Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam pulled the scarf a little tighter around his neck as howling winds battered the coach.
What madness had seized the weather? Snow was unusual enough, but a storm such as this? Who would have expected it? Certainly not his cousin Darcy. Careful and meticulous as he was, he would never have set out if he had any inkling a blizzard were a possibility, especially in the company of his wife and father-in-law.
The Darcy carriage was as snug and warm as such a vehicle might be in such anomalous weather. For that he could be glad. They were not in imminent danger of freezing to death. Still, the winds howled just as the wind on the French plains before—
No! He clenched his gloved hands into fists. Returning there, even in memory alone did him no favors. Elizabeth—Liza as she permitted him to call her now, mostly to annoy Darcy—Liza reminded him to remember the past only as it gave him pleasure. She was right, he must do precisely that.
He drew a deep breath, then another. She was watching him from the corner of her eye. She knew. She always knew.
Perhaps they would talk about it later. But first they needed shelter.
The first inn they had stopped at had no room. Now, Darcy inquired at a decidedly seedy looking establishment, the Ram’s Horn. But seedy was better than no shelter at all. Hopefully, Darcy’s blunt could smooth the way to a room and a warm fire for the night.
The coach door opened, allowing in a blast of wind and snow. Darcy jumped in and slammed the door behind him.
“Were you able to procure rooms?” Fitzwilliam pulled his coat tighter around his chest, shoulder throbbing with the fresh burst of freezing air.
“No. Not even the baronet who arrived just after we did could command lodgings.”
Liza gasped and glanced at her father who rubbed his hands together, hunched for warmth.
Darcy lifted his hand with a mildly dramatic flair. “That is not to say we do not have accommodations though. The hand of Providence has provided in a most unexpected way. Just inside the inn, I encountered an old school friend of mine, George Knightley, who lives but a mile from here. He has invited us—and the baronet and his daughter—to stay with him.”
“What a spot of good luck.” Bennet nodded vigorously, perhaps to cover his shivering.
It seemed far too easy that Darcy’s old school chum just happened to be there, only too ready to extend an offer of hospitality. Nothing in life ever proved so convenient. Fate would surely exact some sort of price for this succor. Still, refusing would be foolish.
Darcy finished telling them about his lengthy acquaintance with Knightley just as the coach pulled up to Hartfield’s front steps, the baronet’s coach just behind. Somehow, Darcy managed to leave out the most interesting parts.
Knightley seemed decidedly odd. Why did a married man, with an estate as respectable as Donwell Abbey, live at his father-in-law’s neighboring establishment? It was just not done.
Darcy’s friends were usually so conventional.
Then again, Bennet proved decidedly odd himself. Darcy had learned to tolerate him with greater equanimity over the—what was it now? Fifteen months?—of his marriage to Liza. Perhaps Darcy was becoming less particular about his connections.
He handed Liza out of the carriage and steadied Bennet as he followed.
Fitzwilliam stepped into the wind and skidded on a patch of ice.
Blast and botheration! This was not fit weather for man or beast.
Sir Walter Elliot climbed into the coach, leaving the door open until the driver closed it. There had been little enough warm air within as it was. It would have been nice for him to try to preserve it. But the act of closing the door himself might have been enough to compromise his dignity. He could not have, could he?
Elizabeth Elliot pulled her hood over her head and huddled into it. No, that thought was ungracious and unsuitable and Lady Russell would probably scold her for it. She scolded over so many matters, what was one more to the list? Elizabeth bit her lip and pulled the edges of her hood around her face. Another unkind thought. Surely it was this horrid storm that had compromised her composure. Usually she was better than this.
She had to be. There was little choice. Father was so very particular about all things that touched his pride—vanity really—and it was not worth the consequences if she vexed him.
Father brushed the snow off his shoulders and stomped his feet. The carriage lurched into motion.
“There was no room at the inn?”
“There was not.” He smoothed his coat over his lap. “But I have made arrangements.”
“What kind of arrangements?” She cringed. Father’s arrangements usually did not consider their budget and cost them in privation later—not that he would ever admit to it, but they did. And it would inevitably fall to her to make some way to provide for his comfort despite whatever he had done.
She had become quite good at it.
“The inn was dreadful, totally unsuitable.” He waved his gloved hand dismissively. “But there I met the leading gentleman of this little community. He recognized the honor of hosting a baronet and invited us to stay at his estate.”
“Do you know this man?” She turned to hide her face in her hood.
There had been many so-called gentlemen that had proved themselves otherwise. Pray there would be a lock on her door tonight. Even if there was, it might be best that her maid sleep with her as well.
“I do not. But he introduced me to his friend Darcy, whom he also invited to stay, and though that family does not have a title, they are connected to Matlock, and that is recommendation enough for me.” Father settled back in that attitude that declared the conversation over.
Of course connections would be enough for him. Stop now; that thought was headed nowhere productive—or polite.
Still, the Darcy reputation was well known and it was impeccable. Even his surprise marriage to a country gentleman’s daughter had not tarnished it. What was more, she was very well received herself. A credit to the Darcy name, she had been called. Perhaps the friend of such a family would be more gentlemanly than not.
The coach rolled to a stop.
She would find out soon enough.
Fitzwilliam stomped snow from his boots as he ascended the front stairs. Knightley himself opened the door for them. “Pray come in.”
Warmth and light the color of a roaring fire poured through the door. No matter how peculiar the man might be, the invitation was too inviting to ignore.
Mother would approve of the vestibule—tasteful, neat, and a bit old fashioned. She always maintained that traditional décor spoke of taste and respect when it was clean and well preserved. The house seemed all those things.
But most of all it was warm. Fitzwilliam unwrapped his scarf.
A startled looking butler met them and took their coats.
A woman who must have been the housekeeper met Knightley near the butler.
“Prepare rooms for our guests and their servants. Send the grooms for their horses.” Knightley ducked around the housekeeper. “Emma! Emma!”
No surprise. One did not bellow for his wife as one did a servant.
Bennet smirked under his breath.
There was a reason the younger Bennet girls were not known for their fine manners. But best not dwell upon that now.
Liza smiled softly, slipped her arm in Darcy’s and pressed her shoulder to his. His tension eased. She was a master at restoring his composure.
Thankfully, Darcy seemed to appreciate that fact and treated his wife very well. Anything less would have made him intolerable.
A young woman, blonde and pretty-ish, and looking not much older than Georgiana, hurried down the grand stairs. “I was so worried with you out there in the weather!”
Knightley caught her hands in his. “Now you are sounding like your dear papa. As you see, I am quite well and have brought guests seeking shelter from the storms. May I present Sir Walter and Miss Elliot of Kellynch Hall?”
No wonder they looked so familiar!
And offended. Clearly Sir Walter did not appreciate being presented to the mistress of the house when he clearly outranked her. The question was, did Knightley do it intentionally or were his manners that sloppy?
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mrs. Knightley curtsied with girlish energy, far better suited to a miss than a missus.
“I am most pleased to renew our acquaintance, sir.” Fitzwilliam stepped forward and bowed.
Sir Walter looked at him, forehead knotted and brows drawn together.
“Colonel Fitzwilliam?” Miss Elliot peered at him, eyes widening. “Father, you recall, we were introduced by the Dalrymples, at a card party, three, or was it four months ago?”
“Fitzwilliam? Oh, you are Earl Matlock’s son!”
Amazing how the man’s countenance brightened at that memory.
Fitzwilliam bowed. “Yes sir, I am. This is my cousin, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy, and her father, Mr. Bennet.”
Sir Walter bowed from his shoulders, just enough to be proper. Miss Elliot’s curtsey demonstrated a touch more civility. Just as they had at Bath.
Their haughtiness had not won them many friends there. In truth though, it was more the baronet, than his daughter that people avoided. When she was apart from her father, uncommon as it was, she seemed rather pleasant.
The tall, dark haired woman might have once been regarded handsome, but years on the shelf left her worn and weary along the edges. A little like her garments—once fashionable, but now a bit threadbare. Society was not kind to women who did not ‘take’ soon enough.
Knightley took his wife’s hand as she descended the last few steps.
Given his expression, he was as fond of his wife as Darcy was of Liza. Perhaps that was the common disposition he and Darcy shared.
Knightley tucked his wife’s hand in the crook of his arm. “Darcy is an old school chum of mine—imagine encountering him in Highbury at such a time.”
“That is very good luck, indeed. You are all very welcome. I should very much like to hear tales of my husband’s school days. He rarely mentions them.” Mrs. Knightley’s eyes twinkled with a hint of mischief, much like Liza’s did.
Knightley flashed his brows at Darcy.
What was that?
Darcy never indulged in any sort of high spiritedness during his school days, did he? The look on Knightley’s face suggested otherwise. That was one conversation Fitzwilliam would definitely follow up on.
This could be a very interesting house party after all.
“Oh, Papa!” Mrs. Knightley hurried past them.
An elderly man, wrapped in a warm banyan, scarf and soft cap, shuffled toward them. “What … what is this commotion? Such disruptions are not good for the digestion.”
Mrs. Knightley wrapped her arm in his, supporting him. “Knightley has brought us guests, Papa.”
“Guests, in a snowstorm? It is a most dangerous thing to be out in such weather. I do not see why anyone with sense would be out on such a day. I still do not understand why Knightley had to go into town.”
She patted his hand. “That is why he invited them to stay with us. They were caught by the storm whilst traveling.”
“I see, I see. Traveling is a trial indeed. No one should be out in this weather.” He nodded somberly. He blinked several times and his eyes widened. “But are there children with them? They bear disease you know—”
“No, there are no children. Why do we not go to the parlor, and you may become acquainted with them. I will send for tea.” Mrs. Knightley guided him down the corridor, muttering under his breath as he walked.
So, Knightley lived at Hartfield, not Donwell Abbey, to care for the old man in his dotage. Sounded like exactly the kind of man Darcy would befriend.
Knightley urged them toward the parlor.