The trees were bedecked with waving green leaves, and the endless drowsy buzzing of insects filled the world. Puffy white clouds sat here and there high in the air, while a brilliant yellow sun beamed down upon them.
It was a bloody hot day.
Darcy looked down the road. He looked at his horse. The stallion looked back with a dour expression that questioned the soundness of his master’s mind.
Darcy looked down the road again.
His horse was right.
It would be a miserable ride.
The heat shimmered along the unshaded portions of the road. It was not even noon.
Caroline Bingley had thrown a completely reasonable fit at being asked to travel straight through the heat of the day. So the carriages had paused to wait until afternoon in the shade of an inn.
A hawk swung about in the air, turning in vast lazy circles. Its piercing eyes studied the ground for some rabbit or mouse foolish enough to move about on such a day.
Miss Bingley thought she was like that hawk, and he was a rabbit who’d be frozen in the inn: Proximity leading love, and all.
Dash it all. It was a hot day, but he didn’t want to be fawned over for the next five hours with no chance to escape. He would ride out to Pemberley. He’d already told Bingley and his family that he would. There was a minor matter of business that he’d used as an excuse.
It would be so deuced nice to get away from Miss Bingley’s deuced nattering.
The worst part of Miss Bingley was that seeing her reminded him about their time in Hertfordshire. And that made him remember Elizabeth Bennet.
Everything made him remember Elizabeth.
Not again. He didn’t want to feel sad again. He was tired of that.
Elizabeth had been right to reject him. But that did not make him hurt less. He had not been worthy of such a woman. It was not an easy fact to live with.
From the very beginning, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others. And I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.
Every time he remembered that, it hurt in his stomach and his chest and behind his eyes.
The way Miss Bingley disdained everyone who was not wealthy reminded Darcy. He now strove to overcome himself. To become a man who would have been worthy of Elizabeth.
Being trapped in Miss Bingley’s company for an entire day without any chance for solitude was more than Darcy wished to face. He would rather face the heat of the midday sun and the sweaty road.
Footsteps kicked up the dust behind him. Bingley stood at Darcy’s shoulder and looked down the sun-baked road. “Hot day, eh?”
“Exceptional temperatures — even for the season! — I doubt there are more than a half dozen days this hot in the course of a year. The innkeeper told us quite a story. Yesterday a man riding along the road had a seizure and collapsed dead — killed by the heat. The doctor said there was no water left in his blood — the man had sweated it all away.”
His friend openly grinned at Darcy.
“I am aware of the heat. You do not need to pass along stories about how hot it is.”
Bingley shrugged his shoulders, as though he was not doing his best to needle Darcy. “Those big trees cover the inn. Excellent shade. It is not hot at all inside. The cellar is quite deep too. The ale is cool to the taste!”
Darcy glanced at his friend from the edge of his eye and then looked back at the road. The sooner he started the sooner he’d be back at Pemberley. He would throw off his coat and jump into the pond before going back into the house. It would be only… Darcy looked up at the glaring sun and pursed his lips. Just four hours on the road.
“Darcy. I will say it straight out. You are being a bad sport. Don’t leave me alone with so many ladies.”
Darcy grunted again, without looking away from the shimmering heat of the road. “Mr. Hurst will be with you, he is your brother.”
“Haha. He will just sleep until we start off again. It will be me listening to Caro’s complaints all afternoon.” Bingley cringed at the thought. “You are more my brother than Hurst — you can become just as much my brother as him.”
Darcy eyeballed Bingley with a severe glare.
Bingley grinned back brightly, and then theatrically wiped his forehead. “That business can easily wait till we all arrive at Pemberley. Your goal is to avoid Caro for the rest of the day. Don’t pretend with me.”
Darcy sighed. He’d invited Bingley to Pemberley with him, and yet he’d been a poor companion on the road. For a few weeks Darcy had thought the sadness of being refused by Elizabeth had left him, but it was returning, along with a desperate desire to be alone.
“It is not only your sister. I must deal with this matter of business. If I do not go now, I will need to take an hour at least to deal it with tomorrow. I do not wish to be rude then.”
“So you will be rude today?”
Darcy asked himself, as he did often, what Elizabeth would think. If Bingley insisted on his presence, he should stay and do his best to enjoy being part of the party.
Darcy looked back at the road. The sun glinted garishly back at him. It was a deuced unpleasant day. With his luck a party of touring gentlewomen would find him in his soaked shirtsleeves right after he jumped into the pond.
“You have convinced me.” Darcy was amused by the notion of running across a guest while having just taken a dip in the lake. “I have no choice. I will deal with the matter after we arrive at Pemberley tomorrow morning, and you will get to listen to your sister praise Pemberley without my help for an hour…”
Bingley laughed. “No one is like you when it comes to managing business matters.”
Fifty miles to the north a young woman and her aunt or uncle prepared to visit one of the greatest country estates of England before heading on to the nearby small town where her aunt was born.
Neither she nor Bingley, nor Darcy had any notion how Bingley’s begging Darcy to deal with the business matter the next day would drastically change the course of their lives.
July 1816, Rosings Park
Elizabeth Bennet sneaked along the edge of the hallway while firmly gripping her mischievous pupil’s hand.
Jumping into a pond with all her clothes!
From Emma’s smirk it was clear that she knew Elizabeth’s disapproval was only halfhearted. How could it be more? It was hot and jumping into the pond was fun.
Elizabeth had jumped into more than two, but less than twenty, ponds as a child. However, Elizabeth had a loving father. She had not been the ward of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Elizabeth winced and jumped at the piercing voice of her employer.
“What is the meaning of this!”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound of Lady Catherine’s cane echoed as she scowled her way to them.
Emma squeezed Elizabeth’s hand tightly. She stared wide eyed at her guardian, waiting to see what she would do. Emma was terrified of Lady Catherine, and Elizabeth had ceased to find the woman amusing.
“Miss Bennet. Miss Bennet, is this how you abuse my generosity? How you abuse the trust I have given? How you abuse my goodwill while you remain in my service?”
Elizabeth curtsied, smoothly holding her skirts out with her left hand, and not letting Emma’s hand go. “I shall do better, and Emma shall be punished, Lady Catherine.”
“Muddy! This skirt is muddy. Mud!” Lady Catherine poked her cane into Emma’s stomach. “What did you do to disorder your clothing, you troublesome and disobedient wretch?”
Emma was pale, but she’d learned from the beatings that had been given to her before Elizabeth took the post of governess to never lie to Lady Catherine if there was any possibility of being caught.
“I jumped into a pond, Madam.”
“Into a pond! A pond! You jumped into filth. Your mother also jumped. She jumped into sinful relations with a man and filthied the de Bourgh name and brought mud into the bloodline of my husband’s family. It is a good thing she died. She was an evil creature. You will not be like her. I will see you cease to jump into filth!”
Emma squeezed the hand Elizabeth held so tight it hurt; she was pale and her face was drawn into a painful grimace. It had only been five months since Emma’s mother died, and she still worshipped the woman’s memory.
Lady Catherine pounded her cane sharply on the marble floor. The crack echoed along the gallery. “Turn around.”
Emma did so and bent over. Lady Catherine struck the girl sharply on the backside four times with her cane. Emma bit her lips, but did not cry out.
Lady Catherine looked critically at the girl. “You are a very wicked girl to resist your punishment so. Very wicked. But I have placed you under another. It is her responsibility to see to your welfare. Miss Bennet, spare the rod and spoil the child. The girl is a bastard. Her existence is a result of a terrible sin and dirtiness. Spare not the rod! If we do not act, the sins of the mother shall visit themselves upon the child. Care you not for her future?”
“I have punished her.”
“Not enough. If you had she would not have…jumped into a pond. A muddy pond! I do not like dirt on girls’ clothing. Girls should be little gentlewomen. Clean and nice smelling. Anne never filthied her clothing. I shall order Mrs. Shore to allow neither Emma, nor you to have dinner tonight. You shall take that punishment with Emma.”
Lady Catherine then bent over and presented her cheek to Emma for the little girl to kiss her. Emma stared angrily at Lady Catherine, but she knew it was better to do what she was ordered, so she stiffly kissed her guardian’s cheek.
Lady Catherine stood. “You will see to it that this never happens again. No more filth on Emma.”
Elizabeth curtsied. “It shall not happen again.”
“I might dismiss you. I perhaps ought dismiss you. You do not seem to care enough for Emma.”
Elizabeth’s stomach froze at the threat. Every time Lady Catherine threatened to separate her from Emma terror spiked through her: Maybe this time she really meant it. The old woman saw Elizabeth’s frightened reaction, and Elizabeth thought that was why she made the threat so often.
“Tut, tut. I expect better from you.” Lady Catherine softly tapped her cane against Elizabeth’s cheek. Elizabeth did not move to stop her. “A great risk. I took a great risk in hiring you. A woman with barely an education, and a scandalous family.”
“I am grateful for your kindness and condescension. And for your advice. Always for your advice.”
“No. No, you are not. You yet think as a gentlewoman who believes the world is hers by right. But you have fallen. You are gently born — that can never be taken from you. But you are a dependent. You must extinguish that spark of pride still in your eyes.”
“I shall try, Madam,” Elizabeth lied.
“You would be sent back to that little house your uncle has taken. Was it not three of you to a room? He shall never pay all the debts caused by his bankruptcy, no matter how much of your wages you send him.”
Emma shuffled closer to Elizabeth. Elizabeth knew she was also terrified of Elizabeth being dismissed. That was the real reason she had been willing to kiss the old lady’s cheek.
The small hand trembled in Elizabeth’s. Emma’s eyes were dry. She was determined to never cry in front of Lady Catherine. It was Emma who kept Elizabeth here. Not fear of returning to poverty. If Elizabeth left, there would be no one to care for Emma and protect her from Lady Catherine.
“I expect you to punish her the next time. I should not need to drive you to it.”
“You must hit her right.” Lady Catherine pursed her lips and tapped her cane softly on the marble hallway floor. “I gave you a paddle. You have no excuse for not striking her regularly. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Use variety — do not only strike on the rump — you can see Miss Williams is now accustomed to that. Strike her sometimes on the hands and even the face. I have told you, I have shown you, but still she disobeys. Perhaps it is inevitable, given the nature of her parents, but she is as much a human as you and I. Half her blood is among the best in the land. We must try to raise her right.”
“Yes, Madam. My sole thought, day and night, is how I can help Emma.” Elizabeth squeezed the small hand in hers. That was true, though her promises to punish Emma with beatings were all lies.
“Yes, yes, yes. We are both devoted to her welfare. But you are too…too —” Lady Catherine slapped her free hand on the back of the hand holding her cane. “Aha! You act like a mother. You have not the instincts of a governess. That indulgence will destroy her character. It is a pity the misfortunes of your family make it impossible for you to marry. You might do well as a mother and wife. Emma has no mother, just as she has no father. The Lord wisely took Emma’s mother to the hell she earned through her sinfulness.” Lady Catherine waved her hand. “Enough of this. Off with you. Off with you both.”
Elizabeth pulled Emma into a servant’s staircase. When they were alone, Elizabeth tightly embraced her charge, not caring that bits of a water lily stuck onto her own dress. “Are you well, Emmy, dear?”
She nodded against Elizabeth’s chest, starting to cry.
Elizabeth kissed the top of her head. “She is why you can’t run and jump in ponds.”
Emma nodded, sniffling. “I wish I was at home. I wish my Mama hadn’t died.”
“I wish my Papa hadn’t, darling. But we make the best of what we have. And you didn’t cry in front of Lady Catherine. I am so proud of you. You deserve something for that. After you are dressed, I have some of that chocolate I bought when we went to the market. Do you remember?”
Emma nodded tearily.
Elizabeth squeezed her. “You’ve been such a good girl that you deserve the rest of it.”