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Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

December 20, 2016 08:54PM
Chapter 38

A week later

Darcy laid the braille book aside, then checked his pocket watch. He’d only finished tea with George and Sarah half an hour ago. Dinner wasn’t until eight. Taking tea with the Knightleys had previously been a pleasant way to end his afternoons with Sarah, but lately he found himself missing the times when he and Miss Thomas had taken breakfast and tea alone.

He leaned back in his room’s upholstered chair. Now that the dinner and concert had taken on a new significance, Miss Thomas had replaced his morning dining lessons with typewriting, and their time at the pond included as much rowing and swimming as business and braille. The lessons could be frustrating at times, but it was gratifying to be making progress and using his muscles. He felt a sense of accomplishment he’d never felt at the Front.

And Miss Thomas.... He smiled at the thought of her. Somehow she made it all seem...enjoyable. He’d liked and appreciated her from the very beginning. But now like and respect were growing into something much deeper. He shouldn’t be surprised. Every day her qualities and mannerisms were little reminders of Elizabeth. Reminders that produced a niggle of guilt that he forced away, knowing it was Elizabeth’s wish for him.

Spero nuzzled his hand. Darcy scratched the dog’s head, then let a floppy ear flow through his fingers.

Touch. Since he’d lost his sight, his sense of touch had become much more sensitive. In those early weeks of being deaf and blind, he hadn’t realised how much Miss Thomas’ physical presence meant to him. All the times she’d left her hand on his arm just to reassure him someone was there. And the thousands of taps to communicate with him. Even the brushing of his knuckles to let him know his visitors had departed. He missed it. He missed that physical connection with a woman that had begun with Elizabeth in France. Holding her had awakened something dormant inside him, a hunger for touch and affection he hadn’t realised was there. Elizabeth was now gone. But Juliet wasn’t. Yet. But her call could come any day.

On his return from St. Dunstan’s, he’d purposed to get to know her better and then evaluate his feelings. That had been some ten days ago. So how did he feel about her? Did he want to pursue her, or was his heart still too attached to Elizabeth? Juliet had no family to speak of. And certainly no position to recommend her. But she was an extraordinary woman and they got on well. She seemed to have an intuitive understanding of him. She understood the challenges of a blind man, and she seemed to like him. And he liked—. What was he waiting for?

Grabbing his cane, Darcy pushed up from the chair, then whistled for Spero to follow and strode out the door.

A short time later, he stepped from the motorcar at Hartfield with a promise from Lawson to return just before eight o’clock. With any luck, the dog would occupy the patients and give him an opportunity to speak with Juliet.

Once inside, he moved towards the hum of conversation and clink of porcelain drifting from the officers’ dining room.

“Captain Darcy, what a pleasant surprise.” Miss Thomas stepped out of the recreation room. “I thought I heard you coming.” Spero’s tail thumped the ground, and she leaned over to him.

“I brought the dog to see the men.” That was partially true anyway.

“They’re just finishing their dinner and gathering—.”

“Darcy, bring that dog of yours and join us on the terrace,” Captain Dennett called from amongst a shuffle of feet exiting the dining room.

“I’ll be along in a moment.” He called out before turning back to Juliet. “Would you like to join us?”

“Thank you. Let me get Lieutenant Grover in his wheelchair, and I’ll be out in a moment.”

So far, so good. Darcy continued down the hallway.

“Darcy,” Major Massey clapped him on the arm. “Good to see you, ol’ chap. We’ve been missing you here.”

“Missing me or my dog?”

The major laughed and opened the terrace door. “You got me on that one. I hear you’re leaving after the concert next week. Are you taking Spero?”

“I am.”

“Guess we’d better enjoy him now.” The major directed Darcy to a chair and sat down beside him. “So are you here to see us or that attractive nurse of yours? I might be interested myself if I thought I had a chance with her. But word is she only has eyes for you.”

“Let’s just say I’m exploring my options.”

“Good man. Here she comes now. I’ll buy you some time.”

Good as his word, Massey took charge of the wheelchair and drew the other half-dozen officers to the opposite side of the terrace.

Juliet settled in the vacated seat. “Thank you for bringing the dog. He’s a wonderful diversion for the men.”

“It’s my pleasure.” Now he just needed the dog to divert the men elsewhere and leave him alone with Juliet.

“Did you and Sarah enjoy your long-awaited ride on Samson this afternoon?”

Darcy chuckled. “I’d hardly call it a ride. We walked about the stable yard.”

“No galloping across the meadow?”

“Tomorrow. Scott wanted me to start slowly. He’s afraid I’ll get a headache, and I’m happy to err on the side of caution.”

Spero barked, prompting cheers and commotion from the other side of the terrace.

Darcy smiled. “The men are so good-humoured, I often forget they are wounded, some with grossly disfigured faces.”

“The good-humoured ones have been able to draw strength from one another. But there are just as many—”

More exuberant barking and a whoop from the men cut off her words. The dog bounded by, followed by the men’s raucous laughter.

“A reward for the dog, and then to the gaming tables!” Major Massey’s voice rose above the hubbub as the men and wheelchair clamoured by.

Juliet chuckled. “Spero nearly cornered a squirrel.”

“Care to join us, Darcy?” Dennett called out. “I believe we have a set of braille dominoes inside.”

“I think I’ll sit out here a bit, thank you.”

“Suit yourself. Mind if we take the dog?”

“Not at all.”

The men’s voices faded as they made their way indoors. Darcy was suddenly aware that he and Juliet were alone. This was the opportunity he’d been hoping for.
Before he could second-guess himself, he opened his mouth. “It’s hard to believe the concert is next week and I’ll be leaving the following day.”

“Yes, I know.”

A wistful silence opened between them.

Darcy shifted, but a moment later a ragtime tune drifted from the phonograph indoors. “Would you care to help me practice dancing, Miss Thomas?”

“I-I’d be happy to.”

She obviously detected his disquiet. Did she suspect why he’d come?

Darcy rose to his feet, and she took his extended hand. Stepping away from the table, he drew her to himself, then stepped on the next downbeat.

“Are you looking forward to going to St. Dunstan’s?” Her words broke the silence between them.

“Only because it will equip me to run my estate. But Juliet...I’ll miss your company.”

They took three steps before she replied in a shaky voice, “I’ll miss you too.”

She was handing him an opportunity on a silver platter. “Juliet, these past few weeks I’ve come to...care for you. And I believe you are fond of me as well. But having both recently lost loved ones, we need more time. Would you allow me to write to you?”

“But I’m leaving.”

He laughed softly, pulling her closer. “That would be the reason for letters.”

“But I’m going to America.”

He stopped in his tracks and took a half-step back. “America? What about France? Or Egypt?”

“My overseas request was denied. The letter said they had no suitable positions for me.”

“When did this come about? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I received a letter last week—the afternoon of the dinner at Donwell. It’s just—I don’t know.” She stepped out of his grasp. “We were busy, working on all the new skills, and I suppose it seemed irrelevant. Either way, I would be leaving.”

He reached for her hand. “Do you think me so self-absorbed that I wouldn’t be interested in something of such grave importance to you?”

“Perhaps I should have told you.”

He drew her to himself again and resumed the dance. Going to America would complicate things to be sure, but he would be a fool to let the opportunity pass. “May I write to you just the same?”

She slowed to a stop and took his hands in hers. “I’ll never forget these last months with you, but we’re both still grieving our loss. And we’ll be thousands of miles apart, living separate lives. What would be the purpose of writing? You’re an important landowner and I’m just....” She sighed. “Let’s just part as we are, count it as a dear memory, and leave it at that.”

Disappointment slammed him like a boxer’s punch.

The terrace door opened, snapping him back to the present, and she dropped his hands and stepped away.

“Don’t mean to interrupt, Captain,” Major Massey called out, “but the motor’s waiting for you.”

Darcy cleared his throat. “Ah, tell Lawson I’ll be along straightaway.” He turned back to Juliet. “Excuse me, the Knightleys are expecting me for dinner.” He groped to his right, searching for the table and his cane, still stunned by her reply.

“It’s just here.” She placed the cane in his hand but held on. “We’ll still have our lessons tomorrow after breakfast, won’t we?” Her voice sounded hopeful.

“Yes,” he smiled, “I’d like that.”

A minute later Darcy slid into the backseat of the motor beside Spero and sighed.

Despite her attempt to end on an upbeat note, she’d turned him down. It was the second time he’d opened his heart to a woman and she’d rejected him. At least Juliet’s response wasn’t as vehement as Elizabeth’s rejection of his first proposal to her. But all the same, Juliet made it clear she had no desire to explore anything further with him. She said it was because of their disparity in station, geography, and mutual grief. Was she just being kind because he was...blind? He shook away the thought. She said she’d miss him, and
her every mannerism suggested she was fond of him. Even Georgiana and Major Massey had commented on it.

Maybe, like Elizabeth, she only needed more time. Could he persuade her to change her mind?

He had one week to try.


Chapter 39

Four days later

Elizabeth looked down at Fitzwilliam lying on the picnic blanket beside her, his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. Tears swelled in her eyes. This was their last day alone together. Their last hour, in fact.

Blinking back the tears, she closed her eyes and raised her chin. Birds twittered, and a gentle breeze rustled the tall grass. Spero shifted beside Fitzwilliam. It was all coming to an end so quickly. In three days he would be gone, and their connection would be severed—for good.

Rain over the past several days had kept them indoors under the eyes and ears of others. And maybe it was just as well. Dancing in Fitzwilliam’s arms on Hartfield’s terrace had been wonderful, but when she’d declined his invitation to correspond, the lonely disappointment in his eyes nearly induced her to reveal her identity right then and there. Had they returned to the pond alone the next day, she might have said something she regretted. It didn’t help that his fingering of the garnet bracelet was a constant reminder of his struggle to reconcile the loss of her as Elizabeth with his feelings for her as his nurse.

Thankfully she’d managed to hold her tongue, and she would have few chances to say anything in private before he left. This afternoon was his long-awaited ride with Sarah, and tomorrow they were to help with preparations for the bazaar at Hartfield. The next day was the dinner party, and then he would be gone.

Fitzwilliam rolled over with a sigh, drawing her gaze back to him. Once he left, she would be cut off not only from him, but from her last connection with Jane as well. And when she stepped aboard the ship bound for America, it would be like jumping off a cliff into the unknown. All of her former life
would be gone.

With a groggy sigh, Fitzwilliam sat up, then pulled out his watch. Fingering its dial he muttered, “We should be going. Sarah will be waiting.”

With the picnic basket in one hand and Spero by his side, he offered his arm as he had done so many times before.

They walked a dozen paces before he spoke. “When do you depart?”

“A week from Tuesday.”

“Thank you for all you’ve taught me.”

“You’re welcome. You’ve been a good student. You only need more practice to increase speed in reading and typing.”

They walked a few more steps in comfortable silence.

“Do you think I’m ready for my grand exam with the Duke of Norwich?”

She chuckled, lightening the tenor between them. “I don’t see why not—assuming you have a successful ride with Sarah this afternoon.”

His posture relaxed. “I suppose a walk around the paddock doesn’t prove me an accomplished horseman.”

“After today, I’m sure you’ll do well enough to convince the duke.”

As they approached the carriage yard, Lawson emerged from the stables. “Good afternoon, Captain. Miss Thomas. I have your horses saddled and waiting.” He extended an envelope to Elizabeth. “Mrs. Knightley asked me to deliver this note to you.”

“Has Miss Knightley not arrived yet?” Fitzwilliam set the basket on the ground.

“Ah, no sir.” Lawson flicked his eyes to the picnic basket, and then back to Fitzwilliam. “I suppose you haven’t heard. Miss Knightley has gone. I delivered her and her trunks to the Highbury station this morning. She caught the first train.”

Elizabeth was stunned. “Gone? Where has she gone?”

Fitzwilliam exhaled a lungful of air. “To France, I imagine. I should’ve seen it coming. She’s been threatening to leave for some time, and pressure from her grandmother over the dinner party was probably the last straw.” He shook his head. “I warned Aunt Eliza not to keep pushing. I even encouraged George to allow her to go. It seems she’s left anyway. On her own terms.”

“Right before the dinner? It’s the worst time she could have chosen.”

“Probably intentional. To prove her point. What does the note say?”

Elizabeth unfolded the missive, and a sick apprehension settled over her as her eyes moved over Mrs. Knightley’s even script. Elizabeth was terrified of riding, but she hated to disappoint Fitzwilliam.

She looked up to find the others focused on her. “You’re right. Sarah’s gone to France, and your aunt asks that I take you riding. But Captain, I hardly consider myself qualified. I know how you’ve been looking forward to this, but I assure you, I’m no horsewoman, much less a guide.”

Lawson removed his cap and swiped his brow. “I’d offer to accompany you, sir, but Mrs. Knightley asked me to fetch some things from town as soon as you arrived.”

Clouds of disappointment settled on Fitzwilliam’s face.

Lawson replaced his cap. “Now that Miss Knightley is gone, I suppose she wouldn’t mind my revealing that she keeps a pair of Master Knightley’s old breeches hidden in the tack room. She finds it far easier than riding side-saddle. Perhaps you could borrow them.”

Elizabeth’s words came out on a chuckle. “I’m afraid you’re still overestimating my skills.”

Fitzwilliam turned to her. “Would you ride with me? I used to take Georgiana riding when she was a young girl. I’m quite confident I could make you feel at ease. You only need cue me in which direction to ride.”

Elizabeth hesitated. As much as she feared riding, the thought of disappointing Fitzwilliam was worse. “I’m willing to give it a go—if you promise not to go too fast.”

He relaxed with a beautiful smile. “I promise.”

Minutes later Elizabeth emerged from the tack room with the breeches under her uniform and stopped short. Fitzwilliam stood a short distance away, gliding his hand down Samson’s neck while speaking softly to Spero, who sat obediently at his side. Fitzwilliam was so different from the arrogant man she first perceived him to be in Meryton three years before. She now knew him to be generous and kind- hearted.

Spero’s tail thumped the cobblestones, and Fitzwilliam raised his head. “Miss Thomas, is that you? Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be in this ridiculous costume.” She crossed over to him.

He chuckled. “I must confess, I’m having a hard time imagining a woman in riding breeches.”

“Breeches ballooning under a dress is even more amusing.”

“Thank you for indulging me in this endeavour just the same. Will you need a mounting block or is the stirrup sufficient?”

“The mounting block, I think. But shouldn’t you get on first?”

“When Georgiana rode with me as a child, she always rode in front.”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “I think I’d feel safer in the back. With something to hold on to.”

“It’ll be bumpy with no saddle.”

“But I can hang on with both arms. If I sit in front, you can only hold me with one arm.” She cringed at the indelicate nature of their conversation.

He only smiled while gathering the reins.

“Did you have a preference where you’d like to go?” She stroked the horse.

“The south meadow is free of obstacles, if I recall correctly.”

“Then the south meadow it is.”

With his arm entwined through hers, she led him to the mounting block.

Once Fitzwilliam mounted, she nervously stepped up on the wooden block. Placing a hesitant hand on his shoulder, the horse took a slight step to the side.

“Don’t be scared. Just slide your leg over and gently lower yourself down.”

With one hand still on his shoulder, she lifted her skirt with the other, then eased her leg over the horse. Relaxing onto the animal’s back, she exhaled in relief.

“Ready?”

“I think so.” She locked her arms around him, burying her face in his back.

He chuckled softly and spoke over his shoulder. “In order to guide me, you’ll need to watch where we’re going.”

Relaxing her grip, Elizabeth released a nervous titter. “I suppose so.”

“I’ll warn you before we pick up speed. There’s not much danger in walking.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” she chuckled, her eyes barely level with his shoulder. “You weren’t the one who broke an arm falling from a horse as a child.”

Fitzwilliam patted Samson’s neck. “Shall I proceed straight ahead?”

Pulling closer to him, she raised her chin to see over his shoulder. “And then curve to the right.”

The horse stepped forward and Elizabeth tensed, but after a dozen uneventful steps, she relaxed.

“I told you it wasn’t so bad.”

“Not yet.” She smiled at his teasing. “A little more to the right, and then open meadow stretches before you.”

“How’s that?” He veered the horse a few more steps. “Ready for some speed?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” She tightened her arms around him, and Spero barked in anticipation.

“Here we go.”

He urged the horse and picked up speed. As the trio settled into a comfortable rhythm, a thrill of excitement coursed through Elizabeth. She giggled. With the ground moving beneath them and the wind pulling at her kerchief cap, she felt as if she were flying.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” He shouted over his shoulder.

“Yes, I believe it is.” She pulled closer, her chin nearly riding on his shoulder. “I just have to be careful not to bite my tongue.”

Chuckling, he turned back.

With tendrils of hair batting her cheeks, she breathed in the clean air. Closing her eyes she recalled the wonderful day she’d ridden behind Fitzwilliam on his motorcycle in Belgium. Now, a year later, she was behind the same man in a similar costume, but a very different situation. Her arms tightened around him at the poignant reminder.

“Are you watching?”

Her eyes popped open. “Yes. You can go in any direction you like.”

He urged the horse a little faster, and they sailed over the open ground with Spero trailing behind. Suddenly her VAD cap broke free, taking half her hairpins with it. She tensed for a moment, then relaxed and laughed aloud. This was her last day with Fitzwilliam all to herself, and she was going to enjoy every minute of it. In a reckless gesture, she shook her head to free the rest of her hair, and then smiled as the wind drew her waving tresses behind her. The moment was like a magical dream, where Fitzwilliam could see, they were in love, and their whole lives stretched before them.

“You all right?” He called over his shoulder.

“Fine. There’s a grove a few hundred yards ahead.”

“Perhaps we should stop for a rest.”

“I’m rather enjoying it all,” she called back.

He was clearly pleased. “We should stop. You may be sore.”

“Perhaps you will be the sore one.”

He chuckled. “All right. I may be sore.”

Once their feet were on the ground, she took two steps and nearly stumbled into him.

He steadied her hair-covered shoulders. “Not sore, are you?” he teased.

“Perhaps a little,” she coyly replied.

His smile broadened. “You rode very well.” Stepping closer, he filtered her coiling tresses through his fingers, then paused and tilted his head in question.

Tension charged the air. Had her hair betrayed her?

She inhaled a ragged breath. “My VAD cap blew off, and my pins fell out.”

Fingering her wavy locks, he spoke in a husky voice. “I wish I could see you.”

Her heart pounded, achingly aware of his close proximity and the haziness in his sightless eyes. Was he going to kiss her? Her body tightened with anticipation.

An agonising moment later he stepped back, releasing his breath with a gush of air. “Perhaps we should walk to ease our stiffness.”

Her heart plummeted, and her limbs fell limp. “All right,” she managed the words, working to shore up her tattered emotions.

He took her clumsily-offered arm, and they walked a short distance with Samson in tow.

Silence lengthened between them like a trail of smoke stretching on a breeze.

Casting about for something to redirect their attention, she spied the expanse of meadow beside them. “Have you ridden this meadow on previous visits to Donwell?”

He chuckled, restoring their ease. “I think I’ve ridden nearly every meadow on the estate. When Richard and I were children, we spent many happy summers here with Stephen. Of course Richard was our ringleader, goading us on expeditions over every hill and dale. And when we were twelve or so, he made us all learn Morse code. He even developed a written code based off Morse. Our games went on for several summers, and he eventually recruited Stephen’s sister Cornelia to join our games.”

“I’ll bet you never even got your clothes dirty.”

He snickered. “You know me well, although I wasn’t quite so careful back then.”

“Is that how you learnt telegraphy?”

“It is. Though I never thought I would use it in serving the Crown.”

“Do you regret knowing it now since it’s what....”

“Caused me to climb that smokestack?” He sighed. “Not really. If I hadn’t lost my sight falling inside the chimney, I could’ve lost it some other way. Or been killed.”

“War is just so tragic.”

They took a few silent steps before he replied, “But I don’t regret what it’s taught me. Or the fine men I’ve encountered.”

She halted and huffed in mock exasperation.

He chuckled. “Fine men and women.”

Elizabeth laughed aloud and squeezed his arm as they resumed their pace.

“Are your legs sufficiently recovered for our ride back to the stables?”

“I think so. I might even have a go at riding in the front.”

He laughed again. “What will be next? Jockeying at the Royal Ascot?”

“I just might surprise you.”

“You already have.”

##

Finally, after all the angst, some happiness for these two : ) That horse riding scene is one of my favourites.

Check back often. There are three more posts til the end, and I will post numerous times this week so we can be done before Christmas.
SubjectAuthorPosted

Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

GingerDecember 20, 2016 08:54PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

CleobDecember 21, 2016 01:54PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

GingerDecember 21, 2016 02:27PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

CleobDecember 21, 2016 11:08PM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

EvelynJeanDecember 21, 2016 10:43AM

Re: Darcy's Hope at Donwell Abbey, A WW1 P&P Companion Ch 38-39

casey5k5December 20, 2016 11:27PM



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