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Playing Around in Derbyshire - 13 & 14

September 25, 2018 04:55AM
Chapter 13


Wednesday morning dawned to sullen grey skies and weather more typical of an English June than the pleasant summer days they'd enjoyed so far that week.

Jess stirred soggy cornflakes around her bowl as she described the delicious menu available at the Green Man. When Sebastian didn't make an appearance for his usual coffee and toast, Caroline slipped into his chair and leaned towards Jess. "My dear, what on earth have you done to poor Mr. Darcy?"

"Not a thing. He was fine when I last saw him. Perhaps he overslept?"

Miss Bingley's smile twisted slightly as Mr. Flint pushed his chair away from the table and rose with a stately grace, saying, "I'll check on him."

She was grateful Trevor had offered. After her late-night conversation with Sebastian, she wasn't sure it was a good idea to put temptation in his way by knocking on his bedroom door.

When she arrived in wardrobe, Jessica was relieved that the day's dress was long sleeved. There was a damp chill in the air as the cold cotton and muslin brushed against her skin, although the two petticoats beneath her skirts would soon warm her up. Three months ago her favourite daydream had been the one where she'd woken up in the early 19th century, surrounded by the same world Jane Austen wrote about in her novels. Now she was finally getting to experience a tiny bit of that dream. The delicate dresses with their high waists were comfortable enough, but she was increasingly glad to slide back into her jeans at the end of the day.

Those taking part in the first two scenes moved through the house to the backstage corridor just before the hall officially opened to visitors. Jessica sat on one of the hard chairs, next to Mrs Gardiner, while Mr. Gardiner stood in front of his favourite seascape, pondering the stationary waves. He held his hands behind his back, rocking back and forth on his heels as they waited for the signal from Mandy that they should enter the breakfast room to begin.

On Sunday there had been a queue waiting for the house to open, so they'd had a decent sized audience for their first scene. Ten minutes before they were due to speak their opening lines, Mandy came to let them know that not one car had entered the Exley Hall's visitor car park.

Jess had seen plenty of empty theatre seats due to unexpected bad weather. One weekend a few winters ago a big blizzard had caused havoc on the roads just before Christmas, and many of the audience had decided to stay at home rather than risk an accident. But the difference between theatres and stately homes was that people pre-booked tickets for plays and pantomimes, sometimes months in advance, and made every effort to attend.

Visiting a stately home in the middle of the countryside was more of a spontaneous decision, which could be easily swayed by the presence of dark clouds on the horizon, or a less than promising weather report. Part of Exley Hall's charm was its extensive grounds and the miles of woodland walks that crossed the estate. Why would anyone choose to pay the substantial entrance fee on such a dreary day, when at least half their visit would leave them decidedly damp?

Mandy raked a flustered hand through her hair. "I never imagined there would be no visitors in June. What should we do?"

"It's still early yet," Mrs Reynolds said. "They could turn up for the second or third scene."

Mrs Gardiner sniffed. "Why should they when they could put it off by twenty-four hours and enjoy the Regency fair at no extra charge?"

Gerald rolled his eyes. "Do you realise this house has been standing for a long time. There's more history here than just the one short time period. One of the early 20th century occupants left a beautiful collection of antique fishing flies." He turned back to Mandy. "Do you want us to start as usual and play to an empty room?"

"No...no. We'll pick up the schedule as soon as we have an audience, so you'll need to stay ready. In the meantime, we'll wait down in the basement where it's warmer. At least you'll be comfortable there." She headed towards the main entrance hall to chat with Mr. Flint, who had no choice but to hold his place as he waited to greet the first visitors of the day.

They made their way downstairs, where Bingley, Jane and Caroline were already in costume. Mr. Gardiner pulled a pack of cards out of his coat pocket. "Anyone up for a game while we wait?"

Mrs Gardiner showed an interest, but only because she didn't have her Sudoku handy. Mrs Reynolds took her usual seat at the card table while Emily went to wardrobe to change out of her maid's dress and into something more appropriate for Georgiana Darcy.

Caroline wandered across the room towards Jessica, looking very pleased with herself. "Miss Eliza Bennet, may I persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room?"

"No."

One of her perfectly plucked eyebrows rose slightly. She sank gracefully into the armchair next to Jess. "Did someone fall out the wrong side of the bed this morning? Or the wrong bed even?"

"I slept in my own room last night."

"Oh dear. Is that why you're grumpy? Or did Sebastian keep you awake past your bedtime?"

A cloud of silence enveloped the card table. There was nothing more inquisitive than a group of actors, and Jess felt their attention firmly focused between her shoulder blades. "I can't for the life of me imagine how that's any of your business."

Although she could have hardly phrased it any plainer, her rebuff slid past Caroline like water off the proverbial duck's back. Instead, Ruth's expression changed to one of innocent enquiry. "Speaking of...where is Sebastian this morning?"

"I have no idea. I'm not his keeper."

Miss Bingley's smile grew wider. "Well, if you want my advice—"

Jessica held up her hand. "I don't."

With a shrug of her elegant shoulders, Caroline retreated. When she reached the others, clustered around the table, Jessica heard the murmur of exchanged whispers, but she refused to turn around, instead concentrating on the television.

Eventually, Darcy arrived from wardrobe, looking unusually flustered as he fastened the last of his waistcoat buttons. "Sorry I'm late. I think I picked up a bit of a bug." His mouth twisted as he rubbed his stomach. "It might have been those prawns I had last night. Are you feeling okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine, but I didn't have any shellfish. Was it bad?"

"Not bad enough to wake me up, but I knew about it when I reached the bathroom." He looked around the room. "What's going on? Why are you all down here? Shouldn't you be on the second scene by now?"

Jess pointed to the high windows, reflecting a sliver of dark grey sky. "Have you not noticed the weather?"

"Can't say I have. I had other things to occupy my attention."

"Mandy will give us a shout when anyone arrives, but for the moment we're missing an integral part of the performance, our audience, and it doesn't look like the weather will let up anytime soon."

He joined her in front of the TV, and they spent some time laughing at some people's taste in decorating. After a while, Sebastian began to shift in his chair, twirling the watch chain around his finger. "This is boring. Have you seen any of the upstairs rooms?"

Although they'd played their scenes in most of the ground floor salons, Jess had never followed the tour of the first floor. "Not yet, but surely Mandy would rather we stay here and not go wandering off."

"You'll never know if you don't ask." He left the servant's hall, presumably to look for Mandy, and came back five minutes later. "The poor girl's standing at the breakfast room window with a pair of binoculars, on the watch for the greater spotted tourist. We're allowed to look around upstairs though, if you'd like to. She'll send someone to find us if we're needed."

Jess accepted his invitation, and they made their way upstairs. "I can't imagine anything better than being shown around by the Master of the house."

"I'd like to think I could do it as well as, if not better than, Mrs Reynolds."

The first floor rooms were mostly bedrooms, but nothing like any bedroom Jess had seen before. They were cavernous spaces, decorated in gaudy colours. The beds were either massive wooden monstrosities, with posts carved out of whole tree-trunks, or gravity-defying canopies of gilded wood. Emerald and ruby brocade drapes decorated with gold thread were protected from light damage by the liberal use of semi-opaque blinds. It made the rooms seem dull, particularly when the weather was grey outside, but Jessica understood the importance of protecting the rich dyes from fading.

During their exploration, Sebastian proved himself a master of improvisation as he created a history for each room based upon his wholly imaginary Darcy family. He described one bedroom as the favourite of Amelia Darcy, Fitzwilliam's great-grandmother and former London courtesan. Another belonged to his Great Aunt Clarissa Darcy, who had the misfortune to lose four husbands to various forms of death or disease, and was later known as the Black Widow. His enthusiastic story-telling, while staying perfectly in character as Mr. Darcy, kept Jess amused for a good twenty minutes as they followed the marked tour.

At the end of a wood-panelled corridor, they arrived in a room that had already been described to her. The large bed, draped in blue and gold, was far taller than she had imagined, its canopy standing at least ten feet off the floor. The oriental ebony cabinets, chased with brass inlaid scenes, didn't look at all English. The wallpaper showed little Chinese figures on arched bridges, or colourful birds with long tail feathers, while a display cabinet held examples of blue and white porcelain showing temples and fishermen.

She saw Sebastian's reflection in the glass of the cabinet, just before he wrapped his arms around her waist. "Now, if this really was Pemberley you would be trespassing in my domain, for this is the master's chamber." His lips moved along the edge of her ear, causing the tiny hairs on her skin to rise. "Were you to be caught in here, alone with me, Miss Bennet, your reputation would be thoroughly..."—he turned her around within his arms until she faced him—"ruined."

As he lowered his mouth towards hers, Jess pressed a palm to his chest, pushing him back. She felt the raised embroidery stitches of his waistcoat beneath her skin, along with the determined beat of his heart. "Not while we're working."

Sebastian held himself still, turning his head left and right as he looked around the room. "I see no audience."

"If I'm in costume then I'm working." She wriggled from within the circle of his arms and moved away from the cabinet. "Besides, Miss Bennet would never have entered Mr. Darcy's bedchamber. At least not until after the end of the book, when they were married."

He smiled. "Are you so sure about that? You're here now aren't you?"

"Yes, but I'm not—"

"Darcy knew just what he wanted out of life and set out to achieve it. That's why he was so confident of his proposal in Kent."

"He was confident because he was proud, and couldn't imagine anyone ever refusing him, particularly a country gentleman's daughter. You must see that her rejection of him seriously undermined his confidence."

Sebastian took her hand. "I'm glad we're not doing that particular scene this week. Not that it wouldn't have been fun trying to convince you to change your mind."

"I doubt Mr. Darcy would have been able to say anything to Elizabeth that would have made her accept him. Remember, at that point, he was the last man in the world she would ever marry."

Leaning closer, he dropped his voice to a whisper. "I'll bet he could have convinced her if he'd really tried. He just needed to turn on the charm. Don't forget that he was, first and foremost, a man, and a rich one at that. He was also used to getting his own way."

Jess was surprised by his theory. Didn't Sebastian understand his character at all? "Mr. Darcy was an honourable man. That's what made all the difference. That's why he is so well loved in the twenty-first century. It's a trait that's not found so often these days."

"Yes, he was honourable in many respects. He didn't lie or cheat, and he treated his tenants and servants fairly. But we're talking about his reaction to Elizabeth. The love of his life; the woman he'd been waiting months for. She arrives at his house, totally out of the blue. Even as they were sat in the parlour, making polite conversation or playing the piano, do you really think he wasn't imagining her in his room? In his bed?"

"He would never think such a thing. Mr. Darcy was a gentleman!"

Sebastian laughed. "He was also a human being, and not a robot. Have you never thought what else might have happened during those long walks to Oakham Mount and back? Don't forget, they lost Bingley and Jane, and only just returned in time for dinner. They were alone and unchaperoned all that time. What do you think they were doing? Do you really think they had that much to talk about?"

"Things were different in Jane Austen's time. Men weren't like that. You're looking at this through modern eyes."

"And you're being naïve. We're not talking about the Victorian age, with their laced-up propriety. Those Georgians were uninhibited, even by today's standards. It wasn't always the perfect, beautiful world portrayed in your period dramas."

At that moment Emily came to remind them it was time for lunch. Jess wasn't disappointed when they headed back down to the basement to rejoin the others.

The image Sebastian had painted of Mr. Darcy and his Elizabeth was too close to gritty reality, and many miles from the idyllic relationship she'd always imagined.



~<>~@~<>~




Chapter 14



As they lounged around the green room after lunch, Jess sensed a general lack of energy among their small group. Bubbles of conversation and laughter had accompanied previous mealtimes, but now the grey skies outside left everyone subdued, the silence broken only by occasional stilted questions and even briefer answers.

She wasn't sure what to say to Sebastian. She still couldn't bring herself to agree with his interpretation of Darcy and Elizabeth's relationship. Even if he'd never labelled Mr. Darcy as a gentleman, he'd still been playing the character exactly as she'd always imagined him.

Well, except for the kiss at the end of the final scene. She'd never pictured anything like that kiss when Elizabeth accepted his proposal.

Her gaze drifted back to Sebastian. With head bowed and shoulders hunched, his posture was the opposite of the way he held himself while playing the proud Mr. Darcy. Had the real Mr. Darcy picked up a bug from questionable mussels, he would've been hunched over and miserable as well. He must have been feeling awful all day. Maybe that was why his thoughts about Darcy and Elizabeth's relationship had sounded so cynical.

She moved closer, resting her hand on top of his. "How are you doing?"

"Okay now. I didn't have much of an appetite earlier, but my stomach seems to be calming down." He shared a tired smile as he sandwiched her smaller hand between his. "Just having you here makes me feel ten times better."

That smile made her melt a little inside. Despite the grey, dreary skies, nothing could dampen her feelings for him.

Mandy arrived in the doorway wearing a smile of her own, this time one of relief. "The weather forecast is much improved for this afternoon, and we have some visitors who've bought timed tickets to view the house. Can you be ready to start the afternoon session in ten minutes?"

Her question electrified the group, re-energising them where before there had been only lethargy. Finally, they would get to do the work they came here for; to entertain, and maybe educate those visitors who had not yet been captured by the charms of Miss Austen's works.

They made their way to the card room, located behind the entrance hall, and facing the garden at the back of the house. The wood panelled room was neither so highly decorated nor as comfortably furnished as some of the other parlours within Exley Hall. They'd moved the tables covered in green baize cloth to one side, providing a suitable space for Elizabeth and Aunt Gardiner to visit Georgiana and Miss Bingley at Pemberley.

A motley collection of colourful raincoats and umbrellas watched the scene unfold from behind the red rope as they observed the subtle nuances of early nineteenth-century society. Caroline Bingley's comments to Elizabeth that afternoon seemed particularly sharp and unfriendly. No doubt the gloomy weather had left them all feeling low, but Jess wasn't sorry to slip out of the card room when her part in the scene was complete.

She listened on the other side of the door as Ruth Swale continued to dwell on Miss Bennet's deficiencies for Mr. Darcy's benefit. Jess knew the criticisms were directed from one character to another, but Caroline's acidic comments seemed more personal than mere dialogue on a page. Apart from refusing to rise to Ruth's snide remarks about Sebastian that morning, Jess couldn't imagine what else she'd done to annoy her.

As the afternoon session progressed, the weather brightened and the waterproof coats were less prevalent among the audience. The penultimate scene would start in ten minutes, and Mrs Reynolds arrived outside the library door, fresh from wardrobe and ready to go.

Whenever Mrs Green stepped into the costume of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she transformed her personality to match. Where Mrs Reynolds was a mixture of quiet confidence and the natural deference of a housekeeper, Lady Catherine exuded a brusque self-assurance and determined poise.

Jess wasn't ashamed to admit she was slightly in awe of Mrs Green in her guise as Mr. Darcy's aunt.

The clothes also helped. Mrs Reynolds wore a simple, practical dress of plain grey. Lady Catherine's iridescent purple coat dress was decorated with black braided frogging, like an old-fashioned army jacket, and her high hat included an even taller feather. It allowed her to loom over Miss Elizabeth Bennet as they performed.

"You will be censured, slighted, and despised by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace and your name will never even be mentioned by any of us!" Lady Catherine spat across the room, her anger in full flow.

"These are heavy misfortunes indeed," Elizabeth responded with an unruffled calm, "but the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness attached to her situation that she could have no cause to repine."

Mrs Green's pinched expression reflected her character's cantankerous mood. "Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose, and I will not be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person's whims, and I am not in the habit of brooking disappointment."

Jessica tried not to smile, but it was hard when she enjoyed putting the older character in her place. "That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable, but it will have no effect on me."

Mrs Green circled Jess, her clawed hand extended to emphasise her anger, as though she wanted to throttle the young woman standing in front of her. "My daughter and my nephew were formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune? Is this to be endured? If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."

Lady Catherine's words triggered something in Jess's memory. Did Ruth think she was unworthy of Sebastian's attention? Or did she just want him for herself? "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman, and I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."

"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."

No one at Exley Hall was aware of Jess's family connections, although if she'd mentioned her uncle and aunt, Jess felt sure that at least one of the older cast members would know them. British theatre was home to a small, somewhat insular community, after all. "Whatever my connections may be, if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

Lady Catherine stood tall, her purple feather quivering with indignation as she stabbed a demanding finger towards Miss Bennet. "Tell me once and for all, are you engaged to him?''

Jess paused, the beat hinting at Elizabeth's deliberation before she sighed, allowing her shoulders to relax. "I am not."

Although Mrs Green didn't smile, she exuded a dry satisfaction and even a small amount of relief. "And will you promise me never to enter into such an engagement?"

She drew in a breath and raised a determined chin to look Lady Catherine straight in the eye. "I will make no promise of the kind."

"Miss Bennet, I am shocked and astonished! I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. Do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will retreat. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require."

Elizabeth smiled, relishing the opportunity to deny the older woman what she most wanted. "And I certainly shall never give it. I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter, but would my giving you the wished-for promise make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand make him wish to bestow it on his cousin?

"Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell, but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject."

As the scene ended, the audience clapped and whistled as Lady Catherine took a well-deserved bow. Jess left the library in a determined mood. She refused to be intimidated by some stuck-up, jealous hag who thought she wasn't good enough for Sebastian.

Ruth Swale might want Sebastian for herself, but wanting something and getting it were two very different things. Sebastian had his own mind after all, and he'd already made clear where his preference lay.


~~~~~



After changing out of her costume at the end of the day, Jess met Sebastian in the hallway, still attired as Mr. Darcy. His formal tailcoat and frilly white shirt made an odd contrast to her t-shirt and jeans but didn't bother him one bit.

"Ah, there you are. I was wondering where you'd gone." His hand slid around her waist to pull her close. "We're not working now, are we?"

Jess studied one of the large gold buttons on his coat. Technically they were done for the day. "No, not at the moment, although you really ought to get changed first."

"I don't always do what I ought," he said, his voice almost a whisper as he raised her chin, the better to look at her. Sebastian leaned closer until his forehead touched hers. "So beautiful," he murmured, as though half to himself.

Jess smiled. She'd been smiling a lot since her arrival in Derbyshire. It was very easy to be happy when Sebastian was around. He had the knack of making her feel like she was the only woman in the world.

He traced the curl of her ear with his finger, his hand sliding to her cheek as he captured her lips. Sebastian's kiss was gentle; nothing like the stage kiss they performed at the end of the final scene. It made her feel special.

Sebastian pulled back, but not far. He hovered above her as he gazed into her eyes. Then he smiled, a genuine warm smile that lit up his dark brown eyes. "What would you like to do tonight?"

"After the weather we've had today, a walk in the garden is off the cards."

He laughed. "Yes, you're probably right."

"You go and get changed, and I'll meet you in the green room. There's bound to be something interesting on T.V."

He dropped a quick kiss against the corner of her mouth. "And if there isn't, I'm sure we can find something else to occupy our time." He bowed, his innate Darcy-ness never far beneath the surface while he was in costume. "Your servant, Miss Bennet."

Jess curtsied, a movement that felt strangely out of place while wearing jeans. "I'll be waiting," she reminded him.

She continued down the corridor, her footsteps echoing on the tiled floor. When she arrived at the servant's hall the large room was empty. Sinking into one of the armchairs, Jessica tucked her feet underneath her. Laura's battered copy of Pride and Prejudice lay open on the small table. She lifted it up, careful not to lose the page as she checked which chapter Laura had read up to.

It was earlier in the book, as Elizabeth was reading Mr. Darcy's letter in Kent. The letter was one of Jess's favourite chapters, marking the point where Elizabeth Bennet learned for the first time that Wickham's description of the Darcys hadn't been entirely honest. Engrossed in the words on the page, Jessica didn't realise that Caroline had arrived until her shadow fell over the book.

"A great reader as well, Eliza? I think you're more like your character than you think."

"There must always be some similarities," Jess said, without enthusiasm.

Caroline dropped into the chair next to her and leaned closer, lowering her voice. "If you enjoy stories, I could tell you one that would make your toes curl."

Jess sighed, pitying such an obvious and clumsy effort at manipulation. "I'm a little old to be frightened by horror stories, don't you think?"

They sat for a moment in silence, as Caroline glanced around the room. "It's all very strange, seeing you with Sebastian. You aren't his usual type at all."

Jess wondered what his usual type of woman was, but she would rather eat her socks than show even the slightest spark of interest in what Miss Bingley had to say. "Perhaps you don't know him as well as you think you do."

Ruth frowned. "I know him better than most. Aren't you even a little bit curious?"

"What about?"

"What sort of female normally catches Sebastian's eye."

"Why should I care? The women in his past are nothing to do with me."

She flicked her perfectly manicured fingernails, "I'm only trying to help. I'm sure you could find someone more your equal. A man you might have more in common with."

Her false solicitude did nothing to hide the jealousy that oozed beneath the surface. Caroline wanted her out of the way, and her reason was obvious. "So you can claim Sebastian for yourself?"

Ruth laughed, a bitter crack of noise in an otherwise silent space. "I was there before you, my dear. Sebastian and I are old friends."

If her revelation was intended to upset Jess, it didn't work. Caroline had draped herself all over him on their first day at Exley Hall, in some desperate attempt to reclaim a prior relationship. Jess also remembered his conversation at the beginning of the week about the women forcing their attention on him.

If he'd been talking about Ruth Swale that would explain a lot.



~<>~@~<>~


DNA:

When I started posting here I only did so because I felt I was in a position to post regularly, while finishing off and editing the last few chapters at the very end of the story. I'd specifically waited until I had the free time to devote to completing this long-term project.

However, in the last few weeks we've taken a young person into our home who needed help and we're in the process of fostering them through their last year of school. It was quite unexpected and unplanned. It's been years since I had to worry about packed lunches, homework supervision and the "school run", and this is taking up a considerable portion of my day - including the hours that I previously spent writing.

I believe every young person deserves the chance of an education, and if I can help one bright teenager to achieve their goals over the next nine months then I see that as a worthwhile investment of time. I'm determined to finish this story, but it may now take me a little longer than I anticipated, and my posting schedule might not be as frequent as I would like. I promise I'll post when I can. smiling smiley

H.
SubjectAuthorPosted

Playing Around in Derbyshire - 13 & 14

Heather FSeptember 25, 2018 04:55AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 13 & 14

AlidaSeptember 25, 2018 07:50AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 13 & 14

NickiSeptember 25, 2018 07:34AM



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