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Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

December 02, 2016 01:43AM
Chapter 24

Elizabeth fixed her gaze down the station platform in Highbury as the other passengers filtered away. Where was Lawson with the car? She shifted her carpetbag to her other hand and looked at her watch. 3:15. He was ten minutes late.

Moving towards a bench, she passed the usual flyers warning of spies and the familiar poster of Dr. Cowart. Cowart was no Coward! She closed her eyes and turned away. Would she ever escape her past?

Easing herself down onto the bench, she released a shaky breath, thankful to rest her weak body. She'd remained in London a few extra days after her interview to purchase the required camp bed, chair, wash basin, and an oil stove complete with collapsible lantern, but a mild case of the flu had extended her stay to a full week. Lying in bed at Darcy House had only increased her longing to see Fitzwilliam. Had he learnt to dress himself? Had he ventured out with a cane? And more than once her hazy mind had imagined him discovering her identity, sweeping her up in his arms, and kissing her breathless.

“Miss Thomas!”

Elizabeth turned to Lawson jogging down the empty platform, clutching his chauffeur’s cap.

Pulling to a stop he slicked back his brown hair and replaced the hat. “Begging your pardon for my being late. I'll take your bag, and we'll be on our way.”

Elizabeth pushed to her feet, then paused to fully gain her balance.

“May I lend a hand?” The young driver steadied her elbow. “I was sorry to hear you've been ill.”

“Thank you. I'm much better but still a bit weak.”

He guided her down the platform and moments later had them trundling towards Hartfield.

Elizabeth leaned forward and spoke over the puttering motor. “It feels like I've been gone longer than a week. What have I missed?”

Lawson replied over his shoulder. “A new occupant at the carriage house.”

“A new motor car?”

“No, a Labrador.”

“A dog?”

“Yesterday while tending the horses, something thumped my knee. I turned around and a half-starved dog with a mangled leg looked up at me with the most pitiful expression I've ever seen. I didn't have the heart to turn him out.”

“So you've decided to keep him?”

Lawson cocked his head. “I don't know about that. The vet'nary was by this morning to look in on the new foal. He suggested putting the dog down. He said even though the dog was a fine specimen, unless someone was willing to pay for an expensive surgery and massage afterwards, the dog was worthless. I'm not sure what I'll do.”

Elizabeth turned her gaze out the window. What a shame to consider the dog worthless just because he was maimed.

“But the new foal's a beauty. Come by the stables one afternoon and see for yourself.”

Rounding the familiar wooded copse on the drive leading to Hartfield, Lawson snapped his fingers and glanced back at her. “Here's some news. Hartfield's grand opening as a military hospital is day after tomorrow. We'll be setting out chairs and a stage tomorrow on the lawn. The last of the convalescent patients left on Tuesday, and I believe the first new patient is scheduled to arrive tomorrow—besides Captain Darcy, that is. But Miss Knightley seems to think he may be leaving shortly.”

“Leaving?” Panic gripped her. “Where's he going?”

The tyres crunched the gravel at the hospital's entrance, and Lawson set the handbrake. “I'm not sure. Miss Knightley said something about food on the floor, but I didn't understand.”

Her heart pounding, Elizabeth exited the car without waiting for Lawson to open the door.

A moment later her heels echoed through Hartfield's entrance hall.

“Hello.”

Elizabeth stopped short and turned to an unfamiliar VAD emerging from the galleried hallway.

“Are you Sister Gibson?” A golden corkscrew curl slipped from beneath the girl's VAD cap.

“No. Juliet Thomas.”

“Oh, you're Dr. Scott's assistant. He's told us all about you. I'm Marianne Dashwood, one of the new resident VADs. I arrived two days ago.”

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Dashwood.” Elizabeth smiled in an attempt to be cordial with the younger woman, but she was eager to find out about Fitzwilliam.

“May I help you with anything? I understand you were delayed in London with the flu.”

“N-no, thank you. I'm going upstairs to rest before dinner.”

“Dr. Scott and Knightley have spoken so highly of you, I hope we have a chance to become acquainted before you leave.”

Elizabeth nodded with a smile, then turned towards the lift. When the doors opened, she stepped inside and pushed the first floor button. Engulfed by a wave of exhaustion, she slumped against the wall. With the arrival of Private Thornton, she no longer occupied the room adjacent to Fitzwilliam, but she couldn't rest until she inquired after him.

The doors pinged open, and she hurried down the hallway to the Red Room. As Elizabeth crossed the threshold, Sarah rushed over and cuffed her arm. “I'm so glad you're back. The past few days have been just dreadful, and none of us knows what to do.”

“What is it? Is he all right?” Elizabeth's eyes flicked to Fitzwilliam in the bed, but he appeared to be sleeping peacefully.

“While you were gone, William received a letter with upsetting news. He went downhill from there. We've hardly been able to coax him from bed. He just keeps asking for morphine and to be left alone. Yesterday Mr. Thornton persuaded him to get up, but not a minute later William stubbed his toe on a chair and flew into a rage. I was so scared! He shoved the chair, it hit the table, and spilled his luncheon tray all over the floor. Then he ordered us out.”

“What did you do?”

“Margaret gave him morphine. I had just arrived for my shift. The three of us waited outside the door until he fell asleep, then cleaned it up. We've all been on pins and needles since then, not knowing what to do. Granny's insisting William be moved to Donwell, his friend Charles Bingley is to arrive tomorrow—”

Elizabeth's knees went weak. Charles was coming—tomorrow? Would Jane be with him? She swallowed hard.

“Are you all right? You look rather pale.” Sarah shook her head. “I'm sorry. You've been sick. I shouldn't have burdened you with all of this. Why don't you lie down? I'll have tea sent to your room.”

In spite of her fatigue, Elizabeth longed to stay with Fitzwilliam. But with him sleeping, there was hardly good reason.

She reluctantly took her leave, then trudged upstairs to her tiny room and stretched out on the counterpane. Though her body ached for sleep, her mind whirred. Was Fitzwilliam being moved to Donwell? Was that what Lawson meant by leaving? What was in the letter that sent Fitzwilliam spiralling into despair? Who was it from? And Charles, coming tomorrow? What if Elizabeth had bumped into him? Perhaps she could use her recent illness as an excuse to stay in her room.

Elizabeth closed her eyes, but her mind drifted back to Fitzwilliam. What could she do to help him? He needed a distraction. Something to give him hope and engage his mind. What would interest him that didn't require him to see or hear? Her mind roamed through Hartfield's rooms, then expanded to its surrounding grounds, its stables— Horses. Yes! Fitzwilliam loved to ride. A gentle animal could do wonders to lift the spirits. Would Dr. Scott approve of an excursion to the stables?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the muffled ping of the lift, followed by the gentle voice of Colonel Brandon and a feminine reply.

A moment later a knock sounded at her door then cracked open. “Miss Thomas, it's Marianne—Dashwood. I've brought some tea.”

Elizabeth sat up. “Thank you, come in.”

The attractive VAD set a tea tray on the bedside table. “Shall I ask one of the doctors to look in on you?”

“No, I'm fine, really. Another day or two of rest should have me up and about.”

With a nod the young woman disappeared.

Elizabeth sipped the tea and turned her thoughts back to Fitzwilliam. As Dashwood's steps faded down the hallway, the muted voices of Dr. Scott and Colonel Brandon in the office next door suddenly became clear.

“...I just don't see how we can keep the captain—”

Elizabeth's head snapped towards the wall separating her from the two doctors, but the ping of the lift and the unmistakable footsteps of Mrs. Knightley drowned out the rest of Dr. Scott's words. Were they discussing Fitzwilliam?

The feminine footsteps stopped, halting the men's conversation. Two chairs scraped the floor, indicating the men had risen. “Mrs. Knightley, thank you for coming. Please sit down.”

“Thank you, Colonel. Doctor.” Elizabeth envisioned the matriarch nodding to the men in turn before perching on a chair.

Elizabeth strained to hear the colonel's low, even-toned voice. “I've called this meeting to see if the three of us can devise a plan to help Captain Darcy through this difficult time.”

“I believe he's lost the will to live,” said Dr. Scott. “News of the death of the woman he cared for seems to have put him over the edge.”

Elizabeth's hand flew to her mouth. Death? Fitzwilliam thought she was dead?

The colonel replied, “If indeed our diagnosis of shell shock as the cause of his deafness is correct, his condition is likely compounded by lack of purpose, his headaches, and grief.”

“Are you sure you haven't overlooked some other cause of his deafness?” Mrs. Knightley asked. “William's not weak of mind.”

“Indeed he is not,” Dr. Scott scoffed. “But officers are disproportionately affected by the disorder, probably due to the added stress of their responsibilities.”

Mrs. Knightley dismissed his comments with a huff.

Dr. Scott ignored her. “I'm working to determine the source of the headaches, but unfortunately, time may be the only cure for his grief.”

“Have Miss Thomas' ideas for stimulating his mind been implemented?”

Dr. Scott replied to the colonel, “Not since she's been gone. No one here except Miss Thomas knows braille, and the captain has hardly been amenable to activities. I had hopes of offering him foods with various textures and aromas, but with the hospital's transition, I've been unsuccessful thus far.”

“But as commander, I can't require the cook to prepare special meals just to stimulate the captain's senses. We don't have the personnel.”

Mrs. Knightley's self-assured voice of broke in, “I have no scruples ordering Donwell's cook to prepare special meals. George and Sarah wouldn't mind eating fish and gingerbread.”

“Having meals prepared at Donwell and transported to Hartfield three times a day hardly seems practical.” Exasperation laced Dr. Scott's voice.

The colonel cut off the brewing argument. “That brings us to another issue. Captain Darcy has learnt basic skills to care for himself, and his physical condition can no longer be classified as critical. I've allowed him to remain in Hartfield's Red Room because it affords convenient accommodation for Private Thornton and has an adjoining bathroom. But when the hospital reopens, that room will be required for incoming critical cases. However, if we move the captain to the officers' ward, it would be inappropriate to have a Private lodging with officers.”

Dr. Scott cleared his throat. “I think we'd all agree the captain requires an interpreter close at hand, but I see no other appropriate space at Hartfield.”

“The two of you are overlooking an important factor of decorum.” Elizabeth imagined Mrs. Knightley raising her haughty chin. “Both my granddaughter and Miss Hale are volunteer VADs. It would hardly do for them to attend the captain alongside common Sisters and working-class VADs.”

The colonel side-stepped her comment. “So we're all in agreement that Hartfield is ill-equipped for him?”

“Yes.” The doctor and matriarch chorused.

“Perhaps I have a solution that will satisfy our situation.” The smooth voice of the colonel continued, “It's common for hospitals to have auxiliary spaces such as tents and adjacent buildings. I suggest we designate Donwell as an auxiliary facility and send the captain there. Should anyone question the accommodation, we can defend it as an experiment for your research, Scott. This will provide Captain Darcy with adjoining rooms to accommodate him and his caretaker, an attached bathroom, and you, Mrs. Knightley, will be granted your wish to have him at Donwell.”

“I believe we are making progress, colonel.” The matriarch chuckled. “But what do you propose to do when Mr. Thornton is sufficiently convalesced? It would hardly be proper for Sarah to serve as William's sole interpreter.”

Annoyance tinged Dr. Scott's reply. “I'm hoping the captain's hearing will have returned.”

“And if it hasn't?”

“I've applied to London for a replacement.”

“I have a solution that would solve all of our problems—including assuaging his grief.” Her words rang with smug assurance. “Encourage William to marry Sarah. He'll be surrounded by family, Sarah can nurse him, and the...benefits of marriage should be more than sufficient to take his mind off the deceased.”

Elizabeth cringed at her blatant innuendo.

Dr. Scott huffed. “That seems a rather extreme solution for a short-term problem.”

“Poppycock. They're a perfect match. And Sarah and Georgiana are dear friends.”

“I think, madam, you underestimate the skills needed to train a blind man.” Dr. Scott's ire was barely repressed.

“So you've established that he's destined to be blind?”

Colonel Brandon broke in, “Let's start with the move to Donwell, then re-evaluate his situation in a few weeks.”


Chapter 25

The next morning

Elizabeth made her way down the hallway and stopped in front of the lift. Tapping the book crooked in her arm, her eyes tracked the light above the doors. As the third light lit up with a ping, she dropped her gaze to the doors as they slid open.

“Miss Bennet?” Anne de Bourgh stood in the lift with her mouth agape.

Panic flooded Elizabeth. She couldn't speak. She was standing face to face with Fitzwilliam's soft-spoken cousin from Kent—where Elizabeth had spent several weeks two years before.

“You are Elizabeth Bennet, aren't you?” The demure, dark-haired woman tilted her head. “I thought—. William said—.”

“Please, Miss de Bourgh—.”

The doors began closing, and Anne's slender arm pressed them open as she stepped out. “Is something wrong? Are you all right? Never in a hundred years would I have expected to find you...here.

“I'm fine. It's a long story. Please, I'm not at liberty to disclose—.” Elizabeth's gaze found the floor. “It's a very difficult situation.”

“Have you come to see William?”

“Not exactly, but—”

Anne's eyes grew wide, and her face softened to a smile. “You're Matthew's assistant. He's told me all about you—about Juliet Thomas. About how wonderful you've been to William but....” Her brows creased in confusion.

Elizabeth gripped the book tighter. “As I said, it's a very difficult situation. He can't—. No one can know about me. But I couldn't leave Fitzwilliam. Not when he needed me—. Not when he was so ill.”

Lady Catherine's daughter laid a calming hand on Elizabeth's arm and smiled. “You don't owe me an explanation. Believe me, I understand difficult situations.”

Elizabeth expelled the air in her lungs and relaxed. “Have you come with your mother?”

Anne breathed a laugh. “Thank heavens no. I mean, after the argument she had with Great Aunt Eliza at Christmas, they are not speaking. She sent me to present an endowment to the hospital at the ceremony tomorrow and to look in on William. I suppose you know—everyone knows—how determined she is to marry me off to him. Although I love him dearly, neither he nor I have any intention of a union. I'm in love with someone else” — her lip quivered as her voice trailed to a whisper — “but that is my secret.”

“So you won't reveal my identity? I've done nothing wrong. I've only hidden myself to protect Fitzwilliam's reputation.”

Anne clutched her gloved fist to her heart. “Your secret is safe with me. But isn't it risky being among his family, for situations just like this?”

“Yes.” Elizabeth laughed, relieved to have an ally. “I never would have taken the job with Dr. Scott if I'd known of his connection to Fitzwilliam. But by the time I found out, it was too late. And I assure you, I certainly wouldn't have come here had I known Hartfield belonged to his cousins. I've applied for foreign service, and I'm expecting the call to leave any day.”

Anne smiled with genuine sympathy. “Things don't always work out according to plan, do they. I've been praying for William. I just had no idea how completely my prayer was being answered. God bless you, Miss Ben— Thomas, for all you've done for William.”

“Thank you for your kind cards and letters to him. Oh, and he especially appreciates the socks.”

“I enjoy knitting, and it's the least I can do for—”

The lift pinged, and the doors opened revealing Dr. Scott. “Ah, Miss de Bourgh, I see you've met my assistant, Miss Thomas.” He stepped out.

Anne smiled and glanced at Elizabeth. “Indeed I have. And she's just as lovely as you described.”

“It was nice to speak with you, Miss de Bourgh.” Elizabeth braced the lift door open. “If you'll excuse me, I need to return this book to the library downstairs.”

Stepping into the lift, Elizabeth pressed the button and watched the two proceed down the hall. Just before they turned into the office, Dr. Scott slipped his hand to the small of Anne's back and ushered her inside. As the lift doors closed, Elizabeth heard the doctor's voice, “Oh, my darling, I've missed you so...”

Elizabeth smiled to herself. Indeed, Anne had a secret of her own.

~~~*~~~

Just after luncheon Elizabeth glanced at the clock for the tenth time and sighed. She lacked only a few pages to finish editing Dr. Scott's manuscript, but her mind kept wandering to Fitzwilliam and his despair—brought on by her disappearance! If Charles wasn't expected, she would have found a way to look in on him herself.

She dropped her pen and moved to the window. Footmen buzzed about the manicured lawn below as they set out rows of chairs and assembled a small stage in preparation for tomorrow's dedication ceremony. But there was no sign of Charles or a car on the lane.

Was there time to stop in downstairs to see how Fitzwilliam was getting on? Probably not. Charles was due to arrive any minute.

Elizabeth groaned. Encountering Fitzwilliam's cousin earlier could have been disastrous. Bless Anne for promising to keep the secret! Thank goodness Lady Catherine wasn't coming. If only the call to go overseas would come, she wouldn't have to worry about being exposed.

She squinted into the distance. But what about Fitzwilliam? Her departure would relieve her fears, but not his. Was there some way she could reassure him that she was alive without revealing herself? Perhaps she could send him a letter via Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Dr. Scott's approaching footfalls broke her abstraction.

“Ah, Miss Thomas,” he stopped just inside the threshold, “I'm glad to have found you. Are you feeling better?”

“I am, thank you.”

“I've a favour to ask.” He perched on the desk. “I know you're no longer Captain Darcy's nurse, but as you know, the dedication ceremony is tomorrow and we're in a bit of a jam. We'll have the hospital looking smart for the brass hats, but they'll also want to see how our first patient is getting on. In order to introduce the captain to the dignitaries, he'll need an interpreter. Therein lies our predicament. Military protocol would frown upon another patient serving as the captain's private attendant, even if the man was his batman.”

“Couldn't Knightley do it?”

The doctor shook his head. “Mrs. Knightley is determined that neither Miss Hale nor Miss Knightley should be seen as common nurses. Would you fill the role—just for the ceremony?”

“I was to attend the ceremony anyway. I suppose I could.” The opportunity to share company with Fitzwilliam was appealing, but the thought of exposing herself so publicly left her uneasy.

“Thank you.” He released a gusty breath. “After the ceremony we'll take him on to Donwell straightaway.”

“Oh?” Elizabeth tried to act surprised.

“Colonel Brandon's ordered the Red Room available for incoming wounded, and we can't have a private sleeping in the officers' ward. But with the captain's nightmares, it's imperative we have someone close at hand day and night.”

“Nightmares? No one told me he's had more nightmares.”

Dr. Scott chuckled. “I was unaware you wanted to be kept abreast of the captain's condition—since you're leaving, that is.”

Elizabeth didn't know how to answer.

“In any case, I appreciate your volunteering to help tomorrow.”

“Doctor,” Elizabeth shifted. “I've been meaning to ask you. I've heard Captain Darcy is quite a horseman. Perhaps Thornton or Knightley could take him to visit the stables. It would give him a chance to interact with something outside of his room. Animals often succeed where humans fail.”

“Indeed.” The doctor nodded. “And stimulating smells as well.”

Tyres crunched the gravel drive below. Dr. Scott craned his neck. “Ah, there's Mr. Bingley. Excuse me while I prepare him to meet the captain.”

Elizabeth whipped her head to look out of the window, and her hand flew to her mouth. Jane! Peering closer, she drew in a sharp breath. Jane was with child! Tears pooled in her eyes as the couple disappeared inside. She'd heard snippets of news about Charles and Jane from Fitzwilliam, but she had no idea they were expecting a baby! How she wanted to run downstairs and throw her arms around her sister. A baby was such a happy occasion, Elizabeth longed to share in the joy. But she couldn't—she wouldn't—reveal herself and jeopardise the futures of not only Fitzwilliam, but Charles and Jane as well.

Elizabeth turned away, fisting her hands in frustration. She had to get away from here. Remaining was torturous. What if she'd been revealed to Jane in front of the others?

She dropped into the chair, closed her eyes and drew in lungfuls of air to slow her racing heartbeat.

But she hadn't been revealed. Providence had protected her. She couldn't help but remember another situation in which Providence had worked out a difficult situation. She relaxed, and a giggle slipped out as she recalled her outrage at encountering Fitzwilliam in Belgium. Out of all the captains in the British Army, he had been sent to The Ritz. But somehow it all turned out for her good. Now she wouldn't trade her memories with him for the world.

Perhaps one day she would look back and see how Providence used these trying days for her good as well. But at present, she couldn't imagine how.

##

So Elizabeth has been caught by Anne! Will Lady Catherine's daughter keep the secret, or will it prove disastrous for Elizabeth??
SubjectAuthorPosted

Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

GingerDecember 02, 2016 01:43AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

it49December 03, 2016 04:59PM

Maintaining class distinction

GingerDecember 03, 2016 05:31PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

EvelynJeanDecember 02, 2016 06:05AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

CleobDecember 02, 2016 11:55AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

EvelynJeanDecember 02, 2016 06:34AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

Lucy J.December 02, 2016 05:47AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

ShannaGDecember 02, 2016 01:54AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 24-25

CleobDecember 02, 2016 02:56AM



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