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Authors: Helen Halstead

A Private Performance

BOOK: A Private Performance
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including printing, photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian
Copyright Act 1968
), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

A Private Performance

ePub ISBN 9781742742625
Kindle ISBN 9781742742632

A Vintage Book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney NSW 2060
www.randomhouse.com.au

First published by Vintage in 2005

Copyright © Helen Halstead 2005

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian Copyright Act 1968), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of Random House Australia.

Addresses for companies within the Random House Group can be found at
www.randomhouse.com.au/offices

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication Entry

Halstead, Helen.

A private performance.

ISBN 1 74166 050 5.

ISBN 978 1 74166 050 0

I. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817. Pride and prejudice. II. Title.

A823.4

Cover illustration 19th century engraving/Australian Picture Library

For my mother

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I gratefully acknowledge the invaluable help and encouragement I have received from many friends and colleagues.

For their assistance and support, I particularly thank Beverley Rainsford, Irina Lemaire, Madge Mitton, Jeanne Sayers, Victoria Brown, Dawn Lace, Erinna Gooley, Diana Carter, James Ogilvy and Peter Angrave.

To Jeanne Ryckmans, my publisher at Random House, my warm thanks for being marvellous.

For her loving faith in me, I thank my sister, Barbara Golden.

Lastly, I thank the members of the Jane Austen Society of Adelaide for their enthusiastic support. In pleasing these wonderful, exacting and knowledgeable ladies, my book passed a major test!

CHAPTER 1

Autumn, 1813

W
HAT A JOY IT IS
to have a worthy topic of conversation, to hold the power to amaze! Mrs. Bennet found herself to be in possession of a piece of news granting her this very power. It was for her to impart or withhold information that would provoke wonder among her neighbours. In the privacy of her home, at Longbourn, she had shrieked and exclaimed; she had come well-nigh to fainting with joy. Yet, delicacy forbade her sharing her knowledge for some days, certainly not before the marriage articles had been signed.

In the breakfast room, Mrs. Bennet's gaze rested upon her four daughters in turn; she looked with unwonted fondness upon her second daughter, Elizabeth.

“Do you know, my dears, the whole district is talking of nothing but Lizzy's engagement.”

“Mama! I would prefer that you not speak of it yet,” said Elizabeth.

“Oh, stuff! What did I say? The merest slip! Do you know, girls, our neighbours are saying that Mr. Darcy was all but engaged to his cousin. That he has given up an enormous fortune to marry Lizzy!”

“He was not engaged to her!”

“Oh, I daresay not.” Mrs. Bennet dismissed the details with a wave of her handkerchief. “Yet Lizzy, can you not see that such a tale does add to your triumph? My sister reports that everyone is saying you have enraptured Mr. Darcy with nought but your charm. Is that not pleasing?”

“I would rather they did not speak of it at all, until I am out of the district.”

Mrs. Bennet was all amazement.

“Until you are out of the district, child! What else are people to speak of when they hear you are to marry a man so rich, so highly placed in society, so … rich?”

“I am sorry if our neighbours care so little for my happiness and care only for my material advantages.”

“You are a silly girl. Of course they care for your happiness.” Even while she chuckled, an unpleasant feeling blew across the little pool of her joy. Her daughters saw her frown and glanced at each other. Their father looked up at the sudden quiet and grimaced. Mrs. Bennet's sister, who had called at the unseemly hour of nine o'clock, rarely had undiluted pleasantries to impart. In fact, that lady had also reported hearing a certain curate's widow express a hope that ‘sweet Elizabeth's advantages might not be bought too dear'. She had suggested that Mr. Darcy was a ‘difficult man' who ‘considers himself quite above us all'.

Mrs. Bennet felt a rush of irritation. For a moment, she thought she might need her smelling salts. She became aware of the silence at the table and brightened, as she recalled how dowdy were the widow's nieces.

“I confess I never even liked the shabby creature and I know not how she'll ever find husbands for those girls.”

“Which girls, Mama?” asked the most juvenile of the young ladies. Her mother ploughed on.

“Mr. Darcy would scarcely notice an ugly girl whose family does not even keep their own carriage!” Her listeners, not privy to her chain of thought, merely looked puzzled, until Elizabeth said: “I thought it was my charm that enraptured Mr. Darcy—now I discover the bait to be my father's carriage.”

Mrs. Bennet laughed heartily. “How many carriages does Mr. Darcy keep, Lizzy? You shall have your own, my love. Mr. Darcy will order you a new carriage and you shall choose the colour—I know, for I asked him!”

Elizabeth blushed and her sisters responded in their several ways. Jane looked sympathetic, while one sister turned up her nose and the other gave vent to an excess of merriment.

Mr. Bennet raised his grizzled eyebrows and cleared his throat.

“Elizabeth is to abandon us for the delights of Mr. Darcy's establishment, and her sister Jane for that of Mr. Bingley. In my diminished
household, I shall have the opportunity to enjoy more the company offered by my two remaining daughters.”

“Indeed,” replied Mrs. Bennet. “We shall be very cosy.”

“I, at least, shall be driven to the cosiness of my library with even greater frequency, as all the sense to be found in my daughters leaves the house at once.”

“Mr. Bennet, how can you be so cruel?” cried his wife.

“If speaking the truth is cruelty, Mrs. Bennet, then I cannot acquit myself of the charge.”

He continued eating. Mrs. Bennet sniffed and looked away, fiddling with her lace.

A loud knock echoed from the front hall.

“'Tis a messenger, for sure,” cried Mrs. Bennet. “It is my brother, I know it! He is dead!” She put her handkerchief to her eyes.

“Are you certain, Mrs. Bennet?” asked her husband. “I had not heard he was so close to death as to cause this apprehension.” He turned to Elizabeth, his mouth turned down in mock grief. She dearly wanted to laugh.

Her sister, Jane, stretched out a comforting hand to her mother and said: “Do not alarm yourself, Mama. Only last week, our uncle was reported to be in excellent health.”

The footman entered and brought the letter tray to Elizabeth. She picked up the letter. It was of the finest quality paper. She studied the direction, in a woman's hand, unusually firm and plain.

“Who has sent it, Lizzy?” said Mrs. Bennet.

“I know not,” said Elizabeth, slipping the letter into her pocket. “Some friend of Mr. Darcy's, I imagine, has written to me with her congratulations.”

“Before the marriage articles have been signed? That is highly unlikely. Read it to me!”

“Mama, pray let me read it first.”

“Nonsense, girl. I shall see it at once.”

Elizabeth turned to her father.

“I think our daughter might be trusted to keep respectable correspondence, Mrs. Bennet,” he said.

“Oh, very well then, Miss Have-it-your-way.”

Elizabeth walked out across the lawn into the small wood which skirted Longbourn's eastern boundary. The early promise of a beautiful day had proved illusory, as grey clouds had moved in to cover the sun. She studied the letter for a moment before she opened it.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh to Miss Elizabeth Bennet

Miss Bennet,

I send you no courtesies, for you deserve none. I have learnt that you are perversely continuing with your plan to advance yourself, while ruining forever the name of Darcy. Last April, I condescended to invite you into my home. You abused my kindness to entice my nephew into a misalliance that he will rue the moment his infatuation wears off. Then he will bitterly regret that he has been robbed of his rightful bride, my daughter, Miss Anne de Bourgh.

None of Mr. Darcy's relations will ever consent to speak to you. Due to you, my nephew will be cast off from all his family.

Furthermore, you will be received by no-one of note, for such is the respect and esteem in which the name of de Bourgh is held.

May God forgive your crime, for I shall not.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Elizabeth was, for a moment, breathless with shock. She walked about, hardly aware of her direction.

“Arrogant woman! Held in respect and esteem, is she? Not by me!”

The themes expressed in the letter came as no surprise, for Lady Catherine had already made these accusations to her face some weeks past, but the injustice seemed even more bitter in writing.

The allegation of entrapping Darcy she found highly offensive. From the beginning of their acquaintance, she had disliked him intensely until she learnt to know him. He had fought for, and won, first her respect and then her affection.

‘Nevertheless,' she mused, ‘it is inevitable that many will believe my motives to be mercenary.'

It was the meanest spite for Lady Catherine to take her revenge by trying to destroy them in society. As if she could! Lady Catherine relished wielding her power over those dependent upon her goodwill. However, Darcy's friends had no such need of her influence, so why should they turn their backs upon them both at the behest of his aunt? No, they could not be so silly. Surely?

She left the wood through the back gate, and walked to the dairy, and fed the letter to the goats.

The sun was shimmering around the edge of a cloud, as Elizabeth retraced her steps into the wood. She turned a corner and saw, dark against a ray of sunshine, a tall figure, clad in grey, waiting at the spot where the paths diverged. He had his back to her, looking in the direction of the woods. She uttered a little laugh of surprise; he turned and in the shadows, his eyes were obscured. He bowed and came to her side.

She nodded and said, “You have come early.”

“Not so early as I would have liked.”

He raised her hand to his lips; then turning it, kissed the tiny space between her sleeve and her glove.

“I have written my instructions to my solicitor, whom I expect to see, at his earliest convenience, with the marriage contract.”

She smiled, and took his arm. They escaped further into the wood, the wind blowing away the dead leaves before their feet.

They walked in silence for a moment, before he said: “Mrs. Bennet told me just now that you received a letter, which you thought to be from a connection of mine.”

“I believe I used the word ‘friend', although ‘connection' is perhaps a more apt expression.”

His countenance froze. “Lady Catherine has dared to write to you?”

“One does not usually think of your respected aunt as daring to do; she simply does.”

“Will you let me see it?”

“No, I could not show it even if I wished to do so, although I could point out its general whereabouts. Suffice it to say that Lady
Catherine has been so kind as to give me the benefit of her opinion. She gently warns me of the chilly reception I shall receive from everyone in the world, should ever I poke my head from my door again.”

In spite of himself, he laughed. “I wish I could take these insults as lightly as you do.”

“I was angry enough an hour ago, but you know my character.”

“I certainly do. Your spirits rise at every attempt to intimidate you.”

“Indeed they do.”

He winced at the thought of a letter from a certain earl, his uncle, who wrote of the folly of courting a young woman, ‘less than a nobody', a girl he ‘could have had without marrying her'. He would ensure she never discovered the contents of that letter.

He touched a curl escaped from her bonnet.

“When I first knew I loved you, I felt a wistful … almost a happiness. Yet, after I parted from you, my feelings changed until I ached with longing to gaze upon your countenance, though it be only once more.”

Elizabeth's mouth moved, seemingly in the beginning of laughter, and her eye was caught by the twirling fall of a leaf. How significant that fall seemed, in the fading sounds of the woods.

She thought to look at him but, somehow, did not.

He continued: “I learnt what it means to yearn. I'd had no conception of the pain.”

The woods were filled with silence. She felt his arm around her waist and felt him drawing her against him; felt the prickly texture of his coat against her cheek. So very near they were! A sudden scudding of the wind sent the leaves dancing around them. His lips touched her forehead.

“Elizabeth, my avowed one, you cannot know how I love you.”

She raised her head and, for an instant, he thought he read in her eyes something never yet spoken, words hidden behind her other meanings. Her lips, slightly parted as she seemed about to speak, were now very close.

“Pray tell me your feelings.”

She turned her head aside; then looked back up at him with that sweet mockery, which had intrigued him from the first.

He released her and drew her hand into his arm. The wild careering of his heart began to steady. They walked on, in the sparkling crispness of the air.

BOOK: A Private Performance
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