Thank you, dear readers, for your invaluable feedback last week – I hope you enjoy this episode and I welcome your ideas and opinions! If you’d like to catch up on previous parts, they can be found in Writer’s Workshop.
Mrs Darcy’s happiness was to be short-lived. After dinner the ladies withdrew to one of the smaller drawing rooms but despite Elizabeth’s efforts to be an amusing and congenial hostess, the atmosphere was somewhat strained. Her mother, seated next to Miss Bingley, continued to speak out of turn on unsuitable subjects, which clearly amused the latter, whilst Lady Catherine held court over the rest and reminisced about the ‘good old days’ at Pemberley when her sister was alive. Jane did her best to help her sister, even managing to divert her mother, on occasion, from being truly outspoken, but when Lizzy saw the glum expression of her maid at the door she knew the evening was not going to improve. The ring had not been found. Rebecca had an army of trusted servants searching for it, but it was clear that nothing more could be accomplished that evening and sooner or later she was going to have to tell Fitzwilliam what had happened.
They met in her bedchamber, as agreed, at the earliest opportunity. Elizabeth was already lying in bed when Mr Darcy knocked, and her heart leapt when she saw his beloved face peering round the door. She waited until he was by her side.
‘Fitzwilliam, I have something to tell you.’
‘And I have something to tell you. I love you, Elizabeth Darcy, do you know that? Can you possibly imagine just how much I have fallen in love with you?’
She watched him prop himself up on one elbow, his countenance above hers. He was looking down at her with a huge grin on his face. Those velvet brown eyes of his made her heart beat faster as he seemed to be searching her very soul.
‘God, you’re beautiful,’ he whispered, nuzzling her ear.
Lizzy felt her insides melting and when he traced the outline of her lips with a finger, she felt her concentration slip as she gave in to a frisson of pleasure.
‘Tell me that you love me, Elizabeth.’
He softly kissed her eyelids, and then before she could say another word, his mouth was on hers, his fingers in her dark curls, pulling her towards him. It was impossible to think of anything else but his sweet kisses, and the tender touch of his hands on her skin, her feelings growing more passionate with every moment.
‘And yet, you are still silent,’ he said pulling away, displacing the bed cover to see her better. ‘Leave me no longer in suspense – I cannot wait another second to love you. Tell me that you want me to love you.’
Lizzy couldn’t help but laugh. ‘I love you, Fitzwilliam, with all my heart. Of course I want you to love me but first, I must tell …’
He didn’t give her a chance to say anything else. The words were spoken and Fitzwilliam Darcy needed no more encouragement.
Elizabeth woke to find bright light spilling through her bedchamber curtains, the glow associated with one sort of weather and that filled her with a sense of dread. She was alone, and a hasty note scribbled by her husband stated that he’d had to attend to some business with the estate steward.
The note went on:
Something urgent has cropped up, and I do not know exactly when I shall be finished, but I hope you will forgive me for leaving you to entertain our guests on your own. I told Rebecca to leave you undisturbed, and I hope you have enjoyed your rest. I could barely leave you this morning – you looked so divine, my darling – a Venus of love with your hair cascading in curls over your scented skin – like a confection from Gunter’s, soft cream topped with sweet raspberries, to be devoured a mouthful at a time – so luscious that I wanted to take you in my arms all over again. I surely am the luckiest man in England. I cannot wait until I am in your embrace again.
Know that you are always in my thoughts, and I am,
Elizabeth smiled in recollection of a night spent with her handsome husband. She felt rested and exhilarated in equal measure, though she felt dismayed that she’d been unable to tell him about her ring. There just hadn’t been the right moment, and in the end, they’d fallen asleep in each other’s arms. A fire crackled in the hearth telling her someone had been in, as she slept, to make the fire, but the curtains were only parted a little, enough to tell her that the world outside was completely changed.
The landscape beyond the floor-length windows was whitening. Feathers of snow whirled to the ground dusting the fields and hills stretching into the distance. Lizzy knew that the servants were resuming their search for her ring, extending it to the outdoors as well as every room she could possibly have entered. If the snow continued to fall, it would soon be fruitless to look further, and her heart sank once more at the idea that what had happened must soon be common knowledge. The suite of jewels in the Darcy family for hundreds of years was no longer complete. One precious ring was missing, and it was all her fault.
Hurrying down to breakfast, she was relieved to find only Mr Darcy’s French cousins and Georgiana seated at the table. Lady Catherine, Mrs Bennet and Miss Bingley had elected to break their fast in their rooms, and everyone else was yet to make an appearance.
‘We thought we’d venture out this morning, Mrs Darcy,’ said Antoine. ‘It looks as if the snow is stopping and such beautiful scenes are calling us to explore.’
‘Yes, it does look wonderful,’ replied Elizabeth. ‘I would love to join you but I have one or two things to finalise for the ball tonight. Mrs Reynolds and I will be ensconced in my sitting room for the next half hour or so.’
‘May Georgiana take a turn with us, Mrs Darcy?’ asked Louise. ‘She has promised to show us the folly Mr Darcy mentioned yesterday.’
Elizabeth could see that Georgiana’s eyes were pleading to go. It was good to see her excited at the prospect of conversing with people she hardly knew. They were her cousins, after all, and what harm could come of a walk with such a pleasant brother and sister. Besides, she’d seen the way Antoine looked at Georgiana. He was clearly very taken with his English cousin who was as fair as he was dark.
‘Yes, of course, I think that is a splendid idea. How I envy your brisk walk in the snow. Perhaps tomorrow I can join you, though I daresay we shall all be too tired after a night of dancing!’
Just then, Mr and Mrs Bingley, Kitty, Mary and Mr Bennet walked in. There were warm greetings and conversation, the bustle and joy of such an arrival of all who were dear to her, which produced such noise and confusion that Elizabeth forgot the business of her lost ring for a moment. She’d hardly had Jane to herself since she’d arrived and if there were anyone else she could confide in, it was her beloved sibling. When the others dispersed to their own devices after the business of eating, Elizabeth invited her sister to her sitting room and told her of the sad news.
‘Oh, Lizzy, how perfectly frightful, but Mr Darcy is such a gentleman, I know he cannot and will not be cross with you. It was an accident, surely he must see that.’
‘I cannot think what could have happened. Rebecca has scoured the house, has had half of the servants looking too, those who could be trusted not to say anything, at least. I do not know what to do next, and there is the ball to think about too.’
‘I pray it turns up before then. Are you sure that every avenue is being explored?’
‘Rebecca has sent a team out looking in the grounds.’
Both sisters turned their heads instinctively to look through the window. The snow was stopping but a few flakes still drifted from a gunmetal grey sky. They watched two figures walking along the driveway deep in conversation.
‘I’m surprised Lady Catherine is out in this weather,’ said Jane craning her neck to watch their progress. ‘Who is the gentleman with her?’
‘It’s difficult to say,’ Lizzy replied, ‘but judging from his height and the fact that he’s carrying a walking stick, I would think it’s Colonel Marriott, though why he’s here at this time of day, I cannot imagine.’
‘Was he the gentleman sitting opposite Miss Bingley last night?’
‘Yes, he’s an old friend of the family, I believe. I’ve never met him before, but I know he lives in a neighbouring estate. A confirmed bachelor, by all accounts, he must be a similar age to our parents. I wonder what he can be talking to Lady Catherine about.’
The two young women were transfixed. They watched the Colonel and Lady Catherine walk as far as the bridge before they turned back towards the house where a carriage was waiting below. It was impossible to see any more and there was no chance of hearing anything even if they’d been inclined to open the window.
‘Well, I daresay we shall hear all about it sooner or later,’ said Lizzy. ‘Lady Catherine can never keep anything to herself.’
A knock at the door produced Rebecca with a letter for Elizabeth. ‘This came for you, Mrs Darcy.’
Handing the letter over, Rebecca waited to see if there was any reply.
‘No other news, Rebecca? You are quite at liberty to talk – my sister knows all about what’s happened.’
‘I’m afraid not, ma’am. We are still searching.’
‘Please thank everyone on my behalf but please tell them to stop now. It’s far too cold to be out looking in the snow.’
When Rebecca had gone Elizabeth turned her attention to the letter. ‘Oh dear, this is Lydia’s handwriting. I should not say it but my heart sinks whenever I receive a missive from her.’
Jane nodded in agreement. ‘I cannot help feeling sorry for her. Mr Wickham is proving to be exactly the kind of husband we feared he might be. He is a spendthrift and a gambler – Lydia often writes in quest of money. Charles helps her where he can.’
‘I should have known she’d be playing us both for what she can get. I’m sorry, Jane, but Lydia’s tales of woe must be taken with a pinch of salt. Mr Darcy has made quite sure that they want for nothing if they are sensible, and though I agree that Mr Wickham is most likely squandering their money, Lydia has her own allowance which is perfectly adequate.’
‘What does the letter say?’
Elizabeth broke the seal and unfolding it cautiously started to read out loud.
My Dearest and most Affectionate Sister Lizzy,
I am sending you the compliments of the season with all my love, and which I hope you will extend to my mother, father and sisters whom I long with all my heart to see. If only dearest Darcy would forgive and forget – though I hasten to add, I’ve never entirely understood the animosity between him and Wickie – my husband and I would be enjoying the Christmas period with you all!!! I can only imagine how delightful Pemberley must look at this time of year with boughs of holly, ivy, and a Yule log burning in one of the many magnificent chimneypieces that I’ve heard so much about. Wickie tells me that the ballroom is three times the length of the one here at Newcastle, and that the annual ball is a sight not to be missed. How I would love to see you all dressed in your finest! Kitty tells me she has a new dress to wear and that it was a present from you. I sincerely hope you will remember your promise to me of a bolt of muslin from the shops at Buxton. I am certain you have not forgot it, but I mention it in case it is lost. The mail boys are not to be trusted and will steal a farthing’s worth of nothing as soon as look at you.
Since writing the above, I have received the most intriguing and terrible news. Last night at Captain Webb’s evening party I heard some gossip from a most reliable source which I think you will find most shocking, and I could not do other than write to you as I was not sure what to do with the information. It is not an idle report from one of Wickie’s friends or I would not bother you with it, but Major Armstrong’s wife is full of it, and was inferring any number of dreadful conjectures based on what she’d heard from a very good friend of a friend of a relative who lives at Matlock. There is a tale going around that a scandal is about to break at Pemberley, which will lead to the downfall and disgrace of the Darcy name. I know of no details except it has something to do with a French connection and a mystery surrounding the birth of a baby in that country some twenty something years ago. Does this make any sense to you? This is all the detail I have, but will write again if I hear any more.
Until then, I will say adieu,
‘What on earth can she mean?’ asked Jane. ‘Surely it is only gossip without an element of truth in it.’
‘I’d be inclined to agree if not for the fact that it seems such a coincidence that a French connection is mentioned … Mr Darcy’s cousins could certainly be described as such. And yet I am certain this scandal, if true, cannot have anything to do with them, they are such genteel persons. At least, they have all the appearance of goodness … and right at this moment they are walking out with Georgiana.’
Georgiana couldn’t remember the last time she felt so happy. Strolling through the formal gardens with her new cousins who were turning out to be the most delightful company filled her with a sense of pleasure she hadn’t experienced since before … She hated to remind herself of that terrible time when she’d been deceived into believing that she was in love and instantly put it out of her mind.
‘Is the folly far, Miss Georgiana?’ asked Louise.
‘No, but it’s in the wilder part of the gardens through that gate at the end of the walk. I think you will like it, at least, I hope you do. I helped to fashion its decoration but I shall say no more and you will see.’
On the other side of the gate was a pretty woodland scene. Beech woods on either side circled the fields before them; interlaced with stone walls leading the eye to the high peaks in the distance beyond. The snow was deeper here, and the air so still and silent that Georgiana felt they were the only people in the world. Antoine ran on ahead, kicking up the snow in feathery showers with his boots, making the girls laugh out loud.
‘It’s not much further,’ said Georgiana, ‘just over the stile.’
She watched Antoine leap over the wall without any attempt to use the stile. He turned with a grin, took his stance at the side of the stile and held out his gloved hand to Georgiana. She looked back at Louise who smiled back, reassuringly. Hitching up her pelisse with one hand she stepped up onto the raised wooden step and took his hand. Antoine’s eyes were watching her, she knew, but she could not look at him. Her cheeks were flaming, but his hand felt strong, as his fingers gripped hers. Stepping carefully over onto the other side of the plank, she got ready to jump down, but nothing could have prepared her for what happened next. Two hands encircled her waist in the next instant, and she felt herself being lifted in the air as if she were no more than a mere snowflake. Antoine put her down gently, but the surprise was so great that when he let go, she fell against him. He held her for a moment, gripped her waist again as he steadied her and Georgiana was forced to look into his eyes. There she saw an expression she’d never witnessed before in her life. His eyes, black as olives, held so much warmth, affection and admiration that she gasped. She didn’t want him to stop looking, and for the smallest amount of time they were held, as if in a magic spell. She saw him watching her mouth, which made her bite her lips. He smiled into her eyes once more and when he let go, Georgiana was all embarrassment. She busied herself smoothing down her coat and would not look up again. She felt quite mortified that she’d let her guard down though she admitted to herself that the experience had not been unpleasant.
The entrance to the folly lay ahead, fashioned as a Greek temple, a doorway stood invitingly open displaying its beautiful interior inlaid with pearl encrusted oyster, periwinkle and whelk shells. Georgiana led the way.
Mr Darcy was troubled. He’d told Elizabeth what he considered to be a white lie, but nonetheless, he was not happy about it. Yet, he knew she would be troubled if she realised their feckless brother-in-law had been in contact, and he did not want to burden her. Dealing with Mr Wickham who’d plagued him one way or another all his life was a necessary evil, but with this precise timing and the sense of doom that accompanied George’s hastily written missive, Darcy felt it was like having to deal with the very devil himself. Growing up alongside him at Pemberley, Darcy had treated George like a brother, loved him as another sibling. And though only the son of his father’s trusted steward, he’d been treated on equal terms. Fitzwilliam’s father had them educated together at Cambridge and with a promised advancement of a career in the church, his life and comfort would have been secure. But Wickham had betrayed them all by making Georgiana believe that he was in love with her. As Darcy strode towards the White Horse Inn, an image of his sister flashed before him. He saw her eyes shining with love and happiness, looking up at George with such admiration that even now, at this distance, it skewered Darcy to his heart. He’d discovered them planning to elope. He did not blame Georgiana, and once she’d realised it had all been George’s plan to part her from her inheritance, Darcy’s sister had never been the same. If that had been the end of it, they might all have been able to move on, but Elizabeth’s own sister had then suffered exactly the same fate with disastrous consequences. Not that silly Lydia had been able to see what Georgiana managed to work out for herself. And now Fitzwilliam was forever tied to the man he would never trust again.
Darcy, disguised as a common traveller in simple country clothes, walked into the inn. Although this hostelry was out of the way and not one he regularly used, nevertheless, he preferred to be incognito. If half what Wickham had hinted in his letter was true, there would be such repercussions that could rock the very foundations of the Darcy dynasty.
Out of the smoke and gloom, he saw his adversary rise with an outstretched hand that Darcy chose to ignore. ‘Sit down,’ Darcy commanded. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
‘Mr Darcy, I assure you it is only with your best interests at heart and that of preserving the name of your most beloved father, whose memory I cherish that I seek you out now. The dreadful reports circulating Newcastle have their origins in the regiment to which I belong.’
‘But this story cannot have any basis in fact. And where is the evidence? Tittle-tattle has always been the plague of the Darcy family, and gossip rife, as you well know.’
‘You have not yet heard it all, my friend.’
‘And you are no friend of mine, Wickham, nor will you ever be.’
‘Fitzwilliam, it is my dearest wish that we be on the terms we used to be. When we were boys we loved one another.’
‘And we might still had you not chosen to destroy the life of one I love. I’ve not come here to listen to your grovelling, pathetic apologies. Get on it with it, man, I’ve not much time.’
‘If I could turn back the hands of time … Darcy, do you not know how much I regret my behaviour? I wish to repent, to have your forgiveness. Let this be my way of making amends.’
‘You have no idea of the damage you caused, do you? And sitting here, you have the nerve to pretend that my forgiving you for your devilish behaviour will somehow atone for your sins. What is it you really want, Wickham? If your story is good enough, I know you will name your price.’
‘Lydia said it would be no good. I promise, I will tell my tale and then go. I want no money.’
Darcy searched Wickham’s face. He looked sincere but he knew that had always been a positive trait. Elizabeth had once said how she’d been fooled by his appearance.
‘The story starts some twenty-six years ago with a young soldier in my regiment. He was a poor foot soldier then, I believe, but he was a man of character and by all accounts a good-looking man with a ready wit, and some say he had quite a way with the ladies. Apparently, it was clear he would get on in life from the first, and he came under the notice of those who could make his career advancement favourable. Everyone was drawn to him and he had a lot of friends.’
‘Get to the point, Mr Wickham.’
‘He was befriended by a wealthy young officer whose family took him to their hearts. He spent holidays with them, and being an orphan himself, was able to accompany them on their many trips. It was on a vacation to Bath that he met and fell in love with a young woman.’
Darcy sighed. ‘I fail to see what this has to do with my family or me.’
‘Please let me finish, Darcy … the details are important, you will see.’
‘They were separated when the true nature of his poverty and position in the army was discovered. That might have been the end of the story, but the young woman found she was with child and something had to be done.
‘The man sounds a blackguard – good God, Wickham!’
‘I have it on good authority that they were very much in love and had it not been for the intervention of other parties they would have eloped together.’
‘And been very miserable on a poor soldier’s pay. Well, thank goodness, they were discovered.’
‘Be that as it may, the young woman, who was by no means friendless, was able to escape for a while to France. The baby was born, and her friend agreed that she would bring up the baby as her own.’
‘A tale of woe, indeed, but one which had a desirable ending for the child, it seems.’
‘For the young woman, all was dealt with discretion. No one knew her secret except the young soldier who had no means or method to contact her. She married a wealthy man within the year and none were any the wiser until now. The soldier rose through the ranks, a favourite of his friend’s family and his father settled a large bequest on him when he died.’
‘Now there is a tale I can fully comprehend, Wickham, and if you were old enough, I should imagine you were talking of yourself.’
Mr Wickham ignored him. ‘But, he and his officer friend argued. They fell out over the inheritance and have been enemies ever since. Now, his old friend threatens to ruin his reputation and that of his lover from the past.’
‘And what exactly has any of this to do with me?’
‘The scandal is all set to be revealed at Pemberley tonight. Darcy, I know this will come as a complete shock but it is important that you should know. At the heart of it all is a young woman who is residing in your house. I believe her name is Louise de Valois.’
‘She is a distant cousin.’
Wickham shook his head. ‘A far nearer relation than that. Her mother’s name is one dear to you.’
Mr Darcy lowered his head as Mr Wickham bent his own to whisper her name.
‘It cannot be true,’ Fitzwilliam shouted, jumping to his feet. ‘These are dreadful lies – why, it’s utterly ridiculous to imagine such a thing.’
‘The gentleman in question is on his way with the very proof in his saddle-bag. By fair means or foul, he has a birth certificate and he means to use it for his own ends!’
Please leave a comment if you’d like to and join me next time for Part Seven of the series which will be published on Wednesday, April 30th – not the usual Friday!