Posted on: 2008-10-31
Elizabeth Darcy, new mistress of Pemberley, had noticed the painting on the wall the first time she had walked through the portrait gallery, when she had visited the grand estate with her aunt and uncle the prior summer. The likeness of Lady Rhona Neale hung midway down the plastered surface on the north side of the gallery. Something about the eyes of the woman represented in brush strokes troubled her; they seemed to follow her from one end of the corridor to the other, causing chills to dart up and down her arms. She attempted to smooth the prickles away with her hands, but the iciness in her veins would not leave. Moving away from the portrait did nothing to assuage her unease. Despite her disquiet, she could not remain far from the rendering, returning to stand before it day after day. In time, she found herself speaking with the woman depicted in oils. She would chide herself for her foolishness, except for the fact that she felt certain that, on occasion, she received answers to her queries. Nonsense! A painting cannot speak, not in any manner.
"Is that so?"
Elizabeth jumped, turning around in search of the person to whom the voice belonged. No, it could not be! Speechless, she lifted her eyes to those painted on the canvas and nearly fainted when she saw Lady Neale wink at her. Clasping her breast, Elizabeth stepped back, bumping into the paintings on the opposite wall.
"Careful there, Sir Dashell would not mind grabbing hold of one such as you."
"Wha---what?" Elizabeth managed to stammer as she leapt into the middle of the hall, out of the reach of whatever or whomever the woman in the portrait referred.
"Come, come, now. Surely, you are not so shocked at my abilities. I am, after all, an accomplished woman...well, I was." An eerie laugh flew about the gallery, causing the chill Elizabeth had felt earlier to deepen, her blood turning to frost.
"How? How is this possible?"
"Oh, fiddle. Surely you have heard tales of the other side, have you not?"
"Yes, I...I suppose?" She inhaled deeply, her legs feeling wobbly. "But...but, those are tales; they are not --"
"Fiddle, I say! We are real. Stuck, perhaps, in these confining frames, but real we are, indeed!"
Mrs. Darcy stood silently, looking about the passage in an agitated manner, before, once again, lifting her eyes to those staring down upon her. If the woman in the painting could speak, what else might she be able to do?
Lady Neale would have none of it. "Look at me, young lady." When Elizabeth shook her head and refused, the tone of voice used by the woman in the portrait increased, demanding she acquiesce. "I say, look at me, now!"
No longer able to decline, the new mistress of the house lifted her face to that gazing down upon her. "Do you fear me, Mrs. Darcy?"
Elizabeth, again, shook her head, but the eerie feeling that enveloped her as she watched the brushstrokes, which created the image's mouth, move in time with the words she heard, proved highly distracting. She found herself noticing small resemblances between the woman in the painting and her own Fitzwilliam; similarities in their eyes, their noses, even the curliness of their hair. "I cannot hear you, madam. Speak up. My ears are quite ancient and congested."
Shaking herself from her inspection of the rendering, the young woman responded, her voice quavering only slightly, "No, I...I do not fear you. I am just so confused." She lifted her hands to her head, allowing her fingers to massage her temples. "You...you are a painting; you cannot speak. I must be ill." She paused and lifted her eyes, again, to take in the details of the image before her, feeling her heart racing within her chest. "Indeed, that must be it, I must be ill. I shall go and see Fitzwilliam; he shall know what to do." She began to move away when she realized that she had lost the power to do so, only retaining the ability to move her head about.
"You shall do nothing of the sort. I am as real as you are, my dear. Should you go to your husband and inform him of our conversation, he would have little choice other than to believe that you have thoroughly lost your senses. He should then find himself facing one of two options: he could lock you in your chamber, never again to allow you to see the light of day, or he could send you to Bedlam, where you never again would hear yourself think. I do not believe you wish either of those fates to befall you."
Lizzy, still frozen in place by what power she knew not, could not speak for the alarm that ran through her. Perhaps she truly had lost possession of her faculties. What would Fitzwilliam say if he were to come down the hallway at this moment? What would he say if she told him what she had experienced or thought she had experienced in this hall of his ancestors? "What would you have me do?" she cried.
"I request nothing much from you, madam. I only ask that you stay and speak with me. I ask that you return to do the same frequently." In a conspiratorial whisper, she added, "You have no idea how perturbing it is to sit with these antediluvians."
Biting back a laugh and thoroughly surprised at that reaction, Elizabeth answered, "Excuse me, milady, but --" she hesitated, then collecting her courage continued, "are you not one of them?"
The image barked in reply. "Ha! You think I am as ancient as any of them?"
"Well, ma'am, my husband and sister sit upon these walls, and they are not so very old."
Silence descended, the atmosphere in the gallery growing thick. At last, Lady Neale spoke, "Very well, I suppose I must own to fitting in amongst these dotards better than some. You are quite the bold young woman, are you not?"
Elizabeth could not restrain the smile or the light blush that resulted from the comment. Lowering her eyes in chagrin, she answered softly, "I have been told as much before; you judge me well."
"Character study has always been a favorite pastime of mine. You shall come and visit me again, and often."
Elizabeth hesitated to reply, for she had no desire to come again to this area without her husband's escort. "I believe I shall be busy for the near future, but I shall be more than happy to come again when I am at leisure to do so.
The woman bellowed, "How dare you? Do you think me a fool? You have no intention of returning to keep me company, to converse with me so that I do not become addled. Just because what you see is merely canvas and paint does not mean that I do not require companionship to keep myself sharp. You," Elizabeth noted that the eyes on the face in the portrait actually narrowed, "shall come to see me, frequently and regularly. Shall we say every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon? Yes, that would suit me perfectly."
Opening her mouth to protest, Elizabeth found that she no longer possessed the capacity of speech. Just as she had been rooted in place, her voice had now been stayed. Turning to view Lady Neale, Elizabeth pleaded with her eyes.
"Oh, silly girl, is it so very difficult for you to understand? I had thought you a clever sort; perhaps I was mistaken." She let out a frustrated breath-sound, and added, "Do not panic, child; I shall return you to your previous state when I am done with you. For the moment, you can easily remain and listen."
It seemed to Elizabeth that she had little choice in the matter. She nodded and allowed what would come to come.
"Do you know who I am?"
Unable to answer, Elizabeth stood mutely.
"You know my name, my title, of that I am certain, but do you know anything of my history?''
Silence was all Lady Neale received in response.
"Ah, let me enlighten you. I came to live at Pemberley when I was a girl younger than you. I married Ambrose Neale, a grandfather of your husband, many generations back, in the summer of 1686. A hot day it was; I tell you. The man treated me as if I were his most precious jewel, spoiling and pampering me to no end. Lucky I was, for I loved him beyond measure, and he allowed me privileges most wives could never imagine. At the time, I declare, he treated me as if I were truly his equal, as if I were a man. It gave me power and confidence, I assure you. Your husband, I believe, treats you so; does he not?"
Frustrated by her inability to answer, Elizabeth quirked an eyebrow in reply.
"I am certain he does. Your man is a good sort. He used to come and spend time with me when he was quite young." Noticing the surprise in Elizabeth's eyes, she quickly added, "Oh, he did not speak with me, as you do now; he would merely come and sit at my feet, gazing up at me, relieving himself of his childish worries. I believe he felt my power. I did not attempt to converse with him, for, given his tender age, I feared frightening him away. I did not wish to lose his attendance, for I enjoyed listening to his youthful babble."
A soundless laugh escaped Mrs. Darcy's lips.
"You think it funny?"
Elizabeth shook her head, sorry for her inability to control herself. She had no idea what Lady Neale might do if she became properly displeased.
"He was a sweet boy but lonely, I think. He lurked in these passages, alone, far too often for a young lad. We all became quite fond of him."
The living woman turned her face away from the painting in order to compose herself. Doing so, Elizabeth found herself struggling for breath upon discovering a hallway full of eyes scrutinizing her, albeit with seeming sentimentality.
"Oh, yes, my companions and I agreed that we would do anything to see the boy grow up happy. Given circumstances, we have had a bit of a hard time of it. His mother and father came to join us far too soon." A soft, deep "tsk-tsk" coming from the neighboring portraits could be heard echoing off the walls. "Still, we determined that we would intercede when we could. When that tall, caustic woman began showing up with her delightful brother; odd family, that; we made certain that she would never win our boy's heart. She had the audacity to skulk up and down these halls telling her sister that she would remove most of us and store us in the attic. Can you imagine?"
Elizabeth thought she knew of whom Lady Neale spoke, and could, indeed, imagine Caroline Bingley doing exactly that, and, with that connection drawn, the corners of Mrs. Darcy's lips could not refrain from turning up just a tiny bit.
"Ah, I see you understand. Our Fitzwilliam could never live happily with such a woman." Pausing for a moment, the woman on the canvas seemed to be pondering how to continue. Coming to an apparent decision, she proceeded, "The next spring, when he returned home in great distress, he came to us, sharing his grief over losing the one he did love. He prowled these very halls, voicing his anguish, baring his heart and soul to us, every day for weeks. He spoke of his stupidity, of his pain, of his fear that he might never set eyes upon that young woman again. Over and over, he cried out for the young lady he adored." A suffocating silence descended upon them and remained for several moments. Elizabeth felt the heat of remorse flow through her, knowing that she was the cause of his suffering, until Lady Neale distracted her, completing her thought, "The name he called? Elizabeth!"
Her eyes popping open wide, the new mistress felt she might faint.
"We, my kinsmen gathered here and I, conversed amongst ourselves and, after much deliberation, determined that we must intercede and aid our lad." A benevolent murmur from the adjoining portraits could be heard. "We set about learning all we could about that lady. We have methods, you know.
Elizabeth's jaw dropped at this confidence. She struggled to voice a question, but could only produce a small, strangled grunt.
"Oh, it was simple enough. That is what you wished to know, is it not?"
A sharp nod formed the reply.
"Ah, I thought so." She seemed to sniff, then added, " I believe that you and I have much in common." The pigment that created her lips moved, once again, to form a facsimile of a smile. "Yes, we sent word...we can do that, you know...to our relatives in other locations. They passed the message on to others. Eventually, our intent became know to your ancestors, at your home, Long--, Long--, oh, dear, it is Long-something-or-other, is it not?"
No reply was forthcoming, only further indication of Elizabeth's astonishment; Lady Neale continued, oblivious to lack of actual response. "Our communications brought about a plan. I have no doubt that you wish to know what it entailed?"
Again, the younger woman nodded, certain that even if she had retained the power of speech, she would not have been able to use it.
A discreet laugh escaped from the painting. "I thought you might. It was simple enough. We managed to cause contact with some relations of yours, in London. An aunt and uncle, I think. It did not take much effort to learn that they had planned some holiday travels." Her voice took on a playful tone. "We merely managed to alter those plans just the slightest, so that they encouraged you to accompany them. Our plan called for you and the young master to meet again, here, at Pemberley. In order for everything to work out as we liked, I fear we had to draw in others, including your youngest sister.
Elizabeth, agitated, endeavored to object, but with her voice remaining stilled, she found the attempt stymied.
"Now, now, my dear, remember that your ancestors and Fitzwilliam's had your best interests at heart. We would see nothing go amiss for either you or your family, not in the end. It was not much of a chore, I assure you. Within a few days, all had been arranged. Word went from your father's estate to others; I beg you do not ask how. It did not take long until your youngest sister felt the supreme urge to go off with some other young woman; I forget her name. They set off with others for Bristol, I believe. No, no, I am mistaken, it was Brighton. Yes, that is the proper place."
Her face taking on a pinched appearance, Elizabeth's eyelids tightened, allowing only the smallest opening to indicate the fire within.
"All had been set in motion by the time you arrived at Pemberley last summer. While you were here, before us, we watched you, carefully. You showed great reverence for us all, but especially for our young relative. We determined that he had chosen well and that you were the one he should marry."
Vehemently, Mrs. Darcy turned her eyes upon the portrait, unrestrained anger pouring forth.
"Oh, do calm yourself. We would not have forced the issue if it had come to such a juncture. If you had been strictly set against him, or he against you, we would have allowed the matter to rest. However, it quickly became apparent that you each wished for the other, but could not establish the best course to come together. We just gave you a bit of a nudge. I think we were brilliant."
When she received no sign of reply, only further indication of Elizabeth's bewilderment and wrath, Lady Neale forged ahead. "I believe you know the rest of the story. What you may not know is how we urged Mr. Darcy to seek out the absconding couple and set things to right. Of course, he had no awareness of our interference; he merely felt himself compelled to respond to our whispers. We supposed his actions would convince you in his favor. Apparently, we were correct, for look, there you stand before us."
Elizabeth could deal with it no longer and found herself screaming for release within her mind.
"Oh, very well, but do compose yourself before I allow you your freedom."
Taking in a deep breath, the young woman's features contorted as she attempted to settle her nerves. At least, she thought, she had reason for paroxysms worthy of her mother. One more gulp of air, and she nodded to inform her husband's forebear that she had managed to settle herself reasonably well.
"Now, before I allow you to move about and speak, you must assure me that you shall come and visit me as I requested earlier."
Elizabeth, with few alternatives, nodded once more.
"Very well." The gallery became deathly silent. Elizabeth attempted to move, but could not. A deep frown crossed her face as she looked up at the portrait. "Just a moment, my dear, these things take a moment." Trying again, the young mistress at last found that she could move. Her hands flew to her throat, and she attempted to speak. At first, all she could do was utter low, guttural sounds which made no sense. After a few attempts, she succeeded in articulating her thoughts.
"How is this," she wagged her finger back and forth between herself and the portrait, "possible? You are not real, merely a painting. It must be so." Choosing to proceed with caution, Elizabeth chose to couch her words with care. "My mind must run seriously afoul of reality in order to create such a fanciful episode; I must be quite ill."
"Oh, pish. You are quite well, girl. Did you not know that all things are possible if you desire them well enough? We ascertained quite easily your feelings for young Fitzwilliam. When you stood before his portrait for minutes on end, we knew. We had never before seen anyone do so. And then you left suddenly, a reaction to the news of your sister's elopement I fear we failed to anticipate. Fitzwilliam came back to us; his heart once again shattered. He stood forlornly at the end of the hall, just there, at the window, gazing out in the direction he knew your carriage must travel in order to return you to the arms of those who needed you in their hour of despair. We had no doubt that we had done the proper thing to bring you together, and moved quickly to see our boy off on his quest to discover the missing pair. We do apologize for involving your sister, but we shall see to it that she is happy enough."
Elizabeth turned within herself, convinced now that her senses drowned in complete delirium. While she felt tempted to respond with fury over the thought of trading Lydia's happiness for her own, all she could force from her lips was, "A life with thatman? The child will be miserable."
"Did you not hear me? I said she would be happy enough."
"Oh, do have some patience and trust. We have brought you thus far; we shall not abandon you until we complete our task."
From the gallery behind her, Elizabeth heard the rumble of Darcy's shades, the very ones that Lady Catherine had assured her she would pollute. She could make out one saying, "Indeed; another cried, "Beyond a doubt;" and a third called, "Not 'til our duty is done."
Another breath sound, this time irked in tone, came from Lady Neale's likeness. "Have things not worked out well so far?"
"If you mean between Mr. Darcy and me, then, yes, but my sister, I must believe, should this all be true, suffers, and it is all my doing."
"No one suffers. Your sister, as I said, is happy enough and shall remain so. Life may not be so easy for her, but do give her some credit. She will bring change in George Wickham. Do not doubt it."
"How can you say such a thing given the man's history?"
"Well, yes, his actions in the past have been less than respectable. Your sister, however, is much stronger and wiser than you might imagine."
Elizabeth, a befuddled expression settling upon her features, began to protest, but Lady Neale again halted her power of speech.
"Do not trouble yourself with disputing this fact, for I know it better than you. Your sister, spoilt as she was at home, will come into her own. She will astonish you with how she changes in the next few years. She will turn into a fine, upstanding woman and will see to it that her husband becomes -- well, if not a paragon of virtue, then at least an honorable gentleman and an officer held in great respect. Mark my words, it will be so."
This pronouncement thoroughly convinced Elizabeth that she must suffer some fearful hallucination, a figment of her imagination caused, perhaps, by some spoiled tidbit from lunch. She must go and lie down and pray that she recover. Wickham becoming reputable and admired? She gave her head a sound shake, hoping to chase the conjured notions from her mind. As much as she wished to believe it promising, she was discriminating enough to realize its impossibility. She blew out a baffled breath. It could not be, could it?
"Oh, but it could," the rendering replied. "You shall see; give it but a bit of time."
Attempting to speak, but still thwarted in that effort, she mentally shouted, But why?
"The answer is simple enough, and I have already explained it to you. We wished to see our boy happy. "
But why Lydia for Wickham? Could you not have found someone else?
"Oh! Did I not explain that part? Honestly, it was most assuredly as clear as glass. Your sister possessed the hidden talents required to settle young George, and he held the ability to see her become a comely young woman. The boy once possessed all proper sort of feelings and behavior. At some point, however, he forgot himself. Jealous of his friend, I believe, and determined to show himself to be of equal importance, in his own way. Once his father and our beloved relation, your husband's father, died, poor young Wickham lost his way. Your sister shall return him to the appropriate path, and he shall set her to rights, as well. Watch and you shall see."
It was too much. Poor Elizabeth's felt as if her head might explode. She moved her hands to the back of her neck and attempted to knead the tension from her muscles.
"Do not trouble yourself, Mrs. Darcy. I promise you, it shall all work out in the end. Patience is the only thing required on your part, that, and, perhaps, a few pounds to assist the young couple, until they settle themselves."
At that moment, Elizabeth heard a shout from the end of the hallway, where it adjoined the passage to the yellow sitting room. Her eyes flew up to the portrait, which whispered in response. "All will be well. Your husband arrives. Straighten your habiliments and hair, girl; you wish to retain his admiration, do you not?"
Her eyes bugging out, Mrs. Darcy did as told, and set about smoothing the silk of her skirt and tightening a loosened curl or two. She looked up to discover her husband rapidly striding down the passage, approaching her, concern clear in his drawn features. "Elizabeth, at last!" He pulled her to him and held her tightly. "We have been searching everywhere for you."
She relished the feel of his arms comforting her, and, as she inhaled his pleasing, masculine scent; it helped to calm her, allowing her breathing to return to a more normal rhythm. They stood clasping one another for an extended period, until he released her and stepped back, encompassing her hands within his own, in order to study her. "Are you well?'
Fearful that she could not speak, Elizabeth still made the attempt, "As you see." The words left her lips well formed and in a pleasant tone, with only the smallest of quavers apparent.
"We were so worried. How long have you been here?'
"For quite some time." Her eyes darted up to glimpse the lady in the painting.
Darcy followed her gaze and smiled. "I see you have found my friend."
"Permit me to introduce you." With a bow and an exaggerated flourish, he presented his progenitor to his wife. "Mrs. Darcy, Lady Rhona Neale, my great, great, grandmother. When I was a child, she kept me strictly on the straight and narrow."
Slipping his arm around his wife's shoulders, keeping her close against his side, he allowed his eyes to rest happily upon the woman in the portrait. "Well, I know it shall sound rather odd, but when I was young, I would come and sit and tell her my troubles."
"Di-did she answer you, advise you?"
He quirked an eyebrow, looking down questioningly at his wife, but proceeded to answer her peculiar question. "Not at all, she merely offered me a friendly ear to unburden my heart."
"But she did not guide you in how to attend to your quandaries?"
Darcy let out a hearty laugh. "Elizabeth, it is but a painting. How would it respond to the tears of a child?"
"Yes, of course, you are correct; how very silly of me." She moved more tightly against her husband's warmth, still feeling the unsettling effects of the conversation, real or imagined, she had so recently completed. Turning her face toward his, she offered Darcy a small, penitent smile. "Forgive me; I fear my imagination has flown away with me this day."
Twisting slightly, he placed one hand on her shoulder while lifting her chin with the other and examined her carefully. "You look tired, my love. Would you wish to rest? I shall not have you falling ill while so newly under my care, or ever for that matter, not if I am able to prevent it."
Her eyes again flicked in the direction of the painting and she shivered. "Yes, perhaps that would be best."
He offered her his arm, which she took, gladly. As he led her away from the gallery, she turned her eyes one last time toward the rendering of Lady Neale. What she saw made her gasp and move closer toward her husband's protection. The woman, forever locked in oil on canvas, winked at Elizabeth, as her painted lips formed to impart an air borne kiss of farewell.