Here’s Part Two of Elizabeth Darcy’s Ring – the first of a new collection of tales from Jane Austen’s Jewel Box. If you missed Part One you can read it here. I’m very grateful for all your suggestions and have edited the last part with some of them in mind! I hope you enjoy this week’s episode!
Hurrying down the staircase, Lizzy patted her hair and smoothed down her gown, quickly checking her appearance in the glass on the landing before meeting Lady Catherine. She did want to make a good impression. Pausing to tuck a wayward curl behind her ear, she hardly recognised her reflection, she’d become such a grand lady in the few short weeks she’d been married. Her expensive clothes were elegant and stylish, and even her coiffure, styled so expertly by her new lady’s maid, seemed to lend her an air of distinction. But despite these outward embellishments, Elizabeth felt no more self-assured than when she’d first arrived at Pemberley. Not that she suffered any real crisis of confidence, she’d always had a sense of her own self-worth, but it was just that she longed to be a credit to the great man she had married. She knew she was out of her depth when it came to the task of running a great house like the one she was now mistress of, but with the help of Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper, she was trying to learn all that she could. Knowing that Mr Darcy’s aunt was always very critical did nothing to improve her feelings, and it was with some trepidation that she rushed along the corridor. It simply would not do to be late!
When she walked into the saloon, Lady Catherine was already seated in a chair by the window, looking out over the landscape.
Lady Catherine continued to gaze through the window and for a moment Elizabeth wondered if she’d been heard. Fitzwilliam’s aunt had assumed a regal attitude and now turned so imperiously to look down her long nose as if she’d been intruded upon that Lizzy felt quite intimidated, until she realised that the old lady was doing her very best to make her feel uncomfortable in her own home.
‘Sit down,’ Lady Catherine barked, gesturing to the seat opposite.
Undaunted, Elizabeth’s courage rose and sitting down, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves, choosing to ignore the old lady’s rude manner. ‘We are so delighted that you accepted our invitation and to see you here at Pemberley. We were so worried that you might not be able to attend the ball after you wrote about your late illness – I do hope you are very much recovered.’
‘Pemberley has been my home for more years than you’ve been alive, madam, and you need not think because you now consider yourself Châtelaine that your influence holds any sway. I have never been subject to an invitation here in my life before – I shudder to imagine what my dear sister would have thought at such impertinence.’
‘Mr Darcy was very particular with the arrangements, Lady Catherine. We wish you a most happy visit … I hope you’ve found everything to your satisfaction,’ Lizzy continued, aware that her patience was being tried beyond her limit.
Elizabeth stared at the implacable woman before her. She could not imagine a worse beginning but she was determined not to let Lady Catherine get the better of her. ‘Forgive me, your ladyship, but we were led to understand that your preference was for the west wing, and that you did not usually wish to reside in your sister’s chambers because of the morning sun on that side of the house. As for the invitation, Mr Darcy considered it would be most fitting in light of the fact that we are newly married and the ball is a celebration of our union. It will be the first of many that he wishes to hold, and we hope you will bless us with your presence at every one.’
As she said the words, looking with steely determination into Lady Catherine’s eyes, Lizzy found herself crossing the fingers that were laced in her lap. She noted with some pleasure that Fitzwilliam’s formidable aunt looked at a loss for words, but knew it was only a matter of time before another barbed comment would be aimed in her direction.
‘A seasonal ball is held annually at Pemberley – your marriage and its timing is a mere coincidence. One can only hope that you have taken Reynolds’ advice in every matter. Of course, in my sister’s day the balls were unsurpassed in the country. How this great house has fallen in the wake of her demise – I fear for its future, I will not pretend.’
‘Lady Catherine, I assure you that I will do my very best to fulfil the role that is my honour to have been bestowed upon me by my dear husband.’
Lizzy felt Lady Catherine’s eyes upon her once more and was subject to such scrutiny that she felt herself redden and shift uncomfortably in her chair. The lady wore a frown, her eyes narrowing as she stared at Elizabeth’s fingers laced in her lap.
Instinctively, Lizzy covered the finger wearing her new diamond with the fingers of her right hand.
‘Put out your hand this instant and let me see. There has been a grave oversight, I am certain. This jewel, which you have no right to wear, is one of a suite that was given to my sister on her marriage. They were promised to my daughter on her marriage and until that day were to remain in the vault. How on earth did you come by it?’
Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, but a knock at the door and the entrance of Mrs Reynolds prevented her from answering.
‘What is it, Reynolds?’ demanded Lady Catherine, crossly.
‘I am very sorry to intrude, your ladyship, but I have a message for Mrs Darcy. It’s from the home farm, madam – it’s urgent, I’m afraid. Mrs Fretwell said if you could spare the time, that she’d be ever so grateful. He’s near the end, you see, and she says he’s been calling for you.’
‘I’ll come straight away, Mrs Reynolds. Be so good as to tell Saxton to get the carriage ready – I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
‘Where are you going? I demand an explanation!’
Elizabeth ignored her and as she observed the old lady’s thunderous countenance, her jowls wobbling in indignation, she called out. ‘There is no time, Lady Catherine. Forgive me, but I have to go!’
Donning her cloak and bonnet, Elizabeth rushed to the carriage as fast as she could. The journey to the farm was just a short ride to the next village, one that she normally accomplished on foot, but speed was necessary today. Almost as soon as she’d arrived at Pemberley, Lizzy had started calling on the locals, especially those poorer families or those who had sick relatives to tend. The Fretwells had been farming the estate land for hundreds of years, and Elizabeth knew how much Mr Darcy respected this old yeoman family. There was nothing that Mr Fretwell didn’t know about his sheep and Mrs Fretwell was an exemplary farmer’s wife, who thought nothing of hand-rearing sickly lambs and seeing them into the world, as well as coping with a growing brood of her own offspring. It was the youngest, Neddy, that Elizabeth had taken to her heart and her arms when he’d become ill just three weeks ago. She’d grown to love him, as if he’d been a child of her own. Visiting him every day, providing the family with baskets of fruit and vegetables from the stores at Pemberley, and reading stories to little Neddy himself had been Elizabeth’s devoted occupation. The child had received the best care from Mr Morton, the doctor from Matlock, but they’d known very quickly that the outcome was not to be a good one. As they bowled down the lanes, Lizzy knew she must compose herself and prepare for the worst. She would have to be strong for the Fretwells’ sake and she knew she would have to draw on all her reserves of resilience and courage.
Mrs Reynolds gave Miss Georgiana Darcy the message her mistress had left as the latter was crossing the hallway after her morning ride. A striking girl, and tall for her tender years, her appearance was of an assured young woman, belying her true timidity and shy character. Her deep blue riding habit made the perfect foil for her fair hair, which was now tumbling in unruly curls from the top of her head, a result of the fresh breezes and a gallop across the fields combined.
Mr Darcy’s sister felt unequal to the duty, but put on her bravest expression. If Elizabeth trusted her to be left in sole charge of Pemberley in her absence, then she would do her very best.
‘Most guests will be arriving this afternoon, Miss Darcy, so I would not worry too much,’ said Mrs Reynolds reassuringly. ‘Mr and Mrs Darcy will be back by then – they’ll be here to greet their guests, I am certain.’
‘Oh, thank you, Mrs Reynolds,’ Georgiana replied, her voice betraying her nerves. ‘I must admit, I do not relish the idea of meeting our guests completely on my own, and without Elizabeth, I am sure I should not know what to say to people to put them at their ease. My sister has such a way with people and although she is teaching me so much, I feel quite nervous at the prospect of introductions without her by my side. There are so many new people to be met with, and I shall be completely confused by so many names I have not heard before.’
‘Do not fret, Miss Darcy,’ said Mrs Reynolds, placing a hand on Georgiana’s arm. ‘I shall be there, and your aunt will, no doubt, offer her advice. Lady Catherine is in the saloon at this moment.’
Georgiana wanted to smile. She’d not missed Mrs Reynolds’ tone of voice when talking of her aunt, and although the stalwart retainer had uttered nothing untoward, Georgiana knew Mrs Reynolds disliked Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Reynolds was often on the receiving end of her ladyship’s ‘advice’ and despite Mrs Reynolds’ cheerful countenance on each occasion of having been scolded, it had not gone unnoticed by most of the family that the housekeeper enjoyed her own ways with words to soften the verbal blows.
‘Then I’d best join her,’ said Georgiana, ‘as soon as I have changed. Goodness, what a mess! My skirts are covered three inches in mud, but what fun I’ve had. I went the same way Elizabeth showed me yesterday. It’s a challenging ride, but once in my stride I felt I was flying. And I really must fix my hair or goodness knows what my aunt will have to say. It’s quite fallen down, but such freedom is pure joy!’
Just at that moment, the butler, Bramwell, appeared at the top of the steps leading from the front doors. Behind him stood two of the most elegant people Georgiana thought she’d ever seen. There was an air about them and a celebration of fashion not usually seen in these parts. They exuded sophistication and more than a touch of the exotic. The dark-haired gentleman who was appraising Georgiana’s appearance with an expression of mild amusement wore a long cape over a navy coat, cut away to show his fine muscular legs in mustard breeches. He did not look like an Englishman with his olive complexion and black eyes that stared at Georgiana for so long and so searchingly, that she found she was soon studying the floor with great interest. His lady wore a pelisse of peacock blue, with gold fastenings, trimmed at the throat in black velvet, with a contrasting bonnet in white satin with a jaunty ostrich feather.
‘Monsieur and Mademoiselle de Valois, Miss Darcy,’ Bramwell announced.
Good heavens, thought Georgiana, they’re French, and I am certain my conversation in that language is severely limited.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur et Mademoiselle de Valois,’ Georgiana stuttered, remembering to curtsey.
‘Good morning, Miss Darcy,’ said the gentleman in reply. ‘I assure you; it is not necessary to speak in French. We never have unless with our papa and he is buried these last four years.’
Georgiana met the easy expression of the young man standing before her holding out his hand. She took it, not knowing whether she should also offer condolences.
‘We have never met before,’ he continued, ‘but I am your distant cousin, Antoine, and this is my sister, Louise. I am afraid we are rather early to be met by the family. Forgive me, but our journey here was rather shorter than we’d anticipated. We came to the north from London the day before yesterday, and have been travelling round the countryside, but I could not wait to see Pemberley nor meet my relations.’
His companion held out her hand. ‘My brother is so very eager in everything, Miss Darcy, and though I insisted we would be better leaving our inn later this afternoon, he would not listen. I am very pleased to meet you. We have heard so much about you from our mother who corresponds regularly with your aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Our mother and your aunt grew up together … they are cousins on their mother’s side.’
It was impossible to feel ill at ease with this brother and sister who were so open and friendly that she stopped worrying about her appearance. Georgiana could not think that she’d heard of these French cousins before, or ever heard her aunt mention their name, but she shook hands warmly.
‘I do apologise that my brother is not here to greet you, but he is out on business this morning. He is not expected to be long and I know he will be looking forward to making your acquaintance so much. Do come in and make yourselves at home.’
I hope you enjoyed the continuation – I’d love to know what you think!