Curse of the Cat Lady by St. Irene (Renee B)
The Chalice of Sorrow by NN S
How Soon She Forgets by Horribly Lurking Jaro
Blessed Memory by Frankaystein (Katharina)
Unfinished Business by The esil witch (Lise)
Dr Thorpe’s Clinic for Amorous Gentlemen by Bloody Mari (Mari A.)
The Long Way Home by Draculli (Ulrike)
Hole in the Road by Mrs. Radcliffofdespair (Suzanne O)
St Irene (Renee B)
Blurb: Lady Catherine initiates a diabolical plan to keep Darcy and Elizabeth from marrying.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park--or the Cat Lady, as she preferred--enjoyed a fearsome reputation. It was said she had drained the life from her husband and was well on the way to doing the same with her daughter. It was also said she managed her rector's will like a marionette, but the latter assertion was discounted due to his being a man of the cloth. Mr. Collins must have come by his servile and bumbling ways naturally. Still, the parishioners crossed themselves when they repeated it.
"Have I ever told you," the Cat Lady said to Mr. Collins as they stood before Rosings' reflecting pool one autumn afternoon, "what I see in the water's depths?"
He scratched his ear. One could not even see a stone. "No, your ladyship."
She leaned so close he could almost taste her foul breath. Would it be too forward to recommend a tooth powder?
"Sometimes I see the future," she said. "What do you think of that?"
Surely she did not refer to divination; that would be unbiblical. His brow furrowed in deep thought. Aha, he had it. "Indeed, I think you very wise, for it is as impossible to see into the future as it is to see the bottom on this pool. The mists of time are as murky as pond scum." That had a certain ring to it. He should note the phrase down and find a means to weave it into Sunday's sermon.
The Cat Lady uttered her strange, purring laugh. It had made his hairs stand on end at first, but he flattered himself that he had become inured to it.
"Do you not wish to inquire what I see?"
He did not, as he found the topic peculiarly disquieting, but asked anyway since it was clear she wished it.
"I see that your bride resides in Hertfordshire."
"But I am not married."
"Your future bride." She scowled. "A pleasant, ladylike sort of girl who has not been brought up too high."
Why had he not considered it before? And to think he nearly avoided the inquiry. The Cat Lady was, as always, brilliant in her deductions. "Of course, what a happy thought! I have long been wishing to mend the breach with my cousin. I am to inherit his estate, you know, and to marry one of his five daughters would be provide just the opportunity for reconciliation that is most suited to my calling."
She started. "Five daughters, did you say?"
"Yes, ma'am." He rocked back on his heels, temporarily distracted by the prospect of marital delights.
"And their family name?"
"Bennet, ma'am, of Longbourn." How gratifying that his patroness should take a concern in his matrimonial estate.
"Longbourn." She purred again and then grinned.
Collins gagged. She really ought to do something about her horribly misshapen and stained teeth. Like a cat that had recently dined.
"You will go," she hissed.
"To Longbourn. To marry the second daughter."
Second? Why not the first? Collins thought to inquire, but the overwhelming need to escape her suffocating odor hastened an end to their discourse. He bowed. "I am your humble servant. I will write to my cousin and request his hospitality this very day."
Miss Elizabeth Bennet, seated in one of the chairs lining the wall at the Meryton Assembly, could not help but overhear the gentlemen's exchange.
For all Mr. Darcy's good looks--and there was no denying he was a tall, fine-looking man--he was arrogant and uncivil, and she was offended. Tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me. Not in humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. Who did he think he was? She would not have danced with him if he were the Prince Regent. Actually, she would much sooner dance with Mr. Darcy than his royal highness, but that was beside the point.
She stood up, crossed her arms, and huffed. Where was Charlotte? The swiftest route to defanging an insult was to make a mockery of it. She scanned the room. Jane was dancing, and Kitty and Lydia were making a spectacle of themselves at the punch bowl. It was just as well that Mary had remained home to pursue her arcane studies.
Ah, there was Charlotte, currently in conversation with Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth sidled along the walls until she stood facing the open window, her back to her friend, and awaiting their conversation to conclude. She could not very well discuss Mr. Darcy in front of Mr. Bingley.
Pale moonlight bathed the street below, lending definition to the assorted vehicles. An owl hooted. Harnesses creaked. A pipe flared in the shadow of the draper's shop opposite. Beyond that edifice, leafless trees swayed in the wind, drawing her eye up, up, up. White light seared her vision.
Panic burned through Elizabeth's chest and seized her heart, but it was too late to look away. She might as well enjoy it while she could. The full moon perched like a luminescent pearl in the tree's topmost limbs. Exquisite. Pity she would never remember. She sighed, reached for the nearest chair, and the world went blank.
Elizabeth woke to sunlight streaming through her bedchamber window. She stretched and yawned. Why was she so tired, especially when she had obviously slept late? There were trees to climb and autumn foliage to collect. The wide world awaited her outside. She threw back the covers and swung her legs over the mattress edge. How was it her feet could reach the floor?
"Lizzy, you are awake." A blonde woman turned from the closet.
Elizabeth had not seen her before, but her face was familiar and pretty as a fairy. "Who are you, and what are you doing in here?"
The woman hurried across the room, picked up a tall stack of leather volumes from a table, and brought them to Elizabeth's bed. "I know it is confusing, but we have found it best to accomplish this at once."
Elizabeth scuttled sideways. "I do not know you."
"I am Jane. Your sister."
"None of my sisters are grown."
The would-be Jane sighed and held out a book. "Please read the journals and then I will answer your questions."
Should she accept? She did enjoy reading. It might be a good story. Elizabeth received the volume, cast the woman a last suspicious look, and slid down to recline on the pillow.
"I will fetch you a breakfast tray," Jane said and slipped out the door.
Elizabeth opened to the first page. It was an old book: the binding soft, the ink faded, and the handwriting her father's. She began to read.
1 November 1802
My little Lizzy was taken ill in the night. Her screams woke me and the household, and it took our combined efforts over the course of an hour to calm her thrashings. She cannot account for what terrified her, save for some incoherent mumblings about a cat, but I suspect it is of her own making. I trust her innate good sense and good humor will prevent her from refining too much upon it and growing fearful of the dark. Lizzy's vivid imagination is likely the culprit, as this bit of doggerel that I found on her desk implies:
Gaze upon the moon so bright
And lose your memory to its light;
Forsake the source of true love's kiss
Then remember all you missed.
Elizabeth smiled and shook her head. It did sound like something she would write, though she could not recall doing so. She turned the page and skimmed the entries. The dates jumped from month to month in her father's handwriting and then slowed to daily entries in her own scrawl. She resumed reading. The angle of sunlight changed and crept across the bed and up the wall. Elizabeth read through volume after volume. Jane swapped out the breakfast dishes for a dinner and then tea tray.
Eventually Elizabeth closed the final journal and clutched the book to her chest.
Jane sat at the foot of the bed. "Well?"
"It is a trifle difficult to accept."
"You always find it thus."
"I know. My own hand testifies against me." The memories had returned with the reading. Perhaps not memories precisely, but the knowledge of events she had faithfully recorded in her daily journal, including her frustration over the occasions she had chanced to glimpse the full moon and was forced to start again from her tenth year. These ten volumes were her life. If she lost them, she lost herself.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. "Do you really think I have been cursed?"
Jane gave a little lopsided shrug. "The full moon does appear to erase your memory."
"But a curse can be broken." Elizabeth returned the volume to the stack. "That is the catch, I suppose. That once I find true love, I must forsake him to restore my memory."
"Oh, Lizzy." Jane squeezed her leg in compassion.
"But this is no time to repine. You must tell me of last night's assembly. What happened? Was Mr. Bingley all that you hoped?"
A lovely smile illumined Jane's countenance. "Yes, oh yes. He is everything a young man ought to be." She talked for some time, describing Mr. Bingley and his party, and detailing the evening.
Elizabeth mentally noted what she must record for the sake of her future memory.
"There was one occurrence that you may not like." Jane toyed with the counterpane. "When you collapsed, Mr. Bingley was nearest to you and hailed his friend to assist. Mama's salts did not revive you, so Mr. Darcy insisted on carrying you to our carriage himself. He begged leave to call and inquire after your welfare. Mama delayed him, knowing you would need today to recover, but you can expect him tomorrow."
"Mr. Darcy? He was the tall, proud friend of Mr. Bingley?"
"Some people took offense at his manners, but I think he is only reserved and a little aloof. I did not find anything to offend."
"Of course not."
Jane's smiled tilted at an uncharacteristically impish angle. "Mr. Darcy is very handsome, very gallant, and very rich. I would gently encourage you suppress that quick wit of yours until you have met him and properly expressed your gratitude."
The next day found Elizabeth, her sisters, and her mother in a scuttle to clear up as the gentlemen callers dismounted their horses. Elizabeth paused to peer through the window and kept her back to her mother's harangues. The green coat stretched across broad shoulders must be Mr. Darcy.
"Mary," Mrs. Bennet screeched, "do put away that dreadful box."
A telltale click testified to the closed lid.
"No gentleman wishes to hear a lady discourse on silver bullets and change--changing--"
"Changelings, Mama. Creatures that shift from one form to another."
"Oh, do hush," cried Lydia, "no one wants to hear your ravings."
"But there is much to be said in defense of prayer." Hurt resonated in Mary's voice.
Elizabeth sighed and turned from the window. The curse had robbed more than her memory. It cut up her family's peace as well.
Hill let the gentlemen into the parlor, Elizabeth came forward when her mother beckoned, and the usual introductions were performed. Jane had not exaggerated in Mr. Darcy's description. Though his clothes were unpretentious up close, their fine cut and quality attested to his wealth. But it was his expression--something about his alert eyes and restrained mouth--that communicated intelligence and genuine concern.
"Oh, Mr. Darcy, what a debt we owe you for aiding Lizzy in her time of need." Mrs. Bennet fluttered at his elbow.
"Not at all." He took Elizabeth's fingers and bowed over her hand. "Miss Elizabeth, I trust you are recovered."
"Yes, quite." Elizabeth smiled, but felt a little breathless. When had this room grown so close and oppressive? It was rather more difficult than she anticipated to thank this attractive stranger. "A walk later will no doubt dispel what remains of my fatigue."
"By all means, if you will lead the way." He offered his arm to Elizabeth.
She had not intended to presume upon him, but feeling rather desperate for a breath of fresh air, she bit back her protestations and accepted his arm.
Mr. Darcy looked to Mrs. Bennet. "If you will overlook this quick desertion and permit me to escort your daughter for a turn about the garden?"
"To be sure! Yes, do go for a nice, long walk That is just what Lizzy needs." Mama could not wave them out quickly enough. "And you too, Jane, Mr. Bingley, if you like."
Once the foursome donned their outdoor articles and exited the house, Elizabeth said to Darcy, "We might attempt the much-neglected wilderness on the other side of that wall." It was one of her favorite haunts when she could not roam farther.
Mr. Darcy inclined his head but did not speak. The stone walk gave way to dirt, and weeds snatched at her pelisse. They passed between the walls and turned down a perimeter path that meandered through trees, overgrown shrubs, and the remains of long-dead flowers. A blushing Jane on Mr. Bingley's arm ambled some distance behind.
Elizabeth returned her attention to Mr. Darcy. "May I express my personal gratitude for the service you rendered me?"
He grunted. "Are you much given to vapors?"
She laughed, refusing to be insulted. "I think that is akin to asking a lady her age, but, no, not much given. It only seems to occur when the moon is full."
He nodded but did not reciprocate with humor.
"I meant that as a tease," she prompted.
"Did you?" He searched her face long enough that she was forced to look away. It was almost as if he were aware of her condition.
She could not very well confirm she had spoken the truth. "And how do you find your visit to Netherfield? Is it much different from"--where had Jane said his estate was located?--"from where you are... from?"
"Pemberley, near Matlock." He arched an eyebrow. "In Derbyshire."
"Quite different then."
He cleared his throat. "I was impressed with the musicians' performance last evening, though surprised by there being only one fiddler."
"Was there only one?" Their assemblies usually had two or even three, fiddling being a favored pastime among many of the tenant farmers, but Jane had not accounted for the number of musicians or who had played. "I confess I did not notice."
"And I thought the punch rather strong for a public gathering, especially when there are young persons in attendance. What was your opinion?"
Perhaps he referred to her younger sisters. Jane had recounted their overindulgence. "Old Mr. Knox has been known to augment the punch with his special apricot liqueur. Perhaps that accounts for it."
He nodded again, though his brow furrowed.
Elizabeth brushed at some seeds that had attached themselves to her pelisse. For anyone with a normal memory, his queries would be easy to answer. "May I ask toward what these questions tend? I confess this to be a rather odd interview."
"Is it?" His smile softened his features, and he looked at her kindly. "I do not intend it that way, though I can understand if you are confused. If you will humor me a trifle longer, perhaps I might explain."
"Very well." She would admit to some curiosity about his motives.
"Was that a dispatcher's kit I saw in your parlor?"
He had noticed Mary's box? Very few would recognize it on sight, even with the cross. "Do you believe in such nonsense?"
Mr. Darcy stopped and turned to face her. A particularly large shrub blocked them from view of Jane and Bingley. "You do not recollect the events of the Meryton Assembly, do you?"
"I-- I--" What could she say? She folded her arms. "I confess it is something of a blur. I may have struck my head when I fell or--"
"Miss Bennet, I think you dissemble. There were three fiddlers, and the punch was weak."
She glanced aside at the crumbling wall. Who was this man with his unnerving insight?
"You looked at the full moon."
Her head whipped around. "What do you know about it?"
Mr. Bingley and Jane's voices increased in volume. Mr. Darcy cast a glance over his shoulder, grabbed her gloved hand, and tugged her onto the path. She stumbled at his precipitance. When they had circumnavigated half the wilderness, he drew them to a halt.
"Are there no benches?" His gaze roved about the grounds in an agitated, almost wild, fashion. "You are pale."
"No benches, sir," she confirmed, "but I am quite well, I assure--"
He pulled her from the path and through the dry vegetation toward an old tree from which protruded a fairly low branch. As a girl she had spent many hours nestled in its crook and lost in her novels.
"May I?" he asked.
It took her a moment to understand what he requested, but before she could reply, he lifted her into the makeshift seat.
Of all the presumption-- "Mr. Darcy!"
He leaned against the trunk and stared up into her face. "We have not time for the normal courtesies. Will you hear me?"
If he knew something of the curse, she would overlook all manner of incivility. She nodded.
He rushed into his explanation. "I have suffered the moon curse since I came of age, and while I have learned to accommodate this weakness, it hampers my ability to carry out my many responsibilities as brother to a sister not yet out and master of a large estate. I have invested the whole of my adult life in an effort to solve this mystery and find release."
"There was a poem..." Elizabeth's cheeks warmed with the recollection.
"Forsaking true love's kiss." He smiled. "Yes, I am aware. Without belaboring my investigations, I have discovered the curse can be traced to my aunt. She has always been a manipulative and domineering woman. My uncle, thinking she was afflicted with madness, once tried to commit her to Bedlam--and nearly lost his life for his pains. I have since come to believe she suffers something far worse."
Elizabeth's eyebrows rose. "Hence, your interest in the dispatcher's kit."
"I am not yet convinced of its efficacy." He pulled a loose strip from the tree's bark and rolled it between his fingers. "In any case, when I was a child, my aunt and mother schemed that I should marry my cousin. However, when I was eighteen, my aunt claimed to divine my future and, not liking what she saw, she burdened me with a curse to be lifted only when I agreed to marry her daughter." He glanced once at Elizabeth and tossed the bark aside.
"And somehow she identified me as the companion of your future life." If she had not suffered for a decade under the same affliction, Elizabeth would have discredited such an assertion as incredible, but under the circumstances, she felt an almost intense relief that she was not alone, that here was, by all appearances, an upstanding and principled gentleman with a common goal.
"As I see it, we have three options." He raised his fingers to count. "First, I can kiss you, we will part ways, and if my aunt was correct, the curse should break."
It would be like kissing a perfect stranger, but really, what harm was there? Her journal already testified to a long list of young men from whom she had stolen kisses in just such a hope.
He raised a second finger. "Second, we--we--"
"We enter into a private but intentional courtship with an eye toward-- toward falling in love." He shifted his stance to face her more directly. "Forgive me. I find this extremely awkward, but I have become persuaded that it is love and not a kiss at the heart of breaking the curse."
"Oh." She tried to look anywhere but at his earnest face. "And if-- if we were to fall in love, then what if we no longer desire to forsake one another? Are we then destined to a half-life of borrowed memories?"
"That is the conundrum, is it not?" He sighed.
"You mentioned three options."
"I will not impose myself on you, Miss Bennet. If you are unwilling to attempt either of the first two choices, then we will do nothing, continue in our separate lives, and trust that someday I will find an alternate means to break the curse." He shifted closer and rested a hand on the branch beside her thigh. "The decision is in your hands. Which will it be?"
The choice was not a difficult one. If there were any chance of freedom, then it was worth the highest risk. Hope broadened her smile until she nearly laughed. "I choose the second option, Mr. Darcy, and now you have the dubious task of making me fall in love with you."
October gave way to November--to shorter evenings, colder mornings, and fewer leaves on the trees--but Elizabeth noticed only in a detached way. The days flew by in a flurry of dinners and amusements, at most of which Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley were present and gratifying in their attentions to her and Jane.
In the four weeks that passed since her wilderness walk with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth had grown to appreciate him for the honorable and generous gentleman that he was. Had he not been burdened with a curse, his pride in his family and station might have made him intolerable, but as it was, he felt all the equality of their positions.
Between his intelligence and experience of the world, he was well-reasoned and articulate. Their initial interview notwithstanding, engaging him in conversation proved to be a rewarding endeavor. She would rather be in his presence than any other. If she happened across some insight in a book, an amusing example of human nature, a laughable absurdity, or a particularly inspiring view, her thoughts turned first to Darcy. He was an eager recipient of her effusions whenever opportunity presented. If Jane felt herself supplanted in priority, she did not complain, but then she was likewise much engaged with Mr. Bingley.
For Darcy's part, he favored Elizabeth with a degree of openness far surpassing any he directed toward other of his acquaintance, at least so far as she could tell. When they walked out, he showered her with a thousand small attentions, nothing that would breach propriety, but no less appreciated for their moderation. Though sometimes she did wish she had chosen his first option and that he had kissed her.
Elizabeth could not say whether this was love, but she suspected it was, and though rapid, a love of the kind on which they might build a solid marriage. That they must live in the shadow of the moon, in the fear of one day waking to no memory of the other, was the only aspect to mar their quiet plans. But Darcy assured her he was keeping thorough records--as was she--and that should one or both forget, they might relive their courtship together. There was no further mention of forsaking one another in the hopes of regaining their memories.
It was about this time that her cousin, Mr. Collins, arrived from his parish in Kent and made his intentions unmistakable. With Jane and Elizabeth on the brink of betrothal, Mary was his next logical choice. Her serious reflections, studious nature, and keen devotion to prayer appealed to his clerical sensibilities, and they made a hasty match. Mr. Bennet even exerted himself so far as to aid Collins in obtaining a special license that the couple might be wed and Mary return with him to Kent at the fortnight's close.
In the midst of Mrs. Bennet's frantic marriage preparations, Bingley hosted a ball at Netherfield in honor of his engagement to Jane. It was at the dance, after the close of Darcy's second set with Elizabeth--and perhaps to escape Mrs. Bennet, who was overhead to be repeating "three daughters married, I shall go distracted!"--that he led her onto the cool portico and proposed marriage beneath the full moon. They were each careful not to raise their eyes above the level of the horizon. They bound themselves to one another with tender words of love and resolve before the silver light that could evaporate their bonds. It was akin to shaking a fist at the Cat Lady.
Then Darcy backed Elizabeth against a railing out of sight from the doors and kissed her. Thoroughly. Finally.
Mr. Collins, after installing his new wife at the parsonage and seeing to her comfort, begged the first possible audience with his noble patroness. The butler ushered him into the Cat Lady's favorite salon, though why she did not update the furniture and appointments, Collins was always hard-pressed to understand.
Drapes hung in tatters from the long windows. Stuffing spilled from chairs and chaises. Claw marks disrupted the carpet's pattern. Nary a seat remained without shredded fabric. It was always difficult to decide where to sit.
"Do be seated, Mr. Collins." The Cat Lady waved him toward a monstrosity of horse-hair and frayed velvet. "You make me nervous standing there with hat in hand."
He sat, though on the foremost edge.
"And have you brought me Longbourn's second daughter?" The Cat Lady was nothing if not direct.
"Third, my lady."
"Third?" She fairly snarled.
"The second was lately engaged and shall be married before the year is out, but my wife, Mary--"
The Cat Lady sprang from her chair and pounced on him with such speed and agility as seemed impossible for a matron of her age and proportion.
He shrank against the backrest.
Her hands wrapped around the arms of the chair. Wood splintered and fell into his lap. Collins's eyes widened in alarm.
"She is engaged?" Rotten breath enveloped him.
He refrained from pinching his nose. "Yes, your ladyship."
"To whom, may I ask?"
"I assumed you would know," he said. "To your nephew, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Derbyshire."
She roared. There was no other term for it. His hat flew from his hands and he longed to check if his hair had detached from his scalp, but he flattened himself deeper into the chair. Her teeth snapped at his eyebrows, his ears, his throat, yet some repellent force seemed to prevent her from reaching him. He had never seen her so angry.
He was about to rebuke her for her unladylike behavior, when she withdrew.
"Take me to her." She spoke in a calm voice, though her eyes still glowed.
He coughed, patted his head--hair intact--and reached to adjust his neckcloth. It felt tight even though she had not touched him. "To whom?"
"Your wife." She licked two fingers and swiped them across a wiry eyebrow. "I have been remiss in not calling upon her."
"Of course, of course." He stood and straightened his coat. "Your ladyship is most kind. If you will permit me a half hour, I shall fetch her at once."
"I will go to her." She grinned her awful feline grin.
"Ah." He had described the Cat Lady to Mary, of course, and she had asked all types of odd, disconnected questions, but he was uncertain she would appreciate a surprise visit.
They walked together to the parsonage, he and the Cat Lady. She possessed a certain lithe grace and coiled energy that never failed to astonish him. He had remarked upon it once. She merely purred her laugh and said that was what came of good blood and long-lived stock.
On entering his house, Collins ordered refreshments from the gaping housekeeper who then slipped away with such haste he was uncertain she had understood his instructions. He led the Cat Lady to the small back parlor Mary had claimed as her own.
When he walked in, his wife sat at the table before her mysterious chest. Someday he would have to inquire what trinkets she kept within that so enthralled her. A silver inlaid cross glinted in the low light as she gently opened the lid.
The Cat Lady growled beside him.
"My delicate flower," he said to Mary, "Lady Catherine de Bourgh has condescended to wait upon us and congratulate us on our nuptials." Such an announcement was almost superfluous when her ladyship's malodorous presence pervaded the room.
He half-turned to his patroness, who waited with fists clenched at her sides. Were those fangs she had bared? He blinked in disbelief.
Mary's lips were moving without sound, and something metallic flashed in her hand. Her ring, perhaps?
"Your ladyship," he said, "may I present to your most illustrious notice my wife, Mrs. Collins?"
Elizabeth strolled hand-in-hand with Darcy through the wintry woods. As usual, Jane and Bingley were some distance behind or had chosen a different trail altogether, though whether by design or happenstance mattered not. Their wedding was only three weeks distant, and the thought of greeting this Christmas as Mrs. Darcy made Elizabeth giddy.
Fallen leaves rustled beneath their booted steps, and the bright noonday sun dispelled the gloom. She loved and was loved by the best of men. The curse remained, but in shouldering the burden with her, Darcy had lifted the shadow and enriched every aspect of her life.
Elizabeth peered through the trees at the cloudless sky. Even the blue was deeper in Darcy's presence. But then the sky began to waver and came crashing toward her. The ground spun away. She tried to call Darcy's name, but her tongue would not obey. She staggered sideways and clutched at him for support. His face registered shock, he swayed like a felled tree, and they toppled in a jumbled heap upon a mound of leaves.
Images flashed before her mind's eye with more rapidity than Elizabeth could identify. Words ricocheted around her brain. Too much! Her head might explode. Closing her eyes only increased the dizziness.
Darcy's labored breath rasped from an immense distance.
It was some time before she could think coherently and gather herself enough to speak. He reposed on his side facing her, his eyes closed. A leaf on his cheek fluttered with each exhalation.
Elizabeth sat up, waited for a wave of nausea to abate, and shook his shoulder. "Fitzwilliam."
"Hmm, what?" He muttered without opening his eyes. "You were saying?"
"My memories," she said and plucked the leaf from his face, "I-- I think they have returned."
That was enough to rouse him. He sat up, squeezed his eyes shut, and pressed his forehead into his hands. "Hurts."
"The discomfort eases quickly." She pulled one of his hands away, and he squinted at her. "But your memories--think!--can you remember?"
"If I have forgotten what I knew, how will I know when I remember?" It was a rhetorical question. He closed his eyes again, and his form stilled.
She prayed he was searching his memories. The wind whispered through the woods and lifted leaves in small eddies. A hint of Bingley's jovial voice echoed among the trees. A bird called high above, another answered, and wings flapped.
Darcy's eyes opened and his mouth curved upward with the same measured deliberation. "Yes. Oh, yes, I remember." He pulled Elizabeth into an embrace, pressing her tight against his chest. "Oh, my love, we are free--free!--and we need not fear amnesia shall ever separate us."
She pulled back a little and ran her fingers over his beloved face. She was no artist, but she had worked to capture in words the intensity that lent gravitas to his handsome features and how his smiles for her opened a door upon his soul. She had never wanted to forget these weeks of falling in love--these heady, bright moments before the flame settled into a steady glow--and now she never would. She cupped his face in her hands. "I will never forget you."
"Nor I, you." He leaned forward to kiss her, but she lurched back.
"How could you?"
His brow creased.
"You called me only tolerable. At the Meryton Assembly. I overheard you." She crossed her arms, but love and mirth warmed her through and made it impossible to pretend offense. "This is precisely what you deserve--taking advantage of my memory loss--to be saddled with a not-handsome-enough wife for the rest of your days."
Darcy chuckled and touched her cheek. "Come here, my dearest Elizabeth, and let me insult you again."
Anne Elliot was beside herself when she learned that Frederick Wentworth was coming back to England. Not only was he returning to his native land, he was coming to her museum. The tumult of emotions didn't stop over the few months until she saw him again, but she was soon able to perform her duties as an assistant curator much the same as before. That was very much an apt summary of her entire relationship with Frederick Wentworth: he made her feel more than she could initially cope with and then, instead of the emotions dissipating, she learned to live with them as her new normal state if being. It had been like that in the giddy elation of falling in love with him and in the crushing despair of losing him. She carried both extremes inside her at all times, and she was now adding a third: trepidatious hope.
When he finally arrived he was not alone. It had been Professor Croft who had led the expedition to Neb-alhankh so it was the professor who first stepped forward to shook hands with her father and to performed introductions.
"This is James Benwick who has been with me for five years," he said, indicating a serious looking young man. "And this is Frederick Wentworth who studied under you right before he joined my team."
Professor Elliot nodded and shook hands stiffly then introduced William Hughes as his assistant. Anne was not mentioned.
Anne was used to her father's neglect; she had made her peace with it years ago. But she had hoped to catch Frederick's eye, to read in his expression whether enough time has passed for her to speak with him again. She stared at him for as long and directly as she dared, but still he did not notice her and send her a wink or a scowl.
She began to feel her hope withering. If he was this close to her and could not bear to look at her, surely she was not forgiven yet. And then he did look at her with such blankness that she went cold. There was no flicker of recognition in his eyes, no sneer of derision on his lips. He looked at her, then looked through her. She was a stranger to him, a nothing.
She slipped from the room briefly to compose herself. When she returned, her father was ready to hand the men off to Anne who was too give them a short tour of the offices before showing them to the rooms that had been assigned to them.
Professor Elliot, placing no great respect in those that chose to go into the field rather than to study ancient cultures from the comfort of the armchair, had decided to put Professor Croft and his men in the basement. "After all, they are used to playing in tombs," he attempted to be witty. Anne had countermanded this decision, substituting her own office and its window to the visiting archaeologist, and she sequestered the adjacent lab space for his assistants.
When she showed the office to Professor Croft, she was slightly embarrassed by the small size although she knew it looked larger without her personal effects. The professor, however, was quite pleased. He gravitated immediately to the window and drank in the scene of a dreary English day. "You cannot buy a view like this in Egypt for love or money," he smiled.
His assistants were less impressed with rain clouds so Anne offered to show them the adjacent room. The two men were more pleased with the larger space. Their banter was full of references that Anne didn't understand. It was beyond strange to be in the same room as Frederick again and to be treated like this, as if he had never met her before. She tried to think of an excuse to send Mr. Benwick away or to lure Frederick into the hall so that she could speak privately with him. Inspiration eluded her however and, after fidgeting foolishly while the two spent minutes deciding where they would position their desks and bookcases, she left them to push the furniture around.
She tried, in the days and weeks that followed, to speak with Frederick but he was always busy running errands for the professor or sticking close to Benwick. But one afternoon she found him quite alone on the floor of the museum, staring at a cabinet of Roman metalwork found on British soil. She glanced about furtively but saw no one else so she squared her shoulders and cleared her throat.
He ignored her, or maybe he just hasn't heard. She took a step forward and tried again. He gave no reaction.
She walked up behind him and trapped him on the shoulder. "Frederick," she said clearly.
"Miss Elliot!" She had startled him. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
She looked at him, at the lack of anger and bitterness in his eyes, and didn't know what to say. All her little speeches had been based on him not wanting to speak with her again, on him being angry and resentful, but there was no emotion there upon which she could mount her appeal. Her words died in her throat.
After a respectful pause he gave her a polite smile. "Excuse me," he said kindly and turned to go.
"I'm sorry," she blurted out. That seemed to stop him. "I'm sorry for hurting you, and for the way my father treated you. And I'm sorry I worried about the wrong things. You were right, all those years ago, when you said I'd regret my decision."
He absorbed that for a moment. "Miss Elliot, what are you talking about?" he asked finally. "What decision? I'm afraid you have the advantage of me. Have we- have we met before? My apologies for not remembering."
"Are you going to pretend you don't know me?" It had been painful when he ignored her from a distance, when she thought he was merely being cold to her, but this was worse.
"So we have met before?" He was skeptical.
"Yes," she said in frustration. "While you were studying under my father --"
"Oh, that term was a blur," he said affably. "I was so busy trying to prepare to leave England and join Professor Croft in Egypt that I barely remember any of my studies. If it's any consolation," he concluded, "I can't blame you for some decision I don't even remember."
Anne was struck by his words but the lack of any recognition in his eyes did her in. He had forgotten about her utterly.
She mumbled some excuse and walked out of the exhibit room. He watched her go, slightly worried over her reaction. She ducked into another hall to escape his gaze, then slipped through another room to avoid a museum guest. She kept moving from room to room to hide from various people as tears started to spill down her cheeks. The sound of her father lecturing Mr. Hughes sent her sprinting up to the safety of her office door and over its threshold.
Once safe from everyone, she gave out a sorrowful sob that provoked a startled exclamation, forcing her to realize she was not alone. She looked about her and saw Professor Croft sitting at her desk. She immediately began to apologize for intruding but the professor was quickly on his feet, passing her his handkerchief, and remarking kindly that she had just arrived in time to join him for tea.
Anne wiped her eyes and again apologized, but the visiting archaeologist would admit to no imposition. "Have tea with me," he said instead. "It isn't English tea, you see. It's Egyptian, a very acquired taste, but I simply love it. You must try it."
She was still protesting as he guided her to one of two extra chairs and poured a second cup of inky black tea which he then sweetened with an extravagant amount of sugar.
"Here," he said, handing her the cup. "Take a sip and tell me what you think if it."
Anne obeyed and then winced. She did not like it. "Well, it grows on you," he observed philosophically. "So what brings you here, Miss Elliot?"
Anne started to repeat her apologies but he stopped her. "You've already told me that," he reminded her. "I want to know what started you crying so hard that you couldn't see straight. It wasn't your father, was it?"
Anne looked up from her tea cup. "What makes you think that?"
Croft shrugged. "I'm used to observing obsolete society. Professor Elliot makes it his business to be patronising rather than paternal, if you'll forgive me for saying so."
"It wasn't my father," she said, wondering if she could confide in the man before her. Maybe as Frederick's boss, Croft would have insight into what was going on. "It's Mr. Wentworth," she said at last, deciding that Professor Croft looked trustworthy.
"Wentworth!" exclaimed the older man. "It is hardly like him to bring a girl to tears."
"He -- We met years ago when he took a class of my father's," she explained. "We didn't part on very good terms, and now he pretends he doesn't know me."
"Maybe he doesn't remember," suggested Croft. "It was a long time ago to a young person and some men are terribly bad at names and faces."
"He had asked me to marry him," Anne said bluntly.
The professor's eyebrows shot up. "A man ought to remember that," he decided. "But if you're his fiancee, then why didn't your father mention your engagement already? Has it been a secret all this time? I know Wentworth has never mentioned it to me."
"There is no engagement," Anne admitted. "In the end, I refused him. I wasn't ready at the time and he couldn't wait."
Croft leaned back and nursed his tea. "That explains a lot," he said. "My wife always thought he had suffered a secret heartbreak. I'm sure she'd rather know she was wrong."
Anne frowned. It had been clear at the time that she had hurt Frederick, but she had consoled herself with the expectation that his feelings would be short-lived. Now she learned that had not been the case. "He's never forgiven me," she sighed.
The professor gasped, then started in his chair as something occurred to him. He set down his cup and stood to search through one of the heavily laden bookshelves.
"What is it?" Anne asked as he at last laid down a book on the desk.
"Wentworth's heartache was a secret," he said as he flipped through hand-written pages, "but Benwick's was not. And that ended with curious abruptness."
At Anne's quizzical glance, he explained, "You see, James Benwick was engaged to a very pretty English girl who stayed behind and waited for his return. They were always writing to each other; what that boy must have spent in postage! Everything was going swimmingly until he got a telegram that she had died suddenly."
Anne gasped in sympathy.
"Yes," agreed the professor, "it was very sad. Unfortunately, we had received reports of French in the area so I had split the team to better protect our claims. My wife and I had half the fellows to Neb-alhankh while Benwick and Wentworth had taken the other half to a smaller site, about 30 miles away. When Benwick received the news, he was bereft. Utterly inconsolable. Wentworth did what he could but I fear he was too creative. The men had discovered a new chamber, you see, and had a number of new artifacts for cataloguing."
At this point, Croft pushed the book in front of Anne. The book was open to a specific page covered in drawings of a cup, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and notes written in English.
"The Chalice of Sorrow?" Anne read aloud.
"They uncovered it in a burial chamber," said Croft. "Apparently Wentworth decided to use it on Benwick to help him with his grief. I don't know who drank from it first, but they both drank and after that Benwick had no memory of ever being engaged, no knowledge whatsoever of his fiancee. It was very disconcerting to my wife and I when we met up with him. Based on Wentworth's note, we had expected Benwick to be in the depths of despair and instead found him quite cheerful. Wentworth told us what he had done, and we three tried to explain it to Benwick, but no matter what we said or did -- told him stories, read her letters, showed her picture -- he couldn't remember her. After the third day we quit trying; it was making everyone too upset."
Anne mulled over this. "Are you saying that drinking from this cup makes people forget their heartache?" She was understandably incredulous.
"I make it a point never to look down upon the beliefs of others," he said gently. "Just because you don't understand it doesn't make it false. To quote the Bard, there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And I have seen it work. I have experienced it for myself."
"But --" Anne wanted to argue against such foolishness yet she held her tongue. Her father might look down upon fieldwork, but Professor Croft had seen more in his travels than she would ever know. Perhaps there was a reasonable explanation she could not yet see. "But how does it work?"
"According to the inscription," he pointed to the notes in the margin, "you drink to the start of day to soothe your sorrow, to the close of day to forget it, to the cradle to sweeten it, and to the grave to end it. It sounds very poetic in the original Egyptian."
"Does it matter what one drinks?" she wondered.
He shrugged. "Wentworth used whiskey with Benwick, but tea will suffice."
"How do you know?"
He smiled. "My wife and I --" He paused to bring forward a framed picture on the desk. Anne recognized the professor and guessed the identity of the woman smiling next to him. "We doubted Wentworth's story at first, but after Benwick maintained no memory of his fiancee we decided to experiment on ourselves.
"My wife and I have no children, you see, despite wanting them very badly. Sophie had been pregnant numerous times over the years, but it always ended in sadness and disappointment. She thought that if she drank while facing north, to the grave, it would end her sorrow, which meant that her difficulties would end and she would finally have a child."
"What happened to her?"
"She died," her said simply. "It was not the end to her sorrow that we had hoped for."
"I -- oh, Professor Croft!" Anne exclaimed softly. "I'm so sorry." In all his mentions of his wife, he had never implied that she was dead.
"Don't be sad for my sake," he said. "I too have drunk from the chalice, but while facing east, to soften my sorrow. I miss my wife with every breath, but I do not wish to forget her. Forgetting is the wish of a rash, young man who had never experienced loss before and doesn't know how to cope with it. Sophie is too much a part of my life to erase, and I have experienced far too much joy with her to cast it all aside as Benwick had done. Wentworth also, I believe."
"What was it like, drinking from the chalice?" Anne asked curiously. "How did it soften your loss?"
"Would you really like to know?"
Anne looked at the teacup sitting on the desk. Was the professor offering to perform another experiment? "Where is the chalice now?"
"In the next room," he answered. "Would you like to see it?"
"Shall I bring my tea?"
Horridly Lurking Jaro
Mr. Darcy, the newcomer to the assembly, chilled the air wherever he walked. "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt *me*," he wailed.
Elizabeth's immediate feelings on hearing this were not very cordial, but she decided brooding would be less fun than delighting in the ridiculous with her friends. Turning to go find Charlotte, she accidentally bonked her head against Mr. Goulding's elbow. (As he was seven feet tall, his elbow was a known hazard at assemblies. The hazards of the dangerous-looking bolt in his neck were, on the other hand, completely unknown.)
When Elizabeth awoke, she couldn't remember anything that had happened since the beginning of the night. "Who is that handsome gentleman?" she murmured to Charlotte. "His name is Darcy," said her friend. "He's staying at Netherfield Park. I think you should go home and lie down, Lizzy."
The next day, Jane was invited to Netherfield, for all it looked like rain. She fell ill and was forced to stay the night. Elizabeth herself wasn't feeling quite up to the three-mile walk, so she took the carriage to visit her sister.
Mr. Darcy admired her clean petticoat, and Elizabeth enjoyed his conversation. It was slightly annoying to have to bundle into her quilted spencer to ward off the chill coming from his long pale hands, but she could easily forget that in the pleasure of his soulful discourse. Miss Bingley, who refused to wear anything but the latest low-cut fashions, shivered and dabbed elegantly at a rather red nose.
Mrs. Phillips was naturally one of the first to invite the officers. Mr. Wickham was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned, and Elizabeth was the happy woman by whom he finally seated himself.
While they played lottery tickets, Wickham whispered scandalous revelations about Darcy. Bending to retrieve a card she had dropped, Elizabeth accidentally bonked her head on the table. When she awoke, she couldn't remember anything that had happened for the last three days.
"Who is this strange young man living in our spare room?" she asked Jane, cautiously.
"Our cousin, Mr. Collins!"
"But what is he doing here?"
"Requesting the honour of a private audience with you in the course of this morning?" said the young man. His voice was rather hoarse and his hands extraordinarily hairy. "I mustn't wait until the full m-- at least-- that is--Well."
Mystified, Elizabeth composed herself to listen. 127 seconds later (Collins was rather long-winded), she was fleeing for the door. Alas, in her haste she tripped and bonked her head on the doorknob.
When she awoke, two days later, she couldn't remember anything that had happened for the last week.
"Charlotte! You've come! Do tell me something amusing."
"Lizzy, I am engaged to Mr. Collins." Charlotte gave her friend a toothy grin.
"Well, how delightful for you. Do tell me who he is, and do invite me to visit you. If he lives anywhere interesting, I might get the chance to see that fascinating Mr. Darcy again."
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do." Mr. Darcy's words were cold, but Elizabeth felt she could discern his spirit behind them - intelligent, clever. A good mind in a good man.
She said just what she ought, then he fetched her some wine for her headache and departed for Rosings to conceal the happy news from Lady Catherine as cunningly as possible. Unfortunately, the wine was Mr. Collins' own and he had botched the alcohol content calculations. Elizabeth was soon legless. When she awoke 10 days later in London, she couldn't remember anything that had happened since Anne De Bourgh had helped her count the windows on the day she arrived at Rosings.
"What's that, my aunt?"
"Just a potion-- a tea, I mean, that will help you travel better. We're taking you to Derbyshire to visit your fiance."
"Oh. That sounds nice. And the broomstick?"
"Oh that old thing. For sweeping out inns before we stay in them, Lizzy dear, all seasoned travellers do the same. Surely Lady Catherine instructed you on this point?"
She couldn't remember, but that seemed to be happening a lot lately.
As the Gardiner carriage turned into Cheapside, it collided violently and head on with another conveyance, dashing recklessly up the road from Brighton. There was a horrid crunching, a scream or two, and (according to the urchin who witnessed the accident), something that sounded like gabbling very fast backwards and in Latin.
Miraculously (everyone said) Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner had not so much as a scratch on them. But their niece Elizabeth, and the two occupants of the other carriage (later identified as a Mr. Wickham and a Miss Lydia Bennet) sported broken necks all around.
When Elizabeth awoke, she couldn't remember the simplest things - for example, that she was supposed to be dead. All she knew was that she was going to Derbyshire to find her true love, Mr. Darcy. Stretching her arms stiffly in front of her, she shuffled northward.
Six weeks later, she arrived at Pemberly. She had never seen a place for which nature had done less, or where natural beauty had been so much counteracted by an awkward taste. Dodging the lightning bolts playing around the Gothic spires of the house, she checked her remaining limbs - only a few had rotted off during the journey - and entered the house.
There he was. Her Darcy. Such a fine mind. She opened his skull and ate it. Mmmm, utterly delicious.
After hearing about the carriage survival spell, an impressed Lady Catherine invited the Gardiners to join the Rosings coven. She fell to a hostile takeover not a se'ennight later.
Mrs. Bennet was forced to consider Mr. Goulding a failed experiment. But the lady was nothing if not persistent. Her fourth-and-twentieth attempt hit the spot, and Bennet's Matchmaker (as she dubbed her monster) found rich husbands for her three surviving daughters during the course of one morning's visiting. She promptly hired him out to all her friends and became so rich even she couldn't manage to exceed her income. She never thought of hedgerows again.
What was left of Elizabeth's body was shortly eaten by a pair of werewolves who had somehow tracked her from Kent.
Since Darcy had become so spirited thanks to his association with Elizabeth, he minded the loss of his brain not at all. In fact, it rather became him. Georgiana felt haunted, but perhaps a happy ending was too much to expect.
Colonel Brandon, for the most part, did not wake up with no recollection how he had got to bed.
Granted there had been that time when he had thought Marianne might marry Willoughby and had drank himself into a stupor every night. But the blinding headaches the following mornings had been a strong indicator of the preceding events. Also the subtly worded rebuke his batsman had offered.
Admittedly, there was little subtlety about Barnes barging into his rooms, ripping open his bed curtains and fairly yelling, "RISE AND SHINE, COLONEL! YOU HAVE AN AWFUL SINGING VOICE BY THE WAY."
The Colonel was certain that Barnes was secretly a sadist.
However, Barnes wasn't here yelling at him, nor did he have a headache, so he must not have been drinking heavily last night.
Colonel Brandon turned his head to the windows to ascertain the hour (barely morning - the sun was just rising) and noticed a folded paper on the pillow next to his.
This was the second unusual thing about the Colonel's morning. He did not habitually woke up to notes on his pillows. The only people allowed in his rooms were Marianne, Bates, and he guessed the maids needed to enter every now and then to clean up, too.
Marianne was more likely to barge in and tell him whatever important, semi-important, not-really-important or not-even-remotely-important thing crossed her mind. On the other hand, she might think it romantic to leave him a love letter on his pillow.
If Barnes or one of the maids had left him a love letter though, he'd have to worry.
With a groan he reached over and grabbed the note.
Well. Right. Not a love letter then. Slightly more worrying than a love letter in fact.
Body? What body? What the deuces had happened last night?
The Colonel stared at the cryptic words. The hand seemed familiar but he couldn't say whose it was. The writer could at least have signed it. Not signing showed an altogether impolite approach to note writing of which the Colonel felt he couldn't approve.
Donning his morning robe, he crossed the room and knocked on the door to his wife's sleeping chamber.
He knocked again when no answer was forthcoming. He even put some strength into it just in case Marianne was in deep sleep.
When still no answer came, he shrugged his shoulders, decided that she owed him for all the times she had barged into his room regardless of the hour, and opened the door.
Her room was empty and there were no signs of recent occupation.
He wouldn't get any information here.
The house seemed eerily quiet as he stepped into the hall. At least the scullery maid should be up and about lighting the fires. She was a clumsy little thing who constantly made a racket by dropping the coalscuttle everywhere. He heard neither the girl's teary apologies nor one of the other maids berating her impatiently. The lack of this early morning background noise disquieted him even more than Marianne's absence.
Marianne had been know to spend the occasional night in the gardens because, she claimed, they were so romantic in the moonlight. He had even joined her every now and then for while he didn't see the point in exposing oneself to all the critters that filled the night, he did enjoy Marianne in a mood for romance.
The servants not doing their work, though, was highly irregular. In fact, now that he focused on it, all the servants seemed to be mysteriously absent.
The Colonel wandered through the dark and cold house. With each room that he discovered untended, he became more agitated. Something horrible must have happened last night.
To be fair, the note had been speaking of a body so it stood to reason that it wasn't the entire household that had been murdered. Still, even one body was one more than he was comfortable with in his own home.
He really wished he'd remember even a sliver of last night.
As it turned out he'd forgot more than merely the night. Half a day seemed to have vanished from his mind.
He clearly remembered sitting down to luncheon with Marianne but after that the details were hazy. He'd gone back to his study afterwards to go over the estate accounts. Marianne had come with him for company. She'd picked up one of the various travelogues from India he'd scattered all over the house for Margret's sake. And then ...
Where there should have been the memory of several hours pouring over the estate books until Marianne deemed he'd done enough, laughing teased him about the lack of romance that were accounts and lured him to an activity she considered more appropriate for the moment; where should have been the memory of going to dinner, of having rabbit stew with fresh bread (his favourite), of after-dinner-port while Marianne played the piano; where there should have been the memory of anything really, there was nothing.
The last time he had a black-out on a similar scale, he'd been in a fever-induced delirium brought on by sepsis after being shot in Agra. An Indian serving man had shown him some breathing exercises after he had nearly strangled a nurse in a blind panic back then. He employed those now to keep his breathing under control.
Breathing in accordance with the mantra (In. Hold. Out. Slowly.) he had been taught, Brandon made his way to the study.
It was the last room he definitely remembered entering. Maybe it would give some clues as to what happened after.
The peek through the door revealed that whatever had happened the day before could very well have started here.
Simply said, the room was in a chaos. His desk had been overturned, his chair lay smashed against the fire place, the settee Marianne had had installed there thrown clear across the room. Something or someone must have agitated the fire. The charred remains of his priced Persion carpet hinted at something of an explosion.
Breathe in. Hold for a beat. Breathe out. Slowly.
The Colonel carefully closed the door to the study and backed away.
A bit wild-eyed, he strode down the hall, now very worried what he might find the rest of the house.
Half the door to the drawing room hang askew. The other half seemed to be embedded in the opposite wall. In splinters.
The room itself presented no less explosive picture, though someone seemed to have taken rather great pains to pile all the seats, tables, and side-boards in the back of the room.
On the top of Mount Furniture throned the carpet, neatly rolled up but sadly splattered with some gooey substance that slowly dripped down onto the side table beneath. It made its way down the table legs at a slow but determinedly steady pace until it soaked into the chaiselongue and the squishy armchair that was his particular favourite.
Brandon sighed, having now come out on the other side of his panic and proceeded straight to weariness.
He wished whoever had piled the furniture would have also had the foresight to put sheets over it. The room was ruined. That wasn't even taking into account the pattern that had been drawn in red paint on the floor.
He stared in horror at the giant pentagram.
This ... this abomination!
In his drawing room!
This was just the outside of enough!
First the absolutely useless note on his pillow, the talk of a body, the strange absence of his wife and his staff, and now some lousy low-life had used his drawing room for some sort of devilish ritual.
His gaze fell on the note he still held in his hand. He half expected someone to have drawn some sort of devilish thingamajing on it, too. Instead he realised there was writing on the other back as well.
Now, here was someone who at least managed to properly sign a note and give directions. Just one of the many reasons why he loved his wife. And not Edward who was a lousy, lousy letter writer and had written the first part as he now saw.
Well, there was nothing for it. He had to go to the pub. Onwards to answers!
The pub, a lovely quaint establishment called "The King's Leg" (because some king or other had once sprained his ankle around here and called a rest), was still open despite closing hour being long gone and the night now being long gone as well.
The loudest party in there was the one he was looking for. His lovely wife was well in her lovely cups, her sister not far behind. His brother - he of the lousy letter writing abilities - was playing some sort of card game with two gentlemen he had never seen before.
Edward noticed him first. Probably because he was loosing and looking for a way to stop playing.
"Brandon, my man," he called and reminded the Colonel eerily of Sir John Middleton. "Feeling better again?"
"Well, I'm up at least," said the Colonel. "The rest remains to be seen."
"You had the worst of it," said one of the strange gentleman. "I didn't expect to see you up and about at all."
"At least, for another day," agreed the other man.
Brandon blinked. "Excuse me. Do I know you?"
"Oh dear, we feared this might happen," said Elinor. She turned to the barkeep and signalled him. "Get the man a little pick-me-up!"
"Yes, do that!" exclaimed Marianne suddenly and turned to her brother-in-law imperiously, "Edward, you've got to bless the drink for him. Just in case."
Edward solemnly made the sign of the cross in the general direction of the bar. Then he made the sign of the cross over his own mug of ale and having gotten into the swing of it blessed all of the drinks on the table.
The others applauded.
"What on earth are you doing?" asked the Colonel fearing for Edward's sanity.
Edward semi-steadily looked at him and replied, "I'm blessin'."
"Well, yes. I can see that. I still don't understand why," said the Colonel.
"Demons," said Edward gravely. "Can't be too careful."
"I beg your pardon?"
Marianne placed a tender hand on his upper arm. "Don't exert yourself too much, my love. You've had a rough night."
She used her grip to pull him down next to her. He sank onto the bench and reached for his blessed ale. Maybe sanity or at least verity could be found in the cup.
"Sancte domine," intoned Edward under his breath.
Brandon ignored him and asked Marianne, "Are you going to introduce me to your new friends?"
"Oh, these are Samuel and Daniel," she said. "Aren't the boys wonderful?"
The Colonel spluttered. "What?"
Edward stopped intoning his incantation long enough to say, "The Winchesters, you know?" as if that would explain anything.
Elinor, who had always more versed in social conventions, said, "This is Mr Winchester and Mr Samuel Winchester."
"Pleased to meet you," murmured the Colonel without meaning it.
"Our pleasure, too," said one of the 'boys'. The other one added, "May I tell you that you were brilliant?"
"Brilliant at what?" asked the Colonel thoroughly frustrated.
"At being possessed of course," said the first Winchester.
Edward started blessing the ale again.
The younger Winchester smiled encouragingly and nodded at Edward. "You're really lucky to have him around. He knows his blessings, our Edward does. One of the best. Couldn't have done it without him."
"DONE WHAT?" the Colonel roared at the end of his tether.
"Exorcised you," said the elder Winchester drily. "Sorry again about the goat's urine. But, man, demons, you know."
The Colonel visibly pulled himself together. "In fact," he said frostily, "I don't."
"I think you had better start explaining, Marianne," said Elinor, not unkindly. "It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known ... well, that."
"What do you remember?" Marianne asked softly.
"We had luncheon, then we went to the study, and then nothing."
"Yes. That seems to cover most of what happened before," said Marianne. "Do you remember the book I was reading?"
"Yes. Tales of the Peninsula, wasn't it?"
"Indeed. It was actually quite a good read. Very thrilling. About the native religions ..." Marianne trailed off for a bit. She continued without looking at him, "There was an invocation in it. I was just reading it to you because it sounded so ridiculous and then ... well, suddenly you roared for brains."
The Colonel was speechless. That sounded quite unlike him. He signalled for Marianne to continue.
"I thought it was quite unlike you," said his wife. "Luckily, the boys ... I mean, these two gentlemen were close by and they seem to have some kind of detector that goes ding and stuff when there's demons."
"Demons?" repeated the Colonel dumbly.
"Well, you," said Marianne. "Or rather the one that possessed you. I'm not sure on the technicalities."
"Don't listen to her," said one of the Winchesters. "Your wife's a natural."
"We got to your house quickly," said the other Winchester. "We were in the area anyway. Meant to call on Edward."
"Need his help for a little blessin' over in Exeter," agreed the first.
The Colonel took a large gulp of his blessed ale, signalled to the barkeep for another round and said, "So I was a demon. Or possessed by one. Whatever the technical term. What happened next?"
"We subdued you, of course. Bound you like a christmas parcel," said the first. "Sam stayed with you while I got Edward."
"I prepared the drawing room for the ritual," Marianne said. "Sam painted the ban circle."
"I came with Edward," said Elinor. "I don't like him to go alone blessin' in the night."
"Wouldn't have been alone," slurred Edward. "Praise the lord. The boys were there. And Marianne. And Brandon, I guess."
"Who was a demon," Elinor pointed out sensibly.
"Or possessed by one," said Marianne.
"Whatever the technical term," said the Colonel who had given up on sanity in favour of blessed drinks.
"The rest went pretty smoothly," continued one of the Winchesters. "We put you in the circle. Chanted a bit. Waved around a small cross-"
"Demon took one look at this little baby," said the other Winchester and held up a knife, "and left your body."
"Then there was the small matter of the slug," said Marianne.
"Which wasn't so small any more once it was a demon," said Elinor.
"Or possessed by one," said Edward. "Hallelujah."
"Whatever the technical term," said the Winchesters.
"Back up," cried the Colonel. "Where did the slug come from?"
"The garden, I guess," said Marianne with a French shrug. "It's difficult to tell with them being so small and getting simply everywhere."
"The point is," said Mr Winchester. "The demon, needing a new host, possessed the slug."
"Or was the slug," said Edward.
"Whatever," said the Colonel.
"Guess what slugs and demons have in common," said Mr Samuel Winchester and grinned broadly.
The Colonel levelled a look at him. "I'm not in the mood for guessing games."
"Salt, Colonel. They really, really don't like salt," said Samuel.
"We a-salted that little bugger to hell," said Edward and nudged the Colonel. "A-salted! Get it?"
"Slime all over the room but the demon's good and gone now," said Daniel.
"You were pretty out of it," said Marianne. "Understandably so, I'd say."
"So we put you to bed," said Edward. "Did you find my note?"
"And then we went blessing with the boys," said Elinor.
The Colonel signalled for another round. "I guess the bill's on me then. Edward, bless the drinks, will you?"
The esil witch (Lise)
"What happened?" asked the bandaged man in the berth.
"You were hit by a piece of the mast, Captain," answered the ship's surgeon.
That was puzzling. "Why?"
The surgeon looked nonplussed. "We had engaged a frigate."
"You sound," said the captain after detecting something in his tone that he could not quite place, "as if this was not a good idea."
"This poor sloop, Captain..."
He looked around but there was nothing to give him any clues as to where he was. He could not tell he was on a sloop, or if it was one deserving their pity. "I have no idea what I am on. I cannot even remember having a ship. Have I had my own for years?"
"I doubt it, sir."
"Hence your reservations about the sloop."
"Your mind is sharp enough, not dulled by the blow, but your memory seems to have suffered. Any pains?"
"Lord, yes. That will explain it," said the captain hopefully. When the surgeon turned away, the captain called after him. "What is your name? And come to think of it, what is mine?"
With the help of his crew the captain had repaired some of his memory. Or rather, he had memorised their version of events and understood he had accomplished a heroic feat in capturing the frigate. After a few days he had even been able to come on deck and see the French frigate with his own eyes. It was the first time he had laid eyes on it, he felt. He had certainly not recalled giving orders to attack it. He had accepted that it was so, however. What else could he do?
There were things he did remember, he reflected as he looked at the contours of the port and the lands behind it. That was familiar. He also remembered he had at least one brother and at least one sister, but he did not recall where they lived. That his brother lived in a pretty little house with an oak tree and a pond was of no help if he did not know the name of the village.
Someone in Plymouth might be able to tell him, but the captain felt he ought to be careful not to reveal that he did not actually remember the heroic battle. That was quite painful, after all.
There was a wound just under his hairline that was just as painful when he combed his hair and the entire insides of his skull thumped uncomfortably if he moved without care. Something had happened and they had said it had been a piece of the mast. He had checked, of course, and it was damaged indeed.
A terrible storm that lasted four days delayed his going into town. By the time he could finally go, the news of the Asp had already spread. The captain had the excuse of his poor health: he was not expected to frequent the taverns to boast of his achievements. Instead, when he limped across the quay - for his leg and side had been injured as well - with an uncomfortable expression on his face and a bandage around his head, other officers patted his back and offered help, instead of besieging him with questions.
He had a few thousand pounds and so he was comfortable staying on in Plymouth until he figured out where his brother might be hiding. His sister was somewhere at sea, he had gathered from people who had met her. Hopefully his brother was not expecting a letter first. It would be more convenient if he sent one to Plymouth before the captain was posted to another ship. The Admiralty might have been notified of his injuries, but it was more than likely that they would not care as long as he was able to stand upright.
The captain was a clever man. From conversations with others he gleaned much about his previous years, without revealing to them that he remembered very little. Whenever someone asked him a complicated question, it was enough to seize his head and plead a headache.
Apparently he was between three-and-twenty and seven-and-twenty, although one fellow also guessed he might be as old as thirty. This had caused the captain to give himself a good look in the mirror. It could not be. The Asp had been gone for a year or two and he could not have waited that long for his own ship.
He was apparently not married, which was both a disappointment and a relief. A nice young lady might be just the sort of medicine he needed, but it would not work well if he could not remember her. She might be insulted to be forgotten. And for as long as he did not know if he was truly unmarried, it would best to stay away from women.
After a few weeks in Plymouth and gathering enough information to be able to tell a convincing and true story about the Asp and the French frigate, a letter was delivered to his inn. It was from his brother.
It seemed his brother's curacy was coming to an end in Monkford and Edward feared that the captain had therefore not sent a letter, but he was not quite done there yet and it was safe to come.
"Monkford," the captain mused. Even when he repeated it, it did not sound very familiar.
When he asked around, however, it appeared to be two days away. That was good. He could be there pretty fast if he chose, before Edward moved on to his next home. From the letter he gathered that he had spent some time living in Monkford as well before he went to sea, but that he might not like to go back. He did not understand why.
But since there was not much to do here in Plymouth, he might as well convalesce in Monkford, boring as it apparently was with the unvarying society his brother mentioned.
The captain was pleased to find he recognised his brother. Edward had not changed much in the past two years. He wondered if the same applied to him.
"So you have another...er...I was going to say ship," he said when he had been taken inside the parsonage. "But of course I mean curacy."
"It is quite similar, actually. Two years a ship, two years a curacy. Let us hope our next postings may be longer."
"And more profitable."
"You did well, I read."
The captain inclined his head. What his brother had read was only a little less than he remembered. He hoped he was not called upon to expand upon the story. "Not well enough. I shall be happy to go back to sea."
"But not yet." Mr Wentworth studied the bandage around his head. "Are you well enough to be taken into society, or would you rather not?"
"I met enough people in Plymouth, although I stayed away from the general pleasures and enjoyments that such a town has to offer, because I felt my injuries would not allow it."
"But were it not for the injuries..." his brother began carefully.
"I might have drunk some," the captain admitted. "Do you not treat the verger and the housekeeper to drinks after succeeding in not getting the parsonage burnt down when your curacy ends?"
"In that we differ," Edward said with some trouble. "But I shall, of course, leave everyone properly rewarded. And I shall miss the enjoyments."
The captain raised his eyebrows. "Enjoyments, here? Enjoyments, you?"
"I meant you."
"I meant you too."
"Truth be told," said the captain. "I cannot give you an answer."
He decided to be frank. It had weighed on his mind that he had not shared the secret with anyone and it was really very exhausting to have to draw clues about himself from every innocent conversation. "Because I really do not remember. I remember Plymouth and there I did not succumb to any vices, as far as I know, for definitions may differ, but I do not remember a thing that happened before then. I do not even remember taking the frigate."
His brother stared at him.
"I got hit on the head."
"By a mast. Or so they say."
"You do not remember things?"
"Disjointed bits. Mostly from years back. I remember you, but I could not remember the name of this village or where it was situated. When they told me my name I thought they must be correct - it sounded familiar."
"You did not know your name..."
"I am afraid that I did not, no." He sighed. "Fortunately they told me I was a captain in the Navy. If they had told me I was an escaped axe murderer I might happily have continued murdering - because it would have been the only clue to hold on to."
Mr Wentworth looked shocked.
Sailors travelling through Somersetshire were not rare, but sailors with bandaged heads were intriguing. Mr Wentworth asked his brother why he did not remove the bandage, but he was told there was a scar. Of course the captain wanted to avoid tricky questions and it was easier to do so with a bandage than with a scar.
"I cannot take you out in public like this," Edward protested. "Every woman outside the house is going to be fawning over you, the poor, wounded sailor, if women inside the house are any indication. Or is that what you want?"
The captain gave no answer as he considered being fawned over by someone more suitable than the maid.
"I could perhaps tell them about the unsolved murders in Plymouth..." Edward said reflectively.
"Which unsolved murders?"
"I read about them."
"And what are they to do with me?"
"Possibly nothing, but you do not remember not committing them, do you?"
"What vile game is this?" the captain demanded. "I remember everything from coming into port and I did not murder anyone then."
The first appearance in public - not on the streets of Monkford or in church - came at the house of Lady Arabella Jackson, an old and wealthy widow. Mr Wentworth said the captain had met her before and that she was likely to want him to come along.
"Old, you say? Thirty? Forty?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of seventy or eighty."
"There was someone on board who thought I might be thirty."
"In which case he was probably twelve."
"Who else will be there? Will they know me?"
"I did not receive the guest list, but Lady Arabella entertains frequently and usually indiscriminately."
"It might be anyone. Are there people you would rather not see? I could make discreet inquiries."
"I do not remember any of them!" cried the captain. "Stay close, so I do not say anything stupid."
"Are you certain you do not remember anyone?" asked Mr Wentworth as they approached the house on horseback and a carriage was just halting outside it. The carriage bore an admirable crest and was in good repair. It was also pulled by some very fine horses. Its occupant was surely a man of importance.
"No one," the captain replied as a beautiful young woman was helped out of the carriage, followed by a handsome man. He followed them with his eyes as they were led up the steps and missed the last occupant alighting from the carriage.
"Not at all."
"That was Sir Walter Elliot and his two daughters. You have met them."
"Tell me again inside. I am sure I shall have forgotten it by then."
Mr Wentworth smiled and left his horse with a servant. "And that family there?" He gestured with his head at another carriage.
"I have absolutely no idea."
"Mr and Mrs Eastwick and their son Simon. I am fairly sure you met them as well."
"Do not spout all these names at me!" the captain complained. "It is too much." He rubbed his bandage.
"Take off the silly bandage. You are not suffering from anything. Stuff it down your trousers or into a flowerpot for all I care."
Inside, Lady Arabella greeted them most graciously. She was not like some rich people, who invited the lesser folk only as an act of charity, but she genuinely enjoyed the mixture of people herself. Whether all her guests did remained to be seen, but the majority were too well-bred to disclose their real feelings upon being seated next to a curate or a sailor.
At some point it was announced that Miss Anne was going to play. The captain had no idea who Miss Anne was. He had not been reintroduced to everyone, but Edward had greeted anyone nearby. Most people had said they remembered him indeed and they had asked about his ship and his bandage and - by Jove! - Edward had been right. How had he known ladies would be impressed by that piece of cloth? When had Edward gained such an intimate knowledge of women? The captain was in awe.
Miss Anne, whoever she was, played well, he was sure, but it hurt his head the way loud and chaotic conversations did as well. He quietly moved to the back of the room.
Edward followed him, of course. "What is wrong?"
"I have a headache."
His brother looked sceptic.
"It is true. I think I may not be ready for large groups of people and music."
"But she plays well. You always thought so."
"I did? I have never seen the girl before." And he had still not seen her, except a glimpse of dark hair and a light blue gown. "But if you enjoy it, go back. I am comfortable here."
He could still hear the music here, but it was less loud. As far as he could tell it was good, but it was simply too loud. He opened the doors to the garden and stepped out. The cool air and the absolute silence were a relief, although after a while he discovered it was not completely silent at all. There were small sounds like the rustling of leaves and he could see shadows moving.
It was fascinating to someone who usually spent his days and nights at sea. He quite forgot to return to the party, but he was determined to find out whether that was a fox there, at the other end of the lawn.
When he returned from his expedition - with no clear answer - he found a girl standing on the terrace, close to where he had left the house. He did not trust it, but it was the way he had to go to get back inside. The moonlight illuminated her. She looked like a ghost, pale and unmoving.
"Captain," the ghost said in a peculiar voice.
"Am I dying? Is this a sign? Do they want the rest of me too?"
The ghost did not move, only her lips did. "Your brother said you had a headache."
"My brother speaks to ghosts? Is that allowed? A man of the church?"
"Yes." The ghost sounded even more peculiar now.
"But my having a headache is no reason to summon me back to the underworld. I am not yet ready to die. Tell the underworld, please, that they still have some things that belong to me."
The ghost looked somewhat perplexed. She turned elegantly, however, and slipped back into the house.
Bloody Mari (Mari A.)
Darcy stared incredulously at the shabby building. His own physician resided in Harley Street, and although he was dimly aware that not everybody might be able to consult there, his imagination had never stretched as far as this. There was a plaque, not brass, but wood, advertising
and the house was far from the shabbiest in the neighbourhood - quite the opposite. There was nothing to it, however. Darcy squared his shoulders and girded his loins with courage. The interior was less shabby than the building's facade had suggested but far from the understated grandeur that Darcy preferred. The inner doors opened into a salon of sorts, with quite a few men - possibly gentlemen, Darcy was withholding judgment on that matter, and potentially amorous - sitting on couches that, although now faded, had once been too garish. Darcy wondered whether they were there to see the warlock, or to place bets (discretely, of course).
At one end of the room was some sort of counter, where a bored-looking wench (very possibly not a gentlewoman) was seated. She was observing with some fascination her own reflection in a small mirror. Darcy stepped up to the counter and cleared his throat. The girl failed to look up.
'Name, sir,' she said while rubbing one of her freckled experimentally.
Darcy internally debated the merits and the abhorrence of giving a false name but then decided on his real one.
'Fitzwilliam Darcy,' he stated, standing, as always when he did so, a little more proudly.
'Will that be the usual, Mr Darcy, or would you like to see the doctor before?'
Darcy was about to protest that he had no usual, but the girl had started squeezing some freckles and so he just asked to see the doctor and was told to sit down and wait. Things progressed in an odd speed in the waiting room of Dr Thorpe's Clinick for Amorous Gentlemen. Some men were called into the surgery and reappeared fairly quickly, clutching small paper bags which they tried to stuff into their jackets unobtrusively. Others only emerged again after over half an hour had passed, looking rather faint. Some men were not called into the surgery at all, but into a small, curtained booth behind which an unpleasant odour seemed to reside. The one person who was not called in to see the doctor at all was Darcy. He used the time to observe the other patrons of the clinic. Some of them did almost look like gentlemen indeed. Darcy felt embarrassed on their behalf that they were seen in an establishment like this. Others made no attempts to pass for gentle folk. One man appeared to be wearing yellow garters, crossed. Now and then, Darcy caught snippets of the conversations that other patrons were having with the wench at the counter.
'Do you want to see the doctor today, Mr Ferrars?'
'Yes, it's the Ferret, he's refusing to stand to action again -'
Once, a woman - Darcy could not bring himself to call her a lady - stepped brazenly up to the counter followed by her smug-looking husband, announced her name to be Elton and that she had booked an hour and a half on the electro-magnetic bed. A rather smartly dressed military gentleman gave his name as Tilney and said that his father had made an appointment for him. A young man with a clerical collar picked up a tonic for his brother, a Mr Bertram, and then, when asking the wench a question in an undertone, was referred to the warlock. Darcy noticed that none of the men tried to interact with one another. Most of them just stared into space absent-mindedly. The young priest was biting his fingernails. One man with the most absurd coiffure sat in one corner idly leafing through the Baronetage.
Finally, it was Darcy's turn. He was told to go down a dark corridor, passing a room with a red velvety door, possibly containing the galvanised bed, and a set of stairs to the cellars, where the warlock probably resided. Dr Thorpe's surgery itself was, surprisingly enough, in the stables, and they were not former stables. The man whom Darcy presumed to be Dr Thorpe stood with his back to the entrance, bent over the wheel of a natty high-perched phaeton which he was treating with a screw-driver.
'Right, Darcy, my man,' he said without turning around. 'Southern regions rotting again? Drop your britches and we'll get the unpleasant business over with, shall we?'
The hair on Darcy's neck stood on end at the thought of it.
'I will do no such thing,' he said firmly.
Dr Thorpe turned around. He was younger than Darcy had expected, a very common-looking man, his hair slicked back with too much oil and his hands black with grease.
'Sorry, wrong client,'' he said, baring his teeth in what he must have thought would pass as a smile. 'How can I help you, old chap? Picked up something nasty? Wife not happy with your performance? Need a little precaution for visiting the lady friends? No worries, you've come to just the right man -'
'I do not care about your insinuations,' Darcy said through gritted teeth. 'I have come about a bill.'
Dr Thorpe smiles his horrible grimace again.
'Say no more,' he said and winked at him, 'say no more, I have just the right horse if you need money quickly - not much of a sire, but he just cannot lose -'
'I have come,' Darcy said again, 'about a bill which you have had the presumption - the absolute audacity - to send to me. My name is Fitzwilliam Darcy and I demand an explanation.'
Dr Thorpe's mien suddenly changed quite radically.
'Now, look here, sir,' he said. 'I can only work with what I'm given, and if that young gentleman from the militia chose not to give his real name for his pox treatments -'
Darcy finally had the missing piece of the jigsaw, but just as he was about to inform Dr Thorpe that he would go to his lawyer this very hour, the sounds of a mighty uproar reached him. Outside the stables, men were yelling and dogs yapping and a shrill whistle sounded. The stable door was forced open by a group of brutal-looking men and Darcy, who was too perplexed even to take cover, was hit squarely over the head with somebody's large baton.
He went down like a felled tree and did not even have the satisfaction of seeing Dr Thorpe, when he finally allowed himself to be apprehended, arrested by John Knightley, Esq., the local magistrate. He did not see the warlock dragged up from the cellars, nor a shrieking Mrs Elton covering herself with a sheet as best as she could. Darcy was oblivious to the riot that had broken out, the stampeding of men that took place or the collapse of Dr Thorpe's large phaeton, bringing with it a thunderstorm of dust, debris, black paint and oil.
Then, the warlock's potion kettle exploded.
It was only many hours later that Darcy awoke, although, as a matter of fact, he had no idea of how much time had passed, nor, actually, of where he was or how he had gotten there. He awoke in a bare room, lying on a sack of straw on a narrow iron bedstead. Somebody had covered him with a thin, rather hairy blanket. He began a physical assessment. His head hurt in such a way that he was not even sure he remembered the way it felt not to have a headache. Something stung in his leg. Very slowly, he sat up and moved away the blanket. He was wearing the remains of a pair of tan breeches, sooty and grease-stained, with a deep gash on his left thigh. He was not sure if he had worn a jacket, a coat, or anything else - he supposed he must have, but he had no recollection of getting dressed. All he could tell was that he was now wearing only a very ragged shirt, with the ubiquitous grease stains, the sleeve slightly singed and some blood down the front.
He wondered if this was the style in which he usually dressed and found, to his slight horror, that he had no recollection of his dressing habits nor whether these clothes actually belonged to him. Extending the thought, he wondered whose the room was. He had no idea if he had ever seen it before. Now slightly alarmed, he went through a list of things that he still did recall and was slightly calmed. He knew perfectly well the names of all English kings from the Conqueror. The opening verses of the Iliad sprang to his mind in an instant. He could order a coffee in fluent French with a pleasing Parisian accent, although he was not sure how he knew about the different accents of France.
Some other details also still eluded him. He looked around the room for any further clues, but it was still just as bare as it had been when he woke up. Carefully, he got up. The door to the room was not locked and he soon found himself limping down an unlit corridor at one end of which a dwindling staircase descended. It had to be a servants' quarter. He wondered whether he had servants - or was he one himself? But then, why would he know the Iliad by heart?
Through a process of trial and error, he suddenly found himself standing in a drawing-room in which a kind-faced matron was sitting on a sofa busy with her cross-stitch.
'Excuse me, madam,' he said and was pleased to find he appeared to have manners, 'I do beg your pardon, but I find myself in a rather awkward -'
The matron looked up and screamed. A large footman appeared and dragged him out of the room and across the hall to a library. The matron followed them.
'John! John!' she screamed. 'Get him out of the house, will you? What if the children -'
A serious gentleman was sitting behind the desk in the library into which the man who had once known himself to be Darcy had been man-handled.
'My name is John Knightley,' the serious gentleman said, not unkindly. 'I am this area's magistrate. Please explain how you came to be in that clinic.'
'I - I am not sure -'
'The place where we found you is known as a port of call for all sorts of persons with venereal diseases and other sorts of disgusting afflictions. What is it that ails you?'
'I am not sure -'
The magistrate sighed.
'Very well,' he said. 'Why don't we start with your name and address?'
The other man flushed.
'I seem to have temporarily forgotten those,' he admitted. 'But I can recite the Iliad.'
It seemed important to point that out.
'I can multiply fractions, too,' he added. 'And I know all the provinces of the Roman Empire.'
The magistrate sighed again.
'The French pox then,' he said. 'And already in that hopeless stage where it addles the brain - and at your young age too - what a waste -'
He called for the footman again.
'We will have to take him to Bedlam,' he said. 'I don't think he will last much longer.'
The man who had once been Fitzwilliam Darcy allowed himself to be led to the carriage quietly. Somewhere, deep down, he knew that he was not the sort of person to approve of making a scene before the magistrate.
"Are you sure you still want to go back to Northanger today, Mr Tilney? It is rather late."
"Of course," Henry Tilney replied. "Why ever not?"
"Well, sir, it is All Hallows' Eve, sir, and it's past two o'clock," his housekeeper suggested and, realising that a clergyman like Mr Tilney might not share her beliefs concerning that particular day she added, "What I mean is, sir, it looks like a nice pleasant day, but you will not reach Northanger before nightfall, and it does get rather chilly once the sun is gone."
"I have a warm coat, and a good horse," Mr Tilney said. "While I am aware that it will get dark before I get home, I will not be outdoors for long enough to do serious harm to my health."
"As you wish, sir," Mrs Brooks said reluctantly. "I am sure you know best."
As for herself, Mrs Brooks would not have risked being out after dark on such a night as this. One never knew what one might encounter. Knowing Mr Tilney as she did, however, she did not say so. He would only mock her for adhering to what he would call outdated superstition. As a master, Mr Henry Tilney was kind enough, but he had a penchant for mockery that was likely to do him harm someday. There were things between Heaven and Earth... Things one had better acknowledge and respect, or so Mrs Brooks had been taught. But she remained silent.
She handed Mr Tilney his greatcoat and hat, and he took his leave, announcing that he would be back in two weeks' time. Then he was gone, and Mrs Brooks decided to say a couple of prayers for his protection. Prayers never did any harm.
Although Henry Tilney knew that he would have to endure a cold, uncomfortable journey once the sun had gone down, he was eager to reach his family's home as quickly as possible. There was a guest staying with his sister, and it was for her sake that he had begun his journey rather later than he had planned, instead of settling down for the night in front of his own fire. It was not that he was afraid of All Hallows' Eve, but travelling after dark was never agreeable. Yet since he had met Miss Morland, the young lady who was staying with his sister at Northanger at the moment, he had begun to appreciate her company - rather more than he would like to admit. And so here he was, urging his horse forward, hoping against hope that he would be home before the ladies had retired for the night so he would have the pleasure of Miss Morland's company for half an hour. He was not being reasonable, he knew. Maybe Mrs Brooks had been right and he should have stayed in Woodston after all.
At the moment, though, everything was fine. There was still light enough for him to see everything, and while the sun was gone it was not really cold yet. He had another hour before it got dark, by which time he would have passed a patch of forest and be out in the open. The moon was nearly full and there were no clouds, so it would be relatively easy for him to continue his journey. After all he had grown up here and knew exactly where he was and where he was going.
Until he reached Northanger Village, everything went as planned. Then, just as he turned left into the lane that led to the gate of Northanger Abbey, Henry's horse stumbled and he narrowly avoided taking a fall. In spite of his profession, which required that he should be a model of good and Christian behaviour at all times, he swore - and then suddenly he stopped his horse. He no longer knew who he was, where he was going or where he had come from - or where he was, for that matter. He could not remember why he was in this place at this time of night, or what he was supposed to do next. The horse was his, he presumed - surely the animal would know where it belonged, where its stables were? Did horses not usually find their way home? But if so - how would he know it was his home, too? What had happened? For the first time in his life - if only he had known it - Henry Tilney panicked. He spurred his horse, and decided to see where it would carry him. There must be some place - a cottage, a village - where he could ask for assistance. He was well dressed; surely people would let him in and help him! He did not look like a criminal, or did he? Did he?
The horse entered a huge gate which was not in the least familiar to Henry. Still, the animal seemed to know the area. Where there was a gate, there must be a house somewhere, Henry reasoned. But there was no house; there was a thick forest, and mist, and before long Henry had to get off the horse and make his way through the thicket on his own. The horse - whatever was its name, by the way? - would have to fend for itself.
Henry had to fight his way along, until he saw a light at the other end of the forest. A light meant that there must be a house somewhere - a place to go to. Relief flooded through Henry's mind, but it was of short duration. For whenever he thought he was going into the right direction, the light disappeared - only to reappear elsewhere. Henry did not know for how long he had struggled, surely it must have been hours. Exhausted, he finally sat down right where he was. He leant against a tree trunk, intending to close his eyes and rest for a moment - only one moment.
When he awoke, the first rays of the sun were showing on the horizon, and he remembered everything - his bout of amnesia had only been temporary. There was no trace of the thicket now; he was leaning against one of the chestnut trees that lined the avenue leading from the main gate to Northanger Abbey, less than half a mile from the house.
Henry Tilney never understood what had happened to him that night. Had it all been a dream? He chose to believe that it had, for surely any other theories - such as were offered by the likes of Mrs Brooks - were too fantastic to be taken seriously. That the moment he had sworn some mischievous spirit might have gained control of him was, indeed, a far-fetched idea. But if Mrs Brooke wanted to think that her prayers had saved his life he was not going to disabuse her of her notion. Prayers, after all, never did anyone any harm.
Mrs. Radcliffofdespair (Suzanne O)
Blurb: Devious ideas lurk beneath the genteel surface of Longbourn. A family secret is born.
Mr. Bennet had talked of having the road repaired for months now. The strong spring rains had washed away clay and gravel and left the lane that wound up to Longbourn House riddled with holes, and so he would talk, very often, of the necessity of hiring some men to come and fill them. But as with so many of Mr. Bennet's plans, it never came to anything, and the Bennets' driver became adept at navigating the worst of the difficulties, until they had nearly forgotten they had not always been a part of the road. Then, scarcely more than a week ago, it had rained again, and still more soil washed away around the edges, and water sat inside the holes, undermining the gravel surface for several feet around the most cavernous opening, until finally, inevitably, a section gave way.
The hired gig that was coming down the road bucked and heaved, and a body sailed gracefully through the air, landing recumbent in the ditch, while another tumbled off the seat, to lie beneath the hooves of the plunging horse.
Six female forms gathered around the man's body.
"Do you think he's dead?" asked one.
"It would be good for us if he was."
"Well that's not polite to say."
"But it would be. Then Jane could inherit."
"We would all inherit. That is what the law says--unless Papa decided to leave it to one of us only."
All faces turned in one direction.
"What? I do not know why you would suppose it would be me."
"You're Papa's favorite, everyone knows that, Lizzy. He would definitely leave you Longbourn, but you would not turn us out, would you?"
"Your sister is far too loyal to her family to do any such thing, girls. She knows her duty to her mother."
"I am the mistress of Longbourn, Lizzy, and shall be until I die! Do not forget that!"
"I shall have no cause to forget it, because he is not dead. Look, see, he is breathing."
"Odious man! Why could he not oblige us by dying? Now I suppose we will have to take care of him."
"Maybe if we are kind to him now, he will be kind to us later."
"Kind? How can you call him kind, when he is to take our home away from us?"
"We could hit him over the head again."
"Jane could do it. She is very good with a cricket bat."
"Or there is that brass figurine of an Chinaman on the mantle. It is very heavy!"
"Yes, that is true. Mary, do you remember when you had it fall on your foot that time?"
"This is absurd."
"Of course I remember it. It caused me pain for days. According to my estimates, the Chinaman weighs as much as five pounds, and it is very compact, so it delivers a lot of force to a small area."
"See! Much better than a cricket bat."
"We cannot hit Mr. Collins over the head!"
"Well, why not? Do you want him to inherit Longbourn and leave poor Mama in the hedge-rows?"
"Of course not, but--"
"And let's not forget poor Mary. She will probably never marry; where is she supposed to live?"
"My dear sister, I am sure that--"
"You have nothing to say in the matter, Jane; you have Mr. Bingley."
"You know--" Lydia leaned forward to whisper in Jane's ear. "If Mr. Collins does live, that means Mama will have to come live with you and Mr. Bingley for the rest of her life." Jane's eyes widened.
Just then, two men carried another body through the front door, and down the hall. Mr. Bennet came into the parlor.
"Papa, Papa! Who is that other one? Is he dead?"
"No, not yet. He is the man Mr. Collins appears to have hired to drive him from the next town. He woke up enough to tell us that his name is Jim Pacer, but no one seems to know anything else about him. One of these vagrants, who moves from town to town, looking for work. They are taking him downstairs."
"Oh, Mr. Bennet! Is my house to be overrun with invalids? Must I be forced to care for the man who will someday steal the roof from over my head?"
"It is very hard, Mrs. Bennet, I know. But Mr. Collins cannot help being my heir."
"We were all wishing he had died, Papa."
"A very natural wish, I am sure. However, he is alive, and it is looks like he is waking up."
Everyone turned their attention back to the man in clerical black who lay inelegantly sprawled on the sofa. He twitched, stirred, moved his head and mumbled something.
"What's that?" asked Mrs. Bennet, too loudly. "What's that you say, sir?"
He twitched again, opened a bruised eye blearily, shut it again, and mumbled. The family all looked at each other. When this happened once more, Elizabeth leaned on with great intrepidity, and held her ear near his mouth. "He said, 'Lady Catherine,'" she announced.
"Ah, yes, his patroness he wrote me of. Her influence must be even greater than I thought. Beyond question, he is a fool." Mr. Bennet looked down on him with contempt.
Mr. Collins mumbled again, and squinted at the light. "Lady Catherine?" repeated Mrs. Bennet, again loudly, leaning toward him. "Do you speak of Lady Catherine? She is not here!"
All at once, his eyes flew open, and he stared at her. "Lady Catherine!" he said clearly.
She drew back, offended. "Not me! I am Mrs. Bennet!"
"Bennet." He repeated the world clumsily, and looked confused.
"Do you know where you are?" asked Mr. Bennet, frowning at him.
"Where--where I am?" He struggled to sit up, but fell back with a whimper. "Where am I?"
"You are at Longbourn."
"Long-bourn?" He looked around the room, an almost frightened expression on his broad and bloodied countenance.
"Yes, Longbourn. You were coming to see us, Mr...." Mr. Bennet suddenly paused, his face inscrutable. Coming closer, he fixed the invalid with a penetrating eye. "Do you know what your name is?"
"Yes." He stepped even a little closer, and all the girls drew back, eyes wide. "Tell me, who are you? What is your name?"
"I--" the man swallowed. "I am--that is, my most noble... I am--" he began to breathe more quickly. "Lady C-Catherine is..."
"Yes, who is Lady Catherine?"
"Beneficent... she is... uhmm, I don't..." he looked at Mrs. Bennet. "Lady Catherine?"
"This is Mrs. Bennet. There is no Lady Catherine here. But what about you? What is your name?"
"I--my name is..." he wet his lips. "Can I not have something to drink?"
"No. First you will tell me your name."
"I think... that is, I--I don't know." He looked up at them with wide eyes. "I cannot remember."
Everyone let out a collective breath.
"Are you certain? Search your memory. You must have some knowledge of who you are."
But he had begun shaking his head. "No, no, no! There is nothing!"
"Nothing at all? Who was your father? Where are you from?"
"I don't know, I don't know." He started hyperventilating. "I am no one! I am no one!"
"Mama!" Elizabeth spoke in a forceful undertone. "Laudanum. Quick! Get a lot of it."
"Laudanum?" said Mrs. Bennet. She was staring at Mr. Collins in a kind of horrified fascination.
"I will call Mrs. Hill," said Mary, rising, but both Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet spoke together.
"No servants," said Mr. Bennet.
At that moment, a curious tension filled the air, as all of the Bennets but one eyed each other.
"I know where the laudanum is," said Kitty at last.
"Bring all of it, there's a good girl."
"He will need something to drink it with," said Mary.
"Wine will be best. Quietly, now."
"I do not understand," said Mrs. Bennet.
Lydia, quiet for once, sat by her mother and patted her hand, and promised in whispers to explain everything later. Lizzy paced the room, and Jane busied herself in soothing Mr. Collins with a dampened handkerchief to his forehead, refusing to look up. Once, a servant came to the door to inquire what they might need, but Elizabeth turned him away.
In a few minutes, the girls were back from their errands, and the hapless Mr. Collins, still babbling his confusion, was quickly--but kindly, thanks to Jane--drugged into unconsciousness.
"Well!" said Mrs. Bennet, "I am glad that he is asleep now, for he wore dreadfully on my nerves, and I hope he shall not bleed onto the settee. But I still do not understand what you meant when you said no servants. Why should we not call a servant?"
"Because, Mrs. Bennet," said her husband, "he does not remember who he is."
"Yes, it seems very strange, but ..." Five pairs of eyes bore into her. "Oh," she whispered. "He does not remember who he is."
Late that night, after all the servants were in bed, the Bennets held a hushed, dimly lit conference in Mrs. Bennet's upstairs sitting room.
"What will we do if his memory returns?"
"We will deal with that when we come to it," said Lizzy.
"There's always the cricket bat," said Kitty.
"Well, I say we should just poison his tea and get it over with."
"No, Lydia, we promised Jane no murder, remember?"
Mary pushed her spectacles up her nose. "I do not approve of murder. It has been called one of the seven deadly sins for a reason; and all my studies have convinced me that there are few acts as repugnant to the human spirit as the deliberate distinguishing of the same. It is my opinion that it should be used only as a very last resort."
"Girls, girls!" Mr. Bennet was pacing the room. "Much as I admire your cold-bloodedness, I must ask you to delay your discussion on the propriety of patruelicide until later. Right now we must determine how to proceed without murder. As long as his memory remains lost we should be safe. Fortunately, no one here knows him."
"There is one difficulty," said Elizabeth. "Lady Catherine will want to know what has become of her parson."
"We will write to her that he has died, of course."
"That may possibly satisfy her, but what about the law courts? We will need a death certificate, will we not, if we are to overturn to entail?"
He frowned. "Yes, that does pose a challenge. Mr. Jones is an old friend of mine, and he has cared for each of you since you were born. I do not think he would ask too many questions, but even he will require a dead body in order to issue a death certificate."
"What I want to know," interjected Mrs. Bennet fretfully, "is what we are going to do with him? He cannot stay locked up in the spare bedroom forever."
"Poison," said Lydia.
"No!" exclaimed Lizzy and Jane together.
"Well, she does have a point," said Kitty. "It is very inconvenient for him to be alive, memory or no."
"We will give him a new identity, of course. That is what we agreed on, right?"
"Yes, but who?"
"Who can we trust?" asked Jane. Everyone turned to look at her in surprise.
"What did you say?"
"I said who can we trust? Besides ourselves?"
Mr. Bennet considered. "Mrs. Hill's husband. He was born at Longbourn, and he has been serving Bennets his entire life. He himself has told me more than once how much he dreads the day it should pass out of our hands. I believe he would do almost anything, if he believed it was in the interests of Longbourn."
"So we have one devoted retainer, one sympathetic doctor, an unconscious amnesiac, and no dead body," said Lizzy. "That does not seem like a lot to work with."
Just then there was a knock on the door. Everyone jumped guiltily. After a moment, Mr. Bennet went to answer the door.
It was John Hill. Although his wife, as the housekeeper, was afforded the respect of being called Mrs. Hill, he had always been known as merely John. "Beggin' your pardon, master," he said, glancing with surprise at the gathering. "I thought you would want to know--it's about Jim Pacer."
He frowned. "Jim Pacer?"
"Yessir. He's the man that were taken up injured earlier today, along with the parson your cousin. I'm afraid he's died, just a few minutes ago."
Tick-tick-tick went the clock on Mrs. Bennet's mantle. Finally, Mr. Bennet spoke. "Died? I did not know he was so badly injured."
"No more did anyone. Must have been some injury on the inside, which killed him so sudden."
"And who else have you told?"
"No one, sir. I was sitting with him myself when it happened. I thought to let you know first thing."
The Bennets looked at each other. "Come inside, John," said Mr. Bennet.
They did it together, John Hill and Mr. Bennet--carried the heavy, still-warm body up the stairs, first from the servant's quarters, then to the second floor, and down the hall to Mrs. Bennet's best guest bedchamber. Elizabeth went with them, holding doors open and carrying a single candle for them to see by.
That candle cast lurid shadows on the wall as the men laid Jim Pacer alongside William Collins on the brocaded bed and, once Elizabeth had left, undressed first one and then the other. Every article of clothing was exchanged--trousers, shirt, drawers, stockings. There was some difference in size, Mr. Collins being the larger of the two, but it was nothing that the women's needles and the men's efforts could not overcome. They even shaved the corpse's face, styled his hair with pomade from Mr. Collins's luggage.
"It's fortunate they're both so bruised," said John. "The house maids'll never notice the difference, belike."
"Not if they want to keep their positions they won't," muttered Mr. Bennet.
And then it was back through the halls and down the stairs again, panting and groaning, this time lugging the still-unconscious Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet feared their ultimate goal would be gained faster than desired by his own expiration, but at last it was done. Upstairs, a dead man in a cleric's collar. Belowstairs, a living man in very tight moleskin breeches.
Mr. Collins awoke in a darkened room, his head swimming. "Lady Catherine?" he mumbled, before he remembered that he could not remember who she was.
Turning his head, he could make out a single candle, and beyond it, an older woman sitting by his bed. She had pale blue eyes and features that had once been pretty, now hardened into an expression of great severity. Fair hair was tucked beneath a cap, and on top of it, a very fearsome bonnet. She looked vaguely familiar. She leaned forward, and the candlelight threw her features into terrible relief.
"I am Lady Catherine," she said impressively.
"I am Lady Catherine, and you will obey me. Do you understand?"
Fearfully, he turned his head away. On the other side of the bed stood a dark-haired girl with spectacles, and in her hands was a long golden chain, and suspended from it, something that flashed as it spun.
"You will forget everything you think you remember," the stern voice went on. "You will forget everything. Your name is Jim Pacer, do you understand?"
The flashing thing seemed to spin faster and faster; he could not look away from it.
"Your name is Jim Pacer."
"Jim Pacer," he murmured.
"It is the only thing you remember. I am Lady Catherine, and you will obey me."
"I will obey you," he murmured.
Ten months later
Jim Pacer, the Bennet's half-witted hired hand, was feeding the pigs. He was a great, clumsy fellow; no one had thought he was good for much, and the neighborhood all said how generous the Bennets had been to take him on like that, after the accident. Some said he was the one as ought to be blamed for the death of Mr. Collins, seeing as he had been driving, but Mr. Bennet had insisted that he be allowed to stay, and be given work. He had wanted to work in the garden, but old Mr. Coney, the gardiner, had indignantly refused him and, in the end, they taught him how to care for the pigs who supplied Longbourn with its bacon. He seemed, for the most part, entirely content.
Many changes had come to Longbourn since the death of its heir. Although the entail could not be overturned within Mr. Bennet's lifetime, they had been assured by Mr. Philips, brother-in-law and attorney, that upon his death, and in the absence of any eligible male heir, all the usual processes of law would be followed. Mrs. Bennet would receive half of her husband's income during her life, and all the rest would be divided equally among their daughters.
It was not such a bad dowry after all, though Mr. Bingley had been frightened off for some months by Jane's increased array of suitors. Elizabeth had blamed it all darkly on his friend Mr. Darcy, until she met him again in Derbyshire over the summer. Very soon, and in a sequence of events not perfectly understood by anyone outside the most interested parties, Mr. Darcy returned to Netherfield, Mr. Bingley returned to Netherfield, and a double wedding was set for October. Jane was happy, Elizabeth was happier even than Jane, and Lydia and Kitty set aside the elaborate nine-step plan they had made for Mr. Bingley's murder. Mary had eloped with Captain Carter last spring.
Today, Elizabeth and the visiting Mrs. Gardiner walked to the farm to see a new batch of kittens. Jim paid them little mind as he dumped a pail of potato peelings and porridge into the trough. He was thinking about the sow, whether she would litter again this year, and which of the spring pigs that were fattening now he could bear to part with first. He had named all of them, but his two favorites were the mean old sow, Catherine, and this one pale, delicate runt the farmer had been determined to kill before he rescued her. He had named her Anne.
It was Anne's whiskery chin he was scratching when Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner walked by.
"I think a phaeton with a pair of ponies would be just the thing for going around that park," said Mrs. Gardiner, as they passed. "Even you cannot walk it all, Elizabeth."
Miss Elizabeth laughed. "Indeed, Aunt, you are right! A pony phaeton it shall certainly be."
They passed on, but Jim was left musing over his favorite pig, with phaetons on his mind. "A phaeton and ponies, Anne," he muttered to the elegant snout. "A little phaeton and ponies, to ride round the park in." Suddenly an image flashed across the blank that was his memory, and he frowned. "Anne... Anne riding a pony phaeton around the park...the park..." He looked at the large sow. "Lady Catherine?... Anne ... park... humble... humble ... my humble abode!" He stood upright, and looked around the farmyard. "My valuable rectory! Rosings! My lady benefactress!" His eyes turned toward the manor house. "And Longbourn, I was coming to Longbourn... fair cousins... entail... overtures of good will!"
Ten minutes later, Lydia and Kitty looked up from their fashion magazines to see a red-faced man in mud-caked books and worsted trousers standing over them with a heaving chest. "How dare you, who call yourself objects of feminine virtue and grace! I have remembered everything! I know it all, the base infamy of your plan, the gross deceit perpetrated on one who came in disinterested kindness to extend an olive branch of peace to you, you wretched--"
A resounding blow sounded to his head, and he collapsed. Behind him stood a flushed and panting young woman, holding a cricket bat in both hands.
"Why, Jane," said Lydia admiringly, "what a good stroke that was! I always knew you had it in you."
Jane gripped her bat more tightly. "I. Will. Not. Lose. Mr. Bingley. Again!"
"No, no, of course not!"
They all surveyed the man sprawled on the carpet.
"Well, we had better get it over with. You get his feet, Kitty."
Mr. Collins awoke in a darkened room, his head swimming. "L-Lady Catherine?" he mumbled.
Turning his head, he could make out a single candle, and beyond it, a familiar older woman sitting by his bed. She had pale blue eyes and features that had once been pretty, now hardened into an expression of great severity. Fair hair was tucked beneath a cap, and on top of it, a very fearsome bonnet. She leaned forward, and the candlelight threw her features into terrible relief.
"I am Lady Catherine," she said impressively.
"I am Lady Catherine, and you will obey me. Do you understand?"
Fearfully, he turned his head away. On the other side of the bed stood a tall, blonde-haired girl, and in her hands was a long golden chain, and suspended from it, something that flashed as it spun.