Howling winds buffeted Elizabeth Elliot’s window and shattered away the last vestiges of sleep. She pressed her head into the pillow and stared up into the bed curtains. Had last night actually happened?
Yes it had. Colonel Fitzwilliam, second son of the Earl of Matlock had sat with her half the night. Perhaps he was not as handsome as his cousin Darcy, but he was by far the handsomest man who had paid her any attention since the debacle with Mr. William Elliot.
Her stomach churned. His attentions toward Anne were offensive on so many accounts. They were due her on the count of being the eldest. But all of that paled in comparison to taking up with Mrs. Clay.
What a fool she had been to consider ‘dear Penelope’ a friend.
Would Colonel Fitzwilliam prove to be such a friend himself? The Matlocks were known to be a discreet family and there was virtually no gossip concerning the colonel. That spoke well of him. Surely Mrs. Darcy would know. There had to be a way to get her opinion of her cousin in some candid moment.
He by no means appeared to be perfect. Years in the army had knocked away some of the polish a peer’s son usually had. His opinions were forceful and a powerful core of stubbornness ran through him. But he was also a principled man. He understood her and was willing to offer respect in a way her father never had. There was much about him that reminded her of Wentworth.
But Anne and her husband loved one another. Could she love the colonel, and he her? Did it matter, though? Compatibility and friendship were far more significant concerns. Those were the things that would last.
To discern that, she had to spend time with him. She could not do that laying abed. For anything else, she needed her abigail.
Could he afford for her to retain her lady’s maid? Surely he would not expect her to do without. Did he keep a valet? Perhaps her maid could find out—yes that was exactly what she must do.
As she dressed, she instructed her maid on the necessary information to seek.
“And what if there should be questions about you, Miss? How do you wish me to respond?”
Impressions ought to be managed most carefully, especially with so much on the line. But then again, that was the game William Elliot had played with her. She worked her tongue against the bitter taste along the roof of her mouth. “Offer the truth. I do not wish to have to keep track of what details might be invented.”
“But it might not be complimentary.”
Fitzwilliam was too shrewd to believe something too sugar-coated.
“Be as generous as possible, but do as I instruct.”
The maid curtsied and left, probably wondering what had come over her mistress.
Elizabeth wondered the same thing.
Despite the howling winds and driving snow, warmth suffused her. How long had it been since a man had paid attention to her, even if it was in a most business-like fashion? She could even face the matrons of the house with genuine equanimity today.
No wonder Anne had blossomed so under Wentworth’s attentions. The sense of being wanted, or even possibly wanted was positively intoxicating.
She made her way into the morning room. Pray let him be there!
A cheery fire on one side of the room and candles on the other lit and warmed the small chamber. The yellow wall hangings and gold damask curtains glowed in the light. A fragrant assortment of lovely, fresh baked things, ham and potatoes filled the round table to nearly overflowing.
Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley and Colonel Fitzwilliam sat along one side. Mrs. Darcy and Mrs. Knightley along the other both engaged in some kind of decorative sewing.
Elizabeth hated sewing.
“Good morning, Miss Elliot.” Fitzwilliam rose and bowed from his shoulders. “Do be good enough to sit here with us. We are reviewing information pertaining to my new estate, and I was just thinking how valuable a woman’s perspective would be.”
The Darcys exchanged glances that could only be called astonished.
“I would be most honored.” She went to the chair he held for her.
“Might I serve you some breakfast?
“That would be most kind.”
Odd, Knightley shot his wife a severe glance, but she touched her chest and shook her head.
Fitzwilliam served her dainty ladylike portions of everything, just as he did the previous night. William Elliot had done that too, but never asked first. He simply heaped the nearest items on to her plate.
“My solicitor has sent me an inventory of the house, but I am afraid it is a bit difficult for me to sort out exactly what to make of it. Might you be able to assist us?” He slid several sheets of paper toward her.
Hopefully, he did not think himself subtle. But it was a reasonable test. She scanned the neatly written pages.
“It is not possible to judge the condition of the furnishing by this list, of course. It would appear this is a house more modest than grand. Seven bedrooms and nursery, and several attic rooms for servants. Not quite as much linen as perhaps there should be, but enough for your immediate needs. The kitchen seems well furnished, though your benefactor seems to have had a fondness for drinking games.”
Fitzwilliam cocked his head and blinked. “How do you gather that?”
She pointed to a line on the inventory. “When one has a collection of puzzle jugs one generally uses them for such amusements.”
Knightley chuckled. “She has a good point.”
“At least I know there is a ready cure for boredom should it strike.” Fitzwilliam shrugged. “Have you any thoughts on the necessary number of servants to manage such a household?”
“In addition to your own man, a cook and housekeeper are essential. To begin, I think a single maid of all work and of course a groom.”
“Mrs. Darcy suggests two maids more appropriate.” Fitzwilliam glanced at her, but she did not look up from her sewing.
“Forgive me, Mrs. Darcy, for disagreeing. With only a bachelor living in the house, I think a single maid sufficient, particularly as many of the rooms are kept closed. If Colonel Fitzwilliam is of a mind to do much entertaining, an additional girl might be hired as necessary.”
Mrs. Darcy lifted her gaze and nodded, eying Fitzwilliam narrowly.
Father sauntered in, not a hair out of place. “I had no idea you would break fast so early.”
“Country hours are on the whole earlier than those kept in town,” Darcy muttered over his coffee cup.
“Fashionable hours can be kept anywhere.” He seated himself beside Elizabeth. “What was this talk of servants I heard?”
“We were just noting different styles of housekeeping and how they call for different allocations of servants.” Mrs. Darcy returned to her stitchery.
Father flicked his hand. “Disagreeable nuisances if you ask me. Always running off and leaving the house understaffed. Seems there could be some way to better manage the rubbish.”
Elizabeth blushed. He constantly insisted on hiring more servants than they could afford. That drove her to tell him they had run off when in fact she dismissed those they could not find the blunt to pay for.
If this conversation continued, she would probably say something she would regret very soon.
“Pray excuse me.” She left the morning room.
Several steps down the corridor, she stopped. Away from Father had been her only destination. Where to go now? She had just been abominably rude to her hosts.
“Are you well Miss Elliot?” Mrs. Knightley’s staccato steps rang out behind her.
“Yes, thank you. Pray forgive me. I—” She bit her knuckle—what could she say that did not imply criticism of her father?
“Keeping house for one’s father can be challenging at times, can it not? Especially when he is fastidious in his own ways.” Mrs. Knightley smiled, eyebrows raised.
“Yes, it can be, thank you.” Mr. Woodhouse was probably as demanding as a baronet, after his own peculiar fashion.
“If you would like to use the music room at the end of the hall, please make yourself welcome.”
“What a pleasant thought. I would like that, thank you.”
Mrs. Knightley curtsied and returned to the morning room. Did she realize the great kindness she offered in simply allowing Elizabeth a little privacy?
She wandered toward the music room. At least the interrogation had been subtle. Had she passed his test, or was she supposed to wholly agree with Mrs. Darcy? No doubt that woman could manage Pemberley to Darcy’s impeccable standards, but that was not the same thing as keeping up appearances whilst trying to retrench.
But it was done. Right or wrong, her answer had been given.
A scullery maid scurried past her to light the fire in the music room. How thoughtful of Mrs. Knightley to think of that.
Elizabeth drew her shawl more tightly over her shoulders. Another threadbare patch broke open to reveal the fabric of her gown. Thankfully her abigail was skilled at darning.
The maid slipped past her, head down.
The music room’s chill air nipped at her cheeks and fingertips. She sat on the piano seat and laid her fingers on the keys. The maid had lit a pair of candles beside the pianoforte, giving the room just enough light to feel intimate.
Too intimate for a concerto. A soft ballad flowed from her fingertips. She closed her eyes and allowed the music to drown out everything else in her heart and mind.
A throaty bass voice picked up the next measure and added the lyrics of loss and longing. Those were not empty words. He knew of what he sang, so intense, her fingers almost failed her.
The final chorus faded away, and she dabbed her eyes with her shawl.
“You play very well. Would you play another?” Fitzwilliam said hardly above a whisper.
His warm, fuzzy voice tickled the back of her neck, sending tingles down her spine. That did little to help her remember another piece of music.
He chuckled in her ear. No that did not help either. He reached around her to the keyboard, not embracing her and yet—
“Do you know this?” He played several measures.
Why did he choose that?
A love song she dared not admit how much she liked. The tingles along the back of her neck prevented her from nodding, so she began to play his suggestion.
He pulled himself straighter and a half step nearer. Near enough to feel his warmth behind her, and sang.
He sang well enough to entertain a drawing room, to judge by his voice alone, but the feeling he placed in the song—
Oh! She fudged several notes. He was revealing himself to her just as he had required of her earlier. At least he showed himself fair.
But the passion in his song was no show for an audience. It was the man himself.
She swallowed hard. Such a man might require more than polite interchanges over the dining room table.
He might look at her as Wentworth did Anne?
Could she bear it if he did? Her cheeks burned and her heart raced in a tempo at odds with their song.
She finished the ballad and launched into an aria she had never dared play for an audience. The poignant strains were far too intense for proper company. In the privacy of her own practice she had sung the words once or twice, but that was far too much for today.
He did not sing, but hummed behind her.
He knew the lyric! Prickles coursed down the back of her neck.
As the final strains faded, she peeked up at him. His eyes were closed above a peculiar smile.
“Listingbrook has a pianoforte,” he whispered.
It probably was not polite to remind him it was in the inventory he had shown her.
Soft applause came from the doorway.
“That was lovely, Miss Elliot.” Mrs. Knightley entered with the Darcys, Mr. Woodhouse and Father on their heels. “Pray, play us another.”
The Darcys sat near the pianoforte while Mrs. Knightley settled her father near the fire.
Father muttered something about not expecting to have to go looking for entertainment.
She started to answer him, but stopped before the first word escaped. What point in that conversation? It would not look well on her, and she never carried a point with him in any case.
Mr. Knightley joined them and suggested she play something they could all sing with.
She launched into a series of merry folk tunes and soon most of the room sang along. The Darcys sang quite well together, but poor Mr. Woodhouse! His voice did not improve for all his enthusiasm. Still, there was something strangely appealing about the imperfections in the camaraderie.
Perhaps not the most refined distraction given Father’s expression, but one she would happily repeat.
Mr. Knightley brought out the card table and they amused themselves with a game of commerce until Mrs. Knightley suggested the ladies refresh themselves before a cold luncheon.
Mrs. Darcy caught up with her on the stairs.
“Pray, Miss Elliot, might you accompany me to my dressing room. I should very much like to speak with you for a bit.” Her smile was sweet, but something about the strength in her eyes was not.
Still, how could one politely refuse such an invitation?
She followed Mrs. Darcy to her dressing room, steeling herself. How often had she called Anne to her chambers to have a ‘conversation?’
Mrs. Darcy closed the door behind them. “Forgive me my forthrightness, Miss Elliot, but pray help me understand the nature of your acquaintance with Colonel Fitzwilliam.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Darcy, but I do believe that is his business. He is very capable of managing it himself.”
“Of course he is quite capable, but he is very dear to us and we are concerned for him.”
So they thought her some sort of mercenary? How lovely.
She counted to ten before answering. “Then perhaps you should bring your concerns to him.”
“Be assured that we will. I cannot help but notice there seems to be a great deal of attention—”
“Mrs. Darcy, I am not accustomed to being subjected to such impertinent questions.”
“Our concern is—”
Elizabeth wrapped her arms in her shawl and wrapped them tightly over her chest. “I can well understand your concern, madam. You have heard of my father’s situation and do not want to see your cousin pursue a fortune that might never be realized.”
“I think you misunderstand me.”
“No, I am certain I understand you quite well indeed. I shall not subject myself to any more of this conversation.” She dashed out and down the stairs.
How much distance could she put between herself and that ghastly woman? Perhaps if she stepped outside for just a moment, she might clear her mind.
Want more? Snowbound at Hartfield will be moving to Random Bits of Fascination. Watch Tuesdays for new chapters!