Authors: Elizabeth Aston
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 by AE Books Ltd.
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For James Hale,
with love and gratitude
Town and country are different worlds. No matter how rich and self-possessed they are, country-bred young ladies need to keep their wits well about them when they come to London.
The two eldest Darcy sisters were in the morning parlour of a large town house in Aubrey Square, the home of their cousins, the Fitzwilliams. Letitia, the eldest, was sitting at a small elegant table, a sheet of hot-pressed notepaper lying in front of her, trying to compose a letter.
She put down her pen with a sigh of irritation. “The noise,” she said. “The constant sound of carriages and horses and voices and dogs barking—however can people support living in the midst of such a din?”
Her peevish tone wasn’t reflected in the calm beauty of her face, which with its wide brow and fine nose caused her sisters, when in teasing mood, to call her Galatea, declaring that she was exactly like a classical statue come to life.
Camilla had none of Letitia’s perfection of feature. Her chief attributes were a pair of dark, expressive eyes, an instinctive grace of movement and a lively countenance. She was sitting at the window, delighting in the sights and sounds of a smart London square and wondering at the medley of smells wafting in from outside. She watched a carriage and pair rattling by, driven by a stout young man in a many-caped coat, his well-bred chestnuts picking up their hooves in a brisk trot. The driver sent a lingering glance towards a pretty governess in a blue pelisse who was walking her charges, two lively little boys, along the pavement. The smaller child was dragging a small wooden horse on wheels, which kept on tipping over, his brother darting back to set it right to the accompaniment of squeals of annoyance and mirth.
A fine, tall footman in morning livery was exercising a pair of cavalier King Charles spaniels, their feathery tails waving to and fro as they frisked and jumped about, uttering sharp barks. An oyster seller shouted her wares in a great bellow of a voice, and a knife grinder cried out for business on the other side of the square. A delivery boy sauntered along the railings, whistling, one package under his arm and another swinging round and round on its length of twine.
“There are those who find the crowing of the cock and the rumble of the farmer’s cart and the baaing of sheep insupportably noisy,” she said, without taking her eyes from the busy scene outside.
“Camilla, how can you say so? The tranquillity, the sweet serenity of the countryside, the silent beauty of our woods and river, I do so miss them.”
Camilla listened with only half her attention as Letty launched into her favourite lament of how unfair it was, how unreasonable of their parents to drag them from the peace and happiness of Derbyshire to a house in London. “It is so especially hard on Belle and Georgina; how they will hate to be staying here.”
Camilla prudently kept her opinion on that to herself and laughed out loud as the two spaniels twined their leashes round the footman’s handsome calves and threatened to upturn him.
“Come away from that window, you must not be sitting there for anyone to see.”
“What harm is there in anyone seeing me? I’m not ogling the footman, merely admiring the scene.”
“Ogling the footman indeed! Camilla, don’t say such things. I know you mean it for a joke, but others won’t understand your sense of fun, and may take you seriously.”
“Only a fool would take it seriously, and why should we care for the opinion of fools? Besides, he is such a very handsome footman.”
Letty spoke with real earnestness. “Your free way of speaking is likely to get you into such trouble! Mr. Fitzwilliam would not approve.”
Camilla knew that to be true. Their cousin, Mr. Fitzwilliam, a fashionable, amiable man of fifty, had sold out of the army and was now a Member of Parliament. He had a strong feeling for the proprieties, and expected his womenfolk to behave with decorum. There was bound to be another side to him, shown only to his masculine intimates and cronies at the club or at sporting events, a side that would be a good deal coarser and not at all averse to improper behaviour among females of the demi-monde, but that was an aspect of his life that would not be seen in Aubrey Square.
She also knew that Letty was Mr. Fitzwilliam’s favourite among the sisters, and always had been. She felt no hurt at this, she knew that she didn’t conform at all to her cousin’s ideal of womanhood. She had too much of a sense of humour, too witty a tongue and too clever a mind, apart from inheriting all her father’s strength of character. She wasn’t a beauty like Letty, and she was quite aware that she made her cousin uncomfortable; she could often see him wondering what was going through her mind, and fearing the worst.
Letitia was still prosing on. “Mama would tell you so, as she has often had to, if she were here. Since she isn’t—and who knows when we may see her again, if ever?—it is my duty to warn you about how you should behave. This is not a country house, manners are different here.”
“I had noticed,” Camilla said dryly.
Letitia was just twenty-one, and perhaps felt the importance of her position as the oldest of the five Darcy sisters a little too keenly. Their father, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had been sent abroad on a diplomatic mission, and his wife, Elizabeth, reluctant to be separated from him for a year or more, had chosen to accompany him to Constantinople. The girls could profitably spend several months in London, while their two young boys were to stay at Pemberley, their house in Derbyshire, under the care of a tutor and their maternal grandfather, Mr. Bennet.
There had been some talk of Mr. Bennet accompanying his granddaughters to London, but he had been very much alarmed at the plan. He had no notion of looking after young ladies of fashion in London; he had found bringing up his own daughters exhausting and troublesome enough and would by no means embark on such duties again, not even for a few months. He would be extremely happy to care for young William and Charles and to keep an eye on the smooth running of Pemberley in his son-in-law’s absence, although with his excellent steward and household staff, he imagined the house and estate would manage very well while its master and mistress were off among the Muslims.
Letitia knew, with a conviction amounting to certainty, that Mama and Papa would never return. Even if they survived the drive to Dover—such a dangerous road, the coachmen inclined to go so fast, highwaymen lurking on every heath—then the sea voyage would be bound to end in a watery tragedy; should they somehow safely make it as far as Ostend, then there would be the perilous journey across Europe. “There are tracts of such wildness, forests and hostile landscapes, wolves, bears and bandits,” she told Camilla.
In the unlikely event of their reaching their destination, their fate would be sealed; if the Muslims did not rise in revolution and mow them down with scimitars, then the plague would carry them off. Or smallpox; only imagine Mama all pock-marked and scarred if she by any chance recovered.
“But Letty, Mama has been inoculated against the smallpox,” Camilla protested.
“Only the English variety. In Turkey, everything will be different, and infinitely more dangerous.”
At present, just three of the sisters had arrived in London, Letitia, Camilla and Alethea, the youngest at sixteen. With them had come Miss Griffin, governess to Alethea. The other two sisters, the seventeen-year-old twins Georgina and Belle, were presently staying with an aunt in Worcestershire.
Mr. Fitzwilliam’s second wife, Fanny, was a lively woman in her late twenties, the mother of a young family who thought it the greatest fun to have her cousins to stay, and whose eyes sparkled with delight at the prospect of parties and fashions and the gossip and liveliness five young ladies would bring into the house. She would have them all married by the time Darcy and Elizabeth returned, Fanny declared.
“No, no,” cried her husband. “You are not to be matchmaking, the girls can very well wait for husbands until their parents are come home.”
“Letitia is one-and-twenty, and Camilla nineteen, more than old enough to be thinking of husbands.”
“Take them to parties and balls, rig them out in the first style of fashion and let them enjoy what London has to offer in the way of plays and music; that is quite enough for you to be doing.”
Fanny kept her counsel, exclaimed at the perfection of Letitia’s classically beautiful features, especially since brunettes were all the fashion just now, privately thought that the men would find Camilla’s liveliness and laughter more taking, and longed for the twins to arrive and complete the party.
Now Fanny flew into the room in a babble of talk, as was her way, in time to catch the last of Letitia’s predictions of gloom.
“Why, however can you speak so? Here is Mr. Tilson back from China, with all his wits and health about him, and Lord Wincanton goes backwards and forwards to America as though he were posting down to Somerset. Travel these days is so very safe and comfortable, you need have no concern for your parents’ safety.”
“I hope you are right,” said Letitia with a sigh. “I fear, though, that they are sure to meet with some misfortune. I shall be left, at twenty-one, to take on the care of my brothers and sisters, and however shall I manage?”
“Lord, what melancholy thoughts,” said Fanny. “Pray turn your mind to something more agreeable. The dressmaker will be here later this morning, and I long to see how that Indian patterned muslin has made up.”
Camilla regretted that Fanny had mentioned this, for clothes were another bone of contention between her and Letty.
“How can we need half so many dresses?” Letitia had exclaimed when Fanny, tutting with dismay at their countrified clothes, had summoned her modiste and reeled off a string of absolute necessities: morning dresses, walking costumes, afternoon dresses, ball gowns, carriage dresses, a riding habit—
“Not for me, Cousin Fanny,” Camilla said. “Letty is a good horse-woman, but I never ride if I can possibly help it. It is a form of exercise I do not enjoy.”
“Even without a riding habit, you cannot possibly want so many clothes!” said her sister.
“Fanny must be our guide,” Camilla said. She loved fashions and was perfectly happy to spend an hour or more poring over
La Belle Assemblée
or inspecting muslins and silks new in from France and the East.
“This is nothing,” said Fanny. “Not half of what you must have in due course. However, they need not all be ordered immediately. First we must make you fit to be seen; those sleeves are quite out of fashion, Letty, you would be laughed at if you wore them out. Then you may look about you at your leisure and choose for yourselves. You may buy anything you want in London, anything you can think of. And hats, too, your bonnets are quite hideous.”
“The expense,” cried Letitia.
“Oh, it is not so very much, and your papa is fortunately so rich that a few dresses and hats will make no difference to him. He would not want his daughters to be dowdy, I assure you. He will expect you to be as elegant as any young ladies in London, and I shall take pains to see that you are; I have no wish to receive one of his cold looks should he return and find a pair of frights.”
“It is lucky that the others are still in the schoolroom,” said Letitia. “They will not need new clothes.”
“To be sure,” said Fanny, her mind running on muslins and trimmings. “Although I long for Alethea to be out, such a pretty thing as she is. Are Belle and Georgina as pretty? It is more than three years since I saw them. They will mind very much not going about in society, I dare say, but their turn will come.”
“They must pay attention to their studies and music and drawing and take advantage of London masters while they are here,” said Letitia primly. “They are country girls at heart, Fanny, and I think will be glad to be spared the rattle and bustle of too much town life.”
An image of Georgina and Belle came into Camilla’s mind. Could Letitia possibly believe what she was saying? She feared that she did; Letty wasn’t given to considering whether others shared her opinions. She always took it for granted that her sisters agreed with her on all important topics, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Since she knew herself to be in the right, any objections were the result of imperfect understanding, and she need not take any account of them.
Camilla had her own ideas about the twins, chief of which was that Belle and Georgina would assuredly scheme themselves out of the schoolroom within a week of their arrival in London.
Fanny was still talking. “We must find husbands for you two; the twins will be grateful to me if I do so, since they can then come out.”
“Husbands!” Letitia was shocked. “Thank you, Fanny, but we are not in London to find husbands. Our parents would not wish it, and besides, for my part—” Her pretty mouth quivered, and tears started in her eyes.
“Oh, my dear, how heartless of me. Only, you know, it has been three years, and Tom would not wish you never to form another attachment.”
“It is not in my power to do so. I am the kind of person who loves so truly that there can never be a second attachment. Tom would have been faithful to my memory, had I been cruelly torn from him, and I can do no less. He had no eyes for any other woman but me, and I consider our betrothal a sacred trust.”
Fanny and Camilla exchanged glances. Camilla was perfectly used to her sister’s ways, and Fanny, who had a vein of shrewd common sense beneath a frivolous exterior, was beginning to take her cousin’s measure. “So many women lost lovers and husbands at Waterloo, it is all very sad. Yet many of them have found consolation—after a proper time, of course.”
“Tom and I were soul mates. I was his first and only love, and I shall remain true to him for the rest of my life, as he was true to me.”
Camilla couldn’t help thinking of the two redheaded youngsters who were growing up and thriving in separate cottages in Hilted, the village nearest to Tom’s house. The flaming hair and freckles were unmistakable—even Letty must have been startled by the likeness—and a gossiping friend in Derbyshire had told her of another child of just such a colouring born to one of the chambermaids in a neighbouring house where Tom visited.