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Lord Robert Caldhart walked confidently through the early winter air. His superior countenance was easily observed by those he passed, most of whom he did not deign to recognize with even the barest of civility. He was tall, rich, powerful, and still handsome, and he knew it. Despite his advanced years of one and sixty, time had been a good friend to his Lordship. He had a fine head of wavy silver and black peppered hair, and his steel blue eyes still flashed around his numerous crow’s feet. He had forgone the current fashion of long sideburns or mutton chops for a full, though extremely trim beard and moustache. He rather resembled a royal courtier of Richard the Lionheart if one considered it, but the overall look was a man quite dashing if perhaps not in his prime. As far as Lord Robert was concerned, he was in his prime, and trifling things such as age and doctors’ warnings were not going to slow him down. Naturally, advanced years still took their toll; his waist was not what it had once been, and he really could not partake in any of the more vigorous activities that men of the ton fancied. He had last tried to fence almost a year ago and had had to excuse himself rather early in the exercise due truthfully to loss of breath but, to his foe, he sheepishly claimed an earlier forgotten appointment. Lord Robert quickly dismissed such activities as unworthy and continued in his lovely rose coloured world of utter superiority amongst men and society.
Not that such an opinion was completely unfounded. For Lord Robert was a man envied by most as the luckiest devil alive. He was born to a well titled family with a fair amount of wealth and no hint of major scandal to blacken the family name. That in itself would have been enough to garner the envy of many, but, when his Lordship was barely a man, hardly past many seasons in town, he had gained the attention of a rather plain, though exquisitely dowered young debutante by the name of Miss Emily Spottingham. A short courtship and sumptuous wedding followed four months later. His Lordship admirably performed his duty to his wife and family and, just a few years later, was blessed with two healthy sons. As if the fates could not bestow upon him sufficient kindnesses, he was further gifted with widowhood shortly after the birth of his second son. Thus at just five and twenty, Lord Robert Caldhart was an outrageously wealthy widower with an heir and a spare, his late wife’s one hundred and twenty thousand pounds firmly planted in the vaults of his family’s banker, and absolutely no need to marry ever again. So not marry he did, frequently, and with passion rarely seen (much less available) to any other man of Society.
Lord Caldhart’s mistresses were famous. There was really no other word for it. He had spent a lifetime with the finest woman flesh the world had to offer. Many a man dwelt on his uncanny ability to find a superior lady better than most of them could find their next horse. Over the years the men’s clubs of London fairly buzzed with news of his latest “acquisition”. Of course, picking a mistress probably involved more effort than picking a horse, and most men were quick to agree to such a notion, but what most (actually all) of them failed to understand was that Lord Robert was not just good at making such a choice, he was the premier expert.
He sighed contentedly when thinking of his extensive personal history. It was his passion in life; finding the woman, the best possible woman for himself. His parameters were beyond high and exacting. He wanted not just beauty, not just desirable physical attributes, but also a mind, and an ability to entertain, delight, and engage for a very long time. He was if nothing else, very practical. To have to rearrange his circumstances every few months simply made no sense whatsoever. A mistress who only lasted 6 months or a year would hardly suffice for a man who was determined to live a very long time. Good heavens, the attorney bills alone would deplete his excellent fortune under such demands. No, a woman whom he could rely upon for a good many years made much more sense, and so Lord Robert began his personal career; a lifetime of planning, hunting for, and acquiring exquisite, enviable mistresses.
Now after over 30 years of such activities, most people would think his Lordship would slow down, and at the very least, choose an older, quieter companion to share the last, sweet days in his ‘autumn in life’ sedately, and out of the limelight that he had commanded for so long. But Lord Robert was not accommodating.
And so it was with no thought at all to acquiesce to the opinions of the good people of England that Caldhart hastened to the newest jewel in London, a cigar shop that his good friend, a Mr. Henry Lloyd, had recommended to him: Johnson’s House of Cigars. An excellent cigar was almost as good as an excellent woman of course, and such pursuits were a highly desirable activity for his Lordship.
Entering the establishment Lord Robert was struck by the elegance and taste of the shop. One felt as if he had just entered his club. There were comfortable leather chairs, discreetly placed away from the street, at the back of the store near a small fireplace; dark, masculine panelling adorned the lower half of the walls while the upper was painted in a rich umber. Nowhere were the typical cases of row upon row of product on display. Only a large gentleman’s desk on the side of the room indicated that any business might take place here. One would almost think that one was supposed to actually consume one’s cigar on the premises, instead of purchasing said article to return home with. Most surprising of all, instead of a man, a woman approached him, curtseying low before him.
“Good afternoon sir, how may I be of service to you?” she inquired. Her accent was strange, not exactly the London shopkeeper accent he was so used to, but still revealed her lower station, despite the inability to place her origin.
“I beg your pardon, I am not exactly sure how one proceeds in this establishment. I wish to acquire a supply of fine cigars, but I do not see any such things for sale.”
The woman, her head deeply bowed to him, smiled slightly. She stood with hunched shoulders, plainly dressed in a dull and modest grey print gown, no hint of a figure perceptible. She wore a white lace cap, typical of the married ladies of the day, pulled well down her forehead. She also wore a pair of thick spectacles upon her nose. Overall it would have been difficult to say what the woman actually looked like, considering how much of her was not available to been seen. This, combined with her demure habit of keeping her head bowed, did not provide any information about her personal attributes, if there were any that could be discerned. She simply blended into the background of her shop, as if neither female or male --just a person.
“Of course sir; you are new to our shop. Please let me explain how we might be able to help you. Please allow me to ask you questions pertaining to your past experiences of what you found enjoyable, and most importantly, not enjoyable in your cigars. Based on this information, I will be able to recommend a suitable, and I hope highly satisfactory smoke for you.”
Lord Robert was quite taken aback. How unusual! To find someone who could custom design his own blend based on what he could tell them. He was reluctant to reveal such news to a stranger, however slight the importance of what he smoked.
Seeing his hesitancy, she reassured him, “I will blend and make up a short for you, which you are welcome to partake of here, to see if it meets your approval, and then decide if you wish to make a purchase.”
“Singular!” he thought. “If she truly has a talent for this, it is an excellent way to conduct business.” He then proceeded to allow the woman to ask a series of ever more detailed questions of his smoking habits. She was patient and thorough, an inherent intelligence showing in her well executed questions. He had not thought much on what he liked and why, but she had a way of extracting detailed information for analysis that he had never really considered. Given how much he liked his after dinner smoke, he considered how ill thought out that really was, but he still left any decision as to whether Johnson’s could provide him with a superior product to purchase to his now anticipated sampling.
She guided him to a seat and excused herself to her workroom, behind a curtain in the rear, to make up his cigar. A few minutes later she returned and he lit up. Unparalleled taste filled his mouth; it was all the things he liked in a cigar rolled into one very delightful concoction. He grinned in decadent satisfaction, as one who has his favourite dessert served before him.
“Perfection,” he sighed. The lady bowed her head and curtsied again. She left him to savour his new found treasure while she wrote up the details of the blend she had prepared for him at the desk.
He sat relishing the piquancy of his prize, when the bell at the door cheerfully jingled the arrival of several new customers, distracting the proprietress from him. The first gentleman greeted her as Mrs. Johnson and knowing exactly what he wanted, gave her his name and requirements, while she looked up his blend in her record book. She had just glanced up at her other customers, a man and a woman, when Lord Robert heard her sudden sharp intake of breath, and he turned his head, curious to see what had caused such a reaction. She quickly bowed her own, but he could see from the lower position in his seat that her eyes were furiously darting to and fro and her shoulders betrayed her rapid breathing. It was as if she did not know what to do, and was fighting unsuccessfully a frantic urge to bolt. He noticed where the proprietress’s stare had been focused; it was on the couple. The man was almost as tall as himself with dark wavy hair and a smug, satisfied air about him that seemed gentlemanly. That is until the young woman next to him spoke. A small shapely blonde, dressed rather provocatively considering she was out shopping; neither her person nor her speech did anything to raise anyone’s opinion of her. She was most definitely not a lady, and being in her company brought Lord Robert’s opinion of the young man immediately down.
“Georgie, my love,” she squawked, “surely you don’t mean to spend your tuppence on cigars? I want you to take me to shop for a new bonnet. Do you not want to see your best Sally girl in a new bonnet? Think how everyone would be green with envy!”
This “Georgie” smiled sweetly to his lady love and pretended to whisper intimately in her ear, but spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear.
“My dear, they envy you already for being my lady.”
He was rewarded with a vulgar squeal and a pair of shocked raised eyebrows, before the woman eagerly nodded and they both headed out the door. It happened very quickly, but the scene’s effect on the shopkeeper was unmistakable. She was clearly in great distress. She abruptly excused herself on the pretence of mixing the newest gentleman’s blend, and disappeared behind her curtain.
His curiosity getting the better of him, Lord Robert decided to move to the chair closest to the back room, where he could not see, but he could now hear her, though she spoke under her breath.
“George Wickham!” she hissed through gritted teeth. “The nerve of that rake, that cad, to come into my shop and flaunt his newest trollop in front of everyone. Smile if you dare, fustian cur, breathe the sweet air while you can, for now I have seen you, your days are numbered. I will find you, I will find Lydia, and you will pay in every way I can concoct and more that I have yet to devise, but I will make you suffer as we have. I will have justice, and if I am very lucky, your damnable head on a platter.”
Caldhart swallowed hard at having heard such venom spoken, then two thoughts entered his mind almost simultaneously: “My, she certainly is a fiery woman!” And then, “Wait a moment! Where did her accent go?”
Now this was interesting. As she spoke no more, he rose and moved about before returning to the chair originally given him. Moments later she appeared with her customer’s cigars and finished the sale. Lord Caldhart discreetly pretended to not pay attention, hoping to gather any further information on her situation. After seeing the gentleman to the door, she stayed there, perusing the streets attentively, obviously trying to see where this George might be. She stood on tiptoe and frowned hard as if something very far away had caught her eye, and lifting her spectacles off her face, she peered carefully.
This motion had two effects on Lord Robert. First, having finally been afforded an unobstructed view of her face, he had to stifle a gasp, as he gazed upon a pair of the finest eyes he had seen in these many years, set in a very handsome woman. The second, was shock, for her dress, which he had previously considered modest and demure, was nonetheless not very heavy, and her position at the front of her shop, with the afternoon light pouring in through the large windows, and his position in the darkened back of the shop gave him an incomparably clear view of the lady’s not at all modest figure, now standing tall and straight. Good Lord! She was magnificent! He felt the blood rushing from his brain to places more able to appreciate such loveliness.
“Damn my traitorous body,” he thought. But his reverie was soon interrupted, as she shrunk back into her former modest self and came to stand before him.
“I am sorry to interrupt you, Sir, please feel free to take your time and if there is any way in which I may be of help to you, please do not hesitate to ask. I will keep myself busy while you finish and until you are ready.”
Her accent was back, but her voice betrayed slight tremors as she still struggled for her control. He could not help wondering what her situation was, who was George, who was Lydia, and most importantly; who was she? Not a lowly shopkeeper; that was obvious.
He was determined to learn more.
Almost as much as the excellent dozen cigars he now had tucked under his arm as he left the shop, Lord Robert Caldhart thought he would enjoy discovering the mystery that was Mrs. Johnson.
“Six months.” Elizabeth thought, “It was six months ago today that I last saw him.” She sat at her dressing table, staring into the glass at a woman she no longer recognized. This woman looked plain, dowdy, worn out and very married. She shook her head at her image. She knew she had only herself to blame.
Then she remembered how he had looked as he turned the corner of Pemberley, standing directly in front of her, neither of them believing their eyes. How handsome he was. Even with his hair dishevelled, and the grey black dust from the road clinging to the shoulders of his green coat, he took her breath away. She was sure he could tell. She had replayed that beautiful day over and over again in her mind’s eye, along with the rest of that lovely afternoon. She remembered all of it; his civility, his solicitude, his kindness, with a sweetness and pain at the same time. Like a beautiful dream it would start with a wonderful beginning, the joy she had felt, the giddy feeling in her heart, the constant blush upon her cheeks, but then came the bitter disappointment, the agony, and later, the despair.
The Gardiners and Elizabeth spoke little on their return trip from Pemberley to the Lambton Inn late that afternoon. Lizzy was too deep in thought over the wonder of seeing Darcy again and the Gardiners were far too surprised at his treatment of their niece and themselves. They arrived well before sunset and were just settling into the dining room when the servant girl came in with the earlier delivered mail. Lizzy had two letters from Jane, the contents of which could not be believed. Her youngest sister Lydia had eloped with Mr. George Wickham. After her outburst and tears, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner were given the letters to read for themselves. While consoling Elizabeth as best they could, they arranged for their immediate departure to Hertfordshire. Their concerns over Lydia and the family still reeling in their heads, it would not be until late that night, at an inn far from Derbyshire, that Elizabeth would suddenly recall her failure to leave any word to Mr. Darcy about their sudden absence, and their inability to be present for his introduction of Miss Darcy. She realized how terribly rude it would reflect upon them. Unfortunate as that was, she also knew in her heart that all acquaintance between them would now be at an end due to the scandal her thoughtless sister had thrust upon her and her family.
“Perhaps it was best,” she thought, “I would never wish to bring such shame to him.” But with that thought she also realized that her desire to protect him and his sister was not out of duty, or even friendship, but from a much more tender emotion. It had budded in her heart, tiny and unnoticed, the day he had given her his letter in Kent. It had begun to grow as she read the letter over and over, and had had the time to reflect on both of their behaviours and most especially her reactions to him. After understanding her own vanity and how it had prejudiced her against him, she had begun to realize his true value. Finally today, when she had come face to face with him, uninvited at his home, instead of reproach, or anger, he had treated her with every civility, better than she would have thought possible, and she could not help but admire him all the more. It was then she understood that she was in love with him. It truly was the most horrible day of her life.
Elizabeth woke as the light of dawn slowly eased the dimness of her bedroom away. The house was yet still, as no one usually stirred this early. She relished this quiet time, before the storm of noise that was her family would rain down upon the house. She knew she must find her peace where she could, as there was little chance of any happiness this day.
Her mother would start the day in high hopes that a letter would come, informing them that her brother Gardiner had succeeded in finding Lydia, that she and Wickham were undoubtedly already married, and that the whole thing had been an unfortunate error of miscommunication. Mrs. Bennet thought if she could will it, it would be done, therefore she would repeat it, out loud, tautologically. Lizzy knew, that as the day wore on, she and her sisters would be required to attend Mrs. Bennet more and more, as her mother’s hope would turn to anxiety, and finally crescendo into a crying fit by end of day. She would watch her sisters exhaust themselves trying to appease a woman incapable of being helped, and selfish in her need for attention from everyone in the house. This day would be like all the other days had been for the past two months.
Her father rarely came into any of their presence anymore. Elizabeth would not have thought it possible for him to hide away in his library more often than in the past, but he did manage it. He could no longer bear to listen to his wife’s endless effusions and, if he did appear, she would badger him for news that he simply did not have. Soon they avoided each other almost as enemies. Elizabeth suspected that her father was feeling the shame of his neglect in his parenting duties, while her mother was blaming him for her own. The tension in the house was palpable.
Not knowing where Lydia was, or if she was well, was in the forefront of everyone’s mind. The unanswered questions of whether she might be ill, hurt or hungry were constantly nagging them. They were concerned, but also furious with Lydia. These two emotions contrasted and fought within each family member’s heart.
Sadly, the daughters did not know what to do with such feelings. They had no guidance as to how to react to them. Their parent’s failures were never more pronounced.
As each day passed and the reality of the inevitable seemed more and more obvious, they were at a loss as to how to proceed. Not being privileged to the actions their father and uncle were undertaking, the daughters had no idea if they would give Lydia up for missing. Would they try to get on with their lives without her? Should they start to think to their own futures? What futures could they even reasonably consider? The girls were frustrated but, instead of spending any time solving anything, they were required to attend their mother and diffuse the animosity between their parents.
Kitty chose to remain in blissful ignorance of the enormity of the scandal. She whined about trivial pursuits she felt herself denied, and joined her mother’s woeful cries each day about how put upon she was.
Mary was happy to continue her self-proclaimed role as spiritual advisor to her family. She smugly considered herself to be personally above reproach, and therefore, entitled, nay, required to set those around her on the path to righteousness. She was not a little vexed when no one heeded her sermons or recitations of Fordyce. Soon she would learn the evil of guilt by association, when no amount of purity on her part would be able to wipe away the stain of her sister’s sins that bled onto her.
Jane had assumed her typical role as nurturing peacemaker and, angel that she was, kept up her smiling countenance, which was a boon to all around her. Only Elizabeth was privileged to her true sadness. At night, when the house was abed, they would confide in one another. Jane was determined to stay strong and serene for her family, but it was Lizzy upon whom she relied to open her heart and unburden herself of her sorrow. Jane was no fool, she knew with Lydia’s disgrace, the future was bleak for them all, and she felt it exceedingly.
Perhaps her family would have been able to bear the stressful situation better with the help of concerned family and friends. Unfortunately, they would not know. Soon after Mr. Bennet returned from London without a clue as to where his daughter was, the Bennets began to feel the ramifications of Lydia’s foolish actions.
Aunt Philips was the first to inform them of their neighbours’ interest in, and shock at, the Bennet’s misfortunes. Indeed, according to their aunt, there were few people in all of Meryton and the surrounding countryside who were not talking everyday, about everything, that had happened in the Bennets’ lives. A good many things that had not actually happened were discussed as well, as they made for an even better story. No one could be pleased with being the subject of the town’s gossips, but there was little that could be done. Mrs. Philips promised to call everyday, and keep them apprised of the latest news.
As the following days passed, the news to be related was mostly confined to their own troubles. Mr. Bennet’s unsuccessful endeavours and subsequent return to Longbourn from London was considered the most interesting of all. Some two weeks after this event, Aunt Philips came at her usual time with rather disturbing tidings. It seemed that the evening before, several of the prominent families in and around Meryton, gathering in private council, had together decided that the Bennet’s society was no longer considered respectable. The next day at church services confirmed the new status the Bennets had been affixed: no one would acknowledge them. As they entered the church, whispers floated through the air and “scandal, shameful, no decency, and offensive people” could be heard. The buzz quickly grew as most eyes were averted from them, while the tongues wagged. They walked home in stunned silence, even Mrs. Bennet could not think to speak. The life they had known seemed to be slipping away; they were now unwanted strangers in their own neighbourhood.
The next week when Elizabeth attempted to call upon Charlotte Lucas at Lucas Lode, she was informed by the housekeeper the family was not in. This surprised her, as morning calls were a particularly favoured activity for Lady Lucas, and she rarely missed the opportunity to participate. The second time Lizzy tried to call upon the Lucases and was given the same answer, she was effectively enlightened to yet a new aspect of her family’s social status. Apparently even her cousin Mr. Collins and his new wife found the Bennet’s society beneath them.
Mary, Kitty, and Jane all had similar experiences around the neighbourhood. Most of society chose to use the excuse of the family not being at home, though some people were frank enough to allow the housekeepers to tell the girls they would no longer be received. Although difficult to hear such a thing while standing in a hall of a former acquaintance, it at least saved them from bothering with future visits that would be fruitless.
Finally, the most cruel of acts occurred to Kitty and Jane in Meryton. The two had gone to shop for bonnet ribbons in the new autumn colours, and had just entered the store where two of their neighbours had been speaking with the proprietress. Mrs. Evans and her daughter stopped mid speech upon spying them, raised their noses into the air, and told Mrs. Hawkins, the owner, they would return to make their purchases at a time when the shop was more suitable for ladies.
Not satisfied enough with this small insult, Mrs. Evan’s then continued, “Perhaps Mrs. Hawkins, you should consider your clientele more carefully. If you wish people of respectability to continue to give you their custom, then you should serve only those who are worthy.”
The Evans party then made a show of walking widely around them lest they somehow should come in contact with the Bennet sisters as they exited.
Jane and Kitty were mortified. Kitty’s eyes were already starting to gloss from tears, when Jane put a comforting arm around her shoulders. Mrs. Hawkins stood, mouth agape looking after Mrs. Evans, and not sure of what she should say. Quietly, and with as much dignity as she could, Jane led her sister silently out of the shop and back to their home.
Elizabeth would always remember Jane’s pale face as she and Kitty returned that morning; Kitty silently weeping into Jane’s shoulder, Jane whispering endearments to Kitty, praising her gentility, telling her how she would always be a lady, and that no one could ever take that from her. All the while her voice remained calm, but Jane’s face betrayed the trauma she had been through. Only after Kitty had settled and was resting in her room, was Lizzy able to get Jane out to a secluded section of the garden and Jane’s long held composure finally broke. Falling to her knees and covering her face in her hands, Jane sobbed loudly, forlornly, and mournfully for nearly half an hour. Lizzy thought her heart would break. She had never seen her darling Jane so emotional before.
“Oh Lizzy, I cannot believe the cruelty of people. I did not think such viciousness existed. How we are to endure, what is to become of us, how can we live like this?”
She began sobbing again, her chest painfully heaving to allow her gasps of breath in between her cries. Elizabeth knelt down next to her beloved sister and wrapped her in her arms, rocking her as if a child, holding Jane’s head to her cheek as she tried to kiss away the pain. Jane cried for all the pent up sadness she had pushed far back into herself, and had not allowed to surface. She cried for the weeks of happy faces she had forced herself to show to the world while inside she had felt such vexation. She cried for a future she feared would be bleak. She cried the grieving, moaning cry of someone who had lost a loved one, and indeed, that was exactly how Jane felt, as though all of them had lost happiness itself.
If Mr. Bennet heard any of his daughters’ cries, he did not acknowledge it. Elizabeth knew he could not have missed that morning’s drama. His usual routine of ignoring what he did not like, was yet another vexation to her. Jane’s questioning cry was turning over and over in her mind: how were they going to live like this?
No one was more frustrated than Elizabeth. Besides the daily dealings with her mother, she had tried to help her father and uncle in their endeavours. Her father, feeling his inadequacies at finding any evidence of the missing couple, had simply given up and come home, much too soon in her opinion. The last thing his wounded ego could support was a willingness to listen to his daughter’s questions, ideas and schemes. Instead of realizing the potential worth of her contributions, he considered her ridiculous for even thinking she could help and dismissed her out of hand, more than once. He was mortified to think he should have to bear the disapprobation of one of his own children.
Her shame knew no bounds. That her father would be so selfish as to sit in his manor house, comfortably reading his books, rather than search for his youngest daughter was beyond her comprehension. She was ashamed he would allow her uncle to take up this task, a man with four young children and a business to run, compared to her father with four grown women perfectly able to care for his estate concerns in his absence. She was always aware of his shortcomings, but his indulgence of himself over his family in their time of need, stunned her. Her mother’s own indulgence was already a matter of practice, but that, now combined with her father‘s, wounded her greatly.
Her nightly talks with Jane distressed her as well. Seeing her sister’s bloom waning under their burdens and knowing that Jane was taking the most responsibility in helping everyone, fuelled her anger. It was not Jane’s duty to give so much and receive so little in return. She knew if things were left as they were that her parents had the ability to crush her dear spirit, until there might not be anything left to give, and happiness might never be possible.
She was furious with Lydia. Furious with her parents for having indulged her all her life. Furious with Colonel Forster and his silly excuse of a wife for not chaperoning her properly. Furious at London for providing the couple with so easy a place to hide. But mostly, she was furious with one man.
She felt the limitations of her sex excessively. If only she were an elder brother; she could be in London, searching daily. She could walk the streets at night without fear. Her inability to be able to do anything was maddening. She wanted to hurt something. She wanted to give pain to something. She desperately wanted to scream and yell, and make someone pay for the unhappiness her family was forced into.
Time is not always a friend. Time can wrought hatred, contempt, and evil in a mind that was once tuned to love, wit, humour, and the ability to laugh at human folly. Time can be most cruel to those who undeservedly are wronged and must endure for days, weeks, months on end, the hopelessness and despair of ever being happy again. Time allows feelings that never before had been known to silently, stealthily and like a deadly cancer, worm their way into the heart and choke the goodness that had once overflowed. Time wore on Elizabeth until she no longer saw the good, but rather the contempt of her fellow man, and most especially in one man, the one man she saw as the single reason for her, and her family’s unhappiness: George Wickham.
Before the onset of winter, the Bennet household was blessed with unexpected visitors when the Gardiners arrived. Mr. Bennet did not seem well pleased to see his brother-in-law and family, much to his daughter’s surprise. The girls however were relieved to have their sensible, much loved aunt and uncle with them. Elizabeth watched her father and uncle’s interaction with barely disguised agitation. She knew they would soon head off alone to her father’s library for a private conference. She was dying to know what developments might have occurred to bring her uncle to see them from London. After they had adjourned from the ladies, she quietly slipped out from the drawing room and into the hall to try to hear any hints through the impeding door that barred her from the library. Luckily, her father’s voice could be plainly heard.
“And what has this Mr. Brooks come up with, Edward? What results has he produced after all the money we have paid out, eh?” Mr. Bennet snidely remarked.
“I am sorry to say Thomas, not a thing. Mr. Brooks came well recommended, and I believe he has tried his best, but they have vanished into the slums of London, and no one has heard a word. There is nothing for the poor man to sniff out. Wickham’s regiment is on the lookout for him, but they will hardly spare any men to look for a deserter. I am afraid it’s useless, brother. I have little hope, and I hardly need tell you, little time left. I must attend to my businesses or my family’s welfare may soon suffer along with their reputation. I am truly sorry not to bear better news.”
“Then it is as I feared; she will never be recovered.” She heard the scraping of his desk chair, and then the poker stabbing at the logs in the fire. “I will never hear the end of it from your sister,” he spat bitterly.
“Yes, well, Frances never was a quiet girl to be sure, but I would think after almost 25 years you must be used to it.” Silence again. Many minutes went by without any speech.
Finally, Elizabeth heard a loud bang; something fell upon his desk, and her father’s voice, now loud and authoritative, “Then I have no choice left but to accept that Lydia is dead to me.”
“I will not have her wanton ghost hanging about my neck. She chose her fate, and she will have to bear it alone, I want nothing more to do with her, her memory or her future. I will remove her from my home, my will, and my mind. Let us return to the ladies, and I will make my announcement.”
“Brother, I have to object!” he protested. “How can you so easily give up on your daughter? Surely you will want to come back to London with me and start up where I must leave off?”
“No, Edward, I have given this a great deal of thought these last weeks without any leads, or new information these past months; I see no future, no success and no reason to continue. My decision is final.”
“But what of your other daughters, and Frances? You cannot expect them to simply stop their feelings for Lydia, stop talking about the situation in which they are all entrenched. You must give them a chance to grieve, Thomas!”
“I have had my ears full of grief!! Every waking hour this house howls with grief! I want no more of it! Lydia is dead to me and everyone here, starting now! This conversation is over !”
Elizabeth stood stunned in the hallway. The library door violently tore open, causing her to startle. Her father, scowling and fuming swept past her and subjected the drawing room door to the same punishment.
“Daughters, Sister, Mrs. Bennet,” he began after a deep breath, “Brother Gardiner has no news to deliver. Any and all efforts to find even the smallest hint of Lydia’s whereabouts have come to naught. I believe that all possibilities have been exhausted, and any future searches will be futile. She has no desire to be found. She is living the life she wants, not surprisingly, seeing what a silly, useless girl she was, and now we may add stupidity to her accomplishments. Given her shameful and immoral nature, we will no longer be a part of her life.”
Lizzy gasped at the doorway, she felt as if a great wind had pushed all the air out of her, and was trying to pull her person to the ground.
Her father continued. “Henceforth, no mention of Lydia Bennet is to be made in my presence, in any part of this house or on my lands ever again. She is dead to us, as if she never existed. I will remove her from my will tomorrow; you had best remove her from your hearts and minds if you ever wish to have peace again. I never wish to hear her name again.”
Silence pervaded the room. Mrs. Bennet stood with her mouth agape, desperately trying to understand what had just happened. The girls and Aunt Gardiner were similarly, though less physically affected.
The gravity of his declaration was slowly taking hold in all their minds, when from the doorway Elizabeth fairly shouted, “NO!” Everyone turned, shocked at her outburst, effectively silenced again.
Finally Mr. Bennet found his voice. “I beg your pardon, Madam, but I do not believe you possess the authority to speak to me thus,” he responded slowly.
Elizabeth stood as a Fury; brilliant, perilous, daggers flying from her eyes, her fists clenched hard. Her long pent up rage was about to find a mark. “And pray tell me, Sir, where has your authority been languishing lately?” she cried with energy.
His teeth clenched, his breath rushing sibilant across them, he exhaled hard. “You go too far, Elizabeth; you will accompany me to my library, NOW!”
She turned in a maelstrom, reaching the library long before him, flinging the poor abused portal open. He stomped in noisily behind her, but before the door had closed, Elizabeth’s torrent began, “Where has your responsibility as presumed head of this household been hiding? Perhaps here in the library? Or maybe in your brandy decanter?”
“For as strongly as you suddenly announce what we may all feel and think, I have seen no sign of compassion or understanding as to the feelings of any of those over whom you hold authority throughout this fiasco you call a search. I have not had the pleasure of your presence in a room where anyone in your care could be called upon to share, confide or most especially receive guidance on their feelings, their apprehensions, or their suffering.
“What I have seen is a man who, after a few paltry days, returned from his search to the comfort of his retiring country house, his wine and his locked library, to hide away from his responsibilities to his family, and most especially to his lost daughter. Then, in an effort to disabuse himself of any guilt, pawned the job off onto his working brother, the father of 4 small children, while he waited, unencumbered, in his leather sitting chair.
“Now you expect us all to sit quietly, ignore any claim to outrage or grief, simply because you deem it no longer worth the effort to try to find your daughter? A daughter whom, despite her living circumstances, is barely sixteen and little more than a child, yet you allow her the position of responsible adult! Indeed if that is the stick by which you measure I can hardly be surprised at your lack of character! I am ashamed, Sir! “
“You are unfair, Elizabeth; you do not know what I have done, or what I feel!”
“Perhaps so, Sir, but lack of that knowledge is hardly my failing, is it?”
“You had no business knowing what your Uncle and I were doing! It is not a daughter’s place to understand her father’s heart! I have no reason to confide anything to you. I do not answer to you.”
“That may be, but a gentleman would not have continued behaving with such selfish disdain for the feelings of those professed to be his loved ones. I am not a simpleton! You have dismissed me as though a servant! I was mortified to be treated in such a callous and disregarded manner!
“Where is your honour, Sir? If not you, then tell me who should defend our name and our reputation? How long before some other cad tries to take advantage of any one of us, knowing that any consequences will be so easy to overcome? You leave us undefended, without champion, or honour.
“Where is your compassion? While you might sit happily home alone, your wife and daughters, who like society, sit and endure ostracism from every friend they have ever known. What future do they have? What reassurances have you given them? What plans have you, the authority in this house, made for any of them?” Silence was the answer.
Elizabeth turned to the window, trying to regain her composure. After a few minutes, an odd thought suddenly struck her: Mr. Darcy would often retreat to the window. Was it to escape an uncomfortable situation, recompose himself? Yes, she doubted it not, and felt maybe she understood a little more of him. Pushing her thoughts of him back out of her mind, and with a great sigh, she turned back to regard her father.
He seemed older, somehow smaller, and perhaps frail, however she did not want to dwell upon it. She now knew in her heart what she wished to do. Reaching slowly behind her head, her lithe fingers grasped the clasp of the golden chain of the heirloom necklace that had belonged to six generations of Bennet brides, daughters and sisters. Elizabeth was given this garnet cross, by her great Aunt Thelma, on her tenth birthday. She proudly wore it everyday, as if to reassure herself of her place in her family, in the world. Now her place in her family was in question, her place in the world in peril. She unclasped it, drew it delicately through her fingers, and, with a parting glance, she handed it to her father.
“I no longer wish to be a part of what this represents,” she said as she laid it across the polished wood of his desk. His brow arched in shock at her declaration.
“It should not surprise you, considering I have blatantly disregarded your authority, and wholly without contrition. I have insulted you, and treated you with contempt, but I cannot regret it, and I will not recant. By your leave I will return with the Gardiners to London. I will not be returning to Longbourn.”
Mr. Bennet was dumbfounded. He was also perchance the most angry he had ever been in his life. “And what do you think you will do in London? You have no money, and shall get none from me! Do you think after all the follies of Lydia I would allow you to go?” he shouted.
Elizabeth, with heightened colour, but in a voice of forced calmness answered, “You are mistaken, Sir. I am willing to work, and earn my living. However, truthfully, you no longer have authority over me; two days hence I came of age. I ask for your leave only out of mere civility. I refuse to sit idly. I refuse to accept this existence. I make my own future. Accept it or not, I will leave.”
With quick steps she crossed the room, but just as she was about to turn the door handle and exit, she hesitated, contemplating silently for a moment, then spoke in a low, menacing voice he had never heard from her before,
“I do not give up, Father. I will find her, and more importantly I will find him and I will make him pay.”
Suddenly, Thomas Bennet was afraid.
Lord Caldhart entered his home and summoned his butler to bring him his driver and head stable man; Tom Higgins. He was a trustworthy chap that his lordship knew to be a confidant of most of the stable hands of the finest families in town. Higgins’ true worth, however, lay in his easy mannered affability, which allowed him to worm information out of just about anyone.
Lord Robert had often used him to keep an eye on his mistresses’ activities. More importantly, Higgins was able to discover quite a bit about the young ladies his Lordship had an eye on for future personal interest. It had been some time since he had required his special services, but Higgins betrayed no surprise at being summoned once again into his employer’s presence. This time though, he did seem surprised as to the nature of his master’s request.
“Higgins, I would like you to find out as much as you can about a new shop I discovered today near Cheapside. It is called Johnson’s House of Cigars, and is run by a woman whom I assume is Mrs. Johnson. I want to know if she owns the shop, if her husband runs it with her, or if he is, perhaps, deceased. Also, anything you can tell me about whom Mrs. Johnson is, and was before she married. All information will be of interest; do not overlook any detail you can find, despite its seeming unimportance.”
The stableman silently bowed and slowly returned to his bunk in the stables.
Caldhart smirked while thinking, “Yes, I think I have managed to shock even you, Higgins. A shopkeeper’s wife for the great Lord Caldhart?” And he laughed out loud.
Several days later Higgins begged an audience with his master. Standing in front of the stately gentleman, while the butler discreetly closed the library door, he stated all the information he had been able to obtain. No, Mrs. Johnson did not own her business. However, city records could not be looked over easily or at least without certain cash considerations. Caldhart decided to investigate that fact himself, and told him so. Mr. Johnson had never been seen in the shop, or talked of, but neither had Mrs. Johnson ever been called a widow, so her marital status was still unconfirmed. The business was very new, though thriving due to Mrs. Johnson’s uncanny abilities to produce a superior cigar. The woman had left her establishment every evening at five-thirty, in a coach, accompanied by a gentleman who seemed very friendly with her, but could not be identified as Mr. Johnson- yet. He had been unable to follow where she went but, if he had his master’s permission, he could spend the next few days and nights following her after she closed her shop, to gain the address of where she lived.
Caldhart was pleased. He suspected the gentleman was not Mr. Johnson, but who could he be? Perhaps some man who had set up his mistress at a shop for her amusement? Unlikely, as it would not leave her available for his use, except at night, when usually wives and families would demand one’s attentions. No, he needed more information and the sooner the better, as he was starting to relish the idea of visiting the establishment once more to see what he could find out about her himself. He gave permission for the man to spend the next week following her discreetly.
“I want you to dog her from sun up to down, Higgins. Once you have found her lodgings, get help to watch through the night until she retires. I wish to know where she goes, anyone who visits her, for how long, and how often. I’ll pay for whomever you take under your care to help, but one word of caution,” he sipped his evening brandy slowly, inhaling the deep fragrance as it swirled in the glass, “no word of this to anyone, and the lady must not know you are watching her, or I will deny you, and you will be without reference or job; is that understood?”
He nodded his assent. Caldhart knew he often gave this speech, but he also knew Higgins felt no insult. His Lordship would pay for the extra help required and his servant would no doubt bill him generously, whether any help was hired or not.
The next weeks saw Lord Caldhart and Higgins busily traipsing around various parts of London in their efforts to uncover the truths about Mrs. Johnson. His Lordship was easily able to gain access to the city business records (once an unofficial “fee” was stealthily paid for under the pair of fine kid gloves he had placed upon the counter). Mrs. Johnson was not the business owner, nor was Mr. Johnson, although their name had been used. The actual owner did not work in the shop, but rather was a respectable and successful tradesman in enterprises all over the city. The clerk was able to uncover several business licenses under his name: Mr. Edward Gardiner of Gracechurch Street, Cheapside. Whether he set this shop up for nefarious reasons or not was yet to be ascertained.
Higgins, in the meantime, had discovered similar findings after following the coach one evening, first to Mrs. Johnson’s lodgings, and then to its final destination on Gracechurch Street several blocks away. It was indeed the master of that house that escorted Mrs. Johnson to her house and then home each evening, and then repeat the reverse act in the morning. So far she had never left her house, though inclement weather and a steady work week would have most likely precluded the possibility. No other persons came or went from her lodgings Whether Mrs. Gardiner was alive and in residence at Mr. Gardiner’s home was not yet discovered. All was reported, shared and mulled over in Caldhart’s fine library. Higgins was sent back to take up his observation post for the weekend, while his Lordship thought about his next move.
The following day the sun shone warm for a winter’s morning. A female occupant of the Johnson house, no doubt feeling the confinements of nearly a week of slushy snow and extreme cold, burst forth from the abode to take pleasure in a walk across the nearby park. Higgins saw four children, a maid and a lady venture to meet with her. This second lady looked old enough to be the children’s mother, but the first was obviously too young. Where Mrs. Johnson was, he did not know. He was torn between following the group, to try to overhear any tidbits, and staying at the house, to see if the lady of interest would also venture forth. Using his many years of experience to guide him, he easily came up with a suitable solution. He grabbed a nearby waif, offering a prize if the youth would simply stand watch over the house and fetch him in the park if anyone did leave it.
The two ladies strolled happily along. The children clearly were thrilled to breathe the fresh air and noisily ran off the abundance of energy they had undoubtedly stored during that stifling week. The adults laughed at the children’s gaiety, while discussing the theatre excursion that was planned for that evening. Higgins learned which play and theatre they were to attend, knowing his master would find it useful. By the time the group headed back, he knew that the lady was Aunt Gardiner, that the other lady was her niece Elizabeth, also known as cousin Lizzy, and that she was quite a lovely young lady at that. Perhaps his Lordship hadn’t lost his sensibilities after all. Maybe Miss Lizzy was Mrs. Johnson’s younger sister, or even daughter. He wasn’t sure of Mrs. Johnson’s age, so either was possible. His last expert feat of subterfuge occurred after the family and the young lady returned to the Gardiners home, not far from Mrs. Johnson‘s. Running down to the fresh markets, he bought a posy of lovely flowers and, returning to the Gardiner’s home, he rang at the servant’s door. The kitchen maid answered, smiling at the bouquet.
“For Miss Elizabeth Westview, if you please,” Higgins said, bowing.
The maid frowned, “I’m sorry sir, our Miss Elizabeth is not a Westview, she’s a Bennet,” she giggled.
“Gah!” spat Higgins. “Don’t tell me I’ve mixed up again, my employer will have my head.” The maid giggled again. “Well,” said he, with a smile to the girl, “ ‘tis not your fault my lovely, I’ll just have to run back and find where I should be. Good day.” He turned back down the steps and out into the lane.
That evening as Lord Robert prepared to leave for the theatre, he thought about all that Higgins had told him. He was wild to see Miss Elizabeth Bennet for himself. If his powers of deduction were still at all reasonable, he was in a fair way of knowing what her alias might be. His valet had chosen the dark blue coat, which complimented his hair very well. He wanted to look his best, but was aware that his finest apparel would not be appropriate for tonight‘s venue.
It was not the most luxurious, nor the largest theatre in London: comedies currently experiencing more disinterest than the opposite in these times. He chuckled over the play they had chosen: The Country Wife . A scandalous choice for a maiden, and most intriguing. The bawdiness aside, it was still wickedly funny; most young women would blush at the thought of even reading Wycherley yet this lady was brave enough to attend a performance.
“Perhaps she does not realize what she is in for,” he conjectured to himself. “Yet how much more interesting if she does .”
It was an intimate house, with only a single row of boxes on each side, the main floor and a balcony. Attendees were clearly visible, delighting themselves in the show that played out opposite the stage. One face was taking in a particular visage with great relish. His luck once again running high, Lord Caldhart’s box was positioned perfectly for watching the lady, without her seeing him. He hadn’t been sure at first. Higgins had given him a fair description of all of them, but it wasn’t until their faces had turned, and he was able to see her fully, that his breath had once again caught, and he knew, absolutely, that he was looking at Miss Elizabeth Bennet and Mrs. Johnson; she was one and the same.
His memory had not done her justice; she was bewitching. He watched riveted as her eyes danced and glittered, and her lips twitched with just the hint of an impertinent smile while she took in her surroundings. Now and then she would peer more intently at someone in concern, as if to discern something. He wondered if she might be looking for the infamous George in the crowd. More often than not she would stare obtusely off into space, her shoulders rising while she took a deep breath, and her face lost it’s merriment. He could spend the entire evening discovering the array of those expressions and never tire.
How very different to see her tonight. She had lustrous dark hair that was arranged with ribbons of garnet through the curls that flowed down her supple neck. Her gown was a deeper shade of crimson, which complimented her creamy complexion perfectly. It was not richly adorned, and no doubt would have gathered little attention to the few fashion plates that would have come to this lesser known theatre, but it suited her perfectly. Despite the simplicity it was elegant, showing true good taste, and he admired her all the more for it. Her gown’s neckline revealed the answer to the last question that had plagued him as well.
The lights dimmed and a hush fell over the crowd as the performance began on stage, while in the audience, the evening began for Lord Robert. He thoroughly enjoyed studying Elizabeth. Her eyes sparkled and laughed, her lips sometimes mouthing familiar lines.
“Another mystery solved,” he mused. Staring at her unencumbered from the privacy behind the drape in his box was an erotic adventure of voyeurism for him. Experiencing the evening through her eyes, her reactions, her laughter was breathing new life into him, while arousing his passion as well. She laughed with her whole person, she reacted with her hands, her body revealed her feelings as often as her mesmerizing face. He freely allowed his eyes to linger over her bodice, her gown, anywhere he desired with his naked eye, as well as his oft used opera glasses.
During the first intermission, he ventured out to see if he could get a bit closer to her, perhaps hear her thoughts on the production. Along the way to the foyer, he saw a familiar face.
“Lloyd!” he cried, observing his friend coming over to him. “How are you old man?”
Mr. Lloyd, some twenty years Lord Caldhart’s junior, was used to such taunts from him. “Lord Robert, delighted to see you Sir, I am well, and you?”
“Never better, thank you for asking. And I must thank you, my friend, for letting me in on your secret cigar shop. I’ve never had better cigar; truly a jewel of smoke,” he calculatingly replied. Perhaps if Lloyd had Johnson’s in his head, he might prove helpful tonight. They had been walking towards the largest area of the foyer, where most of the patrons were congregating, when Caldhart caught sight of the Gardiner party not far off. He bent his head, hoping to catch some of their conversation, while deftly backing himself and Mr. Lloyd slowly towards them. Lloyd, useful as ever, espied the group and, without hesitating, offered to introduce his Lordship to the owner of Johnson’s himself, a Mr. Edward Gardiner. Smiling sincerely and he hoped not too eagerly, his Lordship condescended graciously.
“Mr. Gardiner, Mrs. Gardiner, how wonderful to see you this evening,” Mr. Lloyd began. After the curtseys, bows, and inquiries into one another’s health had been satisfied, Mr. Lloyd began his introduction. Lord Robert had stood by silently, watching each party intently, reflecting calm and indifference while his heart beat madly. He could barely restrain his face. He struggled desperately to remember to look at Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and not only Miss Bennet. His eyes had great difficulty not betraying his interest in her, as propriety demanded. It was much too early to raise her suspicions.
“Mr. and Mrs. Edward Gardiner, may I present Lord Robert Caldhart? Lord Caldhart has recently been a patron at Johnson’s House of Cigars, Mr. Gardiner, and was just now thanking me for his great fortune in taking up my suggestion.”
“How very kind of you to recommend it Mr. Lloyd, I thank you. My Lord, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sir,” he said, bowing. “May I present my wife, Mrs. Madeline Gardiner, and my niece, Miss Elizabeth Bennet?” The ladies and gentlemen exchanged their civilities, while Lord Robert revelled in being allowed to openly view Miss Bennet so closely.
Mr. Gardiner continued, “Am I to understand then Sir, you enjoyed your purchases from Johnson’s?”
“Indeed I did Sir; the cigars are superb, quite outstanding. Is it your talent and expertise to whom I am indebted for my delights?” he asked, knowing full well that Mrs. Johnson was the artist behind it all. He was curious to see what Mr. Gardiner would reveal.
“Hardly!” Gardiner answered jovially. “No, Johnson’s House of Cigars is appropriately named, Lord Robert, for without Mrs. Johnson, there would simply be mediocre cigars. She is the genius. She is the tobacco connoisseur. Quite unusual for a woman, of course, but there is no denying her abilities. It is to her you would give your thanks were she present.”
“Most extraordinary!” Lord Robert exclaimed, all the while keeping at least part of his line of vision on Miss Bennet. “I will be happy to give her all the thanks she is due when next I go to her shop. Please send her my regards in the mean time. But what a unique gift she possesses! I wonder how she, or you, for that matter, discovered it.” He knew he was being sly, but he was sincerely curious.
Mrs. Gardiner stepped in. “We have known Mrs. Johnson for many years, your Lordship, and she often would comment, when smelling a cigar, lit or not, on the flavours she could detect in them. She joined Mr. Gardiner and I one day when we visited a cigar shop, and her senses were nearly overwhelmed. She helped my husband pick out his cigars, and they were the best he has ever had. Well at least until Johnson’s opened, of course.” They all chuckled.
“She also has the same ability with the dishes at table. I have never been able to serve her a meal in which she could not discern every ingredient, in every dish. Most disconcerting for the cook, who began to worry, should she inadvertently leave something out.” Miss Bennet, by now, was intently and thoroughly studying her shoes. Although she did laugh with her aunt about their poor cook, clearly she was uncomfortable with so much praise being spoken about Mrs. Johnson.
Lord Robert was enchanted. He addressed her, “And you, Miss Bennet, are you also friend to Mrs. Johnson, and have you also been witness to her abilities?”
“Why yes, your Lordship, I think there can hardly have been a time when I was not acquainted with Mrs. Johnson, and therefore remember many of her,” she hesitated a moment, “ her performances shall we say? Although I do not know if she would agree with all of your praises, nor believe her skills are something to be envied, as I believe she often finds them to be both boon and bane.“ The group requested clarification of such a bold statement.
“I recall once when I was a very small girl, dining with my aunt and uncle at a Mr. and Mrs. Phillips’ house, Mrs. Johnson did not find her talents appreciated, or welcome. We were served a very fine looking trifle for dessert, which everyone enjoyed and after which the ladies started a conversation about the recipe. Mrs. Johnson opined that she preferred her trifle with both wine and brandy, not wine alone, as had just been served. Unfortunately, Mrs. Phillips herself had measured and given the brandy to her cook and was none too pleased to learn it had not made its way into the trifle, but rather into the cook. Poor Mrs. Johnson was mortified that her discerning palate had caused such a uproar. Later, when the cook was discovered in a somewhat inebriated stupor and had almost been dismissed, she confided to me that, sometimes, truth was better held in silence than shared.” She finished with a disarming raise of her brow. Her audience laughed appreciatively.
“What a delightful story Miss Bennet and a moral to go with it; how very charming indeed. I no longer shall envy Mrs. Johnson, but merely remain grateful she is willing to share her talents with the rest of us. Certainly we would have fewer delights in this world without her,” answered his Lordship. “And I am still most grateful to you Mr. Gardiner, for undertaking the task of opening Johnson’s. Congratulations Sir; I hope your trade prospers well and long. I must take my leave now. Thank you all, it was a pleasure to meet you.” With a bow and a flourish, Lord Robert and Mr. Lloyd departed.
He was relieved to be away from her. The rush of being so close to this newfound treasure was too much for him. It had been a long while since he had felt the first flutters of infatuation and lust, and now, with his advanced years, it seemed to almost overwhelm him. He had been turning on his well-practiced charm without even meaning to. He didn’t want to alarm the Gardiners, nor Miss Bennet; he wanted to plan all his moves carefully, like any good strategist. Being in her presence, hearing her clever witticisms, the lilt of her laughter, seeing those glorious eyes flashing, was undermining all his carefully cultivated reserve. This would not do at all. He would not be caught up like some schoolboy admiring his first fancy.
Lloyd was muttering to himself alongside Caldhart, while his Lordship attempted to regain his composure.
“Bennet, Bennet, why does that name seem to remind me of something important?” he was saying. “Something last summer, yes, that was it, gossip about a family named Bennet, from Hertfordshire, I believe. Oh, my,” he suddenly stammered, obviously having recalled the entirety of the story. Lord Robert turned with his head cocked to one side, both his brows raised in question.
“Oh, Lord Robert, I do beg your pardon,” he spoke contritely, his head bowed, slowly shaking back and forth.
“Good heavens, Lloyd, you act as though Miss Bennet were a convicted axe murderer! Do explain yourself.”
“Your Lordship, I would never have introduced you to the Gardiners had I known of the connection to the Bennets. At least, if she is one of the Bennets of which I am thinking. Although, we do not know that for certain, of course. But it does make sense, the family was made up of five beautiful daughters as I recall. Such a pity, such a shame,” he babbled.
“Lloyd, will you start speaking coherently and tell me what happened to the Bennets of Hertfordshire? You are trying my patience.” The halls were nearly empty now, and the men had relative privacy when they took a place upon a burgundy velvet upholstered bench near the wall.
Mr. Lloyd began in a lowered voice. “Last summer, it was said that the youngest daughter, of Mr. Bennet, a gentleman with little fortune though a nice piece of property in Hertfordshire, had eloped with an officer of the militia quartered in Brighton for the summer. She was then but sixteen. Her family traced the couple only to London, and in town, they disappeared. He never intended to marry her of course, no surprise to anyone really. But as none of her elder sisters (and I had heard that the two eldest were particular beauties) had married yet, the silly youngest had ruined them all. Four lovely women off the marriage market like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“What kind of father would let a sixteen year old girl go alone to Brighton?” Caldhart asked, incredulous.
“Oh I believe she was there with the colonel of the regiment’s wife, her very close friend, although obviously not much of a chaperone. Now what was that scoundrel’s name, Westing? No, something Wendall, dear me, I do wish I was better with names.” Lord Robert had no doubt the man’s name was Wickham, but let his friend continue.
“They never found her, as far as I know. And now I suppose the sisters will have to be governesses or ladies’ companions or some such thing. Perhaps Miss Elizabeth is helping her Aunt at home? Such a nimble mind. Such a waste. Why must the pretty girls always be poor, or ineligible?”
“I wouldn’t let your wife hear such statements, old man.” his Lordship advised.” You are hardly in the position to be looking for an eligible lady, are you?”
Lloyd coughed, brought back from his reverie. “No, no of course not. I do apologise. And my judgment has been terrible tonight. I should not have exposed you to such a connection. I must apologise for having introduced you to a disreputable woman. I fear I have insulted you, sir.”
Lord Robert only chuckled. “You have done nothing of the kind! Dear Lloyd, how can you be so droll and stupid at the same time? My reputation suffer? Not in the least. I have manners, breeding and fortune to spare; I can certainly entertain whomever I want. And I do fancy that I, not others, decide who is beneath my notice, or not. So do not be distressed- if I choose to continue the acquaintance, I am not worried about it sullying my position in society. If I were you, however, I would not mention it to anyone, lest you suffer a different fate.”
Mr. Lloyd’s face revealed that the idea had hit is mark accurately. Yes, Lloyd would be easily swayed to do his Lordship’s bidding, and keeping this little introduction a secret suited him perfectly. “We need never mention it again, my Lord.” He bowed, truly grateful to have such a concerned friend, as Lord Robert.
“Then we are agreed. But Lloyd, do not let the Gardiners’ connection to the Bennets interfere with your enjoyment of the cigars Johnson’s has to offer; that would truly be a shame.” The two men shared a chortle.
“I expect you will continue to give them your custom?” Lloyd nodded obediently. “Good, now get back to your seat, old man, and enjoy the play.”
Lord Robert lingered in the hall a while longer, reflecting on his evening so far. He was very satisfied with all the information he had obtained. He looked forward to turning his mind to it later, in the quiet solitude of his study. Returning discreetly to his box, he observed Elizabeth for a while longer. He wondered if she had taken any notice of him. Had she detected any of his interest? He did not think so; he had hardly paid her any particular attention. At least he was confident she was not aware of his spying upon her while she watched the play. He leaned forward, covertly gazing for another half hour before departing. His diamond in the rough was a stunning woman, that no one had discovered; he could not have been more pleased.
Elizabeth turned the corner from the hall after leaving her father and drew a small gasp. There, in the main entryway, stood Jane. She was leaning against the wall, Kitty and Mary were sitting together on the lower steps of the stairway. All three looked up suddenly as she walked in. Jane was the first to move, she quickly clenched Lizzy to herself, Mary and Kitty immediately followed suit. The four stood huddled together, each gathering strength from the other; none willing to let go for several minutes. Tiny sniffles and smaller, nervous, laughing chokes issued from their tightly held mass.
“You truly mean to leave?” whispered Kitty, without raising her head. Lizzy nodded ,squeezing Kitty harder.
“Whatever will you do?’ added Mary softly.
“I am not certain, I shall have to discuss it with the Gardiners,” she confessed, while laying her head against Mary’s shoulder.
“And will you really look for Lydia?” Kitty asked.
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “I will. On that point I am determined.” A relief seemed to come over the sisters. Their grips lightened, the tension lessened. They embraced for several more moments.
Kitty smiled and planted a kiss on her sister’s cheek. “It will be a great adventure, Lizzy!” she suddenly gushed. All heads lifted in surprise.
Elizabeth’s face revealed a stern frown. “No, Kitty,” her voice began gravely. “It will be a hardship, and I fear heartache. I must rely on the Gardiner’s charity until I can find a way to make my own living. I have no reason to hope my future employment will amount to anything vaguely easy, exciting or adventurous. And do not forget; all the while I will be looking for Lydia, whose condition in this world may be dire.” She stopped, unable to deny the lump constricting her throat. “The more time passes until she is found, the more chance of an unhappy outcome. It is nothing to romanticize about, please do not fool yourself into thinking so.”
Kitty nodded solemnly. Elizabeth hoped she had instilled in Kitty some slight appreciation of both the seriousness of her intended endeavours, and the futures the rest of her sisters would some day have to face. She looked around at the three faces, taking in each slowly, committing this moment to that part of her mind where she kept her most cherished memories.
She felt a change deep inside her heart. She somehow knew that nothing was ever going to be as it was this day. This was the end of her girlhood, her life in Hertfordshire and, likely, soon all of her sister’s lives there.. The weight of this revelation was great, and she could not stop the silent trickle of tiny tears that finally flowed down her sweet face.
The stillness of the moment was interrupted by an announcement. “I think I should like to go with you,” Jane said quietly.
The carriage ride to London was uneventful, in that they were not waylaid by highwaymen, no horse was lamed and all the stops were timely and efficient despite Mrs. Bennet’s assurances to the contrary. There was much to be discussed now that Lizzy and Jane were away from Longbourn and the lack of privacy any conversation that location afforded. The girls were amazed that, in less than three days, their aunt and uncle had managed to have their belongings packed, their parents appeased, and their futures started.
Mr. Bennet, while not pleased, was at least resigned to let Elizabeth return with his brother-in-law to London. But he was truly shocked when Jane declared her intentions to join them. It was only through Jane’s gentle, yet forthright conversation with her father that he agreed to give her up as well. She had no need for artifice. The plain facts spoke for themselves; it was time for her to make her own way in the world, just as Lizzy was determined to do. As the two eldest, it only made sense for them to lead the way, hopefully making it easier for the younger to someday do.
The relief the girls felt in finally taking action after so many months of forced idleness was liberating. However, leaving their childhood home was not without its share of tearful goodbyes, sadness and regrets. As the coach pulled away from the house, Elizabeth watched her father waving somberly. Despite being at odds with him, she loved him, and knew that each would feel the absence of the other acutely.
Many miles after Longbourn had disappeared from view, the discussion in the carriage turned to employment. Mrs. Gardiner thought both girls would be well suited as a lady’s companion or a governess, if the children and situations were good enough. If any position could be obtained in London, their aunt and uncle could make sure that they were treated well by keeping a close eye on them. Jane agreed to either notion but Elizabeth could not, yet. She reasoned if she were to live in another person’s household, she would not have sufficient time to commit to the search for Lydia. She did not wish to be difficult, but her first priority had to be continuing the effort to find her sister. Her aunt and uncle were sympathetic to her, and offered no resistance, but they did ask her to agree not to make any final decisions so early.
“Well Lizzy, I have many shops that could always use a clever, hard working girl,” her uncle offered. “Have you interest in any of them?”
“Perhaps not interest, Uncle, but I would gladly help you anywhere you might require it.”
“It is too bad that you do not own a shop selling foods, Edward. With Elizabeth’s excellent nose and detections of taste, you could be assured of selling the very finest of whatever goods you wished,” Mrs. Gardiner added lightly.
“Cheeses!” suggested Jane.
“Cheeses? Bah…. Chocolates!” said Elizabeth, with a giggle.
“Port!” said Mrs. Gardiner, joining in the laughter
“Port and cigars!” said Mr. Gardiner, raising the laughter to howls. Slight tears crept out of the corners of their eyes until the merriment at last died down.
“I do not think a lady selling port would be very seemly, Uncle, not to mention it would be difficult to keep the staff from sampling the wares. Nor do I think Mr. Merriweather would appreciate your giving him competition for his cigar shop,” Lizzy admonished.
“While I agree with your assessment of the port shop, Niece, I’m afraid that Merriweather’s will soon be no longer. The poor old man is going to retire and, with no son to continue on, they will be closing up his shop and selling off the last of all his merchandise.”
“Oh that is sad news, he was a dear man, so patient with me and all my silly questions when I was a girl. You owe a great many years of satisfied smokes to him, do you not?”
“Indeed I do, and to you too Lizzy; it was your excellent suggestions that led to my discovering my favourite brand there, my dear. Mr. Merriweather always said you had a gift for it. A pity you don’t know how to make cigars; we could continue the place, with you running it. Probably put out a better product than Merriweather’s ever thought of, and make us a tidy fortune.” They all nodded appreciatively.
Elizabeth sat quietly, her mind apparently engrossed. Finally, she smiled widely, “I do know.”
“Pardon?” her aunt asked.
“I do know how to roll cigars- quite well in fact.”
Mr. Gardiner stared, amazed. “You know how to make cigars, Elizabeth?”
“Yes, she does. She’s been making them for father in the still room, for years,” answered her sister, “I wondered if you were going to say anything, Lizzy.
After settling in town, Mrs. Gardiner began to make discreet inquiries among her acquaintances for a position for one or both of her nieces. The superior manners the girls had always displayed made them favourites among the Gardiner’s friends. No doubt an opportunity would present itself very soon when word got out that two such excellent ladies were available for employ.
Elizabeth, in the meanwhile, had accompanied her uncle to the man who had been helping them search for Lydia: Mr. Brooks. She had to agree with Mr. Gardiner; he had done an admirable job so far. However, she could not help but be disappointed at the lack of results.
It seemed that, shortly after arriving in London, the couple had simply disappeared. No tavern had spotted either, no innkeeper could recall housing them and no gambling hall had had Mr. Wickham as patron. Elizabeth was at least satisfied to finally understand the methods that Mr. Brooks employed in his search. However, hearing the details of the appalling neighbourhoods and buildings that the man had been subjected to walk through mortified her, as well as providing her with a healthy dose of sobriety. She knew that she could never go herself to these places, that such efforts were beyond her ability, as well as simply dangerous. Part of her was angered at the thought of limitations being put upon her, but another was somewhat relieved at not having to brave such dreadful locales. Now she could only try to think of what she could do to help. They agreed to meet again in two weeks, while Mr. Brooks continued his efforts.
On the return trip to Cheapside, Mr. Gardiner broached the subject his mind had been turning to since they had left Longbourn.
“Elizabeth, I wonder if you wouldn’t like to keep busy at one my shops while waiting for a position from your Aunt’s friends.”
“Keep busy, Sir? Was there some particular place or position you had in mind?”
“I thought you might find it constructive to work behind the counter in one of the shops, see what it is like to wait on the customers, how the stock is handled, how the entire business runs from the inside.”
Her suspicion already aroused, she chanced an inquiring look at him. “Is there perhaps a more significant motive to my learning this business?”
He laughed. “Nothing I wish to reveal at this time, Niece, but let us first see how you get on, before we aspire to grander schemes, shall we?” They both knew what the other was thinking, but Elizabeth chose to let her Uncle keep his plot to himself- for now. His suggestion had wisdom, and she was also curious to see how well she could get on spending her day in a shop. She cared not if she enjoyed the work, she merely wanted to be useful and provide herself with a living. The exercise would prove to be most enlightening.
The first days at her uncle’s clock shop were spent learning all she could about the different aspects of the business. She quickly took to the information, and was efficient in remembering all the details of the pieces, as well as processes of procurement, accounting and stocking. For three days she worked by his side, learning from him as he answered questions about his timepieces, as well as learning how to treat the patrons. Once he felt she had a good solid understanding, he decided to let her wait upon the customers.
Elizabeth quickly realized that one had to adopt a very different attitude when waiting upon people, especially gentry. The higher the rank, the more they liked to feel above everyone. She was secretly amused by such snobbery and considered it a bit of a game one had to play, like a role upon the stage. Her uncle never lost his gentlemanly ways but, she did notice his demeanour change to a more subservient role when conversing with his patrons. As the patrons seemed to enjoy such attentions, Elizabeth had to conclude this role playing was beneficial to the success of any shop and she would try to emulate Uncle Gardiner and his ways.
Her aunt had recommended a wardrobe that would be fitting for working, which could sometimes be a dirty job. Unpacking the newly arrived clocks and general housekeeping of the shop could get quite dusty. Elizabeth considered her gowns demure and serviceable but, after a week at the clock shop, both she and her uncle began noticing some marked and decidedly unwanted attentions being given to her. The gentlemen and common men who came into the shop seemed to notice her almost immediately. If she waited upon a man, the time they spent was considerably longer than any regular customer would ever spend and unfortunately did not always result in any sale. Often a man would return the next day, still taking up her time but, again, not making a purchase. Her uncle began to intervene and insisted on waiting upon the male customers with her. This seemed to discourage the unconstructive time spent by the men, but her uncle’s concern was no small matter.
He had two other workers in the shop, a young man, Mr. Whitaker, who was married with two small children, and an elderly widow, Mrs. Brown. He had never had any problems with unwanted attentions to Mrs. Brown, but admittedly her appearance could not compare with his attractive niece. Elizabeth had a natural, easy rapport with customers, and unknowingly had the ability to charm and interest the males that came into the store; therein lay the problem.
Mr. Gardiner consulted with his wife; they in turn consulted with Elizabeth. All agreed that keeping her working in the shop was important, but keeping her safe from flirting gentlemen was more important.
It was Elizabeth who came up with a most original idea and suggested it to her relatives. “I have often compared waiting upon patrons as something of a role one must play. If indeed I must act as a shopkeeper, then why can I not choose what sort of a worker I will be? It seems to me that if I were not a single young lady, and if I were perhaps not gently bred, I might not bring about so much notice and detract from the business. I think the more innocuous I can be, the better it would be for the shop to prosper”
“And who would you be Lizzy?” her aunt asked.
“I think I should try to be more like Mrs. Brown, Aunt. I think with the right clothing, a large cap, and some practice at trying to sound more like a Londoner, I could make myself a very convincing matron.”
Her aunt and uncle were dumbfounded. “Truly Elizabeth, you want to do this to yourself? I suspect disguises of this sort are not easy to maintain,” said her uncle, skeptically.
“I think I should at least try. I do not see how else I could manage a cigar shop, which would be visited almost exclusively by male patrons, and deal with the ridiculous posturing, flirting men without some sort of subterfuge? Do you?” she asked almost deviously.
Her uncle nearly spit out his tea.
“Elizabeth!” her aunt admonished, but she would not be gainsaid,
“Come now, surely the two of you knew that I would realise what you were training me for? Have you not managed to lease out Mr. Merriweather’s building yet, Uncle?”
In less than a month Elizabeth found herself running Johnson’s House of Cigars.
Initially there had been the transfer of the business and the setting up of the workroom in the back of the shop. She had spent many hours poring over tobacco leaves with her uncle, searching out the best products they could find in endless warehouses. Mr. Merriweather had almost everything she needed as far as equipment, and she had his worker, Toby, to help her roll the large supply of cigars that she was beginning to formulate. Mr. Merriweather had eagerly taken her under his wing to supply any missing information she might need to assure her success in her new career. He was the only other person besides her aunt, uncle, and Jane that knew her true identity. And though he did not know of her family’s troubles, he was happy to agree to the deception; especially once her uncle took him aside, pointing out her obvious assets, and detriments to successfully running a shop by herself. He saw it as a logical answer to keeping the hounds at bay, while being deeply satisfied with the knowledge that his cigar-making heritage was going to continue, and most likely improve, under her guidance.
It had been a bit of an adventure; learning to be a matron, someone who was significantly older than herself, as well as someone who had not been raised as a peer to most persons, but rather a person who was used to serving others. Her aunt had wisely suggested, after her “costume” had been chosen and perfected, that Elizabeth practice her new role in the park, at the markets, and other places where any mistakes would not be made in front of someone who would question her, nor realise what deception she was attempting. She took to it amazingly well.
She learned not to stand so straight, lest her fine figure be displayed too well. She learned to keep her head bowed; an acceptable sign of her new lowered status. And she finally agreed that her lace cap did not cover enough of her face, especially her fine eyes; they would simply need to be covered. So, the last part of her disguise was a pair of thick spectacles perched upon her nose. Elizabeth had to admonish Jane, who could not look upon her for the entire first day without bursting into hearty laughter at her. She was hardly recognizable, much less attractive. Everyone was very well pleased with her disguise. They spent the better part of that first weekend taking “Mrs. Johnson” all about town, perfecting her new persona.
Her new glasses were her largest problem. She was forced to look over, or below, them in order to see properly, and it was some time before she could move with the same speed she was used to without bumping into something, or someone. Luckily, because of her “role”, everyone forgave her as a doddering, aged lady who could not see well, even with thick glasses. She was often reduced to covering her mouth to stifle her laughter in front of helpful people trying to set her back on her feet.
She also discovered a new freedom in being a plain, elderly, matron; she barely drew notice of anyone around her. She could go anywhere, and seem to blend into the background. She was not a vain woman, but she could easily discern the difference in the attention she was being paid as Mrs. Johnson, compared to when she was Miss Elizabeth Bennet. She used this disinterest in Mrs. Johnson to her advantage; she spent her weekends out, all day, pretending to shop or walking in the parks. She hardly heeded the wares in the windows, or nature, but intensely studied the people instead; searching. With her excellent walking skills, and her stealth, she was able to cover large sections of neighbourhoods each time she went out. It wasn’t much, nor successful, but at least she felt that someone in her family was still keeping an active participation in the effort to find Lydia.
Her aunt and uncle were not comfortable with Lizzy spending so much time out unaccompanied, determined though she was. However, they soon witnessed for themselves how well she was faring in the throngs, and had to admit there was little danger for her. She only ventured out alone during the daylight, and was never away from crowds. This, combined with never keeping any money on her person left her as safe as anyone could be in London, and they allowed her the freedom to pursue her search for the couple. They did insist when she went anywhere as Elizabeth Bennet she must follow every rule of propriety and was never without a chaperone or maid.
Her aunt had also decided that removal from Gracechurch Street was in order. Their staff, as well as their neighbours, knew Elizabeth and the Gardiners too well not to question a new elderly lady living with them. Luckily, there was a lodging house of good reputation not far from their home. Elizabeth could live there, have her light evening meals sent over from the Gardiner’s, and continue the ruse as Mrs. Johnson without question. If the cigar shop prospered as they hoped it would, it would more than pay for Lizzy’s lodging, her salary, and tidy profit for her uncle as well. Her future seemed now secured.
She was tired. A physical tiredness she had not previously been used to; it was overwhelming and yet felt good at the end of the day. Gently bred ladies had too much leisure time to sit and not exert physically. She was feeling the extra requirements she was demanding of her body as a result of the duties of running her shop, and the time she spent searching for any sign of Lydia or Wickham. She was happy for these body aches that were reminders of all her endeavours; she was finally doing something.
She and her Uncle had met once again with Mr. Brooks. Elizabeth had asked at that time to see all the notes and papers of the investigation he had conducted so far; he did excellent work. He kept fine accounts as well as detailed notations of all that he had done. She could find no fault save the lack of results. Her uncle was just as unhappy and felt it prudent at this time to make some changes. He believed there was an excellent chance that Lydia and Wickham were no longer in London. Mr. Brooks had scouted out every conceivable place they might be hiding, for over four months, with no success. It seemed only logical that he could not find what was not there, and both men agreed.
Elizabeth was at first shocked but, the more she spoke to Mr. Brooks, and consulted with her uncle, the more his logic prevailed. Mr. Brooks would not voluntarily turn down a well-paying customer. He felt he had done all that he could and any more work on his part would be futile and not seem honest. This sad revelation was the final straw for Elizabeth. She knew the man was being truthful. She did not like the idea of anyone giving up on Lydia, but she saw the justification in this step.
“I would only agree to this, gentleman, under one condition.”
“What do you ask, Elizabeth?”
“That you and I, and Aunt Gardiner, not give up, not stop looking. I can’t give her up yet; it is too soon. She might still be saved. We might find her.” Her lip trembled as she spoke and her uncle drew her to his shoulder tenderly.
“Of course not Lizzy. We will still look and so may you.”
“Thank you,” she whispered from his coat. They thanked Mr. Brooks for all his help, promising to return if any news became available, while he promised to do the same.
Not long after Johnson’s was opened, Aunt Gardiner stopped by the shop with wonderful news; she had found a position for Jane! The Parkers were a lovely family long known to them. They lived in town, had two small girls, Helen age eight and Lily age six, both well behaved and now in need of a governess. Mr. and Mrs. Parker were devoted to one another, especially after they had fought so hard to convince her family to allow the marriage. She had been a fairly wealthy lady, he only the fourth son of a landed gentleman and had to make his way in the world. He became a successful lawyer who worked for the rights of the poor. The Gardiners held him in highest esteem. Aunt Gardiner thought the situation ideal.
Elizabeth was delighted for her sister. She would be living in a good neighbourhood, more fashionable than Cheapside, but not too far from them either. Jane was apparently very excited; that evening at Gracechurch Street she could hardly keep seated. Everything about the Parkers had to be discussed. Tomorrow she would meet Mrs. Parker and the little girls at her Aunt‘s house, then meet Mr. Parker at their home the next day. Elizabeth knew that Jane wanted to make a good impression on them. There were no worries on her part for her sister. Jane’s goodness, her gentle ways, were so overpowering to any observer that Lizzy expected at the very least a full employment offer to her sister within the first five minutes, and told her so. The two hugged, laughing.
What followed the next day? Only Mrs. Parker and her daughters becoming thoroughly entranced with the lovely Jane Bennet. Jane’s modest gentility won over Mrs. Parker while her angelic looks and sweet placid smile won over the girls in a matter of minutes. By the end of the visit, the little ones were holding Jane’s hands, unabashedly adoring her, while they made their farewells.
Her interview with Mr. Parker was thorough without being overwhelming or rude. After questioning her on her own skills, he was satisfied with Jane’s capabilities to educate his daughters to the levels he wished. And he could not fault Miss Bennet’s manners in any way. When he finally allowed a small smile and extended his hand to Jane at the end of the interview, her relief was very evident. One week later, Jane Bennet would go to live with the Parkers and start her first employment.
Jane settled easily into her new role as governess with the Parkers. The sisters missed one another as Jane now had only one evening off each week. They made a point of meeting whenever they could. Often Lizzy (as Mrs. Johnson) would join Jane and the girls at a park on the weekends. It gave Elizabeth an excuse to walk to new places while on her searches, and she delighted in seeing Jane blossom with her charges. The women were easing into their lives independent of one another, as well as the Gardiners, and both were satisfied in their new positions.
Elizabeth however, could not be satisfied with the lack of progress of finding Lydia. Since becoming Mrs. Johnson, she had gone out every weekend, walking for most of the day. Her feet were tired, sore and often blistered, but she persevered. She would put on a cheerful face for her aunt and uncle when she dined later with them, consequently they had no idea how many hours she was devoting to her hunt.
She decided to organize her search in a more structured fashion. She obtained maps of the city and, in her room late at night, she would plan out an itinerary for the next day. She notated where she had been and any potential places that looked promising to investigate. She began to detail the thoughts of her plans, constantly working, and then reworking her ideas in her head and then on paper.
After about three weekends, she was convinced that she was not giving enough time to the search. She decided to get up earlier each day, including days she was to work at her shop. She would leave at break of dawn, searching the streets and staying out for several hours before returning to wait for her uncle to pick her up to begin the workday at Johnson’s.
Morning was an excellent time to talk to the tradespeople, before customers took up their time. Most sincerely tried to help her, some could be rude, but none could provide any answers. She would pause to look at the gentlemen who were sheepishly leaving clubs, halls or even more decadent establishments. She hoped she might see Wickham leaving some gambling hall after a night of gaming. Sometimes the swagger of a particular man, or the sight of soldier in regimentals, would start her heart pounding as she hoped and dreaded it might actually be him. But it was not to be.
She dared not speak to any of them. She had spent enough time on the streets to know a woman who approached a strange gentleman, no matter her age, could be mistaken for a prostitute. She had seen hundreds of them, in the early morning as often as early evening. They did not accost her as she was neither competition nor did she try to convert or help any of them, as she had seen people doing. Some of the women were truly wretched; these were the ones that haunted Elizabeth the most. She feared that, one day, she would look into one of the faces and see Lydia. An unsettling thought had gnawed at her and would not be ignored: Wickham and Lydia had been gone for almost six months; how could they possibly be paying for room and board? He would not have been able to draw his salary after deserting the army and Lydia could not have had more than 5 pounds with her when she ran away. She shuddered to think what either might have done, might be doing, to earn money.
She saw what men had done to those women on the street, and was sickened to think that Wickham might have left Lydia to the same fate. She knew he had it in him to do it. She was desperate to find them both. These thoughts fuelled the anger and desire for vengeance in her more than any other.
The Gardiners and Mrs. Johnson also purposely attended plays together in the more run down areas of London. Elizabeth had speculated that Lydia would likely try to persuade Wickham to take her to an evening’s entertainment. They certainly would not be able to show their faces at the fashionable houses, much less afford the tickets. They endured the rough and malodorous patrons of these places in an effort to try to find the couple, but unfortunately had no luck.
Obsession was not a feeling Elizabeth was familiar with. Only recently had she become acquainted with hatred and vengeance, obsession was not a condition she was prepared to even recognise. Some might have seen the signs about her. Some would have noticed her increasing preoccupation or her altered appearance. She was not as tidy with her person as was her wont. Those who loved her would have been disturbed at how she rarely presented herself as anyone other than Mrs. Johnson. And if anyone had been to her room, especially at night, as she slept in her clothes, notes clutched in her fist, the evidence would have been overpowering.
However, such fixation, despites it’s owner’s fierce determination, was doomed to run into a stumbling block. Elizabeth’s undoing was not of other people’s makings; but of her own.
Almost two months after Elizabeth’s move from Gracechurch Street, Mrs. Gardiner called upon her niece’s landlady, Mrs. Pratt, to see if Elizabeth’s room was being kept in order, and find how she was fairing living there. Mrs. Pratt told an astonished Mrs. Gardiner that Mrs. Johnson had specifically asked not to have her room cleaned. She brought her own bedding and towelings down to be laundered and insisted on making her own bed and tending her fire herself. It had been some weeks, in fact, since Mrs. Pratt had even stepped inside Mrs. Johnson’s room.
Disturbing as this was to hear, Mrs. Pratt’s concern for Mrs. Johnson’s health alarmed Elizabeth’s aunt more. Mrs. Pratt described, in great detail, all the time Mrs. Johnson spent away from the house, and how most of the tenants worried for her well-being.
Mrs. Gardiner decided to accompany her husband when he returned home with Mrs. Johnson that evening. A short conversation in the coach before arriving at Johnson’s determined a course of action for them both.
Elizabeth was surprised to find her aunt in the coach, but was not in the least suspicious. Both studied her very closely now. She did not know they could see the strain in her face. She was determined to be her usual self, but she could no longer hide from them the underlying shadow behind her eyes. As they arrived at her lodging house, Mr. Gardiner stepped down to hand her out and then, to Elizabeth’s surprise, Mrs. Gardiner stepped out as well. Mrs. Pratt was on the landing welcoming them all and ushered them inside.
Mrs. Gardiner spoke with obvious purpose. “Mrs. Pratt, thank you for receiving us. I know you understand our wanting to see Mrs. Johnson to her room and make sure she is well settled. We have all been concerned that she is not taking proper care of herself.” The last words were spoken directly to Elizabeth. A very resolute look on her aunt’s face told her she was not being asked permission to proceed to view her room. She knew she was trapped. They knew she knew, so, resigned, she led the way. She was not prepared for their reaction.
Upon first seeing the room, the party was completely still. Both Aunt Gardiner and Uncle Gardiner slowly walked in, staring intently at the sight in front of them. Elizabeth stood back, gazing around her room as if seeing it for the first time. She realised then her relatives must be in shock.
The walls were barely visible for the maps that she had tacked up on them. Scribblings and arrows indicating her thoughts were drawn on them. The small table she had to take her meals at was un-kept, crumbs covering the papers that were piled there. Indeed most every surface in the room, including her bed, had some kind of paper lying upon it in disarray. Uncle Gardiner picked up two sheaves, staring at her manic handwriting. He saw numbered lists, items scratched out, and questions written but not answered on them.
She could do little else but stare at the floor, embarrassed to be exposed.
“Oh Elizabeth,” her aunt whispered hoarsely.
It occurred to her that she might have been shedding tears by now. Part of her felt she should be crying, she should feel guilty, or at least irresponsible, but she did not. She was only annoyed at having been discovered, and the prospect of having her indulgences curtailed.
“I believe we should all retire to Gracechurch Street for the evening. Elizabeth, pack a bag - you will be staying with us tonight.” Her grave uncle was not making a request.
That evening, Aunt Gardiner herself acted as ladies’ maid to Elizabeth. She had a long hot bath, washed her hair and rested, wrapped in a warm robe, until a tray with her dinner could be brought up. She knew her aunt was worried over her appearance; she had lost weight, her skin was sallow, her eyes drooped with shadings under them. Worst of all were her feet. The miles she had walked on the hard city sidewalks had taken their toll. Her aunt had gasped at seeing the sores and bruises. They applied a salve to help them heal whist her aunt warned her that she and her uncle were going to set some stringent demands upon her excursions in the future.
After nourishing herself, and getting into her nightdress, her aunt addressed her again. “Elizabeth, we will speak to you in the morning. Your uncle and I have not had the chance to discuss what has happened, and we would never make important decisions without consulting each other thoroughly. Do you understand we wish to do nothing lightly?” Elizabeth nodded.
“And that we will have your health and best interest at heart?” She nodded again.
“Good! Tonight it is most important for you to get a good night’s sleep so you may be refreshed. And so we can all talk rationally on the morrow.” She sat on the edge of the bed with a concerned face, while Elizabeth looked a bit like child dreading parental punishment. Her aunt gathered her into a warm embrace.
“We love you very much Lizzy,” she cried.
Talking to her relations the next morning was not quite as dreadful as Elizabeth had feared. The Gardiners were reasonable, but had to insist she severely curtail the amount of time she would spend searching the streets. The next two weeks were to be devoted entirely to restoring her health. She would spend both weekends at her lodgings resting and not searching for Lydia in anyway. She still had to work at the cigar shop, taxing her already ailing soles, therefore they could not allow her to do any walking in the mornings of the weekdays either. Besides, it was well into January, and winter’s cruel breath was daily descending upon them, precluding most people from strolling about at leisure, much less walking for endless hours. The argument was too strong; Elizabeth was unable to put up any resistance.
They further insisted that, from now on, Elizabeth take her midday meals on Saturday and Sundays with them. They wanted to be sure she gave herself sufficient rest when she resumed her search in a fortnight. They would also inform Mrs. Pratt that Mrs. Johnson’s doctor had strictly forbidden her to walk out on weekday mornings. They would inform Toby of something similar as well. She was thus effectively cornered into acquiescing to their wishes. Too many people around her would be able to watch her, and restrict her.
Her face must have shown her disappointment and vexation, for her uncle addressed her kindly, “You take too much upon yourself Lizzy. I know the heartache you feel but you have to consider your health first, and we are afraid you have not taken proper care of yourself. Restore your vigour and well-being. Prove to us that you are able to manage the responsibility of an independent life, and then we will talk again and decide what is best to be done.”
A very dejected Mrs. Johnson returned home that Sunday. She felt as if her purpose had been taken away from her. She felt she no longer had sufficient opportunities to effectively conduct her search. She felt him slipping away from her; slipping through her fingers, a futile endeavour, like trying to drink water from a cupped hand. Her repressed emotions still unleashed, she lay down on her bed exhausted and tried to settle into sleep.
Less than a week later, George Wickham would walk into Johnson’s House of Cigars.
Lord Robert took his breakfast in the game room. He had not actually named the room thus but, over the years, mistresses, housekeepers and maids alike all seemed to have inadvertently given it the name, so the game room it was. Displayed here was yet another thing for which his Lordship was famous; his chess set collection. He had over twenty boards arranged in the room, purchased from merchants all around the world. Many a man gazed upon them with envy over the years, but no one, save Lord Robert, knew what most of them actually represented. He looked lovingly around him, each perfect square reminding him of times gone by, of women long since passed on. So many boards.
“I am a rake of the first water,” he thought appreciatively.
It was time to come to a decision. He tried to complete an internal dialog he had been having for the past two weeks. Having finally seen her, spoken to her, and had his curiosity sated, he began the final closing arguments to his own case:
“Is this worth the effort? Is she worth it? I know a great deal about her, but is it enough? I know I certainly desire her, but am I up to taking an innocent and teaching her to be all that I would want in my bed? Good Lord, listen to how lazy I have become. A woman such as Elizabeth would never disappoint, I dare say.” He took a bite of his toast, appreciating the comforting aroma of the warm bread, even after it travelled down his throat.
“She is a gentleman’s daughter and her manners bewitching. She would preside admirably over my table and in my salon. But do I want to entertain again? Do I want to attend another Season?” Hot-house orange slices lay neatly arranged on his plate. He bit slowly into one, sucking up the juices where his teeth had opened a wound.
“She would make a glorious ending to my career. The men at White’s would be wagering their daughters’ dowries that I would fall over dead the first night I bedded her. It might be worth it just to walk in the park with her on my arm the next day, a blush upon her cheek, that teasing smile upon her tender lips” He sat ruminating on his silk covered lounge while slowly sipping his morning tea. The small clock on the mantle ticked merrily along, unaware that an important judgment was being contemplated in the room.
At last he smiled and sighed. “Why do I try to deny it? I want the girl. Does anything else really matter?” The decision was made.
“It is time for a new chessboard.” he mused to himself. “This one I think will be different from the rest, for I believe I shall have to commission this set to get it right. Crystal, the finest to be found, set upon that table by the west windows so, when the afternoon light hits it, sparkling lights will be cast from it, reminding me of her eyes. Yes, crystal is perfect for her, and the game will begin anew.” He had his new set before the week was out.
In the business of procuring a mistress, there were many obstacles to overcome. Finding the eligible lady not withstanding, the business, the ability to complete the transaction, was sometimes very difficult. Often times the object of his affections had no idea of his plans. Often Lord Caldhart planned it exactly that way. He saw the process as more than a business; to him it was a strategy, a game. He the player, she his object, and the many decisions, the timing, the seduction, all of the process, which he often referred to as a dance , delighted, excited, and consumed him.
His passion was finding women’s weaknesses. They all had them, and he was a master at exploiting such weaknesses to his advantage. They were all whores as far as he was concerned, the only difference was negotiating their price. Some had to be convinced, while others had to be convinced to be less mercenary. Some needed no convincing at all. He did not mind if a woman was easily procured. By the time he was in negotiations with a lady, there were no surprises concerning his desire for her - if she came willingly, so much the better.
The seduction of Elizabeth Bennet might well be in his realm of possibilities. He was fairly certain he already knew her weakness. He simply had to see if he could obtain what she wanted; could he find the sister, and make her seducer suffer?
Now he needed time, with his new chess set, to plan his moves. He set up the board; himself as the white queen, Elizabeth as the black king. Across the board sat the black queen, George Wickham and his pawn, Lydia Bennet. Elizabeth might not recognize her sister as one of his enemies, but Lord Caldhart knew better. Lydia, lost Lydia, was an obstacle to overcome. She was keeping him from reaching his goal. She was as much his enemy as was Wickham. The other pieces were yet to be named, though he did decide to name her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner as the black bishops since, at the very least, they probably provided moral support and guidance to Elizabeth’s sensibilities.
He thought long into the afternoon, and finally came up with a beginning. He called Higgins into his house once again.
“Higgins, I have another task for you. I have learned that Miss Bennet may have had a younger sister who eloped with a militia officer last summer, but instead only came here to live with him in London. The news of this seems to have been all over town, so ask in general and see what anyone can tell you. The girl’s name was Lydia Bennet, the man George Wickham. His militia was stationed in Brighton at the time they ran away. See if you can get the name of the commanding officer. I may send you down to Brighton to see if Mr. Wickham left any enemies behind him.”
“Yes Higgins. The more we know of Mr. Wickham, his friends and his enemies, the better chance we have of finding him.”
“Do we want to find Mr. Wickham, Sir, or just find out about where he brought the sister to in town?”
His lordship sighed. “Both Higgins, but her family has been searching for the girl all this time and I suspect that we will not do much better. I need names of people he knows, he knew, and those he may have made angry. All information is power Higgins, power to launch an assault against Mr. Wickham when the time comes, do you understand?”
“Yes Sir, information. I’ll see to it today, Sir.”
Higgins did go to Brighton. After his London contacts told all they knew of the gossip from last summer, his Lordship sent him directly to the seaside. Being a much smaller community, Mr. Wickham’s desertion and elopement were still considered first-rate waggle, and he found many people eager to provide information. He returned only after he had the name of the regiment’s Colonel and his wife, the town where the regiment had been previously encamped, the village near where Wickham grew up, and the very long list of people who no doubt his Lordship would consider to be enemies of Mr. Wickham. There were four shopkeepers, three tavern owners, a blacksmith and a poor laundress, all of whom Wickham had conveniently forgotten to pay before leaving town so abruptly. Unfortunately there were also two tradesmen whose daughters had allegedly had a closer relationship with the lieutenant. Higgins wrote their names down as well, being sure to mark the offence next to each person. If Mr. Wickham had made any friends, however, they certainly no longer acknowledged it.
His Lordship stroked the curling hairs of the beard on his chin as he read.
“A decidedly one-sided list, Higgins,” he observed.
“Yes, your Lordship.”
“Not that I’m surprised. This man knows how to make enemies quite well. However with the lack of friends to call upon, it gives us no clues where he might have gone for help in hiding out here. Well, there’s nothing to be done but continue to follow the trail backwards. It’s off to….. Meryton for you. Is that not in Hertfordshire?”
“It is Sir, I understand it’s the largest town near where the lady, Miss Lydia, was from.”
“The Bennets live there?” His hand stopped mid air, Higgins nodded. “You must proceed with great caution then. From what you have told me of how lively the gossip still raged in Brighton, it is sure to be the same in Meryton. I think you would do well not to ask too many questions, but rather let the locals tell you the story in their own time. I do not want the Bennets to know that strangers were inquiring after them. Take great care there Higgins, this is very important.”
He dismissed the servant, turned to his new board and sighed once again. “Damn, I do not have nearly enough pawns.”
Lord Caldhart sat regarding his precious new chessboard. Higgins had recently returned from Meryton before heading on to Birmingham, where Wickham had lived before joining the military. All the facts of Lydia Bennet’s disgraceful elopement had been the talk of the town. The Bennets lived in virtual seclusion, which many of the plain folk pitied since the daughters, and even Mrs. Bennet, had been so lively before. It was said that the two eldest girls, Miss Bennet, Jane, and Miss Elizabeth, had gone to live in town with their aunt and uncle, and would no doubt find employment now.
Higgins had continued by telling Miss Bennet’s history with a wealthy gentleman, a Mr. Bingley, who had leased a nearby estate and who had shown great promise towards her the year before. Everyone was expecting them to announce an engagement when the man had simply up and left, never to return. Lord Robert wondered where Jane, the eldest, was. He had not heard any word about her before, and of course she was not at the theatre that night. He had some small sympathy for the poor girl. She was rumoured to be the most beautiful of all the Bennet sisters, and, if that were true, to be disappointed in love and then have her reputation tarnished forever by the foolish younger sister was a great cruel waste. Lloyd was right, why was it always the pretty ones?
Higgins had heard that Miss Elizabeth also had a suitor the prior year; her cousin, a Mr. Collins. A bigger fop the town had never seen, yet he had one claim to respect; he would one day inherit Mr. Bennet’s estate - Longbourn. Apparently he had offered for her, and she had flatly refused him. Just days later he engaged himself to Miss Elizabeth’s dearest friend, and they were married shortly thereafter.
Lord Caldhart was impressed; turning down a comfortable situation in life, and keeping her father’s property in the family could not tempt her into a marriage with this cousin. He would have to tread very carefully. A woman who had no desire for wealth or security was not the typical female he was used to dealing with. Elizabeth obviously had standards that most ladies only dreamed they had. A return visit to Johnson’s was in order.
She stood at the desk, waiting upon a gentleman, apparently a new customer, as he effused over the excellence of the short cigar almost completely gone between his fingers. She was patient, quiet, demure; a perfect imitation of a working class shopkeeper. He was very impressed. She had missed her true calling; with her face, figure and abilities, she could have had a long career on the stage. The transaction completed, he now braved her attention.
“Welcome back, Lord Caldhart, I trust your first purchase did not disappoint?”
“Yes, Mrs. Johnson, I take it? She nodded. “I thank you, and they were superb. I also had the pleasure of meeting your owner, Mr. Gardiner, recently. He informed me that the concoctions are all your doing, your genius. I wish to thank you for your excellence of taste; you are quite the find, Mrs. Johnson.”
She blushed prettily under her cap while curtseying. “Thank you Sir, I am most grateful. How may I help you today; another dozen of your blend?”
“Actually no, I’d like to try a new sampling if I may.” He was determined to spend some time with her, and needed an excuse to stay in the shop. She still refused to raise her head, the thick spectacles and cap effectively covering most of her. Luckily, it gave him a chance to study what he could see most intensely. Her skin was lovely, strange how he had not noticed it before. The illusion of elderly matron had automatically closed his eyes off to her in the past, a very effective method to hide herself.
“Something stronger? Or perhaps more mellow? If you like to smoke more than one cigar in a sitting a second, more mellow blend, might please your palate,” she suggested.
“If you believe it to be so, Madam, then I would try the mellow. I leave my delights in your capable hands, I feel I shall be impressed once again.”
“As you wish, Sir. Please be seated, and I will bring your short for you.”
He chose the seat nearest the workroom, on the off chance she might talk to herself again. She remained quiet however, and brought him his cigar not long after he sat. He lit up once again. A unique, mellow, mild sweetness filled him. She was correct again. It was the perfect second smoke or perhaps a smoke on a hot day, after eating a mild dinner.
“You are a treasure Mrs. Johnson,” he sighed. “I’ll take two dozen of these if you please, and another two dozen of my original blend if you would.”
“Thank you Sir, it would be my pleasure.”
“No Madam, the pleasure is mine in the smoking.” He knew he was on the border of outright flirting, but he didn’t care. Before she returned to the workroom, he exhaled and asked, “I cannot fathom why your shop is not busier, Mrs. Johnson.”
“Your product is so superior to anything I have ever purchased in this city, it is a small wonder your business is not overrun with every Lord, Earl and Gentleman in town, everyday.”
“I hardly know how to answer that, your Lordship. But I would guess we haven’t been open long enough for word to get round to all those men you suggested.”
“But you would like that? You would like your business to prosper, have your fortune made?”
“I do not believe Mr. Gardiner expected to make a fortune selling my cigars Sir, and I know I did not. There is more to happiness than just money, Sir.” Her voice was no longer friendly, but still civil.
“Indeed Mrs. Johnson, but money can buy us things not always available otherwise. Money can open doors not previously open, and provide for not just ourselves, but our families and loved ones, can it not?” She curtseyed once again, excusing herself to her workroom to make up his order. He did not fail to notice she had not answered.
She returned sometime later with his boxes. He was pleased with the interaction they had had today. He gave her some things to think about, he believed. He now had a very specific purpose for his four-dozen cigars. She would soon understand him to be at least a man of action and power. He wanted to give her a proof of his abilities, before starting a direct attack upon her. He was satisfied that she still thought he did not know who she was. Perhaps she would simply find him a bit whimsical.
“I shall see about introducing these to some of my acquaintances, Mrs. Johnson. I feel that an increase in business might help you, and it would be my pleasure to see it done.” Before she could answer more than a “thank you” he was out the door with his packages.
That evening he strolled into his favourite club, Whites, bearing three boxes.
“My Lords, Gentlemen, I have just had an unexpected windfall, and would like to share my good fortune with you all. Please join me,” he announced as he opened his boxes, bearing the cigars from Johnson’s. Lord Caldhart being generous in his club was not a common occurrence; it garnered much attention, free cigars garnered even more. Gentlemen seemed to creep out of the woodwork. Soon the room was filled with the haze of nearly three-dozen cigars blooming together. Eyebrows were raised at one another in happy surprise, lips were licked, and all was savoured.
“Yes,” thought Lord Robert as he registered the looks upon their faces, “let these treasures weave their spells on their own. I have no need to push.”
Finally, after a few minutes of utter silence ,someone braved to speak what they all had been secretly thinking. “These are quite good Lord Caldhart, where did you say you found them?”
Caldhart turned in the direction of the voice. “Ah but I did not say! I don’t mind sharing these with you gentlemen, but you do understand my need to be secretive? If I were to reveal the new jewel of a shop in which I discovered them, why you would all no doubt buy up the entire stock!”
Most nodded appreciatively, but several younger members stealthily eyed the now empty boxes sitting behind his Lordship. One was quick enough to slip in behind him, turn the article over, and reveal the name burned upon the back to those around him; Johnson’s House of Cigars.
“My work here is done,” he thought wryly.
Three days later, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner let themselves into Lizzy’s shop. They had heard her astonishing story of how busy she had been the last two days, and wished to see for themselves what was happening. It was still over an hour until the time to close, but the front door had been locked and the closed sign hung in the window. Elizabeth was nowhere to be seen.
“Mrs. Johnson?” he called out.
“In the workroom Mr. Gardiner,” she responded.
They were not prepared for the sight they beheld. There stood Elizabeth and Toby, dishevelled and obviously exhausted, staring at the empty cases. The barrels around them were all without their lids, and every one of them was empty. Her uncle blinked uncomprehendingly.
“What has happened to all our cigars? Even the raw stock is gone!”
She shook her head. “Not gone Sir: sold.”
“Sold? All of it? That was more than a month’s worth of business according to Mr. Merriweather!”
“Every last thing we could make. We finally had to turn them out, and ask them to return at the beginning of next week, when would could be restocked.” She led him to her strong box; they had not emptied it since the beginning of the week.
“There must be over fifty pounds in here!” her uncle cried.
“Eighty three pounds and six shillings,” she announced proudly. “Almost all paid cash. All that money in just four days.” They could only stare at the money and empty shelves.
Johnson’s House of Cigars was made. Elizabeth had no doubt who had done it.
The coach headed slowly back to Gracechurch Street, constantly delayed by the throng of the people and their coaches blocking the streets around the closing shops for many minutes. Elizabeth welcomed the chance to sit in the dark, mulling over the extraordinary phenomenon she had experienced that week.
Her solitude was soon interrupted by her Aunt. “Do you think Mrs. Johnson might know to whom she owes her good fortune Lizzy?”
“Yes, Aunt; Lord Robert Caldhart. He has been a very affable and easy to please customer. I can only assume he was as willing as Mr. Lloyd to share his good fortune with his friends, and help to increase ours.”
“Lord Robert did this?” her astonished aunt replied.
“I believe so.” Despite Mrs. Gardiner’s concern clearly written across her face, Elizabeth continued, “You seem surprised, is something like this so opposite his character? Do you know much about him?”
Mrs. Gardiner peeked at her husband, his face shrugged slightly, and then he nodded his head in assent. “Lizzy, it would not normally be proper to reveal this to a single young lady but, seeing as you are almost living on your own, it probably would be wise to remind you of all the types of men this world holds.”
Elizabeth stifled a half laughing gasp. “Good heavens, Aunt, you would have me think his Lordship was a highwayman.”
“Elizabeth, please be serious. Lord Robert is, well, mostly respectable. He is from a very good family. His eldest son will inherit and is very respectable. He married a Lady Ravenshaw; they have quite a few children. His youngest son is, I believe, a brigadier general by now; he’s older than your Uncle, after all.”
“And Lady Caldhart?”
“Oh dear me, Lady Caldhart died, shortly after the youngest son was born. She was one of the richest young ladies in England. They say her dowry was well over a hundred thousand pounds!”
“Goodness!” exclaimed Lizzy. “Such a sum!”
“Quite,” replied her aunt. “You can imagine the envy he raised, being so young, having his duty to his family fulfilled. He was richer than most people ever dreamt about, and then had no more obligations.”
“This hardly paints a picture of someone of whom you should warn me, though.” Elizabeth objected.
“Perhaps at the beginning of his life it would be true, my dear. But give a man a large fortune with no future responsibilities and you have put together a perfect recipe - for a rake.” Elizabeth’s brows raised in wonder. “Oh yes my dear, he is quite famous for it. Your uncle will concur.” Indeed Uncle Edward’s head was bobbing in agreement as she spoke.
“He has spent his entire life living with one mistress after another. A veritable parade of women over the years, they even joined him at his house. When his sons were younger, he had a lovely house in the north end of town, set up for his ladies but, when the sons moved out, his mistress was moved in, and each in their turn has served as his hostess. They never entertained for his family, of course. But anyone who attended a non-family party there always had his mistress as their hostess.”
“How absolutely deliciously shocking Aunt!” Lizzy exclaimed. “That many women? And none of them ever married to him? He makes Henry the Eighth look like a priest!”
“Elizabeth!” her shocked aunt admonished. “Do remember you are a lady, sometimes you make me doubt it.” Though she could not help but laugh, too. After the laughter receded, Lizzy’s curiosity got the better of her.
“How do you suppose he found them?” she asked.
“I beg your pardon niece? her uncle replied, with a bit of a choke.
She blushed. “I meant where did he find them, who were these women? I would assume these were not ordinary, lower class, girls if they had the ability to run his house, preside over his table and so forth; how would he find such a woman?”
Her aunt and uncle looked at one another uncomfortably, then conspicuously down at the floor of the coach. Her aunt finally responded quietly. “Most were women not unlike you, Elizabeth. Most were ladies, whose families had both once been wealthy and lost all their money, or respectability, or their place in society. There are also families, I am sorry to say, who would sacrifice a daughter to the likes of men like Robert Caldhart, for a chance to regain their social standing, or improve their fortunes. And some ladies choose such a life of their own free will. Better to be pampered by many men, than spend their lives as old maids, I suppose. All of them are still immoral, Lizzy, which is the most important part to remember. It is sad to think a man may make such choices with little repercussions to his social standing, but a woman will always be ruined. We always have a choice in this world. Some choices are more respectable than others. I hope that you will always make honourable, moral, choices in your life, my dear.”
A large lump formed in Elizabeth’s throat as she smiled and nodded reassuringly to her Aunt. She felt ashamed - thinking of the path she had set herself upon many months earlier. She knew that, in seeking revenge against Wickham, she was not making a moral choice, though she did believe it to be honourable.
She tried to lighten things. “I do not believe that we would have to worry about Lord Caldhart making an indecent suggestion to Mrs. Johnson, Aunt, do you? He has never indicated that he knows I am her, and > she is so very plain after all.”
“Not Mrs. Johnson, Lizzy, but do you now understand better why Miss Bennet must always be accompanied by her aunt and uncle in town? Your family’s reputation leaves you vulnerable to the rakes of the ton who are always on the prowl for a new conquest. We do not want to see you fall prey to them. You are a very desirable woman Elizabeth, and, when a man is not looking for a wife, desirability is the most important attribute a woman can offer to him. Do you understand?”
Elizabeth swallowed hard again, and nodded. She understood a little too well, that night at the theatre playing in her mind.
She had noticed him.
It was a special night for her. Her aunt and uncle wanted to treat her to a play of her choosing after spending her two weeks successfully convalescing. It was lovely to be at a theatre for pleasure’s sake and not for the purpose of looking for Lydia.
The Gardiners had at first been reluctant to agree to this particular show, but she had convinced them. “Anyone who might be offended at a single young lady attending such a production would undoubtedly not go, therefore we should be able to attend with impunity.” This statement earned her a genial laugh, and an agreement.
Within a short time after the play had begun, she had felt a prickling of the hairs upon her neck. She tried to dismiss it but it persisted, and soon she realized that someone must be watching her, staring at her. Without turning her head, or allowing her eyes to leave the stage, she began a slow perusal of the outer perimeter of her line of focus. Soon she detected an anomaly. Whenever a particularly amusing line was uttered by one of the actors, the audience, as a whole, reacted; heads bobbed back, fans waved, shoulders bounced. In a box slightly to her left, the person sitting in a chair at the very back had reactions that were always delayed by just a few seconds. He (and she could determine it was a man) was reacting to the audience, not the actors. The longer this went on, the more she was convinced that whoever it may be was, in fact, reacting to her. It was not until the house lights went up, at the first intermission, that she was bold enough to look over to the box, just in time to see a tall, silver and black peppered head, in a midnight blue evening jacket, exit his box.
Later, when she returned to her seat, she noticed the box was empty. She had no doubt now who her admirer was. She was quite surprised at his boldness, along with his ingenuity, at getting his friend to make the introduction. He had not been forward to her in front of her aunt and uncle but, combined with his behaviour inside the theatre, his interest in her was obviously very strong. She could not be comfortable with his intentions. She was sure he had to be considerably older than her own father. What would a man so high in society want with the likes of her? Mr. Lloyd apparently had not heard of her family’s misfortunes, else he would never have made the introduction. She wondered if the gossip about them had already died down and, as old news, no longer interested anyone. She dearly hoped so. She wondered if Lord Robert Caldhart was going to continue his game inside the theatre. Would he try to seek her out at other places, as well? And for what purpose? She had no time to reflect upon how she felt about any of these ideas, as the second act soon began.
Knowing Lord Robert was spying upon her had at first been exhilarating. Now realizing how much of her person he had no doubt been leering at, and learning of his reputation with women, made her queasy. At least she could take comfort in knowing while he might admired Miss Bennet, he could not have intentions towards Mrs. Johnson. She felt certain that he did not know they were one and the same. Still, his fascination that night puzzled her. She never considered herself beautiful. Jane was the beauty. She was the clever one who sometimes received compliments about her eyes, but that was the extent of what she perceived to be her attributes. She had never considered desirability before.
“What would be the difference?” she wondered to herself later in her room. She gazed at her image, still clad in her modest matronly gown. Her body had recovered from the previous torture she had inflicted upon it, while walking about half of London in the winter. Her figure was no longer underweight and her health was fully restored, giving her the sparkle her countenance had always displayed.
She began to examine herself. Her hair was well enough. Her curls were a source of frustration to her most of the time, but it was pleasant to never have to curl the wisps around her face. Still the colour was ordinary, if not a bit strong for her tastes. Sometimes she wished she had Jane’s lovely blonde hair, but such was not to be. Her skin was something she was proud of; it was once again bright, clear and creamy, she never saw a hint of a freckle, for which she was grateful. And its bloom had returned, now that she had been taxing herself less for nearly a month.
Then she took in her figure. She removed her gown, and the bindings she wrapped around her upper body to hide herself. She once had wished that she were taller, but did not really mind her height now. Her breasts however, were a different point altogether. She had never been happy with them; they were much too large. She had developed them at such an early age, and garnered so much attention from the boys in the neighbourhood, that she considered them something of a curse. Fashions of the day favoured the lithe physique, not her own saftig one. She constantly battled with the bodices of her dresses, as they had a decided tendency to inch downwards while she would pull them up. Luckily, since coming to London, she had been able to purchase two new gowns, including the one she was wearing that evening at the theatre. She was delighted to have the neckline cut to a level she considered more reasonable. Her mother always ordered her gowns too low cut in her opinion, and she was relieved to return to a more modest look. Of course Mrs. Johnson’s gowns were completely modest; she bound herself before dressing each morning. But Lizzy actually enjoyed the look of being somewhat flat-chested.
Now she observed her breasts from a different point of view. From a decidedly male point of view. She knew from reading certain books in her father’s library, as well as being acquainted with her young male cousins when they were babies, that men and women were physically different. Most obviously in two places though only one of those places was easily observable. It stood to reason that, if the difference was more pronounced in one woman over another, the difference could receive quite a lot of attention. Not any good, wholesome attention, but there it was. Or rather there they were.
“Yes, I can see where a man, especially one who had no concerns with my fortune or connections, might find them admirable,” she thought and then covered her face with her hands and groaned. ”Good God, I’m appraising myself like a cow at auction!” She quickly removed her corset, and then her stockings and garters. Standing once again in front of her cheval mirror, she lifted her chemise and stared at her legs. She considered them finely shaped. She knew she had the nicest calves of all her sisters. They had often told her so; a benefit of all her walking.
She lifted her chemise even higher, and turned slightly. Her bottom curved nicely up to her back and below to the upper parts of her thighs. It was well formed enough she thought, but really could not see any sign of better or best in such a thing. She was sure gentlemen did not consider it either. She dropped the silky cloth again and, crossing her arms in front of her, her head cocked to one side, she shook it violently. No, there really was nothing very desirable here she thought. Just a nice looking girl, with a pair of fine eyes.
“I do not think I shall ever have to worry about being propositioned by a rake, much less the likes of the connoisseur of mistresses, Lord Robert Caldhart,” she mused to herself.
Across town, Lord Robert was sitting at the table by the west windows. His board in front of him, he confirmed the move; white king’s pawn ahead two. Satisfied he began staring at the drawing he held. He had a very good eye and a deft hand, he had to admit. His portrait of her was well done. The eyes still needed more work, but at least he now had her lovely face to gaze upon. He grasped it carefully with tender fingers as he softly whispered “Elizabeth,” to her image.
She thought she would see him again. After the shop re-opened, fully stocked and ready the next week, she was sure he would come in and strut like a peacock over his handiwork. But he did not. Nor did he send a note, or have one of his acquaintances send his regards. Strangely, none of the new customers who steadily came in acknowledged Lord Robert’s recommendation of the place either. It was as if there was a silent conspiracy among the gentlemen of London to shop at, but not speak of, her shop. She often noticed customers determinedly avoiding the gaze of anyone else in her shop whilst waiting for her to attend them.
Elizabeth could not help but be amused at her secret success. Perhaps she would purchase some paintings for the walls so the gentlemen would have a more practical excuse to stare blankly at them. She was pleased to be able to tell her aunt and uncle that Lord Caldhart had not encroached upon her again.
About a week later however, after Toby had returned from his midday meal, she found a branch in a plain glass jar sitting on the end of the workroom table. She picked up the ordinary vase and inhaled deeply the fragrance given off by the stem’s flowering blooms: peach blossoms.
Her head floated in a beautiful cloud of olfactory delight when suddenly she remembered the language of flowers; peach blossom: - I am your captive .
“What cheek!” she thought, tossing it into the waste bin, embarrassed to have been caught up in the flower’s seductive odour. It was no small feat to have a peach blossom at the beginning of March. Anyone sending such a prize would no doubt either have a great deal of wealth, or run his own hothouse. She had a strong suspicion who would qualify, but she preferred not to think about it.
A few days later, a small package, plainly wrapped, appeared on her table. She opened it hesitatingly, eventually revealing a plain, though fine, linen handkerchief. As she turned it over in her palm feeling the softness of the delicate fabric, trying to detect why this, of all things, would be sent to her, her senses were suddenly overwhelmed. A fragrance never before known filled her. Suddenly she was rendered helpless to any other thought but that of drifting once again along a sensory trip of pleasure. Perfume: light, flowering, pink, spring - all there in its scent. It was several moments before the waking world was once again apparent to her. She was not pleased.
The next day another plain jar, this one holding a perfect white camellia, sat upon her table before the day was through. It gave no fragrance; this message was simply one of visual pleasure and hidden meaning: perfected loveliness . Now she was angry.
She turned to her helper. “Toby, can you explain where this flower, along with the other bloom I saw here last week, came from?” she demanded harshly.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he answered, unused to seeing Mrs. Johnson with her ire raised. “Both times, I mean three times now, if you count that little flat package that was given to me, some lad, no one I know, came up to me as I was heading back here, and gave them to me. I didn’t think you’d be angry; they were so pretty after all. Did I do wrong, Mistress?”
“No, Toby.” She did not want the youth to worry. “I merely wished to know how they came to make their way to our workroom. Is it always the same lad who gives you the things?”
“No, Ma’am. The first one - I’ve seen him hanging around at the tavern door most days. But the other two; I’ve never seen them before.”
“And who do they say sent them?”
“No one Ma’am. They say a man gave them to deliver to Mrs. Johnson, but left no name. I’m sorry.” She dismissed Toby reassuring him she was not disturbed by his actions, much to the young man’s relief.
Elizabeth hoped her interested party would cease his unwanted attentions. She had to be impressed with his finesse in inconspicuous dalliances. However, why he would think that she, of all people, would be interested in him or his possible offers, escaped her. She only wished she had the opportunity to ask him to stop sending his discomposing presents, but her wishes were not to be heeded.
The following Monday the tiniest box, again plainly wrapped, was given to Toby. She left it in her workroom all day, pointedly ignoring it. When she finally felt driven to open it, she found a single small morsel of chocolate under the tissue. It was perfectly round, and the finish so fine, it shone like a perfectly polished piece of shadowy mahogany. Her masterful skills instinctively took over as she carefully picked it up and, carrying it to her face, filled herself with its heady scent; cocoa, cream, sugar, vanilla, a liqueur of some kind…. brandy, and raspberry.
Her tongue could not help but obey her desire and tentatively licked the outer layer of the confection. She allowed the substance to sit upon her tongue, while the aroma it gave up wafted into her ducts. She swallowed the now liquid darkness, relishing in its taste. After repeating this process three times more, she eventually gave in to temptation and popped the entire treat into her mouth. She let it lie inside her while it slowly turned into molten decadence. Swallowing for the final time, she breathed a deep satisfied sigh. Her eyes still closed, she would have continued in her semi-dream state, as she licked the tips of her chocolate marred fingers, had she not heard the strangled exhale of her adolescent helper at the door. His eyes, combined with the innocent lack of subtlety in his face, revealed to her the sensuous scene she had unintentionally displayed in front of him.
Gathering all her wits about her, and drawing upon the countless hours of practice perfecting herself as Mrs. Johnson, she calmly turned and demurely asked, “Is there a customer waiting for me, Toby?”
Opening night critics at Drury Lane would have been impressed.
Her shop had been doing a consistently brisk business since reopening. She and Toby were run ragged for the first few weeks until their bodies were used to the pace. If she had not had the chance earlier in the winter to re-establish her strength and vigour, she would have been in serious trouble maintaining the amount of work now required of her. Her aunt and uncle still insisted that she not walk out before the workdays in the week and she agreed that it was for the best. She continued her searches at the weekends, stopping midday for her rest and meal at Gracechurch Street, as her uncle had commanded. Though she could not be pleased with her lack of success, at least she was contributing to the effort he and Mr. Brooks were once again undertaking. She wondered how they were faring now.
She had panicked when Wickham had walked into her shop two months earlier; she scarcely knew what she was doing. It had happened so quickly that she had completely lost her equanimity. She could only stand frozen with uncertainty and trepidation. Once they had left she had cursed him, and then herself, for not taking action. She had a shop full of customers and Toby was out on an errand. The timing could not have been worse.
After her last customer had finally left, Lizzy had written a note to her uncle. When Toby returned, she had him deliver it immediately. Her uncle had come early that day to fetch her, and together they hurried to Mr. Brooks’ office. Elizabeth described carefully what she had seen. She tried to remember as many things as she could; Wickham’s clothing, which direction the couple headed when they had left; anything that might provide a clue to his whereabouts. She also described the woman, Sally, to the best of her recollection. Unfortunately, because of her spectacles and having had two customers to wait upon, she had seen her for only a moment.
Mr. Brooks agreed to go out that very night with Mr. Gardiner accompanying him. They searched the inns and taverns around Johnson’s for the couple, but failed to find any hint of them. Mr. Brooks then spent the next two weeks searching furtively, while Elizabeth was recovering her health. He covered vast parts of the neighbourhood starting at Johnson’s and continued in an ever-growing circle outwards. Despite it being early February, he worked tirelessly, until Elizabeth and Mr. Gardiner intervened and insisted he be more reasonable in the time he was spending out of doors. Elizabeth’s own history had taught them all how dangerous it could be to overexert in the middle of winter. For the last six weeks, Mr. Brooks had been working steadily for them without risking his health, but Wickham had disappeared once again and none of them could find a trace of him.
If only she had seen the woman more clearly. If only she had caught her last name, or could have followed them out the door. She would have found out where they were lodged, and brought her uncle there. However, she had missed the opportunity. While her uncle tried to reassure her that she had done well, she knew better. She realised sadly then that she had not helped much at all. She was severely disappointed in herself. As far as she was concerned, it had been her first chance to truly make a difference, and she had failed significantly.
Why had she been so frightened? Why did she not say something or do something? What difference would it have made if she had exposed herself to him right in front of her customers? The shop meant nothing, Wickham was everything. She chided herself harshly for not being braver.
That had been over eight weeks ago, and still they could not find a trace of Wickham or Sally. Now it seemed she did indeed have one of the rakes of the ton preying upon her. More like a full-scale invasion of her senses.
He was good. Very good. He knew exactly what would be acceptable to send and not cause outrage. He would have been pleased to see the ravenous look Toby fixed upon the fruits when they began to arrive, compelling Elizabeth to share them rather than throwing them away. He would have happily paid the lad a salary had he known the unwitting accomplice he had in him.
The gifts were always plainly wrapped; a discreet accoutrement to anyone carrying them. The flowers were always a single bud or stem and arrived either tied by a simple ribbon, or in a plain glass jar. They were chosen for their ability to engage her senses without overwhelming, and to send messages. They feasted on peach, orange, pear, apricot and even a pineapple all flawlessly timed to arrive at peak flavour. Her nose and taste buds were in a near constant state of rapture. He had an innate ability to choose exactly what would best please her physically, if not emotionally.
The following weeks found the deliveries to Johnson’s House of Cigars as copious as they were varied. Chocolates, creams, pastries, flowers and the most perfectly ripe fruits, had all made their way to Elizabeth. She had shared the generosity of her admirer with a very grateful Toby when she could. Unfortunately, the chocolates arrived only one at a time, and she was unable to part with a single one of them.
No more handkerchiefs had been sent, for which she was thankful. It would not do to keep anything sent by a gentleman to a single young lady; she had not kept the first one. He obviously knew that - everything else he had sent was consumable or perishable, and completely untraceable. By the end of the month, deliveries were being made daily. She wondered when the man had time to attend his personal affairs. He had never used the same delivery boy twice, and they came from many parts of town.
She was convinced of one thing; whoever it was, he must know she who she was. Mrs. Johnson would never turn a man’s head, much less gain his affections, therefore he must know Elizabeth was Mrs. Johnson. All rational deliberation pointed to it. There were only two men to have seen her as both persons, but only one had been spying upon her at the theatre. Logic led to the conclusion that Lord Robert Caldhart was her unwelcome suitor.
She wanted to end this. She wanted the chance to confront him and ask him to cease his anonymous flirting or seduction or whatever it was he was doing. This was an all out offensive against her, yet her foe still failed to show his face. It had been over a month, why did he not come forth?
What could he mean having designs upon her? While she might not have an impeccable reputation anymore, it was hardly equivalent to being a kept woman. She was flattered that he had so obviously taken a detailed interest in her preferences; his taste was exquisite and she could not fault him that. Had she been the type of woman to whom worldly comforts were paramount, she would be an excellent candidate for his machinations. However, none of those things mattered to her. She supposed his dissolute life would only understand a mercenary soul; he had, after all, expected her to be wishing to make her fortune. Obviously, he did not know her well enough to realise she was not of like mind or ideals.
She snorted to herself. “If wealth and position had meant anything to me, I would be Mistress of Pemberley right now.”
That exclamation turned her mind to another painful subject. She knew that no respectable man would ever want her now. She had only ever had her charms and possibly a bit more sense than some women to attract a husband. Now those accomplishments were effectively put away in a drawer and locked up. Wickham had sealed that fate for her and her sisters. There would be no marriages for them, and especially not for Elizabeth to one particular man.
She tried not to dwell upon futile wishes, but sometimes she could not help herself. Late at night in her bed, when the cruelty of her situation was not forefront in her mind, she would daydream that all their problems were solved, the past forgotten, the future bright and promising. Only then, in an imagined world of tranquillity, would she allow herself to think of him . She would daydream of a blissful life married to Mr. Darcy, smiling contentedly as sleep overcame her.
Darcy woke feeling better than he had in months. The freshly mowed grass under the rising sun scented the air sweetly around his house. Memories flooded his senses: lazy childhood mornings, happy carefree play days of summer, and the scent of many past years of mowed grass - peace. As he lay in bed, he could hear faint stirrings in the hallways; far off someone was whistling a tune, perhaps by the stables. He looked across at the empty pillow beside him. He closed his eyes and imagined her sweet smiling face, sleep still in her drowsy blinking eyes, as she yawned, demanding herself to wake, and take him into her arms. He hugged the pillow to himself, happily sighing, a satisfied smile crooked on his mouth as he closed his eyes once again to enjoy his daydream.
After dressing and breaking his fast, he summoned Mrs. Reynolds to apprise her of his plans for the day. As soon as Georgiana arrived he wished to go to Lambton to call upon the Gardiners and their niece. Later he would entertain the Bingleys and the Hursts in the east drawing room. The dinner menu had been approved the day before; it only needed Georgiana to give it a final look.
As he related his wishes to the housekeeper, her usual calm mien became rather flustered.
“Is something troubling you, Mrs. Reynolds?”
“Sir, I normally do not concern myself with the gossip that I hear around the kitchen, but when you mentioned going to Lambton, and more specifically seeing the people who visited here yesterday, I could not help but recall some rather upsetting things I heard about them this morning.”
“What have you heard?” He counselled himself to remain calm, but was dreading his affections for Elizabeth had already been guessed, and were now being bandied about. “Samuel was in the village early this morning and said that the party had left last night, and in no small amount of agitation.”
“They are no longer at the Inn, or in Lambton?” He was starting to panic.
“I’m afraid they have left the county entirely, Sir. I believe they are thought to have returned home. I do hope you had not planned on them calling here today, it would have been a pity for them to have missed that. I’m quite surprised, as I believe Mrs. Gardiner was to call on many childhood acquaintances over the next few days. I can not imagine what would have happened to make them cancel their holiday.”
Darcy was now feeling thoroughly ill. “Does Sam have any other information about this? What did the Gardiners say? Were they upset?”
“I think a trip into Lambton before your guests arrive could be arranged, and highly informative, do you not?” Her voice was heartening.
He looked up at her, real concern and feeling obvious in his face. “Directly, Mrs. Reynolds. See that my horse is saddled, I will be ready in 5 minutes.”
When he arrived at the Inn in Lambton, a part of his mind refused to believe that young Samuel Reynolds had heard correctly. He desperately hoped she would be there, partaking of her breakfast perhaps. He would apologise for his early call, and invite them to dine that day. Unfortunately, Sam was not wrong.
He spoke with the innkeeper, who suggested Darcy speak with Hannah, the maid who had waited upon the family, and helped them pack their belongings the night before. Hannah supplied all the knowledge he could have ever hope to have, unhappy though it was.
“Aye, Sir,” she said. “They were headed back to Hertfordshire.”
“Can you tell me what happened when they arrived here yesterday afternoon?”
“Well Sir, they came in, seemed well enough. Then, not 10 minutes after, I hears Miss Elizabeth crying. Very loud I’d say. Mr. And Mrs. Gardiner were trying to calm her, but there was little use.” He cringed inwardly, wondering what might have made her cry. Was it him?
“Miss Bennet was crying?”
“Oh yes, Sir, I could figure that well enough.”
“Could you hear what she was saying?”
“Only bits, Sir. Once she said, ‘I could have prevented this, I who knew what he was‘ . And another time she said ‘It is in every way horrible.’ Those were the only things I heard besides her cries. Her aunt and uncle seemed calm enough, though they could not do the same for her, poor thing. I helped her pack. The dear girl often stopped and sobbed again. I think she couldn’t leave fast enough. They must have been in their coach and on the road in not much more than an hour. She was kind to me; thanked me for all my help, and the meals I had served, even left me a tip. More than some ladies do.”
Hearing Elizabeth’s words devastated him. He felt he was not worthy to listen to the tale of her personal life, but could not help himself.
“She left nothing - no note? No letters from Mrs. Gardiner to any of her friends?”
“No Sir, but I don’t think there would have been any time for such things, it all happened right quick.”
“No of course not, there would not have been any time.”
“I think she was feeling better once they got in the coach. She seemed to cheer up a bit, at least her spirits lifted a bit once she was on the road.” The anguish these simple words caused him could not be measured.
“Thank you, Hannah. I appreciate you telling me,” he said, handing her a coin while he turned his back and stared out the window as she left.
“Yes,” he thought, “Miss Bennet was probably very relieved to be on the road and finally getting away from me .”
When he returned home he informed Mrs. Reynolds that the Gardiners and Miss Bennet had indeed left the county, and quietly asked her not to mention it again. He greeted his sister and his guests, then spent the rest of the day trying to hide from them as often as possible.
When he had been refused in April, he had felt angry, insulted, and unfairly treated. Now he only felt sorrow. He had seen her with a lover’s eye yesterday; she had been lovely, gentle, sweet. He had never detected reproach or anger from her. He had asked of her, and she had agreed to meet his sister. She gave every indication that she no longer hated him, that she could meet him without disdain or hold the unfortunate words they had exchanged in Hunsford against him. He thought he had a chance. He thought he could show her he was attending those reproofs with which she had so wisely had admonished him. He thought he could make her love him.
“I do not deserve her. She treated me with the utmost civility, even though she was repulsed by me. What creature on earth would have ever been able to conduct herself with such good manners and such superior breeding, while feeling so dreadful? To think I once thought her beneath me; what a fool I was.
“What did Hannah tell me she said? ‘I could have prevented this ?’ I suppose she should have insisted her aunt and uncle not come to Pemberley. What else? ‘I who knew what he was .’ Yes you did know what I was Elizabeth, only too well. I only wish I had had a chance to prove how different I am trying to be, how I wish to be better; just for you. Then perhaps is would not have been ‘in every way horrible’ to be in my presence again.”
He sat at his desk, staring into nothing. He could not help the tears he shed. Minutes, hours passed by. The butler interrupted him, reminding him the hour for dressing for dinner was upon him. He stood, determined to do right.
“I have lost her forever, but at least I can give her a final gift; I can behave in a gentlemanlike manner and cause her no more distress by leaving her alone, in peace.”
Late that evening, Darcy and Bingley sat in his library, sipping their brandies. The ladies had long since retired, Hurst having to be carried up to his room.
“You seem even more taciturn than normal, Darcy. Is there something weighing on your mind you might wish to discuss?”
He turned to regard Bingley. There was nothing he would like better than to confide in his closest friend. If only it hadn’t been her. If only this were not about the Bennets. He dismissed that possibility, however his mind had also been turning to an entirely different line of thought.“Bingley, I am contemplating a rather large undertaking, and I think it would be wise to consult you on it.” Bingley’s smile snapped shut.
“ You wish to consult me ?”
“Yes, Charles, try not to sound quite so surprised. I know I tend towards having my way in everything, sometimes even where you are concerned, but it is high time I use that excellent brain of yours for my own advantage. I consider you quite clever you know.”
Bingley swallowed and unsuccessfully tried not to look like a boy beaming at his father. “That is quite a compliment Fitzwilliam. I thank you. Perhaps you would like to tell me your proposal?”
“I think we should all go to Europe,” he stated simply.
Two days later two coaches were heading to London from Pemberley. Bingley was sceptical at first, but Darcy was able to overcome any objections. Bingley worried about the coming harvest, but admitted his overseer at Netherfield had just written to him, satisfied with the progress. Darcy offered his own capable steward, Mr Grant, and his son Jacob, who was studying with his father, to take over the correspondence with Netherfield. He would forward any pertinent information or questions requiring Bingley’s input, just as he did with Darcy. Bingley finally agreed, and Darcy only had to hint once to Charles that an extra remuneration to the steward would be appropriate.
The rest fell into place; Georgiana had never been, it had been four years since Darcy and Bingley had been, and Louisa and Caroline had only been to Italy, for just three weeks, so felt they had never had the full experience or advantage of a real grand tour. The decision was easily settled, and, within a week after arriving in London, they were on their way.
Bingley watched his friend staring intently over the rail of their ship as it crossed over the channel. Darcy had been right, Charles did have an excellent brain, and he could see that a change had come over his dear friend. “He is mournful,” thought Bingley. “There is a deep wound he is nursing. I haven‘t seen him look so since his father died.” He watched on.
“What are you running from, Fitzwilliam? Could it be heartache, such as the one I still bear? Do you hope to erase a woman from your heart with this grand scheme?” He sighed; a momentary reflection on a face that lit his soul afire and of times so happy he thought he would burst.
“It will not happen; that I can guarantee. Only time will help to lessen such an ache. But you will never rid yourself of the mark she left upon you.”
Months later he would confess as much to his friend. They would stand in front of a portrait of a Madonna and Child in a museum in Florence, the air thick with history, the future, the immortality in perfection of art, both absorbed in the purity of the piece in front of them. Then he would speak his truth. “She will never leave you. You will always feel her in your heart, though it will get easier. You know that, do you not?”
Darcy turned to his friend, amazed once again at the astuteness of a man so often considered to be simple. “I know Charles, God help me, I do know.”
If Mr. Higgins enjoyed travelling, he most certainly would have been pleased with the work he was assigned over the next weeks. His lordship did an admirable job of leaving no stone unturned when it came to discovering George Wickham’s past. Most stones hid a treasure trove of enemies happy to bad-mouth the disreputable Mr. Wickham, as well as eager to have a new ear to bend. If Higgins were required to down a few tankards of ale at each new town, while gathering information on behalf of his master’s wishes, surely no one would deny him that minute pleasure either.
Soon the towns, the taverns and tankards began looking the same. Mr. Wickham’s profligate ways were unfortunately almost inexhaustible as well. There seemed to be no limit to how many tradesmen he was willing to short, no standards or morals by which he consulted when satisfying his lust, and no person he was not willing to befriend, and then betray.
After Higgins had been subjected to essentially a “grand tour” of England, he returned for the final time at the end of the month. Lord Robert sat with piles of notes surrounding him. Names, offences, debts, fairly jumbled his mind. None led to a clue where Wickham might be now. Only one town was absent from the list. Wickham had only inhabited the place for a short while, and none of his acquaintances had been aware he had made the slight side stop. Unbeknownst to Lord Caldhart, Ramsgate was sadly missing. With that deletion, the lack of a key contact: Mrs. Younge.
He carefully noted the offended in the notebook he had begun. One name stood out amongst the commoners; Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire. Wickham’s boyhood friend, and later, patron, had felt the sting of malice from his tongue. Caldhart was surprised at how often Wickham had told the tale in his travels. He could not help but find absurdity at the thought of someone thinking Wickham would have made a good clergyman. Wickham taking orders? Responsible for the moral standards of an entire community? Thank God Mr. Darcy did refuse him the living. He suspected there was more to the story. He toyed with the idea of bringing Darcy into his confidence, but he knew him, by reputation, to be staid and impeccable. Unquestionably, seduction, or even revenge, would be unacceptable to Darcy. No; better not to involve him.
He started to concentrate on the patterns of Wickham’s ways. They were simple enough: arrive, cheat, leave, and then travel far enough away to the next unsuspecting town. His inconsistency was the constant. They could be assured he would not return to the scene of one of his past crimes. Given enough years, it was conceivable that every town within twenty miles of London would have felt his unwelcome attentions, and one could pinpoint where his next move would be out of lack of any other options. But Caldhart did not have years.
He was beginning to doubt whether his plan could succeed. Wickham was proving too wily, and his patience was wearing thin. He was not worried about the expenses he had incurred so far. Higgin’s travels were hardly a trifle, and the gifts he had been sending to Johnsons amounted to little more than pocket change to him. It was his pride that was suffering. He wanted to see Elizabeth. He wanted to begin the dance in person, and here he was barely into the ballroom. He could not approach her without an advantage. She would knock him down, and he might not recover from the blow.
He considered his next move carefully. Perhaps the lack of having the advantage need not cripple him. She did not need to know. She would still think he was merely offering her the usual trappings of mistress-hood. His gifts only hinted at the finer things in life he had to offer, not the prize with which he hoped to entrap her. Could he bluff?
In the month since he had been at Johnson’s, business had increased considerably. The shop now had a constant stream of customers coming to and fro. Lord Robert stood across the street observing carefully for nearly half an hour, until convinced the opportunity to call upon her while she would be completely engaged by her customers was nigh.
He entered, satisfied his convictions were correct. The shop was full. He patiently waited his turn and, when he finally approached Mrs. Johnson, the fall in her half-hidden face, and the blush upon her cheek, was all he needed to confirm; each knew the game was up.
“Lord Caldhart,” she said, icicles dropping from her grinded teeth.
“Mrs. Johnson, what a pleasure to see you again,” was his silky reply. “Your shop seems to be profiting handsomely, Madam. I cannot say I am surprised; such a superior product must be greatly sought after. You must be very grateful for your success.” She chose to ignore his self-congratulations.
“I hope the service and product we supply speak for themselves. Their merit, your Lordship, should be obvious and above reproach.”
“How true! The quality Johnson’s displays is so far above the norm, only a simpleton would fail to see it for the jewel that it is; a 'diamond in the rough' if you will.”
“Your Lordship is too kind. We only strive to provide a cigar our customers will enjoy,” she replied, and then thoughtfully added, “We have no other aspirations.”
“ Touché ,” he thought. “ Try to warn me off - it will not work .”
“So you should not Mrs. Johnson, your abilities at your chosen work are incomparable. Any gentleman who has been privileged to the sampling of your wares would no doubt agree.” She stifled a gasp at his outrageous innuendo, and quickly changed the subject.
“How can we help you today Lord Caldhart; another dozen of your favourite blend?” she carefully directed.
“No, I think I would prefer to try another new blend, Madam. I have been so enraptured with all you have offered in the past, I simply cannot resist the chance to savour another of your delightful goods.”
If it were possible for a person to be struck dead from the thoughts of a mere mortal, Lord Robert Caldhart would have found himself skewered with a pike, lanced against the far wall of Johnson’s House of Cigars, and choked to death from the simultaneous ingestion of three-dozen specially blended cigars.
As it was, he was simply invited to rest his unworthy laurels upon a chair in the rear of the establishment while the proprietress made up a short of a new concoction she henceforth labelled ‘Rake’s Fate’.
She came back with the short for him. He lit up. It was very good, though he detected an unusual odour hinting at its edges.
“An unusual flavour, Madam,” he commented, taking another deep drag.
His face, which had previously been serene, suddenly turned a bright shade of pink. His throat began to burn. He felt himself perspiring heavily from his flush face to his tingling toes.
She did not react to his distress whilst she calmly explained, “I thought someone with such discriminating tastes as yours, my Lord, would appreciate a rare blend. It is only available once a year, in the spring, when the Lilies of the Valley are in bloom.”
He choked down a large swallow- surely she would not, she did not! Lilies of the Valley happened to be the flowers he had sent her that morning, and were notoriously poisonous They spoke of sweetness, happiness, humility. He was very sure homicide was not one of their messages.
“Thank you,” he managed to whisper. As soon as her back was turned, he put out the cigar. Later, when he had recovered his voice, he approached her.
“Would you like a dozen of the new blend then, Lord Caldhart?” she innocently asked.
“Yes, please,” he answered, refusing to play the game her way. “And a dozen each of my regular and mild cigars. I cannot seem to keep them in stock. My acquaintances are always inquiring about them and I am happy to oblige them.”
“It will take a moment, Sir. Please be seated.”
She made him wait over half an hour. He did not stew, but instead relished in the chance to observe her for so long. She steadfastly ignored him, while he admired her more every moment. She handled her customers with expertly crafted gentleness. Those who were unschooled, she lightly guided towards a good product. Those with more discernment she pressed towards her more superior cigars. He marvelled at her natural abilities, and realised, had situations been different, she would have been a great hostess in the world of society.
When the time came to finally pay for his purchase, he handed her a pound note, taking great care to let it drop off the side of the desk unto the floor. They both stooped to retrieve it and, in the act, their hands made contact. She drew her own back quickly.
“I am so sorry,” he said, and then added in a whisper, “Miss Bennet.” Their eyes met; his challenging, hers infuriated.
“ ’Tis nothing , Lord Caldhart, I assure you,” she answered. “I thank you for your custom, Sir. Please do not let us delay you any further.”
“It is always a pleasure to do business with you Mrs. Johnson, I am sure you will see me again very soon,” he answered, determined to get in the last word.
“Your three-dozen cigars should last you quite a while, your Lordship, I am sure it should be some time before you are here again,” she countered.
“I believe you will be surprised at how fast my supply is depleted.”
“Then you should feel free to send a servant in the future with any request you might have. We have your preferences noted, and can make up any order and send it with your man. There is no need for you to come here personally.”
“On the contrary, Madam, I would never entrust a servant to do something as important as choosing what I desire here. Good day.” And with that he nodded and quickly departed.
The music began, the partners lined up; the dance had finally begun.
In his room that night, Lord Caldhart sat nursing his brandy. It had been years since he had felt so alive . His body was thrumming, despite his incapacitation. Matching wits with Elizabeth Bennet was one of the most overpowering aphrodisiacs he had ever experienced in his life. What he would have given to have her in the room with him now. He would have taken her on his bed, the settee, the rug, perhaps all three. He felt he had never desired a woman so much before. If he could light the fire she displayed when angry and redirect it to her passion, he would be in paradise. He licked the memories of their tête-à-têtes in his mind.
He was grateful to have had the foresight to bring his walking stick with him. When their hands had met on the shop floor, his manhood had instantly reacted to the touch. As he stood up, he deftly ground the tip of the stick into the top of his left foot. His body was then forced to attune to the pain he was experiencing, ignore the pleasure his mind was dwelling upon, and relieve his indiscreet affliction. It was only when he feared permanently crippling himself that he begrudgingly bade her farewell. He strode purposefully out the door, yet as soon as he turned the corner, winced audibly and limped back to his waiting carriage. Higgins helped him in and wisely made no mention of his master’s injury.
Now, as he thought back on the afternoon, he spied the boxes. He hobbled over to them and picked up the ‘unusual blend’ box, placing it directly on the top of his fire. As the flames eventually engulfed it, he strove to smell the hateful odour he had detected in his short sample. Finding none, his scowling gaze then inspected the other two boxes with no small amount of prejudice. Giving up all pretence of bravery he sighed, and threw them upon the fire as well.
“Yes, my supply was depleted surprisingly fast indeed,” he told the cheery mantle clock before he was forced to avail himself of the chamber pot his butler had placed near the sofa.
“Damn, I really thought I would be able to keep at least some of the brandy down,” he thought as his stomach wrenched once more.
He felt much better the next morning. He was able to take some mild tea and toast and not see it again. The fact she had made him ill did not perturb him in the least. She had only planned to teach him a lesson, not actually harm him (he told himself). There was a fine line between hate and love, after all. Moreover, her strong reaction to him gave him more hope than he had had in weeks. He had needed the boost of confidence, especially considering the paltry results he had achieved during the search for Miss Lydia and Wickham.
Now he regarded his board once more. She had the upper hand right now, and it did not sit well with him. He did not like the idea that she would think he was chastised and chased away. Bluffing turned out to be easier than he thought. He could do it again, but to what advantage? Thinking long and hard, he finally resolved to bring a bit of turmoil to Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s life. He decided to show her he was not dismissed. He would make sure her mind was full of him and his abilities before he left her next time. Another white pawn was moved forward.
“Time to play another card”
Higgins had left the detailed schedule by which Mrs. Johnson lived. While he was travelling, his helpers had kept a close eye on her and the shop. Lord Robert now knew her comings and goings and those of her employee, Toby. His Lordship could be assured that at least part of every day she would be without Toby, as he always took a small amount of time for an afternoon meal in the nearby park. He wished to replenish his cigar supply and have a short, private, conversation with her. Now he simply had to wait for a slow business day, when no customers would interrupt him. His wait was not long.
“Mrs. Johnson,” he said bowing deeply. “Indeed they are gone Madam; they met with a most unfortunate accident in my fireplace the very night I brought them home.” She hid the hint of a smirk.
“Then shall I prepare you another set of your three favourites, my Lord?”
“I think not, Ma‘am; I will take a dozen of my original blend instead. That will satisfy me for now.”
She regarded him for a moment and then seemed to come to some sort of decision. She stood a bit straighter and spoke defiantly. “I hope it will satisfy you, Sir, for it the only thing you may have here ,” she remarked pointedly. They studied one another for several moments. Her glasses were perched far down on her nose and, in looking over them, she could stare at him unencumbered. Neither backed down. The air was tight and static
At last she spoke. “You have an excellent palate your Lordship. I commend your fine taste in foods and flowers. Now cease your attentions, Sir, they are not welcome.”
“Ah, the frank approach, I do not disapprove.”
“Are we for truths now, your Lordship? Then let me be rightly understood. I do not like you.”
He laughed. “Is that all? It matters not. I am not so horrible, Madam. I believe you would come to like me. I think you would find my mind could engage yours as well as any man. I certainly would not want you to stifle your own.”
“I have no desire to engage in anything with you, Sir.”
“Yes, but I do. Moreover, you know that. Now I shall be frank. There are two objectives to be considered here. I will want to get all that I can, while spending as little money, effort, or resources that I can. You should be trying to get as much as you can, while sacrificing as little of yourself as possible. It is really quite simple, my dear.”
“You assume I want you, your money, or your status. You have nothing to tempt me with, your Lordship; material things mean nothing to me. We have no basis for negotiation.”
“Yes, I have seen the evidence of your lack of mercenary ways. However, I am surprised at how limited your thinking is Mrs. Johnson, I had thought you much more clever.”
She ignored his insult. “Limited, my Lord?”
“Yes, limited; you must think beyond material objects. Can you really think of nothing in the world I could acquire for you? No quest I might pursue to win your affections? Think of me as a knight, if you will. I have come on my noble steed, asking of my lady if there might not be some deed I might perform and win you.”
She snorted. “If there is one thing in the world of men I have learned, it is that there is no chivalry. No one does anything for free; no act is completely virtuous. There are no knights; no one wants to save me, except those who want something from me. I refuse to pay the price, or play the game, and refuse to give myself up. I am not for sale. Now oblige me, Sir, and leave me alone!”
“There might be something I could tempt you with.”
“Even Salome did not ask for money.”
She frowned sternly at him. “Come to the point Caldhart, your games tire me, and I have better things to do with my time than play cat and mouse with you.”
“Your time- what a fortunate subject to bring up. You spend your leisure time in a most unusual way, do you not?”
She held her breath. They suddenly heard Toby coming into the back room, increasing the tension. She was afraid he would hear their conversation.
Caldhart was afraid the youth might come after him thinking he was assaulting his mistress. Standing directly in front of her, blocking the view to the workroom, he dropped his head near her ear and quickly whispered, “All those days, walking, searching, wearing yourself out, and you never can find her, can you Elizabeth? They both elude you, your uncle and Mr. Brooks too.”
He quickly exited while her mouth stood gaping. She later looked down upon her desk and saw a five-pound note lying there. She had never given him his cigars.
That night he stared at the board, willing it to speak to him; send him messages of wisdom and insight into the situation. He was desperate for a windfall, something to break this standoff. He could continue taunting Elizabeth but without real success at finding his quarry, he would never win her.
“Where are you, Wickham? How are you evading me so well? Who keeps you hidden?” he demanded. He stared at each black piece, naming them silently in his head; Elizabeth, Wickham, Lydia, Aunt, Uncle, merchant and tradesmen pawns.
“Who are your knights, Wickham? Or are they yours, Elizabeth? Do they secretly protect you, and I know not who they are? Do they help Wickham, cleverly, overtly, and out of my sight?” He had no answer.
Then he stared at the rook. No surprises there. The plain rook; simple moves, straightforward, ordinary, common.
“Oh God,” he moaned.
And no lady , smacking his hands upon his forehead.
“Common you are, and sometimes all the way across the board sitting imperceptibly while I failed to remember you and realise what a threat you are.” He picked up the rook and moved it directly in the line of fire.
“What an idiot I am.” He reproached as he reached for his drawing pad and pens.
Three hours later Higgins strode out of his master’s library. He had to admit his Lordship had a keen eye and a deft hand; the portrait was very well done. It would be a pleasure to gaze upon the buxom blonde as he showed it around town. He folded it carefully and slowly placed it in his pocket.
“Sally,” he mused to himself.
Meet me at St. James’ Park at ten-thirty . It was a simple enough request. There would be large crowds on a Saturday, no reason for her to worry about her safety. He wished to talk, unencumbered by the possibility of interruption. He reasoned if her safety were not threatened, she would agree to this meeting.
He arrived early, placing himself upon an inconspicuous bench with a fine view of the strolling visitors. He saw her first, making her way cautiously as she discreetly looked for him. She was disappointingly dressed as Mrs. Johnson. He had hoped to see her as herself. Finally, she espied him and slowly approached his bench. He made no move to rise and bow. She sat upon the far end of the large bench, refusing to look him in the face. They sat quietly for a few moments.
“Thank you for meeting with me.”
“I hardly had a choice, Sir. You knew the last thing you said to me would compel me to speak with you again.”
“Astute as always, Madam.”
She had had enough. “Stop this ridiculous flattery, Lord Caldhart; I have no stomach for it. I shall be blunt; have you found them? Do you know where they are?”
“Ah, an important point of negotiation, is it not? If I answer you, I might lose my advantage in this skirmish, and that would be very foolish of me indeed. I must always be on the high ground if I wish to succeed, can you not see that?”
“This is no fencing match Sir; we are speaking of peoples lives!”
“Just as one risks their lives in a duel, there is no difference here.”
“You seek to distract me from my point, but I will not be waylaid. Do you know where my sister is?”
He considered carefully. “No, I do not.”
She was visibly angry.
“But I could. I have the means to find them. I am the one person you need to accomplish it. I alone could do it.”
“I do not believe you. You have no better methods than the ones we already employ. You have no magic spell to weave over a cauldron and magic my sister to my side. You toy with me and expect me to surrender, when the truth is there is no reason for this conversation, my Lord.”
“Ah but there you are wrong, my Dear. I am not lying. I do have something you do not have. I can employ a method you are unable to.” With that, he brought forth a leather folder bound with a strap and opened it carefully.
“This is my portfolio Miss Bennet, I have spent a good amount of time developing it. Observe the pictures I have drawn over the years. My wealth and the availability of time have been my masters and allowed me to become quite proficient, would you not say?”
She stared at the pastoral scenes his papers held; scenes of the country, perhaps his estate, and then, as he quickly flipped through the pages, he came upon his final drawings, his first trump cards. He played them expertly.
“And lastly, the one thing my hands excel at most; my ability to capture a face, even one I have seen but briefly. I can draw in great detail, and with stark reality, would you not agree?”
There before her was her own face, sometimes smiling, sometimes sad, and then the face of Mrs. Johnson at her store. Finally, he turned slowly to the last page in the his case; a scene of herself as Mrs. Johnson at her desk, and standing in front of her, with their backs tauntingly facing the viewer, were the unmistakable images of George Wickham and Sally.
“Yes Madam, I was there that day. But I had no customers to wait upon; I had all the opportunity to sit and observe the show in front of me. And, unlike you, I did see - and I remember.”
She raised her head from the drawing, staring at him wide-eyed like a child. All ability to speak seemed to have left her whilst in her state of shock. He seized the moment to attack,
“One word from you, one whisper. Just say Stop, don’t do it. Do not try to find them , and I will not persist.”
She only stared, apparently dumbfounded by his boast, his offer, and his insight into her secret wishes. He waited several moments.
“Excellent,” he whispered with a triumphant smile. He bowed his adieu and began walking away until her heard her exclaim, “Wait!”
He stopped in his tracks, and slowly turned back to her. Her expression was completely unreadable due to the myriad of emotions it betrayed; his eyes could barely track their speed. Finally, her gaze concentrated solely upon him. Her eyes commanded him to sit again. He smugly did so.
“I see I have underestimated you, my Lord. Your research is to be commended. Do you also know what I ate for dinner last night?” Despite the humour in her words, her tone was grave.
“You have always underestimated me, Miss Bennet. But, no, I do not know what you had for your repast yesterday.”
She regarded him again; a deep frown creased her forehead. “Do you not realise in trying to force my hand you will cause me to rebel against you?”
“I do not wish to dominate you; I mean to demonstrate to you.”
“Yes, Miss Bennet, I am desperately trying to make a point to you, which you steadfastly choose to ignore.”
“And that is?”
“You need me.”
“I need no one, least of all you.”
“But there you are wrong. You have tried on your own and failed, Miss Bennet. I do not wish to cause you distress, but that is the truth of the matter. You need an ally to help you and I am that person.”
“Your lack of compassion hardly stirs me to capitulate.”
“But you mistake me; I do have compassion for you, along with my passion. I would not have investigated so thoroughly just what you might wish to acquire, if I did not have compassion for you. I empathise with your wretched position, I truly do.” He whispered now, caressing her with his rich deep voice.
“Stop!” she cried. “You suggest starting one life of depravity to save another? What difference would it make to society which Bennet was a mistress? We both would ruin our family’s reputation. Nothing would be restored. Lydia would come home disgraced, probably with child, and Wickham might be punished, but in the meanwhile, yet another Bennet daughter would go on to fill Lydia’s shoes, only with you! This is no solution, this is ridiculous!” She leapt up, determined to leave his offensive presence.
“Lydia does not have to return home disgraced,” he said, stopping her. “She can be restored, Miss Bennet, she can be respectable. I can do this.” She stared unbelieving. “You can make it one of the points of negotiation, request I stipulate it legally if you like. Demand I procure proof Lydia and Wickham were married the night they left Brighton. Then your family’s reputation would be unstained.” He saw the inner workings of her mind; she was trying to fathom how it all could happen as he said while she stood watching him. “I could do this.”
“You still have not explained how becoming your mistress will fail to throw my family right back into despair, loathing, and disgrace. How can living immorally with you help my family? How can you defend that wish, my Lord?”
“Easily, my Dear; they need never know - you would simply disappear from your current life. If you wish it, you may come to me as anyone you would like to be. Pick your name, your history, your country if you like. Then live quietly with me at my estate in Surrey. I have no desire for the Season anymore. Any entertaining I might do would be on such a small scale, and you could have complete authority over the guest list. No one need ever know who you were. Our social circles could hardly have ever crossed, therefore few people you might know…”
“No!” She cut him off, truly agitated now. “Stop speaking as if this arrangement were set! Your nonchalant manners insult me, Sir. I have given you no reason to make such assumptions. I do not believe you and your arrogant boasts. I will not give you leave to pursue searching for my sister, Wickham or that Sally woman.” She held her head high, as if she was convincing herself of her bravery as she defied him. “Nor will I give you approval through my silence. Your actions are your own, as they always were. Do not seek my opinions or approbations for they do not concern you.” And with that, she fled.
“Was I just dismissed again ?” he thought as he stared after her quickly retreating form. He was about to get angry when new thoughts entered his mind.
“But, she did not tell me to go to the devil, and she did not tell me no.”
“ ’I do not believe you,’ she had said. What she had meant was ‘I do not think you capable.’ She has thrown down the gauntlet! It is a challenge. She simply does not think it possible.” What she did not know, was he was already searching for Sally. Higgins had spent everyday that week combing London with her portrait. With or without her permission, he was continuing his pursuit of Lydia and Wickham.
“Very well Elizabeth. When we next meet, you will have proof I can do this, and then, we both shall have what we want, and you will agree to come to me.”
He closed his eyes, daydreaming of the board, studying the pieces in his mind, when suddenly it hit him; the black bishops are not in play! She had not told her aunt and uncle about him. His grin was visible from one hundred paces.
Her mind kept telling her: “ Say it - tell him to stop.” But no words came out. She seemed to be watching the entire scene from far away and had no control over what she was doing. His smug request that she had to say something or it would mean her tacit approval of his actions disturbed her mind greatly. Finally, seeing he was leaving while believing she had somehow agreed snapped her out of her hellish reverie so that she could answer. But the conversation gave her no peace. Quite the opposite in fact, and as a result, she had done the only thing that made sense at the time; she had run away.
When Elizabeth had poisoned Lord Caldhart, she thought that he would take her hint. But it was to no avail. She knew he would only be slightly sick from the lilies. Her own personal history had taught her that hard lesson; when she was six years old she had eaten one of the delicate little flowers and spent the next two days over a bucket. She had cut a tiny sliver of a petal and put it into the end of his sample cigar, knowing full well he would have to take at least two or three inhalations to get to it. It had been most satisfying to see his reaction. If he had been indisposed it obviously did not last long, considering how quickly she had seen him again. She did not think his persistence was a desire for revenge upon her for her wilful actions.
When he next returned to her establishment and revealed the extent of his knowledge of her situation and, more importantly, her leisure activities, she was stunned. She had not known that he had been observing Wickham and Sally, nor realised their import to her. Then the scallywag had left abruptly once again, quashing her chances to get more information.
She had tried to put him in his place and show him in no uncertain terms that he should leave her alone. Instead, he rose to every occasion, every insult she threw at him. He thrived on it, and she had unknowingly fed him. She cursed herself for being so outspoken. She was full young to have such decided opinions and her loose tongue had cost her. Her liveliness and impertinence had drawn the attention of an expert rake, which she now could not shake off.
She should never have kept his flowers, nor eaten the gifts. Her kindness to Toby had inadvertently encouraged Caldhart’s suit. Why had she not thrown them out from the start and told Toby to refuse the future offerings? Did part of her instinctively know that Lord Caldhart might give her the first true reason to hope?
Even more upsetting to her was an occasion she had experienced at her uncle’s house not long after Lord Robert had told her he knew she was looking for Wickham. Her Aunt Gardiner asked Elizabeth if Lord Caldhart had ever returned to her shop, or come to lay claim to their good fortune. Elizabeth had calmly answered that he had come back to replenish his cigar supply, but had never mentioned that he was the person responsible for the increase in their business. She had also added that he had never harassed Mrs. Johnson. She was appalled at herself for misleading her aunt. She chose not to dwell upon the reasons why she did.
His craftiness and intelligence were clearly evident in everything he did. She felt overwhelmed at his onslaught, and almost helpless against it. However, as much as she might like to think of herself as a helpless female who could not fight such a man, she knew it was not completely true. There were few women in her current position. She was a single lady working on her own, who was on her way to being independent. A few years of successful trade at her shop might earn her enough to purchase a small cottage in the country somewhere and live off her earnings.
Sometimes guilt would creep into her thoughts when she contemplated her future. Mary and Kitty sat at Longbourn, suffering with her parents, while she was making a life for herself. Her talents had allowed her the opportunity to be a success, but what future did her sisters have? Would Jane be happy to continue as a governess for the rest of her life? It seemed grossly unfair that a woman as beautiful as Jane should not have the opportunity to be a wife and mother. Elizabeth truly would have loved teaching Jane’s ten children. And there were two more Bennet sisters without the means of supporting themselves yet. How many more years would her father still live? When Mr. Collins came to claim his estate, where would her mother and sisters go? Would they live at Gracechurch Street, or with her Aunt Phillips? Her success was bittersweet in the light of her sisters’ not having a similar source of satisfaction, and the thought kept gnawing away inside her.
It was only more recently that Elizabeth also had given more consideration to the fact that Wickham had been without Lydia, and instead with this Sally woman. She felt a tightening in her middle; a feeling of unease came over her: dread. Her uncle had tried to rationalize where his youngest niece might be, that she might have moved on to another lodging house, and Wickham was merely stepping out. But Elizabeth was not in the least convinced. She knew it did not bode well. She had come to fear that even were she to find Lydia, it would not mean the restoration of her family. She fully expected Lydia to be shamed; that Wickham had never married her.
Now Caldhart was dangling the carrot of restored respectability in front of her. He offered her remaining sisters a life they could never have otherwise. The constant reminder of her own inability to restore her family honour preyed upon her. She felt herself falling down the long dark tunnel into which she had descended last winter as, once again, her hatred of Wickham ate away at her very soul. She wanted this torture to end. She wanted to fall asleep at night and not wake up sweating, with her heart pounding and the nightmares of a suffering Lydia tormenting her mind. She wanted the control he had over her happiness, or the lack thereof, to finally end. She cursed George Wickham; he was the bane of her existence.
She feared that, given the lack of any true progress towards reaching her goal, there would be a threat to the standards by which she had previously lived. She might well compromise many of the things she knew to be right, in order to finish what was now an obsession from which she could never turn back.
Finally it had happened: the thing she hoped for and also dreaded. He was the first person with a clue to finding Wickham. He had a skill, he had an ace, there in his head and no one else’s.He had the ability to find them. She had not thought it possible. She had been unwilling to tell him no, if he wished to try to find them, but she did not think he would. Part of her confidence, was based on her unalterable belief that he simply would not succeed. And then today, staring her in the face was a solution.
She thought long and hard, trying to reason out any faults in his logic. Could it really be so easy as to simply walk out of her house one day, and into his? She wondered what the effect would be on her family. Too quickly she realised she knew full well what would happen; she had already experienced it. However, this time, the absent daughter would not be known to have eloped with the man she fancied, she would merely go missing. Would they believe her dead? She knew it would hurt her father and Jane the most, but would the benefits outweigh the suffering they were now, and always would be going through?
She wished he would find them and be persuaded to tell Elizabeth without compromising her. But he was a master at a game she had never played before. She was no match against a man who had so many advantages over her. He had the cunning, he had the money to search, and he had the power and charm to bend all the rules by which she was forced to live. A man, the worst kind of man, and he was right; she did need him. Her only consolation at present was he had not yet found them. She would not agree to help him, but she simply could not close the door on the possibility. She would wait patiently, allow him to succeed or not. Without success, she would not have to contemplate any future with him. She only wished this news gave her more peace, but she knew why it did not.
Her speechlessness had not been from fear. From the moment she had seen his drawing of Wickham and Sally, she was no longer bothered by the man, this seducer, who sat next to her. Though her heart had beaten wildly, and her face had clearly shown Caldhart her mortification, she had not been afraid of him. Something else had disturbed her, rapidly building inside her, until later, when he began to demonstrate how easily she could fall from grace, she knew she had to get away from him, or she would surrender to him then and there.
She had wanted it. Wanted it so very badly, she had to restrain her hand from snatching the paper away. It was only when she had registered the drawing did not show Wickham and Sally’s faces, that she was able to control herself. What had disturbed her, what had panicked her out of her wits was that, like an obsessed pirate finally spying the long lost treasure map, she had been blindingly thrilled at having seen, at last, the key to getting to Wickham.
When Lord Caldhart spoke with Higgins, he had been very specific with regards to the portrait of Miss Sally. He should not mention George Wickham; merely try to find Sally by herself. Higgins understood the need to make sure that, if they should find her, Wickham must not be alerted to someone looking for him as well. He had spent over a week travelling from one neighbourhood to another, when he began searching in Peckham. He approached the local boys who gathered around the corners, looking to earn the odd coin or two, and someone in the very first group recognised the face.
“That’s Pru, that is. Pru Murdock,” a slight waif exclaimed to Higgins.
After so many weeks of never having met with success, Higgins had to re-adjust his demeanour before he could calmly speak to the youth. “Pru?” he said. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” said the lad. “She’s barmaid at the Fox and Badger, just over the bridge and on the left.”
“And her name is Pru?”
“Well, I heard it’s really Prunella, as she come out all purple when she was born.” The boys snickered at this juicy tidbit. “But now she goes by Pru most the time, though some calls her Sally. She likes it when they calls her that.” Higgins smiled appreciatively, and tossed the boy a coin as he left. His next stop was the Fox and Badger, where he settled himself in for a long day.
Late that night, a very proud Higgins was able to report to his master that he had finally met Sally, or Miss Prunella Murdock as she was also known. After sharing a well earned brandy with his master, they agreed to visit the tavern again the next night. Lord Caldhart borrowed suitable clothes from one of his staff, to blend in with the locals more easily, and left his jewels, silk handkerchief, and other finery at home. It was agreed that Higgins would do all the talking.
They arrived close to eleven o‘clock, when more of the patrons would be full of their wine, and more likely to let their tongues wag. Higgins pointed out Sally to his master and the two settled into a corner where they could observe and speak occasionally, without being overheard.
Eventually Sally spotted Higgins, recognising him from the night before as he had left her a thruppenny bit and made her way directly to him. “Hello, rich lad,” she flirted with Higgins. “I sees you brought a friend tonight. Is he as nice as you?” Caldhart winced at hearing that awful voice once again. How Wickham put up with it, he had no idea.
“Aye, Lass, and happy to make your acquaintance, I dare say. What say you bring us two glasses and buy one for yourself as well?”
“Ooooh now that I’d be happy to oblige you in, my pretty.” Caldhart nodded his approval to Higgins as Sally headed to the bar to get their drinks.
After several hours, and many more rounds bought, Sally finally had time to sit with the men and talk a bit. Higgins had tried repeatedly to get her to sit on his lap, but she had refused, though with a bit of regret. “I can’t, Love; I’ve got a man who wouldn’t like it. Though I dare say I might have,” she sighed.
“Well, I don’t see him here, and he wasn’t here yesterday! I say if he can’t bother to be around for you, what’s keeping you true to him?”
“Oh, but he can’t help it!” she exclaimed. “He’s working right now, else he’d be here, I know it.”
Higgins snorted, “> Working , yeah, I’ve used that one with my old girl. Every time I stepped out on her, I told her I was working .” He started laughing.
“No, not mine. He’s no saint, but at least he only has one girl at a time. I wouldn’t go with him ‘til he got rid of his old one. She hung on him like a leech. But he’s smart and tricked her in the end and finally got rid of her. Since then it’s just been him and me.”
“I’d like to know how to trick a girl and get rid of her, my last three girls would never take the hint. I had to wait until they found someone they liked better ‘n me before I could move on.”
Sally snorted. “Yer not half as quick as my man then,” she proudly boasted. “He has wits to spare, along with being so handsome!”
Higgins and Caldhart stayed silent. Sally had been waxing for a while and every time she turned from one of them, they would pour their drinks into her cup, keeping it relatively full for most of the evening. “I may well believe that, Love, but there is nothing so wily as a woman not willing to shove off.” Higgins challenged, “She probably just found a better beau.”
He and Caldhart laughed together, sending Sally into an indignant snit. “She did not! He was ever so clever. He won passages to America one night, you see. Had the papers and all, and showed it to her when he got home. Told her they were going to start a new life in the colonies, where they could live cheaply like kings. She was so taken in. He told her to sell her jewellery so they could take the post to Portsmouth, and she did! Then at the last minute, he told her he had the chance to make some extra money here in town and that she should go ahead of him and they would meet the next day at the ship when he had his pockets filled. Stupid daft cow! She went of course, and he sold the passages that very day. So she was stuck in Portsmouth and he and I started up here. That were almost six months ago, and we’ve been together ever since.”
“Except when he isn’t here,” Higgins interjected.
Sally swatted his shoulder. “That’s enough from you, Rogue! You want another round?” She then turned to Lord Robert. “How ‘bout you Granddad?” she asked.
Caldhart had to lower his head to keep her from seeing the outrage on his face as he shook it. Higgins had wisely invented a large object to be caught in his throat and took several minutes to dislodge it.
When he finally stopped coughing Sally asked her new favourite customers, “Will I see you gents tomorrow then?”
Higgins looked to his master, who gave him an almost imperceptible shrug. “Don’t know if we can make it again this week, but we will be back. Will you be here?”
She rolled her eyes. “Here, just the same as the last four years, Love. Be seein’ you.” Higgins tried to pat her backside as she rounded the table, and just missed as she spotted him and dodged his hand, laughingly calling him “cheeky” as she headed for the bar.
As they drove home Caldhart made his plans. Lydia had to be their first concern. If she was still in Portsmouth, they had to find her. Wickham could wait, as it did no good to the Bennets to go after him, without the daughter. He could easily arrange to have a watch over Prunella/Sally while they searched Portsmouth.
Higgins asked as he was handing his Lordship out of the carriage, “Will I be heading to Portsmouth tomorrow then, my Lord?”
“Us both, Higgins.”
Before they left for the coast, Caldhart had Higgins install a man at the Fox and Badger to keep an eye on Sally and be on the lookout for Wickham, should he finally show up. Higgins then packed for another long haul, and brought the carriage round for his master to travel the seventy miles to Portsmouth.
They quickly found out which ships had been bound for America in October and November. There were only six that had set sail, and two were currently back in port. Lord Caldhart chose to speak to the captains himself, while Higgins began searching the inns, to see if Lydia was currently in residence, or at least had been at one time. After all the places he had searched in the past, Portsmouth was easily covered in a few days. Unfortunately, none of the innkeepers, taverns or even boarding houses had heard of Lydia Bennet or Lydia Wickham.
Lord Robert had better success. He could not find evidence that Lydia had sailed on or even attempted to board one of the ships. However, he did strike a bit of gold with one; Captain Gregory, of the sailing vessel Adventure, remembered George Wickham. It seemed that he had received a letter from Mr. Wickham, stating his intention of sailing with his wife Lydia, on the Adventure late last autumn. Captain Gregory had added their names to the list of passengers, but, when sailing day arrived, two men from London had shown up with the documents and a letter from Wickham stating he had legally sold his passage to the two. So the young men went in their staid. Lord Robert studied the manifest, his mind calculating. Before disembarking he was well pleased, if not a little bit lighter in his purse.
Higgins’ disappointing results, however, effectively barred his Lordship’s ability for a complete triumph. After spending nearly a week in Portsmouth, with no further results, Lord Caldhart decided to return to London, to work upon Miss Sally. He also instructed Higgins to continue to try to find clues as to whether Lydia was there in Portsmouth.
About half way to London his coach stopped to give his horses a much needed rest, and refresh himself. He looked about him, observing all the travellers thankful to be out of the stuffy confines of the post coach, when he was suddenly struck with an inspirational idea. Before he left the posting inn he had sent an express back to Higgins, instructing him to spend three more days in Portsmouth, but if he did not have any success, he was to ride slowly back to London, stopping at every town, and especially every posting inn along the way and inquire if possibly a Miss Bennet, or a Mrs. Wickham had got off. He had no concept how fortuitous his inspiration would be.
After settling back in town, Lord Robert headed once again to the Fox and Badger. Sally was there and served him his ale. He spent most of the evening quietly observing her, tipping her well and smiling sweetly whenever she brought him his drinks. Later that night, when the crowd had thinned considerably, she came and sat next to him, inquiring after his rich friend. He told her his friend was visiting family for a few days, and would return soon, which seemed to please her. Caldhart then inquired after her once again absent lover.
“He’s not running away from me, he’s driving the post to Carlisle! He won’t be back till Wednesday, seeing as he can’t fly, you dolt!”
Caldhart laughed again. “A post driver! Seems your man ain’t so clever as you say, if he can only drive a carriage.”
“It’s honest work. What do you do?” she retorted. Caldhart answered in his best humble stable hand accent.
“Not working right now. But I still got money for my drinks, don’t be worried about that.” Sally smiled at him. As long as the old man had money for drinks and her, she would never be worried.
Caldhart had a difficult time keeping his jubilation in check. He tipped her once again, and headed home. His mind was calculating wildly as the coach headed through London.
“A post driver. Well, that answered the question as to why no one could find him. He was only in Town one day every fortnight at most. The rest of the time he was moving target.”
Wednesday was only four days away, yet that was more than enough time to set his spies up in the tavern, and, later, arrange for one of his men to travel the post line with Wickham. He needed to get the High Road Tables tomorrow and see if he could post a man along the route to ride back into London with Wickham that week. There would be enough time for a single rider and fast horse to meet the coach along the way. Then they could track Wickham when he arrived in London, and they would know his future whereabouts at every moment. He would set up a web that any spider would be proud of.
He spent the next three nights at the tavern, sometimes bringing his new men along, though he did not have them sit with him. By the time Wednesday came around, Sally and her co-workers were used to the three, and thought nothing of them hanging around for hours on end.
Lord Robert had prepared carefully for the evening. He had made extra drawings for his men, to acquaint them as well as possible with Wickham’s face. He did not want to have to point out the man if he finally showed himself at the tavern. Everything must look calm, and ordinary on the outside. Unfortunately, he was anything but on the inside. It was like waiting for the king to make an appearance. He worried that people around him would be able to perceive his nervousness. He drank slowly, often spilling out his mug by small bits on the floor. He wanted to keep a clear head tonight.
His men were equally nervous, he noticed; often glancing to him, as much as to the others in the room. There was little he could do but return a stern scowl to try to bring them in line.
The man he had sent ahead on the post line had not reported back to him, though he had not expected him to. His job was to stick to Wickham, and until he could pass on the responsibility, or get into town to forward a note to Lord Robert by messenger, he would not be communicating with his Lordship.
The evening wore on, the hours ticking by slowly. Luckily Sally was in a good mood, bringing hope to him. She let it slip that she expected her man tonight, and he felt confident that she was not to be disappointed. After midnight, while the patrons were well on their way to inebriation or sleep, Caldhart was still watching the door like a hawk, when he spied a familiar face under a pulled down hat walk in. It was Taylor, the man he had sent to meet the coach. Taylor passed by his table and, catching Lord Robert’s eye, indicated the back of the room, near the kitchen, with a swift tilt of his head. He needn’t have bothered. The next moment, a loud squeal, one Lord Robert could not have forgotten from before, could be heard as he turned in time to see Sally throw herself into the arms of George Wickham.
The spider was very happy.
The next night, after Lord Caldhart had finished his dinner, and his men had reported on Wickham’s whereabouts and activities for the day, his butler interrupted his quiet time at his chessboard. An express from Lophook, a small town on the post circuit to Portsmouth, had just arrived. It was from Higgins. An unusual thing for him to spend extravagantly for an express, Lord Robert tore into it expectantly with greed. He read it through twice, in disbelief. Higgins had found Lydia Bennet.
He picked up the black pawn, rolling it slowly between his smooth fingers. “Damn, what am I to do now?”
Higgins stood outside the inn, his head bowed before his master, who was pacing furiously to and fro. “Have you made any promises on my behalf, which I do not know of already?”
“I told them that as she was part of your household, and a good sort of girl, you would want to pay for a headstone. She hasn’t got anything over her right now, you see.”
“Yes, yes, I will see to that. What of her personal effects? Did she leave behind anything? I may need to prove what we know.”
“Yes, my Lord. They still had her bag, and most of her clothing; I took the liberty of offering to pay for it on your behalf. Told them her Mum would want her last things. They were very helpful.”
“You have no reason to suspect foul play on their behalf?”
“No, your Lordship. Not at all.”
“And the child? Was it not viable?” Higgins frowned, clearly confused. “Could the baby have lived?” he asked.
“Oh, no, there wasn’t a baby, that is, she was just barely along, Sir. Not more than a month or two. They said she didn’t even know she had it to lose. Just that afterwards, well, the bleeding never stopped. She soon fell asleep and died before morning when the midwife could get here.”
Caldhart stood looking towards the little church, and past it at the graveyard. He shuddered involuntarily. Of all the possible outcomes, including ones quite unsavoury, this was one contingency on which he had not counted. He had a great deal of thinking to do.
They spent the night in the little inn at Lophook. The owners showed themselves to be good respectable people. His Lordship, like his driver, was convinced that their story of Lydia Bennet’s death was true. The next morning Higgins prepared the team to drive back to London. His Lordship came out later than expected, his countenance grave. It was obvious he had had very little sleep.
“Back to London, Sir?”
“No, Higgins, we are for Portsmouth.” he told his astonished driver.
He was not a master at chess for nothing. The matter of bribing a sea captain to falsify a marriage record for a woman already deceased, and a man of whom Caldhart at least had told the dear captain was deceased, was child’s play. Play with fifty pounds in notes attached to it, but successful play in the end. He now held in his one pocket the key to restoring the Bennet’s reputation. Captain Gregory would swear to anyone who asked that he had indeed performed the ceremony uniting Lydia Bennet and George Wickham in holy wedlock. Even in July, four full months before he had ever heard their names.
In the other he held the proof for Elizabeth that he had found her sister. All he needed to do now was carefully word everything he would tell her about her sister. If she learned of Lydia’s demise, he was sure that she would not give in. He had committed far too much of his time and himself, financially and emotionally, to give her up now. She was already his as far as he was concerned; he merely needed her approving signature on the documents to confirm it.
When he returned to London, Lord Robert did not immediately run to Miss Elizabeth Bennet’s side. One would think that he would present the marriage certificate and the small personal effect of Miss Lydia Bennet’s to his amorata, and demand his rights to her. But, where many an amateur rake would have done just that, this consummate seducer knew he had to perfect one final cog in his machinations. After reading through his correspondence, his next order of business was to visit a certain tavern.
Unlike the times past when Lord Caldhart had given the Fox and Badger his custom, this visit was hallmarked by his lack of hiding his gentry accent or manners. When Miss Sally brought him his ale, she almost fainted when her sweet old granddad of a customer revealed himself to be significantly more.
“I should’ve known,” she later admonished, “I said yer hands was much to pretty to be common. You never did a hard days work in yer life, have you then?”
“Indeed not, Madam,” he answered.
“So, Master high and mighty, what do your want with the likes of me?” she asked, her suspicion clear.
“I have an offer to make to you, Miss Murdock.”
“Ha, know that too, do you? I see you’re a clever one, you are.”
“Perhaps clever, but so are you, and when you hear a good deal, I do not think you will be foolish enough to turn it down.”
She regarded him for a few moments. “Well?” she finally demanded, with a questioning shrug of her shoulders.
“I want Wickham,” he stated simply.
Her mouth dropped, as she shook her head. “Oh, no! You won’t talk me into that! Your rich friend already tried! What makes you think I would give in to the likes of you?”
“Have you ever heard of a girl by the name Henrietta Scroggins?” he calmly asked.
Her face instantly betrayed the sting his barb had inflicted. “No, Henrietta is gone! There ain’t nothing between them, he told me so himself.”
“You are correct Miss Pru, Henrietta is gone from London, but what your faithful lover failed to inform you, is that she is now living, and keeping house with George, in Carlisle . A girl on each end of the line, very convenient for him, I must say.”
She slammed her tankard of ale onto the tabletop, a slew of curse words spewing from her, in a most unladylike manner. When she had finally stopped and her breathing began to return to some semblance of order, she spoke directly to him again.
“What do you want me to do?”
Today was too important to be flustered, he chastised himself. Today he would attempt to finalize all the things he had set in motion so long ago. He gazed again at his image in the full length mirror. His valet had done an admirable job, yet still he was nervous.
Arrangements with Pru Murdock had gone completely to plan. His spies sent letters daily, detailing Wickham’s moves. His victim had no idea he was being monitored at all times, and luckily, was sticking to his regular routine. All the pieces were lined up. The final assault was to begin.
He had Mrs. Johnson followed earlier that day and, after she had her midday meal with the Gardiners, he arranged to come upon her several blocks from their home on a street where there were fewer pedestrians to overhear them.
He approached her, followed by the maid and footman he had brought along with him. “Mrs. Johnson, please forgive this intrusion upon you, but I would ask if you could spare me some of your time?” She stood immobile, but nodded slightly to allow him to continue. “I have some important news to convey to you, and feel that it would be best if we discuss this at my home.”
“You wish for me to accompany you to your house, alone, Sir?” she asked incredulously.
“Please Mrs. Johnson; I have brought my footman and maid to accompany you. We can take my carriage and, after it has dropped me at the front of my house, the three of you can continue to the stables and enter in the rear. No one need ever know you came to my house. Please, I have news of the utmost importance of which I must speak with you, and swear upon my honour you will be safe.”
He spoke sincerely, and well he knew it. He had no intentions of trying to seduce her against her will. Her acquiescence was everything to him. Winning it was his real interest. He gestured to a plain, though fine, carriage further down the street. She thought for a few moments. It was torture to him; without a chance to speak at length to her, he would have serious problems reaching an agreement with her.
Finally she pursed her lips tightly together and answered. “Your servants had better attend to their master’s promises as well, Sir. Or I promise them, I will not be merciful if you deceive me.”
The two stood astonished at the lady’s bold statement, but Lord Robert immediately stepped in. “You heard the lady; do you understand your responsibility to her and to her safety, then?”
“Yes Madam!” they both answered. And the group was off.
Elizabeth refused to look out her window, lest someone look in and see who rode in the coach with his Lordship. She, along with the maid and footman, sat opposite him, closely studying their laps. Lord Robert was deposited, and the coach brought around, before she dared to look up and see the house he had. It was a very large house for town, quite richly adorned outside, and the gardens were well kept and elegant. After being handed out and guided toward the doors in the rear, however, she no longer had a mind to pay attention to her surroundings. She was directly shown to the drawing room, thought it took some time due to the size of the house.
Lord Robert already awaited her. He dismissed the servant and locked the door behind him. Then, in an extraordinary show of gentlemanly behaviour, and before she could protest about the door, he walked directly to her, bowed, and handed her the key. “Miss Bennet, we have started a course in the recent past of perfect frankness. I would like, with your permission, to continue in that vein. I find it extremely inconvenient, not to mention tedious, to have to speak in innuendo or metaphors, so I ask your permission to be plain.”
She nodded slowly, while turning the key over and over in her hand.
“Good, excellent. Miss Bennet, please understand that, no matter what you may be thinking, I have never, and will never, force a woman against her will. I will not force you to do anything you do not wish, and you are completely safe from my person while you are here. Do you understand?” She nodded again, her fine eyes never leaving his face.
“However, I will use everything in my power to make you want to follow my wishes.” She coughed slightly as this bold statement caught her off guard. “Make no mistake Madam; I will not give in to tears, empty promises or foolish notions of marriage vows. My terms are simple; I want you with me, as my mistress. The length of time can be negotiated later, but certainly not less than five years.”
Her face was once again incredulous, twice in less than an hour. She spoke softly, “Why not offer marriage? You are a single gentleman, I am a single lady, you could offer for me.”
He burst out laughing. “What possible inducement could make me want to marry again?”
“You could do it, if for nothing less than making the object of your affections more willing to come to you.”
“My sons would have my head! Besides, my offer is good enough without the inducement of matrimony.”
She shrugged her shoulders. They stopped once again, assessing one another. “Well?” she finally demanded. “You did say you had news of utmost importance my Lord, do you not think it is time to share it?”
He reached into his breast pocket and carefully removed his prize. Unfolding the plain linen handkerchief, he revealed a finer lace trimmed one. He carefully handed it to Elizabeth, who reached for it with trembling hands. The initials in the corner were clear. She stroked it tenderly over and over again. No tear fell, no sigh, no flood of emotions came forth from her, which puzzled Lord Robert exceedingly.
“Have you seen her then?” she asked.
“No, one of my men found her.”
“And what has happened to her? Is she here in London? May I see her?”
“I cannot tell you where she is or let you see her yet, now can I?”
Elizabeth looked up to him frowning.
“Come now Miss Bennet, this is no time to forget where you are, and to whom you are speaking. If I merely told you that I could restore your sister’s reputation and would make everything right, would you believe me? Of course not! You hold in your hand the proof that I have found your sister and the evidence that I indeed can do what I promise. A very necessary part of our negotiations, is it not?”
“You back me into a corner and leave me with no other choice.”
“You always have the ability to say no.”
“But you hold all the cards!” she said, exasperated.
“Yes, my dear, such is the way of a good player, isn’t it?”
“How do you propose to restore Lydia?”
“I will procure proof that your sister and Wickham were married the night they left Brighton.”
“Is that true?”
“No. But I can make it the truth.”
“What is the truth?”
He hesitated as he decided what to tell her. “Wickham abandoned her several months ago.”
Her face dropped and the weight of that statement showed heavily in her eyes. She sat for a long while pondering over all he had said so far. Several more minutes passed until she finally spoke. “Why would Wickham agree to such a thing? She has no money to tempt him, even to lie to a false marriage. Our family would advertise it to the entire world, and he would never be able to marry the rich heiress he wants to.”
“I do not believe Wickham would object were he no longer in England to hear the rumours about his marriage.”
“You would send him away? How would you get Lydia to agree? Would she go with him?”
“I think it could be managed for both of them to no longer be here.” He answered carefully. He was very hopeful; she had gone from unwilling to bargain, to starting to argue the details.
Elizabeth stared once again at him. He could tell she knew he was hiding more information than he was divulging, but she knew he also would not play all his cards at once. He was a superior player, after all. “I am still not convinced that becoming your mistress will not affect my family’s respectability. How can living with you, possibly bearing your children out of wedlock, fail to hurt my family?”
“As far as children, I feel that would not be an issue; none of my last three mistresses ever conceived, so I would think it hardly likely” She looked startled at such a frank admission, and then relieved, too relieved for his ego as he answered rather forcefully,
“Make no mistake, Madam, you would share my bed and I would be your lover. However such pleasures never guarantee offspring.” She blushed furiously, but chose to ignore his last remark. “And I have already told you, you can come to me as Mrs. Johnson if you like, or any name that you like, your family would never know.”
“Leave my family?”
“You cannot live both lives, you would have to choose.”
She stopped, and looked into the blazing embers in the fireplace before her. Several minutes passed. “What would I tell them? They would surely try to look for me.”
“You could leave a note saying that you are well, that you chose to leave, and that you do not wish for them to find you. However, I do not recommend it. I would advise you simply walk out one day. They cannot be tainted by your actions, if they, along with the rest of the world, do not know what you do. They would eventually give up their search for you; they gave up on Lydia, did they not?” Elizabeth winced at his words. He saw the surrender in her face, the lack of defiance in her stature and, like a predator sensing the final victory, he moved next to her, speaking intimately to her, caressing her insecurities and coaxing her.
“There is so little a woman can do in this world, is there, my Dear? You have so few freedoms - choices that are not given to you. Even the choice of pursuing an injustice against your family. Your hands are tied by the men in your family, the authorities that make the laws, and the men who walk the streets at night and might cause you harm should you venture out. All these things men do against you, yes?
“Yet without the aid of a man, you will not succeed in that which you most desire. You won’t find Lydia, and Wickham will go on to the next unsuspecting victim; another girl to ruin, a shopkeeper to cheat, a debt to dishonour.” She choked back a sob. “No one will stop him, without a man to intervene. Only one man, Miss Bennet; me. Only I can undo all the evil the man has wrought. Only I can see your desires to fruition.”
Her body leaned ever so slight towards him as she quietly said, “Never to see them again? Never to see Jane?” Her face now turned up to him.
He knew she had no idea what a submissive picture she presented. He was very close now. “Yes, it is the only way.”
She suddenly caught herself again, her shoulders straightening back up and the defiance once again gleamed in her eyes as she spoke more loudly. “No, my Lord, it is the only way, if I agree to come to you.”
He was no longer worried; he had the final card here, and was now ready to play it. His voice rose to her level, “Yes, it is the price I ask. You must live with me and everything you suspect that encompasses. And in return, I will wipe away Lydia’s shame, give your sisters their chance at a future, give your mother and father their respectability back, and I will give you the satisfaction of having what you want the most”
“What I want?”
“Yes Miss Bennet, what you most desire.”
Her brow arched, as if to challenge him. “What I desire? And what would that be?”
“The one thing you have yet to voice, the one thing you pretend to ignore but dream about most waking moments. The one thing that only a rich, powerful man without morals or standards, who is willing to bargain with you, can provide. The one thing only I can provide. It is time to lay out all your cards; name your price, Madam.”
“Say it Elizabeth! Make the request!” Their eyes locked.
At last she spoke without the least hint of emotion, “I want George Wickham dead.”
“Yes, you do.”
Elizabeth stood staring once again into the small flames that helped to keep the spring coolness at bay in the lovely drawing room. This visit had finally afforded her the chance to take in her surroundings in more detail. The room had lofty ceilings, beautifully painted with brilliant frescos. The furnishings, while not new, were of the highest quality; elegant instead of ornate. She had to admire the man at least for his excellent taste; it reflected in his person, as well as his home. She wondered if his Surrey estate would prove as handsome. She could hear Lord Robert and the two men conferring quietly across the room. Finally he crossed to her, and directed her to sit, while the attorneys kept their counsel out of hearing range.
“Miss Bennet, there are some points in the document I wish for you to be clear about before we proceed,” he said hesitantly. “If you do not agree to any of these, you must tell me now, so we may change anything needed before finishing.”
“I understand, Sir.”
“It cannot be stated legally that you request for me to lie or forge a document for you.” She started, but he stayed her words with a raise of his hand. “The law however, like most things, is easy enough to manipulate to work to both our advantages. We simply will state I must provide you with proof of the marriage between your sister and Mr. Wickham last July. I only wanted you to realise how it must be worded.”
“I thank you.”
“There is also a small settlement of two thousand pounds, which I have made upon you, should I expire while we are still living together. You are, of course, free to keep any jewels, gowns and gifts I give you during that time. In addition, you will have an income of twelve hundred pounds per annum while you live with me, excluding your living expenses and, most especially, your wardrobe.”
“That is very generous, Sir. However, I hardly need twelve hundred pounds if I am living in your home, and you are providing for my clothing.”
“Then consider me overly generous, as the issue of your wardrobe is not negotiable. I have very specific standards, and I know from experience a woman will try to economize for the sake of pocket change, or to increase the number of gowns she owns. Therefore, I insist on footing your dress bill.”
“As you wish, your Lordship. I thank you.”
“You are most welcome. There is another point, more precarious I fear.” He pursed his lips.
“Wickham.” She answered for him.
He lowered his voice, “Yes. You must know having a written document detailing any harm to him would guarantee a bleak future for us both. I must ask you to trust me on this point; for, though my intentions towards you may not have been honourable, they have always been honest. I ask you now to trust that I will deliver him to you, but it cannot be in this document.”
She had not been worried he might renege on any of his promises, but his last words, rather than comforting, began to worry her, indeed.
He sought to assuage her anxiety. “Miss Bennet, understand me; think of my history. I do not desire a reluctant woman, I want you with me of your own volition, and satisfied with the arrangements. How could we spend the next years together if we started out on such an unhappy footing? I will do this, I promise you.”
She did not have to think long. He was right. She dare not ask for such a clause. The attorneys might feel obligated to reveal the document, should anything happen to Wickham. She wanted no one else involved now that she was so close to seeing her hunger for revenge satiated. She no longer cared if she had to take a leap of faith with Caldhart. He had fulfilled everything he had promised so far, and her desire for revenge was now so great, she allowed herself to fall deeper into the abyss. It was remarkably simple.
“Yes, I believe you, Lord Caldhart.” She took a last resolved breath, and plunged. “I am ready.”
Half an hour later her fate was sealed; the document signed, witnessed, and copied for all interested parties to file wherever they may. He locked the door behind the departing men, and returned to her at the sofa.
“May I make a request?”
“I believe you have every right now, Sir.”
He frowned and sighed. “No Elizabeth, you have agreed to my terms, but I have yet to fulfill them. You are still your own mistress. Now, may I make a request?”
“Will you remove your cap and glasses until it is time for you to return?” She shook her head in mock disapproval, then stood and removed the offending objects in front of the mantle mirror. Her hair was swept up into a functional knot, not fashionable, but preferable to her matron’s cap. She caught his gaze in the mirror and he nodded his approval before she returned to the sofa.
“We have much to discuss. I must tell you the manner in which your sister’s marriage is to have taken place, as well as how I will effect the consequent discovery of it.” She had not expected things to move quite this rapidly.
“Mr. Brooks will be receiving an anonymous tip that Captain Gregory, of the sailing ship Adventure , currently docked in Portsmouth, married your sister and George Wickham late last July while sailing for the American colonies.” He looked apprehensively at her, yet she did not flinch. “As you already know, this did not actually occur.”
“Yes, and the Gardiners and Jane will want to know what Wickham was doing back in London last January,” she calmly added.
“Who else knew Wickham was then in London?” “I do not know if anyone informed my father. I, that is, we no longer communicate. I suspect not, for I would have heard of it from my uncle. Do you have an alibi for Wickham’s presence?”
“Actually, I do not believe we should try to excuse it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I think we should let your relatives think Wickham sailed with Lydia to America, and then several months later returned without her. Whether he abandoned her completely or not, is not for us to determine, and I dare say the Gardiners would not want to pursue it further. As it stands, he will be Lydia’s husband; what quantity of a husband is not important in the grander scheme. Your sister and your family will be restored. As long as Lydia does not care about her present circumstances with her reputed husband, the rest of the world will not be concerned.
“The pressing point is when the marriage becomes known, you must arrange for anyone who knew Wickham was here in January to swear not to tell anyone else in your family. If news of a possible rift between them leaks out, the validity of the marriage might be questioned.”
Elizabeth thought of her mother’s propensity to tell any of their neighbours her joys as well as her vexations. She knew there was little chance her mama would keep her daughter’s troubled marriage to her self. She could see the wisdom in keeping Wickham’s winter sojourn to London from everyone at Longbourn.
“Lydia has agreed to this?”
He swallowed hard, and looking her directly into her eyes, lied . “Yes, she has agreed to the false marriage. And ...I have convinced her to take the trip to America. I will set her up with a sufficient income to live on. Perhaps one day she might even marry.”
“America!” said Elizabeth, astonished. “Will I be able to see her before she leaves?”
“Are you sure you wish to, my dear?”
“I may never see her again!”
“True, but do you think you can lie to her? Do you think you deflect any questions she would ask about where her Wickham was, why he was not sailing with her? Can you speak to her, and not betray your hatred of the man you are bent upon for revenge?”
His concerns were fair enough. Her emotions were difficult to conceal. Part of her was still furious at Lydia for all she had forced Elizabeth to endure. However, a larger part of her was concerned for Lydia, and felt someone in the family should see her one last time, make sure she was well, before she travelled so very far away.
“Yes, my Lord, I believe I am capable, and I do wish to see her.”
“Will you not call me Robert?” He asked unexpectedly. She turned away, too shy to look at him.
“I am sorry, Lord Caldhart. Perhaps someday, but you ask too much at present.”
“It is no matter, a trifle. You will be able to see her, but it will have to be done after the marriage has been revealed, and before we two see Wickham.”
“But what of Wickham? Will he not object after hearing of his own marriage?”
“Perhaps he would, but I do not think he will ever hear. Do you, my Dear?” The implications of his statement and his manner chilled something inside her. Someone who could seem so cold and calculating over such important issues made her shiver.
“Yes, I see.” She stared into the flames once more. “The timing must be very precise.”
“We have but a few days between your family discovering the marriage, and our ‘meeting’ shall we say, with Wickham.”
“You have seen him then? You know where he is?”
“Yes, to both.” A small smile crept upon her face; it was tiny, yet disturbing. Her eyes were unfocused, deep in another place. When she spoke, her eyes did not look at him; they looked through him.
“Very soon; next week if the weather holds.”
“For travelling, there are many miles to traverse.”
“No you shall remain here, and continue to work at your shop. You must still be there when the news of the marriage arrives. I want you to see that deed done by me. I can arrange for you to see Lydia after that, but you must also stay in town until we meet with Wickham. Your whereabouts must be accounted for, Elizabeth.” She slowly nodded again. “In the meanwhile, I suggest you reflect about what you will wish to do with your business.”
“The cigar shop?”
“Yes, your Toby and the Gardiners have an investment in the place. I believe you would be distressed if they went into debt over losing the artist that creates their products, or if Toby was left without a position, would you not?”
“I have given it great deal of thought of late. Two months ago I began compiling more detailed notes of my customer’s preferences, along with explanations, similar to recipes, of the blends I have made. When finished, I shall have a comprehensive manual of my techniques and practices at the shop. I think Mr. Gardiner and Toby could manage admirably with it. There is only one concern I have; the choosing of the leaves. My uncle has no talent for it.”
“What of Toby?”
“Yes, Toby’s senses have been having quite an education of late,” she said with a pointed look at Lord Robert. “I believe if I took him with me, and focused on training his nose to what is quality and not, he could become a good substitute for Mrs. Johnson in a short time.”
“Is your business busy enough to justify hiring another employee? If you had someone to take over your position at the desk, it would leave you more time to train Toby in the ways of your artistic talents, and leave a functioning business behind when you left.”
“Yes, my Lord, I may be able to do it all.”
“Excellent! You have eleven days.”
“Within a day or two, yes.” He mentally calculated again. “Best to use eleven. When your family learns of the marriage, your uncle may well suggest you give up the shop. So it is of little consequence.”
This man amazed her. All of these transactions, as if they were selling ribbons and cheese. If he had not been born to his wealth and his title, she thought he would have been a clerk somewhere, in an austere office, pushing his pen up and down columns, moving numbers on a page as easily as he was now moving people’s lives around. Had she ever have a chance against him? It mattered not now, but saddened her all the same. Another involuntary shudder claimed her.
“My dear, you are cold,” he said as he slid close to her. Her automatic reaction was to back away from him; the result of years of proper lady-like training. He chuckled.
“I am sorry, Sir. I cannot undo the years of my mama’s training in one afternoon.” His eyes betrayed his obvious ardour, but he made no move again towards her person. She calmed a bit, and decided to forge ahead to the point she was most curious about.
“And when shall we…“ She struggled for the correct term. “When shall I come to you?”
“I believe it will be Saturday the fifteenth, if I have fulfilled all your terms by then. Have you decided on how we shall address you? Do you wish to be known by your rightful name, or Mrs. Johnson?”
“No Sir, I do not wish my name to be known to any here. I have chosen a new identity.”
His brows lifted in anticipation.
“I will be Chantal Moreau, a refugee from France. I have no family left after the Terror and Bonaparte’s conscription of my last living relative, my oldest brother Jean, who died two years ago. My family was of little consequence in society, but wealthy enough to provide for their children’s education, and allowed me to be raised as a lady, such as I am. Do you approve?”
“Hmmm ‘Dark Songstress’ Chantal Moreau.” He allowed the name to roll over his tongue like a fine vintage. “Yes, I like it very well, indeed. And do you sing, Miss Moreau?”
“Please, you must not address me as such now. I am here as Mrs. Johnson, and I do not wish the servants to be confused or hear my new name, until I enter here without my disguise. But to answer your question, yes, my Lord, I sing and play, though very ill I’m afraid; I would not wish to excite your anticipation.”
“Would you play for me now?’
“I think not, Sir. My repertoire is not so vast, and I do not wish to play something the staff would recognise again later. Please forgive me.”
“Of course.“ He leaned forward, slowly taking in her hair and the features of her face in detail. She was nervous at finding herself so scrutinized.
“Have you ever been kissed?” he whispered.
Her mouth gaped open. “You are very forward!” she admonished.
“On the contrary, if I was very forward I would have asked if I could kiss you. I merely wish to know if you have been kissed.”
She looked at him, all astonishment. “Yes,” she finally said.
He frowned. “By a man?”
“And you were grown, not a girl?”
He pouted. “What was his name?”
Now he looked perturbed. “And his last name?”
He rolled his eyes. “I should have known better.” He sat for a few moments then finally asked, “Elizabeth, have you ever been kissed by a fully grown man, who was not related to you in anyway, after you were the age of say, sixteen?”
She thought a moment and began to answer when he quickly intervened. “And not on the hand!”
This made her stop, and she shyly bent her head away again, and shook it.
The reflection that returned Elizabeth’s gaze from the confines of the battered mirror in the old inn was enough to make any young woman startle. She had never worn a pair of breeches before, and was surprised to see her figure so blatantly displayed. Grateful to have bound her breasts that morning when setting out as Mrs. Johnson, she decided some extra padding around her stomach would be necessary to properly proportion her hips to her waist. She simply looked too womanly without it. Finally satisfied with the shape of her figure under her coarse shirt, she buttoned everything up and then took up the small cravat. Luckily, she had taken an interest when she was a young girl in her father’s cravats and now, with nary a trouble, she tied a simple configuration under her chin. A knock at the door warned her to be expedient. She had a trying time with her hair; there was a great deal and it was very difficult to tuck it all under the cap but, in the end, she succeeded. Looking over herself one last time, she determined that, just as when dressed as Mrs. Johnson, too much of her obviously feminine face was visible and she reached once again for her glasses before she left her room.
Lord Caldhart’s eyes betrayed his wonder and amusement as he inspected her when she finally opened her door. He nodded his approval of her newest disguise and they headed down the hallway to begin the journey in his coach. Elizabeth thought back on the last days as his driver slowly made his way into the roughest parts of London.
She had stealthily been giving Higgins small packages containing the few precious articles she insisted upon having with her in her new home. There was not much, mostly nostalgic items and a few personal effects she did not wish to part with or replace. She had also sent two day dresses and a few personal undergarments to tide her over until her new wardrobe could be purchased. Her letters she would bring with her on Saturday, as she did not trust anyone with those most treasured possessions.
The instructions she had started to compile in March were now completed. Mr. Whitaker, her co-worker from Mr. Gardiner’s clock shop, was working out splendidly as the newest addition to Johnson‘s. He was trustworthy and experienced and Elizabeth now felt confident, albeit still guilty, her uncle could keep Johnson’s going strong if he wished to do so after she disappeared, although it would not be easy.
The last two days had been quite tumultuous. Mr. Brooks had returned from Portsmouth with the news of the marriage, and of Lydia and Wickham’s travels to America. Elizabeth had been quick to suggest the Gardiners host a conference with Mr. Brooks and have Jane included. It was far easier than she would have thought to suggest that, although the Wickham’s were now married, the status of their questionable happiness need not be told to the rest of the Bennets. The men questioned Elizabeth once again on what she had witnessed between Sally and Wickham. Had she thought he had abandoned his wife, or was he merely back in London enjoying himself, though not respectably?
She owned either was possible, but as it was, they were not able to prove any conjecture, therefore, what good would come of telling her father and mother? All agreed to spare her parents and other sisters’ feelings and, more importantly, not risk the reputation which was about to be repaired.
As Lord Robert had predicted, her aunt and uncle had brought up the futures of Elizabeth and Jane. Elizabeth stated emphatically she did not wish to give up her employment, nor return to Longbourn, while Jane said she would want to think on it. Jane knew the Parkers should not be completely abandoned until a replacement for her could be found, and she was dearly attached to her two little wards. For the time being, she wanted to remain where she was. Therefore, the discussion of the futures of the sisters was postponed.
Mrs. Johnson had not gone to her cigar shop today; the first time since its opening. It was a strange feeling spending the entire day at Gracechurch Street, never once searching the lanes. She had claimed fatigue to her aunt in the late afternoon, while the sun was still low in the sky. With a basket packed full of her dinner, she set off for home. Soon after she arrived and had eaten her meal, she headed back out for the long walk to the rendezvous point with Higgins. She was very surprised to see Lord Caldhart waiting for her inside the plainest of coaches. She was even more surprised to see him dressed no better than Toby.
“Are you for disguises then, my Lord?”
“Tonight we are both, my Dear. We shall have to stop and have you change as well.”
“I am already in disguise, Sir.”
“True, but it would be better for you if you dress as you will soon see.”
She was shocked after being told she would be dressing as a boy of no more than fourteen. He had explained the area they were going to was not safe for most women, not even the dowdy Mrs. Johnson, and he wished to take no risks with her. They were to go to an inn first, where she could make the change, and then continue on to their final destination. As they were only accompanied by Higgins, and had no other protection, she had no choice but to trust him. She wondered in what squalor Lydia must be living for his Lordship to be this worried. Having not seen Lydia, he perhaps had only his men’s word as to her conditions.
Now thoroughly disguised, they at last stopped on a dark street. The noises and smells spoke worlds to her of the quality of the neighbourhood. They walked for several minutes before they came to a large tavern at the end of the street.
They entered through the back of the establishment, but not before Lord Caldhart had also donned a large hat, pulling it well down over his face and raising his collar up, sufficiently hiding most of his features. A rough man nodded to Higgins, and then led them to a small room, little more than a storage closet, in the rear. Caldhart motioned to Higgins to stand guard outside the closed door while he sat Elizabeth upon one of the low-lying casks. He took her hand; a deep frown crossed his face. Several moments went by, until Elizabeth began feeling a very strong premonition; he was trying to impart some very bad news to her. She finally could not stand the tension he was creating. “Tell me.”
He looked into her face, startled at her perceptiveness, and nodded. “We have not come here tonight to see your sister. I have received word today,” he hesitated again, closed his eyes and all at once said, “Elizabeth, Lydia suffered a miscarriage and has died.”
She blinked at him as though not understanding. The last words, “a miscarriage and has died” played over and over in her head. She could feel a rush of energy fill her body, making her heart pound at what seemed like a thousand beats per minute, yet her face remained stoic. She did not know it, but her hand was gripping his almost painfully. She finally released it, standing quickly then taking a deep breath she turned to him, and demanded, “Why are we here?”
He moved to the door and opened it wide, then nodded to Higgins and indicated the door across the hall. Higgins opened it and revealed a larger, more spacious room. There in the centre, tied heavily to a chair, gagged and blindfolded, was George Wickham.
The room was dank and stark at best. There was no fire, or windows, and surprisingly little noise could be heard from the main room of the tavern below. A large wooden table, cut and scraped over the years, bore several bottles of wine, mugs, old plates with crumbs and a lamp. On the far end, lying upon a large opened sailcloth were a dagger, a foil, a length of rope and a small, pearl handled pistol.
Elizabeth slowly entered the room, her eyes never wavering from Wickham. Finally, she looked down and noticed the table and its contents. She looked over each one, in between raising her head at Wickham, as though he might somehow be gone if she did not keep a close eye on him. After perusing the entire room, her hand reached for one of the wine bottles while she grabbed a mug with the other and filled it to the top with the heavy red liquid. She hesitated but an instant, before allowing the stinging substance to drain down her throat with one very long drink. She coughed slightly when the empty mug was once again set down, causing Wickham’s head to cock, trying to ascertain whom he was hearing.
“Shall I see about getting you some food?” Caldhart asked her, with a rough accent. She shook her head, still staring at Wickham. Neither Higgins nor his master had moved an inch since she walked into Wickham’s ‘jail cell’. Both men regarded her curiously, if not a bit warily. She moved about the room like a predator; they both recognized it.
She soon noticed her audience as well and, perturbed at being considered a performance, spoke, “Leave us, now.”
Caldhart was taken slightly aback, but agreed. “If you need anything, we shall be standing guard directly outside the door.” She nodded again, turning back to Wickham whose head was once again straining to hear his captor’s voices, no doubt try to guess their identities.
She found another wooden chair in the corner and pulled it up in front of him, inspecting him closely. His hands were tied behind his back, his legs spread open and each tied down a leg of the chair with many coils. His chest had many rings of rope around it, and the high back of the chair kept his head in place as well, completely incapacitating him. Whoever bound him knew what he was doing; he could not move a muscle. They sat in silence for many minutes until she finally spoke.
“Wickham. How I have dreamt of this very moment.” She suddenly stood up and walked quickly to him. Sticking out a single pointed finger, she touched his collarbone where it was exposed thru his shirt. She could hear his sharp breath as his torso stiffened with her touch and realised he had no way of knowing if she was brandishing a weapon, or not. She looked back to the table, and moved to examine the instruments laid out for her.
The dagger called to her. She picked it up and turned it over in her hand. She had used many knives before, both in her shop and in the stillroom, but this dagger was heavier, its purpose only too obvious. She strode back over to Wickham and placed the edge of the knife into his hair. She could feel him tense up, and it made her smile. Then with a quick flick of the blade, she lopped off a chunk of his hair, and the blindfold that bound his eyes. Like a dog yelping at seeing his master’s hand raised, Wickham had yelped as well.
“Coward,” she hissed.
She was standing behind him, giving his eyes a chance to accustom themselves to the light of the lamp. She slowly walked back and faced her adversary. He had no recognition on his face. She was not concerned, nor in a hurry; he would know soon enough who she was. She sat back on the chair, and poured herself a second glass of wine.
“You are a coward, Wickham; one of the worst cowards I have ever heard of, much less known. Did you run away when you were working in the army? Did you retreat in your exercises when the slightest bravery had to be shown? I suspect you did. I suspect you had your so-called friends make up alibis for you. You were always so good with words. It is a pity you never studied the law as you once lied and claimed you wished to. You might have been a good barrister had you lived.” He winced upon her mentioning his life. She paid it no attention.
“Wickham the coward. Cowards flee. That is their trademark, you see. Never make a stand, never take responsibility, never show bravery, and always abandon. And that is what you do Wickham; you run away. Now I must take the responsibility; I must make sure everyone knows with whom they are dealing. I must be the man for you.” She suddenly burst out laughing.
“How ironic that a woman must do that for you!” She fairly cackled as she stood once again and in a swift motion lunged at the foil, firmly grasping it in her hand. She quickly turned back upon Wickham and with a large sweep of her arm, drew the blade swiftly yet firmly across his stomach.
“Better to rule in Hell, than serve in Heaven, wouldn’t you say?” He, however, was not listening, as he was loudly screaming while watching his blood turning his lawn shirt to red.
“Cease whining like a mongrel. Even you should have been able to tell the blade had not run deep, fool.” And she was right; soon the blood, which had quickly seeped onto his shirt, had ceased its spread.
“Now you are branded! ‘Here stands a coward’, your scar will say.” She still stood in front of him, pointing the foil at him, turning it back and forth with a flick of her wrist, studying the instrument.
“What method should I use, Wickham? The foil is so elegant a weapon; it seems a shame to waste it on a such as yourself. There is nothing you would not do for money, including selling yourself, I think.
No, running you through would not be right. I prefer something which reflects your character more. Hanging would be good, you are as common as any criminal in Newgate, but you are too large for me to pull up on the rafters.” She looked up into the ceiling, as if calculating the possibility. Wickham’s anxious gaze went up as well.
“No, cannot hang you. Cannot possibly have you drawn and quartered either, though I can think of more than a few people who would pay to see it.” And she started laughing once again. She grabbed her mug of wine, and slowly sipped it this time. Her nose wrinkled in disgust at the drink’s foul taste.
“Selling tickets to Wickham’s execution! Oh Lord, how I have fallen! My wit is simply not what it once was. Lydia would laugh though; she always enjoys a good joke.” She guffawed but then suddenly sobered, realising her error. “Always enjoyed a good joke.” She threw the foil into the corner behind her and grabbed for the pistol, inspecting it carefully.
“No, I wish for no witnesses, merely to make you suffer. How many bullets does this little weapon hold? Enough to slowly bleed you, hole by hole, like Lydia bled?” His eyes suddenly went wide.
“You do not know, do you? You still have not discovered who you are dealing with, nor why, have you? Such a pity, we were always friends, were we not? You told me so. But you do not recognise me, because I did not want you to. Let me help you now, and we will have a lovely chat before I fill you with holes.” She replaced the pistol, stood in front of him and wrenched off the cap, her long dark hair spilling to her waist, as she removed the thick spectacles which hid the last bits of her.
She bowed in front of him. “Good Evening, Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth Bennet, here to serve you.” And she smiled a smile he had never witnessed before; a dazzling smile full of energy, power and malevolence. He had to close his eyes from it.
“You sit there, and I will sit here, and we shall talk about why you should no longer live.” She then proceeded to give Wickham an account of all her family had suffered because of him. She droned on and on, making Wickham fairly dizzy from all she told him. She left nothing out, between her swills of the wine, dwelling acutely on how her inability to find him had made her suffer so. Then she triumphantly told him of how seeing him once with Sally had been the means to finding him at last. She mentioned no names with regards to his Lordship, or Higgins: merely calling them friends who were helping her.
“And lastly, Wickham, we made sure you were married to Lydia. You were married last July on your way to America! I am quite certain my family will never hear from you again, as it is so very far away. But at least my mother will have the pleasure of bragging to her neighbours of her good fortune of having a daughter well married.” Her cheery demeanour then took a decided turn.
“Would that my poor sister had the same rights. But sadly, I was informed tonight she anticipated you in the hereafter, and you are, for a short time, a widower. I would feel sympathy for you and extend my condolences had my sister not suffered her fate at your hand.” His eyes popped and he tried to shake his head “no” quite vehemently.
“Yes, Wickham. When you run away with a sixteen year old girl, and she dies losing the baby you put into her, the fault falls to you. It is your responsibility. Must we review the lessons of cowardice and being a man?” she said menacingly, while fetching the discarded foil and starting towards him. She could hear his screams against the gag as his head attempted to move back and forth again. The foil was thrown back into the corner.
“Good, because I no longer have a stomach for you. I want this to end.” She picked up the pistol, cocked it with her thumb and with confident determination pointed the weapon directly into his face. His chest was heaving, the sweat pouring down his face and onto his shirt.
“No one should ever have to know the evil that you cause,” she pronounced. She stood strong and powerful in front of this man who had hurt so many. She knew anyone would tell her the action she was taking was justified. She had the right to judge him. She had the right to exact her punishment.
She held the gun nearly touching his temple, for how long she did not know, but her hand began shaking, trembling. He was crying now, pleading with her through the gag for his life. His chest would shake with his sobs, as his breathing still remained laboured. Still she held the shaking gun to his head.
The thought then occurred to her if she did this, if she executed this scoundrel, what would that make her? For all the evil the man had wrought, he had never taken a life directly. By serving as his judge and executioner, she would become worse than him: a murderer.
Worse than Wickham.
The gun slowly lowered as she resignedly muttered, “No, not your pretty face, George. Let someone else have that pleasure.”
She turned away from him, suddenly feeling all the sweat her body had drained as they two had faced each other down. She could hear his whimpers of relief behind her as she continued to catch the breath she had not known she was short of. The gun was un-cocked and placed next to a large, full bottle of wine on the table. She stared at it and the bottle, until slowly her fingers encircled the thick neck.
Had he been able to see her, he would have seen a calmness come over Elizabeth, combined with a glow of happiness as she then inverted both her hands around the bottle’s neck and quietly spoke the last words she ever said to George Wickham.
“This is for Lydia, and to ensure no other woman can ever suffer the same fate.”
She raised the heavy bottle high over her head as she turned, oblivious to the muffled screams in the room, and smashed it down upon her foe where his breeches met the chair.
Elizabeth carefully tucked her hair up into the cap, feeling cautiously for any stray hairs that would give away her sex. Taking one last large sip of wine, she replaced her spectacles upon her nose and opened the door to the rest of the tavern. The two men jumped at her sudden appearance, but did not hesitate to look into the room. They saw Wickham unconscious; the line across his belly was already drying and brown. His lap was covered in broken glass, wine and fresh blood. Elizabeth’s breeches too, were splattered with wine. Both men looked at one another and swallowed hard.
Higgins quickly traversed the room, put his hand to the man’s neck and verified, “He’s still alive.”
Elizabeth looked agitated. “Yes he’s alive!” she hissed. “If I had wanted him otherwise, he would not be!” She turned on Caldhart. “May we leave, please?”
He directed her this time through the main room and out the front door. Elizabeth kept her head down, but could not help but be strangely distracted by the men in the tavern. They looked out of place. Most had their ale mugs, but their dress was wrong: too good, actually. And she distinguished many different accents across the room. She could not account for it. However, and as there was no time to stop and investigate, she put it out of her mind.
Half an hour later, George Wickham awoke. He was surprised to find he was no longer bound to the chair in any way, though his hands were still tied behind his back and the gag was in place. A large burly man and a smaller round man were now sitting at the table, drinking some of the wine.
“Ah, finally woke up, did ya, pet?” said the larger of the two. “Lovely, lovely, got some people who’ve been asking after you, they have. Come out ’n’ meet ‘em.” He grabbed Wickham roughly by the neck and lifted him up. Wickham groaned in pain as the cut across his middle stung and the remembrance of where the bottled had landed announced itself to him with each agonizing step.
“Oh, try to be a man now.” They headed towards the main room in the tavern. As they passed out of the small hallway and into the large room, a hush fell over the crowd. Wickham hesitated for a moment, confused. He was certain he did not look very well, but surely not so bad as to make an entire room silent.
The gruff man spoke from behind him, loud enough for everyone to hear. “You might be having some trouble thinking straight right now, seeing as yer bleeding out some new holes.” Several snickers floated around. “But ya needn’t worry, Wickham, everyone here knows you, and they can’t wait to re-acquaint themselves. Now you go right out and enjoy this reunion. I knows several people have been waiting years to see you again. Each and every one will want to have a moment of your time.”
Wickham concentrated hard on the faces in front of him. Slowly he began to see straight and started to discern that the men who stood in front of him could only be described as a history, his history. His mouth opened wide as he screamed and attempted to run back through the hallway, only to be blocked by the burly man and his companion. He turned back, panicked to see the menacing crowd closing in upon him.
Behind him a man spoke quietly into his ear, “Hello, Wickham. You won’t remember me, since I was just a boy when you took my sister Jenny down to the old mill in Lambton for your romps, but I remember you.”
She had not spoken since leaving the tavern. She changed quickly at the old inn and they returned for the trip to her home.
“You could not do it?” he finally asked, as the rickety coach ambled slowly thru the streets.
“Do you wish it still?”
“You mistake me. I meant no, I could do it. I merely chose not to do it.”
“You wish for him to live?” he asked, surprised.
“I did not wish to take his life.” She stared out the dark window. “He begged me, he begged for his life through that gag. I heard it as plain as our speech now. I realised that, in becoming his executioner, I would be guilty of greater crimes than he himself had committed. I chose to be a better person than that. I hope I am.” He nodded sympathetically.
They drove on for some time in silence, when something inside Elizabeth’s calm demeanour finally gave way. She looked over to him, tears glazing her eyes. A deep primordial wail escaped her throat, like the sound of a mother mourning her babe, and the torrent of tears came while her hands flew to bury her face.
“It is over, I have failed! There is nothing left I can do and my poor little sister, poor Lydia is dead! It was all for naught!” she sobbed.
He moved beside her and quickly took her in his arms, while she poured out the emotions pent up all these months into his shoulder. The coach had somehow stopped while she continued.
When at last he could bear it no more, he removed her head, cradling it in his hands, and spoke with great feeling, “I cannot agree with you. You have done everything that could be done. Your family has been restored and your sisters have a chance to find happiness. You have done this. If you had not been searching for them, we would never have met and I could never have helped you. Lydia still would have died, and your family would be more wretched than ever. You have given so many a future, Elizabeth. Will you not admit to yourself that you have done them good?”
Her sniffles jerked her body in his arms; a deep frown creased her forehead. “But Lydia?”
“Could not have been helped by anyone. Once she chose to leave with Wickham last summer, her fate was decided. Had you found her earlier, you would not have had the means to falsify a marriage, and she still would not have lived because of the child; you know this to be true.” He could see her testing the reason of his statements. She started to calm, as her acceptance took hold.
“Her death was of her and Wickham’s making, Elizabeth; you are not responsible.”
She nodded slowly, her lower lip quaking sweetly, as her tears quietly rolled down her cheeks. She accepted it. She could mourn the loss of Lydia, but she would not blame herself. She lay her head back down upon his arm while she wept silently for her sister. They sat for hours while he patiently comforted her, and she gave her emotions free reign.
“How do you feel?”
“Extraordinarily tired, but relieved. I think I may finally sleep tonight.”
“You do not sleep?”
“Not since coming to London have I enjoyed a restful night’s sleep,” she answered flatly.
“In what manner are you relieved?”
“Because I am finally done. There is nothing more I can do for my family, and the burden I have felt this past year no longer enslaves me. The outcome has not been a happy one, but it is an ending.”
“And are you satisfied?”
“Do you believe the terms of our arrangement have been satisfactorily carried out? Is there any part I have not fulfilled?”
“No, my Lord, I… I thank you for all you have done. As you have often stated, I could not have done this without you.”
“You are very welcome. I have another request, please forgive me if it sounds inconsiderate given the turn of events this evening, but I think you would find it a sound idea once I have explained myself.”
He hesitated, deciding how to broach the subject. “Elizabeth, you will have to conceal your sister’s death from your family.”
Her eyes once again brimmed with tears. “I know, I have been thinking the same. Unfortunately, I cannot fathom a way to reveal her passing without undoing all that we have done.”
“My Dear, I am truly sorry that you must bear this terrible knowledge by yourself. I cannot disagree with you. There is no story we could concoct to justify Lydia being in England, with her husband and with child, and not contacting your family; nor of Wickham’s failure to write to your mother and father of their daughter’s passing.
“I propose a slight alteration to our plans. Would you be willing to dine early with me tomorrow? I know our agreement starts on Saturday, which would mean that one minute after midnight tomorrow would be the start of our new life, but I should like to have the pleasure of your company during the evening. I think the opportunity to distance yourself from your family during this difficult time might prove easier for you in the end. I know it will not be easy for you to leave them, but now, with this wretched situation, I think it would be torturous to spend an extended time in their presence having to act cheerful. If I am mistaken, please do not feel obligated to rush yourself.”
Her shoulders drooped, sadness written plainly upon her face. “No, my Lord, you speak sense.” She considered his proposal. It did not escape her that he would benefit from an earlier rendezvous, but he was correct. It was going to be difficult tomorrow while in her aunt and uncle’s presence. Seeing Jane however, and knowing that she must keep Lydia’s death from her dearest sister, would be torture.
“I will come to you tomorrow evening. Will you make the arrangements with Higgins to visit an inn before I come to your door? It will be time for Chantal Moreau to make her appearance in your home at last.”
He raised her hand to his lips, bestowing upon it a gentle, though prolonged kiss.
“It will be my pleasure, my Dear.”
Her final day as a free and independent woman was spent with those Elizabeth treasured most in the world; her loved ones. She arranged to meet with Jane and the Parker girls in the morning at the park, then stayed with her aunt and uncle for the rest of the day and played with her little cousins till she had exhausted them.
The Gardiners had commented on her strained face; the remnants of the tears that had fallen the night before, and her sad parting with Jane earlier. She reassured them she had simply been so overwhelmed by their great good fortune, she gave into her pent up emotions and had herself a good cry. Unfortunately, it was just before she fell asleep the night before and thus the swollen red eyes this afternoon. They humoured her good naturedly, and did not question her further after seeing her complexion improve throughout the day. She bid them farewell in the late afternoon, trying hard not to allow her embrace to linger too long, nor allow her eyes to betray her emotions at this painful adieu, just as she had with Jane earlier in the day.
She perused her room; satisfied the place looked well. Gone were the maps, notes, and scribbles she had pored over the past six months. They had all been burned along with any trace of the obsession she had given into. Her clothes were clean and neatly stored in her chiffarobe. The bed was made, the furniture dusted, the entire room was neat and tidy. She gathered her bag, in which she had placed her letters, combs, brush and the gown she meant to change into for this evening’s dinner and, with one last look, left her room for the final time to begin her new life.
Higgins met her nearly a mile away, where prying eyes would not know her, driving one his Lordship’s unmarked carriages. He informed her that after she had changed her gown at the inn, they would be meeting and transferring to a second, finer carriage in another part of town, and then finally make their way to Lord Robert’s home. His Lordship’s care in concealing her identity was gratefully accepted by the lady.
When Elizabeth had emerged from the door of the inn, dressed in the gown she had once worn to the theatre so long ago, poor Higgins could not help but gape at the loveliness before him. She shyly bowed her head. “I had forgotten you have never seen me as myself, have you, Higgins?”
“Yes Ma’am. I have actually; ages ago in the winter. I once saw you with your aunt and cousins, playing in the snow, but, well, you didn‘t look like you do now. I must say his Lordship has once again proven his ability to find beauty where most folks would not have thought to look.” He suddenly looked aghast for having voiced his opinion. “Beg pardon, Miss Bennet.”
“You are forgiven. However, from now on I am to be addressed as Miss Chantal Moreau by his Lordship’s staff. And I would not mention your observations in future if I were you. Rest assured, I shall not”
“Yes, Miss Moreau. And Ma’am, you should know, I have served his Lordship all my life, and have kept all his secrets as well. I just want you to know, well, Mrs. Johnson and all that, only me and the attorneys know, and I will keep your secret safe, too.”
Her surprise was evident. She extended her hand and, shaking his, she sincerely answered, “Thank you Mr. Higgins, your promise means more than you can know.” He swallowed hard, quite taken with this remarkable young woman. “And when do we leave for Surrey?” she asked, lightening the air.
“I believe on the morn, Miss Moreau. For now, the carriage awaits you, Ma’am.” he said, bowing with deepest respect.
The staff tried valiantly to not peek out the windows every few moments, intent on looking busy, when all they wanted was a chance to espy his Lordship’s latest conquest. More than one gentleman in town had given standing orders that, should a footman of Lord Caldhart’s learn of a new mistress at his home, the well placed, early conveyance of said information would be worth a fair bit of tuppence. Unfortunately, only a select few servants had been in on the secret of his newest acquisition. And it was only a matter of an hour earlier that the entire staff had been informed, therefore none could leave their posts in time to collect the reward.
His Lordship proudly greeted the beautiful Miss Moreau and welcomed her to his home. His staff were introduced to their new mistress, nervously curtseying and bowing to her. He then conducted a tour of the house, whereupon she was honestly able to express her wonder at the place. They were to partake of a very early dinner, which surprised Elizabeth until his Lord Caldhart explained himself more fully.
“My Dear, I have a rather unusual request to make of you this evening.”
“My Lord?” she questioned.
“Tonight a ball of some import is to take place. The Blakely’s have hosted it for years and it is the highlight of the end of the Season. It is a masquerade costume ball, and is always attended by the crème de la crème of the ton . I would ask, as a personal favour to me, and not as a stipulation of any agreement we have entered into, you accompany me tonight, so I may have the pleasure of showing you off to society before we retire to Surrey.” He saw her startle and panic.
“Rest assured Miss Moreau, your costume will allow you the anonymity you have always sought. Your own mother would not recognize you.” She was not pleased. He attempted to assuage her fears.
“Chantal,“ he began sweetly, “allow me to tell you some things about yourself. Your beauty does not strike most men in the usual way. It is your essence that attracts; the aura, spark and vitality which emanates from you. You have a stark sensuality in all you do, every move you make, every sentence you utter, which attracts a man, and draws him to you. Then your beauty, in all its variations, ensnares them. Without the hindrance of looking for a wife, a man wishes for a woman exactly like you. A woman to stir his loins, a woman he would make love to all night without thought to his health; that is what you are. You were made for love, Chantal, I knew it the first day I saw you.
“Tonight the men at this ball will know who you are. You are my new mistress and as such you will create such a stir, such an interest, only the king or the regent will have known the like. You can do as you please, talk to whom you please, flirt with whom you please. This one night you will be the elite of society and everyone there will seek you out with a vengeance. Would you not find it amusing that the proprietress of Johnson’s House of Cigars will be the belle of the largest ball London has ever seen?” She looked at him earnestly, trying to find deception in what he said, but she could see none. He tenderly grasped her hand and beseeched her, “You are the flame the moth is drawn to, and men are the moths. Will you not agree to come tonight and be my flame? Would you not find it diverting and help to assuage the sadness you are suffering?”
She informed him that, providing her costume proved adequate disguise, she would go.
She sat in front of her dressing table, wearing only a heavy silk robe. She watched the rose hues in the garment play off the warmth in her complexion under the soft flickering candlelight as she thought about how triumphant dinner had been. His Lordship had obviously gone to great lengths to please every possible taste bud on her tongue and could not have been more successful. Her exquisite costume had proved more than adequate to disguise herself, and now she sat in her new dressing room, getting ready for the Blakely’s ball.
Gemma, her new maid, had just unwrapped the towel she had used to keep her hair from getting wet in her bath, when the adjoining door opened.
Elizabeth looked into her mirror and startled at the sight of Lord Robert gazing steadily back at her. “That will be all for now, Gemma. Your mistress will summon you when she is ready to finish dressing.” The maid hurried out the servant’s entrance door. They stared at one another through the confines of her mirror. He slowly approached her, his eyes were searching her face, looking for fear and, seeing none, smiled down at her.
She smiled nervously back. “Your obvious … interest in my person makes me slightly unsettled, my Lord. Please forgive me.” There was a charge in the room, not unlike their encounters in the cigar shop, yet not tension, it was merely an energy; unsure where it should go.
“Without an ‘interest’ in you, our bed would be very dull indeed. But I can stimulate your interest as time goes on, and make the experience very enjoyable for you. You have to be willing to open your mind to new ideas, and toss out all the warnings your mother no doubt told you. The world would not be populated if all ladies kept their knees locked, Chantal. Maidenly modesty will have no place in our bed.”
A deep blush spread instantly across her face and neck as she whispered, “You speak of such things as if they were nothing, like talking of the weather.”
“It is perfectly natural for lovers. Would it not be better to be open and easy, conversing on the subject? I would never bring it up but when we two are alone. I mean to educate you.”
“I see. I suppose it only makes sense, as you… have the experience.”
He laughed lightly. “Yes, I do have the experience. I shall be happy to impart all I know in improving your education.” He moved nearer, close enough for her feel his breath against the back of her hair, the sound of his clothes rustling next to her. Now he spoke quietly, endearingly, seductively, “I have always admired your superior tactile senses; use them. Allow them to open up those parts of you not yet awakened.”
He stood behind her still watching her in her mirror. It was as though she was in the theatre, watching someone else be touched and spoken to. It was not an unpleasant experience. She felt movement in her hair as he picked up the heavy length of it. “Your hair is a cascade of rich dark chocolate.” He buried his face into its mass, breathing deeply. She observed him, fascinated, as he rubbed the length of it across his face, as she had once seen a cat do to a soft pillow. His eyes were closed, seemingly relishing in the feel, the texture of her tresses as he repeated the action once again. “It smells of rosewater, and feels like warm silk.”
He moved closer, she could feel the warmth of his forearms at her ears, his breath on the top of her crown. She watched as he took both of his large hands and, starting at her temples, his inverted fingers ploughed deep furrows into her head, moving towards the back. He then grasped his fingers hard; her curls still imprisoned, and held them there for several seconds. She thought she would feel pain, but instead, felt relief as the tension flowed out her body and into his strong hands while he repeated the act over and over. Her eyes closed involuntarily; it was heavenly.
“I have something for you,” he whispered into her ear, his hands still clenching her, his lips almost touching her. “I wanted my first gift to you to be special, memorable, and something I knew you would appreciate above all things.” Her eyes opened, mesmerised at the sight of this man still entwined in her locks, his face next to hers as they both looked at each other in the glass. He languidly drew his fingers down the length of her curls until he was finally free.
Then he drew a small jeweller’s box from his clothes and set it in upon the dressing table in front of her as he knelt next to her. “Please, open it; I think you will like it.”
She took the box in her hands hesitantly. She had little enjoyment of jewels, and wondered how she could keep her face from betraying her indifference and embarrassment. Still, he had made an effort on her behalf, and he was trying to please her. She could draw from that. She slowly opened it and could not help the laughter which escaped her. “It is truly exquisite, my Lord. A more perfect effort I could not imagine.”
He grinned and reached for it. “May I?”
He then cautiously picked up the delicate little ball and held it tantalisingly in front of her lips. They were both watching the morsel and then looked up into one another’s eye at the same time. He silently pleaded for her to do what she already desired. She licked the dark chocolate as he held it, relishing once more in the delight it afforded. He watched her, fascinated, as she took her pleasure at his fingertips, still never touching him.
He finally held it back, and she obeyed his request by opening her little mouth and he placed it upon her tongue. She waited for the joy of the confection melting in her mouth while watching as he sensuously licked the chocolate remaining on his fingers. He looked back to her and finally saw the beginnings of desire stirring within her as she regarded his actions.
“Close your eyes,” he softly entreated. He licked one chocolaty finger and drew the wet digit slowly across her bottom lip. He then watched her, knowing her automated reaction would come. Indeed, she had little conscious knowledge of what she did, when her own tongue started across the span of her velvety lower lip, taking up his offering of the food he had already had in his mouth. He shuddered.
“Keep your eyes closed,” he begged. He stood up behind her, and folded the cuffs of his dressing gown back several times, baring his lower arms. Slowly he ran his smooth inner forearm across her upper and lower lips.
“Skin touching skin. There is no other sensation like it. Use all of your senses, smell it, feel it on the sensitive patches of your face.” He ran his flesh gently across the tip of her nose and her chin, before moving back to her lips, settling his wrist against them.
“Press your lips against it, do you feel my blood?” She opened her eyes, to find his locked onto her face. She was surprised at the intensity in his look. She tentatively did as he asked, and could feel the strong beat under her lips.
“Your beauty makes my heart race,” he confessed. ”Taste me. Allow your tongue to feel my pulse.”
She started breathing more rapidly now, worried he was going to consummate their relationship right there in her dressing room.
He must have seen her panic, for he assuaged her worry, “Do not be afraid, my Dear, we have years to explore all the ways of love making. It is no small undertaking, I assure you. You have already read some upon the subject, I daresay, but practical experimentation is the only way to learn its lessons. Before we join, I promise you will be ready and willing, and feel great pleasure. Now close your eyes, and let your tongue, with all its sensitivity, taste its first man, and feel my blood’s song.”
He swept the fingers of his other hand gently down her eyes, closing them carefully and sighed as he felt the warm wetness of her shy tongue tentatively meet his wrist. His skin was soft and tasted slightly salty. She could smell the faint remnants of spices, no doubt from his bath. His pulse beat strong against her tongue, and she was surprised how intimate it felt to touch him thus.
His other hand grasped the length of her hair, and twisted it gently around his wrist, then laid it carefully up over her shoulder and neck to eventually fall across her breast down to her waist. She could then feel his fingers at the base of her neck, slowly pulling the collar of her robe down her back. It had no tie and therefore the more he pulled, the more the front of it inched up her body. The feeling of the smooth silk sliding across her bare skin underneath was exhilarating and she could not help the breaths which came more quickly now. He continued pulling until a fair portion of her back was exposed and, although hidden by her dressing table, her legs and feet were now exposed to the air in the room, which she noticed was decidedly warmer than when she had left her bath.
He removed the wrist she was no longer tasting to attend to her newly exposed skin. She stared blatantly at him in the mirror, though his gaze was completely devoted to the beauty of her exposed flesh. She felt his fingers, a mere whisper of a touch, along her spine. Her shoulders drew back involuntarily, setting her even straighter. His hands were supple and warm, and knew where to touch her to best make her feel so…… lovely, yet he seemed to barely make contact with her. How could such limited contact make her feel so many wonderful sensations she did not know, but all of her skin seemed attuned to him each time his finger tips came near.
“Massage is the art of rubbing or kneading the body to lessen pain or stiffness. However, when the body is not in pain, and when the artist applies his hand to bring pleasure to the subject, in a much lighter, much more sensual manner, that is different. The French have a word for it, which I forget at this moment, especially when I gaze upon the glory your skin is. You have a beautiful back, Chantal. It is strong from all the exercise you give it, but it is also strongly feminine, it curves and sways, it moves to its mistress’ ways and, even sitting still, it is uniquely you, and devastatingly appealing.”
He then drew up and gazed upon her image one last time in the mirror. Her eyes were now closed, her lips were parted, her chest rising in rapid waves. He took a deep, restraining breath. Lowering himself slowly down, he placed his hands around her small waist, and his nose brushed over the indents exposed at the bottom of the small of her back, as he inhaled her essence deeply into him. Then, directly over her naked spine, her lifeline, he softly kissed her for the first time.
The next sound Elizabeth heard was Gemma asking her about the manner in which she wished her hair to be done. She looked around the room; Lord Robert was nowhere to be seen. If not for the disarray of her robe and her hair, she would have thought it all an erotic dream. She also saw a box upon her table not previously there. She opened it to reveal a magnificent ruby and diamond choker and earrings with a note:
Please forgive my presumptions, but I thought my second gift should at least try to live up to the standards my first brought you. I think they will compliment your gown tonight beautifully, but all the accoutrements are nothing compared to the woman wearing them. -R
“A rather expensive speculation,” she thought as she admired them. They were obviously made in the eighteenth century; their style was a perfect accompaniment to the period costume she was to wear. She briefly wondered what he would have done, had she not agreed to accompany him this evening, but quickly dismissed it. When had Lord Robert not gotten what he wanted?
Her maid had exhausted herself putting up her hair in an elaborate style, then powdered her locks completely. They struggled getting her into her corset and panniers, then finally the decadent silk gown. Elizabeth was not used to the large protrusions at her hips, and spent many minutes walking up and down her chamber to accustom herself how to move. Turning was the largest problem, but she soon discovered how much room she needed to allow to do it without knocking into the furniture. She and Gemma giggled at her efforts.
She sat one last time to adorn her throat and ears with her jewels. The rubies were beyond anything she had ever seen, much less worn. He had chosen well; the colour was perfect for her and set off the dark red hues of her dress. The final touch was a Venetian mask covered in rose silk that covered most of her face. Only her fine mouth, chin and jaw were exposed. Her eyes could still see be seen and see perfectly well, though a little of her peripheral vision was obscured. They finally secured it into her hair; enabling her to spend the night with her hands free to move. She almost jumped at his voice.
“From the time I saw you that night at the theatre in your garnet gown, I knew I wanted to drape you in rubies,” he said from the connecting door to their chambers. Gemma curtseyed and disappeared.
“You are stunning. I fear you will break many hearts this evening.” His pleasure also evident in his gaze.
“I believe you will be well pleased if I do, will you not, my Lord?”
He laughed at her boldness. “You begin to understand me, enchantress. I do indeed relish the idea of other men envying me. Come, I have one thing more I wish to share with you,” he said as he led her through to his chambers. He retrieved two glasses from the table near a handsome leather sofa, and bade her drink. Bubbles tickled her nose while she took in the pleasure of the fragrant cool liquid. She giggled and he joined her.
“The finest French champagne that could be smuggled out from under old Bonaparte’s nose. A decadent luxury I can only indulge in occasionally, but I thought it appropriate to welcome you with a bit of your home, my dear Chantal.”
Her brow rose in the playful, impertinent manner that so bewitched him. “Merci beaucoup,” she responded, with a surprisingly good accent.
“Ha!” he laughed. “I should have known you would not pick France without a command of the language. Am I to assume you have no worries over your skills in that area?”
“Non, aucun,” she answered easily.
“My dearest Chantal, you will simply have them eating out of your hand.”
The night air was warm for mid May, but the gentlest of breezes kept it from being stifling. Elizabeth fidgeted in Lord Caldhart’s luxurious carriage, a fact he did not fail to spot. He took her silk gloved hand in his. “My Dear, tonight is your night. You can say whatever you want; no one will expect a prim and proper lady. They know me, and they will wish to know the woman I bring with me. If it pleases you, indulge yourself to the fullest. Imagine such freedom, such entertainment and such power!”
It was an exhilarating proposition. The freedom to be whomever she wanted, free to say and do for one evening, and then disappear, and never be held responsible; this piqued her vanity.
A small, wicked grin began at the corner of her mouth. “Very well, my Lord, for your sake and the sake of my ‘education’, I shall perform for you this evening. Though I guarantee no success, only earnest effort.”
He laughed again. “Chantal, you have never failed me yet.” He raised her hand to his lips, kissing it and then gently pulled. His head bent ever closer to her until he was almost at her mouth, when the door suddenly flew open. They had stopped at the entrance to the Blakely’s and had not noticed. She shyly smiled and he straightened back up, disappointment plainly written upon his face, before he grudgingly descended from the carriage and then turned to hand her out. Many gasps could be heard around her as Chantal Moreau made her first appearance in London‘s highest society.
“Have you seen her yet?”
“Look, over there, in the circle of men. The French woman.”
“Who is she?”
“Again? How does he do it?”
“You are assuming he does do it.”
“I’m surprised he doesn’t have an entire boys’ school of illegitimate offspring.”
“You are assuming, again, the first two legitimate ones were his.
“Have you spoken with her?”
“Yes, she’s a fiery one. Be careful not to arouse her ire; she has quite a bite. But clever as the devil.”
“I hear there’s a bet going around that no one can stump her. It is already over two hundred pounds.”
“I wish you luck! The short time I was near her, I heard her remark in her native French, then German and Italian, on subjects from Napoleon to Cowper. She even corrected one gentleman’s biblical quote.”
“Hardly! And even if she were, who cares if she can fill a dress so enticingly.” Both sighed.
“I thought the parts she was not wearing were enticing.”
“I suspect stumping her is not the only bet going around.”
“Shall we stop for a write up in the book at White’s later tonight, then?”
“Indeed! Death, or incapacitation?”
“Does it matter?”
“One of the first times I ever met her, she tried to poison me.”
“Surely you jest?”
“Oh, no! I am quite serious.”
The gentleman bowed his adieu and left Lord Caldhart to chuckle over his great good fortune. That rat would no doubt spread this juicy bit of gossip around the room faster than the North wind blows.
He had been vastly amused at the conversations overheard in the packs of wolves that lined the ballroom. The women were equally fascinated with his lady as well, but were careful to keep their bites to themselves, for now. He knew the drawing rooms would be full tomorrow of dull rich women trying desperately to tear his lover to shreds.
“Let the old crows fight,” he thought. “My jewel stands out above them all, and they know it.” He had his glass refilled and took a spot upon a nearby chaise where he could watch the show progress at leisure.
She was beginning to understand the lure of power. The men who encircled her seemed willing slaves to her every whim. Even those who had been sent or came of their own accord to best her eventually succumbed to her wiles. It was a feeling she had not known before, and quickly realised its potential to destroy a person’s soul, should they become a slave to it.
She continued on through the evening, enjoying herself more and more. Eventually, she noticed one man, always on the outskirts of her growing entourage. He never spoke to her, and if she tried to meet his eye he looked away. He was tall, with long dark hair, much longer than what most gentlemen wore. The tips of the curls could be seen peeking out under his hood and mask. His skin was very dark and she pondered if perhaps he was a Spaniard, or an Italian? She hoped he would speak with her, as he was increasing her curiosity every moment.
Her chance came later, when her admirers were momentarily distracted and she bravely strode directly to him and, curtseying, said, “Buenos Noches, Señior.” He looked shocked, then amused, and shook his head.
“Buona sera signore?” He shook his head again.
“Excusez-moi, but I do not speak Greek, only read it; perhaps I could write it down for you?”
“Good God, you think I am Greek?” he exclaimed in perfect English.
She laughed delightedly. “Not anymore,” she slyly replied, while looking up at him through her thick lashes. Their eyes met for a moment until, feeling heady under his intense gaze, she sought to distract herself from the flutters she felt.
“Forgive my bad manners, but your skin, I have never seen an Englishman so dark, your mother, she was perhaps Spanish or Italian?”
He looked down at his hands as if seeing them for the first time, and the truth of her observation. “No, I have just returned from the Mediterranean. I spent long days in the hot sun there and have become unusually tan.”
“And will you not join your fellow Englishmen in conversation? I notice you stand away; you listen, but you do not talk.”
“Forgive me, I did not mean to be rude.”
“I do not think I said you were rude, Monsieur. Perhaps you are merely shy?”
“I confess I do not conduct myself well with strangers.”
“I am a stranger, and you are conducting yourself very well.”
“Thank you, I am trying to improve. And if I may be so bold, Mademoiselle, you make it very easy. ”
“It is a very foolish woman who does not like a compliment. And I can easily return the favour, for you have been a delightful partner to converse with, and seem at perfect ease.”
“No, that will not do for a compliment. My dearest friend has often chided my habit of standing by myself in a stupid manner, when I had much better dance, or at least converse. I am afraid my fastidious habits have often robbed me of the pleasures of good company. Label me a beginner, and tell me I am learning well, but I know I have not mastered this skill, nor behaved in a completely gentlemanlike manner.”
He spoke lightly, laughing good-naturedly at his own deficiencies. But he would not have continued had he paid closer attention to his partner. He would have stopped his self-admonishments had he noticed Mademoiselle’s face drain of all colour and the panic set upon her as she attended his hands more closely. He would also have kept quiet and offered to be of service to her when her legs began to give way and she tottered dangerously towards the floor when she noticed the telltale signet ring upon his finger.
Instead, he was only able to help her when she finally grabbed his arm in panic, knowing she could no longer support herself.
“Good God! What is the matter?” he cried as she crumpled against him. He helped her to a nearby bench, around the corner and out of the main ballroom. He snatched the fan that hung from her waist and applied it to her face and neck. She knew he would be wondering what she could possibly be thinking while she looked at him with such intensity, yet she could not stop herself.
“How can I help you, shall I fetch you a glass of wine?” he asked in real concern. She slowly shook her head.
After a several agonizing minutes she seemed to finally calm, and was able to answer him with some semblance of composure. “No, I am well. I was just, the heat, it is overwhelming. And this costume…” Her hands flitted in front of her. “I am afraid I am not used to such things to torture women, or so much.. much… dress.”
He chuckled. “How can you make light, when you nearly fainted just now?”
“How can I remain serious when I see you waving a laced fan in front of me?”
He laughed again. “May I know the name of the lady I have rescued this evening?”
“It is a night of masquerades, Monsieur, we need only share what we wish.” She held out her hand to him. “Chantal,” she said simply.
He took her hand and pressed his lips to the back of it. “Enchanté, Chantal. Mon nom est….. Will.” He finally decided. She smiled beautifully, her eyes softening, radiating the love she felt, but knew he would not recognize.
“Will,” she sighed lovingly, thrilled that for once in her life she was able to address Fitzwilliam Darcy, the man who owned her heart, by his Christian name. His face betrayed happy confusion when she had practically caressed his name. He stayed by her for most of the evening, contributing to the conversations occasionally, but mainly watching her, studying her, and making her fall even more in love with him.
At one point, a group of ladies stood near her, and she could hear some of their conversation. Two dressed in Elizabethan gowns and draped in jewels started, “Really Louisa, this is just madness, I cannot tell one gentleman from the next, and so many of them refuse to use their proper names. I have met two William Shakespeare’s and even a Sophocles tonight. How is one to know where one’s proper set is?”
“Caroline, do not distress yourself. Enjoy the night for a change. I do not believe Darcy is even here. I’m sure Charles is not. Meet new people, see if you can find a partner for a dance. You tire me out with your complaints, and I am sure they can do you no good. You are developing a large frown line through your brow, you know.” Caroline gasped and excused herself to look for the line. Elizabeth laughed to herself. Perhaps this evening would prove more entertaining than she had expected.
Later, when she stood among her male harem she saw the two women again nearby and, feeling the effects of her power, began her revenge. She turned to the unsuspecting gentleman staring puppy-eyed next to her. “What do you Englishmen do when you find a woman who is really a man?” she innocently asked. There were several coughs, and some snickers, until one man braved to ask her to explain herself.
“In France, we have men who enjoy wearing the clothes of a woman. Sometimes they will come to a ball trying to pass themselves off for the whole of the evening as a woman. I have seen such a man tonight, and wonder how you Englishmen find them? “
“How do you know she was really a man?” another asked.
“I could tell right way as she was so, like a lamppost, oui? We French have little use for women who are, who resemble the Milo stalk. You see, they are not suited for love, I fear. But this woman, despite her jewels and her orange gown from Shakespeare, was definitely a man. I am sure I saw,” She pointed at Will’s cheek, where his sideburns showed slightly beyond his mask.
“Comment appelez-vous ceci?” He blushed.
“Whiskers,” he whispered.
“Oui, yes, I am sure I saw whiskers on her, his cheek.” Elizabeth could hear a shocked squeak behind her as she delivered her final insult. “He would do well to grow his whiskers better and find ‘imself a good wife or a mistress. He does not make une dame trés… appetissant.”
Darcy hid his laughter behind the back of his hand, while the other men, with blank looks on their faces, stared at him. He whispered to the man next to him, careful that should Caroline Bingley actually be there, and nearby, she should not hear his voice and recognize him.
“Appetizing woman,” he told him. The secret soon made its way around the circle of her admirers and the laughter then began in earnest.
The ball was hardly begun, yet half the men in the room were indeed already in love with Lord Caldhart’s newest mistress. She danced when she felt like it, and refused more than one man when she felt like it. When one dim-witted fop protested she would have to forgo dancing for the rest of the evening if she refused him, she laughed gaily and asked why.
“Proper English ladies do not dance again once they have refused a gentleman for a set.”
“Ah I see! Thank you for this information. ‘ow fortunate I am not an English lady, nor proper, Monsieur; it is most advantageous for me, is it not?” He stormed off in a huff, amidst the sniggers of the men who swarmed round her.
At one point, when they found themselves in a moment without others, she whispered to her new friend. “I see you do not dance, Will,” she questioned, her face very near his again.
“No, I find little pleasure in it most times, but tonight, in particular, I do not wish to dance.”
“Should I feel insulted?”
He cringed at his obvious faux pas. “I beg your pardon, Mademoiselle. I truly did not mean to imply... I simply, that is, I do not wish to draw attention to myself.”
She frowned at him and he blushed under her scrutiny once more. Suddenly understanding dawned on her. “You are hiding from someone.”
His blush deepened. “Yes,” he confessed. “A woman. She chases me relentlessly and I am at my wits end to be rid of her.”
“And she is here tonight?”
“I believe so.”
“Is there anything I can do to help you?”
He leaned into her face, very close, and with a hushed voice said, “Not unless you have a foil under so much …much dress.”
Her mouth dropped open. Was he flirting with her? She had not thought it possible. Her fan flew open as she giggled sweetly behind it; a dark blush stained her throat. “If I did, you would be the only one I would allow to borrow it,” she teased back.
“How long were you away from England?” she asked. He looked away, pained. He felt her small hand on his arm, “I am sorry, I am too personal?”
“No, of course not. I have just returned and am simply not used to answering questions about my trip. I was gone over nine months.”
She calculated quickly; he would have left in early August. “Nine months! But you would have been travelling in August, how miserable that would have been.”
“We actually started out in July from the north, then eventually crossed the Channel by early August.”
“You did not go alone?”
“No, I brought my sister, and my closest friend and his family. I am afraid I learned the truth in the old saying, ‘if you wish to know the true character of someone; travel with them‘.”
“Your friend was not what he seemed?”
“Yes, he was himself as always, it was his family whose presence tormented me and unfortunately my sister as well.”
“I see. I pity you and your sister. I hope your trip was not completely ruined?”
“No, we made arrangements to spend time apart from them. My sister and I enjoyed our private time together very much. I have come back a much happier man.”
“You left because you were sad?” she asked, her voice almost betraying her heartache.
He weighed his reply carefully, “I left because there was no more reason to be in England at the time.”
She nodded sympathetically. “I understand. You need not say anymore, my friend. I too, have known loss, both a loved one, and the loss of my true love.”
“Ah, no…. he does not ask for my heart, and I could never give it. Nor does he give me his. Such is the way sometimes,” she sighed heavily. “I wish for some fresh air, and solitude, I think.”
She turned to him, dismissing him. “Thank you, Will,” she said with sweet aching sadness. And then she left.
The stone bench in the garden was cool, but the heat of the evening, and the pain in her heart, made her hot and uncomfortable. Her tears were silent and stoic, and fell as much for herself, as for Fitzwilliam or Lydia. She was glad she had seen him. She was grateful fate had allowed her the chance to stand in his presence, speak with ease and friendliness and especially with the tiny bit of tenderness she felt they had shared. She held onto the precious memory and willed herself never to forget.
Caldhart had come to her, and asked if she needed anything. She had told him she was merely a bit overwhelmed and need some minutes to herself, to which he readily agreed. She looked up to the vivid moon, a fat slice, beaming down to her. She felt suddenly very small, and not at all powerful. Another noise at her side brought her out of her reverie. She turned and saw Fitzwilliam Darcy standing before her.
He had taken off his mask and hood, and now she could see him clearly for the first time. He was startlingly handsome. He had let his hair grow out far longer than she had thought; never had she seen a man with hair that length. His face was indeed very tan, but it gave him a beauty she had not considered possible in a man. Her hand involuntarily reached for his jaw, touching it with just the tip of her finger.
“You are very beautiful,” she said without thinking. He returned her gesture.
“Not when compared to you,” he whispered, as he ran his fingers down the exposed edge of her jaw. She jumped at the contact, panicked, and immediately ran down the path deeper into the garden.
He followed closely behind, alarmed. “I am sorry, Chantal, I should not have done that,” he pleaded after her, until she finally stopped.
“No, no, I did the same. I can only claim losing my wits for a moment as an excuse. You were perfectly right in believing I was giving you permission. Only,” she sighed, “I am not alone tonight.”
“Why are you with him?”
“We come to it at last,” she muttered.
“Yes, please, I want to know.”
“Always, a man wishes to know why a woman has fallen. The intrigue of why she has chosen, it seduces, no? He thinks up stories in his head, imagines many kinds of tales to bring her to such a state. He maybe thinks he would have saved her too, if he could have been there. My tale is just such a one. My story is as wild as any in your head. But you were not there, and he was.
“I am here because he provided me with what no other could: revenge, mon Cher, against the man I hated most in the world. The man who ruined my family, and enjoyed it. A man who taught me to be cruel and turned my heart to black, when he tortured me with his actions. A man whom I would have been happy to watch die.”
Her eyes were on fire. They sparked and flamed and tore through to any soul near her. Her chest was rising and falling so quickly he could see it straining against the confines of her daring dress, as her venomous speech against her enemy continued unabated. It was as if her confession and hatred opened a new door to her spirit and, though in evil conceived, the energy fully enveloped her like a sensual devilish halo.
He stood mesmerized at the sight of her. She watched his face, trying to read him, when she finally plainly saw something she had never recognized in him before; desire, white hot, burning desire, for her.
For the rest of her life she would never understand what instinct took over at that moment. She did not know that, like every woman throughout time, the knowledge of the power she suddenly held over the man she loved, the man she herself desired, spurred her needs into involuntary action and her lips spilled without effort, "Vas-tu me détester maintenant *? Does this make your blood burn in your veins and make you wish to strike me?” She paused, letting him consider.
“Or do you burn to do something else? To feel my lips against yours? To touch my skin? Does it make you want me less?” Still they stared at one another, their chests rising in unison, quickly, painfully, almost hyperventilating. Breaking their locked eyes, she turned her head away and, daring him to take the final step, in the most delicate of whispers she added, “Do you burn even half of how I burn for you at this moment? Will you..”
But her next words were never heard. He grabbed her hand and in one fluid motion spun her around and instantly into his arms and under his mouth. His hand was like a vice on her back, smashing her hard against the length of his body, his other hand at her jaw forcing her head to meet his assault, his fingers on her neck and into her hair touching the smooth finish of her mask.
He kissed her as though he wanted to exorcise the demon that filled her with such passion. His tongue filled her mouth, thrusting and sucking at her as though trying to capture the spirit threatening to take him down with her. Her first real kiss. Not a kiss on the hand, not a kiss on her back, but a kiss on her welcoming mouth by a man with whom she was desperately in love.
She suddenly had to see his face; imprint this glorious memory firmly in her head. She grabbed his face in her hands and wrenched him away. They looked intensely into one another’s eyes, their breath still ragged, until, satisfied she finally begged, “Please! Encore une fois!” And he took her mouth in his.
They heard voices heralding someone coming from the house, causing Darcy to withdraw from her. He grabbed her hand and dragged her to the back of the garden, where the trees grew thick and tall and dark. There he found an alcove, sheltered on three sides, covered in thick vines and pushed her into the wall, claiming her mouth once more. She whimpered at the feeling of his lips upon hers, the velvety softness of his tongue when he sucked her lower lip into his mouth and ran it over her.
“Am I hurting you?” he asked, concerned at her sounds.
“If this is pain, I will gladly endure it forever,” she sighed.
“Chantal,” he whispered, his warm moist breath continuing to sweep her lips. “I wish, I want to..”
“Yes,” she hoarsely choked out. No sooner had the word begun to leave her lips, when she felt his hands upon her. She groaned and tensed from the decadent shock that coursed through her body. She tried to concentrate on what he was doing to her, trying to fathom what she was experiencing. Her mind was flooded with so many messages; all astounding pleasures that assaulted her senses at once.
“Let me give you more,“ he pleaded. “There can be more for us.”
She looked up to his earnest face, so torturously beautiful, and knew, in that instant, there was something they could share, something she could give to him. The one thing no shame could take away and the only thing a woman truly owned. She only had this to give to one man, and she knew that now she had the chance to bestow it upon him, she would. She knew there would be no shy explorations. If she was going to have one time with Darcy it would have to be here, now, passionate, intimate, urgent, but without comfort, tenderness or delicacy, despite her innocence. She leaned forward and just before she connected with his lips, she whispered happily, “Yes, Will. Take me.” And she kissed him fiercely.
Elizabeth later lay against his shoulder, trembling from the aftermath of their pleasure and the torture of her heart’s sorrow. “Forgive me, Fitzwilliam, I love you,” she meekly whispered, still gasping for her air.
Darcy was finally beginning to come out of his own haze, his brain starting to register just what had happen and what this lovely seductress in his arms, was saying to him. Forgive her?
His memory was reminding him of what she had been saying just a few minutes before. I love you… Fitzwilliam… forgive me… and most disturbing of all, madam’s French accent was no longer there. Indeed, a very English accent was replaying in his head, a dreaded whisper was creeping over his conscience: he knew that voice. Startled, his head flew up. He looked squarely at her, attempting to discern exactly who he was looking at. Her white hair piled upon her head, her lovely silk mask covering over her face, and her eyes, her fine eyes with their long thick lashes, now shrouded in deep concern as they gazed back at him. Like a carriage speeding to run him over, his next actions and thoughts occurred as in a blur, he could not stop what he was thinking or doing, however horrifying to him it might be.
“No, no it cannot be…..”
His hands moved of their own accord, as he violently tore the offending shell off her face.
But there she was, tears in her eyes, as he dropped them together to his knees, there was his love, his Elizabeth in his arms.
“Oh my God!” he cried, whilst thinking, “My lover! But no, not mine, she is Caldhart’s mistress. What was she doing?”
“Why? Why would you do this?” His voice choked with emotion. Holding himself in check was taking every ounce of his strength.
“I love you,” she hushed. “Please forgive me, I love you Fitzwilliam, truly I do.”
He brought his arms around her and held her shaking to his chest. Her tears fell unabated. “Elizabeth, what have you done?” he sighed. They sat holding each other for several moments. Her tears finally stopped, as she realized they could not stay as they were, each moment brought the possibility of discovery closer. Elizabeth carefully smoothed her clothing, shyly avoiding his gaze. He caught her chin, and gently, lovingly, kissed her lips. “You are so beautiful, so magnificent,” he whispered.
Elizabeth almost began to cry again at his tenderness with her as she winced in pain when she began to stand up. Darcy frowned to see her face in such obvious agony. Once again his mind replayed the recent past; had she not stifled a cry?
Elizabeth quickly averted her face, embarrassed by what he had seen. She had no idea he would have been able to discover her secret. He looked up to her, the tears now running down her cheeks again.
“How can this be? Is it true, am I really the first..?”
“It is what I wanted, Fitzwilliam, it was the only thing of worth I could give to you. It always belonged to you, along with my heart, and it is the last decent thing I may ever do. Tonight was like a miracle for me, to be able to give you this. I cannot regret this, but I do regret if I have hurt you. Please forgive me Will.”
Darcy was trying to make sense of it all. Lord Caldhart was known for his mistresses, how could he not have consummated his relationship with Elizabeth? It did not seem possible.
However, he would not lose her now. If Caldhart was too weak to make Elizabeth his, he no longer cared if he stole the man’s mistress right from under his very nose.
“Elizabeth, you must come away with me! This moment! You are by rights now mine. Please say you will come! You do not have to continue under his protection. I love you, Elizabeth. I always have.”
Elizabeth’s head was spinning, here was Darcy, her one great love, telling her he loved her, he always loved her! Her eyes betrayed her elation to him as she looked up to him while he made his plea.
He was so overjoyed he hugged her fiercely against him as he cried, “Thank you Elizabeth, thank you so much! Thank God you have accepted me at last! I swear I will never let you regret this moment for the rest of your life. Perhaps someday we may be brave enough to tell our children the story of their parent’s extraordinary marriage!”
And suddenly Elizabeth’s spinning ended with a dull thud. The future. Their future. Fitzwilliam, their children, Georgiana Darcy. With Elizabeth connected to them, there was no future, there was only estrangement, shunning, vicious gossip, whisperings and shame. Anyone connected to her would share in the shame her family had already experienced; Lydia was barely recovered and decent. As a lowly family the Bennets were bound to marry clerks and lawyers, no one would wonder or care much at the hint of scandal now conveniently covered up, but as the illustrious wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy, they would snoop.
Lord Caldhart alone could ruin her reputation with the sweep of his hand. She was his mistress, she had signed a contract and, even now, some of her things were in his townhouse. She may not have consummated their relationship, and she may be incognito, but what did it matter?
And what of Wickham; what if he chose to come after her? If she was married to Darcy he would not hesitate to blackmail her, or her husband. He could have her thrown in prison for what she did to him. No, she could not have him; she could not hurt him, or his family in such a way. A future with him was not possible.
Now she had to do what she had only just claimed she did not mean to. She had to break his heart, refuse him, and truly make him hate her. The only way to do that was to go where she had already promised herself. She had to become Lord Caldhart’s mistress in truth tonight, and stay with him as long as he wanted. She had made her demands and he had acquiesced to them all. She had her revenge, she had her family restored, her sister’s death avenged, and now she had to pay the piper. Her price had never included a future for herself, it was always meant to benefit the rest. Now that the possibility of her own happiness was sitting before her, unattainable, it was a bitter moment.
She swallowed hard and, in as calm a voice as she could muster, answered, “Fitzwilliam, you have honoured me more than you can ever know, but I cannot marry you.”
His embrace froze. He pushed her roughly back and stared hard into her face, his own flushing red as his breath was held. She continued, “I am bound to him and cannot leave him; I have made a promise which I intend to keep.”
Darcy could not believe his ears. His tempered raged so quickly his body began to shake. “Keep your promise to him?” he snarled as his hands squeezed her rib cage. “You did not keep yourself for him tonight!” He was so angry, he needed to lash out, and Elizabeth was about to bear his full abuse. “Even in dealings of ill repute, it seems you have no honour,” he spat at her.
“Our arrangement begins on the fifteenth of May, which is tonight, at midnight. He, he wanted to show me off before returning to his home tonight. I had made no promise as to my…. condition when I finally came to him.”
“A thin excuse for a clear betrayal. You have used me ill, Madam.”
Elizabeth was starting to get angry herself. “You thought I was his mistress, and yet you did not hesitate to take advantage of me! You used me for satisfaction of your lust, thinking I belonged to another man!”
“Advantage? You seduced me and then say I took advantage of you? Oh no, I assure you, your arts are well-tuned madam, your allurements on fine display,” his hands indicated her décolletage. “No, I did not seduce you. And now you dare refuse me? Now you deny us, and start your new profession as harlot? How dare you speak to me of love! What profit did you hope to achieve with this? Does Lord Caldhart not give you enough allowance? Did you hope to gain another benefactor on the side and improve your situation even more handsomely?”
His venom cut her to her very core, but she knew she also deserved every insult.
“Yes, my love, use your emotions! Deny none of the strength of that hatred and use it to cast me off, it is the only way,” she thought. She wished he would strike her, put her in her place. She was a harlot, and not good enough to wipe his boots. She had to make him leave, give her up, and never regret her, so she struck back with the one thing she knew he would never forgive her. “He is the only man who would have me after finding me with Wickham,” she spat.
Slowly he rose to his feet. He straightened his clothing silently, never taking his eyes off her. The bile rose in the back of her throat, and she fervently prayed he would leave, as she could not keep from sobbing much longer.
Finally, he looked away shaking his head back and forth. She thought she spied a tear in his eye as she watched his profile. His voice began, broken and barely above a whisper, “I know not how you came to be with him, I no longer care. But I warn you; never seek me out or speak to me again.”
He walked away, never stopping, never looking back. When the door into the ballroom closed again, Lizzy was free to let her emotions run wild, and her racking sobs did not stop for what seemed an eternity. She finally re-emerged, her dress straightened, her mask back in place, her French persona etched into her brain. She immediately sought out Caldhart and asked if they could retire for the evening. He was smugly happy at the invitation of his impetuous new mistress and happily led her to their carriage.
* Translation: Do you hate me now?
The carriage ride was frustratingly short, in Elizabeth’s opinion. She had kept her head turned away from him for its duration, thankful for the mask that hid her red eyes and swollen nose. Her mind was in a constant state of turmoil, her complexion a ruination from excessive emotions, and now she had to face a night in the bed of a lover. For the first time in over six months, she suddenly longed to be at Longbourn.
She was startled out of her thoughts by his taking of her hand. “My dear Chantal, you are trembling,” he said, concerned. She could only nod. “You are nervous about me, about us?”
“Yes, of course,” she whispered, still not daring to meet his eye, lest he see her clearly.
“My darling girl, I am a patient man. Take all the time you need tonight. Do not feel anxious. I promise this night will end happily for us both. When we arrive, I suggest you retire directly to your rooms and bathe. At the very least, you will want to rid your hair of that dreadful powder.”
To this she could not help but give a slight laugh, grateful for the chance to lighten her mood in anyway. “Thank you my Lord. I should like that very much.”
“You need only ask, and your wishes will be attended to, my Dear. Do not forget your role in my household or with myself. We are a couple, not master and servant. I want you to act as mistress of my home; it is now your right.” She bowed her head, acknowledging his generosity.
Gemma helped her out of her dress first, in an effort to keep the powder off of it. She began to undo the laces down the back of the heavy silk gown until it was finally removed. Elizabeth groaned and stretched her arms. She was desperate to feel some freedom again, but could not until her corset was removed. Next the maid removed the pins that held her hair, and brushed out as much of the powder as she could unto a linen sheet spread around the floor of her mistress’ pretty dressing room.
As the maid carefully began to untie her, the corset creaked, straining to be unleashed.
“It wants to be removed as much as I wish it,” replied Elizabeth.
Finally, the last lace pulled, it dropped down and into her maid’s waiting hands, who had looked up and gasped at her mistress’ back. There on her side, was a deep purple bruising of a large handprint, clearly marking her. Her mistress turned to see what her maid had gasped at and saw it too.
“That will be all Gemma,” she quickly said. “You may draw me a bath, and then leave. In half of an hour you may then return to empty it. I will bathe, and then later finish dressing myself, alone. Thank you.” The maid curtseyed and left hurriedly. Elizabeth walked to her mirror; examining herself. “What am I to do now?” she whispered.
She found a box waiting for her when she returned from her bath. Inside, it revealed an exquisite negligee of finest pale pink silk, nearly the colour of her skin, and a matching dressing gown. She donned the pair, relieved to see it was not as immodest as she had dreaded. The sensuous feel of the softest material she had ever known was lost on her, as her anxiety increased with every moment that past. Finally, resolved to allow this to agitate her no more, she reached for the handle to the adjoining room.
Caldhart sat on the sofa in front of the fire in his room. He wore a dressing gown of brocade silk in sapphire blue which suited him admirably. Had she any notion of trying to feel anything for the man, such agreeable sights would have helped tremendously.
“You are a vision,” he said simply. She rounded the sofa and sat hesitantly on the far end.
“There is more champagne, still sparkling. Would you care for another glass?”
“Yes, thank you. I believe I would.”
“I have also had some strawberries brought up. They compliment this libation very well, and I think you would appreciate the delicate nuance the combination affords.” He handed her a tiny red fruit, encouraging her to partake. She did so, and as soon as she had swallowed, she realised she was quite famished. So much had taken place that night, so many emotions spent, she barely had strength left and needed to replenish herself. He seemed to understand her needs as he then uncovered a large platter upon the low lying table in front of her; cold meats, cheeses, fresh bread, blueberries, strawberries and the ever seductive chocolates greeted her. She sighed in grateful relief.
“I thought you might need something of this sort.”
“You are very attentive, my Lord. Thank you. It is exactly what I would have wished.”
She spent the next minutes satiating her hunger with a vengeance. He was right, the strawberries, and then the chocolates proved to be a superb combination with the champagne. He sat observing her devouring the plate, seeming to take delight in each bite she took. She was too hungry to be embarrassed by his stares. She finally gave a great sigh and closed her eyes; her body finally satisfied and ready to obey its mistress’ commands without complaint. She delicately wiped the corners of her pert little mouth when his voice cut through her contented air.
“George Wickham is dead,” he said.
Her napkin hovered in mid rise “No, that is impossible; he could not have died from my blow.”
“You are correct my Dear, that did not kill him.”
She studied him. He sat still as stone; no hint of emotion on his face, while her own heart hammered in her chest. “But you know how he died. You are not in the least surprised.”
He did not answer. Her mind went immediately back to the tavern, how he had acted, as well as his behaviour in the coach afterwards. “What are you keeping from me? When did he die? How?”
“He died this morning, or yesterday morning as it is now Saturday, from injuries he suffered in a fight.” He was once again leaving whatever information he wanted out.
Images of that night flew like sparks from a bonfire through her head as she spoke her thoughts. “The men in that tavern, I thought I recognised two of them. Were they merchants from Meryton? Who were the others that were there?”
“I suspect many of them were merchants, my Dear. Some others were tradesmen, from many different towns; all of them had one thing in common.”
“Yes, Elizabeth, they all were very well acquainted with Wickham.”
She shivered thinking of how full the tavern had been. “You made him the pawn; you knew what that mob would do to him.” He did not answer.
“You lied to me.” She swallowed hard, recognising the bitter truth of what he had done. “You knew he would never leave there alive. It seems I have been too naïve in some ways, and not enough in others. You led me to believe that you agreed I had chosen a more noble path; that I had walked away from damning my eternal soul by not taking his life! His death is on your head- it was because of you!”
“No Elizabeth, it was because of you!” his voice rose. “You made the request! Have you forgotten so soon? Your obsession with revenge against him facilitated my enabling you to indulge it. We two are bound by the fate he suffered. It was your price to be paid, and it was my efforts that led you to gratify it.
“How can you be angry with me over this? I would not have expected this reaction. Did you feel you carried no guilt as to what might happen to him? You have never inquired once about him since we left. As far as you know, he could still be sitting tied to that chair, bleeding his life away. We are both guilty and you know it. We are bound together by this, and nothing you can say will change it.”
“You twist the truth to suit your needs Sir!” she cried. “If I had asked for ten thousand pounds and then reduced it to five thousand, you would not have paid the ten. You had the ability to save him. You alone could have gotten him out of the tavern without further injury. You kept the truth of his destiny from me, and therefore you sealed his fate!”
He grabbed her roughly but she kept on, “And Lydia! I wonder now, when did you find out Lydia was dead? Did you really just discover it that night? Did you know about it before? Days before, weeks before? Tell me!”
He released her and answered calmly as if she had enquired after his health. “I found out in April a few days before I had met with you and given you Lydia’s handkerchief.”
Elizabeth gasped, shaking her head. “Did you ever see her? Did she ever know her rescue was imminent?”
“Higgins found her grave in Lophook. She had died last fall of a miscarriage on her way to Portsmouth, thinking she was meeting up with Wickham to sail to America.”
She groaned aloud, distressed and angered beyond all her reason. “Lies, all lies, and deceptions. You never showed your cards. I should have known, I should have been more clever. I was always frank with you. I played this game of yours fairly. But your premeditated contempt for my morals was too much for you. You wanted me to kill him! You purposefully goaded me with my sister’s death in the hopes I would exact my revenge! You wanted me to be as evil as you are. Curse you! Curse you to the devil!! You do not deserve anything you have, least of all me!”
“Are you backing out on our agreement?” He was very angry now.
“Our agreement is void sir; you have violated every written and unwritten aspect of it. You have failed to acquire that which I desired; you have not fulfilled your end of the bargain. You have no honour even among whores, thieves and murderers.”
“Your sister’s reputation is restored; she is believed to be a married woman.”
“My sister is dead!” she screamed. “You merely bribed a ship captain to lie and say she was married to a rake.” She grabbed her jewellery box off her dressing table. “How much does it take for something as simple as a wedding license to be obtained; twenty pounds, thirty?”
“Fifty pounds; a years’ income of your precious dowry,” he spat.
She threw the money at him. “And before you accuse, that is my money, I earned it making your filthy cigars! Anything more? Higgins did all your dirty work for you, didn’t he? His salary cannot amount to more than 20 pounds a year, here is six months salary for him, then,” she hissed, while throwing another wad of bills at him.
“Did you pay for the mob to be at the tavern? Somehow I cannot imagine you giving them all transport into London.”
“No. I merely sent letters advising them where Wickham would be and when. They came of their own accord.”
“Fine,” she said, throwing more bills at him. “For the post,” she seethed.
“You are the most despicable person I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Wickham seems almost honourable compared to you. I did not think my contempt for another human being could be greater than for him, but you sir, are the lowest. I rid myself of you. I will not stay, I choose my freedom. I leave now.”
“You are mine and only I can say when you may leave.”
“How wrong you are; I have repaid my fees, and given you none of my person. I am not yours. I choose who I will share myself with, and you, Caldhart, will never be one of them. ”
“Oh, very good! The maiden refuses her first conquest! How quaint. Do you think you will get to pick and choose who will be your next lover after I tell them who you really are? You will be lucky to even know the name of the man who next takes you, after I have broken you.”
“I hardly think anyone will listen to the rantings of a criminal from Newgate Prison, do you? Enabling a murder must carry a rather stiff sentence, would it not?” He shuddered.
“As for breaking me, my Lord,” she fairly hissed, “you are rather tardy in your attentions, I have already granted that privilege to one a thousand times more worthy than you.”
And with that, she opened her peignoir and negligee, giving his Lordship an incomparable view of her heavenly form, before she tied it back up. For a brief moment he was awestruck; he had never seen such a siren of seduction before. But quickly it turned to unmitigated rage, for all over her were the signs of the activities in which she had indulged.
“You harlot!” he screamed, as he lunged for her.
The servants in Lord Caldhart’s home had often been called upon to attend to matters of unusual requests, and at unusual hours. However, nothing could have prepared them, nor accustomed them, to the sight and sounds of his Lordship and Miss Moreau fairly flying through the house, in such a state of undress, and screaming such words of venom at one another. They had no idea what to do under these circumstances.
They felt their first loyalty was, of course, to their master. But as he brandished a whip and tried unsuccessfully to use it upon their new mistress, they could do little else but stare in horror, and try to stay out of the way, lest they themselves be struck. Their only respite would come when the lady, who was significantly faster than the gentleman, would duck into an unoccupied room and quiet would seem to once again reign over the household. Unfortunately, it did not last long, as either the shouts of one, or the screams of the other, would be followed by a quick departure from the sanctuary.
The noise reached a fevered pitch when the unlucky lady ventured into the game room, with his Lordship close upon her heels. His misplaced strikes rendered many pieces of his precious collection to ruin as he chased her around the room. They ended in front of the windows which, unbeknownst to her, happen to face full west and daily allowed the brilliant blazing afternoon light to illuminate the room and the fine crystal chess pieces that now stood between her and her attacker. She hesitated and he lunged once again, sending the prized set shattering to the floor. He took a brief moment to register the destruction of his favourite possession, unheeding of the significance of the act, before racing after her retreating figure as it sped out the door.
“Who is he?” he yelled at her.
“A far better man than you!” she retorted, as she started the climb up the grand staircase.
“You will not find better!”
“I would find a man I love.”
“You love no one, save yourself, you jezebel. Now tell me his name, so I may skewer him later.”
“I will go to my grave, before I tell you that.”
“You will suffer the same fate as any tart, you stupid chit!”
“At least I will have known a man who did not deceive to get me into his bed!”
“You are mine, and no other’s.”
“I am his, and I will never be yours! Not now! Not ever!”
They were both upon the staircase now. He started the assent at the bottom while she spat her contempt as she backed up quickly, keeping him always in her sights.
“You have lost, Caldhart! You have no more grievances with me. In all your finite dealings, your manipulations of everything to suit yourself, all your compulsive attentions to details, you failed to stipulate under what condition I would come to you. Your inflated ego could not comprehend that I would be anything but a maid; for you to baptise on the font of your hedonistic bed! But I get the last hand. I move the last piece. The game is over. Checkmate, Robert; I win!”
She shouted her last words while her chest heaved from the run. As she stood towering above him, daring his retort, his eyes suddenly bulged in his head. They had run from one end of the house to the other, no small feat for her, but impossible for a man just turned two and sixty. He stood on the landing between the two sets of grand staircases he had chased her up, and drew a strained breath. The servants above and below them in the great hall stared in disbelief as he grasped his arm, his face twisted in wretched pain, and fell to his knees, then slumped to the floor in a heap.
“Doctor,” Elizabeth whispered. Then recovering somewhat, she yelled, “Someone fetch the doctor!”
They stood like frightened sheep, alarmed at her fury. She pointed to the nearest footman. “YOU! Go fetch the doctor NOW!” she screamed, as she flew down the steps to him.
Charles Bingley settled gratefully into the soft comforting leather of the chair at Whites. He was exhausted after his futile attempt to persuade Darcy to remain in London. After staying up half the night with him, he had risen early to sadly seen his friend off to Pemberley that morning. Darcy was in quite a state. Despite Bingley’s entreaties, he could not get him to confess the source of his obvious distress, nor agree to any ideas of continued fellowship with him there in London. He did not think it a good idea for Darcy to go off alone, but there was nothing to be done. He had seen his friend despondent before, aloof certainly. But this time he seemed to be both dejected and keeping a surging anger just below his outward composed countenance. Bingley wisely decided to leave the man to himself.
He stared sleepily into the fire, wishing to wipe the unpleasant memories from his head, when a commotion was heard in the hall. It started small, but grew quickly to a large ruckus. By the time he had turned in his seat, he saw many men, shouting and moving together towards the famous betting book. Many looked cheered, yet some were obviously perturbed. A servant passed by his elbow, and he stopped him to inquire what this tumult was about.
“Haven’t you heard, Sir? Lord Robert Caldhart is dead!”
Disguise of Every Sort, Book Two
Disguise of Every Sort, Table of Contents
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