"If you want this lady to be your queen, you must be married. Unless you are already married to her, which is why I asked about the rites," Mr. Busbee explained.
It was on the tip of Darcy's tongue to say that he was already married to Elizabeth, but as Elizabeth was unaware of their wedding in Darcinia, he was compelled to offer a different, and more widely accepted, version of the truth about their marital status, and say no.
"Well then, we must see to that right away. Who will be your witnesses?"
"I will!" cried the Colonel and Georgiana in concert, and Georgiana scurried over from her pawn's square to stand next to Elizabeth. The Colonel swung himself down from his horse and walked heavily over to stand beside his cousin, whom he nearly yanked off his throne, and slapped encouragingly on the back, not considering the pain to be inflicted by a stone-clad hand. Darcy could hardly refrain from flinching.
"Very good, very good. Now, stand beside the lady, if you please. On her right," the vicar directed, and Darcy hurried to comply. Elizabeth looked at him with questions in her eyes, and Darcy could not help but smile widely at her.
"You have no objection, I hope, Miss Bennet?" he asked, forcing himself not to cringe outwardly when he realized that as proposals go, that was not far short of his first one - not counting the one in Darcinia - as far as arrogance went.
"Well, I am of age, so I suppose I do not need my father's consent, but I do not know that this ceremony will be binding without a license," Elizabeth laughed.
"We can have another one later," Darcy replied, shocking both Elizabeth and himself. Elizabeth recovered first.
"Mr. Darcy, you have finally acquired a facility of badinage."
Darcy smiled and shrugged. "I must own some chagrin that my aunt's advice about practicing seems to have been quite sound, then," he replied, earning a laugh from Elizabeth.
"Ahem," Mr. Busbee cleared his throat to draw their attention back to the matter at hand. "If we can get started..."
"Yes sir," Darcy said with the respect for the man that had been drummed into him as a child.
The minister began the service.
"Dearly bedighted, we are gathered here in the sight of the the board, and in the face of these players, to join together this King and this Queen in chess matrimony, which is an honorable estate, instituted on the board in the game's first gambits, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt power and strategy, which strategic estate provides a tactical advantage, and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's delusions of superiority and mastery, like pawns with limited mobility, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of defeat, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained."
Darcy had written a curious account in his journal of his wedding to Elizabeth in Darcinia, particularly dwelling on the changes Miss Bingley had made to the rites. She had omitted the part where the bride is given away, and the part where objections are accepted. She had also changed the vows - unlike the rites in the Book of Common Prayer, in Miss Bingley's ceremony it was the groom who pledged obedience to the bride. When he thought of it in relation to a marriage to Miss Bingley, Darcy found the alterations chilling, and yet, he had been able to see humor in it then, when it was Elizabeth who had been his Darcinian bride. However, compared to the opening of this second wedding to Elizabeth, Miss Bingley's delusional edition of the rites appeared only a trifle whimsical. Darcy could barely keep from laughing.
The rites continued.
"First, it was ordained so that the King, whose value in the game is infinite, but whose power as a piece is limited, might be protected by one whose power is greater than the others, and who is devoted to protecting the King from all who would try to defeat him.
"Secondly, it was ordained in order to provide a powerful offensive force against the opposing king, and to bring him to his knees in surrender."
"Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in attack and defense. Into which strategic estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore, if any chessman can shew any just cause, why they may not be strategically joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter hold his peace."
The minister paused, as was customary, and to his great surprise - and annoyance - Darcy heard his cousin Anne's voice raised in objection.
"Mother will be most displeased," stated Anne de Bourgh dispassionately. The entire company turned to stare at her.
Darcy had not noticed when the whirlwind had come and arranged his forces that it had made adjustments to his cousin Anne's position as well. In truth, after his game against Malone had ended, Darcy had barely given Anne another moment's thought. But she had been changed, too, and was now on the far corner of the board, alone in the ranks of where the black pieces belonged. Instead of a queen, she was now a rook; she wore a black gown, whose details were difficult to make out in the shadowy light thrown by the braziers, particularly at such a distance. Instead of a crown, she now wore an armored helmet on her head, which she appeared to find heavy as she was propping her head up with her hands. She was sitting in an attitude similar to the way she had first appeared to Darcy that night - she was perched atop a black stone wall, a circular one, sort of a tower, or a pedestal, much like the typical chess rook Darcy was familiar with, only without the crenellated edge.
"Mother likes it when I am your queen, since she thinks you should marry me." Anne shrugged, and to Darcy's ears, she did not sound much like she cared at all whether or not her mother's desires were met. She had never seemed to care very much in the real world, either, which was very convenient to Darcy, as he would have felt cruel in disappointing her hopes in a way that he did not feel any remorse for disappointing her mother's. "Mother is going to be angry with you."
Darcy turned to face Mr. Busbee. "Is this an objection that can prevent the ceremony from proceeding?"
"Pish tosh," Mr. Busbee said, to Darcy's surprise and amusement - and relief, and the ceremony resumed. The vicar began to address Darcy and Elizabeth directly.
"I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the fateful judgment at the end of the game, when the winners and losers shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be strategically joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it. For be ye well assured, that so many as are coupled together otherwise than the Game's Word doth allow are not joined together by The Game, neither is their Matrimony lawful, and their wins may be forfeit.
Neither Darcy nor Elizabeth offered any impediment.
"King Fitzwilliam Darcy, wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded Queen, to play together after the Game's ordinance in the strategic estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor her, and protect her from capture, while accepting also her aid in winning the game, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, till chess do you part?
Darcy had to choke back his laughter as he said, "I will."
"Queen Elizabeth Bennet, Wilt thou have this Man to they wedded King, to play together after the Game's ordinance in the strategic estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey his direction in the game, and serve his strategy, love, honor, and keep him from defeat, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, till chess do you part?
Darcy heard the suppressed mirth in Elizabeth's "I will."
Mr. Busbee addressed the white pieces who had gathered around, "Who giveth this Woman to be married to this Man?"
There was an awkward silence, as none there had the authority to perform such an office, but finally Mr. Church spoke up, his voice betraying his nervousness at the responsibility he was assuming.
"Very good, lad," Mr. Busbee congratulated him. Then, clearing his throat in an attempt to regain his gravity, he took Elizabeth's right hand and placed it in Darcy's, and directed Darcy to repeat the vows after him.
"I King Fitzwilliam, take thee Queen Elizabeth, to my wedded Queen, to have and to hold from this day forward, in winning and losing, for victory or defeat, in attack and defense, to love and to cherish, till chess do us part, according to the Game's strategic ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth."
Darcy spoke his vows with firm conviction, in spite of the oddness of the sentiments avowed, for there were those among the lines he recited that he meant with all sincerity: to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, to plight his troth to Elizabeth.
It was then Elizabeth's turn to make her vows, and Darcy gazed intensely into her eyes as she spoke her promises in a clear, steady voice, trying as he might to discern her true feelings through those fine, beautiful orbs. Her sentiments he could not read, but her loveliness entranced him.
"I Queen Elizabeth, take thee, King Fitzwilliam to my wedded King, to have and to hold from this day forward, in winning and losing, for victory or defeat, in attack and defense, to love, cherish, and obey your directions, till chess do us part, according to the Game's strategic ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth."
Darcy could not prevent a contented sigh from escaping; Elizabeth heard it and, when he feared she would laugh at him, she only smiled. It was not one of her arch smiles, or mischievous smiles, but a genuine, open, warm, friendly smile. Looking into her eyes, Darcy's heart felt suddenly light; he knew that he had won her. She did not love him yet, but something in his heart told him that she would. It was not vanity that told him so, but the love in his heart recognizing something in her eyes, something that was real, not the imagined interest that he had seen there in the spring before his disastrous proposal. He smiled at her and received in return a faint glimmer of the kind of smile that he knew she reserved for those she cared for.
Darcy's attention was called back to the minister when he was asked for the ring. He was at a loss; he had no ring. For a moment he found himself wishing that he had brought with him the rings from their Darcinian wedding, but it was an absurd notion; he could have had no reason to think he would be getting married to Elizabeth again in the Looking Glass World, and even had he known, he would not have wanted to give Elizabeth's ring to the Looking Glass Elizabeth and thereby have it lost to that world. It was only with that thought that Darcy recalled that it was not his Elizabeth to whom he was currently pledging himself, and his enthusiasm for the ceremony dimmed, but just as he was beginning to feel as if he was committing an act of unfaithfulness to his love he recalled what he had just pledged, to take her as his chess queen until the end of the game. And as her reflection, this really was a part of Elizabeth, and loving her only meant loving Elizabeth more completely.
It was at this point that Darcy was glad that Mr. Busbee's clearing of his throat again interrupted his thoughts. Truly, trying to consider all the permutations of things in the Looking Glass World could drive one mad.
Just when Darcy was about to confess that he had no ring for his queen, he felt a subtle pressure in the palm of his hand and looked down, and there, to his great surprise, was a small box; he knew instinctively what it contained. Opening it, his conjectures were confirmed; inside on a tiny pillow of velvet rested a delicate silver band encircled with diamonds. He was somewhat surprised that it was not the ring he had given her at their Darcinian wedding, the one he had retrieved from his solicitor before leaving London, and had spent a great deal of time holding in his hand and contemplating since then, but then he recalled that Elizabeth was the white queen, and silver with diamonds would blend better with her ensemble than the gold ring with its more colorful stones would. He wished it was that other ring, though, even if it did not make sense to him that he should.
Darcy placed the ring on the open book of the now visibly impatient Mr. Busbee, and then, as directed, placed it on Elizabeth's finger as he once again repeated the proper words after the vicar.
"With this Ring I thee wed, with my Gambits I thee direct, and with all my powers of strategy I thee endow, in the name of the Game of Chess. Amen."
Darcy could not resists the urge to give Elizabeth's hand a little squeeze, and was pleased when she returned the gesture, but they were quickly forced to release their hold when Mr. Busbee directed them to kneel.
"O Eternal Game," the vicar intoned, his hands outstretched over their heads, "Master of the game, arbiter of rules and fair moves, bestower of victory, Send thy blessing upon these thy servants, this King and this Queen, whom we bless in thy name, so that these persons may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, (whereof this Ring given and received is a token and pledge,) and may ever remain in perfect love and victory together, and live according to thy rules, through the Game of Chess. Amen."
Then Mr. Busbee reached down and joined their hands together.
"Those whom The Game hath joined, let no opponent put asunder. Forasmuch as King Fitzwilliam and Queen Elizabeth have consented together in strategic Wedlock, and have witnessed the same before The Board and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth either to the other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a Ring, and by joining of hands; I pronounce that they be King and Queen together, In the Name of the Game of Chess. Amen."
As he finished the declaration, the white pieces all cheered, and the pawns' caps were flung in the air, and in the midst of all of this commotion, Darcy grabbed Elizabeth by both hands and pulled her to him, and placed on her lips a tender, yet fervent kiss. It was all he had ever hoped it would be, and he could not repress the look of heartfelt delight that transformed his features with a grin such as had never graced that countenance.
"Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth exclaimed in astonishment, her cheeks pinking in a most becoming blush.
"You may call me King Fitzwilliam, my dearest queen," he said with a mischievous smile that would have done Elizabeth proud.
"We are not really married, King Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth said in an undertone that was designed to be unheard by the other 'pieces,' a slight frown turning down the corners of her mouth, but a delightful smile twinkling in her eyes. She had not moved away from him after the kiss, and Darcy could not but believe that by remaining in his close proximity - still in kissing distance - she was telling him that she did not mind the liberty he had taken. He would have taken another had his cousin not at that moment pounded him jovially on the back with his stone-gauntleted hand.
"Congratulations, cousin, you are a very lucky man. Miss Bennet - my apologies, Queen Elizabeth, welcome to the family. I hate to interrupt your tender moment, but the troops must be addressed. They require instruction in the ways of the enemy, who will not, I fear, abide by the rules of combat - I mean, the game. I would be honored to take on the responsibility of informing them, O my king, if you would but grant me the privilege."
Darcy, not knowing anything at all about the ways of the enemy, at least not as regards her chess strategies, was more than willing to bestow the responsibility of drilling their side for the game on someone more prepared in that respect, and thus the Colonel gathered all of the white pieces around him to brief them. For Darcy, it was not an encouraging speech.
"My noble comrades," Fitzwilliam began, his voice managing to be at once authoritative and hushed, with the view, Darcy suspected, of not allowing Anne to overhear his remarks, "The hour draws near when we shall face a wily, devious, unscrupulous enemy on the field of contest, an enemy who will stop at nothing to avoid defeat, will scoff at the rules of the game, and will not hesitate to use illegal means to win the day. The enemy has no honor, only a selfish desire for victory, no matter the cost. But we, my friends, have on our side not only honor, but superior skill, strength, and intellect. She may choose to attack without justification, and we will surely defend our ranks, but we shall not stoop to retaliate in kind, we shall follow the rules as much as we are able. But be on your guard at every moment - she shall not have any such compunction. Be prepared even when you are in the position of capturing one of her pieces; her minions would deny your rights, and you must not only defend your position, but make sure to win the skirmish. Just remember - go for the eyes and the feet, and watch out for the tongue. All right then, take your squares, and be ready for your King's commands. All hail King Darcy!"
The white pieces joined in the salute of their king, and then the pieces all moved to take their places. Darcy grabbed his cousin's arm before the knight could mount his horse.
"What the blazes was all that about?" he asked.
"Lady Catherine cheats," Fitzwilliam stated bluntly, and swung himself up into his saddle with an ease that was impressive given his stone attire. "Oh, and I know that you two would like to spend the game gazing into each other's eyes in newlywed bliss, but I recommend you pay attention to the match. Time enough for lovemaking when the contest is won - not only your own safety but that of your entire ranks depend on your thorough vigilance, and I remind you that you cannot afford to lose, not if you have chosen Miss Bennet - sorry, Queen Elizabeth here for your bride."
This speech filled Darcy with mortification, and the crimson color of Elizabeth's countenance confirmed that she felt the same. They did not speak as Darcy escorted her to her square, though it was with great reluctance that he released her hand to mount his throne. Before he sat down he noticed that there was a scepter on the seat, a heavy, marble piece which he supposed he must be intended to use as his weapon if he was forced to engage in some of the token combat that seemed the custom of the game there. He noticed that all of his players had some kind of weapon, whether it be a staff, a club, or a sword. Even Elizabeth and Georgiana had found implements of combat waiting for them on their respective squares, though he could tell that they regarded them with trepidation. Darcy was relieved that Georgiana was in one of the squares away from the center, as he felt she might be safest there, though a part of him wished that she might be kept in one of the squares closest to him, that he might defend her if the need arose. That, however, would be cheating, and if she had been assigned one of the center squares she would have been involved too much in the opening of the game, as he liked to move those pieces early. And at least she was directly in front of Fitzwilliam, who could be counted on to protect her. Darcy's worries for his sister were slightly assuaged, though, when Georgiana turned to him and gave him a bright smile. He recalled again that Fitzwilliam the centaur had told him that nothing in the Looking Glass World could truly harm her, and then reflected ruefully on the number of times the circumstances of the evening had forced him to remember that fact, not just in relation to Georgiana, but Elizabeth, and even now Miss Bingley. The evening's events had not been the carefree walk in the park that his heart wished him to consider it.
Just as Darcy turned to Elizabeth to talk to her - about what, he had not given much forethought - a breeze rustled across the chessboard providing the only warning of what was to come. A roaring filled the air, and a funnel cloud dropped from the sky on the black side of the board; it swirled and writhed there for a few seconds before dispersing, leaving behind the full complement of the enemy's forces - Lady Catherine and her chessmen had arrived.
Posted on: 2009-11-19
There was a certain uniformity in the black pieces, as all but three of them were giant Collins-toads. In the row of pawns they wore the tunics and the usual round caps of the pawns, which, next to their bulging eyes, gave a three-knobbed appearance to their heads; Bishops' robes and miters, of course, adorned the Bishops, which Darcy supposed must be very gratifying to the vanity of the Collins-toads; most peculiar of all were the knights, which wore comical horse-head helmets atop their amphibian heads, blocking their eyes and wobbling precariously whenever either of the two knights moved. The second rook, the one that was not Anne, was a black stone replica of Rosings, and did not fit properly on its square. Mrs. Jenkinson, Anne de Bourgh's companion, was roosting precariously on the roof wearing a voluminous black robe and a terrified expression as she clung desperately to one of the chimneys. The black king was a frowning portrait of Lady Catherine's late husband, Sir Lewis de Bourgh, propped up on an easel. The queen, of course, was Lady Catherine herself, still attired in the red and black dress from earlier in the evening, still wearing the absurd crown that teetered on top of her monumental hair, and still perched on her throne.
"Ugh - she brought the toad warriors," Fitzwilliam said with unmistakable disgust, which suggested to Darcy that there were other creatures or persons Lady Catherine might have brought with her as chessmen. Certainly the Collins-toads seemed like a fitting choice as pawns to his aunt, even if they did not appear in his mind to be ideal candidates for a game of war - he almost laughed when he remembered that Miss Mary Bennet had informed them that a group of frogs was called an army. It seemed an ill-fitting designation when applied to Lady Catherine's forces. Darcy was curious if he also had different complements of pieces for his apparently numerous matches with her ladyship, as he had others for playing against his neighbor, but to ask Fitzwilliam something he ought to already know - again - would look foolish, and he chose not to indulge his curiosity for a matter of no moment. His usual queen, at least, he already knew was Anne de Bourgh, a circumstance of no pleasure to either, it would seem. At the very least, as reluctant as he was to be playing now, he was pleased to have Elizabeth beside him as his chess queen.
"Why does she get a throne, and you get a throne, and I do not?" Elizabeth whispered to Darcy in mock indignation - or at least, he thought it was feigned. Having no answer to that, he could only shrug in response.
Lady Catherine, once the wind had ceased completely and she was settled, could be seen to survey her troops with pride, until her eye rested on Anne, perched upon her tower.
"Anne!" Lady Catherine thundered, nearly toppling the portrait of her husband and the head wear of the two Collins-toads between herself and her daughter, "What are you doing up there! You are Darcy's queen! Collins! Assist Anne in descending from that undignified perch, and escort her to her rightful place as the queen of Pemberley!"
All of the Collins-toads immediately began to hop towards Anne's tower, creating a chaotic melange as the toads either tripped over their tunics or collided with each other, or other objects, due to limited visibility. The Sir Lewis portrait crashed over the head of one of the hapless black minions, creating an unfortunate, if amusing, impression of a framed painting of a Collins-toad in a powdered wig.
Lady Catherine shrieked in dismay at the disrespectful display, and shouted "Off with his head!" bonking the offending Collins on top of his squishy pate with her scepter. He immediately collapsed, only to be hopped over by the remaining Collins-toads who still sought, however ineptly, to assist Miss de Bourgh at their patroness's behest. Titters of laughter emerged from the row of white pawns, but Colonel Fitzwilliam admonished them in a low voice to be still.
"Cousin Darcy does not want me for his queen, mother," Anne sighed with disinterest, "He found another queen, one he likes better."
Lady Catherine sucked in her breath in a long, drawn-out gasp, and turned a furious gaze on Darcy. A deep red flush traveled up her neck and face as if she were a vessel being filled with red wine.
"OFF WITH HIS HEAD!" she cried.
This command did not produce the effect she wished; in fact, it produced no effect. Having not directed it to anyone in particular, her minions only looked around, blinking their large, bulbous eyes from the pile at the foot of Anne's tower. Anne sniffled delicately and dabbed her nose with a handkerchief. Looking about her in rage at her disordered troops, Lady Catherine apparently realized that no one was so capable as she of carrying out her orders, and jumped from her throne with surprising nimbleness, and stormed across the chess board towards Darcy, stepping viciously on a few flippered feet as she passed. A tempo of metallic clangs rang out sharply as Lady Catherine's scepter struck the stones of the board with each step she took, until she was only one square away from the row of white pawns, who were shifting uneasily on their squares, not knowing if they were meant to try to fend her off, or to let her pass.
The decision was forestalled when Lady Catherine slipped on the polished stone that made up the board and skidded towards them; the king's and queen's pawns jumped out of the way before she could knock them down like bowling pins, and Lady Catherine came to rest with a thump at the foot of Darcy's throne. All Darcy could see of her was a pair of wildly kicking feet among multitudes of petticoats; her speech was muffled so that he could not hear what she was shouting, either, but there was no mistaking her anger. Allowing himself one brief laugh, which was echoed by Elizabeth at his left side, Darcy motioned to his pawns to assist the fallen monarch to her feet.
Lady Catherine was not unduly grateful for her restoration to an upright posture, if not to her habitual dignity; the pawns who had come to her aid received whacks from the folded fan that hung from her wrist, as compensation for their gallantry. The lady fussed with her skirts and hair for a moment before looking up at her nephew, who was waiting patiently for an explosion of wrath, smiling in a manner that would have terrified any small child so unfortunate to have such an expression bestowed upon him. It did not quail Darcy, but he did feel wary of what such a sinisterly conciliating expression could portend.
He did not get an opportunity to find out. Lady Catherine's gaze flicked over to Elizabeth, and it was clear that she was noticing for the first time exactly whom Darcy had chosen for his queen; the pawn who stood in front of Elizabeth was both tall and broad, and had apparently blocked Lady Catherine's view from her throne across the board, and Darcy suspected that her vision was no better than her hearing.
"You! Why, you cannot be Darcy's queen!" Lady Catherine boomed at Elizabeth.
"And yet, I am, ma'am," Elizabeth coolly replied. Darcy could not prevent the smile that twitched his lips.
"It is impossible! Darcy would never choose you, a woman of inferior birth, over his cousin Anne! Did you not hear me say that Anne is meant to be his queen?" Lady Catherine shouted, her face returning to its previous crimson hue.
"Yes, I did hear you say it, but it is patently absurd for you to insist on it, when it is obvious that Mr. Darcy feels differently."
Darcy was on the point of interjecting to spare Elizabeth his aunt's wrath, but Elizabeth cast him a look that made him pause; she did not need his assistance - yet. At any rate, his aunt had focused all of her venom on Elizabeth.
"Insolent girl! If he thinks he feels differently then it is because you have used your arts and allurements to draw him in! Otherwise he would not fail to do his duty to his cousin and accept her as the Queen of Pemberley for all time."
"Or perhaps he knows his own mind and chooses to follow his own inclination instead of yours. For my part, I have done nothing to, as you say, draw him in-"
"... though I am honored to have been chosen to play his queen for this contest."
"And I must say I commend his taste," interjected Colonel Fitzwilliam with a gallant smile that earned an acknowledging nod from Elizabeth, and caused a twinge of jealousy to pluck at Darcy's heart. The reaction from Lady Catherine was exceedingly uncivil.
"Hold your insolent tongue, Fitzwilliam! If you were a proper nephew you would be marshaling my forces, instead of leaving me with a pack of toads. If either of you were proper nephews, this game would be unnecessary! And you-" Lady Catherine turned her wrath upon poor Colonel Darcy, who reddened in embarrassment at the notice drawn to him, "You are not my nephew, but as the nephew of my sister's husband you are a near enough connection that you also ought to give your allegiance to me! The younger generation these days know nothing about duty, honor, or family loyalty!"
Colonel Fitzwilliam merely chuckled at this diatribe, Colonel Darcy averted his gaze as if by doing so he could avoid notice of her ladyship's words, and Darcy ignored it; Lady Catherine turned her wrath back to Elizabeth.
"I insist that you withdraw from the game."
"I beg your pardon, madam, but I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request."
"Withdraw or else, you foolish, headstrong girl!"
"I cannot and will not - I have made a vow, and I intend to honor it."
"Do you know who I am? Do you know the power I wield? I am not accustomed to language such as this! I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment!"
"Well, bully for you."
Lady Catherine was not the only person who gasped at this juncture. Her knuckles were white as she gripped her scepter.
"I will not allow you to proceed as my nephew's queen!"
"Aunt-" Darcy finally intervened, but Lady Catherine only screeched the louder.
"Once and for all, will you leave the board and make way for my daughter?"
"I will not."
"OFF WITH HER HEAD!" Lady Catherine shrieked, swinging her scepter in an arc over her crown, aiming directly at the top of Elizabeth's head.
Caroline Bingley stumbled through the blackness of the forest, grumbling unladylike epithets, which she had learned from her brother-in-law, at her sister. Louisa had not seen fit to mention that the magically appearing tea room would not magically appear in the same place it had been before, and that they would have to walk a considerable distance to reach it - when it reappeared - which, to Caroline's way of thinking, made rather moot the intention of repairing there for a rest before trekking off into the woods to find her erstwhile companions, and she was particularly put out that it had taken so long for Louisa to explain it all to her. She would certainly have adjusted her plans had she known they would be spending so much time when she could be searching for her prey, looking for a place to sit and rest before setting of to search for her prey. And then, to realize that she had no notion where to find Mr. and Miss Darcy out of the entire vast range of their property did not soothe her temper. Nor did the worry that they would return to the real world without her. It was only after a lengthy quarrel with Louisa, in which she had to conceal the reason she needed to find the Darcys, that it was decided that they would return to the house to wait for them, Louisa knowing the way to get there. Caroline could only assume that the Darcys, wherever they had gone off to with Eliza Bennet, would eventually return to the house in order to make their way back through the mirror, and so Caroline intended to wait on the terrace until they returned.
Under the circumstances, the fact that she noticed that Louisa had no difficulty in navigating her way around the multifarious obstacles that lurked in the dark woods did not put her in greater charity with her sister. Caroline was definitely of the mind that if she was miserable, everyone else ought to be miserable as well. She screamed in frustration as she walked straight into yet another bramble bush.
"Gah! Louisa, why is it that you have no difficulty avoiding all the roots that keep tripping me, and the branches that keep poking me, and the thorns that scratch me and tear my gown? Is it really necessary to come this way? Is there not a path somewhere? Really, this is too much to be borne!"
Louisa turned back to look at her sister, and though Caroline could not see the expression on her face, she did see instantly why her sister was sailing through the forest as easily as she could tread a gravel garden path in the middle of the afternoon; a pair of reflective cats' eyes shone out at her from Louisa's face.
"You should have remained a ferret, Caroline, you always see better at night through your ferret eyes."
Caroline screamed in frustration and dragged herself out of the thorn bush, stomping past her sister.
She could have sworn she heard Louisa mumble as she passed, "You are better company as a ferret, too."
But perhaps it was an accident, then, that Caroline let a tree branch fly back into her sister's face as she pushed her way through the dark woods.
Lady Catherine's weapon was not permitted to make contact with Elizabeth's cranium. It was stopped with a resonating clang by two swords, one metal, and one stone, each wielded by one of the raging dowager's nephews. The lady then screamed in frustration as the two men each grabbed one of her arms and dragged her, her heels leaving dark scuff marks as they alternately crossed white squares, back to her own square where they deposited her, less gently than her age, rank, and relationship to them should have allowed, back on her throne.
Darcy was livid. It was one thing for his aunt to say uncivil things to Elizabeth; she was always saying uncivil things to people, and it was generally prudent to let her have her say and be done with it, as she was a person who never would admit that any opinion other than her own could be correct. He was uncomfortable allowing Elizabeth to stand her abuse, but he was also painfully aware that support for Elizabeth would only have made her ladyship more angry and abusive. It was a fine line he had been treading, and one he had been in the practice of treading for many years. But the real world Lady Catherine and the Looking Glass Lady Catherine were not identical beings, and the real world Lady Catherine would not have attempted to use physical violence against Elizabeth; at the moment his Looking Glass Aunt had crossed that line, his innate consideration for her position and feelings had been abandoned, replaced by fury and a need to protect the lady he loved. It mattered not that it was not the real Elizabeth that he had been protecting, nor that Lady Catherine could not have hurt her - after all, in the morning when the real Elizabeth looked in the mirror to fix her hair, or perform whatever other morning ritual she might need a mirror for, she would still have a reflection, and that reflection would be as uninjured as the original it represented. But Darcy would never choose his aunt over Elizabeth, and insult to Elizabeth hardened his heart to his aunt. He gave Fitzwilliam a look that sent his cousin back to his horse.
"Elizabeth is to be my queen," Darcy stated to his aunt in a low voice with a calm that belied his anger, "and you will kindly show her the respect that office deserves. I will brook no further attacks on her person or her character."
"How can you insult your dear cousin this way? You are to be married to her!"
"No, I am not. I..." Darcy paused, deciding what level of truth was owed to this version of his aunt. He leaned close to her and spoke so that only she could hear. "I am married to Elizabeth Bennet." It was true, in a certain light, though Darcy wondered if he should have called her by a different name, like Mrs. Darcy. Elizabeth Darcy. At the thought he could not repress a smile.
Lady Catherine was less charmed by whatever thoughts were running through her mind. She sucked in a gasp through clenched teeth.
"Impossible! What about Anne?"
"What about me, Mother?" Anne whined. "Why have you never asked me what I want? I do not want to be Fitzwilliam's queen. I do not like Fitzwilliam. I do not even like chess."
"You do not know what you want! None of you know what is best for yourselves, that is why your mothers have made these matches! Darcy, tell me it is not true!"
"It is true. I love Elizabeth, and..." Darcy hesitated again. He felt an overwhelming urge to say something, anything that would be a dagger to his aunt's heart, but in the end, he could not. What would be the point? It occurred to him that he would very likely have to have a similar talk with his aunt in the real world if his suit with the real Elizabeth was successful, and he had a chance to marry her for the third time - but the first real wedding. The thought briefly entered his head that if he failed, he might have to continue seeking out alternate worlds in which to marry Elizabeth, but something told him that he was finally going to win her for real. "...and I married her right before you arrived."
"Oh, fiddle dee dee - if you just married her for the game, then I shall not worry. It is only a chess match." Lady Catherine smiled smugly, a most unattractive expression, but one not unfamiliar to Darcy.
"There is no need for you to worry, because it does not concern you, but I will inform you now that I intend to make it a permanent arrangement as soon as I can. If you cannot accept that, I suggest that you take your parson...s, and leave Pemberley immediately."
"Oh, we shall leave, after we have defeated you and your queen - and you know the forfeit I will demand of you when I win! A very permanent arrangement." Lady Catherine smiled wickedly. Darcy returned a look of unconcern.
"And when I win, I will demand an apology for Elizabeth. Now, I believe we have a chess match to play. Kindly prepare your ranks; such delays really are bad form." And with that Darcy turned his back on her, hoping she would not strike at him from behind, and returned to his own side of the board without a backward glance.
As Lady Catherine scolded the Collins-toads into a proper order behind him, Darcy surveyed his own ranks while he approached. The white pieces all wore grave expressions, and Darcy was chagrined to note Fitzwilliam having to comfort Georgiana, who had always been afraid of their aunt. Georgiana turned to her brother as he drew nearer, and gave him a shaky smile, and he decided to leave her to Fitzwilliam's care; the Colonel had always been better at bolstering her courage than her overprotective older brother. Elizabeth, he was relieved and amazed to note, looked perfectly at her ease, and was talking to Mr. Busbee with a countenance of complete unconcern. She turned to Darcy, however, when he arrived at his own square, uncertain whether to broach the subject of his aunt's attacks or merely retake his seat. Truth be told, he was rather embarrassed by the things his aunt had accused Elizabeth of doing, and completely mortified by her violent behavior. It had been uncomfortable enough in Kent when his real aunt had behaved so rudely to Elizabeth; trying to assault her was infinitely worse, and he could not think of words that were adequate to the situation. Elizabeth met him at the boundary between his square and hers.
Elizabeth, as usual, demonstrated greater aplomb.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy, for coming to my rescue. I fear you must now be questioning my fitness to be your chess queen, as I did not acquit myself well under attack, but please believe that when the game begins, and I am not subject to an ambush from an unexpected quarter, I shall, I hope, show greater mettle."
Elizabeth's charm as she, unbelievably, apologized for her shortcomings, was disarming. Darcy reached for her hands, and her eyes grew wide; it occurred to Darcy that she thought him about to kiss her again. He could not tell if she would welcome it if he did, but it was not his intention.
"Miss Bennet... Elizabeth... Queen Elizabeth... about my aunt... How can I ever make amends for such behavior?"
"Why must you make amends? You take too much upon yourself, Mr. Darcy. You are not responsible for your relations' freaks of behavior. But perhaps an admission that I am not the only one with embarrassing family would not be amiss."
The impish curl of her lips as she said this was a nearly irresistible invitation to Darcy to kiss her; having done so once, he found he could not wait to do it again, but he contented himself with replying to her that he had some family members he was positively mortified to own. She looked satisfied, in a humorous way, and would have returned to her position, but Darcy would not relinquish her hands and she faced him with an inquisitive look.
"Was there something else, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth asked with the arch smile that had intrigued him since the very beginning of their acquaintance.
"Yes, Elizabeth, I-"
But he was not to be given a chance to finish, for suddenly Lady Catherine's voice boomed out across the board.
"Let the game begin!"
Darcy, who by the rules ought to have moved first as he was playing the white pieces, was on the point of instructing one of his pawns to advance two spaces when Lady Catherine prodded the toad in front of her with her scepter and admonished him, "You... go over there and attack that man."
Darcy stood up from his throne. "Excuse me, Lady Catherine, but it is not your turn. White moves first."
"Nonsense, Darcy - where are your manners? A lady always goes first. Have more respect for your elders!"
Darcy exchanged a look with the Colonel that told Darcy that this was, in part, what his cousin had meant when he said that Lady Catherine did not follow the rules. Lady Catherine prodded the pawn again, as he had stayed his movement when Darcy voiced his objection, and the toad hopped across the squares in front of him, his flippers slapping noisily against the hard stone. When he had gone past the two squares permitted by a piece of his rank, Darcy raised a new objection.
"Lady Catherine, your pawn may only move two spaces at this point in the game."
Colonel Fitzwilliam shot him another look that seemed to question his sanity in making any objection.
"Pish tosh!" Lady Catherine dismissed his protest. "Your pawns may be so weak that they cannot move more than two squares, but my pawns have much stronger constitutions."
By this time the Collins-toad had reached the square in front of Elizabeth, and pawn faced pawn. Based on what appeared to be the rules of the game, the piece to be captured would submit to a ceremonial blow from his captor, and leave the board, but, as it was not a fair capture, Darcy's pawn did not submit. A strapping youth from the Pemberley stables, used to handling horses weighing half a ton, was more than a match for a parson-toad, and when the black pawn feebly swung his stick, the white pawn easily blocked the blow and countered with a whack to the head and a stomp on one flippered foot. The Collins-toad uttered a loud "Urk!" and keeled over.
Lady Catherine screeched with fury as her first loss of the game was hastily removed from the board by two white pawns who then rushed back to their places, and she immediately prodded the next nearest pawn to advance.
"Do I never get a turn?" Darcy asked his cousin, wondering how he was supposed to win the game - indeed, he wondered how his Looking Glass self managed to win as many games as Fitzwilliam had intimated he had done. He wished he knew what his Looking Glass self knew.
"Do not wait for your turn," Fitzwilliam advised, so Darcy instructed his King's pawn to advance.
The two pawns - another Collins-toad and an eager footman from Pemberley - met in the center of the board. This Collins toad was as inept as the last, and though the footman did not have the brawn of the stableman, the outcome of the meeting was essentially the same.
Lady Catherine was by this time seething with rage, and surveyed Darcy's front line. A sinister smile curled her lips and she barked out an order that sent another pawn hopping across the board - straight towards Georgiana.
Caroline sat on a damp log, no longer mindful of the condition of her thoroughly destroyed gown, and rubbed a stocking-clad foot. She was seriously considering burning her slippers when she got back to the real Pemberley; she blamed them for her sore, blistered feet and had begun to loathe them. They were the latest additions to a long list of things - and people - she loathed. Louisa sat on the other end of the log, in cat form, grooming herself in a way that Caroline could not bear to watch, or even think about. They had finally come out of the woods, and the log they were sitting on was on the edge of a meadow full of flowers. It was just the kind of place Caroline would have expected Eliza Bennet to like. Caroline loathed it.
"If only I could wake up and find out that this has all been a dream!" Caroline moaned, and suddenly she started up, the answer having finally come to her in stark clarity. "Louisa!" she cried, her heart beating with urgency and hope. "Turn yourself back into a woman and help me pick some moon daisies!"
Why, exactly, Lady Catherine had chosen this strategy, to attack her niece, Darcy could not tell, but Georgiana looked at him for a long moment with eyes like saucers, and then turned her frightened gaze back to the advancing threat. She was visibly shaking, and Darcy inwardly cursed his aunt - and himself, for allowing his sister to participate in the match. He started from his seat to go to his sister's assistance, but his cousin, without even looking over at him, held up a hand to stay him. Darcy remained on the edge of his seat to see what would happen, reminding himself over and over again that nothing could really harm her.
Georgiana had been excited at the prospect of joining in the game when it had been brought up, but in her enthusiasm she had forgotten one vital fact - she was terrified of her Aunt Catherine. And now it seemed as if her lifetime of terror was completely justified - her Aunt Catherine was sending a giant toad to attack her! Having been a rabbit during the previous game, Georgiana had not been witness to the mild acts of violence committed in the capture of pieces - had she known about that she would not have asked her brother if she could play! The skirmishes she had seen so far in the current match were alarming, and she could not believe she was actually going to have to fight the toad-man! Georgiana wondered about her cousin - and brother - permitting her to participate, and their apparent confidence that she could defend herself... she had to suppress a shudder at the approach of a giant toad. Georgiana had thought Miss Bingley's fright at the sight of the toads in the Coliseum amusing, but now that one was hopping straight at her with evil intent, she could empathize with that fear. A glance at her brother was mildly reassuring; she could tell that he was concerned for her, which did not say much for his confidence in her fighting skills - a lack of confidence that could not offend her, as she shared it - but he did not come to help her, either, and so he must believe she could defeat her attacker. Finally her cousin's speech before the match began to make sense - she had thought it was all just so much rhetoric!
Georgiana took a deep breath and gripped her staff; the toad was halfway across the board, two squares away. She supposed she could go and meet him the way the previous pawn had, but her brother did not tell her to, and so she waited, thinking that she had at least a few more seconds - the time it would take the toad, a most ponderous hopper, to cross the remaining two squares between them.
Alas, this toad had either learned from the defeat of his comrades, or was too lazy to complete his advance, for he stopped at the halfway point and shot out his tongue to grab the staff right out of Georgiana's hands. As she had not expected the maneuver, she was startled into releasing her grip.
"EEK!" Georgiana screamed, and jumped backwards as her weapon was yanked from her hands and sent clattering across the board. The toad-pawn then resumed his plodding advance, and Georgiana's heart leaped into her throat. She heard movement behind her, a gasp from Elizabeth, and her cousin's voice.
"Steady, Darcy," the Colonel said in a grim, yet strangely heartening tone. Georgiana felt something being pressed into her hand; someone had given her a new staff. She heard her aunt chortle with glee.
It was the chortle that did it.
It is hard to like a person whom you fear, and Georgiana did not like her aunt. Her brother had often tried to coax her out of her timidity where Lady Catherine was concerned, telling her that if she could find it in her to stand up to the she-dragon who constantly criticized her, and interrogated her about everything from her studies to her sleep habits, then Lady Catherine would respect her for it and begin to treat her, well, not with more consideration, because Lady Catherine did not treat very many people with consideration, but at least not as such a helpless, weak child. Georgiana was aware that Elizabeth Bennet possessed an innate ability to withstand Lady Catherine's verbal assaults; her brother had told her stories about Elizabeth's visits to Rosings, and Georgiana had just witnessed the interaction between them herself, before the chess match began. Elizabeth's refusal to be cowed by the domineering woman was clearly one of the things Fitzwilliam admired about Elizabeth. Indeed, it was one of the reasons Georgiana had been so curious to meet Elizabeth - and, truthfully, why she had been a little nervous about the meeting as well. Elizabeth could have turned out to be a rather fearsome female herself. But she was, instead, perfectly charming, and as much as Georgiana had already developed a wish to be more like her, it was her fearlessness in the face of the terror that was Lady Catherine de Bourgh that surged to the fore when that wicked aunt chortled in the face of her niece's distress.
Elizabeth Bennet would never let Lady Catherine de Bourgh chortle over her fear. Elizabeth Bennet would not have any fear over which Lady Catherine could chortle. Georgiana Darcy drew herself up to her greatest height, which was not inconsiderable, the Darcys being a tall people. She would NOT succumb to her Aunt Catherine's tyranny and terrorism. Not anymore.
Gripping her new staff, Georgiana marched forward to meet the toad on the square before hers, and before the loathsome creature could react to her unexpected advance, did exactly what she had seen the two previous white pawns do - she bopped him on the head and stomped on his flippers - and she did not content herself with stomping just one, as the others had. The toad obliged by keeling over with a strangled croak.
The white side erupted in cheers, drowning out whatever voice Lady Catherine had given to her third frustrating loss, and Georgiana turned to face them with a broad grin and an embarrassed blush. She had never received such applause, and did not know how to accept it, so she curtsied briefly and returned to her square with her eyes cast down at her feet.
"Nicely done, little one," the Colonel said softly, and Georgiana looked up to see his approving grin; allowing her gaze to travel over to Elizabeth and her brother, she felt tears start in her eyes at the expressions of profound pride she saw in the countenances of both of those she admired so much.
Suddenly, a shout rang out, "Look out!" and the white players forced their attention back to the game to see that as they were celebrating Georgiana's victory, Lady Catherine had sent another toad to assail their lines, and the burly pawn in front of Elizabeth was struggling with the long, sticky toad tongue that was wrapped around his neck and attempting to pull him down.
The stableman, fortunately, was clever and quick-thinking, and used the toad's attack to his own advantage, pulling on the creature's tongue until his opponent was within reach of his staff, and then delivering a knockout blow to the head that instantly rendered the amphibian unconscious. Other white pawns assisted him in removing the revolting organ from around his neck, and the inert pawn was dragged from the board by his own tongue.
The next several attacks revealed that there was a strategy to Lady Catherine's game, and it did not have as its goal checkmating the white king. Lady Catherine, after her early assaults on the king's pawn and Georgiana, sent all of her pieces straight at the pawn in front of Elizabeth. She was not trying to checkmate the king, she wanted to get at the queen. As she no longer even pretended that her pieces needed to move in the directions permitted by the rules, the white side abandoned the rules enough to allow other pieces to assist the beleaguered pawn in repelling the attacks. Once, Darcy did shout to his aunt that her knight could not move in the way she had ordered him, and she responded with a haughtily dismissive wave of the hand.
"My way is always the right way!"
It was a fortunate circumstance for the white side that the Collins-toads were not skillful fighters; they had difficulty in holding onto their fighting staffs with their flippers, and once the white pieces knew that they could be attacked by the long tongues, they learned to dodge them, in spite of the speed with which they flicked from the wide, toady mouths. It quickly became clear, as unconscious toad bodies piled up at the side of the board, that Lady Catherine's forces stood no chance against Darcy's, even though it was only the white pawns who participated in the fighting; Darcy did not think it fair for the Collins-toads to have to face trained military men, so the two Colonels did not fight, and out of respect for their positions, he did not ask it of the two vicars, either. It was a consideration obviously not extended to poor Mr. Collins by his noble patroness.
Lady Catherine was surely aware of the inferiority of her forces, and with every defeated toad she grew more and more furious. Finally, when she had lost six pawns, both knights, and a bishop, she screamed in frustration, "All attack!"
This command did not produce the fearsome melee one might have expected; only three of the black pieces, the three remaining Collins-toads, advanced, while some of their reviving comrades watched dazedly from the sides; the white pawns, who overwhelmingly outnumbered them, including, to Darcy's surprise, Georgiana, dispatched them with little effort and much enthusiasm. The other black pieces remained where they were, the two rooks, and the portrait-king with a toad-head-sized hole where his face should have been, were immobile, and Lady Catherine watched the skirmish from her throne, gnashing her teeth and thumping her scepter against the ground. When the last of the toads had been defeated and dragged off to the side, another cheer burst forth from the white forces.
The game, however, was not yet won, and Darcy did not see how either side could accomplish a victory, given that they were not really playing chess. As he was pondering what, if any, move he could or should make, Lady Catherine hopped up off her throne and stomped out onto the center of the board, swinging her scepter wildly at any and all inattentive white pawns who were within reach of her weapon. Several of the hapless pieces fell to their knees, clutching their heads, before the white side in general could be brought to understand what had happened. Darcy shouted to those who would advance on his aunt to hold their blows; overbearing, tyrannical termagant though she might be, she was a female of mature years and his aunt, and he could not have young, strong, male retainers from his estate assaulting her. He stood from his throne and strode to meet her, facing her across the expanse of an empty square when they both stopped. Absently, he made a mental note of 'King to King three' to describe his move, not failing to acknowledge it as an illegal move, as the King is only allowed to move one square at a time.
A heavy silence fell over the board as the two opposing monarchs faced each other.
"I insist that you surrender, Darcy," Lady Catherine declared.
Darcy could not restrain his laughter, which was joined by his entire cohort.
"Surrender, Darcy!" Lady Catherine boomed.
"Wherefore should I surrender, Lady Catherine? In case you have not noticed, you have lost almost all of your pieces. You are on the run."
"Um, Darcy..." Colonel Fitzwilliam began, but Lady Catherine cut him off.
"In case you have not noticed, Nephew, you are in check," Lady Catherine riposted with a sickly sweet, smug smile.
Darcy suppressed a groan; he was in check, and he had placed himself there, albeit only because Lady Catherine had willfully disregarded every rule of the game up until that moment. He was surprised to find she even understood enough about the game to know that he was in check. Of course, in a real game, or even in a game such as that one, but against a different opponent, he would simply capture the queen who threatened him thus, but he could not bring himself to do violence against his aunt, and he knew that he would have to if it came to a contest between them. She would surely not retire quietly, even under a symbolic blow, and she would not hesitate to strike him, he was certain. As he was considering how best to extricate himself without ceding the game or injuring his aunt, he felt, rather than saw, movement to his left, and before he knew what was happening, Elizabeth was standing between him and his vile aunt.
"Perhaps you should look again, Lady Catherine. I believe you are in checkmate."
"What?" Lady Catherine shrieked, and whirled around to look; Darcy, too, cast his eye across the board to see that while he had been staring down his aunt, his own pieces had arrayed themselves around the easel holding the damaged portrait of his late uncle. Two of his pawns, who now had large bumps raised on the sides of their heads from Lady Catherine's scepter, were poised with a hand each on the frame, and their weapons raised over the battered painting.
"You. Would. Not. Dare." Lady Catherine turned and narrowed her eyes menacingly at Elizabeth.
"I assure you, I would," Elizabeth calmly replied.
"You," snarled Lady Catherine, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet, have ruined everything! You have bewitched my nephew, and made him forget what he owes to his family, his dear cousin, and me! He would have married her if not for you! I would have won this match if not for you, but you made me waste all of my Collins-toads in trying to destroy you. You are an obstinate, headstrong, foolish, impudent, good-for-nothing hoyden, and I hate you! OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!"
As she shouted this last, Lady Catherine swung her scepter with all of her might, but this time, Elizabeth was ready for it, and had obviously picked up a thing or two from watching the earlier skirmishes between the lowlier players. She deftly blocked the blow with her own scepter, and gave a sharp whack to Lady Catherine's hands, sending the black queen's weapon clattering across the stone surface of the board. Then Elizabeth swung her own scepter, and just as Darcy was thinking with a kind of horrid fascination 'Elizabeth would not strike my aunt, would she?' the stone implement made contact - with Lady Catherine's unwieldy crown. The crown flew up into the air... taking with it the mountainous mass of hair upon which it had rested. Crown and wig traveled upward in an impressive parabola, and then dropped, none too gracefully, like a stone, landing with a heavy plop, rather askew, on the head of one of the Collins-toads who reposed in a stupor at the side of the chessboard. The effect was not becoming for a toad.
All eyes, even the toady ones, had followed Lady Catherine's extraordinary headpiece on its flight with a kind of wonderful fascination, a collective "Oooooooooh" issued from the company, but after a stunned moment when everyone contemplated the terminus of the flight, every face swiveled towards the lady herself.
No one, had they thought about it at all, would have been the least bit surprised to discover that the impressive array of hair that graced Lady Catherine's head was not entirely her own. It was no secret that ladies sometimes supplemented their own meager locks with additional falls and curls from other sources. But no one who gazed upon her that night had ever suspected that none of that voluminous hair belonged to the lady by natural right. Those gathered, as one, drew in a long, portentous breath and fell silent in mesmeric contemplation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's shiny, round, cue ball-like, bald head. Not a word, not a breath, not a movement broke the hush.
Until, that is, a high-pitched, throbbing wail pierced the night. Each and every one of the combatants looked this way and that, searching for the source of the horrendous sound, and when it was discovered, the wonder only increased, for the source was none other than the sickly, cross, emotionless Anne de Bourgh, perched on top of her stone tower, laughing. She was holding her sides and rocking back and forth, her head thrown back and her mouth open as if her jaw had become unhinged. Hers was not a mellifluous laugh, the sparkling kind that delights all those fortunate enough to hear it and makes them want to join in, even without knowing the joke; Anne's laugh was a keening, yowling sound like two rusted, disused gears being coaxed into motion after a long period of inaction. It grew in volume and intensity, and Anne's three cousins all looked at each other in amazement, none having ever heard Anne de Bourgh laugh before, nor even been aware that she knew how to do it. That she needed practice in the art was painfully evident.
Lady Catherine's conflict with Elizabeth, and her resultant humiliating de-crowning were forgotten as mother regarded daughter with amazement.
"Anne?" Lady Catherine said with a gentleness and affection that her relations had seldom seen in her, but it was quickly displaced by horror, as she screamed, "Anne!"
For Anne de Bourgh, whose position on top of the tower had been precarious at best, toppled over backwards and disappeared into the center of the stone turret.
Lady Catherine scurried across the chessboard, wailing her daughter's name and clutching her heart. When she reached the base of the tower, she looked about her frantically, with uncharacteristic indecision about what to do, but she quickly regained at least some of her equanimity and began ordering her Collins-toads, who were not quite recovered enough to obey her, to move her throne over to the tower so that she could climb up on it to see after her daughter. The white pawns who surrounded the black king hastened to assist her, while Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, after exchanging alarmed looks, hastened to both stop their aunt from doing herself an injury, and assist their cousin if they could.
By the time the two gentlemen had reached their aunt she had already clambered onto her throne with surprising nimbleness, and was teetering dangerously with one foot on an arm of the enormous chair, and the other on the back, as she attempted to find handholds in the stone wall. They implored her to come down and let one of them try to recover Anne, whom they could still hear, faintly, laughing at the bottom of her prison, but Lady Catherine would not regard them, and when Darcy reached up to try to coax her down, she shocked him and everyone else present by stepping onto his shoulder and practically launching herself up to the top of the wall.
There followed a collective gasp, and in the pause before anyone could act to forestall disaster, another unfamiliar voice broke out, when Mrs. Jenkinson, Anne's meek and subservient companion, snorted with laughter and then began to recite a verse in a mocking tone.
For a woman unaccustomed to face defiance in any form, the evening was proving a cruel initiation for Lady Catherine. Mrs. Jenkinson's insolence re-ignited Lady Catherine's anger, and she turned a fiery countenance on her insubordinate employee and bellowed, "You are discharged! I will give you no reference, you are dismissed without a character! I am most seriously displeased! OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!"
As she delivered this last emphatic decree, Lady Catherine swung her arm in a slashing motion, which most unfortunately, though it did not damage Mrs. Jenkinson's head in the least, caused Lady Catherine to lose her balance and topple off the wall in a manner identical to her daughter's drop only minutes before. Mrs. Jenkinson cackled gleefully, and then turned into an enormous, black bird - a rook, naturally - and launched herself off the roof of the model Rosings. As she flew away into the night, she shouted on single word in her harsh, squawking voice.
Her cawing laughter faded as it was carried off on the breeze, her parting message understood by no one who heard it.
I would not have anyone think, however, that Lady Catherine's two nephews stood idly by, bird-watching, while their noble aunt plummeted into darkness. They acted with admirable alacrity to secure her safety. Regrettably, they did not act with equal grace or coordination in their efforts, and as they both leapt simultaneously onto the throne to stabilize the precariously perched lady, they suffered instead a collision, causing each to overbalance and fall over backwards, arms flailing and grasping ineffectually at air in a manner that would have been highly amusing to one who finds humor in such displays, and both men landed hard on their respective backs on the unforgiving stone surface of the chessboard. Thus, when Lady Catherine managed to overbalance herself, there was no one close enough to prevent her from following after Anne.
Georgiana had watched the entire episode, from Anne's misadventure to her brother and cousin's accident, with intense alarm. By nature a highly empathetic young lady, she was the more sensitive to the sufferings of those she loved, and so the disastrous chain of events affected her with almost physical pain. She cried out in anguish, not failing to notice that the other lady present made a similar exclamation, and both Georgiana and Elizabeth rushed headlong to the assistance of the two fallen gentlemen.
When she had reached the supine forms of her brother and cousin, Georgiana hardly knew what to do; she wished to comfort and aid both. Darcy had come off the worst in their initial collision because of the Colonel's stone armor, but Fitzwilliam, due to that same armor, had hit the ground with considerably greater force, enough to crack the stone square upon which he landed. Both men had been protected from head injury, the Colonel by his helmet, and Darcy by his crown, which worked like a helmet to relieve the effects of the blow his head had taken when he hit the ground. That they were both in a great deal of discomfort, however, was both evident and understandable, as each lay gasping for air after having the wind knocked out of them.
Once again, Georgiana had cause to be favorably impressed by Elizabeth. The older woman had rushed straight to Darcy's side, and as she knelt beside him, grasping his hand, she coolly instructed the other members of the white forces, who were standing around gaping, to climb up the tower by some means or other to effect a rescue of Lady Catherine and Anne de Bourgh. Then she turned her attention to Darcy, carefully removing his crown and probing the back of his head with her fingers. Georgiana watched in helpless amazement, and nearly blushed at the look of affectionate gratitude her still-speechless brother bestowed on his chosen queen.
By this time the two vicars and Colonel Darcy had joined the party, and Elizabeth directed them to examine Colonel Fitzwilliam and attend him in any way they could. Colonel Darcy had difficulty in lowering himself to assist, clad as he was in stone armor, but he was the most qualified to know what kind of assistance to offer. With the help of the two vicars he managed to lower himself to one knee to see to the other Colonel.
Seeing Georgiana standing by in an agony of indecision and anxiety, Elizabeth offered a comforting smile, and beckoned the girl to her brother's side. Georgiana tentatively knelt next to Darcy, opposite Elizabeth, and took his unoccupied hand; she was relieved when he turned his head and smiled ruefully at her.
Darcy mumbled something in a hoarse voice, which caused Elizabeth to shush him softly, and gently brush his hair off his forehead. More than her relief that her brother was not seriously injured, this affectionate, intimate gesture gratified Georgiana's heart. Even though her brother had told her this was not the real Elizabeth, it pleased her to see that Elizabeth held her brother in such obvious esteem.
The ministrations towards the fallen would-be heroes were interrupted by a startling report from the men who had scaled the tower to retrieve the de Bourgh ladies.
"No one is there!" one of the men cried out, his head just visible over the rim of the tower where he had climbed inside to assist the erstwhile enemy queen.
Georgiana was surprised by her brother's indifferent reaction. He struggled to sit up, helped by Elizabeth at the same time she was admonishing him rest a while longer in his prone position, and when he had righted himself, he took several deep breaths, as if he was trying it out.
"Well, I think we can confidently claim the victory in this match - the enemy has fled the field. Well done, all of you!" Darcy declared regally to his troops, eliciting a round of "Huzzahs" from the white pieces. One of the pawns picked up Lady Catherine's crown and wig from where it had fallen off the head of the Collins-toad, and tossed it over the wall into the depths of the tower.
Darcy turned to pat his sister on the cheek in approbation of her contribution to the victory, and then to kiss Elizabeth tenderly on the hand. "I could not have done it without the two of you," he said in a quieter, more intimate tone.
"Of course not," Elizabeth said, a playful smile lighting up her features, "You did almost nothing at all, all things considered, either in the way of combat or even directing the movements of the pieces. Had we, and your other players, not done all of the difficult work, you could not have spent the entire match in leisurely comfort, sitting on velvet cushions."
Georgiana gasped in astonishment at Elizabeth's audacity in teasing her brother, but to her even greater shock, he was not affronted by the chastisement. He only laughed, and kissed Elizabeth's hand again.
"Good, you have got your breath back," Elizabeth said to him very briskly, but with a smile. "Do you think you can stand now?"
"I am quite well now, thank you," Darcy answered as he rose from the ground, though Georgiana could see that he was still feeling some ill-effects from the fall. He declined any assistance in rising, however, and merely rolled his shoulders and swung his arms a bit when he was back on his feet, to work out any stiffness in his muscles. He gave his hand to Elizabeth to help her to stand, and then to Georgiana as well, and then without further comment moved to his still-supine cousin to inquire into his condition.
The Colonel was looking a trifle dazed, but he answered his cousin's questions about his health coherently enough, though he declined being assisted to his feet for the nonce, feeling still somewhat lightheaded from lack of breath.
"Another win, another reprieve from Lady Catherine's marriage plans, eh Darcy?" the Colonel chortled wheezily.
"I see you are well enough to harass me in your usual manner," Darcy said dryly, and leaned over to pat his cousin on his stone-clad shoulder, strangely relieved that his Looking Glass cousin was essentially unharmed. "Humor me, though this may seem an odd question. Is it always like this?" Darcy gestured at the board, and the chessmen who loitered about.
"Generally," the Colonel smiled. "It is no wonder you can never resist a game. But I am not complaining - I would never have any amusement if you could!"
Darcy shook his head at his cousin's irrepressible enthusiasm for such mania, and was just at the point of instructing some of the pawns to assist in removing his cousin's armor when he became aware of a curious noise that was steadily growing louder. He had heard it faintly when he was lying on the ground after his fall, and attributed it to the effects of the accident, but as it increased in volume, as if the source were drawing nearer, it became evident that it did not originate inside his head; others were searching the surrounding area for the cause of the curious whiffling and burbling that by now filled the night air. Darcy noted that several of his pawns looked apprehensive, if not actually frightened, and that the Collins-toads who had recovered their senses were cowering on the ground with their fore flippers covering their heads and their bulbous eyes trained in the sky.
Darcy in turn raised his gaze to the heavens, and searched for he knew not what, but with the moon having sunk almost below the horizon, and with the chessboard surrounded by brightly blazing braziers, peering into that vast darkness was of little avail. He could see nothing.
Darcy was surprised and more than a little curious then, when one of the pawns shouted, in a voice laced with terror, "There it is! The Jabberwock!"
Posted on: 2009-11-26
Caroline Bingley was alone.
She was not frightened to be walking alone in the dark in a strange place, but she was entirely displeased with her circumstances. For all her accomplished airs, Caroline was never a terribly self-sufficient person - she thought that to be independent was rather unattractively conceited. She was largely incapable of entertaining herself, and though she was quite in the habit of making grand, elaborate plans, she generally relied on the assistance of others to carry them out. She had depended on Mr. Darcy's aid to separate her brother from Jane Bennet. She had required the labors of many Darcinians, particularly Moira, to carry out her admittedly unsuccessful plan to ensnare Mr. Darcy into marriage. She was still counting on Mr. Darcy marrying her in order to put into action a great many plans for her future as the mistress of Pemberley - which, she had very lately determined, would include tidying up the woods. Not that she had any intention of ever walking in the woods again, even during daylight. But she was sufficiently irritated with the wild condition of the forest to want it changed. It put her too much in mind of Miss Eliza Bennet. And so, when she was having the rest of the grounds put into a much more refined and fashionable order, the woods would be included in the project (not to mention the clearing of all meadows of stinging nettles, Caroline thought as she scratched her arm). That Mr. Darcy and all the previous generations of Darcys had been able to countenance such a natural landscape for so long was a source of amazement to Caroline, but as long as he showed sufficient taste in choosing her for his bride, she could forgive him his previous lapses in refinement as regarded the grounds of Pemberley.
Daydreams and fantasies about the follies, and artful ruins, and other fashionable garden modernizations she would have erected once Pemberley was hers, almost put Caroline into a pleasant state of mind, until she had the ill-luck to walk face-first into about her hundredth spider web. Walking into a spider web is the sort of unpleasant sensation that one does not grow inured to with repeated exposure, the way one might gradually come to accept an uncomfortable pair of shoes, or the sight of one's unfashionably large nose in the mirror. Caroline frantically brushed away the sticky strands, careful nonetheless not to touch her face with the bunch of flowers she clutched in her hand. The flowers were the key to her salvation.
The wish that she might discover that her entire irksome evening was merely the product of her fevered brain - a dream, a nightmare - had fortuitously suggested to Caroline the means to escape her dilemma of how to prevent Mr. Darcy and Eliza Bennet from returning to the Looking Glass World to make a new potion once Caroline managed to destroy the one they were already making. She had recalled something curious that Moira had told her about the Looking Glass World and those from other worlds who visited there, and that was that it was possible to distort their memories of the place, convincing them that whatever happened to them there was not real, but only a dream. The means of effecting this memory alteration was quite simple - all one had to do was brush a moon daisy across their eyes before they returned to their own world, and when they next slept, they would wake thinking they had dreamt the experience. And since everything that happens in the Looking Glass World appears so odd to one who does not reside there, it is very easy to suppose it was all part of an extraordinarily vivid dream. It was no surprise to Caroline that Moira was fascinated by this phenomenon - Moira had a fascination with manipulating others, and changing - or obliterating - their memories. As with everything else Caroline had been taught about the Looking Glass World - which Moira had convinced her she ought never visit - that peculiar 'remedy' had seemed unbelievable, and not a little pointless; why would one wish to make someone believe their experiences were a dream? Of course, Moira had her reasons, most likely selfish and nefarious, which Caroline grudgingly respected, but Moira had never undergone the procedure herself.
Caroline could only hope that it worked. If she could find the Darcys and Miss Eliza Bennet, and brush the three of them across the eyes with the moon daisies that Louisa had helped her to acquire (before they had descended into another quarrel, and Louisa had turned back into a cat and clambered up a tree in a huff, refusing to come down and help her any more), they would all, for all intents and purposes, cease to believe in the Looking Glass World. And if she were very fortunate, Mr. Darcy and Eliza Bennet would consign whatever knowledge they had of Darcinia to the same dream. It was a bit of a stretch to hope for it, but it seemed to have a certain logic to it - if one dreamed of going to the Looking Glass World to restore memories of an adventure in a strange land, one might easily consider the knowledge of the strange land to be part of the dream as well.
Of course, it might all be for naught if any of the three happened to share their dream with the others; surely having a common dream would trigger suspicions...
But Caroline had no room for doubts, she must repose all her faith in the moon daisies, and in an oblique way, the treacherous, betraying Moira.
Having rid herself of the last remnants of the spider web, Caroline resumed her trek, in what she hoped was the direction of the house, but she had taken very few steps before she fell victim once again to one of the other inconveniences of the dark forest; her toe caught on a protruding root and she fell flat on her face. She cursed aloud; the only advantage to wandering in the woods alone was that there was no one to witness the indignities she suffered, nor to hear her subsequent vituperation. It was her sole consolation as she lay on the ground in a heap once again.
"Did you have a pleasant trip?" a voice asked from the darkness.
Caroline scrambled to her feet, brushing off her hopelessly damaged dress, and looked around for the owner of the voice. Her eyes had become some little bit accustomed to the darkness, but she still could not see anyone, or much of anything except for the dark forms of the trees that were only visible as being darker than the surrounding blackness.
"Who is there?" Caroline cried sharply, raising her bedraggled bunch of daisies over her head like a weapon. The only answer was a chuckle... from the vicinity of her feet.
A light flared, blinding Caroline momentarily, and setting colored dots dancing before her eyes, but when her vision had cleared, she looked down and saw a badger holding a candle. He looked amused, if it were possible for a badger to look amused. He also looked familiar, which caused Caroline to begin to question her sanity, not an unreasonable consideration, though after all she had been through, the real wonder is that she did not begin to question it sooner. However, the badger did not present a dangerous appearance, in spite of the vicious reputation of the species, and so Caroline lowered the arm that wielded the flowers, feeling foolish that she had, even fleetingly, thought to use them in defense.
"Well?" Caroline said with icy haughtiness, having been driven by the exigencies of her disagreeable adventure to abandon entirely the lessons in polite manners she had learned in the expensive and exclusive ladies' seminary in London where she had been educated in social graces. "What do you want?"
"What do I want? A good book, a comfortable chair, a decent port, a warming fire, and an end to silly conversation. What do you want?" the badger replied, chuckling in a way that Caroline was convinced was at her expense.
Caroline considered how - or whether - to answer the question. What did she want? The list was endless. She took a deep breath.
"What do I want? I want a bath. I want a new dress - I never want to look at this dress again! I want to get out of this horrid forest, in fact, I want to get out of this horrid place altogether! I want to be admired. I want to be important. I want never to be reminded of Darcinia ever again. I want to not have to talk to any more animals. I want Pemberley. I want that stupid Eliza Bennet to disappear. I want Mr. Darcy!"
Caroline had gradually increased in shrillness as she progressed through her litany, ending on something like a shriek. The badger chortled maddeningly.
"Mr. Darcy, eh? I am afraid you are doomed to disappointment there - Mr. Darcy appears to have his heart set on someone else."
"I do not care about Mr. Darcy's heart, and if you are going to tell me that it is that wretched Eliza Bennet he has his eye on, I am going to scream!"
"I can see no reason to tell you what you already know."
"Ah, so you decided to scream after all, eh? It seems I am fated to meet silly women wherever I turn. There are those who would say that I am atoning for some grievous sin - are you fond of philosophy?"
Caroline had a great urge to kick the badger, and she might have if her toes did not hurt already from having been stubbed and tripped so many times as she stumbled her way in the dark.
"No, I am not fond of philosophy, nor of agriculture, nor poetry, nor zoology - the only furry creature I am interested in at the moment is a certain little rabbit, and unless you can tell me where to find Georgiana Darcy, and her brother, and that stupid Eliza Bennet, I wish you would leave me alone!"
"Well, I always say that if you want to find something, you have to look in the right place."
"And is this more of your profound philosophy? That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard, and I have spent a great deal of time tête-à-tête with my sister! Obviously I do not know the right place to find them."
"If you want to find a rabbit, you have to look down a rabbit hole," the badger replied, and he nudged Caroline with his nose with surprising force, causing her to take a step backwards.
The next thing Caroline knew, she was falling down a deep dark hole, cursing philosophers.
Darcy spun sharply around and looked in the direction the frightened footman-cum-pawn was pointing, and he could see something large and dark approaching by air, looming ever closer. He grabbed Elizabeth and Georgiana by the arms and ordered them to hide; Elizabeth took the terrified Georgiana by the hand and pulled her resolutely towards one of the white rooks, the stone replicas of Pemberley. When he was confident that they were safely ensconced out of sight, Darcy drew his sword, and then returned to the side of his cousin Fitzwilliam. The Colonel was adjuring the two clergymen to help him re-don his armor, but they were adamantly refusing to allow him to do so, insisting that he was not yet well enough to battle the beast. Darcy was inclined to agree with them, in spite of his cousin's scorn for their solicitude, and ordered them to get his cousin and themselves out of harm's way. The two clergymen dragged the Colonel, still shouting his fitness for battle, off to hunker down behind the other white rook.
Darcy bent and picked up his cousin's discarded sword; only when he held it in his hand did he see that it was not a real sword; it was made of a grayish stone, and lacked a cutting edge. He wondered that he had not noticed when the two of them had acted to protect Elizabeth from Lady Catherine's attack. Darcy kept the stone weapon in his hand nonetheless, to use as a defensive weapon, and appraised the situation. The Jabberwock was moving ever closer; the whiffling and burbling filled the night air with disquiet. All of the other chess pieces save one had gone to ground somewhere, either hiding behind rooks, or thrones, or crouching in the hayfield. The lone standout was Darcy's other knight, his cousin, Colonel Darcy; he had remounted his stone steed, and shared with Darcy a grim nod while he grasped his own stone sword with determination. The two waited in the center of the chessboard, braced for the attack.
In the few brief seconds Darcy had to consider the creature between the moment when it came fully into view and when he had to do battle with it, he recognized it as the dragon-like monster he had seen in the painting in the parlor in the woods, except it was more horrible in person. Its skin was a flat, sickly gray, and its wings, the source of the whiffling as they beat against that air, a leathery membrane that spanned the entire width of the chessboard. The eyes of the creature were like flames, wicked, glowing portals staring out of its skull. It had a pair of fearsome claws, long, dangerously dagger-like, and Darcy was convinced that if those talons could catch a man, they could rend him asunder as easily as he could pluck a blade of grass and shred it with his hands. The gaping jaws dripped with a venomous liquid, making the rows of razor sharp teeth glisten most sinisterly in the light of the braziers, and eating holes in the stone of the chessboard where droplets of the vile liquid fell. The air was filled with the smell of rotting flesh that nearly made Darcy gag.
In all too short a time the beast was hovering before them, the wind from its wings fanning the flame of the braziers and flattening the tall grasses of the field. Absently, Darcy noted that the painting of his late uncle, still sitting on its easel, was lifted into the air and blown out over the field as the easel tumbled. He could not turn his attention from the threat before him to track its flight, but he momentarily wondered about his aunt's indignation if she saw it. Likely she would storm the Jabberwock, demanding its head. Darcy would, for once, be more than happy to oblige her.
The brute's long, serpentine neck swiveled back and forth between the two stalwart defenders with swords at the ready. It attacked with surprising suddenness, lashing out at Colonel Darcy's horse, its gaping maw enveloping the stone animal's entire head and crunching through it with ease, and then lurching away before the Colonel could strike at it with his weapon. The body of the unfortunate steed toppled to the ground, and the Colonel, unable to jump free in time, was trapped under the weight of the massive stone body. Shards of jagged rock flew as the monster crunched through the mouthful of stone, and then the flaming eyes riveted on the unfortunate Colonel. Darcy leaped forward to insinuate himself between the creature and his cousin, and as he did so, a vision flashed in his head of being armed with a sword while facing a giant serpent, in order to protect... someone. But he had no time to ponder the image; the fiery eyes were fixed on him.
In the next moment, the battle was joined.
Caroline Bingley had been falling for a long time - long enough for a whole range of thoughts to pass through her mind, from the curses she called down upon the head of the badger who had, as far as she was concerned, pushed her down this dark hole, to a peculiar awareness that she was not falling very fast; she was floating, more like, down, down, down into the abyss. She fell long enough to become bored with the sensation, and impatient to hit bottom, beginning to suspect that it would not be a painful landing - or at least, no more painful than all her other landings had been that night, the numerous times she had fallen.
In an attempt to look below and see if the bottom of the well was visible, in spite of the pitch blackness of it, Caroline managed to get herself completely turned around, so that she was falling face first, instead of backwards. The view did not improve, and Caroline, who did not want to hit anything face first, made an effort to improve her position, only to find herself falling headfirst, and somewhat faster than she had been. A frustrated sigh escaped her, and she twisted, and writhed, and contorted herself, all the while grateful that her gyrations were un-witnessed, until she was falling feet first. Her rate of descent slowed considerably in this position; her skirts billowed out and caught the air until she was drifting like a falling leaf, or a feather, swaying back and forth gently in the air. When she landed, most unexpectedly, she landed on her feet.
"Who is there?" a sharp voice called out in the darkness, but something about it set Caroline's mind at ease; it was a woman's voice, of decided refinement, and no one who sounded so haughty could be dangerous. Caroline knew many women who sounded just like the disembodied voice, and they were all indolent, self-important dowagers who may gossip about one, but could offer no other injury. Caroline willed herself to return to the honeyed manners she used for those whose good opinion mattered to her - after all, she was, in a way, at Pemberley, and the voice in the dark could belong to a well-connected person.
"How do you do? My name is Miss Caroline Bingley. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of addressing?" Caroline spoke into the darkness, curtseying as a matter of course, not even thinking about the fact that her graceful obeisance could not be seen.
There came no answer, but gradually Caroline became aware that the darkness was lessening, though the source of the glow that slowly filled the hole remained a mystery. Caroline turned around until she saw who else occupied the hole with her; it was not only one person, the source of the voice, but two. Sitting stiffly on boulders against the wall of the hole, or cavern, or whatever it was, were two women. One of them was young, pale, sickly looking, and thin. She had hair that was wound around her head in what must have been an extraordinarily long braid, and she was staring listlessly at her hands. She sighed heavily, and sniffled, dabbing at her nose with a handkerchief.
The other woman was older, a tall, large woman, with strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome. Both women were dressed oddly, in a fashion of an earlier century, and the older woman was wearing a wig terribly askew on her head, ragged curls over one eye, with a large crown listing precariously on top. There was something of a family resemblance between the two women, though the elder was of an obviously robust constitution, and the other in a state of indifferent health.
"You might have asked permission before stepping into my parlor," the older of the two women stated. "In my day, young people had the manners to wait until they were invited."
The younger woman sniffled again, and dabbed at her nose daintily.
Caroline was a little taken aback by such an opening. She was not, wondrous as it may appear, accustomed to being accused of rudeness.
"I did not know this was your parlor, madam, and I did not come here of my own volition. I was... pushed," Caroline replied with a queer mixture of ingratiation and haughtiness. She did not like to be spoken to so accusingly, but she still did not know if the imperious lady was someone she would do best to avoid offending. In addition, she was feeling somewhat resentful towards a certain badger.
"Very well then, curtsey and say you are sorry," the older woman commanded.
Caroline surprised herself by obeying with alacrity.
"Now," the imperious lady continued, "Did my nephew send you to beg my pardon for his insults and errors? He ought to have come himself. You may tell him that."
"No, I..." Caroline wondered if the woman was mad, or had she mistaken Caroline for someone else? "I do not know your nephew."
"You do not know Fitzwilliam Darcy? Everyone knows Fitzwilliam Darcy. He is from a noble line! Master of a great estate! And one day, he is going to marry my daughter Anne - his marriage to that Bennet woman was only a chess match, you know."
Caroline ground her teeth. The first few things that lady had said were of course known to her, but the last two were highly displeasing, unwelcome bits of information. Caroline realized that this must be the same aunt and cousin whom she and Georgiana had seen earlier that evening in the strange arena in the garden.
"Mr. Darcy is your nephew?"
"Yes, yes, I knew you must know him. Every young woman wants to get her claws on him, but he is for my Anne!"
The young woman with the handkerchief sniffled again.
"I see," Caroline said grimly. "And this chess match with... Eliza Bennet, was it?"
"Yes, yes, but that means nothing. The game is over, and tomorrow he will have Anne as his queen again." The domineering older woman patted the younger lady on the arm, causing the younger one to flinch. "There was no need for him to marry that woman at all for only one match - he never marries Anne, though he must some day. It was his mother's dearest wish, and mine!"
"Charming," Caroline said, not knowing what else to say. "Are you, by any chance, Lady Catherine de Bourgh?" Caroline knew a great deal about Darcy's family and connections, though she had never met any of his relations, and she had not been given a close look at these women when she had seen them earlier. She had never heard of an engagement before then, either. She wondered why Mr. Darcy had never mentioned it, even though Georgiana had said that he did not consider himself engaged. Caroline was not unaware of the influence of older relatives, and it was clear to her that Lady Catherine was a woman of great authority, not to be trifled with. Mr. Darcy may say he had no intention of marrying his cousin, but it was possible, she supposed, that he was, in some way, engaged. She hoped it was not true. Caroline looked at the pale, sickly being who dabbed so listlessly at her nose, her eyes focused on nothing in particular. Surely Mr. Darcy would never prefer someone like that when he might have Caroline Bingley! Caroline drew herself up in pride, only to wilt under the thought that there was someone else entirely in the picture, someone Mr. Darcy indubitably, if inexplicably, preferred.
"I am Lady Catherine de Bourgh," that lady said with obvious pride. "And this is my daughter Anne." The gesture toward the pale lady seemed to startle her; she jumped and nearly slid off her rock, until her mother grabbed hold of her and dragged her back to her place. "Say 'How do you do,' and curtsey."
It took Caroline a moment to realized that Mr. Darcy's aunt was talking to her, and not her sickly daughter, and she complied, having come to the conclusion that the lady was mad. She did not like being trapped in a hole with a mad woman, and so she cast about for a way to politely make her escape. No obvious exit from the pit presented itself. Lady Catherine continued talking.
"Young people, I find, do not know what is best for them. That is why I am always so generous with my own advice. I advised my clergyman to marry, and he did so, and has been very happy with his situation ever since. I do not know why Darcy is so reluctant. I have pointed out to him the happiness of Mr. and Mrs. Collins, but still, he resists. I ask you, what man could resist my Anne's charms?"
"I really could not say," Caroline smiled diplomatically.
"You must know that the only thing one can say when one knows not what to say is Supercilicondemeddlicfrumpidowagocious," Lady Catherine said with what to Caroline seemed a maddening, offhanded haughtiness. Anne de Bourgh coughed delicately.
"I beg your pardon?" Caroline raised her eyebrows superciliously.
"Just so. Are you married?" Lady Catherine suddenly fixed Caroline with a shrewd, piercing stare.
"You ought to get married. You are not past your prime yet, I can see, though you have certainly a thing or two to learn about fashion if you think you can catch a man with mud all over your dress-"
Caroline bristled. "There are some men, I believe, who do not mind it so much," she said with wry bitterness, remembering that Mr. Darcy's reaction to Eliza Bennet's muddy hem that terrible morning at Netherfield the previous autumn had been to praise her fine eyes.
Lady Catherine was not accustomed to being interrupted, or contradicted. "I will not be interrupted!" she shouted. "Or contradicted! Do you know who I am? I am trying to give you some advice! You ought to thank me. Curtsey, and say thank you!"
Once again, Caroline complied, and Lady Catherine was mollified, in spite of Caroline having rolled her eyes most ungraciously while she curtseyed.
"Now, do you have a dowry?" Lady Catherine continued as if there had been no break in the conversation.
"Yes," Caroline replied with growing irritation.
"Well, you ought to be able to find someone to take you, then, before you end up on the shelf, for you seem a prettyish little thing under all that mud, and if not, if you are tolerably accomplished, and can give up your hoydenish ways, I can find you a place as a governess. I have helped many a young woman in that way, you know."
Caroline seethed, and felt the stems of the flowers she clutched in her hand snap under her tightening grip. "I thank you for your concern madam, but I am sufficiently well off that I need not seek a position in service."
"Hmmmm..." Lady Catherine narrowed her eyes at Caroline. "You do not seem sufficiently modest and humble to suit, or I would think you could be a companion to my dear Anne, until she marries Darcy. Her regular companion, Mrs. Jenkinson, has flown away. But I do not like your tone, so I daresay you would not be an agreeable addition to my household."
"I should think not!" This was the outside of enough. Caroline lost her temper. "I would never lower myself that way! And I do not need your advice, you spiteful, old cow!"
Lady Catherine's eyes glittered maliciously. "So, you think you can find a husband on your own? You must have someone in mind, at your age. Could it be my nephew, Darcy?"
As we have already noted, angry people are not always wise. Caroline was by now very angry, and suffered from a proportionate decrease in wisdom. "Yes," she spat defiantly.
"OFF WITH HER HEAD!" Lady Catherine shrieked, swinging her long scepter, which until that moment Caroline had not seen, right at Caroline's head. Anne ducked with the ease of long experience as it whizzed past her, and Caroline leapt back to get out of range.
When she made that little defensive hop, however, it did not merely take her out of reach of Lady Catherine's scepter. She found herself rising up, up, up, into the darkness, gathering speed as Lady Catherine's imprecations faded away below her. Caroline felt relieved. If she had known that all she had to do to get out of that hole was to jump, she would have done so earlier - if she had been able to reconcile such an action with her dignity.
The sensation of rising was somewhat pleasant, and made Caroline feel quite giddy, though she was not the kind of woman who is given to giddiness. Caroline began to sense, as she rose higher and higher, that maybe things were finally looking up for her in more ways than one.
The loathsome beast was surprisingly easy to defeat. Darcy used both swords to attack, one two, one two, and through and through, the blades clashed against the animal's scales with a snicker-snack, and just like that, the hideous head hit the ground in front of Darcy with a sickening thud. The great wings continued to beat several more times as the severed neck thrashed through the air, and for a horrible moment Darcy feared that the creature would simply grow a new head - or two, or three, as happened in the myths he had read as a boy, or as the serpent described in his journal had done, but at last, with a mighty shudder and spasm, the enormous body ceased to move and came crashing to earth. Darcy could barely keep his feet as the ground shook, and Anne de Bourgh's tower toppled over with a crash, shattering and sending black stones skittering across the chessboard to collide with the carcass of the beast.
There ensued a moment of pregnant silence, which was shattered when the chess pieces who had fled from the approaching menace burst forth from their hiding places and surged onto the chessboard, cheering madly; Darcy found himself enveloped in a mass of well-wishers who pumped his hand up and down, and thumped him on the back gleefully. He was reminded of the account in his journal of the defeat of the P.R.O.B., and the joy of the Darcinians when he had rid them of that menace; the denizens of the Looking Glass World seemed to feel a similar relief, and Darcy wished that he could ask someone about the Jabberwock, and what it had meant to the populace there.
Thoughts of the P.R.O.B. recalled to Darcy the vision that had flashed through his mind as he faced the monster, and he was seized with a thrilling notion - had that been a memory of Darcinia? Was that the P.R.O.B.? Fitzwilliam had told him in his letter that he might have flashes of memory, and that they would be signs that full recovery of the memories erased by the potion was possible. He felt a surge of hope, and it was with this heartwarming thought in his mind that he suddenly found himself face-to-face with Elizabeth.
Even for the most staid among us certain temptations are simply irresistible, and the jubilant atmosphere that prevailed after he had slain the beast so overwhelmed Darcy that when the woman he loved most in all the world appeared before him, beaming with pride and admiration, he followed his impulse and swept her up in his arms, twirling around and around, and allowing his exultant laughter to blend with hers. The crowd surrounding them roared its approval, and repeated their ovation when he placed Elizabeth back on her feet and captured her lips in a triumphant kiss.
Darcy could tell that she was initially startled by his demonstrative gesture, but as her response was welcoming, he did not soon pull away. It was Elizabeth who pulled back first, but it was quickly evident that she had not done so of her own accord; Darcy opened his eyes as she was roughly jerked from his clasp to see a ragged, unkempt figure tugging fiercely on Elizabeth's reticule, the action of which had ended their amorous embrace. Elizabeth stumbled backwards several steps, her face a mask of confusion, and fell heavily to the ground as her assailant cackled wickedly. It was with a sense of deep dismay that Darcy saw that the assailant had withdrawn Elizabeth's bottle of elixir from its receptacle, and his dismay became downright horror when he saw that person dash the glass container against the stone of the chessboard.
The menacing woman - for Darcy could see by then that it was a woman who had attacked - then advanced on Elizabeth's person, taking rapid steps and raising some weapon in her hand. She was closer to Elizabeth than Darcy was, and reached her first. She slashed at Elizabeth's eyes with something, whatever her weapon was, Darcy could not tell, and before Darcy could leap to the aid of his beloved, Elizabeth cast him a frightened, regretful, pained glance and, as everything seemed to suddenly slow down, including Darcy's frantic movement, Elizabeth clicked her heels together, mumbled some words he did not hear, and vanished, leaving Darcy clutching only air and an overwhelming sense of loss when he reached for her.
Caroline's ascent was much more rapid than her descent, and so it was only moments before she burst to the surface with a 'Pop!' and as she was not ready for it, she stumbled over something as she landed, and found herself sprawled in a pile of rubble. She had not reappeared in the forest where she had met the badger. It took her several minutes to take in the scene.
Caroline had emerged into a chaotic and bewildering disturbance. She was in some kind of field, with tall grasses growing all around, but in the middle of this field, just before her, was a large square area with a black and white checked floor of stone, at the corner of which she had emerged from the hole. She could see there were woods in the distance, but she could not tell if they were the same woods where she had been wandering before she fell down the 'rabbit hole.' There were people - men - all dressed in white, gathered in the center of the stone floor, cheering and clapping; Caroline hoped that they were not drunk. As she raised herself to her feet she had to take care with her steps, as the ground about her was strewn with black stones, some held together with mortar, as if they had been part of some structure that had fallen down. There were other stone structures on the other three corners of the stone floor, two white and one black. There were also a couple of throne-like chairs, and Caroline could see a stone horse prancing about in the grass, similar to the one she had seen Mr. Darcy's cousin riding earlier in the evening, if it was not, in fact, the same horse. Caroline hoped not - she did not want to meet that disagreeable, insulting man again.
Other shapes moved about in the tall grass, dark shapes that, when one happened to hop near, Caroline recognized as some of the toad-people she had seen earlier in the evening at the coliseum. She recoiled in disgust, and bumped into a large, solid something; turning, she nearly tripped over her feet in her haste to get away from it. It was a large, scaly, disgusting thing, an animal, something like a dragon, headless, dead, and reeking. Caroline felt bile rise in her throat, and quickly turned her attention to the crowd of men in the center of the floor, in the hopes that they would be respectable gentlemen able to help her find her way... somewhere, anywhere where there were no giant toads or dead dragons. No one in the crowd had noticed her, being all focused on their celebration - which, if Caroline had to guess, she would have said had something to do with the headless condition of the vile beast that lay dead before her - and in particular they seemed to be congratulating some person in their midst - obviously the slayer of the beast.
A very tall, broad, oafish person moved to one side, exposing to view the man who was accepting the congratulations, and Caroline's heart leapt to see who they were all thumping boisterously on the back - Mr. Darcy! Finally, things were looking up for Caroline... for about ten seconds. For after that interval, Caroline was treated to a sight that made her blood run cold - Mr. Darcy holding Eliza Bennet in his arms - Mr. Darcy kissing Eliza Bennet. Caroline gripped her moon daisies in her fist and stormed forward.
When she reached the celebratory throng, Caroline was forced to push her way through the crowds of men in a most unladylike fashion, toppling some of them to the ground, not so much from her strength, which, though it was augmented considerably by her fury, was not impressive, due to her never having lifted anything heavier than a single volume of a three volume novel, but due to the sheer unexpectedness of being shoved from behind. Before she reached her hated rival, Caroline found herself face to face with one of the other intended victims of her moon daisy plot, Georgiana Darcy, who looked at her in wordless shock. Caroline said nothing to the irritating, little chit, but without preamble swung her bunch of moon daisies at the young woman's eyes.
"OW!" Georgiana cried, raising her hands to her eyes and falling over backwards, landing ungracefully on top of a footman clad all in white, whom Caroline had previously sent sprawling. Aside from a momentary feeling of deep satisfaction that she was not the one lying in a heap on the ground for a change, Caroline spared Georgiana no further thought, continuing on to the real target of her fury - Miss Eliza Bennet, who was still locked in Mr. Darcy's embrace. Caroline growled like an enraged animal.
The moment she reached Eliza Bennet's side, it dawned most pleasurably upon Caroline that she would be able to accomplish her two objectives at once, for dangling from Eliza Bennet's wrist was the reticule that held the bottle of what Caroline believed to be the antidote to the forgetfulness potion. The top of the decanter was visible, poking out from the top of the bag. Caroline grabbed it and yanked it out forcefully, freeing it from the bag and disengaging Miss Eliza from her lover in one fell swoop. Caroline made haste to smash the bottle, enjoying a surge of triumph when the glass shattered and sent the contents of the vessel, a murky liquid and any number of bits of plants, and who knew what else, spreading across the white stone square like a stain. She then turned her attention to Miss Eliza Bennet, splayed on the stones with a countenance frozen in shock. Without further delay, Caroline drew back her arm and slashed Eliza across the face with her daisies. Eliza Bennet looked at her in horror, Mr. Darcy lunged for his lady, and, to Caroline's immense astonishment, and victorious gratification, Miss Eliza Bennet disappeared into thin air.
Caroline's triumph was short-lived, as Mr. Darcy, who also evinced shock at Eliza's sudden disappearance, was quick to regain his feet and come after Caroline. She backed away in alarm at his fury, not even thinking to take the opportunity to use the daisies on his eyes, but Darcy was too quick for her and grabbed her by the arms, his face a mask of wrath and hatred. Caroline stumbled in fear, but the iron grip Mr. Darcy had on her arms kept her from falling. She cried out in pain.
Mr. Darcy's eyes widened in surprise, and he hastily released her, upon which Caroline, naturally, fell over. She landed in the puddle of spilled potion, though not, most luckily and, to her very great advantage, on any of the broken glass.
"Miss Bingley?" Darcy asked incredulously as he was joined by his sister, who was still rubbing her eyes. "Good God - what has happened to you?" Caroline could not but notice that Darcy's voice expressed more incredulity and revulsion than concern.
"A great many things have happened to me, and it remains to be seen whether I shall ever forgive you or your sister - or your precious Eliza - for any of it. But perhaps we can come to some kind of understanding." Caroline smiled sweetly at Mr. Darcy, though her smile rapidly transformed into a frown when she saw him shudder at what she had meant to be a winning expression.
Upon hearing her brother's exclamation, Georgiana had turned her eyes on the bedraggled woman on the ground, and stared at her in wonder the whole time Caroline spoke.
"Is that really you, Miss Bingley?" Georgiana peered at her erstwhile friend. "You look so... so..." her voice faded out, and she could do nothing but gape openmouthed, her disgust at the other lady's appearance undisguisable.
Caroline was perfectly aware of how dreadful she must look, but she rather resented being reminded of it in such a forceful way.
"Of course it is I!" Caroline snapped as she tried to stand, slipping clumsily on the wet stone.
"Oh. It is only that, the last time we saw you, you were a ferret," Georgiana said with an innocence that was, to Caroline, rather suspect. At any rate, her ferret condition was another circumstance of which she had rather not be reminded. She was beginning to hate that tactless Georgiana Darcy nearly as much as Eliza Bennet!
"The next person who says anything about me being a ferret..." Caroline growled, but she was interrupted in what would surely have been an empty threat by a highly indignant Mr. Darcy.
"Why did you attack Miss Bennet?" Darcy demanded, looking with dismay at the shattered remains of Elizabeth's night's work.
"She attacked me, too!" Georgiana chimed in, "She knocked me down, and hit me in the face with something - I think it was a plant."
Caroline quickly hid her now-tattered bunch of flowers behind her back, but Darcy caught a glimpse of them before she could conceal them.
"Are those... moon daisies?" Darcy asked with growing suspicion and concern.
Caroline looked at him shrewdly. "And what if they are?"
"Do you know what the effect will be of hitting her in the face with moon daisies?"
"Yes, I do, and I can see that you also know, but what I want to know is, how do you know?"
"I would ask the same of you, Miss Bingley," Darcy glowered.
Caroline regarded him with a smug smile. She was in the mood to be provocative, and as he would soon be convinced that the entire night's adventures had been nothing but a dream, she felt she could say whatever she pleased, and so she could, with impunity, take the opportunity to find out what he knew, and whether she was right about his reason for being in the Looking Glass World that night.
"Oh, it is just something I learned about in... Darcinia."
Darcy's sharp intake of breath told Caroline all she needed to know, even before he spoke.
"You remember Darcinia? But how?"
Caroline knew the rare triumph of having unsettled Mr. Darcy quite thoroughly, and it made her feel dangerously expansive, even as her fears of his knowledge about that unfortunate incident were confirmed.
"That wretched forgetfulness potion did not work, because I became violently ill after we returned and... well, I never was able to keep those potions down. So I have the misfortune to remember everything that happened there. And I can see that you have memories of it, too - but not for long!"
Caroline swiftly whipped her hand from behind her back to strike Darcy with the moon daisies clutched in her fist, but as she swung her arm, she felt the bouquet wrenched from her grasp. Whirling around, Caroline found herself face to face with a stone horse that just happened to have a mouth full of moon daisies.
"Give me those!" Caroline cried, attempting to snatch the flowers from the beast's mouth, but the horse tossed his head skittishly, managing to smack Caroline across the face with the dangerous blooms in the process.
Caroline shrieked in anguish and frustration, which only spooked the horse further; it reared up and then wheeled away, cantering off the chessboard and into the hayfield. Caroline chased after it, none too quickly on the slippery surface of wet stone, and her anguish was transformed to triumph when the nervous animal dropped the flowers just off the edge of the chessboard as it pranced away into the field. Caroline dove for the blossoms, but just before she could grab them, a wooly, black head emerged from between the stalks of hay, and in the twinkling of an eye, Caroline's moon daisies disappeared down the throat of one of Mr. Malone's stray sheep.
Caroline was stunned. Her only hope of saving face, of avoiding a lifetime of mortification from her enemy knowing of her infamous acts, and the man she hoped to marry remembering the despicable things she had done to entrap him into a marriage, gone down the gullet of a sheep.
"Oh, Supercilicondemeddlicfrumpi-whatever the lot of it!"
Caroline Bingley was not a woman given to weeping; there were not many things in life she cared enough about to weep over, and she considered it beneath her dignity, and a disgraceful show of weakness to weep over even those things that might warrant it. But there on that stone chessboard in the middle of a hayfield, surrounded by strangers and two of the people to whom she most wished to present a face of grace and refinement, staring in the face of a sheep that had only just destroyed her, Caroline broke down and wept.
Crying, in the Looking Glass World, is a perilous pastime. Or if not perilous, at least ill advised, for once you begin, it really is quite difficult to stop. And the tears come so fast, and multiply so exponentially, that soon you find yourself in a tricky situation. Now, this was not something that Moira had chosen to mention to Caroline when she told her about the Looking Glass World, or if she had, Caroline had not been listening, and so Caroline did not know that she was endangering herself and others by giving vent to her frustrations in tears. Nor Did Darcy or Georgiana apprehend the danger, but the inhabitants of the Looking Glass World are all aware of the hazards of tears, and cast around to find something to stem the tide, which was quickly reaching non-metaphorical proportions. There not being much in the hayfield with which to quickly build a levee, they resorted to climbing on top of the various towers and thrones that had been a part of the chess game, and a few of them even clambered atop the reeking corpse of the dead Jabberwock. Caroline did not notice that she was knee-deep in salt water (though whether she would have entirely minded is debatable - it did rinse away some of the mud that stained her dress, though it did nothing very helpful for her slippers), or that everyone else who remained from the chess match was near to having to swim, or that the toads, not being of a species tolerant of salt water, were hopping madly through the hay field - which circumstance may have cheered her a bit, had she noticed. Caroline, after all, was a thoroughly selfish being. She was only cognizant of her own misery.
The Looking Glass Worlders, as I said, were aware of the dangers presented by Caroline's tears, but, being all men in that party, did not know what was to be done about the flood the weeping woman was rapidly creating; Darcy, much as he is to be admired in other aspects of his character, was quite at a loss as well when faced with a sobbing woman. If Lady Catherine had been there, she would likely have been able to suggest several methods to control, if not console Caroline in her outburst, but she was... well, it is hard to say where Lady Catherine might have been by that time - people come and go very quickly in the Looking Glass World, and it is hard to imagine that she would have been content to spend a very long time sitting in a dark hole with no one for company but her nearly silent daughter. Lady Catherine was always happiest when she had someone near her to flatter her and agree with her. But I digress; the point is, Lady Catherine was not there, and so the task of forcing Caroline to desist in weeping fell to the one other lady among those gathered in the growing flood - Georgiana Darcy.
Miss Georgiana Darcy had started the evening as a terribly timid and self-effacing young lady who, when in a situation of comfort and security, could appear tolerably composed. However, at no time was she a very forceful individual, and until that night she had never been one to assert herself in any way. She had grown considerably in strength, though, during her night in the Looking Glass World, as evidenced by her victorious skirmish in the chess match, and so when she was faced with a Caroline Bingley creating a lake of salty tears in a hay meadow, and a bunch of men who could do nothing about the deluge, Georgiana had the courage and the confidence to step into the breach, as it were, and smack Caroline Bingley very hard across the face.
The effect was instantaneous and entirely efficacious. Caroline stopped crying at once, not even needing Georgiana's addition of the admonition to "Snap out of it!" to recall her to herself. She was beyond additional mortification, though, so she reacted with anger and indignation, and would have slapped Georgiana in return if she had not found her upraised hand, poised to strike, grabbed in a firm, rock-hard grip.
"I will thank you not to strike my cousin," said a sardonic voice, and Caroline did not have to turn around to know that the Darcys' rude cousin had materialized behind her to protect Georgiana from her petty revenge. It did not endear the Colonel to Caroline.
"Would you be so kind as to unhand me?" Caroline sneered as she attempted to both turn around and wrest herself from his grip, and she managed to lose her footing in the rapidly receding waters and nearly overset herself once again, but this time she had the good fortune to be standing very close to a gentleman with quick reflexes, and the even better good fortune (which is more to the point, as quick reflexes alone would have most assuredly not been sufficient insurance against disaster, as they never are) to not only be standing very near to that gentleman but to fall in his general direction, and so instead of splashing ignominiously into a lake of her own tears, Caroline found herself wrapped in the embrace of a strange man half-dressed in stone armor (and therefore half-undressed, and catching Caroline in arms clothed in only shirtsleeves, and clasping her to a chest unprotected by either waistcoat or cravat), and laughing quite rudely at her predicament. So, she did the only thing a respectable gentlewoman - which she had arguably ceased to be several hours earlier, or even, to less liberal minds, during her reign as Queen of Darcinia - could possibly do in that precise exigency; that is to say, she fainted.
As it happens, Caroline's swoon was a well-timed convenience for all concerned, as it made her rather more tractable than she was even at the best of times, which the current occasion could by no means be considered. There were decisions to be made, and plans to be sorted out, and unconscious, Caroline could not much hinder those efforts. Meanwhile, though the flood of tears had nearly abated, there were still several inches of water lying about all around, and the Colonel could not in good conscience deposit her in a puddle, so the insensible lady was placed on one of the thrones while Darcy and his sister considered their options.
Their purpose, of course, was to return to the house in a timely manner, not the least because a consultation of Darcy's watch revealed that it would not be long before the servants were stirring, and he had no desire to encounter any of his staff on his return through the mirror in company with Miss Bingley, more especially in her current disastrous state. The staff of Pemberley may be discreet, but there were surely limits. Therefore, they must all have made it through the looking glass and to their respective bedchambers with as little delay possible. How Miss Bingley would then choose to explain her appearance to her maid when she was discovered was not a matter Darcy felt need concern him, that is to say, he prided himself as a gracious host, but even had she not proved a most disobliging guest that night, there are certain things beyond the pale of even the most generous hospitality.
And yet, Darcy could not focus his mind on the task of effecting their return; all he could think about was Elizabeth, wondering where she had gone, hoping she was safe at the inn, regretting the look of alarm on her lovely countenance as she fled - for he had no doubt that in the face of the attack against her by Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth had instantly devised a rhyme to poetically transport herself away from the frenzied woman's assault, but he could not be easy with the knowledge that an imperfect rhyme, which one composed under duress might well be, could have landed her in danger. He comforted himself with the notion that Elizabeth had likely prepared a rhyme against the need for an emergency return, but even more than his concern for her safety, which his rational mind told him was never at risk, as she was not a real person, Darcy's heart ached for a lost opportunity - she had been torn from his arms during an ardent embrace, and he had not been able to bid her farewell. All of the things he could have said to her in the waning moments of their time together jumbled in his mind, in concert with the answers he could imagine her returning to his affectionate words. And now, he was left with nothing but his regrets, and a satchel full of hope.
It was then that it dawned on him. Darcy knew, suddenly, that he did not need the hope that was contained in the numerous samples wrapped in handkerchiefs in his satchel. He had set out to create the antidote to the forgetfulness potion in order that he could regain the true memories of the glorious time when Elizabeth had, ever so briefly, loved him, but now he realized that everything that had happened since he had first encountered the real Elizabeth on the grounds of Pemberley with her aunt and uncle had pointed to the very likely chance that he could regain that love for real. He would not need to cling to that memory, nor would he need to revive her memory of that time in order to convince her to love him again. Though he had grievously misread her feelings in the spring when he had made his disastrous proposal, and though the Elizabeth he had been in company with all night was not the real Elizabeth, Darcy was confident that he could read at least some of the feelings of the real Elizabeth in her Looking Glass self, who was, after all, a reflection of her, and the Looking Glass Elizabeth, he knew with every fiber of his being would have answered yes if he had asked her to accept him. He knew it from the way she had responded when he kissed her.
She had kissed him back.
Posted on: 2009-12-03
Ruminations on the pleasant topic of Elizabeth's kisses boosted Darcy's spirits, but he was not allowed to dwell of them for long. His companions began to demand his attention, and he was recalled to his present position by babbling voices. All of the Looking Glass people, his chessmen, who had climbed down from their perches upon the rooks and whatnot, were chattering in what appeared to be an aimless fashion, which is to say that everyone was talking, and no one was listening. No one, that is, except for Georgiana, who was looking about her with an advanced degree of apprehension, clearly convinced that they had all gone mad of a sudden. Darcy, though he was not the least bit concerned, was at least curious as to the meaning of this outburst, until he happened to notice two particular things: that there was beginning to be steam rising from the wet clothes of the company, and that his cousin Fitzwilliam was reciting the dates of great battles from the history of Britain. They were reciting dry facts in order to dry their clothes. Darcy laughed, and, to expedite the process, removed his chess king garments so that his own might dry more quickly; Georgiana saw what he was about and followed suit. Darcy wished that amidst the cacophony he could better distinguish what individuals were reciting, as he knew that the majority of those present, such as footmen and stablemen, were likely unlearned, and he was curious what kind of dry facts they would choose to do the job, but whatever dry knowledge they possessed was sufficient, and soon no water remained even in puddles on the stone beneath their feet. Darcy did not even have a chance to conjugate a few Latin verbs as his contribution to the cause before even his own clothes were dried by the efforts of the others. He chuckled and shook his head when Georgiana turned to him for an explanation, and merely assured her that all was well.
As he marveled at the thoroughness of the drying-out procedure, Darcy happened to notice a folded piece of paper lying on the ground; it was a familiar article, and Darcy hastened to pick it up. His heart gave a curious thump when he unfolded the sheet and recognized the fine, ladylike, if not entirely even hand that filled the sheet with a list, in columns, of flowers, leaves, bark... all the things that Elizabeth had spent the night searching for. The flood of Miss Bingley's tears had not smudged or smeared the ink, or at least, in the drying of the page the words were returned to their immaculate state as the writer herself had formed them. Something about it, though, was not right, though what it was that bothered him remained a tease in the back of his brain - he could not identify the source of his unease, what it was that was odd about the piece of paper in his hand. Wordlessly he refolded the sheet and placed it in his satchel, from which now hung his extinguished lantern.
The problem still remained of how to get himself, and his sister, and Miss Bingley back to the house quickly, and he asked his sister again if she happened to be wearing anything red.
"No, you asked me that before, and I am not. Why should I be wearing something red?" Georgiana asked.
"If you and Miss Bingley were each wearing something red I would be able to transport us all back to the house instantly, but as you are not-"
"How could you do that?" Georgiana's face was a mask of skepticism, which Darcy could not but laugh at, considering all she had been through that night. For all her youth she still retained some of her disbelief in the face of such extraordinary circumstances. He had, for the most part, ceased to question things that seemed impossible or peculiar.
"Miss Bennet taught me a trick. But we must all have something red. And I do not know of any other means of travel here that is so efficient, or even something less efficient that is fast enough for our needs. Indeed, I know no other way except to walk - which we will not be able to even attempt until Miss Bingley revives, and even then, I cannot guarantee that I know the way, nor make a guess at the distance and time."
"I have noticed that people really do come and go very quickly here. I suppose there are no Wishing Doors anywhere hereabouts?"
It was then Darcy's turn to be amazed. "Wishing Doors? I have not encountered any of those! How do they work?"
"Well, it is very simple, I think - one takes you where you wish to go, and the other, well, we would not choose that one, because we know the riddle. And then there are doors like the one we went through with Mrs. Hurst - I do not know what it was called, but you open the door, and it takes you somewhere, and you keep going through it over and over again until you end up where you want to be. Actually, I do not know how that one worked, I did not think to ask, so I do not think we could use one like that. But I do not see any doors here, in any case." Georgiana scanned the hayfield, becoming visible as the black night sky turned to gray, but her search revealed a disappointing lack of Wishing Doors.
"Then we must think of something else," Darcy sighed.
At this point they were interrupted by Colonel Fitzwilliam, who wanted to know the reason for his cousins' pensive expressions. He laughed at their worries.
"Great gravitation, Darcy, if you are not the most complete gudgeon tonight. There are any number of ways to go, which you would know if you would only think, but the fastest, of course, would be to call upon the wind," and with this very helpful suggestion the Colonel waved a hand, and with a rush of air, Darcy found himself aloft again. He had not had even a moment to take his sister's hand, or to see to Miss Bingley, but he could see Georgiana floating beside him, and the shriek that was carried along on the wind alerted him that not only was Miss Bingley still with them, but she had recovered from her swoon.
The flight proceeded much the same as his earlier flight with Elizabeth had done, and in no time at all the three of them, with Georgiana now holding tight to Darcy's arm, were deposited gently on solid ground. It was not clear what kind of direction, if any, Colonel Fitzwilliam had given to their flight, as they had not landed by the house; they were near, by the side of the lake, but it still required several minutes of walking for them to reach the terrace to reenter the ballroom, and Darcy was becoming impatient as the sky grew lighter. He wished that Fitzwilliam the Centaur had mentioned some of these methods of transportation to him in his letter. Given the strange rearrangement of the grounds of his estate, Darcy doubted whether he would have been able to complete his mission as planned if he had not encountered Elizabeth and benefited from her knowledge of poetic transport. Sighing, and still holding his sister's hand, Darcy began to walk towards the house.
Their progress was arrested after but a few steps by the now familiar sound of Caroline Bingley screeching. Neither Darcy turned in haste to inquire what ailed her, but they did, after exchanging glances of extreme irritation, turn around to await some explanation for the lady's tantrum.
They discerned Miss Bingley standing at the edge of the lake, looking down into the water, and her subsequent tirade revealed that it was her own reflection that caused her such consternation.
"My hair!" she wailed. "My gown! My face! My arms!" Caroline enumerated the various features of her appearance that had suffered from her travels. "I look worse than Eliza Bennet after a romp across the fields!"
While this was undoubtedly true, Darcy found offensive the implied slur upon his beloved's appearance, and was on the point of chastising Miss Bingley when his sister performed that office for him, and much more emphatically than his gentlemanlike behavior would have allowed him to do.
"I told you not to say things like that about Miss Bennet!" Georgiana snapped, and with but a few rapid steps, which her brother could not have prevented her taking had he wanted to, Georgiana found herself at Miss Bingley's side, and with a mighty shove, sent Miss Bingley tumbling into the cold, dark water of Pemberley Lake.
Naturally, more screaming ensued after a most satisfying splash, but only after a deal of sputtering had been accomplished.
"While I cannot fault your defense of Miss Bennet, it will be incumbent on me to keep Miss Bingley from drowning," Darcy said as he stood by his sister's side, watching their 'friend' flail about in the water, "and I cannot thank you for encumbering me with such a task."
"The water is not deep," Georgiana shrugged. "She is in no danger of drowning. She could have climbed out by now if she was not so intent on making a fuss. My only regret is that now I shall have to hear about this for the duration of her stay at Pemberley."
"That is something that you will not have to concern yourself with," Darcy reassured his sister, knowing that Caroline would remember the incident only as a dream, and confident that even Caroline Bingley would not be so unreasonable as to hold a grudge against someone for something that had been done to her in her own imagination.
Eventually, and partly because they were tired of listening to the screams, Darcy and Georgiana reached hands out to the flailing woman and pulled her onto the shore. Then, at Darcy's instruction, they both recited the driest facts they could think of, Georgiana listing the notes of scales and chords, and Darcy listing various bits of information about crop yields, so that Miss Bingley was completely dry from head to toe within minutes. Ungracious to the last, she did not thank them for their pains, or even acknowledge that the ducking had rinsed a great deal more mud from her gown. She only looked at them as if they were mad. Well, Darcy she looked at like he was mad, while Georgiana she graced with a murderous glare that would have frightened the young woman at any other time, but which, after their evening's adventure, did not faze her in the least.
"Mr. Darcy, are you not going to chastise your sister for her infamous conduct? I am a guest in your house, and she has treated me abominably!"
"No matter," Darcy shrugged unconcernedly, but with a malicious gleam in his eye. "In the morning this will all be nothing but a dream."
Strangely, or perhaps not, Miss Bingley seemed somewhat placated by this thought, but only for a moment, before she acquired a vicious glint in her eye.
"It will be only a dream for your dearest Eliza as well - are you disappointed that she will not remember her wanton behavior with you?" Caroline sneered.
"Miss Bingley, that was not the real Elizabeth Bennet, it was only the Looking Glass version of her. Miss Elizabeth is a lady, and I would thank you not to speak of a friend of mine in such terms."
"That was not the real Eliza Bennet?" Caroline stopped walking, stunned, and stopped Darcy as well with a hand on his arm.
"No, no it was not."
"Then... you did not come here to meet her?"
"Miss Bingley, I am not in the habit of making assignations with ladies in the middle of the night," Darcy glared at Caroline.
"Then you were not... what was in the bottle? The bottle of Eliza's that I smashed?" Caroline felt a mixture of emotions, none of which she could truly name or explain, but her knees felt suddenly weak.
"I do not know."
Caroline braced herself to ask the question that had to be asked - she had nothing to lose, as in the morning she would believe the entire conversation had only taken place in a dream, but then, she had nothing much to gain, either, except a grim sort of satisfaction of her curiosity.
"Why are you here, Mr. Darcy?"
"I think you know, Miss Bingley," Darcy stated simply, and turned to continue on towards the house, unable to resist placing a protective hand on his satchel.
Caroline saw the gesture, and realized what it meant, and cursed herself for having destroyed the wrong thing, and having failed to prevent the impending disaster to her hopes. Years of planning, of courting Mr. Darcy, and it was all going to come to naught because of... well, there were any number of others she could blame for her failure, from Eliza Bennet on down to the sheep who had eaten her moon daisies, but the one whom Caroline did not want to blame was herself. She was suddenly thankful that she had been hit with the moon daisies herself, and hurried to catch up to the Darcys, who had left her behind; she spent the remainder of the walk to the house in stony silence.
Just before the three weary persons reached the terrace, a head appeared from the shrubs lining the rails. All three were startled, but Darcy instantly recognized the voice that hailed him, and turned to wait as his gardener, Mr. Green, approached with his arms waving excitedly. His complexion was even greener than before, and his hair, what there was of it, had taken on a decidedly leafy appearance.
"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Come to my arms, my beamish boy!" Mr. Green cried, and then enfolded Darcy in a crushing embrace, and pounded him soundly on the back, surprising Darcy with the strength in his frail arms. "Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" he chortled in his joy.
Darcy gently extracted himself from the old man's arms, and shook his hand in thanks for what he took to be congratulations. Then, to Darcy's amusement, Mr. Green bowed deeply to the ladies, stamped his feet on the ground, and then, with a 'pop,' turned into a bush.
"What was the meaning of all that?" Miss Bingley broke the silence that followed the gardener's dramatic exit.
"I helped him exterminate a garden pest," Darcy said nonchalantly, and headed for the door to the ballroom. The two ladies, with an exchange of curious glances, followed, Georgiana picking up the cloak she had left behind on the railing when she had first departed on her adventure.
Once the three had reached the mirror, it was the work of a moment for Darcy to soften the glass (though without explaining to either of the others how he did so) so that all three could pass through, and their astonishment was great when they discovered that passing through the looking glass had returned them all to the condition they had been in previous to their adventure; Caroline no longer looked a muddy, bedraggled mess, Darcy was cleaned of the mud, and grass stains, and scratches, and those small injuries to his attire that he had feared would set his valet against him, and Georgiana, well, Georgiana had come through the entire escapade merely looking a trifle rumpled, but she was transformed by her passage as were the others, and appeared just as neat as when she had left her room.
It was only as he was emerging through the glass into his own ballroom that Darcy remembered the sword belted around his waist, and he was astonished to discover it was gone, having vanished as he passed from one world to another. Yet, his satchel, when he immediately examined it, still contained all of the samples he had collected, the mirror-lantern was still hanging from his satchel, he still had Elizabeth's list and Lady Catherine's proclamation, and, he quickly ascertained, Elizabeth's embroidered handkerchief was still knotted in his buttonhole. Darcy untied the linen square and folded it, running his fingers over the delicate needlework, and then placed it in his satchel with the now-treasured list, his only keepsakes of the lady - or at least, an otherworldly version of her.
Darcy picked up the lantern he had left behind when he had gone through the glass earlier in the night, its candle long burnt out. He could not but be intrigued by its lack of reflection, and mused that he ought to go back through the mirror to return the reflection-lantern to its proper side, but he did not want to take the trouble. It amused him to think of placing the real lantern there, and he wondered what would then happen to the reflection-lantern that was in the real world, and again all the paradoxes of the Looking Glass World made his head spin. He wondered how much his having spent the night in company with Elizabeth, even a Looking Glass Elizabeth, affected his tendency to see the humor in the situation. One cannot spend so much time with a person who dearly loves to laugh without learning to see a comical aspect to things where one might not have noticed humor before.
At the very least, Darcy was convinced that he would never be able to look at his aunt's vicar in the same way again.
As soon as she had examined her newly immaculate person and attire in the mirror, and breathed a sigh of relief to find herself once again elegant and lovely, albeit with an unlovely scowl on her face, Miss Bingley stormed out of the ballroom without a word to either Darcy or Georgiana, and it is greatly to their credit that they were able to restrain their laughter at her expense until she had left the room and allowed the heavy door to fall closed behind her; in spite of her rage and indignation, she apparently retained enough self-possession to realize that slamming the door could draw unwanted attention from someone in the house.
When the Darcys had spent their mirth, Darcy turned to his sister with a tender smile. "You should get to bed," he told her in a fatherly way that was habitual with him.
"Fitzwilliam," Georgiana said hesitantly, disregarding his suggestion for the nonce, "What were you doing... there tonight? What was that place? I... I have so many questions! What is Darcinia - that place Miss Bingley talked of? Why-"
Darcy laughed gently. "Too many questions for this time of night, Georgiana! Maybe you are not tired, but I most certainly am. I understand that you have seen and heard much to puzzle you tonight, and I am equally curious about your adventures, but can we not leave it all until tomorrow? I promise you, I will answer any questions you choose to ask in the morning. But I think you should know that there is a chance Miss Bennet may come to call on you tomorrow, and you will want to have at least some sleep so you may be at your best to greet your new friend."
Darcy felt a tiny twinge of guilt as he promised to answer questions his sister would not be able to ask; if she ever spoke to him about the night's escapades again, it would be to relate to him a curious dream. He hoped she would, as he was indeed very curious to know what Georgiana had experienced in the Looking Glass World - if only to have an explanation of the ridiculous hat she had been wearing in the garden. Of them all, Darcy would be the only one who would remember the event as something that had really happened, for the rest it would be only a dream, and unless Georgiana, Miss Bingley, and Elizabeth ever spoke of it... but then Darcy remembered that for Elizabeth, the real Elizabeth, it would not even be that. She would know nothing about it, any more than anyone in the real world was aware of the outlandish antics their Looking Glass selves indulged in while they were out of view of a mirror. It amused him somewhat that Miss Bingley had been so desperate to wipe out the memory of a person who was not even real, and wondered briefly why, but considerations of Caroline Bingley and her actions and motivations could never hold his attention for very long. Instead, Darcy thought about Elizabeth, and wondered what she would say if he one day happened to tell her about his adventures through the looking glass, and all that he saw there.
Very likely she would think he had dreamt it, too.
Georgiana was on the point of protesting that she was not tired, and begging for at least one or two answers, when her words were swallowed by a forceful yawn, and her brother laughed at her and gave her his older brother I-told-you-so look. She grinned sheepishly and hugged him, and then took his offered arm and allowed him to escort her to her bedchamber. At her door he kissed her goodnight on her upturned cheek, and watched her enter her room.
Just before she closed the door, Darcy had a thought. "Georgiana!"
"Are there really flowers called Johnny-Jump-Ups?"
Georgiana looked at him curiously, and not without amusement. "Yes, yes there are."
"And... Sweet Williams?"
This time his little sister grinned knowingly. "Did Miss Bennet tell you that there were?"
"Not... not exactly... well, yes." Darcy did not know why he was embarrassed. It was only a simple question about the name of a flower.
"Yes. We have some in the garden, I can show you tomorrow," Georgiana continued to smile at him teasingly as she withdrew into her room.
Darcy stood still in the hallway for a few quiet moments after Georgiana had shut her door. He could hear movement somewhere in the house; they had returned just in time, the servants were awake and beginning their duties for the day. It was not the first time Darcy had ended his night's revels as the new day was beginning, but no ball he had ever attended had ever given him such a sweetly satisfying feeling of tiredness. But his bed must wait; Darcy had further labors to perform before he could enjoy his rest.
For even though he had determined that a future with Elizabeth was not only possible for him, but much to be preferred over a mere memory of the past, Darcy still longed to know for himself what had happened to him - to them! - on that rainy November afternoon. The tantalizing evidence left behind was never going to be enough; his journal, the wedding rings, the centaur's letter - they could never satisfy when there remained a chance that he might remember for himself the moment when Elizabeth kissed him on the cheek in a wardrobe, and whispered that she loved him. Even if she could be brought to feel thus again, and declare it to him, Darcy wanted the memory of her first confession to be something real, not just something he read about in his journal. And so, as the sun was just beginning to brighten the morning sky over Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy, master of that great estate, could be found standing over a table in his bedchamber, thinking about the witches in Macbeth and being glad he had not had to procure eye of newt, while methodically adding ingredients, one by one, to a bowl of water, to create what he had come to regard as a sort of antidote to regrets.
London was sweltering, even for August, and Fitzwilliam Darcy was sorry to have had to return to it. He was thankful that society in town was rather thin; his knocker was up, so he need not fear anyone would come calling, but he was wishful to avoid meeting acquaintances when his business there was of such a confidential and unpleasant nature.
Darcy paced in his study, ruminating on many diverse subjects - and yet, not so diverse, for in one way or another, they were all connected by one unifying thread - Elizabeth Bennet.
The morning after his expedition through the looking glass, Darcy had slept for only a few hours; Elizabeth's uncle was to come to Pemberley to fish with the gentlemen of their party, and Darcy could not stay abed much past his usual hour. Then he had discovered in conversation with Mr. Gardiner that Elizabeth herself, in company with her aunt, planned to call on Georgiana that morning, which he found curious as the Looking Glass Elizabeth had said as much to him the previous night. He had informed Georgiana that she might expect these visitors, but he did not know if the information of the Looking Glass Elizabeth was to be trusted as a reflection of what the real Elizabeth had in contemplation. But when Mr. Gardiner had confirmed that the visit was to be paid, Darcy had hastened back to the house to join his sister in receiving the welcome guests.
It had been an uncomfortable meeting. Miss Bingley, who had not come to breakfast, was in a foul disposition, which Darcy attributed to a combination of jealousy and nightmares, and she took out her frustrations on Elizabeth. Unfortunately, her viciousness also unsettled Georgiana, who had not retained the spark of defiance she had developed during her adventures the previous night, so what Darcy had hoped would be an occasion for the two women who meant the most to him to become better acquainted had been instead a trial for both of the Darcys, and their morning callers. After Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner left, Miss Bingley continued her attacks on her putative rival, and Darcy, who truly did endeavor to remain a gentleman at all times, was forced to respond quite sharply to her cutting remarks about Elizabeth. It had filled him with a feeling of warmth to defend her so, and he derived no small amount of pleasure in putting Miss Bingley in her place.
The rest of the day had been spent in agonizing impatience; the potion had to steep for at least twelve hours, and as evening approached, and the hour when he could drink the fruits of his labors drew near, Darcy had become more and more agitated, more and more distracted from the company at hand. He knew that the entire party was regarding him strangely, and that his distraction warranted Georgiana's quizzical looks and Bingley's teasing.
The auspicious hour finally arrived; Darcy drank the antidote after he had finished dressing for dinner, as it was to be taken on an empty stomach. It did, as he feared, taste of the Brussels sprouts that had been part of the ingredients, but it was not an unpleasant flavor overall, as the multitude of other ingredients balanced the good and the bad to make the whole taste like a strange, spicy tea. Immediately images began to swim in his mind, images of a snowy glade with a water pump, images of being seized by a centaur, images of Elizabeth being carried off by flying monkeys. The memories crowded in for several minutes, and then faded. Darcy was overwhelmed, but also bereft that they were gone. And then, another wave of remembrance hit him, and another, and another, until he was afraid he would be unable to appear at dinner at all, lest his sister and guests think he was being seized in a fit. But eventually the pictures in his mind slowed to a more measured flow, more like a daydream that played in the back of his mind and allowed him to face his companions in the dining room. The stream of images ebbed and flowed through the evening, and yet his sleep that night, as far as he could determine, was dreamless. He woke to more recollections in the morning, and was so overcome by the wondrous experience that he was bursting to share it with someone. And yet, there was only one person to whom he could ever reveal the secrets that now filled his mind.
Elizabeth. The thought of the decision he had made that morning, and the events that prevented him carrying them out, dragged Darcy's mind back to the present, to the reason he was pacing in his study in London, instead of, perhaps, still enjoying her company in Derbyshire. It was for Elizabeth that Darcy had suddenly quit Derbyshire so soon after his arrival there; he had told her relations only that very morning that he had involved himself in the reclamation of Miss Lydia Bennet out of a sense of his own responsibility for her unfortunate entanglement with George Wickham, but Darcy knew in his heart that what he really wanted was to remove the cause of Elizabeth Bennet's distress. When he had called on her at the inn in Lambton, a flask full of his completed antidote in one pocket and his journal in the other, he had found her in tears and wracked with concern for her family. The time for sharing with her the revelations that he had been blessed to receive would have to wait. In retrospect, his was glad he had been prevented from offering her the antidote that day - it had never been his plan to do so, until he had found himself so overwhelmed by the newly reclaimed memories. But when he had found her, Elizabeth was in no condition to appreciate the wonders he had been experiencing since recovering his memories. She had departed for home that very afternoon; he had left his the next day.
And now, his business in London on her behalf was nearly complete; he had found the runaways, and made all the arrangements with her relations, and had plans to return to Derbyshire in the morning, there to pass the time before he must once again journey to town, to attend Wickham's wedding to Elizabeth's unfortunate younger sister.
The arrangements with Elizabeth's uncle, Mr. Gardiner, had had only one difficult point - Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner did not feel comfortable with Darcy's request to keep his involvement in the affair a secret. Darcy feared that Mrs. Gardiner suspected something about his feelings for Elizabeth, but he could not, with propriety, explain to her that he did not want Elizabeth to love him out of gratitude. He had already worked to win her in two other worlds, and was willing to do what he must to win her in this, and he would not accept gratitude in the place of love.
Realizing that his pacing only increased his agitation, Darcy seated himself at his desk. The array of items neatly arranged on the blotter were not of a nature to calm his thoughts: a flask, a pair of bejeweled rings, an embroidered handkerchief, a letter from a centaur friend, a journal, and a list of items sought by Elizabeth on that wondrous night in the Looking Glass World. Darcy picked up each item one by one, and contemplated their meaning. They were all talismans of hope in one way or another. The journal and the letter he had first read just over a fortnight ago, sending him on his peculiar odyssey to reclaim his memories of a loving Elizabeth; the rings were the tangible evidence that what was written in the journal and the letter was true; the flask contained a dose of the antidote that he someday hoped Elizabeth would consent to drink; the handkerchief, embroidered with the initials E. B., had been loaned to him by the Looking Glass Elizabeth; the list...
Suddenly, Darcy understood.
The list, Elizabeth's list of ingredients for whatever potion or elixir she had been concocting that night, was not written backwards. That was what had niggled at his mind whenever he looked at it - and he looked at it with enough frequency that the folds of the paper were becoming worn - if it had been written in the Looking Glass World, it would have been written in mirror writing, like Lady Catherine's absurd poetic proclamation, and Mary Bennet's book, and the books in the parlor in the woods. Darcy still had the copy of Lady Catherine's poem that she had bestowed upon him, and he had looked at it once or twice since his return to the real world, and it had remained mirror writing after moving from one world to the other. He had even held it up to a mirror once, and as Fitzwilliam the centaur had said, it had no reflection. Thinking back, Darcy remembered reading Elizabeth's list in the Looking Glass World, and though it did not register as odd to him then, he remembered very clearly that it had not been backwards. It could not have been written in the Looking Glass World. And if the list had not been written in the Looking Glass World...
Darcy started from his seat, grabbing Elizabeth's handkerchief, and nearly running the few steps to the fireplace; he thrust his hand holding the handkerchief in front of the mirror over the mantel. And there in the mirror was a reflection of his hand, holding a handkerchief embroidered by the fingers of the very real Elizabeth Bennet. He now noticed that the initials stitched into the cloth were not backwards either, and mentally berated himself for not noticing that night when she had given it to him, and not realizing that he had spent that evening in the company of the real Elizabeth Bennet.
The real Elizabeth Bennet, with whom he had flirted. With whom he had waltzed. Whom he had wooed. Whom he had married - twice now. Whom he had kissed.
Darcy's legs felt weak, but he pushed himself away from the fireplace and began once again to pace. What did this mean for his plans? Nothing, perhaps - she had been treated to the effects of the moon daisies, and if she recalled that night at all, it would be only as a dream. Neither Georgiana nor Miss Bingley had ever mentioned it - though he did not imagine Miss Bingley ever would, considering that for her it must have been more like a nightmare. But would there be consequences for the things he had done? Had he wasted an opportunity? Should he ask Elizabeth about it? Tell her about it? Darcy's face flushed as he remembered the events of that night; he had been uncharacteristically forward, even improper, doing and saying things he would never have had the courage to attempt if he had known he was in the presence of his real love. He smiled. Perhaps it was as well he had not known it was she after all.
So many questions bubbled up in light of this new knowledge. What had Elizabeth been doing there? Had she been creating an antidote to the forgetfulness potion, as he had suspected then? Fitzwilliam had said there were many receipts for it. But if she was making an antidote, how did she know about... well, any of it: the Looking Glass World, antidotes, the forgetfulness potion itself, Darcinia? What exactly did she know? Why was she there on that particular night? Was there some connection to her trip to Derbyshire? Had she gone to Pemberley on purpose? When Miss Bingley destroyed her elixir, had she been able to make a new one another time? Did she meet the Looking Glass Darcy on her return? Would she have known the difference? Had she known it was really he when they met? Could Miss Bingley's moon daisies have ruined everything for Elizabeth?
The hows, whys, and whats crowded together in Darcy's mind, but there was one question he wanted answered more than any other: did she know? Was she in Hertfordshire right now, thinking about their adventure in Darcinia, and perhaps... loving him?
More than ever, Darcy felt desperate to see Elizabeth again. His agitation grew - if only there was some way to speed the passage of time in the next few weeks! The sooner he could dispense with the Wickham problem and convince Bingley to return to Netherfield, the happier Darcy would be, but until then...
Darcy paced, and thought of Her.
Posted on: 2009-12-10
The newlyweds had gone several miles in their fine carriage before they could stop grinning self-consciously at each other, and Darcy felt the moment was right; he pulled a leather-bound notebook from inside his coat.
"Lizzy, there is something I would like you to read-"
"Have you been writing bad poetry for me again, to test the stoutness of our love?"
"No - well, yes, I have written a few sonnets on fine eyes, but what I have here is an account of something that happened at Netherfield, in November of last year, when you were staying there during Jane's illness."
"Is it about Darcinia?" Lizzy blurted out.
Darcy's eyes grew wide. "You remember Darcinia?"
"Not remember, exactly," Lizzy said with a wavering voice of contained excitement as she drew a packet of papers from her reticule, and made as if she would hand them to him before instead pressing them to her breast. "It was real, was it not?"
Darcy only nodded; his throat was too dry of a sudden to speak.
"The centaurs, the monster, Moira, Queen Caroline... it was all real?" Lizzy's voice was no more than a whisper.
Darcy nodded again.
"Do you remember it?" Lizzy asked avidly, her eyes alight with an enchanting sparkle that Darcy, though he had always admired the brilliance of those orbs, had never seen in them before.
"I have been able to recover the memories. Do... do you remember it, or did you write an account of it, too?" Darcy gestured towards the papers she still clasped tightly to herself, giving her to understand from the question, and from the book in his hand that Darcy had done what she had, and recorded his experiences before he was forced to forget them.
"Yes... no... yes. That is, I do not remember, precisely, what happened, though I think I have had hints of it hidden in my mind - and though I do not remember doing it, I apparently I wrote myself a letter about it that night before I went to sleep, before the potion took affect."
"And how long have you known?" Darcy was encouraged by Lizzy's mention that she seemed to have small moments of remembering; if that was the case, she would likely be helped by the potion just as he had been. His hand moved to the flask in his coat pocket, but he waited to hear what Lizzy had to say.
"Since the day I met you at Pemberley with my aunt and uncle. I was using the same valise on that journey that I used while I stayed at Netherfield, and evidently, when I wrote myself this letter, I hid it in the bottom of the valise. It became wedged inside a tear in the lining, however, and I did not find it when I returned home, as I believe I intended to happen. As I was searching for something in the valise after we returned to the inn from Pemberley just after meeting you there, I found instead a most intriguing letter to myself. But while the account I had written was astonishing beyond words to describe, it was something else I found, sealed inside the letter, that amazed and puzzled me even more."
"Pray, what was that?"
"Another letter. It was addressed to me, and in an unfamiliar hand - and addressed with a most unusual direction!"
"May I venture to guess that it was from a centaur named Fitzwilliam, and addressed to 'The Most Beloved Elizabeth'?"
Lizzy blushed a little as she replied, "You are half right - it was written by Pemberley -"
"The faun," Darcy finished.
"Yes! Tell me, Fitzwilliam, you say you have recovered the memories? I am curious how you were able to do so, for my letter from Pemberley gave me a receipt for an antidote to the forgetfulness potion, but I was never able to make it. There are one or two ingredients that I was unable to find hereabouts, and there was one thing that the instructions said I had to do, which I was never able to do, though I dreamed that I did it, while I was in Derbyshire, the night I first read the letters - no, wait, I think it was the next night - and oh, it was the most vivid dream I have ever had, and I swear to you that I remember every detail of it with perfect clarity, almost as if it really happened - but... it was so strange, such an impossible feat -"
"What was it?"
"Pemberley said that I needed to go through a mirror into someplace called the Looking Glass World! It must be impossible, of course, though I was never able to attempt it, except in that dream - do you know, there is not a single looking glass at Longbourn that is big enough to pass through? There was a nice, full length one in my chamber at the inn, the one I used in my dream, but at home, nothing! Of course, I had much more important matters to contend with when I returned home, and so forgot all about the letters for a time, but eventually I was able to consider them once again, and, though I blush to admit it, I thought I would try to do what Pemberley said. And that was when I realized that I possessed no suitable mirror. We used to have one that we girls all shared, but Lydia broke it, and now, in the whole house there is not one I could use! None, that is, except one over the fireplace in my mother's room, and I could not go climb on the mantel and... Fitzwilliam, why are you looking at me that way?"
"You think it impossible to go through a mirror into the Looking Glass World, and yet you believe that you entered Darcinia through Miss Bingley's wardrobe at Netherfield?" Darcy smiled at the contradiction in his new wife's reasoning.
"I never thought of it that way... then is none of it real?" Lizzy looked downcast, which Fitzwilliam did not like to see, especially not so soon after their wedding. She looked up at him, searchingly. "But Fitzwilliam, you did say that you remember Darcinia!"
"I did - I do. Allow me to assure you then, that it is all true, my Lizzy, all of it. Darcinia, and... It is possible to go through the mirror into the Looking Glass World - I have been there! I, too received instructions on how to concoct an antidote to the forgetfulness potion, and I went into the Looking Glass World to obtain all the ingredients! It was even stranger than Darcinia, Lizzy, but the strangest thing was that I met people whom I knew, but it was not truly they. I... I even met you, and, now, I know this will be very difficult for you to believe, but you were there, Lizzy. You only remember it as a dream, and I can explain why, but you really were there. I did not know it was the real you at the time, however, and... though I may blush to confess it, I... I practiced my wooing on whom I though was a Looking Glass Lizzy. I wanted to figure out some way to court you, and make you return my affections, which I began to think you did, even though I thought you were not you, and I even kept a token to remind me of her - you - as it gave me hope that someday you -"
While he spoke, babbling on in a rush as he tried to convince her, Darcy withdrew a lady's handkerchief, embroidered in red with the initials E. B., from his pocket, but his rambling story was curtailed when his new bride widened her eyes at the sight of it, turned pale, and then fainted dead away at Darcy's feet.
"And is this the same ring?"
Lizzy had been revived from her swoon, and been gently teased by her new husband, who was only beginning to have the knack for it.
"I told you to eat more at the wedding breakfast. Not married more than a few hours, and already you are forgetting your vow to obey me."
Lizzy laughed. "If my own written account is accurate, you made a vow to obey me, in our first wedding," she gave him an arch smile. "Now, I know it was not a legally binding ceremony, but you have always claimed to be an honorable man, and an honorable man would not break a vow."
Lizzy and her husband were now sitting side by side, rather than gazing at each other from opposite sides of the carriage. Her mention of their Darcinian wedding spurred a sharing of accounts of their adventures. Both had contributed their stories, reading to each other from their individual accounts of their Darcinian exploits, and recalling the events of their shared journey in the Looking Glass World. Darcy explained that it had been the real Georgiana and Miss Bingley they had encountered through the looking glass, too ("I suspected as much when the sherry turned them into animals, but it seemed impossible! Even for a dream!" Lizzy confessed with amazement), and explained to Elizabeth how Miss Bingley had caused her - and Georgiana, and Miss Bingley herself - to come to regard the whole adventure as nothing but a dream. It took very little time for Lizzy to come to understand that she had not dreamt the entire experience, as she had no trouble believing in Caroline Bingley's treachery, and then to fully realize that she had been flirting with the real Fitzwilliam Darcy the entire time.
"I was so certain that I had only dreamed it, even when I could not find the handkerchief in the morning. But it is so easy to lose a handkerchief!"
"And I was so confident that I could say anything to you, and not have to concern myself with the repercussions, either good or ill!"
Lizzy laughed. "And as I dreamt it, or rather, as I remember it, I was doing the exact same thing! I thought it was a Looking Glass Mr. Darcy whom I met there, and I thought that, as we had always been misunderstanding each other before, I would try to be more civil and, well, amiable towards you. As practice, for when I would see you again - I had been very awkward in our previous two meetings, I knew, and I was trying to let you see that I had changed my opinion towards you and would welcome, if not yet the renewal of your proposals, then at least a congenial acquaintance with you. And I flirted, and teased you, thinking that if you had fallen in love with me when I was so very uncivil, it would not do for me to be too civil - not if I wanted you to fall in love with me again - which I confess became my object as the evening wore on, as you began to make me fall in love with you. Of course, I had to keep reminding myself that you were not the real Fitzwilliam Darcy, but you were so much like the real you - but more flirtatious! - in essentials, that I could not but hope that things could be the same between us in the real world. My letter from Pemberley said that it was possible, according to some beliefs, that people in the real world are in some way affected by the things their Looking Glass World counterparts do and experience, though he did say that it was a controversial belief, and not very likely. So I had to at least try to make you like me a little bit. But even if you did not love me anymore, I did want to show that we could be friends. So, there could only have been good results from my engaging in some playful flirtation with you, had I not believed it all a dream the next morning. I distinctly recall having amazingly charitable feelings towards you when I thought of that dream! I am so very happy to know that it was truly you! And yet, there I was, thinking that I could say anything, whatever popped into my head, with no consequences (Oh, the choice things I wanted very much to say to Caroline Bingley, but she seemed quite mad, and I did not think it wise to anger a mad woman!) - you know not how much I censor myself, normally! But oh, what you must have thought of me! What you must have thought of me when you found out it was truly me!"
Blushes were shared equally between them at the remembrance of certain events, and examples on both sides of slightly improper behavior, though Darcy reassured Lizzy that he had not thought ill of her at all, for anything she said or did - quite the contrary, in fact.
"Everything you said only made me love you all the more!"
They shared laughter, too, as they recalled some of the amusing things that had happened to them - and certain others who had been there.
"There is one thing I must regret now," Darcy said, causing his wife to adopt a look of wariness. "Knowing that it was really you with whom I spent that evening, and shared that adventure, I cannot but feel curious about what the Looking Glass Elizabeth is really like!"
Elizabeth laughed at such a conclusion, and admitted to a certain curiosity on that head herself, regarding the Looking Glass version of her husband. But it was agreed between them that to remain in a state of wonderment was a wiser course than to return to the Looking Glass World to satisfy their curiosity - especially as they would each need to go alone in order to find out what the Looking Glass counterparts to their partners were like.
Eventually, however, the conversation came back to Darcinia, and the proof Darcy had retained in the form of the wedding rings - his own, which he had saved, and Lizzy's, which she had given him for safekeeping the night they were both meant to be letting go of the memories forever. Darcy took his wife's left hand in both of his and caressed it gently, his eyes on the sparkling wedding band encircling her finger as he answered her query about the origin of her wedding ring.
"It is very same ring, though I have had my jeweler make some alterations to it - I had recorded in my journal that Bingley noticed our matching rings that evening at dinner, so in case he remembered it - Bingley has an uncanny memory for strange, small details - I modified the settings. But the inscription is still there."
"And as we have married with it twice, you are now twice bound to me! But where is your ring?" Elizabeth asked as she quickly removed her ring to read the words engraved inside - "Eliza Bennet & The Darcy - United at last, and forever."
"I have been wearing mine for some time," he answered with a smile, pulling aside his coat to display the fob on his watch chain, "in an altered form as well." The ring had been fitted with tiny, glass inserts, forming a kind of round frame, inside of which Elizabeth could see an intricately braided knot made of the lock of hair she had allowed him to collect from her when they became engaged.
"And, would I be correct in surmising, based on her odd behavior in the days before the wedding, and some things she has recently said to me, that Miss Bingley is also aware of our little trip through her wardrobe?"
"Yes. She has known all along, as the forgetfulness potion made her ill, and... well, it was not given a chance to work. She told me this after you had disappeared that night in the Looking Glass World. And she knows that I know, because I told her as much at Pemberley after I regained my memories."
Lizzy looked at him in astonishment. "Why would you tell her?"
"She made me angry one evening by saying something..."
Lizzy chuckled. "About me?"
"Yes, and about me, well, and my feelings for you. So, though I am ashamed to admit it, I told her about the antidote, and told her that I remembered the entire Darcinian adventure, and that I hoped soon to give the antidote to you as well, so that you, too, would remember not only our love, but her treachery. I honestly think that if I had not been aware already that she knew all about those events, I would have given her the antidote to make her remember, I was so angry with her. I am relieved to not have been tested that way - me with my resentful temper! I have since found out that she also brought a letter back from there, though not one with a receipt for an antidote. She was given a letter from Moira, who, it seems, truly did not trust us to seal the passage, and even less did she trust Miss Bingley never to return. She feared that Miss Bingley, using the strange time difference between our world and... that one, would wait a few of our days, knowing that generations would have gone by there, and would return to try to conquer the land again, possibly bringing a return of the interminable winter. So, Moira sent her a letter detailing threats of how Queen Caroline would be depicted in the history books of the land, and that every child in future would be taught to recognize and revile her, against her possible return. Miss Bingley, unlike you and I, who both chose not to read the letters we were given, read hers promptly, and, as she never forgot what happened, she retained the memories of the threats, too. I can almost feel sorry for her; for the last year she has been plagued by the memories from her entire reign, and as mortified as she was by the ultimate outcome of her plot, she lived in fear that one of us might remember any part of it as well."
"Did Miss Bingley tell you all of this?"
"She did. In her usual way, I think she meant to curry favor with me somehow."
"Does she know that the events that took place in the Looking Glass World were real, and not a dream?"
"I have not explicitly told her so, but I have surmised that she suspects it - she knows that I went there to get the ingredients for the antidote, and so she may have drawn certain conclusions. She would not mention it, I would not think." Darcy laughed.
"She still thinks the whole adventure was a vivid dream, and she has told me all about it; I have debated telling her the whole story, but that would require an explanation about the previous adventure, and, well, who would ever believe it? I decided to wait until you and I had a chance to discuss it, and determine together whether to reveal the truth to her. It was, strangely enough, a pleasurable experience for her!"
Lizzy laughed. "Well, we shall think on it. But there is one thing that disturbs me, Fitzwilliam."
"What is it?" Darcy furrowed his brow in concern.
"The knowledge that you would do something for Caroline Bingley that you have never yet done for me!" Lizzy said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Darcy felt truly perplexed to think that he had in any way neglected his new wife's happiness. "Lizzy, if there is anything at all that you desire, you know nothing would give me more pleasure than -"
Lizzy chose to relieve his dismay promptly. "The antidote please, Fitzwilliam!"
Darcy finally withdrew the flask from his pocket, an expression of heartfelt delight transforming his countenance. He watched with eager anticipation as she offered a toast, and then he laughed at the contortions Lizzy's lovely features underwent when she tasted the vile brew, but he nevertheless kissed her sputtering lips, happy in the knowledge that soon they would once again have shared memories of the adventure that had first taught them to love one another.
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy had returned from a late night ramble through the gardens of Pemberley; there were a few servants who were aware of this unusual predilection of the master of the house and his new wife, but Pemberley servants were too discreet to comment, or to share this curious information with outsiders, so the couple need have no worries that their habits would become the subject of gossip - if they had ever even given the opinions of the world at large a moment's thought, and it happened that it was a lovely evening to check on the progress of the recently planted hedge maze, and therefore a lovely evening to enjoy moonlight perambulations. Husband and wife were perched upon a stone table on the terrace overlooking the lake, where flaming braziers sent light dancing across the water. Mr. Darcy had just finished expressing to his wife how perfectly, completely, and incandescently happy he was to be married to her, as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. The couple were now reposed in each other's embrace, expressions of heartfelt delight adding to the manifold attractions of each countenance. Mrs. Darcy heaved a contented sigh.
"Fitzwilliam," the lady said, renewing the thrill the gentleman felt each time she called him by his given name, an act of intimacy that until recently had only been possible in his longing imagination, "I have something to confess to you.
"Hmmm?" the gentleman languidly replied. "What is that, my Lizzy?" She had given him a selection of names by which he might call her in private moments, and though Lizzy was but an everyday name, he still relished the right to use it - though he must needs add the 'my' to remind himself that the good fortune he had once despaired of had been bestowed on him in earnest.
"Do you remember when we were in Darcinia, and we were walking with a group of Darcinians to the queen's palace, and we were all tired and footsore, and stopped to wade in a stream?"
"Yes, yes I do. And I also remember that I hated the name Darcinia, and have asked that you call it by what I believe is now the name of that place, Lizziland." He kissed her on top of her head, the one place he could reach without shifting his position, which he felt no inclination to do. He was too comfortable where he was, with his wife leaning against his body, and gently stroking his bare calves.
"I like Darcinia. Do you also remember that when we decided we would defy the propriety of our world and shed our boots and stockings in order to enjoy the opportunity to refresh ourselves in that way, that you promised to keep your eyes averted, in order not to violate my privacy?"
"Yes... and I remember that you promised, as well." This time Darcy did shift his position, in order to look at Lizzy's face, which sported a familiar mischievous smile.
"Well, in point of fact, I never did promise, I merely asked you if you would like me to, and you, naturally, agreed. But, strictly speaking, I never did. I remember that quite clearly."
Darcy could not help a chuckle. "Do you?"
"Indeed, and I feel constrained to admit that it was a deliberate choice of words on my part."
"Yes, for I am a woman of my word, and I did not like to make a promise that I had no intention of keeping."
Darcy's face registered surprise.
"You are shocked, my love," Lizzy stated with counterfeit gravity. "You will perhaps be less shocked to know that I... I peeked."
"No, I... I am not shocked that you peeked, my love, for you have always been a woman of keen intelligence, and curiosity is part and parcel of that, but... it was your intention?"
Lizzy replied only with a nod and an impish grin.
"But... why?" the strangely flattered gentleman asked in wonder.
"Perhaps you have not the vanity I have ascribed to you in the past, Fitzwilliam - can you not guess?"
Darcy shook his head, nonplussed.
"Well, when you came to that assembly in Meryton, where we first encountered one another, every woman in the place, in fact, every woman who has ever met you, I imagine, noticed that you are a fine figure of a man."
Darcy smiled smugly - he did have some vanity, after all.
"Yes, I knew you were aware of it," his wife teased. "A gentleman's evening dress, as I am certain you know, shows off his legs to advantage - provided of course, that he has a fine pair of calves."
"Of course," Darcy chortled.
"And you, my darling husband, have very fine pair of calves. The reason I peeked that day in Darcinia, was because I wanted very much to see them - and it never occurred to me then that I would have opportunities such as the ones I have now!" Mrs. Darcy emphasized her words with a gentle squeeze of one of the very fine calves under discussion.
The young husband pulled his wife to his heart, and from that enviable position she could hear his laughter as a pleasing rumble in his chest, and it went on for some duration in a way that would have surprised many a person who thought they knew him quite well.
"Mrs. Darcy," the incandescently happy gentleman said to his wife, "I have on many occasions heard men declare that some woman or other had agreed to make them the happiest of men by accepting their hands in marriage. I have come to pity those men, for I know that I am happier by far than all of them, at least three times as happy, for I have had the very good fortune to marry you, Elizabeth Bennet Darcy - three times over. And if there are any more extraordinary adventures ahead for us, I would gladly do it all over again."
"You know that I would happily accompany you anywhere, Fitzwilliam, but if it is all the same to you, I think a life here in our world with you will be adventure enough for me."
Posted on: 2009-12-10
Miss Elizabeth Bennet stepped cautiously into the room on the other side of her mirror and looked around her with a nervous laugh. The room appeared exactly like the bedchamber she had just left, except backwards - a mirror image of her real room at the Rose and Crown. It was just as it should be, of course, but being surprised that Pemberley the faun's instructions worked, that it was actually possible to pass through a looking glass into another world, Lizzy could not but be amazed at what she saw.
The room was very dark, of course, being illuminated by only one candle by the side of the bed, and a tiny sliver of moonlight that crept into the room through a gap in the curtains. It was no darker, however, than Lizzy's real bedchamber had been, and so her eyes were well accustomed to the dim light. She walked very quietly over to the table where the candle was, to check once again that she had what she needed in her reticule. She had already checked it at least a dozen times before she came through the looking glass, but she checked it again, and finding that all was in order, she blew out her candle and made her way to the door.
Passing through the sitting room that she shared with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner, Lizzy paused to listen. She could hear their snores through the door to their bedchamber, and so was reassured that they were asleep, and would not hear her, but she almost gave away her position by laughing - her aunt and uncle were snoring in musical harmony! She moved closer to the door, her hand held over her mouth to keep her mirth from escaping, and listened as they produced a somnolent rendition of a duet by Mozart. Mr. Gardiner, as Lizzy knew, had a fondness for Mozart, and it was very much in Mrs. Gardiner's character to support her husband's interest.
Lizzy quietly let herself out into the corridor of the inn, and was somewhat chagrined to note that it was not as quiet there as she had hoped it would be. She stood a minute and listened; a rumble of voices ascended to her ears from the inn's dining room downstairs, which complicated her plans, as she had anticipated that so late at night, for it was after midnight, everyone would have gone to bed. As she quietly trod down the corridor, she noticed also a much more amusing sound; apparently her aunt and uncle were not the only ones who slept harmoniously - from every chamber door she passed issued a different snored melody. The combined effect was cacophonous, but some of the individual performances were almost tolerable.
Lizzy made her way down the stairs with the demeanor of someone who is meant to be there. She did not know who would be gathered there, and assumed it was some group of travelers who had arrived very late and convinced the innkeeper to feed them. Weary travelers partaking of a late dinner was not what she encountered when she reached the bottom of the staircase, however.
The tables in the room had been pushed against the wall, and the chairs were arrayed in a half circle around a single table. A crowd of gentlemen were seated in the chairs, all talking excitedly to one another, and clutching leather-bound notebooks and pencils; their attention was directed at two men who stood beside the table. Lizzy paused at the bottom of the stairs in a shadow near a curtain that served as the door to some pantry or storeroom, not having been noticed by the group, to see what the extraordinary meeting was about.
Presently, one of the two men by the table cleared his throat loudly to draw the attention of his fellows. The general hubbub of conversation took a minute to quiet down, as is usually the case in such situations, but soon all were silent and looking expectantly at the speaker. While everyone's attention was riveted on the tall, angular, bespectacled man, Lizzy recognized it as the perfect moment for her to slip away unseen; she had a great deal to accomplish before the moon set, and should not, she knew, waste even a moment on idle curiosity, but she was somehow drawn to stay and discover the purpose of the late-night meeting. The gentlemen - for they all appeared to be gentlemen - did not appear nefarious, nor did the meeting have an aura of secrecy surrounding it, and as no one had objected to her presence on the fringes of their gathering, Lizzy waited to hear what the director of the function had to say.
"Distinguished gentlemen, honored colleagues, I welcome you to this meeting of the Neutralist Order of Natural Scientific Endeavor Negating Suspicious Inquiries Calculated Against Logic."
His speech was here interrupted when the other gentlemen placed their fingers beside their heads, pointing upwards, and proceeded to hoot like owls. Lizzy choked back a laugh. Such a display of absurdity from a congregation of grown men Lizzy could not but laugh at, though she was careful that she should not be heard over their hooting. When the owlish ovation had subsided, the gentleman proceeded in his solemn speech.
"This evening we have a matter of grave importance before us, a conundrum of vital scientific significance. We aim to determine the answer, once and for all, for the benefit of all mankind, to a question that has plagued man since his earliest moments of civilization. It is a matter that has been a source of debate and speculation for countless years, sometimes of a forceful and heated nature, even amongst this august body, and yet, no person or persons has yet had the courage to undertake the precise experimentation required to determine the definitive truth. Gentlemen!"
The distinguished delegate paused, and raised his gaze to the ceiling, as he took an impressively deep breath. As he was in the midst of this dramatic break in his discourse, a person brushed past Lizzy; a serving maid from the inn scurried past with a curious burden - a platter piled several feet high with slices of toast. She placed the platter on the table behind the orator, and rushed to the kitchens again before Lizzy had a chance to stop her to make a request for the one item she desperately needed to start her quest. Lizzy settled back against the wall again to await the return of the maid - at least while she waited she would have a source of amusement; her curiosity had been aroused by the actions of the gentlemen, and had she even been able to achieve her own objective at that moment she would have felt compelled to stay at least until she might discover the extraordinary purpose of the gathering of peculiar gentlemen.
She had not long to wait; the gentleman had gathered his faculties to continue.
"This evening, we the members of N.O.N.S.E.N.S.I.C.A.L. presume to undertake what none has had the wherewithal thus far to essay, for we refuse to consider ourselves non possumus as all who have come before us, and when we have completed our investigations into one of the world's great mysteries, it will be a truth universally acknowledged that a piece of toast, when dropped from a plate, will always land marmalade side down!"
This unexpected conclusion - unexpected, at least, by Lizzy - caused the assembled men of science to burst into another cacophony of hooting, mingled with both cheers and shouts of contention, no doubt from those members of the august N.O.N.S.E.N.S.I.C.A.L. body who yet remained unconvinced that a dropped piece of toast was incontrovertibly a cause for alarm on behalf of one's carpet. The uproar had the fortunate effect of drowning out Lizzy's laughter, which unfortunately caused her to miss the maid as she walked by again, and lose the opportunity to make her intended request of the young woman, but it did not much matter to Lizzy; she was determined to observe the proceedings further.
The maid carried another tray, this one laden with pots of marmalade, to the table, and the portly man who had been hovering behind the speaker, apparently in wait for the materials required for their experimentation, seized a piece of toast and began to slather it generously, and rather sloppily, with marmalade. When he had finished, he placed the sticky specimen reverently upon a plate, and held the plate over his head with both hands; his gesture of readiness quieted the crowd. Lizzy joined them in breathless expectation.
"Are the recorders ready?" the spokesman asked with portentous gravity, and three men with pens and ledgers of some kind raised their tools in acknowledgment and leaned forward, their gazes fixed on the toast-wielder with an intensity of attention far greater than the event would seem to command, but entirely in keeping with the importance their group clearly placed on the subject of the effects of gravity on marmalade-laden toast.
"Commence first trial!" the leader commanded, and the portly laboratory assistant took a deep breath, exhaled forcefully, and tipped the upraised plate forward.
The first trial, it must be said, did not proceed as expected or desired. The jam-laden piece of toast flipped end over end some once or twice, caromed off the jutting chin of the gentleman's upturned face, and landed on the protruding shelf that was his belly, jam side against his finely embroidered waistcoat.
A long moment of silence followed this inauspicious end of the first assay. It was a silence filled with awkwardness and expectation. Finally, after clearing his throat self-consciously, the moderator of the event announced a result.
"Jam side down!" he cried authoritatively, thus giving the rest of the members of the scientific society license to approve, and his declaration was followed by a resounding "Huzzah" from all the interested observers.
Lizzy once again took advantage of the commotion to mask the sounds of her own mirth, but this time when the maid entered the room, pausing in the doorway near where Lizzy stood, Lizzy had the presence of mind to address her, in order to further her own ends in being abroad from her room at that late hour.
"Excuse me, but might I be able to acquire a bottle of vinegar?" Lizzy asked the maid. Intent on the spectacle before her, the maid almost did not hear her, but the young woman managed to tear her eyes away from the spectacle of grown men playing with their food to attend to Lizzy. Lizzy, meanwhile, noticed that the scientific society had managed a clear attempt at toast-dropping, and were now cheering the sight of a piece of toasted bread lying jam side down on the floor. The maid beside her made a small noise of disgust, and it occurred to Lizzy that after the impressive gentlemen had exhausted that prodigious mountain of toast, the maid was the one who would be expected to clean the resulting mess of jam from the floorboards.
Lizzy repeated her request, and the maid nodded, and made to disappear into the inn's larder, but Lizzy stopped her.
"I know it sounds... odd, but I require the vinegar to be poured by the light of the moon."
Lizzy felt a trifle self-conscious in making such an absurd request, but the instructions given to her in Pemberley's letter were very specific as to the methods of collecting the items she needed for her elixir, and she was not about to ignore his strictures, and doom her errand to failure from the beginning. The maid, however, did not seem to find Lizzy's request odd, which Lizzy attributed to the fact that the woman was accustomed to serving the whims of the N.O.N.S.E.N.S.I.C.A.L. gentlemen, and she merely indicated that Lizzy should follow her.
The maid led Lizzy through the inn's kitchen, which Lizzy was surprised to note was as active in the middle of the night as it would be at noon, and, grabbing a large jug and a smaller decanter, exited through the back door of the inn into the yard. There was ample moonlight there, though the moon was not full, and the maid wordlessly handed the decanter to Lizzy. Lizzy unstoppered the vessel and held it as the maid poured the pungent liquid from the jug, spilling a little of it over Lizzy's fingers. Lizzy wrinkled her nose at the smell, and felt a little bit ill at the thought that she was later going to have to drink the stuff, after many other things were added to it, and she hoped fervently that the other ingredients of the strange brew would improve the flavor. According to report, though she had no memory of it, Lizzy had once drunk another ill-flavored potion, to mostly ill effect, and she found she was more than willing to imbibe this one in order to counteract that first one.
The maid accepted Lizzy's thanks without words, and retreated back inside the inn; Lizzy did not follow her. Instead, she placed the decanter of vinegar inside her large reticule and took a deep breath, looking around at her surroundings. The inn-yard was surprisingly busy for the small hours of the night, just like the inn kitchen, and though there was strictly no need for privacy for the next step in Lizzy's adventure, she looked around for a quiet, secluded spot to make her next move.
Truth be told, Lizzy was slightly apprehensive about the adventure she was about to embark upon, and felt a little bit silly about what she was about to attempt. Pemberley had given her advice on the best way to accomplish her mission, but it was so nonsensical, like the whimsical, silly, fairy-tale notions one plays at as a child, that Lizzy felt quite silly even making the attempt, and did not want to be observed. Moving into the shadows of the stables, Lizzy again took a deep breath, in an effort to calm the fluttering in her belly. She raised her skirt a tiny bit and contemplated the red and white striped stockings she wore. Lowering her hem again, she deliberately clicked her heels together three times, while fighting the urge to giggle. She screwed her eyes shut tight.
"I... I've much to do ere break of morn, take me now to Longbourn," Lizzy said, in a low, determined voice. Then she waited for something to happen.
For a moment, it seemed like nothing had happened; Lizzy felt nothing. And yet, there was something different, for the noises of the inn had disappeared, and instead, Lizzy heard only the gentle whisper of the warm breeze the caressed her face. She cautiously opened her eyes.
The trick, or whatever one chose to call the technique outlined in Pemberley's letter, had worked. Instead of the yard at the Rose and Crown Inn at Lambton, Lizzy found herself looking around at the gardens of her own home, far from that small town in Derbyshire where she had been only seconds previous. She could not repress her nervous giggle this time, and allowed her mirth to flow. Lizzy had not believed that it would work, and yet, it had; she had followed Pemberley's directions - she had worn an item of red, she had clicked her heels three times, and had recited a rhyming couplet saying where she wanted to go, and in an instant, had found herself there. The surprise of it made Lizzy feel quite lightheaded, and she sank down onto the bench nearby which she had conveniently materialized.
A few moments of deep, steady breathing made Lizzy feel more composed, and she took a moment to ponder the greater implications of her success in traveling across several English counties in the space of a breath. What Pemberley the faun had said about entering the Looking Glass World was true. What he had said about the ability to travel via poetry was true. Could that mean that everything else he said was true, and more importantly, could everything in her own letter to herself be true? Could the extraordinary adventure she had recounted, about herself, Mr. Darcy, and Miss Bingley traveling through Miss Bingley's wardrobe at Netherfield into a strange land called Darcinia actually have happened? And, by following Pemberley's further instructions, could she concoct a potion, an antidote to a forgetfulness potion that had purportedly been given to her there; could she regain the memories of those events that she had written about? Would she discover that the entire unbelievable episode was real?
It was a matter of great curiosity, and considerable importance to Lizzy to find out if it was true. According to her letter, Mr. Darcy had not only saved her life during their adventure in Darcinia, but he had done something even greater. He had done away with all of Lizzy's dislike of him. Even more than this, he had caused Lizzy to fall in love with him.
According to the letter that Lizzy had written to herself the previous November while she was staying at Netherfield during her sister Jane's illness, Mr. Darcy had been extremely kind to her in Darcinia, and had been fiercely protective of her safety. He had confessed to Lizzy that he was not only much more kindly disposed towards her than she had previously believed, but that he was, in fact, in love with her. They had married in Darcinia - not a legally binding ceremony, of course, but at the time Lizzy, according to her written account, had suspected that Mr. Darcy was sincere in his vows.
Even more startling than the revelation that Mr. Darcy had loved her, which, given the events of the ensuing April, could not be so surprising, was the news that Lizzy had begun to love him as well. She felt terrible mortification at the remembrance of the things she had said to him in April - she had been regretting her harsh words and misjudgments ever since she had read and reread his letter to her after his rejected proposal, but she felt even worse after reading her own letter recounting the kindness Mr. Darcy had displayed to her in Darcinia, her own avowal of returning his affections, and their shared hope that in spite of the forgetfulness potion they had been forced to imbibe, she and Mr. Darcy would fall in love with each other again. It now appeared that he, at least, had fallen in love with her again. Or, perhaps, Lizzy considered, he may have never truly forgotten those events! It would certainly explain why, when he proposed to her, he was expecting her to return his affections and accept him. Or he may have regained his memories - perhaps he, too had received information on how to create an antidote to the potion.
Lizzy dismissed this notion. She suspected that if Mr. Darcy had had the means to reclaim his own memories of Darcinia that he would have done something to help her regain hers as well - it would certainly have been to his advantage to do so, after she had rebuffed him.
It was pointless to speculate, Lizzy realized, though she had done almost nothing else since finding the momentous letter inside a tear in the lining of her portmanteau the very night after her visit to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's great estate, where she had unexpectedly found a much changed Mr. Darcy. She had been amazed by his kind reception of her, and her heart had begun to turn in his favor, but after reading about Darcinia...! More to the point, the way he had been in Darcinia, the things he had said to her, and the things he had done for her! It was enough to make her feel quite lightheaded! And to know that she had begun to love him...
Lizzy was beginning to have no further doubts about her heart, where Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was concerned.
However, there were still doubts regarding the veracity of her own accounts of their adventure together, and that was the reason she had made her way through the mirror in her room at the inn, and transported herself back to Longbourn, or at least, the Looking Glass World version of Longbourn. Lizzy wanted those memories. She also wanted Mr. Darcy to still be in love with her, and if need be, she would give him the potion, too, if it worked - not that the events of April seemed to indicate he needed such memories to love her. But her treatment of him at the time may have made him change his mind, and so...
It was useless to speculate at present what Mr. Darcy's feelings might be. At the moment, they seemed favorable. He had been acted very warmly toward her and her relations in trade on the occasions they had met in Derbyshire. He had hurried to introduce her to his sister. He had invited her to dine at Pemberley - with those relations in trade. And after that, Lizzy would still be in the neighborhood of Pemberley for some few more days - who knew what might happen in such a time? There was time enough to discover whether Mr. Darcy was still disposed to care for her. For the moment, the only benefit she needed from her antidote was to settle her own mind.
Having reached this resolution, Lizzy was prepared to begin her search for the ingredients of the antidote, but first, she had one precaution she felt compelled to take. Closing her eyes, she clicked her heels together three times and recited a couplet she had prepared in advance.
Upon opening her eyes, Lizzy found herself right where she had planned to be, in her own room at the inn where she was staying in Derbyshire. She had decided before embarking on her quest that if she planned on traveling long distances by Pemberley's poetic transport method, she should be sure that an expedient return to the inn was possible. Not knowing what she might find in the Looking Glass World, and wary after reading of some of the hazardous situations she had allegedly encountered in Darcinia, Lizzy had composed a couplet that could return her instantly to her own room, where she should be able to pass back into her own world in the right place, should any emergency or dangerous situation arise. Having tested the couplet and found it effective, Lizzy repeated the process that had sent her successfully to Longbourn only minutes before.
Finding herself in her own garden once again, Lizzy strode across the lawn with a great sense of purpose. She was surprised and encouraged by the degree of brightness the moon gave to the landscape - she had never been out and about in the country at night like this, and had not previously been aware of how well the moon could light the way for walking - but it was not quite bright enough to truly see the shapes and colors of every flower and plant. However, Pemberley had included in his instructions a means to improve her vision in the darkness, and so Lizzy made her way to the flower gardens of Longbourn in search of a particular blossom.
Evening primrose, as its name suggests, blooms at night, and Lizzy was well able to find and identify the fragrant blossoms she sought. Feeling a now familiar combination of apprehension and silliness, Lizzy plucked one of the flowers, closed her eyes, and brushed the soft petals against her eyelids. She waited a moment, and then cautiously opened her eyes.
"Extraordinary!" Lizzy breathed in awe.
No doubt about it, the Looking Glass World was a wondrous place.
A large portion of Lizzy's list of ingredients consisted of items she knew very well she would find in Longbourn's gardens, as there were many flowers on the list, and those that could not be found in the gardens Lizzy still had hopes of finding elsewhere on her father's estate, modest as it was, for Lizzy was fond of walking, and of flowers, and so knew where best to look for most of the things she needed. She felt a slight concern for the availability of certain plants that had either bloomed in the spring or would not yet be producing the required fruits, but her letter from Pemberley reassured her on those points, at least, and as the faun had been right so far, she had faith in his advice.
Lizzy started in the direction of the herb garden, needing a number of herbs, but a sudden realization stopped her in her tracks. She was going the wrong way; the house which was before her was backwards, and it took a moment for Lizzy to orient herself and understand why her home seemed to have flipped itself around. When she came to understand the reason for the discrepancy she could not but laugh - she was inside the mirror, as it were, and so naturally everything would be backwards! Lizzy made an about face and continued in her quest.
Rounding the side of the house, Lizzy was confronted with another peculiar site. Where there should have been a wall, the exterior of the breakfast parlor of Longbourn House, there was instead... nothing. The breakfast parlor was open to the air, not as if the wall had been knocked down somehow, but as if it had never been there. The room itself appeared unchanged, and there was nothing unusual about it in the least, save for the fact that it was crowded with people, a strange circumstance for the middle of the night. Lizzy hastily moved back around the corner of the house, and peered cautiously around the edge of the remaining wall at the coterie in the breakfast parlor.
The room was filled with ladies, all of whom were known to Lizzy - they were friends, or at least, acquaintances of her mother. They were also all, Lizzy realized, either mothers or guardians in some way of unmarried young ladies. Mrs. Bennet appeared to be holding court among them - she was seated at one end of the room in a large, ornate chair, with a spinning wheel in front of her and a large pile of straw on the floor at her side. The other ladies were gathered around her. Lizzy leaned forward to hear what the women were saying.
"Well, I for one do not believe you can do it," Lady Lucas said, to gasps from the assembled ladies, and a sort of indignant yelp from Mrs. Bennet.
"Of course I can! But if you choose to doubt me, you can forget about me making a husband for any of your girls!" Mrs. Bennet replied, none too graciously, to her friend.
"Hmph. If you could really spin straw into husbands none of your five daughters would still be single, would they? Unlike my Charlotte, who is married already. I have no need of your so-called talents, Mrs. Bennet, thank you very much!"
"Your Charlotte only has a husband because my Lizzy had the good sense and admirable taste to refuse the offer of that odious Mr. Collins, exactly as I told her to," Mrs. Bennet sniffed, "and as it took Charlotte over twenty-seven years to catch a man, I cannot say that I am overly impressed with your matchmaking skills. But if you do not want husbands for your younger girls until they are teetering on the brink of spinsterhood..."
The argument between Mrs. Bennet and her dear friend continued in this same vein, while Lizzy looked on in amusement. In particular, her mother's representation of her refusal of Mr. Collins made Lizzy want to laugh aloud. Never had she seen a place more entertaining than the Looking Glass World. It was a veritable feast of the absurd for a connoisseur of folly and nonsense. Lizzy began to look forward to her adventure as a source of humor and diversion - no doubt if her quest to regain her memories of Darcinia failed, she would at least have the compensation of her memories of this night, and could feel that she was not sacrificing a night's sleep in vain.
Eventually the dispute between Mrs. Bennet and Lady Lucas reached a sort of détente, though Lizzy could see that her mother's feathers were still ruffled. Lizzy's mind had wandered, so she did not know how the resolution had come about, but Mrs. Bennet appeared smug, if offended, and was smiling at the rest of the circle of mothers and aunts.
"Now," Mrs. Bennet began with such dignity as she was capable of displaying, "It is by no means a simple feat, spinning a husband out of straw..."
Lady Lucas barely restrained a "Hmph," and was glared at by Mrs. Bennet.
"... and I do not know that I wish for anyone to see how it is done. But since I have been challenged to prove my abilities, I will tell you this - if anyone can say what my given name is, I will demonstrate for you that I can, indeed, spin a husband out of straw - and whoever guesses my name correctly shall be the one to take the husband home to one of her daughters or nieces," Mrs. Bennet announced triumphantly.
Lizzy was somewhat puzzled. All of the women had known her mother for years; surely they must know her given name. Why would her mother choose such an easy task for her audience?
"That is easy," Lady Lucas sniffed, as if she had heard Lizzy's thoughts. "Everyone knows that your name is Fanny."
"No it most certainly is not Fanny," Mrs. Bennet replied with equal hauteur.
"Well, Frances then," Lady Lucas rejoined with a roll of her eyes.
There was a murmur among the ladies; apparently many of them had believed that Mrs. Bennet's given name was Fanny, or Frances.
"Why does everyone seem to think that my name is Fanny?" Mrs. Bennet asked peevishly, though no one vouchsafed a reply.
"Is it... is it Blossom?" Mrs. Goulding asked. "Did I not once hear your husband call you Blossom?"
"No, my name is not Blossom, and my husband never called me any such thing. Blossom is a name for a cow - my parents were good Christians, and would never give their daughter such a name."
Lizzy could see that her mother was affronted by the suggestion. For her own part, she found it amusing that anyone would think such a thing. The thought of her father calling her mother Blossom was enough to make her giggle, and she had to press her hand over her mouth to disguise the sound, as the ladies in the parlor had gone silent in befuddlement.
A few of the ladies began to throw out common names, like Mary and Anne, and others, picking up on Mary as a name of one of the Bennet girls, suggested Jane, Elizabeth, Catherine and Lydia, but every suggestion was negatived. Lizzy grew impatient - clearly her mother's friends did not know her name, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would guess it; it was, Lizzy reflected, a somewhat unusual name. Still, as much as she wished to see her mother demonstrate her unique and extraordinary talent, Lizzy did not want to waste any more time listening to the ladies of the neighborhood make fruitless guesses, and so decided to return to her search.
The dilemma still remained of how to get past the open room unseen; there was a chance that she could simply pass by unnoticed, but she did not want to take the risk - her mother was facing the open wall, and of all those gathered, her mother was the one she most did not want to espy her.
It was with a self-deprecating laugh that Lizzy realized that she had a perfectly simple means of evading view - all she had to do was tap her heels three times and recite a rhyming couplet! Moving back around the corner of the house, where she would be neither seen nor heard by the ladies in the parlor, Lizzy tried to think of a verse that would deposit her where she wanted to be. She did not want to say 'the opposite side of the house,' as it seemed a phrase open to different interpretations, and she did not want to end up somewhere equally awkward. She could not think of a word to rhyme with herb garden; in fact, the only word she could think of that rhymed with garden was harden, and she could not think of a couplet using that. Lizzy considered with chagrin that she had never been a writer of poetry, and that perhaps there was some merit after all in what she had always deemed useless accomplishments. Who knew if someday she would find that her failure to learn how to draw was a serious impediment?
Finally, Lizzy came up with a suitable rhyme. Closing her eyes, for no other reason than that she felt more comfortable that way, Lizzy clicked her heels together three times and recited her verse.
Lizzy opened her eyes and sighed in disappointment. She had not moved. For only a moment she felt some concern, the idea presenting itself that perhaps the poetic transportation method truly did not work, but it was a silly notion - it had worked before, and would work again. Clearly the problem had been her rhyme. Disturbed and herb did not really rhyme, and Pemberley had told her that the rhyme must be true. She pondered ways to make a couplet still using those words, disturb and herb, disturbs and herbs, but somehow could not make them fit into a coherent phrase, and the more she tried, the more exasperated she became. Finally, she abandoned those words and tried to think of other rhymes that would take her where she wanted to go, and after wracking her brain, closed her eyes and tried again.
Again nothing happened, for pardon and garden did not really rhyme. Lizzy released a huff of frustration, and returned to concentration with greater determination. After running through a number of useless combinations in her mind, she was ready to try once more.
"This shall have to work" Lizzy muttered, and closed her eyes again.
This time upon opening her eyes, Lizzy found herself exactly where she wanted to be. Smiling with satisfaction, she pulled out her lists and set about her work.
The gathering of ingredients for the antidote was an easy task, removing a few leaves or flowers, or a bit of root, as instructed by the list, from each plant, and placing them into her bottle of vinegar. It was a pleasant enough activity as well; Lizzy always enjoyed being out of doors, and it was an agreeable novelty to be out in the garden at night. Somehow the aromas of the plants on the warm night air were different than during the day, and Lizzy was quite enchanted by the look of the place in the moonlight. Her knowledge of the plants was extensive, and so she did not need the labels on the plots to find what she needed, but there were some curious additions to the Looking Glass garden that were not part of the Longbourn kitchen garden in the real world. Lizzy read with amusement the names of plants like fever pitch, bee in your bonnet, cow's petticoat, and pigradish. The appearance of these unusual plants was equally intriguing; the flowers of the pigradish, for example, looked like little, pink snouts. Lizzy did not want to contemplate what flavor would be imparted by its root, and was thankful that she was not required to add it to her potion.
Lizzy paused in her search to consult her list. She had arranged the ingredients named in Pemberley's letter according to types, with herbs together, flowers together, nuts together, and so on. She was beginning to wish that she had been even more organized, and had made her list of the herbs, for example, in the order in which she knew they were growing in the Longbourn garden. As it was, she either had to pace back and forth across the paths to follow the list in order, or jump around on the list to gather the herbs from each bed systematically. Of utmost importance was the need to gather everything on the list - to omit anything would be to render the entire expedition a failure. In spite of the moonlight and her enhanced night vision, it was difficult to read the list of ingredients she had copied out and organized from Pemberley's letter; Lizzy began to wish she had thought to bring a pencil, so she could check off or cross out the things she had already picked. She had procured mint, chives, chamomile, horseradish, bay, dill, lovage, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme - she was beginning to think that the elixir would not have a pleasant taste with such an odd mixture of components - but she was having difficulty reading the last item on the list of required herbs. Just as she was squinting at the paper close to her face, a whiff of scent on the breeze came to her aid, more by reminding her of what she had written than in making it easier to decipher the tiny writing.
"Lavender!" Lizzy declared triumphantly aloud. Then, turning toward the beds where the lavender grew, Lizzy was pulled up short by a surprising sight.
A cow stood among the lavender plants, or what was left of them, contentedly chewing the fragrant sprigs that Lizzy sought for her potion. As out of place as the cow was in such a location, it was the cow's appearance that was the most startling thing about the apparition. Lizzy blinked her eyes several times to clear them, wondering if the primrose on her eyelids had negatively affected her vision, but when she opened them, every time she was confronted with the same sight - a purple cow.
"I never saw a purple cow," Lizzy mused aloud. "I never thought to see one. But I can easily state, I vow, I'd rather see than be one!"
"Why would you be a cow, Eliza?" a voice startled Lizzy. She had thought she was alone with, the exception of the cow. Turning rapidly, Lizzy was relieved to see her dear friend, Charlotte Collins.
"Charlotte! What do you do here?" Lizzy asked as she moved quickly to embrace her friend. She was relieved to see that Charlotte appeared quite normal, even if it was a surprise to see her at Longbourn when she should, Lizzy would have thought, have been in Kent. She had heard nothing from either her mother or Charlotte herself about a planned visit to Hertfordshire for her newly married friend.
"I am gathering flowers for dinner," Charlotte said. "Why would you be a cow, Eliza?" she repeated her earlier question.
"What? I would not, of course," Lizzy replied in some confusion.
"Then it only stands to reason that you would not be a purple cow. But if you were a cow, and chose to eat lavender, it only stands to reason that you would be a purple cow like Mrs. Long there," Charlotte explained matter-of-factly.
There was so much about that short speech that bewildered Lizzy that she had no idea which part of it she ought to question. Perhaps Charlotte was not so normal after all.
"It... only stands to reason?" Lizzy finally replied.
"Of course. You are what you eat. That is why I am picking mums for Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine to eat."
Lizzy did not quite see the connection at first, but when she realized that her friend wanted to render her husband and patroness mum, she could not help but laugh aloud. Charlotte smirked as well.
"That is why I am here in Hertfordshire. There are no mums in the parsonage garden, or anywhere at Rosings. Lady Catherine does not like the look of them, so Mr. Collins, of course, will not plant them. And as long as your mother is too busy with her other... social activities to notice that I am here, overstepping my rights as the future mistress of the house, as she would say, I cannot think I am doing any harm in gathering a few flowers. Of course, I will have to eat them myself, but as I seldom have an opportunity to say anything anyway when I am in the company of my husband and his patroness, I can easily bear the deprivation of my powers of speech for a time."
Lizzy felt a familiar pang of sympathy for her friend, married to such a disagreeable man, and neighbor to an even more disagreeable woman.
"I do not suppose it makes much difference if Miss de Bourgh and her companions eat them, either?" Lizzy replied, attempting to sound arch instead of pitying.
"From what I can tell, they might each subsist on a diet of mums," Charlotte said with a grin, causing her friend to laugh.
"And, is Mr. Collins here with you?" Lizzy asked, assuming that her friend must be visiting her family after all, even though she claimed to be gathering flowers for dinner with her patroness.
"No, they are with Lady Catherine somewhere."
"They?" Lizzy was puzzled by Charlotte's reference to her husband in the plural.
"Yes. All of the Mr. Collinses are dancing attendance on their noble patroness, as usual."
"All of them? How... how many Mr. Collinses are there?" Lizzy was repulsed by the company of one Mr. Collins. The thought of many of them together did not bear considering.
"Yes, all of them. There are dozens, you know."
"No, I did not know."
This time it was Charlotte who looked puzzled, and she peered intently at Lizzy as if examining her appearance for some particular detail she expected to find there.
"You are one of them," Charlotte finally declared. "One of those people who come through the glass."
Lizzy gasped. How did Charlotte know? What would she do? Was she in danger from the Looking Glass World now?
"Do not look so alarmed, Eliza," Charlotte returned to her flower gathering. "No one will mind you being here. I have never seen someone from your world, of course, but I have heard of people coming through the glass into this world. I did wonder why your reflective self suddenly disappeared earlier while we were talking. It did seem odd that your other self - well, you, actually - would be looking in the glass in the middle of the night, requiring her presence, but now I understand. And why are you here? Are you making an antidote to something?"
Lizzy was stunned not only at Charlotte's knowledge, but her understanding of the interaction between the two worlds, and merely answered her friend with a nod.
"I see," Charlotte said, in her no-nonsense Charlotte way. "You have picked a good night for it. Hardly a cloud in the sky, and a nearly full moon."
"Yes," Lizzy agreed. "How did you know that I was re-" Lizzy almost said real, but thought it might be an offensive implication to a Looking Glass Worlder - "... from there?"
"Your face is backwards."
"My face is backwards?" Lizzy was not aware that her face could be backwards. She wondered what she looked like, and hoped she did not appear terribly odd.
"Yes, that little mole is supposed to be next to your left ear, and it is near your right."
Lizzy almost protested that her mole was supposed to be on the right, but then realized that if this Charlotte was used to seeing her Looking Glass Self, then for her, it would belong on the left. And then she decided that she did not want to think about it any more.
"Of course," Lizzy smiled. Then she decided to take advantage of her friend's knowledge of the Looking Glass World and ask her advice. "I have been given some information about this Looking Glass World, but is there anything that you think I should know? I have a great number of things to collect before I return, and would like to avoid any dangers..."
"There are no dangers here, there is nothing that can harm you. But is that what you call this place, the Looking Glass World? What does that mean?"
The question was puzzling. "What do you mean? It is called the Looking Glass World, I assume, because it is the world, erm... inside the looking glass."
"What is a looking glass?"
How to answer such a query? Obviously, there were no looking glasses in the looking glass world, and when a person from the real world looked into the glass, they were seeing... Lizzy decided that she did not want to think about this, either. It suddenly made her very uncomfortable to think that whenever she looked in the mirror she was not looking at merely a reflection of her own appearance, but some other person who looked like her, and lived her own existence whenever Lizzy was away from the mirror.
"Well... a looking glass is a reflective surface that people in our world use to inspect their appearance."
"Is that what you are doing when you stare through at us? I have always wondered. It seems very vain of you all. But it does make sense now, that there are so many copies of my husband."
"It does?" Lizzy hoped for an explanation to what had puzzled her.
"Yes. Whenever there is a person in your world who spends a great deal of time looking into our world through the portals, which it seems you call looking glasses, eventually there begin to appear extra copies of them here - particularly if the person peers through a number of different portals. Mr. Collins likes to stare at himself as he practices his sermons, and he cannot pass a portal at Rosings without peering through. He is a very vain man, as I am sure you have noticed, and now I know that he is really checking his appearance. I have always wondered why people in your world spend so much time staring through the portals, but almost never come through them. If I could go through the portal, I most certainly would."
"You cannot pass through?" Lizzy regretted asking almost immediately. Obviously, not being real, Looking Glass Worlders could not enter the real world; Pemberley had already told her that. She considered telling Charlotte that there were very few people in her own world who ever passed through a looking glass into the Looking Glass World, but she realized that she did not know for a fact that it was a truthful statement. For all she knew, people did it all the time!
"No," Charlotte expressed complete unconcern. "How are you getting around while you are here?"
"By poetic transport," Lizzy answered, wondering if Charlotte knew about this, and if this was the way Looking Glass Worlders traveled themselves, or if it was only the way real world people traveled when they visited - a rare occurrence, apparently.
"Ah, that will do you well," Charlotte nodded. "And now what do you do next?"
"Well, I need lavender, but the cow - Mrs. Long, did you say? I could have sworn I saw her with my mother and some other ladies not more than a few minutes ago."
"She very well may have been. As I told you, there could be more than one of her, and at the moment, one of her is a lavender cow."
"Right. And is it usual for people here to turn into animals?" Pemberley had warned her in his letter that there were certain peculiarities to the people in the Looking Glass World, but Lizzy had not imagined that they could change into different forms! She could not but wonder into what her own Looking Glass self might transform.
"Generally, at least occasionally, most people transform into something."
"Do I...?" Lizzy was not sure she wanted an answer - how mortifying to hear she turned into something dreadful, like, well, like a purple cow.
"I have never seen you as anything but a woman, but-"
"Never mind," Lizzy interrupted, "I do not wish to know."
"Then be sure you do not eat anything while you are here."
Lizzy blinked in surprise. Pemberley had warned her that she should not eat anything in the Looking Glass World that she had not brought with her, and now she knew why! She felt grateful for the bread and fruit wrapped in a cloth inside her bag. It would be terrible to be hungry, give in to temptation and ignore the warnings, and then find herself in the form of... well, anything but herself!
"I will remember that. But what I do wish to know is where I am to find more lavender. Mrs. Long seems to have eaten it all."
"Surely there must be some other garden you can visit where lavender is grown. My mother grows it at Lucas Lodge. But consider, you can travel anywhere by poetic transport." Charlotte had a peculiar gleam in her eye.
"I think I would like to go somewhere where I am not likely to encounter anyone I know," Lizzy mused.
"I am afraid that you will be hard pressed to find such a place. Your presence will, I believe, draw people who are connected to you to wherever you go. I do not understand why it should be so, but my presence here may be proof of it. I had intended to gather my flowers at Lucas Lodge, and yet, here I am."
"Oh. I suppose I could go to Lucas Lodge. Or..."
"Is there nowhere else you have a curiosity to see? Were you not in Derbyshire before this?"
Lizzy understood her friend's allusion all too well. Charlotte had for a long time been of the opinion, which she freely shared with her friend, that Mr. Darcy had a tendre for Lizzy, and she believed also that Lizzy ought to return, if not his affections, then at least his interest. Lizzy had never told Charlotte that events in April had proven her right, and she had no intention of informing her, or in the present case, the Looking Glass Charlotte, that she was beginning to feel an attachment to Mr. Darcy. Charlotte's point was well taken, though. Lizzy could look for her ingredients anywhere - why not search for them at Pemberley? She did not know the estate, and so finding what she needed might be a challenge, not knowing where to look, but as long as she could use the poetic transport method to take her anywhere, judicious use of rhymes could compensate for her lack of local knowledge.
"Perhaps you are right, Charlotte, perhaps I should return to Derbyshire, as that is where I will need to be when I return to my own side of the mirror. It might be best if I remain close to Lambton," Lizzy smiled, and added in her mind, 'Yes, like at an estate not five miles from there.'
Charlotte smiled knowingly. "Yes. And you never know whom you may encounter there."
"According to you, I can encounter anyone anywhere," Lizzy returned.
"That is true, and if there is anyone who might be expected to be drawn to you... but surely it would be preferable to meet certain people away from Longbourn if you can at all help it."
Before Lizzy could reply to this pointed remark, Charlotte leaned down and set her basket on the ground, but did not let go of the handle. Then all at once she seemed to shrink before Lizzy's eyes. It took a moment in the dimness of the night to realize that she was not only shrinking, but changing, and in only a few moments more, Lizzy found herself peering down at a largish ladybird that used to be her dear friend Charlotte, perched upon the handle of the basket. The ladybird then spread its wings and flew, picking up the basket of chrysanthemums, which, for a ladybird, was a prodigious display of strength.
"Good luck, Eliza," the ladybird said in a tiny, nearly inaudible voice, as it flew away into the night.
"Charlotte as a ladybird," Lizzy mused aloud. "It suits her, I suppose. At any rate, it is better than being a cow, purple or otherwise."
Lizzy did not dwell long on the suitability of her friend's animal form, however. She needed to compose a rhyme that would take her clear across England to Mr. Darcy's estate. While she pondered the possibilities, Lizzy allowed herself one more indulgence of curiosity; she directed her steps back around the house, walking as she searched her mind for words that rhyme with 'Pemberley.' Pleased not to have encountered anyone else, Lizzy heard the cackling voices of her mother and the other ladies as she approached the spot where she had earlier spied upon the ladies of Meryton gathered together in her mother's parlor in expectation of mates being procured for their daughters and nieces. Lizzy peered cautiously around the corner, wanting to see if her Looking Glass mother had, indeed succeeded in spinning straw into a husband. The scene in the breakfast parlor was not what she had expected. There was no straw man there, which was no surprise to her, but there were also no ladies. Instead there was a flock of chickens, clucking and flapping, scratching at the pile of straw that was meant to become eligible men, and pecking at each other. The chicken that must be her mother was obvious, and Lizzy was compelled to consider how much not only the chicken looked like her mother, but how much her mother, in real life, resembled a chicken. The thought amused her, and it was as well that the chickens were making such a racket, as it disguised Lizzy's laughter.
Her laugher was replaced by indignation as she heard the chicken that was her mother speaking to another chicken whom she could not recognize.
"Of course, I do not know how Elizabeth is to find a husband if I do not make one for her. Such an obstinate, headstrong girl! Who would want her but a brainless man made of straw, someone who is able to see her beauty, which is nothing to Jane's, of course, but not notice that she is too clever for her own good? That was why Mr. Collins was so ideal! And she could have been mistress of Longbourn!" She ended her lament with a series of clucks, which were answered by a few sympathetic sounding clucks from the other chicken.
'Leave it to my mother to find it a flaw for her daughter to have even a whit of intelligence,' Lizzy thought as she moved away, out of sight around the corner, irritated in spite of the fact that she was used to her mother's dim view of her attributes - and her prospects for marriage. Her mother could always find a way to aggravate her, and Mrs. Bennet's irksome diatribe did away with some small part of Lizzy's pleasure and amusement with the Looking Glass World. It would have been more agreeable, she thought, if she had managed to avoid seeing her mother altogether. But Lizzy was not formed for ill-humor, and was soon able to find something to laugh at in her mother's words. 'What would she think if she knew that Mr. Collins, brainless man that he is, is not the only gentleman who has wanted to marry me, and been turned down? And Mr. Darcy is no man of straw!'
The thought of Mr. Darcy's offer made Lizzy sigh. She did not regret having rejected him when she did, but she felt that if he offered again, she would most certainly not answer him the way she had in April.
"If only... And then you shall see, my dear Mother, what kind of man I can attract with my second-rate beauty and my cleverness. A man who is clever, and handsome, and good... If only he can overlook that I have a chicken for a mother!"
Lizzy chuckled to herself as she closed her eyes, and clicked her heels. Then, with a contented sigh, she recited her couplet.