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Chapter Seventeen - To Call the King Your Cousin by A.J. Hall

“She’s home, she’s home and you didn’t tell me?”

The King looked up from his contemplation of a weed-ruined wilderness which had once been a badly-proportioned knot garden.

“My dear, when I found you sound asleep on my return from the Council meeting I hadn’t the heart to wake you. It was past two in the morning.”

For all their seeming solitude there must be bodyguards within reach. Battering her beloved’s head with a trowel would, doubtless, alarm them excessively. Elizabeth contented herself with a piercing glare. Ceremoniously, Mycroft extended his arm.

“Madam, even so early in the season the sun is getting hot. Should we retire into the shade?”

There was something in Mycroft’s expression that she had come to recognise. Bodyguards. And so, one or more potential spies within earshot. She suffered herself to be led indoors.

They did not turn into one of the shabby, grandly-proportioned sitting rooms on the ground floor. Nor did they repair to the suite of rooms off the first landing which had already been put in excellent order for the use of his Grace the King. Without pausing, Mycroft led her to the upper floor, which was, in the estate’s current state of dilapidation, the province of bats and squirrels. Nor did he stop there. Only when they were standing beneath the awning on the roof terrace did Mycroft speak again.

“My dear, I know how much anxiety Frances’ absence has caused you —”

“I don’t think you do,” Elizabeth snapped, before she could restrain herself. “I’ve thought of forty ways in which she could have be captured, imprisoned, tortured by the Beast of Gondal —”

Mycroft looked altogether too calm.

“I’ll warrant your imagination will barely have scratched the surface of his depravity. But happily, and thanks to her own wit and good judgment (qualities she inherits from you, my dear) as well as Jonathan’s loyalty and ingenuity, here she is back with us unscathed, having inflicted no little injury on the Pretender. What is more, if I read Anthea’s report correctly, I doubt he even knows he has suffered injury at all. Yet. Frances has made herself the very spirit of chaos. How could the Pretender adjust his play to hers, when no-one — not Anthea, not myself, not even my brother — could have predicted her taking a hand at all?”

Slowly, she counted to fifty.

“Do you think for a moment — do you imagine Frances thought for a moment — that what she staked in this game, along with her life, was her reputation? She’s been away for weeks, with no chaperone and no explanation. People have said all sorts of things. Or at least, thought them at me very loudly and allowed them to be said in front of people who then dutifully reported them. And you can hardly say that she did anything to soothe my fears, simply leaving a note saying Jonathan was a sensible man and would do his utmost to care for her. Jonathan: a common soldier!”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow.

“Surely a most uncommon solider. What’s more, you can rest assured, my dear, that neither his interests nor his interest would incline him towards Frances’ bed.”

Tears welled up: whether of helplessness, relief or temper she hardly knew or cared. She took a step backwards. Mycroft caught her elbow in a firm grip. Her vision cleared and she gasped at her proximity to the crumbling balustrade.

So, much like my life in general.

“Sit down, my dear. No, here, under the canopy, in the shade. My pardon for my flippancy. But, truly, Jonathan is completely my brother’s man and the loyalty runs deeper than I can fathom, in both directions.”

Bitterness rang in his voice. Elizabeth permitted herself an inward snarl. Who could wonder, given what he had suffered at the hands of a feckless, faithless cockscomb, who deserved to be taken out and shot (if indeed he had survived the Reaching Beck Bridge, which doubtless he had, since warlocks always floated) for the anxiety he had caused his brother.

Thank you, my dear.” The heartfelt gratitude in Mycroft’s voice sent a jolt up Elizabeth’s spine, reminding her that sorcery ran in families, at least in this one.

All her pent up feelings burst out at once.

“But what am I to do? Good God, when Frances has been trying to observe some elusive bird I have seen her fade into the background so effectively that even I, her own mother, could not have told she was there a quarter turn later. Why, why, why, in the name of all that’s holy can she not apply that discretion to moving through society?”

The hand on her arm clasped a little tighter.

“Do not try to confine her, my dear. She is no barnyard fowl, but a falcon. Or perhaps a reed heron. They, too, blend patiently into the sedge, awaiting the moment to strike. And this is her moment, just as it is Charis’. Which reminds me. I have had word of Charis — most disquietingly.”

While she appreciated his attempt to distract her from contemplating Frances’ misdemeanours she could hardly summon up much interest in those of the Crown Princess. Nevertheless, she did her best.

“Really? Don’t tell me she’s taken to gallivanting around unchaperoned and unexplained, too?”

“Quite the reverse, my dear, at least according to her attendants. She has gone off on a spring pilgrimage under the care of a widowed gentlewoman of unimpeachable reputation.”

Elizabeth shook her head, as if to rid herself of a persistent, buzzing insect.

“Charis, on a pilgrimage? Incredible.”

He leant forward, and took both of her hands between his.

“In every sense of that oft-misused word, my dear. Which is why I need to send an agent of proven resource, wit and — most important of all — having the confidence of the Crown Princess to Castle Cavron at once, to find out what is truly happening.”

Elizabeth narrowed her eyes.

“You cannot possibly think of sending Frances. That would set the seal on the Court’s gossip. What else could they think but that she had been sent to some secluded part of the country to bear a bastard child?”

She could not quite catch Mycroft’s next remark, so low did he speak, but it sounded rather like a better cover story than a pilgrimage, at that.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Mycroft looked her full in the eye, his face for once open, all disguise dropped.

“I believe, Elizabeth, that as a mother you should put that point of view to Frances. And then, as one grown woman to another, accept her verdict as to whether she considers the game worth the candle.”

His words hit her like a blow in the diaphragm. As in the aftermath of such a blow, she lost all power of speech. Her power of observation seemed unaffected, however. She saw regret in Mycroft’s face but no trace of apology or retraction.

This is indeed a war. And even Frances is a warrior. Or a weapon. To the extent the King of Gaaldine can even distinguish the two.

From his suddenly wry expression he had read something of her thought.

“Forgive me, Elizabeth, but I am the King. If I attend not to the defence of my realm, I am nothing. And your daughter, I think, knows that.”

Better than you hung, unspoken, in the sultry air of the roof terrace.

“But she’s so young,” Elizabeth choked out.

Mycroft raised his eyes. “By the time you were her age, you were widowed, with a five year old child. Or am I mistaken on that point?”

She gritted her teeth. “I loved my husband. Dearly. Nevertheless, I accept I married full young. I learned wisdom afterwards.” But that is not the point. “You wish to turn Frances — you wish to turn my daughter — into a spy, and send her into hostile country. What mother would not object?”

His expression was disturbingly bland.

“What mother indeed?And yet, my dear, she has been a spy for Gaaldine these last ten weeks and I turned her into nothing; I can turn her into nothing, except she consent. Elizabeth, accept it. Your daughter’s hand rests on a fulcrum by which she intends to shift worlds and time. And she pushes hard, and in the right direction.”

Every crumb of comfort lost, she nodded acquiescence.

“If I hear her tell me — in her own voice — that she agrees to you sending her to Castle Cavron, then I shall not oppose you. But please, do your utmost and also ask Anthea to do what she can to protect her good name along the way.”

Mycroft’s eyes were dark, his mouth solemn. He nodded.

“You have my word. Trust me. And now, of course, I find on this exposed height there is nothing to quench your thirst. Let us go below and have the servants bring lemonade and iced ginger tea.”

They were half-way down the second stair before he looked back over his shoulder and said, “Expediency is one thing, but I dislike the idea that my courtiers have offered you impertinence. Tell me, which of them were insistent on — ah — thinking loudly at you about Frances?”

Revenge smelt delightful in her nostrils. But in truth —

“Frankly, my dear, it would be a far shorter list if I told you who didn’t.

His expression changed, becoming hidden and watchful.

“And that shorter list?”

She spread her hands. “I’m not sure one person can comprise a list. But I have been most grateful for the forbearance and — to say truth — charity extended to me by the Countess of Alwent.”

He stopped his descent and turned to face her fully. His hand gripped the neglected oak of the bannister so hard his knuckles were white, though his tone was that of light banter.

“The Countess of Alwent? I have always supposed my cousin’s wife believes charity begins at home and stirs abroad not at all. Husband and wife should always have one point on which they are in perfect accord, should they not?”

Her breath caught. So much bitterness. What had the Earl and Countess of Alwent done to him? Then her laggard brain caught up. My cousin. My cousin’s wife. But the dead Queen — Evgenia — had been the Earl’s sister, and the Countess had, smilingly, referenced “his Grace, my brother” in their conversation. And she, scrupulous not to encroach upon a family’s still-fresh grief, had taken that assertion at face value. What an idiot she had been. Vultures and shrikes the lot of them, and her beloved their prey.

The broad sweep of the main staircase lay before her. She plucked at Mycroft’s sleeve.

“My dear, do you not think Frances may come to a greater appreciation of her fault if left to contemplate it alone, until we choose to acknowledge her return? We are, surely, in no hurry? And the servants might just as well bring the lemonade and iced ginger tea up here.”

“Elizabeth? What —?”

Her eyes danced.

“I have, my lord, found it hard to sleep of late. But now my worries about my daughter are allayed, I find I could sleep the clock round. You, in turn, were delayed in Council until the early hours. No-one could accuse either of us of the sin of sloth, were we to catch up on our proper repose for an hour or five.”

She drew him towards the first floor suite of rooms, which had already been put in excellent order for the use of his Grace the King.

All the young ladies of Meryton drooped at the regiment’s removal. Despite the relief of Wickham’s departure, the sameness, narrowness of the district without the relief of external visitors struck Elizabeth forcibly, as it had never done before. In this bitter season she came to understand that Mama’s shrillness, her resort to ratafia in the afternoon and brandy from a tea-cup in the evenings, derived from a like sense of suffocation. Regrettably, this insight did not cause her to love either Mama or herself the better.

Deprived of alternatives, she must now pin all her hopes of happiness on the prospect of her tour with the Gardiners, now deferred by three weeks.

At length the dull wait passed. Late one summer afternoon the Gardiners’ carriage rolled up the long white road from Gondal Town. At dawn the next day, yawning and regretting their beds, Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle trundled off north on their party of pleasure.

Much has been written of the wonders of Gondal: its majestic ravines, barren moorlands, bonny brooks, brooding castles and owl-haunted country granges. It is not the purpose of this work to supplement those accounts. The travellers saw and marvelled and said all that was proper and when they were full to the brim of sights and memories they repaired to the small town of Lambton, which possessed, among its other charms, the merit of having been the place where Mrs Gardiner had spent the happiest years of her youth.

Unexpectedly, at least so far as Elizabeth was concerned, their journey to Lambton took them along the outer perimeter of the Pemberley estate. Pemberley itself lay not five miles from Lambton. Furthermore, it appeared that by application to the Darcy family’s housekeeper respectable visitors might be permitted to see the house’s great state rooms and tour the grounds.

The moment this was mentioned, Elizabeth’s heart sank. Her aunt and uncle had taken advantage of every similar opportunity during their travels north. It seemed hardly likely they would desist when it came to Pemberley. Indeed, they showed no patience with Elizabeth’s demurrals, especially since it was impossible for her to give the real reason she was reluctant to risk encountering Mr Darcy.

“If it were merely a fine house richly furnished, I should not care about it myself, but the grounds are delightful,” her aunt scolded her. “And, too, you must have heard so much about it. Surely you cannot pass up an opportunity to see Pemberley for yourself. Wickham passed all his youth there, you know. ”

Although she could not mention this to her aunt, that reflection was hardly calculated to recommend the scheme. Elizabeth fell silent, then when she retired at night made a few commonplace enquiries of the chambermaid. They had passed the fine Pemberley estate in the travels; from the glimpses she had seen through the trees it seemed a monstrous fine place. Was it true that it was owned by the King’s own cousin? Indeed, and were the family down for the summer?

“No, ma’am. I believe they will still be at Lake Elderno.” The chambermaid shuffled from one foot to another; her next words came out in a rush. “They say that the Earl of Ula (he is Mr Darcy’s uncle, you understand) has made a great party down there, with balls and pic-nics and water-parties. His son commands a regiment and with all this war talk who knows where the Colonel may be by this time next month, or his men with him? Small wonder, ma’am, if his father makes the most of what little peace may be left to enjoy his son’s company, and his family comes to join them.”

The maid’s voice held a note of bitter yearning. Elizabeth’s next words came out unbidden.

“You speak as if you have also watched those you love go to the wars.”

She had not meant to pry, but the maid took her comment for question.

“For the most part, ma’am, this is poor, sheep-farming country, save for some mining and quarrying in the high dales. There’s little work for the young men so they are tempted to follow when the recruiting parties come calling, no matter whether it’s for regiments of Gondal or the Pope’s wars or the Emperor’s. Two of my brothers went that way.”

Without asking, Elizabeth knew those brothers had not come back.

“That must be hard, for the families especially.”

The maid stiffened her shoulders, as if to guard against committing an over-familiarity.

“Perhaps, ma’am, the times are changing. The present Mr Darcy has done a very great deal to improve the district, even more than his father before him. Last year, when the harvest was poor, many families would have gone without had it not been for road improvement schemes and bridge-building he put in hand and now a family who fled France because of the religious wars have started a silk manufactory in Lambton and all are saying that Mr Darcy has leased the land at a peppercorn to them, provided only that they take two apprentices a year with no premium asked and teach them the trade too.”

The news of Mr Darcy as a far-sighted and generous landlord upset all Elizabeth’s ideas. Furthermore, now she was assured there was no risk of meeting its proprietor, it kindled in her as great a desire to see Pemberley as her aunt could wish. They departed on their excursion at an early hour the next day.

The first views of Pemberley were delightful. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills. Before it, a stream had been artfully dammed and weired to swell into a small lake, having all the appearance of nature. On their application to the housekeeper they were readily admitted and shown through a succession of rooms: grand and well-furnished indeed, but displaying far more real taste than Rosings’ stately apartments.

Mrs Gardiner’s astute hint that Elizabeth was acquainted with Mr Darcy drew the housekeeper’s respect, and prompted confidences which left Elizabeth marvelling. For what praise could be more valuable than that of an intelligent servant? The housekeeper must have had every opportunity to see Mr Darcy at his worst and yet phrases such as “sweetest-tempered” “good-hearted” “never a cross word from him in my life” kept dropping from her lips, like the roses and jewels from the good girl in the fairy story.

Nor was it possible to dismiss it as the misguided partiality of someone who depended on the Darcy family for everything. Her words amplified and confirmed all the chambermaid had said that morning, and everything about the rooms through which they passed reinforced their truth. Take, for example, the elegance and charm of the sitting room which the master of the house had just had fitted out for his sister Georgiana, to surprise her on her return from Lake Elderno.

“Everything which may please his sister, is sure to be done in a moment,” the housekeeper said. “I look forward very much to seeing her face, when she enters this room tomorrow and sees what he has contrived here.”

Tomorrow?” Elizabeth said, astounded. If their journey had been delayed but a single day —

The housekeeper nodded. “Yes; an express came yesterday. We expect Miss Georgiana and the master here by dinner time tomorrow, with a large party of friends.”

Her aunt took this as a civil hint the housekeeper had duties she must be about. They gave their thanks, and were handed into the care of the gardener, to be shown the pleasure-grounds. They had, though, barely crossed the paved area in front of the house (her uncle had just turned to admire the front elevation, and speculate about the date of the building) when its master himself turned the corner from the stables, barely twenty paces in front of Elizabeth.

It was impossible to tell which of them blushed the deeper; her cheeks felt on fire, and Mr Darcy’s looked so. But the greatest surprise was to have him greet her with civility. He was not at ease, no-one could have accused him of that. His words stumbled out without any order, and he repeated his enquiries after her family several times, without apparently heeding her responses. But he was certainly civil; more than civil. After a few minutes awkward conversation, from which her aunt and uncle stood politely detached, he seemed to recollect himself, gave a nod to the gardener as if to say, “Carry on” and took his leave.

Where the gardener led them, Elizabeth had no idea. Her thoughts were in an uproar, mingling anger at her own folly at coming here, at the fates who had not let them depart ten minutes earlier, embarrassment and abject misery at what Mr Darcy must think of her. That, then, turned itself back into anger than she should even care and so the cycle started anew.

Only the need to conceal her emotions brought her back to herself. She bestirred herself to converse with her aunt and uncle, who were exclaiming over the beauties of the woodland through which they were walking, and, in her uncle’s case, speculating about the prospects for fishing in the little river which bordered the path.

“Perhaps we could walk the whole park?” Her uncle, absorbed in his contemplation of the rushing, peat-brown waters from the mid-point of a little wooden bridge, was unaware of the expression of horror on his wife’s face. The gardener, wiser perhaps than the gentleman, let out a low whistle.

“Sir, that’s not a trip to be taken lightly. ‘Tis four leagues round.”

Her uncle swung round. “So much?”

“If it’s an inch, sir.”

“Perhaps we could make our way back to the carriage, dear.” Mrs Gardiner’s tone had none of Mama’s querulousness, but somehow that made her weariness more convincing. They turned, Elizabeth now leading the party and so first to see Mr Darcy advancing to meet them from the direction of the house.

All her ideas fled; she stood fixed to the spot while he caught up with her. After a few moments most awkward conversation on both their parts, he seemed to reach an inspiration.

“Might you introduce me to your friends, Miss Duplessis?”

Elizabeth’s surprise was no less than her jubilation. He takes my aunt and uncle for people of fashion, not merchants from the trading quarter of Gondal Town.

She performed the introduction with alacrity and if he was surprised he hid it well. He immediately entered into conversation with them and Elizabeth delighted that he should see that here were two relatives for whom she need not blush. Moreover, he seemed most interested in Mr Gardiner’s tales of the capital, which it was clear shed new light on issues which Mr Darcy could only have heard about from the Court’s perspective. Indeed, once conversation turned in this direction, he dispatched the gardener ahead of them to the house, with some message about the Gardiners’ horses, so that her uncle might share his opinions more freely.

However, soon Mrs Gardiner’s exhaustion caused her to need to lean more heavily on her husband, and conversation flagged. Mr Darcy stepped forward and offered Elizabeth his own arm. Her uncle waved the two of them forward down the path, giving his wife the temporary relief of a short rest sitting on a fallen log. Now, then, was Elizabeth’s opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings with Mr Darcy.

“Your arrival must have been very unexpected; we understood from your housekeeper that your party was due to arrive tomorrow, and indeed, in Lambton it was believed your family were all at Lake Elderno and like to remain for some time.”

He nodded. “Indeed. We had planned to stay by the lake another ten days at least, but my cousin has been ordered south to rejoin his regiment unexpectedly and my uncle had not the heart to continue the party. To help him, I offered the hospitality of Pemberley for some part of his guests, and thought it as well to post on ahead, to ensure all would be in order for them.”

Cold chill struck at her heart. “Colonel Fitzwilliam is ordered south? Is it — has war with Gaaldine come so soon?”

He frowned, though (Elizabeth thought) more in puzzlement than anger.

“Nothing is certain. Perhaps Gaaldine is at the back of it, but nothing on the surface shows it. The Borders, you know, are apt to erupt without warning, and many in those parts are loyal to the Princess, even without overt instigation.”

“But what happened?”

He half turned, to see her aunt and uncle ambling along some distance in the rear. He waved encouragingly towards them, but Elizabeth fancied he quickened his pace a little, as if to ensure that was he was about to say was heard by the two of them alone.

“I’m afraid, Miss Duplessis, that it is a bloody story and a strange one, and you must understand all intelligence is partial and imperfect, so I cannot tell if what I have been told is truth or no.”

She nodded, fascinated beyond measure by the change in him.

“I believe your cousin, Miss Molly Hooper, said something to like effect. About intelligence and its failings, I mean.”

His countenance opened into a smile. “I am happy you made her acquaintance. She has always lacked companionship; the companionship of sensible women near her own age, I mean.”

Given Miss Hooper must be within touching distance of thirty, Elizabeth hoped Mr Darcy merely meant to contrast Elizabeth (and, perhaps, Charlotte) with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The reflection stung, notwithstanding. Oblivious, Mr Darcy continued his account.

“Anyway, some months ago, spies out of the Debatable Lands brought word that riding families long estranged had shorted their differences, and hatched a plan for a major raid come Pentecost. Early reports the raiders looked towards Gaaldine proved a feint. The raiders doubled back into Lestrade lands, burning and pillaging as they went. So out came his lordship from Castle Lestrade with what few men he could summon at short notice.”

Elizabeth had heard of Lord Lestrade from her uncle John, whose account put his lordship in no good light.

“He who was exiled from court for duelling, years ago?”

Mr Darcy nodded. “A rattlepate of the first water. No commander, either: he was ambushed and captured, leaving his castle wide open to the raiders. Lord Lestrade’s mistress — no-one else was in command by that point — negotiated terms of surrender and safe-conduct and gave earnest of ransom for his lordship himself. Her treaty made, she rode out of the citadel on a white mule with two pack animals carrying her gear — the Holy Virgin herself knows where she went after that — and the reivers fell upon Castle Lestrade. Before word reached any garrison of Gondal, it had been looted and burnt. My cousin is charged — I do not envy him — to see if it may be restored sufficiently to make it a strong point of the Borders once more, and to find its former lord.”

Elizabeth’s hand went to her mouth. “No easy task.”

Mr Darcy looked sardonic. “Our lord the King does not give easy tasks to his chosen men. Nor does he readily forgive those who fail in their trust. My cousin, to speak truth, is not sure whether he is supposed to restore Lord Lestrade to his estates or to bring him to judgment for losing them. But I have bored you too long on military affairs. Tell me, how have you enjoyed your travels?”

It could only be a deflection. Elizabeth, recalling things Molly had said, saw why that might be so. They talked with great persistence of the beauties of Gondal and of the houses and sights Elizabeth had seen. This conversation lasted until they reached the flagged space before the great frontage of Pemberley house. Nonetheless, their ideas were almost exhausted by the time her aunt and uncle came into view.

Mr Darcy remarked, with an air of casualness Elizabeth thought not wholly natural, “Among the party arriving tomorrow are some who will claim an acquaintance with you—Mr. Bingley and his sister. But there is also one other person in the party who more particularly wishes to be known to you. Will you allow me, or do I ask too much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay at Lambton?”

This was a surprise too great to be comprehended: a compliment, too, of the highest water. She murmured assent and then her aunt and uncle were upon them. He invited them to come in and take refreshment, but they declined; they had bespoken an unfashionably early dinner at their inn in Lambton and the hour pressed close upon them. Their carriage ordered, they rolled away down the long straight drive through the park.

“Well,” said her aunt, “I can, now, agree with his housekeeper. Many may call him proud, but I have seen no sign of it. Lizzie, my dear, why on Earth did you come to tell us he was so disagreeable?”

That was a poser. All Elizabeth could do by way of excuse was to say that though he had been far more civil when she met him at Rosings than he had appeared at Meryton, she had never seen him so agreeable as today. She also took the opportunity to drop as many hints as she felt at liberty to do about the falsity of Mr Wickham’s stories. On that last point, though, she was too much constrained by obligations of silence to convince her aunt, and at length they had to agree to disagree on Mr Wickham’s character.

The very next day, while she was idly watching the street from the window of her in room, a carriage drew up outside. The coachman’s livery gave away who the new arrivals must be even before Mr Darcy and a very tall, solidly-built young lady emerged. Elizabeth spun away from the window, towards the mirror, grasping for a hairbrush. She had completed a hurried toilette before the chambermaid, tapping on the door, announced in a flustered whisper that there were visitors come to call.

As she entered the private parlour of the inn, its grandest apartment, her first sight was her aunt’s face. Mrs Gardiner was all-too obviously struggling with mixed emotions: surprise, pleasure and wild conjecture as to what this honour could mean. Then she was face to face with Mr Darcy and he was requesting her permission to make her known to his sister.

Miss Darcy acknowledged the introduction in a monosyllable as gruff as anything Lady Catherine could have produced. Any suspicion that the niece was a pale copy of the aunt, however, was immediately dispelled by seeing the pink at the tips of Miss Darcy’s ears and the way her fingers wrung in the sides of her gown. Insight hit Elizabeth. Rather than being exceedingly proud, as repute had her, Georgiana Darcy was merely exceedingly shy.

Her heart opened in sympathy.

“Miss Darcy? I am honoured to meet you. We all admired your drawings yesterday, when we visited Pemberley. I wish I had your skill with paper and crayons.”

Mr Darcy’s smile was like sunrise over the sea.

“Georgiana is too modest about her abilities. I often try to convince her that she is the best artist in the family, but she will not hear it.”

Miss Darcy went brick red. Her working hands bid fair to ruin her gown.

“Not me. Mu-Molly.”

Unbidden, Elizabeth’s hand went up to deflect her aunt, who had risen from her seat in the dark corners of the parlour. Mrs Gardiner sat down again, words of calm and comfort dying on her lips.

“You speak of Miss Hooper? I saw her work at — at Rosings, and it is truly fine.”

Mentally, she made a note against her next confession. But confidence as to the Elbe visit had been enjoined upon her and promises were also sacred to God. Her voice strengthened.

“There is a brooding quality in her work; her landscapes breathe tragedy. It is superbly done, but I confess I was born under Thalia’s influence, not Melpomene’s. Your sketches bring balm to the spirit, and that is no small gift.”

Although no-one could call her handsome, in that moment Miss Darcy looked most truly her brother’s sister. “You truly think so? What —”

She got no further. The door opened and Mr Bingley was in the room.

However frustrated Elizabeth might be that better acquaintance with Miss Darcy had been interrupted, the genuine warmth with which Mr Bingley greeted her and claimed the right to be introduced to her aunt and uncle had a cheering effect. The particular intonation he used when asking her if all her sisters were at Longbourn, and a certain sense when he looked at her that he was trying to trace a likeness both seemed significant. Nor could she detect any form of partiality beyond an almost brotherly affection subsisting between him and Miss Darcy. Best of all, he took the opportunity, when the other members of the party were occupied at the parlour windows, exclaiming over a dancing bear being led down the street, to remark, “It is a very long time since I have had the pleasure of seeing you. We have not met since the 26th of November, when we were all dancing together at Netherfield.”

She could not think his exactness of memory a mere fluke. But now another miracle was occurring: shyly, and with many promptings from her brother. Miss Darcy was asking her aunt if they might have the honour of meeting their party for dinner during their stay in this part of Gondal. She permitted herself the smallest nod of acquiescence at her aunt’s sidelong, unspoken enquiry, and the day after next was fixed upon. To cap the day’s wonders, Mr Darcy made a particular request that her uncle join him and the gentlemen of the party on the morrow, since a fishing party was in contemplation, and he understood Mr Gardiner to be partial to the sport?

When the Pemberley party departed some half a turn later, Elizabeth’s mind and heart were so full of confused emotions she hardly knew where to turn. Fortunately, though her aunt and uncle were clearly full of curiosity about the nature of Mr Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth, they were far too tactful to enquire.

Next morning, Elizabeth and Mrs Gardiner felt that they should exert themselves to call on Miss Darcy. The latter’s extraordinary civility in calling on them on the very day of her own arrival at Pemberley could never be equalled, but they could surely do their best.

They found Miss Darcy in a parlour on the ground floor, accompanied by Miss Bingley and an older lady, introduced as Mrs Annesley, who acted as Miss Darcy’s companion and chaperone. The room’s north-facing aspect and windows opening to the ground made it delightful to sit in on a summer’s day, especially given the refreshing view of high, woody hills.

Between Miss Bingley’s pride and Miss Darcy’s shyness, there would have been almost no conversation, but Mrs Annesley’s tact led her to introduce a topic she hoped her visitors might share.

“Our one consolation for these troubled times is how many visitors from Gondal Town have chosen to linger in this part of the world this summer. In previous years, travellers have bypassed the district, to press straight on towards the Lakes, which are far more celebrated. Which is a very great pity, I believe.”

Mrs Gardiner laughed. “And so do I. I lived in Lambton as a girl, and was terrified that I might have cried up the beauties of the district so much that my husband and Elizabeth would stare at me aghast once we arrived and accuse me of gilding the lily. But the scenery is finer even than I remembered.”

She gestured towards the window. “In my childhood, those hills were bare, or bore only spindly little saplings. The old growth was destroyed in a forest fire, years before I was born. But now, look how beautifully wooded they are!”

“Those hills border Malham lands,” Miss Darcy breathed, almost too low for Elizabeth to catch. Certainly none of the other ladies seemed to have done so: Mrs Gardiner and Mrs Annesley had moved on to other improvements to the district made by Mr Darcy’s father, and Miss Bingley was standing by the window, in a pose designed to show her profile to best advantage, pointedly avoiding conversation. Elizabeth knitted her brows in speculation.

Doubtless the deceased Duke had visited Pemberley, sat in this very apartment, eaten peaches, cherries and grapes at this very table. (At Mrs Annesley’s broad hints, Miss Darcy had remembered her duties as a hostess and the servants were now bearing in plates of fruit and cake.) One could not ask the question, of course; tactless in all seasons, it could be downright fatal in this. But surely there had been something wistful in Miss Darcy’s voice when she murmured, “Those hills border Malham lands”?

A little stir around the door was all the warning that Elizabeth received before the master of Pemberley entered the room. He had apparently abandoned fishing on learning from her uncle that she and Mrs Gardiner planned to call on Miss Darcy. To her embarrassment, Elizabeth found the eyes of all the others sliding from him to her and back again, ill-concealed speculation detectable on their expressions. Miss Bingley, now there was someone in the room whom she considered worthy of attention, thrust herself back into the centre of things.

With sneering civility, she said, “And so, as a result of their colonel-in-chief’s fall from grace, the Duke’s regiment is removed from Meryton and they say is to be broken up entirely. Surely, Miss Duplessis, that must be a great loss to your family?”

Elizabeth caught a hiccup of stifled distress from Miss Darcy. She moved smoothly forward to the table, selecting a choice handful of cherries and, incidentally, shielding the younger woman from Miss Bingley’s scrutiny.

“We manage tolerably. Meryton is a quiet district, and so we have learnt to make the most of such little sensations as come our way and not to fret overmuch when they go. By this time next year, the regiment’s visit will have passed into local legend; of almost as much moment as the year the mill burned down, or the time wild pigs overset the Gouldings’ cider press.”

Mrs Gardiner’s eyes sparkled; Mrs Annesley tried to hide a smile behind a lace handkerchief, but Mr Darcy laughed out loud. Although Miss Darcy did not recover her courage enough to join the conversation, her manner eased, and on Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth taking their leave, she clasped Elizabeth’s hand between both of her own and expressed most fervently her pleasure at the prospect of seeing Elizabeth at dinner the next day.

That day dawned bright and clear. Elizabeth looked forward to a walk through the woods which they had admired yesterday, before returning to the inn to dress for a late dinner at Pemberley. However, while she and her aunt and uncle were still at breakfast, a messenger arrived bearing two letters from her sister, on one of which was marked that it had been missent elsewhere. Elizabeth was not surprised at it, as Jane had written the direction remarkably sloppily.

She waved off her aunt and uncle onto their walk, since she had been waiting for days to hear from her family, and craved leisure to enjoy Jane’s account of the doings at Longbourn. The first letter began with an account of trivial parties and engagements, but then came a break, a re-dating of the letter to the next day, and the hand in which Jane had written showed she wrote in haste.

“Since writing the above, dearest Lizzy, something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature. What I have to say relates to poor Lydia. An express came at twelve last night, just as we were all gone to bed, from Colonel Forster, to inform us that she was gone off with one of his officers; to own the truth, with Wickham! I am very, very sorry. So imprudent a match on both sides! But I am willing to hope the best, and that his character has been misunderstood. Thoughtless and indiscreet I can easily believe him, but this step (and let us rejoice over it) marks nothing bad at heart. His choice is disinterested at least, for he must know my father can give her nothing. Our poor mother is sadly grieved. My father bears it better. They were off Saturday night about twelve, as is conjectured, but were not missed till yesterday morning at eight.”

Without allowing herself time for consideration, and scarcely knowing what she felt, Elizabeth seized the other letter, written a day later than the conclusion of the first.

“Dearest Lizzy, I hardly know what I would write, but I have bad news for you, and it cannot be delayed. Imprudent as the marriage between Mr. Wickham and our poor Lydia would be, we are now anxious to be assured it has taken place, for there is but too much reason to fear it has not. Colonel Forster came to us yesterday, having left Lake Elderno the day before. One of Wickham’s friends in the regiment had dropped something expressing his belief that W. never intended to marry Lydia at all. My poor mother is really ill, and keeps her room. Could she exert herself, it would be better; but this is not to be expected. And as to my father, I never in my life saw him so affected. I am truly glad, dearest Lizzy, that you have been spared something of these distressing scenes; but now, as the first shock is over, shall I own that I long for your return? Circumstances are such that I cannot help earnestly begging you all to come here as soon as possible. I know my dear uncle and aunt so well, that I am not afraid of requesting it, though I have still something more to ask of the former. My father is going to Gondal Town with Colonel Forster instantly, to try to discover her. Please ask our uncle to follow them, since with his knowledge of the capital he may have intelligence which could prove most material in tracking our sister.”

Elizabeth sprang from her seat, anxious to follow her uncle and enlist his help as soon as possible. As she reached the door it was opened by a servant, and Mr. Darcy appeared.

This was no time for time-wasting civility.

“I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mr. Gardiner this moment, on business that cannot be delayed; I have not an instant to lose.”

“Good God! what is the matter?” He caught her elbow. “I will not detain you a minute; but let me, or let the servant go after Mr and Mrs Gardiner. You are not well enough; you cannot go yourself.”

Elizabeth’s knees trembled under her and she felt how little would be gained by her attempting to pursue her aunt and uncle. She stammered some barely coherent instructions to the servant, he vanished, and her knees gave way. She barely managed to reach a couch before collapsing, unable to support herself.

“Let me call your maid. A glass of wine; shall I get you one? You are very ill.”

Mr Darcy’s tone was all gentleness and consideration; if anything, it made the horror of what she had just read even starker.

“No, thank you. There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well; I am only distressed by some dreadful news which I have just received from Longbourn.”

She burst into tears and for a few minutes could not speak another word.

“I have just had a letter from Jane, with such news. It cannot be concealed from anyone. My younger sister has left all her friends—has eloped; has thrown herself into the power of—of Mr. Wickham. They are gone off together from Lake Elderno. You know him too well to doubt the rest. She has no money, no connections, nothing that can tempt him to—she is lost for ever.”

He seemed barely able to hear her. His brows drawn down, he paced up and down the parlour. After a few minutes, he paused, and turned to her.

“I’m sorry; I am afraid you must have been wishing me away for some time, and I should be going. But I wish to God I could do something to ease your distress. I’m afraid this business will prevent my sister’s having the pleasure of seeing you at Pemberley to-day?”

Elizabeth gulped.

“Oh, yes. Be so kind as to apologise for us to Miss Darcy. Say that urgent business calls us home immediately. Conceal the unhappy truth as long as it is possible. I know it cannot be long.”

He nodded. “Trust me, your secret is safe, and I hope things may have been misrepresented and everything will soon look brighter for you and your family shortly. Give my very best wishes to your aunt and uncle, and to your sister Jane. God bless!”

The door closed behind him and Elizabeth was alone with her thoughts.