Posted on Friday, 16 November 2007
On the ninth of April, 1793, Henry and Mary Bennet kidnapped the Earl of Ancaster's granddaughter.
To all intents and purposes, Jane Darcy died that day. Jane Bennet, after all, knew nothing of the elegant Derbyshire manor where she was born, of Lady Anne's clear laughter and Mr Darcy's cheerful voice. What little she did remember was vague, disconnected, and nonsensical, nothing to inspire doubts or questions. No, Jane Bennet belonged at Longbourn, with her woefully mismatched parents and silly younger sisters, and nobody ever suspected otherwise.
Meanwhile, chaos reigned at Houghton, Lord Ancaster's estate. The Earl himself fell ill, his daughter-in-law threw herself into fits of hysterics, the Countess seemed unable to do anything but cry, and the other Ancaster grandchildren (except little Anne, of course) were left to their own devices. Management of the family, the servants, and of course the tragedy itself, devolved upon the Earl's son and daughter, Lord Milton and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
‘Something Must Be Done,' declared Lady Catherine, some six weeks after Jenny's disappearance.
Lord Milton glanced down at Jenny's eight-year-old brother Fitzwilliam, whose devotion he had apparently won by acknowledging his existence on occasion. ‘Er,' he said. ‘Yes. Quite so.'
‘My poor father cannot endure much more,' she went on. Fitzwilliam's cat hissed at her. ‘I always said that so many children would be the death of him, but they keep coming, and with this sad business of Jenny's--- '
‘James and Hal cannot help it,' said Fitzwilliam, his clever eyes darting between his uncle and aunt.
Catherine blinked. ‘Why have you not been told to speak only when you are spoken to, young man?'
‘Oh, I have,' he said, ‘all the time.'
‘I gave him leave to speak when he wishes, sister --- it happens rarely enough.'
‘Hmmph,' said Catherine, but her expression softened as she looked at her nephew, the dark hair and eyes almost black against his thin white face, pale skin fading into transparency at his wrists and throat. Jenny was --- had been much the same.
If someone had criticised her sister to her face, Catherine would have likely beaten him to death with her parasol, but she, of course, was quite a different matter. You are a fool, Anne, and if you and that husband of yours spent less time gallivanting about and more attending to your duties --- well! Jenny was gone, and unlikely to return, but Fitzwilliam remained, and anybody could see that his education would be sorely lacking if left to the care of his obviously incompetent parents.
How fortunate that he had Lady Catherine de Bourgh for an aunt.
‘Fitzwilliam, have you been out of the house in the last fortnight?' she enquired. ‘You look consumptive.'
‘I'm not allowed, Mama says so. And I'm not consumptive and I shan't die.'
She smiled approvingly. ‘Of course not. I said so when you were born. And did anyone listen to me? Do you have a horse?'
‘Er . . . not here.'
‘You must have a horse. Riding does wonders for the constitution. Very well, you shall use Hal's, and we shall find another for him. Now run along --- outside.'
‘I want to read,' he protested.
Lord Milton hastily said, ‘You may take your books outside, Fitzwilliam, but return to the house if it starts to rain, or if the wind is too harsh.'
Once he had vanished, cat in tow, Catherine harrumphed again. ‘Well? What is to be done?'
‘What else can be done, that we have not attempted already?' replied her brother. ‘We know nothing of whither Jenny is gone, and Hal and Cecily, James and Elizabeth --- well, they are our nieces and nephews, and we can do far more for them than the Cardwells or Bertrams. I know it is difficult for Father, but . . .'
‘There are no suitable companions for Anne at Rosings,' Catherine said slowly. ‘The children her own age are . . .'
‘Precisely.' She glanced out the window. James and Hal appeared to be playing a game which involved screaming and throwing a ball at one another. Cecily chased after Richard in the most inelegant fashion possible. Elizabeth sat peacefully in Eleanor's arms and watched.
Lady Catherine gave an approving nod. ‘I shall take Elizabeth with me when I return to Kent,' she said.
‘I beg your pardon?'
Catherine sniffed. ‘Are you hard of hearing, Edward? I shall take Elizabeth to Rosings, and you must keep Fitzwilliam here, he needs proper guidance. Anne and Darcy should not require any great persuasion; I shall do it, if you like. I am most attentive to these things.'
After a moment of astonished hesitation, the viscount smiled, with something like relief. ‘I never doubted you, Catherine.'