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The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter IV

March 25, 2020 04:12PM
IV. Longbourn

She found the place in chaos. Nobody was there to open the door for her, but fortunately, it was not locked. She stepped into the familiar hall and stood very still, hoping she would hear something that would indicate where everyone was. At first, there was nothing. No clanking of plates, no talking, no rustling, nothing that spoke of human presence. Then, however, she thought that if she strained her ears, she might be able to hear a faint wailing from upstairs.

Elizabeth hated herself for deciding that she could not yet deal with her mother. Instead, she opened the door to the breakfast parlour, expecting to find it deserted, but maybe stocked with some coffee or toast. To her surprise, Kitty and Mary were seated at the table, the one writing a letter, the other perusing a news journal. It struck Elizabeth at once that this was illegal.

‘Who is chaperoning you?’ she asked.

Kitty dropped her quill and squealed in surprise, but Mary simply looked up from her journal, took in Elizabeth’s dress and badge, and said, ‘you, I suppose.’

Elizabeth had to admit that this was probably the truth.

‘Why did you come?’ Mary asked disinterestedly, at the same time that Kitty cried, ‘Are you our chaperone now?’

Before Elizabeth could answer, Kitty had flung herself around Elizabeth’s neck and was crying, ‘please say you are, Lizzy, that would be the best of news! I hate Miss Steele, she is so mean, and she always prefers Lydia, and mama said -’

Elizabeth held on to the one pertinent bit in Kitty’s outburst. She longed to ask her sisters what had happened, but the protocols had to be observed.

‘Where is Miss Steele?’ Elizabeth asked.

Mary shrugged.

‘Don’t do that, it is not becoming,’ Elizabeth said automatically, which made Mary give her a scorching glare.

‘She’s upstairs with mama,’ Kitty informed Elizabeth. ‘I hate her – can you make her go -’

‘If anyone asks,’ Elizabeth said while opening the parlour door, ‘I was here with you the whole time.’

Mary shrugged again.


Elizabeth exited the parlour and followed the wailing upstairs. The door to her mother’s dressing-room stood ajar.

It was obvious to Elizabeth that the wailing behind the door was her mother's. Anyone who had lived in the house for as long as she had would instantly recognise it. The only thing that was new, perhaps, was the content of her mother's exclamations. On coming up the stairs, Elizabeth had though them to be the same predictions of misfortune, doom and nervous ailments as usual, but she now detected a new detail.

'What would I do without you?' Mrs Bennet cried, which Elizabeth thought unlikely to be directed at her father. 'What will I do when they take you away from me?'

'Calm yourself, ma'am,' a voice Elizabeth did not know said. 'I am sure all will be well.'

'How can it be well?' Mrs Bennet exclaimed. 'Ruined! Everything ruined!'

'I am sure we will find her,' said the strange voice. 'It'll only be a matter of hours now. She can't have gotten far.'

'But Mr Collins will never take her now,' Mrs Bennet continued. 'She ruined everything. Everything. I have never been so disappointed in my life -'

'Now, ma'am, don't you worry,' said the stranger. 'I will sort it all out. Just you wait. When she's back, we'll make sure it all comes well. We'll tell Mr Collins to take tea with us and you just leave it to me. He need never know what happened before and she'll be Mrs Collins before you know.'

Elizabeth could not believe what she was hearing. Who was that woman – rationality told her it had to be Miss Steele, the chaperone so despised by her sisters. She now recalled a veiled allusion made by Jane in one of her recent letters. Jane never liked to speak badly about anyone but had, most uncharacteristically, made an almost frank remark about the chaperone’s tendency to interfere in affairs that did not concern her. Elizabeth wondered what Miss Steele could have done to Jane to earn such censure. As soon as she had found her sister – who was probably the person in the household who was going to be the most helpful in the matter of Lydia’s disappearance – she was going to find out more about Miss Steele and her doings at Longbourn, for the satisfaction of both her professional and her private curiosity. First, however, she had her job to think of and the rules dictated that she speak to the chaperon in the case first. She made a perfunctory knock on the door but entered without waiting for an answer. Her mother was reclining on the divan she kept in her dressing-room for just these occasions, clutching a lacy handkerchief that was equally reserved for dire situations, and sniffling occasionally. A young woman was kneeling before her, her back turned towards Elizabeth. She had her blond hair piled up high on her head and wore her black chaperone’s dress in a way so garish and loud as Elizabeth had never thought possible with this colour. She turned around when Elizabeth entered and revealed a face that was almost angelic but for the blemishes of a few freckles across the nose and a small gap between her front teeth. Her accent, however, was clearly more Plymouth than heaven.

‘Elizabeth,’ Mrs Bennet cried upon seeing her second daughter, ‘did you hear what happened?’

‘I did,’ Elizabeth replied and stepped towards her mother so she could kiss her.

‘My baby,’ Mrs Bennet cried, ‘my poor, poor baby – and such a man!’

‘What has been done to recover her?’ Elizabeth asked, directing the question more at Miss Steele than at her mother.

‘It was very good of you to come to your family in this dreadful time, Miss,’ Miss Steele replied, ‘but this is a matter best left to the professionals. We are trained for these things.’

She placed a hand on Elizabeth’s arm and Elizabeth, who resented such familiarity, replied with more hauteur in her tone than was strictly necessary.

‘You misunderstand me,’ she said coolly and pulled at her lapels so that Miss Steele could better see her badge. ‘As much as I am grieved by the recent incidents, I am here very much in a professional capacity.’

Miss Steele paled slightly but let nothing on.

‘A pleasure to hear that, Miss,’ she said. ‘I am Miss Lucy Steele, I have been with your family -’

‘Miss Steele,’ Elizabeth interrupted her. ‘It is my duty to now inform you that my partner and I are taking over the matter of this Code 17b disappearance, as per Article 13. I ask you again, what of my sister? What has been done to recover her? Where is she?’

Miss Steele took as much time to clear her throat as she possibly could.

Mrs Bennet sniffled and Elizabeth, moved by filial instinct in spite of all professionalism, sat down beside her on the divan and comforted her as best as she could.

‘Lucy has been so helpful,’ Mrs Bennet muttered. ‘And she did warn me of him – she said he was such a bad person -’

‘Who, mama?’ Elizabeth asked. ‘Who?’

‘Mr Bingley!’ Mrs Bennet wailed. ‘Mr Bingley, who took Netherfield Park last year – and I had such high hopes for him, but Lucy warned me -’

‘A gambler and a gamester, Miss Bennet,’ Miss Steele said with more confidence in her voice now that Mrs Bennet was supporting her. ‘And a notorious rake. And he is not rich at all. All the money is borrowed.’

‘It is known all over London,’ Mrs Bennet wailed.

‘But what about him?’ Elizabeth asked, despairing. ‘What did he do?’

‘He lured your sister away, Miss Bennet,’ Miss Steele said. ‘I do not know what he promised her, but -’

Miss Steele interrupted her narration with a carefully executed dab at her eyes.

‘I blame myself. I thought I had done everything to protect her, but obviously I did not do enough -’

‘Nonsense,’ cried Mrs Bennet. ‘You did everything you could, my dear. Such is the way of the world, and she was always such a headstrong girl, I knew she would one day be the ruin of me – and now with this horrible business of the entail, and Mr Collins had as good as promised that he would marry -’

Elizabeth had previously heard enough about the business of the horrid, odious entail to know this was a lament she had best nip in the bud.

‘I know, mama,’ she said and patted her mother’s hand. ‘We will find a solution. But first -’

She turned towards Miss Steele. ‘Have you been able to locate them?’

‘I guess they are still at Netherfield,’ Miss Steele said. ‘I cannot split myself, can I, and my first duty was to attend to your mama -’

‘Your first duty, Miss Steele,’ Elizabeth said icily, ‘was to protect my sisters, and we see how well you discharged that. Where is my father?’

‘I told him to take Mr Collins on a tour of the estate,‘ Mrs Bennet explained instead of Lucy Steele. ‘I know the odious man will be calculating its value as we speak, but at least he will not notice that she is missing.’

Elizabeth had to admit that this plan made at least a little sense if the scandal was to be kept quiet at all.

‘Very well,’ she said.

She concluded that she would not be able to gather any valuable information from either Miss Steele or her mother. Her best hope for help was Mr Darcy, who had by now probably been able to find out more from the files left with her uncle. She personally thought that the next step had best be a visit to Netherfield Park in the hope that Mr Bingley and Lydia were still there. Before she confronted the seducer, however, she wanted to discuss this course of action with Mr Darcy, who was, after all, her superior in this matter. She made to leave her mother’s boudoir.

‘I trust, Miss Steele,’ she said, ‘that you will be able to keep at least the remainder of my sisters safe, while I sort out this affair.’

Elizabeth had not thought anything on this wretched day would be able to make her laugh, but the sight that greeted her as she exited the house in order to call the carriage most certainly had that effect. Riding down the lane towards her home was Mr Darcy, mounted proudly on a fat cob and maintaining with difficulty a slow posting trot.

‘The only mount to be had in the village,’ he panted as he jumped off the back of the beast, who was already munching on a tuft of grass.

Elizabeth noticed that Mr Darcy’s face was slightly flushed from the exercise and when he lifted his hat to greet her, she saw a few drops of sweat forming on his brow.

‘Miss Bennet,’ he said. ‘I have news of your sister.’

The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter IV

Mari A.March 25, 2020 04:12PM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter IV

UlrikeMarch 27, 2020 04:10PM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter IV

Alyssa S.March 26, 2020 04:41AM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter IV

Amy BethMarch 26, 2020 03:20AM


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