This story is dedicated to Alyson on the occasion of her birthday, September 23rd, 2006, with all my love.
My apologies to Jane Austen and Mary Stewart for stealing their ideas and characters and intertwining them.
The Mark of The Cat
My love came to me by moonlight. I awoke from a deep sleep and he was there, calling my name from the shadows. Releasing the last misty strands of my dream, I let him come. Truly, there was no way I could have resisted him, he was that insistent.
Put this way, my behaviour sounds wanton, with no regard to propriety, but my love and I communicate in a completely different way than the rest of society, and because of this I cannot help but cast aside the regular conventions. My love’s presence was not corporeal, but cerebral, and his urgent whisperings were not of passion, but fear and warning.
Bennet! I opened my mind and let him in. The warning came as one vivid block – not pictures or words, but thought patterns that surpass such forms of communication. Your father is in danger. He needs you. And then an outpouring of comfort, wrapping me as if in his firm embrace. Though I have never known the physical feel of such intimacy from him or anyone other than the caresses of a parent, it was as real and reassuring as if he were holding me against his chest, my ear pressed to his pounding heart.
I think I will need to tell you some history of my family so you can understand my story better. We are of a longstanding line, dating to before the Norman invasion. Throughout the intervening years between the day the first Bennet built his castle in the shelter of the Malvern Hills until now, 1812, there have been rumours of prescience and second sight attached to various of my ancestors. It is a so-called gift that runs in my family, though I do not doubt that Elizabeth Bennet, my namesake, who was burned at the stake in 1623 for practicing witchcraft, thought it more a curse than anything else.
That first castle, which is said to have been built upon Roman remains, has since been rebuilt, expanded and reduced with the fluctuating fortunes of the family, until its present form. Now, in addition to crenulated stone towers and dark, Tudor halls, there is a lofty Georgian wing that stretches to the very edge of the moat – a remnant of the early fortifications that the family hung onto despite other restorations and modernizations.
Centuries of opportunism, gambling, and greed reduced our once prosperous estate and left us upon the fringes of the echelon we were born to inhabit. Impoverished peers are still accepted, but not encouraged unless society finds their eccentricities sufficiently interesting. My father was a man of letters, not horses and cards. He was happy with a quiet country life and a circle of no more than four and twenty families, whose foibles he found sufficiently amusing to turn his back upon London and all it had to offer. He was devoted to my mother, and she to him. The day she died, five years before the time I write about, a light was snuffed out in his life. He tried to live unchanged, for me, but the effort was too much for him. The house crumbled around us from the years of neglect that sparse income and poor management wrought. Finally it was decided not only that we must retrench, but also that for his health he needed to relocate away from the damp of our moated home.
Father leased a townhouse in Harrowgate, where his doctor set him on a strict regimen of taking the waters. He wouldn't hear of me staying with him. The town was too unfashionable for a young lady making her debut into society. He said that my chances of meeting a husband would be lessened even more than they had been during our retired life at Longbourn Keep. At least our neighbourhood boasted some very fine families, my cousins amongst them, and I knew my father harboured the hope that I might one day be joined in wedlock with one of them. However, I could not stay home alone without a companion, so I was sent up here to London to live with my Aunt and Uncle Phillips, my mother's sister and her husband, so that I could take in the delights of the season.
I did not sleep at all that night. After my love left me, with a caress as soft as the rose petals that trailed across my window, I packed a travelling bag and then sat in the cold embrasure and stared out into the night, watching as the stars dimmed and the sky took on a pale glow in the east. I could think of nothing else but my father and the pain he must surely be suffering.
My father and I have always had a strong bond - not the same clear communication as exists between my love and myself, but an awareness of when one of us is affected strongly by our emotions or physical pain. It was this that my love sensed in the night, and was this that urged him to wake me. It was this I was feeling now, faint at the great distance between London and Yorkshire, but an ever-present dull ache that chilled me more than my fireless room.
As soon as the sun arose, I sent for the carriage. I left a letter for my aunt and uncle, and with no more than my portmanteau and my loyal abigail, I set off for Harrowgate, hope growing ever dimmer as the pain grew stronger. Six hours upon the road it left me, and I knew at that moment that my beloved father was no more. I leant my head back upon the cushions and wept as the carriage wheeled me into darkness. I reached out for my love, casting my mind as far as I could manage, but could not find him. I was alone in my loss with only Annie, small and confused on the seat beside me, no doubt wondering if her mistress had finally gone mad.
Longbourn Keep, 1641
Was it only last night that I ventured to the De Bourgh Masquerade Ball? It seems like a lifetime ago, and at the same time, less than a moment. How was I to know that at the home of my worst enemy, the family that brought ruination to my family and scorching death to my mother, I would find love fairer than the fairest summer night? Your gown billowed like a cloud and your flaxen tresses glowed in the light of myriad candles. When your blue eyes held mine and your rosebud lips parted, I was forever lost. An angel more divine could not exist anywhere in God's heavens. I want you to grace my world for a lifetime.
Later, I crept up to your balcony and you welcomed me with a smile of such sweet innocence, I fell at your feet and kissed the hem of your gown. Oh, that you should love me as much as I do you! You professed to with a tender kiss upon my cheek. I can feel it even now, my skin imprinted with your pledge. And I pledged myself to you at the same moment as the nightingale sang. Or was it the lark? Time has lost all its bearings.
But now, waiting here in the crumbling pavilion, I begin to doubt. Have they discovered our pact? Will they keep you from me? I light a lone taper, and then another. Set them in the gilt sconces my father installed so many years before, gold and glitter tarnished now with age and disuse. I gaze out the window, hoping to see lantern’s glow twisting through the darkness of the maze.
The streets of Harrowgate were wet with rain – not a cheering spring rain, but a deluge more fit for November than May. The doctor, Mr Jones, met me at the door of the townhouse. Once we were in the parlour, away from the servants, he broke the news to my gently. But of course, I already knew my father had died. What I did not know were the particulars and, with much tact, he told me all that he knew.
My father’s health had improved considerably in the months that he had been following Mr Jones’ regimen. Every day he walked to the pump room to take the water and had lately begun walking further, into the countryside. It was on just such an outing that tragedy befell him. While walking along a narrow lane, he was struck by a passing carriage and left for dead in the hedgerows. Hours later, a young lad out badgering with his dog found him. The boy ran for the nearest cottage to raise the alert just as Mr Jones, concerned at my father’s lateness, came down the lane in his gig. My father was alive, but unconscious. Mr Jones brought him home, put him to bed, and attended to him, but his injuries were too severe for any chance of survival.
“Please, do not try to spare me,” I begged. “If my father had not lain there for hours, without aid, would he have lived? If the driver of the coach had stopped and rendered assistance . . .”
Mr Jones placed his hand on mine and looked directly into my eyes. “Miss Elizabeth, I believe immediate help would only have afforded your father a few hours more. He still would have passed away before your arrival.”
I wiped a tear. “I would have liked to hear his voice one more time. To tell him how much I valued him. To . . .” I could not go on. Mr Jones sat quietly as I shed newly raised tears.
“May I see him?” I asked at last.
He nodded and led me upstairs to my father’s bedchamber where he was laid out according to custom. I sat with my father until the candles gutted in their holders and then allowed Annie to guide me to my chamber and settle me in for the night. I had said my goodbyes and now all that was left was to gather strength and face my future.
As I lay my head upon the crisp linen pillowcase, I felt warmth envelop me. My love spread his thoughts over me like a soft eiderdown. Sleep. I am with you. And I drifted into a deep and restful slumber.
After breakfast Mr Jones called upon me. He informed me that all the arrangements for returning my father’s body to Longbourn Keep had been made, and a coach was waiting to take me to my home as soon as I felt ready to make the long journey to Herefordshire. I thanked him for everything he had done for my father and me.
“There is one more thing, Miss Elizabeth,” he said. “Your father regained consciousness for a few moments before he died. I believe he was trying to leave a message for you. I recorded his words and though they do not convey anything to me, I hope you will find his meaning in them.”
He passed me a sealed envelope and then took his leave. Annie and I quit the house less than an hour later, and made our sombre way back to the beloved land cupped below the
In the coach I opened the paper that Mr Jones had given me, my eagerness as great as my apprehension. My Father’s final message to me. What could have been so important to say that he would have struggled into consciousness to utter the words before he breathed his last?
In letters more careful than one expects from a man of medicine, was clearly written:
Elizabeth . . . tell Elizabeth . . . Thomas . . . George . . . would have told . . . the paper . . . in William’s brook . . . in the library . . . William . . . the key . . . the cat . . . on the pavement . . . the map . . . the letter . . . in the brook.
I stopped reading, trying to find some meaning in the words that seemed to appear at random on the page. What was this about my uncle and cousins? And the cat, the pavement, the brook – it made not the least bit of sense. I read on, hoping the rest of what had been transcribed would shed some light onto what I had just read.
Tell Elizabeth . . . take care . . . danger . . . this feeling I have . . . should have told Elizabeth . . . had to be sure . . . I did tell . . . I think he knows . . . tell him . . . trust . . . do what is right . . . blessing.
That was all there was. It made no sense to me at all. The only thing I understood from it was the warning – take care . . . danger – that was clear enough. But the rest . . . what was the feeling he had? A premonition of peril? Or was he talking about that wordless communication that sometimes passed between him and me? The way we could feel each other’s pain in times of injury or emotional torment? I had no way of knowing. And who was it he was referring to in the end? Whom did he tell? Whom did he think knew? And what was his final blessing?
Had he discovered the connection between myself and my love? I had never told my father that I could communicate mentally with one of my cousins. But what if he had found out some other way? Did he know which of my cousins was my secret love?
But where did the danger come in? And what was the key? The cat? The map? And where was the brook? The river that ran through Longbourn estate was dammed to form the moat, and there was a run-off at the weir that went to the overflow pond, but none of these waterways had ever been referred to as William’s brook.
There was no solving it. I lay my head against the squabs of the carriage and thought back to my home and what was waiting for me there. I would not be going to Longbourn Keep – that was rented out to a wealthy merchant, Mr Bingley, and his wife and daughter. I was to stay at the parsonage with Mr and Mrs Gardiner until a companion was found for me. The reverend was a very worthy man and a good friend of my family. His wife was a lady of fashion and sense, but she had a brood of growing children that took up most of her time.
Longbourn Keep was mine no longer. It was settled by entail to the male line, and with my father’s death it would go to his brother Thomas. But there was a small parcel of land in my father’s estate that had been purchased in the last century, after the entail that had been established in the sixteenth century. This land, and the modest house upon it, was now mine. My father’s steward lived there, but other arrangements would have to be made for him and his family. I had no desire to live upon the good graces of friends and relations – I felt a great desire to make a home for myself, for as long as I needed to – if only my love would reveal himself to me.
When we were young I understood the necessity of secrecy. We found each other by accident. At first I thought the feelings I would get – the pictures and ideas that would come into my head – were just another part of me. Slowly I began to realise that no one else that I knew had experience of such things, and rather than be accused of madness, or get burned at the stake like my unfortunate ancestor, I kept silent. But I also continued the communication, which was a form of companionship to me in my relatively solitary childhood. It wasn’t till I was grown that I realised it must be one of my cousins I was communicating with and not a ghost or other type of supernatural spirit. But he would never tell me which cousin he was. And I would never dare to go to any one of them and ask outright.
I have three cousins, my Uncle Thomas’ sons. The two eldest are twins, William and George. As a child I followed them about worshipfully and they would have little to do with me unless it involved making me play a part in one of their dubious schemes. William was a half hour senior to George, and he wore the mantle of heir with ponderous gravity and pride. George was more carefree. He maintained that missing out on being heir bothered him not a whit. He was supposed to take orders, but still, at the age of six and twenty he had not yet committed himself to the church. Their younger brother, Frederick, was a Colonel in the army and currently on a tour of duty on the continent.
I was always very attached to all three. The twins were what gentlemen ought to be – handsome, with quick minds and a pleasing air. Both were ambitious, wanting to raise their position in society. I told myself all the time that this was a natural and understandable trait, but I have to admit that I sometimes feared their ambitions might lead them to behaviour that I might have difficulty condoning. I understood what drove them to this and so could view it with compassion rather than judgement. Our family carries a stigma to this day because of that terrible event that took place in 1623.
The reason that this disgrace still haunted us almost two centuries after the fact was because the other family of note in our neighbourhood was descended from the very Earl that accused Lady Elizabeth Bennet of witchcraft and was instrumental in bringing about her death.
Her son grew to be a scapegrace who also died young and badly – it was rumoured that the De Bourgh family should have been implicated in his murder. It was hardly surprising that the scorn of the De Bourghs and bitterness of the Bennets had been passed down from generation to generation, and that with the difference in the fortunes of the two families, the De Bourghs had the greater portion of public sentiment.
The Gardiners welcomed me with all the generosity of their natures as I practically fell from the chaise, worn and weary from my travelling back and forth across the length and breadth of
I slept again, deeply and dreamlessly, and the next day I was able to face my cousins as they came bearing their condolences. My uncle, suffering from a debilitating illness himself, was unable to visit but sent his deepest regrets. My cousins offered to do anything within their power for my comfort in my regrettable circumstance. I thanked them for their generosity but declined any offers of help. I had already sent off a letter to a spinster cousin from my mother’s side and had great hopes that Charlotte Lucas would agree to be my companion.
“I intend to live at Hunsford,” I said, “as soon as it is empty and my companion arrives.”
“It is unthinkable!” said William. “We will be only too happy to have you with us at Lucas Lodge. You cannot set up house with some mousy spinster cousin – only consider how it would look.”
“How would it look?”
George laughed. “Don’t mind William. He’s finally got himself into Lady Catherine’s good graces and he doesn’t want anything interfering with his chances with the heiress.”
I looked at my cousin in shock. “You want to marry Lady Anne De Bourgh? Lady Catherine would never agree to such a match.”
“There are many things I would do for social advancement,” said William, “but marry Lady Anne is not one of them. As much as I am capable of pandering to her mother, I could not abide looking at Anne’s sickly face across the breakfast table every day.”
“Then who is the heiress?”
“Do not listen to him, Cousin Elizabeth, I have no designs upon Miss Bingley. It is more likely that George will court her.”
“Never! I have someone else in mind.” He glanced expressively at me. “But now is not the time for such talk. Cousin, I agree with William. You cannot close yourself up in that ramshackle house with dowdy Cousin Charlotte. You would find yourself at your wit’s end within the week.”
“But Hunsford! A Bennet live where once a steward was housed?” William curled his lip in distaste.
“Hunsford belongs to me,” I said fiercely, and then I shook my head and smiled. “Come, let us not argue. It is a small house but at one time it was a fine establishment. The hunting box of Sir William Lucas himself, if I recall. It will be well fitted up before I move in at any rate. I am sure there will be enough shelves in the closets to match my needs.”
“Shelves in the closets!” laughed George. “Happy thought indeed! If you are so decided, there is nothing more we can do but wish you all the best in your new establishment.”
After my cousins had gone, I walked in the garden and pondered the visit. If either one of them was paying court to Miss Bingley, where did that leave me? Was my love
Don’t fret. A gentle stroke. Trust me . . . the time will come. But not yet, not yet my love. He was there, surrounding me with a current of tender feeling that was sprinkled with soft laughter. But behind it all was an elusive mist of tentative uncertainty.
I sighed, knelt to gather bluebells, and sent my own message of acceptance and longing.
Longbourn Keep, 1641
If my father knew what I have done today! What we have done today, you and I. But he will never know, unless it is possible to see what passes upon this mortal plane from the spirit world. Though he was my father I can say he is well gone and not feel an ounce of guilt. He who allowed them to drag my mother through the streets. Allowed her to be held up to the mockery of peasant and peer alike. Did nothing when they lit the fires about her but weep and wail in his tower room. She was his wife who he professed to love with all his heart but he did not denounce their claims that she cast spells and spoke to beings that were not there. Was his life of such value that he refused the chance to die with her?
I would die with you, my love, if that were our only way to be together.
But instead my father built this shrine. This lovely pavilion hidden from the world by secret paths through tangled yew. His shrine to her, yet how I have defiled it! If only he knew he would have spit in my wretched face, but I know that I have loved more true here than he ever did. His was an empty love, all gaudy and gold, pretty poetry formed of vacant words. And if he truly loved, he would have cared for the child she bore him. Kept me by his side to grow in the strength of his shadow. But my singed heart was left to wilt upon a deserted slope. I grew up wild and unwanted and taunted him with my excesses only that he would look upon me. But his bitter anger was all that came my way.
From the time my mother melted in flame to the time I found you, my sweet, I never knew love. You must have been some secret present from the creator who saw something to redeem in me. For redeemed I have been, just from the look in your eyes. The soft turn of your cheek inflames me. My head, buried in your silken breast, takes me beyond heaven.
And now that he is gone, we are free my love.
So come. Please – I cannot bear another minute without you in my sight, your body within the reach of my hand. The sound of your voice in my ears. Your honeyed lips upon my mouth.
The window fogs from my breath as I gaze out to see the first moment of your coming. I wipe it with the handkerchief you embroidered for me. I must not miss that first second – that first strand of light, that first telltale step murmuring upon the grass. The whisper that echoes with the message: you are on your way to me.
I gazed out my bedchamber window, down upon the churchyard. They were burying my father. The procession trailed like a black snake between the gravestones. My cousins followed directly behind the coffin, all the leading gentlemen of the community behind them, the farmers, servants and labourers taking up the rear. It was a testament to my father that so many came – he had been a sort of a recluse, especially in the years since my mother’s death, but he had treated everyone with kindness and been a fair and considerate landlord and neighbour.
When they reached the gravesite and stood in a semi-circle by it, I was able to more clearly discern the gentlemen in attendance. I was not surprised that Lord Lewis De Bourgh was not of their number. He was above paying his respects in person – an insincere note was all that could be hoped for. Not that I cared in the least. I was inured to the arrogance of that family.
A tall figure standing off to one side caught my attention. Immaculately dressed and aloof, it was Mr Darcy, one of the last people in the world I would have expected to find at my Father’s graveside. Could it be that I had misjudged him?
The Darcys were closely related to the De Bourghs. Their family was almost as long established in these parts as ours, and though never amongst the peerage, the Darcys were wealthy and influential. Their estate, Netherfield, was no more than three miles from Longbourn Keep, and yet for all the interactions between our families there could have been an ocean between us. As I was growing up, I only saw him from a distance, passing through the village in his carriage with his young sister who, still now not yet out, was even more a stranger to me than he.
Last spring I was first introduced to him at an assembly in Meryton. My cousins, two years younger, had been at
“Look at him,” William said, glancing across the ballroom. “The great Mr Darcy condescending to attend our local rustic assembly.”
“He does not appear to be enjoying himself,” responded George with a smirk. “No one worthy enough for him to dance with but his cousin Lady Anne De Bourgh. What pleasure could he find there?”
“You could remedy that,” said
I laughed and disclaimed. I had noticed his eyes upon me a few times, but their expression seemed more vacant than enchanted.
“Bewitched!” cried William. “You do choose your words well,
“This is the nineteenth century!” said
“That family,” said George, “expects no less from us than black magic.”
“Black magic from the ladies of the family,” agreed William, “and seduction from the gentlemen.”
“Indeed,” said George. “Fitzwilliam Bennet is said to have seduced Lady Jane De Bourgh, before she married into the Darcy family.”
“They murdered him for it!”
“Please do not discuss all that ancient history now,” I said in an angry whisper. “He is close enough to hear you.”
“What care we?” said William. “He holds us in disdain for our ancestry, like his imperious aunt and uncle. What right do they have for such superiority when they are descended from nothing short of murderers?”
“Hush!” I cried in earnest as I noticed Mr Darcy stop and his expression darken.
A little later, chance brought me close enough to overhear a conversation between Mr Darcy and his friend, an affable gentleman who I had danced with earlier in the night and was about to lead out Miss King.
“Why do you not dance, Darcy?”
“I have danced with my cousin. I know no other ladies present.”
“And one cannot be introduced at an assembly?” his friend laughed. “They would be very tedious affairs if that were so.”
“I do find them tedious.”
“Look at that young lady over there. I danced with her once already and found her very charming. I could make the introductions.”
Mr Darcy turned his head my way, and I realised that they were speaking of me. I looked away, trying not to appear conscious, wondering how I would respond when they approached me, but my apprehension was all for naught.
“She would not want to dance with the scion of a house of murderers.” At his friend’s confused expression he continued. “I am in no mood to dance, especially with Miss Bennet. Return to your partner and enjoy her smiles.”
I almost ran from the room. The twins had been right – he was just the same as the De Bourghs, and I felt that if I never met him again I would be well pleased. But my wish was not to be granted. Not long after this incident, I was passing by the refreshment table and Mr King, the master of ceremonies, stopped me.
“Miss Bennet, you must let me introduce you to Mr Darcy,” he said. “He is without a partner, and though he dislikes dancing in general I know he could not resist a lady of such radiant beauty as yourself.”
I blushed and hesitated, wishing myself anywhere but in the ballroom at that exact moment.
Mr Darcy bowed stiffly. “I would be honoured if you would join me on the dance floor,” he said, holding out his hand.
His empty words did not impress me. “Thank you, but I do not mean to dance anymore tonight,” I said with cold politeness. I knew my refusal was as welcome to him as his curt nod of acceptance before he walked away was to me.
Mr King was left looking a trifle bemused; but ever the good host, he offered to fetch me a glass of lemonade and was not happy until he had settled me in a corner on a comfortable chair and had been assured repeatedly that I was well and only slightly fatigued. My love came to me then. That was the night that the tenor of our relationship changed. We slipped subtly from familiar friendship to the discovery of our depth of feeling for one another. He was apprehensive and in need of reassurance. I sensed his uncertainty and though I knew not what had affected him so, all I wanted was to assuage his discomfort. The warmth of sentiment that flowed between us could not be denied.
So, in a darkened corner of a crowded ballroom I was first made love to, like many a young lady swept off her feet by soft words and tender looks. Only this love was not some tawdry seduction; it was sweet and pure – like a song had burst forth in my heart.
On the evening of my father’s burial, I slipped out from the house and went to visit his new grave as the blue of the sky became blushed with pink. His headstone was not yet cut, but I crouched by my mother’s stone and took it into my arms as I gazed at that mound of fresh dug earth that housed my father’s bones. They were both gone from me forever now, but they were again together and that bittersweet knowledge softened the edge of my melancholy.
One never knows what life will bring; all one can do is take what is given and try and make the best of it. My father’s death was untimely, painful and heartrending, but I could not allow myself to dwell upon that, nor to dwell upon the fact that whoever had knocked him down must have known it and done nothing. The magistrate of Harrowgate was doing what he could to discover who had taken my father’s life so carelessly and Mr Jones had promised to keep me apprised of any developments in the case, but retribution would not bring me serenity. Only forgiveness would.
And in the fading light, as the sky burned and then dimmed to darkened embers, I sat by his grave and struggled to forgive as I knew I needed to. Dusk had taken over as I finally rose from the ground and made my way into the church to light a candle and say a prayer. The nave was dark, the moon not yet up to spill through the tall windows, but candles still burned in one corner. I took one and used it to light another, then sent my silent prayer out into the night. Afterwards, I noticed a draught coming from the open vestry door. I went over to close it, and saw a figure, with a parcel of some sort under one arm, disappearing down the path to the lych gate.
Reverend Gardiner, going home, I thought, closing the door and retracing my steps. But when I came out from the dark of the church onto the porch I almost bumped into Mr Gardiner himself.
“I came to bring you in,” he said gently. “Mary was beginning to worry.”
“Were you not just now in the vestry?”
“No. Was someone here?”
“The door was left open. I saw a figure hurrying down the path. He seemed to be wearing a robe, and he was carrying something under his arm.”
Together we went to the vestry and the reverend lit a branch of candles. “Nothing appears to be missing,” he said, after walking about the room. “I wonder who it could have been and what he was doing.”
“Maybe it was your curate?”
“Indeed, I will ask him in the morning. Come now, child. It is late and you have had much to contend with today. I pray that you were able to find the solace that you sought tonight.”
“I was, thank you.”
And it was true. Aside from the mystery of the stranger in the church, my communion in the darkness had eased my heart and soul. It was as if a weight had lifted and I was free from at least one of the burdens I had to bear. We left the church and walked toward the parsonage in silence. The moon was now up in a velvet sky. An owl swooped from an old oak and swept across the pasture to my right. I followed it with my eyes and was rewarded with the sight of a figure slipping from the open field into the shadow of the woods. Was it the interloper from the vestry or someone that I knew as well as I knew my own heart?
I sent out the question. My love, are you there? Is that you?
I am always with you, came my answer, warm and caressing as a summer’s breeze.
After breakfast, Mr Stone, the family’s attorney, paid me a call to discuss my situation. He began by saying all that was correct in regard to my bereavement. He said it with sincerity and fondness, and not just as a matter of course. With that out of the way, he withdrew papers from his case in a businesslike manner and looked me directly in the eyes.
“Of course you understand about the entail,” he said.
I nodded. I was brought up knowing that my childhood home would be lost to me upon my father’s death.
“The trust is a little more complicated,” he went on.
I had some knowledge of the trust as well. In 1665, Lord William Bennet had fears that his profligate son, George, would gamble away his entire inheritance. On his deathbed he set up a trust that made it impossible for any part of the estate to be sold without the agreement of all the other family members who had attained their majority. At various times since then some deals were made, but the bulk of the land and much of the chattels were still intact.
“Your uncle,” said Mr Stone, “is now in possession of all that comprises the original estate, but cannot sell even a teaspoon without the combined consent of your cousins and yourself. Anything that was added to the estate since 1665 he may do with as he wishes. You may come to me at any time for advice, if you find yourself put into a position where you are unsure how to act.”
I suddenly realised what a great responsibility was now upon my shoulders. My father loved the history of our home and had taught me to love it as well. He had instilled in me the belief that Longbourn Keep was of great importance not only to us, but also to the country as a whole and that our legacy was to preserve it as best we could. Unfortunately through lack of funds, mismanagement and neglect, the farms that should have supplied abundant income were no longer profitable. The capital that could have restored the family fortunes had disappeared long before the estate had come to my father’s hands. If my uncle and cousins wished to break up the estate, my choice would be the deciding factor. I hoped it would never be more problematic than whether or not to sell the family silver.
“Thank you,” I said, appreciating his offer and the tact with which he proffered it.
“As for yourself, you are by no means destitute. Hunsford, and its surrounding meadows and woodlands, belongs to you, as well as the effects your mother brought into the marriage. You will be able to live modestly.” He then smiled at me, saying, “I expect that you will soon marry at any rate so I have no worries on your behalf.”
I thanked him again and then we discussed the repairs to be made to Hunsford to prepare it as my residence. In little short of a month I would be mistress of my own home and half a dozen servants.
And there, I supposed, I would wait for my love to reveal himself and request my hand, or end my days an old maid. I must have sent the thought unknowingly for the next thing I knew I was swathed in a riffle of amusement and a burst of affection that was more comforting than any corporeal lover’s tender hug.
Longbourn Keep 1641
The blue of your eyes rivals the sky at . Celestial, like your pure soul. My father would never have been able to see that. Your name would have blinded him to everything that is sweet and wonderful and good about you. But we need worry about that no longer. Death has done me a great favour.
Now all that is left is for this, longest of nights, to pass. I think I shall be driven mad if you do not arrive soon. Oh cruel love, what keeps you? Even as the word crosses my mind, I denounce it. Cruel you could never be. If you are late, I know you have good reason. And surely the truth is that you are late not at all. It is I, who in my impatience to behold you, am early. For me the seconds drag like hours without you by my side. When you are with me, I swear time will stand still so we can love for all eternity.
But why do you still stay away, love? Even now your light should be glinting through the yews.
It did not help that my love had been silent since Mr Stone’s visit. Nor that I had spent fruitless hours pondering the last words of my father, which Mr Jones had written down for me.
I sat under a bower, a profusion of blossoms above my head, and put the letter in my pocket. It was a relief to know that soon I would be set up in my own home, with
Elizabeth . . . tell Elizabeth . . . Thomas . . . George . . . would have told . . . the paper . . . in William’s brook . . . in the library . . . William . . . the key . . . the cat . . . on the pavement . . . the map . . . the letter . . . in the brook. Tell Elizabeth . . . take care . . . danger . . . this feeling I have . . . should have told Elizabeth . . . had to be sure . . . I did tell . . . I think he knows . . . tell him . . . trust . . . do what is right . . . blessing.
I could still not make out my father’s meaning. Thomas, George, and William, of course, referred to my uncle and the twins. But did my father mean he would have told them something to relay to me, or he would have told me something about them? Surely I could not fear my own relations. No – he meant that they would help me, I thought.
What was most confusing was the part about the paper. If the paper were in a brook it would be of no use to anyone. Or had he lost an important paper in this unknown brook and regretted it because it was something he wanted me to read?
The library was the most tangible thing in the message. Longbourn Keep had an excellent library where my father had spent the majority of his time. And the key, it could be the key to the locked grilles, where we had placed the oldest books before letting the house to Mr Bingley.
The cat, I supposed, must be the cat on our family crest. It was an unusual beast, believed to be a mountain lion or a wildcat, but upon its head it was wearing an antlered skull, as if like a mask. Family legend says the cat tricked its prey by pretending to be a deer, and using such means hunted to great advantage. My forebears, opportunists that they were, lived by this example and hid their true allegiances. They survived many a shift of power to be accepted by whichever regime came out on top, from the time of the Saxons to the present day. The family motto, emblazoned on a scroll below the crest, was Mark the Cat and Follow.
But why my father would have thought it necessary to mention the cat, I had no idea. Was it part of the warning? To beware of people with false facades? My uncle? My cousins? What ill could they possibly wish me?
What followed was even more confusing. The pavement, the map, the letter and the brook were seemingly unconnected things. What had they in common?
And the feeling he had – was it a premonition of danger to me? Something that he should have told me but told someone else instead, because he was not sure? That seemed to be the only way to interpret that part of the message. But whom did he trust so much to tell such a thing? And why did this person not come forward and do what was right and tell me?
Lastly came his blessing, which I thought completely out of place in this warning. Unless . . . . unless he was giving me the blessing to do what was right. Placing his trust in me. But what was it he wanted me to do? Did it mean that I needed to find a paper or a letter, and that the paper or letter was in the library, in a book – not a brook? Mr Jones must have heard him incorrectly. And if I needed a key to do this, then the book I needed to find was on the locked shelves of the library.
Longbourn Keep was no longer my own, and besides which it was let to the Bingley family. But there were still things there that belonged to me. Furniture of my mother’s. Linen. Dinnerware. Paintings. Books. I resolved to visit the Bingleys and ask their permission to go through the house and mark the things that were mine, and order them to be packed and delivered to Hunsford. I did not see how they could possibly refuse.
It was not a long walk from the parsonage to Longbourn Keep. The morning was fine and I looked forward to treading the old paths I knew better than the lifelines upon my palms. I followed the river along until it split off at the weir that directed part of the water away towards the overflow pond, and the sluice that kept the level of the water adjusted in the moat. Between these two diverging arms of water was a broadening wedge of garden. At its widest expanse, my ancestor, Lord Thomas Bennet, had built an intricate maze of yew hedging. At its heart was a pavilion – an ornate and whimsical structure – that had been erected for his ladylove, his dearest wife Elizabeth.
As a child I had spent many hours of countless days lost in the overgrown shrubbery, trying to find my way to the pretty folly. One of my cousins would always have to rescue me and lead me to the centre. Even then the paint upon the outside walls of the pavilion was peeling, and the colourful ceilings inside were sagging, but I would sit and dream of what it had been like in all its glory as whichever cousin it was who had accompanied me laughed at my romantical fancies.
Today I bypassed the maze completely. I had long since learned my way in and out, but I had no time to make a pilgrimage to the centre. I had an appointment with the tenants of the manor and I had no intention of keeping them waiting.
I went into the house by the main entrance, not one of the many side doors or through the scullery and kitchens, as I had been wont to all my life. I looked up at the crest that crowned the doorway – crowned every major doorway in the house and flanked both sides of the great fireplace in the Tudor hall. There was the cat, dancing black against a blue shield, paw held forward as if in attack, antlers rising from its head like some incongruous crown. And behind the shield was a plaque with a queer geometrical design. The significance of the design was unknown – we simply accepted it as we accepted the many strange things our house held – priest’s holes, secret stairs, sliding panels. Nothing surprised us with the notorious history of our family.
The butler opened the door for me and bowed low, smiling. I curtsied. It was a game we had played since I was a girl, whenever I used the main entrance.
“It is a pleasure to see you, Miss Bennet,” he said, “You are expected.” And then he led me down the hall.
Mr and Mrs Bingley were most affable people. They invited me into the drawing room and served tea, all the time apologizing for presuming to entertain me in my own house. I reassured them that it was quite all right and besides, Longbourn Keep was no longer my home but now belonged to my uncle. After a half hour of conversation, they consigned a maid to assist me and told me to feel free to go into whatever part of the house I needed in order to locate all my personal belongings. I asked if I might have the key for the locked shelves in the library and Mr Bingley sent for the housekeeper, who was in possession of a set of keys for all the various locking cupboards.
I spent several hours sorting through linen, dinner services, and oddments of furniture. I left the maid in charge of packing the smaller things away in a trunk and I went to the library to search through the books. My hands were shaking as I turned the key in the lock of the grille-work. I was certain that soon I would hold in my hands the paper that would clear up the mystery of my father’s message.
Though I was eager to make my discovery, I went about my task slowly and handled each book with great care. The volumes were old and valuable – the last remnants of the collection of Lord William Bennet who had instituted the trust and his predecessor, Lord Thomas Bennet, who had left a few volumes of his own poetry with those of Shakespeare and some lesser known authors.
Every moment I expected to find the paper, and every moment I was to be disappointed. In ten minutes I had carefully gone through every book in the small collection, and been rewarded by nothing but a fair amount of dust upon my clothing. I went through every book again, leafing through the pages slowly but the result was unchanged. There was no loose piece of paper in any of the books. I did, however, find something that caught my interest. It was a book of poetry by Thomas Bennet entitled, From This Romeo to His Juliet, and it was dedicated to his wife, Elizabeth Bennet – the very one that had been burned at the stake.
I sat with the slim volume in my hands and felt overcome with pity for this couple who loved so well but were so cruelly parted. Elizabeth Bennet was convicted of witchcraft for nothing more than having been discovered speaking to someone who was not present. Unfortunately for her it was the puritanical Lord Lewis De Bourgh who had come upon her and proclaimed her a witch. If she was a witch than so am I, for we are no different, she and I.
I opened the book and my eyes rested upon a poem entitled The Maze.
Here, in the trees so tightly grown
No minotaur doth wildly roam,
Nor Roman foot in sandaled shoe
Anymore walk under skies of blue.
Here dwells another beast, you see
Hidden now, and no longer free,
Till sunlight spills upon his face
And wakes him in this field of grace.
This pleasure trove, this hall of love
Welcomes him now to all above . . .
I may not be educated in the art, but I believe my ancestor’s talent was not as fine a thing as his love of his lady. But despite the uneven metre, despite the fact that I could find little meaning in his brave words, I felt drawn to the book and wanted to read more. Maybe I thought I could bring myself closer to my namesake by reading these poems dedicated to her. I never imagined that what I held was a key to another mystery I didn’t even know existed. All I do know is I made a decision at that moment to borrow the book and return it in a day or two. Along with it I quickly took up a copy of Romeo and Juliet, to compare the separate tales of star-crossed love.
After relocking the case, I looked about the library and its half empty shelves. Some of these books had belonged to my mother and so had become mine, but the prospect of searching through the entire library at that moment, as tired as I was, daunted me. I held the two books to my chest and made to go. As I turned I noticed that the silver candlesticks that usually stood on either side of the mantle were no longer there. I wondered why anyone would have wanted to move them, but did not feel any great concern. I would have forgotten them completely had I not decided to slip upstairs to make a nostalgic visit to the nursery where I had been raised and spent the better part of my childhood.
Shafts of sunlight from narrow, uncurtained windows filled the room with afternoon light. The old furnishings were in dustcovers, but I threw them back from the table and chair where I had worried sums and memorized dates from dusty history tomes. I sat and leaned upon the table, surprised by the rush of tears that suddenly overcame me. I had managed so well until now, but in this room it finally struck me that I was saying goodbye today, not only to the house, but to a large part of my childhood. These cherished walls were no longer mine to live in, to love, to protect. And no longer would they shield and sustain me as they had done all my life. I gazed around, and through my tears I noticed that something was missing.
A picture no longer hung on the wall. It had been of my mother in her youth – a miniature. But it had been painted by Thomas Gainsborough, and had certain monetary value, though the value to me was much greater than money. It was the only picture of my mother that was mine. I went over to the wall where it ought to have been hanging, searched the floor, looked behind furniture and under dust covers, but to no avail.
I went to the window and sat upon the window seat, trying to understand the implications of my discovery. First the silver candlesticks were missing and then the painting of my mother. I could see no reason that they would have been moved, and the thought that someone had stolen them was difficult to contemplate. The staff at Longbourn Keep was the same that had served my father and myself for years. I trusted every one of them, from the housekeeper to the lowliest scullery maid. And for the Bingleys to have anything to do with the missing articles was unthinkable.
One fact remained clear, and I dreaded the prospect. I could not leave without mentioning the missing objects to Mr and Mrs Bingley. My greatest fear was that my disclosure would in some way offend them as if I was casting aspersions upon their characters.
At times of physical exhaustion I tend to ease the barriers in my mind that keep my thoughts private, and before I knew it my love had come to comfort me, surrounding me with his familiar affectionate aura.
I need you, Bennet. It is so difficult to do this on my own.
I am here with you. Always with you.
That is not what I mean. I want you here beside me. I want to touch you – to look into your eyes. To know who you really are.
You know me better than any living soul.
But not your person. Come to me.
Be patient love. It won’t be long now.
When? I filled the question with longing.
The door opened and my cousin walked into the room.
“A feeling?” It was all that I could manage to say. I was still unsteady after the tumult of sensation that had just coursed through me.
“I guessed that you would be here. I know your old habits,
“I am fine, George,” I said, smoothing my skirts as I attempted to collect my wits.
I was very aware of his hand on my elbow as he helped me to rise. I looked into his face, searching for any sign that he had just a moment before been caught up in explosions of emotion like wildfire, but he was not looking at me. His eyes were directed to the window and I turned to see what had caught his attention.
“The old oak has been cut down!” I cried.
“Yes – it blew down in a frightful storm we had in January. I’ve not been up here since or I would have noticed before. Look.”
My gaze followed his pointing arm. The maze was clearly visible, as it had never been before. The pavilion, lovely but derelict, rose like a phantom faery castle from the centre. And all around the yew trees wove their secret paths. Only from this height they were secret no longer. And as I looked at them I realised that the trick to knowing the way to the centre of the maze had been before me in my own house every day of my life.
“The pattern behind the crest,” I whispered.
“It is the map,” said George, nodding his agreement.
Longbourn Keep 1641
When I have all but given up hope I see your light flick and flitter. Flutter as you trip on your tiny feet unerringly through the hedges, onward, turning and twisting till your lantern gleams with purpose at the foot of my stair. I am at your side in a heartbeat, and your feet touch the ground no more.
I will happily carry you anywhere. I hold you now in your billowing satins and Spanish lace. You would still be the most beautiful thing I have ever beheld, even in the rudest of cottons – but, in truth, there is no fabric fine enough to adorn you. I whisper such thoughts into your perfect shell of an ear, as I breathe in the scent of roses that always surrounds you. You laugh – a sound sweeter than silver bells.
“I thought you liked me best dressed in the light of candles alone,” you whisper.
I am almost undone.
I carry you to the bed, pause a moment to gaze upon your angel face before I take my taper and light every candle in every gilt sconce, every gold-plated candlestick, until our haven is filled with the warm glow of a thousand flickering flames.
I return to sit at your feet as you reach your arms behind your back and begin to work upon your buttons.
My cousin and I walked along the familiar hallways and staircases of Longbourn Keep in silence until we came to the drawing room. A waiting servant opened the door for us and we went through.
“I see you have found her,” Mr Bingley said to George.
He smiled. “She was in her old nursery, reminiscing, as I suspected she would be.”
Mr Bingley looked beyond my cousin to me. “How did you get on with your task? I hope it was not too tiring.”
“Or too painful,” interjected his wife, “to be again in your home under such circumstances. Were you able to find everything you sought?”
I could hardly tell them that I had not found the mysterious letter my father’s last message had alluded to, so I simply said that I had and thanked them both kindly once again. They then introduced me to their daughter who had been out shopping in Meryton when I had met them earlier.
“Mr Bennet was so kind as to bring me home,” she said, gracing George with a dulcet smile. “Small town shops can be so fatiguing, but I did manage to find a new pair of gloves.”
I answered her with a polite commonplace. So this was the heiress William and George had been discussing. She was dressed with a quiet elegance that bespoke money. Her dark hair was arranged in lustrous curls, which I could tell she well knew became her. The salons of
“You are a great reader?” Miss Bingley asked me, her inflection upon the words giving the impression that to admit to such a distinction would put me in the bracket of a bluestocking.
“Oh,” I said, remembering the books in my hands. “I do enjoy reading, but not more so than most people.” I turned to George and held out the books. “I found these while I was in the library and felt the urge to read them. I know they are no longer mine – do you think Uncle Thomas would mind if I borrowed them for a day or two?”
He glanced at them. “Romeo and Juliet? You are welcome to them, I am sure, though why you would want to read something we were forced to suffer through in the school-room, I shouldn’t imagine.”
I blushed slightly. “One is actually the poems of our ancestor, Lord Thomas – dedicated to his wife Elizabeth. They are both rather old and thereby valuable.”
His eyes gleamed momentarily at that but all he said was, “I trust you will take excellent care of them.”
I thanked him as Miss Bingley said, “Lady Elizabeth Bennet? Was she not beheaded or some ghastly thing?”
“Burned at the stake,” I responded.
She gave an exaggerated shudder. “All old families have such fascinating histories. I imagine there are many secret places in homes such as this with so many antiquated wings.”
“We just now uncovered one of the secrets,” said George.
“I do hope it is not a dungeon filled with skeletal remains. I should leave this house at once!”
Her mother uttered an exclamation and her father urged her not to be silly. I was unsure how to react, but George only laughed.
“Nothing quite so exciting,” he said. “We have just discovered the key to the maze.”
“The maze! I adore the maze,” she cried.
“Do you mean to say you have not yet known how to find your way through the maze until today?” asked Mr Bingley.
“Not at all. Since we were young we have known how to get in and out, though it took Cousin Elizabeth a few more years than my brothers and I. We had to rescue her from there innumerable times. No – what we discovered today is that there has always been a map to the maze in almost every room of this house.”
“Yes, “I said. “Now that the old oak tree is no more, the nursery gives a view onto the maze that shows all the pathways, all the false trails and dead endings. The pattern is quite distinct.”
Mr Bingley’s eyes lit up. “The curious design behind your family crest!” he exclaimed. “I had always wondered at its significance.”
Mr Bingley had a quick mind, but I imagined that one did not become wealthy through business ventures without one. I realised that now was my time to make my other revelations, no matter how reluctant I was to broach the subject.
“There is a new mystery, however, that has me puzzled,” I ventured. I attempted to say it lightly, but I think Mr Bingley caught the strain in my voice.
“I would say you are more worried than puzzled.”
I nodded. Everyone was attending to me now; Mr and Mrs Bingley with concern, Miss Bingley with the fascinated interest of one who is hoping for something she can turn to her benefit as the food for good gossip, and my cousin with a quizzical arch to his eyebrows.
“There may be a very simple explanation,” I said, “and I do not want to jump to false conclusions, but I noticed that the two silver candlesticks that usually sit on the mantle in the library were not there.”
“It is most likely that they have been moved,” said George a little too quickly. I shot him a glance. He had that expression I recognised from the intrigues he and William played when they were younger, when they were trying to hide some indiscretion from their parents and expecting me to play along. I found it difficult then because I had never been a good liar. Now I could see no reason why he should want to perform a cover up.
“The servants move things all the time,” said Miss Bingley, eager to assist him. “I shouldn’t wonder they are stuffed in the back corner of a cupboard somewhere because the footman was plagued with forever shining them.”
“I will ask the housekeeper,” said Mr Bingley, ringing the bell. “Did you notice anything else?”
I hesitated a moment before saying, “In the nursery. A miniature of my mother has always hung upon the far wall. It is not there.”
“Could it not be packed away in a trunk somewhere in the attics?” asked George.
Mr Bingley’s expression became grave. “This portrait of your mother, was it by Gainsborough?”
“I remember noting it – a very fine piece of his work. This is serious indeed.”
“Perhaps the housekeeper put it away for safekeeping,” I said, more with the hope of easing his concern than with any real conviction.
But when Mrs Hill was questioned she was as surprised as I had been to discover the items were missing.
“I polished those candlesticks only two weeks ago,” she said. “Lord Bennet prized them greatly as heirlooms and I always saw to them myself.”
“Would you be so good as to go over the house and discover if there is anything else missing?” Mr Bingley asked.
“At once,” she said. “Something of this nature has never happened under my supervision before. You can be assured that I will do my utmost to get to the bottom of this.”
Mrs Hill was a good soul, and a trusted and loyal servant of many years standing. She took great pride in her management of the house, and I could see that she had taken umbrage.
“I’m certain there must be an explanation,” I said, “some reason for them to have been misplaced.”
“Misplaced!” she snorted, affronted by the idea that anything could possibly have become misplaced under her stewardship. “If some pilfering scoundrel has ingratiated himself with one of my chambermaids and convinced her to steal from this house, I shall have her cast out without reference and I shall see him horsewhipped!”
“Hill!” said George in his most cajoling manner. “No one in your employ would ever venture to turn you such a trick. There must be some mistake. I will come and do the inventory for you.”
“Don’t you try and turn me up sweet, Master George,” she said. But from her tone I could tell that she was already mollified. George had always been able to get around her. They left the drawing room together and as soon as the door closed behind them, Mr Bingley began apologizing to me. I held up my hand to stop him.
“This is exactly why I was reluctant to bring the subject up,” I said. “I do not hold you at fault in any way.”
“I am afraid that I feel just as Mrs Hill does. If something has gone missing during my tenancy, it is my responsibility to see that all is done to find it and the person accountable for the disappearance.’
“Daddy, I really do think you are making much too much of an issue over a few trifling little ornaments,” said Miss Bingley.
He looked at his daughter, his face unreadable. “Am I?”
The refreshments were served then, but the pleasant nature of our previous conversation could not be regained. Mrs Bingley did her best to keep a polite exchange going, but I was feeling miserable, Mr Bingley preoccupied, and Miss Bingley simply bored. It wasn’t until George returned that she perked up.
“Have you charmed away Mrs Hill’s resentment?” she asked.
“Poor dear Hill, she takes everything to heart so.”
“She was foolish to be cross, as if we had accused her of stealing!”
“Hush child,” said her mother. “She was justified in her reaction. Your father and I feel just as she does.”
“This is all too fatiguing,” said Miss Bingley. “Mr Bennet, why do you not escort your cousin and me through the maze. I would dearly like to explore that precious little folly in the centre.”
“There is nothing I would rather do,” he said, “but I have actually returned only to bid you all farewell. There are some urgent matters I must attend to.” He faced me and added, “
“There is no need to concern yourself. I had no expectation of company, but you put me in mind that I must end my visit now too. The Gardiners will wonder what has become of me.”
“Then I will walk with you as far as the gate.”
We said our goodbyes and I had to submit to Mr Bingley’s apologies once more. Miss Bingley again broached the idea of exploring the maze and I promised to accompany her in the next few days.
“As long as Mr Bennet is able to escort us and protect us from the unknown,” she said. It was easy to see that I was not a necessary element to the proposed outing.
When we got outside, George took my elbow and steered me quickly towards the gate.
“You put me on quite a spot there, Cousin,” he said. “Could you not have told me about the missing things before blurting it out to everybody?”
“I would have told you sooner, but we discovered the secret of the maze and it put the subject out of my mind. But I do not see how my telling the Bingleys should have placed you in an uncomfortable position. Mr Bingley needed to know.”
George gave me a long look, began to say something and then hesitated, as if changing his mind. “We will talk about this more when I next see you,” he said. He took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Until then, do not let this matter worry you. Think, instead, of me.” He winked and let go of my hand. I said nothing, but stood watching as he turned and ran around the house towards the stables, without looking back. I could not have spoken if I had wanted to - all my being was taken up with sending out the thought:
And then will you tell me who you are?
When I arrived back at the parsonage, Mrs Gardiner rushed up to welcome me saying, “I hope it was not too much of a strain on you, going to your old home and sorting through all your belongings.”
“It was difficult being in my old home surrounded by so many memories, but the tears I cried there I needed to cry in order to move beyond my loss. I believe I found everything and will have no need to go back, other than to return these books. The arrangements have all been made for my things to be delivered to Hunsford by cart when the house is ready. The Bingleys were very affable and accommodating.”
Mrs Gardiner took my hands and patted them. “I am pleased that it went so well, but you look as though you have tired yourself out. It is unfortunate that, when you really need a restful evening, tonight is one of those rare occasions that we are entertaining.”
I smiled. “Do not concern yourself, Mrs Gardiner. Truly I am fine. After I have washed and dressed for dinner I am sure I shall look forward to being sociable. Who is coming tonight?”
“It is only Mr Darcy so I do not think his presence should be too taxing, as he will have much to discuss with my husband. After dinner we should have a long respite until they join us in the drawing room.”
I was surprised, to say the least. I had no idea that Mr Darcy, who I had always thought to be standoffish, should be on such cordial terms with the Gardiners as to be so casually referred to as <i>only Mr Darcy.</i> I had not spoken to him above five times in my entire life – never had he been a visitor at Longbourn Keep. I went upstairs to prepare for dinner and chastised myself for my indecision in choosing a gown for the evening. Why did it matter what I wore just because I would be sitting down to the same table as Mr Darcy? He might be well acquainted with my friends but he was nothing to me.
I had three evening gowns of black silk. I chose the simplest one, without a touch of lace or ribbon and no flounces, nothing that would make Mr Darcy think that I was trying in any way to impress him. It was rather the reverse. Though I had seen him at my father’s funeral, I had not forgotten his remarks at the assembly. I was still assured of his arrogance and pride, and his aversion for all Bennets in general.
When I entered the drawing room he was already there, alone, the reverend and his wife not yet down. He rose and bowed stiffly.
“Good evening Miss Bennet. I seem to have arrived early. I do apologise.”
I assured him that there was nothing to apologise for and took a chair at some distance from him. I regretted my choice of seat promptly as there was no needlework close at hand to take up while we waited for the Gardiners.
“Allow me to express my sorrow at your loss. Your father was a good man. He shall be missed greatly by all who knew him.”
This was condescension indeed. I doubted Mr Darcy had been acquainted with my father at all. I nodded my thanks as I cast around for some topic to introduce for conversation. If we were to be in the same room together for a few minutes it was preferable that we talked rather than sit in silence.
“I regret that I had not the opportunity of knowing him better,” Mr Darcy continued, with such sincerity that I could almost believe that he meant it.
I knew not how to respond. To say what came directly to my mind would have been impolite. Instead I attempted to temper my thoughts with some humour. “I am sure it was the fault of your ancestors and not your own.” Even as I spoke the words I realised that they sounded petty rather than amusing, and I blushed.
He leaned forward, his face at once earnest. “Come, can we not set aside the past and lay the family ghosts to rest?”
“I would like that,” I whispered.
“I understand you will be making your home at Hunsford soon.”
I almost stared at him, surprised that he knew of my plans, but then I supposed that it was just a part of the local gossip that anyone could not help but hear whether they had an interest in it or not. “Yes, with my cousin Charlotte as a companion.”
“It is a charming house with a fair prospect – the view of the pond across the meadow and Longbourn Keep in the distance. I wish you happy there.”
“You know the house?” I asked in surprise.
“Of course. I have lived in these parts all my life.”
“Yes, but it was only the abode of my father’s steward.”
“That fact did not prevent my observing it, or noticing how well situated it is,” he said, with the hint of a smile.
It is a good thing that Mr and Mrs Gardiner arrived at that moment, for I was at an absolute loss for words. Mr Darcy’s attitude towards my living at Hunsford, and towards Hunsford itself, was the complete opposite to the reaction I had got from my cousins when I had discussed the subject with them. I had always thought him consumed with pride – a judgement I had made, I realised, because of the estrangement of our families, the stories my cousins had told me, and one evening’s encounter at a public assembly. Tonight he was proving to be nothing short of kind and unassuming. Which was the real Mr Darcy?
The conversation at dinner was general. Mr Darcy did not say much, but listened attentively to Mr Gardiner and encouraged him in his story telling. As soon as we had retired to the drawing room, I asked Mrs Gardiner if Mr Darcy were always as congenial a guest or if his behaviour tonight was an anomaly.
“I know many people call him proud,” she answered, “but I have never seen it. I will own that he is reserved and can be diffident when in a large company, but here, with us, he is always as you see him tonight. He and my husband share a common interest in the welfare of the poor tenants on the estates. Ever since they began working on a project together, they have become fast friends.”
“My cousins did not find him to be at all forthcoming at
Mrs Gardiner eyed me speculatively. “Had you never considered that that your cousins may not have extended the hand of friendship towards him?”
I had to concede her point, though it cost me greatly to do so. Knowing that I shared such a deep bond with one of my cousins, and not knowing which one it was, made me hesitant to face the flaws in their characters. It was hard for me to reconcile the person I knew so intimately with any one of my cousins’ outwardly aspects. All I knew was that hidden behind the bravado was a tender and loving man – a man with worldly faults – but a man who cared deeply. It was as though he were the antlered cat, and the face he showed the world was not his true face at all. I all at once felt contrite for judging him, for I was not perfect either – nobody was – and whatever faults we possessed, we would work through them together. Bennet, I sent, wishing him by my side.
Mrs Gardiner was speaking of her children and I made an effort to wrench my thoughts away from my love and show an interest in how Emma had fared with her memorization and what Frank had drawn in his margins when he ought to have been conjugating French verbs. It was not difficult because I dearly loved the children and enjoyed hearing of their progress in their studies.
The gentlemen joined us sooner than expected, and I was petitioned to play. I acceded to the request, but warned Mr Darcy that I was no proficient at the pianoforte. For some reason I was nervous and my playing suffered for it, but I persevered through four songs and was able to perform the final one without too many stumbles. Mr Darcy was kind enough to say that he enjoyed it and found nothing lacking in my performance, proving that he was much more polite than I had ever previously supposed, or that he was tone deaf.
“If I practiced more, I would not have to flub and slur my way over the difficult passages,” I said, “but I fear that I was never a good student. The sun’s rays through the French windows in the music room always lured me out of doors before my scales were half-way completed.”
“You enjoy nature.”
“My father used to call me a young rapscallion for I was always to be found in the boughs of one or other of the trees in the orchard, often as not picking the blossoms in the spring or eating green apples at the end of summer.”
He smiled at that and I was suddenly aware of how attractive he was. It was generally agreed that he was a very handsome man, but I had never been impressed by the fact, put off by what I had always assumed was disdain but now knew to be reticence.
“When I was five I fell out of a tree and broke my arm,” he said. “And that was the end of my climbing career. I envy you.”
If anyone had told me that I would spend an evening at the parsonage conversing with Mr Darcy and actually enjoying it, I would have laughed in his face, but after he said goodnight and I was up in my chamber readying myself for bed, I realised that my mind had been completely distracted from my troubles. For the first time since that night I awoke in fear and rushed off to my dying father, I had been my old self. And to make the contentment of the evening complete, my love came to me. I asked him no questions about who he was or when we would finally meet face to face and acknowledge what was between us, I just lay in the pillow of our love and drifted off to sleep.
Longbourn Keep 1641
How can you sleep after such bliss? I cannot get enough of looking upon you. I stroke your golden curls away from your
I want the darkness to stay forever – to live the rest of our lives in the light of this one candle, only if morning will not come.
If I were a poet this is the hour I would set pen to parchment. Strange – this is the first that I have ever understood my father. Now, when no reason to exists. But he penned books of poetry to my mother, and I can only think that it was at a moment like this one that his quill felt the urge to spill ink across the page with words of love.
I have not read any one of his poems. But maybe tomorrow I shall open his book and read with un-jaundiced eye what I once spurned.
Your breathing brings my ear close to your lips. I listen to the intake and exhale and feel your warm, sweet wind. There is no symphony ever played that could move my heart as yours does. You breathe violin and cello and an airy, mysterious flute. And interlaced is the pulse of your heart, the thrum of your blood singing to me: I am yours.
And I, my darling one, am yours as well. Now. This night. And forever more. Chapter Six
Morning light streamed through my window and I was drawn from my bed to the embrasure. I looked out upon the churchyard, dotted unevenly with gravestones, and thought about my parents, gone from me much too early. But I am not made for melancholy, and the outdoors beckoned. I knew that if I went out beyond the church and into the woods I would find secret dells of bluebells under the spreading oaks, and further still the river meandering on its way towards Longbourn Keep, as yet unfettered by weir or sluice.
As soon as I had breakfasted I was out and headed for the trees. At the call of my name, I stopped and turned. It was my cousin William, coming through the lych gate.
“Good,” he said, “I had hoped to have some time with you in private.”
My heart lurched. At that moment I realised that I did not want him to be my secret love. I had been almost assured of its being George, though there still was a lingering doubt. I would even have been happy for it to be Frederick – of the three he was the most like me; but William? Though he was as handsome as George and nearly as charming, there was a littleness about him that did not sit well with my image of my love.
But then again, if William were the one, it would only mean that his outward aspect had caused me to misjudge him. My love would always be his own caring self inside, no matter who he turned out to be. And knowing him I would be better able to understand his need to keep his identity secret for so long.
I waited for him to come to me, uneasy, but at the same time willing to hear what he had to say.
He stopped before me and took my hand. “I need your complete understanding,” he said.
I felt that I could barely breathe. “You have it.”
“You know that George and I would never intentionally do anything to hurt you, or the family, but . . . the trust makes it all very awkward for us.”
His words put me a bit at sea. “George? The trust? What have they to do with . . .”
It took me a few moments to comprehend what he was telling me. This was no confession of love, but something sinister. “You and George! You stole the candlesticks and my painting?”
“Cousin, please – steal is such a harsh word. They were ours and we took them. The painting was a mistake. It shall be returned.”
“The candlesticks are part of the trust and cannot be sold without the express agreement of the entire family.”
“Would you have stood in our way had you understood our need? Would
“I don’t understand. Why are you in need of money? Do not you and George each have two thousand pounds per year? And what of Uncle Thomas?”
“The capital is gone. We are wallowing in debt. You know what our family is,
I gaped at him. The revelations continued to worsen. He wanted me to comply with their breaking of the law? Condone vice and weakness by calling it an inherited trait that cannot be helped? I wondered how much of the debt was William’s and how much was George’s. As children William always led and George followed.
“William, how can I turn my back when I know you have acted outside of the trust?”
We had been walking distractedly through the garden without paying attention to where we were going, but now my cousin took my arm, led me to a bench and sat me down. “The trust is unfair; it will beggar us.”
“And you also seem to be forgetting one thing. Your father is the one who has inherited Longbourn Keep, not you or George. You would have no right to simply take anything you wish, trust or no trust.”
William rubbed his forehead. “
“But you still need to follow the mandate of the trust.”
“We shall, from now on. I will get permission in writing from
‘Trifles,’ I thought. ‘It will take more than trifles – it will take the whole of the estate’s assets and possibly the Keep and all the property too.’
I remembered then what Mr Stone had told me. You may come to me at any time for advice, if you find yourself put into a position where you are unsure how to act. I now realised that he had expected my cousins to try to bend me to their will and his words had been more than an offer of help – the words had been a warning.
“You must give me time to think,” I said. “This is all . . . unexpected, and I really do not know what I should do about the things that you stole. How can you expect me to look the other way?”
“It was unwise, perhaps, to act as we did, but Cousin, please have some mercy. It was not stealing.”
“How did you go about it, then? Go to Longbourn Keep on a social visit and then pop into the library and secrete the candlesticks in your greatcoat pocket? Borrow Hill’s keys without her knowledge and let yourselves in when the family was asleep? I can see no way you could have got those things from the house without employing underhanded means.”
William laughed uneasily. “Nothing quite so melodramatic. Miss Bingley quite willingly took them for us. That is why the mistake was made with your mother’s miniature portrait. We suggested the candlesticks to her, and she obligingly procured them. When she saw the painting, she thought it might be of use to us and included it in the bag she left for George.”
“You brought Miss Bingley into your little intrigue?” I said with disgust.
“Really Cousin, I had no idea you were such a stickler for propriety. Miss Bingley thought it a wonderfully good idea and shares our opinion that the trust is iniquitous.”
“And where did she leave this bag for George?”
“In the church vestry.”
I clapped my hand to my mouth. “So that was George the other night in the vestry?”
“Yes – you interrupted him and he ran off – not thinking it a good time to meet you.”
I sat and stared about the garden. The overflowing flowerbeds should have pleased my eye with their abundance of colourful blooms, but I was struggling with feelings of outrage, disappointment, and confusion.
“Yet you assure me that such clandestine behaviour as all of you have been involved in is perfectly honest and respectable.”
“I admit it was a trifle irregular – but dire straits call for dire measures.”
I wanted nothing more than to end the conversation and get away from William. I felt ill just thinking about what he and George had done – and thought so lightly of – particularly that they had taken advantage of Miss Bingley’s position in the house. And I feared what more requests they would make of me. I could not let them strip the estate of all its belongings and have it fall into ruin. My father’s life ambition had been to sustain Longbourn Keep, and I felt compelled to do the same.
“I must think on it William,” I said.
He smiled and then took my hand again and kissed it. I shivered slightly under his touch.
“I hope you will come to see it our way,” he whispered. And then he left me sitting there staring blankly into the blue sky.
I did not go for the walk in the woods to find bluebells that day. Instead I paced the garden and pondered, worrying myself to a sick headache and an inevitable sleepless night.
I awoke listless and ill humoured. I had slept but little and when I had, my dreams were unpleasant. In one, I saw my father lying underneath a hedgerow, blood upon his face, and a voice from behind saying, “I am Lord Bennet now.” In another I walked through the maze and all the ways I knew to get to the middle were blocked. I cried out to my love for help and all three of my cousins appeared. They sat and smirked and refused to take me to the pavilion. “You are part of the trust,” they said. “We cannot break the trust.”
What bothered me more? Their disregard for the trust? The fact that they had used Miss Bingley? That they had acted so swiftly, before my father was even in the grave? Or that one of them was the man I loved, and if it were so, he was flawed more that I cared to admit? Was their action indeed as wrong as I believed it to be? Longbourn Keep belonged to their father now, and if William was to be believed, had already been passed on to him, as the eldest. I knew it to be a great liability. Was it fair for me to expect William and George to have the same vision as I did? The estate did not mean to my cousins what it did to me. All I cared for was the survival of the Keep – to them the Keep could be used for their survival. Was I wrong to stand in their way because of my emotional attachment to rocks and mortar?
After breakfast, I went to Mrs Gardiner and asked her if there were a task I could perform. I needed some activity to take my mind away from my dilemma. I know she thought I was making myself ill, grieving for my father, and had no suspicion of the troubles that were haunting me. It was best that she did not know. She smiled on me with compassion and asked if I would change the flowers in the church.
It was cool and restful in the dimness of the nave. I took the vases that stood before the altar and carried them outdoors. The curate had left a basket for the dead flowers and a bucket of fresh water. I tossed the old water on a nearby grave and refilled the vases, then left them by the stairs while I picked an armload of flowers in the parsonage garden. I carried such a profusion of blooms that I could barely see over them, and as a result I would have walked straight into Mr Darcy, had he not put out his hands to stop me.
“I beg your pardon,” I said.
“For giving me such a delightful sight?” he asked.
“The flowers are indeed pretty.”
“I was not referring only of the flowers, but of the overall effect of you and the flowers, Miss Bennet.”
I blushed at the unexpected compliment. “I must put them in the vases, and then into the church.”
“Would you permit me to assist you?”
“I did not . . . I mean to say, I do not want to detain you, Mr Darcy. You must have some pressing business to attend to.”
“I need to confer with Mr Gardiner, but he does not seem to be about at the moment, so I am yours to command.”
By this time we had come to the steps of the church where I had left the vases. I laid the flowers down and, sitting on a step, began to arrange them. Mr Darcy sat also and handed me blooms as I desired them. We made casual conversation and in this manner my chore was soon completed.
“Just tell me where you want them placed and I shall do it for you,” said Mr Darcy, picking up one of the arrangements.
As he walked into the church by my side, the flowers loosed their fragrance into the hallowed place. I pointed out where to put the vase and then stood by the altar, waiting for him while he went back to bring the other. The second placed, he joined me and we stood in silence for a few moments just absorbing the peace that surrounded us.
“I think I must look for Mr Gardiner now,” he regretfully said.
I smiled at him and watched him go, then turned back to gaze at the stained glass window behind the altar. I was caught by the play of light and colour as the sun streamed through the glass. They knew what they were doing, those craftsmen from the past, when they created such beautiful works. This was something to guard and cherish and keep in good repair so that future generations could share the wonder I was experiencing now. It was the same with Longbourn Keep. I knew now for certain what answer I would give my cousins; I just hoped I would find the strength somewhere to withstand their attempts to sway me.
After luncheon I took the books to Mrs Gardiner’s small salon and sat upon the window seat to read. I opened the volume of Romeo and Juliet first, but the words upon the page were unfamiliar to me.
This barefoot friar grit with cord his greyish weed, For he of Francis’ order was, a friar, as I rede.
This barefoot friar grit with cord his greyish weed, For he of Francis’ order was, a friar, as I rede.
It was not Shakespeare’s familiar play at all, but some other work. I closed it and looked at the cover again.The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet was imprinted upon the leather in gold. And below was the author’s name – Arthur Brooke. Brooke. I opened the book and inside the cover was a bookplate, that of Lord William Bennet, my ancestor who had set the trust in place. Is this what my father meant, then?
the paper . . . in William’s brook . . . in the library
If this book, indeed, were William’s Brooke, then the paper, or at least some clue to the mystery, must be found in it. I paged through it again, but encountered not even a scrap of paper. Determined to solve the mystery, I turned to the front page and began to read.
The day deepened to evening and a chambermaid entered to light the candles. I laid down the book with a sigh. Three hundred and fifty lines and not a hint of a clue to anything my father had said. I could neither make head nor tail of the book. Not only was the verse ponderous and dull, but also my mind was running ahead of the words, trying to fit them to my father’s message rather than Romeus and Juliet’s history.
I set it aside and picked up the book Thomas Bennet had written for his
What strange surprise would hunter see
This antlered beast so bold and free,
Head held high, coat of brightest gold
He strides in glory t’ward the fold.
The gods have caged him in the night
Now resurrected by my light
He hunts this plain, this square of earth,
Forever more to prove his worth,
And while our hearts do intersect
He is bound and sworn to protect.
I thought it an odd sort of love poem, mainly centred on the cat from the family crest rather than the object of Thomas Bennet’s love. What had that long ago
Longbourn Keep 1641
Outside, there is a whiffling sound, like a surreptitious step. I open my eyes; sleep, that traitor, had closed them an instant. Surely not more than an instant?
Is someone at the door of our sanctuary? I sit up and listen. I will not have our idyll violated for anything in the world. I slip from the sheets – my body rebels at leaving your warmth. With stealth I reach the casement and ease it open. The moon reveals nothing but a dangling branch. A mouse scurries across the porch.
Only a mouse. I heave a sigh and close the window – make my way back to you.
You stir as I return. Your eyes flicker open. “What breaks the night?” you ask, your voice filled with sleep.
“Nothing more than a mouse.”
“Is it time for me to depart?”
“The moon still rides the sky, holding darkness in her train. You may stay a while longer in my arms.”
“Would that I could stay in your arms forever.”
“Soon, love. Tomorrow, if you will.”
“Tomorrow cannot come quickly enough,” you whisper as sleep overtakes you again.
I will be content if tonight never ends. Tomorrow the world will engulf us; tonight is ours alone. I circle you with my arms; pair my limbs with yours. Skin to skin. We melt together under silk.
The following day I was sitting to tea with Mrs Gardiner when visitors arrived. My cousins had brought Miss Bingley and had come to invite me explore the maze with them. I was not looking forward to spending time with my cousins, especially both of them together in light of what they wanted from me, and what I was unwilling to give. Though I had no interest in furthering my acquaintance with Miss Bingley, her presence was welcome. Even my cousins would not think to browbeat me about breaking the trust whilst she was with us.
The day was fine – I needed only put on my bonnet and we were out the door. They had walked to the parsonage by way of the road, but we decided to go on to the maze along the shorter and more scenic route following the river. We were making our way towards the path when we were hailed by Mr Darcy, who was at that moment coming through the leech gate from the churchyard. William and George looked at each other and scowled.
“Miss Bennet, Miss Bingley – good afternoon.”
“Mr Darcy!” said Miss Bingley, a bright smile warming her face.
After all the usual formalities of greeting had been made, William took out his pocket watch and studied it intently for a moment.
“Well, Darcy, we must be off,” he said, and started to walk away.
I am certain Mr Darcy would have left it at that. He bowed slightly and stood back, but Miss Bingley suddenly cried out. “Have you ever gone through the maze, Mr Darcy?”
“No, I have not had that pleasure,” he said.
“Oh! But you must join us then!” She turned to my cousins, a pleading look in her eyes. “He must, mustn’t he?”
“I am certain Mr Darcy has important business that needs attending,” said William.
Mr Darcy looked him directly in the eyes. “Not at all. I was only stopping by the parsonage to see how Miss Bennet did.”
George glanced at me, a frown furrowing his forehead.
“Then it is all settled,” said Miss Bingley. “The Mr Bennets say the maze is not to be missed. How comes it that in all these years you have never attempted it, Mr Darcy?” She held her arm out for Mr Darcy to take and began walking with him.
“I believe that the general consensus was that I am afraid of witchcraft.”
Her eyes lit up. “And are you?”
“No, not at all.” He glanced back at me as he spoke. I was not sure what to think, but I did not want to be left too far behind with my cousins, so I followed after them.
“What is his scheme?” whispered George as he came alongside of me. “Why is he here? He has never wanted anything to do with us.”
I shrugged. “He is a great friend of the Gardiners.”
“It is easy to see why he has come with us,” said William, who was now on my other side. “He fears we are too much in Miss Bingley’s company and he wants her for himself.”
“Are you certain it is Miss Bingley he is after?” asked George savagely.
“I do not see why he should be thought to be after anybody,” I said. “He has come out of curiosity to see the maze.”
“I am not about to let him steal the mark on me in any case,” said William. He increased his speed and soon was walking beside Miss Bingley, adding his own smiles and comments to their conversation.
“I do not know if I should take offence that William prefers her company over mine,” I joked.
“You may be assured that I prefer yours,” said George. “Do you really want to see the pavilion? We could get lost among the false paths instead, and you could tell me all about the visits Mr Darcy has been paying you.”
“We may speak of it now. He has paid me no visits. He dined at the parsonage once, and I met him yesterday at the church. Both times he had come to see Mr Gardiner.”
George’s tense expression relaxed. “You must think me very foolish. It is simply that you mean a great deal to me. I do not like to think some other gentleman is wooing you.”
I almost laughed at the idea that Mr Darcy would be courting me; after all we had been close to enemies our entire lives and only really met the other day. “There is nothing to fear from that quarter. Miss Bingley is much more to his taste, I should think.”
“I have no great opinion of his taste, then, if he prefers Miss Bingley. She is pretty, I will concede, but nothing out of the ordinary. And there is a superficiality to her conversation that one could never find with you.”
I told myself that I should stop being angry with George. It was only the outward acknowledgement of our love that was standing in the way of my certainty that he and I were destined for one another. He was doing his utmost right now to be reassuring. But still, I feared being alone with him. His declaration would make it even more difficult to follow through with the decision I had made regarding the trust. And what scared me the most was that the question of the trust would destroy our love. I smiled at him and said, “You begin to make me blush.”
“Fair reward,” he whispered, leaning closer. “It enhances your beauty.”
I was not ready to be made love to, so I pulled away from him and looked pointedly at William, ahead of us, trying his utmost to charm Miss Bingley’s attention away from Mr Darcy. “With such an attribute as superficiality, she should fit in well with this family.”
“Mark the cat and follow,”he quoted. “William is only doing what is best for us. Many a family’s fortunes have been saved through advantageous marriage. But I am sincerely glad that he was born before me. He will be Lord Bennet and I merely stay a second son. I will not have to sacrifice love when I marry.”
“Than you must learn how to be content with being poor.”
“I shall never be poor.”
The conversation was steering into dangerous ground once more. I pointed to the river and showed him the swans with their cygnet. He laughed at my ruse but was content to admire the birds and trees and wildflowers to which I drew his attention. Ahead of us William continued to impress, Mr Darcy to withdraw, and Miss Bingley to carry on a flirtation with both at the same time. Once or twice Mr Darcy glanced back at us, but his expression was indecipherable.
When we arrived at the maze the groupings changed and somehow I was paired with Mr Darcy, while both of my cousins went ahead with Miss Bingley. It was a full year since I had attempted the maze and the old yews were larger and more overgrown than I remembered.
“I am afraid we have not kept this up,” I said, circling with my arm to encompass the entire grounds, maze included.
“It takes much attending to.”
“You would never allow Netherfield to fall into such a condition.”
“That is true, but when it came into my possession it was not already in a state of neglect. Your father did the best he could with what he was given.”
“That is kind of you to say, but after my mother died, my father kept so much to his library that the estate suffered.” I pushed aside a branch of yew. “This way, Mr Darcy.”
“Miss Bingley is certain we shall encounter a phantom at the very least.”
“Then she is due to be disappointed. Neither the maze nor the pavilion are haunted, and black magic has never been performed here.”
“I am sorry for my earlier comment, but it was not said to offend. Your cousins think me prejudiced against your family because of past history – I only said it to show them I am not. They were not at all pleased that I chose to accept Miss Bingley’s kind offer were they?”
“No, they were not,” I agreed. “But it is to be hoped that in spending time with you they will learn that there is no need for animosity between our families.”
“I think it a vain hope, but maybe I am more inured to human nature than you.”
I sighed. In the past few days I had learned more about the nature of my cousins than I cared to. “Behind their bluster they are good men.”
“I can only judge them by my own experiences in their company,” he said. “But you, with your intimate knowledge and strong family feeling, cannot help but see in them what I must strive to find.”
I was surprised at the nature of our conversation – that he should be so blunt and outspoken rather than say something conciliatory that he did not really mean. I was tempted to ask him what his family’s motto was. Instead I smiled and directed him to turn to his left. Our conversation then concentrated upon the maze itself, its history and design. I told him of the discovery George and I had recently made – of the map hidden under the crest for all those years.
When we came out of the shadow of tall hedges and into the bright sunshine I heard him catch his breath.
“It is beautiful,” he said.
I laughed. “You find this whimsical, dilapidated folly beautiful? My cousins have always mocked me for my love of it.”
“There is something both ethereal and tragic about it,” he said. “That is where the beauty lies – it supersedes the condition of the building itself.”
Miss Bingley ran up to us, saying, “I know I should never learn to find my way through your maze – I would have been totally lost without your cousins to guide me. How unfortunate, though, that the pavilion was left to rot like this – it looks so tawdry and cheap – not at all what I had expected to find.”
“You must praise it to
Miss Bingley sighed and clasped her hands together over her chest. I almost expected her to swoon in delight. “You must do it! Please tell me you will.”
William smiled a smile that was meant only for her. “If that is what you want, it shall be done.”
I was unimpressed by the acting of both, but William’s suggested change to the pavilion affected me deeply. No matter what happened with the trust – which requests I acceded to and which I stood firm against – change would come and it would not be to my liking. Longbourn Keep and the whole of its estates were mine no longer. Doubts about the validity of my decision crept into my mind. If George and William had me alone at that moment, I have no idea what the outcome would have been.
But as it turned out, neither George nor William had any opportunity for time alone with me during the rest of our outing. Miss Bingley, in the quixotic way of young ladies who enjoy being cruel to their many suitors, decided that I would be her companion on the way out of the maze, and stayed by my side till we had reached the parsonage once again.
The rest of the week saw me very busy with preparations for moving to Hunsford. I walked over many times with my maid Annie to inspect the new curtains and wall coverings and the placement of all my furnishings. One morning I interviewed servants and chose a cook, housekeeper and footman for my household in addition to Annie and the niece of the Gardiner’s cook who was to come to me as a scullery maid.
I raised my glass to
“To you,” she said, holding her glass high. “I hope our time together may not be too short, but for your sake
“Why do you say that?”
“A year will surely see you married.”
I chose a serving of braised fowl. “Just who is it I am to marry?” I asked, a little conscious because it was a question I had been asking for a long time, but my love had still to answer me.
“Then I shall look forward to tomorrow,” I said, “if my destiny is to be revealed to me.”
That night, after Annie had helped me from my clothes into my nightgown and braided my hair for sleep, I looked out the windows of my new bedroom upon the view that was one of my favourite things about Hunsford. My little strip of land started at the road and ran along the far side of the overflow pond, and up into the hills. Meadowland stretched from the house down to the water. The sheep that roamed it during the day were all abed, but the rolling flow of grass and wildflowers was dotted here and there with an oak or beech, and beside the water, a grove of willows that trailed their leaves into the pond. The moon laid a silver trail across the water. It led directly toward the roofs and turrets of Longbourn Keep, which rose above the trees that surrounded it. Distance hid all its imperfections. It floated in the moonlight like a dream I always wanted to have within my grasp.
Longbourn Keep 1641
The lone candle is almost gutted. Night still holds the day at bay. You stir your head upon the pillow, pale curls dance like silken thread. You murmur something in your sleep. My name. I know it is my name, soft and drawn out like a sigh. I whisper yours in return. I think I see you smile that smile of contentment I cherish so much.
It is an invitation to sleep and let my dreams mingle with yours. A few moments sleep will not waste this time together. Dreams take time and unravel it; so much can take place in a moment.
I reach out and quench that last flame, and then I lay my face so close to yours we breathe the same air.
Our first visitor the next morning was Mr Gardiner. After he had gone I teased
“Wait and see,
And she was right. I had another visitor as I walked across the meadow and down to the pond. While I picked cowslips and daisies from the long grass my love came to me.
Happy with your home, love?
But there is still something that disturbs you. I can feel it, underlying your contentment.
Yes, my love.
What is it that bothers you so?
Soon. I shall reveal myself soon.
It is not only that. You know too well.
He sent me reassurance then, but it was tinged with worry and that hesitant insecurity I had come to expect. Knowing now what I did about the twins’ financial problems, their premature attempt at recovering some of their fortune, and their designs upon the trust, I could understand his diffidence. I sent him what I could of comfort then, to let him know that our love would carry us through whatever troubles we might face. With a twinge of regret he faded away and I walked slowly back up to the house, flowers almost forgotten in my hand.
I entered the parlour by the French windows and was surprised to find
“I have just now sent the footman out to find you,” she said. “Our cousin George has come to visit.” The expression upon her face was smug and I knew what she was thinking.
I turned to George who had stood up. “I hadn’t expected you so soon.”
“I could not stay away.”
I sat upon the chaise lounge across from him and then remembered the flowers I was holding. “Oh, I need to put these in water,” I said, rising.
“I believe I like
I smiled. “She is a romantic at heart.”
George moved from his chair to sit beside me. “You were right,” he said, looking about the room. “Hunsford bears no stigma though it was a steward’s home. Your good taste and eye for style have turned it into something fine. I need not have worried that living here would lower you in the eyes of society.”
“I care not for the opinions of society. I arranged this house with my own comfort in mind.”
He leaned closer to me and said in a low voice, “Even though you knew you would not be living here for long?”
“I see no reason why I should not live here for many years.”
“Marriage would take you from this house,” he said pointedly.
“Perhaps my future husband has no property of his own, then he would live here with me once we were wed.”
“We can live at Lucas Lodge once we are wed,” he whispered.
I was surprised, after what had taken place in the meadow, to hear him speak of marriage. My impression then was that he had still not been ready to reveal himself.
“George,” I whispered, “are you telling me what I think you are telling me?”
He took my hand and held it to his cheek. “My love, you have always been the only one for me – you know that. Please, say the words I want to hear. Say that you will marry me.”
The moment that I had been waiting for had finally come. I knew my heart ought to be singing but instead I was still tense and expectant, as if this were not enough – not quite what I had expected. As if there should be something more. George was smiling down at me, his expression tender, eager, and confident. I opened my mouth and then hesitated. In our minds we could express ourselves with such freedom, without shyness or reserve. It must be this physical closeness that I was unused to. I urged myself to relax and allow my feelings to flow.
“I will marry you, George. You know I have wanted this for a long time.”
“I had hoped,” he whispered into my hair as he drew me into his arms. “You have answered my dreams.”
Being in his embrace was an unusual experience. His body was warm. I could hear his heart beating under my ear. There was the smell of his cologne, and something else. It was so different than the mental embraces we had so often shared. I was closer to him than I had ever been before, and yet I felt so far away because our minds still had not touched. I sent the enveloping warmth of my love to him. His response was to tip my head up and take my lips with his.
His mouth was warm and wet. I tried to meet his kiss with the same ardour that my mind was sending, but all I felt was the discomfort of the angle of my head, how our noses got in the way of each other, and then his tongue pushing through my lips. I broke away in surprise.
George laughed softly. “My innocent
I was relieved that the kissing had stopped, and I relaxed against him with a sigh. It was confusing – for months I had been sure that this physical closeness was what I wanted, but now it was all so new, so strange, so awkward. I felt emptiness, too, because for some reason he was not answering my thoughts.
“Dearest, why do you not respond?” I asked.
He had been gazing at me sleepily, but now there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. He bent his head over mine again and said, “You want more kisses?” His voice was husky. “
I submitted to his lips again. It was not quite so unsatisfactory as it had been the first time, but still, when his tongue slid between my lips I had to repress a slight shudder. When he finally broke away, I said, “Can we not speak with our minds too, while we kiss?”
He gave me a quizzical look and then affected a sheepish expression. “When we are as close as this I am afraid that my body completely takes over from my mind.”
It was a fair explanation – better by far than anything that I had been able to work out. I felt a pang at knowing that we would lose our special communication when we were together, but hoped that with time we could adjust. At least, now, the uncertainty was gone and we had pledged ourselves to each other. The thing to do was enjoy this special time and not let any worries of what was to come intrude upon our present happiness.
“We need to tell
“I am not yet ready to allow anyone else into our idyll,” George said. “At this moment it is as if we are the only two people on earth. I may be deluding myself in that respect, but let my delusions last a few moments longer. The world will come crashing in on us soon enough.”
What he said was only too true. I did not want to think of the realities that faced us. We had loved for so long, but this face-to-face love was something new, like learning to speak all over again. We needed time together to become accustomed to this type of closeness. Because our courtship was such a different one, so much of it accomplished before I had known in any certainty who my love was, we were now at least a dozen steps ahead of ourselves. My thoughts were all a muddle, and I imagined so were George’s. I slid out of his embrace and took his hands in mine, hoping that distance would clear our thinking.
“We are going too fast,” I said gently. “We must fall in love all over again.”
“If you want to be wooed, then I will woo you.” He raised my hands to his lips and kissed them one at a time. “Shall I build a pavilion to our love and grow a maze about it?”
“That will not be necessary,” I said. “I feel I am in a maze already.”
“And our pavilion is my heart.”
He continued on in the same manner, speaking sweetly and kissing my fingertips, my earlobes, the tip of my nose. This sort of lovemaking, all fancy words, languishing looks and intimate caresses was different from the honest, open sharing of our minds to which I had grown accustomed. I played the game out for some more minutes until George allowed me to go and tell
When Charlotte and I returned to the drawing room, George accepted her best wishes with great pleasure, then he kissed me upon the cheek and said it was high time he rode home and told William of his success. When his horse was brought around I saw him off at the door. He looked very handsome in his saddle, and my cares seemed to slip away. He was mine and I was his – the rest would fall into place. I stood watching the driveway long after he had disappeared around the bend.
For the remainder of the afternoon and late into the evening I tried to contact George, but no matter the sentiment or force I put in my sendings, I received no reply. On what ought to have been one of the happiest evenings of my life, I felt completely cut off and utterly alone. I hoped I had not exchanged one form of love for another, and our easy communication was never to be regained. I fell asleep with tears upon my cheeks, and a last, lonely thought ringing out.
Love. Bennet. George. Answer me. I need you. Answer me.
The following morning, George and William arrived shortly after
“Let me be the first to welcome you into the family,” said William. “I have always wanted you for a sister.”
“Have I not always been part of the family?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “And did you already want me for a sister when you constantly abandoned me in the maze when I was a child?”
“The act of an elder brother if I ever heard tell of one! I know how you love to tease, but allow me to express my pleasure. This marriage is the perfect solution to everything.”
“Yes, my happiness is assured,” said George, giving his brother a nudge. “You have no need to worry about my future anymore.”
I smiled, but William’s obvious inference had dampened my joy. At least George had the consideration to attempt to obscure his meaning.
William took up George’s lead. “
“It is a comfort to me also,” said
“I have no doubt you shall marry soon as well,
“I do hope he has more to recommend him than his single state,” said
William conceded the point and turned to me. “How soon are you to wed?”
“We have not yet set a date,” I said. “George only proposed yesterday – we have had no time to discuss the matter at all.”
“We were preoccupied with other things, were we not dearest?”
George winked at me, and despite my resolve not to be missish, I blushed. Certainly the kisses and embraces we shared were no more than any newly betrothed couple partook of, but I did not like that he made such an open suggestion about something that ought to be private and precious to us alone.
William smirked. “You will not want too wait long, I should imagine.”
“Indeed,” said George.
“We cannot wed until I am out of mourning.”
George started. “But that is a year away!”
“Not an uncommon length for an engagement.”
“I am sure you do not need to wait that long,” said William. “If you have a simple, quiet ceremony no one will look at you askance.”
“If it were only a matter of what other people think,” I said, “I would marry at the earliest opportunity. But it is a matter of respect to my departed father.”
William looked as if about to interject, but George moved forward and took my hand. “As much as I have no desire to wait, your wishes are more important than any other consideration.”
I was grateful for his words, and thus mollified agreed to walk out in the meadow. William and Charlotte followed at a distance, providing both the chaperonage and privacy that was our due.
In the afternoon William and George departed, pleading business as their excuse. I was actually relieved to see them go. The betrothal had not brought me the peace of mind I had hoped for. I thought I would be floating in bliss, enjoying every breathing moment with George, closer than ever before, but I now felt an uneasy distance between us. I don’t know if it was the fact that our minds had not touched since our lips had, or if it was the spectre of the Longbourn trust hanging between us, but I almost felt as if I no longer knew him. The physical aspect of love was more difficult than I had ever imagined – it would take time to overcome this unwelcome confusion.
However, I would have to wait longer for time to reflect. Almost as soon as my cousins had left us, we were besieged by another visitor. It is not that Mrs Bingley was not welcome, but that, upon seeing her face, I knew there was more to her visit than an offer of congratulations.
She sat facing me, and as
“Of course we knew that Mr George Bennet had a special interest in you,” she went on to say. “He made no secret of it. And that is probably one of the reasons why our Caroline did what she did.”
Whatever ruse William had tried with the Bingleys, It had obviously not worked. “I am so sorry that my cousins brought your daughter into their scheme. They should never have taken the candlesticks, trust or no trust, but involving Miss Bingley was an even worse act.”
Mrs Bingley patted my hand, “I can see the whole business weighs heavy with you. And with the involvement of love it becomes even more difficult.”
I nodded my head. “I can forgive wrongful behaviour but not support it. I am not speaking of your daughter, she is not culpable at all. I am certain that Wil . . . my cousins misrepresented the case to her.”
“I believe they did, but that does not excuse her actions. She was raised to know right from wrong, but she has been spoiled and petted so much in society that her head is easily turned. She was also bored here in the country and only too excited to take part in a seemingly innocent intrigue. Of course they told her that the candlesticks would be theirs as soon as the will was read, and she believed that it would hurt no one for them to be able to have them sooner. They told her that George needed the money to speed his marriage, and she thought the whole escapade highly romantic.”
I murmured an apology but she waved it away. “You have nothing to apologise for. Never in a million years would we ever imagine that you were involved in any way. It is for your cousins to look into their hearts and make amends. Mr William tried to fob us off with some story of Hill forgetting she had sent them to the silversmith’s for repair. We might have believed him had not Caroline confessed all – she was never good at keeping secrets. Of course we will say nothing, but we cannot stay at Netherfield Keep any longer. We know that Caroline has a sensible head upon her shoulders, though she hides it well, but we cannot take any chances. I do not like to say anything against a relative of yours, but I believe that you want me to speak plainly in this matter. Mr William is a very handsome and persuasive gentleman; many a young lady like our daughter has thought it safe to play with the attentions of a fortune hunter only to end up caught in one of his traps. We had hoped something would transpire between her and Mr Darcy, but if that gentleman has any serious interest in her he will have to follow us to
Throughout this conversation
Longbourn Keep 1641
My eyes open to pewter shadow. The dim light of dawn is breaking through the window. I look at you, so blissfully asleep and do not want to wake you. It will be the last time, I tell myself, and then we shall hide no more. Your sweet eyes open and find mine instantly, always true to their course.
“I must leave,” you say, wrapping your arms about me, absorbing my warmth.
“For the last time,” I whisper, my lips against your neck. “After today nothing will separate us again.”
You slip into your gown, burden your silken body with heavy satins once more. I help with the buttons – one hundred pearls down your back.
“The key?” I ask.
You hold up the map. “I do not need it, but I have it just the same.”
“You cannot be certain in a maze.”
“Here in the centre we are without bearings or directions. Neither compass nor weather-vane function. This is a separate world, unreachable but for the key.”
“Like death, surely,” you say, a shiver running through you.
“Not death. Freedom. In the centre no one can find us. It is our haven from that harsh world beyond these secret hedges.”
“We are only safe till we go out again.”
Your face is so serious; I lean forward and kiss your lips to bring back your smile. “Even outside the maze we are safe, now.”
The morning was unseasonably cold for May, but my restlessness could not be ignored. I needed to go out and feel the wind upon my face. I needed to walk, to think. I buttoned my pelisse all the way up and wrapped a wool scarf around my neck. Once outdoors I decided on walking in the lanes rather than the open meadows. I wanted wind, but the wind was so fierce that the protection afforded by the hedgerows would be a blessing.
I sifted all my thoughts as I walked. Everything that was troubling me I examined from every angle that I could think of; my father’s death; his last words to me; my cousin’s deceit; the weight of the trust on my shoulders; finding my love but losing the connection to his soul; loss, betrayal, disappointment. I walked until I knew not where I was and still I came no nearer to equilibrium. The happiness that should be blossoming eluded me.
I looked at the hedges, the blackthorn almost past its bloom, the hawthorn just beginning. The leaves of both young and fresh, a delicate transparent green. In my preoccupation I was missing all this simple beauty. Maybe I was worrying too much.
I plucked a spray of hawthorn and pulled it through one of the buttonholes of my pelisse. It brightened the black fabric and sent a spark of warmth to my heart. It was up to me to fan it or let it die. I turned to resume walking, and there, not ten yards from me, was Mr Darcy. He stood still, regarding me from hard, grey eyes.
“Miss Bennet,” he said stiffly, “I hear that you are to marry.”
“This is unexpected.”
“Not really,” I said. “We have always been close.”
“Yes – your family keeps to itself,” he said and would have walked away but seemed to recollect himself. “Please accept my best wishes for your happiness.”
I smiled and began to thank him but he did not wait for my response. He was gone around the bend of the lane from whence he had come in a matter of moments, and I was left standing, astonished at his incivility. If I had not met him on those three previous occasions when he was amiable and warm, I would have said that he had acted as one could only expect from a Darcy. But this excessive reserve, this cold disdain, was incongruous with the Mr Darcy I had recently come to know.
The little spark of warmth that had filtered to my heart vanished and I trudged home, weary and more lost in troubled thought than before.
George visited me every day for the rest of the week. It seemed he had taken my words to heart, when I said we were going too fast and must fall in love all over again, because he did not insist on intimate kisses. He kept his lovemaking to soft caresses and flamboyant expressions of his feelings for me. I teasingly told him that he ought to have been a poet because his words rivalled the verses of our illustrious ancestor.
Each morning we walked out upon my small estate and talked of our future dreams. As the days passed the tenor of these conversations evolved from fanciful wishes that the Longbourn estate had been left differently to emphatic statements against the trust. One morning I found myself in the middle of just the sort of conversation I had been dreading from the very first.
“Hunsford is my home, love,” I said. “Could we not live here instead of Lucas Lodge?”
He smiled. “You cannot be so attached to Hunsford. You have lived here for no more than a week.”
“But it is all I have left of my heritage. My father’s house is mine no more – this was my mother’s.”
George looked directly at me. “Longbourn Keep means much to you still.”
“Yes. Does William plan to live there now the Bingleys are gone, or will he let it once again?”
George dropped his eyes. “My brother has not your love of the house. He has other plans.”
“What other plans can there possibly be? Either he lets it or lives in it. If it were to stand empty it would fall into ruin.” As I spoke I pulled a stalk of meadow grass and shredded it.
“It is close to ruin now,” said George. “
“William has the Keep to live in, you and I Hunsford. Could you not sell Lucas Lodge, and gain money from that?” I cried after him.
He stopped then, and looked at me. I could see in his eyes that he had no desire to speak the words he was about to. “The Lodge is mortgaged.”
The Lodge, mortgaged. My cousins’ fortune gone. I did not want to face what was coming next, but I asked my question anyway. “What is it you are tying to tell me George?”
He sighed, walked back to me and took my hands in his. As he stroked my fingers he softly said, “We need to sell Longbourn Keep. You must see that.”
I pulled away from him. “No! I will never break the trust to such an end. You may sell some of the valuables to restore the Keep – I will agree to that, and that alone.”
George reached out to me again, pulled my unyielding body into his arms and spoke in a low, cajoling voice. “
After my initial resistance I slackened in his hold and leant my head upon his shoulder. “Surely it cannot be as bad as that. You and William can retrench. By making economies you can recoup your losses.”
He shook his head and smiled a twisted, self-deprecating smile. “That is not the way of gamblers. We must live the part to play the part.”
I raised my head from his shoulder and gazed into his face, entreating. “And must you both gamble? Have you not learned from this?”
“What do you want for me? A quiet little life shut up in the country living in a steward’s house? Dearest, if you want me to be happy you must see that I need a bigger world. And so do you – for too long you have wasted your life amid mouldering ruins. We can live in
“I need no finery, no splendid social life. All I want is to be with you. Our love will more than suffice.”
He leaned forward and touched my cheek. “Our love is precious, and nothing need harm it if you would only listen to reason. Longbourn Keep must go. William has promised me a grand share of the proceeds.”
I felt I were slipping into a vortex that led, spinning downward, to some form of hell. I had never imagined it would be like this, with his needs and ideals so opposed to mine. Without our mental contact I was losing the lover that I thought I had known better than my own heart. Had that all just been illusion, or was it money that was pounding this wedge between us? Money and William’s dreams for success. I knew that William was the driving force behind this idea to break the trust, to sell the Keep. And what William decided, George ultimately supported. It was the bond of twinship that ran strong in their veins.
“I am not the only one you must convince. What of
The confidence in his voice was chilling. I pushed back from him and stood firm amid the grasses and wildflowers. “I cannot agree to sell. My father loved the Keep. His fondest dream was to pass it on to future generations of Bennets to live as a testament to our great past.”
“Our great past?” George scoffed. “We are haunted by witches and scorned in our own community. If Bennets are to face the world and move into the future with dignity and pride, the Keep must go. Surely you can see that,
“Selling it will not destroy it,” he said. “Only put it in different hands. Hands that can make the repairs needed to safeguard it for the future.” He reached out and held my shoulders. “But of all futures, should not ours come first in your heart?”
“It does,” I whispered, “it does.” I sank down to sit on the grass, defeated. He joined me and held me tightly to his chest. I looked into his eyes and whispered. “Do not push me for an answer yet. I need time to judge. Time to adjust.”
“I understand your predicament,” he said, kissing my forehead. “I have no wish to pressure you at all – but time is in even shorter supply now that the Bingleys are gone.”
I looked at him, a question in my eyes.
“William had great hopes in Miss Bingley. An announcement of their engagement would have done much to stave off the creditors, but now he must start again with a new heiress. You are our only hope.”
I wanted nothing more than to end it all – not hear another unpleasant word. “Soon. You will have my answer soon.”
A look of relief swept across his face and he smiled. “Have I told you today that I love you?” he whispered, and then he pulled me up. We walked back to the house, arm in arm, not speaking. When we arrived at the door he took my hands and kissed them. “I must go.”
“Won’t you come in for tea?” I said, knowing
“I cannot,” he said, kissing my cheek and turning towards the stables. He stopped, then, and came around again, as if just recalling something. “There is one more thing you must think on which I have not yet mentioned. Please listen to me and try to understand that it is for the best. There is a gentleman who is very interested in the estate, and willing to pay an exceedingly generous amount for it, but he has one stipulation. He wants Hunsford and all its property along with it.”
“But . . .” I was having trouble comprehending what he had just told me. “But it is not yours and William’s to sell.”
“No, but there is nothing to stop you from selling it.” He watched the change of expression on my face and laughed softly, but I detected an edge of impatience underneath the laugh. “It is only a commonplace house and a packet of worthless land, my love. Do not set so much store by it.”
I was still standing beside the stairs when he reached the stables. My brain was numb and I could not have moved if I had tried.
“He would go,” I said.
She looked at me closely and then led me into the house. When she had got me comfortably seated before the drawing room fire, she asked, “What is wrong? Have you and Cousin George argued?”
“No. We just have a difference of opinion.” I sighed. “I do not want to do what he and William want me to do.”
“He was pestering you about the trust?”
“Hunsford is yours, and William and George cannot dictate what you do with it. But the Keep is theirs, my dear. As it is, in disrepair with only a pittance coming in from the estate, it is perfectly understandable that they should want to sell it. I am sorry that you have been put into such a taxing position because of that senseless trust.”
“My father sent me a warning of danger before he died. I do not yet understand the whole of it, but it has to do with Longbourn Keep and the trust. He commissioned me to do what is right. How do I know what is right?”
“You must follow your heart.”
“My heart is in more of a muddle than my head.”
“Then what I would suggest is some tea.”
I sat and sipped my tea thinking what a blessing it was to have
“Your father was quite unwell when he said those words. Maybe when he spoke of danger he was referring to his own accident.”
I mulled this over but could not accept it. The words were still clear in my head. Tell
There was a knock at the door and the footman entered. “This express has just arrived for you, Miss Bennet,” he said.
I took it and dismissed him.
Turning slowly, I faced
“What could he be writing about?”
“The magistrate promised to investigate the accident.” My hands were shaking as I broke the doctor’s seal. The letter was not long. I read it through once quickly, and then again more slowly. I sat because I feared my legs could not hold me. “Oh no! It cannot be!”
“What is it?”
“My cousins – they visited my father in Harrowgate not a week before he died, and yet they have not told me. Why would they not tell me?”
“The shock of your father’s death must have put it from their minds.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, that must be it.”
“Did Mr Jones have anything else to say?”
“Nothing of any importance,
“Then finish your tea before it is cold,
I gave her a tremulous smile and drank my tea. She looked at me with concern but asked no more questions. Nervously twisting the paper, I went over its contents in my head. There was one other piece of information revealed in the letter, but I could not bring myself to tell it to
If it were they, why were they both in Harrowgate on the day of my father’s accident, driving out of the same lane in which it had taken place? It was almost too much to comprehend but I knew that in the end I would have to face the likely truth. It had been my own cousins who had knocked my father down in the lane that day. Knocked him down and left him to die.
It had been my own love, following again in his brother’s footsteps.
I excused myself as soon as I possibly could and went up to my chamber.
His answer would, of course, have been no. They must have decided that if the estate were theirs they could break the trust and sell it. All they had to do was eliminate my father – their father had already signed his estate over to William. I clung to the belief that George was only doing as William asked him, that it was not his wish to kill my father. I tried my best to deny that as an accomplice he was just as culpable.
And that was the danger to me. My father had tried to warn me against them; against breaking the trust and against the peril that standing fast would put me in.
Longbourn Keep 1641
I rest my head on the very spot where your sweet cheek dented the pillow. Even still your warmth comes to me from the linen, and the scent of roses that is your aura.
The moon no longer glides its way through the sky. Now the sun is preparing to steal her stage. I look to the window where the shutter yet swings. You said that this one last time you wanted to climb through my window, for after this night we need be clandestine no longer. You lifted your skirts and bared your pretty ankles, climbed upon the casement, gave me one final endearing glance, and then nimbly jumped, silk and lace billowing. I watched entranced.
In a few hours I can claim you as my own. My eyes are heavy from choosing to watch you all night rather than sleep. One more dream of you and I, too, will depart.
I slept uneasily that night. I had strange, disjointed dreams, but the only one that stayed with me in the morning was pleasant and soothing. I dreamed of rolling hills giving way to forested slopes. Cresting the forest were rocky peaks. And in the valley, nestled between river and pleasure grounds, was a mansion, so well proportioned and graceful that it fit the setting as if it were not built by man but placed there by the hand of God. As I was dreaming I had the impression I had been there before, and often. But in the light of day I had never seen such a place.
When morning came, I still had not resolved what to do. I needed to go to someone for counsel and comfort and the only person who I had previously been able to rely on, besides my father, was now more lost to me than ever. I could not place such a load upon
I went downstairs early and breakfasted alone, though in truth I could barely eat a bite. I walked past the pond with its swans and its ducks, along the river, bypassing the maze that rose ghostly out of a low morning mist, and into the churchyard. I stopped by my father’s grave and sent him a message, telling him that I understood what he wanted and I would try my best to do what was right. Then I went looking for Mr Gardiner.
He was not in the church. I searched in the garden and found him tilling the vegetable plots, preparing the soil for seedlings.
“Good morning Miss Bennet,” he said, looking up from his work.
“I am in need of counsel, Mr Gardiner. Would you have time to listen to me?”
“Always, my dear.” He put aside his hoe and pulled off his gloves. He motioned for me to sit upon a bench in the corner, against an ivy-draped wall, and then sat next to me. “What is troubling you?”
“It is not easy to speak of, but I do not know where else to turn. It should be very straightforward, right versus wrong, and yet it is not. Because of us Bennets being who we are, there are complications. You know that my namesake was burned at the stake for talking with someone who was not with her. Well, it is a family trait that I have inherited. Since I was a girl I have talked with someone mentally. We never used words, our minds just met. Do you think me a witch for having this ability?”
“The world is full of mysterious things,
“Thank you for believing me and not thinking me crazy.”
“To own a truth, your father spoke of something similar to this with me – about the connection he had with you. He told me that he sometimes wondered if you had more of the gift than him. But this is not what now troubles you.”
“No, but it is connected – it is what complicates everything and makes right and wrong so difficult to decipher. When I was old enough to question things I came to realise that my friend I spoke to in my head must be one of my cousins, to have the same ability, and he verified that, but refused to tell me which of the three he was. As I grew, I came to love him, and he me. This we acknowledged to each other but a year ago. Lately we became engaged. It is my cousin George.”
“I imagined from what you had said that must be the case.”
“The strange thing is that ever since we acknowledged our love in person, our minds have ceased their connection. I feel lost and alone – it is as if I need to learn who he is all over again. When I cannot reach his heart, it is harder to understand his mind.
“But that is a small part of my problem. When my father was dying he left me a warning, so confused it was that I had trouble understanding it – now I think I have interpreted it. My cousins, both William and George, have gambled away their fortunes. I believe that in their desperation for money, they caused my father’s death. George has begged me to break the trust so that they can sell Longbourn Keep. My father was warning me to be careful around them. He said to do what is right. Do I stand beside the man who I think responsible for my father’s death? Do I keep my promise to marry him? Or do I expose both my cousins and see the Bennet family destroyed and socially shamed once more?”
“Are you quite certain that your cousins are responsible for your father’s accident? Do you have proof?”
“From all that I know I cannot help but believe they were the cause, but I do not have certain proof.”
“So I should not expose them?”
“Your father is no more. What good will it do to make all this supposition public?”
“But ought I still marry George?”
“You must look to your heart for the answer to that, my child.”
My heart was too bruised to disturb. I looked instead to the rows of cabbages so neatly laid out. ‘Can I still love the man who left my father in the hedgerows to die?’ I asked them. They did not answer. They had no need.
“I cannot marry him,” I said to Mr Gardiner, “but it is as if part of me is dead. Will life be supportable with his thoughts and mine no longer linked?”
“Did you not say the speaking between minds had already stopped?”
I nodded. I had lost the best part of my love that day we became engaged. What I was giving up now was the part of him I had yet to understand. “Thank you, Mr Gardiner. I know now what is the right thing to do. I will break the trust and give them the Keep to do with as they will, for it is mine no longer, but Hunsford they shall not have.”
Mr Gardiner smiled and patted my hand. “Your father was very proud of you, and today you have shown me he had every right to that pride, and more. Go with God, Elizabeth. I pray that one day you will find the happiness you think is now lost to you forever.”
He returned to his vegetables and I wandered out of the garden, grieving for the love that had vanished. I mourned that I was never to feel the comforting caress of his mind again, never to connect with his soul. And without meaning to I sent my yearning out. For a glorious moment he responded with the same intense longing and an image so clear that I could see the very thing he surely was seeing with his own eyes: tiny pink flowers gently cascading, billow upon billow covering the tree. And then I was completely alone.
I knew that tree. I had seen the pink hawthorn earlier this morning when I had visited my Father’s grave. It was behind the church. Knowing only that I had to break the engagement as soon as possible and tell my love goodbye forever, I went to find George.
When I rounded the church, instead of George, I saw Mr Darcy sitting in contemplation on a low stone wall.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out.
“Do I not have the right to sit in the churchyard?”
I felt my face turn red. There was no excuse for impoliteness no matter how disappointed I may have been. “I am sorry – you have every right. It is just that . . . have you seen my cousin George Bennet? I thought to find him here.”
“No. I have not seen your betrothed.” He hunched his shoulders and was about to turn away from me, when his expression changed from distant to concerned. “Are you unwell, Miss Bennet?”
“No . . . Yes . . . No. I am disturbed that is all.”
“Is there anything I can do for your present relief? Come, take my arm and I will escort you inside the church – you may find solace in its cool solemnity.” He stood and came forward, holding his hand out to me.
“You are very kind, Mr Darcy, but really there is no need. I must find George and tell him . . .”
“Tell him what, Miss Bennet?”
Mr Darcy was very close. His face showed nothing but friendly interest. I never questioned the propriety of his asking what he did. Indeed, I found his presence so calming I almost broke down and told him the whole.
“The trust. I am going to break the trust like he and William want.”
“Try not to let it trouble you so – you are doing what is right.”
I stared at him for a long moment. I noticed things about him that I had not noted before. His eyes were a dark grey, and his lashes very fine. His skin was already slightly brown from being out in the spring sun. His dark hair did not sit flat but ruffled untidily in the light breeze . . . and then I recollected myself. “Thank you, Mr Darcy. Your words are exactly what I needed to hear – they have set my mind at ease. Now I must go – good day to you.”
He stepped back and bowed, his face already a bit more aloof.
I walked out of the churchyard and back along the river towards Hunsford. Though the willows upon the banks draped their leaves into the water with bucolic splendour and the hawthorns in the hedgerow bloomed profusely, my mind was taken up with that image of clouds of pink flowers, dancing in a gentle breeze.
On my return, I told
I stayed in the library and examined the books once more, with the intention of returning them to Longbourn Keep in the morning. Upon opening Arthur Brooke’s Tragicall History of Romeo and Juliet. I noticed that one edge of the bookplate was curling away from the page. I examined it and found that it felt thick, as if something were between the bookplate and the page. I took the loose corner and eased it up. The bookplate came away quite without difficulty and a folded paper fell out onto my lap.
My heart beat madly as I picked it up and unfolded it. . the paper . . . in William’s Brooke. Finally I had it in my hands – the paper that was so important to my father, he used his last minutes in this world to try to make its existence known to me.
It was a page from a parish register. The date at the top of the page read,
Fitzwilliam Bennet and Lady Jane had been legally married! There had never been a breath of this in any of our family histories or any of the rumours that had been passed down through the generations in this community. Since the death of Fitzwilliam’s mother, Elizabeth Bennet the so-called witch, there had been as much bad blood between the families as with the Montagues and Capulets.
I looked at the book that now lay on the table beside me. Romeo and Juliet had married in secret because of the hatred between their families, and so too had Fitzwilliam and Lady Jane. A marriage so secret that when the De Bourghs discovered he had lain with their daughter they shot him without question. A very short time later she had married the eldest son of the Darcy family.
But why had the registry page been removed and why was it hidden in this book? That could not have been done by the De Bourghs. It must have been a Bennet who found the entry and hid it. If it were Lord William Bennet, what had he to gain by it? As the brother of Lord Thomas, who had died only days before his only son was murdered, the title and estate had passed on to him with Fitzwilliam’s death.
Lady Jane had borne her husband a son! I gasped when the thought struck me. The son she bore was not of Darcy blood, but of Bennet. He was the true heir to Longbourn, the legitimate son of Fitzwilliam Charles Bennet. And that must mean . . .
A strong gust of wind burst into the room. “
I jumped from my chair and twirled around. The French window was open and William was standing half in the library, George I could see a few paces behind in the shadows.
“What are you doing here?”
William smiled a tight, false smile. It was his mask – the antlers hiding his hunting-cat face. “We have come to talk about the trust. George was very disheartened when he last spoke to you. He thinks you do not mean to let us have what is ours.”
“Why have you come this way, and not through the front door to be announced by my servant?”
He honeyed his voice. “We had no desire to disturb anyone.”
Rain was pelting down on the grass and blowing in through the open door.
I straightened, head erect, chin jutting forward to hide the fact that I was trembling. “If you are intent on coming in, do so.”
They entered and George rushed over to my side. “
“There is something I have wanted to tell you all day, George.” I closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself and then swallowed in an attempt to gain the courage to say what I knew was going to hurt. “I cannot marry you.”
His eyes flashed with what looked to me like anger. “You are pledged to me – you cannot break your vow!” He grasped me by the shoulders and gave me a little shake.
“Leave her be,” said William. “Do not you see it is immaterial whether she marries you or not? What is important is that she agrees to break the trust.”
“But what of Hunsford?” hissed George. “Do we not need Hunsford in order to get the best price for the Keep? Is not that why we made the plan?”
“The plan?” I asked. “The plan to marry me, do you mean? What mockery of love is this?”
“I like you very much,
“And all the time I thought you were the one! But I should have known when our minds didn’t speak to each other and when your kisses did not thrill me like I had expected them to. I should have known you were not he!”
At the mention of his kisses, George’s demeanour changed. His look of entreaty turned to ugly anger.
“What is this?” asked William. “Minds speaking to each other?”
“It is something she has been saying since I proposed. I had thought it some mere lovers’ nonsense, till now.”
William laughed and took me by the chin, turning my face from one side to the other and looking at it appraisingly. “So you are a witch just like the Elizabeth Bennet of old. How lucky for you they no longer burn witches at the stake.”
I pulled away. “If you have come here to mock me, you can leave immediately.”
“Just give us your promise that you will break the trust and we will leave you in peace,” said William.
“If you had come two hours ago and through the front door like gentlemen, I would have made that promise. I was ready to break the trust, but not to sell Hunsford. Now I have changed my mind.”
“What – because of this bit of cousinly teasing?”
“No,” I said. “Because of this.” I held up the paper and waved it before William’s face. “This is a page from the parish registry, dated 1641, and according to the information here, you are not the true heir to Longbourn Keep. How can I promise to break a trust that I have no legal say in and you no legal right to?”
William reached for the paper, but I pulled it away and thrust it in my pocket.
George had been silent the whole time, standing still and simply staring at us, but now he spoke, his voice low and menacing. “Who is the rightful heir, then? Who?”
I suddenly remembered that though these two men were my cousins, they were unscrupulous adventurers. They would stop at nothing to get what they wanted. They had not gone easy on my father, who had warned me of danger. I was now looking danger straight in the face.
George advanced closer. “Does this heir speak mind to mind?”
And then what had been eluding me for so many years was suddenly and shatteringly made clear to me. I sent a call out into the air. A call of love and warning. Bennet!
And as I called I heard George yell to William, “1641 was when Fitzwilliam Bennet was murdered. That paper must be a record of his marriage to Lady Jane! The heir must be Darcy – no wonder she no longer wants to marry me. With Darcy she gets to keep it all, and gain his estates too.”
And then, as I opened my mouth to cry out for
“What about the water? Shall we open the sluice gates?”
“No, if we leave them closed it will make it look more natural.”
“What do you mean? What are you planning to do?”
“George – this nonsensical story of hers cannot be made known. The ensuing legal battles would tie up the estate for years.”
“So – simply destroy the paper!”
“It is not that easy. Did you not say she communicates from mind to mind with somebody? Who could it be but Darcy – he has the witch’s blood in him too.”
“She may have already told him – what is to be gained then?”
“We can deal with him after we deal with her.”
“Do you not think it fitting that she die where that traitor of a child was conceived?”
“You must own she has always loved the place.”
I felt myself being taken up then, thrown over one of my cousins’ shoulders, and then my mind slipped, losing . . .
Longbourn Keep 1641
I slide from the bed, from your still lingering warmth, and step over to the window. Watery light of dawn streaks the sky above the guardian yews. Day, and I am still in my nest of love, not the cold ancestral bed as is expected of me. But no light shows yet from the Keep. I must hurry my way there before my absence is noted. No one shall mark me as I slip furtive through the back door.
But you are home and already now and we are safe.
I notice the cold in my nakedness with you not here to heat my blood. I collect my clothes, strewn over the floor and tangled by passion’s haste, pull them on, tie my cape about my shoulders. Today I will face the world – be proclaimed Lord Fitzwilliam Charles Bennet, and then I will claim you, my wife. All will be well.
I jump from the window in mirror of you. I feel a sudden fear crawl up my spine, chasing my courage inward. It is only the hour, nothing more. This unholy time when men ought not be awake. This is not the time of lovers, but executioners. A time of no mercy at all.
I look through the window to the room again, hesitant yet to leave that trace of you, which lingers still. This little haven of ours will never again be the same. Our private world will be exploded when truth revealed. Will our love that blossomed bright in this protected place, survive the mark of treason that will be placed on it in the cruel light of day? Do I have the power to face the livid hatred in your father’s face?
I think of you, your silken body, your angelic grace, your tender heart, your beauteous face, and draw the valour I need to put forth one foot and then the next, to enter the winding, enchanted path that leads from this heaven to the earthly plane.
I was cramped into a small space. It smelled of earth and rot and animal musk. My head was pressed against rough wood, and aching. And my mind was swirling, filled with images of somewhere other than this dark place. Branches whipped past me, the moon flickered between the thick trees, lighting a narrow trail through the countryside. Rain slashed in my face, thrown by a cruel wind. I became dizzy, not only from the pain in my head, but the double images of my damp prison and the headlong rush through the woods.
Numbing water seeped around me, deepening. But at the same time I could feel a horse under me and reins within my chilled hands. My fear escaped from me in a ragged call. Bennet!
Love! I thought I had lost you!
I am here.
Hang on. I am coming. Hang on!
And suddenly I knew that just as I had seen the hawthorn flowers bounce and sway this morning, I was now seeing with my love’s eyes as well as my own.
I am ready for danger.
The water around me was deepening. I pushed at the boards above me fruitlessly, while the landscape changed to moonstruck meadow. In the distance I could see the Keep and the moat and we galloped closer and closer, my love and I. Soaring over a hedge, racing down a sharp declivity at breakneck speed. And still I could not find a way out.
The sound of raging water was loud in our ears and a fierce wind beat at our face. We tore through a band of trees and came to the fork, where the river was channelled to either moat or weir. The rain-swelled water was dangerously high and crashing against the closed sluice gate. Trees were swaying and creaking in the wind. A wide fall was escaping through the weir, pounding down the overflow and spreading like a blanket over its banks, rushing out of bondage towards the maze.
I must somehow have transmitted a vague impression of my prison, enough that he had guessed where I lay trapped, though till now I did not know myself where I was.
Not too deep yet, love!
It was then we saw them. Out on the middle of the weir, William stood bent over, wielding an axe at an obstruction of logs. George was by his side, pushing at the debris with a pike. Water foamed around their feet. George turned, pulled his pike from the water and advanced, holding it now like a spear.
“Darcy,” he yelled above the wind. “You’ll not take this from us!” His foot slipped on the wet wood and he fell backward into the tangle of logs and bubbling water.
William let out a strangled yell, dropped his axe, and dove towards his brother, just managing to grab his hand. Lying straddled upon the top of the weir he held on as water surged about them. “Help me, Darcy! For the love of God, Help me!”
And we were down from the horse, running to him through the wet. Just as we gained the edge of the weir there was a resounding crack. The aged wood, unable to withstand the force of so much water, tore asunder. We fell, still reaching across the wood as the torrent dragged away ragged spars. William and George were swept away, beyond our grasping fingers, tumbled along with logs and broken timbers. The deluge raged fast and hard, tearing everything in its course and pulling it in a deadly path through the maze.
And in that same instant, when all I could see was the rushing water dragging my cousins to certain death, the boards above my pushing hands gave. With what strength I could muster I heaved against them and my trap was sprung.
I pulled myself through the opening, leaving behind the water that tugged and dragged at my clothing as it flowed angrily around me.
Safe. I lay on the ragged floor of the pavilion, gasping for breath. My double visions, the shadowed interior of the pavilion and the water rushing through the ruptured weir, clouded with a thick cloying fog and dimmed as darkness overtook me once again.
I awoke in my love’s arms. Real, corporeal arms. Though both of us were wet through I have never known such comfort as that first feel of mingled thought and physical presence. It was more than I ever hoped it would be. Happiness radiated through us in bursts of spangled light. Our first few minutes of contact were beyond word, thought, or touch. Together we created a new, indescribable sense – overwhelming and intoxicating. After a time it mellowed to something manageable.
“Why did I never guess it was you?” I said, using mere words as I reached up and stroked his cheek.
“You were so certain I was a Bennet.”
“You answered to the name.”
“I did.” He kissed my forehead. “It is the only explanation I could find to my being able to talk to you with my mind. When I was old enough to understand the ways of the world I realised that Lady Jane De Bourgh must have already been with child when she married into the Darcy family.”
“Why did you never tell me?”
“I was afraid. Your family hated mine so.”
That explained the hesitant vulnerability I had sometimes sensed. “But you knew I loved you.”
“You were ready to believe I was George.”
“I thought I only had three choices.”
“And you have to admit that our debut meeting at the Assembly did not bode well for me.”
I held him closer and pressed my lips against his cheek. Seconds later his lips were on mine, accompanied by a mental flash like sheet lightning, that sizzled and showered us with enveloping warmth. The kiss was long and slow, lips moving against each other, mouths opening, relishing the warmth and softness, fulfilling our long yearning with tender passion. At last we broke apart and looked at each other with wonder and delight.
“I knew from the moment George kissed me that something was not right,” I whispered. “It was awkward and unnatural and I couldn’t reach him with my mind.”
“The moment that happened I shut you out.”
“And I missed you so much.”
“It was impossible to share minds when you thought you loved George and I thought you loved George. I believed I had lost you forever. The pain was unbearable. And I was consumed with anger.”
“But I was so confused.”
“I know. And after some time I realised that it was mainly my fault for being so reticent to reveal myself to you. I was no longer angry but that only made shutting you out that much harder.”
“That time we met in the lane – surely you were still angry with me – you were so uncivil.”
“I wasn’t angry anymore; I was holding myself back from pulling you into my arms and making fervent love to you.”
I laughed. “That would have brought me to my senses. You are too much of a gentleman sir. Yes – I see now that is your true fault, not that you are descendant from murderers.”
“And you, my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, are truly a witch because you have bewitched me body and soul.”
“Please, sir, none of that. I had too much fatuous flirtation from George.”
“Then I shall be more careful in what manner I tease you from now on. I do not want to remind you of George at every turn.”
“You are nothing at all like George,” I said. “Can you forgive me for thinking him you?”
He sent me a thought that made me know how foolish my words had been. We were lost in the depth of our love again, and then I chose to revert back to words, just to settle down my racing emotions.
“What do I call you now? I cannot call you Bennet anymore, and Mr Darcy sounds so very formal after moments like we just experienced.”
“Call me Fitzwilliam.”
“Yes. It became a family name after Lady Jane insisted on calling her first-born Charles Fitzwilliam Darcy.”
“After his true father.”
“Yes.” He glanced around the room, then, gently brushing my hair back from my face and stroking my cheek, he said, “There is a bed in the corner. Shall we not use it?”
I blushed. “I know that our love is unorthodox and we have been expressing it rather freely, but I am not quite so wanton . . .”
He laughed. “That was not my meaning. We are tired, cold, and wet. I thought if we wrapped ourselves up in that musty coverlet we might at least stay warm and sleep to gain the strength we will need to face tomorrow.”
Fitzwilliam lifted me then and carried me to the bed. He sat me on the edge and pulled back the dusty covers. I scrambled in and he lay by my side and brought the covers back over us. I tucked them up under my chin, feeling all at once ridiculously shy. He smiled softly, put his arms out and brought me to rest firmly against his chest. With bodies and minds entwined, we both drifted off to a much-needed rest. The last thing I remember was his mind caressing mine.
Sleep, love. Sleep.
I woke with the dwindling memory of Elysian Fields, a meandering river and the mansion I had dreamt of the night before. My eyes opened. Fitzwilliam was leaning against the headboard, a faded damask pillow behind his back, and a faraway look in his eyes.
Where has your mind travelled?
He turned to me and smiled, that soft, sweet smile I learned to love so quickly. “My family has an estate in Derbyshire. It has recently come down to me. When I was a child we would spend our summers there. For beauty it falls just short of heaven.”
“Does it have a low, rambling mansion with a view of the peaks?”
“Yes. And meadows that stretch from river to wooded slopes.”
“I dreamt of it the other night and woke up right now with it in my mind. It is as if I have known it for most of my life.”
“It is called Pemberley. Sometimes, late at night when all the world is asleep, I sit and think of it. I must have sent those images to your dreams. I feel the same way about Pemberley as you do about Longbourn Keep. When I inherited, I would have moved there immediately, had you not kept me here. I have only been waiting for you.”
“But now . . .”
“But now there is nothing to keep you here, my love. Last night you were betrayed in the gravest possible way. No matter the outcome of the evening’s misadventure – whether your cousins have survived the river or not, this place is yours no longer. Let Pemberley be your new home. Yours and mine.”
“There is something I have not yet told you – one of the reasons why my cousins acted with such desperation last night. I discovered proof that they are not the rightful heirs of the Keep.”
“If not they, then who?”
“You, my love. I found proof that Fitzwilliam Charles Bennet married Lady Jane De Bourgh before he died.” I went on to tell him all about my father’s warning, the books, my cousins’ act of theft, everything that led up to the terrifying events of the evening before. “They needed the money from the sale of the estate. They were prepared to do anything to prevent you from discovering the truth.”
He touched my cheek, a gentle feather touch to contrast the severity of his words. “They meant to harm you – for you to die. I cannot forgive that.”
“They meant to kill you too, if need be. They were ruthless and heartless, but I cannot help but pity them in their weakness.”
He gazed into my face and our shared thought was clear – neither of us would insist on retribution. “So we shall leave this place, settle in Derbyshire and put them from our minds forever.”
“But – the Keep is yours by right!”
“Even if they have not destroyed the paper, I want no part of it. Let it remain with the Bennets – they need it more. I have estates enough; but more so than that, I have you and you are everything to me.”
We lost ourselves then in expressions of love, which overrode all other considerations. When we came back to earth again, I noticed the first rays of the risen sun were now streaking through the window, directly on the rectangle in the middle of the floor the open trap door had laid bare. I shuddered, thinking what my fate would have been had I not found that door and managed to open it at the last moment. I might be tangled with storm debris, left high on the meadow by the receding waters, like my cousins surely were. My mind struggled away from morbid thoughts and Fitzwilliam instantly reached out with his comforting, reassuring patterns.
“I will close it if it disturbs you,” he said, getting up from our bed and walking to the centre of the floor. “It is time I took you home, at any rate.”
“Yes!” I could not believe that I had not yet thought of how long I had been away. “
“Never mind,” said my love; not quite the answer a lady wants to hear when discussing her appearance. But his voice was tinged with some kind of strange excitement, so I took no offence. “You must come and see this.” He was crouched beside the opening in the floor, looking down through it.
I had no real interest in seeing my prison again, but the tone of his voice brought me to his side. What I saw through the hole made me forget all else.
Water still sat under the pavilion, about a foot or so of clear, still water, with sunshine shafting through to what lay at the bottom. A tawny cat, antlers sprouting from his head, strode across tiled pavement. The tumult of floodwaters that had raced through the narrow space must have torn away the two centuries of earth that had covered it. I stared in awe until, like a key unlocking a secret door, the words of Lord Thomas Bennet’s poem came to me.
What strange surprise would hunter see
This antlered beast so bold and free,
Head held high, coat of brightest gold
He strides in glory t’ward the fold.
This was what he had written about! This wonderful Roman mosaic floor, hidden and preserved by my ancestor under his frivolous folly.
Here dwells another beast, you see
Hidden now, and no longer free,
Till sunlight spills upon his face
And wakes him in this field of grace.
He must have built the trap door so he could come and look his fill of this secret treasure. But still, everywhere he had left clues for anyone who cared to find them. The map of the maze with the cat superimposed upon it. My father must have discovered the whole while reading the poems, and this ancient relic was what he had struggled so hard to preserve. Indeed he had even tried to tell me about it.
the key . . . the cat . . . on the pavement . . . the map
“Your family took him for their crest,” said Fitzwilliam. “But he is not a shallow pretender, hiding behind a mask. He is powerful and brave, holding up his prize in triumph.”
And looking at the magnificent cat, I could see that Fitzwilliam was right. He shone through the film of water in all his majesty – tile of gold and glass brought to life once more. My family history had maligned the beast for centuries. “This must be safeguarded,” I whispered.
“We will see to it that it is, before we go north. You still have the power of say in the trust. If money is needed to uncover and restore this treasure, I will be glad provide what is necessary.”
We sat and gazed upon his splendour for a few more minutes but the day was advancing – we knew we had to leave the antlered cat. Fitzwilliam lowered the trap door into place with care. We left the pavilion through the battered entrance that he had forced open in his urgency to get to me.
“I have only just realised something,” I said, turning to face him before setting my foot upon the stair. “How on earth did you make your way through the maze without me there to guide you?”
“I was coming to save you, my love. No maze could hold me back – I just bored my way through.”
I laughed, and arm in arm we followed his rough hewn path through the tangled maze, water up about our ankles. When we came out from the ravaged yews we saw a gentleman standing, staring out upon the desolation of flooded meadow and uprooted trees.
He turned and smiled and stepped forward. If he was shocked at my dishevelled appearance, or the fact that I had just come out of the maze with Mr Darcy at such an early hour, he never gave any indication of it. Instead he asked if we knew what had caused the flood.
Though I needed to return home, we owed him an explanation, so together, taking turns, we gave him the complete story. It was almost certain that he was now the new heir to Longbourn Keep and he had a right to this latest piece of family intrigue – we knew it would go no further than him. Afterwards, when there was nothing more to say, he left us in search of his brothers’ remains and we made the long trek around the swollen pond and up to Hunsford.
Later we heard that William and George’s bodies had been found tossed against the bank by the bridge amid branches and mud, one resting across the other, their white faces as alike in death as they were in life. I gave Charlotte Hunsford and happily left everything else behind, knowing now that Longbourn Keep was in good hands with
The day I made my final farewell, Fitzwilliam walked with me into the churchyard. The blooms of pink hawthorn had been blown from the tree and scattered like snow over my father’s grave.
Father, I have done what I think right. I held my hand out to show him the ring. Rising slowly from the ground, that feeling my father and I had shared came to both my love and me.
Longbourn Keep 1641
The lark has sung already and now cock’s crow shatters the dawn. I hear a rustle in the hedges – a badger, mayhap, or a deer.
Today I must face them all as Lord Bennet and find the courage to tell them what we have done. Today I bring you home with me, my lawful wife. Today, all I hope for is that our love erase the family hate.
I see a light patch upon the green grass at the opening from the maze. I stoop to pick up the square of silk you have dropped in your haste. It is still redolent of you; roses and moonbeams is what I smell when I hold it reverently to my face.
I step out of the maze – now compasses work, weathervanes point the direction of the wind, and the evil of the world runs at will.
A sudden sound, a swift, searing pain, and I collapse, the silken hanky clasped to my cheek. What am I doing here, lying on the dew-soaked grass and why do I feel as if there is fire in my bowels? Shadows move past me, blurred words sound from above, but I care not for them. All I know is that I must find you and tell you of my pain as you hold me in your arms.
My head is light and even the pain is fading. If I cannot come to you, I know you will come to me. It is strange to float up here and see my body as if asleep, spread out on the grass.
You are here with me, still, nestled in the bed. A dream. It must have been a dream. We still have this night in the pavilion. This night made only for you and me. May it last forever.