underneath a dark portal, through the servants' quarters on the first floor of northern quarter, and down some stone steps, down to the cellars. People - servants - were rushing all about them, crying out in terror, disoriented. Malvina could feel the blaze, above them, could hear the running feet and the sound of musket fire and men shouting, though in what language, she could not deduce. Were they friend or foe? Were they walking straight into a trap? Malvina's mind buzzed: did the Tigers come into the Fort through one of these passageways? How could they have known of them? The Fort was impregnable, her Father had said. Impregnable. They would have to scale its walls to come inside.
A screaming, protesting, disordered white figure, arms and legs thrashing, pressed itself against the wall. She saw that it was Miss Stewart, and rushed forward to calm her. The girl, shaking terribly and babbling, flung herself at Malvina.
"Heloise, are you all right?" Malvina shook her by the shoulder.
" - they came - right out of the dark, like bloody ghosts - I was in the gallery - one of them grabbed me - " She gasped and choked, as if unable to tell the whole awful truth. It was only now that Malvina saw that Miss Stewart was still wearing the pale-blue gown she had worn last night; but that it was town to shreds and that her hair and eyelashes were singed. She slung her shawl over the girl's hunched back, squeezing one shaking shoulder through the fabric.
"We must go, my dear, there's no time to waste."
Her arm around the girl's shoulders, Malvina led Miss Stewart after James, who now moved with the speed and efficiency of a wolf in the woods. He must have been here before, she thought. With my father, they must have come down here. Who, she had wondered, had followed them here? Next to her, Miss Stewart keened quietly.
James stopped abruptly, holding up one hand.
"Sh-sh." She squeezed Miss Stewart's shoulder, and the keening abated. She could hear, only a short distance away - closer than the havoc of the courtyard and the burning galleries - the sound of clanging swords.
They rushed toward it, all three of them, Malvina pulling Miss Stewart after her by the hand. To her amazement, none other than the young Lieutenant Cranford, driven into a dark corner, attempted to defend himself against two armed men. Both attackers had their backs to them, and, before they had time to turn around, James rushed silently forward and, in front of Malvina's stunned eyes, speared a man in a striped tunic like so much mutton. Within a moment, he pulled his sword back with a terrible slurping sound, and the man, never to see his attacker, fell face first against the stones. His companion turned and rushed at them with a horrible cry of rage and battle, and Miss Stewart, screaming, fell and scrambled back against the wall; James, answering the man with just such a cry, parried his attack.
"Cranford! Take them to safety and wait for me!" he shouted, not looking at them.
Malvina fought Cranford - who looked singed and bloodstained - hissing at him that she would stay, that she had a pistol -
Cranford grasped her wrists and implored:
"Mrs. Bingley - I must go - 'tis Miss Ruth - one of them dragged her this way, and I followed them - "
Pulling Heloise Stewart from the floor by the hand, Malvina threw James one last desperate glance and very nearly ran. Miss Stewart was insensible now, her gown hanging in tatters around her legs, her ears torn and bleeding where diamonds had dangled the night before. But she was silent now, just as suddenly as she had been screaming before; and soon, Malvina heard a familiar voice issue from a few steps away. Ruth was crying out - no, mewling pathetically, like a small wounded animal. Malvina let go of Miss Stewart's hand and broke into a run, both Cranford and the girl falling behind.
Within moments, she saw him - a very large man, tiger-striped, dragging the crying Ruth by her long hair. Before the brute had had time to see her, she shifted the flintlock in her hand, holding it by the long barrel. She knew herself to be a very poor shot. Now, Malvina did not wait for him to stop or turn about, but ran up from behind and struck him, with all her might, in the back of the head. Her arm reverberated with the impact, which had failed to bring the man down. But the blow had surprised the man enough to make him let go of Ruth's hair; and the girl scrambled away on all fours, quickly and silently.
Though clearly dazed, the tiger-striped man now turned and came at her, bull-headed and blood-shot. His hands were huge; Malvina remembered the terrible stories of the Tipoo's monstrous jetties, who had executed prisoners by strangling them and bashing their heads together. She backed away, as quickly as she could, tripped on her gown and almost fell. Cranford came at the man with his sword, but the attacker's fearsome curved blade parried the young man's assault, the sheer force of the blow knocking Cranford back; and Malvina, conscious that she might only have time for one shot, pressed herself against the warm stones and waited for him to come close enough. She could see her fingers, white with tension under the painted henna, upon the weapon.
Then, when she could see his eyes, whites gleaming terribly in the semi-darkness, she pointed the pistol at the middle of the man's chest and squeezed the trigger with all her might.
It discharged so loudly and so near under the low stone ceilings, she was rendered compleatly deaf. For one horrifying moment, she thought she had missed him and held her breath, wide-eyed, waiting for the swish of his terrible blade... But in the very next second, the man fell heavily forward, giving her but a second to escape his crashing bulk.
"Very good," Lieutenant Cranford said approvingly, his voice dull and far off, then rushed to help the Ruth from the ground. Malvina stood, her bare feet on the stones of the cellar, the dead Tiger's flintlock heavy in her hand. She knew that she had killed a man, but the thought did not feel horrible at all. Not yet. Indubitably, later, she would ponder the sin of what she had done. There was no time for it now.
There were four of them now, a small band - though Miss Stewart was more of a burden to drag about than any kind of useful contributor - crouching behind a column, hidden in the very back of the cavernous Fort cellars. It was very dark about them, Malvina's eyes barely adjusted to the darkness now. She knew that James alone could show them where to go next. She suspected that there were several tunnels, and that one of them had served to bring the attackers inside. She shivered. They might be far away in safety; or they might have walked straight into the enemy's trap. She told herself that the attackers had most likely entered from the east, for that was the part of the Fort most brutally damaged. It was difficult to orient herself here underground, and her best guess was that they had been in the northern - northwestern - quarter of the Fort. She hoped James had not led them into an ambush. But it was very quiet here - Cranford had discharged his own pistol in the fallen attacker's head, to make sure the man was done for - and cool, as if there was no fire above them. She flung her arms about Ruth and Miss Stewart both, holding them both to herself. She felt ages older than either of the girls. Cranford sat against the column, eyes closed, a muscle working in his cheek.
A sound of hurried steps came from close by, and both Malvina and Cranford flew to their feet. Immediately realizing that she had left the pistol on the ground, she ducked quickly for it, and when she raised her head again, James was standing there. He - what she could see of him in the dark - appeared dirty to her, and injured, and singed. Malvina rushed forward, but dared not embrace him, for fear of hurting him more.
He made a vague gesture with his hand. "Come."
Without another word, all of them, even the whimpering Miss Stewart, followed him. He led them through the cellars, stumbling through the near darkness. Malvina walked into a column several times, and wished dearly for a candle; but she knew that their best chance of safety lay in this pitch blackness. If any enemy was about, she could only hope he could not see them.
James stopped so abruptly, Lieutenant Cranford nigh-on walked into him. Malvina saw him look up and saw what he was looking at: a great stone wall, which upon a closer inspection proved to be a bas-relief of thick black wood. She could see dancing girls and gods' vague features, their mysterious smiles half-erased by the time; Ganesha's long trunk and Shiva's many arms barely visible. Fascinated, she watched James study the bas-relief; then, all of a sudden, he pushed with all his might against a place in the wood that seemed to her wholly nondescript. Slowly, creakingly, a piece of wood slid out of place, making for James a sort of a step. Malvina gasped in surprise as she watched James leap onto the impromptu step and reach up above, to touch on a wide ledge above the faded Ganesha's head. He must have pressed something, because another block of wood, higher up, moved with a louder creak. He stepped atop it and reached above once again, thus causing another opening to present itself.
Finally, when the third step opened, James climbed atop it - he was now quite high above them - and Malvina could no longer see what was doing up there. He climbed down, then, landing with a soft thud against the stone floor.
"Help me, Cranford," he said, indicating that they should push. He grabbed the second step and pushed, very hard, Cranford helping with the lower step. At first, there was no effect; and Malvina wondered whether perhaps this elaborate contraption was merely that - a trap for them. But with another heave, the entire wooden panel slid sideways with a terrible sound, revealing a dark, earthen, round tunnel, which appeared to her much too small to fit a grown person.
Malvina felt weak with fear, then, at the thought of having to go through it. It looked absolutely black, and God only knew where it led. All light lost itself in it, and Malvina feared the same would happen to her, should she step inside. What if the tunnel led nowhere? What if something - malevolent and predatory - lived within? What if the Tigers waited for them on the side? What if? What if? She closed her eyes.
"Mal," she felt James' hand upon her shoulder, felt him draw her aside. She slumped against him, hiding her face in his shoulder.
"I cannot go in," she murmured, clutching his sleeve. "James, I cannot."
He wrapped his arms around her, awkwardly. "Mal, sweetheart." She expected him to tell her that he had faith her; that he believed in her; but he only said: "Go with Cranford, and I will try to find others and bring them out."
"What if - " She choked on her words. She could not say them aloud: what if it is a trap?
"We cannot stay here," he whispered into her hair. "We are a sitting duck for them now. This tunnel will take you far enough underground, so you should be able to - "
"But what if - James! What if there are more of them on the other side?"
He squeezed her hand. "Mal, sweetheart, I have to tell you something. We knew that the eastern tunnel had been compromised."
"The map for it. It was lost - disappeared from a safe in your father's office."
"When? Malvina was horrified.
"About a week ago. Other valuables had been lost as well, everything as a whole, and we had thought it - had hoped it would be a simple thieving servant. My ring, too - it had disappeared without a trace, remember?"
Oh, she remembered. But the ring was different, she thought, it must have been the simplest, basest thievery...
"And the second map?"
"I had it. I had kept it in my room the night before. I had come here, at night, because I wanted it to be a secret - and because I wanted to learn to operate the mechanism. Time of night was too late to take it back to your Father's study after I came back."
"So it is entirely possible..." she murmured.
"...that they think there is only one tunnel. Or that at the very least, they do not know the location of this one, nor where it leads."
This was small comfort. Their every parting this night could be the last time they saw each other. Malvina, caring little for the people about, threw her arms about James' neck and kissed him furiously on the mouth.
"I shall go," she whispered in his ear. "I have strength enough. But if you mean to go back up there, remember that I will not outlive you, should you die."
"I will not die," he said quietly, cradling her against his chest. "I am uncommon lucky, my love."
"Don't say that!" she chided in a whisper. She wished she had her Parvati with her, her protectress of men and husbands, to give to him. But the Goddess - along with all her other things - was in her room. I have nothing, she thought wonderingly. She pressed her face into his neck for a brief second. "I love you so," she said dully.
"I love you, too, Mal," he whispered, a second before she tore herself away. He watched them climb into the darkness of the tunnel, Cranford going first, followed by the three women. Little Ruth, though clearly terrified, went silently, but Miss Stewart pressed herself against the edge of the tunnel and moaned in fear. Without a word, Malvina wrestled her inside and, bending nearly in two, took one last look at James.
"Go, go," he said, and she did, down the deep black hole of the tunnel, where there was no light and very little air. She closed her eyes to the things that seemed to move about the walls, and pressed on, pushing the terrified Miss Stewart in front of her. She heard him strain to close the heavy door they had opened together with Cranford, and then the creak of the wood, and she was cut off from him compleatly.
They emerged on the other side. How long they had spent in the tunnel, Malvina did not know. For the duration of their passage she had not lived but existed. She knew for certain that this hour in the tunnel was the worst in her life. The first light, when it appeared, seemed faint and unreal. Perhaps, she thought, the tunnel would never end. Perhaps it led straight to the underworld? But the light persisted, growing relatively brighter, though still very faint. Neither of the four said a single word, nor acknowledged the appearance of the miraculous light, all of them trudging silently through.
And then there it was, Cranford disappearing, shockingly, out of her sight. Malvina's heart thudded before she knew, with enormous relief, that the tunnel had ended - some five feet above the ground. She could hear Cranford's voice, calling for Ruth in urgent whispers, and then, she, too, slid off the edge of the tunnel and into his arms. Malvina pushed Miss Stewart out of the tunnel, and he caught her, the girl falling onto him like a dead weight, and then Malvina herself jumped and landed onto her white skirt, tripping herself a little.
It was now that she shook like a dog, hoping to God that at least no scorpions had crawled behind her collar or into her hair. Ruth, with a sound of disgust, shook a large centipede off her sleeve; but these were all the casualties of their passage, and Malvina looked at her friends with a sense of wonder.
Neither of them knew this garden. Cranford guessed it to belong to some small houses - earthen-walled huts, really - very nearby. The four of them huddled at the back wall, hoping that the owner of the garden would not see them, and if he did, that he would not betray them.
"Do you think they will keep hunting for us?" Malvina asked Cranford. The young man shook his head.
"Not likely. They had meant to terrify us out of the Fort - and look, they've succeeded admirably." He nodded at the walls of the Fort some way off. It was, it pained Malvina to see, still burning.
Malvina thought that he was correct, in all probability; and yet, she huddled deeper into the shadows of the garden, loathe to be discovered.
"Memsahib," Ruth whispered, and patted her lap. Curling up on the cool ground, Malvina put her head into the girl's lap, putting the wide edge of her sleeve over her face. She remembered sleeping on the ground this time last year; remembered the first time James had kissed her, just under such a sky. It seemed so far, so unreachable, the innocence of that night; as if she was not the person in those memories at all.
Improbably, she drifted away, and was awakened some time later by the sounds of steps - both human steps and horses' hooves - immediately, she was terrified and sought her pistol, only to see James' white shirt in the almost-bright morning light. She tossed the pistol on the ground and ran to him like a barefoot girl, and he leaned low and lifted her into the saddle.
"Oh. Oh. Oh." She could not believe her eyes - he was alive. There were men with him, - all in all nine officers and much greater group of soldiers, perhaps a hundred men or so, some of them visibly injured. There were several servants, including the Fort Cook, and four ladies, officers' wives and daughters, white-faced and silent. To Malvina's amazement, there was Mrs. Howrey, sitting upright in a saddle, cradling her little grandson Jemmy in her arms.
She looked at James stupidly. "The horses? The tunnel?"
"We did not bring them through the tunnel," James said, incredibly, smiling. "It was light enough to chance leaving the Fort by the front gate. They had all gone - for now, at least." Smile gone, his face creased darkly.
"Are these... is this all, then?" she asked quietly, surveying the motley band again.
"Yes. Mal - " He pushed up her chin with one finger. She was amazed at herself, at her ability to feel grief - to feel anything - after a night like this. "I am so sorry, my dearest," he murmured, stroking her cheek tenderly.
She nodded somberly. "Now what?" she asked him.
"Look," he said, opening his hand. A tiny dancing goddess lay in his creased, callused palm. Malvina looked at him questioningly. "I found it in the courtyard," he said. "One of them must have dropped it. It has no value, after all, just a trinket."
She snatched the dancing Parvati off his palm and burst into tears.
They traveled to Madras that very day. Their pace was far slower than one hoped, for not everyone going with them could ride. Along their way, Malvina found that they had to depend upon the locals for their life necessities. Relying upon the villagers' goodwill, Captain Bennet and his men were able to procure some clothing for the women, most of whom, much like Malvina, escaped in their nightclothes; an amount of rice that was barely enough to keep the group from starving on their way to Madras; and occasional shelter at nighttime. Between them, there was very little money and only some valuables. All of it went into the pot, and it was not at all enough.
Malvina snapped her pearl ear-lobes out of her ears - Charles' gift, but she would not allow herself to dwell on it - and traded them, one by one, for quantities of goat's milk for Jemmy Meadows. These were the last things she had had of Charles, and it hurt terribly. All her other possessions, including all of her late husband's letters and any gifts that he had given her, had been lost, left in her bedchamber at the Fort. Likely burned, now, she thought... She kept the thoughts of it away, much like she kept the thoughts of her Father's death away. They tore at her like wild dogs, leaving her bleeding inside. She hated them as if they were her enemies. She had to keep herself sane, if only for James' sake. There would be a life for them after this. This was merely survival.
So she focused all her attention upon staying in the saddle and not fainting, as well as upon little Jemmy and her charge Miss Stewart. The young woman had completely lost her ability to ride, it seemed, and one of the officers was forced to take her onto his horse to keep her from falling. The girl said not a word during their journey, obeying Malvina meekly in all. In the night, Malvina knew, she did not sleep, eyes open wide beneath the great star-studded sky. What had happened to her? Nobody wished to hazard a guess, and yet it seemed, everyone knew.
Mrs. Howrey, sitting ramrod-straight in her saddle, with the baby swaddled to her chest in a kind of protective cocoon, was just as silent. The aya that Malvina had produced for the baby had disappeared without a trace. It appeared that she might have escaped in the chaos that was that night; or perhaps, died with so many others in the terrible, all-consuming fire that had ravaged the Fort. Now, the old woman cradled the child to her empty breast. He cried most pitiably with hunger. Malvina tried to make the goat milk last, but it would only go so far in this weather. Soon enough, they were reduced to giving him pap, having softened bread in hot water, trying their most desperate to keep him alive. And yet he cried and cried, and there was no respite from it. Malvina prayed to any god that would listen to spare his life. He was not hers, but she could not bear it if he died.
Death was all around them, she thought. Apart from the specter of the Tigers who might come after them to finish the job, a number of men died of their wounds. Their deaths devastated Malvina who had never seen so many die so young. Several older people, too, far too grieved and exhausted, her Father's Lieutenant-Colonel amongst them. Their funerals, hasty though they were, held them back even further and exhausted the already-tired men, thus endangering ever more lives on the way to Madras. She feared for little Jemmy, and Mrs. Howrey, who seemed both indestructible and very fragile at the same time; but most of all, she feared for James. He had been injured on the night of the attack, a deep cut in his shoulder. She was terrified that it would fester. During a stop, she and Ruth went searching for medicinal herbs, which Ruth seemed to know rather well. They boiled a poultice, and he argued unhappily with her, for he did not wish his men to see him thus cosseted. By sheer will and utter determination, Malvina prevailed, and was allowed to apply the poultice to his wound. Just in time, she thought, for it looked angry enough now, two days after it was inflicted.
At night, Malvina wished most ardently that she could be in James' embrace; but with all the others traveling along, she knew that it would do irreparable damage to her reputation - whatever was left of it. She had accustomed herself to spending nearly her every night with him and now trembled with fear that might not, never again, be held by him in the night. Her skin ached for want of his touch.
They were saved in almost theatrical a fashion, by an English patrol that had gone out of Fort St. George in Madras - apparently in search of them. Malvina could hardly credit her eyes, for Lieutenant Meadows was with them.
Dismounting, he went to greet the Captain and Major Llewellyn.
"I had sent an urgent dispatch to the Colonel," he told them, surveying the rag-tag band grimly. "Warning him that there was talk of a possible attack on an English settlement in some quarters. I did not know which, or where, but Fort Sinjun, so far away from the bulk of our forces, came to mind immediately. I had not heard back in time, and - well, there you are."
Malvina barely knew the man, but she was ever so happy to see him. The patrol had fresh horses, food, and a doctor with them. She closed her eyes and thanked whatever gods there were that her Father had not the time to respond to Michael Meadows' dispatch.
They arrived in Madras in the afternoon and rode immediately to Malvina's old home, Fort St. George. At the thought that they should have, and had not, stayed here instead of going to Fort Sinjun, Malvina wanted to wail and howl. She hated the thought of that other place. In her dreams, its walls of fire rose all around her, forcing her to escape through endless dark tunnels. She always woke with realization that there was nothing beyond these but fire and death, that she would have to remain in the tunnels for the rest of her days.
"No," she heard Ruth's lilting voice. "Memsahib does not require any more help, just have the water brought up." The door behind her slammed, then - Ruth's gentle touch upon her arm. "Memsahib, will you not rest?"
Malvina shook her head, though she was so tired, her feet barely held her aloft. She imagined that she was covered with soot from the deadly fire, blood and all the horrors of that black tunnel. Now especially she could feel it all crawl upon her. On her way to Madras, she had not even the time to bathe in a river. She needed a bath now.
Ruth helped her, drew her gown off. Malvina slipped beneath the water, her yellow hair fanning out across the surface of it. Ruth washed her, washing her hair, rubbing her back with some vigor. She poured and poured hot water over Malvina's hair, and yet, the sensation of centipedes on her skin did not abate, nor did the oily residue of fine ash, the emulsion of all those tragic souls burned alive. Finally, Ruth, breathing heavily, held up a steamed-over mirror in front of her mistress, wiping it quickly with her sleeve:
"Memsahib," she said quietly. "You are clean. Really."
The two women sat for a while, looking at each other.
"Now what will happen, Memsahib?"
"We are going back to England," Malvina said with certainty. She had not considered for one moment leaving Ruth behind in India. They were going to England. "It will be all right," she said. "It will be all right in England, Ruth."
Then, she cried.
Mrs. Howrey died three days after they arrived in Madras. Malvina, though she had feared precisely this, was dismayed nonetheless. Lieutenant Meadows arrived, looking wary. Malvina felt almost criminal handing him a two-months-old, wailing baby, for he certainly did not look as if he knew what to do with one.
"Little Jemmy," she said softly. Lieutenant Meadows held the squirming parcel awkwardly, and she came closer, apologizing, gently rearranging his arms about it. "Here," she said. "Better."
She offered to help find the baby a good aya before she returned to England.
"Mr. Meadows," she said, when still there was no reply. "He has no-one but you in this world now."
The man before her looked into the infant's red little face. Malvina sighed with some relief, for Liutenant Meadows looked upon his wife's orphaned child with nothing but compassion. She even fancied she could see tears in the man's eyes.
She was standing by the window, looking out into the courtyard. Her heart had ached at the sight of it, and now she tormented herself, looking at it more and more. It was just like the one they had tended at Fort Sinjun. If she closed her eyes, she could still see burning bodies falling between the roses.
"Memsahib, all is ready," Ruth said behind her. Malvina turned to look at the girl, who was now sporting a simple traveling dress and holding a sensible bonnet, but looking all the more exotic and beautiful in the European clothes. They were to depart for the Madras harbor momentarily. The Captain had arranged for her to return to England. Alone amongst the English ladies of the Fort, who were all staying in Madras. Accompanied only by her loyal Ruth. Even Miss Stewart was staying with a distant aunt. Malvina, to her shame, felt indecent relief at being able to leave her with someone else.
It seemed that James could not get her far enough from India. He, himself, was staying. He had told her he had obligations, business to be compleated. She was afraid to ask what that meant, not wanting to know what grisly tasks were left to him. But plead as she might for him to let her stay, all her entreaties were for naught. He was sending her away, and though he technically could not force her to go, he had used one argument that was absolutely irrefutable, asked one thing of her that she could not refuse him.
"You must tell my sister that I live."
It was true, she thought. If she knew anything of the Army, the news of Fort Sinjun's falling, of countless English lives lost were likely to come to England sooner than it would become clear that there had, indeed, been some survivors. There would be furor and grief, and Elizabeth Darcy would spend weeks - months - trying to find out whether her only brother was alive.
"I need to stay back here," he said weightily. "Finish things. Bury the dead. You must go ahead of me, Mal."
She had cried and argued and fought with him over this, but no matter: she could not refuse to go, could not refuse to take the news to his sister.
"Captain-sahib has asked me to let him know when you are ready to go."
"Please, my dear, you can do so now."
Ruth dropped a curtsey and disappeared, and then, some thirty seconds later, Malvina heard James Bennet's steps, running up the stairs to her room. She schooled her features into a semblance of calm - which was more than could be said for his. Every manner of upheaval was written upon his face. He shut the door and strode to her.
"Madam," he said, using such a formal address, she looked up at him in surprise. "Please know that I will follow you."
She nodded, terrified that she would cry. He continued:
"Follow you and marry you the moment I set foot in England." He pressed his lips tightly, looking stubborn and angry, though at whom, she could not say.
Malvina, trying her best to be strong and failing miserably, put her hand to his cheek. His skin was cool, smooth, freshly shaved. "I love you," she told him. "I will wait for you as long as needs be."
He kissed her with such passion, it robbed her of all breath. Then, pulling away for a breath of air, he still did not let her go, but held her in his arms, stroking her hair.
Finally, gifting her with one long, miserable look, he bent over her hand. Then, without another word, he stepped away from her and out the door.
The moment he was out of the room, Malvina burst out in a fit of sorrowful weeping, covering her face with her hands. So caught up she was in her misery, he took her by surprise when he came back, clattered up the stairs and kicked the door shut with a slam that reverberated throughout the entire Fort.
Through a veil of tears, she saw how anguished he looked, how miserable. They rushed towards each other, and he caught her in a vise-like embrace, lifting her off her feet.
"Please," he whispered wretchedly. "Malvina, my love, one more time."
Malvina, quite robbed of speech, nodded and in another second, found herself pressed down upon the bed. Fumbling desperately with their clothes, the two of them moved what had to be moved, and lifted what needed to be lifted, a second before sinking into each other's embrace.Ruth may walk in, she thought indifferently, encircling her lover in her arms as if she would never let him go. He moaned against her neck, whispering words of love, of his devotion to her, his hands squeezing and pulling her tightly against him. Malvina felt him acutely, feeling as if they had one body between the two of them. Tears streamed down her face, and he kissed them off, whispering his adoration.
Then, in moments, it was over. They had barely had the time to right their clothing before a delicate knock on the door announced Ruth's arrival.
"Memsahib, the carriage is waiting."
James kissed Malvina once more, then gave her a pained look as he rose from her.
"Wouldst that it had broken a wheel," he said darkly.
And then, there was no more time for anything, and Malvina wept, yet again, at the Madras dock. She was surprised at the violence of these tears - she would have thought there were hardly any left. She wept like some washerwoman saying good-bye to her sailor, like a convict bound for Australia pining after her fellow staying behind. She was to cross the ocean again alone. For the second time in merely a year. She was so tired of alone.
James stroked her face, touching gently, wiping her tears with his thumbs.
"Mal," he whispered. "You are the bravest woman - no, the bravest person I know... Bear up, dearest Mal. I shall follow you back to England as soon as I may."
Trying her hardest not to break down and weep again, Malvina closed her eyes and pressed her cheek to his chest, feeling the roughness of the cloth, smelling old gunpowder and sweat - and, half-consciously, trying to imprint her own scent upon him as well, like a talisman that would keep him until she could see him again.
Follow me, she thought. Follow me, James. Do not leave me alone in this world...
He took her into the masoolah and to the Rose. Ruth was with them, holding on to the boat's side, afeared of the high waves tossing the boat. She was first into the bosun's chair, strapped in by the Captain, managing to look graceful and willowy , even when swung above the ocean in an indecorous contraption. Malvina was next, and the Captain climbed over without any aid, moving as nimbly as if Navy, not Army was his chosen occupation.
Aboard the Rose, Mr. Parmenter, the first mate, came to greet his erstwhile passenger. He appeared to be pleasantly surprised at Malvina's return to his ship, a mere year after she had first traveled with him. He even attempted a glossy frivolity of some kind, but it died away when he saw Malvina's drained face and the murderous-looking James Bennet. He cleared his throat delicately.
"I shall leave you. Let me know when you wish to be shown to your cabin."
Malvina looked over at Ruth, quickly, and the girl nodded and disappeared.
Malvina turned to the Captain. He looked so very tired, eyes rimmed with red for lack of sleep. He held her, again, fiercely.
"Follow me," she whispered, unsure if he could hear her. "Follow me, my love."
And then, he was gone. Malvina stood at the starboard rail, looking out over the harbor, its scurrying masoolahs, its white Indian sun, as white as the sprawling city beyond - but she could see only the man in the small boat, gripping the side of it as it was tossed high upon the waves, looking back at her with such intensity that she knew he would indeed follow her to the end of the world.
The news of the fall of Fort St. John came one early March morning. Elizabeth, on her way down to breakfast, espied Cook coming in from the market, bringing a morning newssheet atop a basketful of fresh bread. Always hungry for the news, Elizabeth snatched the sheet from her and read the front page while standing in the parlor.
The words BRITISH FORT TAKEN IN INDIA! HUNDREDS DEAD AFTER CHRISTMAS DAY MASSACRE! hit Elizabeth like a broadside, robbing her of all ability to cry out, to speak or to breathe.
She sat down heavily upon the bottom step of the staircase.
Cook, who had already turned to go, heard her collapse. The stout woman set her basket down with a thump and rushed back to Elizabeth, calling loudly for help. Elizabeth's Aunt came running out of the breakfast-room, followed by the two older children. In the uproar that followed, the newssheet was swept to the side.
"Elizabeth," her Aunt said, kneeling next to her. "My dear girl, what happened, did you swoon?"
Her speech still arrested-she could not find it in herself to speak the words-Elizabeth groped for the newssheet and, having found it, presented it to her Aunt without saying a word.
"Good God!" Mrs. Gardiner gasped and pressed her hand to her mouth in clear dismay. "But is this certain, is it absolutely certain? Is it the same fort? Surely there is all manner of English forts in India?"
It was the same fort. Her Uncle came home in another hour, white in the face, having heard the news in the street. The 19th Light had been horribly butchered, their forces sadly reduced by an early Christmas morning attack by the Tipu's Tigers. But the Tipu was dead, everybody knew that, dead in the year '99, at Seringapatam... And yet, someone had attacked the Fort and set it on fire, killing countless British officers, soldiers and civilians. The whole of London was in a terrible uproar. Blood-curdling things were passed around in the street, details that Elizabeth did not wish to know, could not bear to admit to her mind. She sat in the drawing room, still speaking to no-one, peering out at the back garden, unable to grasp what had happened. Jamie's fort had fallen. Jamie, Jamie... Was he dead? Letters took such a long, long time to get to England. How was she to live, waiting for the day she would know for certain of his fate?
She jumped to her feet and went to find her Uncle.
"Will you take me to the East India House?"
He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. "Of course," he murmured and went to get his coat. Mrs. Gardiner, swathing Elizabeth's pelisse about her, kissed her on the cheek and bade her:
"Do not bury your brother before his time."
The East India House, a stately stone edifice in Leadenhall Street, was mobbed. The street flooded with people and carriages for three blocks, Elizabeth and her Uncle alighted and walked, he pushing their way through the crowd, and Elizabeth following quickly, eyes fixed on the dirty cobblestone. She tried her hardest not to think, not to look, not to listen to what was said around her. Jamie! she thought. Jamie might be dead.
It took them a good hour to make their way through the crowds upon the steps and inside a large, well-lit front hall of the East India House. For one nasty moment, she feared she might be swept away by the crowd, and grasping her Uncle's arm desperately.
Someone near them yelled: "The list, the list!" and soon enough, someone nearer yet was holding the coveted, dreadful roll of all the 19th Light's officers and men, perished, lost, or injured. "Read it!" someone behind them called, and a pale man, still wearing a top hat, commenced the awful recitation.
"Anson, John," the man started, his voice hoarse, "civilian, dead."
"Louder!" a shout came from the back of the crowd. Elizabeth could see her fingers, white upon her Uncle's sleeve. He put one arm about her shoulder, supporting her. The man in the top hat read off the names, and several times, a choked sob or an exclamation of terror was his answer. But he went through all the Bs without naming her brother, and as he started on the Cs, Elizabeth felt her knees give. She leaned her forehead against her Uncle's sleeve, and he pulled her to her feet and started maneuvering her towards the door.
She allowed Mr. Gardiner to walk her out of the building. He guarded her from the crowd as they walked down the street, and neither of them said a word. Only now did Elizabeth feel a spring wind cool the tears on her face. She had not known she had cried.
But she wept at home, at the sight of her Aunt's open joy and relief. She wept, and went upstairs to her room, and prayed, like she had never prayed before. Jamie. She had never considered that her brother might not come back to her. It was always remote and much-desired, but almost certain, that he should. Their visit to the East India House had calmed her somewhat, but not nearly enough to stop thinking of it, to stop worrying about what had happened to her brother.
She wanted to write to Pemberley with the news, but kept herself back, not wanting to cause her old benefactor grief. But Mr. Darcy must have heard of the fall of Fort St. John, and soon, a letter came for her with the familiar Pemberley seal. "My dearest child," Mr. Darcy wrote, "you have our thoughts and our prayers. We are all," he wrote, underlining all pointedly, "much concerned about you and have all broken our heads thinking on how we can help you. Please do not despair. Your brother is not listed among the dead, and even if he were, such things are rarely certain. My own nephew, Colonel Fitzwilliam, was thought lost on the Continent, but was soon returned to us merely wounded." Merely wounded, Elizabeth thought, what she would not give to have her brother back, merely wounded, but alive...
It started aboard The Rose. Malvina did not remember being so ill on her passage to India, but she told herself she had simply forgotten. Much had happened in between, she thought, fighting the sick, shocked feeling in her breast. Then, she stopped thinking altogether, giving in to the sickness. The sea was choppy, the waves white-crested, and she was far from the only passenger retching miserably to the swaying of the ship. And by the time she admitted to herself, finally, that her courses had failed to arrive, the sea had calmed down, and she was now the only one of the passengers so sick.
There was no blood, not that week, nor the one after. Malvina lay curled up uncomfortably in her hammock, staring at the ceiling. She could not believe it. Charles had so wanted a son, but they had been married for six months at the time of his death, and he had failed to get her with child. But now-now, of all places, of all the times in the world! It was almost...funny. She was in the middle of the ocean now, with waves rising as high as the walls of her Father's Fort, tossing the Rose like a walnut shell. In London, she would be utterly friendless, her two Aunts-Aunt Flora and Aunt Frances, her Father's old maid sisters-sure to be appalled... And James... She did not know when he would come to England. He needed to "finish things," he had called it. How long would finishing things take? She was mortified by the thought that he might never come-after all, he also had a perilous sea journey to make. She was, for the first time since the attack, afraid. Afraid for her own life, and the little life within her. And simply terrified for James, for he would be crossing the seas without her. She knew just how illogical, how unreasonable she was. Without her, he was no closer to death than he would have been with her. She was no Parvati, the protectress of husbands. But now, to the fear she had of James dying, was added another anxiety-if he did not come to her in London, what would happen to her and to the child?
One night, a great storm arose, and the Rose, tossed up and down upon the waves, groaned and creaked as if it was falling apart. Malvina and Ruth huddled in the corner of their cabin, holding each other. Malvina could hear the frantic shouts of the men above-and it was all she could do not to scream at the great heave the ship gave as it lost a mast.
"Ruth!" she whispered frantically. Her teeth were chattering. "Do H-Hindus have a god of the sea?"
"Varuna is the Lord of the Oceans, mem-sahib," Ruth whispered back.
"Will you pray to him to calm these seas?"
Ruth made an indignant sound. "Mem-sahib, I am a good Christian," she said gravely and then, suddenly, chuckled: "But you can pray to Lord Varuna if you choose."
In spite of the horror of their situation, in spite of her exhaustion and the overwhelming fear she felt for her child, Malvina had to laugh at the girl's cheekiness. She felt a great surge of gratitude towards her, for making the horror a little less horrible. She thought of how much she had depended upon Ruth these weeks.
"I will pray to P-poseidon himself," she said. "If he should spare my ch-child..."
If Ruth was surprised, she said not a word, squeezing Malvina's hand instead.
The storm abated by the morning, the Rose's state wretched, yet salvageable. They lost a week, putting in at an unscheduled port, looking for timber to repair the mast. For the rest of their journey, the waters were relatively calm and there was little to do but rest. Malvina spent hours upon the deck, breathing in the smell of sea and hoping to feel the quickening. She was entirely unprepared when it finally came.
A month to the day after she felt her child move inside her, the Rose docked at Gravesend.
The Aunts were shocked by her, she could tell. Her very first day on English soil was marred by an unpleasant conversation with them after Aunt Frances had attempted to dismiss Ruth from their presence.
"Show her the servants' quarters," she said to the housekeeper, once they arrived to Mayfair.
Malvina turned, in amazement.
"Miss Johnson," she said pleasantly, trying her hardest to prevent a row, "is a companion and a friend-"
"But-" Aunt Flora said.
"-and I ask that you treat her as such." She forced a tired smile. This was, she thought, going to be difficult.
Aunt Frances huffed.
"Well I say!" she said.
"A companion and a friend," Malvina repeated, keeping her tone pleasant and her gaze steely.
The lady pursed her lips and said nothing; but nothing would keep the Aunts from commenting when Malvina announced that she had a call to make that very day.
"In Cheapside?" Aunt Flora asked shrilly, obviously horrified. Malvina, deeply irritated by her Aunts' obtuseness, said weightily:
"It is a ... an important visit. Time is of the essence."
Thereupon, having bathed up in her apartments, the very suite of rooms that had once, if only for a short time, been hers-oh, a lifetime ago, while Charles had courted her-she went to Cheapside. Ruth came along, if only, Malvina suspected, to escape the Aunts.
In Gracechurch-street, Malvina left her young friend in the carriage and went in alone. She had James' letter to his sister underneath her light-blue pelisse. She sat, waiting, in a neat little drawing-room. A door opened just a touch, and Malvina jerked her head to see, but it was only a little fair-headed boy, perhaps of four years of age or so, peeking in sheepishly. He was pulled back by someone with a giggle and a whisper, and the door closed softly behind him. Malvina smiled tiredly, thinking of her own child, and how he would be. It seemed that she was ages away from the time when he would be this big.
She heard steps, hurried steps, then someone broke into a run, and only had the time to rise when the door swung wide. A young, dark-haired woman was standing before her. Quickly, she shoved a white linen apron, balled up, to someone behind the door. She was breathing heavily and moving her hands over her hair, as if making certain that it was presentable.
"Mrs. Darcy," Malvina said, rising.
"Yes!" Elizabeth Darcy said, her expression questioning, hopeful.
Malvina thought she would know this face in any crowd. Darcy's wife looked so much like her brother, it hurt Malvina to gaze upon her. She was pretty, too, which was a surprise, remembering the utter indifference with which her husband-to-be had spoken of her. Not beautiful, Malvina thought, but lovely in her own way, willowy and dark, with luminous skin and dusky long-lashed eyes.
"My name is-I am Mrs. Malvina Bingley. I am come now from Madras." She could not get the words out fast enough, watching Elizabeth Darcy's face grow paler with every second. "I have a letter form your brother. He is-he is alive. He has survived that attack. He writes to tell you-but what am I about, here it is, you can read it for yourself."
Mrs. Darcy rushed forward and plucked James' letter from Malvina's hand with little ceremony. She broke the seal on it and unfolded it with clumsy fingers, then read it, still standing. She was holding one hand against her mouth as she read it. Then, after what felt like forever, she lowered the letter, slowly, and looked at Malvina.
"Forgive me," she said. "I am unpardonably rude. Please sit down. I shall ring for tea things to be brought out."
Malvina refused the tea, telling the other woman that she wished nothing but rest, as she had only just disembarked in England this morning. She did sit down, though, and told Elizabeth Darcy that her brother was well when she last saw him. Mrs. Darcy, having taken a chair next to Malvina's settee, listened to her in silence, great eyes glistening with unspilled tears. Malvina did not tell her that the last time she had seen James, he had been exhausted, at the limit of his endurance, and with an utterly grim and dreary job before him. His sister did not need to know that. The important thing was, he had survived the worst of it.
She told Elizabeth Darcy all she could think of to tell her about James. He was well, yes, and the bravest officer in his company. He had saved people that horrible night, had saved her and her companion, certainly. He missed his sister and spoke of her often. At this, Mrs. Darcy gave up all pretense of restraint and started crying. Malvina waited for her to stop, then extended one hand and patted the young woman's shoulder, awkwardly. She did not know how to help Mrs. Darcy. She, too, missed James drearily. She felt like she, too, might cry just now.
The thought that she might reveal herself thus terrified her into flying to her feet.
"Mrs. Bingley!" Elizabeth Darcy cried, startled. "I am so sorry-"
"No, no, my dear," Malvina said gently, making sure that Mrs. Darcy did not interpret her sudden desire to leave as censure. "Please do not trouble yourself. I am very tired is all. I think I have imparted upon you all the information that I have. I shall go home now and rest."
Mrs. Darcy smiled through her tears and nodded. "Forgive me, I have been most selfish. Thank you ever, ever so much for coming. For bringing me news of him. I have been out of my mind with worry, ever since-" She wagged her head to indicate a past event. "Ever since that newssheet came out in March. Please call on me again, whenever you have rested."
Malvina having promised to call, the two women curtseyed to each other, and then Malvina was gone. She walked out of the house, into the gathering April dark. A footman hurried to open her carriage door and help her in. Inside the carriage, Ruth sat up on the seat, rubbing her arms and staring anxiously.
"I am so glad you are back, mem-sahib!" she exclaimed, just as Malvina landed on the leather seat, and the carriage began to move. "What a great, vast city London is! And cold! And noisy!"
"Not all that cold, and hardly as noisy as Madras," Malvina said with a smile, but her heart was far from gay. Ruth, perceiving her sadness, leaned across and patted her hand, then, suddenly, swung herself across the aisle, landing on the seat next to Malvina.
"Mem-sahib," she said sweetly, patting her own shoulder. Malvina sighed and put her head there, inhaling a very slight scent of ginger and spice. "I take it you have seen Captain-sahib's sister?"
"Yes," Malvina said weakly. "She is delightful. A very lovely young woman. She looks just like James, Ruth."
"Of course," Ruth agreed. "Was she very happy to receive news of her brother? But of course, how could she be otherwise." Then, after an awkward pause: "Did you tell Captain-sahib's sister about-"
"No," Malvina said. She sighed again. "I cannot. Not yet."
Ruth did not ask what "not yet" meant in this case, but her silence was heavy, significant, and Malvina felt compelled to explain. "I feel that... he must tell her. When he comes here from India. Whenever he comes here. This is the kind of news, Ruth, that is his to tell to his family. I dare not."
Ruth said nothing, but her hand, her beautiful hand with long brown fingers, stroked Malvina's hair as the carriage rumbled out of Cheapside and toward Mayfair.
Malvina did not continue her acquaintance with Elizabeth Darcy. Oh, she was tempted. Being near the girl, she thought, would feel like being near James. A little bit, at least. But she would start to show, soon enough. Her baby would become her very near, very significant future. It was already so. She could not think about coming months without thinking about the day when she would finally lay eyes on her child. She would have to pretend that it was not constantly at the forefront of her mind and her heart, when all she wanted was to confide in James' younger sister. But, as she had told Ruth, she could not.
It was bad enough when the Aunts found out about it. Malvina had not thought it was obvious yet, and both of them were maids themselves and thus perhaps oblivious to the changes in her. But it must have been the servants who gossiped. Malvina would never fault Ruth, but she knew that the house maids had no special allegiance to her and would talk. They did talk, and so, one morning in her sixth month, both Aunts approached her with a proposition that shocked her to the core. She had not expected it, and was blind-sided by the audacity of it.
She had been sitting in her Father's old study, flipping through some accounts, frowning over some unpleasant inconsistencies-when, after a perfunctory knock, Aunt Flora and Aunt Frances slipped inside and proceeded to tell her, in roundabout ways, that they had found a family. A good family. A good country family.
Malvina stared at them, nonplussed. "A family," she repeated. Aunt Flora wrung her hands.
"My dearest niece, do not pretend to be obtuse," she said. "It does not suit you."
"But I really-" Malvina looked at the two women in confusion. "What family? For what?"
"A nice country family!" Aunt Frances suddenly fired. "For the child."
The two Aunts continued to sing praises to this family that Malvina was never to know. She sat, shocked, in her Father's chair, staring at them. Not quite knowing what to say. That they would come to her with such an evil proposition, that they would dare...
"Of course, my dear, you are to go away. Soon. Perhaps within a few weeks, before-before it becomes too apparent."
Malvina blinked. The biddies were putting her out of her own home. They had already found a family for her child, her precious baby, had already decided that she would give it away.
Very quietly, very slowly, she said:
"I thank you for your concern, but you need not have troubled. I will have my child here, in this house."
"But my dear, you do not understand," Aunt Frances explained, her impatience poorly hidden behind a condescending smile. "Will you conceal yourself inside this house at all times? And what if the neighbors hear the baby before it is given away? Babies can be such terribly loud things. How shall we explain it all away?"
"No," Malvina said, just as evenly as before, though Lord knew such equanimity cost her dearly. "I understand perfectly. I will have my child here, in this house. I will keep him with me after he is born."
The Aunts appeared aghast.
"My dear!" Aunt Flora said, horrified. "You must reconsider-"
"I must nothing!" Malvina rose with a furious clang of her chair. "This is my Father's house. My house! I will keep my child here, with me, as I am his mother. There will be no more talk of giving him away."
She leveled her coldest, meanest gaze upon them. "My house," she repeated, and felt her equanimity leaving her. "And if you dare, if you dare approach me with this one-more-time-" She was gasping for breath now. She could not go on, could not tell them that she would put them out into the street. They were poor, with hardly any means of their own. Keep a better hold on yourself. Clenching her teeth so that her jaw hurt, she stared at the Aunts and saw them shrink. "How dare you," she said, putting all of her anger, all of her loathing into that one phrase.
Aunt Frances, the sillier of the two, opened her mouth to say something, but it was Aunt Flora who grasped her by the elbow and wheeled her out of the room without another word. Malvina sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. Then, for the first time in months, she began to cry.
The man of war Calliope, about to dock at Gravesend, carried some hundred and fifty of His Majesty's 19th Light Dragoons. They had come together in Madras, only about a third of the small garrison of Fort Sinjun. The third left alive-most of the rest of them had perished at the Fort. James Bennet also estimated that, in the general pandemonium of that night, some of the soldiers had chosen to desert. It was most strange-he could hardly force himself to care about it. His sense of duty and respect for the Army, paramount only several months ago, did not survive the blazing night of that attack.
It was the young Cranford, looking as haggard and tired as James had seen him; he, like many aboard, had suffered terribly from the swell of the rough seas. James himself was unaffected by it-the only thing that tortured him these four months was the fear and worry for Malvina and for his sister.
"Lieutenant McLaughlin tells me we will be disembarking soon." Despite his obvious exhaustion, the young man could hardly control his excitement. England, by his estimation, contained the incomparable starry-eyed Miss Johnson. Thinking on it, James wished the fellow well, for Cranford was very obviously in love with the lovely savage and intended to do the honorable thing by her-though, James could wager, if Malvina had anything to do with it, savage would be the last thing one could call Miss Johnson. James also wished him luck, for he could scarce imagine the sort of uproar Cranford's most overbearing mother-of whom he had heard quite a bit of late-would raise. Despite his own fears and fatigue, James grinned. Cranford, though young, had shown uncommon courage during the attack on the Fort. He wagered the boy could take one overbearing mama.
Thereupon, they docked. James, standing at the bow, watched the scurrying populace, the masts and rigging of many ships creating a sort of ghostly gray veil between the Calliope and that sturdy, settled, immobile world. He could swear he would never set a foot upon a ship's deck again, not if he could help it.
He found himself absurdly disappointed, for Malvina was not at the docks. How was she to be there, he thought, how, when in all likelihood she would have no idea when their ship was to come in? He turned to Cranford:
"Where are you to go?"
Cranford's pallid countenance-for any sun that might have occasioned to them in the Southern Seas did not penetrate the soldiers' quarters below decks, where Cranford had suffered for weeks-actually colored. James could not believe his eyes. The young man, however, held his gaze steadily.
"I was hoping to call upon Miss Johnson, sir."
James nodded. "Then you and I are going to the same address, I believe. But may I persuade you to come with me to my Uncle's house first-I believe that we are both in need of rest-and of restoration?"
Cranford, who had no family in London, happily agreed. James felt little compunction in inviting a stranger to the house of an Uncle he barely knew. Elizabeth was there now, and she had written to him several times of the excellent manners and very great kindness of their Aunt and Uncle. There was nowhere else for him to go in London, and he could not abandon Cranford to fend for himself. Surely the Gardiners, whom Elizabeth had described as most civil and kind, would not take offense at him for that.
But regrettably, before they could repair to Cheapside, the very first place they were both to go was the Horse Guards' offices in the city, for the War Office was lodged there. They were joined by the jolly Major Llewellyn, who had not been affected at the least by sea-sickness, in spirit or in body. He was, of course, no longer a major per se, as both the Colonel and his Lieutenant-Colonel had fallen, each, in his own way, a victim of the attack on the Fort. So the brawny Llewellyn was the Acting Colonel, and James himself, the only surviving Captain, was the acting Major. But he did not think about it at all. It did not matter. During his months at sea, he had come to the decision that if everything went as it should, he would sell out his commission upon his return to England.
Finally, here they were, on firm ground. James swayed slightly on his feet, the feeling of nothing moving beneath them disorienting him momentarily. Their horses, too, unsteady and restive from their lack of exercise; but the beasts soon regained their confidence on land and carried their riders to London; thereupon, the officers, their somewhat tattered uniforms made as respectable as possible in the confines of the ship, presented themselves to the only commanding officer available on this rather hot day at the Horse Guards. General Mead was in very ill spirits, indeed-even before he received them. The others, according to him, had gone to see a horse at Tattersalls, but they would indubitably wish to meet with the officers the moment they came back.
"So is this all?" General Mead looked upon them with some dismay: one Major, one Captain, four Lieutenants and one very young, very sickly Coronet. His expression grim, he continued: "We have learned of your disaster some two months ago, and nothing more 'till today. The city is horror-struck at this misfortune."
He questioned them for a good hour, unmindful of the fact that they looked more like ghosts than men. They stood erect, looking straight ahead, as James and Llewellyn described, once more, the bloody small hours of December 25. Behind the tall window in its wrought-iron frame, the city sweltered. It was June, James knew, but he was uncertain of the date. Six months. Had it been so long? he thought. The attack seemed to have taken place but yesterday-and a thousand years ago. He had seen all manner of violence in his Army career, but that night would always hold for him a particular horror.
The men stood, pale and sweating, for what felt like an eternity. They had scraped their faces raw that morning in anticipation of their arrival home. James could feel a slight sting left by a drop of sweat running down the side of his face. He only hoped that the rest of the generals would be detained at Tattersalls long enough to allow them all to leave.
The General finally exhausted all of his questions. Still glowering upon them all, as if it had been their singular fault that they had been attacked in so brutal a manner, he nodded brusquely and said:
"There will be an inquiry. You are all to remain in London, gentlemen. No doubt my colleagues will wish to interview you as well."
Thereupon he turned and quit the room. Immediately after, Coronet Dawkins, a boy of seventeen, who had acquitted himself very admirably during the attack, fainted with great clatter as his sword hit the floor.
Upon quitting the Horse Guards, they dispersed. The men were sent to the barracks; and the officers each went his own way, James, with Cranford, to Cheapside. He had his Uncle's address in Gracechurch Street from one of Elizabeth's old letters. It seemed ages since he'd had a letter-from anyone. Of the two people whose missives he longed for, one did not know where he was; the other, he gathered, had been on the high seas herself until very recently.
In Gracechurch-Street, they dismounted, and Cranford held both of their horses, while James went to knock. With no little trepidation, he raised a substantial knocker upon his Uncle's door and rapped. The servant girl who opened the door listened to his explanation-"Captain Bennet to see Mrs. Darcy. And Lieutenant Cranford." He had thought that perhaps, his sister had mended it with her husband and had retired to Pemberley since her last letter to him, but the appellation was not received with surprise. The girl nodded, then hesitated but a moment before letting him into a very neat little parlour.
The maid disappeared momentarily. James waited in silence, his heart beating. He had always felt unbearably guilty for having behaved in a fashion that necessitated that he abandon Elizabeth. That she should be reduced to going to live with the Darcys upon their father's demise! That she should then quarter with relations so distant, he only had a very vague memory of his Uncle, from so many years ago, from the time when his mother had still been alive...
His ruminations were interrupted by her voice. Her voice. He could swear it had not changed since he saw her last. She had been thirteen then, eighteen-and-a-half now. Her voice had stayed the same. He saw her above the landing, wide-eyed and disbelieving, looking down to see who was waiting for her in the parlor. As if to come down and discover that it was not him would have been too much of a disappointment for her. His mind registered all of her, every minor detail, the simple blue dress, the white apron, the way her hair was an untidy mess. He saw her white face, her eyes, her expression such a powerful mix of distress and hope, he could hardly bear it.
He stood there, looking up at her, even as she came forward and leaned over the balustrade, and peered down at him in shock. So great was her emotion, it made her sway on her feet. In alarm, James stepped forward, afraid that she would topple over, but she righted herself immediately and ran down the stairs and into his arms.
Holding on to his shoulders, Elizabeth Darcy repeated her brother's name again, and again, and again. Jamie. Jamie. Jamie.
"Bess," he said gently, stroking her dark hair-how tall she was now, her head fitting neatly under his chin. He had left her a scrawny little child, and here she was, a grown woman!-"My dearest Bess. Don't cry now, my love, for I am home again."
His Aunt was home, his Uncle would be sent for. Their horses were stabled with dispatch, and Mrs. Gardiner welcomed both James himself and Cranford with grace and open pleasure. He had a vague memory of the lady from the time his Mother had been alive, but otherwise, this was a new acquaintance. He found her most courteous and amiable. Elizabeth would not let him go for a moment, and looked upon him quite meanly when he announced his desire for a bath. Cranford had simply fallen asleep in his chair, and was soon woken, gently, and taken above stairs where a room was prepared for him. Turning, the young man looked petulantly upon James and said:
"Do not go there without me, sir."
James had to promise not to. Elizabeth eyed him with suspicion:
"You have only just arrived, and already you are to go elsewhere?"
He felt the heat in his face and thanked his sunned skin for not blushing easily. This was mortifying just by itself, without his face flaming like a tomato.
"Bess," he said gently, leaning towards her. "I must pay a call yet today."
"A call," she repeated, narrowing her eyes at him.
"A rather important one."
Elizabeth asked, bluntly: "Would it be to the same lady who had brought me news of you? Mrs. Bingley?"
He exhaled with relief. He had not known how to ask her whether Malvina had come to see her and was tortured by this quite profoundly. Elizabeth seemed to know that he would come; and yet, she seemed rather shocked by his arrival still. Now he no longer had to wonder.
"Yes," he said gratefully. "Mrs. Bingley. A very great friend."
She looked at him in silence for a moment, then leaned forward and squeezed his hand.
"Tell your very great friend that I am very thankful to her for relieving my anguish," she said gravely.
"I will be certain to tell her that, sister."
He hoped, with all his heart, that Elizabeth would soon be able to do that herself.
He bathed and changed into his only decent set of clothing. He then went to Cranford's room and woke him up by shaking him most vigorously by his shoulder, then waited, in terrible spirits, for the man to finish his own preparations. What a beast, he thought uncharitably, to fall asleep like so and make him wait. Finally, Cranford appeared, reasonably well-turned out, eyes red-rimmed and owlish.
"I should have left you to sleep, man," James told him poisonously as they headed out of the house.
Cranford grinned. "Not in this lifetime," he said.
To his surprise, his Uncle's carriage waited outside. No doubt bespoken by his sister, whose shape he perceived behind the window, raising one hand in farewell.
"It appears that we shall travel in comfort," James said, but he was beginning to grow nervous again, thinking his what-ifs. He had not heard from Malvina for about five months, since he had loaded her aboard the Rose. He knew she had appeared at his Uncle's residence some time ago. Relieving my anguish, Elizabeth had said. They had known about the attack on the Fort for nigh-on two months, so it must have been more recently that she came here. So she had been in London of late-six, seven weeks ago? He was driving himself mildly insane with this. Was she well? He wondered at her decision to keep away from Elizabeth, having brought her the news of his deliverance. Why did the two not continue the acquaintance? After all, Elizabeth had spoken of Malvina with genuine warmth. Was she, perhaps, no longer of a mind to marry him?
He leaned across and shook Cranford awake again.
"You are insufferable," he said, irritably.
The young man grinned again. "Mayfair," he said, smiling, utterly unafraid for the one he loved. "Wake me when we get there, sir."
They got there sooner than James would have thought-and not nearly soon enough. He would have rapped on the roof, ordering the coachman to go faster; but it was his Uncle's carriage and he did not wish to be ill-mannered. The poor man driving them through this stifling day may not quite understand his hurry.
But then, here they were, in front of a very imposing townhouse of gray stone, and then, in the parlor, this one far less welcoming than that in Gracechurch-street. From a rather haughty butler, they acquired the intelligence that both Mrs. Bingley and Miss Johnson were from home.
"Where did they go?" James asked, slightly desperate.
"I know not, sir."
They left a card each and walked out, deeply disappointed. But then, a decision born out of a long, heartbreaking separation-looking at the crestfallen Cranford, James said:
"If I know my London geography well enough, we ought to be a stone's throw from Hyde Park. Shall we pass our time in walking there and then renew our call?"
Cranford nodded eagerly.
They left the carriage to wait and walked to Hyde Park in silence. They had spent so long a time aboard Calliope in conversation that there seemed nothing more to say now. James was fond of Cranford, who was as brave and honorable fellow as ever he had seen; but he would much rather be alone with his thoughts just now and was relieved that his friend shared his preference in that.
They walked for what felt like a long time, perhaps thirty minutes or longer, into the Park and towards the Serpentine. It was already late afternoon, though the heat still had not abated. Oh it was worth coming back to England only to be fried alive yet again, James thought wryly. He was amazed how little noise their return to England had caused. He had expected to be hounded at every turn, at least based on what General Mead had said; but the anonymity was vastly more desirable.
Thereupon, he saw Malvina, standing by the water.
From her back, her long corn-flower blue pelisse as bright as this summer day, he knew her at once. The fact that Ruth stood with her-the darkest-skinned person in the park-gave her away. Even so, he would have known her alone, too. She had taken off her bonnet and was holding it in one hand; her hair burned like real gold under the sun. He could see that she had left the blue summer pelisse open, indubitably because of the heat. It was as if he had not gone ambling around the park, but had come here with a singular purpose, knowing he would find her here.
He stopped in his tracks, his heart seizing painfully in his chest. She was alive, and obviously well, and not alone. Now, only now would he admit to himself that he had tortured himself with all manner of ghastly possibilities.
Cranford saw him stop, saw the trajectory of his mute gaze, gasped aloud and could not contain a joyous "Miss Johnson!" Ruth looked up first, moving as quickly as a vixen in the woods, and James fancied he could see her eyes glare like emeralds from where he stood.
Then, Malvina turned as well, her movements slow and graceful and smooth. Upon seeing him, she dropped her bonnet, but that was the only sign she ever gave of having been surprised by his appearance.
The men came closer and bowed. James regretted dreadfully having dragged Cranford with him. He regretted Ruth, though the girl's unusual eyes only appeared to show interest in his companion.
"Mrs. Bingley," James said quietly as she gave him her hand. He could think of nothing else to say. He had not expected to have to speak when he saw her. "Miss Ruth."
The girl beamed at him. "Captain-sahib. We are so happy to see you. We have so worried about you."
We. Malvina said nothing, her lower lip trembling. He threw a desperate glance at Cranford, and the fellow snapped to it, smoothly leading Ruth away to walk along the Serpentine.
"Oh, Mal," James said. Her eyes were miserable, tortured.
"You are here," she whispered. "I have lost all hope," she confessed, reaching up to touch his face. She had no ring, her fingers bare.
"As you see," he said, joyously, his last terror-that she might marry or form attachment to someone else during his absence-laid to rest. Heedless of any passing stranger, he pulled her to him. This one movement allowed him to feel the full length of her beloved body, and how it had changed. He froze in her embrace.
"Mal?" he asked, quietly. "Madam, are you-"
He held her away and ran his hand just beneath the edge of her pelisse. It seemed that she had not tied the garment in the front for a reason wholly different than the heat. The loose gown she wore -mourning black for her father-concealed it; but there was no mistaking it when he touched her. Her graceful waist was no more, the round feminine swelling of her figure absolutely tell-tale. His heart ached worse, made more excruciating by the thoughts of the indignities and travails this must have heaped upon her during the last several months.
"-with child," she said evenly, but her lip trembled all the harder. With a poor attempt at humor, she said: "So it appears I am not barren after all."
He hugged her again, fiercely, kissing her cheek.
"We shall marry," he said, "as soon as may be. I am sorry," he said. "I am so sorry, Mal."
She shook her head in his embrace, then gently pushed herself away. Looking up at him, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Do not say that," she said gently. "I have cherished our child since the day I knew of it."
He nodded, somberly. "Of course." He took her hand and kissed the fingers. Shockingly, he felt as if he, too, might cry. Our child. The very words seemed incredible to him. "I will too, my love, I will too."
They walked together for a little bit, she leaning upon his arm. He saw, now, that she was further along with it than he had thought. "Six months or so," she told him. "I am not quite certain how long." He thought back to their last month together, to that blissful December when she had agreed to be his wife. They had lain together so many times, then, and he wondered whether it was then, or that last day in Madras. Then, he put these thoughts away, imbibing greedily the sight of her. She looked well, he saw, radiant and rosy, though perhaps ever so much less elegant.
She told him of her passage, of the rough, high seas, of putting in some miles before the Cape to refit the ship. He forwent telling her of the grisly work they had to do in destroying Fort Sinjun, her Father's last resting place. He thanked her, several times, for going to see Elizabeth. Then, gently, he asked her:
"Why did you not continue your acquaintance with her? I would have thought that she might have been a comfort to you."
She dropped her eyes. "I did not feel..." she sighed, then looked down upon her belly. "I have led a retiring life, James. I thought that you yourself should tell your sister about-about this. If you wished to, that is."
He glared at her, then, tipping her chin up with one finger. Her great, bright eyes were brighter yet with tears.
"I weep at the slightest provocation now," she said with a tremulous smile. " Forgive me."
But he would not be swayed from the anger that suddenly rose within him. "If I wished to," he repeated, glaring at her. "Did you suppose then, madam, that I would prefer to keep this-" he pointed at her accusingly-"our child a secret? That I would have changed my mind about marrying you?"
She looked away. "I did not know. I hoped you would not have done."
"Malvina," he said in great displeasure. "I should hope that you would think better of me than that." Then, softening at the sight of her obvious distress, he added quietly: "I have thought of none but you these months."
Quickly, she looked up, great relief written upon her beautiful face.
"And I of you," she whispered, stepping forward.
Cranford returned with Ruth. The Indian beauty glowed prettily, and the young fellow seemed quite happy. Malvina, beaming, held out a hand to the girl:
"My good Christian, will you stand up with me? I am to marry Captain Bennet!"
Ruth actually squealed with joy. The foursome took the ladies' carriage back to Malvina's townhouse, where she introduced James to her two very disapproving Aunts. The old biddies seemed unable to hide their censure, though they tried their hardest to appear obsequious. Nothing at all was said about the child, or about the need to marry with all possible dispatch.
It was easier than he thought to obtain the special license. All it took was money and a single mention of Fort St. John. The license was in his hand in three days, and the clerk who handed it to him looked upon him with some awe. This was a recognizable look. James remembered the day when one of the few survivors of Calcutta's infernal Black Hole had visited the garrison in Madras. He remembered how his men had looked upon the fellow in this same fashion. Awed, frightened, eager to be out of his presence-as if being near to him could cause them the same horrible misfortune.
To allow for more privacy, they had decided to wed in the blue sitting room of her father's house in Mayfair. It was Malvina's most fervent desire to marry outside of a public chapel.
"I am no kind of bride, James." She waved her hand airily over herself. He caught her hand and kissed the palm.
"You are a beautiful bride," he said passionately, nuzzling her neck. "You are my bride."
They were all alone in the garden behind the house, and he, buoyed by his happiness, by the very amazing fact of being alive, leaned and gathered her and lifted her into his arms. She yelped with surprise, and he grunted a bit, surprised by this new weight of her.
Experimentally weighing her in his arms while she giggled like a girl, he said:
"Two stone? And a half?"
Malvina sighed. "Three," she said, with a sigh.
She was very beautiful despite, or because of it all-the belly, the additional three stone, the roundness of her figure and the softening of her very manner. He remembered her light of step, thin-limbed, willowy. Quicksilver-fast in her movements. She had charmed him with this, and he knew no other Malvina. Now, now, she was entirely different, full of flowing lines, softness, round shoulders. Luminous from within, he thought, her cheekbones, her hands, her neck fairly glowing with it. James was awed, captivated, unable to draw his eyes away from her. He was determined that he would do nothing to compromise her any further, particularly not under they censorious eyes of her two aunts; but his self-control was dearly bought. Three days that they had to wait for the license, three days were too long.
And then, suddenly, they were married. Elizabeth was there, as were his Aunt and Uncle Gardiner and Malvina's two disapproving maiden aunts. Ruth, with her somber little face, and the blushing Cranford stood up for them. The only other person in the room was Lord Gregory, who had visited the day before and was elated to find him alive and well. Malvina wore a light lavender gown, very simple and appropriate in her mourning. Unsurprisingly, she forwent the veil. The ceremony a blur, and the minister behaving as if nothing at all was different about the bride, James slipped his ring upon his bride's finger. Her hand was trembling, and he gathered it in his resolutely and squeezed. She was his now, all the world be damned.
There was nowhere else to go, no parish church to exit, no coins to throw into the crowd. The wedding breakfast was served in the adjacent breakfast room, and the minister was the only other guest. They ate nothing, but stood arm-in-arm throughout the breakfast, desperate to be alone at last. It was very obvious perhaps, and ought to have been shocking, but truly was not-at least, not to anyone but Malvina's old maid Aunts.
But their guests were all their friends, and, with the exception of the Aunts, who, after all, lived in this house, everyone dispersed within an hour and a half. Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek, and then repeated her maneuver with her new sister-in-law. Malvina gave her cheek readily, well-pleased, and then returned the favor.
"I am so happy," Elizabeth said. "I am so very glad it's you."
She kissed James again, on the other cheek, and he saw tears in her eyes. He wondered briefly about her own life, her own failed marriage. He hugged her tightly to himself. The poor child. She left, a little forlornly, on Lord Gregory's arm.
And then, they were all gone, even Ruth had gone up to her room; and only the Aunts remained, supervising the servants with two pairs of jealous eyes.
"Leave them be, Aunt Flora," Malvina said, not taking her eyes off James. "They can have the wedding food if they so desire."
Aunt Flora scowled at her. "I have run this household with economy and caution, and all the servants knowing their place, for years-and you, dear niece, would fritter it all away with your wasteful ways!"
"It is my wedding day today," Malvina said, sighing. "I say, let the servants have the cake."
She yawned, then, though James was willing to bet she was not the smallest bit sleepy.
"I am so easily tired these days," she said loudly, obviously for the benefit of the Aunts. "And light-headed. I swear I may fall just now. I think I should rest. Mr. Bennet, will you not see me to my bedchamber?"
He bowed to her, quite formally, not missing the twinkle in her eye. "You do tire yourself so," he chided gently, offering her his arm. "Do take care, my dear Mrs. Bennet, for yourself and for our child."
He walked his wife past the Aunts, both puffed up like indignant pigeons, bidding them good-day politely.
They walked down the hall in silence and soon saw Ruth milling by the door of Malvina's bedchamber, looking anxious.
"Mem-sahib," the girl said, dropping a deep curtsey, "will you need help just now?"
It was full light, the middle of the day. Malvina smiled sweetly at the girl:
"No, my dear. I shall merely kick off my shoes and lie down for a short spell."
Reflexively, she folded her hands in a native gesture of thanks and dismissal.
Ruth curtseyed again and disappeared.
Inside, Malvina's girlhood bedchamber was full of light and airy green fabrics. James thought about her other room, with frescoes, blood-red and gold, upon the walls, with a beautiful carved balcony. He shook it off, thinking of the pile of ash they had left behind. Then-not thinking of it, a genuine effort made easier by the fact that he and his wife had both privacy and an absolute right to it.
She stood before him, looking up, her blue eyes clear, her gold eyelashes spiky with tears. When had she cried? He lifted one hand, stroked the wetness off her cheek. He could not look at her enough. The very fact of her presence was amazing to him. Both of them had braved unimaginable horrors, only to come together in this peaceful, green, gauzy room...
He opened his arms, and she stepped in. "My wife," he said, fiercely, meaning it like he had never meant anything before. He kissed her, and she responded with a passion that reminded him of their last, desperate coupling before she left Madras. He kissed her again, feeling the give of her body against his, the tight roundness of her belly between them making it a little awkward. Her little mouth was hot, fiercely seeking against his.
James untied, hands trembling in earnest now, the silk ties at the top of Malvina's gown. He had given her a necklace, a string of slightly pink pearls. It lay against her now-substantial bust, its subtle pink glow one with the radiance of her skin. Malvina was breathing heavily, her breasts rising against him. She stood on tiptoes, hiding her face against his neck, while he struggled with the clasp on the pearls.
"Mal," he whispered.
"I am as large as a whale," she said against his neck. He gave a short, surprised laugh.
"Have you ever seen a whale?" he asked gently. She nodded and sniffed.
"Once, during the crossing. It was ... large."
"No doubt about it," James agreed, his fingers stroking her back. The necklace slipped out of his fingers as he laid on Malvina's vanity table, seeing the round pearls reflected in the looking-glass, and more faintly-in the polished wood. Shaken deeply, he leaned and kissed the place the necklace had just touched. He pushed the edge of her gown off one round, perfect shoulder.
"Oh Mal," he whispered with a gentle, quiet laughter. "My beautiful Malvina, the lady of the sea, the savior of husbands..."
Malvina sighed, shivered, slipped her lovely white arms about his neck. The laughter ceased.
Elizabeth tried her best to look cheerful during her ride to her Aunt's house, but her spirits soon subsided into dull misery. She felt horrible about it-after all, it was Jamie's wedding day, she ought to have been happy for him. And yet, the sense of her own loss would not leave her. She tried to smile at Lord Gregory, who had kindly volunteered his open carriage to her. All around them, the summer buzzed and shimmered in waves of heat. Elizabeth opened her fan, waving somewhat obsessively at herself. She tried the smile, failed, then tried again.
She was terrified that His Lordship was going to say something, to make a note of her unhappiness on such an obviously sublime day. But he did not, merely looking at her intently from under the brim of his hat. In his eyes, Elizabeth read the same quiet, resigned misery that plagued her own heart.
At her Uncle's house, she stood for a long time in her room. She supposed she ought to start packing her things. Jamie told her that they would set out for Longbourn as soon as he heard from the War Office. He expected it to be rather soon. Both he and Malvina were quite determined to leave London and retire to the country.
To her surprise, Elizabeth found that she did not wish to go. To her greater surprise, she found that living at her Uncle's house now felt somehow impermanent. As if it was merely a temporary sojourn with family. As if she still had a chance to return to Pemberley, where she truly belonged. Going back to Longbourn meant giving up that tenuous, fragile hope. Elizabeth shook her head viciously and clenched both fists, digging her nails in. She had not heard from Darcy in ... months. It would soon be years.
It would not do to torture herself so. This, Jamie's return, his marriage, their return to Longbourn-perhaps these were the opportune events to finally stop waiting for Darcy. To finally start living her life again.
She shook her head again. What a fool she was. She focused, hard, on the one thing that allowed her to look beyond her own pain. Jamie needed her. Some three months later, her sister-in-law would be brought to bed, and she, too, would need her. Yes, Elizabeth thought, it was easier this way-easier to make someone else's existence the center of her life. She sighed and told herself she would have plenty of time to fold her gowns.
The War Office did not permit the men of 19th Light to leave London for some four more weeks. Jamie stewed and huffed, but there was nothing for it. Elizabeth, harboring a secret hope that perhaps, the permission would never come, was bereft when it finally did. Thereupon, the three of them, as well as the young Miss Johnson, finally left London.
Saying good-bye to her Uncle and Aunt-her only family these eighteen months-tore her from the inside, robbing her of all her defenses. As Malvina's carriage rocked forward, and Jamie's figure moved alongside it on horseback, and Elizabeth burst out weeping. Her sister-in-law leaned over awkwardly, hampered by her belly, and proffered Elizabeth her handkerchief.
"Elizabeth, are you all right?" she asked, sounding unnerved. "Are you certain you are all right? Why are you crying like this?"
Elizabeth could not explain it, and she could not stop. She wept, until the pain inside her chest made it impossible for her to breathe, much less cry. She leaned her face against the carriage wall and covered her eyes with one hand. She ought to be ashamed of herself, but she could not even bring herself to feel shame; indeed, to feel anything but loss.
Malvina and Miss Johnson sat side-by-side, one fair, the other dark, wearing identical expressions of bemusement. Finally calmed down enough to know that she had acquitted herself rather poorly, Elizabeth begged their forgiveness.
"What must you think of me, Malvina."
"I think nothing of you except that you must have a good reason to cry."
"Forgive me," Elizabeth said flatly, addressing herself now to Malvina's quiet companion. Miss Johnson made a noncommittal shrug, accented by the politest of smiles, as if to say that she, too, drew no conclusions.
Elizabeth wanted, suddenly and desperately, to confess. Over the last months, she had not told anyone just how much her estrangement from Darcy had pained her. How much her own error in judgment had pained her-for she had become certain, with the passage of time, that she had misjudged her own husband and Mr. Wickham both. The knowledge that she could have had a great love and that she had lost it through her own foolish obduracy had bothered her for months now, but she could not burden her Aunt with it, nor put it in a letter to Mr. Darcy.
You must have a good reason to cry. I do, I do have a good reason, she wanted to say. I have discarded a man, as good a man as ever there was, and one I loved, and one who loved me. She bit her lip, the impossibility of actually saying it feeling like a black stone inside her breast.
They arrived to Longbourn late, and Elizabeth begged to be excused momentarily. She did not want to peer about, looking at how her Father's old home had changed. She did not want to marvel at it aloud with Jamie and Malvina. She certainly had no desire to relive the heart-rending memories from the time she visited here with Darcy.
She was sitting in her old room, unable to look at herself in the old, roughed, spotted glass. Her face in her hands, it took her a moment to discern a slight scratching at the door.
Malvina was standing before the door, looking a little sheepish and cuddling a white soft-spun shawl about her shoulders.
"Elizabeth, forgive such a late visit," she said quickly. "I trust you were not asleep? You did not look like you could sleep, at least."
Elizabeth tried a smile, but it came out crooked. "I thought I affected a convincing enough performance of sleep in the carriage," she said.
"You tried," Malvina said. "May I come in?" Elizabeth stepped aside without a word, and her sister-in-law, looking in her gown and shawl as big as a white cloud, sailed past her.
Elizabeth shut the door behind them and turned around, making a vague gesture with one hand.
"Please," she said quietly. Malvina looked about the room quickly and then took a chair in the corner, pulling her shawl more tightly about herself.
"I am sorry again," she said. "I do not like to be this intrusive, but you seem rather miserable. And I flatter myself into thinking that under... normal circumstances, you would have been happy of your brother's marriage. Enough, at least, not to weep in the carriage on the way home."
Elizabeth felt the rush of heat to her face. "You are very perceptive, indeed. I am very happy for you and Jamie, but-" She shrugged helplessly. "This has nothing to do with the two of you."
"Your brother is worried," Malvina said bluntly. "I have just barely stopped him from coming here himself."
"I did not think I was that obvious," Elizabeth said, pained. She had tried to stop crying by the time the dark fell and Jamie joined them in the carriage, and had thought she had made a creditable job of it.
Malvina smiled gently. "Your brother is no longer the boy that you remember. He is now a man of some shrewdness and perception. He could tell." She sighed. "But I am prevaricating. I know-or rather I think I know-why you were crying."
"Oh." Elizabeth was shocked. It had not even crossed her mind-Lord knows why-that Jamie would share her story with the woman he intended to marry.
"Forgive me," Malvina continued. "Your brother had told me, briefly, of your estrangement from Mr. Darcy. He was... surprised by it. And rather upset."
Under her sister's pointed gaze, Elizabeth looked away.
"Upset," she repeated. 'I have always thought that Jamie would rather I did not marry my-Mr. Darcy."
"No matter." Malvina did not deny it. "But he had gathered from your letters that you and Mr. Darcy had been getting along quite well. The letter that Mr. Wickham brought-the fact that there was such discord in your previously happy union-it distressed him quite a bit."
Elizabeth shivered at the familiar name.
"The longer our acquaintance with Mr. Wickham, the more convinced we became that he had practized some unkind jest upon you, some trick. For you are young, and Mr. Wickham is-was-"
Elizabeth had had no time to be shocked or upset at the first part of that sentence before the last word sank in.
"Was!" She repeated, in shock. "Was!"
She caught Malvina's startled glance across the room and sat down, heavily, in the nearest chair.
"I am sorry," Malvina said. "I thought you knew. I thought James told you."
"No. No! He has told me nothing!"
"You understood from my words, then, that-'
"He is dead?" Elizabeth asked in a small voice.
"We think so," Malvina said somberly. "Many officers perished that night. James did not recover-" Her voice broke suddenly and she sat silently for a moment, holding one hand to her breast. Thereupon, she continued, her voice more even. "-did not recover all the bodies."
Elizabeth remembered what Jamie had told her about Malvina's Father's terrible death. Even through her own shock, she had an urge to run up and put her arms about her sister-in-law, but there was something forbidding about Malvina's face just at the moment.
"Yes," Malvina said after a while. "He is dead."
They sat in silence, Elizabeth observing, dully, the play of moonlight upon her window. The thought of Mr. Wickham dead was shocking, but even worse so was the fact that she had not thought of him at all. Elizabeth could not believe that it had not occurred to her to wonder about Mr. Wickham. She had known that he was a part of the same garrison as her brother, and yet, she had not asked Jamie about him. So happy she was to have Jamie back, so charmed by his wife, so steeped in her own loveless misery. Lord! She felt so guilty now!
She looked up at her sister-in-law, pressed her hand in horror against her lips. "I have not thought of him at all," she said, her voice muffled, horrified. "Not for a moment. Not in connection with-with-"
Malvina pressed her lips together and arched one eyebrow. "Perhaps that ought to serve as an indication of how you truly feel about the man."
Elizabeth, who had thought she could not be shocked any more, was. "How can you say this!" she cried. "I thought-I had thought of him as a friend."
"Forgive me," Malvina asked dryly, "but how long did you know him before he left for India?"
Elizabeth was lost. She could not answer that question. At the time when her heartbreaking row with Darcy flourished and spread between them, she had felt that she had known Mr. Wickham her whole life. Over the next eighteen months, the truth was obscured even further, and now, she did not know quite what to say.
"When I met him-" Malvina started. She paused, as if gathering her thoughts. "When I met him at the Fort, he immediately told me about being wronged by Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. It was an old story, the kind that a grown man should avoid repeating. I suspect he wanted sympathy from me, but I am not in the habit of listening to tales."
Elizabeth hanged her head, and Malvina said speedily:
"Please do not feel abashed at this, Elizabeth. When he approached you, you were much younger. He knew you to be a child, practically, so very young, so impressionable. I think that all of London then knew of your - forgive me-strange circumstances. That you were newly, and strangely, married, though no-one quite knew how or why. I had left for India just shortly before, and even then... the ton was intrigued with Darcy's future bride." She smiled a little. "From your letters it seemed that you appeared... appeared in society, as a couple, and I am certain you fairly sparkled in it, too."
Elizabeth smiled at her sister-in-law for this attempt at kindness.
"You were not there," she said feebly. "How can you be certain?"
"Darcy is quite handsome, and you are very lovely, my dear. I have no doubt that together you made a striking impression. Mr. Wickham had hardly needed to dig deep to find out that his old enemy had married a very young woman..."
"His enemy," Elizabeth repeated bitterly. "Yes, and that is the crux of it, Malvina. What Mr. Wickham told might well have been a tale, but it was not an untrue one. My husband himself admitted to influencing his father to pull Mr. Wickham from school."
Malvina blinked and sat in silence for a moment. Then, she said, more slowly. "Perhaps... Elizabeth, perhaps he had his reasons to do that."
"Yes," Elizabeth agreed. "But he would not reveal his reasons to me, and my pride could not bear it."
"I understand," Malvina said. "But please consider that perhaps... Our youthful memories can be very painful sometimes, you know. Perhaps your husband could not reveal his to you without-" She paused again, as if looking for the right word-"humbling himself. Perhaps Mr. Wickham suspected that of him, and had put him in a position to have to reveal it to you..."
Elizabeth was startled by this. "Do you really think so?" she said. "How very convoluted a scheme, if that is indeed what he did. But what would be the object of it, even if it were true?"
"To hurt the man he so disliked. The man he envied. To sow discord," Malvina said. "I have seen enough of the creature to know that he would think nothing of it! Elizabeth," she said, her passions rising visibly. "Elizabeth, the man was bad! There was every indication that he had seduced another officer's wife while at the Fort. And I once had to warn him off Ruth with a backhoe."
So shocked Elizabeth was at the mental picture of Malvina threatening Mr. Wickham with a gardening tool, she gave a tremulous little laugh.
"Forgive me!" she cried. "You must allow the image is most extraordinary."
Malvina smiled. "I suppose it must be."
"So he was bad," Elizabeth said, returning to her bitterness. "He-bad, and I-so foolish that I failed to notice it."
"Yes," Malvina said. "Precisely the case. I was older-
"-older-and knew him for what he was. But he preyed on you, the way he would have likely preyed upon my young friend, had I allowed it."
Elizabeth swallowed, hard. "Do you suppose that ... he had meant to -"
"I do not know. Perhaps he had meant to seduce you. But if you ask your brother, Mr. Wickham was not the ...bravest man in the world. As a matter of fact, the word James had used on one occasion was a coward." She grinned, remembering something. "Your brother is most frightful when he loses his temper," she confessed. "But to return to Mr. Wickham, perhaps he had meant to deal your husband an ultimate blow, and perhaps, he would not have dared."
Elizabeth sat, frozen, her head abuzz with such information. It had never occurred to her that Mr. Wickham's goal was their ultimate ruin. Darcy had said as much, but she had waved him off, accused him of being unreasonable. It was shocking and frightening to hear this from another. But whatever Mr. Wickham's ambitions were, she hoped very much that she would have disappointed him.
Would she have?
She did not like to wonder about it. She had never doubted her own integrity, her loyalty to her husband-for all the time that he was her husband. To think that she might have succumbed, that it might have ended just so much worse than it had... She drew in a sharp breath. She had fallen victim to Mr. Wickham's easy charm and grace already, to have taken his word over that of her own husband. Perhaps, with a little more persuasion...
"Forgive me," Malvina repeated. "I suppose the gist of it all is that you must not blame yourself. He could be very charming if he tried. And you were very young." She wrung her hands a little. "I thought that telling you this would help. I hope I was right."
Elizabeth did not know whether it helped. Her heart felt raw, heavy, pulsing with blood. Her head was full of strange, riotous thoughts. The thought of Mr. Wickham dead, the thought of her own possible seduction, the memories of Darcy's agonized face as he had stalked out of her Uncle's drawing room.
"I cannot stop blaming myself," she confessed suddenly, surprising herself. "Darcy was so... so... " She inhaled again, deeply. "I cannot believe that I have lost him."
She feared that Malvina would attempt to argue with her about this, to tell her that she had not lost her husband, but the other woman said nothing, her fingers playing absently with the edge of her shawl. Her gaze, however, was focused on Elizabeth, sharp, yet warm, and full of compassion.
"My dear," Malvina said, her hands abandoning the shawl and folding just over her belly, "you must remember that whatever happens, you have us. I know that it is dismal comfort, but-"
"No!" Elizabeth rose and came to kneel next to her sister's chair. "No, Malvina, it is a very great comfort..."
Malvina's long, cool hand stroked Elizabeth's hair. "You have a long life ahead of you, my dear. And your brother and I, we-we really want you to be happy."
As if on cue, there was as knock at the door, and Jamie's voice asked:
"Bess, is my wife with you? She seems to have disappeared."
"Come in," Elizabeth said, and the door opened, admitting a tired-looking Jamie, dressed in a long robe.
"I was waiting for you in our room," he said to Malvina, "and I must have fallen asleep."
"Yes, and I took the opportunity to escape and come pester your sister," Malvina said, her voice light. She extended one hand, and Jamie pulled her up from the chair. She rose with a little grunt, rocked on her feet. "Good Lord," she said with a grin. "I cannot wait to regain my center of gravity." She put one hand on Elizabeth's shoulder and gave her a light kiss on the cheek. "Try to sleep, my dear," she said quietly.
Elizabeth thought that sleep would not be a possibility tonight, but she smiled and waved them off all the same. Thereupon, left all alone in her bedchamber, she gained her bed, prepared to spend a sleepless night-what she was certain would be one of many-and fell, suddenly and deeply, asleep.
In the morning, Elizabeth woke up feeling better than she had in weeks. Her heart still ached, but the pain was no longer sharp and piercing. Perhaps the knowledge that she, herself, had been the object of a vile plan, made it easier. It was not just a mistake, she thought, she had not stood a chance... She sat in the window seat, thinking. If Malvina was correct, then Mr. Wickham had planned it all. Darcy had suggested it to her before, and she had not believed it for a moment. It had seemed so devious, so diabolical an act-to plan it all, just to wreck their marriage. She could not imagine what Mr. Wickham had thought would be the advantage of such an enterprise. She had to rely upon Malvina's supposition that he had wanted to hurt Darcy. How absolutely simple, she thought, amazed, how brilliant. What artifice and cleverness. She could not imagine planning and scheming to ruin someone's marriage, their very life.
Paradoxically, life became easier after that. She still missed Darcy heart-rendingly, but she felt a lot less guilty about the whole affair. She focused all her energies, all her attentions on Malvina, who in her late pregnancy grew enormous and round and suffered mercilessly through the August heat. She befriended the little dark-faced Miss Ruth, enamored of the girl's quiet dignity and sweetness. Together with the young Indian, they attended to her brother's wife, rubbing cramps out of her feet and wiping her down with cool cloths. Elizabeth spent as much time as possible in the two women's company, or that of her brother, avoiding solitude and the dark thoughts it brought at all costs.
Then, one morning, still clinging to the last bits of sleep, she heard some vague commotion below the stairs, feet running and voices raised in alarm. It took her a sleepy second to realize what was happening. Then, she was on her feet and pulling on a robe as she dashed for the door. She collided with Jamie in the hallway. He was pale and wide-eyed, and trying with greater futility to put his right arm through his coat sleeve. After three fruitless attempts, Elizabeth grabbed him by the arm and asked, sharply:
"Is it Malvina?"
He nodded, finally managed to don his jacket and said: "Bess, go to her, please. Go to her now. I am to bring the doctor."
Elizabeth wanted to suggest that her brother send someone for the doctor, but took one look at his face and decided that it might not be the best idea for him to mill about in such a state.
"Of course I will go to her," she said reassuringly, though inside she was utterly terrified. She had never attended a birth. Not quite knowing what to expect, she expected something rather violent, indecent and bloody. But even that was nothing to the possibility that Malvina might die in her childbed. So many young women did, after all. Elizabeth quickly thought of her mother, and of Darcy's mother, both of whom were among the victims She thought of the young woman who had-as Malvina had told her-in all likelihood had borne George Wickham's child and died in a terrible rush of blood. She shuddered, hoping that Jamie did not notice. Malvina seemed so very healthy, but one's chances in this matter appeared to have far more to do with luck than with health. "Do not worry," she said firmly to her brother as she tied the sash on her robe with one resolute motion. "I will go to her at once."
She did that, without even changing into an actual gown, and was somewhat surprised to find Malvina up and walking about the room. Elizabeth had expected to find her sister-in-law prostrate, but she was pacing about, holding one hand to her back.
"Oh, Elizabeth," she said, her voice somewhat strained. 'How good to see you. Promise me that you will not cluck. I have already sent Hill away because she was clucking."
Young Ruth, visibly pale and frightened, said:
"Memsahib has sworn me to silence."
"No clucking," Malvina said so severely that Elizabeth had to smile. Malvina smiled back, but immediately, the game grin faded off her countenance. While Elizabeth and Ruth watched in horror, she squeezed her eyes shut and pressed the palm of her hand against the wall, verily leaning upon it. Then, slowly relaxing, she released a tight breath.
"Oh," she said quietly, opening her eyes. "Nothing quite like it, I suppose."
"When did it start?" Elizabeth asked, trying to sound unconcerned.
"In the middle of the night. I have felt these... pains for at least two days now, and have asked Hill about them. She told me that I would know when it came." Malvina grimaced. "I did not want to wake your brother," she said to Elizabeth, "and managed to wait until the morning, until I thought it was time. Just as Hill said. It felt like I knew. I was just about to wake him, when-"at that point she sighed and pointed to the bed, stripped of the obviously wet sheets. "I suppose he woke on his own after that."
She tried to smile again, but all of a sudden gasped and sought for something to grab onto. Instinctively, Elizabeth offered her a hand, and Ruth immediately followed suit. Elizabeth had to bite her lip to keep from gasping herself as Malvina squeezed with all her might.
So it went, afterwards, as the two young women paced about the room with their sister and friend. She was very quickly tired, but immobility seemed to pain her more. Elizabeth and Ruth took turns allowing Malvina to lean on one or the other when the pains came. She made remarkably little sound, mostly huffing and moaning and occasionally crying out. Elizabeth heard the patter of feet behind the door, servants clearly listening, but not one of them dared to knock.
Then, finally, a sound of some very different steps-loud, fast, and purposeful, and the door swung open, admitting Jamie and the local doctor, a businesslike gentleman of about five-and-forty. To Elizabeth, he seemed proficient enough, and she was relieved to see that he clearly intended to dispense with proprieties and examine his patient thoroughly. She had heard horrors of inept physicians who examined laboring women blindly, under a sheet; and of some that even forwent touching their patients out of false modesty. She noted also that he had asked for water to wash his hands; and that, too, seemed reassuring to her.
Malvina bore it with some fortitude when he lead her to the bed-which Ruth had since made up with fresh, dry sheets-and asked her to lie down, clearly not intending to cover her with anything. But when he asked that everyone leave the room, Malvina waved her hand furiously and said:
"Not the women. Let the women stay."
Jamie, thus dismissed, escaped, and Elizabeth was allowed to stay, though she would have dearly liked to join him. Instead, she knelt by her sister's head and gave her a hand to hold, while Ruth, without another word, had knelt on the other side. Each woman did her best not to look at the doctor, who was as unceremonious as it seemed possible.
Malvina was pale, wide-eyed, a fine sheen of sweat upon her forehead. She sought out Elizabeth's eyes.
"Listen," she said quietly, "if I die tonight and my child lives, please help James. He would not know what to do with a babe."
Elizabeth wanted to tell her that she was not going to die, that this was bad, and wrong, to think this way-but just then Malvina screamed in earnest for the first time since the beginning of her confinement.
Elizabeth thought that the glass in the window must have cracked, and a flock of birds taken off a tree outside. Herself, she squeezed her eyes shut and said a quick prayer.
Forster Thomas Bennet was born some hours after the doctor's arrival. Not quite certain just how much time had passed since that first terrible scream, Elizabeth came down, swaying on her feet, to tell her brother that both his wife and son lived. He looked owlish, shocked, disbelieving. Elizabeth beamed at him and grabbed his wrist.
"A boy," she said, almost shaking him. "A little boy!"
He gave a loud, sharp laugh and threw his arms about her so tightly, she gasped and swayed harder when he released her.
"A boy," he repeated. "A son!"
Taking two steps at a time, he ran up the stairs. Elizabeth, trailing him, only made it upstairs in time to see him kneel by the bed. It was then that Hill (who had been newly admitted to Malvina's apartments on the condition of no clucking) handed Malvina a swathed little bundle. Elizabeth watched her brother and sister-in-law bend their heads over the child.
She stood there for some time, minded by no-one, full of relief and remaining anxiety for Malvina and her child. Deep inside, she was fighting, too, a rising wave of anguish and misery, fed by thoughts of what she, herself, was denied. She stifled it decisively: now was not the time for it. Now she would simply be happy for her brother, and happy, too, because she now had a little nephew, and because he was born alive, and healthy, and because, God willing, her sister-in-law would live as well.
Elizabeth wrote to Pemberley, to Mr. Darcy and Georgiana, telling them the Longbourn news. Automatically, she thought about Darcy as he received this news. It had become a habit-every time she wrote to Pemberley, she included him as an addressee in her heart. Briefly, very briefly, she allowed herself to engage in a momentary fantasy of what it would be like to bear a son for her husband. The thought was sweet and then too painful by far; and she scolded herself for even allowing her mind to venture down just such a path. Within a month, they had a response from Mr. Darcy, congratulating the family on the wonderful occasion. The letter came with a gift: a small, exquisite silver spoon with a blue ribbon tied about it. It looked like it had been bought in one of the finer shops in London. Elizabeth sighed and forbade herself to think of the man who had likely purchased it.
The pleasant monotony of Longbourn life was interrupted by another happy event just shortly before Christmas. Their quiet breakfast one morning was disrupted by a sound of hoof beats, and then a rushed, flabbergasted Hill running in, just in time to announce a Captain Cranford. The young man himself walked in quickly, his face flaming with color from the cold wind. Elizabeth looked up, quickly, at Miss Johnson, who sat as prim and proper as she had a minute before, but appeared noticeably more overwrought.
"Cranford," Jamie said, rising, and shook the fellow's hand. "Or should I use your new rank as much as possible, Captain?" He grinned at his former subordinate. It had now been about a month since Jamie had sold his commission to Cranford. Elizabeth found a great deal of comfort in the fact that her brother was now a civilian, unlikely to be posted to a remote corner of the world. She suspected that Malvina did as well.
Little Tommy, hoisted up in his mother's arms, made an excited gurgling sound.
"My dear Captain," Malvina said, shaking her head. "Did you ride here all the way from-"
"No, ma'am, merely from Meryton," the young man said. "I am lodged there."
"Lodged there," Malvina said. "What nonsense. Why are you not lodged here?"
"I could not presume, Mrs. Bennet, ma'am."
Malvina shook her head again. "Oh Cranford. You know that you have an open invitation to come and visit with us as much as you like. We are all very glad to see you."
The young Captain spent some time paying his respects to the new little demi-god in Malvina's arms. Tommy seemed to think the shiny buttons on the gentleman's uniform just the thing and seemed quite put out when his mother stopped his attempt to eat one of them. His little face instantly acquiring an angry crumpled expression, he burst into a fit of loud wailing.
"Oh, forgive the little monster," Malvina said, cradling the baby's head to her shoulder, "And you!" She said, making an amusing face at her son. 'I suppose we shall feed you, if you are so inclined. Elizabeth, would you not help me with him?" Elizabeth, a little surprised-her sister-in-law rarely asked for help in something as simple as feeding her baby-rose, dropped a curtsey to the newly-minted Captain and walked out. Outside the door, Malvina made big eyes at her and beckoned for her to follow. They stopped only a little way's away, near a large window seat. Malvina sat herself down at the edge of it and pulled her bodice apart. Her decision to breastfeed her own baby had scandalized her Aunts, who had come with a visit in an inopportune moment, but had failed to surprise Elizabeth. Malvina did things the way she wanted-and, Elizabeth had noticed, they turned out for the best, too. Now she lowered her eyes, slightly abashed at witnessing just such a private act. Thankful nonetheless for the resultant-and immediate--reduction in din, she sat next to the nursing mother.
Over her son's little body, Malvina said excitedly:
"Oh Elizabeth I hope I am right about him!"
"About whom? Captain Cranford?".
"Oh he is here to make her an offer, I simply know it!"
"Yes, Ruth! Oh, I am so happy! I hope your brother does not dawdle in there and leaves them alone as soon as may be!"
Jamie did not disappoint, skulking out of the breakfast room within ten minutes. Malvina had finished feeding Tommy, had given him, content and quiet, to Elizabeth, and was lacing her bodice back together.
"Oh! Finally!" she said, moving close to Elizabeth and patting the window seat next to her. "What did you tell them?" She took the baby back from her sister-in-law, and patted his little back as he burped against a handkerchief spread upon her shoulder.
"Only that I thought I heard you calling me, shouting across the hallway at the top of your lungs. After all, it did not much matter what I told them, only as long as I quit the room."
The three of them sat quietly for some time. Tommy was now peacefully asleep in his mother's arms, and Elizabeth observed with some tenderness a soft dark cowlick at the back of his head. Rocking the baby gently, Malvina turned to her husband and said:
"You know, James, I have been thinking. Ruth has nothing. No dowry, no portion, even her name is invented. Every natural child in India is Jones or Johnson or Smith."
Jamie nodded. "I suppose it would only be right if we did something for Miss Johnson, to enable her to marry."
And so it was decided. Elizabeth, sitting quietly with them, marveled at the accord with which they had come to make so serious a decision. Of course, Malvina had money of her own, left to her by her father, but nary a word was said about that, or about Ruth being her friend and former servant. They would settle a sum on her, to allow her to marry with her head raised high and to silence mean wagging tongues, and they would do so together.
Once that was decided, Malvina seemed terribly impatient. "Oh I cannot bear it!" she said, finally, shooting out of her seat. Quickly, she handed little Tommy to her husband and started walking towards the breakfast room. Elizabeth observed her progress, wondering to herself whether she would really knock and disturb whatever was going on inside. But just then, the door swung open, revealing Captain Cranford and Ruth, standing side by side, regarding their friend quizzically as she froze uneasily in the middle of the hallway.
"Oh," Malvina said, trying unsuccessfully for nonchalance, "I am just-passing by."
"Right," Miss Johnson said, and Elizabeth thought that she heard happy tears in her voice. "You are just passing by. Very well, mem-sahib, I will tell you what you so wish to know. Captain Cranford has just asked me to marry him-"
Cranford, beaming, finished for her: "-and she has accepted me!"
Such felicitation there was! Malvina threw her arms about her young charge and kissed her on the cheek. Jamie had to shake Cranford's hand with his left, as he was cradling Tommy in his right arm. Miss Johnson cried openly, big round tears making her startling green eyes all the more brilliant. She cried all the harder after Malvina took her by the arm and informed her, in a rather private voice, that she was to have a modest settlement with which to marry.
"I cannot accept it," she said, taking her benefactress' hand. "I cannot-You have saved my life, more than once. I owe you my life, such as it is now. I owe you all my happiness. I cannot take more from you."
"Nonsense!" Malvina said sharply. "Nonsense, Ruth. You will accept it. You do owe me your life, and your obedience, and you will accept it."
She hugged the girl with one arm and kissed her on the cheek. Ruth cried some more, but then wiped her stunning eyes and happily agreed.
And so it happened that Miss Johnson had to go to London to buy wedding clothes. She would have been perfectly content to buy them at Meryton, but Jamie was going to make some final arrangements at the War Office, of which he would soon no longer be subject, and Malvina convinced Miss Johnson to go with him. Elizabeth, on her part, agreed to accompany them. Ruth would need someone to help her pick out the clothes, and it was also far more proper that James Bennet's sister should accompany the two of them on the road. Elizabeth, too, hoped to see her Uncle's family while in London-she had not seen them since July. Malvina, on her part, was happy to stay back at Londbourn with Tommy.
Thereupon, they went.
Elizabeth liked Miss Johnson well enough, thinking that the penniless girl with a made-up name and dark skin had dignity enough for an assembly's worth of wealthy debutantes. Neither of them was of a chattering kind, but the mood in the carriage was pleasant nonetheless. Jamie and Captain Cranford had joined them inside, for it was too cold to ride on horseback. Miss Johnson was mostly quiet, and so was the Captain, staring at her quite unabashedly. There was an incident at the inn, where Miss Johnson surprised the proprietor by asking whether they had any stew that did not involve beef, or better yet, any meat. The man, large fleshy hands in the pockets of a questionable-looking apron, peered in shock at the dark-skinned girl who would shun his best stew; but noticing that her clothes were more than decent, and that her companions were clearly quality, dared say nothing.
Elizabeth thought the whole conversation was vastly amusing, and insisted, out of solidarity with Ruth, that she, too, would eschew meat tonight. Jamie's charm and few extra shillings convinced the proprietor to take back an order for two portions of shepherd's pie without meat and some roasted potatoes. The men, on their part, enjoyed their stew quite vociferously, sending compliments to the cook.
"I am a Christian," Miss Johnson said, looking slightly uncomfortable. "But-old customs-you understand-"
"We understand," Elizabeth said calmly, patting the young woman's hand. "Very soon, you will have your own home and your own kitchen and will order things as you see fit."
Miss Johnson smiled at the notion, and then, immediately, blushed and dropped her eyes. Which was a good thing, considering some of the attention that they were attracting. Elizabeth had seen people of all different colors in London-mostly, she gathered, from West Indies-but here was not London, and stares about them ranged from curious to the hostile. It helped matters somewhat when Captain Cranford took out his pistols and laid them, quite openly, on the table between himself and Jamie.
They were in London on the morrow; their first order of business, once they were situated at Malvina's townhouse in Mayfair, was to go shopping. There, an unpleasant surprise awaited. To Elizabeth's dismay, the modiste at the Strand remembered her. Darcy had brought her here some two years ago.
"Oh Mrs. Darcy! How may we be of service to you?"
Elizabeth cringed within. Of all the shops in the Strand, they had to come here. "It is not me," she said pleasantly, put one hand upon Miss Johnson's back, and pushed her a step forward. "It is my friend here, Miss Johnson, who is to be married and needs to outfitted."
Before they had left Longbourn, Malvina had called her aside and given her money-specifically for such a purpose. Not only was Miss Johnson to have money settled on her, she was also to choose all her wedding clothes at Malvina's expense. The young woman, having found out this morning that they were going to a shop that she, herself, could not possibly afford even with her settlement, had born it with ill grace. She had said something angry in a language that Elizabeth did not understand, ground her teeth a little and threw up her hands in an uncharacteristically emotive gesture.
"I really do not think," Elizabeth had told her gently, "that you can resist your memsahib in this." She smiled at the girl. "I think it would please her greatly to know that you do not appear to people as if you are alone in the world."
"I do not care what people think," Miss Johnson had said, surly.
"You care about Mrs. Bennet," Elizabeth retorted. "And she will be quite upset if you are not the prettiest bride in --- wherever it is you will be marrying Mr. Cranford?" Miss Johnson had sighed, resigned. "Bath," she had said, unhappily.
Now, in the shop, Elizabeth said. "She is the bride, yes. You are to dress her with good taste."
They did, though Miss Johnson insisted on picking out the simplest fabrics and nets and shoes. But everything she bought was of an excellent quality, and Elizabeth knew that Malvina would appreciate that. She was glad to finally leave the shop, for try as she might to focus all her attention on Miss Johnson, memories intruded. Memories of Darcy observing her nonchalantly as they pinned fabric about her shoulders, of the way his gaze upon her warmed and thrilled her, of the feel of the gold silk on her skin. The most striking memory of all-Darcy dropping a feathery kiss in the crook of her neck while nobody was looking. She could barely contain a shiver.
Elizabeth started and saw Miss Johnson gazing upon her inquisitively.
"Where to now?"
Elizabeth hesitated. There was more shopping to be done, but she wanted, most of all, to be outside, her lungs burning for want of the fresh air. It was a soft winter day, a white sky nearly pink with the imminent snow, the trees' branches heavy with it.
"I am of a mind to go ice-skating," she said, smiling. Miss Johnson shivered visibly. "Oh come, it will be wonderful fun."
Miss Johnson sighed, then laughed out loud, cocking her head. "Mrs. Darcy," she said in her musical voice, "I am from India. I saw snow for the first time a fortnight ago. I am still on a none-too-steady ground with it."
Elizabeth, too, had to laugh.
"Perhaps you could skate, and I could sit in my room, and fold and unfold all my new clothes." Miss Johnson grinned. "I do not think I have ever had this many, nor this fine."
So, it was decided. They went back to the house, and found the men there, bored and restless, waiting for them. Elizabeth felt perfectly happy leaving Miss Johnson behind with Captain Cranford, under the severe gaze of the Aunts: the girl's reputation was assured in such a company, and the dear Captain would protect the shy young woman from the two harridans.
So she and Jamie, dressed in their warmest, walked to Hyde Park, where a large crowd of people came to go skating on the frozen Serpentine. It was growing dark rapidly, and Elizabeth wondered at the length of time she had spent at the modiste. Well, she thought, at least that was in the service of the good. Just as they neared the Serpentine, men went around, lighting torches all along its frozen banks. Very soon, all of the Serpentine was alit with their bright, wicked glow. It reflected off the ice and made the surrounding booths-pie sellers, ale merchants-appear out of the dark as eerie gingerbread houses, each compleat with its own witch. Elizabeth found a bench, sat down and waited for Jamie to rent their skates. Watching the skaters dash past her merrily, some of them quite proficient, and several young men actually twirling around in the imitation of a country dance, she grew a little dizzy.
Clunk! Elizabeth started when Jamie dropped the awkward bundle of metal and leather on the ground before her. She let him help her with her skates, then stood, a trifle unsteadily, rocking and giggling nervously. Taking a step, she almost fell.
"Oh!" She waved her arms in the air, trying to regain her balance.
"Wait-wait-wait, Bess," Jamie said, as he finished fastening his own skates and rose. He appeared to be much more nimble and far steadier. Elizabeth clasped her brother's arm.
"Which one of us has spent the last six years in India, of all places?" she grumbled.
"Oh, I do not suppose you ever forget how to do this," Jamie said with a laugh. "Hold on tight!" he added and moved more quickly onto the ice, pulling her along. Elizabeth shrieked, first with terror as her feet nigh-on went out from under her, and then with joy, as she, too, remembered how to do this. Finally mastering her balance, she twirled and circled together with her brother, and then, suddenly, broke away. Her heart resonated with joy as she flew in the wild red torchlight. ?here was naught but the grace and speed of her movement and the wind in her ears. She saw Jamie laugh and blow her a kiss as he went around the bend and disappeared into the crowd. She did not remember being this alive, this joyful, not since-
In the happiness that buoyed her, it took her a second to recognize the face looking at her from the crowd on the bank. When she did, it shocked her so much that she lost her equilibrium once again and almost barreled into a couple skating with their arms held crosswise. The young woman made an alarmed sound as Elizabeth passed them by what seemed like a hairbreadth. Managing to stay upright, she drearily pushed herself to the bank. There, she collapsed on the nearest bench, her knees shaking so hard they were knocking against each other. She was afraid to look up. What if he were not there? What if she had imagined him? Or, worse yet, what if he had left already?
He had not. She could see him, on the same bank as she was, standing some distance away. She saw the way he was looking at her from under his top hat. Her heart flared like a sail full of wind, full of hope and misery. He looked at her... he looked... not with censure, or hatred, but with infinite sadness. She trembled under his gaze. For a moment, she dwelled on just such a romantic possibility-a chance meeting in the torchlight on the Serpentine, a long look, a stirring of emotion powerful and transformative enough to set their lives on a different course.
But Darcy was not alone. Next to him, stood Lord Gregory; he bowed to her politely, but did not approach. Miss Bingley, pinked with the weather and very nearly pretty in her furs, pretended not to notice the person on the bench before her. She laughed in her very own, very artificial way, and said something that Elizabeth could not hear in the din of the crowd.
She dropped her eyes then, knowing that he would not approach, and not wishing to watch him walk away. She knew that when she looked up, he would be gone.
Jamie found her on that bench some time later. Now he was happy, and it took him a moment to notice that his sister was not. Grinning, winded, he dropped on the bench next to her.
"Oh here you are! I lost you in that crowd! But how very merry, Bess, what a capital idea you've had to come here-" He did see her face, then, and cut himself off, sharply: "Bess? What is it? Did you fall?"
She shook her head no. She found that she could not speak for fear of bursting into tears.
"What happened? Bess? Sweetheart?" She saw that her brother was now truly worried. She gathered a chestful of air and whispered, hoping he could read her lips: "Darcy."
"Darcy!" Jamie repeated, visibly shocked. "Here?"
He grew suddenly furious, eyebrows coming together and eyes flaming. He started from the bench, but she put her hand upon his arm and shook her head. "Did he approach you? Did he say something to you? Did he-"
Elizabeth shook her head again, biting her lip. "No," she whispered. "No, Jamie. He did not."
He seemed to understand, then. "Oh Bess," he whispered and put his arms about her. She would have thought that something like this would cause her to cry, but instead, she felt all frozen through. How long had she been sitting on this bench? She rested her forehead against her brother's shoulder.
"Bess," he said into her hair. "It is all for the better. He is not good for you. You should never have married him. Father-" he said, contempt rising in his voice.
"Shsh," Elizabeth whispered, and reached up to put one finger against her brother's lips. "Yes. And no. It is not all for the better. I probably should never have married him, and yes, you are right, whatever you had meant to say about Father. But he was good for me, Jamie, he was so good for me! There was a time... a short time when I was really happy with him." She heaved a dry sob. There were simply no more tears just now. "Oh, Jamie, what have I done!"
He gathered her more tightly to himself and comforted her much like he comforted his infant son, with soft murmurs and gentle rocking.
"Does he know this?" he asked quietly. "Does he know ... how you are?"
"I do not know," Elizabeth whispered. "Not likely. And I do not think it matters, really-not anymore. I think that I have hurt him enough where he... he may just not want me anymore."
Jamie had nothing to say to that. After a while, Elizabeth stirred, and he sprang into action, crouching down to undo her skates. They returned them at a booth and walked back to Mayfair, teeth chattering. Elizabeth regretted not taking a carriage, even as Jamie threw one arm about her for warmth.
Still, they were at the house soon enough, and Elizabeth, avoiding everyone's company, escaped to her bedchamber.
It would be a very long night.
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