All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as we know it today, was not celebrated in Regency England. Although the ancient Celtic customs persisted in Ireland and in the rural North, elsewhere the night passed uneventfully.
Let us imagine, then, a festive gathering held at Netherfield on All Hallows Eve, with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy in attendance, along with one very unexpected guest…
“I’ve decided,” Charles Bingley announced, “to hold a dinner party on All Hallows Eve. It should prove a pleasant diversion for our neighbours. What do you think, Darcy?”
Fitzwilliam Darcy looked up from his desk. “A dinner party – on All Hallows Eve? I think you cannot be serious.”
“I assure you, I am. I know such things aren’t normally celebrated hereabouts, but-”
“No, they are not,” Darcy replied with asperity as he laid aside his quill, “and for good reason. Pagan nonsense, all of it. Soul cakes, carved-out turnips lit with candles… hazelnuts tossed into the fire to ascertain one’s true love-? What a lot of superstitious faradiddle!” he added, and picked up his quill to resume writing.
“Perhaps,” Bingley said mildly. “But good fun, too, I should think.” His eyes twinkled. “And it offers a chance for you to spend an evening in Elizabeth Bennet’s company.”
Darcy made no immediate reply, although the thought of seeing Miss Bennet again was not unpleasant. “I have no doubt,” he said eventually, “that Mr Bennet and his matrimonial-minded wife will accept your invitation with alacrity.”
“And what of you, Darcy? Will you not come as well?”
With reluctance – for although he looked forward to conversing once again with Elizabeth Bennet, he disliked social occasions – Darcy assented.
“Then the matter is settled! My sister and I will host a dinner party, with a musicale afterwards. Surely no one can object to that, Darcy. Not even yourself.”
* * *
On All Hallows Eve, torches blazed along the drive leading up to Netherfield as carriages began to arrive. Candles winked a warm welcome from every window within the great house as well, and footmen in red livery flanked the door.
“Is this not the most exciting thing?” Lydia Bennet exclaimed as their carriage rolled to a halt. “A dinner party at Netherfield!” She turned to her sister, Kitty. “Do you suppose we shall meet any handsome bachelors tonight?”
Kitty let out a squeak of excitement. “I do hope so.”
“You must both be on your best behaviour,” Jane reminded them. “You in particular, Lydia.”
“I’m always on my best behaviour,” Lydia retorted. She gathered her pelisse closer around her shoulders and turned to their mother. “Aren’t I, mamma?”
“Where are my smelling salts?” Mrs Bennet fretted as she searched her reticule to no avail. “I’m sure I put them in here.”
“I hope you did,” Mr Bennet grumbled, “as I’m quite sure I’ll be needing them myself before this evening is ended.”
* * *
The Bennets were duly announced and made their way into the drawing room, and as they did several heads turned to study them. Among them was Lady Catherine de Bourgh, her protégé, Mr Collins, and Mr Bingley’s sister, Caroline.
Mr Darcy was present as well, Elizabeth noted as he detached himself from Caroline and Charles Bingley to greet them. He was a handsome man, and unmarried; but his silent and judgmental air put her off. It was not the first time they had met. Indeed, they had conversed together, had once even danced together, yet she still didn’t know what to make of him.
“Miss Bennet,” he said, and inclined his head stiffly.
“I trust you are well?”
“Quite well, thank you. And yourself?”
“I’m well, and pleased to see you. And your family,” he added.
“Indeed?” She barely suppressed an impish smile. “I didn’t think you approved of my family overmuch, Mr Darcy.”
The statement made him blink. “I assure you, I have only the highest regard for your family, Miss Bennet, and for you.”
Dinner was announced, and Darcy extended his arm to her. “Shall we go in?”
* * *
Midway through dinner, Elizabeth Bennet risked a glance at Darcy. He did not smile. He spoke barely a word. Yet when he looked up and caught her gaze upon him-?
She swore she glimpsed despair in their depths.
“You do not like your squab, Mr Darcy?” she inquired. “You’ve scarcely touched it.”
“I have no reason to dislike it. It is a commendable squab. A fine squab.”
“An unassailable squab,” she agreed solemnly, her dark eyes dancing. “Are you not hungry, then?”
“Perhaps the musicale afterwards will revive your spirits. Do you like music, Mr Darcy?”
“I do. Yes.”
Heavens, she thought, the man was impossible to draw out. “You must at least have a taste of your dinner. Don’t you fear you’ll regret your disinclination to eat later?”
“I fear, Miss Bennet,” he said stiffly, “that too much conversation tends to dampen my appetite.”
Elizabeth’s smile faltered, and she flushed. “My apologies, sir.” With a polite but chilly nod, she turned away and began to converse with Lady Catherine.
* * *
Why, Darcy castigated himself, does the sight of Elizabeth Bennet tie my tongue up in knots? What is wrong with me?
Though he’d tried, the words he longed to speak to her would not come. The sight of her face, so lovely and composed across the dinner table, struck him to silence. He wished more than anything to tell her that his heart was hers. But he could not put voice to the words.
Now dinner was ended and the musicale would soon begin, and there would be no further opportunity to speak with her. He knew as surely as he drew breath that he’d lost any chance to win Elizabeth’s heart.
“Where are you going?” a puzzled Bingley asked as Darcy, unlike the others who drifted into the salon, strode with a grim expression to the front door.
“Out for a walk. I’m in need of fresh air.”
* * *
The moon cast a pale light over the landscape as Mr Darcy emerged from the house. It rode the night sky like a galleon in full sail, following him as he strode away across the lawns, mocking him with its brightness.
Anger lent speed to his steps – how could he have behaved so abominably towards Miss Bennet? – and Darcy soon found himself far from Netherfield, alone on the edge of a vast wood. There was neither a house nor a village anywhere to be seen.
“Devil take it,” he muttered. “I’m well and truly lost.”
A sound close by made him pause. A twig had snapped under someone’s foot, he was sure of it. He eyed the bare tree limbs and the dark trunks marching away into the darkness of the forest; but he saw nothing. All was silent.
“Who’s there?” he called out with a bravado he was far from feeling. “Show yourself.”
The wind rose, whipping the dead leaves at his feet into a maelstrom, sailing them up and around him in a whirl until he covered his face with his arms in fear.
As quickly as it began, the wind died away, the leaves settled, and silence returned.
“Good evening, Mr Darcy.”
Startled, Darcy spun around. A man stood behind him. He was dressed in black from his polished Hessian boots to the tall hat on his head. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Do I know you?”
The question amused the stranger. “Everyone knows me, sooner or later. In your case, perhaps – sooner.”
“You answer my question with a riddle.” Darcy glared at him. “I know I indulged in too much wine at dinner – Miss Bennet rattled me, as she always does – but a long walk, and the cold air, have sobered me considerably. You were not at the party.”
“No. I was not.”
“Then who are you?”
“You should know who I am. After all, you called on me, Mr Darcy,” the man replied. “You said, ‘Devil take it,’ and so, here I am. What is it you wish?”
The devil? Darcy stared at him. The man was obviously mad. But the lonely setting, and the fact that he hadn’t the strength or, truthfully, the wits at present to argue, stayed his tongue.
“I wish to be done with this evening,” he told the stranger after a moment, and slumped against the rough bark of a tree trunk. “I wish I had never met Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Surely you don’t mean that. Think how unhappy your life would be without her. Wouldn’t you rather win her love?”
“Of course I would! But she despises me. And in truth, I cannot blame her for it.”
“No matter. I will fill her heart with such love for you as you cannot imagine,” the stranger promised. “Her adoration will never waver, but grow stronger with each passing year.”
“And how do you propose to accomplish such an impossible task?”
“Once you give me what I want, I shall give you what you want.”
“And what is it,” Darcy challenged, “that you want?”
“Oh, come now, my good man,” the man chided. “Surely you know what it is I seek. I’m the devil, after all.”
Darcy’s face paled, and disbelief shone in his eyes. “Not-?”
He nodded gravely. “Yes. I want your immortal soul, Mr Darcy.”
* * *
Darkness gave way to the first faint light of dawn as Mr Darcy made his way back through the misted fields that led to Netherfield. As he strode through the wisps of fog still clinging to the ground, he saw Elizabeth, and his steps quickened. “Miss Bennet!”
“Mr Darcy,” she called back, and hurried towards him with a worried expression on her face. “Where have you been? We’ve searched everywhere for you!”
“I walked,” he told her, his breath coming in ragged gasps, and reached out to clasp her hands in his. “I walked for miles, until I realized…I love you, Elizabeth. I cannot live without you beside me. Your heart is the other half of my own. Please tell me you feel the same. Please.”
She looked up at him, astonished at the naked yearning she saw on his face. “I scarce know what to say, Mr Darcy-”
“Tell me you love me even half so much as I love you, and I might die, this instant, a happy man.”
All of her protests, all of her doubts, faded in the face of his passion. “Yes,” she whispered. “I love you, Darcy, with all my heart, and all my soul. I think I always have.”
* * *
When Darcy woke, his arms and head rested upon his desk. He sat up and glanced around him. He was in his own house, in his own study, where he must have fallen asleep.
But how did he arrive at Pemberley? He had no recollection of the journey home. Indeed – he had no recollection of going to Netherfield. Had he ever left this spot?
Fear seized him. Had Elizabeth truly said she loved him? Or was it all a dream, a drunken dream?
No matter. He stood and strode to his bedchamber. If Miss Bennet’s profession of love existed only in his head, then so did his rash promise to the devil. He felt a small measure of relief. His soul was safe…and he might yet win Elizabeth’s love. He must go and see her at once.
He glanced down and saw that his boots were muddy and his clothes rumpled. A stray leaf, dry and brittle as a bone, was caught in his hair. Odd. Impatiently he removed it and flung it aside. There was no time to waste.
Once dressed, and with his feet encased in a new pair of Hessians, he hastened downstairs, tying his cravat as he went.
As he paused before a mirror to fold the cloth under his chin, Darcy glanced at his reflection, and paled. His hands went still. It could not be. It was not possible, nor even reasonable, to gaze upon such a heart-stopping image. Yet there could be no denying what he saw.
Instead of his own harried reflection staring back at him in the glass, the devil leered at him with blackened skin and eyes as red and fiery as the flames of Hades.
“No,” Darcy whispered, horror-struck. “You are a product of my…my fevered imagination! You are the result of too much port. You are not – you cannot – be real.”
“I am as real as yourself,” the devil replied. “I am as real as the bargain you struck with me last night.” The discordant sound of his laughter bubbled up and reverberated throughout the entrance hall.
Darcy covered his ears and backed away. Wild-eyed, frantic with terror, he reached for a heavy brass candlestick on the hallway table and smashed it against the mirror with all his might. Shards of glass splintered and showered down upon him until there was nothing left on the wall but the oval mahogany frame.
“There,” he breathed, his chest rising and falling in triumph. “You’re gone, and be damned to you!”
A roaring, like a thousand fires of hell, filled his ears. “It is you who are damned, Darcy, for all eternity.” His tormentor chuckled. “I am not gone. I will never be gone!”
“No,” Darcy moaned, and clutched at his hair. “What have I done? God in heaven, help me!”
A tremendous clap of thunder shook Pemberley to its very foundations, and Darcy fell, terrified, to the floor.
“Elizabeth Bennet has your heart,” the devil told him. “But rest assured – I have your soul. No one, not even God, can help you now.”
And he threw back his head and laughed, cackling with glee as Darcy, once so proud and so haughty, cowered now before him.
“Please,” Darcy gasped, struggling to be heard over the sounds of devilish merriment. “I want no part of this bargain!”
“We struck a deal between us,” the devil replied, “and I must hold you to your word. You have your life with Elizabeth to look forward to, after all, and a long and happy one it shall be.”
“But – what is to happen afterwards, when I..when I die?” Darcy asked fearfully.
“Luckily for you, I am a patient man, Mr Darcy, and I will await your arrival here in Hell with the utmost anticipation.”
With that, the laughter died away, and Fitzwilliam Darcy found himself, once again, alone in the great hall of Pemberley.
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