Thank you so much for all your very valuable feedback from last week, which I’m trying to incorporate into my writing! I hope you enjoy this longer episode, and although all your suggestions may not be here, there may still be a chance to get them in later. If you’d like to read the other parts, they are all posted in Writer’s Workshop. I’d love to know what you think and if you have any suggestions!
Elizabeth was glad of the brief respite before dinner, a chance to dress and prepare herself for the forthcoming evening. Earlier, she’d welcomed her parents and sisters, Kitty and Mary, who all seemed excited to see her, and even managed to give them a little tour of her new home, which proved almost too much for Mrs Bennet whose exclamations grew louder and more effusive with every new novelty and turn in the passages of Pemberley.
Now, Lizzy flopped in the chair before her dressing table, pressed her palms to her temples and took a few deep breaths. She knew the greatest challenges were to come, and the feelings that stirred inside, a mixture of anticipation and anxiety at the prospect of an evening spent in the company of such a diverse set of characters, did nothing to ease her mind or the aches in her head that were starting to throb. But, all she could do was hope for the best; there was little time to contemplate what might be said or what might happen, as her maid arrived and set about helping her to dress. Her evening gown surpassed all expectations; a round robe of gossamer net over a white satin slip fell in soft folds from a pink velvet bodice, laced in peasant style with silver ribbon. The same gossamer sleeves in Spanish style, slashed to show puffs of white satin were finished in bands of silver, cut to show off her upper arms and there were long elbow-length gloves of white kid to hide the rest, laid out on her bed. Pink kid slippers, a Mechlin lace veil, and an ivory fan were the accessories chosen to finish off, and with a simple silver bandeau in her hair, Lizzy felt her look was complete. All apart from her jewels, of course.
‘Rebecca, I’ll wear the diamond necklace this evening.’
‘Yes, of course, ma’am, it will be most becoming with your new gown.’
Lizzy watched Rebecca cross the room to the laquered Japanese cabinet where she unlocked the ornate doors to reveal several inner doors and drawers, beautifully embellished with crane birds and peonies. Drawing out the leather jewel box, she presented it to her mistress with a flourish, opening the catch to reveal the sparkling diamonds glistening on its lustrous velvet interior. The sight of such splendour made Lizzy catch her breath. She was sure she’d never get used to wearing such a magnificent necklace. To tell the truth, her preference and taste were altogether much simpler, but these were the Darcy jewels, and she knew with what love and pride they’d been given to her. Fitzwilliam’s mother had been the last person to wear the jewels, and with that knowledge she felt the weight of responsibility. She wanted so much to prove to her darling husband that she was worthy of such treasures, but as she gazed at them now, she felt overwhelmed.
Rebecca saw her hesitation and immediately took the diamonds up in her own slender fingers, bringing the necklace over Elizabeth’s head to rest it on her collar bones before clasping it at her neck. ‘Mrs Darcy, if I may say so, you were made to wear this necklace. Your skin brings out the wonderful colour of the stones.’
Elizabeth turned her head one way and then the other, scrutinising her reflection. She professed herself quite pleased and smiling up at Rebecca, thanked her for all her help. Instinctively, she reached for her finger, eager to see how her precious ring looked alongside the necklace. To her absolute horror, she felt nothing, and saw that the diamond ring was missing. Her heart stopped beating for a few seconds, she was sure. Holding out all ten fingers she looked frantically from one to the other as if it might appear by magic or sheer longing, but to no avail. It simply wasn’t there. Leaping from her seat, she twirled round, her eyes scanning the floor. Perhaps it had slipped off her finger when she was dressing.
‘Oh, it must be somewhere here,’ she cried.
‘Mrs Darcy, have you lost something?’
‘My ring, my beautiful diamond ring! I cannot believe it – how could I be so careless? Rebecca, you must help me – what can have happened to it?’
‘Now, don’t worry, Mrs Darcy, I’m sure there’s a ready explanation. Did you not take it off? I thought you said you were not going to wear it all the time. You must have removed the ring and put it somewhere safe.’
‘No – I was going to, but I adored the feeling of it on my finger so much, and Mr Darcy said he so loved to see me wearing it, that I decided to keep it on. Oh, how silly I am. And now, Lady Catherine has been proved right. I am not worthy to have such a prized possession or to have been entrusted with such an historical artefact. Whatever am I to do? What am I going to say to Mr Darcy?’
Rebecca put her arm round her mistress, and tried to reassure her. ‘We’ll find the ring, my lady. Let us not act or say anything too soon. Neither Mr Darcy nor Lady Catherine needs to be any the wiser this evening. You have your gloves to wear, for one thing.’
‘But at dinner the gloves will be taken off …’
‘And everyone will be too busy talking to notice anything. Wear another ring in its place so everyone will assume the bump under your glove is your diamond one. You can always keep your hands in your lap between courses when you remove the gloves.’
‘Yes, that is true.’
‘And whilst you are at dinner, I will search Pemberley from top to bottom … the ring will be found, and all will be well before you go to bed tonight.’
‘Rebecca, you are wonderful, and so generous to do all of that for me. I cannot thank you enough, though it is a dreadful task for you to undertake.’
‘The ring will turn up – it’s probably just rolled under the bed, something as simple as that. Do not worry any longer or let it spoil your evening. All your family will be gathering, and I’m sure they cannot wait to see you.’
Elizabeth pulled on her gloves just as a knock at the door produced Mr Darcy looking handsome in evening dress. Rebecca greeted her master with a curtsey before she left the room, pausing at the door to catch Lizzy’s eye with a reassuring nod and wink.
Fitzwilliam took a moment before he could speak. Elizabeth’s beauty was undeniable, though perhaps he’d been too proud to recognise it completely when he’d first met her in Hertfordshire. But here, in Derbyshire, in his ancestral home, he thought she’d never before looked quite as remarkable as she did now. The heightened colour in her olive skin, contrasting with the chestnut curls held in place by a silver band, and her cheeks flushed to a becoming shade turned her into a rare bloom. Dressed in petal-pink, diaphanous layers swathed her slight form, so he could hardly tell where her skin melded into soft gauze. Mr Darcy was reminded of an English rose opening under a summer sky, exuding its heavy fragrance from a secret source. The Darcy diamonds glittered against her skin, and he was overcome by a desire to wrest it all away, to hold her in his arms, succumb to her sweet caresses, and to lose himself in all her hidden places.
‘Good God, Elizabeth, what are you trying to do to me?’
Elizabeth wondered for a moment if he’d guessed her plight, but then recognised the expression he wore as one she was coming to know very well. She clasped her hands behind her back, thus hiding them, all the while knowing his eyes would be drawn to more than the stones sparkling against her skin. She was aware of her quickened breath, the rise and fall of lustrous diamonds, and did nothing to avert his gaze. ‘I cannot think what you mean, Mr Darcy.’
In two strides Fitzwilliam was at her side. He took her in his arms and met with no resistance.
‘Kiss me,’ whispered Elizabeth.
Fitzwilliam traced a finger along her cheek and down onto her throat.
Lizzy closed her eyes, her lips parting in expectation. She felt his mouth lower onto hers, but lips alone were not enough. Pecking lightly as a feather across her jaw, he moved down to her neck, exploring the hollows at the base. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him closer, sinking into rapture with every tender touch.
Dinner was a rather quiet affair, at first. By some miracle, Mr and Mrs Darcy were on time to greet their guests and did their best to keep the conversation flowing. Elizabeth was very aware of her husband’s eyes watching her from the other end of the table, and with his fragrance still lingering on her skin she couldn’t help but recall the last hour they’d spent together, which caused her to blush even more. She was a little distracted, and tried not to catch his eye too often, but it was as if they were joined by an invisible thread that pulled every now and then, to remind them how very attached in heart and mind they were. Which made agonising over what had happened to the ring even worse. Fortunately, in her chamber, there’d been no need for removing gloves – Fitzwilliam’s ardent attentions and the lack of time with the dinner hour encroaching had meant her secret was still safe, but Lizzy felt uncomfortable not telling her husband what had happened, knowing she would not be happy again until the matter was resolved. She was glad that Lady Catherine was seated next to her husband and could only hope that failing eyesight, and a curiosity in everyone else’s business would prevent Mr Darcy’s aunt from noticing her lack of diamond ring.
It was pleasing to look around the table at all her guests. Mr Darcy had invited two local landowners, Mr Eansworth and Mr Hunter, to make up for the lack of gentlemen. When Mrs Bennet found herself on one side of the youthful Mr Hunter who also had Kitty on the other side, she was beside herself. Mr Hunter was very good-looking and tall, both attributes she considered essential, though the most important matter of whether he was rich or not was yet to be discovered. Mr Darcy had mentioned his estate, Ashbourne Hall, which certainly sounded promising.
‘Mr Darcy mentioned you reside not far from here, Mr Hunter. Is Ashbourne a large estate?’
Mr Hunter looked askance at the directness of her question. Kitty wished she could fade into the background. Why did her mother always speak so loudly?
‘Ashbourne is considered to be one of the finest estates in the county, Mrs Bennet,’ he said, a slight smirk forming at the corners of his mouth. He’d met this type of mother before, but couldn’t help being amused by her transparent questioning. ‘I believe I heard Mr Darcy say you reside in Hertfordshire. He tells me the ladies in that county are excessively pretty, and I can see his effusions have not been exaggerated.’
Mrs Bennet laughed in what she considered to be a girlish manner. ‘I do not speak for myself, of course, having long given over thoughts of beauty, but my daughters’ charms have often been remarked upon. Why, I believe it was Lizzy’s fine eyes that first attracted Mr Darcy!’
Elizabeth’s attention was caught, and she saw Darcy look up from his plate. And was that Miss Bingley sneering in her usual manner?
‘Of course, Kitty’s eyes may not be as fine,’ Mrs Bennet continued, ‘but her figure is very pleasing, Mr Hunter, do you not think?’
Mr Hunter could see Kitty’s mortified expression. He turned his head away from her mother and winked surreptitiously in her direction, with such stealth that she wondered if he’d really done it.
‘Miss Bennet is a delightful young lady, I am very pleased to make her acquaintance.’
Kitty could not think where to look, and when she raised her eyes from the hands in her lap, she met Mr Hunter’s. Fringed with dark lashes, his piercing blue eyes looked straight into hers with such a teasing expression, she didn’t know what to think. She felt her cheeks burn and dropped her eyes, determined not to look at him again.
Mrs Bennet was really warming up to her subject. ‘I do not like to boast, Mr Hunter, but having two daughters so well married is such an advantage for my younger ones, putting them in the path of other rich young men like yourself. And their sisters are so obliging! It is so pleasant at my time of life to be able to consign my single daughters to the care of their married sisters, that I might not be required to go into company more than is necessary. Kitty and my other daughter, Mary, will be here long after I am gone, giving you many opportunities to get to know them better. Now, will that not be most desirable for you and Mr Eansworth?’
‘I cannot think of anything that would make me happier,’ said Mr Hunter. ‘I am sure my friend will agree.’
Elizabeth had heard her mother’s last speech and was sure she saw more than one amused glance pass between Mr Hunter and Mr Eansworth. Mrs Bennet could always be relied upon to say the most inappropriate things. It was time to step in and change the subject. But before she had a chance to speak, Lady Catherine, who’d been quietly muttering to Mr Darcy at the other end of the table spoke up in a loud voice that bellowed across the table.
‘What is that you are saying, Antoine? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Georgiana?’
‘We were talking of Pemberley, madam,’ he said, ‘and of its wonderful grounds. My sister and I are keen to go exploring, with your kind permission, of course, Mr Darcy.’
Elizabeth saw Georgiana look up, bright-eyed and more animated than she’d seen her for a while.
Mr Darcy opened his mouth to speak but Lady Catherine ploughed on regardless.
‘The appreciation of landscape and the picturesque are pleasures I endorse wholeheartedly. Pemberley Park is the culmination of great thinking and superlative design. The late Mr Darcy and my dear husband, Sir Lewis de Bourgh, were the masterminds behind the evolution and plans for much of the estate. The new gardens laid out at Rosings twenty five years ago, were the model for the inspiration and much of the improvements at Pemberley.’
‘C’est magnifique! I could not imagine where to start with such a vast project,’ said Antoine.
‘I believe my father had some help from a man of great vision, a Mr Thomas Smith, a student of ‘Capability’ Brown. We believe in maintaining the landscape in as natural way as possible, Monsieur de Valois. New ‘improvements’ are always to be carefully assimilated … we desire that the effects of man’s work on his environment should never be jarring.’
‘And if I may say so, what was created is sublime, a true testament to nature in all her glory,’ Antoine replied.
‘Thank you,’ said Mr Darcy, ‘my father left a lasting legacy. Pemberley’s grounds are a true reflection of his sense of style and taste. I think you will appreciate some of the ‘man-made’ additions also. There is an artificial lake, though I hope none would suspect so, and the odd temple scattered here and there, occasionally a little folly.’
‘And that’s precisely what we saw on our way here … a little folly … though not of the decorative kind,’ Mrs Bennet interrupted, her face rather flushed, as she brandished her fork in the air.
‘Mrs Bennet!’ her husband cried in as commanding a voice as he could muster. It was his turn to grow pale, but his wife paid no heed to the grave calling of her name.
‘Oh, fuss and nonsense, we’re amongst friends, Mr Bennet. I must admit we were rather shocked by such an exhibition, a little piece of folly, indeed! A courting couple, Lizzy, in your grounds, as bold as brass! And not the least bit ashamed – I never saw anything like it in my life. No daylight between them, if you take my fancy … and another thing, there was a coach with the Darcy crest parked not a quarter of a mile away.’
Lizzy caught her husband’s eye. For a moment, she thought he would explode with anger, his face was turned so red, but in the next instant he was laughing with such great guffaws that Lady Catherine looked fit to burst.
‘Fitzwilliam, control yourself. What on earth can be the meaning of this display?’
Mr Darcy caught his wife’s eye again. She looked petrified and although he was longing to ask them all why it should be considered a piece of folly to show his wife that he loved her, he knew that for her sake he could not.
Mr Bennet saw his opportunity. ‘I think you were mistaken, my dear.’
If looks could have killed, Mr Bennet would have been laid out on the table with the jugged steaks, the fricandos of veal and the dressed breast of lamb. His countenance wore an expression Mrs Bennet had witnessed many times during the course of their marriage, and she knew later on he would be telling her she’d overstepped the mark. Her ringlets shook, she pursed her lips instead and raised her eyebrows so that no one was under any illusion that she was quite sure what she’d seen was exactly as she’d described.
Lady Catherine cast withering looks down at the other end of the table; narrowing her eyes in such a scornful manner that Elizabeth almost trembled. She could hear Darcy’s aunt proclaiming that she’d never understood the bawdy humour of the lower orders, asking him to assure her that such discussion at the dinner table would not be endured again. The evening was not going exactly as she’d planned. She felt unkind to think it, but she couldn’t help wishing that her mother stuck to her sentiments more often. If she really didn’t like going out into society as she claimed, why did she take such pleasure in doing so and humiliating all those connected with her.
As if Caroline Bingley could read her thoughts, Elizabeth saw a wry smile forming on her lips, as she looked straight across at Lizzy. ‘I am so looking forward to the ball tomorrow evening, Mrs Darcy, especially if it affords such entertainment as its preceding dinner. A scintillating party … such genteel topics of conversation, I do not think I have ever witnessed so much refined discourse in my life. I declare, I am excessively diverted!’
Elizabeth knew Miss Bingley delighted in being satirical whenever the opportunity arose. But she was not going to let her add to the misery she was feeling. Indeed, Miss Bingley’s bad behaviour in the past had only made Lizzy stronger, and keener to defend herself and her family. Her courage rose at every attempt to intimidate her.
‘I am delighted to welcome you to Pemberley, Miss Bingley. It has been my greatest desire that you should attend the very first ball, as the guest of my darling husband and myself. It simply would not be the same without you, though I seem to recall you once told me that you preferred conversation to dancing – that a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure to attend. But, I sincerely hope you will enjoy dancing at Pemberley, though I am certain you must have danced here before.’
Miss Bingley looked rather flustered. ‘I have danced here many times, I thank you.’
Elizabeth took the chance to spear a slice of salmon from one of the many delicious dishes of food arranged about the table. Her satisfaction knew no bounds. It was rather uncharitable, she thought, but she couldn’t help taking pleasure in the knowledge that despite all her efforts, Miss Bingley’s plans to dance her way to becoming Mrs Darcy had come to naught. There was no need to say anything else. She glanced across at Miss Bingley to give her the benefit of a wide smile. Having the upper hand, no matter how badly her mother, Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine behaved, filled her with an intense feeling of pleasure, something between pride and satisfaction, which she knew she must keep under good regulation if she were not to be carried away. Of one thing she was certain. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, all had their place at the dinner table and despite earlier misgivings, and moments of fleeting embarrassment she’d enjoyed it all very much, and could not wait for the ball on the morrow and a night spent in her husband’s arms. As if reading her mind, she saw him raise an eyebrow to gain her attention, and the look of longing she witnessed in his eyes, melted her insides. There was only one more thing to complete her happiness and in that endeavour, Rebecca held all the cards.
Please leave a comment below if you’d like to suggest ideas or tell me what you think! I’m never sure how much romance to include as Jane Austen really didn’t go there. Do you think a little romance improves or distracts? I’d love to hear what you have to say – Jane
Part Six coming 18th April-