[WIP - R/Regency]
Elizabeth could not believe that they had almost reached their destination. The trip had been long, but worthy of being done. She had been travelling for three days now, across the country, to the west, towards the rocky coasts of Ceredigion where her friend Charlotte had settled her new home after marrying Mr. Collins.
She never thought she would miss her friend's company so much. The winter had been long and hard and without Jane and Charlotte to share her days with, Elizabeth's life had turned dull and lonely.
To the anticipation she felt for seeing her dear Charlotte after so long, Elizabeth had to add the excitement she felt on visiting the country of Wales for the first time. In her letters, the new Mrs. Collins described the island in which she had settled as a married woman as untamed and windy. According to Charlotte, Rosings Island was immense. One part of it was rocky, with high cliffs moulded by the inclemency of the western winds and the other, sheltered as it was by the higher peaks, was greener, with pleasant groves and beholding beautiful sights.
Notwithstanding the beauties that Charlotte promised the island would offer, Elizabeth was not certain that meeting its owner would bestow the same pleasure. The information that she had received about her had been confusing as it had been contradictory. While Charlotte had ever spoken ill of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, for some of her expressions, Elizabeth could discern that she did not hold her in high esteem. The same had happened upon Mr. Collins' last visit to Lucas Lodge. The parson, who always referred to his patroness with the highest reverence, not once had expressed himself fondly about her and there had been moments where Elizabeth could almost detect fear in his voice, hence making her doubt about Lady Catherine's good nature.
"Are we still too far away?" asked Maria from her seat, next to Elizabeth.
"No, we are quite close, my dear," replied Sir William Lucas. "The coachman said we will reach Aberaeron before nightfall. Thereupon, only a short trip by ship separates us from your sister."
"I have never seen the sea before," Miss Lucas cried enthusiastically. "I cannot wait until we are there!"
"I wish we could have more time to tour the country," said Elizabeth, marvelling at the beauty of Ceredigion's hilly landscape. "I would have liked to see Cardigan Castle."
"Perhaps we can arrange a short visit before my return to Hertfordshire, Lizzy," offered Sir William. "That is, if Charlotte agrees in giving up your company if only for a few days."
Elizabeth smiled. "Perhaps I can convince her to accompany us. I am sure her husband will have no inconvenience in parting with his wife."
"I am sure that Mr. Collins will not object, though I doubt Lady Catherine will consent with such plans. Charlotte says that she does not condone a parson's wife leaving her husband's side for long periods of time." Sir William said thoughtfully. In his last letters from her, while content with her husband, Charlotte did not seem at all happy with the treatment she and Mr. Collins were receiving from their patroness.
"Even if it is only for a few days?"
"We would not wish to excite her anger," replied Sir William.
"I do not think she could be so bad," smiled Elizabeth. "Let us see for ourselves."
The travellers reached the Inn before nightfall and, tired from their trip, retired to their rooms soon after eating a light supper. They rose early on the following morning and went to the port, where a small vessel that was waiting to take them to Rosings.
"When are we leaving?" cried Maria. "I am most anxious to see the Charlotte!"
"We must wait a little longer, Miss," said the captain, "I would not dare face the tides of Rosings in this wind."
"Does this happen very often?" enquired Sir William. "The weather seems so wild and windy."
"Sometimes, at this time of the year. Though the coast is quite pleasant after noon."
"Which one of those islands is Rosings?" inquired Elizabeth, her scrutinizing the sea.
"The largest one. You can distinguish the manor from here. Right there," Mr. --- pointed, "On the cliffs."
"And its owner," Sir William commented, "Is she agreeable? We heard she is quite an opinionated Lady."
"Lady Catherine de Bourgh? I never saw her, she rarely comes to the mainland and when she does, she heads directly to London. But I know she's not liked by her tenants or the villagers or by those who trade with the island. She is said to be intolerant and uncharitable."
Sir William remained silent, thinking of poor Charlotte's fate with such a patroness.
As Mr. --- predicted, the wind ceased by midday and the travellers were able to do this last part of their long trip. When approaching the island, Rosings manor became more discernible. It was large, built of dark stone and it stood proud and solid on the top of the cliff. Beneath it, the sea chastised the rock. Framing the magnificent view, the clearest of skies.
The vessel turned North, surrounding the rocky peninsula, towards the small, sheltered bay in which Hunsford village was situated. From where she was, Elizabeth could distinguish Charlotte's figure waving at them.
"Look! There she is!" Maria waved back. "Charlotte!"
In a moment they were all standing on the docks, rejoicing at the sight of each other. Mrs. Collins welcomed her friend with the liveliest pleasure and Elizabeth was more and more satisfied with coming on seeing she was being so affectionately received.
Mr. Collins was a lot more pompous in his reception and politely enquired after Elizabeth's family. And then, while conversing about the latest news, they climbed the short road that led to the parsonage.
Right after their arrival, the Collinses showed the newcomers their humble residence. It was handsome, well kept and, though some objects seemed misplaced, it was decorated with good taste. Elizabeth then learned that Charlotte's favourite rooms were situated at opposite ends to those of her husband's and that she preferred to stay indoors while he looked after the garden, an activity that Charlotte eagerly encouraged him to do.
That night, in the solitude of her bedchamber, Elizabeth had some time to meditate about Charlotte's degree of contentment with her new position as Mr. Collins' wife. Though not deliriously happy, Charlotte seemed pleased with her circumstances. The parson had not changed much since they last saw each other, he was still pompous in his manner of addressing her, but Charlotte seemed to tolerate him quite well and showed no embarrassment of his silly remarks. What did call Elizabeth's attention though, was how Mr. and Mrs. Collins' expressions became crossed when inquired after their patroness, Lady Catherine De Bourgh. They would refer to her briefly, unsmilingly and would turn the conversation towards subjects that were -in Elizabeth's opinion- more agreeable for them.
"Perhaps her Ladyship is very much like her nephew, Mr. Darcy." Elizabeth sighed as she readied herself for bed. "Proud and disagreeable."
With that thought, she blew out the candle and fell asleep.
On the following morning, the new comers were surprised with an unexpected visit from the manor. Miss de Bourgh had personally driven her curricle to extend an invitation to the parson and his guests to visit the mansion.
"What a distinguished young lady!" sighed Maria when Miss de Bourgh finally left. "Do you not think so, Lizzy?"
For someone whose beauty had been the object of the Collinses' praise, Elizabeth saw nothing remarkable about the heiress of Rosings. "She is most elegantly dressed, I grant you."
Maria made a few comments about the lady, especially pointing out her boldness for driving a curricle all by herself. Elizabeth paid little attention to what she said, her thoughts wandering in a different direction. So this was Miss de Bourgh, the woman to which the proud Mr. Darcy would soon become engaged. She wasn't pretty nor refined and had an air of conceited independence around her that Elizabeth found particularly distasteful. The perfect wife for an arrogant man.
The parsonage was not too far away from the manor but, though short, the path that led to Lady Catherine's residence was not an easy one. Rosings was situated up on the taller cliff of the island, facing the sea, so the mile that separated both houses was a rather sharp ascent that measured the strength and endurance of those who dared to climb it. There was an easier road, the one that the carriages used, surrounding the cliff, making the distance between the houses three times longer, which was quickly discarded. Elizabeth faced the ascent without problem, so did the Collinses, they did this quite often, but more than once the party had to stop and wait until Sir William recovered his breath.
It was during one pause when Elizabeth had the chance to admire the immensity of Rosings island in all its grandeur. It was a pleasant day, not as windy as the previous one, the sky was clear and the temperature agreeable. From that spot, they could practically survey the entire island. To her left, on top of the hill, the big, sombre house rising high against the blue skies. A grove of trees and maze of thorny bushes limited the park on the far end, and then the landscape made a pronounced descent towards the bay where the village of Hunsford was barely discernible. She could smell the sea and hear the waves hitting the rocky coast with their mighty force.
In a closer inspection, the manor reminded Elizabeth of those tales of old castles full of ghosts where legendary battles had been fought. The building was solid, but unwelcoming. Surely those stony walls and small Tudor windows would resist the wildest storm, but Elizabeth doubted they would provide the occupants the warm and cosy shelter of a real home. Even though Rosings was a fortress built to stand up before the most inclement attacks of both men and weather, Elizabeth would never change the green pastures of Hertfordshire to live in a place like this.
"Beyond those cliffs there is a small beach for the exclusive use of the family," pointed Mr. Collins. "Lady Catherine has allowed us to use it during the summer, if she is not entertaining guests."
"How generous of her," replied Elizabeth.
"I have not had the chance to go there yet, the weather had been too cold so far," added Charlotte. "Though I know I would always prefer Hunsford's beach instead of this one. It's smaller but much closer to our house, and down the hill, which makes the journey a lot more effortless."
"Cousin Elizabeth," said Mr. Collins with certain degree of embarrassment. "You should not feel uneasy about your apparel. Her Ladyship will not think less of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved and she never requires in her guests the same elegance that becomes herself and her daughter."
"Thank you, Mr. Collins," replied she, keeping the sarcasm from her voice. "Her Ladyship is so considerate."
Thus they resumed their walk, entering in the gardens of the house.
On reaching the mansion, the uneasiness of the party increased. Elizabeth, the only one whose disposition did not seem affected by the intelligence of such dreadful stories, had nothing to fear. For her, Lady Catherine was only another arrogant noblewoman who took pleasure in using her rank to abuse those who could not defend themselves. Ignoring her was the best thing she could do.
A servant showed them to the room where Lady Catherine, her daughter, and another woman were sitting. Her ladyship, received them from her seat while Mrs. Collins did the introductions.
Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, with features that might once have been handsome but that now only transmitted bitterness and disdain. She never smiled, her air was not conciliating nor inviting, nor was her manner of receiving them. The difference between ranks was constantly reminded so her guests would not forget the inferiority of their status. For Elizabeth, she was just like Mr. Wickham had represented her.
They all sat, silent and tense under Lady Catherine's judgmental scrutiny. Maria was terrified, the Collinses would not utter a word if not addressed first and even Sir William, the only one who had been in St. James, was intimidated enough by the grandeur around him to engage her Ladyship in conversation.
The first impression that Miss de Bourgh made on Elizabeth was changing every minute the young ladies spent in mutual society. If Elizabeth had found her plain and unattractive from the distance, on closer scrutiny she thought her prettier now. Neither striking nor beautiful, but pleasant in her own way. Her figure was light and her vivacious green eyes evidenced an easy temper. She even made a few attempts to engage Elizabeth in conversation but these expressions of civility were quickly silenced by her imposing mother. Lady Catherine, too fond of hearing her own voice, would not admit a conversation which had not been started or carried on by herself so any subject that escaped her choice was immediately dismissed and turned into one of her liking.
Towards the Collinses, Lady Catherine was deliberately vicious. They were constantly reminded of her generosity and she would silence with uncivil disdain any opinion they would voice during the conversation. Not that they supplied any reason to provoke her instant rejection, they were always obliging and even servile in their responses, but her ladyship seemed to unwelcome any word that would come from their lips. Fortunately for them and the rest of the party, her efforts in degrading the parson and his wife eased somehow during supper. She was too busy chewing her food and hearing the praise her guests were offering about the feast she was hosting to do so.
When the ladies returned to the drawing room, there was little to be done but to hear Lady Catherine talk, which she did without any intermission till coffee was served. She expressed her opinions about almost every subject in a very decisive manner, proving to everyone that she was not one to have her judgement discussed. Even Charlotte's domestic concerns were discussed in front of every body. Lady Catherine had no reserve in telling her how to manage her household and even threaten her with 'dreadful consequences' if her instructions were not followed precisely. Nothing was beneath this great lady's attention. If it was at Rosings, it was under her tyrannical command.
Her Ladyship was quite incisive with Elizabeth, too, endeavouring to know everything about her. She enquired about her family and did very little to conceal her disgust for Mrs. Bennet's choice of not hiring a governess to improve the education of her daughters. The fact that all five girls were out at the same time, even if the eldest were not married yet was also criticized with vehemence. By the end of the conversation, Lady Catherine de Bourgh was seriously displeased with the opinionated Miss Bennet. And Elizabeth was more than desirous to leave the place. The final proof of Lady Catherine's rudeness came when the Hunsford party was allowed to return home. Even when she detained them at Rosings until it became almost dark, she did not offer a carriage to take them back to the parsonage. The guests then began a slow return home, troubled by the outcome of this evening, but grateful that it had finally ended.
Sir William stayed only for a week at Hunsford and returned home more concerned about his daughter's welfare on his departure than when he arrived. Contrary to what he thought when he gave them his blessing, it was not treatment that receiving from her husband what troubled him, the couple seemed perfectly content with each other, it was the constant mortification and humiliation that her daughter and son-in-law were receiving from their patroness.
The second week at Hunsford passed uneventfully. To Elizabeth's relief, they dined only twice at the mansion so her meetings with the tyrannical Lady Catherine were brief and sporadic. On their third week, though, things changed a little. The presence of the Hunsford party was requested several times thus exposing them more often to her Ladyship's unmerciful abuse. Elizabeth was usually spared from it, Lady Catherine seemed to find her entertaining and therefore treated her more kindly but the Collinses, especially the parson, were the constant object of her attack.
There was as evening in particular when her Ladyship became exceedingly vicious with the couple. It had been the previous Sunday, after the services. Lady Catherine found the parson's sermon inadequate and made her objections known in the harshest of ways. Even Miss de Bourgh took pity of them and jumped in the parson's defence, but to no avail. The meeting was disturbing to say the least and the party left the mansion with a bitter taste in their mouths.
"Mr. Collins," had said Lady Catherine in her severest tone, "your sermon did not reach my expectations. It lacked the fire and brimstone that is necessary to inculcate the fear of God in the sinful heart."
"Yes, your Ladyship. More fire and brimstone. I will attend to it right away for next Sunday's sermon."
"Be sure you do. You are not the only clergyman in England. I can well replace you at any time if you cannot follow a simple request. Peasants will never understand the Christian duty if they are not told about the chastises that might be inflicted upon them if they disregard God's will."
To this, the parson bowed his head in acknowledgement. Objections to Charlotte's behaviour and attire followed and the evening ended with a serious threat about the couple's continuity in the Hunsford parsonage if her Ladyship's wishes were not obliged in the exact manner she was requesting.
"I cannot stand her abuse anymore, Charlotte, I will not allow it!" Mr. Collins cried with impotency and anger once they reached the parsonage.
"Please, do not distress yourself, my dear! I dare say we must endure this only a little longer. You have already sent several letters inquiring for other livings, perhaps we shall be lucky and find a new one soon!"
"Do you know how long I waited for this one? It took years, Charlotte, years! I am not willing to live under her dictates for much longer. God help me, wife, but I swear I shall kill that woman if she mistreats us once more again!"
"My dear husband! Do not say that!" Mrs. Collins embraced the parson. "I shall ask for my father's help, may be we can..."
The couple lowered their voices and their words faded into the night. Poor Mr. Collins, thought Elizabeth as she pulled the covers up to her chin. Even if she was still in shock for the parson's abruptness, she condoled with him. He and Charlotte were trapped in a nightmare, with nowhere else to go.
One of the things that Elizabeth liked best about Rosings was the incredible view that the high cliffs beheld when the weather allowed it, that is, because, in general, it was either too windy or too foggy to allow her a good appreciation. Being a most tenacious walker and a fearless climber, when she was not taking long walks along the beach, Elizabeth would often found herself exploring the higher lands in search of a particular spot to overview, in spite of how unladylike the others might think those activities were. There was one spot in particular that became a favourite of hers. It was a rocky formation that formed a sort platform over the sea, situated in between the parsonage and the mansion. From there she could see Hunsford village, the lower grounds beyond Rosings' park and the mansion's private dock. On clear days, the shore of the mainland was clearly discernible and she found great amusement in watching the vessels coming back and forth to the island.
It was a sunny, breezy day; an excellent day for navigation. Given the unpredictability of the weather at that time of the year and the danger that the tides provided, a day of calm sea and soft winds was an opportunity that could not be missed, hence the traffic of fishing boats and small ships had been intense since the morning.
Advancing gracefully towards the island, a larger vessel called Elizabeth's attention. For what she could guess, it was not a trading ship nor a fishing boat. It was beautifully outlined, its white sails fully displayed, drifting elegantly over the wavy waters. Instead of turning north towards Hunsford like most of the ships did, it went directly to the manor's port where, it seems, some of Lady Catherine's servants were already waiting for it.
Elizabeth knew then that her Ladyship was expecting guests. Important guests, she would guess, given the amount of servants and carriages that were waiting for them on the dock. Two gentlemen descended from the ship, one taller than the other, both well dressed and apparently of good breeding. From there, Elizabeth could not discern their faces but there was something about one of them that seemed vaguely familiar to her. They climbed into the carriage that was waiting for them and her eyes followed it until it became lost in the serpentine road that led to the mansion.
"Well," Elizabeth rose with a sigh. "The Rosings party has been increased. Hopefully, the newcomers will keep Lady Catherine's attention occupied and she would spare us from her most undesired company."
A seagull made a few turns over her head, responding noisily to her wishful words, as if disagreeing with them.
"No, I guess you are right." she smiled. "Nothing will conform her. She will have us there, even if it is to abuse the Collinses in front of a greater audience."
"And the carpet I sent you, Mrs. Collins, was it placed according to my orders?" Her Ladyship enquired.
"Yes, madam," replied Charlotte quietly. "Thank you so much. It enhances the beauty of the curtains you gave us."
"I imagine that would be the case. I will inspect it personally to see if it was done properly. And I warn you, if it is not, dreadful consequences await you."
Elizabeth was becoming sick with this conversation. The infamous carpet was sent to the parsonage two days before with Lady Catherine's instructions that it should be placed in the parlour destined for Charlotte's personal use. It matched the curtains, yes, but it has been too large for that room and one of the ends had to be rolled under the furniture so it would fit. Pity, because it would have looked lovely in the dining room but no one there had the courage to affront one of Lady Catherine's orders and do the right thing. Poor Charlotte, her house was decorated with all kind of objects her Ladyship chose to dismiss.
"Miss Bennet," cried Lady Catherine on seeing that one of her guests was walking away. "Where are you going?"
Elizabeth turned on her heels. "I was going to see the birds." She pointed at the golden cage near the end of the room. "I have never seen birds of this kind."
"A gift from the Governor of India to my late husband. You will not be able to see animals like those in your life again. They are extremely rare."
And extremely filthy, thought Elizabeth, noticing the mess that the parrots were making with the fruit and food they were given. The smell of the rotten fruit wasn't pleasant either nor were their droppings splashed all around. But any sight and any smell, no matter how disagreeable it was, was better than sitting by lady Catherine de Bourgh for the remainder of the afternoon.
Elizabeth began to wander about the room, observing every object that attracted her attention, even if it had very little beauty to offer. She was engrossed watching a particularly unattractive vase when the door that connected to the adjoining room opened and she found herself only a few steps away from Mr. Darcy.
She then realized that he was the owner of the familiar figure she had seen disembarking from the vessel on the previous day. "Mr Darcy. I did not know you were here."
The gentleman seemed as astonished as she was about the unexpected meeting. "Miss Bennet," he bowed. "I have arrived just yesterday. It is my custom to visit my aunt during the Easter holiday."
The sound of a gentleman clearing his throat reminded them that they were not alone.
"Allow me to introduce you to my cousin, Col. Fitzwilliam." said Darcy.
Elizabeth exchanged pleasantries with the other man, Colonel Fitzwilliam, the second son of the Earl of Matlock. A charming man, opposite to Darcy in colour and disposition.
"Miss Bennet," said the colonel as they joined the others, "you cannot imagine how happy I am that we are having a larger party at Rosings. My aunt tends to monopolize the conversation and if there are more people to entertain her, it will divide her attention from those of us who endure her ramblings every year."
"Endure, sir?" She arched an eyebrow, surprised by the colonel's frankness.
"Perhaps I was a little carried away," the colonel said with quick at glance at Darcy, who did not reply, "You shall see for yourself."
Elizabeth would have said that she had seen enough already but she did not know the gentleman well enough as to take such a liberty.
"Richard!" Miss de Bourgh ran to greet them, "how was the shooting this morning? Did you hunt enough for supper?"
The colonel took both her hands in his, "Six partridges, my dear. Darcy here was also lucky, so I believe I can say that we assured ourselves our place at the dining table."
"I knew it," replied Ann with great enthusiasm, "You are such an excellent shooter. Remember that you promised that you would …"
"Ann!" Lady Catherine interrupted. "Come here and sit down. Darcy, escort her to the sofa. Fitzwilliam, you sit next to the Collinses."
The look of disappointment that crossed both Col. Fitzwilliam's and Miss de Bourgh's countenance did not pass unnoticed to Elizabeth nor did the fastidious glance that Darcy cast at his aunt. Nevertheless, they did what they were asked. Darcy and Ann shared the sofa on Lady Catherine's right, and the rest took the vacant seats that circled her. Coffee was served a moment later.
"I have noticed that you are already acquainted my nephew, Miss Bennet," asked Lady Catherine. Her voice sounded more accusatory than inquiring.
"Indeed, madam," said Elizabeth. "I had the pleasure of meeting him a few months ago."
"Pray tell," Her Ladyship demanded, "how did you meet him? I cannot imagine an occasion that will join two people of so different social spheres together."
"I do not understand why, your Ladyship." Elizabeth replied, "I do not share your rank, but that did not prevent me from becoming acquainted with you."
Lady Catherine seemed affronted by such reply. "Upon my word, young lady, you express your opinions with great determination. Have you not been taught the basics of good breeding? To respect your superiors?"
"I cannot understand why is that you found my answer disrespectful, I was simply stating that my chances to meet a gentlemen of Mr. Darcy's rank are the same that I have to become acquainted with someone of yours."
"I have never heard such insolence," snapped Lady Catherine, "Though I should not expect it any different from someone of inferior birth." And then, addressing the parson, she stated, "Mr. Collins, next time you bring your cousin hither you must instruct her about the appropriate behaviour when visiting a noble house. I shall not tolerate this conduct a second time."
"I will, your Ladyship," Collins bowed his head. "I promise you that the next time you honour us with an invitation, my cousin's manners would be considerably improved."
In any other moment, Elizabeth would have been offended by the parson's words. Even when she thought his reply cowardly and condescending, she could not blame him. She had seen enough from Lady Catherine's abusive nature and Mr. Collins had too much to lose if he dared to confront his patroness.
"Have you returned to your piano lessons, cousin Ann?" asked the colonel in an attempt to distract his aunt from attacking Miss Bennet farther. "I heard that you play quite well. Would you grace us with a song later?"
"I am afraid I still play very poorly, sir." Ann smiled at her cousin for his timely and compassionate intervention. "I would not wish to offend your ears with an ill executed song."
"She does not practice as often as she should." Lady Catherine would not allow this conversation to continue without expressing her opinion on the matter. "No one can achieve true proficiency without constant practice. Few people in England have my taste in music. It is a pity that I have never learned, for I know I would have been an accomplished player. Darcy," she turned to her nephew, "I hope Georgiana had not given up her lessons. Does she practice every day?"
"Yes, madam, every day."
"You must not neglect that part of her education, nephew. Her accomplishments in the fine arts are what will distinguish her over the other young ladies of her same stature."
"I am not, aunt, I assure you."
"I will have to see for myself when I next go to Town," her Ladyship said sternly, "her education had not always been supervised with efficiency I would have expected."
Darcy's jaw clenched and everyone could see that he was holding his breath. The tension in the room was such that the air could have been cut with a knife.
"I had the chance to see her a few weeks ago, aunt," the Colonel interjected, "and I assure you that Georgiana is an exquisite player. I have seen her practicing several hours a day."
Lady Catherine glanced at her other nephew through narrowed eyes, then addressed her daughter in a decided manner. "You should follow Georgiana's example, Ann, and take your lessons more seriously. I am most certain that she will be of good influence to you once you are established at Pemberley, as you will be for her, as well."
This statement made Darcy bolt up to his feet. With a quick 'excuse me, I am in need of fresh air,' he fled out of the room.
The Hunsford party looked at each other with astonished eyes, Ann could simply not raise them from her lap and Col. Fitzwilliam shook his head. Not much later, Lady Catherine announced that she was tired and her guests were dismissed. Everyone was relieved that the meeting was over.
For an entire week a dull, greyish curtain of fog had surrounded the island, sparing the Hunsford party from Lady Catherine's abominable company. When the weather improved, they were required once again at the grand house to hear her Ladyship's incessant musings. Col. Fitzwilliam joined them on occasion, distracting in that way Lady Catherine's attention from her favourite victims. As for Mr. Darcy, he was only seen at church.
The days that preceded the Easter Holidays blessed Rosings with clear skies and fairly soft winds, thus providing Elizabeth of good opportunities to return to her tours around the island. Sometimes she would walk barefoot along Hunsford beach and other times she would just climb on her favourite spot to observe the acrobatic fly of the seagulls over the fishing boats.
She was halfway through the tricky ascent to her favourite rock when Elizabeth discerned that her sanctuary was not vacant. Mr. Darcy was standing there, with his eyes lost in the immensity of the sea, his hat forgotten over the stone, throwing pebbles down the cliff. Not wishing to talk to him, she turned on her heels, but in her hasty escape, she slipped on the moistened rock. An unladylike gasp escaped therefore attracting the gentleman's attention to her.
"Miss Bennet! Let me assist you," he rushed to her and extended his hand to help her.
"Thank you." She took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. With her hand firmly clasped on his, she climbed the remaining of the rocks up to the platform.
"Are you hurt?" he asked in concern. "You could have taken a bad fall. 'Tis a difficult path to climb."
"I am well, I assure you." She brushed her skirts. Her knee was hurting, it was probably bruised but she was not going to tell the gentleman about it.
He turned again to face the sea, his eyes scrutinizing the mainland. "It is a beautiful day."
"Indeed." She glanced quickly in his direction. He seemed so pensive, perhaps disturbed by some unpleasant thought.
"This spot has always been a favourite of mine," said he, with a hint of longing in his voice. "I used to sit here to observe the boats and the seagulls for hours when I was a young lad."
Elizabeth thought that he probably had done that to avoid his aunt's company. "I can understand why, the view is breathtaking."
"It is indeed, albeit I would not change the hills of Derbyshire for any other place in the world."
"I have heard that your home is beautiful. Do you spend much of your time there?"
"Not as much as I would like." he sighed. "Sometimes my obligations take me to places I do not wish to go."
'Such as Rosings?' Elizabeth almost asked, but held her tongue. "Sometimes, we are not free to choose."
"No, we are not." He threw another pebble into the sea.
Elizabeth observed him intently as her thoughts drifted towards Mr. Wickham and how Darcy's selfishness thwarted the other man's aspirations. She did not know what made her say what she said next, but she said it and the pain that she saw in Mr. Darcy's eyes almost hurt her as much as it hurt him.
"I am most certain that you will be able spend more time at Pemberley in the future. Perhaps when you get married, you will be able to establish yourself in your paternal home."
Darcy's shoulders tensed and the glance he darted at her was the darkest one. His eyes narrowed, then glanced at the last rock in his hand. He took a deep breath and threw it away with all his force.
"I must return to the house now." He murmured a moment later. "Let me assist you down."
Darcy put his hat on and made his way down through the slippery rocks. He offered her his hand and helped her down the rocky path. When she was standing on even ground, he made his excuses and walked away, leaving Elizabeth to return to the parsonage on her own.
One of the customs that Sir Lewis de Bourgh had established at Rosings when he was still alive was the celebration of the Easter festivity according to the German tradition. His widow honoured his wish along the years that followed his death, even when she considered the meddling with the tenants inappropriate and the adoption of a foreign custom antipatriotic. Notwithstanding Lady Catherine's distaste for such festivities, the entire staff was preparing the house for the celebration. That was how, during the days prior to the Easter Sunday, the ladies of the house and of the most important families gathered together at the mansion to paint the eggs that would be hidden all around the gardens for the children to search.
"I must confess that Easter is much simpler at home," Elizabeth placed a freshly painted egg on the basket. "We only attended the morning services and meet our neighbours for an early lunch."
"I remember those times very well, Eliza," laughed Charlotte, "your mother used to complain so much about the noise we made."
"Was it that bad?" smiled Miss de Bourgh.
"With five Bennet girls and four Lucases running about the house, you must imagine how noisy those gatherings were."
"I wished I would have had brothers and sisters. My childhood had been so quiet. Though I fear my mother would not have allowed us to play around, had I had siblings. She has a distaste for loud noises."
Except for those that come from her own mouth, thought Elizabeth. "And your cousins, did they not visit you on occasion?"
"Oh yes, they did. Wills always comes for the Easter. Richard usually accompanies him, that is, when his duty as a soldier allows him."
Miss de Bourgh blushed. "Pray, forgive me. I was talking about Mr. Darcy. I know I should not address him thus, my mother does not allow such informality."
"You seem very fond of your cousins."
"I am, they are most dear to me. Richard is so charming and Darcy... well, he is a good man."
There was a remarkable change in Ann's demeanour when speaking of each cousin that made obvious in which one lay her preference. When she mentioned Darcy her face did not show any particular emotion but when mentioning the colonel, the young lady glowed.
"I agree with you," said Elizabeth, "Colonel Fitzwilliam is a very agreeable man."
"Indeed he is." Ann's eyes shone in admiration for her cousin. "And very handsome too, do you not think so?"
It became Elizabeth's turn to blush. "I will not deny it."
"Darcy is a very handsome man, too." continued Miss de Bourgh, knitting her brows in deep meditation. "He has changed so much these past years. He had turned so reserved since his father died. Some people call him proud but it is because they do not know him well enough. They do not understand the heavy responsibilities that lay on his shoulders."
Elizabeth remained silent. Even when hearing Miss de Bourgh praise her cousin with such eloquence, she could detect a sad undertone in her speech, like resignation and loss, as if the girl would be trying to convince herself that the man that her mother wanted to impose on her as a husband, was not as bad as everyone thought.
"I heard his estate is very beautiful," said Elizabeth a moment later.
"Pemberley? Oh, yes, it is." Ann returned to her painting.
There was a pause when Elizabeth waited for Miss de Bourgh to mention her tacit engagement to the gentleman but that seemed a subject that Ann refused to acknowledge. Perhaps she was as reluctant to enter in an engagement as Darcy appeared to be? For what Elizabeth could guess, against what was of general understanding, neither Ann nor Darcy were inclined to enter in an alliance that would unite both their fortunes and estates. It was obvious that Miss de Bourgh's affection was more oriented in the charming Colonel's direction -if the officer corresponded her feelings with the same intensity was yet to be determined-, while Darcy seemed oblivious to his aunt's hints about their tacit engagement. But then, as Darcy himself stated, they were not free to choose. She pitied them.
The ladies returned to their painting. Not much later the gentlemen entered the room, startling the ladies that were sat all around the large table.
"I did not imagine you possessed such talent, cousin," the colonel addressed Miss de Bourgh. "You are most skilful with the brush."
Ann giggled at his compliment. "You are being too generous, Richard. I know my work to be extremely lacking. Miss Bennet's artwork is much better than mine."
The colonel bent and spoke close to Ann's ear. "I think yours are beautiful. Put a mark on them and I promise shall only look for the eggs you painted during the egg hunt."
To that comment, Ann blushed intently.
Darcy gave a turn around the table, observing the ladies in their task. He stopped a few steps behind Elizabeth.
"Do you wish to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming all this way to scrutinize my work? My talent might not be as good as Miss de Bourgh claims it to be, nevertheless I shall not be intimidated by your presence. My courage always rises when I am challenged."
A slow smile grew in his lips as he elaborated his reply. "You cannot believe me capable of that, madam. I was merely admiring your painting. Though that should not expected any different from you for I know you well enough to affirm that there are times when you find great enjoyment in professing opinions that are not your own."
Elizabeth could not help but feel amused by his speech. It was not the first time that she was the recipient of Mr. Darcy's frankness and in this case, the gentleman could not be more certain in his affirmation.
"Ah, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth turned in her seat so she could see him. "You have placed yourself in a very dangerous position. I had hoped to pass myself off with a certain degree of credit while at Rosings but now that you have exposed me in front of all these people, I am forced to retaliate. Do you wish me to tell your family about your behaviour in Hertfordshire? I have knowledge that may shock them."
"I am not afraid of you," he challenged her.
"Pray, tell us, Miss Bennet," pleaded the colonel, "I want to know how he behaves among strangers."
"Are you ready to hear something dreadful?" She asked playfully, adding suspense to the tale. "The first time I saw him was at a ball. He only danced two dances and did not ask for introductions, remaining all night with those of his own party. The gentlemen were scarce and his reluctance to join the dance floor left more than one lady to sit down in want of a partner."
This comment extracted giggles from Miss de Bourgh and a loud laugh from the colonel. The other ladies in the room did not dare to raise their eyes nor did they show any kind of sign that they had indeed heard this young girl mocking Lady Catherine's most illustrious nephew. Darcy, for his part, did not seem affronted nor offended by Miss Bennet's impertinence. On the contrary; he appeared to be diverted by it.
"Unfortunately, madam," replied the gentleman, "I do not have the talent that some possess of conversing easily with strangers."
"Perhaps you have not tried hard enough. I believe that successfully acting in society is a matter of effort and practice. Take myself as an example. I cannot draw and I consider myself an appalling painter but here I am nonetheless, for I know that my dedication and effort of today will be the happiness of many tomorrow."
"Are you doing this for you or for the others' benefit?" There was an air of wickedness in his smile.
Lowering her voice so only her closest circle could hear, Elizabeth replied. "Neither. I confess that am doing it only because Lady Catherine asked. As much as I adore egg hunts, there is nothing I despise more than to paint Easter Eggs."
Neither Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam nor Miss de Bourgh could stop themselves from laughing aloud at that comment. For the first time in years, the sounds of laughter echoed through the corridors of Rosings manor.
What they didn't know, it was that this would be the last.
The Easter Sunday presented Rosings Island with an uncharacteristic warm weather for the time of the year. The day began hot, windless and so humid that it excited the fears of eldest and most experienced villagers that something dreadful was going to happen. They considered it a bad omen. Spring had never been benevolent on the island and this uncommon stillness, the red dawn and the unusual absence of seagulls and birds that usually adorned the skies was the announcement that a big storm was coming. What they did not know was that the storm that would unmercifully batter Rosings Island for the next two days, would bring much more than wind and rain.
The festivities of the day began with the morning services in Rosings' Chapel. Mr. Collins' sermon was long, in accordance to the importance of the holiday, and constantly accompanied by the sound of the fans that the attendants agitated energetically to mitigate the heat. Once the sermon was over, the leading families of the island were invited to the house where the Easter breakfast was served.
"Blind man's buff!" cried the children.
"Then that is what we shall play, little ones. We only need a handkerchief," said Ann, looking around. "Which one of you, gentlemen, would provide us with such precious piece of attire so we can play our game?"
With an elegant reverence, Colonel Fitzwilliam gave her the piece of cloth.
"Thank you, sir," laughed Ann, "your gallantry will be rewarded. Would you honour us by being the first blind man of this day?"
The colonel could not deny the enthusiastic chorus that followed her request. "Madam, your wish is my command."
Ann put both hands on the task of covering the colonel's eyes while several of the young, unmarried ladies of the party, encouraged by their mothers, joined then on the lawn. With a handsome and rich bachelor participating, the game was not a child's game anymore.
The gentleman was spun around before being allowed to chase around his prey.
"Ah, my dearest Ann, I could recognize the fragrance of your rosewater anywhere," said he, sensing the proximity of his cousin.
Ann giggled while running around him. "You are never going to catch me, Richard!"
Like the good soldier he was, the colonel planned his strategy. Oriented by the giggles, he followed another group of girls, who were now screaming and laughing to call his attention. But Ann would not allow him to find someone else. She taunted him, passing very close to him several times, until he got her by a ribbon.
"And who would this one be?" He brushed his fingertips over Ann's face. "Nay, it cannot be. My cousin's skin does not feel so soft and she has warts all over her cheeks."
"Richard!" Ann laughed.
The colonel lifted the wrap from his eyes. "I believe I caught you. What shall be my reward, madam?"
Miss de Bourgh smiled coquettishly. "It would depend on the gentleman's ..."
"Ann! Enough of that game!" bellowed Lady Catherine. "You have been under the sun for too long."
The young couple stepped apart.
"Find a distraction and meet me beyond the maze," Fitzwilliam whispered quickly. "I shall be waiting for you."
Ann acknowledged his petition with a nod. Her eyes quickly scanned those around her and found her escape. "Miss Bennet! You must be next!"
"Oh, no, thank you. I have never been good at this sort of games."
Ann took her hand and led her to the centre of the group. "Please, let me persuade you. I would do it myself but I feel dizzy when I have my eyes blinded."
Reluctantly, Elizabeth accepted and the cloth was wrapped around her head. Ann spun her around and Elizabeth began a tentative search of her surroundings.
No one noticed the colonel leaving the party. No one realized that Miss de Bourgh left only a few minutes later. No one, except Miss Maria Lucas.
"Richard?" came Ann's whispered voice from in between the bushes. "Richard, where are you?"
A strong arm encircled her waist and Ann was lifted and swirled around in the gentleman's embrace. Her scream of happiness was muffled by his ardent lips.
"Oh, my love," Ann breathed against his mouth, "You cannot imagine how much I had wished this moment to come!"
"So have I, dearest."
"We must be careful. My mother suspects. She has spies informing her of our whereabouts day and night. I cannot leave the house without a servant following my every move."
"Hopefully, the game will keep her entertained for a while." Fitzwilliam took both her hands in his and kissed her knuckles.
"Oh, Richard," she sighed, "We must do something to end this agony. I cannot bear another year without you. I wish we could escape from this place and live our lives together, away from my mother's dictates."
"We cannot elope, my love, you know that. Everything would have been for naught. We only have to wait a few months and you will be free to marry where you choose."
"But my mother is determined to marry me to Darcy! She will never desist in her purpose. Mrs. Jenkinson told me that she is planning to speak to him today."
"Darcy will never consent to her wishes."
"He has no choice and neither have I! You know she can force us and there is nothing we can do to prevent it!"
The colonel looked at her with determined eyes. "No, Ann, I will not allow it. I will defend our love with my heart and my sword. I will find a way to stop her. Your mother will never pull us apart."
Miss Lucas' eyes observed the lovers sharing a passionate kiss. She had never seen a gentleman display so much ardour with a woman nor a lady receive his attentions with such wantonness. Shocked by what she saw, Mariah covered her mouth and ran back towards the house.
"Miss Elizabeth!" cried one of the girls, "over here!"
Completely blinded by the cloth, Elizabeth swirled around, following the giggles of the children that were running all around her. The sounds of laughter and skirts took Elizabeth closer to the part of the garden in which the tables with refreshments were being served, where a group of guests were observing those who were playing around. The children rushed in front of her and in her attempts to catch one of them, she ended holding the sleeve of a coat. A man's coat.
"You must guess!" said one of the girls. "You must tell us who he is!"
Elizabeth then found herself in a great predicament. Certainly there was a man in front of her and she did not think that continuing with this would be appropriate. Yet, it was a game and these liberties were allowed for the sake of the amusement. With hesitant movements, she moved her hands to the gentleman's chest. Undoubtedly, the man was tall, for his cravat was almost levelled with her face. If her recollections were correct, there were only two gentlemen in the party that could sport this stature, Mr Darcy and Mr Elsworth, one of Lady Catherine's tenants. Mr. Elsworth was in his early forties and he had a moustache so if this gentleman had a clean face, then he could only be ...
With no little trepidation, Elizabeth's palm moved up to the man's face, finding the smooth skin of his cheek. By now, she was almost certain of the gentleman's identity. The faint scent of Mr. Darcy's cologne was unmistakable but Elizabeth would not risk a wild guess without further confirmation. She slowly moved her hand closer to the gentleman's mouth. Before she could touch it, she was caught by the wrist and her tentative inspection was detained.
Startled, Elizabeth lifted the blind from her eyes.
"I believe you caught the wrong person, Miss Bennet," Darcy persisted in his firm hold of her hand. "I am afraid I am not part of this game."
Elizabeth blushed intently. "Excuse me, sir, I did not see where I was going or otherwise I would never endeavour to impose on you in this manner."
He smiled and released her hand. "Do not trouble yourself, your eyes were covered."
"Now if you will excuse me," Elizabeth made a courtesy, "I must return to the others."
"I believe you already lost your turn, madam, when you did not guess who I was." Darcy took the cloth from Elizabeth's hand. "And as I am the one to blame for your misfortune, I can only redeem myself by offering you a refreshment. May I escort you to the buffet?"
Elizabeth reluctantly took the arm that was being gallantly offered to her.
"I hope you did not object that I separated you from the others. I thought you might appreciate staying out from the sun for a while," said he, as he led the way to the refreshment table.
"You guessed right, sir, it is a hot day."
They reached the refreshment table where the servants diligently served two glasses of cold lemonade and, glasses in hand, they walked slowly towards the house, to one of the many terraces that bordered the cliff, and climbing a dozen of steps that separated it from the gardens, they reached the tiled balcony, with the hope that the breeze from the sea would bring some relief on this warm day.
"I did not know of your preference for these games, Miss Bennet. You seem to find great enjoyment in participating, even when the weather has turned too hot for such an energetic entertainment."
She took a sip of her lemonade. "I do not mind a little exercise. I find it invigorating."
"I would not expect another answer from you, knowing your fondness for long walks and intrepid climbing." There was a faint smile on his face.
Elizabeth arched an eyebrow. Was she detecting censure in his tone? "I presume you do not find those activities appropriate for a lady."
"No, madam, you are mistaking my words. I never said that I find such conduct improper or unladylike. I consider it worthy of praise that a lady would take pleasure in such healthy occupations."
Elizabeth was not inclined to believe such affirmations, less coming from a gentleman who had always found reproof in her actions. He did not look insincere, though, and puzzled by this rather sudden turn in his behaviour, she turned around and walked closer to rail with the hope that the fresh air would clear the confusion that she always felt when close to the mysterious Mr. Darcy.
"How high would you say this cliff is, sir?" asked she, leaning a hand on the stone rail and taking a peep down to the sea.
Darcy immediately took her by the arm and pulled her back. "Be careful, Miss Bennet, some of the stones are lose. You might tumble and fall. I am not certain about the height of this cliff, but surely it is a long way down."
With his free hand, he gently shook the rail to show her the danger to which she had just exposed herself. It moved and several lose pebbles fell down the cliff.
Elizabeth paled with sudden fear. "Your aunt should see that this is repaired. Someone might fall."
"I fear my aunt does not care much Rosings' upkeep. The colonel and myself are constantly reminding her of her obligation, but she is not one to accept sound advice." Offering her his arm, he led the way back to the garden. Elizabeth gladly took it.
"Have you heard of Mr Bingley?" she asked as they descended the steps. "We had not received word from him nor his sisters since he left. I hope he is in good health."
"He was, the last time I saw him. So were his sisters."
"I am glad to hear it. Do you know if he's planning to return to Netherfield?"
"I am not certain that that would be his wish."
"What a pity. The house had been vacant for so long. The entire town of Meryton was having expectations that Mr. Bingley would choose Netherfield as his country residence."
This time, Darcy did not reply, only nodded briefly as they joined the others on the lawn. Having no other thing to say on the matter, Elizabeth chose to remain quiet, too. A moment later, Darcy broke the silence when he asked, "Are you enjoying your stay at Rosings?"
"Oh, yes, very much. Mrs. Collins is a dear friend of mine and was I longing to spend some time with her."
"It must be difficult to be settled at such great distance from her home. I imagine that she is most pleased now that her family and friends have come this far to visit her."
"She is indeed. Charlotte is very happy. She felt very lonely during the winter."
"I can well imagine. Sometimes, the weather at Rosings can turn unpleasant, especially during the cold months."
Elizabeth nodded silently. The weather was not the only unpleasant thing on this island.
"During storms, the navigation becomes impossible and the island remains separated from the mainland for days. The villagers must depend on the stock they have at home to survive."
"I could not imagine living in such isolation." Elizabeth sighed. "The letters my sister sent me were delayed by the fog and I thought I would go mad in longing for a word from her. She has been in London for the last two months. Did you happen to see her while you were there for the season?"
"No, I did not have that pleasure."
Elizabeth studied his countenance. He suddenly looked displeased. She would have asked him more about his stay in Town and the Bingleys but just then Colonel Fitzwilliam chose that moment to join them.
"A cold glass of lemonade," exclaimed the officer, "you cannot imagine how desperate I am for one. Where can I find one of those?"
Darcy pointed at the table where refreshments were being served, few yards away from them. The servants stationed there quickly obliged the colonel.
"Well, Darcy," said the colonel, pointing at the cloth with which he covered his eyes during the game that was hanging loose from his pocket. "It seems that Miss Bennet convinced you to play Blind Man's buff. How was your luck?"
"I did not play. I merely stood in Miss Bennet's way and she happened to catch me."
Col. Fitzwilliam turned to the young lady. "I should have imagined that was the case. Darcy has a distaste for this sort of amusements."
Elizabeth found this a great opportunity to tease the gentleman. "You rarely dance, you do not enjoy summer games, Mr. Darcy. I wonder in what sort of entertainment a man like you might be inclined to enjoy."
"There are several activities in which I find pleasure, madam."
"Pray, enlighten us, sir. We are eager to know," said she, with a glance at the colonel. "Al though my acquaintance with you has been short, I have always seen you reluctant to participate in general amusements."
Darcy was about to reply, but it was the colonel who answered her request. "I can recite them to you, Miss Bennet, I happen to know my cousin very well."
The admonishing glance Darcy cast on his cousin should have silenced him but Fitzwilliam went on. "Riding, fishing, fencing, playing chess and reading until his eyes burn. He is also fond of walking and has a rather dangerous preference for climbing the higher peaks of his dear Derbyshire. Music is also a favourite of his. I can almost affirm that listening to his sister play the piano forte is one of the things he likes best. I believe Mozart is his favourite composer."
"That is interesting," Elizabeth was impressed. "Except for the first three, we have a lot in common, Mr. Darcy."
"Are you, too, fond of Mozart?" asked Darcy.
"Yes, I like his music very much."
A footman approached them, interrupting their conversation with a, "excuse me, Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine requires that you join her on the terrace."
Darcy's countenance darkened considerably. "Thank you. I will be there in a moment."
The servant left and the Colonel cast a glance at the terrace where Lady Catherine had conveniently secured Ann's presence by her side. "Oh, my, when is this going to end?"
"Never." Darcy said under his breath. "Never if we do not attempt something to stop her."
With a fastidious tug at his coat, Darcy headed towards the terrace to join his aunt and cousin, leaving Elizabeth and the colonel to converse by themselves. "Poor Darcy, he cannot find peace while at Rosings."
"Then why is it that he comes? Certainly he can spend the Easter Holiday somewhere else."
"Sometimes he has no choice."
"I cannot understand how that can possibly be. Mr. Darcy is a man of fortune, surely that bestows upon him a great degree of independency."
"In some matters, yes, but also increases his responsibilities. My cousin is deeply committed to his family and friends. Usually his decisions have great effect on the others so he is very prudent in his actions and encourages the others to do the same."
"Then he must be very sure to always give the best advice."
"His intentions are always the best, believe me. Recently, he saved his very good friend from what might have been a disastrous match."
"His good friend?" Elizabeth's eyebrows arched up.
"Yes, I believe Darcy accompanied him to the country to see an estate he was interested in purchasing. Apparently, his friend became attached to a local girl and was about to propose to her, but Darcy convinced him not to proceed with his folly."
Elizabeth could not believe what she was hearing. It was obvious that the colonel was referring to Mr. Bingley and his feelings for Jane thus confirming her most dreadful suspicions. Darcy had been the one that separated them, inflicting on her dear sister the greatest pain.
"But, what was so disastrous about the match? Did he think that the lady was inappropriate for his friend?"
"No, not her. I believe it was her family that he found objectionable."
Elizabeth's indignation was as high as the overwhelming heat of the day, the anger inside her chest growing as immense as the storm that was now darkening the sky. Winds of resentment cooled her heart with the same strength of those that were beginning to blow over the island.
The storm approached them with such haste that the servants barely had time to fetch the adornments that had been placed in the garden for the Easter festivities. Leaves, dirt, tables, clothes, everything that was not firmly attached to the ground was now being flown away by the unmerciful gusts of wind. Trees were bent like reeds, the deep rumble of the thunder was making the land and rock tremble.
The suddenness of the storm's arrival had left Elizabeth in such stupor that she had not had time to react. The branch of the tree above them cracked and Elizabeth felt herself being pulled away before she was crushed under its weight.
"We must go inside!" the colonel put his arm around her and guided her towards the house. "A storm is coming!"
Thick drops of rain were beginning to fall by the time Elizabeth and the Colonel reached the house. Inside, servants were running about the house, closing windows and lighting candles, preparing the house for the upcoming tempest. Outside, the guests, with the exception of the Hunsford party, were planning their return home before the storm reached the island with all its force.
"Miss Bennet, are you all right?" Col. Fitzwilliam inquired with concern.
Elizabeth was still in shock. "My goodness! That was close!"
"Richard!" Ann ran towards them, "are you hurt? I saw the branch falling over you."
"I am quite well, dearest, we made a narrow escape," the Colonel brushed the leaves and dirt from his clothes. "Where is Darcy?"
"I don't know," replied Ann, eyes wide with fear, "he helped us in and went out again. I believe he said something about helping the servants to see the families off."
Fitzwilliam glared at his aunt, incredulous that she had sent her guests away in this weather. Concerned about his cousin's welfare, the Colonel went to the doors that led to the terrace in search of Darcy's figure. The rain was falling harder, making it impossible to discern anything beyond the gardens. A strike of lightning landed too near to the house, blinding them with white, making windows and furniture tremble with its tremendous noise.
"He must have gone mad. He cannot stay out in this weather. I will go after him."
"No!" Ann grabbed his sleeve, "It is too dangerous!"
"Ann!" bellowed Lady Catherine, "Fitzwilliam is right. Darcy must be brought back to the house safe and sound. He is too valuable a person to risk his health in the storm for someone with little consequence in life."
"So you prefer to risk Richard's? He is your nephew too, mother!"
"Do not forget yourself, Ann. Fitzwilliam is an officer of His Majesty's Army. He has confronted greater dangers than a simple storm. He will find Darcy and bring him back to the house."
"That will not be necessary," The Colonel's eyes narrowed as he distinguished a familiar figure approaching the house. "There he is."
From there, the could discern Darcy's distinctive figure crossing the gardens towards terrace that led to the sitting room. He was not alone. In fact, with the help of a footman, he was carrying another man, a servant, that appeared to be unconscious. The others inside hurried outside to help them carry the body of the injured man into the house.
The limp body of the servant was laid on the rug where the Colonel made a quick examination. Darcy knelt beside him.
"He has a cut on his head and several bruises. What happened to him?"
"He was trying to secure the horses while one of the families climbed into their coach." Darcy was recovering his breath, "Something scared them and he was hit by the carriage. It is a miracle that it did not roll over him."
"We cannot fetch the apothecary in this weather." stated Fitzwilliam. "The injuries do not appear to be dangerous, though. We must put him in a warm bed. Hopefully, he will recover." To his cousin, he asked, "Has everyone left for home now?"
"Yes, let us pray that they will reach the village safely."
"They will," Lady Catherine said solemnly. "Tis only a storm."
"A storm that almost killed one of your servants, aunt," retorted the Colonel. "The road to Husnford is dangerous and should not be transited in this weather."
"Nonsense. Rosings has suffered greater gales and still stands up."
Darcy rose to confront his aunt. "Yes, but that does not mean that you can send your tenants on the road to find their death. This man would not have been injured had those families been invited to remain here until the storm passed. As the mistress of this estate, it is your duty to guard for the safety of those who work your land."
Lady Catherine stood proud and tall, "I will not allow you to question my decisions, nephew. I may not run my estate with the same liberality you run yours but I do know how to manage Rosings island successfully." Pointing at the injured servant, she addressed the butler, "Take this man to the servant quarters. He is staining the rug."
Quietly, the footmen lifted the servant and carried him out of the room while Darcy, drenched to the skin, stood in front of his aunt, looking at her with such an indignant face that the rest in the room thought that he might strike her at any moment.
"Go to your room and make yourself presentable for supper, Darcy," her ladyship stated, "we have important matters to discuss."
Darcy's fists were tightly clenched. He did not move.
"Come, Darcy," Fitzwilliam patted his cousin's back, "you must remove those wet clothes. You'll catch your death in them."
That seemed to soothe him and Darcy allowed his cousin to guide him out of the room. They both conversed in hushed tones as they left the room and Elizabeth, the one closest to the door, heard something that had certainly not been meant for her ears.
"I could have strangled her right there, Richard." said Darcy.
"You were not the only one, believe me."
The rain had been falling over Rosings for many hours, batting against stone and glass with relentless intensity. Inside the mansion, darkness had taken over the place. Not even the many candles and torches that had been lit in halls and rooms were enough to lighten its gloomy, oppressive atmosphere. Long shadows extended themselves over walls and floors with ghostly appearance and the hearths that had been started in the few rooms that were open for use were not enough to mitigate the cold humidity brought by a storm that seemed to be born in hell itself.
Notwithstanding the implacability of the storm and unfortunate incidents that had happened earlier in the day, her ladyship's guests were required at the dining table. The Collinses, Miss Lucas, Miss Bennet and Lady Catherine's illustrious nephews - who were doing very little to conceal their disgust for being forced to share the meal with her, were sitting in the lugubrious room where supper was being served . Even Miss de Bourgh, whose eyes were still swollen and her nose puffed after her recent confrontation with her mother had joined them.
No one seemed inclined to speak, in spite of Lady Catherine's efforts to constantly bring subjects up. Her comments barely excited responses and the only sounds that were heard were those that came from the storm outside or the occasional clicks of metal against china coming from one of the attendee's plates.
"You are very dull this evening, Miss Bennet. Do not tell me that the storm has scared you to the point of making you mute," stated Lady Catherine.
"No, madam," replied Elizabeth. "I was only preoccupied about the servant that was injured today. Is he any better?"
"What happens to the servants is not of my concern, Miss Bennet. And I found it very inappropriate that a young lady would express interest in a footman's health, too."
"He is much better," Darcy interjected. "The Colonel and I paid him a visit before supper. He recovered consciousness very soon after he was taken to bed."
Elizabeth nodded quietly.
"Darcy!" cried her ladyship, "you went to the servant's quarters?"
"Yes," he replied coldly. "I did."
"So did I," added Colonel Fitzwilliam.
The two young gentlemen glared at their aunt, as if challenging her to defy or criticize their actions. In an unusual display of wisdom, on this particular occasion, Lady Catherine kept her mouth shut.
"Ann," she thus addressed her daughter, some minutes later, "You have not eaten one single bite of your food."
"I am not hungry, mother."
With a loud sigh, Lady Catherine returned to her meal, "No matter how much you cry, Ann, I will not change my mind. You know your duty. Now eat, food should not be wasted."
The 'duty' to which Lady Catherine was referring to was not foreign to those at the dining table. Though no one was present during the argument that took place in Lady Catherine's study only a few hours earlier, the outcome was obvious to them. Ann's 'you cannot make me! I will never marry him!' were a clear evidence of what subject was under discussion. So when the young lady left the room, crying and shouting 'I hate you, mother! I hate you!' before she ran up the stairs, they all knew that Lady Catherine was still firm in her pursuit of producing the marriage between Mr. Darcy and Miss de Bourgh, no matter how much her daughter and said gentleman were opposed to her schemes.
Another course was served that no one, with the exception of Lady Catherine, tasted. At the announcement of coffee being served in the sitting room, her Ladyship and her guests exited the room. The evening, though, was far from being over.
Coffee time was as dull and unpleasant as supper. There was no conversation, no music was played nor card tables readied to distract the party from their unpleasant thoughts, only uncomfortable silence of those who were forced to stay under someone's capricious design.
Upon Lady Catherine leaving the room with Darcy, the others remained in the sitting room, trying to find some sort of entertainment until the time to retire came. Elizabeth sat beside a candle with a book; Charlotte and her husband merely sat with their eyes lost in the darkness of room while Maria, terrified of the storm, jumped and secured her sister's hand whenever the sounds of thunder reverberated inside the halls. Only the Colonel stood, pacing in front of the hearth while Ann, still cross and teary, sniffed quietly in her seat under the constant vigilance of Mrs. Jenkinson.
"Ann, dearest," Fitzwilliam approached her tenderly, trying to distract her from her thoughts, "Would you play something for us? I am sure that it will make you feel better."
"I do not have my music with me." She pouted.
"Come," he extended his hand to her, "There must be some song that you remember."
Ann took the offered hand. "I will go for my sheets. I believe I left them in the music room."
"Do not trouble yourself, Miss de Bourgh, I shall go for them," Elizabeth rose from her chair, desirous to leave the room if only for a moment.
"Do you know the way?" inquired the Colonel.
"Yes, sir, I do."
Elizabeth headed towards the music room, which she had visited only once but that she knew was situated nearly the end of the hall. Illuminating her way with a candlestick, she tried several doors until she found the correct one. She took the sheets and on the way back, she heard muffled voices coming from one of the adjoining rooms.
Apparently, Lady Catherine was having the same discussion with her nephew that she and her daughter had had only a few hours earlier. The door was ajar, and Elizabeth clearly heard what follows,
"During the past weeks I have allowed you to pretend you do not listen to what I say, Darcy, but you cannot escape your duty anymore. The time has come to announce your engagement to Ann."
"Perhaps I have not made myself clear enough in the past, aunt, so let me be rightly understood. The match to which you have the presumption to aspire, will never take place. I will not marry my cousin. Never."
"This is not to be borne, Darcy. I insist to be satisfied. From your infancy, you and Ann have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish your mother's as well as it has been mine. By denying us both, you will be wilfully refusing to obey the claims of duty and honour for what your family had planned for you."
"No principle of either will be violated if I do not marry Ann. You both did as much as you could in planning our marriage but its completion does not depend on you. I fear that, in this affair, neither Ann's nor my opinion had ever been taken into consideration. Neither by honour nor inclination do we feel confined to each other."
"What you or Ann feel is not of importance. Decorum, prudence, nay, interest, demand it. Yes, Darcy, interest. You two descend from a noble line on the maternal line, the fortune on both sides is splendid. Do you not think those reasons are important enough?"
"Not to me. As you stated, I am a man of fortune and that allows me the liberty to live my life as I choose."
"You refuse to oblige me, then."
Darcy's voice was determined. "Yes. I will never consent to your wishes."
"I had hoped to find you reasonable, but I see you are not. Do not think that will make me recede in my intent, no. It only forces me to carry it on with methods that you might not find as appropriate as those I had previously exposed."
Darcy did not appear intimidated by his aunt's threat, so she went on.
"I am not a stranger to what happened in Ramsgate, of how your failings in properly attending to your sister's concerns almost ruined the family's reputation." She proceeded in a tone charged with confidence. "I am, too, well acquainted with your dealings with that man and the amount you had to pay in order to keep the scandal from becoming of general understanding. If you do not indulge my demand, all your efforts to keep this affair secret will be in vain."
"I did not know that blackmail was a usual practice of yours, Lady Catherine," he said evenly.
"Oh yes, it is, when it serves to my purposes."
Darcy began to slowly pace the room. "I have never imagined you capable of such selfishness, such greed. Is this what you want? Sacrifice your daughter's happiness and destroy your niece's life only to gratify your ambition?"
"Think of the possibilities that this marriage will bring! Your fortunes, combined, will excel the imaginable. It will be an empire within an empire. The compensation will be so grand that you shall find it enough to lessen any scruples you might feel in entering in an alliance with us."
Darcy contemplated his aunt with astonishment and incredulity. She was insane. "If you think that I can be worked on by such perceptions as those you stated, you are wildly mistaking my character."
"I know you better that you can imagine. You will do anything to protect your name and honour. Think of it, Darcy, the cost to pay will be too high. Are you willing to resign power and respectability with the only design of preserving your freedom?"
"I need not to choose. Whatever you say about Georgiana and myself, I will deny it."
"You may, but you will not be able to refute the letters she wrote to that man nor her plans to elope to Gretna with him. Georgiana was stupid enough to leave written proof her dealings with him and that evidence is now in my hands. And believe me, I will use it if you refuse to oblige me. I have influence, nephew, more that you can imagine. Once this affair is known, your guardianship over your sister will be revoked. With my connections, I can immediately make myself named your substitute. As soon as Georgiana is under my tutelage, I shall be the one in charge of her fortune and education. Finding her the appropriate husband will not be difficult. That will kill two birds with one shot. Your name will be stained forever and your sister's fortune will go to someone of my choice."
Darcy's reply, if there was any, was silenced by the sound of a loud thunderclap that shook the windows. The meeting had come to an end, Elizabeth realized, and fearing to be caught eavesdropping on such a private conversation, she quickly hid herself behind a column just as Mr. Darcy left the room with an un-gentlemanlike curse. Greatly disturbed by what she had heard, Elizabeth ran back to the sitting room where the others were waiting for her.
Sitting alone in the coldness of her room, Elizabeth recapitulated the events of the past few days and how her feelings about coming to Rosings had radically changed from the joyous anticipation she had felt on receiving Charlotte's invitation to the growing necessity to leave the place and return home that she felt now. Not once had she imagined that her stay at Rosings would present her with so much evil and malicious machinations. No one, in the few weeks she had been at Rosings, had been spared from Lady Catherine's awful treatment and her abuse had been constantly and equally distributed among the servants, her tenants, the Collinses and even her, on occasion, with no regard as to whom was the recipient. And now it had reached Mr. Darcy himself!
The accusations that Lady Catherine had laid at Mr. Darcy's door had been heavy indeed. More shocking had been the fact that the gentleman, in not refuting them, had proven them to be true. Even though completely unaware of the particulars, Elizabeth had heard enough to understand that Mr. Darcy had failed in successfully executing the guardianship of his sister, that his negligence had almost resulted in a scandalous elopement and that Miss Darcy had left written proof of her dealings with the man with whom she had apparently developed an undesired attachment. And also that, by some capricious design of fate, such information had fallen in Lady Catherine's unscrupulous hands.
Albeit her understanding of Miss Darcy's character was scarce, and almost entirely founded in comments she had heard from others, Elizabeth considered that the information she beheld was enough as to allow her to form an opinion of her. The young lady was said to be refined, accomplished and proud. Yet, neither her superior education nor her accomplishments had prevented her from choosing the wrong path as, with her actions, she had proved that she was far from being the tractable and docile creature the colonel described in some of their conversations but the possessor of a wild, indomitable temper that was not better than that of her own sister Lydia.
Still, neither Miss Darcy's supposed recklessness nor Mr. Darcy's obvious negligence in rightly supervising his sister's education, justified the application of such unorthodox methods of persuasion such as those Lady Catherine was using now. Not even Elizabeth's deeply rooted dislike for said gentleman -which, after the colonel's revelation had reached astronomic proportions- was reason enough to wish such fate to befall upon him. If he was not inclined to marry his cousin, there was nothing that Lady Catherine could do to force him.
In spite of its sinister undertone, the whole tale was producing a strange fascination in Elizabeth. It reminded her of those mystery novels full of intrigues and machinations that had captured her interest so many times in the past, where she feared what the next page would bring but still could not fight the unrelenting impulse to turn the page and discover what would happen next. Would Mr. Darcy yield to his aunt's wishes? Would family honour and respectability weigh more than freedom? Would he sacrifice his sister's happiness in order to keep his?
According to Mr. Wickham, her most reliable source in what the Master of Pemberely was concerned, Mr. Darcy was a liberal and generous man, virtuous in every aspect, whose heart swelled with familiar pride. He would never do anything to disgrace the family name nor do something that would mean the loss of influence of the great Pemberley House. But, opposed to this, his affection for Miss Darcy was also praised, both by Mr. Wickham and Miss Bingley and he was said to be very careful in the guardianship of his sister.
"Not so careful," Elizabeth said to herself, "if he allowed that to happen. Had he been more involved in his sister's concerns, her Ladyship would not have him at her mercy at present."
The storm was still persistent outside, with no sign of its yielding. Looking around the room, Elizabeth wondered if the house would resist the constant batter of wind and rain for much longer. She dismissed the thought with a smirk, laughing at herself for her childish fears, knowing that there was no chance that a stone building as solid as this one would suffer merely because of a heavy downpour.
"No," she sighed, "Rosings was built to stand forever, as well as the evil contained in its walls."
The events of the day were taking a toll on Elizabeth who was finally succumbing to her tiredness. She slid under the covers and stared blankly at the ceiling for a while, not yet courageous enough to blow out the candle that was the only source of light in her chambers.
There was a faint knock at her door. "Lizzy! 'Tis me, Charlotte."
Elizabeth rushed to the door, thankful for having some company during this horrible night. "Charlotte, Maria, please come in."
"We were wondering if you were feeling as scared as we are, Lizzy," said Maria with noticeable apprehension in her voice, "I have never seen a storm such as this in my life. It looks as if the sky will fall on our heads. Do you think that the house will resist?"
"Of course, Maria," Charlotte rolled her eyes at her sister's innocence, "you heard Lady Catherine. Rosings had faced greater tempests and still stands." Elizabeth, having sketched those same thoughts herself not a moment ago, refused to comment.
The following hour was spent in deep conversation. Charlotte left first, claiming that she needed to return to her husband so Elizabeth and Maria remained awake for a little longer, exchanging their impressions on the recent events and how a day that had begun so enjoyable had turned into such a dreadful night. Elizabeth never said a word about the conversation she had overheard between Lady Catherine and her nephew, for she knew this to be a private matter, one in which secrecy was of greatest importance. When sleepiness overcame her, she declared herself to be exhausted and encouraged her friend to return to her own bed.
"Will you accompany me, Lizzy? Charlotte took the candle with her."
"Of course, dear," said Elizabeth, searching for her robe.
The girls left the room, Elizabeth illuminating the corridor with her candle stick, Maria tightly holding her hand.
"You were very fortunate," Elizabeth said lightly. "Your room is the closest to the family's chambers."
Maria opened the door. "I would not consider myself fortunate for sleeping so close to Lady Catherine. But the room is pleasant enough. Pray, come, I will show you."
Indeed, Maria's room was prettier than Elizabeth's. The walls were adorned with an elegant fabric, the rest of the room, disregarding patriotism, was decorated according to the latest dictates of French fashion.
"I think it is time to return to my room, Maria, I am indeed tired." Elizabeth declared nearly one hour later.
"Stay a little longer, Lizzy, please."
"No, I must go. Try to sleep. You will see that there is nothing to fear."
The girls wished each other a good night and, candle in hand, Elizabeth left for her chambers.
Elizabeth had just closed Maria's door when a flash of lightening illuminated the dark corridor and the figure of a man's body was outlined against the wall. Such was her scare that her scream came soundless. The light persisted for an instant and, on overcoming her initial fright, Elizabeth was finally able to discern that the man standing a few steps away from her was none other than Mr. Darcy.
The gentleman's disturbance for the unexpected encounter was not different to hers. His features were pale and his contorted countenance revealed that the shock had been mutual. He bowed his head in silent apology for frightening her in that manner, she replied with a quick curtsy and they both parted in opposite directions.
Elizabeth found that her chances to achieve a restful sleep that night were scarce. The wind was howling outside and every time she closed her eyes, frightful images of shadows in the corridors scared her to the extreme of not allowing her to rest.
At some point in the night, her sleeplessness was such that she thought of getting out of bed and going to the library for a book to keep her mind occupied. But the mere thought of happening on the mysterious Mr Darcy again -or rambling alone through those dark corridors- convinced her that it was far better to stay abed and wait for sleep to conquer her. So there she remained, curled on her side, watching the small flame of candle light flicker softly in the chilly draught that filtered through the window panes. Her eyes lids grew heavy, her body surrendered and dreams finally came.
Her dreams, though, were neither comforting nor relieving. The experiences she had lived at Rosings during the past weeks were still fresh in her mind and those unpleasant memories were coming back to haunt her in her sleep.
She dreamt that she was lost inside a big, dark castle, with tall stone walls and endless corridors. Why she was there was a mystery to her. All her attempts to abandon the castle had been futile and every door she opened led her to a prison where helpless creatures -that shared too many similarities with Lady Catherine's tenants and servants- had fallen captive of the monstrous evil that governed the house.
Her ramblings through halls and corridors took her to a ballroom. As she entered the large room, her surroundings suddenly began to look dreadfully familiar to her. Though certain features were different, this room reminded her very much of one she had seen at Rosings manor.
Any doubt she could have about where she was and who was hosting this ball was erased the moment she saw Lady Catherine sitting in one of the armchairs, surrounded by whom Elizabeth had come to name 'her Ladyship's court'. As usual, occupying the most privileged spaces (if one could consider sitting next to Lady Catherine a privilege) were Mr. Darcy and Miss de Bourgh and slightly apart, Col. Fitzwilliam shared his seat with the Collinses.
Elizabeth's entrance attracted everyone's attention, and she walked the long line to Lady Catherine and her retinue with dozens of eyes focused on her. They did not seem to stare out of curiosity; they appeared to be studying her, for whispered words and looks of mistrust followed every step she made towards her destination.
The ball began and Elizabeth's hand was solely required by Mr. Darcy. Oddly, the elaboration of such request did not shock her in the very least, in spite of the strong antipathy she felt for the gentleman and the dislike she knew he felt for her. As for his reasons to do this, she was left to guess. Perhaps he was, in his distant, aloof manner, attracted to her but she was more inclined to believe that he was merely using her as an instrument to provoke his aunt's ire while publicly slighting his intended.
"I hope you are aware of the inconvenience of your request, sir, your aunt looks very displeased with your choice of partner," said Elizabeth when the dance joined them in the centre of the line.
"What my aunt thinks is of little importance to me."
"Perhaps you enjoy the power you have of doing what you like, of having everyone at your disposal, but your conduct today is only another proof your selfish disdain for the feelings of others. By requiring my hand for this dance, you are not only neglecting your betrothed's sentiments but exposing me to your aunt's wrath."
"Is this warning designed to guard my cousin's sensibilities or merely to protect yours?" He smirked.
"Both." Elizabeth could not believe his arrogance. "Neither of us have the authority nor the liberty to confront your aunt the way you do, sir. I would not wish to be one of her victims."
Darcy took her hand as she passed by him and, smiling haughtily, stated, "Miss Bennet, you give too much credit to my aunt's maliciousness."
"And you, sir, are underestimating it. You are using all us to provoke her without any consideration to those of us who cannot defend from her abuse. Your aunt holds dangerous information against you and you still endeavour to treat her with contempt and ridicule." Elizabeth replied boldly.
The gentleman coloured and grabbed her by the wrist. "You know not what you are saying. The information to which you refer is false."
"She has proof!" Elizabeth tried to free herself. She looked around, looking for help, but they were now alone in the room.
With a quick move, Darcy brought her closer to him and crushed her against his chest. Her attempts to release herself only made his grip grow tighter. "That proof no longer exists. It was destroyed. She can no longer harm us."
The room was crowded again, with dozens of judgemental eyes focused on her. With her heart racing with fear, Elizabeth noticed that Lady Catherine was gone and that together with her, the evil she that ruled this house. The smiles of conspiracy shared by those around her -which were alarmingly similar to the one Mr. Darcy was sporting now- told her that they were all rejoicing with the disappearance of the person they hated most.
Elizabeth knew then that she had to leave the place as soon as she could or the same fate would fall upon her. She succeeded in freeing herself from Darcy's hold and, terrified, ran away with the hope that no one would follow her. But she had not that luck. They were coming after her and her legs felt so heavy that she could not escape. A heavy hand grabbed her by the arm and shouting a soundless plea, Elizabeth fought her captor until she had no more strength left. And as suddenly as the dream came, it ended, and left her struggling against blankets and covers, fighting against demons that only existed in her head. The nightmare was over, but the fear remained. The screams she thought were her own persisted, but they did not come from her lips, but from the outside, from the gallery, echoing horrendously through the corridors of Rosings manor.
Continue reading "The Eye of the Storm" here
Authors love feedback. Please express your appreciation for Belen's work here