Chapter 1: I. Highbury
‘My dear Mr Bennet,’ said his lady to him one morning, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last; to a Mr Bingley from the North, with five thousand pounds a year?’
“The year 1796 sees England as a scandal-ridden country. Forced marriages are all too common, fathers of young ladies make sure to always have a marriage license ready, wealthy gentlemen make sure to never be alone in a room with a female, not even their own mothers, and guardians of heiresses will not let a single man come near the young girl without a statement from his banker - under oath - testifying his wealth. In spite of all these precautions, every family has at least one member who entered the state of matrimony because they had been discovered in a scandalous situation and many daughters have to leave the houses of their fathers at as early an age as 15 just because they have been found playing scrabble with their would-be-husband cousins. In the county of Hertfordshire, for example, no fewer than 78 % of the newly-wed couples give ‘to avoid a scandal’ as the main reason for their marriage (compared to 43 % in 1785), a recent survey showed.
“ Foreign newspapers and magazines tend to make fun of the problems England finds herself in, but England’s politicians dread the outcome of this crisis. The crisis reached a new peak three weeks ago when the Italian ambassador refused to attend a private meeting with the Foreign Secretary of State for fear of being married to him (for the Secretary is still single and the Italian ambassador is heir to a large fortune as well as a mansion in Tuscany). Our Most Gracious Monarch George III now has finally realised it is time to act, and quickly, before more harm can be done ...”
Mr Bennet replied that he had not and begged his wife to inform him about the importance of this event.
‘Oh, you must know how important this is for our girls! Surely you realise!’
‘No, not at all, my dear. How can it affect them?’
‘Well, he will marry one of them, my dear Mr Bennet, do you not see that?’
‘Is that his reason for coming here?’
‘Oh, Mr Bennet! How can you be so stupid! Of course it is not.’
‘So how do you know he will marry one of them? Surely this must depend on the gentleman’s decision, does it not?’
‘You do not think I would leave such an important decision to him? I do not even know him! No, Jane and I shall walk over to Netherfield Park to welcome him to the neighbourhood. Then I shall lock him into a room together with Jane, and when I let them out again fifteen minutes later, he will have to marry her (for I will make sure that they are seen). Do you not see that it is that simple, really?’
‘Yes, and illegal, my dear,’ Mr Bennet said from behind his newspaper.
‘How can you say such nonsense, Mr Bennet? You know fully well it is not illegal. Why, two of the Miss Gouldings were married that way, and Mrs Long’s niece, and Miss Betty Purvis - even though she is ugly as sin - and …’
‘That may be as it is, Mrs Bennet, but such tactics are now illegal.’ Mr Bennet showed his wife the article he had just been reading. ‘As of today, the Act of Chaperonage, which passed through both Houses last week, says that no unmarried lady between the age of 15 and 50 is to be left alone without the chaperonage of either a married female relative or a government-approved lady chaperone, who has undergone a special chaperon-training in a governmental school of chaperonage. The only females exempt from this rules are said government-approved lady chaperones. Several such schools are being established all over the country while we are speaking. Tuition fees will be paid by the government in order to allow all ladies to enter these academies, whatever their financial status may be, if they do not have the means to hire their own chaperone.’
Later that day, Elizabeth Bennet found herself called to her father’s library. She thought this rather strange, for she knew that as of the morrow, this was illegal; had she not had to spend the whole day in her mother’s company, for want of a lady chaperone at Longbourn?
‘My dear Elizabeth,’ Mr Bennet said, ‘you do realise that we have a problem, I take it?’
‘All that rambling alone all over the country - all those solitary walks - that tree-climbing out in the grounds - that all is no longer possible for you.’
Elizabeth nodded again.
‘You also understand, of course, that we will need to hire a chaperone, or maybe even two, for your mother cannot possible chaperon all five of you, not with her nervous condition and everything.’
Elizabeth nodded a third time.
‘And needless to say, such a chaperone will be quite expensive,’ Mr Bennet went on, ‘more than likely more expensive than we can afford. Your mother and I have therefore decided - and it was not an easy decision, you may believe us - that we will send you to chaperon school, and hire a chaperone from your wages.’
‘But papa - could not I be my sisters’ chaperone, once I have finished chaperon education?’
‘Oh, no, my child. Chaperones, you know, are given their charges by government, depending on the difficulty of the situation and the experience of the chaperone. As a beginner, I think you would be given an easier situation than this here.
‘No, it is decided. Your aunt, Mrs Gardiner, will come hither and accompany you to Mrs Annesley’s School of Chaperonage in London, my dear (for it would not do for you to travel unchaperoned, you know. Only fully qualifies chaperones can travel without their own chaperone). You better pack all your bags, for she will be here the day after tomorrow.’
There was nothing Elizabeth could do but try to make the best of the situation, and she told herself that after all, it was only for the best of her family. And little though she did foresee it, Chaperon School indeed suited her very much and learning all the important things gave her pleasure. Her teacher attested her a natural talent in finding her charge in case she ever got lost. She was the best in her foreign language classes (for it was deemed necessary that a chaperone know all the languages that her charges might know, so that she could understand any conversation her charge might have with a foreigner). In her role-playing lessons, she was much praised because she soon learnt to dissuade anybody from walking out alone ever so subtly. Finally, after ten months of intense training, Mrs Annesley called her into her office and told her that all her teachers agreed that it was time for her practical examination (she had passed all her written tests with distinction.)
‘You will have to guard an assigned charge for one day,’ Mrs Annesley explained to her. ‘You will visit the centre of London with her, attend a tea party and take a walk in Hyde Park, during all of which you will be closely observed. If the examiner assigned to you is satisfied with your work, he will make you a chaperone on probation. You will receive your first assignment - usually a very easy charge - during which your examiner will check on you every week. If, after a trial period of three months, he is still satisfied with your work, he will make you a fully qualified chaperone. Be assured, my dear, that I fully believe in you. You are one of the best girls I ever trained, and I am sure that not even the strictest examiner could not let you pass.’
The day of Elizabeth’s practical examination finally came. On the eve of it, a group of three examiners came over to the school from Whitehall, for they wished to have a close look at the reports of the three girls that were to be tested the following day. Elizabeth saw them enter the school from the upstairs landing of the entrance hall, where she had been sitting on the stairs enjoying the silence (the common room was always much too crowded).
‘Really, I do not see why we have to undergo all this trouble, Richard,’ one of the examiners said. ‘Most of these country girls will get married before the year is out; they use the post of chaperone as an excuse to meet wealthy men, I tell you. And it is we who have to find replacements for them all the time. Now, if, just once, we could find a chaperone who was really dedicated to the job - I mean, it is not as if these country girls were in any way really interested in the art of chaperonage, or talented in it.’
‘Come on, Darcy, do you not think that you may be a little too strict? I heard from your supervisor that when you were still examining in Derbyshire, you let 37 girls fail. Out of 37 girls tested, mind you. Now, this is London, and I assure you, Mrs Annesley’s institute is the most respected chaperon school in town, and her girls are the best, really.’
‘Oh, I have seen their files in the office, and they read just like the average chits that I had to test in Derbyshire.’
Elizabeth was furious and anxious at the same time. How did that man dare judge her and her classmates, when he had never met them? Was he even aware of how much they had studied and trained during the last ten months? And what if he was her assigned examiner? Would he let her fail? Simply because he could? It sounded as if he had never before let anyone pass. And what on earth did he mean by ‘the art of chaperonage?’
In spite of all her fears, Elizabeth’s practical examination went exceedingly well. Her assigned charge for the day made sure to set up several traps for her, including a clandestine meeting in a library, an exchange of letters during the tea party and a conversation through a gap in a brick wall in the ladies’ powder room, but Elizabeth was very much on her guard and managed to evade all traps and thwart all her charge’s attempts. Even Mr Darcy (who turned out to be her examiner) could not find any fault in her behaviour and had to let her pass, albeit grudgingly.
‘You must be aware, however, Miss Bennet,’ he told her afterwards, when he briefed her for her first assignment, ‘that this does not mean you are fully qualified yet. You are still on probation, and I will keep a very close watch on you during your assignment. Do not think there is time to relax. I will probably visit once a week. My visiting day for Surrey is Friday, but do not expect me to stick to that. If I find your behaviour in any way questionable, I may visit more often, and unannounced. Also, I should let you know that we have free-lance workers in your assigned area who will keep me informed if they should observe you doing anything against the guidelines.’
Mr Darcy unpacked a large book bound in black leather, emblazoned with gold print reading The Complete Guide to Proper Behaviour of Young Ladies, How to Achieve It And How To Guard Said Ladies’ Reputation. A Short Reference-Book For Lady Chaperones By Messrs Fitzwilliam Richard Darcy & Richard Darcy Fitzwilliam.
‘This book, Miss Bennet,’ Mr Darcy said, handing it to her, ‘shall from now on be your bible. You are expected to keep it on you at all times and to refer to it whenever you are not sure how to act. Also, I expect you to read a chapter per week during your probationary period, make notes on that chapter and hand in a short essay - about five to seven pages - about the assigned chapter every week. I will mark these essays and they will play an important role towards your final grade at the end of your probationary period, which will determine whether I can grant you approval or not.’
Elizabeth asked herself inwardly how she was supposed to achieve all this if she was not to move from her charge’s side at any time.
‘Also, if I am not fully satisfied with your work, I may schedule other examinations, such as research papers, oral examinations or further practical tests, to find out whether you are indeed ready to receive your approval and work as an independent chaperone. I therefore want you to be aware of the fact that you are still under close surveillance and need to keep your work on high standards, because there will be no pity passes as far as I am concerned.’
At this point, Elizabeth only wondered why he did not tell her directly that he would let her fail no matter what.
‘Now, the charge you have been assigned is considered a very easy charge by many, though I would not call it that. In my eyes, each and every chaperoning assignment should be taken seriously, and to classify them would mean to distract from the fact that a chaperone should always give her very best, regardless of the situation. I will admit, however, that this charge should not present any particular differences, and I think it highly unlikely that even an untrained chaperone on probation, like you are, will have any difficulties with the young lady. Which does of course not mean that you should take this assignment too lightly, but I think I already had given you my opinion as far as that is regarded.
‘Now, as to your charge -’ Here he reached for an enormous file - ‘we are informed by her former governess - who did of course not receive any formal training, but seems to be well-meaning enough - that she is a sweet-tempered, intelligent young lady, about your own age, with a taste for music and literature. She is highly respected in her social circle - yes, she goes out in society, and I fear that there is nothing to prevent it, even though I do not advise it at all for unmarried young ladies - and obviously enjoys friendships with quite a few ladies of the parish. She lives alone with an elderly, male, parent - thus the need for a chaperone - in a large house. The grounds are not that extensive, which should make your task a little more manageable. There are, as far as we are informed, no eligible young gentlemen in the area at all, but then, as you have hopefully learnt during your training, one never knows, and even the dirtiest, most illiterate farmhand can present himself as an advantageous opportunity to naïve young ladies. Although I must add that Miss Woodhouse does not appear to be very naïve. I do think that even you should be able to manage her.’
With such cheerful prospects before her, Elizabeth journeyed to the tiny village of Highbury in Surrey, known to many as the garden of England (although many counties are called that). She was accompanied by her aunt, Mrs Gardiner, of course, for she was not yet a fully qualified chaperone. Miss Woodhouse was, just as Mr Darcy had described her, a very agreeable and intelligent young lady and she and Elizabeth got along very well, practicing the piano, discussing books and visiting Miss Woodhouse’s former governess, Mrs Weston. Miss Woodhouse did not receive many visitors, and when Elizabeth enquired, she got the following answer,
‘Well, there are not that many young ladies in Highbury with whom I regularly visited. There is Miss Smith, of course, a very good friend of mine, but she is an orphan without money, so she has been sent to chaperone school. Then there is Miss Fairfax, who recently returned to Highbury and now lives with her grandmother and an elderly aunt, and she and her aunt can only go out when her grandmother is up to it, for the aunt is not yet married and she was only 48 last March, you know. The Misses Otway - not that I had much to do with them anyway - have been sent to Wales to be chaperoned together with their twelve cousins. Then there are the two Misses Cole, but their chaperone is such a vulgar thing, I could not possible visit them any more, even if I had before. Yes, and I do not think there are many other people around here that I frequently see. There are the Westons, whom you know already, and Mr Weston’s son Frank, but I have not seen much of him lately; whenever we visited he had just gone out to buy a pair of gloves, it seems. Yes, and Mr Knightley of course, but you have not yet met him, for he has been in town the past few weeks with his brother and my sister.’
Mr Knightley, however, was expected to visit this very evening, it turned out, which was also the evening on which Elizabeth expected Mr Darcy for his first control visit. She had duly prepared chapter one of his book, ‘The Basics of Proper Behaviour and Their Development Throughout the History of Christendom’ and written a six-page essay, with which Miss Woodhouse had helped her. She felt quite ready for the examination, although she was not sure what exactly Mr Darcy might contrive in order to make sure she failed.
About half an hour before Mr Knightley was expected for supper, Miss Woodhouse showed some signs of nervousness. She repeatedly asked her father what time he thought Mr Knightley would arrive, until Mr Woodhouse claimed he could not get any rest while she was interrogating him, and retired to his library (something that had never happened before, Elizabeth noticed). Then, Miss Woodhouse almost tore down a curtain while waiting for Mr Knightley at the window. Elizabeth pointed out to her that to show such a marked preference for a gentleman was very much unladylike, and that Miss Woodhouse would not wish Mr Knightley to see it. (Elizabeth concluded that Mr Knightley was not an eligible gentleman because Mr Darcy had not listed him amidst the dangers of the environment, and she did not wish Mr Darcy to observe any particularity in her charge during his visit.).
‘Oh, it is not that, Miss Bennet!’ Miss Woodhouse exclaimed and laughed nervously. ‘I am not preferring Mr Knightley or anything, you must not mistake that. We are like brother and sister! It is a silly notion, indeed. Mr Knightley and myself! No, indeed not. It is merely -’ here Miss Woodhouse blushed furiously - ‘I said something stupid to a mutual acquaintance of ours, and he chided me for it, and now I want to let him know that - oh, nothing particular really. It is not of great importance, and I am sure that it would not interest you at all.’
Elizabeth would have replied to the contrary (for it was, she had been taught, always necessary to know what exactly was troubling a charge’s mind), but she was prevented by the entrance of Mr Knightley himself, a handsome gentleman of about thirty-five.
‘Mr Knightley!’ Emma exclaimed and jumped to her feet. ‘I dare say it is such a pleasure to see you again. I have been expecting you for quite some time, now.’
‘Have you, Emma?’
‘Oh, yes, I have. There is something I meant to tell you and -’ Here, she broke off and blushed again.
‘Is it not usually those who travel who have tales to tell?’ Mr Knightley asked her and smiled. ‘What is it that you wish to tell me, Emma?’
‘Oh, I could not tell you - not with - you have not met my new chaperone, Miss Bennet, have you?’
Mr Knightley greeted Elizabeth with sincere warmth in his eyes and shook her hand. Miss Woodhouse looked at Elizabeth pleadingly.
‘Miss Bennet, could you not - just for a moment, of course - step out, while I discuss something in private with Mr Knightley?’
‘Miss Woodhouse, you know I cannot.’
‘It would only be for a minute, really. It is quite important.’
‘It is illegal, Miss Woodhouse, you know that.’
‘This is ridiculous! I have been alone with Mr Knightley a lot of times before.’
‘That does not matter; under the Act of Chaperonage such behaviour would be illegal and I am not to move from your side at any time.’
Elizabeth did not have any problems handling this situation; it was what had been considered a standard situation in her role-playing classes and had been trained at least once a week at Mrs Annesley’s Institute. She suspected that Mr Darcy might have asked Miss Woodhouse to enact something like this as a test for herself during his control visit.
‘Miss Bennet, I assure you nothing could happen to me when I am with Mr Knightley! You must see this, do you not?’
‘Miss Woodhouse, believe me it is both for your own and for Mr Knightley’s security that I cannot permit it.’
‘But I tell you explicitly that I completely trust Mr Knightley! He would never dare to compromise me, I keep telling you. It is safe for me to be alone with him.’
‘Still, Miss Woodhouse, even if it is so, you have to think about Mr Knightley, too. It would be quite awkward for him to be alone with you in a room, would it not?’
‘Miss Bennet, I must agree with Miss Woodhouse, this is ridiculous,’ Mr Knightley said suddenly. ‘I am all for upholding the law, but do you really think I should feel awkward if I were left alone with Emma for a couple of moments? The mere idea that Emma would want to entrap me is silly! I have known her all my life, and I am convinced that she would never betray my trust in her in such a way. Also, Emma is the last person in this world who would ever willingly bring anyone into a situation that is unpleasant for them, and she would never, not even if her life depended on it, take refuge in lowly means to achieve her aims, none of which, I am sure, is to in any way betray me into anything I was not willing to do. And I promise you that she shall have nothing to fear from me either.’
‘Really, Miss Bennet, do you not see this? Mr Knightley is the most honest, most upright gentleman that I know. If he promises that I shall have nothing to fear from him, you can believe him. You can trust him completely, for he never breaks his word, and he has never in all my life done anything to harm me. If I trust him with my life, surely you can do so, too, can you not?’
‘Emma, do you -’ Mr Knightley started, but Elizabeth interrupted him because she could see this all would not lead to anything. She was determined to stay firm.
‘No, really not. It is simply not possible, I keep telling you. I assure you, it is nothing personal. It is my job, it is as simple as that!’
‘So, tell me, then, Miss Bennet,’ Mr Knightley said, ‘what would happen if I just grabbed Emma, flung her over my shoulder (‘Mr Knightley!‘ Miss Woodhouse shrieked.) and carried her over to the dining-room in order to talk to her there?’
‘Well, in case you are lucky, you would not be detected by anybody but me and my examiner and both you and Mr Woodhouse would have to pay a hefty fine and attend a three-week seminar on proper behaviour in Blackpool. If you were discovered by anyone outside the Chaperons’ Association - in either case, I should probably lose my job and my probation.’
‘Oh, we cannot lose poor Miss Bennet her job, Mr Knightley,’ Miss Woodhouse said. ‘I suppose I will not be able to tell you what I meant to tell you after all. I will simply write it down and hand it to you later, I suppose. It is not the same, but -’
Elizabeth could not believe it; how could anybody be so stubborn?
‘Miss Woodhouse, you are not supposed to exchange letters with Mr Knightley either.’
‘Miss Bennet,’ Mr Knightley said, sounding exasperated, ‘let us be frank. Well, no, let us not be Frank. I would not want to be Frank. Let us be totally open. Is there anything I could do in order to be able to talk alone to Miss Woodhouse for a couple of minutes? Anything, I must add, that would be legal?’
‘Well, there is really only one thing to do, Mr Knightley, and that is -’
‘Emma, will you marry me?’
When Mr Darcy came to Hartfield an hour later, he found Elizabeth alone in the drawing-room.
‘Miss Bennet!’ he exclaimed. ‘Do tell me that my eyes deceive me! You have not failed in your very first week here, have you? How could you, miss? This was honestly the easiest situation I could get for you, because I could feel you were not ready, but even I could not fathom that you would not even last seven days, when I -’
Elizabeth looked up at him with red and swollen eyes and a puffy face.
‘You have not been crying, have you?’ Mr Darcy asked both incredulously and slightly taken aback. ‘What good would crying do? And pray tell me, Miss Bennet, where is your charge?’
‘She is enjoying her honeymoon, I suppose,’ Elizabeth said, ‘she was married in this room half an hour ago to a Mr Knightley. He had a license.’
‘Married?’ Mr Darcy asked, even more incredulous and taken aback than before. ‘Really, truly, legally married?’
‘Yes, they were married by a Mr Elton, an ordained Anglican priest of the Church of England. I checked his papers, they were all in order. He had the right to perform the ceremony. The license was genuine, too. It was one of the new standard-issue all-purpose licenses which are mandatory under the new law. Their marriage is definitely legal. And before you ask: I did not cover up any scandal by forcing them to marry. Mr Knightley proposed to her out of his own free will, and she accepted him, all in my presence. I spoke to her father and he agreed, if somewhat reluctantly, to their marriage and sent for the priest himself. Before the ceremony, I informed both parties that there was no need for them to get married as there was no scandal, and that it was their own decision to go through with the proceedings. They both signed these documents in which they testify that they were not forced into their marriage, that a lady chaperone was present at all times of their courtship and during the time they were meeting as an engaged couple, that they were both aware of the kind of legally binding contract they were about to enter, and that they would not sue the Chaperons’ Association for compensation. Mr Elton, James the coachman and Serle the cook signed as witnesses.’
She sighed heavily and handed Mr Darcy the documents.
‘If you would excuse me, I need to pack my belongings and send an express letter to my aunt.’
‘Pack? Why pack? What are you up to, Miss Bennet?’
‘Well, I failed, did I not? And that means that I am no longer allowed to move unchaperoned. Therefore I shall send an express to my aunt begging her to come as soon as possible and collect me before anyone tries to marry me to Mr Elton, Mr Woodhouse, or, heaven forbid, you.’
‘What are you talking about, Miss Bennet? You did not fail. You followed all the rules that Richard and I set out in Chapter 38, ‘The Course Of Action That A Lady Chaperone Should Take In Case Her Charge Wishes To Get Married To A Respectable Eligible Gentleman Of Whom Her Parents Approve’. I am very much pleased with you, I had no idea that you had so much dedication to the job. You seem to be a chaperone at heart, Miss Bennet. You truly have it in you, I am amazed. I will see to it that you get a very good new post as soon as possible, where you can end your probationary period most agreeably before you start your work as a chaperone.’
Elizabeth opened her mouth to say something, but before she could do so, the door flung open and a housemaid handed a letter to Mr Darcy which had obviously come by express. Mr Darcy tore it open and read it at once. His countenance froze while he did so and he uttered some words that were not at all appropriate for the ears of a young lady and only barely tolerable for those of a lady chaperone in training.
‘Well, I wonder,’ he said after having punched his fist into the air repeatedly. ‘This is quite soon - but on the other hand, you are one of the most capable chaperones I have seen - and Mrs Annesley herself seems to think that you are the best for the job. No - no - no, there is no going back.
‘Miss Bennet,’ he said, drawing a pocket Bible out of his coat, ‘I must swear you in at once. There is no other choice, the Association needs you. We have a dreadful situation at hand and there is no chaperone so capable as you. We cannot waste any more time on your probation. Place your right hand on the Bible - like that - and speak after me: I, Elizabeth Bennet, hereby faithfully promise to be a dutiful chaperone to all the charges assigned to me by the Chaperons’ Association or the British government, to uphold all the laws of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and never to violate the Chaperons’ Code of Behaviour. Thereto I give my promise, so help me God. Very well, Miss Bennet, very well. You are now a fully qualified lady chaperone, my congratulations. This is the badge - yes, pin that to your collar. And now make haste, Miss Bennet, for we must leave for Hertfordshire at once. I will accompany you to Meryton myself and help you sort out the dreadful situation that seems to have befallen this Longbourn mansion.’
Chapter 2: II. Mayfair
This story has been online for years, and I never intended to add to it. Some people have asked about a sequel, but I've always been reticent about that. I have been writing on one, though, for years, one and off. It wasn't meant to be published, because frankly, it's silly and doesn't make much sense (and also hasn't been proof-read by anyone but me). However, I figured, quite a few of you may be in lockdown or otherwise in need of a distraction, and might appreciate something downright silly right now. So I'll post what chapters I have, hopefully adding to the story until it can get some sort of ending. Hope you enjoy.
The carriage made its way steadily north. It was a good half hour until Elizabeth found herself able to speak again.
‘Longbourn?’ she managed to say.
Her travelling companion, who had buried himself behind his newspaper, only gave an uncommitted grunt in reply.
‘In Hertfordshire?’ Elizabeth asked anxiously.
‘I believe so,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘Here, see for yourself.’
From behind his newspaper, he tossed her a folded sheet of paper. Upon unfolding it, she saw that it was embossed with the Chaperons’ Association’s crest. She recognised the handwriting as Mrs Annesley’s immediately – countless hours of copying notes from the board in the Advanced Chaperonage lectures could leave her in no doubt. The message itself was short and simple.
Elizabeth lowered the letter with a rising feeling of dread.
I regret to inform you that we have learnt of a potential Code 17b at Longbourn, near Meryton, Herts. Chaperoned personages were 4 sisters, chaperone was an unqualified substitute with a temporary license due to staffing shortness. I have sent all available files to the local attorney, under seal as I presume he may have a personal interest in the matter. If this message reaches you, as I hope, at Hartfield, I suggest that you arrange for a temporary substitute chaperon for Miss Woodhouse – from her files, I should suggest her former governess, Mrs Weston of Randalls – and avail yourself of all the help Miss Bennet can offer you in this situation. This note may serve as my approval of an accelerated swearing-in as per Article 5.
This missive was scripted on business of the Chaperon’s Association and is exempt from the legislature concerning correspondence between the sexes.
‘A Code 17b?’ she muttered.
‘It means absconding from the chaperon’s oversight without permission from the chaperon or another authorised personage,’ Mr Darcy said without looking up from his paper.
‘I know what it means,’ Elizabeth said hotly. ‘I’ve read the book!’
‘Then why did you ask?’ Mr Darcy asked.
At last, he, too, lowered his paper and looked Elizabeth fully in the face.
‘You look flushed, Miss Bennet,’ he said. ‘Do you suffer from travelling sickness?’
Elizabeth shook her head.
‘Well, good,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘Are there any more questions? Would you like me to expand about Code 17?’
‘I know Code 17!’ Elizabeth cried. ‘I am upset, Mr Darcy, because it is one of my sisters who has run away.’
‘Oh,’ Mr Darcy said and then was silent for quite a while, until he finally added, ‘I can see how that might cause you distress.’
He buried himself in his paper again and Elizabeth, who did not want to talk about the matter further until she had to – and she knew that she would have to provide Mr Darcy with all the relevant details, her chaperon’s honour dictated that – leaned her head against the side of the carriage and watched the darkening countryside pass by. The exertions of the day made themselves known and although she had not planned it, she fell into a light, uneasy sleep in which the rumbling and creaking of the carriage pervaded her dreams.
Soon, the carriage stopped – too soon, in fact, for them to have arrived in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth reluctantly opened her eyes and saw that it had become so dark that Mr Darcy had had to abandon his newspaper.
‘Are we changing horses?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘We are stopping for the night,’ Mr Darcy said.
‘But – my sister – certainly -’ Elizabeth stammered.
‘An arrival in the middle of the night would do us little good,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘and in case your family has managed to keep the incident quiet, would only draw unwanted attention.’
‘Of course,’ Elizabeth said and nodded, chiding herself for having forgotten, ‘the basic rules you outline in chapter 4, minimise exposure wherever possible and refrain from employing unnecessary measures simply because they would comfort emotional desires.’
‘Precisely,’ Mr Darcy agreed.
Elizabeth was surprised to see that a true smile formed on his face and it became him well. A servant opened the carriage door and Mr Darcy, as the senior chaperon, exited first, only to then turn around and offer his hand to Elizabeth, who had not expected such a gesture at all. She climbed out of the carriage and found, to her surprise, that they were not in the yard of an inn, as she had assumed.
‘Where are we?’ she asked.
‘Mayfair,’ Mr Darcy said and climbed up the stairs of the townhouse in front of which they were standing. ‘This is my house, Miss Bennet. I hope it shall suffice. The housekeeper will prepare a room for you.’
‘Your house?’ Elizabeth repeated. ‘But is not that highly unsuitable?’
‘I should remind you,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘that in this situation, you are not a woman, and I am not a man – we are, after all, chaperons and as such, there can be no issue with our spending the night here alone.’
‘Of course,’ Elizabeth agreed.
The housekeeper showed Elizabeth to a room instantly upon learning who she was. Elizabeth was pleased to notice that in spite of her surprising arrival, the room was clean and well-aired, and all that was left to do for the maids was to dress the bed and bring a pitcher of water, some biscuits and a bouquet of freshly-cut flowers, even though Elizabeth argued she did not need those. She changed for supper – certain standards had to be maintained even when one was not supposed to be a woman, she thought – and was surprised to be directed to Mr Darcy’s study. The man – no, the chaperon, she mentally corrected herself – was pouring over a stack of documents, with a platter of sandwiches, cold meats, cheese and fruit beside him. Upon Elizabeth’s entering, he looked up.
‘Ah, Miss Bennet,’ he said. ‘Good to see you. I thought we might use the evening to acquaint ourselves with the background of the case.’
Elizabeth awkwardly got into the chair next to his. She had of course been in such close proximity to a man before, when the new law had not yet been in effect and her parents and neighbours had thrown countless dinner parties, but it was altogether different now, in this work environment. Mr Darcy had not seen the need to change for supper, but she was fascinated to notice that he had taken the time to shave.
‘I have had someone send over the files from the Head Office,’ he said and Elizabeth reluctantly tore her gaze away from his jawline.
‘I am sorry to say that they are dreadfully incomplete, for the temporary chaperone was dreadfully remiss in sending in her reports, but at least we have her background file, and the initial assessment of Longbourn,’ Mr Darcy continued. ‘I gather you are tolerably familiar with the environments?’
‘Tolerably, indeed,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Sir, did you perchance find out which of my sisters - ?’
Mr Darcy looked at her with mild surprise.
‘Miss Bennet, do not let your personal emotions cloud your judgment,’ he said. ‘I have here the official evaluation of your family home and situation, but which of your sisters would you judge the most likely to succumb to a suggestion of an elopement?’
Elizabeth had taken a bite of a sandwich, but as she pondered the situation, it began to taste like cardboard and she hastily gulped it down.
‘In case Mrs Annesley was correct in that it was a 17b,’ she said, ‘and no violence was used -’
‘Any use of force or violence would make it a Code 17a at once,’ Mr Darcy interjected.
‘- well, I – I believe it would have to be Lydia,’ Elizabeth said with a little sob. ‘I would not believe it of her either, but that my other sisters are even more unlikely to act in such a way.’
Mr Darcy flipped over a page in the report. ‘The assessment would agree with you there.’
‘What else does it say about my family?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘That neither you nor any of your sisters stand to inherit much beyond 50 pounds a year, so that any attempts at an elopement would have to be for baser motives,’ Mr Darcy said.
Elizabeth took a sip of her wine, wondering if the fact that she was not a woman meant that she could ask Mr Darcy for something stronger.
‘The neighbourhood in itself was rated as not particularly risky,’ Mr Darcy continued. ‘It seems it is a very close-knit community, which tends to discourage attempts on its weak members – unless, perchance, they come from within it.’
Elizabeth said nothing. She knew she should tell Mr Darcy about her mother’s plans to force compromises to marry her daughters, but she could not bring herself to do it. It was unlikely, in any case, that the chaperone, whoever she was, would have gone for any such measure, because even the temporary chaperons learnt that this was a punishable offense. And as such transgressions were easily found out, it would take a very silly chaperone indeed to go for such an idea – or, perhaps, Elizabeth mused, one who was able to cover her tracks exceedingly well. She decided to change the topic.
‘What do we know about the chaperone?’ she asked.
Mr Darcy pulled the other file towards himself and opened it.
‘Miss Lucy Steele, formerly of Plymouth,’ he read out. He frowned as he continued reading. ‘Previous encounter with the Chaperons’ Associations … how very irregular … I wonder who would … of course.’
He slammed the file shut.
‘What is it?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘This woman,’ Mr Darcy spat, ‘this woman should never have been a chaperone. Entangled in duplicity – ruthless – scheming – absolutely unqualified -’
He got up from his chair and began pacing the room, still muttering to himself about incompetent and shameless people, although Elizabeth was not sure whether they were the same. She took the file from where he had dropped it onto the table and began to read. Lucy Steele, it appeared, had been raised, together with an older sister, in Plymouth, by an uncle who ran a private school for boys – an arrangement that would be highly illegal under the new laws, of course. Apparently, it had already caused problems then, because Lucy Steele, or so she later claimed, had entered into a clandestine engagement with one of her uncle’s boarders. When the Act of Chaperonage had come into effect, the Steele sisters, unable to continue in their current situation, left their uncle’s in order to be chaperoned by a distant cousin, a widow who at that time was living with her married daughter, a Lady Middleton. A local family, a widowed Mrs Dashwood chaperoning three daughters, had proven to be a distant connection with the boarder Miss Steele had claimed to be affiliated with. Curiously, however, it had not been Lucy Steele who had been involved in the following scandal. Instead, a Miss Dashwood, the eldest daughter, had ended up married to Mr Ferrars, the boarder Lucy Steele had claimed a connection with. Apparently, he had stayed with the Dashwoods at Mrs Dashwood’s explicit invitation, with both of them unaware that under the new legislature, this was illegal. Testimonies of local worthies showed that it was widely believed that neither Mrs Dashwood nor Mr Ferrars had been trying to act duplicitous, but in order to prevent any future recriminations against Mrs Dashwood, Mr Ferrars and Miss Dashwood had agreed to get married. It all looked like the matter might have been solved to everyone’s satisfaction, even the Chaperons’ Association, when Lucy Steele had appeared on the scene and claimed to have a previous understanding with Mr Ferrars. Her sister corroborated her tale, but was unable to provide any proof. Lucy Steele herself could similarly not produce any evidence of her alleged association with Mr Ferrars. A lock of her hair that she had claimed to have bestowed on Mr Ferrars was not found among his possessions, nor any letters from her. Nor could Miss Steele show any letters from Mr Ferrars, claiming she had burnt them all because they were ‘basically boring and repetitive.’ Miss Steele’s uncle, when called upon, stated he could zneither confirm nor deny Miss Steele’s engagement, adding that she had always ‘been flitting after one boy or another.’ In view of all this, the arbitrator from the Chaperon’s Association (Elizabeth noticed that it had been Mr Darcy’s cousin, who had also co-authored the book with him) had ruled that Miss Dashwood had the better claim for compromise on Mr Ferrars, regardless of whether an illegal correspondence had taken place or not. Miss Steele, unwilling to return again to her family – or, Elizabeth wondered, maybe unwelcome – had applied to a local institute of chaperonage instead for schooling. She had not excelled in her studies, but nevertheless, the headmistress of the institute had given her a temporary license as a substitute chaperone even though she had not yet completed the programme.
Elizabeth could not understand how someone with so few qualifications for such a difficult positions had been assigned it when she, Elizabeth, who had received excellent marks and finished her studies, had been given the easiest possible probationary assignment.
Elizabeth was engrossed in the files that were lying before her. She hoped that through studying them, she could find out what had happened to her family, would find anything that could explain the inexplicable. Mentally, she went through all the protocols she had encountered in her training. It was no use. None of them had assumed that in a critical case, one of the chaperons involved had a personal connection to the guilty party, or indeed any party involved in the matter. The whole theory of chaperonage, everything she had ever learnt, was based on the assumption that a chaperon had no personal connection whatsoever. She was about to ponder that interesting assumption – she wondered why its implications had never bothered her during her training – when the library doors opened again. Hoping the servants were bringing more sandwiches and wine, she looked up, only to see that it was the man – or rather, the chaperon – himself, Mr Darcy, wearing his travelling cloak once more. He hastily grabbed all the files in front of Elizabeth before she could do so much as blink an eye, and when she was still seated after he had gathered everything, he seemed genuinely surprised to find her thus.
‘For what are you waiting?’ he asked. Elizabeth finally managed to blink an eye.
‘Waiting for what?’ she asked.
‘You are rephrasing my question,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘It is ungrammatical, does not contribute to the conversation at all and does in fact hold us up.’
‘Hold us up for what?’ Elizabeth asked, still confused. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You have an unfortunate tendency to end sentences on a preposition or an interrogative pronoun,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘It does not become you. Now, can we please end this nonsense and leave?’
‘Leave for what?’ Elizabeth asked. ‘Where?’
Mr Darcy only tutted and gestured for her to follow him. Elizabeth stood up, quickly snatched the last of the sandwiches and a crumbling piece of Wensleydale and followed Mr Darcy out into the hall, where to her surprise, a maid was already waiting for her with her cloak, bonnet and shawl. In no time at all, Elizabeth was back in the carriage. Night had fallen and it had got quite cold. Mr Darcy, the fire of indignation burning hot within him, did not appear to notice that fact, but Elizabeth felt grateful to whoever had taken the time to bring blankets and hot bricks that had probably been meant for their beds. Mr Darcy gave some muttered instructions to their driver, swung himself into the carriage and they were off into the night, racing through the streets of London.
Chapter 3: III. The Carriage
I plan to post a new chapter every 3-4 days, until I run out of material. Right now, I have about 9 chapters as a buffer, I hope I can write quicker than I'm using up the buffer. We'll see.
‘Where are we going?’ Elizabeth asked again, hoping that this time, she would have put the question in such a way as to make Mr Darcy answer.
It was a while before Mr Darcy finally answered her. Elizabeth was not sure what took him so long. His face showed some signs of an internal struggle, but Elizabeth could not think of a struggle that could be caused by such a simple, straightforward question.
‘Hertfordshire, of course,’ Mr Darcy said at last, with such an expression – or at least what Elizabeth could make out of it in the pale moonlight – of surprise at an obvious question as if he had not spent the last minute pondering it.
‘But – you said we wouldn’t tonight,’ Elizabeth said.
‘I know I did,’ Mr Darcy replied. ‘There is no need to remind me of what I said a few hours ago.’
‘But now we are going to Hertfordshire,’ Elizabeth pointed out. ‘Don’t you see a discrepancy there?’
‘I changed my mind,’ Mr Darcy said curtly. ‘There was new information to consider.’
‘The files?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘I presume that you are asking whether the files we received were the reason why I changed my mind, in which case the answer is yes, they were,’ Mr Darcy said.
Elizabeth thought that if she ever were to tell anyone of this conversation, it would be very difficult to relay it. The content of Mr Darcy’s answers to her questions was quite abrupt and unkind, and if Elizabeth had seen them written down, she would have assumed them to have been uttered in a condescending, impolite tone. Mr Darcy’s tone, however, was neutral and soft, as if this was just the way he expected any conversation to unfold. Elizabeth decided not to ponder the matter just then and instead attempted to find out more about Mr Darcy’s change of heart, or mind, whichever it was that dominated the man (the chaperon, she should say).
‘So we left because you found out who was involved in the case?’ She began again.
Mr Darcy again thought about her question for a moment but then apparently deemed any grammatical remarks not worth his while, for he simply nodded and said, ‘Yes, I suppose you could put it like that.’
Elizabeth could not resist teasing him a little, even though she was not sure whether he would even realise he was being teased.
‘Is that not highly unprofessional,’ she asked, ‘to make a decision based on such personal and subjective feelings? Are we not letting them cloud our judgment?’
Mr Darcy’s hands curled into fists and even in the dim light Elizabeth thought that she saw his knuckles whiten.
‘I have a list, Miss Bennet,’ he said, repressed anger seeping into his otherwise still neutral tone, ‘a list of seventeen people whom I abhor more than any other.’
Elizabeth could not think of anything she could possibly say in response to that, so she let him continue.
‘The person in question – whose name we will not even mention – currently holds the third position from the top on that list,’ Mr Darcy explained. ‘I will not deny that there are very strong personal feelings involved in the matter.’
Elizabeth was still too busy contemplating whether she too held a position on that list to answer.
‘However,’ Mr Darcy continued, ‘when I decided that we had to leave at once, it was not because of those personal feelings. Nothing can ever end well where that person is involved. It was simply out of consideration for your sister – whichever sister it may turn out to be – that I deemed a quick departure necessary.’
The carriage rumbled through the night, hit a stone on the road and Elizabeth was almost jolted from her seat.
‘Oh,’ she said at last, while sorting her blankets and shawl. ‘Oh.’
‘You should try to catch a little sleep,’ Mr Darcy said and his tone sounded almost kind. ‘It is a few hours yet.’
Elizabeth, whose head was feeling more leaden by the minute, decided that this was a good suggestion. She made herself as comfortable as she could possibly be under the circumstances, wrapped the blankets tightly around herself and closed her eyes.
It was still dark when she woke. She could not say how long she had been asleep. It had not been very comfortable. In spite of the blankets and formerly hot brick, she had been cold, and the high speed of the carriage made the rumbling all the worse. On the seat across from her, Mr Darcy was still sitting in almost the same pose as he had been before she fell asleep. He had his face turned to the window and was staring out into the night. Elizabeth observed the effect of the moonlight on his still face for a moment, but then some involuntary movement of hers alerted him to the fact that she had woken.
‘Did you find your rest refreshing?’ he asked.
‘Not very,’ Elizabeth confessed.
‘I am not a friend of travelling,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘But my position makes it necessary. I have spent most of the last week in this carriage.’
‘What will we do when we come to Longbourn?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘I do not know,’ Mr Darcy replied, and for once, he sounded almost human.
‘I suppose we will just have to make it up as we go,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Find out what really happened, see what we can do to – to clear up the situation.’
To help my sister, was what she really wanted to say, but she did not want Mr Darcy to accuse her of being unprofessional again. After all, even if she was not yet quite sure what to think about Mr Darcy, this mission, however much she might have been personally involved, was an advancement of her career. If she did well on this assignment, she could hope for a recommendation by Mr Darcy himself, which would surely be of great value in finding a position.
‘I hate that approach,’ Mr Darcy said suddenly.
Elizabeth, who had been pondering possible glamourous assignments she might receive, said ‘what?’
Mr Darcy sighed.
‘I wish you spoke in full sentences,’ he said. ‘It would make communication so much easier.’
‘I am sorry, what did you say?’
‘I said I hated the approach you suggested,’ Mr Darcy clarified. ‘I like to arrive armed with all the necessary information and a plan at hand.’
Elizabeth, who felt like she had been accused of something, was about to defend herself, but in spite of the darkness in the carriage, Mr Darcy seemed to have sensed this.
‘It is not your fault, Miss Bennet,’ he said, ‘nor even that of your family, I suspect, however much they may have been at fault otherwise. No, this case was ruined by someone else entirely. All the rules of documentation were ignored, no reports written, no responsibility at all –’
He broke off and since Elizabeth did not know what to say, they both sat staring out of the window into the lightening night for a good while. Finally, Elizabeth pointed to the Eastern horizon – or at least, what she presumed was the Eastern horizon.
‘Look,’ she said.
There was a faint trace of pink in the grey sky. Mr Darcy checked his pocket watch.
‘We shall be there very soon,’ he said.
As the rising sun cast more light on their surroundings, they came to look more familiar to Elizabeth. She tried to place them so she could make a guess as to how much longer they would travel when Mr Darcy spoke up again.
‘Why did Mrs Annesley think the local attorney would have a personal interest in your family’s case?’ he asked.
Elizabeth was momentarily taken aback, but then recollected the contents of the letter Mr Darcy had shown her the previous night.
‘He is my uncle,’ she said. ‘My mother’s brother.’
Mr Darcy made a disparaging noise.
‘He should never have had any connection to this case whatsoever,’ he said. ‘The local overseer should have appointed a substitute point of contact in this case. But of course –‘
Elizabeth wanted to ask whether he was talking about the involvement of #3 again, but thought it better to raise Mr Darcy’s wrath even further when she was looking for some answers from him.
‘Will we stop at Longbourn or –‘ she began.
‘We will first take rooms in a local inn,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘I trust you can recommend a local institution that will suffice?’
Elizabeth indicated that she could and gave instructions which Mr Darcy related to their driver.
‘Once there,’ Mr Darcy continued, ‘we will want to refresh ourselves and you may want to change your dress.’
Elizabeth had not thought that Mr Darcy had even noticed she had changed her dress the previous night. She was, of course, still wearing black, the only appropriate colour for any chaperone – unless, of course, circumstances called for her to blend in – but it was an evening gown of fine quality, with particularly delicate lace affixed to the low neckline and the short sleeves. She had been quite proud of the purchase prior to her trip to Surrey, but had had no opportunity to wear it there, Miss Woodhouse’s wedding having been too hasty to allow anyone involved a change of clothes.
‘I have to commend you, however,’ Mr Darcy said stiffly, ‘on adhering to the dress code so admirably.’
In a slightly more awkward tone, he continued, ‘it is a very fine dress indeed. The colour suits you.’
Elizabeth considered this an odd remark, seeing as Mr Darcy had never yet seen her in anything but black.
‘Once the hour has adequately progressed,’ Mr Darcy said before she could think of a reply, ‘you should take the carriage and call on your family. It will not draw any attention in case they were able to keep the scandal quiet. You are merely returning to them for a few days before you start your first proper position. Nothing could be more natural.’
‘What if it becomes known we travelled here together?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘I told you before,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘We are above reproach in our position. I could not compromise you even if I intended to do so. We are merely colleagues sharing a carriage out of convenience.’
Elizabeth was about to say she could think of a few things Mr Darcy might do that not even a Chaperon’s Badge would be able to explain, but thought it better to focus on the case at hand instead of on the possibilities.
‘What will you do?’ she asked.
‘I shall retrieve the documents from your uncle,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘and then wait at the inn, where I will try to ascertain if word of your sister’s elopement has already broken. I would like for you to get word to me as soon as you possibly can, about what the situation is at your home. You shall indicate to me whether you think it advisable for me to appear in my official role, or under some subterfuge – although I hate having to resort to such lowly means. However, this case –‘
Instead of continuing what was probably a further criticism of #3, he pulled an envelope out of his breast pocket and drew several sheets of paper out of it.
‘Use this paper for your messages,’ he said. ‘In the event we have to testify in court, it will make it obvious everything was above board even though you are a member of the family.’
Elizabeth stared at the official sheets of the Chaperons’ Association, which exempted the correspondents from the Act of Chaperonage, in her hands.
‘Do you think my involvement in the case could be constructed negatively?’ she asked.
‘I do not know,’ Mr Darcy said in a tone that clearly indicated the admission was causing him pain, ‘I would not have appointed you, but Mrs Annesley obviously thought that your involvement would be a boon, and her judgment is usually good.’
They reached the inn in silence and soon retreated into their adjoining rooms. Elizabeth changed into a more sensible black day dress and carefully pinned her new badge onto her chest in order to indicate her status. In the meantime, the horses had been changed and Elizabeth was back on the road and on the way to Longbourn far earlier than she felt ready.
Chapter 4: IV. Longbourn
She found the place in chaos. Nobody was there to open the door for her, but fortunately, it was not locked. She stepped into the familiar hall and stood very still, hoping she would hear something that would indicate where everyone was. At first, there was nothing. No clanking of plates, no talking, no rustling, nothing that spoke of human presence. Then, however, she thought that if she strained her ears, she might be able to hear a faint wailing from upstairs.
Elizabeth hated herself for deciding that she could not yet deal with her mother. Instead, she opened the door to the breakfast parlour, expecting to find it deserted, but maybe stocked with some coffee or toast. To her surprise, Kitty and Mary were seated at the table, the one writing a letter, the other perusing a news journal. It struck Elizabeth at once that this was illegal.
‘Who is chaperoning you?’ she asked.
Kitty dropped her quill and squealed in surprise, but Mary simply looked up from her journal, took in Elizabeth’s dress and badge, and said, ‘you, I suppose.’
Elizabeth had to admit that this was probably the truth.
‘Why did you come?’ Mary asked disinterestedly, at the same time that Kitty cried, ‘Are you our chaperone now?’
Before Elizabeth could answer, Kitty had flung herself around Elizabeth’s neck and was crying, ‘please say you are, Lizzy, that would be the best of news! I hate Miss Steele, she is so mean, and she always prefers Lydia, and mama said -’
Elizabeth held on to the one pertinent bit in Kitty’s outburst. She longed to ask her sisters what had happened, but the protocols had to be observed.
‘Where is Miss Steele?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Don’t do that, it is not becoming,’ Elizabeth said automatically, which made Mary give her a scorching glare.
‘She’s upstairs with mama,’ Kitty informed Elizabeth. ‘I hate her – can you make her go -’
‘If anyone asks,’ Elizabeth said while opening the parlour door, ‘I was here with you the whole time.’
Mary shrugged again.
Elizabeth exited the parlour and followed the wailing upstairs. The door to her mother’s dressing-room stood ajar.
It was obvious to Elizabeth that the wailing behind the door was her mother's. Anyone who had lived in the house for as long as she had would instantly recognise it. The only thing that was new, perhaps, was the content of her mother's exclamations. On coming up the stairs, Elizabeth had though them to be the same predictions of misfortune, doom and nervous ailments as usual, but she now detected a new detail.
'What would I do without you?' Mrs Bennet cried, which Elizabeth thought unlikely to be directed at her father. 'What will I do when they take you away from me?'
'Calm yourself, ma'am,' a voice Elizabeth did not know said. 'I am sure all will be well.'
'How can it be well?' Mrs Bennet exclaimed. 'Ruined! Everything ruined!'
'I am sure we will find her,' said the strange voice. 'It'll only be a matter of hours now. She can't have gotten far.'
'But Mr Collins will never take her now,' Mrs Bennet continued. 'She ruined everything. Everything. I have never been so disappointed in my life -'
'Now, ma'am, don't you worry,' said the stranger. 'I will sort it all out. Just you wait. When she's back, we'll make sure it all comes well. We'll tell Mr Collins to take tea with us and you just leave it to me. He need never know what happened before and she'll be Mrs Collins before you know.'
Elizabeth could not believe what she was hearing. Who was that woman – rationality told her it had to be Miss Steele, the chaperone so despised by her sisters. She now recalled a veiled allusion made by Jane in one of her recent letters. Jane never liked to speak badly about anyone but had, most uncharacteristically, made an almost frank remark about the chaperone’s tendency to interfere in affairs that did not concern her. Elizabeth wondered what Miss Steele could have done to Jane to earn such censure. As soon as she had found her sister – who was probably the person in the household who was going to be the most helpful in the matter of Lydia’s disappearance – she was going to find out more about Miss Steele and her doings at Longbourn, for the satisfaction of both her professional and her private curiosity. First, however, she had her job to think of and the rules dictated that she speak to the chaperon in the case first. She made a perfunctory knock on the door but entered without waiting for an answer. Her mother was reclining on the divan she kept in her dressing-room for just these occasions, clutching a lacy handkerchief that was equally reserved for dire situations, and sniffling occasionally. A young woman was kneeling before her, her back turned towards Elizabeth. She had her blond hair piled up high on her head and wore her black chaperone’s dress in a way so garish and loud as Elizabeth had never thought possible with this colour. She turned around when Elizabeth entered and revealed a face that was almost angelic but for the blemishes of a few freckles across the nose and a small gap between her front teeth. Her accent, however, was clearly more Plymouth than heaven.
‘Elizabeth,’ Mrs Bennet cried upon seeing her second daughter, ‘did you hear what happened?’
‘I did,’ Elizabeth replied and stepped towards her mother so she could kiss her.
‘My baby,’ Mrs Bennet cried, ‘my poor, poor baby – and such a man!’
‘What has been done to recover her?’ Elizabeth asked, directing the question more at Miss Steele than at her mother.
‘It was very good of you to come to your family in this dreadful time, Miss,’ Miss Steele replied, ‘but this is a matter best left to the professionals. We are trained for these things.’
She placed a hand on Elizabeth’s arm and Elizabeth, who resented such familiarity, replied with more hauteur in her tone than was strictly necessary.
‘You misunderstand me,’ she said coolly and pulled at her lapels so that Miss Steele could better see her badge. ‘As much as I am grieved by the recent incidents, I am here very much in a professional capacity.’
Miss Steele paled slightly but let nothing on.
‘A pleasure to hear that, Miss,’ she said. ‘I am Miss Lucy Steele, I have been with your family -’
‘Miss Steele,’ Elizabeth interrupted her. ‘It is my duty to now inform you that my partner and I are taking over the matter of this Code 17b disappearance, as per Article 13. I ask you again, what of my sister? What has been done to recover her? Where is she?’
Miss Steele took as much time to clear her throat as she possibly could.
Mrs Bennet sniffled and Elizabeth, moved by filial instinct in spite of all professionalism, sat down beside her on the divan and comforted her as best as she could.
‘Lucy has been so helpful,’ Mrs Bennet muttered. ‘And she did warn me of him – she said he was such a bad person -’
‘Who, mama?’ Elizabeth asked. ‘Who?’
‘Mr Bingley!’ Mrs Bennet wailed. ‘Mr Bingley, who took Netherfield Park last year – and I had such high hopes for him, but Lucy warned me -’
‘A gambler and a gamester, Miss Bennet,’ Miss Steele said with more confidence in her voice now that Mrs Bennet was supporting her. ‘And a notorious rake. And he is not rich at all. All the money is borrowed.’
‘It is known all over London,’ Mrs Bennet wailed.
‘But what about him?’ Elizabeth asked, despairing. ‘What did he do?’
‘He lured your sister away, Miss Bennet,’ Miss Steele said. ‘I do not know what he promised her, but -’
Miss Steele interrupted her narration with a carefully executed dab at her eyes.
‘I blame myself. I thought I had done everything to protect her, but obviously I did not do enough -’
‘Nonsense,’ cried Mrs Bennet. ‘You did everything you could, my dear. Such is the way of the world, and she was always such a headstrong girl, I knew she would one day be the ruin of me – and now with this horrible business of the entail, and Mr Collins had as good as promised that he would marry -’
Elizabeth had previously heard enough about the business of the horrid, odious entail to know this was a lament she had best nip in the bud.
‘I know, mama,’ she said and patted her mother’s hand. ‘We will find a solution. But first -’
She turned towards Miss Steele. ‘Have you been able to locate them?’
‘I guess they are still at Netherfield,’ Miss Steele said. ‘I cannot split myself, can I, and my first duty was to attend to your mama -’
‘Your first duty, Miss Steele,’ Elizabeth said icily, ‘was to protect my sisters, and we see how well you discharged that. Where is my father?’
‘I told him to take Mr Collins on a tour of the estate,‘ Mrs Bennet explained instead of Lucy Steele. ‘I know the odious man will be calculating its value as we speak, but at least he will not notice that she is missing.’
Elizabeth had to admit that this plan made at least a little sense if the scandal was to be kept quiet at all.
‘Very well,’ she said.
She concluded that she would not be able to gather any valuable information from either Miss Steele or her mother. Her best hope for help was Mr Darcy, who had by now probably been able to find out more from the files left with her uncle. She personally thought that the next step had best be a visit to Netherfield Park in the hope that Mr Bingley and Lydia were still there. Before she confronted the seducer, however, she wanted to discuss this course of action with Mr Darcy, who was, after all, her superior in this matter. She made to leave her mother’s boudoir.
‘I trust, Miss Steele,’ she said, ‘that you will be able to keep at least the remainder of my sisters safe, while I sort out this affair.’
Elizabeth had not thought anything on this wretched day would be able to make her laugh, but the sight that greeted her as she exited the house in order to call the carriage most certainly had that effect. Riding down the lane towards her home was Mr Darcy, mounted proudly on a fat cob and maintaining with difficulty a slow posting trot.
‘The only mount to be had in the village,’ he panted as he jumped off the back of the beast, who was already munching on a tuft of grass.
Elizabeth noticed that Mr Darcy’s face was slightly flushed from the exercise and when he lifted his hat to greet her, she saw a few drops of sweat forming on his brow.
‘Miss Bennet,’ he said. ‘I have news of your sister.’
Chapter 5: V. Meryton
Thank you, everyone for you kudos and comments! I hope you continue to enjoy. Stay safe! #stayhome
Mr Darcy was a man who liked to move in charted territories. It was not that he did not feel himself incapable of dealing with the new and spontaneous. He was rather proud, in fact, of his mental abilities that allowed him to analyse and assess even the most outlandish situations with precision and perceptiveness. However, the fact remained that his mind thrived on the known and ordered, preferably where the ordering had been of his own doing.
In Meryton, on this morning, he therefore felt that there were definitely possibilities to improve the situation. He did not like having to rely on the cooperation of the locals – their actions, and attitudes, were always so unpredictable. And still, his new partner, Miss Bennet, was both a local and an unknown quantity to him. Complications were bound to happen and he hated complications for their disturbance of order. It was true, Miss Bennet had discharged her duties professionally and far more than adequately during her last assignment, but that had been an easy case with no personal connection for her. This here was different. He could not even blame her for any unprofessional emotion – the heavens knew he was familiar with the turmoil of fearing for a beloved sister’s safety! - but the fact remained that her personal connection made Miss Bennet a variable of unpredictable value in this equation.
It did not help that the attorney he would have to contact to hopefully, finally, obtain some useful information, was uncle to both his partner and her missing sister. He would have questioned Mrs Annesley’s wisdom in involving half the family in this affair, but she was his superior, after all, and it would not do to disregard the hierarchies. In any case, he knew how difficult it would have been for Mrs Annesley to locate a different attorney nearby at such short notice. Moreover, the Act of the Support of Chaperonage clearly obliged Mr Philips to remain neutral in this case, no matter what his personal affiliation might be.
As Mr Darcy soon found out, however, Mrs Philips was not bound by any such law, and felt free to show her partiality generously.
‘I know exactly who you are,’ she shrieked as soon as the maid had shown Mr Darcy into the parlour.
‘I beg your pardon?’
Mr Darcy had thought he would be led to Mr Philips’ office and did not know how to reconcile that expectation with the drawing room of a short, stout lady who repeatedly jabbed her finger into his chest.
‘I will not tolerate it,’ Mrs Philips said, stepping still closer towards him.
Mr Darcy could only bleakly repeat, ‘I beg your pardon?’ but it was clear that Mrs Philips was not listening to him at all as she set off on a tirade.
‘I know why you are here,’ she shrieked. ‘I have had a letter from my sister Bennet about it, and I will not stand for it. You know full well she was set to marry Mr Collins and you are not going to compromise her into anything with your new-fangled laws! Dear Miss Steele has explained it all to us how you would have her marry that godforsaken drunkard and gamester instead of the man her mama and papa chose for her and you can just forget about that. Your chaperonering may be all right for your hoity-toity Londoners but here in the country we will do things as we always have done, thank you very much!’
And with that, she began boxing him around the ears, even though Mr Darcy – who had been paralysed by the unreal qualities of the situation – could not see how she could even reach them, seeing as she was a good foot shorter than him. Then, with the help of a firepoker, she had him pushed out of the room and then the house before he could so much as explain himself to her.
Mr Darcy disliked spontaneous decisions, but in this case he spontaneously decided that he would pursue the avenue of trying to obtain information from Mr Philips some other time. For the moment, however, Mr Darcy was lost. He could literally not think of a single thing he could do right now to further this case. The only thing that came to mind was going to Longbourn to see how Miss Bennet was faring, but he dismissed that idea instantly. Miss Bennet would expect him to have found a miraculous solution to her problems, or at least, to know all the particulars of the affairs, and he felt reluctant to face her disappointment.
It was in this moment that another of those forces that Mr Darcy did not like to reckon with came to his aid: the mighty coincidence. Just as he was standing there in the middle of the road in front of Mr Philips’ house, taking care not to be run down by any cart while he pondered whether questioning the locals, an activity he disliked profoundly, could prove to be helpful, the inn’s stable boy caught up with him. He was carrying a letter and started a complicated tale of how it had ended up in his hand. Mr Darcy, hardly listening, cut him off with a quick gesture, then, hoping the letter might be from Mrs Annesley, tipped the boy much more generously than he would usually have.
Upon examining the letter, not knowing what a stroke of luck its falling into his hands would turn out to be, he first felt a profound disappointment. The letter was definitely not from Mrs Annesley. The uneven, partly blotted-out address was as far from Mrs Annesley’s neat hand as was graphologically possible. From what he could tell, the letter had followed him to several stations of his recent travels, but had never quite caught up with him.
“Darcy old man,” the letter began and although this meant that Darcy had now a fair idea of who the sender was, he could not help but be irritated at the lack of a comma in the appropriate place. He made a mental note to teach his friend about their importance before he turned back to the letter again.
Mr Darcy read through the letter twice and committed what little factual information there was to his memory. Then he folded the letter twice and tucked it into his coat pocket from which he extricated a little notebook and pencil. He wrote a memorandum to teach his friend Charles about the benefits of sufficient punctuation. He carefully tucked the notebook back into the pocket and decided that the situation called for speed. Miss Bennet would want to know what had happened to her sister. Mr Darcy hated unseemly physical activity, but he ran through the streets of Meryton – few as there were – back to the inn.
”Darcy old man -
Afraid I need to ask for your help. Seem to have accident-ly muddl’d things a wee bit tho I certainly didn’t mean to. Really meant to do the hon-rable thing but seems I tried to bridle the horse from the rear and now there’s a bit of a mess wouldn’t have bother’d you knowing you’re so busy but there’s a lady’s reputation at stake and I can’t let her suffer from my idiocy.
You just know so much more about these affairs – don’t mean to imply you’ve ever been involved in one obviously – and I really hope you can help extricate us out of this all so I can marry my Jane who is an angel with all honour. Obvs-ly can’t do that while I’m still in this mess or rather it’s not me it’s her I got in the mess and we don’t know when the people from Longbourn – that’s her home – will find her tho their governess chaperone is none too bright or as she puts it a complete cow but I’m sure you’d know what to do and see it all to rights.
Y-r loyal fried
‘Take her or leave her,’ the stablemaster said gruffly.
Mr Darcy mustered the yellow nag that was searching for some meagre rests of green on the tiny paddock in the inn’s yard.
‘Your choice, mister,’ the stable master said again.
Mr Darcy shot a longing glance at his own horses which had just been walked to dry and were now munching on some bales of hay.
‘I’ll take her,’ Mr Darcy said with a sigh. ‘Does she have a saddle?’
‘Sure,’ the stable master said. ‘Will you want to sit aside or astride?’
Mr Darcy was so enraged at this crude joke that he mounted the fat mare as soon as she was brought to him, without even taking the time to change into his riding breeches or ask for directions to Longbourn. It did not matter, he told himself as the horse walked out of the stable yard. He would surely be able to ascertain the right direction.
He was at least partly right in this assessment of the situation. It did indeed not matter into which direction he wanted to go. The mare had her own ideas and no matter into which direction Mr Darcy tried to steer her, she had long decided on a suitable road and was not to be dissuaded from it by either leg or rein. Mr Darcy, who was tired of fighting after his encounter with Mrs Philips, decided that the chances that the mare knew the right way were just as good as those for the opposite. Letting her have her way with the way, he tried to at least decide the speed. Mr Darcy had always thought himself a tolerably good rider, but this horse was determined on proving him wrong. A gallop had not been in her plans for the day and the most Mr Darcy could coax out of her was a too-slow trot. She was out of rhythm and so was Mr Darcy, who tried his best to maintain the speed in a posting seat. He also began to doubt the wisdom of letting the mare decide on the way. There were not taking one of the main roads, if indeed there was such a thing in these backwaters, but rather following what Mr Darcy took to be a footpath between the fields. At last, however, Mr Darcy espied a small dower house in the distance. There, at least, he would be able to ask for directions, and be met with more help than from the vulgar stable master.
In approaching the dower house, he saw that he was mistaken. Miss Bennet exited it and that meant that it was no dower house at all, but Longbourn itself. He went through what he had read about the Bennet family, calculated how many persons had to be living there and found the results shocking. No wonder the daughters had taken to running away. All these calculations however meant that he was not paying attention to the horse any more. She had promptly used his distraction to try to fall back into walking and it cost him a lot of effort to keep the speed up. As he came up the long, straight driveway, he could see the corners of Miss Bennet’s mouth curling upwards and he flushed at the thought of how hapless he must be looking to her. He could feel sweat trickling down his back and of course the horse was trying to use his renewed distraction to her favour. No sooner had he indicated to the mare that he wished to stop when they were close to Miss Bennet, than she already had her head down in a patch of grass, stopping so quickly that Mr Darcy was almost thrown off. He hastily dismounted to cover up his imbalance and felt that he should explain to Miss Bennet that this was not how he normally discharged himself on a horse. Only then did he remember his manners and greeted Miss Bennet, taking off his hat and relaying the newest developments to her.
‘Miss Bennet,’ he said, ‘I have news of your sister. She -’
‘She is at Netherfield Park,’ Miss Bennet interrupted him. ‘We must make haste, if it is not already too late.’
Red spots appeared in her cheeks.
‘Calm yourself,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘Undue haste will not help us at all. Where is the carriage?’
‘By the stables, I guess,’ Miss Bennet said, pointing to the outbuildings and beginning to walk in that general direction.
Mr Darcy cast a look at the munching mare. He would not go so far as to say that they had become friends, but he was still loth to leave her on her own like this. Miss Bennet noticed his hesitation.
‘Augusta will be fine,’ she said. ‘One of the stable boys will walk her back to the inn when he finds her.’
Mr Darcy did not know how to react to the revelation that Miss Bennet knew the nag by name, so he simply followed her without saying anything at all. He was pleased to note that his coachmen had been efficient as usual. The horses they had rented in Meryton had been walked, rubbed down and were ready to start again. In no time at all they were back on the road once more. It was only then that Mr Darcy remembered something.
‘Miss Bennet,’ he said, ‘how did you find out where your sister was?’
Miss Bennet, apparently lost in her thoughts, looked up with a jerk.
‘The chaperone told me,’ she said. ‘Miss Steele. She knew exactly where my sister was all the time, but all she does is hand my mother her salts and ingratiate herself.’
‘Miss Steele,’ Mr Darcy said icily, thinking back to the files he had read, ‘has been under a very bad influence.’
He clenched his jaw and fists as the memory of that person came to the foreground again.
‘Miss Steele is a very bad influence all by herself,’ Miss Bennet said.
Mr Darcy thought that she sounded as bitter as he himself felt, but since he did not always do very well at reading the emotions of others, he thought it best not to say too much about it, and merely muttered, ‘aha?’
‘Miss Steele knew exactly what sort of man he is,’ Miss Bennet said, now definitely sounding bitter, and possibly also angry, ‘and nevertheless she did nothing but idle talk in order to prevent Mr Bingley from seducing Lydia, who is but fifteen and easy to impress.’
Mr Darcy thought he had misunderstood her.
‘Seduce her?’ he exclaimed. ‘But certainly not!’
‘Mr Darcy,’ Miss Bennet said and he was surprised to see her flush – was this anger again? - ‘There is no need to shelter me. Remember, I am not a woman in this matter and you are no man. She may be my sister, but I know enough to understand that Mr Bingley has seduced and probably ruined Lydia!’
‘It was an accident,’ Mr Darcy said, feeling the need to defend his clumsy friend.
Miss Bennet flushed even more, but her tone was icy.
‘Pray tell me, how does one accidentally seduce? Does it involve tripping over items of furniture?’
Mr Darcy felt the heat creep into his own cheeks now.
‘Of course not,’ he mumbled, wishing to end that particular sub-topic.
He fumbled in his pocket for the letter from Bingley and handed it to Miss Bennet.
‘I had this from him this morning,’ he explained, and added, for Miss Bennet still appeared to look confused, ‘You should know that Mr Bingley and I are long-term friends, as chance would have it, but we neither of us knew of the other’s involvement in this matter.’
Miss Bennet looked a little placated at that, he thought, and took the letter from his hands. She perused it quickly – he could see her eyes darting to and fro – and handed it back to him.
‘Your friend as an abysmal handwriting,’ she said, ‘but apart from that, I can make neither head nor tail of it.’
Mr Darcy tucked the letter back into his pocket, where it was supposed to go.
‘He is also very lax with his punctuation,’ he said, ‘but that is neither here nor there.’
‘Well, then, what does the letter tell you about my sister, Mr Darcy?’ Miss Bennet cried. ‘What do you make of it?’
‘Obviously, my friend is in love with your sister Jane,’ Mr Darcy explained.
Oddly enough, from what he could tell, Miss Bennet did not appear comforted by that assurance. Then he remembered something Mrs Philips had screeched at him and connected it with Miss Bennet’s obvious reservations about Bingley.
He added, ‘You should perhaps be aware of the fact that Mr Bingley, notwithstanding his horrifying habits of correspondence, is neither a gambler nor a drunkard – I gather that rumour has been circulating.’
‘No – yes – but -’ Mr Darcy normally disliked dithering in conversations immensely, but he found that he could just about forgive Miss Bennet in this instance. ‘My sister?’
Mr Darcy refrained from pointing out that this was not a complete sentence, although he made a mental note to write himself a memorandum to address the matter in the future.
‘As I was saying,’ Mr Darcy began anew, ‘my friend Bingley, who is neither a gambler, nor a drinker, nor a serial seducer, fell in love with your sister Jane, but through some accident or misfortune, seems to have put one of your other sisters in a compromising position that he now fears may be detrimental to all of them. He is now asking for my help to extricate your younger sister from that predicament without further injury to her reputation, and to enable him to marry your older sister, who so far appears to have escaped compromise either through him or someone else.’
Mr Darcy was unable to conceive of a manner in which he could relate this any clearer and was relieved to see Miss Bennet nod.
‘I see,’ she said.
She opened her mouth again, presumably to say something else, but in that moment, the carriage slowed and came to a halt in front of what Mr Darcy, upon looking out of the window, discerned to be Netherfield Park. Miss Bennet sighed heavily instead.
‘We are there,’ she said superfluously. ‘Whatever do we do now?’
Mr Darcy exited the carriage before the coachman could help him and then carefully lifted Miss Bennet out of it.
‘We are chaperons sworn to the English government,’ he reminded her. ‘We will do whatever duty demands.’
Then, however, because she seemed upset to him, he added, ‘Courage, Miss Bennet,’ in spite of himself and side by side, they walked up to the front doors of Netherfield Park.
Chapter 6: VI. Netherfield
If Elizabeth had not known what to expect when she approached Longbourn, this was nothing to how she felt when she and Mr Darcy walked up the front stairs to Netherfield. How would she face Lydia? What could she say to her sister – and how could she know if what Mr Darcy had suggested had happened was actually true? She had only Mr Darcy’s word as to Mr Bingley’s character, and she was not certain whether she trusted him. It was true, she did not exactly have a reason to distrust him either, but for the moment, he remained a puzzle to her and she was wary.
Mr Nichols, the butler, opened the door for them and the familiar face eased Elizabeth’s anxieties a little. Both Elizabeth and Mr Darcy showed him their badges and Mr Darcy handed him his card. Mr Nichols nodded, indicating that no further explanation was necessary, and led them to the drawing-room. He opened the door and announced, ‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and Mr Darcy, of the Chaperons’ Association.’
‘At last!’ a male voice ejaculated from within the room. ‘By Jove, what took him so long?’
Elizabeth entered the room after Mr Darcy and realised that she had not even known how unprepared she was for what awaited her within.
There, then, was Jane – and suddenly the mystery of the handling of the crisis at Longbourn made sense. There had been no Jane to hold everything quietly together, to keep her mother’s hysterics at bay and her sisters in check, to gently remind Miss Steele of her duties and to insist her father do something. Jane had left and Longbourn had fallen apart within hours. The only questions that remained were how Jane had ended up here, and why. For the moment, however, the most overwhelming emotion for Elizabeth was happiness to see her beloved sister again, and apparently safe and sound. It was only when the two women reluctantly broke apart that Elizabeth became aware of her surroundings: the comfortable, but unfashionable drawing-room with its faded covers and curtains, and the young man with the fair hair and the open, friendly face standing with with Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy introduced him as Mr Bingley, as Elizabeth had expected him to, and Elizabeth in turn introduced Jane. Mr Darcy replied with the appropriate formalities, but then suddenly stopped mid-bow.
‘Miss Jane Bennet?’ he exclaimed. ‘Miss Jane?’
‘But who else?’ cried Mr Bingley. ‘I wrote to you, she is my angel and I cannot be sorry enough that I got her I this deucedly peculiar situation.’
‘You wrote nothing of the sort,’ Mr Darcy said stiffly. ‘What did you do, Charles?’
At that question, Mr Bingley turned red to the tips of his ears and Jane coughed furiously.
‘It was an accident,’ Mr Bingley muttered.
‘How does one accidentally seduce a lady?’ Mr Darcy asked. ‘Did you trip over items of furniture?’
Elizabeth’s surprise at Mr Darcy’s borrowing her turn of phrase could only very briefly distract her from the question that urgently presented itself: Had Jane been seduced, and compromised, and if yes, how far?
‘That’s not at all how it happened,’ Mr Bingley said hotly. ‘I meant to do it the honest way, I told you – did you bring the thing?’
‘For heaven’s sake, Charles, don’t speak in riddles!’ Mr Darcy exclaimed. ‘How can I bring a thing if you never asked me to do so, nor ever specified said item?’
‘The license!’ Mr Bingley cried. ‘We need one of those new licenses, don’t we? I remember you telling me about them things, but I can’t recall what you said it was called, it sounded dreadfully complicated. I’m sure you will know what to do.’
Elizabeth felt as puzzled as Mr Darcy looked. Jane seemed to have noticed their confusion. She placed a hand on Mr Bingley’s arm and said, ‘Why don’t we sit down and explain all from the beginning?’
‘Yes, please,’ Mr Darcy said faintly and Elizabeth nodded her agreement. Jane showed them to the sofas and rang the bell for tea. Elizabeth noted that she was behaving like the mistress of the house and wondered whether this was a good or a bad sign. Mr Darcy, now completely the chaperon again after the initial confusion, got out his notebook and opened it to a new page. Elizabeth of course knew how to write a first assessment protocol, but prying over Mr Darcy’s shoulder, she was surprised by the elaborate clerical script he was using.
Here, Mr Darcy paused his rapid pen and Jane interrupted her narrative, looking at him.
The Twenty-seventh day of July, in the County of Hertfordshire, Parish 94271,
Procès-verbal written by Fitzwilliam R. Darcy in the affair of file no. 1761311-VI/7,
Deputy Chaperone Elizabeth Bennet,
In consequence of the viva voce examination of Charles Th. Bingley and Miss Jane Bennet, wherein Charles Bingley, Esq., of Westminster, Middlesex, Parish 1768, hath made the following statement,
that he took possession by way of renting, of the estate “Netherfield Park,” near Meryton, Hertfordshire, Parish 94271, on Michaelmas Quarterday the previous year, registering his residence with the Chaperons’ Association as bachelor without female appendage with the need for chaperonage on the second day of October the same year;
that on or around the said second day of October, he first met Miss Jane Bennet at a local assembly for the purpose of dancing, whence said Miss Bennet was escorted and subsequently chaperoned by her own lady mother;
that over the course of the following two months (eae sunt October & November) he and the said Miss Bennet repeatedly encountered each other at several occasions frequented by the genteel populace of Meryton, Hertfordshire;
that during all these encounters, he and the said Miss Bennet behaved at all times with the strictest decorum and in accordance with the law of the land, particularly where it regards the question of chaperonage;
that around the twenty-sixth day of November of the same year, he left the estate of Netherfield for his home parish in Westminster, Middlesex, for reasons of business;
that he remained in Westminster for no longer than a week and that during this time he resolved to make an offer of marriage to the said Miss Bennet, citing the reason of a presumed mutual affection and a general agreeableness of her person;
that in order to make this offer, he requested an interview with the father of the said Miss Bennet (i.e. Mr H. Bennet, Esq., of Longbourn, near Meryton, Hertfordshire, Parish 94271) on the day following his return, this day being no later than the fifth of December of the said year;
that, however, when attempting to pay his compliments to Mr Bennet upon said return, he was being denied that opportunity under the claim that Mr Bennet was not at home to visitors;
that, when he repeated his attempts during the following days, he was eventually told that Mr Bennet was not disposed to see him at any time and that, furthermore, he was desired to vacate the premises at once, not being welcome there anymore;
that, upon receiving this information, he had felt very dejected and would have felt his suit failed, had he not, through sheer chance, met Miss Bennet again at a party held at Lucas Lodge (owned by Sir William Lucas, Parish 94271) a few days later;
that during said party he “accidentally” (as he termed it) disclosed his intentions of marriage to Miss Bennet and was delighted to find that she was agreeable to his suit and did, in fact, accept his addresses almost instantly;
that from this point forth, he and Miss Bennet considered themselves engaged to be married although no Chaperon’s Waiver of Liability nor Parent’s or Guardian’s Release Form had been signed;
that, in fact, Miss Bennet advised Mr Bingley almost instantly that parental consent to their proposed union would be almost impossible to obtain;
that Miss Bennet cited rumours of an unwholesome nature concerning the character, habits and preferences of Mr Bingley, which rumours, according to Miss Bennet, had been circulating for some time, as the reason for this;
that Miss Bennet was not completely certain about the source of these rumours but believed them to have originated with her own chaperone, Miss Lucy Steele, of Plymouth (Parish 32583);
‘I do not doubt your judgment, of course, Miss Bennet,’ he said, ‘but why exactly are you convinced that your chaperone is the source of these rumours?’
‘Because she is a stupid cow,’ Jane said with fervour. Elizabeth, who had scarcely ever heard her sister speak like that, and certainly never in mixed company, was both shocked and instantly certain that Jane was speaking with sincere conviction.
Mr Darcy cleared his throat, but showed no further reaction to Jane’s way of speaking.
‘And in what way did you arrive at those conclusions?’ he asked.
To Elizabeth’s surprise, Mr Bingley blushed at that question.
‘She propositioned me,’ Mr Bingley said.
‘Propositioned you?’ Mr Darcy repeated in the exact same manner he had criticised in Elizabeth the night before.
‘Well, you know how it is,’ Mr Bingley said, ‘you must have had dozens of offers yourself, I say, what with your money and your position, and I guess you’re not too ugly -’
It was apparent that it took Mr Darcy quite a while to work out Mr Bingley’s meaning, but when he did, Elizabeth noted to her amusement that the tips of his ears were turning red.
‘No, in fact I have not,’ he said, ‘apart from – you know – and I dare say she is quite over me now.’
‘Oh, she is,’ Mr Bingley laughed, ‘it was only ever about your house, you know.’
‘Yes, can we get back to the matter of Miss Steele?’ Mr Darcy said hastily. ‘With what purpose in mind did she proposition you?’
‘Is there any other purpose to a proposition but the obvious one, Mr Darcy?’ Elizabeth asked, slightly distracted by the colour of his ears.
‘She must have had the obvious purpose,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘for she could not have hoped to entrap him into marriage.’
‘No, really, Darcy, I don’t think -’ Mr Bingley began. ‘I mean, I’m not – why would she want to -’
Jane gave Mr Bingley a look that said quite clearly that she had no problem imagining Miss Steele’s motivation and Elizabeth did not know whether to be diverted or embarrassed by her sister.
‘I do not think there is any need to discuss the details of your seduction,’ Mr Darcy said. ‘Especially not in the presence of Miss Bennet.’
‘I was not -’ Mr Bingley began hotly, but Jane placed a hand on his arm and he stopped.
‘Whatever Lucy planned,’ Jane explained, ‘she did not succeed, for Charles was not at all interested in her.’
‘Whatever her plan was,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘it would not have worked, because Mr Bingley could not have compromised her.’
Elizabeth finally picked up on his meaning.
‘Oh!’ she said.
‘What?’ Mr Bingley asked.
‘A chaperone,’ Elizabeth recited, ‘may be compromised in the technical sense, but never in the legal, for her position places her outside the application of the Act of Chaperonage; it condones her being in the presence of men without needing chaperonage of her own and thus, no marriage can be arranged as a consequence of her being found in a compromising position nor can she bring forward any legal action against her collaborator in a scene classified as compromising. Any and all assaults on her person, whether in violent form or made with the aid of duress or subterfuge, are exempt from this clause and may be answered with legal actions regardless of the circumstances.’
She could see Mr Darcy’s chest swell with pride as she quoted from his book and knew instinctively that he had penned this particular passage.
‘That does not really signify anything,’ Jane said. ‘I am not even sure Lucy would ever have opened her books, even if she could read.’
Elizabeth knew her sister well enough to recognise that such unprecedented viciousness had to be rooted in a very personal attack on Jane, and she came to the understanding that was obviously still eluding Mr Darcy.
‘So Lucy Steele tried to sever any connection between you and Mr Bingley in whatever way she could in order to entrap Mr Bingley herself, not aware that she was barred from doing so by the law?’
‘Breaching the Chaperons’ Code of Conduct quite severely,’ Mr Darcy added under his breath, ‘not to mention common decency.’
Jane, apparently glad that they had finally caught on, nodded energetically and Mr Bingley ejaculated, ‘She tried to have Jane compromised by Mr Collins – greatest buffoon I have ever met, Darcy, and I am brother to Algernon Hurst!’
‘And so you set out to compromise her yourself,’ Mr Darcy observed.
‘No – yes – I did not set out to, but eventually -’
‘The point is,’ Jane said calmly, ‘I have been well and truly compromised, both legally and technically, so can you get us a wedding license?’
Chapter 7: VII. The Carriage Once More
It was against all procedure, and it irked Mr Darcy that this appeared to be a problem only to him. It was not that he minded, per se, to circumvent the rules like this, but he would have liked some acknowledgement of their bending the law by his companion, who instead was dozing the light sleep of the ever-watchful chaperone while the rented horses pulled the carriage towards London quickly, but rather unevenly.
Mr Darcy found himself unable to sketch the character of this sleeping woman – or rather, this sleeping chaperone, he corrected himself, and therein, he feared, lay the crux of the matter. He found himself quite astonished at this lack of self-control. It was most unwelcome and he did not even want to ponder the darker implications that his inability to forget Miss Bennet’s gender brought with it. If he did not take care, he might soon end his sentences in prepositions, and that was only the beginning of the downfall that was inevitable after mental sloppiness. There was, of course, nothing wrong with agape, or a well-regulated philia, but an uncontrolled storge - turning, perhaps, unnoticed, into the dreaded e-word – the prospect was too discomposing to even think the thought to an end. It had been a long time since a female person had had such an effect on him – if he analysed the matter properly, probably not since the dark days when, upon reaching manhood, he had been very hard- pressed to keep the more disconcerting aspects of life in check.
Little did Mr Darcy know that far from being asleep, Elizabeth was pondering similar matters behind closed eyes, although her thoughts did not veer nearly as far in the direction of the sinister character of physical affection. She was merely attempting to sketch the character of the enigma seated opposite her and failing.
The carriage drove on and Elizabeth began to feel a certain claustrophobia. Outside, the sun was sinking and dusk was settling in.
‘Are you quite certain that we will find the archbishop in Lambeth?’ Elizabeth asked, hoping that this would prove to be a suitably neutral topic to keep her mind from wandering.
‘He told me a fortnight ago that he had no intention of leaving London for at least a month,’ Mr Darcy said, glad to talk about less disconcerting questions. ‘I do hope that he has not changed his plans for I would find it quite an inconvenience to alter mine at this stage. Besides, we have promised to be back at Netherfield tomorrow night and I do not want to break my promise to them.’
‘Trust me, they will find something to do while away the time,’ Elizabeth said and when, much to her satisfaction, Mr Darcy’s ears appeared to be turning pink in the dim light of the carriage, she added, ‘It is not as if my sister could be more compromised, is it?’
‘I do not make a habit of breaking my promises,’ was the only reply she got for her efforts and they continued the journey in silence. The carriage’s rattling became more even but no less unnerving after they had changed horses and Elizabeth, who was feeling the beginnings of a headache, found the silence in the carriage more and more oppressive. She dozed intermittently, but could not find any real rest. It was now full dark outside and the carriage came to yet another halt.
‘Where are we?’ Elizabeth asked and her voice seemed to her unnaturally loud in the carriage.
‘It must be the last tollgate before London,’ Mr Darcy said.
They heard an indistinct conversation outside and Elizabeth was waiting for the carriage to resume its journey as soon as the coachman had paid the fees, but instead, there was a knock on the carriage door.
‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ the coachman said upon Mr Darcy’s opening the door, ‘but we have a situation here that we thought you should attend. Miss, too, sir, if you please.’
Elizabeth’s confusion as to why she was particularly asked for soon cleared when she was lead to the toll house and saw there a young girl shivering before the fire. She did not appear to be much older than fifteen and Elizabeth instantly felt pity for her as she extended a clumsy curtsy to them.
‘You are apparently neither married nor a chaperone,’ Mr Darcy, mustering the girl’s dress, stated. ‘Am I correct in that assumption?’
The girl nodded.
‘Are you then employed in any way that would exempt you from being a subject to the Act of Chaperonage?’ Mr Darcy continued his investigation.
Elizabeth’s heart fell for the young girl. She was certain that the girl would not be able to provide any proof of legal employment and Mr Darcy would find her to be acting outside the law.
The girl shook her head.
‘Are you aware of the fact that your unchaperoned presence on these premises is unlawful and may result in serious consequences for you?’ Mr Darcy asked.
The girl’s lips trembled as she managed to stammer out a, ‘yes, sir.’
‘Then I expect that you have a good explanation for what you are doing here, all alone, at this time of night.’
Elizabeth knew that she had to maintain a professional demeanour, but the look of utter fear on the young girl’s face as she was faced with Mr Darcy’s stern interrogation almost caused her to say something rash.
‘I ran away,’ the girl said very quietly, ‘because they wanted to make me marry Henry and I couldn’t – I couldn’t -’
She broke into tears and clutched her thin pelisse tighter around herself. To Elizabeth’s utter surprise, Mr Darcy did not begin a lecture about the superfluity of elliptic sentences.
‘Tollkeep!’ he cried instead. ‘This girl is upset and freezing. Is there a way to get her a hot beverage?’
When the gatekeeper appeared, Mr Darcy pressed a coin in his hand and the man promised to return with hot tea and brandy. Elizabeth, bewildered, led the young girl to a chair while Mr Darcy, leaning on the mantelpiece, observed them.
‘What is your name?’ he asked, once the girl had blown her nose with the handkerchief that Elizabeth, as well-prepared as any chaperone, had handed her.
‘Fanny Price,’ the girl said and promptly burst into tears again.
Interrupted with sobs, out came the whole tale: Of how she was a poor cousin living with her uncle’s family, how there had been lots of questionable behaviour that the daughters of the family, chaperoned by a widowed aunt, had engaged in, how a relation of a neighbour’s, who had previously flirted with both daughters of the family, had taken an interest in Fanny, supported by her uncle, how her aunt had neglected to chaperone Fanny and Henry had tried to sway her mind by compromising her, how Fanny had run away, hoping to make it to her mother’s in Portsmouth undetected, but had, of course, been swindled by the stagecoach driver and left at the tollgate with no money.
The tollkeeper returned with the tea. Mr Darcy pressed the steaming mug into the girl Fanny's hands before her resumed his stance at the mantelpiece.
‘Miss Price,’ he said sternly. ‘Are you a government-approved chaperone?’
Miss Price, clutching the mug, shook her head.
‘Are you in training to be a government-approved chaperone?’
Miss Price shook her head again. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘Aunt Norris suggested sending me, but Sir Thomas would not hear of it.’
‘Then I gather,’ Mr Darcy continued, ‘that you are also not in any other way employed that would exempt you from the Act of Chaperonage?’
Miss Price shook her head once more.
‘You know then,’ Mr Darcy said, ‘that according to the law, you have been compromised, having spent time alone with the keeper of this gate?’
Fury rose within Elizabeth. Surely Mr Darcy could not mean to make Miss Price marry the tollkeeper, who, although he gave a kind and friendly impression, was old enough to be Miss Price's father? She realised she had got up from her seat and assumed a protective stance before the young girl. Mr Darcy did not appear to have noticed.
‘A marriage,’ he said, ‘would be the obvious consequence.’
The tollkeeper, who had lingered silently on the threshold, raised his hand.
‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said, ‘and no disrespect meant to young miss, but seeing as I have been married to my missus these twenty years, I'd just as lief stay with her instead of young miss -’
‘There, Mr Darcy,’ Elizabeth said through clenched teeth, ‘you cannot make them marry!’
Mr Darcy looked confused.
‘I had not intended to do so,’ he said. ‘It is obvious they would not suit.’
He took his notebook out of his pocket again and wrote a few lines in his immaculate chancellery hand, then ripped out the sheet – Elizabeth saw him grimace in pain at such an injury to the integrity of the notebook – and handed it to Elizabeth.
‘Sign this,’ he said and Elizabeth, taking the pencil he offered her, scribbled a much less handsome signature underneath his.
With the powers vested in me, I, Fitzwilliam Richard Darcy etc etc, appoint Miss Elizabeth Bennet of the Chaperons' Association as temporary chaperone in an emergency situation under Section 19c to Miss Frances Price, formerly of Northamptonshire, dated and signed, etc etc.
Mr Darcy then handed the piece of paper to Miss Price.
‘This should take care of the situation until we can decide what to do with you,’ he said.
Miss Price took the paper, read it slowly and then pocketed it carefully in her reticule.
‘And now, sir?’ she asked. ‘Do I have to go back to Mansfield Park?’
‘Obviously you have to stay with your lady chaperone,’ Mr Darcy said and frowned.
Elizabeth, feeling almost giddy with relief that Mr Darcy was not trying to throw Miss Price to the metaphorical dogs, laughed.
‘I guess, Mr Darcy,’ she said, ‘that Miss Price will have to travel with us to the archbishop.’
The archbishop of Canterbury would have said of himself that he was a very complacent man. Nothing, he would have said, could faze him easily. He took fashions and fads in stride as they came and went, there were more important things to life.
The archbishop would also have described himself as a moderate man. He did not like excesses, neither in himself nor in others. They could only lead to most unpleasant outbursts and displays reminiscent of foreigners. In the archbishop’s opinion, this applied to all matters, regardless of what they were, for a middle ground would always be preferable to either extreme.
It was for this reason that there was only one woman in the archbishop’s bed now, and while she was, as a matter of fact, not his wife, she was not in any way scandalous. She was neither quite highly nor quite lowly born, being the daughter of a tradesman on the brink of gentility and the widow of a respectable curate, in age closer to the archbishop than to his daughters or his mother, and of altogether rather average, though pleasing, looks. The archbishop would not say that he was mad about her, certainly, but he was rather fond of her, perhaps even more than averagely. He was thus rather displeased to be called out of his warm, moderately large four-poster bed by an incessant, altogether rather unregulated knocking on his door. The archbishop was not too much of a friend of punctuality; he found those who were too fixated on being exactly on time rather suspicious, but nevertheless he agreed with the majority of society that saw certain hours of the day as more agreeable to social and business calls than others.
His secretary, however, informed him that the visitors were rather insistent and as the secretary was young and inexperienced, he had not been able to deny them entrance to the library, where they were now waiting for the archbishop. The archbishop sighed. He would have preferred to only concern himself with the matter of his mysterious nightly visitors in the morning, but now that they were actually in the house, the rules of hospitality, even when not quite strictly interpreted, demanded that he listen to their matter. He quickly ran a brush through his hair, donned a neatly, not too lavishly decorated nightshirt and covered himself with a dressing gown befitting his status as a prince of the church.
When he entered the library, he inwardly groaned, though he took care not to betray his feelings to his visitors. He had never liked Fitzwilliam Darcy – the man was unnecessarily tall, for one thing, far above the average – and that he now showed up at an impolitely late hour with not one, but two women in tow – and one of them almost young enough to be his daughter! – was a clear sign of a complete disregard for all standards of moderation.
At least, the man had manners. They were, perhaps, a bit too nice to be completely agreeable, but he could be relied upon to make the proper introductions. The creature in the black dress, prettier than her mousy companion, was apparently no lady at all, but a government chaperone. The archbishop had to applaud Fitzwilliam Darcy for this clever move and wished that a government career had been an option that his parents approved of, back in the day. The girl, in turn, was the chaperone’s charge, and thus not of interest to the archbishop, and probably not to Fitzwilliam Darcy either.
The archbishop briefly thought of offering his visitors tea, but, his current companion not being in a state that would allow her to be mother, dismissed the idea again. He might appear a tad more rude than he intended to for omitting the offer of hot drinks to his guests, but from the manner of his late arrival, he guessed that Fitzwilliam Darcy had come to seek his good graces, and not the other way around.
Of course he had. There had been another “incident,” as Fitzwilliam Darcy liked to term it, and instead of just letting time and nature take their curse, providing the young couple in question with the post schedule to Gretna as a helpful hint, and looking the other way until the deal was completed, Fitzwilliam Darcy insisted on following the letters of the law to the very last jot. It was not the way the archbishop had been doing things for years. Of course he had never promoted or supported public indecencies, but there was such a thing as taking a practical approach that made life much easier for everyone involved.
Not of course for Fitzwilliam Darcy the way ordinary people did things.
‘With all due respect, your grace,’ he said, ‘but I need to make sure that the name of the couple in question will not be tainted. They surely erred, but there is such a thing as Christian charity that should allow you to grant the necessary papers swiftly.’
The archbishop had been too busy to ponder how much respect Fitzwilliam Darcy thought was his due to instantly realise the attack on his position as a shepherd.
‘I assure you, Fitzwilliam Darcy,’ he said, ‘that I do take Christian charity into full account when handling these matters. Indeed, I have frequently made it known that the approach of the Church has always been more charitable than the stance the government has taken recently -’
‘I apologise again, archbishop,’ Fitzwilliam Darcy said and the archbishop was pleased to note that his face gained colour, ‘I mistook your position in the recent Vernon affair. You know I meant no harm to either you or your see.’
The archbishop decided that now was the time to show some leniency.
‘Very well,’ he muttered. ‘I suppose we may both have been mistaken in the character of Lady -’
‘I was very clear about her character very early on,’ Fitzwilliam Darcy said at once, with a rather annoying degree of warmness. ‘Indeed, as I pointed out to you in my letter of the fifth of -’
The pretty young thing that Fitzwilliam Darcy had brought with him gave the tiniest cough. The archbishop was astonished to see that instead of recommending she drink some tea, Fitzwilliam Darcy actually interrupted his diatribe and turned his eyes towards her.
‘Be that as it may,’ Fitzwilliam Darcy said, ‘we can agree to let that matter rest, you will find the full details in my report of the -’
The chaperone coughed again.
‘Coming back to the matter at hand,’ Fitzwilliam Darcy said, ‘I have here with me all the necessary application papers as under Section IV of the -’
The archbishop could never remember all the legal niceties, and did not really care for them either; he knew what to sign and what not. Instead of listening to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s rambling, he amused himself with observing the young thing, who hung on the man’s lips as he dissected subclauses. Then it was finally time for Fitzwilliam Darcy to produce the promised papers, and for the archbishop to at least make a proper show of examining them as thoroughly as he deemed necessary.
The unexpected omission hit him squarely in the eye. Mechanically, his hand was already reaching for his quill in order to sign the papers - he was not one to get caught up in details when the intention was clear - but then he remembered Fitzwilliam Darcy shredding the Vernon paperwork with his bare hands because the archbishop had ticked the wrong box in the section on prerequisites, and he drew his hand back into his lap.
‘I cannot sign this,’ he said, gaining an almost carnal knowledge of the very foreign concept of schadenfreude.
‘Sir, I beg of you -’ the pretty chaperone said and he almost reconsidered but for Fitzwilliam Darcy’s stern glance.
‘You have forgot, Fitzwilliam Darcy,’ he said, enjoying every syllable, ‘to obtain the necessary signature of the local magistrate with the seal affixed. I cannot possibly countenance such a glaring ignorance of the rules.’
Fitzwilliam Darcy’s complexion went from pale to burning scarlet in a few precious seconds. The archbishop returned the papers to him and helpfully pointed out the line where the missing signature should have been.
Night airs, in the opinion of the archbishop, were a thing best to be avoided. Nevertheless, as he returned to his bedchamber and his snoring companion, he opened the window a crack, knowing that Fitzwilliam Darcy would be mounting a carriage in the street below.
‘We will not return to Hertfordshire tonight,’ he heard the chaperone say with a rather steely tone. ‘There is no tonight to speak of anymore, and Miss Price is dead on her feet. I would not mind a rest and something to eat, either.’
The archbishop had never slept more sweetly.
I've finally finished Chapter 10. That's good news because I had been struggling to find an ending I liked for ages, but it also means that I'm now past the point where I had a detailled idea of where this story is going. There is a broad outline, but nothing more. So, this is not normally how I approach a story, but seeing as this is just everyone's favourite crack, if you have any wishes for things you'd like to see, or suggestions for things you think I absolutely should include, feel free to let me know :) I'll see if I can incorporate it!
Thank you again for all your lovely comments!
Chapter 9: IX. Mayfair, Again
I'm very sorry about the longer-than-planned delay in posting. I've almost used up my buffer of stuff previously written, and even though most of this story is free association, and doesn't really follow any planning, I've still struggled with getting more written. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this, and that I can post Chapter Ten soon-ish. Thank you every one for your kind comments!
In the entrance hall, their meagre portmanteaus and Fanny’s small bag were dwarfed by a seemingly endless array of suitcases, baskets, hatboxes and diverse other travel paraphernalia. Elizabeth was too tired to wonder much about it, but she saw Mr Darcy’s eyebrows rise up his brow.
‘Darcy, darling,’ a rather shrill voice rang through the corridor. ‘I had almost despaired of you.’
It was the first time Elizabeth had seen Mr Darcy roll his eyes. She had a feeling it might turn out not to be the last time this long day or night or whatever it actually was.
‘Darcy, darling,’ the shrill voice called again, ‘where on earth can you have got to? Did I not just now hear you in the hall? I could have sworn -’
The lady who appeared in the hallway then certainly knew how to make an entrance. She was tall, taller even than Jane and - there was only one word for it - majestic. Multiple skirts in hues of orange and brown rustled as she stepped towards Darcy. The bodice of this dress was trimmed with ribbon interwoven with golden thread that sparkled softly in the candlelight. Her glorious chestnut curls were crowned with a lacy contraption in which a feather featured prominently.
‘Darcy, where were you?’ she insisted. ‘Your family needs you!’
Miss Price chose this very moment to faint. She did it as unobtrusively as possible, but as she landed right on Elizabeth’s feet, there was simply no way Elizabeth could not have noticed.
‘Dear me, have you been picking up strays again, Darcy?’ the majestic lady asked in a softer tone.
She bent down and felt for Miss Price’s pulse, almost poking Elizabeth, who was holding up Miss Price’s head, in the eye with a pheasant feather. ‘When was the last time this one ate?’
Mr Darcy, clutching at his beaver hat, looked flustered. ‘We had tea at the archbishop’s,’ he said slowly. ‘While we waited.’
‘She did not have any of that, though,’ Elizabeth pointed out. ‘And the tea at the tollhouse was hours ago.’
‘Yes, but did you feed her at all lately?’ the majestic lady insisted.
‘We have not had her for very long,’ Mr Darcy said defensively, ‘there was not really an appropriate moment to discuss alimentary arrangements.’
‘Oh, foo,’ said the lady. ‘Hang propriety. The poor thing apparently hasn’t eaten a thing in ages.’
With the help of a footman and a few maids, Miss Price was soon installed in the very room in which Elizabeth had almost slept the night before. Placed on the bed, with a pillow under her knees, she soon came to again and the be-feathered lady ordered broth to be brought upstairs, and bread and cheese.
‘And you,’ she said and her gaze turned towards Elizabeth, ‘when did you last eat?’
Elizabeth had a vague memory of having been offered refreshments at Netherfield, and did in fact feel rather hungry; she resented the other woman’s taking charge, however.
‘I am not a stray of Mr Darcy’s,’ she said instead. ‘I am a chaperone.’
The majestic woman was about to reply - probably to point out that it was the same difference - but before she could, a cry rang through the house.
‘I most certainly will not!’
The lady wrinkled her aristocratic nose.
‘Oh dear me, what has he done now?’
Elizabeth then realised that Mr Darcy had not been with them for quite a while.
As if on cue, the man - the chaperon - himself could be heard.
‘You will let me out this instant!’
The majestic lady rushed out of the room, Elizabeth right on her heels. They found the source of the commotion downstairs, where Mr Darcy’s calls and pounding fists could be heard inside the library whilst Elizabeth just barely glimpsed a petticoat disappearing - presumably with the wearer attached - into the servants’ staircase. The lady shot Elizabeth a glance.
‘If you are indeed a chaperone worth your money, then in the name of all that is holy to you, go after her and catch that chit.’
She apparently did not see the need to do so, so Elizabeth, who had come third in the class on physical fitness at Mrs Annesley’s, went after the escapee. Luckily for her, the winding staircases were quite narrow and the fleeing woman with her very many skirts could not go very fast without tripping over them. Elizabeth, whose skirts of course had been cut especially for chaperones, with a daring ankle line, was able to catch up with her quickly.
‘Excuse me, ma’am,’ she said, once she had the woman’s arm in a firm grip - politeness first a motto that had always been instilled into them at Mrs Annesley’s - ‘but I am afraid that you have to come with me.’
The woman turned around and Elizabeth could see that in spite of her old-fashioned clothing, she was rather young, only a year or two older than herself. The woman appeared to be thinking about Elizabeth’s pronouncement for a moment but then apparently decided against her chance in a flight.
‘You are one of Darcy’s strays, are you not?’ she asked, having mustered Elizabeth up and down.
‘I am a chaperone,’ Elizabeth replied, not for the first - and probably not for the last - time that evening.
The girl rolled her eyes.
‘Same difference,’ she said. ‘Oh, very well. Let’s get it over with.’
She gave up without further resistance and meekly followed Elizabeth back up the stairs. Mr Darcy, apparently, had been rescued from his predicament, for the library doors stood wide open now and inside, Mr Darcy and the majestic lady were seated on either side of the large desk. Elizabeth could now see why the lady had not attempted to run after the girl herself: she was, as her mother would have termed it, in a delicate condition.
‘You ought to keep that one, Darcy,’ the lady said upon seeing Elizabeth enter with the young girl in tow. ‘She seems to be rather useful.’
‘I do intend to keep her,’ Mr Darcy said, but Elizabeth had no time to think about this most curious pronouncement.
‘Would either of you care to inform me just what is going on here?’
None of them cared. The majestic lady shot the young girl a look that had her sit down on a sofa in a corner without further complaints. Apparently, they had interrupted the lady in a soliloquy - or possibly a diatribe.
‘As I was saying, Darcy, this whole new approach seems petty and small-minded, if you ask me. I don’t know why we can’t handle things with a little more je-ne-sais-quoi these days, really. When I was training to be a chaperone -’
‘You never finished any sort of training,’ Mr Darcy pointed out. ‘You seduced your teacher instead.’
‘My point exactly,’ the lady said. ‘Under the old rules, that was perfectly acceptable.’
‘Has it ever occured to you that you were the reason why we changed the rules in the first place?’ Mr Darcy asked.
The lady snorted.
‘Oh, foo, Darcy,’ she said. ‘Not even you would go so far as to bring a law before parliament just because you hold a grudge that I picked your cousin over you!’
Elizabeth only understood about one word in three, but she found the conversation most interesting and was wondering what Mr Darcy’s reply was going to be. Did he really have the influence necessary to bring laws before parliament? Mr Darcy, however, appeared to feel his honour insulted by another part of the lady’s speech.
‘I do not hold a - I was never in the least -’
‘The better man won,’ the lady said. ‘It’s not your fault -’
‘When you have quite finished debating the shortcomings in Darcy’s virility,’ the girl whom Elizabeth had captured drawled, ‘would you mind making up your minds where you are going to lock me up? It’s all the same to me, in case you wondered, but I’d rather get some sleep now that my departure is off the table.’
Elizabeth could only admire the supremely bored fashion in which this pronouncement was carried out. It showed years of expert training to make others feel inferior. Elizabeth’s body, however, was occupied with more mundane proceedings. Her stomach chose that very moment to rumble loudly, enhancing her feeling of inferiority. The majestic lady, without even interrupting her warnings to the girl to keep a civil tongue in her head, rang the bell and when a footman appeared, advised him to ‘bring bread and cheese, and some strong tea, and you really do not want me to send you back to your mother, young lady!’
She turned to Darcy.
‘How many times do I have to tell you that you have to feed them regularly?’
Chapter 10: X. The Mind of A Lady
I have finally been able to make some progress on Chapter 11 and tentatively finish it, so I thought it only fair to post this now. I do think I shall need at least a week between chapter postings in the foreseeable future, but if I do manage to build up a buffer, they may come quicker.
Meanwhile, thank you everyone for your wonderful comments! They're a great motivation and very uplifting in these weird times.
Stay safe, everyone! #stayathome
A lady, when she marries, invariably becomes part of her husband’s family. It is the lay of the land and one always seems rather too busy to challenge that.
Caroline Bingley, then, who previously had only called two agreeable siblings, a disagreeable brother-in-law and a handful of distant, eccentric aunts and uncles her own, upon her nuptials had taken on a large, chaotic network of half-, full- and step-relations, with eccentricities far beyond those of her uncles, and had felt compelled, for the sake of marital felicity and compliance with traditions, to make do with them as best as she could.
It was a tough challenge, the heavens help her, but she was determined not to give up, both because of the love she had for her husband, and the ambition to conquer them all. And one had to face the truth, they would be helpless without her.
She used that thought to center herself and focus on the work that still had to be done as she thoughtfully sipped her tea. It had been a long day - night - whatever it was, and finally, she had some quiet. Darcy had been sent to bed, and so were his strays, and so, most importantly, was Anne. She wondered how easily they had all given in and retired. Was she the only one who still had stamina enough to do as she pleased, and that in her condition?
Well, women had done so much more in that condition, she recalled. Vaguely she remembered Catherine of Aragon’s mother driving back invaders and the like, and had not the Austrian Empress more or less constantly been in a hopeful situation - and then of course there were pirate ladies, who were rumoured to even engineer such a situation in order to use it to their advantage - but then all they had to do most of the days was sailing ships, and they had the other pirates to help them.
She sighed and helped herself to another sip of tea. So many things that she had to take care of simultaneously, and who was able to help with that? Not Darcy, certainly, he was out cold; she had checked. In his sleep, he had been muttering something about forms, and the archbishop of Canterbury. It had all of it been most unattractive - and to think that she had pondered an attachment once! She had checked on the sleeping chaperone next, and the girl, who was smarter than she looked, had started a report on the events of the past days, probably for that idiotic Chaperones’ Association, but it gave Caroline a good idea about just what she and Darcy had come to town for. Curled up next to the chaperone was the stray, but Caroline could not really figure out her role in the whole story.
All of them were fast asleep, just like Anne, in her half of Caroline’s bed - but then of course, Caroline had laced her bedtime cocoa with the usual. She was not taking any unnecessary risks with that one while she was still under her care. She might have failed Chaperone School abysmally, but she still had her standards. Carefully, she folded over a new page in her journal, wrote “To Do” at the top of the page and underlined it once, then another time for emphasis. She paused in her efforts. Surely she ought to do something about this matter with Charles, of which she had learnt mostly from the Chaperone’s notes. After all, he was her brother, and he seemed to be in some sort of predicament - on the other hand, he did not appear to be in any particular sort of danger. He could probably wait. Caroline jotted down the first point on her list, “help Charles (when time allows)”.
Well, that was that point sorted out and settled. Anne was another matter entirely. While she was not in danger as such, the situation could not be allowed to continue like it was ad infinitum.
“Find situation for Anne”, she jotted down underneath the first point. She scratched out the word “situation” - it sounded too much of a governess placement. Although, she wondered, could that be -
No, there was no point to it, and quite on top of it, it was a fate almost worse than being locked up in a mansion with Lady Catherine as a jailor. They could just as well send Anne to Chaperon School and be done with it.
Caroline’s mind wandered back to a few years previously, when -
Caroline woke with a jolt; the child had started a merry jig at the very worst moment, just when the memory was getting really good - a glance at the clock by the candle burnt low told her that more time had passed than she thought, for it was nearly morning. Next to her, Anne was still out cold, snoring faintly. Caroline put the unfinished list on the nightstand and gingerly tried to shift her position.
‘That is damnably unfair, Louisa, and you know it -’
‘It’s only a few weeks, Caroline, or a couple of months at most - you know it’s going to be mandatory -’
‘The legislation hasn’t been passed, Louisa, it won’t pass for months or years yet, who knows if it ever will!’
‘Mr Hurst says it’s only a matter of time now, and once it’s passed, everybody will be vying for places in the best academies - better that we get you registered in a chaperone school now, when we can still have our pick, don’t you think?’
‘It might never come to matter, Louisa - what matters to Mr Hurst is that he doesn’t want me in this house - I’m sorry that I’m such a burden to you but you can’t just send me off like a maid that you no longer need - it is just not fair -’
But in the end, nothing she could say would make any change whatsoever. Mr Hurst was determined to see her gone. Louisa suggested, half-heartedly, that Caroline could always marry instead of going to Mrs Annesley’s, but even she knew that it was unlikely that Caroline would find a candidate in the two-and-a-half weeks that remained before the date Mr Hurst had set. Not, anyway, if Caroline’s first pick, a friend of her brother’s, remained so horribly elusive and set on finishing the great academic work of the century. She suspected that Mr Hurst might have friends - or rather, since Mr Hurst’s character didn’t lend itself to friendships, companions in base pursuits - who might be willing to relieve Caroline’s sufferings, but in that case, chaperon school was clearly the better option.
And so, to chaperon school Caroline went. Louisa had assured her that the institution was the best that there was, soon the aristocracy would send all their daughters there, the best connections to be made, it really was not much different from the seminary, and that had been very nice indeed, had it not? Chaperon school was nothing like that at all. Caroline strongly suspected that the only girls who were sent to chaperon school to learn chaperonage were the ones whose families had no idea what to do with them. Once the law had actually passed, things might change - when families were forced to hire a chaperon, having a daughter educated might be the better option. At the moment, however, the better families were not yet making these decisions. And since the government was sponsoring the education of the chaperones in anticipation of the law being passed, there were quite a few girls there whose families had been happy to have them be somebody else’s responsibility. Quite like her own situation, in fact, only that in Caroline’s case, she reflected, there were no factors such as illegitimacy, a family scandal to cover up or even misplaced hopes of evading poverty at play.
She tried not to be too much of a snob about it, but it was quite clear that even with her grandfather having been in trade, she was easily the girl with the best family there, a notion that was reinforced by teachers praising her manners or simply showing surprise at her being there. It was by being herself in a class alone that she already managed to become its star pupil.
And thus, boredom set in. There was no point to what the books called the delicate art of chaperonage, as such, but the talking points were easy enough to learn and there was nothing new that the classes on foreign languages, comportment, or any of the other subjects thought necessary for a chaperone, could tell her. Quite the contrary in fact.
‘I think you will find,’ Caroline explained to the flustered spinster tasked with the day’s lesson on general knowledge, ‘that the Empress Matilda’s claim on the throne was at least as good as that of Stephen of Blois -’
She could not finish her most excellent argument, however, because she was rudely interrupted by what she could only assume was another of the teachers, clad in the chaperons’ usual dull black and armed further with an academic robe. He was a somewhat stout individual with actually windswept hair instead of coiffure that merely attempted to look thus. She disliked him instantly.
‘Miss Bingley, I presume?’ he said and she was shocked to discover that his voice was full and deep and far too disconcerting.
‘Your reputation precedes you,’ he said when she did not react. ‘Now, if you could let Miss Elton continue her lesson and step outside with me for a moment?’
He let her out the lecture hall and into a small office just down the hallway, where he flung his robes onto a hatstand and gestured to her to sit down across from him at the desk.
‘What are you doing here, Miss Bingley?’ he asked.
Caroline took in, with much disapproval, that his nose was not at all aquiline, even if somewhat symmetric, and that although he was, she supposed, still rather young, he had lines in the corners of his eyes.
‘I am training to be a chaperone,’ she said. ‘What does it look like?’
He opened a file that, Caroline now realised, had been sitting on the desk the whole time. She noticed that his fingernails were neatly trimmed and he wore only a signet ring as jewellery.
‘You have not even told me your name yet,’ she said. ‘What authority do you even have here and why should I answer any of your questions?’
She rose from her seat and made to leave.
‘My name is Richard Fitzwilliam,’ he said, his tone even and his voice still annoyingly full and deep. ‘I am in charge of your upcoming examinations, and you, Miss Bingley, have been an extraordinary nuisance.’
‘I have not!’ Caroline exclaimed.
‘ 12th May,’ Richard Fitzwilliam read from the file, disturbed French grammar lesson with a discussion of the subjunctive -’
‘I was right,’ Caroline interjected, ‘she was explaining it all wrong and those stupid chits were copying her -’
‘14th May, interrupted horticultural lecture with remarks on Sir Isaac Newton - ’
‘Copernicus!’ Caroline amended. ‘She was telling them the sun moves around the earth!’
‘17th May, distributed drawings of an anatomical nature -’
He looked up from the file and mustered her.
‘Dare one ask, Miss Bingley, which anatomical items in particular?’
‘If I have learnt anything at all in this stupid academy, it’s that that is a question one should never ask of a lady!’
Caroline made for the door, but in her haste to reach it, managed to tangle one or two of her many skirts around the chair, causing the chair to fall over and herself to stumble.
‘Watch out there!’
Richard Fitzwilliam moved in her direction in a quick, cat-like move but disconcertingly, she regained her balance before he could offer her his hand. Instead of extending it, then, he folded his arms before his chest and smirked at her. Caroline, lacking her usual quick wit, huffed and left the room, not sure if she was being disciplined or not.
She ran into him again early the next morning, when she was sneaking out of the building for a bit of fresh air before breakfast. She had made for her usual escape route - a set of French doors opening into a small garden near the kitchen, which, the doors being hidden by thick curtains, not many people seemed to know about. Unfortunately, though, this morning, the small corridor leading towards them was not empty as usual. Richard Fitzwilliam was leaning on the wall next to the curtains, smirking again.
‘There’s nothing wrong with wanting a bit of fresh air,’ Caroline said hotly. ‘And some quiet.’
‘There is not,’ Richard Fitzwilliam conceded. ‘You are, however, all alone.’
‘I am not,’ Caroline pointed out. ‘You are here.’
‘That I am,’ Richard Fitzwilliam said. ‘And I am a chaperon, and not some nefarious character -’
‘Some nefarious character,’ she huffed, ‘that broke into this fortress, only to lurk by the kitchen gardens on the chance someone might come that way - you just want to catch me breaking some rule!’
She stormed past him into the little garden, revelling in the bracing fresh air. Disappointingly, he did not follow her.
‘You seem really intent on seeing me, Mr Fitzwilliam.’
‘You seem really intent on breaking havoc.’
‘I was not breaking any havoc whatsoever!’
‘Did you or did you not say some very rude things, in Italian, to Miss Thorpe, after that misunderstanding about the hairbrush?’
‘I merely gave her an example of what Lucretia Borgia might have said!’
‘Now, Miss Bingley, to be fair, I only have an approximate understanding of what you said, due to Miss Thorpe only being able to give me an onomatopoeic impression -’
‘Well, she should have been able to understand, if we had a decent Italian mistress!’
‘Why is it always you I have to see?’
‘Because the other instructors, my dear Miss Bingley, feel that you do not listen to them.’
‘And you think I will listen to you?’
‘Oh, no, I am under no illusions there. But I do like seeing you.’
Caroline grew slightly hot under her collar, but did not let this on. Instead, she snorted and stormed out of the room.
‘Am I really to believe, Miss Bingley, that you got into a fight because your classmate disagreed with you on the subject of Sir Thomas More?’
‘Foo - Isabella Thorpe wouldn’t understand the first thing about Sir Thomas More even if the knowledge were beaten into her skull!’
‘Which you then took upon yourself to do?’
‘Tell me, Miss Bingley, to what circumstances do I owe the pleasure of your company today? Did somebody disagree with you on a historical matter? Was it linguistic? Philosophical?’
‘Who says I did anything?’
‘Well, I could flatter myself that you entered my office just now simply because you wished to see me, but you will find me more of a realist than that, so -’
Caroline huffed and, by now quite wise to the trap the legs of the chair offered, left the room without getting any of her skirts entangled.
‘Before we proceed to the usual course of events, Miss Bingley, that is, me saying something completely innocuous, and you leaving my offices without giving me any explanation for your behaviour whatsoever -’
‘I do not have to explain myself -’
‘Now, now, before we do that - I just have to ask, I am curious - do any of the other instructors know that, so far, I have not yet succeeded in being any sort of disciplinary influence on you?’
‘I do not need to be disciplined!’
Caroline made to storm out of the room again, but Richard Fitzwilliam, smugly seated behind his desk, as usual, raised his hand to pause her, and for some reason, she did.
‘I never said you did, Miss Bingley,’ he said, leaning forward. ‘But your other instructors seem to feel quite keenly on the matter, and they do keep sending you here.’
Caroline swallowed. He looked unbearably smug, but it did give his eyes quite some sort of twinkle - however, she really did not wish to remain in the room any longer - especially as he kept staring at her in that annoying way of his -
‘I am a woman of one-and-twenty, and I really do not deserve to be treated like a schoolgirl!’
She stood up and found, to her surprise, that Richard Fitzwilliam had risen from his seat as well.
‘Wait, wait,’ he said. ‘Before you storm out - shall I open the door for you?’
She chose not to reply to this at all, merely allowing him to cross the room and holding the door open for her.
‘By the way,’ he said as she exited the room, ‘I do not see you as a schoolgirl, and I do not intend to treat you like one - my apologies if I have.’
In spite of herself, Caroline felt slightly embarrassed of herself.
‘An inkwell? You dunked her braid in an inkwell? And you wonder why they sent you to my office again?’
Caroline said nothing.
‘Out of the wide array of options for rebellion, you chose to dunk Miss Thorpe’s braid in an inkwell?’
Caroline remained silent.
‘Sometimes I do wonder whether you do this with the sole purpose of seeing me, you know,’ Richard Fitzwilliam said.
‘So what if I did?’
‘Nothing, nothing at all,’ Richard Fitzwilliam said, leaning forward in his seat and mustering her in that intent manner he had. ‘I dare say it will wash out of her hair, so no lasting harm done - but I have to wonder, why, Miss Bingley?’
Caroline had to wonder that herself.
‘You do not belong here,’ Richard Fitzwilliam said. ‘You do not wish to be a chaperone, you care not overly much for any one person in this institution, and as you said, you are not a girl sent here to learn anything - why should you stay here?’
Caroline looked at her hands clasped in her lap.
‘Because I cannot go back,’ she mumbled.
Richard Fitzwilliam sighed heavily. He got up from his chair and moved over to her side of the desk, where he leaned on the edge of it.
‘Sometimes, my dear Miss Bingley,’ he said, ‘forward is the only way to go.’
Caroline looked up and straight into his twinkling eyes. He was so close she could feel him breathing.
‘That’s an idiotic thing to say.’
‘I guess it is,’ Richard Fitzwilliam said and ran a hand through his hair.
‘I guess you’re not completely wrong though,’ Caroline said and stood up from her chair so that she was at the same height as him. With one swift move, she had closed the distance between them and flung her arms around his neck.
The enthusiasm with which he responded threw them both of their feet, but then, the floor offered a much better stage for what needed to be done. It was only much later, still panting slightly, that she noted that it really could have done with some dusting.
‘You’re expelled,’ Richard said next to her. ‘If you want to be, that is.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Caroline said, leaning up on her arm.
‘You’re expelled,’ Richard repeated. ‘Meaning, you are no longer a chaperone legally. Meaning -’
‘Meaning, I’ve just been compromised?’ Caroline said, catching on.
‘Meaning, your only way forward - would be me,’ Richard said. ‘Only if you want to - that is -’
Caroline traced the faint line of a scar on his shoulder.
‘Get form 12a ready,’ she muttered, bending down to kiss his clavicle. ‘And then compromise me so thoroughly there is no way back.’
She had just found a comfortable one when a woman’s scream rang through the quiet house.
Chapter 11: XI. Mayfair in the Morning
Unfortunately, it is taking rather longer to write these chapter than I'd like it to be - at the moment, I can't say when I'll be able to post the next one. I hope Darcy's acute discomfort here makes up for the delay at least a little.
Fitzwilliam Darcy normally enjoyed the deep, dreamless, restful sleep of a man who knows that he has no reason to berate himself. There were no tortured nights of tossing and turning for him. His mind was too well-regulated to need such a release.
This night, however, had been different. How could he, how could Fitzwilliam Darcy, the first and foremost authority in the matter, have forgotten such a trivial thing as a signature? The answer was uncomfortably obvious: he had not been as careful as he liked to think he was. Resolves to be more diligent, however, were not enough for his troubled mind. Unbidden, unwanted images kept arising: Elizabeth Bennet - a government-approved chaperone, no less! - Elizabeth Bennet dozing in the carriage, Elizabeth Bennet - a chaperone whose investment he had himself overseen! - laughing at him, Elizabeth Bennet - whom he himself had examined! - in agony over her sister’s fate, Elizabeth Bennet - whose severe black chaperone’s robes fit her so perfectly! - flushed and slightly out of breath, standing in his study, curls loose around her face, after she had apprehended a fugitive Anne - and upon that prompt, different problems arose, what was he to do with Anne, and Caroline, and the stray, Miss Price, when all he wished was to be alone with Elizabeth Bennet - in order to help her sister, and his friend Charles, in the professional manner that was needed, because he was a government-approved chaperon, and so was Elizabeth Bennet, a very professional chaperone - in front of whom he had been embarrassed by that infuriating archbishop, with that cursed forgotten signature, she must think him such a fool - curse the archbishop -
Nonetheless, in spite of not having enjoyed much rest, Fitzwilliam Darcy rose, as was his wont, just before the break of dawn, woken by the arrival of the milkman, as usual. He performed his morning ablutions with the necessary precision and dressed himself, noting that his valet had laid out his very best black waistcoat for him, the one that Georgiana said brought out his eyes. The man was clearly overstepping his bounds, but since Fitzwilliam would have chosen the same waistcoat, had he permitted himself to even think about choosing a particularly appealing waistcoat, he was willing to let the matter slide for the moment. He then turned to his cravat, the precise placement of which required his unmitigated attention. He arranged his hair until it had achieved just the right degree of kemptness without looking too natty. Next on the agenda was the return of the items he usually carried with him to their assigned places within his pockets. He winced slightly as he touched his journal, the integrity of which he had been forced to harm the previous night when rescuing Miss Price. However, it was not to be helped. He had already made a note of acquiring a new one when he had brought the previous day’s mental notes to paper the night before. His pencils, likewise, had already been sharpened, leaving him prepared for all eventualities. Thus armed against the censures of the world, he was ready to face the day.
He sighed. He knew already it was going to be a trying day. There was, after all, the matter of his dreadful mistake to handle, even though he certainly had enough else to do. Once in possession of the complete paperwork, Bingley’s marriage had to be expedited, preferably before the union could produce offspring - little though he wished to think about it, there appeared to have been opportunity for that aplenty, but that was still no excuse to delay the matter any further. Then, of course, there was Miss Price, who needed a situation, and Anne, who also needed to be placed somewhere, somehow, not to speak of his cousin’s termagant hurricane of a wife, who, above all, needed to be as far away as possible. The Arctic Circle sprang to mind. This, however, was a task for later. Priorities had to be observed.
He sighed again. First, he needed to plan the day, for it was going to be a long one. He made his way to the small office adjacent to his dressing-room, which he used for precisely this task. Sitting down at the little bureau, he extracted from one of the drawers the directory of magistrates concerned with affairs of chaperonage. All he needed to do was find out the number of the parish where the incident had taken place and -
Fitzwilliam Darcy uttered an expletive that he had never used before in his life. How could he have allowed himself to stray this far from all procedure? He had raptly listened to Bingley’s adventurous tale without ever verifying any details or taking down the particulars of the incident, all because Miss Elizabeth Bennet had been so interested in finding out what had happened to her sister. Now he had no idea whether he needed to approach the magistrate responsible for Longbourn, the one for Netherfield Park or, mayhap, someone completely different, because he would not put it past Bingley to frolic across parish lines with no thought to the bureaucratic nightmare he was producing.
There, then, went the first item on his task list. He neatly crossed ‘visit local magistrate as soon as possible’ out. Instead, he must see Bingley again, extract him from the arms of his lady love, and, once he had him on his own, ask him a few very delicate questions about just what had happened when and where precisely. He sighed once more. He would have to process quite a few pieces of information he never wanted to possess in the first place just for that one detail that mattered. That item was thus added to the list. Before he could come to a decision what the next step would have to be, however, a woman’s scream rang out. Fitzwilliam stood up, trying to gauge the direction whence it came, when he noticed that the woman was using the same curses he had employed just moments before - and the voice was one he knew all too well -
Anne came to with a fuzzy head. She really needed to stop Caroline spicing her bedtime cocoa with such liberal amounts of rum. Sure, it was delicious, but she really did not like waking up feeling something had died inside her. Oh well. If all went according to plan, it was not for very much longer anyway and - a deep rumbling next to her shook the bed. Caroline was snoring again. Softly, so as not to wake her, Anne turned around and observed her in the warm light of the candle burning low on her nightstand, so very close to the bed-curtains - a miracle that they had not all burnt down in the night! A veritable mountain under the duvets, Caroline was snoring majestically, mouth hanging open, clutching her pencil still, one of her lists resting precariously upon her heaving bosoms. Anne wondered whether she would be able to sneak out of the bed, gather her drawing materials and make a quick sketch of it all without waking Caroline. Alas, the mountain shifted and the snoring became uneven. She would have to draw from memory later on. Anne closed her eyes again and feigned being asleep as Caroline removed the papers stacked on top of herself, blew out the candle, and groaned while shifting her weight around. Anne almost pitied her, but then remembered that the nasty taste in her mouth was all Caroline’s fault. She contemplated waking Caroline this early with another attempt at escaping. Suppose she got up now and dressed, surely Caroline would wake up from the noise - and if not, it was not that far to the post coach station - ah, but she must be patient -
Before she could ponder further what she could do to annoy Caroline, and whether an escape attempt would be worth it, a scream rang out through the early morning. Anne could not help but applaud the screamer for creativity at the colourful expressions.
Caroline groaned some more. The bed shifted precariously as Caroline heaved herself to an upright position. For a quick moment, Anne debated feigning sleep, but her curiosity got the better of her and she awoke theatrically.
‘What is going on?’ she mumbled, speech carefully slurred just a tiny bit.
Caroline had sat down on the bed again, fishing for her slippers with her swollen feet.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, make yourself useful,’ she said. ‘It’s one of Darcy’s creatures, obviously, probably stuck in some sort of nightmare - get them to calm down, will you?’
Apparently, Caroline did not think Anne would attempt an escape in her nightgown, letting her out into the corridor all alone like this - would she be able to make it to the front door? - no, patience, no need to disturb carefully laid plans - Anne dutifully made her way to the source of the screaming.
Fanny Price came to in most unfamiliar surroundings. The light that shone through the partially opened curtains was the pale grey light preceding dawn, but everything else, she needed a moment to place. She was at Mansfield no more - no longer in her well-known, narrow bed with the slightly sagging mattress - this was a glorious, large, four-poster bed, and the linens smelled all different - she was in London, in the strange house full of so very many wildly-talking people they had taken her to yesterday. The woman next to her, the one with the kind, laughing eyes, was her chaperone - her very own chaperone, when Maria and Julia had to make do with Aunt Norris! She was also the reason why Fanny had woken before dawn, because she was sitting upright in bed, yelling a curse that Fanny could not fully comprehend.
Fanny sat up.
‘Are you - are you feeling well?’ she asked tentatively.
Her chaperone - Miss Bennet - Elizabeth - followed with another long list of expletives. Fanny blushed violently. Some of these things she had understood.
‘Would you like a glass of water perhaps, Miss Bennet?’ she asked.
Miss Bennet turned around, taking Fanny in as if she had just noticed her presence.
The door to the room burst open.
Elizabeth had had a fitful night. For about an hour or two, she reckoned, her body had simply been grateful to have been allowed to rest in a solid, non-moving bed, in the dark and quiet. She had fallen asleep almost as soon as her head hit her pillow, before she had so much as a chance to go over her notes and organise her thoughts about what needed to be done next. Then, however, while her unconscious mind tried to sort all that had happened to her in the last days, the dreams had begun and she had woken quite a few times wondering where she was and whether what had just happened had been real or imagined. There had been endless paperwork to work through in the dreams, piles that just kept getting larger - and then Mr Darcy, always looming somewhere, finding fault with the paperwork, reminding her to cross-reference sections - she had started to scream at him them, and he had yelled back and then, in a flash of blinding light, she had kissed him and - she had woken in mortified terror, tossing quite a bit until she drifted off again, finding herself wandering through the gardens back at home, but the pretty little wilderness had become a vast jungle through which she had to make her way until after what felt like hours, she finally arrived at the house and found all the family assembled in her old bedroom, Jane sitting on the bed with Mr Bingley, demanding where their marriage license was, her mother sat at the vanity, shrieking and wailing while Miss Steele fed her tiny pastries, her father shouting for quiet whilst Mary chased Kitty through the tiny room for a piece of torn muslin. It felt as if the room became smaller and smaller, every bit of it crowded, everyone coming closer, everyone except -
Elizabeth was woken by her own screamed curse and found, much to her own surprise, that once she started, she could not stop. Everything that had built up within her over the last few days, she could now vent in the most satisfying manner. It was only when Fanny Price spoke to her that she realised that she was not alone in the room, and that in fact, quite a few people might have overheard her. The door to her room opened and there stood Anne de Bourgh, with the same supremely bored expression she had worn the night before.
‘I do not think all of that is anatomically possible,’ she drawled. ‘But I do have to commend you on your masterful use of the expletive infixation - wouldn’t you say, Darcy, that Miss Bennet has quite a way with the expletive infixation?’
Anne looked aside while she spoke, and there, to Elizabeth’s utter horror, stood Mr Darcy, disturbingly clean-shaven, a set of rakish curls atop a very disgruntled expression. He did not say a word.
The relief that Fitzwilliam felt at seeing that Elizabeth Bennet, whatever had caused her to curse loudly so early in the morning, was apparently unharmed, was very quickly replaced. The situation was of the very sort in which he did not wish to be. There was Elizabeth, the focal point of all his rambling thoughts in the last days, sat in her bed, wearing nothing but a white nightgown (he had never seen her in anything but black!), curls hanging softly about her face, and apart from the look of horrified confusion, she was utterly - delectable.
Fitzwilliam Darcy had never used this word before, and he did not intend to do so ever again. How embarrassing to be thusly in the clutches of base emotion! He shook his head, trying to think of something he could say that would impress the notion upon everyone assembled that he knew how to behave professionally and with integrity, but there was nothing. Elizabeth had stopped cursing but was still sitting in bed motionless as colour was slowly creeping into her cheeks. He could do nothing else but look at her - how was it that she was so utterly enchanting - what was wrong with him?
Finally, he was aware of Caroline standing by his side, clad in some sort of peach-coloured tent, her feet bare.
‘Do stop gawking!’ she huffed. ‘You look like fish, the lot of you - what is going on?’
‘Miss Bennet has been demonstrating a very creative use of the expletive infixation,’ Anne said lazily, examining her fingernails.
‘And the point of all that was?’ Caroline asked, glaring directly at Elizabeth.
Fitzwilliam, once he had made sense of Caroline’s ungrammatical construction, realised he had not yet discovered the answer to that question either.
At last, Elizabeth spoke.
‘Lydia,’ she panted. ‘I forgot about Lydia. Where was Lydia?’
Chapter 12: XII. The Breakfast Room
I'm sorry to say that while I do try to make it sooner, it may well be another month before I can post the next chapter. I'm still pondering some plot directions and progress has been rather slow lately.
Thank you, everyone, for your continued support! Stay safe!
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?’