Hi, everybody! Welcome back for chapter nine! In case you are only just joining us, or have missed a part, never fear. Chapter 1 is here. Just follow the “Next Chapter” links at the bottom to read it as a serial. If you only missed last week’s chapter, then just click for Chapter 8.
So, what could Ruby know and how did the Pemberley curse originate?
Chapter 9 – The Sky, the Story, and a Token
Mildred behaved for the rest of their drive to Lambton, but the weather did not. The sky was still a weird silvery colour and sparks of light continued to shoot across it, and then the rain and the wind came. Ellie had to concentrate to the keep the little car on the road while strong gusts and a torrential downpour lashed at it from all angles. She was grateful the motorway was now far behind them and they were travelling down small country roads, getting ever closer to the inn. Having spent the previous night tossing and turning on her lumpy sofa, Ellie was tired. Her eyes hurt and her head was beginning to ache.
“You are weary, Ellie. Should you like me to drive Mildred for a time?”
Shocked, Ellie glanced at Elizabeth quickly, before turning her eyes back to the road. “Are you crazy? No! You don’t know how to drive a car. It takes lessons, and lots of practice. You have to pass a test and get a licence before you’re allowed to drive.”
Elizabeth shrugged. “I admit to experiencing a certain level of perturbation when we first began along the fast road, but on these smaller lanes, I believe I could manage it well enough. There are pedals for stopping and going faster, and one must turn the wheel to steer. The small stick beside the wheel is either pushed up or down, which makes a light flash, to let other road users know which way you intend to turn. You must stay to the left and stop when there are broken lines…”
“Okay,” Ellie held up a hand. “You don’t miss a trick, I’ll give you that, but you still can’t drive the car. If I remember rightly, we’re nearly there anyway.”
A sign caught Elizabeth’s eye as they passed it. “Pemberley Shades. Is that not where Ruby Reynolds lived? Should we turn here and seek her out?”
“I don’t know, look at the skies. That meant something before. We could find the inn, rent the same room, and take a nap.”
“Ah, we have returned to your ‘let us fall asleep and hope I wake up back in eighteen-thirteen’ strategy. Yet, I still believe we should not be so passive. We must call upon Mrs Reynolds.”
Despite her exhaustion, Ellie nodded and followed the sign’s arrow. There was a break in the trees after two hundred yards or so and Pemberley itself came into view. Elizabeth leant forward and Ellie slowed down, and then stopped altogether. They both stared at the house opened mouthed and were speechless for a few moments.
“When I was here before, when I met Tom, it wasn’t like this, Lizzy. It was beautiful, at least the outside was. There were rolling fields, a big lake, and a huge gravel drive. It was also the only house for miles…” Ellie ran out of words—what was the point of talking about something that didn’t exist anymore? Pemberley was a mess. One wing, the side that had burned down in eighteen-fifteen, was just ruins. The rest of the building was covered in scaffolding, like it was being restored, but there were no workmen about, no vans or cranes. A tarpaulin covered parts of the roof but had come loose, and flapped about uselessly in the high winds.
There were hardly any grounds now, they had probably been sold off, piece by piece and built on.
“Tom? You mentioned him before, Tom Darcy,” Elizabeth said. “Am I to assume there were children from my supposedly happy marriage to Mr Darcy?”
“Oh yeah. Eight.”
“Guess there wasn’t much to do of an evening back then, other than…” Ellie smiled and waved a hand in the air.
Elizabeth’s face went as red as beetroot. “Eight! Suddenly I am more than a little inclined to remain in twenty-seventeen.”
“But you loved your kids. You were devoted to them, always writing about them in your letters.”
“Was Tom Darcy one of my direct descendants?”
“Yeah, he was,” Ellie gazed at the derelict mansion and realised Tom wasn’t the steward there anymore. By the looks of it, Pemberley didn’t need one, because there was nothing left to manage. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy had never married, so Tom had never been born.
Ellie thought back to when she had met him in the library and the excitement she’d felt when he’d asked her out; that little flutter she’d felt in her belly when their eyes had met. She’d only talked to Tom for a few minutes, but there had been something special about it. Why did he have to be married, and a cheat? Now, of course, he was a non-existent so it shouldn’t matter, but somehow, it did. “He wasn’t a gentleman though, Lizzy. He was married, and he lied about it.”
“Perhaps we ought to go on,” Elizabeth suggested.
They found Pemberley Shades easily. While its name conjured up images of a pretty retirement home with roses around the door, it was actually a long, white square box of a building about half-mile from Pemberley. It needed a lick of paint and the buzzer on the security system was cracked. Ellie pressed it but half-expected it not to work. She jumped when a gruff middle-aged woman answered quickly.
“It’s not visiting hours,” she bellowed down the crackling line.
“Sorry,” called Ellie into the box, “but we’ve come all the way from London to speak to Ruby Reynolds. Does she live here?”
“Yes, but we have set visiting hours. It’s in the brochure. You’ll have to come back later. No visits out of visiting hours, unless you’ve called ahead.”
“Please, it’s raining pretty hard out here. Can’t you just let us in to speak to you for a minute? It’s a long story, but we really need to see Ruby. She’s our aunt.” Ellie lied but what else was she supposed to do? They might never get in otherwise. “And actually, I did call ahead. I spoke to…” A name! She needed a name, and a common one or it would never work. Crossing her fingers, she prayed she’d get lucky. “I spoke to John.”
“Oh, right. If John said it’s okay, I suppose it is.”
The gate swung open.
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at Ellie as they went through it. “And I thought I was meant to be the actress. You show far more talent for theatricals than I do. What is this place, exactly?”
“A retirement home. You know, for when people grow old, and they can’t look out for themselves anymore.”
“Why do they not live with their families?”
“That’s a very good question.” Ellie sighed as they walked into Pemberley Shades. It was dark and depressing and smelt like a hospital, like everything had been dipped in antiseptic. It was eerily quiet except for the occasional loud cough or moan from one of the residents..
The owner of the gruff voice met them at the reception desk, told them her name was Dawn, and showed Ellie and Elizabeth down a long corridor to a conservatory at the end of the building. It would have been the only sunny room in the whole place, if not for the storm still raging outside, which made it as dim as all the other rooms.
“These two girls say they are your nieces, Ruby, is that right?” Dawn asked a tiny lady who was tucked up under a blanket in a big chair by the window.
Ruby’s face was time-weathered, but her eyes were young and curious as she peered up at Elizabeth and Ellie.
“She’s a bit senile,” Dawn said.
“I am not senile,” the old lady snapped. “They are certainly my nieces and you can get off now. Terrorise someone else and leave me to chat to them.”
Dawn huffed but went away.
Ellie pulled up a chair and sat opposite Ruby. Feeling as if she had lied enough for one day, she decided to be honest. “We’re not actually relatives of yours, Ruby. Elizabeth and I are doing some research on Pemberley. There was a historian called James who came to see you before. Do you remember him?”
“Like I said before, I’m not senile. I remember James. He used to sneak me in a little flask of gin. Got any gin?”
“No.” Ellie replied, surprised. “I might have some chocolate though.” She rummaged in her bag and came up with a Snickers bar she kept there—for emergencies. It was a bit squashed but Ruby snatched it gleefully and tucked it under the blanket.
Ellie and Elizabeth smiled at each other before remembering why they were there. “We were wondering if you could tell us anything further about the fire that destroyed a part of the building in eighteen-fifteen, the fire that took its master’s life,” Elizabeth asked, pulling up a chair of her own.
“My family lived and worked at Pemberley for generations, right up until the family let all the staff go in the nineteen-seventies. It was sad to see it sold, but it was the curse, you see.” She glanced between them. “I can see you don’t believe me, but anyone around here will tell you the same. The great house is cursed. There’s not been a single person that’s been happy there, not since the fire.”
“Does anyone know what caused the fire?” Ellie asked.
“Well, the master, Fitzwilliam Darcy, caused it! That night, he’d been crying and drinking brandy—a lot of it—he was well and truly pickled. They believed he knocked over a candle in his study. Of course, the whole place was full of paper and next to the library with all those wooden shelves of books. It took hold quickly, a terrible blaze. Mr Darcy sobered up enough to get everyone out, but while the flames were still high, he ran back in for something, and never came back out.”
Elizabeth shivered. Outside, thunder rumbled and a crack of lightning split the silvery sky.
“Do you know what he went back in for?” Ellie asked.
Ruby laughed. “Well, how’s anyone supposed to know that when he never came out again? But there is a story people like to tell.”
“Pray, go on.” Elizabeth’s voice was a hoarse whisper.
“Well, it’s said Fitzwilliam Darcy was madly in love with a girl who’d been in a horrible accident a couple of years before. He was coming home from London on his horse when it happened right in front of him. No one knows why, but she ran before a post coach. Everyone who saw it thought she was dead, but she survived and was rushed inside the inn. If you go to Lambton, the building where they took her is still there on High Street. Her relatives sent for a doctor but didn’t know he was considered a quack by the locals. Mr Darcy didn’t trust him, something to do with the bad care the man had given his mother. He ranted and shouted and tried to get the lady seen by his own doctor, but her uncle had already let the man treat her. She died.”
Elizabeth leaned closer. “So, it was not the accident that took her life, but…”
“The doctor bled her with dirty instruments. She got a terrible fever,” Ruby told them bluntly. “And he gave her a medicine, some concoction he’d made himself. P’haps that made things worse?”
Elizabeth turned white as a sheet, and Ellie saw her hands tremble as she reached for the cross around her neck. “But are there any theories about what Mr Darcy went back into the house for?”
“It’s all rumours and guesses. No one ever knew for certain, but it’s said he took something from the body of the girl, a token. Her relatives were devastated. They were in no fit state to do anything. It was Mr Darcy who returned her lifeless body to her poor parents, and paid for her burial, too. But he took something before he sent her off.”
It was all too much for Elizabeth who got up suddenly and rushed to the other side of the room. Ellie watched her as she continued to play with the cross about her neck while biting roughly at her lip.
What had Mr Darcy stolen? Elizabeth didn’t have much he could’ve taken without her aunt and uncle noticing, maybe Elizabeth’s cross or a lock of her hair? When the Pemberley fire had been raging, Mr Darcy had risked his life to go back inside for that one tiny part of Elizabeth he still possessed. Ellie was as sure of it as if she had been there and seen it happen. She didn’t need any proof.
“Nothing was the same after that,” Ruby went on. “There was never enough money to rebuild the house, crops failed, tenants left to work at the mills in Derby. He was the last great master, and all that inherited Pemberley after him, one after another, had the most terrible luck. I’m telling you—that girl’s death was a curse. She was the curse of Pemberley, and I think she still haunts it to this day.”
Elizabeth bolted from the room. Ellie hurriedly thanked Ruby and took off after her, leaving the old lady reaching under her blanket for the chocolate. Elizabeth was rattling the handle of the big glass front door when Ellie caught her up.
“Why won’t it open?” she cried out in frustration. “I do not understand. I do not understand anything in this world. Why would you lock elderly people up?”
Ellie found the large green button to release the doors and pressed it. “It’s to lock other people out, Lizzy.”
But Elizabeth wasn’t listening. Once she was through the doors she began running again, not to the car, but anywhere, just away. Ellie struggled to keep up and was amazed at the girl’s speed. Wasn’t she supposed to be from the generation of ladies who sat and sewed all day? Thankfully Elizabeth had to stop when she was blown back by the storm, her small frame was no match for the fierce winds howling around them.
“How can my death have changed so many things? I am inconsequential.” Her eyes were wet with tears, her cheeks flushed with confusion and anger.
“Not to him you weren’t.” Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak again, but Ellie held up her hands. “Just wait. Mr Darcy told you he loved you. You may not have believed him when he said it, but he must have crazy about you. You were supposed to meet at Pemberley the day I ran in front of the carriage, and he was so broken-hearted over your death that he was never the same. He was important to everything to Pemberley and Lambton.”
There was loud, rumbling thunder again, right above them, so Ellie pulled Elizabeth by the hand back to Mildred. They were both wet through and Elizabeth trembled as they sat back in the front seats.
“I need a drink, a really big glass of wine,” Ellie said, staring out through the windscreen.
“Alcohol is rarely the answer, Ellie.”
“No, sometimes chocolate is the answer.”
“It seems you have much in common with Ruby Reynolds,” Elizabeth smiled wryly.
“Let’s go to the inn and get dried off.”
When Elizabeth didn’t protest, Ellie started the engine and pulled onto the road. Despite all the excitement of the last half hour, or maybe because of it, she was more tired than ever and emotionally drained to boot. She had to shake herself repeatedly to stay awake, but her eyes were so, so heavy, and maybe they closed, despite her willing them not to, but only for what seemed like a second. Then Elizabeth shouted her name and she opened them, and panicked.
She was on the wrong side of the road as a carriage being pulled by four large horses was hurtling through the misty rain towards them. A driver in a big fancy coat with a whip in his hand, was urging the beasts along faster and faster and the carriage bore down on them so quickly there was no time to really study it, or for Ellie to wonder if she was hallucinating. Strangely, she could see the carriage, but the driver didn’t seem to see Mildred. Ellie had to wrench the wheel sharply to the left to avoid crashing into it and Elizabeth screamed as Mildred left the road and mounted the grassy bank beside it. The momentum sent them sailing straight through a wooden fence. The cracking and crunching noise of metal colliding with wood at thirty miles per hour was horrendous, and though the car came to a stop a few feet into the field, Ellie started to feel sick and faint, and then passed out.
Pain. Pain unlike anything she’d experienced before, and a crushing weight on her chest made breathing almost impossible. Her ribs stung when they stretched and expanded for her to get a full breath. Ellie tried to open her eyes, but they refused to cooperate. They felt like they’d been glued shut.
She was also cold—freezing in fact—and the blankets weren’t doing a thing to help. She shivered constantly, which only made her hurt more, if that was possible.
Whose voice was that? It wasn’t Elizabeth’s, but she sounded sort of like her.
“Lizzy, dearest, open your eyes.”
Wait! It was Elizabeth’s aunt! If Mrs Gardiner was speaking to her, then she must’ve returned to Elizabeth’s body. Lord, no wonder she hurt!
“Mrs Gardiner, I understand your reluctance to accept matters as they are, but your niece was gravely injured. Should she survive her injuries and the fever that has taken hold during the night, she will likely never be the same. We should make her as comfortable as possible. Laudanum would help with the pain.”
Something warm wrapped around Ellie’s hand. Mrs Gardiner must have been holding it. “Sir, my niece is a strong young lady and will fight for her life. Of that I am quite certain. If you are not willing to aid us in her recovery, then we shall search for a physician who will. I will not, however, hear talk of letting her die.”
The sound of a latch being lifted and a door creaking open echoed through the room. “Mrs Gardiner, I brought tha water and towelin’ ya asked fer.”
And then there was another voice, more distant, as if it were coming from the hallway. “You must see reason! I can provide a comfortable room, servants to see to Miss Bennet’s every need, and my personal physician—even a surgeon from London should she require it. Please, Mr Gardiner! I implore you! You must allow me to be of assistance.”
The man’s tone was impatient, distressed. She hadn’t heard it before but it was deep and rich, not so unlike Tom Darcy’s.
“Sir, I appreciate your offer, but we simply cannot accept. ‘Tis too generous from someone we have never met and who has such a slight acquaintance with our niece.”
“I cannot insist, but I beg of you to allow me to summon a physician.” The man paused before his voice dropped until it was almost too soft to hear. “Mr Grantley is not well thought of in Lambton and few use his services, which is why he was able to respond with such haste to your summons. He was competent in his youth, but his treatments are not of the most recent developments. Please, sir.”
Her heart suddenly began to beat faster. An icy rag was placed on her forehead and she stiffened, everything throbbed.
“There, there,” soothed Mrs Gardiner. “I know you must be in a great deal of pain and the cloth must be cold, but we have to do what we can.”
“Mrs Gardiner, if you are determined I should continue treating her, we should bleed her to bring the fever down. She is due another dose of laudanum and I should apply plasters to her wounds. I should also like to try a remedy of my own making. Her heart is not beating as quickly or as strongly as it should, and it will strengthen the blood.”
“What sorts of plasters?” asked Mrs Gardiner. While Ellie was listening to Mrs Gardiner and the doctor, she could still hear Mr Gardiner and Mr Darcy arguing in the background, they were obviously just outside the door.
“My wife can prepare them for you, simply a mixture of oils and litharge—lead.”
Lead? Ellie fought to pry open Elizabeth’s eyes.
“What of the other remedy?”
“Oh, merely a solution of oil, herbs, and strychnia.”
Strychnia? She’d heard that before, but where? It was hard to sort through her thoughts when her head hurt so much, but… Wait a minute! Wasn’t it in one of her Mills and Boon bodice rippers? It was! The one where Lord Montague attempts to poison Lady Genevieve. It wasn’t called strychnia anymore, though. It was… Oh, crap! Strychnine!
Ellie gasped and forced Elizabeth’s eyes open, but everything was a blur. A shadow loomed over her face and something cold touched her lip. A bottle? “No!” she forced out. Somehow, she managed to throw an arm upwards, catching the person leaning over her. There was a crashing noise that could only have been something falling to the floor.
“She knocked over the bottle,” complained the doctor.
“Lizzy!” Mrs Gardiner’s palm was cool against her burning forehead. Ellie tried to concentrate on her eyes, desperate to make them focus, but she couldn’t. She licked her lips and swallowed. “Mr Darcy,” she whispered. Then, summoning every bit of strength she could gain from Elizabeth’s battered and bruised body, she shouted, “Please, Mr Darcy. Help me!”
Is it a dream or has Ellie really gone back again? If she has gone back, how will this effect the timeline? So many questions and we’d love to hear your take on it… or titles 🙂
And, don’t forget to tune in same time same place next week for Chapter 10 : “In Elizabeth’s… House Slippers?”.
Caitlin and Leslie X
Research citation: Pauline Norris and Rosemary Beresford, ‘Medicines and remedies – Plants, pills and poultices before 1900’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/28219/patent-medicine (accessed 29 March 2017)