Where was Lydia? Elizabeth could not understand how she had not noticed this before. When she was at Longbourn, she had only seen two of her sisters - she had assumed, then, that Lydia was somewhere in the clutches of Mr Bingley, but she had never thought to look for Jane, once she had determined that she must make her way to Netherfield. There, of course, she had found Jane, but in the joy of that discovery, Lydia had been all but forgotten. Neither her sisters nor Miss Steele had made any mention of her - Miss Steele sunk even lower in Elizabeth’s estimation. It should have been her task to make sure Lydia was safe. Blaming Miss Steele, however, could not absolve her own failure to even think of Lydia - her own sister! Sure, Lydia was an unruly nuisance, but she was also a girl of no more than fifteen years. It was an elder sister’s task to look out for her, and Elizabeth had forgotten all about her. Elizabeth, still sitting on the bed, groaned and buried her head between her knees.
She wished she could just not leave this room and see no one for at least a day or two, but pragmatism told her that it was probably not to be. It would also not help Lydia in the slightest, if she was indeed in any danger. Thankfully, all but Fanny Price had left the room again, and Fanny herself tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, finishing her toilette at the basin in the corner. When she was done with this, and had dressed herself, she sat down on a chair and made no attempt to leave the room.
‘You should go downstairs,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I am sure they will have some breakfast ready by now, and you should not miss another meal.’
‘I’m not sure I can, Miss - Elizabeth,’ Fanny said hesitantly. ‘Mr Darcy explicitly said I should stay by your side, so as to be chaperoned properly.’
Elizabeth groaned again. Mr Darcy’s very existence was a torment to her right now, and he continued to irritate her.
‘Very well then,’ she said, ‘we shall both go break our fast.’
She saw, much to her pleasant surprise, that the maids had taken care to have her black day dress cleaned and pressed. She hoped the professional attire would lend her appearance the confidence she did not feel.
The sight of Mr Darcy, Mrs Fitzwilliam and Miss de Bourgh at the breakfast table, seemingly waiting for her and Fanny, did not help her regain much confidence. Mr Darcy, at least, did not spare her much of a glance, returning his attention instead to a newspaper and a small journal in front of him as soon as he had acknowledged her presence with a nod. Likewise, Mrs Fitzwilliam appeared more occupied with the contents of the assorted dishes on the sideboard than with Elizabeth’s and Fanny’s presence. Miss de Bourgh, however, stared at Elizabeth unabashedly. Fanny, blushing again, sat down meekly and accepted the cup of tea Elizabeth pressed into her hands without much ado.
‘So you do have to feed them when you are a chaperon,’ Miss de Bourgh drawled. ‘I do feel very lucky I escaped that fate.’
‘So far,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam muttered.
Anne de Bourgh snorted.
‘Darcy would never let me be a chaperone,’ she said. ‘We all know that.’
Mr Darcy suddenly looked up from his newspaper.
‘I am, alas, not the only person in this kingdom deciding who may be a chaperone,’ he said. ‘More's the pity. Certain occurrences might have been avoided altogether.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam replaced the cover on one of the dishes with a loud clang.
‘Dear me,’ she said. ‘Not that old tale again. Don’t tell me you’re still hung up about that classless hag.’
Mr Darcy dropped his buttering knife.
‘It is not an old tale,’ he said. ‘I am not hung up on her. And moreover, it is she who is to thank for the predicament within which your brother finds himself now.’
Now, finally, he had Mrs Fitzwilliam’s undivided attention.
‘What has that smelly old vixen done with my brother?’ she asked.
‘You know,’ Miss de Bourgh drawled, ‘I do think that, linguistically, we are treating foxes rather shabbily. They merely happen to be very intelligent creatures and we should give proper credit for that rather than shame them - but what can you expect from a society that treats its women the same way it treats foxes -’
‘Save your agitation for another day,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said. ‘What has the old witch done with my brother?’
‘Witchcraft, likewise -’
‘What is the matter with Charles?’
Mr Darcy cleared his throat.
‘It was Mrs Younge,’ he said, ‘who was responsible for the education, or rather, the lack of one, of Miss Lucy Steele, who, intent on securing your brother’s attentions for herself, failed at chaperoning young Miss Bennet, resulting in her present residence within your brother’s house.’
Elizabeth was rather certain she had just learnt something of importance, but she was still struggling with all the particulars.
‘Mr Darcy, what -’
Before Mr Darcy, however, could explain himself, or indeed, before Elizabeth could finish her question and note, not without a certain mortification, that she had indeed spoken to the man - the chaperon - again, Mrs Fitzwilliam sat down her cup with such fervour that it almost shattered.
‘I beg your pardon?’ she cried. ‘She has done what? I shall not allow it - I shall -’
‘I think you have spent too much time in the company of my mother,’ Miss de Bourgh interjected. ‘It is rubbing off on you.’
‘That is not the issue here now,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said, ‘and it is most certainly not true - do you mean to tell me, Darcy, that a creature of Mrs Younge’s has managed to sink her claws into my brother and has actively schemed against him?’
‘That is precisely what I just said, yes,’ Mr Darcy said, slightly irritated.
‘Mr Bingley is your brother, Mrs Fitzwilliam?’ Elizabeth asked quickly. ‘Your brother is the one who -’
‘What do you mean to insinuate?’ Mrs Fitzwilliam asked.
‘Nothing,’ Elizabeth replied quickly. ‘I have met your brother. I liked him and I think he and Jane will be very happy.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam raised an eyebrow.
‘What do you mean to insinuate?’ Elizabeth asked. ‘Is there anything wrong with my sister?’
Miss de Bourgh reached across the table for another slice of toast.
‘Oh, this is delightful,’ she said. ‘Do not mind me, I am merely observing you. More tea, Miss Price?’
‘Why would you think I should find anything wrong with your sister?’ Mrs Fitzwilliam asked. ‘Is there anything I should know about your sister?’
‘I might ask whether there was anything I ought to know about your brother!’
Mr Darcy cleared his throat, but nobody was paying him any attention.
‘Anything you want to know about my brother, you can ask me,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said. ‘Financially, for example, I should say that he was -’
‘I am not interested in your brother’s financial records!’ Elizabeth snapped. ‘Is he going to be a good husband for my sister?’
‘Can there even be such a thing as a good husband,’ Miss de Bourgh interjected, ‘when a woman has to sign over her whole existence to him?’
‘No more agitation!’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said.
‘She has a point though,’ Elizabeth said. ‘The law is decidedly skewed in favour of men -’
Mrs Fitzwilliam mustered her thoughtfully.
‘I do agree with you there,’ she said.
Mr Darcy cleared his throat again.
‘You were saying, Darcy?’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said.
‘He is going to spout some nonsense about how the chaperonage laws protect women,’ Miss de Bourgh drawled, ‘when of course, it is quite the opposite.’
‘I was not - but they do - the law -’ Mr Darcy sputtered.
‘Yes, very well, we do not have time to plan revolutions at the breakfast table,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said. ‘We have to get my brother married to her sister before that horrid creature can get her claws into him, and then we are going to decide what we shall do with the rest of you, and then after that, maybe we will find a moment to overthrow the social order and reconstruct society.’
‘Is that a promise?’ Miss de Bourgh asked.
Elizabeth noticed that Fanny was following the conversation with wide eyes, holding a forgotten teacup in her hand.
‘Mrs Fitzwilliam is right,’ Elizabeth said. ‘First, we need to get my sister married to her brother - although, professional considerations aside, I should also quite like to find out what happened to my youngest sister, since her chaperone is, as we have already established, not to be trusted.’
Mr Darcy cleared his throat again.
‘I promise you, Miss Bennet, that we will find out what happened to your youngest sister,’ he said. ‘I will not tolerate that she become another victim of Mrs Younge, or suffer from Miss Steele’s incompetence.’
‘Oh dear,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam muttered, ‘he has found another stray to adopt -’
‘Finding out what happened to Miss Bennet’s youngest sister is a matter of professional consideration,’ Mr Darcy said hotly. ‘Now that we know how much is amiss in Miss Steele’s work, it would be unprofessional behaviour of us not to try to rectify it, and see to it that all her sisters are protected.’
‘There is also such a thing as common decency,’ Miss de Bourgh interjected. ‘Although I think you do not allow enough credit for the ability of a young woman to protect herself and her fate by her own means.’
‘I am sure you are setting a splendid example for all young women,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said, with a noise that sounded almost like a snort.
‘I merely try to live by what I observed in you,’ Miss de Bourgh replied. ‘You do realise that deciding who they want to spend their lives with and then just acting on that choice is a privilege not many women have, but you just grabbed your fate with both hands and would not let go - you know what I -’
Mrs Fitzwilliam looked momentarily taken aback and did not interrupt Miss de Bourgh, but the latter’s voice faltered and she did not continue her speech.
Mr Darcy cleared his throat once more.
‘Right, we want to get Caroline’s brother married,’ Miss de Bourgh said. ‘Let us deal with that; after which Caroline has promised to lead us in social revolution. What is it that your silly law says you need to do?’
‘We need the magistrate’s signature on the application so the Archbishop of Canterbury can issue a post-incident license,’ Elizabeth explained hastily, before any more political debate could break out. ‘So we need to go back and -’
Suddenly, realisation dawned on her and she could feel all the blood leaving her face.
‘Oh no,’ she whispered.
‘I see you have caught up with the problem,’ Mr Darcy said grimly. ‘I must apologise for the additional delays that your sister will face - it was most unprofessional of me -’
Elizabeth was momentarily distracted when she saw that the tips of his ears became as red as they did when topics he considered indelicate were discussed.
‘What have you done now?’ Mrs Fitzwilliam asked. ‘May I remind you that my brother is also facing additional delays?’
Elizabeth was most surprised to find Mr Darcy, who put such an emphasis on clear articulation and syntax, mumbled something from which she only vaguely could discern the words ‘parish in question,’ ‘magistrate’ and ‘missing signature.’
‘There is some uncertainty, on our part,’ Elizabeth added, taking pity on Mr Darcy, ‘about where exactly the compromise in question took place -’
‘You need to find out where Charles did the deed?’
‘Pas devant des jeunes filles,’ Mr Darcy hissed.
‘Oui, mes pauvres oreilles, elles sont assez vulnérables,’ Miss de Bourgh mumbled, ‘mais, alors, ça tout m’est bien égal -’
‘That is quite enough,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said. ‘Darcy, if you weren’t such a prude, there’d be no need for these tantrums. Get a grip on yourself!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Mr Darcy asked.
‘If you weren’t so caught up in the fact that you need to concern yourself with what you deem indelicate matters,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said, ‘you would realise that under the recently passed additional provisions, the signature of the competent under-secretary in the Home Office can override any missing magistrate’s signature, provided the rest of the paperwork is complete and countersigned by two chaperons in charge.’
Elizabeth was speechless with surprise at Mrs Fitzwilliam’s sudden quoting of the statutes. Mr Darcy, however, seemed to know the reason for this.
‘O dear Jove,’ he groaned. ‘Your husband is the newly-appointed, competent under-secretary, is he not?’