Copyright © 2011 Wendi Sotis
April, 1801 – London
William’s distress was evident on his face. So confused was he by the turmoil of emotions churned up by this quest that he no longer knew how to find what he was looking for among the rows of publications on the shelves of the bookshop.
“Excuse me, sir, but you must stop!”
Surprised, the fifteen-year-old boy looked down to find a little girl of perhaps nine or ten years sitting on the floor with an open book on her lap. “I would curtsy, as my mama says is correct when meeting a gentleman, but you are standing on my skirt, sir.”
He jumped back a step or two, and the girl rose and curtsied, saying, “Thank you, sir.”
The boy bowed. “Please forgive me. If I have damaged your dress, please allow me to ask my father to compensate you.”
“Oh, I do forgive you, sir. There is no harm done, only a bit of dust on the hem. Had I been at home, by this time of day my skirts would have been covered with dirt and most likely would have been torn already. I am certain that Mama would be scolding me right about now! I know that a proper young lady should not have been sitting on the floor in a bookshop, especially in London, but after finding the book I had been searching for, I could not wait to begin its perusal!”
They stood in silence for a few moments before she continued, “Do you live in London, sir?”
Taking in this girl’s appearance more thoroughly, he realized she was most likely the daughter of a gentleman. Though it seemed she was in an awkward stage of development, there was something pleasing about her looks. She had dark hair that was more aptly described as a tumble of curls framing her face, tied back with a ribbon in an attempt to tame them. The healthy glow about her skin indicated that she spent more time outdoors than did her peers. She seemed more intelligent than her years… perhaps it was the indescribable sparkle in her dark eyes that assured him of this. “I have arrived only just yesterday with my father and sister from our estate in Derbyshire.”
“Mama says I should always ask about the weather, so now I must ask you: how does the weather in Derbyshire? Is it as warm there as it has been here in London the past few days?”
Her polite look of exaggerated interest made him smile a little before saying, “It is never quite as warm in Derbyshire as in London, Derbyshire being so far north.”
“And were the roads in good condition for your journey, sir?”
He pressed his lips together for a moment to hide the increasing urge to smile. Idle chatter had never been so amusing. “Yes, they were in as good a condition as could be expected after the unusually harsh winter.”
“Capital! And had you a pleasant journey south to London?”
“Yes, we did. Thank you.”
“I am glad to hear it… and I do hope I have covered the subjects of the weather and your journey well enough because I do not believe I can think of one more question to ask about either. I have heard much of Derbyshire, though I have never been there. Papa has a friend who lives in Derbyshire, and he visited his friend there many times while they attended Eton and Cambridge together. Papa says the area is very beautiful and promises to take me there some day.”
Since the death of his mother several months ago, his father had allowed the boy to stay at home, but now it was time to return to school after a brief stay in London, and he was not looking forward to it. His mother’s letters from home had always been the highlight of his week, and the idea that there would never be another was making his return all the more difficult. This little girl was very amusing and, it seemed, just what he needed right now to distract him from such somber thoughts. His generally depressed mood of late was lightening considerably. “Do you know where in Derbyshire your father’s friend resides?”
“Yes, I believe the estate is called Pemley… no, I am not saying it right, but that is close to the pronunciation.”
His eyebrows raised and he said, “Pemberley, perhaps? And what is the gentleman’s name, do you know?”
“Yes, I think it is exactly that! His name is Mr. Darcy.”
“Well then, I do know your father’s friend very well as I am Fitzwilliam Darcy. Mr. George Darcy is my father.”
Her smile brightened the room. “How wonderful!” She noticed the black armband he wore, which was similar to the mourning band her father had worn when her grandmother had died. Remembering what her father had told her, suddenly her smile faded, and she put her small hand on his arm. “Oh… then may I say how sorry I am to have heard about your mother’s passing, Mr. Darcy.”
He looked down to the floor and sighed before saying, “Thank you.” It had been nice to spend a few minutes not thinking on that subject.
A very insightful child, she detected his pain and his need to change the subject. Her hand gently squeezed his arm before letting go. “Since our fathers know each other, I should introduce myself—though Mama would be very displeased with me for doing so, and I must beg that you do not tell her! I am Elizabeth Bennet, but most people call me Lizzy.”
He bowed to her again, and she curtseyed in return. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bennet. I have heard my father mention Mr. Bennet often. You live in Hertfordshire, do you not?”
“Yes, at Longbourn.” Elizabeth felt the subject was exhausted. “May I ask what book you were looking for, Mr. Darcy? I have an interest in botany, and since you are searching in this section… I wonder if I could help you find it. This is my uncle’s bookshop, and I know where most everything is,” she said, beaming proudly.
“I am looking for The Temple of Flora, a book by Robert John Thornton,” said William quietly.
“Why does such a lovely book on botany make you feel so sad?”
Something about her made him want to tell her everything that was in his heart, but he restricted himself to saying only, “It was my mother’s favorite; botany was her special interest. We have a copy at Pemberley and another in our house in London, but I wanted to take one with me to Eton…” he said, his throat tightened with emotion.
“I understand, Mr. Darcy.” He looked up to see such a look of compassion in her dark eyes that it almost overwhelmed him. He blinked back a few tears. “It is just here.” She moved past him to take the book from the shelf and then handed it to him. “It has the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen in any of these books. I hope it brings you comfort.”
Swallowing the lump in his throat, William said, “What was it you were reading, Miss Bennet?”
She passed the book to him.
Flipping through the pamphlet, he said, “But this is not written in English. I believe it is in German! Are you able to read German?”
“Yes, my neighbor, Baron Leisenheimer, was originally from Prussia and he taught me his native language. I enjoy German more than French and Italian, though I like Latin about the same.”
William’s eyes widened, “You know all those languages? But you are so very young…”
“Papa says I have a special gift for languages. Mama says I should not show off so much, but I am not trying to show off. I just learn easily, and that is all; I am not trying to impress anyone. She also says I should not tell anyone what I can do because they will think I am odd, and that I will never catch a husband. Do you think I am odd, Mr. Darcy?”
He found himself holding back a smile again. “No, Miss Bennet, I do not think you odd. I think you very intelligent.”
“Mama says I’m im…impernant. Do you think I will never catch a husband because I am impernant?”
“I believe the word is ‘impertinent,’ but from what I have seen today I do not think you impertinent. You are honest, and that is a fine trait to have.”
“Yes, I am honest, but mama says I must learn not to be too honest because it is rude. I cannot understand this. Do you know how one can be too honest?”
“Well, I am older and can understand it a little better. For example, sharing that your mother is instructing you on how to ‘catch’ a husband is not an appropriate subject to discuss with a gentleman… or with any acquaintance, really.”
“But that is almost the only subject she ever talks of… and she often repeats that if my four sisters and I do not marry well then we will all be thrown into the hedgerows to starve when my father passes. If that is all she ever speaks of, why should I not speak of it?”
William’s raised his eyebrows, and he blinked a few times before asking, “Perhaps she speaks of it only when among intimate family?”
Elizabeth shook her head.
William did not know what to say to that and changed the subject slightly, “Why would you all be thrown into the hedgerows?”
“Because Mr. Collins is a nasty man who Papa had an argument with many years ago, and they have not spoken since.”
“Yes, I have no brother and my father’s cousin Mr. Collins will take Longbourn when Papa passes.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Though Mama says he will ‘steal’ it because she does not believe in entailments away from the girls in the family. Mama insists that catching a husband is the most important thing we girls can do, but I have decided that I do not wish to be married at present.”
William almost laughed out loud. “I do not think you will need to decide to whom you will be married for a few years yet.”
She arched her brow. “One would not think I am too young the way Mama speaks of it!” She put her book back on the shelf.
“You will not be purchasing the book?”
“No, I have read it already, and so I do not need to.”
“That is more of a reference book, is it not? You do not think you might need to refer to it at a later time?”
“I have it here, now.” She pointed to her head.
“I do not understand.”
“Every time I read something, I keep a perfect picture of it in my mind and can look at it later. It is like the book is in my hand, and I am reading it again.”
“How interesting!” He opened his book to a random page, “You have read this book, correct?” When she nodded he asked, “What is on page number five of the book I have?”
She described the pictures and said the names, spelling anything that she could not pronounce.
Shaking his head, he said with a wide smile, “I think you are an amazing person, Miss Bennet!”
“Thank you, sir. I am glad you do not think I am strange. Mama tells me I should not tell anyone about that, either, because when I have, people have thought I was odd, and someday they might have me sent to Bedlam when Papa is no longer here to protect me.”
William frowned deeply. “If in the future anyone wishes to send you to Bedlam for one of your talents, I beg that you contact me. I will protect you if your father is unable to do so.”
Elizabeth smiled brilliantly. “Thank you, Mr. Darcy! That relieves my mind a great deal.”
Just then the bell above the door rang, and Mr. Bennet came into view at the end of the aisle of books. “Papa!”
“Ah, there you are, Lizzy.” Warily, he eyed the young man standing with his daughter, but his demeanor changed as recognition dawned on him, “And you, young man, are you perhaps related to Mr. George Darcy?”
William bowed and said, “Yes, Mr. Bennet; I am his son. My father is within as well, sir. I believe he can be found in the philosophy section of the shop.”
“You certainly look very much like him when he was about your age.” Mr. Bennet looked back and forth between the two children. “Has my Lizzy been entertaining you?”
“Miss Bennet is a delightful young lady, sir. She helped me find the book I was searching for, and we have been conversing these past minutes.”
Mr. Bennet nodded, “Come, let us find your father. I have not had the pleasure of his company for these several years at least.”
They found Mr. Darcy discussing his book purchases with Mr. Gardiner, the proprietor of the shop, while waiting for his son to join him. As Mr. Bennet approached, Mr. Darcy turned and said, “Bennet! What a surprise to find you here in London! It is good to see you!” The two shook hands.
“Darcy, it is good to see you as well. It seems my daughter has been assisting your son in finding a book, and I have just met him. He seems a fine young man. I am a bit shocked to see how much he has grown—when I had last seen you, he was only just walking! I cannot believe so much time has passed! I see you know Gardiner, my wife’s brother?”
Mr. Darcy looked surprised, “I did not know you were related. I have been a patron of this superior bookshop for years, and it has only improved since Mr. Gardiner became proprietor last year.”
“Yes, I quite agree. If not for the bookshops, London would be intolerable!”
“I see your opinion of Town has not changed, Bennet.” Mr. Darcy laughed.
“Not in the least!” Mr. Gardiner replied. Mr. Bennet introduced Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy and then the three gentlemen began to speak of Cambridge. Mr. Gardiner had attended beginning the year the other gentlemen had left it, but they still had much to discuss.
“You said earlier that you attend Eton, Mr. Darcy…. do you like school?” asked Elizabeth.
“I like it very well, Miss Bennet.” William felt a pang of guilt because he knew he was not being completely forthright with this very honest girl. He did enjoy learning, but he did not feel comfortable with the social aspects of living at school.
“I wish I could go to school.”
“Perhaps if you tell your father, he will allow you to attend a school for ladies.”
“I would not want to go to that kind of school! I meant that I want to go to the kind of school that boys attend. Girls learn silly subjects like embroidery, netting purses, and how to serve tea… and I already know more languages than they could teach me at a school for ladies. Papa says that I could probably teach the instructors a thing or two! I do like to dance and play the pianoforte… but embroidery!” Elizabeth rolled her eyes in such a way that had William attempting to hold back his smile again. “I want to learn about literature and mathematics and science and philosophy! Mama scolds me for reading so much for she says men do not like girls who know more than they do, but I want to learn! I am glad that Papa allows me to read anything in his library, and he does not forbid me from studying any subject I wish.” She lowered her voice and said conspiratorially, “Well, except for the books on the uppermost shelf by the window on the left, at which I am never to look.”
This time William could not stop a chuckle from escaping before he said, “It sounds as if you have many diverse interests, Miss Bennet, much like my mother did. She was an intelligent lady, and I applaud your wish to expand your mind past subjects you find silly.” Thinking his praise might actually end up getting her in trouble, he thought to add, “Though embroidery does serve a purpose and would not be a bad thing to learn if it pleases your mother for you to do so. Do you enjoy only reading, or do you have other pursuits as well?”
“I love to be outdoors, sir, doing just about everything. I walk a great deal. Charlotte and Jane will walk with me, but they do not like to climb trees, or play army and pirates and bandits with the boys like I do, so they often go home after our walks. They like doing girl things much better.”
“Are Charlotte and Jane your sisters?”
“Jane is my elder sister by two years, and she is an angel!” Elizabeth’s smile was wide as she spoke of Jane, but it lessened as she continued, “I have three other sisters. The youngest two, Kitty and Lydia, are too young to go out with me, but I do think they will not be interested in what I like to do when they are old enough as they are very silly. Mary, the sister who is two years younger than I, is too serious to play at… anything. Charlotte is my friend and neighbor. Her father was just made a knight, and we must call him ‘Sir William’ now instead of ‘Mr. Lucas.’ It is mostly Charlotte’s brothers that I play with, though there are other boys from the neighboring estates and tenant farms that join us as well.”
“And what position do the boys have you play during these games?” William asked, thinking they would have her pretending to clean up after the horses and swab the decks.
“I am not supposed to tell anyone… do you promise not to tell?” William nodded. “I am always the general of the army or the captain of the ship or the leading bandit, of course!”
“Of course!” William said with a grin. “And the boys do not get angry because they must take orders from a girl?”
“No, for I make up much better games than they do, and though they might not admit it to anyone else, they do say it to me. None of the boys play chess or read much, but I do, and I believe that is why I devise better strategies in our wars and conflicts. Sometimes we fight real battles as they were portrayed in history books or the newspaper—not with real weapons, of course. I am the best tree climber of the lot, as well as the best swordsman!”
At this point, William was not surprised by anything this obviously witty and adventurous young lady had to say. He saw his father looking at him with a small smile that reached his eyes—one he had not seen on his father’s face since his mother had died. Little did he know his father was thinking that he had not seen his son laugh, smile or even take an interest in anything other than his sister since his wife had died… until now.
William overheard the men making plans to meet at Mr. Darcy’s club for lunch the following day and expected them to soon be bidding each other farewell. “I am quite impressed with the many accomplishments already achieved by one so young. But I do believe you should try to work on the girl things as well. I know it is difficult to do things that one does not enjoy in the least, but we all must carry that burden. If you think of it as a challenge to improve yourself, as I do, it will make it more palatable.” When Elizabeth looked doubtful, he added, “It does sound as if it would make living with your mother a bit easier if you showed her you were putting in a good effort, if nothing else.”
Elizabeth made another face that reminded William of her age, and he almost expected her to stamp her foot and have a tantrum. He had been at first surprised and a little amused at hearing her converse with more intelligence than ever he had heard from young ladies twice her age, but soon he had become so comfortable with her conversation that he had forgotten just how young she was. Elizabeth sighed and relented, “Well… it does sound like a better idea when you put it that way. Since you do seem like a sensible young man, I will make the attempt to follow your advice. Perhaps I will ask my Aunt Gardiner to teach me a bit of embroidery while I am still in London. She has more patience with me than does Mama.”
William could not help but chuckle. “That sounds like a very good plan, Miss Bennet.”
Mr. Darcy approached and said, “It certainly was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Bennet. Your father will be having dinner with us in two days’ time. Would you like to accompany him? Your father tells me you are interested in books, and I thought that William could show you our library; I hoped you might enjoy meeting my daughter as well.”
Elizabeth looked at her father, and at his nod, she smiled brightly and said, “Yes, sir, I would like that very much. Thank you, Mr. Darcy.” She curtsied.
Mr. Darcy bowed to her and said, “I look forward to seeing you again, Miss Bennet.”
The Darcys took their leave, both happier than when they had arrived.
When the Bennets arrived at Darcy House, after the usual greetings Mr. Darcy suggested that William show Elizabeth the way to the nursery so that she could be introduced to Georgiana. After the children left them, Mr. Bennet said, “Good thinking to have my Lizzy meet Miss Darcy before seeing the library. We may never see her again after she has experienced the famous Darcy collection!”
“So she takes after her father in this way?” Mr. Darcy laughed.
“Yes, she certainly does, though I think she will surpass my abilities in many areas. I am afraid her mother feels Lizzy’s thirst for knowledge is a liability, but I cannot deny her… and it has caused quite a bit of contention between us. Elizabeth is truly one of the most intelligent persons I have ever met, Darcy. She will be but ten years old next month, and she already knows more than do most boys upon entering Cambridge, and all from her own reading. The instruction I have given her is more guidance than teaching. Occasionally there is a concept that she has trouble comprehending, but to see how her face lights up with understanding when all becomes clear is reward enough to brave even my wife’s disapproval! I think sometimes my wife is actually frightened of her. There is no doubt she is frightened for Lizzy, and at times I have to agree.”
“Why would you be frightened for Elizabeth, Thomas?” When they were younger, the two had always switched to first names whenever discussing a serious matter, and though many years had passed since they had seen each other, Mr. Darcy easily fell into this old habit.
“If she were a boy, nothing would be able to stand in her way… but she is not. She will grow up someday, George—sooner than I am prepared for, in fact. To be honest, I do not know how she will manage. There could not be one in a thousand men who could be considered her equal in intelligence, and even fewer who would accept her for who she is and not insist that she pretend that she is something she is not.”
From the moment George Darcy had seen his son interacting with his friend’s daughter at the bookstore, he had had an idea of what Elizabeth’s future would hold, but it was far too soon to bring that subject up with her father. “Do not fret, Thomas. I have a strong feeling all will be well for Elizabeth.”
“You always did have a sense of what would work out well. I hope in this case you are correct.”
Perhaps, though, he could plant a seed. “Actually, from what you have told me and from what I have seen, she reminds me of William at that age, but she seems to have an intuitive sense of other people’s feelings that William has always lacked. She has gotten William to talk, and, believe me, that is a feat! He is even shyer than I was at his age, if you can believe it possible. Georgiana has been looking forward to meeting Elizabeth because William has mentioned her so often since we met you both at the bookshop.”
“Really? No, I would not have guessed it! In fact, I had been thinking that while he looks very much like you did at his age, he does not act like you did at all, in that way at least. But then, I did come across them after he had already been speaking to Lizzy for some minutes, from what I understood.”
“You always did have that effect upon me as well, Thomas, and I am certain you would have the same effect on William. With you, I always felt comfortable; it was with others that I became reticent. As far as I know, before two days ago the only person outside the immediate family with whom William was truly comfortable was my nephew Richard Fitzwilliam. He has had a difficult time at school and has had no Thomas Bennet to help him through it as I did. The headmaster tells me that while he is accepted due to his name, he does not really fit in with the other boys. Sound familiar?” When Mr. Bennet nodded, Mr. Darcy continued, “I was hesitant about sending him back to Eton after my wife’s passing because he seemed so… lost, but I am sure you will agree that keeping him at home will do him no favors. He must learn to find his way in society, and Eton is a proper place to start. I keep hoping that perhaps he will find a true friend there, too. Seeing him the past couple of days has made me feel more comfortable with the decision. I now feel he will be all right.”
After discussing a few other subjects, the gentlemen became curious as to what had happened to William and Elizabeth. Mr. Darcy invited Mr. Bennet to the nursery to see what they were about. Upon arriving they found William sketching and Georgiana entranced in Elizabeth’s telling of the story, Beauty and the Beast. The gentlemen stood by the door, watching and listening for a few minutes before Georgiana noticed them and ran to her father with her arms open. Mr. Darcy scooped her up and gave her a hug before setting her down to introduce her to Mr. Bennet. Georgiana looked up to Elizabeth, who had joined them near the door, and Elizabeth nodded very seriously. Georgiana curtsied as well as a five-year-old could, and Elizabeth applauded. “You learn very quickly, Miss Darcy!”
“Very well done, Georgiana! Your curtsy has certainly improved since yesterday!” Mr. Darcy praised.
“Miss Elizabeth showed her a special way to accomplish it, Father.”
“I thank you for your instruction, Miss Bennet.” Mr. Darcy said with a sharp look at his son indicating that he was correcting him.
In a very serious tone of voice, Elizabeth said, “Mr. Darcy, I know I am supposed to be called ‘Miss Bennet,’ but ‘Miss Bennet’ is my sister Jane. I like to be called ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Lizzy’ much better, but your son says that would be improper. So, we have decided to compromise and have settled on ‘Miss Elizabeth,’ if you do not mind, sir.”
Mr. Darcy glanced at Mr. Bennet, who was stifling a laugh, and shrugged. “I suppose it is fine with me as long as your father does not object. But William, when you are in public, you should refer to her as ‘Miss Bennet.’”
“Agreed, sir,” Elizabeth said, “but may Miss Darcy call me ‘Elizabeth’?”
“Perhaps when she is older she may, but for now I would be grateful for your assistance in teaching her to respect her elders by having her address you more formally.”
Elizabeth’s mouth formed into a silent, “Oh,” and she nodded.
At a look from Mr. Darcy, the governess told Georgiana that story time was over, and it was time for a writing lesson. The remainder of the group said goodbye to Georgiana and headed toward the library.
As they walked, Mr. Bennet asked William what he had been sketching, and William handed him the pad, blushing. “This is very good!” Mr. Bennet said as he slowed to look at the beginnings of a sketch of Elizabeth. “Have you studied with a master?”
“A little, sir. I enjoy it, but…”
“Mr. Bennet, at school the boys tease me, saying that drawing is a girl’s activity, so I do not practice when away from home.” William blushed again.
Mr. Bennet smiled. “Ah! Lizzy is often told she should not read so much, and that girls should not learn mathematics or science or ancient languages or play chess because they are all things that boys usually do. What is your opinion, Master William? Do you think I should not allow her to learn these subjects?”
William’s look could be described as horrified. “No, sir, I would not change anything about Miss Elizabeth.”
“What do you think Lizzy would say to anyone who dared to tell her that she likes boy’s activities? Do you think that would stop her from doing what she loved to do?” Mr. Bennet said with a smirk.
William tried not to smile while saying, “I cannot imagine what she would say, but I know she continues to do what she enjoys as long as you do not forbid it, sir, and she is proud of her accomplishments. I do admire her spirit, Mr. Bennet.”
“One would think that the father has much to teach the daughter, but Lizzy tends to teach me more than I could have dreamed possible. Perhaps you can learn a lesson from her in this regard as well?”
“Thank you, sir.”
He clapped William on the shoulder, and the two picked up the pace to catch up to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.
When they arrived at the door of the library, Mr. Darcy allowed Elizabeth to enter first. She took a few steps into the room, and all eyes were on her expression. Elizabeth stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed as she looked around the room. She whispered, “This is your private library?”
“You do not have to whisper, Miss Elizabeth. We are the only people here. This is just a small sample; the true collection is at Pemberley,” Mr. Darcy answered.
The eyes that none of the gentlemen thought could open wider, did. “This is but a small sample? But… there are more books here than in my uncle’s bookshop!”
“I am very proud of our collection, Miss Elizabeth. It is the work of many generations of Darcys. Your father spent many hours ensconced in this room during his youth, as well as in our library in Derbyshire. Do you like it?”
“It is… heavenly, sir!”
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