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Mar 28 2016

Snowbound at Hartfield

Snowbound at Hartfield

A Jane Austen Mashup Short Story. What happens when Emma meets Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice?

Courtships of course!


 

What madness had seized the weather? Richard Fitzwilliam pulled the scarf a little tighter around his neck.

The howling winds battered the coach on the short ride from Highbury to Hartfield.  

The Darcy carriage was as snug and warm as such a vehicle might be in a freak blizzard. Still, memories of frigid nights spent encamped on the French plains intruded upon Fitzwilliam’s consciousness. He clenched his gloved hands into fists.

Darcy’s coach, pulled up to Hartfield’s front steps, the baronet’s coach just behind. George Knightley’s offer had been kind, but decidedly odd. Why did a married man with an estate as respectable as Donwell Abbey live at his father-in-law’s neighboring establishment?  It was just not done. Darcy’s friends were usually so conventional.

Then again, Bennet, who sat beside him, rubbing his hands together, hunched for warmth, proved decidedly odd himself. Darcy had learned to tolerate him with equanimity over the year of his marriage to Elizabeth. Perhaps Darcy was becoming less particular about his connections.

In any case, a little oddity was a small price to pay for being rescued from a possibly long stay in an overcrowded, dank, unkempt inn. Highbury’s Ram’s Horn was just the sort of place only dangerous weather could compel Fitzwilliam to consider. Darcy was so fastidious; he probably would not have stayed there under any consideration. 

Knightley dismounted and handed his horse’s reins to a waiting groom.

It seemed far too easy that Darcy’s old school chum just happened to encounter them in the street in front of the inn only too ready to extend an offer of hospitality to them and the baronet similarly caught in the weather. Nothing in life ever proved so convenient. Fate would surely exact some sort of price for this succor.

Darcy handed Elizabeth out of the carriage and steadied Bennet as he followed. Fitzwilliam stepped into the wind and skidded on a patch of ice.

Blast and botheration, this was not fit weather for neither man nor beast. Who would have thought this tempest could blow in so entirely unexpectedly?  

The passengers of the other coach, a man and woman bundled in heavy cloaks, trudged toward the front door, following in the Darcy party’s footsteps.

Knightley himself opened the door for them. “Pray come in.”

A startled looking butler met them and took their coats.

“Prepare rooms for our guests and their servants. Send the grooms for their horses. Emma! Emma!”

Darcy cringed.

No surprise. One did not bellow for his wife as one did a servant.

Elizabeth slipped her arm in his and pressed her shoulder to his. His tension eased. She was a master as restoring his composure.

Lucky man.

At least he seemed to appreciate that fact and treated his wife very well. Anything less would have made him intolerable.

A young woman, blonde and pretty-ish, not older than Georgiana hurried down the grand stairs. “I was so worried with you out there in the weather!”

“Now you are sounding like your dear papa. As you see, I am quite well and have brought guests seeking shelter from the storms themselves. May I present Sir Walter and Miss Elliot of Kellynch Hall?”

No wonder they looked so familiar!

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mrs. Knightley curtsied with girlish energy, far better suited to a miss than a missus.

 “I am most pleased to renew our acquaintance, sir.” Fitzwilliam stepped forward and bowed.

Sir Walter looked at him, forehead knotted and brows drawn together.

“Colonel Fitzwilliam?” Miss Elliot peered at him, eyes widening. “Father, you recall, we were introduced by the Darymples, at a card party, three, or was it four months ago?”

“Fitzwilliam? Oh, you are Earl Matlock’s son!”

“Yes sir, I am. This is my cousin, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Darcy, and her father Mr. Bennet.” Fitzwilliam gestured toward them.

Sir Walter bowed from his shoulders, just enough to be proper.  Miss Elliot demonstrated a touch more civility. Just as they had at Bath.  

Their haughtiness had not won them many friends in Bath. In truth though, it was more the baronet, than his daughter that people avoided. When she was apart from her father, she seemed rather pleasant.

The dark haired woman might have once been regarded handsome, but years on the shelf left her worn and weary along the edges. Society was not kind to women who did not ‘take’ soon enough.

Knightley took his wife’s hand as she descended the last few steps. “Darcy is an old school chum of mine—imagine encountering him on the streets of Highbury at such a time.”

“You are all very welcome. I should very much like to hear tales of my husband’s school days. He rarely mentions them.”

Knightley flashed his brows at Darcy.

What was that?

Darcy never indulged in any sort of high spiritedness during his school days, did he? The look on Knightley’s face suggested otherwise. That was one conversation he would definitely follow up on.

“Oh, Papa!” Mrs. Knightley hurried past them.

An elderly man in a warm banyan, scarf and soft cap shuffled toward them.

“What … what is this commotion? Such disruptions are not good for the digestion.”

“Knightley has brought us guests, Papa.”

“Guests, in a snowstorm?  It is a most dangerous thing to be out in such weather.”

“That is why he invited them to stay with us. They were caught by the storm whilst traveling.”

“I see, I see. Traveling is a trial indeed. No one should be out in this weather. But are there children with them? They bear disease you know—”

“No, there are no children. Why do we not go to the parlor, and you may become acquainted with them. I will send for tea.” Mrs. Knightley slipped her arm in her father’s and guided him down the corridor.

So, Knightley was caring for the old man in his dotage. Sounded like the kind of man Darcy would befriend.

A blazing fire crackled in the fireplace of the old style parlor. Mrs. Knightley seated her father in a large leather chair very near the fire and tucked a lap blanket across his knees. He leaned back and briefly closed his eyes, as though entirely content with the world.

What a fortunate man.

“Pray, be comfortable. I shall see to tea and your rooms.” Mrs. Knightley curtsied and hurried out.

Darcy sat beside Elizabeth on a plump settee just far enough from the fireplace to be comfortably warm and leaving the closer seating for Bennet and the baronet who seemed to particularly feel the cold. Not that the man would ever admit to feeling it, that would be far too base for him to acknowledge.

Miss Elliot hesitated choosing a seat. Clearly she did not wish to be too near her father, probably enough of that in the carriage. But she vacillated between the sofa and a single overstuffed chair, as though she did not know whether or not to sit to close to anyone else. Fitzwilliam’s sister did that often enough when she was not certain of the quality of the company and unwilling to encourage closer contact with someone who might not be of suitable quality.

The expression Miss Elliot wore was not nearly as confident as his sister’s.

They had met regularly in Bath, keeping much of the same society. She was a fair card player, though she did not play for more than pennies—wise considering her father’s circumstances. On the dancefloor she was graceful and skilled. Given her tendency to attend the same concerts as he, her taste in music was very like his.  Why had they not spoken more?

He sat on the sofa and caught her eye, gesturing subtly next to himself. She dipped her head almost imperceptibly and sat beside him.

Knightley pulled a chair closer to his father-in-law and sat, elbows on knees. “Pray forgive me if it is too familiar a question, Darcy, but how did you come to be traveling in this most disagreeable weather?”

Fitzwilliam cleared his throat—best assure Darcy that he need not worry about carrying the conversation just now. Darcy was not talkative at the best of times, and now, after the strain of traveling under such dangerous conditions, conversation would be positively vexing for him.

 “I fear I am to blame for that. I have just received news of the sudden death of a cousin from my mother’s family. Unbeknownst to me, he made me his heir.   I am now the master of a modest estate not far from here. Darcy and Bennet have graciously consented to view the estate with me and offer their opinions.”

Darcy coughed and Elizabeth pressed her foot to the top of his. She probably did not realize Fitzwilliam knew what she was about. It was amusing to see her warn Darcy not to mention Bennet was there to learn as much as himself.

“Do you by chance speak of Listingbrook?” Knightley laced his hands together, smiling.

That was a very good sign.

“Do you know it?”

“I do indeed. A very pretty place. Old Markham’s death came as a real surprise. The whole parish has been at sixes and sevens waiting for the new master to arrive.”

“So the estate was managed well?” Darcy asked.

Of course, that would draw him into the conversation.

Miss Elliot’s attention pricked up. Odd, what would she care of managing an estate?

“Well managed and innovative. He was forever searching out the latest information in farming and applying it to his land. Mind you, not all his farmers appreciated his interference but those who have not fought him tooth and nail have shown strong returns. They credit him for it.”

Darcy glanced at Fitzwilliam with raised eyebrows.

Did he have to gloat?

“That is very promising indeed.” Darcy steepled his hands and tapped them against his chin.

Bennet snorted. “Save your lecture, Darcy, now is not the time. I have been studying everything you have sent me though I remain unconvinced.” He turned toward Woodhouse and Sir Walter. “What think you gentlemen of the new farming methods these young men are trying to foist upon us?”

Sir Walter’s nose wrinkled. “I leave such matters in the hands of my steward. It is his business to understand such things.”

“Are you pleased with the returns you see?” Knightley asked.

Sir Walter looked baffled, and a not a little affronted.

Miss Elliot looked down and covered her mouth with her hand.

“I have no particular farmland to be concerned with,” Woodhouse said. “All the farm land here is in Knightley’s hands. From what I hear, he does it very well. His friend farmer Martin seeks his advice regularly. But is this not an usual conversation for mixed company?”

“Of course you are correct, Mr. Woodhouse.” Elizabeth smiled exactly as Mrs. Knightley did at the old man. “What do you wish to discuss?”

Woodhouse blinked. “I … I do not know. I usually leave such things to Emma. She is so good at making people feel comfortable.” He glanced over his shoulder, looking a little lost.

“Do you enjoy the theater, Mr. Knightley?” Miss Elliot asked.

“I confess, we are home bodies, much like the Darcys. We rarely go into town or even much beyond Highbury. There are occasionally concerts or productions at our local assembly rooms. Our friends the Coles enjoy home theatricals and often invite us to watch.”

Fitzwilliam bit his tongue. Home theatricals? Mother deemed them positively boorish and Darcy would no sooner perform to strangers in his home than we would in a public place.  

Sir Walter looked as though he shared similar opinions.

Miss Elliot wrung her hands in her lap. “We enjoyed the most brilliant concert in Bath just last month.”

“Was it by chance the trio from Italy?” Fitzwilliam asked.

“Indeed it was. I do not recall seeing you at that concert.”

“We were a bit late arriving that day and sat at the back. I saw you and your father at the front of the room.”

“Ah yes, I remember, we attended with our cousins, Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honorable Miss Carteret.” Sir Walter sat up a little straighter.

“Were those the ladies I saw you escorting at the Pump Room?”

“Indeed it was.” He thumbed his lapels. “A fine place to take the waters.”

“And to be seen, I suppose.” Fitzwilliam shrugged.

Sir Walter’s eyes narrowed and his look turned dark.

Oh, this was far too easy! Elizabeth would warn him not to take such low-hanging amusement. But truly, the pompous man deserved it.

“I do tire of that sport though, parading about like gamebirds of sorts.”

Sir Walter’s eyes bulged.

Miss Elliot’s brows drew together and the corners of her mouth drooped. “It can be an exhausting show.”

“How can you say that?” Sir Walter’s chest puffed a bit. “What is more significant than being seen in the right company, by the right company?”

Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. Father was apt to intimate the same sentiments.

Did Miss Elliot just roll her eyes, too?

“Of course, father.”

Elizabeth pressed her lips together and snuck a glance at her father.

Bennet’s lips twitched with his efforts to be somber, but clearly he was enjoying himself far too much.  “All that preening and parading is very well, I suppose when one has unmarried daughters to match off to young dandies equally fond of the parade, eh Lizzy?”

“Papa, do not tease so, I pray you. You must forgive him, my last sister is lately married. We have just finished celebrating her wedding.”

“You mean your youngest sister?” Sir Walter asked.

“No, sir, my youngest sister was the first among us to marry.” Elizabeth glanced narrowly at her father.

“Mine was, too.” Miss Elliot muttered with a similar stare at Sir Walter.

Sir Walter grunted and looked away.

“I am entirely finished with all manner of matchmaking and courtship and shall be happy now to keep to my bookroom.” Bennet brushed his palms together and folded his arms over his chest.

“It was a sad day when my Isabella married and moved away with John Knightley. But my Emma did not leave me when she married.”  

“Of course I did not, Papa.” Mrs. Knightley led the maid bearing the tea service in. “How could I ever leave you?” She kissed his cheek.

The maid arranged the tea service on the low table.

“Your rooms will be ready after tea. It seems, though, I have missed some interesting conversation. Pray do not let me interrupt.”

 “You were about to tell us your opinions on the Italian trio we heard in Bath, Colonel.” Miss Elliot looked directly at him, her eyes a mixture of polite and pleading.

“Ah, yes…”

Funny how a little story telling allowed him to portion off part of his consciousness to observe his audience. The Darcys and Knightleys listened with polite interest. Bennet watched Sir Walter, probably looking for more fuel for his acerbic wit. Woodhouse seemed to be nodding off.

Miss Elliot though, she regarded him with rapt attention, as though truly interested in what he had to say. Better still, she offered questions and her own opinion, which pleasingly differed just enough from his to provide for a lively discussion. What a surprisingly diverting conversation.

A gust of wind rattled the windows. Perhaps, if he were fortunate, this storm would last several days, days that might be spent in further agreeable conversation, and getting to know a very intriguing baronet’s daughter.

4 comments

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  1. Beverlee

    That you for that gem. It made Monday morning that much more tolerable.

    1. Maria Grace

      Thanks Beverlee!

  2. Linda Thompson

    Is this to be a continuing story or the start of a new book? It is interesting to see how this odd mix of people interact. I am interested in reading more, though I must wonder at Anne Elliot ending up with anyone other than Captain Wentworth.

    1. Maria Grace

      Not sure exactly where this is going, Linda. I’m just going to follow where this plot bunny leads. Just to reassure you though, the story is about Elizabeth Elliot, not Anne who remains safely with her Wentworth!

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