A Jane Austen Mashup Short Story. What happens when Emma meets Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice? A courtship for Colonel Fitzwilliam perhaps?
Elizabeth sniffled and dabbed her sore nose with a handkerchief. While her cold was the very reason she had the opportunity to stay here at Hartfield and explore a friendship with Colonel Fitzwilliam, it was difficult to be grateful for the sore throat, hacking cough, and stuffy nose.
Granted, her health was improving. Yesterday, she had managed to make it downstairs an hour before breakfast. She enjoyed the ladies’ society in the parlor, even playing a little on the pianoforte for them. Unfortunately, Colonel Fitzwilliam had already left for the day, off addressing issues regarding Listingbrook. Mrs. Darcy suggested that his first visit had been a bit hesitant, but now he demonstrated an energy very similar to Mr. Darcy’s.
Something about the way she held her head, or perhaps it was the lift of her lips and eyebrows—what did Mrs. Darcy know? Surely Fitzwilliam would not have confided something so personal as his covert conversation with her. Would he?
No, he would not have. But Mrs. Darcy was curious.
The hair on the back of Elizabeth’s neck prickled. Someone interested in her affairs was always unsettling, even if it was benevolent. Lady Russell had always bordered on intolerable. Anne often made her feel the same way, especially now that she was married and oh-so-devoted to taking care of others—whether or not they wanted it.
Did she really need another sister like Anne? Not that Mrs. Darcy was actually sister to Colonel Fitzwilliam, but the relationship seemed close enough that an intimate connection with that family would be expected. Anne was a good soul though, and did not hold a grudge against her, though the opportunity—and sufficient provocation—was there.
She had not been a very good sister to Anne—or Mary for that matter. Especially after they had received offers of marriage and she did not. Perhaps she should have learned something from that. Maybe if she had allowed herself to have been softened and touched by those experiences, she would not be approaching thirty—thirty! What a ghastly age to be—without ever having even a suitor, much less an offer.
At least until now.
She sat up and swung her feet to the floor. The room spun a little, but the lightheadedness passed enough for her to reach for her dressing gown. With a little help from her maid, she should be presentable and ready to join the house party in short order. She rang the bell.
“Is this what you wish?” her abigail asked, adjusting the mirror so Elizabeth could see her hair.
“No, it is far too elaborate for the day time.” She began to pull out the pins. “Where is my wool shawl?”
“Are you certain? It is not considered fashionable—” she retrieved the shawl from the closet.
Elizabeth snatched up the shawl and wrapped it over her shoulders. “I am well aware of what is fashionable. That was never my question.”
Having a cold was far less fashionable than any shawl might be.
“Bring up some tea.” She dismissed the maid with a flick of her fingers. Perhaps when she returned the girl might be of a better mind to do her hair properly.
Wan sunlight filtered through the sheer curtains, not enough to warm the room, but its presence made everything seem somehow warmer. Only the final traces of snow remained on the ground, lingering in the shadows. Somehow it all looked hopeful.
Rather like she felt at the moment. She twirled in place, clutching her shawl about her.
Now she was just being silly. Best she get dressed, even without her maid’s help. If the gentlemen wanted to eat early, she needed to be ready.
She slipped into her gown—not a frumpy morning gown, but something simple and pleasing, fitting for a morning at home.
Would Colonel Fitzwilliam join them for breakfast? It was so maddening not to have seen him since…
She turned over her shoulder. The edge of his letter barely peeked out from the cover of her journal, securely tied with an ivory ribbon. Probably should put that in a drawer—
A dainty knock made her jump.
“It is Mrs. Darcy.”
Elizabeth sighed. Mrs. Darcy had been so diligent in attending her whilst she had been sick, it was a bit ungrateful to sigh. But there was another knock she would far rather have heard. “Come in.”
“I hope you do not mind, I intercepted the maid on her way up. I was so happy to hear you are feeling better, I just had to come for a visit.”
“I did not send my maid for a breakfast tray—how odd. But you are very welcome, Mrs. Darcy. A little company sounds quite pleasant right now.”
While that much was true, it was not Mrs. Darcy’s company she had hoped for.
“It seems your maid has not finished her morning duties. Might I help you with those buttons and perhaps pin up your hair?”
Elizabeth blinked. “My buttons?”
Mrs. Darcy stepped behind her and started fastening buttons. “Forgive me if I am too familiar. It is something my sisters and I were often wont to do. We shared a single girl between us all and only then, when she was not needed by the housekeeper. It was often more practical to assist each other.”
Elizabeth sat down at the dressing table, eyes prickling. “I have two younger sisters, but we never did such a thing.”
It had been a long time, a very long time since she had shared any kind of intimacies with another woman.
Mrs. Darcy began brushing her hair. “I imagine a baronet’s household is run rather differently to a simple country gentleman’s.”
“Different, perhaps, but I would not necessarily say better. The household ran very differently when my mother was alive.”
“I am sorry you lost her. I can only imagine that must have been difficult.”
“It was so long ago, it is difficult to even remember. After that we went to school. My youngest sister Mary married shortly after that—to a man my middle sister, Anne, rejected.” Elizabeth swallowed hard, her throat still raspy and sore.
“Unless one has experienced it, it is difficult to imagine the indignity of having one’s youngest sister married before any of the older ones. But I suppose it was courting that sort of luck to have all five girls out at once.”
“Five sisters out at once? How did your family manage the expense?” Elizabeth bit her lip. “Forgive me if that is too personal a question.”
“It is personal, but not unreasonable. The honest answer is that none of it was managed well. My mother is a well-meaning woman, but not a well-planned one. I believe she intended to do more for us than she actually did. We attended assemblies and the occasional party in the neighborhood, and of course, she encouraged us to meet the militia officers.”
“Your sister married one of them?”
Something in the tone of Mrs. Darcy’s voice suggested there was far more to that story than a simple wedding. Something that she probably did not wish to discuss any more than Elizabeth wished to discuss Penelope and Mr. Elliot.
Yes, it was best to allow a few secrets, even among friends.
Mrs. Darcy tucked the last pins into her hair. “There now, certainly not what your maid might have accomplished, but serviceable enough for now. What do you think?”
“Perfect for this morning. Thank you.” Elizabeth poured tea for them both.
Mrs. Darcy sat at the little table near the window, pulling her shawl a little more tightly around her shoulders. There was a bit of a draft, but the pretty view was worth it.
Elizabeth uncovered the breakfast tray and gasped.
Sugared toast and a tiny glass of something that was more than probably rum.
Mrs. Darcy laughed. “Upon my word! The only other person I have known who eats sugared toast in the morning is Fitzwilliam. What a remarkable coincidence.”
“Indeed it is. I am … quite fond of it.” Or at least she would be going forward—no matter what it tasted like.
Mrs. Darcy pursed her lips, a bit of a smile coming through. “No wonder your maid was in such a rush to get it to you. As I understand from Fitz, it is best eaten hot. Please, do go ahead.”
Elizabeth nibbled at the edge. Sweet, crunchy, with a bit of cinnamon, too. It really was quite good.
Was it her maid’s idea?
No, the girl would not dare be so cheeky. It had to have been him.
Whatever did he mean by it? Even if she did not know, there was no doubt it was something good.
“It is good to see you looking so well. Fitzwilliam was so disappointed that you were unable to join us for dinner last night. He and Darcy got in just before it was served, both so full of business they could hardly talk of anything else. Perhaps if you had been there they might have managed some polite conversation. But with only wives present, the gentlemen felt it entirely fair to talk of business all night. And can you guess where they are off to again today? I gather they are inspecting every hand span of the estate closely, and taking copious notes. My husband is nothing if not thorough.” She laughed lightly.
No one would ever accuse Father of that. “How does the colonel find his new property? Have you seen it?”
“No, not yet. They have talked of inviting me along, but nothing more than that as of yet.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. Was it wrong to be glad that Mrs. Darcy had not been there yet?
“I remember the first time I saw Pemberley, with my aunt and uncle, traveling the district. I learned a great deal about Mr. Darcy on that day, touring the house with his housekeeper. It is a pity that you shall have no such opportunity. Even when you see the house it will tell you nothing about Fitzwilliam.”
“You have known him a long time?”
“Almost as long as I have known Mr. Darcy.” Mrs. Darcy sipped her tea and glanced out the window—a faraway look in her eyes.
Elizabeth chewed her lip. Dare she? “Would you find it too forward of me to ask what can you tell me of him? We have so little time and here in Highbury, we have no mutual acquaintances to help us come to know one another.”
“You ask me to share his secrets?” Mrs. Darcy turned sharply and stared directly into Elizabeth’s eyes.
“Certainly not, though, if there were something truly dark to him, I trust your character would not lead you to facilitate our acquaintance. You are his friend and it seems like he and your husband are more like brothers than cousins. What can you tell me of his character? His likes, his dislikes?”
“He likes roast mutton, but detests liver. Do not serve it in the house at all or he will leave until the smell has dissipated. When we visited Rosings at Easter, his aunt insisted liver be served. No sooner was the platter brought out than he stomped from the dining room and did not return until three days later with the promise that there would be no more liver.”
Elizabeth snickered. “I suppose then it is a good thing I am not great fan of liver myself.”
“Indeed it is. He also likes fish, but not shellfish, the texture he says is off-putting. He has an unfortunate taste for coffee in the morning, but strong black tea after that.”
“That is all you know of him?”
“That is not enough?” Mrs. Darcy’s eyebrow lifted in that maddening way she had.
“I had hoped for more than what I might have learned from his valet.”
Now a wry smile. The woman was enjoying this far too much.
“Well said. Fitzwilliam is a complicated man, more so than many of his station. He has not had the privilege of the eldest, having to find a profession for himself in the army. Though it may be a gentlemanly profession, and he looks very smart with dashing uniform and sword, it has left a mark upon him. He does not speak of it, but there are times I can see a shadow upon his face. I cannot tell you more than that.”
So it had not been her imagination. Mrs. Darcy saw the same thing. What did it mean though? What darkness did he hide?
Mrs. Darcy took a sip of tea. “What I can tell you definitively is this: he is without a doubt the most loyal and faithful friend you can imagine. He would give anything in support of those he cares for. There is nothing I would not trust him with and I know Mr. Darcy feels the same. I hope I am not being indiscreet to add that I am quite certain that is a trait he deeply values as well.”
The dark piercing gaze Mrs. Darcy leveled upon her—the question was all too clear, more an accusation than an inquiry.
“I should take offense at that, madam. But I know you care for him deeply and are considering only his welfare. You have nothing to fear from me. I have had too much of the intrigues of society and only wish for a quiet, peaceful existence now, much as he does. Or perhaps I am being too indiscreet myself?”
“Not at all, Miss Elliot.” Mrs. Darcy nodded.
Why did the approval leave her feeling warm and a little giddy?
“I have been called impertinent more than once in my life, but I have found there are times directness serves us quite well.” Mrs. Darcy’s eye twitched in a little wink. “And whilst I am being direct, I do so hope you will be able to join us tonight. The entire house party has been invited to the Knightleys’ friends, the Coles, tonight for a home theatrical and standing supper after. Mr. Woodhouse has declined the invitation, too many drafts, you know, and he suggests that it would be best if you did so as well. But there are those of us who would enjoy your company. What do you say?”
“I do not recall having been to a home theatrical. They are not something my father would have approved of. But, I think I should like very much to attend.”
Mrs. Darcy stood. “I am very glad to hear it. I shall let Mrs. Knightley know directly.” With a nod, she left.
Given the look on Mrs. Darcy’s face, Fitzwilliam was planning on attending. Perhaps they would be able to share some conversation tonight. That would be very pleasing.
It would be interesting to meet the local society—interesting and perhaps a little telling. She swallowed hard.
No, gloomy thoughts would not do for now. Better to enjoy her breakfast, join the company for the day, and try to sort out what would be best for her to wear on her first foray out into Highbury society and more importantly, her first time to be in company with Fitzwilliam.