Authors: Elizabeth Aston
For Paul, with love
On the forenoon of a hot May day in 1819, two persons were on their way to the Inner Temple. They were almost strangers, but bound by ties of blood and kinship, and in very different situations of life.
Cassandra Darcy was on foot, walking to save the expense of the hackney-coach; the fee of a shilling was more than she could at present afford to spend. Nor, although young and gently bred, was she accompanied by a maid or a footman. Possessed of more than her fair share of good looks, she attracted a good deal of unwelcome attention, yet there was that about her direct look and her straight brows that carried her past even the most loutish of the Londoners going about their business. She was in good time, would, in fact, be early for her appointment.
It wasn’t an encounter she was looking forward to. Not that she had anything to say for or against Mr. Horatio Darcy, but he was her stepfather’s lawyer, and there was no doubt about her feelings toward Mr. Partington. Even though, in all fairness, she couldn’t blame him for the predicament she found herself in. She had been rash, remarkably rash, and must take the blame and endure the consequences of her actions, and, she reflected, any consequences in which her disagreeable stepfather had a hand were likely to be of a most unpleasant nature.
She quickened her pace, as though to escape from the thoughts
that crowded into her head. She had to think clearly, this was a time for rational thought and action, and yet feeling would intrude, driving out the clear thoughts that might help her to state her case and come to a reasonable solution of her problems.
Would that reason had played a larger part in her actions these last few weeks, but reason flew out of the window in such cases. She had often heard it said that it was so, but never dreamed that it might one day apply to her. And she, who prided herself on her self-control, had been the one to fling all restraint and sense aside. Her self-control had been her defence against the constant pricks and irritations of life at Rosings, but when she most needed it, it had deserted her.
Well—with an inner sigh—what was done was done. Now she must see how she could make the best of things. She cast a quick glance down at the map in the guidebook that Mrs. Dodd had lent her. It wasn’t clear, and she wasn’t used to maps, but an enquiry of a burly but amiable-looking hackney coachman gave her the right direction, and she turned off the Strand in the direction of the river. The narrow lane led through a noble gateway into the sanctum of the Inner Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court, where the lawyers belonging to the Inn had their chambers. It was a tranquil and charming place, its grounds stretching to the banks of the Thames and the bustle and hubbub of London no more than a distant murmur.
Cassandra hesitated, looking across the grassy central area to the surrounding buildings. Men in black gowns walked briskly by; clerks, documents tied with ribbon under their arms, hurried past; errand boys, whistling as errand boys always whistled, scurried on their way with messages and parcels.
Here was the staircase where Mr. Darcy had his chambers, here was his name on a wooden panel. Here was a suspicious clerk, demanding to know her name and business, looking behind her for a father, a brother, a footman, a maid.
The clerk had a long, thin nose, red at the tip, the kind of nose that would always have a drip on it come the chills and fogs of
autumn. Cassandra didn’t take to him, but then she wasn’t interested in Josiah Henty, clerk; she had come to see Horatio Darcy, lawyer.
And cousin. Distant cousin, she reminded herself. They hardly had more than the name in common, the connection was not at all close. Still, it was a link, and a link she suspected might not please Horatio Darcy just at present.
They had first met when she was a small girl in a smock with her hair tumbling about her shoulders and a smudge on her cheek. He was a great boy in comparison to her, just started at his public school, lanky and self-contained, eight years older than she was. The third son of a younger brother, he was treated with a certain degree of contempt by Cassandra’s grandmother, the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, although with an eye too observant for her years, Cassandra noticed a spark in Horatio’s eye, and she sensed that he wasn’t a whit bothered by Lady Catherine.
She had seen him once more since then, had pelted him with crab apples, in fact. That was when she was twelve, and a tomboy climbing trees during a visit to her cousins at Pemberley, where he was also a visitor. He had looked up, and said what a hoyden she was and gone on his way, tall and still self-contained, with almost as much pride as his cousin Fitzwilliam Darcy, Mama had said, although with much less reason.
“Horatio Darcy does not have an income of ten thousand a year, indeed he has an income of nothing a year, except what his father gives him and what he may earn by his own efforts, nor does he own so much as a cottage, let alone a great estate like Pemberley. They say he is clever; he will need to be to make his way in the world, for even though his father was a Darcy, he was a younger son, and younger sons, you know…” This last with an affected sigh. “As was your dear father, of course.”
Cassandra was less than happy to have her affairs brought under the scrutiny of Horatio Darcy, or indeed any of the Darcy clan. It was her misfortune, she thought, that she was related to the Darcys both through her mother and father. If she had taken her stepfather’s name, as her mother had wanted her to, the Darcys would have had
no concern for her present situation, and she might not be sitting here, waiting for her cousin, who was, she noticed with a glance at the clock that hung above the bookshelf opposite, late.
An unpunctual man.
In that case, the Darcys might have been content to shrug shoulders and wash their hands of her: “She always was a headstrong girl, Anne should have brought her up more strictly.”
The thought brought a wry smile to her lips; in many ways it would be difficult to imagine any stricter upbringing than hers, with her stepfather a clergyman with very strict morals indeed, and a naturally overbearing disposition, and her mother always willing to agree with him on the raising of all her children; Cassandra as well as the two daughters and son by her second marriage.
Horatio Darcy was not on foot, but was travelling in an elegant carriage, seated beside the beautiful Lady Usborne. Not that the vehicle moved at much more than a walking pace in the crowded London thoroughfares, and walking fast and purposefully, as was his way, he could have covered the distance from Mount Street, where the Usbornes had their town house, to his chambers at the Inner Temple in much less time than the carriage was taking. He was an active, vigorous man, a young man in a hurry, his enemies said, and certainly not one to idle and linger his way through the day.
Yet here he was, with half the morning spent in a very idle, not to say, dissolute way, that made him no money and brought him no business. Time passed in the arms of the luscious Lady Usborne, although the connection might, at some point, bring him advancement—for the Usbornes were people of wealth and influence—was time wasted as far as his professional life was concerned.
A very pleasant amorous interlude on the chaise longue in her private sitting room, with the door locked against intrusive servants, who were supposed to believe that their mistress had need of yet another lengthy consultation with her handsome young lawyer, had led to a light nuncheon, and then, Lady Usborne declaring that she
was driving out, to visit a milliner, it would have been churlish not to accept her request that he might accompany her at least part of the way.
There had been a slightly uncomfortable encounter with Lord Usborne in the hall of his lordship’s town house. The older man was taller and better dressed than Darcy, and a raised eyebrow, a cynical twitch of his lordship’s lip left Darcy feeling ruffled, so that he was anxious to part from Lady Usborne and return to the calmer waters of his chambers.
“Stop here,” he called out to the coachman. A last, swift kiss, and then he jumped down on to the pavement, conscious of the fact that he carried with him the faint aroma of Lady Usborne’s clinging scent, but with a sense of liberation.
He was late for his appointment with Miss Darcy, and he didn’t like to be late. However, it might do this particular client good to kick her heels for a while, waiting could often put an awkward client into an anxious and more amenable frame of mind. Not that she was, strictly speaking, a client. It was a tiresome affair, and one that he had much rather not be mixed up in, but it was right to keep family matters, especially ones of this kind, within the family, where they might be dealt with swiftly and discreetly.
There she was, sitting in the clerk’s room; why the devil hadn’t Henty shown her in? Did he think she was going to snoop among his boxes and papers? Damn it, she was a Darcy, wasn’t she? Although her behaviour might indicate…
He was taken aback as she rose and held out a hand. This assured, poised young woman with her direct look and considerable degree of beauty was not at all what he had been expecting. A fluttering young woman, overcome with guilt, would be more appropriate, or a palefaced, wretched creature, needing masculine support and advice. She certainly didn’t take after her mother, not in appearance. No, he would have known her anywhere for a Darcy, and that irked him. How dare she behave in such a very discreditable way and then appear to be so much in command of herself and of the situation?
When had he last seen her? Nine, ten years ago? At Pemberley, if
his memory served him rightly. She had been sitting astride the bow of a tree above his head, hurling crab apples down on him, in a very unfeminine way. He’d been at Westminster School then, not inclined to take any notice of his hoydenish and fortunately distant young cousin.
Horatio Darcy ushered Cassandra into a big, handsome room, with windows overlooking the river. She looked around her, her attention diverted from her problems by the novelty of her surroundings. Shelves lined the walls, crammed with dusty tomes and stacks of papers tied up with faded ribbons. Dozens of boxes were lodged on the topmost shelves, each with a name written on the front in a spidery copperplate too small to decipher. A large desk stood in the centre of the room, and Mr. Darcy placed a chair for her, before retreating to his side of the desk and sitting down with his hands steepled together.
Her cousin had grown into a remarkably handsome man, with a fine, tall figure, but he didn’t look to have become any more amiable in the years that had passed since their last encounter.
“You have come alone?” he asked. “Mr. Eyre is not with you?”
He spoke the name in an icy tone, which made Cassandra wince inwardly. As if the very mention of James Eyre didn’t make her heart turn over. She took a deep breath to make sure none of her emotion showed in her voice or expression. “Mr. Eyre is presently out of the country,” she said. “And this has nothing to do with him.”
Mr. Darcy’s eyebrows shot up. “No? I would have thought his presence was of the first importance in such a matter.”
“If you have summoned me here to talk about Mr. Eyre, then I may tell you at once, that I shall not listen to you.” She began to rise from her seat.
“Sit down,” he said. “To be perfectly correct, I haven’t summoned you, I merely sent you an appointment. It was Mr. Partington, your father—”
“Very well, your stepfather, who asked me to have this interview with you. I question the wisdom of your coming here alone, that is, without Mr. Eyre, because he must surely have a say in what is to be agreed.”
“Nothing is to be agreed that need concern Mr. Eyre.” It caused her a pang to say it, even though it was the simple truth.
“Your marriage to Mr. Eyre is only one of the matters that has to be discussed, but since it is the key to everything else, let us discuss that first.”
“There is nothing to discuss with regard to any marriage between Mr. Eyre and me. I told Mr. Partington how matters stood. If he chooses to disbelieve me, then that is his own affair.” She took another deep breath, she must not show how fragile was her self-possession. “I received a message from you asking me to wait upon you on a matter of business. I did not expect to have my private affairs raked over by you.”
“I am a lawyer, acting for your father.”
“I also have the honour to be a member of the family to which you yourself belong. You bear an ancient and an honourable name, and since you seem determined to drag it in the dust, it is the duty of all the male members of your family to point out to you how wrong is your wilful decision not to marry Mr. Eyre.”
“It is odd,” Cassandra remarked in a conversational tone, “how everyone now is wild for me to marry Mr. Eyre, whereas only a few weeks ago, it was the last outcome that my family wished.”
“That was before you ran away with the gentleman in question,” said Mr. Darcy coldly.
“Eloped,” Cassandra said.
“Elopements end in marriage, not in cohabitation in London lodgings.”
Cassandra flushed, hating to have her connection with James spoken of in those terms, although God knew, Mr. Darcy was right. She felt she must defend herself. “When I left Bath in the company of Mr. Eyre, it was on the assumption that we were heading for Gretna Green, where we would be married under Scottish law.”
“That was not, however, the case, and you were perhaps naïve to assume any such thing. By putting yourself in the power of a man such as Mr. Eyre, you surely must have been aware that you were laying yourself open to all kinds of dangers.”
“You do not know Mr. Eyre, I believe? So pray do not speak of him in those terms. I and Mr. Eyre have…” Despite herself, her voice faltered. “We have parted, but even so…” She paused, and frowned, her eyes fastened on the floor. Then she raised them to look directly at her cousin. “Have you ever been in love, Mr. Darcy?”
Horatio Darcy was thunderstruck. “What did you say?”
“I asked if you had ever been in love. If not, you may be unable to understand how things were between Mr. Eyre and me. I believed then that he was a man I could trust in every way.”