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Authors: M. A. Sandiford

Darcy's Trial

BOOK: Darcy's Trial
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Darcy’s Trial

Content copyright © M. A. Sandiford. All rights reserved

Published in Great Britain

First publishing May, 2013

Second impression July, 2013

Table of Contents
Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Intermission
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Intermission
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Intermission
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Epilogue
Author's note
Prologue

Grainy-eyed through lack of sleep, Darcy rode with Fitzwilliam at his flank up Wandsworth Hill towards Putney. At six o’clock in the morning the air was cool and heavy with moisture; meeting a sharp breeze on the heath, Darcy was grateful for his thick leather breeches and riding coat. They tethered their horses on the edge of the green, before facing one another for a final deliberation.

‘I still say you should have brought your sword,’ Fitzwilliam said.

‘We’ve been through this already, Richard. My opponent has stipulated that he is not a swordsman, leaving me no alternative to pistols.’

‘Since he issued the challenge, choice of weapons should have been yours. Not a swordsman indeed!’ Fitzwilliam snorted.

‘It’s too late now. I have agreed pistols, and we can only hope for the best. Are you clear about the financial arrangements if matters turn out—ill?

‘You might have had a proper rest, Darce, instead of staying up half the night with your lawyer.’

‘I’ve left a letter for Georgiana in the left-hand drawer of my desk.’ He regarded Fitzwilliam gravely. ‘I’m sorry to leave you this responsibility.’

Fitzwilliam slapped him affectionately on the arm. ‘I doubt it will come to that. Let’s see whether Fortescue can talk some sense into them.’

Chapter 1

Three weeks before the events just described, Elizabeth Bennet hurried down to the breakfast parlour at the Waterside Inn in Ambleside, having overslept after a restless night. To her alarm she saw no sign of the Gardiners, and guiltily she wondered whether they had tired of waiting for her, and set off already on the planned walk to Todd Crag. She tried asking the maid, who confirmed cheerfully that her companions had neither breakfasted nor left a message. Reassured, Elizabeth ordered two boiled eggs with toast and tea, and took a cushioned window seat facing the room.

She was not altogether surprised, since three weeks into their tour the Gardiners were showing signs of strain. Mr Gardiner in particular had found the hill walking heavy going, and had intimated that Todd Crag might prove one peak too many after their exertions of the day before, which had included an expedition to Claife observation station prior to their transfer to Ambleside. Mrs Gardiner, like Elizabeth, was eager to conquer every beauty spot that their itinerary afforded; at the same time she preferred to remain at her husband’s side, with the result that he was pulled along further than he might have wished. Their slow progress meant that Elizabeth often went ahead on her own, with nothing to distract her from thoughts about a
certain gentleman
, whom she had tried with little success to dismiss from her mind.

As the maid returned with her eggs, Elizabeth’s attention drifted to a stirring at the far table, where a party was preparing to leave. From their dress Elizabeth diagnosed a fashionable couple from the
ton
. The gentleman, though no older than his thirties, was already portly and lethargic, with a puffy veined complexion suggesting that he enjoyed his cups; his wife hovered solicitiously at his side, as if fearing that at any moment he might keel over. They were followed by a younger woman who periodically stopped walking, allowing them to get ahead, then caught up with quick athletic steps; she seemed amused by this manner of progression, and flashed a smile at Elizabeth before sweeping out.

As she opened her first egg, Elizabeth was relieved to see Mrs Gardiner, who explained that her husband’s knee had swollen up, causing him some pain during the night, and that they had decided to spend a restful day catching up on reading and correspondence. After ordering for tea to be sent up, Mrs Gardiner apologised and returned to her room.

Left to her own devices, Elizabeth retrieved two letters she had written by candlelight the previous evening, one to Jane and one to Charlotte Collins, and decided to take them herself to Ambleside Post Office. The day was bright and breezy—perfect in fact for the excursion that had now been cancelled. Apart from posting her own letters, she was eagerly awaiting news of her family who, although fully informed of her itinerary, had favoured her with just two communications: one, very silly, from Kitty; and another, very serious, from Mary. From her absent-minded father and easily distracted mother this was no surprise, but she had expected better of Jane.

Although small, Ambleside was a lively town packed with tourists and traders. As she approached the centre, a market place opening on to views of hills and open countryside, Elizabeth found herself again withdrawing into her own thoughts, despite the bustle and beauty of her surroundings. As always, the obsession was with Darcy: his proposal, and letter, had shaken her so deeply that she no longer trusted her own judgement. Again and again she replayed in imagination the awful scene at the Collins’s cottage in Hunsford, striving to account for the cruel and unkind things she had said, yet try as she might, satisfaction always eluded her. Certainly she had been provoked, by Darcy’s frank recital of the deficiencies of her family and the poverty of her connections; still, this hardly justified the ill-tempered abuse that she had meted out in response.

If she was honest, her main concern was not for Darcy himself. No doubt he was disappointed by her rejection, as well as angered by its manner. However, given his all too prominent misgivings over the match, he probably in hindsight welcomed his escape; also it must have gratified him to correct her misapprehensions so decisively in his letter. No, her main preoccupations were selfish. She had taken pride in her perceptiveness and good sense, while relishing every opportunity to tease others and laugh at their follies. Now she was confronted with follies of her own commission, and felt no inclination whatever to laugh at them, only the deepest humiliation.

A second source of disquiet, still harder to admit, was that she had impulsively thrown away perhaps the greatest opportunity of happiness that she would ever have. Whatever her feelings for Darcy had been, he was an honourable and highly intelligent man—and yes, also rich enough to provide her and her family with comfort and security for the rest of their lives. To reject him so rudely and finally on such scanty evidence was an act of self-harm bordering on the insane. She could at least have asked for time to think it over. She could have raised her doubts calmly and listened to his side of the story rather than firing out accusations. As a woman, she had to accept that men would approach her at a time depending on
their
feelings, not on hers, which might need to develop later.

Inside the Post Office a queue had formed, and as Elizabeth joined, the woman in front turned and bobbed in recognition.

‘Good morning. I believe we met at breakfast.’

Elizabeth smiled back. ‘You left as I was decapitating an egg.’

‘I could willingly have decapitated my brother-in-law, he was moving so slowly.’

She stood a little taller than Elizabeth, with a thin tanned face suggesting much time in the open air, and a confident humorous expression.

‘So he was accompanied by your sister?’ Elizabeth asked.

‘Yes.’ The woman held out her hand. ‘My name is Mrs Beaumont. Bridget. My sister is Frances.’

‘Miss Elizabeth Bennet. I have been touring with my aunt and uncle, but I fear we will have no excursion today, since my uncle has hurt his leg.’

‘We appear to be saddled with unfit companions. Excuse me.’ Mrs Beaumont turned to face the counter, and handed in a bunch of letters. ‘Any to collect?’

After a quick check the postmistress shook her head, and Mrs Beaumont moved aside, allowing Elizabeth to hand in her letters and confirm that yet again there was no correspondence from Jane. As they left the Post Office Elizabeth was ready to take her leave, but her companion asked, ‘Where are you bound next?’

‘I suppose I shall tramp back in defeat to the inn.’

‘You were disappointed to receive no letters?’

‘Exceedingly. My family has forgotten me altogether.’

‘Then you should send them no further letters, and do whatever you please!’ She grinned, as if challenging Elizabeth to throw off her sulk. ‘Miss Bennet, would it be an imposition if I accompanied you back?’

‘I should be delighted.’

As they set off across the square, Elizabeth was uncommunicative for a while as she puzzled over the possible reasons for Jane’s silence, deciding eventually that perhaps their itinerary had been mislaid, in which case she should repeat it in her next letter …

‘Miss Bennet?’ Mrs Beaumont prompted, with concern.

‘Excuse me, I was far away.’

Mrs Beaumont lowered her voice conspiratorially. ‘In truth I am also disappointed. I’m anxious for news of my son Georgie, who is staying with our cousin’s family in town. I was unwilling to leave him behind, since he is just five years old, but my husband thought it best.’

‘You must have confidence in your cousin, if you gave your consent.’

‘Oh yes. Sir George Beaumont and his wife adore Georgie and are very protective of him.’ She glanced at Elizabeth. ‘Are you aware of the family? Sir George is a keen art collector and patron.’

Having initially liked Mrs Beaumont, Elizabeth was taken aback at this dropping of a prestigious name, which reminded her uncomfortably of Darcy and his disgust at her
low connections
. ‘I’m afraid I hardly move in such circles.’

‘I didn’t mean …’ Mrs Beaumont froze for a moment, but quickly recovered her composure. ‘Have you had a chance to explore Windermere?’

On this safer topic they maintained a stilted conversation for the rest of their route to the inn. Embarrassed by her rudeness Elizabeth was eager to make her escape, but to her surprise Mrs Beaumont again lingered as they reached the entrance to the inn, then with a small quiver in her voice said:

‘Miss Bennet, may I ask a favour? I have been looking forward to a long ramble around the Rydal and Grasmere lakes, and would very much appreciate a companion. From our earlier discussion it seems you find yourself similarly placed. Could I persuade you to join me?’

Relieved that Mrs Beaumont had taken no offence, Elizabeth replied immediately, ‘What is your plan?’

‘If you agree, we could leave this morning for Rydal, and climb above Rydal Water and Grasmere, returning on the southern path past Rydal Cave. It’s a longish trek, but at a brisk walk we should be back in time for dinner.’ She met Elizabeth’s eye with a hint of challenge. ‘Or we could return directly from Rydal if you prefer something less strenuous.’

‘Have no fear on my account!’ Elizabeth replied with mock outrage. ‘Provided that my aunt and uncle raise no objection, I shall be more than happy to attempt the full circuit.’

So excited was Elizabeth by this unexpected project that she lost no time in making the necessary preparations, and not fifteen minutes had passed before she rejoined her new companion with walking boots on her feet and biscuits and an apple squeezed into her reticule. Once outside the town they left the main track for a footpath, frequented by only a few passers-by, and Mrs Beaumont began to lose the veneer of a high society lady and to behave more like a young girl—or indeed, a tomboy. Passing beside a cluster of rocks, several feet high, she clambered up to get a better view, then grabbed on to Elizabeth for support as she jumped down, her face alive with exhilaration.

‘Mrs Beaumont, you will have us both in hospital,’ Elizabeth giggled.

‘I had to see the water. And you may call me Bridget.’

‘Very well, and you may call me Elizabeth.’

‘Why not take a look? I can help you up if you like.’

‘I fancy we’ll being seeing a great deal of water later on.’

BOOK: Darcy's Trial
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