Posted on 2013-10-31
'I would fain ravish thee with wild abandon, wench,' Captain Falconheart growled, taking in the sight of the slender cabin wench kneeling before him.
'With pleasure, my liege,' the girl said. 'However, there is one hindrance that I would have ye be aware of -'
She was roughly interrupted by the captain hooking his cutlass under the laces of her bodice and cutting it open with one swift fell, revealing a flat, decidedly virile bosom beneath.
' - that, my liege,' the girl continued, unfazed. 'I fear that I have not been entirely honest with you -'
'A hindrance, lass?' Captain Falconheart said. 'Where didst thou say there was a hindrance? I do not see any.'
'As you wish, o captain,' the girl said and Captain Falconheart's cutlass continued its work.
General Lord Breckenridge licked the tip of his finger and made to turn the page when he heard someone cough. Hastily and with a guilty conscience he snapped Captain of Desire shut and looked up to see who had dared to set foot into his office when he had given very specific orders that he was not to be disturbed.
The intruder was a man clearly in the prime of his life, of admirable height and physique, with classical features and a head full of hair. His bearing indicated noble breeding and his clothes declared the fortune of their owner. General Lord Breckenridge had never seen the man before. He raised an eyebrow in an attempt to coax this fine specimen of manhood into speaking.
'Fitzwilliam Darcy, General,' the stranger said. 'At your service.'
General Lord Breckenridge grunted.
'Of the Derbyshire Darcys?' he asked. He had heard of the Derbyshire Darcys, or more precisely, about the current Derbyshire Darcy. Every single man in His Majesty's Alien Office had.
'Yes, General. I hope I am not interrupting anything,' the intruder said with a glance at Captain of Desire. The title of this, thankfully, was obscured by the second volume of Eloise's Adventures at the Academie d'Amour, which, now that General Lord Breckenridge thought about it, did not really make things better at all.
'I was reading up on matters of the highest importance,' he said in his gruffest tone and shoved The Lustful Tourney back into the drawer with volumes three to seven of The Royal Palace of Sin. 'What can I do for you?'
'It is more what I can do for you,' Fitzwilliam Darcy said. 'I am come here to offer my help.'
'Your help?' General Lord Breckenridge repeated, bleakly. This, his colleagues had warned him, was how it usually began.
'You seem to be swamped with work,' Fitzwilliam Darcy said, indicating the stacks of books and pamphlets covering every surface in the office. 'Understandably.'
'Understandably?' General Lord Breckenridge repeated. He had no idea what Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Derbyshire, was talking about or how he thought he could help in these particular matters.
'The French, of course,' Fitzwilliam Darcy continued. 'I understand that they are trying to undermine everything in this country. Sabotage, I believe they call it, attempting to subvert England to their causes, infiltrating every circle of society, from the highest echelons to the lowest orders.'
General Lord Breckenridge noticed that Darcy's gaze fell onto The Wanton Wenches of Versailles and he hoped the intruder would not notice the title. His hope, however, was in vain. Darcy gingerly picked up the much-beloved volume and held it up between two fingers.
'I see that they do not even hesitate to undermine our literature,' he said with an expression of disgust. 'Despicable.'
General Lord Breckenridge could feel the perspiration on his forehead.
'You have my deepest sympathies for having to wade through this filth, General,' Darcy continued. 'Your sacrifice for King and Country is much appreciated, I assure you.'
General Lord Breckenridge settled for an undecipherable groan in lieu of an actual answer and hoped that would cover whatever Darcy expected him to say.
'It is, however, unconscionable that you should have to bear this burden alone,' Darcy said. 'I am determined to help you. I will leave for France first thing in the morning and see what I can do to stop the distribution of this filth.'
General Lord Breckenridge nodded weakly; anything that would get Darcy out of his office for a longer time was much appreciated. Then, however, images of Darcy in France rose to his mind, unbidden. The man, his colleagues had assured him, was unable to keep a disguise. If he sanctioned Darcy's travelling to France now, the man would have a rendez-vous with Madame Guillotine within a month. The English public would start an outcry and riot in the street at the loss of a son it had not even known previously, there would be calls for blood and more war everywhere, and it all would be traced back to him, General Lord Breckenridge, and he would never have a quiet moment again.
'No!' he quickly said.
'I beg your pardon, General?' Darcy replied.
'I mean,' General Lord Breckenridge began, searching wildly for something to say to this hot-headed young man, 'I mean, we believe them not to originate in France at all. From my extended reading of this - this utter depraved wickedness - I have found that all the best works, the uhm, best distributed works, I mean, originate with an English publisher.'
Darcy opened the copy of The Wanton Wenches of Versailles that he was still holding in his fingers and read the title page.
'A translation from the French,' he read out, 'published by the Five Junos Press.'
'Bootlegged, pirated copies no doubt,' General Lord Breckenridge said, 'although the translations are of remarkable quality. The engravings too. Eh, purely linguistically speaking, of course.'
'Piracy,' Darcy said and his eyes seemed to glint. 'That is a crime. Rest assured, General, I shall have traced those five Junos to their origins in an instant. I will report back to you as soon as possible.'
'Excellent,' General Lord Breckenridge said. It sounded as if Darcy was going to leave. 'Do you want to keep the book - for research purposes, of course?'
Darcy looked at the book he was still holding and dropped it onto the desk like a hot potato.
'No, I will not need that,' he said. 'I suppose I shall run into much more of this quite soon.'
'Oh, definitely,' the General said. 'If you do, make sure to obtain copies where possible. As, uhm, evidence. Just in case.'
'Stop the presses!' Jane yelled, then giggled. 'I've always wanted to say that. It has such a nice ring to it, doesn't it?'
Elizabeth looked up from the printing press and yanked a giant lever.
'What is it, Jane?' she asked. 'Oh, hang it, no - it's blocked itself again.'
'I'm so sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to - only Lydia made some last-minute alterations to the drawings on page 14.'
'What additions?' Elizabeth asked, wiping her hand on her forehead. 'I thought we had already agreed on the final version?'
'It appears that there was a discrepancy -' Jane began, but before she could say more, Lydia herself entered the room, followed closely by Mary.
'I'm so, so sorry,' Mary panted. 'It is all my fault, I made a mistake with the translation. I must have looked at the wrong line, or I don't know, in any case, the Comte de l'Amprey caressed Valentine's elbow twice, instead of her - oh, no -'
With a loud clatter, the tray of leaden letters and the wood engraving she had been clutching fell to the floor.
'Oh, no,' she muttered again and knelt down to sort it all out. Lydia too bent down and rescued the engraving.
'Have you corrected the mistake now though?' Jane asked.
'We have,' Mary said. 'That is, I changed the text and Lydia has tweaked the engraving a bit.'
'Thankfully I did not have to make a completely new one,' Lydia said.
Elizabeth did not even want to think about how many hours a new engraving would have thrown them back.
'We should not have added drawings,' she said. 'I know Lydia's drawings are superb, but it is so much more work -'
'Yes, but do you realize how much more money we can ask for them?' Jane asked. 'How much longer do you think you will need until the machine works again?'
'Give me half an hour,' Elizabeth said. 'That should get it going again.'
'Excellent,' Jane said. 'Will that time suffice for you to get the pages set again, Mary?'
'Easily,' Mary answered, her head bent over the tray sorting letters.
'Great, then hurry up, everyone,' Jane said. 'It's going to be a long night, but I promise you, it will be well worth it if we can get the first copies ready by tomorrow morning. Kitty, do you have all you need?'
'Ready to go as soon as you're done,' Kitty said, pointing at her scissors and her needle and thread. 'Is Lydia going to help me again or will you do it?'
'I was going to make the first sketches for The Return of the Wanton Wenches of Versailles,' Lydia said. 'Mary has already translated the first chapters and I think there is some really good material there. But if you need me here -'
'No, no, go,' Jane said. 'I'll help Kitty sew.'
Charles Bingley did not know what to make of his friend. The hour was already late, and Charles had been looking forward to settling in front of the fireplace with one of those books that Darcy had forgotten at his house the other day. Charles was normally not one for reading, he left that sort of thing to Darcy, but the adventures that Captain Falconheart got into were simply riveting. Sometimes there were long descriptive paragraphs when Captain Falconheart was wooing his cabin wench, or boy, Charles was not sure, but he skipped those boring bits in favour of reading about Captain Falconheart's next adventure in a smuggler's den, or the subterranean vaults of a secret brotherhood, or, Charles' favourite so far, on a pirate ship. It seemed that there was no situation he could not get out of with his cutlass. He was simply dashing. Charles had been wondering if he should take to carrying a cutlass too, but his musings had been rudely interrupted by Darcy, who had stormed into his parlour unannounced, dropped another stack of those books he was carrying everywhere lately onto the sideboard, and claimed he had leased a manor in Hertfordshire of all places in his, Charles', name.
'Why would I lease a manor in Hertfordshire?' Charles asked.
'Because you want to buy one,' Darcy replied shortly.
'Just think about it,' Darcy said. 'I have already been there and closed the deal in your name. We are leaving the day after tomorrow. Oh, and I said you would bring your sisters.'
Charles groaned. It was one thing taking Caroline, who was simply weird and kept to her room, but quite another to take Louisa, who would insist he eat his vegetables and go to bed early and would probably borrow Captain of Desire and then never return it.
Charles normally preferred to proceed quickly, but even he had to admit that having only a day to pack everything one might possibly need in the country for a stay of undetermined length and only a vague idea of what to do there, was not ideal. He mustered once again the boxes and trunks that were stacked in the hall to be loaded into the coaches, and wondered what he might have forgotten.
'Are you coming, Caroline?' he called upstairs.
A door on the upper floors slammed shut and then Charles' twin sister rushed down the stairs, her hat slightly askew and her pelisse unbuttoned.
'You've forgotten your gloves,' Louisa Hurst pointed out.
Caroline rushed back upstairs. Several more doors banged, someone cursed colourfully and finally, Caroline raced back down the stairs. Only then did she seem to notice that Darcy was waiting with her siblings.
'Mr Darcy,' she said and flushed red.
'Miss Bingley,' Mr Darcy said and bowed. 'You look - charming.'
Caroline awkwardly fumbled with her curls, which had become loose again. Louisa rubbed her nose and kept winking at Caroline.
'What?' Caroline asked.
'You've got - something - your nose -'
'Those candles!' Caroline exclaimed. 'Charles, are you sure your housekeeper is buying real wax candles?'
'Let us discuss that another time,' Charles said. 'The carriage is waiting. We're off to Hertfordshire, remember?'
'Oh, right,' Caroline said and tried to button her pelisse. 'Of course. I knew that.'
Charles sniffed the air.
'Is that a new perfume, Caroline?' he asked. 'It's sort of - special - eh -'
'Must be the laundry soap,' Caroline said hastily. 'I've had a word with the maid about it.'
Darcy whispered something in Charles' ear. He could not quite get what Darcy was saying, but it seemed that Darcy thought what Charles had said had been impolite. Charles could not understand it; Darcy had a sister himself, did he not know that normal rules did not apply to siblings?
'Yes, I know that,' he said hotly. 'But she's my sister, isn't she? I mean, I can ask, can't I?'
Louisa never slept well the first night in a new place and her first night at Netherfield was no exception. Her husband was snoring contentedly at her side, and yet Louisa lay there and listened to the ticking clock. It was almost the full moon and she could see that it was long past two and still sleep eluded her. She rolled over onto her other side and observed the still form of her husband with a certain tenderness. Suddenly, she heard an odd noise from the corridors. At first she thought it was one of the maids, up rather early to tend to the fires, but she soon realised that it could not be that; whatever it was was simply too loud for that. It sounded as if someone were dragging something heavy along the corridors. Carefully, so as not to disturb her sleeping husband, Louisa got up. She threw on her nightgown and a robe and opened the door a crack to see what was going on. What she saw surprised her greatly. It was Caroline, of all people, who was dragging a large trunk behind her. In the dim light, Louisa thought it almost resembled a pirate's chest of bounty. Curling papers stuck out of Caroline's hair and some of the curls had already come undone, hanging in messy strands down her back.
'Louisa,' she panted upon seeing her sister. 'Excellent! You can help me.'
Louisa, still confused, reached for the other handle of the chest.
'What are we doing?' she asked.
'Bringing my equipment up to attic, of course,' Caroline said. 'I found a nice room to set up everything.'
'Couldn't some of the footmen do this?' Louisa asked.
The chest was heavy and the corridor long, and she knew that several flights of stairs lay still ahead of them.
'Pah!' Caroline snorted. 'They'd only tell Darcy, and I don't need that.'
It was almost dawn when all of Caroline's boxes were in the attic room she had chosen, and Louisa was then roped into helping her sister unpack.
'Careful with that,' Caroline admonished when Louisa was carrying a small wooden box to a work table. 'I had that specially sent from Leipzig.'
Louisa ignored her sister's comments and retrieved a small jewellery box from one of the crates. She observed it carefully. It was warm to the touch and felt familiar; she wondered whether she had seen it before. She could not resist the urge to open it. Inside lay a single gold ring, very plain, nothing more than a band, really. It was smooth and cool in Louisa's hand and already felt as if it belonged there.
'What is this?' she asked.
'Put that down,' Caroline said immediately.
'It's pretty,' Louisa said. 'Who gave it to you?'
'I said, put it down,' Caroline said, sounding alarmed. 'It's not finished yet.'
'It's very precious,' Louisa said. 'Can I keep it?'
'No, you cannot,' Caroline said and snatched the ring out of Louisa's hand. 'I told you, it's not yet finished. Besides, it's mine.'
She carefully put the ring back into its box and locked the box in her desk. Louisa gave it a longing look before concentrating on unpacking the next object. It seemed to be an optical device, or so Louisa guessed. She knew little of the matters with which her sister spent her time, but this device had several lenses as well as what looked like little golden wheels, toothed, and a scale with which angles could be measured.
'What is this?' Louisa asked.
'Oh, that,' Caroline said and her mien cleared. 'I'm rather proud of it. It can be used to influence people's thoughts.'
'Very easily,' Caroline said. 'It focuses light in such a way as to direct the gaze of the vict- - that is, the object, and in due course, the object will lose control of their thoughts and emotions. It is a very ancient technique, has been practised for ages in India, but I believe I am the first one to standardise it and put it into measurable quantities. It is only lacking a tiny detail.'
'What?' Louisa asked breathlessly.
'A final lens,' Caroline said. 'A diamond, ideally, a perfect icosahedron, with a diametre of precisely three quarters of an inch.'
'But such a thing does not exist!' Louisa exclaimed.
'On the contrary, it does,' Caroline said. 'I know of at least one. It has a long and bloody history, and right now, it is here in England.'
'It was robbed almost two hundred years ago from a maharajah's crown, and brought to England by a member of the East Indian Company. He perished just west of the Cape of Good Hope when his ship was captured by pirates, and one of the pirates' officers stole the diamond. Once back ashore, he was cheated in a game of cards and had to relinquish it. The man who won it was arrested shortly afterwards on a pretend cause and the district's magistrate pocketed the stone and had it set in a ring that he presented to his bride.'
'And since then, it has adorned the hand of every Darcy bride,' Caroline finished her tale. 'Right now, I believe, it is in a locked box in a bank, but of course not for much longer.'
'So that is -'
'Of course,' Caroline said. 'Did you think I was after him for his looks?'
It was frustrating, Darcy thought. He knew that the books were coming from Hertfordshire. He had even managed, with considerable difficulties, to pinpoint their distribution to a mail-coach passing through the town of Meryton. He took pride in the fact that nobody had known what his real intentions were; he had simply appeared to be one of countless depraved gentlemen who did not deserve that title, searching for something new to feed his insatiable appetite. Once in Meryton, however, the trail had run dry. Darcy had visited both of the local booksellers under the excellent guise of his dandy persona, but to no avail. One of them had been so hard of hearing he had not understood a word of what Darcy had said, and simply kept pointing at some botany books, and the other, when Darcy had, with a wink and a smirk that he had learnt from his former friend Wickham, asked after 'gentlemen's reading materials,' handed him a parcel that looked promising, but on further inquiry only contained The Art of Tobacco Chewing, A Guide to Hunting English Wildlife and Sabres and Cutlasses - A Study in Nautical Weaponry. He would send those on to General Lord Breckenridge, of course, just as he had with all the other publications of the Five Junos Press that he had been able to locate previously. He pitied the man, having to fill his office with so many editions of that unspeakable filth, but at least every copy that was secure in General Lord Breckenridge's office could not be distributed among the public anymore. It was certain, Darcy mused, that these books were not fit for public consumption. He could only imagine the sort of public rioting that would occur if those books were read by the unwashed masses - or even only by those parts of the unwashed masses who could actually read. He shuddered to think of the excesses that would soon take place in the streets and lanes of England. There would be men running around in nothing but shirtsleeves, probably, jumping into ponds pretending to be aquatic nymphs when the fancy struck them, and women who would not even avert their eyes when such disgusting spectacles crossed their paths.
No, something like that was to be avoided at all costs and he, Darcy, would sacrifice his personal health if it meant finding out what the enemy was up to. Making sure that the door to his room was securely locked once again, he opened Eloise's Adventures at the Carnival and removed his bookmark. Idly, he wondered if today he would find out the identity of Eloise's mysterious lover, and why he insisted on wearing a mask whenever visiting the lady's chambers.
The night after their arrival in Hertfordshire there was an assembly ball which Charles made them all attend, even though he insisted it was all Darcy's idea. Louisa could see that Caroline did not much enjoy it, however much she pretended to be giggling at whatever remark Darcy made. Louisa supposed there was some apparatus or other that Caroline was just dying to set up, or maybe some odd, smelly, powder that really needed to be burned that night so it would smell even fouler. Louisa had often wondered how Caroline had ended up so - well, so different. There was little hope, Louisa thought, that Caroline would ever be normal. What was one supposed to do with her? There was little choice besides allowing her space in an unused attic room where she could conduct her experimentations. Talking to Caroline, telling her how her behaviour and interests were unusual, did not have any effect whatsoever. Louisa had tried it often enough. Caroline simply did not understand that there were certain expectations on her, that she could not simply behave as she pleased, simply because it interested her. For a while, when Caroline had been showing an interest in becoming Mrs Darcy, Louisa had been relieved. Mr Darcy would be a good husband for her sister, and a family to take care of might be just the thing to take Caroline's mind off her things, as Louisa called them, for she had no idea what they really were. Besides, Darcy appeared to be a kind, understanding man who might event turn a blind eye on a wife who played with chemicals in a distant attic room, so long as she did not let her duties slip. The previous night, however, had revealed that Louisa's hopes were in vain, for clearly Caroline had no interest in Darcy whatsoever, and whatever she would do with him, it would not be starting a family.
'But why do you want to control people's thought?' Louisa had asked.
'It would be interesting, don't you think so?' Caroline had said. 'I have always wondered if it would really work, but without the diamond, I will never be able to tell. Such a shame.'
She had patted the dratted machine fondly.
'But what about Mr Darcy?' Louisa had asked. 'If you want that ring, you will have to marry him, Caroline!'
Caroline had shrugged.
'Do you not understand this, Caroline?' Louisa had said. 'A marriage is a life-long commitment. There is - there is trust, and understanding, and responsibility - even love, sometimes - you cannot just shrug out of it when you have your hands on that stupid ring!'
'I will think about that later,' Caroline had said. 'Right now, have you seen my protective spectacles?'
'Oh, I designed them myself. They are like correctional spectacles, except that the glass lenses are much larger, and thicker, in order to protect the eyes from chemicals. I have also been experimenting with tinting the glass so that the eye will be protected from too bright lights.'
'Caroline, would you not rather get married to someone with whom you could have a real bond?' Louisa had insisted. 'Surely, you must have some wishes about a man with whom you would like to spend your life. I mean, the intimacies of married life are such that -'
'I have no desire to get married to any man,' Caroline had said. 'So Darcy will do just as well as any other. Now, Lou, the specs! I need to get this solution set up, or I will not be able to continue tomorrow.'
And there, more or less, the discussion had ended. Louisa had tried to convince Caroline, had even disclosed some rather intimate aspects of the joys of matrimony in the hope of convincing Caroline that it was not a burden that women were forced to endure in the hope of gaining diamonds, but she was not sure whether Caroline had even listened.
And now they were at the ball and Louisa could see at a first glance that it was hopeless. Caroline had taken care with her appearance, she had to credit her for that, but most of the time she spent awkwardly standing at the side. In her head, Louisa did not doubt, she was going over some formula or other that would be of importance in whatever she had planned to do in the attic that night. Not even Mr Darcy seemed to be paying Caroline much attention. They danced once, but they hardly talked at all, and after the dance, Mr Darcy disappeared again amongst the local gentlemen, apparently inquiring about something or other.
Only once did Caroline actually seem interested in people, when Charles introduced two of his new acquaintances (for of course Charles had made sure to gain an introduction to the two prettiest girls in the room as soon as possible) to her and they started a conversation that unfortunately died down soon when the next dance began, taking Charles and one of the girls with it and leaving the other with Caroline, who seemed unable to continue the conversation. Louisa sighed. It was hopeless. She would have to have a word again with Caroline that night.
'What is it that you have against Caroline Bingley?' Jane asked Elizabeth that night. 'She was all that is politeness towards me.'
'Oh, Jane, you are too good a creature!' Elizabeth exclaimed. 'Did you notice how she had barely a glance for the rest of the company, and mainly sneered at everyone?'
'No, I must admit I did not notice,' Jane said. 'Did she?'
'You should have heard what she said when you and Mr Bingley left,' Elizabeth said. 'She looked at you and Charles, and then at me, and she muttered, 'this will not do at all,' and then she simply left me standing there, as if I was of no importance whatsoever!'
'I can hardly believe it,' Jane said. 'Maybe she was not feeling well?'
'She thought us beneath her notice,' Elizabeth said. 'Now, I know you found Mr Bingley very agreeable, and I must concur there, but I think his party decidedly odd. Did you notice that his friend, Mr Darcy or whatever his name was, spent no time talking to any lady at all?'
'I cannot say I did,' Jane said.
'Yes, indeed!' Elizabeth said. 'He danced with Miss Bingley once, and then he spent the rest of the time talking to the gentlemen, asking them questions. Very peculiar questions, if you get my drift. From what I overheard he was asking for directions to - well, to establishments of pleasure. Deviant pleasure.'
She raised an eyebrow.
'And I grant you, there is nothing wrong in the desire itself, but certainly that is no subject for public conversation.' She laughed. 'Hence our recent successes.'
'Are you quite certain about him?' Jane asked.
'So certain that I was this close to offering him a copy of Caesar and Nicomedes until I remembered that we sold the last one last week!' Elizabeth exclaimed. 'Now, Mrs Hurst was very genteel, I grant you that, but the same very certainly does not go for her sister - such manners! And her appearance! As if she could not care less about a country assembly. I tell you, Jane, there were stains all over the front of her gown - and also -'
'Well, it is silly to mention it, and she probably can't help it, but -'
'I do not know what you mean, Lizzy -'
'She had this really strong odour of - well, of Sulphur, Jane,' Lizzy said.
A shrill shriek rang through the house.
'Heilige Mutter Gottes! Der Leibhaftige!'
'I think we have had Mary work too late into the night lately,' Elizabeth asked. 'She is clearly not herself anymore.'
'We have all been working so very much lately,' Jane said, 'and I have been thinking, Elizabeth -'
Elizabeth looked at her sister.
'I have been thinking, Elizabeth,' Jane said, 'that maybe we should stop doing it.'
'Why would we?' Elizabeth asked. 'You keep the books, you know how much we have earned in the last month alone. There can be no more talk of living on fifty pounds a year after - you know -'
'Yes, but I keep thinking it is wrong!' Jane said. 'We never asked any of these French authors for permission, did we?'
'Well how could we?' Elizabeth countered. 'Half of them were published anonymously, and with the other half, you very well know that Mary has made countless changes to the novels to make them more appealing to the English market, and the engravings are all our own. No, I think we can say that these are our own projects, Jane. And besides, who would ever believe we did this?'
'We can never tell anyone where we got our fortune, can we?' she said, burying her face in her pillow.
'I do not see any need to talk about it to anyone at all,' Elizabeth said. 'We are rich women now, we can do as we please.'
The night after the ball, even though they had not returned until the early hours, Louisa again found her sister at work in the attics, as she had known she would. Caroline had flung a stiff linen coat over her nightdress and was wearing her protective spectacles again. She was bent low over a candle on a table, into the flame of which she was holding a small vial with a thick red liquid.
'Oh, Caro,' Louisa said and sighed.
Caroline turned around and almost dropped the wooden tongs which were securing the vial.
'It's you,' she said, set the vial aside and snuffed the candle.
'It's no good anyway,' she said. 'I just can't get the flame hot enough, not on an ordinary wax candle as this. I should light a fire -'
'No fires, Caro, we discussed this,' Louisa said quickly.
Caroline pouted, but acquiesced.
'Maybe if I had an apparatus that could safely burn gas,' she said. 'Yes -I wonder -'
She reached for a sheet of paper, fished a pencil stub from behind her ear and begain drafting whatever idea had crossed her mind now.
'How did you like the ball, Caro?' Louisa asked.
'Hm, what?' Caroline mumbled. 'Oh, the ball. It was acceptable, I suppose.'
'I saw you dance with Mr Darcy,' Louisa said. 'Did you have a good time?'
'It was bearable,' Caroline said. 'He was distracted.'
'Did you meet anyone interesting?' Louisa insisted.
'Not really,' Caroline muttered. 'No, that would not work - must have a valve somewhere -'
'You talked with some of the local girls,' Louisa said.
'What? Oh, yes,' Caroline said. 'Jane and Elizabeth. They were agreeable. Jane had this interesting amber pendant, but I realized then it was not large enough.'
'Oh, she had such a lean and hungry look. She thinks too much, I suppose,' Caroline said. 'Rather dangerous. I shall have her over for tea the other day.'
Louisa did not know what to make of this. It was probably too much to hope that Caroline would meet a young man at a country assembly, but still, it would have been nice. On the other hand, one never knew. It was always possible this Elizabeth had a brother. She turned and made to leave the attic room.
'Oh, Louisa,' Caroline called after her. 'Have you given any thought to the other matter? I have the arsenic right here if you change your mind.'
'I told you, I have no wish to poison him. Why would I? He is my husband!'
'Oh, I just thought - I mean what you told me the other day sounded very unpleasant and I am sure you do not want him to -'
'Oh, heavens, Caroline!' Louisa exclaimed. 'Of course I want him to! How else would I come by the children, do you suppose I bred them in a jar?'
For a moment, Caroline seemed intrigued by the idea.
'Yes, but now you have the children,' she said then, 'you can have no reason to want to endure that any longer and -'
'I am not enduring anything,' Louisa shouted. 'Grow up, Caroline, and live in the real world for once!'
'I am living in the real world,' Caroline said. 'Where else would I be?'
Louisa, however, had already left the room.
On the day after the assembly ball, Elizabeth received an unexpected visitor. Normally, she would have been very disgruntled, because they had a deadline the very next day, but the visitor was her very dear friend Charlotte Lucas, whose services had been invaluable in distributing the works of the Five Junos Press to a larger public, so she would always be a recipient of Elizabeth's gratitude.
'I come with the most astonishing news,' Charlotte said as soon as they had sat down in the parlour where, thankfully, they were not disturbed by anyone else.
'What is it?'
'My father's brother wrote, saying that he would like to take Maria and me to the continent,' Charlotte said. 'Is not that wonderful? I had thought I would never get to leave Hertfordshire if not as the wife of some overweight fool, but he has promised he will take us to Italy, and Spain, and even Greece - he has a ship, you know.'
'But Charlotte, that is wonderful!' Elizabeth exclaimed. 'But so soon! When are we to lose you?'
'Next week, I believe,' Charlotte said. 'I am not completely sure when he is to arrive, but he will take us with him on his ship. Oh, Elizabeth, it is like a dream come true!'
'It is,' Elizabeth agreed. 'Did you say your father's brother?'
'I never knew your father had a brother,' Elizabeth said.
'He does not like to talk about him,' Charlotte explained, blushing, 'nor us to talk about him. You see, uncle Lucas is - different - '
'Wait a moment,' Elizabeth interjected. 'Your uncle's name is Lucas Lucas?'
'Sir Lucas Lucas, actually.'
'Although we do not know what he was knighted for, and Papa wouldn't tell us.'
She mustered Elizabeth.
'Do you think anything odd with the name? He was named after a great-uncle.'
'No, nothing,' Elizabeth said quickly. 'I thought it sounded familiar, but I cannot place it. Come, tell me everything about your trip, and your uncle's ship!'
Caroline kept her promise. A few days later, both Jane and Elizabeth, who Louisa now discovered were sisters, were issued with an invitation to take tea at Netherfield, and arrived at the allotted time, cheeks flushed from the cold outside and laughing merrily. Louisa was certain that this display of girlish behavior would soon send Caroline away flinching, retiring to the company of her vials and cogs, but to her surprise, Caroline seemed quite taken with their visitors. Quite contrary to the behaviour Louisa had come to expect from her sister, Caroline was friendly and talked animatedly with both girls, especially the younger one. Louisa did not know what to make of this. It was good that Caroline found someone to talk to, probably - and Louisa had still not found out whether these girls had a brother as well - but she was not sure if talking to Elizabeth was quite the thing for Caroline. Far from providing Caroline with an introduction to the more usual interests for females, Elizabeth had chosen the steam engine of all things as a topic of conversation. Louisa did not like this at all. Caroline's head was befuddled enough by her inventions as it was, there was no need to add to it. Especially since this girl Elizabeth seemed to agree with Caroline's assessment that the steam engine would in a short time enable people to do all sorts of unnatural things.
'A steam-powered carriage, travelling on rails,' Elizabeth was just now saying. 'And that is not all -'
Caroline leaned forward and mustered the girl eagerly.
'I have heard that they can even make balloons fly like birds with the power of steam,' Elizabeth continued.
Caroline let out a soft gasp and licked her lips.
'That sounds too beautiful to be true,' she said.
'I know!' the girl Elizabeth exclaimed. 'Is it not the most wonderful thing to think about?'
'Have you heard about this new pattern for sleeves?' Louisa quickly interjected, before Caroline could forget herself. 'I hear that the next season calls for quite different cuts altogether -'
Both Caroline and Elizabeth looked at her as if she were a moonstruck calf. Only Jane smiled serenely and proclaimed a faint interest in seeing the patterns. Louisa realised that she had only hindered herself more, for to fetch the patterns she had to leave the room and go upstairs to her own, and who knew what would happen if she left Caroline and Elizabeth alone? They probably would try to build a modelled of those hell-bent steam balloons with the tea tray and assorted sugar lumps, and the girl Jane looked too gormless to try and stop them.
She was only too right. When she returned to the drawing-room after too much time had passed for she had misplaced the patterns, it was only the girl Jane left, sitting in the very same armchair where Louisa had left her, smiling serenely at nothing in particular.
'Where are they?' Louisa asked.
The girl Jane barely even took notice of her. It was then that Louisa noticed that Jane was by no means alone at all; rather, Charles had taken the seat opposite her. As usually, he was slumped so that Louisa had not seen him at all at first. He was, Louisa now saw, holding a book and rifling through it.
'Ah, here it is,' he said. 'Found it. You will love that passage, Miss Bennet.'
He cleared his throat.
'Now, first, there is some boring stuff, we will skip that, but anyway, so Captain Falconheart and his cabin wench, who is actually a boy, but nobody cares, anyway, they are lying on his bed in the cabin, falling asleep, when suddenly, they hear this mighty roar from the ship's aft - you must know, Miss Bennet, that that mean's the ship's -'
'Where is Caroline?' Louisa insisted.
Before she could be given an answer, however, the door burst open behind her and Mr Darcy stormed into the room, clutching a stack of books and slamming them onto the table. Louisa, with a little difficulty, could make out the titles of the top two, which read Captain of Desires Vol. II: Steered by Lust and Eloise's Forbidden Explorations.
'Where did those come from?' Louisa asked, curiously. Her brother had never struck her as a great reader, and now he seemed practically surrounded by books.
'That is what I would like to know!' Darcy roared. 'How did those end up here? Do you know how long I have been looking for them?'
'I know, brilliant, isn't it?' Charles said and beamed. 'I had not even known there was a second volume of Captain of Desires, so you may well imagine my surprise when I found it lying on the table in the hall when I came down just now. I hadn't dared move it yet, because I thought you might've put it there, but if you don't want it, I'll read it first!'
'Me - read - that -' Darcy stammered.
'Oh, right, you were more interested in the other series, weren't you?' Charles said. 'I noticed you had the first volume, though for some reason it seems to have slipped under your mattress. But never mind, the maids found it when they made the bed, and secured it for you. Mind you, I don't know why you like it so much, there aren't even pirates in it and I can't keep all the masked men straight -'
Mr Darcy made a sound as if he were close to choking and Louisa had the feeling that the insipid Jane was close to saying something, so she quickly said, 'I guess Miss Elizabeth must have brought those books, if neither of you did. If you'll only tell me where she and Caroline went, I am sure we can clear everything up in an instant.'
'Oh, to get some hot cocoa, I guess,' Charles said off-handedly, 'now, Miss Bennet, I should add that they're at sea at the moment so of course the ship is moving, and Captain Falconheart, he hears this roar and -'
'The kitchen,' Louisa said to Mr Darcy, who seemed to be still befuddled by what Charles was saying, 'and come quickly, or Caroline will blow up the whole house!'
'Mrs Hurst, I think there is more to your sister than meets the eye,' Mr Darcy said and set down the pot where the cocoa had apparently been heated.
'What do you mean?' Louisa asked. She tried to find any clues from the kitchen that would tell her where Caroline had gone, and what potentially dangerous items she might have taken with her.
'This cocoa is laced with not a little amount of rum,' Mr Darcy said and licked his spoon clean.
'The attic, Mr Darcy, and quickly!'
'Magnificent,' Elizabeth breathed. 'And you really built this all on your own?'
'I ordered the cogs from my manufacturer in Germany,' Caroline amended. 'But the design is all mine.'
She smiled proudly and Elizabeth could feel her heart burst in her chest at the sight of it.
'You clearly are a genius,' Elizabeth said. 'All I can do is repair machinery, but you built this ... this miracle! From nothing, no less - so perfectly - so effortlessly -'
'You are too kind,' she said. 'It is nothing.'
'Oh, it is everything!' Elizabeth insisted. 'You are the most accomplished woman I ever met!'
Caroline turned away, possibly to hide her ever more fervent blush - although Elizabeth did not know why she would, because the colour became her classical face very well indeed - and Elizabeth looked through the other contents of the treasure chest that had been opened before her, until she came across an item that was decidedly familiar.
'However did you come by that?' Elizabeth asked curiously, opening Eloise's Travels to Sapphos to the third chapter, where she knew Lydia's best engraving to date to be.
'Oh, that,' Caroline said. 'I think Mr Darcy left it at my brother's house the other day - it is a little forward, is it not?'
'A little, yes,' Elizabeth agreed and traced the lines of the engraving lightly. 'But did you find it interesting?'
'Why would you think that your sister would be in the attic?' Mr Darcy asked as they climbed up staircase after staircase. 'Surely she has been allotted a proper room?'
'Never you mind now,' Louisa panted. 'There is much and more that you do not know about my sister, Mr Darcy, and now is not the moment to divulge it! I will need your help -'
'Could not your husband do that?'
'He has taken the children on a ride in the carriage,' Louisa said. 'Thank goodness, because if Caroline really manages to create a steam-powered balloon -'
'A what?' Mr Darcy asked, stopping in his tracks. 'And what is that infernal roaring?'
Elizabeth felt Caroline's hot breath on her cheek. How could she ever have thought the other woman ugly? A faint smell of some unpleasant chemicals still clung to Caroline's dress, as usual, but Elizabeth could not care less. After all, the dress would soon be disposed of, to reveal the rich treasures that lay beneath it.
'Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,' Caroline said softly and laced her fingers into Elizabeth's curls. 'Let me relieve you of this restricting corset.'
Elizabeth meant to indicate her approval of that suggestion, but before she could do so, she noticed something odd.
'Has one of your machines gone off or -'
'No, I believe that noise is coming from outside!'
'- and then the Captain, he says to the midshipman - that is the one who first found the false coins, you will remember, Miss Bennet -'
'Oh, yes, I do remember - pray, read on, Mr Bingley, and do the voices, will you?'
' - right, so he says, 'arrr' - what is that noise?'
'Oh, magnificent, Mr Bingley! How you make it come alive!'
'No, dash it, Miss Bennet, that sound I did not make -'
And so it was that everyone at Netherfield could be found outside on the lawn minutes later, in spite of the chilly October weather, watching with disbelieving eyes a giant air-borne ship hanging from an even more enormous balloon, that was slowly descending in order to land.
'The - Jolly - Roger -' Mr Bingley deciphered the words on the side. 'Blimey, Miss Bennet! It's a pirate ship! I wonder if there are cutlasses?'
'It's Charlotte!' Elizabeth cried and waved to one of the passengers on board the ship.
Charlotte, still a good twenty yards above her, waved back.
'It's my uncle's ship!' she yelled. 'I told you he was coming!'
'You never said it could fly!' Elizabeth yelled back.
'I must have forgot that!'
'Such a beauty,' Caroline muttered, awestruck.
She reached for Elizabeth's hand. Elizabeth took hers and pressed it.
'I promise you we will ride on it,' she said, then bent closer towards the other girl and whispered in her ear, 'and then we will finish what we have begun.'
Caroline felt herself almost overwhelmed by all the delightful prospects ahead of her.
Louisa, on the other hand, was not delighted so much as totally overcome by surprise. Thus it was that she fainted, most gracefully, into Mr Darcy's arms.
'Flying - balloons,' she muttered as she came to again, eyelids aflutter, and she felt so weak in the knees that only Mr Darcy's strong arms could keep her upright.
'My, Mr Darcy,' Louisa said. 'Just wait until I tell my husband how you saved me -'
With a final roar of the machinery, the Jolly Roger landed on the lawn.
'Cheerio, landlubbers,' a booming voice greeted them all and a man who could only be Charlotte's uncle descended from a ladder hanging from the ship's side. He was the spitting image of his brother, dressed in clothes that rivalled with a rainbow for colour. 'I apologise for the inconvenience, and the noise, but we seem to have developped a little problem with the engine and this seemed the best place to moor her for a while as we try to figure out what -'
'The gear is blocked,' Caroline said. 'It should take about fifteen minutes to fix. Ten, if Elizabeth helps me.'
Sir Lucas clapped his hands.
'Why, but that is simply unbelievable!' he said. 'Charlotte said that if anyone knew how to help me, it would be her friend Elizabeth - but I had no idea that there were such a pair of mechanical genii in the county! Capital!'
'We will fix your engine,' Elizabeth said, 'if you agree to take us on a spin.'
'My dear girl,' said Sir Lucas, 'I bet I can improve this offer - why don't you and your friend promise to maintain the upkeep of my ship, and I shall take you to Greece with us?'
'To Sapphos and beyond,' Caroline muttered.
Sir Lucas clapped his hands again.
'Capital!' he said once more. 'I see you will fit in excellently on this ship. Now, how long do you think you will need to pack?'
Elizabeth was speechless for a moment.
'But I cannot simply leave everything behind!' she exclaimed.
Caroline pressed her hand.
'Dearest Elizabeth, please say you will come,' she said earnestly.
'Go, Lizzy,' Jane urged her. 'I know how you have dreamed of the wide world forever!'
'Do come,' Charlotte too entreated her. 'It will be twice the fun if you come as well!'
'But - the press -'
'Remember, Lizzy,' Jane said. 'We are rich women now. We can do as we please. Besides, Charles and I will be able to keep the presses running for a few weeks, won't we, Charles?'
Charles, who was still trying to process the fact that his sister was going to travel with almost real pirates, did not even seem to have properly heard her.
'Absolutely,' he said. 'And if there is any problem, we can always ask Darcy. He knows everything.'
Mr Darcy made the choking noise again.
'Press!' he spat. 'The press - you - a press -'
He pointed from Elizabeth to Jane and back again.
'A printing press, yes,' Elizabeth said. 'What about it? Will you help Jane?'
'You - printing - press -' Mr Darcy said between deep breaths. 'You are the five Junos?'
'Well, only two of them,' Elizabeth corrected him. 'But you would meet the others too.'
'I believe you and Mary would get along very well,' Jane said. 'What about it, Mr Darcy? Will you work with us?'
'Me - work for - the French?' he said.
'Actually, Mr Darcy,' Jane said with a faint blush, 'we are stealing from them. That is what piracy means, you know.'
'In that case,' Mr Darcy said and puffed out his chest, 'I can be a pirate too!'The End