If there hadn't been women we'd still be squatting in a cave
eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to
impress our girlfriends.
~ Orson Welles
Elizabeth sat in the window seat of her room in the Gardiners' house in London, watching the few silver snowflakes drift down to land in the empty street. The house was situated in a nice portion of London, though perhaps not so nice as St. James' Place or Pall Mall or the other streets the aristocrats seemed to dominate. But the Gardiners were moderately well off, and had bought this house to be comfortable. It was reasonably quiet here, the streets not packed with carriages or pedestrians.
The snow was falling lightly, not even enough to dust the surface of the lined walkway to the house, where her mother and sisters were now hurrying towards the carriage. They had decided to venture out again in search of other articles for the trousseaus, but Elizabeth had asked to remain behind, on the pretext of a headache. In truth, she had simply wished a bit of time by herself to think.
Much had happened in the past few days, and it was troubling in the extreme. She had just promised herself to a man, promised that she would be his wife soon. With love or without love, marriage was a big step, and it made her wonder whether she was really, truly ready for it. When she was married, everything was her husband's, including herself. She never believed that Mr. Darcy could be violent-well, except for that short scene in Meryton...oh dear, she had completely forgotten about that. And despite the fact that it was in defence of her, it showed that he could be quite violent. He had been ready to choke Mr. Wickham to death-she had seen it in his eyes. He had completely lost control. Would he ever do something like that to her?
Elizabeth shook her head fiercely. It wasn't right; worrying like this. He was a kind man. He would never really hurt anyone, would he? It was an isolated episode, not one that would likely happen ever again. And besides, she was his fiancée, not a lying thief who had tried to seduce his sister. If he clearly cared so much for his sister, how could he even consider beating his wife? Impossible.
This was so illogical, for her to be thinking of such situations, when the likelihood of them happening was slim. She was worrying over nothing. It is purely the fact that she had made a large decision in her life, one that would last possibly her whole life.
Did Jane ever have these questions? Elizabeth mused. Probably not. But then, it was not Jane's wont to question fate; it was not her habit to think ill of people. Elizabeth was the one who questioned. It was she who was cynical. And no amount of love could erase that fact.
She was to see him again tonight. He would be back in London, he promised, and they would go together to the opera-just the two of them in his box. Elizabeth smiled and hugged her knees to her chest, watching the snowflakes collect on the ledge outside her window. She had nothing to worry about. Once he was here, the questions, the hesitations, the doubts would disappear. Being around him did that-she couldn't ever seem to think straight.
When had this feeling come over her? When had she begun to love him? There was not a specific day, of course. Love is not something that simply happens; it grows, takes time. And it did take time for them. She had not liked him in the beginning. He had been rude and arrogant. She had taken an instant dislike to him, and until Lucas had come, she and he were always at swords drawn.
It was unnerving to realise that Lucas actually was somewhat responsible for such an about-face. What would have happened if he had not come? she wondered. She couldn't imagine; she may have even remained disliking him. Whatever would have happened, it wouldn't have been this.
Elizabeth stood and went to her wardrobe. She sorted through the gowns she found there, wondering which one she would like to wear to the opera that night. She sighed as she discarded one, then another, until she was finally left with an empty wardrobe. She sat down and looked at the gowns laid out around her, wondering when her gowns had become so important.
"When I became engaged to Fitzwilliam Darcy," she murmured to herself. Engaged-it felt odd, for her to be engaged. But she was, and she couldn't take it back now. She was to be married. And with that marriage came all the responsibilities of being a wife. This thought worried her-what did she know about being a wife? But she was resolved to not let that get in the way of her decision. Everything would be fine, as long as Fitzwilliam was by her side.
She was startled by a knock on the door. At her request, the door opened, and her aunt stepped into the room, closing the door behind her. She raised her eyebrows at the profusion of cloth on the bed. "Has a storm come through the house that I was unaware of?"
Elizabeth smiled. "No, I am simply looking for something to wear tonight."
"And you cannot find anything?" At Elizabeth's nod, she came over and began hanging things in the wardrobe again. "Then we will have to look in my wardrobe. I believe I have some old gowns that might be just perfect. We're just about the same size, you know."
Elizabeth smiled and allowed her aunt to propel her from the room. She sat on a stool in the bedroom she was led to and waited as her aunt pulled gown after gown from her wardrobe. At last she stopped and pulled one out, holding it delicately over one arm as she turned around and showed it to her niece. "Now this is the gown you should wear tonight."
Elizabeth gasped as she looked at the gown. It was ivory-coloured, with gold embroidery on the bodice. The overskirt was a gold lace, and the hem was dotted with tiny golden gems. "I can't wear that," Elizabeth said once she had recovered from the shock.
"Whyever not, my dear?" Mrs. Gardiner asked, gazing wistfully at the gown. "I have only worn this once, to the opera. The queen was in the audience, and your uncle insisted that I have a gown beautiful enough to be seen in her presence. I never wore it again because I never had the occasion. This, I think, is the time for it to be brought out again. It may be a few years out of fashion, but a few alterations and it shall be stunning on you."
"Yes, but, Aunt," Elizabeth stuttered, still slightly uncomfortable, "this gown is too much..."
Mrs. Gardiner laughed. "Oh, fiddle-faddle. You will not divert me from my purpose. You will wear this, and you will look breathtaking for your fiancé. He will appreciate it, I know."
Elizabeth sighed, but didn't argue, realising that her aunt would not be put off. So she allowed her aunt and her maid to help her into the dress. The bodice was a bit snug, so the seam was let out a half-inch and lowered a few inches to be more fashionable. The rest of the gown fit perfectly. Elizabeth looked nervously into the mirror, and gasped. She looked, as her aunt had predicted, breathtaking. She twirled from side to side, getting a glimpse of the back of the gown. Her aunt and maid stood by, watching avidly.
"It's lovely, Miss," the maid said in awe.
"It's stunning," said her aunt, her hands clasped in excitement. "Oh, I never looked that beautiful in it. Now, what shall we do with your hair, do you think?"
"We still have a few hours to think about that, Aunt Gardiner," Elizabeth said, trying to reach around and undo the tapes on the back of the dress. The maid hurried over to help. Mrs. Gardiner sighed. "I know. And Mr. Darcy still hasn't sent word that he is back in London."
Elizabeth looked over in surprise. "You do think he will return in time, don't you?"
Mrs. Gardiner shrugged. "The snow has been falling lightly here, my dear, but there is no saying how hard it is falling in Hertfordshire, or anywhere between there and here. I think it's quite possible he won't make it. But then, he may. One doesn't know."
"If he doesn't return in time, we'll miss the opera," Elizabeth said as the dress was pulled over her head.
"Yes, I know, dear," Mrs. Gardiner said with a sigh. "But I am sure if that happens, he will make up for it thousand-fold. In fact, I would be hoping he doesn't return tonight."
Mrs. Gardiner chuckled. "I am simply joking, Lizzy. He will be heart-broken if he cannot return tonight, and so will you. But if he doesn't make it, we'll play cards or something after dinner. It is no hardship, you know."
Elizabeth smiled sadly. "I know. I was looking forward to tonight so much, though."
"Is there anything wrong, Lizzy?" Mrs. Gardiner said as she dismissed the maid with a wave, seeing the change in Elizabeth's demeanour.
Elizabeth shrugged. "I'm not sure. Just pre-wedding jitters, I guess."
"Pre-wedding?" her aunt sputtered with a laugh. "If you're jittery right now, my dear, you'll be fifty times this on your wedding." She sobered suddenly. "But you shouldn't be so nervous. Do you mind my asking why?"
Elizabeth threw up her hands in a gesture of exasperation. "I don't know, Aunt. I simply feel nervous. I have so many doubts, so many worries that I am not making the right choice."
"That's natural," Mrs. Gardiner said softly with a nod. "I remember when I was marrying your uncle. It's not a decision to be taken lightly. I do believe that two people must love each other, or at the very least have a respect for each other, in order for a marriage to function properly, for it to last. I put no faith in the aristocratic mumbo-jumbo about arranged marriages. It only makes me more content with my own un-aristocratic lineage than I already was. I am happy, Lizzy, in my marriage, and watching you and Mr. Darcy makes me believe that if you try, you, too, can be happy."
Elizabeth felt tears in her eyes as she embraced her aunt spontaneously, who released a small startled exclamation before hugging her niece in return. At last, Elizabeth pulled back and smiled, her eyes bright with happiness. "I guess I just had to hear it from someone else, Aunt Gardiner. I just..."
Mrs. Gardiner patted her niece's arm lightly. "I know, my dear. I know. I say the two of us should go and do some sightseeing. What do you think?"
Elizabeth greeted this suggestion with enthusiasm, so the two clothed themselves warmly and forayed out into the snow, which was falling a bit heavier than before. They hailed a cab and got in, informing the driver of their destination. They then sat back and waited as the driver navigated London's thoroughfares. Outside the hack they could hear the sounds of London-the horses, the drivers, the people. It was noisy, dirty, and quite unbearably malodorous. Yet it was London; how much better could one get?
At last the driver stopped, and the two ladies descended from the cab in front of a large brick building. Mrs. Gardiner paid the driver, and the two proceeded up the steps to the large, double-doors that led inside. Inside, the crowd was sparse-a few visitors were dotted here and there in the exhibits.
They were strolling through the different displays, pointing out different objets d'art , the paintings, and the statues to each other, enjoying themselves immensely. They had just turned a corner, and were gazing at an odd sculpture of Hermes when they were interrupted by a loud voice from behind them: "Ah! Miss Bennet! How delightful to see you again!"
I hate quotations.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Elizabeth turned in surprise to see Lord Kilroy bearing down upon them, a bright smile on his face. She couldn't help smiling as he bowed over her hand, then turned to her aunt. "And who might your companion be?" he asked politely.
"This is my aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, my lord," Elizabeth said in response, then turned to her aunt. "This is the Duke of Kilroy, Aunt Gardiner."
Her aunt's brows rose, but she turned and offered her hand to the duke. "A pleasure, my lord."
"No," he replied gallantly, "the pleasure is all mine, I assure you." After exchanging civilities, he turned again to Elizabeth and said with a grin, "I wish to offer my congratulations, my dear, or am I too precipitate?"
Elizabeth laughed. "You are, indeed. But I shall accept them, anyway, because it is all but in the papers. Mr. Darcy went to Longbourn yesterday to seek the blessing of my father."
"And I suppose that is where my grandson is, as well." At her nod, a puzzled expression appeared on his face. "They have not returned?"
Mrs. Gardiner shook her head. "Unless they have returned while we were here."
The duke thought for a moment. "It must be the snow. That is the only explanation I can really think of. I am sure poor Darcy is absolutely perishing, not being able to be in London with you, Miss Bennet."
Elizabeth blushed. "We were supposed to go to the opera tonight, he and I."
A slow smile appeared on the duke's face. "Ah, the opera, was it? Which one, may I ask?"
"Le Nozze di Figaro," she replied.
"Ah! The Marriage of Figaro. Well then," Lord Kilroy said with a boyish grin, "I may be able to spare you the embarrassment of being without a escort. I offer myself on a platter as your attendant, Miss Bennet." At her bewildered expression, he laughed. "I will take you to the opera tonight, as my own companion was unexpectedly called away from London-a dying uncle, or some such-and so I am left with a box and no one to share it. Say you will join me. You will enjoy yourself, I promise you."
She hesitated. "Well..."
"You and your husband will join us, of course, Mrs. Gardiner?"
"Unfortunately," she replied, "we cannot. We have a prior engagement. But you two go; I am sure you will enjoy it. Have you seen the opera before, Lord Kilroy?"
He smiled. "Of course. It is one of my favourites."
Elizabeth was dressed and ready to go by the time that the Duke of Kilroy came to the house to collect her. She came down the staircase and accepted her wrapper from the butler. The duke laughed. "Will poor Darcy be disappointed he missed this! You look absolutely stunning, my dear."
She accepted his compliment, and after a quick farewell to her aunt, uncle and Jane, who stood in the foyer with them, she accepted the duke's arm, and they went out into the cold. He handed her into the carriage, then followed her in, taking the seat opposite her. When the door had closed, he rapped on the roof with his pearl-handled cane and the carriage began to move.
Neither said anything at first until the duke remarked, "The snow has become heavier, hasn't it?"
She replied in the affirmative, and he continued: "Have you ever seen The Marriage of Figaro? You'll love it, I think. The last time I saw it was nearly ten years ago. You know the history of the play, do you not?" She said she did not, and he sat back, looking up at the ceiling. "It was before the revolution in France that the play was written-Louis XVI banned it from the stage, as it spouted the exact threat that later cut off his head, the idea of social injustice and social equality. Mozart, of course, created the opera from that play."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "And I thought this was to be a comedy."
"Oh, it is, it is," he said with a laugh. "Do not misunderstand me. It is simply a comedy with a tragic history."
She laughed. "Oh yes, that makes complete sense." He smiled and didn't say a word. They continued on in silence.
As the carriage drew close to Covent Garden, the traffic grew denser and denser. Elizabeth glanced out the window and saw the carriages lined up, waiting to drop off their occupiers. She sat back in her seat and sighed. "It shall be a long time until we reach the theatre, do you think?"
He nodded. "It always is. That is why we leave so early. But we shall have some fun tonight. After all, the opera is generally not what everyone is here for. Most are simply here to see and be seen."
"Much like Hyde Park at the fashionable hour," Elizabeth muttered.
"Exactly," the duke said with a smile. "In fact, the street is as congested here as it is there, usually. But what I am saying is that everyone will be either lined up on the steps, or descending from carriages as slow as possible so as to look around them, or waiting in the lobby to see who comes in. We shall make quite an appearance. You, with your beauty; me, with my rank; the carriage, with its large ducal crest. You see, all three of us shall be quite the centre of attention by the end of the night."
Elizabeth laughed. "Sounds delightful."
"You would not have garnered so much attention with your Darcy, I might point out," Lord Kilroy said, "but I'm sure you would not have noticed, eh?" She blushed, and he laughed. "But I shall not tease you, my dear. It is a shame that he could not come. But everything will work out. I have a plan."
Elizabeth groaned. "Oh, I do not like the sound of that. You and your grandson are exactly the same. And whenever either of you say the word 'plan,' it is the same thing as screaming 'watch out!' or 'danger!'"
He only laughed at this. "We do like to have fun," he admitted, "but you must remember-I have had more years of experience."
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. She then turned her attention to the carriages outside the window, studying the crests on the doors, or, as it was sometimes possible, the occupants. At last their carriage drew up before the steps to the opera house. The duke stepped out first, then turned to hand out his companion. Elizabeth felt the eyes of a number of people on her, and she caught a glimpse of the mischievous grin on her escort's face.
Once she had both feet on solid ground, the duke offered his arm, and they proceeded up the steps. "Just hold your head up-look down your nose at everyone. Act indifferent," the duke murmured under his breath. And so, trying to hide a smile, Elizabeth pretended that she was the proudest, most haughty person in the world. In other words, she emulated Darcy at the Meryton assembly.
They walked through the lobby, manoeuvring through dense crowd that parted like the Red Sea before the duke. Behind them, Elizabeth could hear murmurs and whispers, people speculating on who she was. Some of the theories nearly made Elizabeth wince, but she ignored them best she could. They finally reached their box and sat down. She laid her fan and programme on her lap. Beside her, the duke was using his opera glasses to look around, at the same time discouraging a number of other opera-glass users, whose eyes seemed trained upon the box.
At last the curtain was drawn, and the opera began. Soon enough, Elizabeth was laughing at the antics of the Count and Figaro and hardly noticed the crowd around her. Therefore, she was sorely disappointed when the first act was complete, and she was again reminded of her situation. She folded her hands tightly in her lap and stared at them until she was startled by a knock on the door.
"And so the real comedy begins," the duke murmured. Elizabeth looked over, about to ask him what he meant, when he called out to whomever was on the other side of the door to enter.
An older, yet still handsome woman came into the box, dressed splendidly in burgundy silk, her dark black hair swept into an elaborate coiffure with a dyed ostrich feather sticking out. Her almond-shaped dark brown eyes were fixed on Elizabeth from the moment she entered, despite her effusive greeting to the duke. He noticed her interest and introduced them. "Elizabeth, this is Lady Stanholpe. Heloise, this is Miss Bennet."
Lady Stanholpe shot a quick glance at Lord Kilroy. "So this is the one your grandson is interested in?" she asked with a raised brow.
The duke laughed, and Lady Stanholpe stepped back, surprise evident on her features, though it was quickly concealed. He shook his head. "No, not quite, my dear, though that is what I had told you."
She seemed confused, so the duke leaned forward. "Can you keep a secret?" he asked, his face completely devoid of expression, though Elizabeth thought she recognised that peculiar twinkle of amusement in his eyes. Lady Stanholpe sniffed. "Of course, David. When have I not?"
Elizabeth caught the trace of a smile on his lips before he continued. "You know Mr. Darcy, do you not?"
"Lady Anne's son?" she asked, curiosity evident in her tone.
The duke nodded. "The very same. Well, he is in Hertfordshire right now." Lady Stanholpe was definitely confused by this seemingly irrelevant line of discussion, but she nodded anyway. "He is asking Mr. Bennet for permission to marry his daughter, Elizabeth."
Lady Stanholpe turned to Elizabeth with new respect in her eyes, though there was still a measure of suspicion. "So you are the one who has captured our eligible Mr. Darcy?" She smiled cattily at Elizabeth's blush, and turned back to the duke. "And so you are keeping her company?"
The duke nodded. "Darcy was supposed to have returned by tonight to escort his fiancée to the opera tonight, but was unavoidably detained. Therefore, I took it upon myself, as the fiancé's friend's grandfather, to act as her escort."
Lady Stanholpe rapped him on the arm with her fan and twittered. "You are always so generous." She smiled up at him for a few moments, then turned and glanced around the box. "Well, I have a few other people to visit before the next act. I will talk to you later, David?"
"Of course," the duke answered with a bow. "You will, of course, remember that this," he indicated Elizabeth with a vague wave of his hand, "is all unofficial as of yet?"
"Oh! Of course, David. You may rely on my discretion." Lady Stanholpe smiled, and with a nod in Elizabeth's direction, sailed from the box.
Elizabeth turned on him the moment the door was closed. "Why on earth did you tell that woman about my engagement-as you said, it is not even official. She's bound to tell someone."
The duke smiled smugly. "Exactly." Elizabeth shot him a puzzled glance, and he explained: "Your being with me, and no one knowing who you are has a disadvantage to it. I would not have your reputation ruined, my dear. But your being with me also has its advantages. You see, if a duke shows you favour, the rest of the ton will accept you. That, in turn, smoothes the way for your introduction into society when your husband decides it is time for you to have a Season. Which reminds me: you will inform me when that happens, will you not? I must have at least one dance with my honorary godson's wife."
Elizabeth laughed. "I will save you a dance, if I can remember that far in advance."
"Less than a year; less than a year, I promise you," he replied with a solemn nod of his head. "We cannot have you rusticating in the country for too long, newlyweds or not."
"I've been 'rusticating' my whole life, my lord-"
"Yes, David. But as I was saying, one more year will not hurt me."
"No, but it will surely hurt the rest of society." He made a wide, sweeping gesture of his arms. "Look at them all. They need someone to liven them up."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. "It seems that the gentleman and two scandalously-clad females in the box across from us need no help."
The duke raised his opera glasses and tsked, shaking his head dolefully. "Poor Lord Haring. I'm not sure how he will occupy the both of them. But I do not think you ought to look over there anymore. It's not a sight for a properly bred lady."
"I wasn't planning on it, thank you."
They returned their gazes to the stage, as the curtain was once again raised. Elizabeth felt the curious stares from the other boxes, but ignored them, returning her attention fully to the scene before her. She soon forgot her surroundings, anyway, as she was so caught up in the story. She clapped enthusiastically at the end, smiling broadly. "That was wonderful!" she said to the duke, who only smiled.
As they were walking down the stairs to the lobby, amidst the throngs of people, Elizabeth clutched to the duke's arm. She was afraid of getting lost in such a crowd. In the lobby, it was even worse. Some people remained standing in little groups, talking to one another. Others were moving in and out between the groupings, and still others were making their way out the doors to the carriages. Elizabeth and the duke were making for the doors when he was hailed by someone, and they stopped and turned around to talk. As the duke stood talking, Elizabeth released his arm and turned, surveying the crowd.
Another couple joined the small grouping around the duke, and Elizabeth stepped away a bit in order to give them a bit more room. She was looking up at the fancy decorations on the ceiling and the walls when she felt something poke her in the side. She looked over and nearly gasped. Her eyes widened with surprise, and her hand flew to her mouth as she came face-to-face with someone she knew all too well.
"It is lovely to see you again, Miss Bennet."
The basis of optimism is sheer terror.
~ Oscar Wilde
"Yes, that is a knife that you feel, Miss Bennet. I'd suggest you don't say a word and come with me as we calmly walk out the door, eh? And smile, would you, so it doesn't look as if I'm killing you?"
Elizabeth did as she was bid, but had to grit her teeth to force the smile to her lips. "You practically are," she muttered under her breath. "Do you think you might loosen your grip on my arm, not to mention the knife in my ribs? I'd be surprised you're not drawing blood."
"Oh, I'm not. You've nothing to worry about. Yet." He grinned a little maliciously. They walked through the rest of the crowd and out the doors with no mishap. Outside, he propelled her down the stairs until they stood within the crowd waiting for carriages. She was pushed along until they stood in the shadow beside the Opera House. He pushed her against the wall and held the knife to her throat as he glared at her. "You will be quiet, you hear me? Although it won't do me any good to kill you, I'll do it if I have to."
"Are you mad?" she whispered over the lump in her throat.
He smiled bitterly. "Perhaps. You can only be pushed so far. And I've definitely been pushed. You are my ticket out. Desperate times, desperate measures, you know."
She shook her head. "You'll never get away with this, Wickham."
"Now, why would you say that?" he asked as he turned her around, pushing her flat up against the wall and pulling her hands behind her. She squirmed as she felt him tie something around her hands tightly, trying to get loose, but he only pushed her harder against the wall. "Don't try me, Miss Bennet. I might not be so gentle as I have been."
She scoffed at this, but he ignored her. Once he had tied her hand together, he did so with her feet, leaving them just loose enough for her to take small, mincing steps. He then turned her around and smiled. "Perfect. Now, if you don't mind, I'll have to gag you, as well."
"Perhaps I do mind," muttered Elizabeth. "Would that make a difference?"
He stuffed a rag in her mouth, tying it behind her head. "No," he said with a malevolent grin. He then fixed the hem of her gown to cover the bonds, and pulled the hood of her cloak over her head to throw a shadow on her face. "Now, before they raise up the hue and cry, we'd better make an escape, my dear." He let her feel the tip of the knife through her gown. "And you won't make any trouble, will you, love?"
She shook her head, and he chuckled. They left the alley onto the street opposite. There were few people on the street, and most had no interest whatsoever in what the two people who emerged from the alley were doing. Wickham hailed a passing cab and gave the driver directions before picking up Elizabeth and stuffing her inelegantly in the carriage. She wriggled in her bonds as he eased into the carriage and sat next to her, putting the knife to her throat. "We're going for a little ride now, Elizabeth," he whispered in her ear. She recoiled from the feel of his breath on her skin, but he only laughed and sat back in his seat.
"Would you like to hear a story while we're on our way back to my rooms?" Elizabeth shook her head, but he continued: "I had joined the regimentals stationed in Meryton, thinking that I could finally get back on the virtuous path-no more gambling, wenching, lying, cheating...But no; I had to go to the one place in all of England where Darcy was. So I left; came back to London. I found an old friend of mine, Mrs. Younge. She owns a small place here; found me some rooms. Since then, I've been forced to rely on my wits to live. I've managed to keep a bit of dough in my pocket, but my luck has been running out. I have nothing-Nothing!" He turned to her, his anger apparent on his features, but they smoothed out as he smiled. "Then I happened to hear a little tidbit of information I found very interesting. You see, Mrs. Younge was in Hyde Park a week or so ago with one of her charges-she's passing herself off as a companion." He gave a bark of laughter. "A companion, of all things!"
Elizabeth made a muffled comment that drew Wickham's attention to her. He leaned over and glared at her. "It seems that you and my good friend Darcy have been getting close...very close. And considering the company you've been hob-knobbing with, you seem to have done well with yourself. I'm sure there will be some very wealthy people wishing for your return, safe and sound. Especially if what I hear is correct. Are you really engaged to him?"
She didn't respond-couldn't have. So instead, she glared at him, which only made him laugh. He reached over and stroked her cheek with a forefinger, making her cringe against the side of the cab. "You know, you aren't so bad after all-at least you're female. And Darcy won't know that you're spoiled goods until it's too late. By then, I'll be long gone, and a whole lot richer, too." He smiled again, then sat back, looking at her.
"So you are to be the bait that brings in the big fish. I was glad to find out that you weren't going to the opera with Darcy after all. It would have been more difficult that way. Oh! You wish to know how I knew such a fact about you?" He chuckled. "I have been getting quite familiar with one of the maids in your uncle's house. She was nothing loath to part with the information."
Just then, the carriage stopped, and Wickham smiled. "It seems we're here. Come, my dear." He opened the door and pulled her out, placing her unceremoniously on the ground, forcing her to clutch to him to keep her balance. He paid the driver, then turned her about and propelled her towards a doorway, which he pushed open and forced her through. The inside of the room was dark, filthy, and smelled horribly. Elizabeth turned her head away, trying to capture a breath of fresh air as her eyes began to water. Wickham laughed maliciously as he lit a lamp that sat on a dingy table. "Do you think I like it any better?" he asked before pushing her to where a chair sat in the middle of the room, and placing her in it. He then tied her to the chair before pulling the gag out of her mouth. Before she had a chance to scream, he covered her lips with his own. She bit him, hard, tasting the salty blood. He pulled away with a curse and slapped her across the face, making her reel back in the chair.
"I won't forget this," he growled as he put the back of his hand to his bleeding lower lip. He stuffed the gag back in her mouth and then backed up a few steps, watching her the whole time. "No, I won't forget this."
He turned around and walked out the door, closing it sharply behind him. Elizabeth watched him leave, feeling the fear rising within her. Was he just going to leave her there? For how long? What if she needed to eat-what if she needed to relieve herself? She struggled at her bonds, but there was no give. He had tied them tight and sure. She gazed at the ceiling, willing back the tears that sprang to her eyes.
Her cheek still stung where he had slapped her, but she didn't regret what she had done. She was not about to sit still and let all this happen to her without at least a little retaliation. What she could do was limited, of course-she couldn't move from this chair. But someone was bound to save her. Her disappearance could not have gone unnoticed. And when her fiancé returned, he wouldn't rest until she was found, she was sure of it. He would come and find her, wouldn't he?
A sudden movement caught her attention, and she released a muffled shriek as a rat scurried across her feet. She tried to push her chair away, but then screamed again as it tipped backwards instead. Her head hit the floor hard, and as she felt everything go black, her last thought was, "Why me?"
"Perhaps I should visit her first," Darcy said unhappily.
Lucas turned to look at his friend and shook his head. "You are hopeless, you know that?" Darcy didn't respond, and Lucas sighed. "No, we'll go home first. You look as if you haven't slept in days. We'll make sure you look presentable before you go haring off to apologise. We also have to find something nice for her. She'll forgive you more easily then. And it's not as if you don't have an excuse."
"That's not the point. I abandoned her-I had promised we would go to the opera, and I failed her."
Lucas shook his head in exasperation. "Let's just stop at your house first, alright?"
Darcy shrugged in response, and they turned their horses towards his townhouse. When they arrived, they stabled their horses and went up the steps to the door. It was opened by Tomlin, who was looking quite nervous-a bad omen to begin with. Darcy noticed immediately, and felt a tremor of foreboding pass through him. "Is there something wrong, Tomlin?"
The butler swallowed. "You have a visitor, sir," he said with a note of unease in his voice.
Darcy looked up to see the Duke of Kilroy standing in the hall, looking haggard and spent. "Grandpops?" Lucas said in surprise.
The duke stepped forward, running a shaking hand through his grey hair. "Darcy, I have some bad news-"
"Elizabeth?" Darcy choked out, feeling the blood rush from his face as the older man nodded. "Wha-what happened? Where is she? She's not hurt?"
The duke hesitated. "We don't know. She's disappeared."
"Where? How?" Darcy cried impatiently. "Tell me!"
"At the opera. Last night. She was with me one moment; the next, she was gone. Someone mentioned seeing her with another man, going out the door, but I couldn't get a good description. She wouldn't have gone willingly," he added quietly.
Lucas stepped forward. "I think we'd better go to the library," he said quickly, putting a hand under Darcy's arm, and guiding the stunned man down the hallway. They entered the library and closed the door. Lucas glanced at the open brandy decanter and smiled humourlessly. "It looks as if you've already begun. Could you pour another glass? Darcy's going to need it."
The duke nodded and filled another glass with brandy, bringing it over to where Darcy was sitting. The latter accepted it and put it to his lips, downing the whole glass in one quaff. He then began to cough as the liquor burned his throat. The duke patted him on the back awkwardly. When Darcy straightened and looked up at the older man with watering eyes, the duke sighed.
"There is some question, logically, as to why she was chosen. And why she was taken from the midst of hundreds of people, for Heaven's sake! I was standing right there! He was either very brave, quite daft, or extremely desperate. And none of those possibilities instills much hope." He flung his hands out in desperation. "And there has been nothing since! No ransom, no note, no dead body-" He stopped when he noticed the ashen colour of Darcy's face, and flushed with embarrassment.
Lucas jumped into the awkward silence. "Perhaps he-or they-or whomever it is that has her-has been waiting until Darcy returns. Or until I return. That is, if the kidnapper knows anything about the details of the past few days. It's a possibility we must consider."
"Has anything been done to find her?" Darcy asked now.
The duke opened his hands. "Everything that can be done, with so little to go on. There is no trail, no clues, nothing. I have called in Runners, but they are of little use so far. No one knows anything."
Darcy put his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. "This is all my fault," he said miserably. The other two tried to disagree, but he ignored them: "I should have been here. But I was in Hertfordshire. I was not there when she needed me. If I had been there with her, this wouldn't have happened."
"You don't know that-"
"Yes, I do!" Darcy said forcefully. "I wouldn't have let her out of my sight, much less off of my arm. She would not have gone a step from me the whole time."
Lord Killroy sighed. "I guess you are right. But how was I to expect..."
"I know, I know," said Darcy. "It isn't your fault. You couldn't have known this was to happen. But now that it has, we must think of something. We cannot simply sit and twiddle our thumbs. My Elizabeth is somewhere out there, in God knows what danger, and we sit here and do nothing!"
"But what is there to do, Darcy?" pointed out Lucas sensibly.
He heaved his shoulders in response. "I don't know. How much I wish I knew, but I don't."
There was a knock on the door, and the eyes of all three of the occupants of the room turned in that direction. The door was opened by Tomlin, bearing a letter on a silver tray. "This just came, sir."
The duke smiled mirthlessly. "It seems the ransom note has come."
For every complex problem, there is a solution
that is simple, neat, and wrong.
~ H. L. Mencken
Darcy took the proffered letter and broke the seal. As he glanced over it, he shook his head. "No, this isn't the ransom note. The ransom was sent to the Gardiners-but it seems as though it specifically named us-all three of us."
"What?" Lucas asked, confused. "All three of us? That doesn't make any sense."
"Of course it does," offered the duke quietly. "Somehow the kidnapper discovered that you and Darcy are close to her-would pay a lot to have her returned with no harm, and I was with her at the opera. It brought in the Gardiners because first of all, that is where she is staying. But Mr. Gardiner is a merchant-he might have at least a little money to contribute."
Lucas shook his head. "That's despicable."
"But intelligent," Darcy pointed out. "So it appears we aren't dealing with an uneducated man. Simply someone who is down on his luck, extremely desperate. And someone with a grudge against at least one of us." He looked up at Lucas, whose eyes had widened, and as their gazes met, Darcy nodded.
Lord Kilroy had caught the exchange, but didn't understand. "Do you know who it is?"
"I have a feeling we do," replied Darcy, his teeth clenched. "Do you remember George Wickham?"
"The son of your father's steward? The little jackanapes that broke the priceless vase from King Henry VII?"
Darcy nodded with a grimace. "If my guess is correct, he now adds 'kidnapping' to his repertoire. He is our man to catch."
"I don't know how we're going to do that," muttered Lucas as he sat in a chair by the fire.
Darcy had stood and walked over to the desk. He now opened one of the locked drawers and pulled out a case. From it he took a pistol, and began to load it. Lucas looked up in surprise. "What are you doing, Darce? Darce!" he shouted when his friend hadn't seemed to hear him, instead continuing the fluid motions as he loaded the pistol.
At last, Darcy looked up, his eyes bright with calculated anger. "You and Grandpops go to the Gardiners-try and work things out from that direction. Though, knowing Wickham as I do, it won't be all that easy. He's rather shrewd for a man of such low morals. He's probably blocked off every option but his own. I will send along my valet, dressed in my clothes-he's about the same size and shape as I am. If, by some chance, Wickham is watching the house, I don't want him to get any inkling that I've got a plan of my own."
"And what are you going to do?" asked the duke, eyeing the pistol warily.
Darcy smiled mirthlessly. "Why, I'm going to visit an old friend."
The dark figure standing in the shadow of the townhouse across the street watched as the three men piled into the carriage pulled up to the curb. He leaned back against the wall as one of the men paused, looking up and down the street. But, evidently seeing nothing suspicious, climbed into the carriage last. After the door was closed, the driver hopped onto the seat and whipped the horses into motion.
The man chuckled to himself as he turned away and began to walk in the opposite direction. They were doing exactly as he supposed. He had thought more of his childhood playmate. But apparently, when one is so threatened...
A sudden thought occurred to the man, and he stopped immediately on the path, turning back towards the house as the idea formulated in his brain. He took a few steps in that direction then crossed the street quickly, hurrying over to the other side. He slipped in between two houses and ran to the alley behind. He looked up and down the alley, then jumped back into the shadow of the two houses as a movement caught his attention.
A familiar figure exited the back of the house the man had been watching, looking up and down the alleyway before hurrying away. The man stepped out of the shadow and began to follow the other quickly, wondering the whole time where they were going. He smiled, though, realising that his adversary was indeed as intelligent as he had assumed.
Elizabeth regained consciousness slowly, though it took her even longer to realise what she was staring at in the near perfect darkness. But as the pain in her head vanished, she looked to each side of her, at the filth on the floor. She shuddered as she saw a rat a short distance away, picking at garbage on the ground. She moved her head again, and realised that she had struck the back of her head against something-the reason she had lost consciousness.
She scooted to the side as far as she could, then turned her head to look at the object. She gazed at her disjointed face in the broken glass, the pieces still somewhat held in their frame. And as she stared at the broken mirror, an idea began to come together in her mind.
She scooted the chair back until her hands, still tied behind her back, were even with the mirror. Then she twisted sideways, reaching with her fingertips toward the glass. When she had achieved her object, she began sawing at her bonds with the glass. Several times she scratched herself with the sharp edge, flinching at the pain, but eventually, the rope wore away, and she pulled her hands out in front of her, rubbing her raw wrists gingerly, wiping away the blood from the cuts. She then untied her feet and the gag from her mouth and stood up.
The room spun for a moment. Or at least, what she could see of the room. The interior was dark and thick, the heaviness nearly smothering. Elizabeth breathed deeply a few times, trying to retain her consciousness. At last the dizziness passed, and she put a hand to her head as the headache intensified.
She remained standing in the middle of the floor for some time, until she began to shiver with coldness. The chill of the winter air was seeping into the room. The pathetic fire that had been built in the fireplace had long since turned to ash, and the heat coming from it was minimal, inadequate. She walked over to it anyway, looking around for a bit of coal, blowing on it slightly to fan the coals, hoping against hope that there was enough...
At last she gave up out of sheer exhaustion. She sat down before the fireplace, barren of warmth, and wrapped her arms about herself. Suddenly, she recalled her cloak and quickly retrieved it from the place she had seen Wickham throw it. The material was somewhat thin, though it was warmer than the mere gown she wore. At the thought of the gown, she glanced down, completely ashamed. Her aunt's gown was now torn and dirty, spots of blood covering it from when she had cut her wrists. It looked as if she had been dragged backwards through a bush. Or halfway across London, she thought bitterly.
In truth, she had no idea where she was. She was definitely not in Pall Mall; that was for certain. But which of the slums, she had no idea. She had not even set foot here before, of course. There was never any reason for her to venture into the unwashed parts of London. Even this small glimpse of what it must be like made her shudder.
After a while, Elizabeth stood again, keeping the cloak wrapped tightly around her. She glanced at the closed-up windows, wondering what time it was. There was no sign of a clock in the small room, and there was not so much as even a crack in the shutters to tell her how light it was on the outside. She sighed. She couldn't have been unconscious for that long, could she have?
Her stomach told her otherwise. She looked around for any food, but saw none-until she saw the rat sitting on the counter. She shuddered as she realised what it was eating. "Well, apparently I won't have any dinner," she muttered wryly, then sighed again. There was no point in getting upset. She was sure Wickham would return soon. He couldn't have forgotten her, that was for sure. She was his "bait;" he couldn't kill her without killing his chances of payment or escape. At least, she was hoping that was the case.
She moved around the room now, looking at the scattered, broken objects on the floor. There was a mockery of a bed in the corner, the sheets probably covered in lice, she mused-she wasn't about to check. In fact, she avoided that corner altogether. At last she reached the door. Her hand stretched out slowly, and she found the doorknob, turning it and pulling slightly. She was surprised when the door actually opened. How could he not have locked the door? Unless, she thought, the door had no lock.
She peered out into the street cautiously. The sun was just going down, and the street was near empty. She wasn't about to venture out, yet, though. She would be extremely vulnerable: a woman alone dressed in fashionable, if not rather dirty, clothes. She was of the high class, transplanted in a place she definitely did not belong. She would not know what to do if someone of less reputable background accosted her in the street. She wouldn't last long out here.
She closed the door slowly, with a long sigh. Well, what was she to do now? Wait for him to return? That, too, would be stupid. She had to leave before then. What she would do once she had left, she had no idea. Perhaps she could find a cab...with what money? she realised bitterly. She could possibly make the driver believe she would pay him when she reached the Gardiners, true, but she would be suspect, to say the least, especially considering the fact that she was in the middle of the slums of London alone, wearing a torn and dirty evening gown.
Elizabeth laid her head in her hands, her headache intensifying. This was incredible-no matter how she thought of it, she was trapped. As soon as Wickham found her missing, he'd go out searching. And it wouldn't be that hard, either. She would be incredibly conspicuous in this area of town wearing what she was...unless...
But there was no possibility of finding someone to give her other clothes, was there? Elizabeth peered out the door again, looking up and down the street. Suddenly she caught sight of a woman walking down the sidewalk on her side of the street. Elizabeth opened the door wider and beckoned to the woman. As she came nearer, Elizabeth realised that she wrong-she was little more than a child.
The girl looked suspiciously at Elizabeth, glancing at her clothes with surprise and a little bit of awe. At last, she looked Elizabeth squarely in the face, but didn't say a word, merely raised a brow in question. Elizabeth lowered her eyes from the frank gaze. "Do you think you might come in? I was wondering if you'd help me with something, and I'd rather not stand in the street and discuss it."
After a short hesitation, the girl nodded curtly, and followed Elizabeth into the room. She glanced around at the state of the room dispassionately, then looked back at Elizabeth in expectation. Elizabeth sighed. "First of all, my name is Elizabeth."
The girl nodded, but didn't offer her own. Elizabeth continued: "I was kidnapped from Covent Garden last night, and I need to get out of here before the man who took me returns." The girl glanced apprehensively at the door, but Elizabeth shook her head. "He probably won't return just yet. He's been gone ever since he brought me last night." She turned her eyes pleadingly towards the girl. "Do you think you can help me? My fiancé will reward you handsomely. Perhaps he could even get you a job in a shop if you would like."
The girl gazed impassively at Elizabeth for a while, then nodded. "I'll see if I can help. My name is Serena. I live a few doors from here with my ma. We'd better get out of here, though. We'd be in trouble if he came while I'm here."
They went to the door, and the girl glanced out into the street before gesturing for Elizabeth to follow her. They ran down the sidewalk quickly, disappearing through another door. And the street was empty and quiet.
God may be subtle, but He isn't plain mean.
~ Albert Einstein
Darcy leaned back against the seat of the hired hack, passing a hand over his brow, wiping away the sweat that had accumulated there. His hand curled over the gun in his belt as the cab travelled further into the slums. He didn't have to use it yet, and hopefully not at all. But he wasn't taking any chances.
The idea that Mrs. Younge was working as a companion was ludicrous. But it was a good point of negotiation. With a little promise of money, and the threat of exposure, Mrs. Younge told him everything-how she had found him lodgings in an area less than desirable, but the best he could afford with the little money he had, and the little money she could give him from blackmail.
He shook his head slowly, disbelievingly. How Wickham could go through so much money in so little time was beyond his imagination. But that was his way, and there was little that would even possibly be able to change him. Perhaps a few years in Newgate, or even a moment on the hangman's stage, Darcy mused with a grin, then felt immediately ashamed of himself. No matter the amount of animosity he held towards the man, there was no excuse for such blatant sadism.
Soon enough, the driver pulled up. Darcy opened the door and hopped out, looking around himself cautiously. He didn't see anyone else on the street itself, but caught a glimpse of people through grimy windows, and a few standing on the street corner. He glanced back at the driver and said, "I will return in a few moments, sir." The driver's mouth compressed slightly at the thought of standing for any amount of time in that area, especially at this time of day, so Darcy pulled out a few coins and said quietly, "There'll be more coming if you wait."
The driver pocketed the coins and nodded, turning his eyes back to the horse after glancing suspiciously around. Darcy, satisfied that there would be transportation when he returned, then approached the house Mrs. Younge had indicated. He looked up and down the street before trying the door. It opened to his touch, and he immediately went on his guard.
The only light in the small room came from behind, his shadow large in the doorway. Nothing in the room stirred, until a rat jumped off a counter and under the bed that sat in one corner. He shuddered, and took another step inside, breathing shallowly in the heavy stench. A chair lay overturned in the middle of the room, rope scattered around it. Darcy's heart caught in his throat as he saw the broken mirror and the blood that was spattered around it.
He knelt there, on the floor, examining the object, anger thrumming through his veins. He tried to think rationally, though, willing himself to think with logic on the situation. One fact was clear-Elizabeth was not here. Chances were, taking into account the rope and chair, that she had been. But what had happened, and why was there blood there?
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration, when he examined the rope more closely. It, too, was covered with blood where it had been frayed by some object. A wave of relief swept through him when he realised that Elizabeth had cut through the bonds herself, then felt all the dread returning when upon the heels of that thought came the realisation that now she was somewhere on the streets in London's most dangerous area, and in addition, she was hurt.
He closed his eyes briefly, painfully, and hung his head. This was not going as planned. Nothing was going as planned. He opened his eyes again, and his head came up sharply as he saw the figure in the doorway. "Wickham," he growled as he stood, his hand reaching for the pistol in his belt.
"Ah, ah, ah, Mr. Darcy," Wickham said, and Darcy then saw the glint of the last of the sun's rays off the cold barrel of a pistol. "None of that, shall we? He took a step further into the room. "Where is she?"
"I don't know," Darcy replied truthfully. "She was gone when I arrived."
Wickham paused. "For some reason, I believe you. There are not many places she could hide in here, and I saw no one leave through the door." He sighed. "So, what are we going to do with you? I have a serious problem, you realise. I cannot kill you, for I lose my hope of ransom and revenge-well, at least from you, that is. It is also quite difficult to drag a body down to the Thames. Quite heavy, you know. I could tie you up, of course, but it is difficult to do so with a pistol in one hand."
"So what will you do with me?"
Wickham shrugged. "I suppose knock you unconscious, then go find your darling Elizabeth."
He had taken a step towards Darcy, when suddenly, there was a noise behind him. He spun around quickly, but the other person was too quick for him. With a soft thud, Wickham collapsed in an unconscious heap on the floor, the pistol falling a few feet away. Darcy stared in astonishment at his fiancé, standing in the doorway like an avenging angel, a block of wood in her hands. She lifted it with a shrug. "It was the first thing I could find."
With a laugh, she rushed into his open arms, and they embraced each other. He held her closely, stroking her soft curls as tears slipped down his face. "I thought I had lost you, Elizabeth," he whispered.
"I never lost hope," she replied into his shoulder.
He brushed a light kiss on her hair, then noticed the other figure in the doorway. "Who is this?" he asked quietly.
Elizabeth turned around and laughed. "This is Serena. She was going to help me find my way back." She turned again to look at Darcy. "I happened to see the hackney pull up and you get out, though, and plans changed. I had just been about to fly out the door when Serena stopped me. She had seen Wickham across the street, and when he began to approach the house, she realised who he was. It was a close thing."
Darcy smiled then. "Well, Miss Serena, you have definitely proved yourself. I will give you anything you desire."
The girl grinned and looked at Elizabeth, who laughed. "She's to be my new ladies' maid. Is that fine?"
He held her close to him and said, "Whatever you want. Whatever you want, Elizabeth."
Lucas Harding stood by the window of the Gardiner's drawing room. "He should have returned by now. He could be hurt, killed, something!"
"Now, there's no reason to get upset," Mrs. Gardiner said gently as she refilled Lord Kilroy's cup with tea.
Lucas shook his head as he moved away from the window, watching his feet make their way towards the fireplace on one side of the room. "It's dark out now. We have no idea where he is. We have no idea where Elizabeth is. All of this waiting, wondering, having absolutely no clue what is going on is going to drive me into Bedlam! I swear it, if he doesn't show his face in five minutes, I will be out that door, knocking some of those stupid red-vested popinjays they call Runners into little bloody pulps unless they give me some information that I can use!"
At that very moment, all eyes turned to the window as the sound of a carriage arose from the street. "It can't be..."Lucas muttered, rushing over and looking out anyway. He shook his head in bemusement. "Well, speak of the devil, and here he comes!"
The exclamations in the room upon the entrance of three ragged figures were nearly deafening. Elizabeth was embraced by her sister and aunt, Darcy was slapped on the back by Lucas and greeted warmly by the rest of the room. The other figure was regarded with some curiosity and only a bit of suspicion. At last, Lucas asked the question they all wanted to hear: "What happened?"
Darcy grimaced. "It's a long story. I will tell you all later. In the meantime, this is Serena. She helped Elizabeth to escape, and is to be her new ladies maid as soon," he shot a glance at Elizabeth, "as we wed."
"Which if I have my way," Elizabeth said with a grin, "will be very, very soon."
The wedding went on without another hitch, and the bride and bridegroom were married amidst much joy and congratulations. Their honeymoon was spent in Milan, a wedding gift from the Duke. They returned in time, however, to greet the new arrivals to the family: the son of Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, and the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Collins. Their own addition did not come until the following year, when they were blessed with twin sons, named Lucas and David after their respective godfathers.
Mrs. Bennet now had only two daughters over whom to fawn. Lydia Bennet's ways did not change much, and eventually she married a decent officer, of which her mother was proud. Kitty, therefore, was left as the last unmarried daughter. Once Lydia had gone, she spent most of her time with her other sisters, as life with Mrs. Bennet was, of course, nearly intolerable.
Caroline Bingley, for some time, attempted to capture Lucas Harding, but eventually gave up and married a rich old baron, thinking that perhaps she would be soon left a rich widow. She was not content with her marriage, however, when Lord Reginald lasted long into his years, so spent most of her time in London, as her husband hated Town.
Lucas Harding went back to his normal habits for the most part, proclaiming to the world that he was going to remain a bachelor for the rest of his days and enjoy it, much to his grandfather's aggravation and amusement. It was not until much, much later that Lucas met a woman who was indeed, his match. But that, unfortunately, is a whole different story...