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The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter VII

April 07, 2020 08:24PM
VII. The Carriage Once More

It was against all procedure, and it irked Mr Darcy that this appeared to be a problem only to him. It was not that he minded, per se, to circumvent the rules like this, but he would have liked some acknowledgement of their bending the law by his companion, who instead was dozing the light sleep of the ever-watchful chaperone while the rented horses pulled the carriage towards London quickly, but rather unevenly.

Mr Darcy found himself unable to sketch the character of this sleeping woman – or rather, this sleeping chaperone, he corrected himself, and therein, he feared, lay the crux of the matter. He found himself quite astonished at this lack of self-control. It was most unwelcome and he did not even want to ponder the darker implications that his inability to forget Miss Bennet’s gender brought with it. If he did not take care, he might soon end his sentences in prepositions, and that was only the beginning of the downfall that was inevitable after mental sloppiness. There was, of course, nothing wrong with agape, or a well-regulated philia, but an uncontrolled storge - turning, perhaps, unnoticed, into the dreaded e-word – the prospect was too discomposing to even think the thought to an end. It had been a long time since a female person had had such an effect on him – if he analysed the matter properly, probably not since the dark days when, upon reaching manhood, he had been very hard- pressed to keep the more disconcerting aspects of life in check.

Little did Mr Darcy know that far from being asleep, Elizabeth was pondering similar matters behind closed eyes, although her thoughts did not veer nearly as far in the direction of the sinister character of physical affection. She was merely attempting to sketch the character of the enigma seated opposite her and failing.

The carriage drove on and Elizabeth began to feel a certain claustrophobia. Outside, the sun was sinking and dusk was settling in.

‘Are you quite certain that we will find the archbishop in Lambeth?’ Elizabeth asked, hoping that this would prove to be a suitably neutral topic to keep her mind from wandering.

‘He told me a fortnight ago that he had no intention of leaving London for at least a month,’ Mr Darcy said, glad to talk about less disconcerting questions. ‘I do hope that he has not changed his plans for I would find it quite an inconvenience to alter mine at this stage. Besides, we have promised to be back at Netherfield tomorrow night and I do not want to break my promise to them.’

‘Trust me, they will find something to do while away the time,’ Elizabeth said and when, much to her satisfaction, Mr Darcy’s ears appeared to be turning pink in the dim light of the carriage, she added, ‘It is not as if my sister could be more compromised, is it?’

‘I do not make a habit of breaking my promises,’ was the only reply she got for her efforts and they continued the journey in silence. The carriage’s rattling became more even but no less unnerving after they had changed horses and Elizabeth, who was feeling the beginnings of a headache, found the silence in the carriage more and more oppressive. She dozed intermittently, but could not find any real rest. It was now full dark outside and the carriage came to yet another halt.

‘Where are we?’ Elizabeth asked and her voice seemed to her unnaturally loud in the carriage.

‘It must be the last tollgate before London,’ Mr Darcy said.

They heard an indistinct conversation outside and Elizabeth was waiting for the carriage to resume its journey as soon as the coachman had paid the fees, but instead, there was a knock on the carriage door.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ the coachman said upon Mr Darcy’s opening the door, ‘but we have a situation here that we thought you should attend. Miss, too, sir, if you please.’

Elizabeth’s confusion as to why she was particularly asked for soon cleared when she was lead to the toll house and saw there a young girl shivering before the fire. She did not appear to be much older than fifteen and Elizabeth instantly felt pity for her as she extended a clumsy curtsy to them.

‘You are apparently neither married nor a chaperone,’ Mr Darcy, mustering the girl’s dress, stated. ‘Am I correct in that assumption?’

The girl nodded.

‘Are you then employed in any way that would exempt you from being a subject to the Act of Chaperonage?’ Mr Darcy continued his investigation.

Elizabeth’s heart fell for the young girl. She was certain that the girl would not be able to provide any proof of legal employment and Mr Darcy would find her to be acting outside the law.

The girl shook her head.

‘Are you aware of the fact that your unchaperoned presence on these premises is unlawful and may result in serious consequences for you?’ Mr Darcy asked.

The girl’s lips trembled as she managed to stammer out a, ‘yes, sir.’

‘Then I expect that you have a good explanation for what you are doing here, all alone, at this time of night.’

Elizabeth knew that she had to maintain a professional demeanour, but the look of utter fear on the young girl’s face as she was faced with Mr Darcy’s stern interrogation almost caused her to say something rash.

‘I ran away,’ the girl said very quietly, ‘because they wanted to make me marry Henry and I couldn’t – I couldn’t -’

She broke into tears and clutched her thin pelisse tighter around herself. To Elizabeth’s utter surprise, Mr Darcy did not begin a lecture about the superfluity of elliptic sentences.

‘Tollkeep!’ he cried instead. ‘This girl is upset and freezing. Is there a way to get her a hot beverage?’

When the gatekeeper appeared, Mr Darcy pressed a coin in his hand and the man promised to return with hot tea and brandy. Elizabeth, bewildered, led the young girl to a chair while Mr Darcy, leaning on the mantelpiece, observed them.

‘What is your name?’ he asked, once the girl had blown her nose with the handkerchief that Elizabeth, as well-prepared as any chaperone, had handed her.

‘Fanny Price,’ the girl said and promptly burst into tears again.

Interrupted with sobs, out came the whole tale: Of how she was a poor cousin living with her uncle’s family, how there had been lots of questionable behaviour that the daughters of the family, chaperoned by a widowed aunt, had engaged in, how a relation of a neighbour’s, who had previously flirted with both daughters of the family, had taken an interest in Fanny, supported by her uncle, how her aunt had neglected to chaperone Fanny and Henry had tried to sway her mind by compromising her, how Fanny had run away, hoping to make it to her mother’s in Portsmouth undetected, but had, of course, been swindled by the stagecoach driver and left at the tollgate with no money.

The tollkeeper returned with the tea. Mr Darcy pressed the steaming mug into the girl Fanny's hands before her resumed his stance at the mantelpiece.

‘Miss Price,’ he said sternly. ‘Are you a government-approved chaperone?’

Miss Price, clutching the mug, shook her head.

‘Are you in training to be a government-approved chaperone?’

Miss Price shook her head again. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘Aunt Norris suggested sending me, but Sir Thomas would not hear of it.’

‘Then I gather,’ Mr Darcy continued, ‘that you are also not in any other way employed that would exempt you from the Act of Chaperonage?’

Miss Price shook her head once more.

‘You know then,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘that according to the law, you have been compromised, having spent time alone with the keeper of this gate?’

Fury rose within Elizabeth. Surely Mr Darcy could not mean to make Miss Price marry the tollkeeper, who, although he gave a kind and friendly impression, was old enough to be Miss Price's father? She realised she had got up from her seat and assumed a protective stance before the young girl. Mr Darcy did not appear to have noticed.

‘A marriage,’ he said, ‘would be the obvious consequence.’

The tollkeeper, who had lingered silently on the threshold, raised his hand.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said, ‘and no disrespect meant to young miss, but seeing as I have been married to my missus these twenty years, I'd just as lief stay with her instead of young miss -’

‘There, Mr Darcy,’ Elizabeth said through clenched teeth, ‘you cannot make them marry!’

Mr Darcy looked confused.

‘I had not intended to do so,’ he said. ‘It is obvious they would not suit.’

He took his notebook out of his pocket again and wrote a few lines in his immaculate chancellery hand, then ripped out the sheet – Elizabeth saw him grimace in pain at such an injury to the integrity of the notebook – and handed it to Elizabeth.

With the powers vested in me, I, Fitzwilliam Richard Darcy etc etc, appoint Miss Elizabeth Bennet of the Chaperons' Association as temporary chaperone in an emergency situation under Section 19c to Miss Frances Price, formerly of Northamptonshire, dated and signed, etc etc.

‘Sign this,’ he said and Elizabeth, taking the pencil he offered her, scribbled a much less handsome signature underneath his.

Mr Darcy then handed the piece of paper to Miss Price.

‘This should take care of the situation until we can decide what to do with you,’ he said.

Miss Price took the paper, read it slowly and then pocketed it carefully in her reticule.

‘And now, sir?’ she asked. ‘Do I have to go back to Mansfield Park?’

‘Obviously you have to stay with your lady chaperone,’ Mr Darcy said and frowned.

Elizabeth, feeling almost giddy with relief that Mr Darcy was not trying to throw Miss Price to the metaphorical dogs, laughed.

‘I guess, Mr Darcy,’ she said, ‘that Miss Price will have to travel with us to the archbishop.’

The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter VII

Mari A.April 07, 2020 08:24PM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter VII

NN SApril 08, 2020 10:57PM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter VII

UlrikeApril 08, 2020 06:41AM

Re: The Education of a Chaperon - Chapter VII

KateRApril 08, 2020 01:06AM


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