Here is Part Seven of Elizabeth Darcy’ s Ring in my Jane Austen’s Jewel Box collection. If you’d like to catch up on parts one to six, they are posted in Writer’s Workshop! I’ve been really thrilled by the response from everyone – thank you so much for all your input, it’s been so helpful. Every time I write a piece, I think I’m getting towards the end, but it just seems that this ‘short story’ is growing and growing. I’ve decided to flesh it out a lot more and turn it into a bigger book, especially as there is still so much to write. Hopefully, it will be in good shape to be published later on in the summer – so this is to be the last part for now!
Georgiana was standing before the cheval looking glass in her ball gown trying her hardest to suppress the feelings of pure joy that bubbled inside, rising every now and again in waves of such pleasure that she thought she might burst with the excitement of it all. Ever since the episode with George Wickham she was very wary of any young gentleman she met, but there was something about Antoine de Valois that she liked, more than she was prepared to admit, even to herself. The word ‘like’ was rather insipid, she thought, she knew her feelings were rather warmer but she was determined to be sensible. Antoine was good-looking, charming, and the perfect gentleman, but then, so had George Wickham seemed to match that very same description when he’d started to court her. Feelings of shame threatened to overshadow the delicious sensations she’d experienced that afternoon. She was ashamed that she’d let George take advantage of her, however much others said he was to blame.
Her maid broke her train of thought. ‘Would you like the ivory fan or the silk and spangles, Miss Darcy?’
‘The silk I think, Betsy, thank you.’
Georgiana held the fan against her, saw her reflection, a picture of composure, which belied all that she felt inside. Controlling her passionate nature was a daily struggle. Georgiana knew she was apt to fall in love too easily, whether it was with a small bird that had fallen out of a nest, an injured rabbit found up on the moorland, or with newfound friends. Perhaps it was because she’d led such a sheltered existence, she considered, but she knew she’d fallen in love with Antoine and his sister almost as soon as she’d set eyes on them. Louise was like another sister and they seemed to share so many interests in common – their love of music and drawing were the main ones, but it was more than that. Georgiana felt she’d always known this amiable pair who clearly loved one another as she and Fitzwilliam did. Closing her eyes, Antoine’s face flashed before her, his eyes crinkling with laughter, his mouth curved in a generous smile. She felt the heat of his hands through her cloak, gripping her waist, almost as if he was in the room with her, and she couldn’t wait to see him again.
Betsy arranged the cashmere shawl around her shoulders. ‘It’ll be warm once you start dancing, but you’ll catch your death along those corridors, miss.’
‘Thank you, Betsy, you think of everything.’
‘You look very beautiful, Miss Darcy.’
Georgiana looked at the girl in the glass. Cream silk flattered her porcelain complexion, heightened by two soft pink spots high on her cheekbones. She’d grown up in the eighteen months since the awful episode at Ramsgate, which still loomed every now and again to make her feel very vulnerable. Just now, she felt very young and her old timidity was threatening to return.
‘Betsy, you’re too kind. You always make me feel and look wonderful. I hope you don’t mind, but as we are near of an age, I thought you might like one or two dresses I’ve put by.’
‘Mind – I should say not! Miss Darcy, thank you. I shall wear one to the servants’ party.’
‘Of course, you’ll be dancing downstairs tonight. I always loved being included in the parties when I was a little girl, though Mrs Reynolds was always very strict about my bedtime. Betsy, those days were the happiest of my life.’
‘We know how to have a knees-up, that’s for sure, but I know you’ll be just fine. You’ll have your pick of partners, Miss Darcy. That Mr de Valois is very handsome, I don’t mind saying.’
‘He is very good-looking, Betsy, and I have hopes he will ask me to dance.’
Betsy laughed and shook her head. ‘No need to hope, I’m sure, miss. I’ve seen a twinkle in his eye when he looks at you. Stopping him from dancing with you will be more likely, I should say!’
Now the ball was imminent, Elizabeth was nervous. She’d not seen Darcy since his return to Pemberley, but she knew he would come to her as soon as he could in order to escort her downstairs. It was imperative that she should tell him about the ring as soon as she could, and as she dressed, preparing herself for the evening ahead, she tried to think how best to reveal what had happened. As the clock on the marble mantlepiece struck seven, she knew she could not have many more minutes left and when she heard Fitzwilliam’s characteristic knock on the door, her heart turned over. Darcy rushed through the door and she knew as soon as she saw his pale face that all was not well. The very colour was drained from his countenance. He was not yet changed into his evening dress and his explanation for his lateness and the story Wickham had told him were soon started. But, he was hesitant and though his words expressed some fear about a stranger coming to cause a scandal, Lizzy knew she wasn’t hearing the whole story. For whatever reason, he seemed to be protecting her from some truth, some information she was not to know. Elizabeth had never seen her husband look so anxious, and knew, with a sinking heart, that she could not bear to add to his burden. The time was not right, and she decided she would yet again have to postpone telling him about the lost ring.
‘I’ve sent some of the men to keep an eye out for this fellow, though he may already have decided to break in at any number of points around the park. Lord alone knows if it’s a good idea, but I’ve asked Wickham to help. Against my better judgement I’ve invited him and Lydia to the ball. All I can hope is that if an unwelcome guest manages to get in, Wickham will help me give him his marching orders. He owes me that much. Mrs Reynolds has found them a room – I expect your sister will be along to see you in a minute.’
‘Fitzwilliam, you have not told me what hold this man has over you or what he has threatened to do. Why are you so concerned?’
Mr Darcy kissed the top of her head before dashing for the door. ‘There is no time to explain everything just now, though I promise I shall divulge all to you as soon as I possibly can. I must make haste if I am to be ready in time!’
There were but fifteen minutes before their guests were due to arrive. Elizabeth could make neither head nor tail of it. And she couldn’t help thinking that if her sister and her husband were involved in the sorry story, they would not be ‘helping’ Darcy out of the goodness of their hearts. When she heard the unmistakable sound of Lydia’s voice beyond the door Elizabeth couldn’t help but wonder at the wisdom of her husband for inviting her to Pemberley. Yet, she knew he was in turmoil and if an error of judgement had been his momentary failing, she would do all she could to ensure the evening went off as well as possible.
Lydia threw her arms round her sister’s neck as the door opened to admit her, talking nineteen to the dozen, not once stopping to draw breath. ‘Lizzy! This is all so exciting! It seems such an age since I saw you, and Pemberley is a vast deal bigger than I imagined – such a huge place for you and Darcy to rattle about in on your own – I would have to fill it with people all the time. Now listen, I’ve not got a thing to wear, I cannot possibly be seen in this old muslin to dance in – let me see what you have in that huge closet over there.’
Elizabeth fixed a smile in place whilst directing her sister to a choice of her gowns. She knew there would be no peace until Lydia was dressed to her satisfaction and in the interests of all involved, it had to be accomplished with rapidity, though she knew that would most likely be an impossible task. Eager to have her sister on her side Lydia complied with and answered all Elizabeth’s questions, though the latter soon found that Lydia was even less informed than she about the affair. Until Fitzwilliam had a chance to tell her exactly what was going on, the mystery about the identity of the Darcy relative who was to be exposed at the ball, would remain unsolved.
Looking as serene as ever Elizabeth Darcy took her place at the head of the reception party with her husband whose composure and mien was as noble and reserved as ever. Lizzy’s nerves were put to one side as she accomplished what she did best – receiving her guests and making everyone feel welcome. All of Derbyshire were turned out to meet the new mistress of Pemberley, eager to see if the reports that she was a beauty were true. At last, with everyone conducted to the ballroom the dancing was to begin. Elizabeth took her husband’s proffered hand and was led onto the floor – the ball was officially begun.
Caroline Bingley stood watching with Lady Catherine at the side. She had no partner for the first dance though she was trying unsuccessfully to catch the eye of Mr Eansworth on the opposite side of the room.
‘Of course, were it not for Anne’s health she would be dancing now,’ said Lady Catherine to Miss Bingley, as if Anne were not sitting down next to them or incapable of hearing their conversation. ‘To sit out every dance is a trial to be endured but it cannot be helped. The infirm, the elderly and confirmed spinsters of the parish must suffer watching everyone else.’
‘Some young ladies prefer watching to performing, but in any case, the great flurry at the start of a ball often prevents partners finding one another,’ Caroline rejoined.
‘It has been my experience that those soon to be singled out for matrimony find their cohorts quickly enough. It is a great pity you never married, my dear, but I daresay you’ll make an excellent aunt for your brother’s children. Your sister-in-law will soon be breeding if she is not already … I am never wrong in these matters.’
For once Miss Bingley was tongue-tied. She could ignore the veiled insults but could Lady Catherine be right about her brother and his wife? Jane certainly looked very handsome; the sort of woman whose soft curves attracted the attention of every gentleman in the room. How could Lady Catherine know about such intimate matters between her brother and that Bennet girl? Forced to give up her position as mistress of Netherfield, Caroline despised Jane and her family as much as she’d ever done. Playing second fiddle was hard enough but if a child were to be born at Netherfield, she would have no place left in her brother’s heart, she was convinced. With a determination bordering on desperation Miss Bingley knew she would have to act immediately to find a husband. There was no time to lose; leaving Netherfield was imperative.
‘Good heavens, who is that hoydenish miss?’ Lady Catherine was peering through her eye-glass at a young woman just entering the room who seemed to be attracting some noisy interest. Throwing her arms wildly about anyone she recognised, her actions were accompanied by gales of laughter and loud exclamations heard above the sound of the musicians playing.
Caroline could hardly believe her eyes. ‘Great heavens above, it cannot be … Lydia Wickham with her husband George trailing behind her. Mr Darcy will have something to say about that, I’m certain!’
Mrs Bennet was beside herself with glee. ‘Oh Lydia, you sly thing, not to say a word. But, I suppose you thought it would be a jolly jape to surprise us. Mr Bennet! Lydia has been invited to the ball after all!’
Lydia and her father regarded one another warily. Mr Bennet grunted a greeting and shook Wickham’s hand, but excused himself when he could do so without appearing to be overtly rude. He was not one to suffer fools gladly, and like Fitzwilliam Darcy he felt a lowering despondency when he set eyes on both his daughter and son-in-law. George Wickham followed at a careful distance behind, determined to find the nearest card game, which, by tradition, was usually held in the library.
‘Mama, I knew I should get here by hook or by crook! Did I not write several times to you of my intention? Everything always happens just as I like it. But, we would still be waiting on an invitation, I am sure, if not for darling Wickie having found out some dreadful scandal.’
‘Scandal? Lydia, what are you talking about? Slow down, I cannot take it all in.’
‘Oh Lord! It was meant to be a secret, I am sworn not to say a word.’
‘This is your mother, Lydia dearest … there should be no secrets between us. Come, let us find a quiet corner.’
‘What do you think of my gown, Mama? Isn’t it nice? Lizzy let me choose whichever I had my heart set on!’ shouted Lydia, twirling round to show it off. ‘Where’s Kitty? I haven’t yet said hello to her. I’m dying to see what she is wearing.’
‘Oh hang Kitty! I need to know what is going on!’
‘It’s something to do with the Darcy’s, Mama. I don’t know exactly what, Wickie would not tell me the whole tale, but it’s something to with a baby born in France.’
Mrs Bennet’s eyes were as large as saucers. ‘Whose baby – is Mr Darcy implicated? I must say I always distrusted a man too proud to dance.’
‘Hush, Mama. It has nothing to do with Mr Darcy … at least, I do not think so. I think the Darcy in question is a woman or someone connected with them, but more than that I cannot tell you. And now, I must dance … though where Wickie has got to now, I cannot imagine. My husband is as slippery as a fish in a maiden’s hands.’
‘Lydia, must you be so vulgar, dear!’
‘Ah, there’s Kitty, I see her at last! Now, who is that delectable gentleman with whom she is talking?’
‘That’s Mr Hunter of Ashbourne.’
‘Hmm, that certainly has a lovely sound to it.’
‘And he is showing a marked interest in your sister. Kitty has her card marked by him for the first two dances.’
‘Lucky girl, but who will he dance with next, I wonder?’
I hope you enjoyed this episode – I’m off now to write the rest of the book and will let you know as soon as I have plans to publish. Thank you for all your lovely thoughts, wishes and wonderful ideas!