Chapter 51. Proverbs and Pantalets.
Posted on 2012-03-31
One could discern a great deal from the movements of Fitzwilliam Darcy's eyebrows, reflected his wife. Elizabeth might once have considered the gentleman to be inscrutable, but time, intimacy, and a keen interest in successfully interpreting those subtle movements that even Pemberley's master could not suppress had taught her better. For the last hour, those eyebrows had done such a fascinating ballet that she had to suppress her desire to rise from her seat at the other end of the table and lay a soothing hand on his beloved brow.
Monday evening had arrived and with it, the Darcys' dinner party. Elizabeth had looked forward to an enjoyable evening filled with pleasant, intelligent conversation. What she had not planned upon (but became acutely aware of shortly after the fish course was served) was that her sister, Mary, while perhaps not conventionally silly, was quite as ignorant as Mr. Bennet had always charged.
Indeed, the dialogue around the table had come to follow an oddly predictable sequence. Either Mrs. Gardiner or Elizabeth would ask the Smithsons about some aspect of their time in northern Africa (hoping to garner some practical advice for Mary's upcoming journey). That couple would answer enthusiastically, their passion for the archeological mysteries and culture of Egypt evident in every aspect of their countenances.
Discussion would flow easily for some minutes among the Smithsons, Darcys, Gardiners, Lady Alexandra, and Sir James Darcy until, as had just happened, Mr. Avery Tucker would clear his throat and, when assured of the attention of the whole table, ask in a tight voice that was slightly too loud for the company, "And what have you done to bring these poor infidels to Christianity?"
The Smithsons were not unaccustomed to such questions and did their best to explain, as politely as possible and often with an apologetic look toward their hostess, that a significant part of their academic interest was to study the modern Egyptian culture and trace the endemic religion back to its roots in the time of the pharaohs. Needless to say, such an explanation was not acceptable to the brash young missionary or his faithful assistant. Sir James (perhaps more accustomed than the others to negotiating disparate opinions after his years as a judge) would rise to the occasion and do his best to moderate the dialogue.
Soon after that, dear, sweet Jane, disliking the tension, would make some bright comment intended to turn the table toward some polite, meaningless topic such as the weather, the state of the roads, or the flowers decorating the mantel. Elizabeth loved her elder sister, but the punctuation that her simple statements put on these conversational sequences had begun to verge upon the absurd.
Right on cue, she heard Mrs. Bingley speak in a rather strained voice, "Well! This room has lovely proportions, Lizzy. Have you changed the drapery?"
Had Elizabeth not been watching, she might have missed the sardonic twitch of her husband's lips that told her volumes about his amusement over the situation. At that moment, their eyes met and it was all she could do to keep from bursting into laughter. Even as she assured Jane that the drapes were unchanged but that she had removed a particularly ornate epergne (a wedding gift to Lady Anne from the de Bourghs), she looked around quickly for a distraction. Thankfully, she realized that her own distraction had kept her from noticing that the last course had been served and eaten.
"Well," said Elizabeth crisply. "I am certain that the gentlemen are looking forward to their port, so shall we females adjourn to the drawing room?"
The men stood as the ladies moved to follow their hostess' suggestion. Mr. Darcy directed a piercing look at his wife that, while not quite desperate, certainly told her that he no longer viewed with equanimity their prior agreement to separate the sexes for a full hour so that Mary might speak with Mrs. Smithson on certain feminine matters.
Knowing as she did that he was perfectly capable of keeping Mr. Tucker in hand (and, even if he were not, that he would be surrounded by friends) she merely pursed her lips in an exaggerated pout. The sight of William rolling his eyes in response was nearly as amusing as his disconcerted expression when Mr. Gardiner and Sir James began to chuckle, having observed the couple's entire exchange.
On that note, Elizabeth led the ladies to the drawing room, reminding herself of those questions which she desired to ask. Mary might not be quite sensible of how unprepared she was to travel to Africa, but the Darcys were determined to do what they could.
As soon as the ladies were settled with their tea, Elizabeth began. "Rose, as your mother may have informed you, the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy and I are helping outfit my sister for her journey as a wedding gift. I had hoped that you might have some practical advice for Mary with regards to clothing and such."
Having been prepared for the question, Mrs. Smithson did her best to frame her suggestions in a way that would not upset the rather prickly Miss Bennet. "Of course, Lizzy!" She turned to the younger lady before continuing, "You shall be sailing in to the Cape of Good Hope, shall you not?"
Once Mary had solemnly assented to this, the older lady continued, "The southern Cape Colony is beautiful-- lush and green. Quite unlike the more arid landscape farther north, although I must say that the deserts have a certain spartan beauty that I have come to love. Oh, and if you have a opportunity to climb Table Mountain, you must do it--the view from the peak is spectacular!"
Mary could not quite quell a small flush of excitement, and so felt it incumbent upon her to be even more brusque in her reply. "We are not going for the sightseeing--this is not a holiday trip."
"Mary!" No matter how soft, her aunt's stern remonstrance served its purpose. The middle Miss Bennet had found herself increasingly grateful to the Gardiners over the past weeks. Certainly they were much more strict than her own parents (particularly with regards to the time she spent in Mr. Tucker's company), but Mary had found herself relaxing more and more as the days passed. It had occurred to her that, in being able to trust her guardians' judgment and consistency, her own anxiety over adhering to some poorly understood code of correct, ladylike behavior had diminished.
Even as Mary worked to rearrange her features into a more pleasant expression, Elizabeth interceded. "How do you usually travel, Rose? Do your ride about on camels as I have seen in the illustrations or have the roads become full of carriages and curricles since becoming part of the British Empire?"
Mrs. Smithson smiled at her friend, even as she shook her head. "Camels are common in northern Africa, but there is little use for them further south where there is adequate water for horses. Perhaps Capetown there are carriages such as you are accustomed to, but in truth, most of the country is so rough that you do far better on horseback with a few packhorses… although I have heard that Lord Somerset has convinced parliament to provide funds to promote immigration, so I expect that they will be improving the roads into the eastern Cape."
Lady Rose turned to the younger Bennet sister again. "I must warn you that it is very difficult to find a horse trained for a sidesaddle. Except on very rare occasions, I have taken to following the fashions of the American frontierswomen, wearing split skirts and riding astride."
Miss Bennet did her best to hide her shock, even when Mrs. Darcy asked, "You and Mr. Tucker shall be traveling through the back country a great deal, going around to different villages, shall you not, Mary?" The girl managed a nod and it was obvious to the other ladies that the value of Mrs. Smithson's experience had finally gained her attention.
Meanwhile, the Countess had made some acerbic comment regarding her daughter's proclivity as a child to ride her pony bareback around their estate in her pantalets. "But Mama," cried Lady Rose with feigned indignation, "That was only when we were racing!"
"And who were you racing against, dear girl?"
Mrs. Smithson's cheeks pinked slightly even as she admitted to her imaginary foes. "Oh, it varied depending on what I was reading at the time. Sometimes Sir Gawain and I were pursuing the Green Knight… on other occasions I was being chased by evil Bedouin invaders intending to take vengeance on the English for the losses they suffered during the crusades. I remember one particularly fine scenario I invented that had to do with discovering Blackbeard's hidden treasure--we had to surveil the pirates for many days before finally being able to spirit the chest away from under their noses…"
Rose went silent when she suddenly recalled that Blackbeard's "treasure chest" had in fact been her mother's jewelry box, and that her parents' reaction when she had presented it to them had been something less than pleasure. A surreptitious glance at her mother's amused countenance revealed that that lady had remembered the same. Realizing that the Countess was fully capable of holding the entire company spellbound for the remainder of the evening with embarrassing stories of her childhood, Lady Rose quickly refocused on Mary with slightly more energy than before.
"Miss Bennet, I would be happy to give the name of my seamstress if you wish. She has outfitted me for nearly twenty years and does an excellent job of balancing modesty and style with the practicalities that my life in Africa requires."
Mary responded with rather more interest than she had shown at the beginning of the evening. "But surely you do not wear trousers like a man?"
Rose smiled, beginning to recognize that the younger girl's abrupt manner was an effort to cover her nerves. "Oh no, they are quite like full skirts-- nothing immodest. Mrs. Cutter has some excellent twill that wears well and doesn't show dust or wrinkles much… and then shirt waists are easy to come by in whatever styles and fabrics you prefer. Muslin is cool for hot days, but it tends to get caught on brush and whatnot. Oh, and boots--be sure to get at least one pair of good leather boots before you go. Africa is no place for pretty slippers--I can recommend an excellent cobbler, if you wish."
By now, Mary was fully involved and Mrs. Darcy was pleased when her sister stopped spouting proverbs and began asking sensible questions. By the time the gentlemen rejoined their ladies, Miss Bennet was working on a list and had an appointment to go shopping with her new mentor on the very next day.
Elizabeth expressed her satisfaction to her husband after their guests had departed. "Once we got her away from Mr. Tucker, the conversation went quite well," she smirked.
William rolled his eyes even as he offered her his arm but remained silent until they had reached the top of the stairs. "Mr. Tucker is intelligent and well-educated, but I fear that his idealism may not survive for long in the stark realities of their missionary work."
Lizzy squeezed his arm in understanding, for it was not the first time that they had discussed the subject. "But she is determined to have him, so all we can do is to help them prepare as best we can… and then pray, I suppose."
Her husband wrapped his arm around her waist and drew her close enough that he might kiss her hair. "I spoke with Mr. Gardiner; we shall need to talk to a solicitor, but it should be possible to provide the Tuckers with a letter guaranteeing their safe passage back to England, whenever they desire."
Ignoring the fact that they were standing in the middle of the hall, Elizabeth pulled him to a halt so that she might guide his head down for a kiss. "Thank you, Will… I shall sleep better knowing that even if they lose everything, Mary can still come home."
Darcy insisted that such conscientiousness was no more than his duty as a brother, but such modesty only provoked his wife to whisper something so suggestive in his ear that he actually blushed before adeptly navigating the remaining distance to their bedchamber.
Meanwhile, the Bingleys were enduring a much less pleasant evening. Despite the occasional tension at dinner, their time at the Darcys' had provided a welcome respite from the familial maelstrom occurring at the house on Waverley Street.
Miss Bingley had honestly believed that her brother would never carry through on his threat to remove her from his house. She considered the return of Jane's jewelry to be only temporary (most of the settings were too simple for her taste in any case). The loss of her new French maid was more irksome, but Caroline had convinced herself that the girl had been a disappointment in any case. Luckily for the Darcys, Miss Bingley had not discovered that Monique's new position was to serve as Georgiana's lady's maid, else the poor servant would have been constantly pressed for gossip.
Although Miss Bingley was reveling in the knowledge that she had access to her inheritance, she still had every intention of charging as much as she could to her brother. Her first hint that something was wrong came when she visited her milliner the next afternoon, intending to pick up the headdress she planned to wear to a ball that evening.
Although Miss Bingley would usually have sent a servant, she had received a rather odd note from the shop and was desirous of an excuse to absent her self from the house, knowing that Charles and Louisa had arranged to interview prospective companions. Her excursion was somewhat disconcerting for, although her new turban was just what she had desired, the owner politely but firmly insisted that the account be settled (instead of sending the bill to her brother as had been her prior practice).
Luckily for the woman, Caroline had become quite enamored with her newfound ability to enter her bank and receive any amount of money from the clerk in exchange for nothing more than her signature. As a result, she had accumulated quite a large sum in her reticule and rather enjoyed being able to flip open her pocket book and count out the correct amount.
The milliner took the money with a smile while silently thanking her lucky stars that she would not need to present her customer with the note that Mr. Bingley had sent around just that morning, informing all of his sister's favorite shops that he would no longer be paying her bills. Indeed, Caroline was so pleased with her self that she did not notice the smirks that followed her out the door and down the street.
Mr. Darcy might not have expressed his disapproval publically, but he had made it clear: now that he was married, invitations to him and his wife might also include Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, but not Miss Bingley. Some changes in a gentleman's circle of acquaintances were expected upon his entering the married state, and Darcy's succinct delivery had not raised too many eyebrows, except among those who knew details of Miss Bingley's attempt to blacken Elizabeth's reputation with her letter writing campaign even while she resided as a guest at Pemberley over Christmas.
Others were taking more subtle approaches to put the young lady in her place.
Lady Eleanor Fitzwilliam and Lady Alexandra Hardwick looked upon Elizabeth as a surrogate daughter and Miss Bingley's activities had infuriated them to no small degree. Now that those Ladies' anger had had time to cool, both countesses were looking forward to wielding their not inconsiderable power to punish Miss Bingley precisely where it would hurt her most.
A raised eyebrow or pursed lips here, a skeptical look there… All gave pause to those who might have considered Miss Bingley's improved connections as a reason to re-assess her potential as a match. Certainly there were always single gentlemen whose excellent connections and empty bank books made them less picky when considering the bloodlines of a well-dowered bride.
In the end, very little had to be said at all. "Mr. Bingley is an excellent man, of course--he and Darcy have been great friends since school, you know. And his dear wife--Mrs. Darcy's sister, and just what a young lady should be. Certainly their children shall do well in Society. Of course, there is only so much that education can accomplish if a child is exposed to bad influences early on. I'm sure that Charles and Jane are saddened to see his sister move out, but it was probably best to accomplish the separation before they start their family. "
While Caroline browsed the shops, happily unaware of her plummeting cachet in Society, her brother and sister had sighed over her absence but gone ahead with their appointment to interview an older Scottish gentlewoman for the position as Miss Bingley's companion. Mrs. Bullock had raised six children but her husband had recently died and, she explained bluntly, she was not quite ready to give up her independence to live under her daughter-in-law's roof.
Mrs. Bullock had grown up in Edinburgh but spent a great deal of her time in London because of her husband's shipping business. After some discussion, it was discovered that she had even known the Bingleys' parents slightly. Charles and Louisa described their sister's situation with great honesty, but Mrs. Bullock seemed more amused than disturbed by Caroline's actions.
The elder Bingley siblings were so well-pleased with the lady's forthright manner that it took little more than a shared look before they offered her the position on the spot. They agreed that Mrs. Bullock would try the situation for six months, during which Caroline could not dismiss her without the consent of her elder siblings. After six months, they would meet again to renegotiate terms, if necessary.
On the very next day, Mrs. Bullock was installed in the new apartment on Beech Street and provided with temporary servants from the Bingley and Hurst homes, until she could arrange for permanent staff appropriate to such an establishment. Jane and Lizzy were thoroughly impressed when they visited with Mrs. Hurst later in the week. Caroline's new rooms were cleared and cleaned, awaiting their new inhabitant. The existing furnishings had been arranged in a pleasing way, and a wagon had been organized to move all of Caroline's belongings on the very next day.
The normally mild Jane confided to Elizabeth that she and Charles had already planned a celebratory dinner.
"Lizzy? Sometimes I think that Caroline is… not quite sane."
Elizabeth merely replied with only a "Hmmmm…", believing that her own assessment of Miss Bingley would upset her sister's delicate sensibilities.
Chapter 52. Honored Guests (and all the rest)
Posted on 2012-05-19
Miss Bingley was apoplectic. That the woman facing her had not even flinched during a tirade that left Caroline red-faced and gulping for air only made it worse. That this same woman was now lecturing her on proper, ladylike behavior was intolerable.
"Madam, you forget yourself! My brother may have hired you, though for what possible purpose I cannot imagine, but you are a servant and you will address me as such! How dare you speak to me in such a familiar manner!"
Mrs. Bullock came very close to rolling her eyes. With her own children grown and her husband recently laid to rest, she no household of her own to run. Her desire for a new challenge had led her to apply for the position as companion to a young lady in London Society, thinking that it would be an interesting undertaking.
The spoiled girl before her was certainly not as dull as spending hours on end embroidering baby clothes for her grandchildren, she reminded herself. Schooling her features, she kept her voice calm. "Miss Bingley, you know quite well that I have been hired as your companion and that I am here today to help you settle in to your new establishment; your brother and sisters explained this all quite clearly yesterday when we were introduced."
"Don't be ridiculous--that was merely an interview! One which you failed miserably, might I add! My brother has suggested moving, of course--this house is really much too small and poorly located for entertaining on the scale that I shall be doing." Caroline suppressed the memory of being turned away from a ball only the previous evening. She had nearly argued her way past the butler when the hostess herself had appeared and informed her unwanted guest quietly but firmly that it was a private party, invitation only, and to please leave before she embarrassed herself any further.
Caroline had been so mortified that she remained entirely mute until her brother's carriage had returned her to the house on Waverley Street. When she arrived home to find that Mr. and Mrs. Bingley had just departed for a party and there was no one to listen to her choleric rant, she was left with a throbbing migraine. She had not noticed the look of relief on her maid's face when the lady demanded a headache powder and retired for the night.
While all of this was running through Miss Bingley's troubled mind, Mrs. Bullock had gently drawn the younger lady into an empty sitting room, leaving the maids and workmen to pack. Most of Caroline's wardrobe and personal items had been moved the previous day, leaving only the furniture and those necessities required for a last night in the house.
"Now then, the hour is still a wee bit early for tea, but how about a nice cup of chamomile? That always calmed my girls down when they had their panties in a twist."
The soothing tone snapped the younger woman's attention back as much as the words. "How dare you! I have no need of a companion and one such as you would not be my choice should I ever come to such a situation. Now--you will leave my presence immediately, and take these despicable workmen with you!" Unfortunately, the impact of her dramatic flounce onto the chaise was marred when she was forced to reach behind her and extract one of the little embroidered pillows that Jane was so fond of scattering about.
This time Mrs. Bullock did not bother to refrain from rolling her eyes, although she did wait until her back was turned.
In the end, Miss Bingley was left with no choice but to accompany the older Scotswoman to her new residence, for there was not a stick of furniture left in her suite of rooms and her brother and sister-in-law had wisely locked up the spare bed chambers and absented themselves from the house.
The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley ventured cautiously to his sister's new establishment, hoping (although not expecting) to find her content. Mrs. Bullock herself met them in the entryway after a maid answered their somewhat timid knock; had they not been quite so surprised by the laughter emanating from the front parlor, they might have noticed a twinkle in the older matron's eye.
Charles and Jane caught glimpses of servants bustling about in other parts of the apartment, but the elegant drawing room to which were directed showed no signs of being only recently assembled. Most astonishing, however, was the sight of Miss Caroline Bingley, sitting with four other women and looking more bewildered than her brother could ever remember.
Miss Bingley managed the introductions with reasonable poise, if not quite her usual sangfroid. "Charles, Jane; how lovely to see you! These ladies are my new neighbors, come to tea as you see."
Even as his wife innocently exclaimed over the amiability of Caroline's new acquaintances, Charles Bingley looked at the female faces distributed around the room and suspected that they had interrupted a gentile interrogation.
Lady Francesca Hewitt was a tall, angular woman who had never have been called beautiful, but the passing years had lent her face a lining of humor and wisdom that made it distinctly interesting. She had been widowed decades previously and, with no children of her own, her husband's baronetcy and estate had passed to a brash young nephew with no interest in an older aunt.
Rather than cling to the past, she had hired a distant cousin and dear friend as her companion and moved to occupy one of the nicer apartments in the London building left as part of her settlement. Although her family had expected her to sell the property and live off the proceeds, Lady Francesca found life far more amusing to live anonymously among her tenants, receiving her rents through a firm of tight-lipped solicitors. Her wicked sense of humor might have led her astray more often had it not been for the steadying influence of her dear friend Miss McNash, whom Francesca often teased should have been named Conscience rather than Constance.
The other two ladies in the room were unique in their lack of discernable differences. Miss Helen and Miss April Culpepper were twins and, although they did not dress alike, even their most intimate acquaintances often mistook them. Indeed, they often said that they themselves did not know which sister was which for, although it was certain that Helen was the elder (by fifteen minutes) and April the younger, a nurse had once left the babes alone in their playpen and returned to discover she had no idea which was which.
Had the Miss Culpeppers been born male, competition for their elderly father's estate might have caused their relationship to turn out quite differently. However, as it was they had grown to be good-natured ladies in their thirties, made independent by their inheritances and so entirely satisfied by each other's company that neither had ever felt the desire to marry. "For what are men to sisters? We adore dancing, of course, but surely husbands would get in the way of our gossip and shopping!"
Needless to say, Miss Bingley found this sort of talk excessively shocking, for she had always been given to believe that the goal of her life was to secure a wealthy gentleman with a large estate and marry him as rapidly as possible. As a result, she viewed the appearance of her brother and Jane in her new parlor with mixed feelings of relief and dismay. Regardless, whatever comfort she derived was short-lived, for soon Lady Hewitt raised a subject guaranteed to bring Caroline discomfort.
"Ah, Mrs. Bingley, you are just as beautiful as they say. I had the pleasure of meeting your sister at the Dowlands' only a week ago; Mrs. Darcy is lovely, and has quite a wit about her."
Jane accepted the compliments serenely even as her hostess ground her teeth. Unfortunately for Miss Bingley, the conversation soon turned to one of the few topics that might vex her even more than the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet; namely, Miss Darcy's debut.
Caroline's voracious reading of the social columns meant that she could not remain ignorant that the very girl to whom she had paid so much attention in previous seasons (albeit with the primary goal of currying favor with her brother) was quite successfully taking her place in the highest circles of Society. It never occurred to Miss Bingley that, had she bothered to be more sincere in her affection to Georgiana, that young lady might have repaid her friendship by smoothing her way into higher echelons of society, much as her brother had with Mr. Bingley.
Instead, Caroline could focus on little beyond her feelings of jealousy and bitterness. When the Darcys' ball was mentioned, she saw her brother glance toward her with alarm; with sudden clarity, she knew that the invitation she had convinced herself was delayed would not be coming at all. Even a few months previously, Miss Bingley would have been secure in her ability to convince her brother to take her to the ball (there was no doubt in her mind that he and Jane were invited), but the increased resistance he had shown to her schemes made her hesitate, and before she might choose the best approach Mr. and Mrs. Bingley were making their farewells.
Realizing that all of her guests were preparing to depart, Caroline acted on impulse and asked Lady Hewitt to remain a moment. "Your ladyship, forgive my presumption, but I could not help but hear that you will be attending the Darcys' ball. I am quite sure that my brother would be willing to send his carriage for me on the evening in question, but…"
"But it would quite inefficient when you could just as easily accompany me! Of course, Miss Bingley, you must ride in my carriage-- I shall be quite happy for the companionship. Shall we agree to depart at _____ o'clock?"
Lady Hewitt was not ignorant of the young lady's current problems--although she had too little patience to play society's games, Francesca had a wide circle of acquaintances with whom she maintained a steady (and frank) correspondence. She was quite aware that Miss Caroline Bingley had gained access to Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy's inner circle by virtue of his friendship with her brother, but that despite a sizable dowry and the best female education money could buy, she had failed to secure the gentleman. In her bitterness, she had written some imprudent letters abusing the new Mrs. Darcy, and Society was waiting with baited breath to see how it would play out.
Knowing all of this, Lady Francesca rather pitied the young lady before her. She had no reason to believe that Miss Bingley would attempt to attend a ball to which she had not been invited, and rather hoped that her own, more mature opinion of society's workings might help the girl regain her footing in time.
The Dowager Baroness would not be at all pleased to learn the truth, as Caroline was to discover.
The evening in question arrived a few short days later. The mass of carriages inching around Grosvenor Square made it instantly clear that the Darcys' ball was to be one of the most heavily attended events of the Season. Lady Francesca had arrived late by design, explaining to her companion that age excused her from spending hours waiting to pass through the receiving lines. As it was, the residual congestion at the door testified to the crush within; Caroline barely suppressed a smirk when she was carried through the portal by the crowd.
Miss Bingley had to admit that Derwent House positively glittered, although the fact that that was a compliment to the new Mrs. Darcy made her stomach curdle. Logically, Caroline knew it was imperative to start anew if she were to secure a wealthy husband before she was permanently labeled a spinster, but she could not yet look around at all the symbols of wealth and prestige that she had coveted for so long without regret and anger.
Firmly, Caroline reminded herself of her own superiority, touching the jewels at her neck and the feathers atop her head for physical reassurance. She might have done better to see to her bodice, for in a fit of pique just before leaving her boudoir, Mr. Bingley's sister had ripped away the bit of lace intended to keep the dress on the side of modesty; the result was a plunging neckline that did nothing but emphasize her angular figure to a degree that might have caused even Lydia Bennet to blush. Sadly, the effort did not even succeed in attracting the notice of those she desired, for more than one gentleman was observed to turn away in distaste.
At first, Miss Bingley kept to Lady Francesca's side as the older lady worked her way from room to room greeting various acquaintances. When their forward progress stalled and the Dowager Baroness settled in to what would clearly be a long chat with several equally aged friends, Caroline politely detached herself. Certainly it would have been wiser for her to maintain a low profile, but somewhere after the front door she had conveniently forgotten that she was attending the ball under false pretenses.
Miss Bingley moved toward the ballroom as if the orchestra played a siren's song. She was largely oblivious to the speculative looks slanted her way, and those acquaintances with whom she paused to exchange a greeting were too polite to question her appearance at the home of those whom she had so recently slandered. She managed to enjoy nearly a half hour in such a manner before calamity struck, and even then it came from the most unlikely of sources.
If Miss Georgiana Darcy had had a moment to think, she would have been surprised to realize how much she was enjoying the evening. She had dreaded her debut for so long that the actual event had been a relief, if for no other reason than to have it over with. Elizabeth's gentle tutelage had increased her self-confidence, and her dance card was filled with a list of respectable gentlemen vetted by her brother. Best of all, she had opened the ball with the newly minted Brigadier General (and soon to be Right Honorable) Fitzwilliam, who had taken care to keep his young cousin entertained with charming conversation and amusing anecdotes.
Indeed, Georgiana had begun to feel quite comfortable. As her sister had foretold, no one had been anything but pleasant to her and, although any number had attempted to curry her favor, she had recognized the empty flattery for what it was and been polite to all. Whenever she had begun to feel even remotely uncomfortable, she had but to look around to find her brother and sister, or Richard, or her Aunt or Uncle Matlock nearby, prepared to come to her aid.
Thus, when the crowd parted and Georgiana found herself standing not five feet away from Miss Bingley, she was quite unprepared but not given to panic. Although she had not been present for the confrontation at Pemberley, her brother and sister had explained it all to her, expecting quite correctly that she would be unable to escape the gossips pointed questions when they returned to London. Miss Darcy felt herself to be quite justifiably indignant over such a slander against her family, although her well-bred ways prevented her from speaking her mind. Faced with the woman herself, Georgiana's eyes widened and she turned white, then red, with shock and anger, for she knew very well that Charles' sister had not been on the guest list.
Miss Bingley managed to arrange her features in what she had always considered to be her most genial expression and stepped forward, her outstretched hand accompanied with her usual blandishments. In her vanity, it had never occurred to Caroline that her years of insincere attentions to the girl (albeit in the hopes of impressing the brother) would not be repaid by the same, if not by some genuine affection. It was rapidly clear that she had misjudged yet another Darcy.
Miss Darcy's expression froze in an inscrutable mask that would have done her brother proud and, showing no sign that she had recognized Caroline, she altered her course slightly and walked away. To her credit, Georgiana had no intentions beyond avoiding an unpleasant encounter. Although intellectually she understood the power in Society granted by her name, she was a gentle soul and would never have set out to purposefully hurt someone, regardless of how much that person might deserve it.
Unfortunately for Miss Bingley, she was standing in the midst of several ladies who had suffered not a little from her caustic witticisms over the years. One in particular had spent some time at school being made miserable by Caroline and had no qualms with pointing out that lady's discomfort to anyone who had missed the interaction.
"Why Miss Bingley-- whatever have you done to Miss Darcy? I do believe that she just cut you!" exclaimed Miss Vale in a clear voice that carried easily to all those nearby.
After a long moment of stillness, the whisperings began and Caroline began to feel truly ill.
In later years, she would try to comfort herself that at least Mr. and Mrs. Darcy did not suddenly appear to confront her and turn her out of the house in person. The truth--that Lady Hewitt had approached with a grim demeanor and an angry glint in her eye, accompanied by Charles and Jane looking miserable--was quite hideous enough.
"Miss Bingley, unless you are planning to dampen your gown and entertain the gentlemen in the card room, you may accompany me home. Now." Francesca Hewitt had a great respect for the Darcy family--few of the gentry were as steadfastly honorable as Fitzwilliam Darcy-- and the thought that she had been the means of transporting one who might cause a scene at young Miss Darcy's ball left her indignant. The obvious unhappiness that the event caused two such gentle, sympathetic souls as Mr. and Mrs. Bingley made her positively livid.
Before she quite knew what was happening, Caroline found herself being firmly guided out of the room and out of the house; Lady Hewitt barely paused long enough to receive their wraps at the door. Once in the carriage, Miss Bingley received such a tongue-lashing as she had never received in her life.
Oddly, the host and hostess were among the last to be alerted to Caroline's final foray into Derwent House, and much of the details they learned were derived from the society columns the next day. Although they would never say it to Charles and Jane, Mr. and Mrs. Darcy admitted to them selves that the stir caused by Miss Bingley had served splendidly to distract the gossips from another incident with far greater potential for true scandal.
Elizabeth could not say that it was the most enjoyable ball that she had attended, for the demands of a hostess made it an entirely different experience from any event she had ever attended as a mere guest. She had stood in the receiving line for more than an hour, greeting their guests with a charming smile and a fierce determination to make it through the evening without making any errors in name or rank (aided occasionally by her husband, who had a remarkable capacity for recalling names and faces, and not at all by her sister, for Georgiana's nerves had left her nearly mute).
When the flood diminished to a trickle, they finally relinquished that duty to the butler. After a quick check with the housekeeper that all was as it should be, Lizzy took her place with the Darcys and Fitzwilliams in the ballroom as her husband proudly introduced his sister to Society.
Mr. Darcy spoke well and the siblings' mutual affection was apparent to any who cared to look. When Richard led Miss Darcy away to form the first set, Elizabeth rested her hand on her husband's arm. "Your cousin was a good choice for Georgie's first dance. Look--he has her smiling already."
"Hmm." William was short in his agreement, but his wife only smiled. Although he was able to mask most of his emotions, she could make out the strain in his voice and the tension in his body. "She looks so much like my mother tonight. I cannot believe how she is grown," he murmured softly.
"And grown into a fine young lady, at that," said the Earl of Matlock, standing at Darcy's other side. "You should be proud, William--you have done an excellent job raising her."
"Thank you, sir," responded the younger gentleman with a slight colouring in his cheeks at the praise, although he could not help thinking of the Ramsgate affair.
Understanding her husband perfectly, Elizabeth squeezed his arm in reassurance. Looking down on her beloved face, William could almost hear her telling him to "think only upon the past as it gives you pleasure." Closing his eyes for just an instant, he forced himself to take a deep breath before looking to her with a resigned expression. "I suppose that we must mingle."
"Well, we could retreat to the library for a game of chess, but I fear that would be much less like a ball, my dear husband," she teased him and was well pleased when he relaxed enough to release a small chuckle in return.
Mingle they did, and although Elizabeth was quite certain that William knew precisely where his sister was (and with whom) at all times, he played his role as dignified host perfectly. Fitzwilliam Darcy would always be a reserved man but Lizzy was pleased to see him showing a bit more of his native affability (and occasionally a flash of humor) to those who did not know him so well.
What Elizabeth did not realize was that her near constant place at his side and the obvious affection the couple shared led not a few of their guests to guess correctly that it was Darcy's happy marriage which had led to his more open demeanor. Even the most determined mothers had to admit that the couple looked well together, and none could find fault with the ball, from the flowers to the orchestra to the supper. As Derwent House had not hosted such an event for nearly two decades and Mr. Darcy's aunt had made sure to mention that she had had little to do with the preparations, even the most jealous ladies had to admit that the former Miss Bennet appeared to be surprisingly capable of taking her place as Mrs. Darcy, despite her countrified roots.
Those who had kept their opinions neutral rapidly advanced to admiration of Darcy's new bride. If many of the gentlemen began by admiring her figure, they soon had to admit to her charm and intelligence as well, and not a few wondered what it would be like to have one's wife look at you with such open affection. By the end of the evening, Mr. Darcy had received as many (if not more) sincere congratulations on his choice of a bride as he had on his wedding day.
Among the younger ladies, not a few were quite ready to bow down and worship the new Mrs. Darcy, or Elizabeth as the fortunate ones had been invited to address their new idol. Lady Matlock and Lady Trowbridge were seated near such a cluster at supper and could not help but smile at each other in amusement at the awed discussion of Mrs. Darcy's elegant gown and coiffure.
As their guests were passing back into the ball room after supper, Mr. and Mrs. Bingley anxiously took the Darcys aside to divulge Caroline's unwanted appearance and subsequent departure. William and Elizabeth barely had time to reassure the other couple that they did not hold them responsible for Miss Bingley's antics before they were distracted by Richard Fitzwilliam's loud intake of breath, followed by a succinct curse.
The Viscount Ashbourn arrived at the door to Derwent House with Society's version of an ear-numbing thunderclap. While Mrs. Darcy could not be sure if he purposely timed his entrance to coincide with the sudden silence at the end of a dance, she was quite certain that neither of the two women hanging on his arms were his wife. At least one, however, was wearing a dress she recognized as Lady Almida's from the prior autumn.
Elizabeth only had enough time to think "oh dear!" before she turned to her husband. Mr. Darcy had not spoken a single word, but a hundred minute muscular changes had altered him from the quiet but pleasant gentleman who had stood at her side for most of the evening to a tall, forbidding aristocrat with an unapproachable air and a decidedly disapproving glower. Had she been looking, she might have been amused to see an almost identical transformation by her husband's uncle, the Earl.
Brigadier General Fitzwilliam happened to be standing with the Darcys and the fury on his face was much easier to read. Elizabeth put her hand gently but firmly on his arm and spoke in a low tone, "Richard, will you check on Georgiana while William and I greet your brother and his guests?"
The former Colonel's narrowed eyes studied her for a long moment before snapping his shoulders back and nodding sharply. "Of course," he murmured, and turned on his heal with a precision that would have done any military parade proud. Richard's emotions might have him reaching instinctively for his sword, but he was well-trained and recognized a superior's order. His role in this fight was not to throw himself into battle, but to hang back and guard his innocent cousin's sensibilities.
Although somewhere in the dim recesses of his mind, Mr. Darcy took note of this interaction, his stony glare never deviated. William might have never particularly liked his elder cousin, but family loyalty had always prevented him from making even the faintest hint of that emotion public.
The Viscount had always dismissed Darcy's stoic manner and puritanical ways as a lack of any strong emotions. It never occurred to Edward Fitzwilliam that appearing at his young cousin's ball with two women who were obviously prostitutes (albeit given the run of his wife's closet) would ignite such a fury in Darcy's heart that the need to maintain appearances for the sake of family pride was nothing but a dim memory.
Given that the Earl of Matlock's emotions were running parallel to his nephew's, it was providential that the Darcys reached the two men before he could begin publically upbraiding his son.
Elizabeth donned her brightest smile and stepped forward to extend her hand, however distasteful it was to think of touching the man. "Viscount Ashbourne! How wonderful that we have caught you here, before you got lost in the crush! How are you, sir? Why, I don't believe we've spoken since we were all together at the Blackthorns', and that was more than a month ago!"
Mrs. Darcy kept up such a steady stream of social inanities that Lord Edward was swept along by her enthusiastic monologue as much as by the seemingly delicate hand that had taken firm possession of his arm. However much she might have sounded like Fanny Bennet, Elizabeth kept her wits about her and efficiently led the group to the nearest empty room. Even so, the door barely had a chance to click shut before Darcy slammed his cousin against the wall.
"What the devil are you thinking, coming here in such a state!?!" demanded Georgiana's brother with such force that even the Earl was startled. "You have never given a damn about anyone except yourself, but are you so lost to common decency that you would make a spectacle out of my sister's debut!?!"
When Edward's eyes goggled in his face for lack of air, the Earl touched his nephew's arm and said hoarsely, "Let him speak, William. Please, let us hear what he has to say for himself."
Darcy loosened his grip on the other man's throat and stepped away, although the look on his face did not soften and he appeared more than willing to resume his former position.
The red-faced Viscount took just long enough to suck in a breath before he began sputtering, "What the Hell is your problem, Darcy!!! How dare you handle me in such a manner, you lily-livered milksop-- keep your bloody hands off of me!!!"
Elizabeth had been standing silently to the side until that point, but at that comment, she rolled her eyes and turned toward the door, even as William's hands clenched into fists and he spoke in a dangerously quiet tone, "Or what?" She could not distinguish Lord Edward's words, but the sound of her husband's fist impacting his cousin's gut was clear enough.
Stepping into the hall, Elizabeth's first sight was of the Darcys' normally unflappable butler wringing his hands. "Mr. Holmes?"
The servant snapped to attention. "Mrs. Darcy, I cannot apologize enough; I had no idea… I never thought…"
Elizabeth managed a wry smile. "It is quite all right, Mr. Holmes. The Viscount is family; none of us would have thought to bar his entrance."
"But those… females… he brought!
His mistress tightened her lips but before she could think of what to say, another voice spoke.
"My son's companions have left the house through the kitchens, amply compensated to keep their mouths closed," said the Countess of Matlock crisply. "Although the good Lord only knows that they can get a pretty penny for those dresses they ran off in."
Mrs. Darcy managed a small smile but before she could form any words, they heard loud voices and a thump from the room she had just left. "Holmes, have the unmarked carriage brought to the kitchen door, and four of our strongest menservants to escort the Viscount out." She glanced at the Countess who nodded slightly, although her face was shadowed. "Knock when it is in place--no one else is to be allowed in."
"Of course, madam," said the butler with a bow, all but clicking his heals together.
When Holmes was gone, Elizabeth turned to her aunt. "I fear that I must go in to keep my husband from doing something that we would all regret later. Are you certain that you wish to see this?"
Lady Eleanor indicated her determination, although her eyes were filled with pain. "He is my son, as you say. And Henry…" She could not articulate how this latest misdeed would hurt her husband's pride.
The two ladies entered the room to find Edward slumped on the floor in the far corner, cursing a blue streak, while Darcy and the Earl were in the midst of a rapidly escalating argument. Lady Eleanor froze, staring at her eldest child as if she had never seen him before.
Elizabeth did her best to ignore the man on the floor and moved to stand by her husband and uncle. "A carriage is being brought around to the rear door--should the Viscount be sent to his house, do you think? Is his wife in London?" Although she had never found anything to admire in Lady Almida, she could not help but feel some sympathy toward any woman married to such a man.
Unfortunately, Lord Edward was the first to respond. "The ice queen is in Essex, may she go to the devil!" The invectives that followed made it clear that the relationship between husband and wife was in an even worse state had been previously imagined.
After unsuccessfully attempting to silence his son, the Earl turned to the ladies, his entire demeanor bowed in embarrassment. "I… He… He is very drunk--truly, he knows not what he says."
To herself, Elizabeth rather thought that the Viscount was troubled by far more than alcohol--he had a manic gleam in his eye and his expletive-ridden ramblings seemed more fit for Bedlam than any house in Mayfair. From the pinched look on William's face, she guessed that he would agree, but before anything further might be said, a soft knock on the door indicated that the coach was ready.
Darcy took the ladies' arms and drew them away from his cousin, for he was not at all certain how Edward would react. When the Earl offered his son a hand to help him up, the Viscount's response was more like that of a rabid dog than a member of the peerage. Suddenly exhausted, William waved at the brawny footmen that Holmes had assembled and they managed to bring the man to his feet, taking him out through the servants' passage so that none of the guests would see him.
Once Edward was out of sight, his family remained standing in stunned silence for some moments. Finally, the Earl spoke gruffly, "Darcy, Elizabeth--I cannot apologize enough. Edward has always been wild, but I would have never thought that he could ever behave with so little decorum. That he could be so… so…"
While the Earl trailed off, incapable of finding the right words, his wife took his arm. Shaking her head, Lady Eleanor added her apologies in a softer but equally sincere voice.
Darcy continued to stare at the floor, brow wrinkled, as if he could still not quite puzzle out his cousin's behavior but Elizabeth spoke up, "Please, Aunt, Uncle; it is not your fault. Certainly Lord Edward's behavior was not what it should be, but at least we can take comfort in that we got to him before it became a scene."
William seemed to come out of his trance and nodded to show that he comprehended her words. Turning to his relations, he dipped his head. "I apologize for striking him--my only excuse is that I was not in control of my self when he began to say such things about… about…"
His sidelong look toward Elizabeth told the ladies exactly whom the Viscount had been commenting upon. The Fitzwilliams assured their nephew that he had had such ample provocation and then excused them selves.
Once they were alone, Elizabeth turned to William and laid her hands on his chest. For just a moment, Will allowed himself to relax, resting his forehead against hers as if he might draw solace through the physical contact. After a soft, tender kiss, Lizzy reluctantly stepped away. "As much as I would like to ignore it, I fear that we must return to our guests before our absence is commented upon."
As if on cue, Holmes returned to report that the carriage transporting Lord Edward had departed as anonymously as possible through the mews.
The Darcys return to the ballroom went largely unnoticed, for there were so many guests distributed among all the public rooms that it would have taken a concerted effort to track their movements. Richard found them by the punch and, after accepting a third glass for himself, began to interrogate them.
Before his cousin might say too much, William gave him a stern look. "Your brother was feeling unwell and had to return home," he said succinctly. "Now, how has Georgiana been? She does not appear to be enjoying her dance with Lord Carlisle."
The former Colonel took the rebuke well, although he was clearly frustrated to remain even temporarily ignorant of his brother's most recent perfidy. "Yes, well, apparently his new title has not cured him of having two left feet. Perhaps they should begin making ladies' dancing slippers with steel toes."
The jest managed to draw a small smile from Darcy and a gentle laugh from Elizabeth, whose understanding expression made it clear that she appreciated his effort to lighten their conversation. They carried on for some minutes, imagining what other weapons a lady might don to protect her person at a ball, and their group expanded to include several other acquaintances.
One gentleman did ask his host if he had correctly identified the Viscount Ashbourn arrive, but Darcy merely repeated his wife's prevarication that his cousin had been too ill to do more than put in an appearance.
The remainder of the evening continued in a similar manner until finally the last guest was fare welled and the Darcys could retire to their private apartments. William gave his sister a quick hug; "Our parents would have been very proud of you tonight, my dear. I know I was."
Georgiana began to thank her brother but, before she finished, a great yawn nearly split her face. As a result, all three were laughing as they went to find their beds, despite the events that had threatened the evening.
Chapter 53. Truth and Consequences.
Posted on 2012-06-13
On the day after the ball, the sun was well past its apex by the time Miss Georgiana Darcy finally peaked beyond her bed curtains. The previous evening might have been a surreal dream but for sore toes courtesy of one of her less agile partners. Choosing her most comfortable morning gown, Georgie allowed her maid to dress her hair in a simple style and, after ascertaining that her brother and sister were in the family sitting room, set out to join them. Georgie was met with a tableau so close to her childhood daydreams of a happy, loving family that she stood motionless in the doorway for a moment and simply reveled in it.
William had not yet donned cravat or coat, but sat at one end of the sofa, his slippered feet stretched out before him and his wife reclining with her head in his lap. Both were reading newspapers, occasionally reading snippets aloud, and the messy stack of additional broadsheets testified to their morning activities.
Elizabeth was just reading a section aloud and Georgiana could not help but smile at her sister's attempt to mimic her husband's deep voice.
Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy held a grand ball in honour of his sister, Miss Georgiana Darcy, at Derwent House on Grosvenor Square on the evening of __ April 1819. Miss Darcy is the daughter of the late Mr. George Darcy and Lady Anne Darcy (née Fitzwilliam), niece of Sir James Darcy, niece of Lord Henry Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Matlock, and his wife, Countess Eleanor Fitzwilliam (née Grey), cousin to Lord Edward Fitzwilliam, Viscount Ashbourn, and Brigadier General Richard Fitzwilliam, niece to the late Lady Catherine de Bourgh (née Fitzwilliam)…
Elizabeth exclaimed, "For goodness sake, they list her breeding like a mare being auctioned off at Tattersall's'! At least the Times described her dress correctly…"
Upon which William was roused from the article he was reading enough to mutter, "No more lace, madam, I beg of you…" although the twitch of his lips made his amusement clear.
Elizabeth was giggling when she caught sight of her sister. "Ah, Georgie! Excellent--your brother simply cannot properly share my enjoyment in reading these society columns!"
Georgiana surprised herself by feeling more curiosity than trepidation over what had been written. "Oh dear--did they spell my name correctly, at least?" She moved to pour herself a cup of tea and select a pastry from the buffet and so missed the pleased look shared between her brother and sister.
"Hmmm… I believe that one of the sheets may have bestowed an extra 'n' upon Georgiana, but they appear to have managed Darcy without any problems," replied Lizzy. "Oh, this is quite nice," she commented and began to read aloud;
Miss Darcy wore a lovely, short-sleeved gown of apricot silk with white lace details that complimented her coloring beautifully. Her diamond and pearl choker with matching hair combs and bracelet were inherited from her mother, Lady Anne.
Ignoring her husband's exaggerated groan, Elizabeth continued in an innocent tone, "Or perhaps you would prefer this bit, dear husband,"
After opening the ball with her cousin, Brigadier General Richard Fitzwilliam, Miss Darcy danced every dance, but did not appear to favour any one of the single gentlemen over the others. If she is anything like her brother, it will take far more than a glittering pedigree or overflowing coffers to win her hand."
William groaned again, but this time there was more than a little amusement in his tone. "There, she has seen and been seen. Can we not now depart for Pemberley?"
Elizabeth only laughed and spoke to her sister, "Do not let his nonchalance fool you, Georgie. When Holmes brought up the papers, he could not search out your name quick enough."
William rolled his eyes but did not dispute her claim.
Meanwhile, Georgiana had settled into a nearby chair and chose out one of the more respectable broadsheets for herself. "It is all so odd, really… is there not something more important happening in the world than determining what color dress I wore?"
"Indeed," agreed her brother, shaking out his own paper. "In fact, I should not be surprised to hear of a liberal revolt in Portugal any day now, what with King John spending all his time in Brazil. I wonder…"
Hearing his sister gasp aloud, William stopped abruptly. "Georgie? What is it?"
Georgiana covered her mouth but seemed incapable of turning her eyes away from the page she was reading. It was some moments before she looked up and then it was with an expression of such horror that her companions were truly concerned. However, her first words were enough to explain what new information had disrupted her tranquility.
"Miss Bingley… I completely forgot about her! It says here… Truly, I never meant to cut her! Oh, poor Mr. and Mrs. Bingley-- they will be so upset…"
"Georgiana, dear girl, you have nothing for which to be ashamed. Jane and Charles harbor no ill feelings towards you; indeed, all of their unfavorable emotions are directed at Caroline for coming in such a state," said Elizabeth.
The younger lady continued to look uncertain but she turned to her brother when William cleared his throat discretely. "Georgiana, you behaved quite correctly. Miss Bingley has treated our family poorly; we have given her numerous second chances, but she has shown no remorse whatsoever. You were quite within your rights to cut her when she appeared, uninvited, at a private ball in your honor."
Georgie's agitation receded but she still looked uneasy. "But I never meant to cut her--such a idea never even occurred to me! I was just so surprised to see her--I did not know what to say…"
Elizabeth smiled and said archly, "Ah, a true Darcy, speaking little… yet so misunderstood!"
Both of her companions smiled at this, knowing that Elizabeth was reminding them of her misunderstanding of William's actions for much of their courtship.
Georgiana managed a crooked smile but could not quite relinquish the paper. "Did you read the rest? Miss Bingley shall be… well, quite upset."
Even William was forced to chuckle at such an understatement.
Across town, a similar array of broadsheets had been assembled by Mrs. Bullock and delivered to Miss Bingley with her breakfast tray. Lady Francesca Hewitt had not minced words in her account of the whole, sorry spectacle when she delivered the mortified young lady home and her companion had been entirely without pity. "Ridiculous girl! You appear to need a governess, not a lady's companion!"
Even knowing what they might contain, Caroline could not resist the society columns. In a flash of morbid humor, she decided that the ball must have been very dull indeed, for aside from the nearly uniform praise for Miss Darcy's performance, the happiness of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy's marriage, and the magnificence of Derwent House, the most scintillating event of the evening appeared to have been her own appearance.
Unfortunately, Miss Bingley's humor did not last through her morning's reading. Upon finishing, she sat motionless for more than an hour before silently returning to her bed and pulling the curtains tightly around her. It was six days before she emerged from her bedchamber again, and nearly a month before she left her apartment.
When Caroline finally mastered her melancholy enough to consider her situation, she dressed in one of her more modest morning dresses and forced herself to call for a hackney carriage to take her to her brother's house. During her isolation, she had received no invitations and only two letters, a monthly duty missive from her Aunt Bingley in Yorkshire that contained nothing of consequence, and an angry, scolding dispatch from her sister, Louisa, who made it absolutely clear that Caro was not welcome at the Hurst family estate in Somerset for the foreseeable future.
Caroline recognized that her only remaining option was to go to her brother and grovel, although she was not so miserable that it did not gall. It was vaguely surprising to her that Charles and Jane had not yet come to visit her or even sent a note, but knowing her brother's horror of confrontation she decided that they were only waiting for her to come to them, like some penitent child. Well, she would grit her teeth and do it.
It was not until she stepped down from the rented carriage on Waverley Street and noticed that the knocker was off the door that it occurred to her that the Bingleys might not be there waiting for her. She climbed the steps to the front door with head held high but a growing sense of foreboding. When her repeated knocks failed to gain any response, she swallowed some more of her pride and went around to the servants' entrance.
"Why Miss Bingley! Whatever are you doing here?!?" exclaimed the housekeeper upon discovering her former mistress on the stoop. Unwittingly, she inflicted yet another blow on the young lady with her very next words. "The Master and Mrs. Bingley left for the country a fortnight ago. We did not expect any of the family back until autumn!"
Caroline did her best to hide her shock that Charles and Jane had departed without even informing her of their plans. With a shiver, she felt more alone than ever before in her life.
Doing her best to show no emotion to the servant, Miss Bingley made some excuse about having left something behind in her former bedchamber. It was almost worse when Mrs. Barton showed Caroline in to her old rooms, only to discover that they looked nothing like she remembered. Apparently her brother's new wife had wasted no time before redecorating, she thought sourly.
To Jane's credit, she had merely shared with her husband the happy news that he might expect an addition to their family in September. Charles' enthusiasm had been boundless and his delight in converting Caroline's former rooms into a nursery and family sitting room left little time for guilt over his wayward sister. Jane's capacity for discord was quite overwhelmed by her own mother, for Mrs. Bennet had lately learnt that the Bingleys were giving up Netherfield's lease. Although a son-in-law who owned an estate was certainly superior to one who merely rented, Jane's mother had come to consider Netherfield as her own and was most displeased to find her dominion reduced to Longbourn once again.
"Why could they not remain at Netherfield? Why ever would Mr. Bingley take an estate so far north?" she wailed.
"Your son is from the north originally, I believe," replied Mr. Bennet. "Perhaps he desired to settle closer to his family."
"But he is such a lively gentleman--surely he would be happier in Hertfordshire, closer to London! What has Sheffield to offer, I ask you? And it is quite cruel to take my dear Jane so far from her mother--I had not believed Mr. Bingley capable of being so cruel!"
"Perhaps Jane wished to live closer to her sister?" Thomas Bennet was doing his best to treat his wife with more kindness, but at times her total want of understanding was quite beyond him.
"Oh fiddlesticks! Can Lizzy help her set up her household or bear through her confinement? Certainly not!" Fanny turned to her husband with a sudden, frantic gleam in her eye. "We must go to Yorkshire! To this Holloway place, wherever it is! I shall see to the packing…"
"Quickly-- have the carriage readied! There is no time to lose!
"Mrs. Bennet, we are not going to Yorkshire."
"Oh Mr. Bennet--how can you be so cruel?!? My daughter needs me!"
Thomas Bennet had had quite enough. "Madam, we shall visit our daughters when we have received an invitation, not before. Jane is a full grown woman with her own tastes and way of doing things; it is only right that she be allowed to establish herself as mistress in her new home before her relations descend upon her."
"But Mr. Bennet…"
Thomas stood and looked at her sternly. "That is quite enough, Fanny; no more. Has it never occurred to you that the Bingleys might desire some privacy from your daily visitations?" His wife's stricken look made him feel a slight twinge of guilt over his bluntness. He softened his tone and tried again; "Fanny--you have taught your daughters well; surely you understand that Jane will wish to put her house in order before you visit, to show you how well she learned? To make you proud?"
After some additional soothing, Mrs. Bennet was reassured enough to begin dissecting some other worry. Mr. Bennet, however, had no more patience for his wife's silliness and tersely departed for his bookroom.
The reality was that Mrs. Bennet was finding her days to be somewhat tedious of late. Mr. Bennet had no sympathy for her nervous complaints and even her sister, Mrs. Phillips, was not so satisfying as having her own girls arrayed about her. Certainly their letters provided fodder for visiting hr neighbors, but the Miss Bennets had long recognized to filter out anything that they would not wish repeated in drawing rooms throughout Hertfordshire
The business of Mrs. Bennet's life--marrying off her daughters--was necessarily in remission; her eldest three were successfully wed and the youngest beyond her reach at school. She comforted herself by sending frequent missives to all, but the rapidity of her thoughts left her communications so disjointed that they generally left the reader more bewildered than not.
None of this was known to Miss Bingley, however, as she unsteadily climbed the steps into the rented carriage and directed the driver to return her to her new home.
Mrs. Bullock was waiting for her return and studied the younger lady as she dropped bonnet and cape in the direction of a maid without pausing in her resolute march toward her room. Although she believed that the situation was entirely of Caroline's own doing, Agnes Bullock pitied the young woman. However, there was no that she was going to allow her charge to hide away in her bedchamber for days on end again.
"Miss Bingley; once you have washed off the dust from the street, please join me for tea in the parlor." She laced the petition with enough steel that Caroline, in her enfeebled state, could do no more than nod weakly.
Mrs. Bullock had already warned the lady's maid to be quick about her duties and was pleased when Miss Bingley appeared again before the tea was completely stewed. "So, I gather from your unhappy demeanor that your outing this morning was unsuccessful?" When Caroline kept her eyes averted and sipped her tea without responding, the older woman tightened her lips. "You went to visit Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, but found them gone from Waverley Street, perhaps?"
That caught Caroline's attention. "You knew?!?" she sputtered. "You knew they had left Town but let me go!!! What was it to be, a lesson in mortification? I assure you madam--I have endured quite enough embarrassment of late--you need not go out of your way to arrange for more."
The older woman actually laughed aloud at that. "Don't be ridiculous, child. I knew nothing of your plans until you sailed out the door with your nose in the air. Your maid informed me that you had called for a carriage and I guessed the rest. You informed me of nothing. Had you done so, then yes, I might have saved you the trip." Her tone made it clear what she thought of Miss Bingley's manners.
Caroline spat back, "Once again, I must remind you that I did not hire you--you may leave at any time, as far as I am concerned."
Mrs. Bullock's eyebrows rose and she very carefully placed her teacup down before rising. "You wish me to leave? I can do so immediately--your brother has secured my salary, and he and Mrs. Hurst made it absolutely clear that I might exercise my own judgment if your contumelious behavior exceeds that with which I can live."
She turned to go, but compassion and a hatred of failure welled up from her old Scottish soul and made her hesitate. "Do you truly not understand the precariousness of your situation? You have made poor choices, aye, but fundamentally, you still have your reputation. If I leave, how long do you think it will be before all of society knows you are living her alone, a single lady unchaperoned? Your servants feel no loyalty to you, and without a doubt they will tell their friends. From there…" she waved her hands in the air.
"Of course I know--I am not stupid," exclaimed Caroline, even as she lowered her face into her hands.
Mrs. Bullock studied her for some minutes, waiting for the younger lady's breathing to steady before she spoke again. "Perhaps I may be of help. But first, do you wish me to stay?"
After a deep, ragged breath, Miss Bingley whispered a muffled "yes" through her hands. When her companion did not respond, Caro raised her face and found those sharp green eyes studying her expectantly. She shut her eyes for a moment, knowing without asking what was being demanded, but finally managed a "Yes, please," in a firmer voice.
The older lady regarded her for another minute with a serious expression but finally nodded before ringing the bell. "Very well. Let us have a fresh pot of tea and we can talk over your options." To the maid who responded, she added an order for crumpets.
When the tea things were in place, she spread one of the cakes with a liberal layer of butter and preserves and held the plate out to her charge. In a frank tone, she began the conversation. "Well, now you know that the Bingleys have left for the country, and of course the Hursts are in Summerset, so there is no family for you to visit, unless you wish to go to your Yorkshire relations?"
By this point, Caroline was quite desperate for a confidante, and as a result allowed her tongue even more freedom than usual. "Heavens preserve me from that fate--not only are they still in trade, but they talk about it constantly, as if they are proud of it!"
Mrs. Bullock swallowed before speaking, her tone obviously disapproving. "Miss Bingley, your own father was proud of his success in trade. All of your pretty dresses and bonnets and fripperies… this very life of leisure which you take for granted, is entirely due to the success of the Bingley family carriage business, and that has prospered from the sweat of your own father, your uncles and your grandfather, to name just a few."
Noting Caroline's horrified expression, Agnes gave her a firm look. "My own husband invested in your family's business, and I met your father on several occasions. He was a good man. Your vanity as a gentlewoman has done you no favors; you might try a bit of pride in your family's true history, instead."
Caroline was about to dismiss the statement out of hand when she was swept back by a memory of her family before she had been sent away to school, and before her parents and eldest brother died so unexpectedly. They had all six been sitting down to Sunday dinner, a warm, happy, companionable group. Her father and Arthur had enthused about some new invention that promised to make the brakes on a landau more reliable, even as her mother had tutted Charles about feeding his new puppy tidbits under the table (although she never went so far as to order the dog out of the room).
Caroline and Louisa had been talking about bonnets, but it had not been long before the whole family was drawn into the conversation about carriages. It had seemed so… important… and she recalled how they had laughed contemptuously that some gentlemen would spend so much on curricles with such enormous wheels that they were fundamentally unstable, and then complain when they tipped over. Such ignorance!
Without much thought, Miss Bingley related the story to Mrs. Bullock. That good lady smiled and nodded, and encouraged her to speak of other memories. They spent the entire afternoon in such a manner, and the feeling of frantic desperation that had loomed over Caroline since her debut diminished slightly.
That is not to say that her character underwent any great sea change; she would always be a vain, self-centered woman. However, her native intelligence was combined with a rather cynical sense of humor and, through these, she perceived how her place in the world was largely a matter of chance, for all that those born into Society were so proud of their place in it, though unearned.
Of course, this line of thought led her back to her present situation. The Season was quite at an end, and a summer of lonely days in a hot, stuffy apartment in London was unappealing, to say the least.
"But what should I do? Everyone who is anyone has left London for the country! I've received no invitations, and I cannot very well show up on someone's doorstep!" cried Miss Bingley.
Mrs. Bullock decided not to point out that, had Caroline any true friends, she might have been welcomed to do exactly that. Instead, she attempted to guide her charge in a more positive direction. "Is there not someplace you have always wished to see? You are wealthy and independent; you answer to no one, a claim that few men and even fewer women can make."
Caroline's brow wrinkled and she stared at her companion for some minutes as if trying to decipher a foreign language. Mrs. Bullock continued sipping her tea.
Eventually, the younger lady responded, speaking more slowly than was her usual tone. "I suppose I could go to Bath… there are always parties and such there. But it is so close to Mr. Hurst's family estate--I fear that Louisa would believe I was there to beg an invitation." She ended on a sour note and, seeing no encouragement in Mrs. Bullock's expression, considered other possibilities. "Mr. Darcy sent his sister to Ramsgate the other summer; I know nothing about the place except that it is on the seaside, but if the Darcys consider it of interest, then it would not do my reputation any harm to be seen there."
Mrs. Bullock put her teacup down so forcefully that Caroline feared the saucer might crack. "Miss Bingley, I shall be blunt. Your reputation is in tatters and, while I believe that your family shall wish for your company again eventually, currently they require separation. I would recommend the same strategy for Society, to give the wagging tongues adequate time to forget your recent… antics."
Caroline demonstrated that she still had the capacity to blush in mortification. She took some minutes to recover, and even then it was in a very small voice that she spoke, "But what can I do? If I spend much more time in this apartment, I shall be fit for Bedlam!" She did not dare say aloud that she feared her brother might be glad to commit her.
Mrs. Bullock raised her teacup to her lips again before remarking nonchalantly, "The Culpepper twins called this morning while you were out. They are travelling to Italy and wondered if we might like to join them." Although her voice was dispassionate, there was a twinkle in her eye that increased each time Miss Bingley opened and closed her mouth without successfully forming any words.
When Caroline was finally able to speak, her voice was high but a lacing of interest kept her tone from reaching that irritating level of shrillness for which she was known. "Italy? But, that is on the continent!"
"Yes, Miss Bingley; you are quite right--Italy is indeed on the continent," said her companion in the voice of a governess teaching a lesson, but with a whiff of humor. "They plan to spend at least a month in Rome to see Saint Peter's Basilica, the Coliseum, and so forth, and hope to follow that with some time spent viewing the ancient ruins in Athens. Can you imagine?" Mrs. Bullock let a whisper of her wonderment trickle into her voice.
Caroline's eyelashes were fluttering rapidly as she attempted to take in such a concept. "I… I had never… I never considered…" Abruptly she stood and went to stand at the window, staring long but seeing nothing.
In the end, they decided to go. Miss Bingley began planning the next four weeks of shopping and packing with a rare passion; Mrs. Bullock retired to her room with a sigh, delighted to finally have something positive to include in her weekly report to Mr. Bingley.
Chapter 54. Sanctuary.
Posted on 2012-06-30
Elizabeth Darcy was having a very hard time controlling her face. On an otherwise lovely late spring afternoon, she was sitting in the formal drawing room at Derwent House watching a battle take place over tea and cakes. The verbal pugilists were two elderly ladies, each dressed to leave no question as to their wealth and position (although both tended toward the fashions of their youth). Both claimed friendship with the previous Mrs. Darcy (an assertion that Elizabeth occasionally wondered about) and had, since her marriage, called upon her once a week with clocklike regularity.
Today, whatever forces determined the two women's schedules had caused them to arrive at the Darcys' front steps simultaneously, and their mutual dislike had prevented either from turning away and giving the other precedence. As a result, Elizabeth had spent the last ten minutes attempting to make polite conversation, her efforts met with smiles and courteous responses to her, followed by needling comments aimed at one other about some incident long past that only they two remembered.
To Elizbeth, Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Dewitt seemed rather like two dignified, old cats who both wanted to occupy the same warm patch of sun. Neither was prepared to launch a full-out attack, so they each sat, largely stiff and motionless, punctuated by brief jabs and hisses. It reminded her of a demonstration of Japanese swordsmanship that William and she had attended, she thought absently.
It was probably lucky for Mrs. Darcy's reputation that the butler entered before her guests noticed her inattention. Mr. Holmes moved to her side and offered a card on a silver salver. She read the name of the visitor with some surprise.
Lady Almida Fitzwilliam, Viscountess Ashbourne, Baroness Asbury
None of the Darcys had seen the Earl of Matlock's heir since Lord Edward's distasteful performance at Georgiana's ball, and it occurred to Elizabeth that she had not encountered the Viscount's wife since her time in London before her own wedding.
Elizabeth had tried to be open-minded when meeting Lady Almida but had found the Viscountess to be consistently condescending and often vicious in her treatment of "Darcy's little country nobody of a bride." At the time, Lizzy had considered the lady's dress and mannerisms to be oddly like Caroline Bingley. It was only later that she had discovered it to be quite the reverse; the two had attended the same school and Lady Almida had served as something of an ideal for the young tradesman's daughter to model herself upon.
As all of this raced through Elizabeth's head, the butler added in an undertone, "Her ladyship wished to see you on a private, family matter."
"Is her husband with her?" Lizzy had no desire to meet with the dissolute and potentially violent Lord Edward, even in her own home, without Darcy by her side.
"No ma'am. Only her son, Lord Reginald, and his nurse."
"Very well. Please show them to the yellow drawing room and tell her I will be there in ten minutes."
As Holmes departed, Elizabeth turned back to her two callers. Those ladies had fallen silent and were now directing curious eyes at her. A bit of redirection was in order, she decided. "I beg your pardon; just a small family matter that required my attention. My little cousins are staying with us while their aunt and uncle are in Kent; my god-daughter has discovered the joy of crawling, and appears determined to disappear every time the nurse's back is turned."
Both ladies beamed, the first genuine smiles that day. Elizabeth continued. "The Countess of Matlock was visiting yesterday and said that Mr. Darcy was just the same at that age."
Then the amazing happened. Not only did the ladies smile, but they turned to each other and spoke almost simultaneously.
"Do you remember…"
"The birthday dinner!"
And then the two elderly ladies dissolved into what could only be described as a fit of girlish giggles. After several minutes they regained some control over their gaity and managed to explain the incident to their hostess, at first hesitatingly but then with increasing comaradery.
"Lady Anne had decided to host a dinner in honor of her husband's birthday…"
"Really, his birthday was just an excuse--she loved to dress up and decorate the place."
"It was all very tasteful, of course, but she did love her frills and flowers."
"The dining room was a veritable bower--even the footmen's uniforms had been made over to match."
The two ladies tittered for a few moments before returning to their story.
"And the crowning glory was the cake."
"She'd hired a French pastry chef just for the occasion."
"The decorations were spectacular--all those flowers and sugar lace."
"Yes, just what one would order for a sixteen year old girl, not middle-aged gentleman!" The story was interupted by another bout of giggles.
"But Mr. Darcy was good humored about it."
"He appreciated her effort, and always loved a party."
"He had his faults, but he was a good man." Both ladies nodded sagely, then noticing that Elizabeth was still looking at them curiously, continued the story.
"And so, into her perfectly decorated party, just behind her beautifully decorated cake, walked in little Fitzwilliam Darcy."
"Just three years old, and as earnest as could be."
"He'd clearly dressed himself, and with those big eyes and brown curls, you just wanted to hug him."
Elizabeth was smiling broadly at this description of her husband as a child.
"Well, Lady Anne was horrified--this certainly wasn't meant to be part of her party."
"But before she could do anything, little Master Fitzwilliam marched up to his father's chair and presented him with a box."
"In that moment, you could see just what sort of man he would grow up to be."
"I shall never forget his words; 'I wish you a very happy birthday, sir.' I would not be surprised if he had been practicing his speech all day."
"So shy, but resolved to ignore the roomful of staring grownups and do what he had determined to be his duty."
By now, all three ladies had tears in their eyes. Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Dewitt were leaning back into the sofa, giggling and holding hands in the manner of old friends.
Elizabeth could not restrain her curiosity. "What was in the box?" At which both ladies dissolved into laughter.
"The boy's most prized possession!"
"Mr. Darcy thanked him with all gravitasse, placed the box on the table before him and opened it with a great flourish."
"And out jumped this enormous green frog that Fitzwilliam had caught in the conservatory that morning."
"And it jumped right onto Lady Anne's beautiful cake!"
"Well, Mr. Darcy let out the greatest belly laugh you have ever heard. He was delighted."
"But oh, Lady Anne's face. She went white, then puce. It was probably a good thing that she was too furious to speak, or her poor son would have received the tongue lashing of his young life then and there for ruining her pretty party."
The laughter quieted and the women were silent for a moment before Mrs. Dewitt took up the tale.
"Well, Mr. Darcy's laughter was quite contageous, so the rest of the party were good natured about it."
"It probably helped that the frog hopped up into the spun sugar grotto on the cake and stayed there."
"He looked quite at home among all the sugared flowers and marzipan fruits."
"Well, Mr. Darcy was always the consumate host. He sent for champagne and sheparded all the guests along to the music room."
"In the blink of an eye, he had Mrs. Sullivan playing a reel and soon everyone was singing and dancing."
"And drinking champagne."
"And drinking champagne, lovely stuff." The two old ladies gave each other a wink and a nudge and turned back to the current Mrs. Darcy with the glimmer of mischevious youth in their eyes.
At that moment, Holmes re-entered the room. With the ease of an old servant, he communicated to his mistress that Lady Almida and her son were waiting for her in the yellow sitting room and had been provisioned with tea.
Suddenly sorry to part from her guests, Elizabeth held out her hands to the elderly ladies as they rose, sensing from long practice in society that it was time to depart. Taking the hand of each, she spoke from the heart. "I have enjoyed your visit more than I can say; I would love to hear more of your stories. Might you call again? We shall be leaving for Derbyshire in a fortnight, but perhaps next Tuesday? Mr. Darcy's younger sister would be here then and I am certain that she would love to hear your memories of her parents."
The two ladies were already nodding happily and alternated patting Elizabeth's hand and cheek as the three moved to the front hall.
"That would be delightful, Mrs. Darcy."
"Truly, this has been most enjoyable. Nothing couldn't keep me away."
"Neither rain, nor sleet…"
"Nor dark of night!"
"Nor fish falling from the sky!"
"Have you seen the hot air balloon in the Park?
"Where you get in the basket and the man takes you up in the air? Oh yes--it looks wonderful."
"Truly amazing--can you imagine seeing all of London spread out below you?"
"My grandson went up in it and said that all the people looked like ants. Can you imagine?"
Elizabeth listened to the running commentary of the two ladies as they donned their wraps and departed with waves. She was mildly puzzled; when she had first married, she had been warned that Mrs. Pratt and Mrs. Dewitt could barely stand to be in the same room together because of some old feud that no one remembered, yet here were the two women acting like lifelong, bosom friends. She peeked out the window and saw the two dismiss their carriages to walk along the sidewalk together, still in animated conversation. Lizzy shook her head in amusement, then squared her shoulders to face what she expected to be a far less pleasant caller.
When he turned thirty years of age, the Earl of Matlock's son, Lord Edward Fitzwilliam, Viscount Ashbourn, finally gave in to his parents' increasingly urgent demands that he marry. He had turned a critical eye on the ladies that Season, commenting to his friend, Lord Westinghouse, that they were like so many mares at a livestock auction. As such, he checked their bloodlines, dismissed those with poor conformation or other health issues (real or potential), and then settled back to consider what he termed each potential bride's "package"--what their family would give him to marry the girl.
After dismissing several prospects (one had an extremely healthy and domineering father, another was not handsome enough to tempt him), he settled on Lady Almida Warren. Just eighteen, the girl had the dark hair, fair complexion, and buxom figure that Edward preferred. Her most alluring charm, however, was that she was the only child of a baron from Essex, and, as both of her parents were dead, all of the wealth, title, and properties of the barony she brought to the marriage would be immediately available to her husband.
Lady Almida's guardian was an elderly bachelor uncle who socialized little and had sent the girl off to school well before the year of mourning was up so that he might return to his own pursuits. At school, Almida had learned quickly that her wealth and title provided her with instant status and had reveled in the power of popularity. She remembered the warmth of her parents' love, but they were gone and she was alone in the world, so she drew on the admiration of the other girls to sooth her private grief and loneliness. In the isolated world of Miss Minchin's Academy for Young Ladies, Lady Almida determined the fashions, who was "in", and most decidedly, who was "out."
To Lord Edward, she was a perfect mark. She was wealthy enough that when he took control of her assets upon their marriage, he could pay off his burdgeoning gambling debts without his father knowing. She had organized several fashionable dinners at her uncle's house and was clearly a capable hostess. She was fiesty but innocent (Ashbourn had checked around at his clubs and had heard of a few lively flirtations linked with her name, but no hint that she had been plucked).
Best of all, she was largely unprotected, so once in control of her inheritance, Edward would finally be able to live the life he was born for, without the need to go begging to his father for an advance on his allowance whenever he found himself caught short (which was most months). The Earl had been taking him to task recently over his spendthrift ways, which irritated Edward to no end. He expected the marriage to please his parents, and hoped the Earl would cease nagging him about learning the business affairs of Matlock. He smirked--they would be even more apreciative when his heir was born and probably put him in charge of more money to be held in trust for their grandson. Sentimental old fools.
Edward envied his Cousin Darcy with an intensity he could barely conceal--both parents dead and fully in control of the vast wealth of Pemberley. It was ridiculously unfair, given that the prudish stick-in-the-mud seemed determined not to enjoy it.
So Lord Edward Fitzwilliam began to court Lady Almida Alfreda Warren. For all her polish and fashion, Almida was still an orphan with no one to warn her of the rumours of the Viscount's gambling and rakish ways. She was pleased with his handsome visage and flattered to have gained the attention of a powerful Earl's heir. Those who did attempt to give her a more truthful characterization, she dismissed as jealous.
Whatever Elizabeth had expected to find in her drawing room, it was not what she was confronted with upon opening the door. Lady Almida was known for wearing striking colours at the height of fashion, yet today she was the dark point in an otherwise cheerful room. The Viscountess wore a subdued gray travelling suit, her dark hair hidden beneath a simple hat that veiled much of her face, although Elizabeth could see the dark circles under her eyes even from where she sat on the sofa, rocking her son.
Seeing that the little boy was nearly asleep, Elizabeth spoke softly. "Lady Almida; how good to see you."
Although quiet, the sound of her voice caused the boy to jerk awake and whimper. His mother had begun to stand upon Elizabeth's entrance, but hearing her child's cry, she sat and wrapped her arms around him. After whispering something in his ear, she turned to Elizabeth and spoke in a voice laced with at least some of her usual patronizing tone. "Mrs. Darcy, thank you for receiving us." Just then, the boy bumped his head against his mother's bodice to hide his eyes and she stiffened as if her whole person was wracked with pain.
When Lady Almida spoke again, all traces of superiority were washed away by weariness. "Please excuse me, we have come straight here after traveling from Essex this morning; I know that I am imposing on you."
Having moved closer, Elizabeth was shocked to realize that one of the lady's eyes was blackened and her jaw showed purplish traces of some violence in the recent past. Her sympathy immediately displaced any previous antipathy.
"Of course! You both must be exhausted. I can have rooms for you to rest and freshen up, if you wish? And I am certain that we can find someplace more comfortable for this young man to nap than that old couch."
Elizabeth smiled warmly at the five-year old who sat clutching at his mother. He looked less ready to flee but still stared at their hostess with very large, watchful eyes.
Almida closed her eyes for an instant as if gathering her strength before replying. "That would do very well for Reggie, if Mrs. Hudson might stay with him?" She looked to the older woman who had remained silent and watchful in the corner. At Mrs. Hudson's nod, Almida turned back to the pleasant young lady whom she had treated so poorly and asked quietly; "If you might allow me a few minutes to speak with you alone, Mrs. Darcy, I would appreciate it very much."
Elizabeth was becoming increasingly concerned and moved immediately to ring for a servant. The footman who answered was sent to have a suite near the nursery readied for the unexpected visitors and fresh tea sent to the parlor for Elizabeth and Lady Almida. Although the little boy was obviously disinclined to let go of his mother, he obeyed and was clearly comfortable with Mrs. Hudson, taking her hand to be led up the stairs. As they were leaving, Elizabeth noticed that the little boy held his arm at an odd angle.
When the tea tray was brought in, Elizabeth dismissed the servants, serving the two women her self. For some moments, there was silence as Lizzy searched for something to say.
Lady Almida took a sip of her tea and seemed to savour it for a minute, before replacing it on its saucer. Gathering her strength, she tried to look Elizabeth in the eye but in the end, could focus on little beyond her own hands. When she finally forced herself to speak, there was none of the usual self-confidence for which she was known. "Mrs. Darcy, I appreciate your receiving me without warning."
Seeing that the younger woman was about to protest, she continued quickly. "Please, I am well aware that your courtesy is far more than I deserve, given my treatment of you upon your marriage." She paused to gather her courage for her next words. "I… I have come to beg for sanctuary, for my son and myself." She wrung her hands and couldn't bear to look Mrs. Darcy in the eye.
Elizabeth's natural compassion drew her to sit beside Almida and take her hands. "Of course you may stay here." She hesitated a moment but decided that directness was the best tactic. "Your son's arm--should I call our physician? He could see to you as well."
Lady Almida nodded stiffly and then closed her eyes tightly, though a few silent tears still leaked out. Elizabeth squeezed her hand before moving resolutely to the door where she quietly sent the footman standing outside for the Darcy family doctor. After shutting the door again, she went to her sewing basket and withdrew several plain linen squares that she had planned to embroider for her husband.
Resuming her seat beside her distraught visitor, Elizabeth pressed the fresh handkerchiefs into Almida's hand, replacing the wet square that she had been clutching. Rubbing her back as she would with her young cousins, Elizabeth noted how thin the woman was. "I have sent for our doctor. He will see that all is right with your son."
Reggie's mother gave her a watery smile. Seeing that the lady's emotions had settled somewhat, Elizabeth felt safe in asking, "Can you tell me what happened? You don't have to, but it might make it easier for us to help you."
Almida took a shallow breath. "No, I must tell you. I cannot ask for your help without telling you everything--you and Mr. Darcy may not wish to get involved." She twisted the handkerchief into a rope. "It is just that I haven't any family to go to. My parents are dead, and Uncle Alfred… Ashbourn will ruin him if he tries to help me. Oh, I don't even know where to begin."
Elizabeth made the obvious guess. "Lord Edward has hurt you and your son."
Almida nodded, her eyes closed and her body curled around herself. After a few breaths, she regained her voice. "He has always been… rough, but it became much worse last year." She wrapped her arms around herself and kept her eyes closed. "I… I had a miscarriage."
Elizabeth made a sympathetic sound, but Almida continued without seeming to hear, her tone deadened to any emotion except pain. "Edward was in my bed when the bleeding started. He… he said that I was disgusting… and worthless, and left me there. My maid found me the next morning and could not wake me, so she had the doctor called. He said that I'd fainted from the loss of blood and should stay in bed for at least a month until I had healed. My husband met the doctor just as he was leaving my room--at first Edward was furious that a physician had been called without his approval, but Dr. Thompson was good enough to explain that I was truly ill."
Elizabeth had tears in her eyes--her own hopes for children were new enough that she could just begin to understand the other woman's pain.
"Dr. Thompson explained to the Viscount that I should still be able to have children, but should not… not have… marital relations… for three months to be certain I was healed. Edward… well, he made it quite clear that I was useless and ordered his valet to pack. He left the next day for a hunting party in Scotland."
Elizabeth was shocked by the woman's story. She had never liked Darcy's elder cousin, and his appearance at their ball had lowered her estimation of him even further, but even so she had never dreamt that he was as bad as this.
By now, the words seemed to burst from Almida, her pain soothed by having a sympathetic ear to hear her story for the first time. "Until then, I'd just assumed that Ashbourn's… treatment… was normal. It was always… painful, but I was so innocent that I accepted it. I focused on my parties and entertaining. In hindsight I suppose I was trying to keep as busy as possible."
"Then Reggie was born." She smiled at the thought of her son. "I went through my confinement at my father's estate in Essex. It was the first time in a very long time that I've spent so much time alone and really thought about my life."
Elizabeth could not help but ask. "Where was the Viscount?"
"Oh, London. Brighton. Bath. Wherever his friends went… wherever there was a good card game or horse race. He would write the steward with directions as to where to send money. I didn't see him for four months before Reggie was born. And I was happy about it." The last was said with a mixture of bitterness and defeat.
Elizabeth found herself at a loss for words. She and Darcy had not spent a night apart since their wedding.
Eventually, Almida continued. "I wrote to him announcing the birth at the same time I wrote the rest of the family. He arrived a few hours before the Earl and Lady Eleanor. Just long enough to assure himself that his son was healthy and whole, and to inform me of his name."
"He did not discuss your own son's name with you?" Lizzy could not help but ask, before clapping a hand over her mouth as she realized that, of all the horrors that the lady had described, a child's name was probably the least painful.
Almida smiled softly, thinking to herself that Mrs. Darcy looked like a little girl who had just spoken out of turn. "It's alright. I was upset--I had hoped to name him Donald. It's an old-fashioned name, I know, but it is a family tradition for the Baron of Asbury going back seven generations, even longer than the title has been in the Warren family." She sniffed into a handkerchief, remembering the hours she had spent studying the Asbury geneology and the old family portraits in the gallery of her childhood home, counting down the days for her own babe to be born.
"Then Edward swept in with all his family, presenting his son as though it was his greatest achievement. My own uncle was in Italy and could not come for the christianing, so I had no family there. It was a difficult delivery and I was bedridden for several weeks. By the time I was up, he had already announced the baby's name and godparents."
Almida gave a pained laugh. "A few months ago, when he was drunk and ranting, he told me that he had lost a wager to Lord Westinghouse --the winner got to name the loser's first born." She smiled wanly. "I suppose I should be thankful-- it could have been worse than 'Reginald Montgomery Winston Fitzwilliam.'"
Elizabeth could only shake her head in disbelief. Almida leaned forward and picked up her teacup. The liquid had cooled, but it soothed her throat. She was exhausted, but after taking a few sips and carefully setting the cup down again, she squared her shoulders.
"You have been very patient, Mrs. Darcy." As Elizabeth began to protest, Almida only shook her head and continued.
"We quarrelled bitterly last fall; he was always thoughtless, but now he has become vicious." She shuddered at some memory that was too painful to be voiced aloud. "While I was bedridden, he replaced the senior servents, and told the new ones that I was too ill to accept visitors. I didn't really have any friends that I could trust in anyway." This last was spoken in such self-disgust that Elizabeth's heart ached.
"He isolated you."
Almida's head jerked and she stared at the young woman sitting beside her. "Yes, exactly. But how…"
Lizzy explained succinctly. "My aunt. The man that she married was… abusive. Her parents were both dead and my father was much younger so she never confided in him. She was luckier than you--they lived in town and he was required to entertain business associates at home, so he could not do as much without attracting unwanted attention. She also became close friends with their housekeeper. My father only found out how bad it had been after Aunt Jane's death."
Almida sighed, a little colour coming back into her cheeks. "I tried writing my Uncle Alfred--my guardian after my parents died. He is elderly but not without connections, and I hoped he would be able to help me in some way. He came, but…"
"What happened?" By now, there was little Elizabeth would believe Lord Edward incapable of.
"When he arrived at Ravensdale, the butler took him to Edward instead of me. Edward threatened him. I only know that Uncle Alfred came because I was walking down the stairs when Edward showed him out the front door. Edward saw me standing there when he turned around and just smiled. I shall never forget his words, 'I'm afraid your dear uncle had to leave, Almida.'"
"Then yesterday, he pushed Reggie--I think his arm may be broken--and I shouted at him… I said something about going to my uncle. He just laughed at me. Told me that Uncle Alfred would never cross him because of what he knew… Edward said that before he married me, he had an investigator check my family, such as we were. He said… he said that Uncle Alfred… prefers men to women--that's why he has remained a bachelor. He told Uncle Alfred that he would make sure that all of Society knew of him and his… predilection… He would leak it to the newspapers about him and his… companion."
After some minutes, Elizabeth said quietly. "Is that why you finally left? Because he had hurt Reggie?"
Almida nodded, exhausted from her confessions. "I had another miscarriage a week ago and Reggie came to sit with me in my bedroom. Edward arrived home unexpectedly… well, I suppose he always arrives unexpectedly. He burst into my room saying crazy things. Even in his drunken rages, I've never seen him so incoherent. He picked up Reggie by one arm and flung him out the door, then backhanded me when I tried to go to him."
By now, Almida didn't even have the strength for tears. "When I woke up, it was the middle of the night. Mrs. Hudson had put me to bed with Reggie right next to me, locked the doors and pushed a chair in front of it. She was my nurse when I was little--- she's the only servant who is loyal to me, although she's careful about it so that Edward wouldn't send her away."
"How did you get away?"
"After Edward goes on a drinking binge, he usualy sleeps for at least a day. Everyone knows not to disturb him--to tred softly, quite literally. I thought for some hours, then woke Mrs. Hudson and Reggie. She had tried to convince me to leave several times before and was prepared. We left the house while it was still dark and walked into Widford and took the post to Chelmsford. We were able to transfer to an express from there into London."
Almida gulped some air-- her entire body ached with tension and exhaustion. "I did not know where else to go. I have no family… Lady Eleanor has never liked me and they would never believe me over their own son…"
Elizabeth wrapped one arm around the distraught woman and pulled her close, just as if she were one of her own sisters. "You are welcome here. You have been incredibly brave. We will help you."
Almida's throat was so tight that she found it impossible to speak any words of gratitude aloud, but the look she gave the younger lady was eloquent.
Both women were silent for some minutes before Elizabeth stirred herself. "For now, you should rest and try to eat something. And perhaps a bath?"
Almida accepted gratefully, and Elizabeth helped the woman to stand, handing her another fresh handkerchief to dab at her face. After the Viscountess had made a few half-hearted attempts to repair her appearance, she followed Elizabeth out of the room quietly. As they slowly climbed the stairs, Elizabeth asked. "Would you prefer to stay in the same room with your son?"
Almida agreed instantly, so Elizabeth led her down the hall and, after knocking softly on the door, opened it to find Mrs. Hudson sitting on the bed, her hand stroking the hair of the sleeping boy. The older woman took one look at Almida and stepped forward to take the lady in her arms. "Oh my poor, dear girl."
After Elizabeth made certain that they were settled with hot baths and broth, she left the small family and descended the stairs slowly, immersed in her thoughts. As she stepped off the last step, she looked up to see both Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Wilkins standing there with serious expressions. She smiled slightly--the two senior servants were intelligent and honorable… and aware of absolutely everything that went on in Derwent House. Privately, she thought that they might know everything that went on in all of London, as well as all of Derbyshire. They were also just as protective of the Darcy family as their master. Her best chance of keeping Lady Almida and Reggie's presence in Derwent House a secret from Edward Fitzwilliam, crazed or not, would be to take these two into her confidence.
Bringing her mind back to the issue at had, she nodded her appreciation to the housekeeper and butler. "Please come to my study."
Once Holmes shut the door behind them, Elizabeth motioned for both to be seated. Gathering her thoughts, she considered how much to reveal, particularly as she had not yet discussed the situation with her husband. However, she had no doubt that William would wish to help Lady Almida and her son. He may not have liked the lady in the past, but Elizabeth was well aware of his opinion of his cousin.
"Mrs. Wilkins, Mr. Holmes. We are in a difficult situation and, although I will discuss it with Mr. Darcy when he returns home, there are a few… precautions we should take immediately. I would appreciate your help and advice. My caller this afternoon, Lady Almida Fitzwilliam, is, of course, married to Mr. Darcy's cousin, Lord Edward Fitzwilliam." Both servants' lips thinned at the mention of the Earl's son.
Elizabeth continued in a tight voice. "Lady Almida has come here because her husband has hurt her, and her son. She has asked us for sanctuary."
Mrs. Wilkins covered her mouth with a hand, but could not suppress a whisper "Oh, that poor little mite... and his mother." Holmes said nothing but a martial spark had kindled in his eyes.
"They left Essex before dawn and it is not certain when her husband will discover their departure. Although he may guess that she brought them to London, I doubt that this is the first place he will look for her." She sighed, not liking the idea of a raging Edward Fitzwilliam in her home. "I will discuss what is to be done with Mr. Darcy when he returns from his appointments, but for now, I would appreciate your help in keeping their presence as quiet as possible."
Both servants were already nodding, and Elizabeth was warmed with appreciation of their loyalty. At that moment, there was a knock at the door and a footman delivered the message that the Darcys' physician had arrived.
"Excellent. Please bring him here." When the door was closed again, Elizabeth turned to Mrs. Wilkins. "I will speak to Dr. Tolmach and then take him up myself."
The older woman nodded and stood. "I will take care of any gossip. Only a few saw them, so there shouldn't be many knowing who they are anyway. If you agree, perhaps I'll refer to Mrs. Hudson. I spoke to her briefly about what food her mistress and the boy might like, and she showed good sense."
Holmes added, "I shall set a few extra men to watch the house. I'll just say that there is rumour of housebreakers in the area. What would you like us to do if the Viscount does come to the house?"
His mistress decided to err on the side of caution. "For now, say that we are not at home and tell us immediately. Do whatever is necessary to keep him out if he shows signs of wanting to force his way in; we all have good reason to know that he can be violent."
After agreeing, the servants left to see to their duties even as the footman showed in the Darcys' physician. A kind, intelligent man in his forties, Seamus Tolmach still spoke with the faint Scottish burr of his homeland, even after twenty years in London. Elizabeth had asked him about it once and he had admitted that the accent seemed to sooth his patients.
"My dear Mrs. Darcy. Your man said that it wasn't an emergency, but I came as quickly as I could."
Elizabeth smiled as she shook his hand. "Thank you, sir. Mr. Darcy and I are both perfectly well; we have guests that require your assistance. However, I believe that I should speak to you before you are introduced."
His eyebrows shot up at the plural and Elizabeth continued, choosing her words carefully. "I want you to understand the situation before you commit yourself, as it has the potential to be… difficult." Dr. Tolmach nodded and looked more curious than worried. Elizabeth reminded herself that he had once been an army doctor and was unlikely to run away from a battle.
"The wife of a prominent gentleman has brought her young son and asked us for sanctuary. Her husband has hurt her--she had a miscarriage not long ago, and as I understand it is the latest of several. He also hurt her son--I believe that the boy's arm might be broken." Elizabeth sighed. "I tell you this because she is afraid that her husband may pursue her here. He has some connections and, although I have hope we can keep it quiet, it is possible that some gossip may erupt…"
"And I would be right in the center of the maelstrom, with every Society woman and gossipy old peer tring to tease the scandelous details out of me." Dr. Tolmach nodded his understanding but continued to look at her firmly. "Mrs. Darcy, I appreciate your courtesy, but it is unnecessary. I came in to this profession with the intent of helping any person who needed it to the best of my ability." He sighed. "Sadly, the situation you describe is more common than Society will ever know or admit."
"Thank you, sir. Your response is no less than I expected, but you understand I had to be certain." The two rose and shook hands in mutual reassurance before Elizabeth led the doctor up to the Fitzwilliams' suite and introduced him.
Later, after retreating to the master and mistress' chambers, Elizabeth closed the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment. Her head was spinnng and she felt a desparate need for her husband's arms.
Meanwhile, Mr. Darcy had reached the front steps of his home with relief. It was one of those grey, thick days in London that made him long for the clean air of the country even more than usual. He had chosen to walk home from his business meeting and, although it was only a matter of blocks, he already felt grimy from the soot in the air.
While handing his coat and beaver to the footman, he greeted Mr. Holmes. It was unusual for there to be two footmen in addition to the butler working in the front foyer, but Darcy thought little of it until he turned back to see the man's face. "Holmes? What is it? What has happened?"
The older man spoke quickly to sooth his master's fears. "Mrs. Darcy is perfectly well, sir. I believe she is upstairs in your private sitting room. Hot water has been sent up so that you may wash before dinner."
Darcy said no more but continued to look Holmes in the eye.
"I believe that Mrs. Darcy wished to speak with you immediately upon your return, sir."
Catching the hint that his wife would have the answers he sought, Darcy thanked the butler brusquely and moved to seek her out.
When William strode into their sitting room, Elizabeth dropped the books that she had been aimlessly stacking and stepped into his arms without a word. Even as he gathered her to him, his mind was racing. "Elizabeth? What has happened?"
Although she would much rather stand there in the protection of his arms and forget the world, Elizabeth knew her husband needed to know as much as she did before the physician was finished, so she forced herself to step back and lead him to a sofa. "Lady Almida arrived this afternoon, with her son and his nurse. She has asked for sanctuary from the Viscount. Dr. Tolmach is examining them now."
"Ashbourn hurt them?" Darcy had not thought that his opinion of his cousin could worsen. That a gentleman would knowingly hurt a woman--his wife, no less! Much less his own child.
"Lady Almida has bruises on her face and the way she held herself, I would not be surprised if she has bruised or broken ribs. Reggie was holding his arm at an odd angle--I suspect it is broken. And… oh Will, the poor boy cringed at the sound of my voice…" Her voice wavered between tears and fury.
Immediately understanding why she had received him with such relief, Darcy gathered her up in his arms again even as his mind raced.
After some minutes of drawing comfort from her husband's embrace, Elizabeth stirred herself, knowing that they should be downstairs when Dr. Tolmachl finished his examinations. "You won't recognize her--she is nothing like the grand society lady I remember." She sighed and forced herself to relate the story of the threesome's escape to London, ending with a summary of her discussion with Mr. Holmes and Mrs. Wilkins.
William kissed her forehead when she finished her explanation. "You've done exactly right. I will wash as quickly as I can and we shall hear what the physician has to say before deciding what is to be done next."
For some moments, Elizabeth just sat, watching her husband as he moved decisively about his tasks. Smiling softly, she stood and, catching his arm, gave him a warm kiss before turning back to her dressing room.
At the door, she glanced back to see Darcy standing motionless with a cravat in one hand, looking at her intensely. "You are the best man I have ever known, and I thank God every day that you are my husband."
After Elizabeth left, Darcy returned to dressing himself, contentment built from mutual love and respect warming his heart even as his mind was weighted down with this new evidence of evil in the world.
Darcy was efficient in his dressing, so not fifteen minutes later, he entered the library to find his wife sitting alone on sofa, staring into the fire. She glaced up to him and both smiled.
"I hope you don't mind, but I had a fire started. Logically, I know it is summer, somehow it felt cold."
"Not at all; I walked back from the solicitors' office and it was so overcast that the air was nearly yellow." He answered as he poured them both glasses of wine from the sideboard, then moved to sit by his wife.
"I shall be happy to be back at Pemberley." Elizabeth leaned against his chest, his left arm wrapped around her shoulders. They sipped the wine quietly for some minutes until a knock on the door alerted them and a Holmes showed Dr. Tolmach into the room.
"Mr. Darcy--it is good to see you again, sir, though I would not have wished it to be under these circumstances." After exchanging greetings, the physician accepted a glass of wine and settled himself opposite the Darcys. As he sipped the wine he ran his eye over the intelligent young woman and the young man he had known for years and gauged them to have formed one of the strongest marriages he had the pleasure of knowing. Even so, he cleared his throat slightly before speaking.
"Lady Ashbourn has directed me to be as open with you as I was with her, so I will be blunt. I warn you, it is not pretty, you understand?" He looked from Elizabeth to Darcy and waited till both nodded. "Master Reggie has a broken arm and dislocated shoulder. I have set both and they should heal quickly--bones mend rapidly for the young. I expect that it will take much longer to heal his fears, however. You must understand, the boy may only be five years old, but he has seen his father hurt his mother repeatedly and is terrified of the man."
Elizabeth put her glass on the table and turned into her husband. She could feel his tension, but the steady thumping of his heart and firm grip provided the reassurance she needed.
"Mrs. Fitzwillliam's immediate physical injuries will heal, although she will need several weeks of bedrest. To be honest, I am amazed that she made it all the way from Essex without collapsing. Her husband hit her with his fists and kicked her when she fell. She has two broken ribs, a broken hand, and a blow to the head that will bear watching. The broken ribs are particularly worrisome because they were in fact partially healed from being broken some months ago."
Dr. Tolmach allowed himself a sip of wine before coming to this last, most difficult part of his diagnosis. "The miscarriage that Mrs. Fitzwilliam suffered was only the most recent. I need to consult some texts, but from my questioning of her, I believe Mr. Fitzwilliam may have contracted syphilis."
"The French disease!" William breathed with disgust. He could not help jumping to his feet and pacing a lap around the room.
"Yes, though oddly, the French call it the 'Italian disease.' Because it is often spread by sailors or soldiers consorting with local prostitutes, each country blames the epidemic on another. I have a colleague who has been studying it and, with your approval, I will consult with him as to treatments."
Elizabeth spoke. "What of Mrs. Fitzwilliam and her son? Do they show symptoms?"
Dr. Tolmach was dismayed to realize that, in his anger over the case, he had forgotten that he was discussing a venereal disease in front of a gently bred lady. Struck silent for a moment, he glanced to the lady's husband for direction.
Darcy glanced back at the man when he was slow in replying. Quickly guessing at his quandary, William waved his hand. "Please continue, sir. Mrs. Darcy has long convinced me that knowledge is the best protection any woman can have."
Turning back to face the intent eyes of an intelligent woman, the doctor relaxed somewhat. Elizabeth Darcy reminded him of a lady who had worked with him as a nurse during the war. Although nursing was not a profession to attract respectable women, Ida had been smart and hard-working with a true devotion to her patients. Had the universities accepted females, Tolmach was certain that she would have been the foremost medical talent of their generation. As it was, Ida absorbed whatever she read or saw, and became legendary for her diagnostic abilty while working at their field hospital in Portugal.
Drawing himself back to the present, Dr. Tolmach spoke. "I am inclined to agree, and this case supports it. Mrs. Hudson suspected early what was wrong--her uncle was a sailor and died of the disease when she was a child. She helped her mistress as much as possible, including…" Dr. Tolmach glanced over to Mr. Darcy, uncertain of the gentleman's reaction. "…helping the Viscount's valet find a reliable source of opium for his master."
Darcy shut his eyes for a moment, his mouth set grimly, before moving to sit beside his wife again. This time, Elizabeth reached out her hand to give him comfort.
Dr. Tolmach continued. "For the most part, His Lordship enjoys smoking it, a past time he apprently shares with many of his friends. However, Mrs. Hudson told me that the valet also keeps a syrup of opium on hand in case his master becomes too… wild. Apparently they were at a house party in Sussex when the Viscount's behavior began to deteriorate, but the valet had run out of the tincture. That was when his Lordship decided to return to Essex and his wife. Mrs. Hudson tells me that the valet has a stash of the stuff at the estate, so it is likely that the man is now… medicated."
The three were silent for some minutes, pondering the doctor's words before he spoke again.
"I must be frank. Although I have not examined him, everything I have seen and heard leads me to believe that the Viscount is in the late stages of syphillus. As such, you should be prepared to expect extremely rapid mood swings, violent rages with no logical trigger, and possibly paranoia. He may also display physical manifestations of the disease. Sufferers show lesions and rashes early on, and there may be large growths, tumors, on their face, neck, and hands." Tolmach sighed. "I saw several soldiers in such a state when I was in the army, and I assure you, it is not pleasant."
The group sat for some time, contemplating the grim fate of Darcy's cousin. Dr. Tolmach stirred himself. "On the positive side, neither Lady Ashbourn nor her son show any symptoms. They should be examined regularly, but I have hope that her husband's lengthy absences may have saved her, and Master Reginald was probably born before his father had become ill."
Both Darcys accepted the possibility of Lady Almida's health with relief. After some discussion of what they could do to make the Lady and her son's stay more comfortable, the conversation then moved logically to the future steps.
Understanding that Darcy was not eager to tell his cousin's family of the situation, Dr. Tolmach counceled him. "Although Lady Almida may wish to put off the meeting as long as possible, I would recommend that you arrange for at least her mother-in-law to see her within the next day or two. Unfortunately, it is my experience that the bruising of her face will go further in convincing them than any stories of their son's actions."
Unhappily, Darcy agreed and it was decided that the Fitzwilliams would be asked to call at Derwent House after church the next day. Dr. Tolmach agreed to return at eleven, first to check on his patients and then to meet with the family and explain the medical issues involved. Eventually, most questions had been asked and answered and both Darcys escorted the physician to the door.
After being helped into his coat, Tolmach turned to Mrs. Darcy with a last thought. "I offered Mrs. Fitzwilliam laudenum to help her sleep but she refused, saying that it gives her fearful nightmares. I advised her to remain in bed this evening and Mrs. Hudson was arranging for a meal to be brought to their rooms. I believe, however, that both women would be reassured if you visited them briefly this evening… to reassure them that they are welcome here even after you have talked to me."
Tolmach turned to Mr. Darcy apologetically. "I fear that I must recommend that you wait to see them, sir. Mother and son are exausted, a state which can result in some irrationality and, I am sorry, but you do share some physical features with your cousin that might remind them of worse times."
Elizabeth squeezed her husband's arm in reassurance and he was already nodding without reservation. "Yes, of course." He shook the man's hand. "Thank you, sir."
Once the doctor had made his farewells, he was shown out and the door locked behind him. Darcy took his wife in his arms without hesitation and they stood in silence, simply holding each other for some minutes.
Some time later, Elizabeth went to visit their guests and reassured them as best she could, even as Darcy checked with Holmes about the security arrangements and penned a note to his aunt and uncle.
It was a somber pair that met back in their private sitting room for supper. After eating a quiet meal and dismissing the servants, they sat cuddled on the sofa before the fire, Elizabeth curled in William's lap, occasionally stealing sips of his brandy. They had some quiet conversation and Elizabeth told him about her earlier visitors, pleased to see him laugh a bit over Mrs. Pratt and Dewitt. This laughter led to some soft kisses, after which Will put his glass down and carried his wife to bed where they spent some part of the night reaffirming that there existed at least one happy marriage in England.
Chapter 55. Errs of the Heir.
Posted on 2012-07-26
The group that sat down to Sunday dinner at Derwent House displayed an odd array of emotions. The Darcys did their best to behave as usual, but although they had decided to say nothing about Lady Almida's situation until after the meal, it was difficult to maintain a semblance of good cheer, even with such pleasant guests as the Fitzwilliams.
Lord Henry and Lady Eleanor arrived in excellent spirits but became increasingly puzzled as the meal progressed. In contrast, Richard seemed to find William's grim demeanor amusing and concentrated on teasing Georgiana about the various gentlemen who had paid her court over the past weeks. This, combined with the knowing glances directed from her aunt and uncle, made Miss Darcy skittish to the point that she could barely even manage monosyllabic answers to direct inquiries.
It was not until everyone removed to William's study and the Earl looked to his nephew expectantly that Elizabeth began to guess how far off their guests' expectations were. However, before she had a chance to intervene, Lord Henry clapped his hands together and demanded jovially, "Well? I assume you have news for us? Georgiana has certainly been coy enough about it!"
His niece's eyes flicked between her uncle and her brother and then nearly jumped out of her seat when Lady Eleanor reached over to pat her hand with an indulgent smile.
Darcy had been so focused on how to break the news of Lady Almida's situation that he was caught off guard by his uncle's perplexing statement. He began slowly; "Yes, we have news, but it is in regards to your son."
Before he could continue, the Earl let out a pleased bark and cuffed Richard on the shoulder. "Excellent! Just as I'd hoped! Son, you are a sly dog not to have discussed it with me before making an offer, but I could not have arranged a better match myself! Did I not tell you, Eleanor?" Lord Henry was so busy congratulating himself that he quite neglected the varying expressions of astonishment that his pronouncement was met with, not least of which appeared on the faces of those two whom he supposed to be betrothed.
Elizabeth glanced apologetically to her sister. "Forgive me, sir, but I fear that you have come under a misapprehension."
Unlike her husband, Lady Eleanor had sensed the Darcys' serious mood and spoke quickly before the Earl could cause further embarrassment. "Your note indicated some news--we assumed that it had to do with Georgiana, but seeing your faces now, it is quite clear that we were mistaken. Whatever is wrong?"
His jocose expression draining away, the Earl turned a gimlet eye upon Richard. "You say it is in regard to my son?"
Fitzwilliam had only just recovered from the shock that his father continued to hope for a match between himself and Georgiana, to whom he felt as toward a baby sister. As a result, the look he turned upon Darcy was searching.
In a few words, William erased the confusion and quelled all joviality. "The news has nothing to do with either Georgiana or Richard. I was referring to your other son, Edward."
Lord Henry tightened his lips and his wife let out a small gasp, but it was Richard who asked outright, "What the devil has he done now?!?"
Darcy deferred to Elizabeth as they had previously decided that it would be best to begin with the story of Lady Almida's arrival. She sketched the event as gently as she could, but there was no way to soften the facts. This time it was Georgiana who reached out a hand to her aunt and even Lord Henry looked somewhat ill to hear that his own son had displayed such wanton cruelty to not only his wife but his young son as well.
Before any of the guests could begin the myriad of questions that were swirling in their minds, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of Dr. Tolmach. As the Darcys had planned, Elizabeth led the ladies upstairs to meet with Lady Almida while the gentlemen were left to interrogate the physician.
The Viscountess was waiting for them, alone in a sitting room in the guest wing. No one would have ever considered her to be a timid personality, but to herself she admitted that she doubted that she would have been able to leave that sanctuary. Even Mrs. Darcy's reassurances, however genuine, could not make her feel at ease with the mother of her husband at such a time.
Any reservations that the younger ladies had harbored were swept away by Lady Eleanor's first words.
After a few moments staring at Almida's face, she burst out, "My dear girl--how are you? Oh, I'm so sorry--what a supremely stupid thing to ask…" The fearful look in the younger woman's eyes did as much as the dark bruises mottling her skin to wipe any memory of past dislike from the Countess' mind. Instead, she took the girl's hand as gently as if she had been one of her own daughters.
Almida had not felt a mother's love since the death of her own parents more than a decade prior, and the tears in Eleanor's eyes were too much for her. Great, heaving sobs began to wrack her thin frame, even as she was engulfed in the countess' soft hug.
"I'm sorry… I'm so sorry…" she sobbed, but her mother-in-law would have none of it.
"You have nothing to be sorry for, my poor girl. I don't know how this could have happened, but we will make it right, I promise."
Almida could do little more than nod--the pain of her sore ribs had almost entirely robbed her of breath--but the fear in her eyes retreated.
Just then, the door from the adjoining bedchamber opened just wide enough for a pair of anxious brown eyes to peer in. Elizabeth heard Mrs. Hudson in the next room as she began to scold, "Master Reggie, shut that door; you know that you are not to disturb your mother…"
"But I heard her crying," mumbled the little boy without moving his eyes. Seeing only women, he opened the door a little wider and called softly, "Mama? Are you well?"
Almida released her grip on Lady Eleanor and reached her hands out to her son. "Yes, darling. Come here--there is nothing to fear, just some ladies who would like to meet you."
The boy wasted no time in going to her. Almida held him for a few minutes, whispering in his ear as he turned serious eyes on the others. A movement at the door caught her eye and she smiled tiredly. "It is all right, Mrs. Hudson." Turning to the others, she straightened but did not try to loosen her son's hold.
"Please, allow me to introduce Mrs. Hudson; she is my son's nurse… and the best companion I could ever wish for." The older woman blushed slightly even as she curtsied to the others. "This is Lady Eleanor and Miss Darcy, and of course you have already met Mrs. Darcy."
Mrs. Hudson blushed even more when the Countess began praising her courage in arranging their escape from Essex and quickly excused herself. Lady Eleanor turned her attention to her grandson. He had the look of his father, she thought to herself, but the gravity in his eyes reminded her of none so much as a young Fitzwilliam Darcy.
"And hello to you, young sir. We have met before, but it was some years ago and I doubt that you will remember," observed the Countess.
"Reggie," said his mother gently. "This is the Countess of Matlock."
The boy's eyes widened a fraction but he managed a respectable bow for his age, even with one arm in a sling.
The older woman smiled kindly and held out a hand for him to take. "Oh pish tosh, Almida, he may call me Grandmamma, like all my grandchildren."
The boy watched her for some moments before coming to a decision and placing his own hand in hers. "Hello Grandmamma."
Needless to say, there was not a dry eye in the room.
The scene in Darcy's study was not nearly as genial. The Earl was forced to accept the description of his daughter-in-law and grandson's injuries, but refused to hear the physician further. "Syphilis!?! Don't be absurd--that is a disease of sailors and low-born scum!!! Not a Viscount, and certainly not my son!"
Richard made a small movement but shook his head slightly when William raised a questioning eyebrow.
Without noticing them, the Earl continued to bluster on for some time until finally winding down. "Well, regardless of what has brought my son to such behavior--and I expect it has something to do with those rapscallions he calls friends, it is obvious that we must do something. You say that he has not called here?"
Realizing that his uncle's question was directed at him, William shook his head and did his best to keep an even tone. "Nor has he been seen at his house on _______ Street; I set two of my men man to keep watch."
"Well then, we shall have to go to Essex and sort this mess out," announced the Earl with grim decisiveness.
The old Darcy would have immediately set all his own concerns aside to assist the Fitzwilliams, but now he was quite certain that it was the Earl's responsibility to see to his son. Furthermore, William had no intention whatsoever of leaving his own wife and sister alone with Lady Almida in the house while the Viscount's where abouts remained unknown.
Suspecting that his uncle was intending to include him in what looked to be an unpleasant and lengthy expedition, Darcy spoke quickly. "Very well. I shall make certain that Lady Almida and her son are well protected until you return or send word." Before the Earl could argue, William added, "I strongly recommend that you arrange for Dr. Tolmach to accompany you. I can vouch for his expertise as well as his discretion."
The Earl looked ready to contest this, if for no other reason than that he was determined to disbelieve that physician's diagnosis of such a low disease. However, he swallowed his argument upon remembering that his own, elderly doctor's tongue was prone to wag when plied with port (an occurrence that had become increasingly often in recent years). Above all, Lord Henry was desperate to ensure that no whisper of the situation be raised for he feared that the resulting scandal would blacken the Fitzwilliam name and destroy all that he had attempted to build for generations to come.
Richard smiled mirthlessly when the Earl grunted in response, fairly certain of what was going through his father's mind. Likewise, he found his respect for Darcy was rising yet again. His cousin had long tolerated Lady Catherine and Lord Henry's tendency to order him about, although the Fitzwilliams had no such rights by either paternity or rank. Since his marriage, however, William had become much more forthright with regards to his loyalties to the Darcy name, rather than bowing to his aunt and uncle's penchant for increasing the Fitzwilliams' stature.
Determined to support his cousin, Richard spoke quickly. "If we leave within the hour, Father, we could make Essex before nightfall."
Lord Henry looked disgruntled although it was unclear whether it was because Darcy had not volunteered to take care of everything or because he wished to resume his argument with the doctor. Whatever he might have said, however, was forestalled by the arrival of the Countess and Mrs. Darcy.
Barely acknowledging the others in the room, Elizabeth went directly to her husband and slipped her hands around his arm. William looked deeply into her eyes but, although she was clearly weary, there was a steadiness there that reassured him.
Meanwhile, Lady Eleanor had come only a few steps into the room. It was Richard who offered her his arm and guided her to chair even as the Earl demanded, "Well?" Then, taking in his wife's troubled face, he added gruffly, "So it is true then." The Countess' stricken look was quite enough of an answer.
"Well." Lord Henry barely paused before explaining the planned trip to Essex and directing their departure.
In parting, Lady Eleanor clung to Mrs. Darcy's hand for a moment and said softly, "I shall call again tomorrow, if you don't mind?"
Elizabeth barely had time to squeeze her hand and respond reassuringly, "Of course, you are welcome at any time," before the Earl swept his family out the door. The footman barely had time to close the carriage door before his master was demanding that they be on their way.
When they were gone, Elizabeth turned startled eyes toward William. "Come," he said, unwilling to discuss the matter in the hallway, no matter how much he trusted his servants.
Once the door of the library was shut behind them, William poured two glasses of wine before summarizing the afternoon's conference among the gentlemen. Taking a long sip, he added, "If the doctor is correct in his diagnosis, I can only hope that my uncle does not continue in his willful disbelief."
Elizabeth started. "You can not think that the Earl's fear of scandal would keep him from seeking a cure for his son? I know little of syphilis beyond what I have learned these last two days, but the new mercury treatments that Dr. Tolmach mentioned seemed to hold some promise."
"I pray that it is so." Darcy sighed and stared into his wineglass for some moments before speaking again. "I once heard that, soon after being raised to the House of Lords himself, my uncle somehow used the rumor that a powerful peer had contracted the disease to forward his own agenda."
Seeing Elizabeth's wide eyes, he emended, "I do not mean to say that my uncle started the rumor, only that he did not fail to take advantage of the situation." Will sighed again. "I myself have heard him at his club, deriding some minister's behavior as no better than one might expect for a family touched by the French disease, and the madness that they say accompanies it."
Knowing her husband's tendency to brood over problems that he could not control, Elizabeth set aside both of their glasses and rested her head against his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, William lifted her into his lap as if she were as light as a feather.
They sat thus for some time, simply taking comfort in one another. Finally Elizabeth spoke softly, "I can only speak from my own, more recent acquaintance with Lord Henry but I believe him to be a good man at heart. Perhaps he may be a bit over-concerned with his own self-importance at times, but certainly that is not unique among the circles in which he moves."
William's expression softened and he kissed her hair, not for the first time relieved that she no longer counted him as one of those puffed up aristocrats. Even so, his tone remained serious. "The Fitzwilliams have always been very concerned with their family's position in Society. My uncle's manners may be better than Lady Catherine's, but his sentiments are quite as strong."
Lizzy leaned back so that she might look upon his face. "Well, there is nothing we can do about that for now except to look after Lady Almida and Reggie. So, shall you now tell me now what is causing you to feel so guilty, or must I tease it out of you?"
Will could not help but smile at this new evidence of how well she knew him. Often he might have refused to speak for the sake of enjoying some witty banter, but tonight he had not the heart for it. "I was being selfish," he admitted. "Even as you were relating the events to my relations, I found myself wondering if we would still be able to leave for Derbyshire in a fortnight as planned."
Elizabeth only laughed and kissed his cheek. "Then we are selfish together, my love, for I have had quite enough of London as well. If it comes to it, we can invite Lady Almida and her son to come with us to Pemberley. Although I believe it quite possible that Lady Eleanor might wish to have them at Matlock."
At Darcy's surprised look, she explained, "Though it is hard to believe that any good might come from such a miserable situation, but I believe it may help improve the relationship between the Viscountess and her mother-in-law. I don't know when I have seen a more touching scene; there was no stiffness or artifice… Your aunt treated Lady Almida as warmly as a favorite daughter and our guest seemed genuinely eager to know her better."
Even as William expressed his pleasure at this intelligence, Lizzy's mind had moved on and she began to extract herself from her husband's arms. "Oh goodness, I forgot that I wanted to check on Georgiana."
Darcy's concern was immediately aroused. "What happened? Is she ill?"
She turned back at the anxiety in his tone. "No, but I fear the afternoon proved distressing to her. Perhaps I should not have suggested that you include her in the exposition; she might have done better with a more… gentle accounting of the situation."
Despite his concern for his sister's well fare, he would not allow Elizabeth to think in such a way even for a moment. "No, although I might not like it, my sister is out and can only benefit by being treated as an adult. I will always want to keep her from knowing that such evil exists in the world, but I cannot be with her always and it has become very clear to me over the last year that a lady's own understanding is often her best protection."
The Darcys shared a look of understanding after which they ascended the stairs together.
They found Mrs. Annesley alone in the sitting room she shared with Miss Darcy and that lady informed them that Georgiana might be found in the nursery, playing with the Gardiners' children. The older woman was obviously relieved at their appearance and quickly affirmed that her charge had been quite distressed upon returning from the visit with Lady Almida.
William and Elizabeth did their best to reassure Georgiana's companion, but in the end, the couple made their way to the rooms where the Gardiner children had been settled while Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and their eldest son, Jonathan, visited Kent for two weeks. Now that the legalities of designating Jonathan as Miss de Bourgh's heir had been completed, the Gardiners were directing the same diligence to the running of Rosings Park as they had to Mr. Gardiner's business.
Elizabeth had found the servants' reaction particularly amusing. Although only Mrs. Reynolds was familiar enough to mention it, Lizzy was perfectly aware that the servants were eager to see the Darcy family increase in number. The household appeared to have taken her cousins' visit as a trial run of some sort, despite the fact that the children's own nurse and governess had accompanied them to Derwent House. As a result, although most of the servants had Sunday afternoons off, no less than four maids had volunteered to look after the little ones.
William was relieved to find his sister sitting with the four older children at her feet, reading to them from Aesop's Fables, while baby Annie gurgled in her crib. The Darcys' entrance disrupted this happy scene, however, as the children were quite eager to tell their favorite cousins about the various exciting happenings in the nursery.
"Cousin Lizzy, mayn't we go outside?" asked Tommy, desperate to play with his new cricket bat but having been refused earlier by the maid.
Usually Elizabeth would be amenable to venturing out in nearly any weather, but the yellow fog that had descended on London was not only unpleasantly humid, she could not believe it was healthy to breath. "I fear that the weather is against us, my dear. We shall have to content ourselves with exploring the house." Suddenly her eyes sparkled mischievously. "But I know the next best thing--come with me!"
Taking Amelia and Ernest by the hand, Lizzy herded the other two out of the nursery, pausing only to say to Georgie and William, "We shall be in the ball room, if you wish to join us!"
Miss Darcy stood as if to follow, but her brother held her back. "Georgie, you seemed upset after dinner. I know it could not have been easy to hear about such things."
Nodding, Georgiana allowed her brother to guide her to a sofa. The siblings sat in silence for some minutes before she finally mustered the courage to speak. "Do you wish me to marry Richard, Brother?"
"Good God, no!" replied her brother instantly and with such feeling that the young lady actually laughed.
William was pleased to see her mood lighten but there was more to say. Moderating his tone, he took her hand and said, "That is to say, if the two of you were to fall in love, then of course I would give my blessing. However, I am fairly certain that although Richard cares for you nearly as much as I do, it is the fondness of a brother, not a suitor."
Georgiana's expression showed her relief, but some of the disquiet remained. "I only thought that… well, I've met so many gentlemen since we came to London, and I've tried to like them, truly I have… but there is no one with whom I feel truly comfortable. I thought that perhaps I could make the family happy…"
William took both his sister's hands in his and spoke earnestly; "Georgie, you do not have to make such a sacrifice, and believe me when I say that I would do everything in my power to prevent you. You deserve to find love; do not let the Earl's words convince you otherwise."
"But it is near the end of the Season, and no one has even asked to court me! I don't want you to be disappointed with me but all I want to do is go back to Pemberley…"
Will wrapped his arms around his sister. "You are not alone--Elizabeth and I were just speaking of how much we long to return to the country."
"But Pemberley is your home--you can't possibly want your spinster sister living there forever!"
William leaned back and raised her chin so that she would look him in the face. "Pemberley is your home for as long as you wish it to be. But dearest--I thought you knew that? Did not Elizabeth and I discuss it with you before the wedding?"
Georgie managed to nod even as she wrung her hands. "But everyone says that a lady should be engaged by the end of her first season or she is a failure!"
William raised his eyebrows. "I was not engaged by the end of my first season. Or my second, or third, or sixth, for that matter."
She giggled. "You are not a lady, William. It is entirely different for gentlemen, as you are well aware."
William paused for a moment to consider his words before speaking. "Georgiana, much of that pressure on ladies to rush into marriage comes from a lack of funds; their family cannot support them in a second Season and so they must make the best match they can or be sentenced to a life of dependency on male relations. We are blessed in that we do not need to worry about such things. If you wish to never marry but live at Pemberley all your life and practice your music, our circumstances would allow you to do so. And I would be very happy to keep my dearest sister with me," he added gruffly.
Georgiana leaned against her brother's chest and murmured, "thank you, Wills."
The siblings were silent for several moments but finally William cleared his throat. "I hope that you shall not completely sequester yourself, however. I spent many years alone, and although I love you and our relations dearly, it is nothing like the joy that comes with marrying the right person."
Georgie smiled at the soft look that came over her brother's face but then dropped her eyes and sighed. Only at his urging did she admit, "I am just so afraid of making a mistake… I was so wrong about Mr. Wickham… and then seeing Lady Almida and Reggie… I cannot believe that our own cousin would do such a thing!"
William sighed and looked at his hands, wishing not for the first time that he had done more to debilitate the Viscount than a single punch to the gut. "I cannot tell you that there are not such men in the world, for obviously they are. And sadly, some are clever enough to hide their true nature for a time, particularly from those who are not suspicious by nature. However, I urge you to think on all the happy marriages that you know, for I believe that they outnumber the unpleasant ones.
And I promise you, Georgie, I have every intention of investigating any suitor of yours to the extent that I will know if he through porridge at his nurse when he was still on leading strings."
This time Georgiana's smile was as genuine and complete as a sunrise. "Elizabeth warned me that you would do all you could to frighten them away. But I cannot say that I am sorry, Brother."
The siblings shared a look of complete understanding.
They talked a little more, but there seemed little more to say on the subject and soon they rose and made their way companionably to the ball room. They arrived just in time to hear a happy shriek from Amelia as she and her cousin went sliding down the polished floor in their stocking feet.
Georgiana gladly joined them, happy to forget all her worries about marriage and husbands for the simpler pleasures of childhood.
William remained by the door for longer, observing the amusement. Not for the first time, he pondered the very great happiness that Elizabeth Bennet had introduced to the Darcy family. Then he caught a teasing glance from his wife and obediently toed off his own boots and joined in the fun.Continued In Next Section