A Jane Austen Mashup Short Story. What happens when Emma meets Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice? A courtship for Elizabeth Elliot perhaps?
Darcy, Bennet, Knightley and Fitzwilliam sat in the parlor, waiting upon the ladies—a full quarter hour now. A small decanter of port sat on the table between them while candlelight cast lively shadows along the walls.
A steady tick- tick-tick from the venerable eight day clock resounded through the room. Darcy kept his face turned away from the clock—rather obviously.
Tongue in cheek, Bennet laughed. “You need to relax, Darcy, it is still a quarter hour before we said we would leave. The ladies are not even late, yet. I fear you would never have weathered a household of five daughters. Pray that my daughter gives you sons, instead.”
Darcy sniffed and looked away, a hint of color rising along his jaw.
He was such a stiff-rump. Though Liza had effected some changes in him, his sense of humor still needed work.
A great deal of it.
Bennet turned to Knightley. Good of him to give Darcy a moment or four to recover his equanimity. “Are home theatricals common in Highbury?”
“I would not say so. The aristocracy may find them all the kick, but they are beyond the reach of most of our modest community.” Knightley leaned back and crossed his ankles.
“Then the Coles…?” Fitzwilliam asked, avoiding Darcy’s penetrating gaze.
What was so wrong with wanting to know more about the people he was to meet?
“The Coles?” Knightley clucked his tongue and flashed his eyebrows. “Ah, the Coles. They are good sort of family, but it has taken some time for Mrs. Knightley to accept them. They are in trade, though their fortune is quite respectable. They entertain a great deal and like to fancy themselves part of the local gentry.”
“And the local gentry, I assume, politely does not correct their presumption?” Bennet said.
“I see you have the same sort of family in your community as well?”
“We dine with four and twenty families, my wife would be quick to tell you.” Bennet chuckled and shrugged.
“In any case, their manners are excellent, and they are good company. It is a small enough thing to ignore a little presumption now and again, especially when you consider the rather limited society that Highbury offers. You come from aristocratic connections, Fitzwilliam. Does your family indulge in amateur theatricals?” Knightley asked.
Fitzwilliam snickered. “Indeed they do. My mother hates them, but my brothers and sisters find them an excellent tonic against boredom. Typically they perform several during the year. One of the large drawing rooms at the country seat has been given over to the endeavor.”
“Do you act with family? Darcy, do you—”
“Hardly.” Darcy snorted.
“He does not perform to strangers. Ever.” Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes. “I have assisted my sibilings with a few minor parts, but on the whole, acting is not to my tastes. Will there be a large group there tonight?”
“I suppose it depends on what you consider large. Eh?” Knightley glanced over his shoulder, out the door. “Ah, the ladies approach.”
The gentlemen rose.
Fitzwilliam elbowed Darcy. “And with several minutes to spare. You do realize that no one is as utterly obsessed with time as you.”
“And yet my wife tolerates me in spite of my foibles.” Darcy cocked his head and tugged his shirt cuffs below his jacket sleeves.
If only he could be so lucky.
Fitzwilliam hung back and allowed the other men to proceed out the door. Darcy was fortunate; his biggest foibles were being stodgy, rigid, and unsociable. On the whole, socially acceptable flaws. Of course, a good fortune made a great deal acceptable. He was not so lucky—either by his fortune, or his choice of flaws.
Perhaps this was a very bad idea all together. This evening, this endeavor, this connection with Miss Elliot—perhaps all of it—
“What are you doing, hiding back here?” Liza burst into the room, arms extended.
She paused a moment and caught his gaze. Her expression changed and that vaguely maternal look came over her. Two steps away, she stopped and balanced her hands on her hips, studying him in that way that felt far too much like the governess trying to discern what sort of mischief he had been up to.
“Not now, Liza.”
“Yes, now, precisely now.” She glanced over her shoulder, caught Darcy’s eyes, and waved for him to shut the door.
Instead of rescuing him, like a proper friend would have done. Darcy meekly closed the door, leaving him along with her and the candlelight.
“There is nothing to tell.” He looked aside. Her eyes were too much to bear. How did Darcy live with them? Always looking, always seeking to understand.
“Yes there is. And if things are going the way I believe they are, you best unlearn this little habit of lying about such things. I do not think she will take to it any better than I do.”
“You are overstepping yourself.” He edged back a step.
“No, I am not. You would have stormed out if I were. I have seen you do it enough times. You want someone to crack through that ridiculous Fitzwilliam pride and reserve, but you do not want to admit it.”
He grumbled deep in his throat.
“Thank you for agreeing.” She stepped closer.
“Since you are not choosing to be forthcoming, I shall offer you my theory.”
“I do not want to hear your theory.”
“Then tell me what is troubling you.” She leaned a fraction closer. “You are feeling afraid … threatened?”
He stiffened and retreated.
Maddening, intrusive, insufferable woman!
“That is not the kind of think you say to a man. Particularly a military one.”
“Of course, far be it from me to threaten your manly vanity.” She sighed and perched on the arm of a large wing back. “You are up to this, you know. You are entirely sufficient to this. You know how to behave in company and are well liked—far more than my husband. Darcy is impressed with your zeal and attention to your new estate—and you know that is a rare compliment from him. And as to Miss Elliot…” She left her perch and slowly approached.
It took all his determination not to retreat further.
“I think she will be far more understanding than you expect. She has her own ghosts—not like yours to be sure—but her own nevertheless. There is an odd commonality between you, of which I approve very much. Do not throw that away easily.” She slipped her hand in his arm and urged him toward the door. “It is time to leave and there is a lady who would appreciate your escort.”
He dragged his feet as he followed.
How did she do it? Such a tiny woman with the very force of a general behind her. She would have made a very good officer.
In the front hall, his valet helped him into his greatcoat. Miss Elliot stood nearby, adjusting her hood and tucking her hands into her muff. Neither Knightley nor his wife dressed as warmly, but after having been nearly stranded in weather so recently, neither they nor the Darcys were taking chances.
The night air was crisp, but not frigid. No smell of snow floated on the air. No clouds obscured the shimmering moon. An excellent night for an outing.
As promised, the trip to the Coles was short and uneventful.
Fitzwilliam handed Miss Elliot out of the carriage and offered her his arm on the way inside. “I am pleased you were able to attend tonight.”
“Thank you. The boredom was becoming quite a trial. It feels like it has been quite some time since I have been able to be in company.” She slipped her hand from her muff and tucked it in the crook of his elbow.
“I quite agree. It is certainly time to begin our conversations again—at least our conventional ones.” He craned his neck.
Would she allow him to catch her eye?
Just a bit and her eyes twinkled in the moonlight.
A warm, fuzzy knot grew in his chest.
Knightley waited for them at the door. “Mr. and Mrs. Cole, my I present my friends—”
Bows and curtseys and the appropriate level of fawning over Fitzwilliam’s and Miss Elliot’s connections. They were probably the highest ranking guests that the Coles had ever hosted, given the expression Mrs. Cole.
He held his breath to restrain the sigh welling within. A fawning hostess. That did not bode well for the evening.
Knightly ushered them into a brightly lit parlor. Enough candles to light a ball, older furnishings, newly upholstered, a few newer pieces, all fashionable. It could have been one of his mother’s friend’s parlor. The epitome of conspicuous consumption.
A dozen people milled about, speaking softly in small groups. The room went silent when they entered and all eyes turned toward them.
“Knightley!” A woman in the far corner shrieked.
Mrs. Knightley sniffed and turned aside.
The loud woman, wearing an inappropriate ostrich plume, wove her way through the room, straight for them, a little like a peacock bearing down on a particularly succulent insect. A man who had the unmistakable carriage of a parson followed just a step behind.
“Knightley, you sly thing, you have been keeping guests and told us nothing of them!”
She tried to edge between Mr. and Mrs. Knightley.
Mrs. Knightley pressed closer to her husband.
“May I present Mrs. Elton and our Vicar, Mr. Elton.” Something in Knightley’s voice sounded very, very patient.
It was not a good thing.
Was this an acquaintance Fitzwilliam wanted? Then again, if he were to live here, knowing the local vicar would be inescapable. He bowed from his shoulders as Knightley introduced him.
“A colonel! What stories you must have to tell. And an earl’s son! How you distinguish our little company here—”
A bell, like one for servants, rang and Mrs. Cole moved to the center of the room. “We are ready to begin, if you will follow me to the drawing room.”
Fitzwilliam offered his arm to Miss Elliot and fell in behind Darcy and Liza.
The drawing room was ample, but not huge, and clearly dedicated to the purpose. From the look, it was very intentionally done, no haphazard enterprise here. A short stage, maybe eighteen inches high elevated the player for the audience. His brothers would be jealous. They had tried to convince Mother to allow them to install one at Matlock which she uncategorically refused. The curtain across the stage was crafted of good quality fabric and dressed with a bit of fringe. The chairs though, were not all matched. They were similar, but a close look revealed they came from several differing dining rooms and possibly from the hallways throughout the house. So some expense had been spare in the making of this production. All told, that was probably a good thing.
Though Mrs. Cole tried to usher him to the front of the chair-lined room, Fitzwilliam insisted he would rather sit near the back, muttering something about the army instilling the need to be ready for an emergency, so he would sit near a door. She finally relented.
What excuse had Miss Elliot offered to sit in the rear of the company as well? Something about still having a touch of a cough and not wishing to disturb the actors? In any case, it was utterly brilliant and he offered her as warm a smile as he dared.
“I am glad you approve,” she whispered.
Her cheeks colored and she smiled, just a bit. She was a pretty woman.
The rest of the guests seated themselves, that loud Elton woman prattling the entire time. The taste in furnishings, how like Mr. Suckling’s seat, Maple Grove—wherever and whatever that was. How had she devised to sit front and center? No doubt she thought very well of herself indeed.
Mr. Cole stepped in front of the curtain and the room hushed. Naturally Mrs. Elton was the last voice to still.
Was it possible to dislike someone after only five minutes acquaintance?
“Thank you for joining us for our performance tonight. Without any further ado, may I present our rendition of the Bard’s ‘Taming of the Shrew.’” He scooted out of the way and the curtain drew back.
At least they were sticking to a classic and not fumbling about with some modern atrocity as so many home theatricals were apt to do. As his brothers had tried to do.
Could they have chosen a more offensive work to present to Mother on her birthday? Best not think on that right now.
Beside him, Miss Eliot sat very straight—straighter than even a proper young lady was apt to do. Her eyes were fixed on the stage.
Though he should have focused on the stage, he could not tear himself away from the drama beside him. She grimaced, gasped, bit her lip and pressed a knuckle to her mouth. As multiple suitors vied for the hand of the fair younger sister, Bianca, she quivered and began to cough. But it bore little resemblance to the chest wracking coughs that had seized her earlier in the day.
She jumped to her feet and excused herself from the room.
No doubt the theme of the play upset her—and knowing her situation, who could blame her?
She should not be alone, not at such a time.
He slipped out, and with the help of a servant, found her in a small morning room lit only by the candlelight through the doorway from the adjacent rooms. “Do you need anything—tea with honey perhaps for your cough?”
She dabbed her cheek with her handkerchief. “No, thank you. I am well. You need not miss the show on my behalf.”
He stepped a little closer, standing just behind her shoulder. “You are not well at all.”
“All the more reason for you to grant me a bit of privacy by which means I might preserve my dignity.”
“Is that truly what you want?” He leaned down, nearly whispering in her ear. “If it is, I shall go. But somehow, I think not.”
She gulped in one breath, then another, quivering just a little. “I am being foolish. There is no need to pay attention to it.”
“Sensitive perhaps, but I can hardly call you foolish. I do not think anyone appreciates being reminded of things which are unpleasant.”
She turned over her shoulder and nearly bumped noses with him.
He shuffled back so fast he nearly tripped over his own feet.
She pressed the back of her hand to her cheek. “It is unbecoming for one to shatter at the mere mention of disagreeable things.”
“Somethings are so powerful, it is entirely understandable to shake apart when they come up.” He set his jaw.
If she could not accept—
She wrapped her arms around her waist and squeezed her eyes shut. “You are very understanding.”
“I have reasons for that.”
“I suppose we both do.” She peeked up at him.
Oh, the look in her eyes—so soft, so vulnerable. He leaned a little closer. “Come to Listingbrook with me—tomorrow perhaps? I very much want you to see the house and the grounds. We can go early in the morning, on horseback, before anyone else has arisen. That way there will be no expectation or pressure. If you do not like the house, I want you to be free to say so.”
“Your description leaves me predisposed to think well of it.” Her eyes shimmered and she blinked hard.
“I cannot pretend to be displeased at that, but I must have your honest response. That is one thing I will absolutely demand from you. There is a great deal upon which I am willing to compromise, but I require honestly from my friends.”
“I do not think that is too much to ask from one’s friends.”
He disengaged her hand from her waist and raised it to his lips. Perhaps he lingered in the kiss a mite too long, but it felt entirely right and proper. The glimmer in her eye suggested she agreed.
He offered his arm. “Are you up to returning to the theater? I should be interested to see how Katherina’s final speech is interpreted. There are some, you know, who argue that she is entirely disingenuous in her speech and Petruchio facing a most interesting life.”
She slipped her hand in the crook of his arm. “And those that argue her change is genuine and of a most romantical in nature, out of deepest love for him.”
“Shall we see how this company plays it?”
“Indeed sir, let us proceed.