Posted on Friday, 18 April 2008
For a long moment, nobody dared to breathe as Lady Catherine gazed at each of them with an inscrutable look on her face. She finally came to a decision.
"I do not want to know," she decreed, turning to go. "General Fitzwilliam, I need your help. Join me in the study."
"Yes, Aunt Catherine," said the General. He looked at Darcy and Boulders significantly, "Carry on with your task." ~ Excerpt from Missing in Action.
Fitzwilliam was mystified as to what his aunt wanted to discuss. He vainly tried to recollect something, anything, but nothing came to his mind. He had informed her of all estate matters a few days ago when she had been well enough to receive visitors again. The post had not yet come and as far as he knew no express had arrived.
Oh dear, had he told her about the rosebushes that had been planted along the front lane? Had she found out and wanted to berate him for it? No. No, it could not be that. She had approved of it because Anne liked roses.
Had she found out about the Easter eggs already? Fitzwilliam nearly groaned. She was going to rake him over the coals for that. Well, at least, he had a chance to take sole responsibility for it and everyone else would be spared from her ire. Anne had looked terrified with that egg held in the air, the poor woman.
During his ruminations, they had reached Lady Catherine's study. She crossed the room, seated herself in the chair behind her imperious desk and waited for him to close the door. She did not indicate that he should take a seat for himself, so he stood respectfully facing her.
Unbidden, a memory of a similar occasion resurfaced in his mind. He had stood before her just like that when he had been a little boy. Back then she had grilled him on the sudden appearance of frogs in her daughter's bed. It had been an incredibly uncomfortable interview, he remembered. The memory did nothing to lessen his unease.
Lady Catherine levelled a searching look at him. Dear Lord, even the piercing look was exactly the same! Didn't the woman ever change?
"My daughter," she began after a long pause.
She was going to start on the scene in the morning room and then she would work her way up from there. She would get the whole story out of him. Piece by piece. And then she was going to kill him. Well, maybe not kill him as such, but she would surely give him a tongue-lashing from which he would be smarting for ages and once she had finished verbally reducing him to bits, she would throw him out of Rosings and tell him to never come back again.
But he was not a schoolboy anymore, was he? He was a grown man now. It was simply ridiculous to quake in one's boots when one was a responsible adult.
So what if they had hid some Easter eggs? What if they had not -- yet -- found all of them again? She would just have to deal with it.
"General Fitzwilliam," cut a sharp voice into his thoughts. The tone chilled him to the bone. "Have you heard anything of what I have just said?"
"I am sorry, Aunt Catherine," said Fitzwilliam contritely.
"Pay attention!" she snapped.
"Yes, Aunt Catherine," answered Fitzwilliam meekly.
"As I was saying," she glared, pronouncing each word clearly and somehow menacingly. "I understand that Anne has taken it upon herself to do visits of charity while I was bedridden."
She seemed to wait for a sign that he was listening, so he nodded, all the while wondering where she was going with this conversation. It looked as if this was not about the Easter eggs after all. Small consolation.
She continued, "From what Mr Collins told me, she acquitted herself very well. The parishioners were delighted with her visits."
When had she spoken to Mr Collins? Why did she believe any word the odious man was saying? Not that it was wrong what he had told her. Anne had been great during those visits. But Mr Collins would say that the sky was green if he believed that Lady Catherine wanted to hear it.
He tried not to, but a small snort escaped him. Lady Catherine immediately glared at him. Again. She glared at him a lot.
"Mrs Collins seconded her husband's opinion. I have no reason not to believe her."
The General nodded.
"And I can see that you agree with them. So, I thought she might continue with the visits even though I am well again and could do them myself. I already spoke with our physician. He thinks her health is so far improved that she should come to no harm."
Fitzwilliam nodded again. It seemed as if she had already decided on her course of action. Why was she going over it with him? She should talk with Anne about it, anyway, not with him.
"Good. Then that is settled. I shall speak to Anne as soon as possible and ask her to continue with her charity work."
Lady Catherine stopped speaking and let silence envelope the study. She watched him with a probing look in her eyes. General Fitzwilliam blinked. He hoped their little conversation had come to an end and she would dismiss him finally.
She was glaring at him again. He had not put any frogs in anyone's beds in ages and still she was glaring at him. It was not fair.
He had just opened his mouth to ask her if there was anything else when she cut him short.
"When are you going to propose to her?" she demanded.
He blinked and then quickly gathered himself to say in a cold, disapproving voice, "I am sorry, aunt, but I do not have the pleasure of understanding you. Whom do you suggest should I propose to? I have no inclination to propose to anyone at the moment and I would be grateful if you would refrain from mentioning something like this ever again. It is not your place to make inquiries into such a delicate topic with me." Unfortunately, the words transformed themselves on the way from his brain to his mouth and all that came out was a stunned, "What?"
"Anne, General! I am talking about Anne," she answered exasperated. "When are you going to ask her to marry you?"
He tried to come up with a response. He really tried, but his mind drew a blank upon every request to work properly.
"Oh, for crying out loud!"
She must be truly irritated. That was as close a curse as he had ever heard her utter.
"Do you think I never notice the way you look at Anne? I may be old but I am not blind."
He had not known that he looked at Anne. Well, obviously he looked at Anne. After all, she was his cousin and he spent a considerable amount of time with her. But he was sure he did not look at her in any special way.
Lady Catherine rolled her eyes, "I see there is no talking with you currently. Fine," and seemed to consider the matter closed. She busied herself with the papers on her desk.
After a while, she looked up again, "What are you still doing here? Have you not something else to do? For example, the something everybody in this house is so desperately trying to hide from me."
Fitzwilliam opened and closed his mouth several times. No appropriate response came to his mind though. He nodded numbly and left her study.
He was already halfway to the morning room when a sudden thought made him stop and hastily turn back. Lady Catherine did not even look up when he barged into the room again, "I have my sources. Now stop distracting me and leave me to my work."
Pondering her enigmatic response, the General closed the door again.
While they were taking their after-dinner port, Darcy managed to get the whole story out of Fitzwilliam. Occasionally, the General thought that it was a stroke of the best luck that none of the Darcy-Fitzwilliam Clan had ever thought about spying for the French (not that there was any chance of that but you never knew). They had a way about them that made him spill any beans he might have. He should count himself lucky that Darcy had decided not to quiz him during dinner.
"She is really trying to run your life for you, isn't she," commiserated Darcy.
"She is not so bad as you make her out to be," reasoned Fitzwilliam. "Except for the evil eye." He shuddered.
"Remember the time when we let the crickets loose in the dining room? She found out. Remember?" The General continued amidst Darcy's nodding, "And do you remember the look in her eyes? Do you?"
Darcy shuddered. "Oh yes, that evil eye."
"Exactly. When she looks at you like that, you would do or say anything to get away from her and that lance of a look. I guess I am lucky that she did not order me to marry Anne or I might have agreed just to get out of there."
Suddenly, Darcy's mood changed. Leaning back in his chair with a sly grin on his face, he drawled, "You and Anne, eh?"
Nonplussed, Fitzwilliam looked at him for a moment. Then he sighed, "Et tu, Brute?"
Darcy snorted. "It is not as if... Well, the way you are staring at her is fairly obvious."
"I am not staring at her. I do not feel about her that way. Will you all just stop bothering me with that?"
"Oh, you do not..." Darcy looked positively crestfallen. "I am sorry. We thought-"
"You thought wrong," growled the General. "Who is ‘we' anyway? No, do not tell me. You and your wife again. It is as if you stopped being your own person the day you married her. It is as if you are shackled to each other and none of you can make any decisions alone or form any opinions of your own. As if that is not enough, you are trying to force others into this ... horror. Just because you enjoy it does not mean that I have to willingly give up any freedom of body and mind, too. What is it with you married folks anyway? Always trying to set up unsuspecting and happy bachelors, trapping them in what they do not want! Has it never crossed your minds that I might be happy with things the way they are? That I do not want to marry? But no! You go through your world and think nothing to bestow your condescension on us unmarried people."
With each word the General's voice had risen in pitch. Considering this, it should not have surprised them that the racket would attract attention. Still, the voice, mundane though the words it formed were, surprised them.
"What is the matter?"
Ms de Bourgh stood in the doorway with a little frown etched onto her face. Behind her, Mrs Darcy, with a similar look of worry, peered over her shoulder. For a moment, General Fitzwilliam looked impassively at them in return. Then he threw up his arms and growled, "Naturally." Ignoring Darcy and sending a glare at the ladies who scurried out of his way, he left the room.
Darcy offered a weak smile for his companions and remarked by way of an apology, "I forgot that his mother has been harping on his bachelor status for years now. It is a touchy subject with him."
Knowing he would have to face the inquisition if he remained, Darcy beat a hasty retreat through the opening left in the General's wake. He would tell his wife tonight when no Anne was around to hear their plotting, he decided.
Darcy did not approach the subject with Fitzwilliam again. He must have made his point clearly. It was a respite for which the General was thankful. For while even Mrs Darcy had stopped looking at him reproachfully after a few days, Lady Catherine did no such thing. She did not offer her opinions regarding her daughter's marital status to him again, but her looks spoke volumes. Fitzwilliam gritted his teeth and set out to endure it.
Truth was, he himself did not know why he reacted so badly to the suggestion. Whenever his mother did something similar -- and she had made it her purpose in life to see him married, so he had been subjected to many suggestions like this one before -- he was able to laugh it off with a quip. He had never started to yell.
The General pondered the matter for a few days. What if he reacted so strongly because he had more than strictly cousinly feelings for Anne? Would that be so bad? She was a pretty woman underneath all the sickness. In fact, she had not been ill in years. Now that he thought about it, her sickness seemed to almost vanish overnight when Darcy had married. Only her mother had persisted in coddling her. He guessed she was only slowly coming around to the thought that Anne might not be ill anymore. Well, Lady Catherine had always been rather headstrong in her opinions and did not take to change lightly. One only needed to look at her relationship with Mrs Darcy.
Anne was nice, intelligent, pretty, rich and he liked her. Nothing spoke against her.
The General stood in the middle of his room as if he had been hit by lightning.
Well, he never... He liked Anne. Who would have thought it?
Darcy looked none to happy to be so unceremoniously dragged out of the breakfast room. "Hey, I was eating," he protested.
If his cousin heard him, he gave no indication that he did. Darcy was dragged through the halls of Rosings at a furious pace. Finally, the General seemed to deem the surroundings save enough. He shoved him into a small room and closed the door. Turning to Darcy, he said with a slight tremor in his voice, "I like her."
"Ah," murmured Darcy not wanting to betray that he had no idea what the General was speaking of. He had been rather rudely evicted from his bed this morning when his wife had insisted that he deal with whatever his children had done now. Funny how they were always his children when they misbehaved, but never when they had done something to make their parents proud. They were also his children when it meant losing those sweet hours in the morning when one could sleep in. He sighed. But even if it meant being tired most of the times, it made his wife happy. She loved sleeping in. They had few opportunities for it when they were at home. Estate business always called them out of bed at an early hour. Home. Things were different at home. For one, the servants did not grow beet-red and started stammering helplessly when they entered his wife's chambers and found him there. The way the poor girl had gone on this morning, one would think she had interrupted them during something indecent. He had merely been sleeping! Maybe he should have a word with his aunt about the servants. He envisioned himself before his formidable aunt, lodging his complaint. Oh yes, that explanation would go down well. Maybe he had better keep this to himself.
"Darcy!" His cousin was shaking him. Fitzwilliam looked mightily frustrated. "Do you listen at all?"
"Yes. You like her," repeated Darcy indignantly and detached himself from his cousin. There was no call to be so physical about it.
Fitzwilliam started pacing up and down the small room, muttering darkly to himself. Darcy thought, he looked mad as a hatter like this but refrained from saying so. Suddenly, the General whirled to him, "You have not listened. I. Like. Her. What am I to do?"
Suddenly, it clicked and Darcy's eyes grew round as a saucer. "Do not tell me you have finally come to your senses!"
He got no answer except another spurt of dark murmurs. Watching his cousin pacing like a caged animal, he added, "Or rather lost them."
It took a while, but eventually Darcy managed to calm Fitzwilliam down. Once the man did not look like he would startle at any quick movement, he asked, "Why is this so terrifying?"
"Were you not terrified when you found out that you felt more than you should for Ms Bennet?" shot the other back.
"Yes, I was. But I was also a stick in the mud back then," said Darcy calmly.
"How did you go about telling her that you liked her?"
"You might not want to adopt my approach to romance. I offended her."
Fitzwilliam looked at him disbelievingly, "And she still married you?"
"What do you think of her? She rejected me thoroughly." Seeing his cousin's shocked face, he added, "Told you not to adopt my tactic."
"Out of curiosity, how come you are married to her now?"
"I wrote her a letter."
"A letter?" Fitzwilliam's voice was faint now with disbelief.
Despite himself, Darcy was enjoying seeing his cousin so aghast. "Yes, a letter. Then I spent many months being heart-broken and morose. That was no walk in the park. Then I heeded her words and bettered myself even though I might never see her again. Then I dealt with my arch-nemesis for her sake and then I proposed a second time and she deigned to have me."
Fitzwilliam made an indefinable sound in the back of his throat. The hunted look had returned to his eyes. He turned around and made for the door. Darcy grabbed him by the shoulder, "Where are you going?"
"To pack my bags. I am leaving Rosings this minute. No way I am going to go through that torture."
"Do not be ridiculous," Darcy was losing his patience. "You and Anne are nothing like Elizabeth and I were. Anne likes you already. You will not have to battle with that."
"You think she likes me?"
Darcy wondered if he had behaved as stupid all those years ago. He could not remember but he hoped not. Drawing a deep breath, he answered, "You are her cousin. You have practically grown up together. You still spent a lot of time with each other and so far she has not killed you. Though I swear by the heavens, I cannot fathom why. You are very taxing on the nerves. You know that, do you not? Naturally, she likes you."
"Yes, but does she like me like I like her?"
"Who are you and what have you done with the adult, reasonable General Fitzwilliam?"
"Darcy! This is serious."
"I do not know if she likes you like you like her. Why do you not try to find it out for yourself?"
"Yes. Yes, I will. This will take a little while for it needs strategy but I will find out."
Darcy nearly rolled his eyes. His cousin surely had it bad when he was not even able to think clearly anymore. Strategy! The General had always tended to go over the top. But at least, he was not so frantic anymore.
The two men, having brought their meeting to an end, finally had time to notice their surroundings.
"Fitzwilliam, where have you brought me?"
"Interesting." Darcy looked around.
"I meant to get a jar of that chocolate cream anyway. Anne loves the stuff for breakfast."
"Oh. You can have that for breakfast?"
"Yes. What do you use it for? I know you have some at Pemberley, too."
"Uhm. Ah," sputtered Darcy and wondered if he could get away with saying ‘I will explain when you are older.' Probably not. He opted for a shrug.
Fitzwilliam looked at him curiously but let it be.
"By the way," he said when he opened the door, "do you not ever again adopt that childish sing-song voice and waggle your head to any sentence pertaining to ‘like'."
Darcy grinned and resisted the urge to do just that.
A week had gone by and Darcy had heard nothing spoken of love or like. He decided to investigate. For this purpose he had cornered the General out of doors. Fitzwilliam looked all astonishment at Darcy's frank question.
"I have spent practically every waking moment with Anne," he defended himself. "I am making a move."
"Well, I am sorry but that is nothing out of the ordinary. You both have been thick as thieves for years now."
Fitzwilliam had to concede the point to Darcy. With a dejected sigh, he said, "That is the ‘marked preference' ploy going out of the window."
Darcy frowned. Marked preference? If he read the signs correctly, what Fitzwilliam was doing was anything but giving Anne hints. If he did not know him better, Darcy would say that his cousin was scared as a rabbit of making his intentions known. "Why are you hesitating? You want to marry her, do you not?"
"Well, it is going so well right now. We understand each other perfectly fine. I do not want to upset everything with such drastic measures."
"That does not make any sense."
"To me it does."
Darcy sighed. "But at least, you have told her something already, have you not?"
"Well... not as such."
"I am sorry? ‘Not as such'? What are you waiting for?"
"I am waiting until I know what her answer will be."
"That is the point of asking! To find out what her answer will be."
"Forgive me for being careful but our family has not the best track record when it comes to proposals. I mean, look at you! You had to propose twice. And Andrew! Take Andrew. Three proposals before he got a wife."
"But to three different girls. That does not count."
The General did not listen. "And then there was the one time when he proposed accidentally. That makes four proposals. Four!"
While Fitzwilliam sank into a gloom, Darcy pondered the last statement for a while. Finally, he looked at his cousin and asked, "How can one propose accidentally?"
"You will have to ask him."
"I will when I next see him."
"What are you doing there?" asked an amused voice and then Anne's face appeared upside down in his line of view.
"The girls lost their marbles and I am trying to gather them all," answered Fitzwilliam. "Nasty little buggers roll into the stupidest places possible."
Anne raised her eyebrows at his choice of words. He did not see it as he was in the process of emerging from beneath the couch. It seemed to entail a lot of shuffling, bumping his head and muffled grumbling. She sat up again and watched with polite interest as first his feet made an appearance and then centimetre for centimetre the rest of his body. Finally, he had worked himself out from under it and, sitting on the floor, leaned against its carved leg of dark wood. He reached for the pouch, Anne had not noticed lying next to her, and dumped a handful of marbles into it. Then he looked at the woman, who sat prim as a rose on the couch, and grinned, "That is finished with. And look, what I found, too!" He held up his right hand for her scrutiny. "The last Easter Egg that has been missing. Do you want some? I would share with you."
Anne wrinkled her nose at the dusty man who held the dusty egg up to her, "No, thanks, that has been lying there for two weeks."
"Fine," shrugged her cousin and ripped the paper off the egg. "More for me."
Unconcernedly, he bit into the chocolate egg and chewed energetically while looking at Anne. Darcy had been right, he thought. What was the use of waiting? He liked her well enough and she liked him. They would make a merry time of it.
"Why don't you marry me?" he proposed from where he was sitting.
Anne looked at him taken aback. Then she started to laugh. It was a heart-felt, full out belly laugh. That a proposal from him should lead to so much mirth stung. He nearly winced.
She patted his head and, still chortling, left the room.
"Hey, that was not an answer," he called after her indignantly. Her only response was a fresh spurt of laughter in the hall.
He frowned. Had she refused to marry him just now? She had laughed -- she had not been able to stop laughing actually, so she seemed to find the idea ridiculous. Yet, she had not really answered. She had not said ‘No' as such. Maybe she only needed a little persuasion. He could be persuasive if he wanted.
He was an eligible bachelor. He had made his way in the world. He had amassed a minor fortune while serving his country. No woman in her right mind would refuse him. And yet, Anne de Bourgh had laughed at him.
He tried to come to terms with the recent developments but there was something about the de Bourgh women that rendered him speechless and incapable of thought.
One man alone, the General decided, could not understand the intricate workings of the female mind, especially not a mind as obviously insane as Anne de Bourgh's. He needed help.
"Sounds like a rejection to me," opined Darcy thoughtfully.
The two cousins were sitting with a glass of port in the library. Fitzwilliam had just recounted what had happened earlier in the drawing room.
"Yes, I thought so, too. Still, she has not out-right rejected me."
"Maybe she does not think that you mean it," agreed Darcy and added, "After all, it was not the kind of proposal anyone would think was said in earnest."
"What?" bristled the General. "I asked her to marry me. What could be more serious?"
"Well, yes and no. You sprung the question on her out of nowhere. You have to lead up to a proposal. You have to tell her what you feel for her before you can ask her to marry you. It is what women expect. It is also helpful if you give her a hint of your inclination sometime before you actually ask her. Let the woman become accustomed to the thought that you like her. Trust me, it is not good when your proposal is the first time she actually sees that you have feelings for her."
Fitzwilliam groaned, "I think I would rather face the French army again. At least, that was straightforward."
"But you had to employ certain tactics then as well. Getting a woman to agree to marry is almost the same," proposed Darcy sagely. "It is all tactics to make her surrender."
"Tactics, eh?" murmured Fitzwilliam. "I am good at drawing up battle plans. When I am done, Anne will have no choice but to say ‘Yes'."
"That is the spirit."
Each following his own train of thought, the men lapsed into a comfortable silence for a while. The sun streaming in through the windows drew lazy circles on the mahogany table between both cousins. Darcy stared at the specks of light absentmindedly.
"You know," he said in a faraway voice. "It was worth it."
"What do you mean?"
"The punishment, the evil eye, everything... Setting those crickets loose was worth it."
Fitzwilliam grinned. "We were a fine pair of brats, weren't we?"
"Remember the big woman in red?" chuckled Darcy. "She screamed bloody murder."
"Or the bald man..." complied the other in childish glee.
"Who would have known that was a toupee," marvelled the master of Pemberley.
Both men sighed happily.
"Some things," concluded General Fitzwilliam with a satisfied air to him, "are worth being punished for."
Both men were silent for while again. Finally, Darcy looked at Fitzwilliam and asked, "Are you going to propose then?"
"Oh yes, I will. Properly, too. Anne will not know what hit her."
There was a smirk on the General's face that spoke of interesting times ahead.
"I shall look out for the fireworks," said Darcy dryly.