A/N: Welcome back to my loyal readers and a hearty welcome to new ones!
This story adds something new. I have an editor! I have finally lured my wife, Amalia into the JAFF world. She has graciously agreed to help me, and she is working with me to make the story better.
This story has a little bit of an interesting genesis. One day, maybe six months or so past, I dreamed up a small scenario. It involved two ladies in a bit of a dire predicament and set up a certain very unpleasant situation. I liked the idea, and as is my usual custom, I started laying out a story in my head. The story came together quite nicely, all the way through to the conclusion, and all it needed was to be transcribed. I am however super-busy with RL, so time went on.
Sometime later, I took almost the exact same situation, and replaced one of the young ladies with a different young lady. At that point, I got an entirely different story from nearly identical beginnings. I then took that story all the way through to its conclusion, so now I had two stories stuck in my head, but not a single word written down.
I eventually had to decide on one versus the other. I liked both so much it became close to a coin toss to decide which one would prevail. Maybe I'll write them both someday, but for the moment here's the first.
This begins about 4 months pre-canon, with mostly canon characters.
Fair warning: My fans know I hate spoilers, but I need to point out that this story has some very bad things in Chapter 1, and after that, it becomes moderate angst. It's 90k words, so full novel length.
Cheater warning: I'm usually a stickler for Regency language, but I am deliberately using several terms that are quite common now, but not invented until the 20th century. I'll take my guilt to the grave. I might even slip in a contraction or two.
The piercing scream was cut off after only a few seconds, but the young lady recognized it instantly. There are screams, and then there are screams. This was definitely one of the latter - the bad kind. Whoever made the noise was clearly in some type of distress. It was early morning, with the sun just barely above the horizon, casting a beautiful light over the open harbor of Ramsgate. The young lady had been enjoying a solitary stroll, hoping to enjoy the morning before the area got too busy. For perhaps the first time in her life, she regretted her propensity to wander out alone. She had only barely obtained her guardian's permission for it, and only after they had been in the area for several weeks. Today was her very first day to be on her own, and with the piercing scream assaulting her ears, she wished that she had the previously disdained footman with her.
Not one to overly analyze any situation, the young lady hiked up her skirts and ran like a house afire towards the sound. The scream had not been overly loud, so she could conclude that whoever made it was reasonably close, and that it was unlikely anybody else had heard the noise. She had never seen anyone else in this area at this time of day in the several weeks she had been enjoying her morning constitutionals in the area. It seemed like it would be her task to deal with whatever this particular problem entailed. She ran like mad across the patch of grass that ran for around fifty yards from the seawall to a stand of trees, hearing the waves crashing in the rocks below the steep cliff, and eventually got close enough to hear another scream start, that once again was strangled off right in the middle.
The lady finally managed to achieve her goal, when she crashed around a short hedgerow directly into contact with the mysterious screamer. It was obvious that a violent attack was underway. There was a very‑young lady, hardly more than a child, laying on her back, being accosted by someone dressed as a gentleman, laying atop her. He was obviously not a gentleman, but he certainly tried to appear to be one in his dress.
A young girl, of around fifteen years of age, was screaming her head off, any time she did not have the man's gloved fists stuffed into her mouth. When he did that, she wound up with a bit of a strangled exclamation. The man was obviously trying to have his way with her, and the young lady was trying to defend herself, with apparently more vigor than the cretin expected. The attacker was perhaps twenty-five, and he had lifted her skirts all the way to her chest, exposing every part of the poor girl's private parts to the world at large. The young girl was clawing ineffectually at the man who was at least two stone heavier, while he was stuffing a handkerchief in her mouth with one hand and reaching for the fall of his trousers with the other.
Short of being murdered, this was nearly the worst thing that could happen to a young lady. Some people would even assert that being murdered would be preferable. Preventing such atrocities was one of the reasons young ladies were not supposed to be out alone, although that amounted to punishing women for men's crimes. Whether the evil man managed to actually insert his manhood into the young lady or not, was at this point almost irrelevant. In the eyes of society, the lady was already ruined. In fact, in the almost inevitable case of the morning's actions becoming well known, both young ladies would be tainted, as would their sisters, mothers and the rest of their families. Society was a harsh and nonsensical way to organize your populace, but two nearly powerless females were unlikely to change its strictures.
Of course, neither of the young ladies were thinking in such deep terms. They were not thinking at all, but rather operating on their instincts. Flight was impossible, so fight was the only option remaining save capitulation. For perhaps the thousandth time, the elder of the two ladies regretted the upbringing thrust on young ladies, who were widely considered the weaker sex, mostly by men who would faint at the very thought of even contemplating expelling an eight-pound ball of screaming baby from their body into the world. Weaker sex, indeed!
Whatever the reason, their upbringing was what it was, so both ladies were at a decided disadvantage. Had they been boys, they would have learned how to give or take a beating as part of the normal course of being boys. It had always seemed to the lady that there was no insult or provocation too slight to tempt a gaggle of boys into settling the disputes with fists or sticks. A young man her age would have some idea how to use his fists, or he would at least have some vague notion of what to do. Being short of such experience, the lady fell to the only weapon she saw at hand.
The pretend gentleman had a walking stick laying on the ground about a half dozen steps from where the altercation was taking place, so they lady in desperation picked it up, and swung it as hard as she could at the attacker. The cane was stronger than it looked, and it connected with the attacker's shoulder with a satisfying clunk, and the vermin was thrown from the young girl.
The lady looked at her handiwork in satisfaction but could only barely start a self-congratulatory bit of gloating before the attacker jumped back up from the ground and connected his fist with her head with what pugilists would call a roundhouse punch. She fell over backwards, tearing her gown on a short hedge in a most unpleasant way, and she simultaneously felt a sharp branch tear a chunk out of her lower calf, which hurt like hell.
Nothing in the young lady's life had prepared her for the intense pain that accompanied that punch and the subsequent injury. Nothing could have prepared her for the way her mind seemed to instantly split into three distinct pieces that seemed to operate independently.
The first part was an intense feeling of pain that alternately wanted her to scream with all her might, whilst simultaneously curling up into a ball to cry for a week. Two places on her body were significantly injured, and the rest of it felt like she had been run through a mill.
The second portion was sitting back critically examining her present situation, and thinking of all the inevitable repercussions to herself, her family, the unfortunate young girl and her family. Ruined reputations, rumors and blasted marriage prospects seemed the least of the likely consequences.
Luckily, the third part of her mind was not quite so introspective. No, that part of her mind was not introspective in the least. That part of her mind was spitting mad. That part of her mind had endured just about all it had in mind to endure. That part of her mind did not care about the future, beyond the next five seconds. It did not care about propriety or decorum or politeness or society or reputations or ladylike behavior or tea or cake or gowns or anything at all except for the fact that it still had hold of the walking stick.
Without any conscious design, that part of her mind took hold of the walking stick with both hands and swung it in a tight arc at any part of the attacker's anatomy that was within reach. Like most young ladies of her station, she had played cricket from time to time, so swinging such an instrument was not entirely a new experience, but she not could claim any real proficiency. Be that as it may, through either skill or luck, the instrument connected first with the man's raised fist that was at the time headed towards the young lady's face with a killing blow, and then for good measure and adequate completion of the exercise, it continued along to connect with his left ear.
With a doubly resounding thunk that had a more definitive sound to it, the attacker went down and, at least for the moment, did not appear likely to continue the fight.
Both the young ladies, victim and rescued, stood stock still. The rescuer was watching the attacker for movement, and the victim was simply staring at the sky with tears rolling down her cheeks as she scrambled ineffectually with her hands trying to remove the handkerchief from her mouth. The attacker's head was pointed away from both, but he seemed to be unconscious, at least for the moment.
The elder of the ladies fell to her knees next to the younger, took charge of the handkerchief, and gathered the child in her arms, whilst doing her best to simultaneously pull the poor girl's skirts down and keep an eye on the unconscious attacker. She knew there was very little time, so while the lady would well have preferred to take the young girl to bed and hold her while she cried her eyes out, it was not to be. Actions had to be taken, so she said the first of what she hoped would be very few words of the entire encounter.
"Miss, I hate to press you, but we must leave this place. It is tremendously unfair, but we cannot be caught here. Our entire lives would be irrevocably ruined if we were to be discovered."
Only sniffles came as a response, so more drastic action was required. The young lady had encountered enough crying girls to recognize the symptoms of shock, but her head hurt abominably, her vision was fuzzy, she was absolutely certain she would sport an enormous bruise on her cheek, her leg was starting to bleed moderately, and her mind was still furiously thinking along all three tracks. Added to all that, her mind added a fourth track that was screaming at the top of its lungs, 'ENOUGH! HE SHALL NOT WIN!'
Hating herself for what must be done, she stood up, reeling with dizziness, then reached for the young girl's hands and unceremoniously yanked her to her feet. The young girl looked at her in confusion, but steady to her purpose, the elder tamped down all her feelings of empathy and sympathy, then did what had to be done.
"MISS! I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I fear your childhood just ended. Ready or not, you are a woman now, and you shall have to start acting like one."
The elder could but wonder when the next expression on the girl's face was one of confusion, but she finally said, "But… but… but… No! He did not… he did not… you saved… the deed was unfinis…"
That line of thinking would be singularly unhelpful, so the elder redirected.
"You mistake me, Young Lady. It may be true that your virtue is still intact, but you and I are both in very precarious positions. We will both be considered ruined by this pernicious society if today's events become known, and I will not have it! I will not let that man win! I neither know nor care who you are or why you are out here unprotected, but it matters not. Both of us chose to move about unaccompanied, and both of us must be willing to suffer the consequences. I will take my fair share, but no more."
Almost by reflex, the younger of the ladies made a shallow curtsey and said, "I am Georgiana Darcy and…"
"STOP!", the elder of the two hissed in distress.
This naturally set the younger back on the course of panicked crying, which was not her intention, so the elder shook her a bit and said in a calmer voice, "Please, Miss. I am not so very angry with you, but it is absolutely imperative that we not know anything about each other. I wish I did not know your name. I will forget it forthwith, and I assure you, it shall never pass my lips even once."
This just produced more confusion, but fortunately, the confusion replaced some of the hurt and tears, so the younger replied, "But, why? You have saved my life, why should you not be properly thanked. You should be feted, not ignored. I owe you everything!"
The elder wanted very much to take control of the conversation, so she replied, "Miss, do you know how dire our situation is? Do you know how the law of the land works for people like me?"
The younger just shook her head, so the elder replied, "This is England! There are over 800 crimes punishable by death. Boys much younger than us are hanged for stealing apples or taking a rabbit from an estate's woods. We live in a terribly unjust society. That cretin would likely not even be charged, let alone convicted of his crimes, if everyone in Ramsgate witnessed it personally. The worst that would happen to him is he might be strongly encouraged to ruin the rest of your life through marriage. With your position in life, that was probably his intent. Even that level of punishment would be unlikely if he were a peer or other high-status man. And yet, if he happens to die from my perfectly moral defense of you, which we have no evidence he will, then I could hang for it, which I assure you, I do not intend to do."
The young girl, obviously completely unaware of just how dire the situation was simply started sputtering, "But… but… but."
Finding that unhelpful, the elder continued relentlessly, saying, "One of the crimes that is punishable by death is perjury. It is unlikely for someone of your obvious class, but it could happen if you lie to a magistrate. However, and this is important so listen carefully, you cannot be charged with lying for failing to tell something you do not know. Ignorance is to be your shield. You do not know me, and you never will. I will leave Ramsgate, and should you ever have the misfortune to encounter me again, you will not know me. Is that understood?"
Still confused beyond measure, the young girl just nodded her head. She may not understand, but she could be both in awe and frightened of her elder, who was the fiercest woman she had ever seen, at the same time. She would remember. That was all that was required for the moment.
The elder kept on in the same fashion. She was feeling dizzy from the blow to the head and could feel more and more blood pooling on her leg which she could not mitigate at that time, so she had to get this job done with.
"Listen carefully. We do not have much time, and we both must be away from here. How did you come to be out here alone? Do you not have a companion? Is someone likely to come here looking for you? Will someone miss you?"
It was obvious that the younger lady was of much higher circles, and such girls were the targets of every fortune hunting scoundrel in the world. Only the most lackadaisical guardian in England would let a young girl wander around alone with a dress that screamed first circles in its very fabric. The young lady's dress cost more than most families spent on their entire wardrobe, it was probably one of dozens she owned, and that fact was obvious to everyone. The girl must have sneaked away from whoever her guardian was, and she would now have to pay the price.
The young lady said, "I… I… I know that man, and my companion… ah… well… she encouraged me to spend time with him… alone."
That statement nearly sent the elder lady into shock, and the younger into a ball of shame once both realized how incredibly bad the companion was, and how hopelessly stupid the victim herself had been. Nothing was said for nearly a full minute as the full import of the situation sank in. Finally, the elder said incredulously, "So, you know that man?"
The younger just nodded her head in shame, while the elder wished she could remove the knowledge from her head. For whatever reason, the young lady had made an incredibly bad series of decisions, and it might well ruin both of their lives.
The elder thought about it for a moment, and finally let the aggressive part of her mind take over.
"Here is what we will do. Pay attention! I will only say this once!"
The younger nodded her head in acquiescence, whilst turning her head to make sure the man was still unconscious.
The rescuer was having none of that and reached her hand up to the young girl's chin to turn it back before she could see him, saying, "NO! Listen! Understand! That man was alive and moving the last time you saw him, and as far as you are concerned, in that state he remains. You are going to run from here as fast as your legs will move. You will never volunteer what happened here to anyone… I mean anyone. Not your guardian, not your brother, sister, father, uncle or best friend… not even your eventual husband. You never‑ever volunteer information about this morning. Do you understand?"
The young miss now looked more in awe than confusion, which was much to her purpose, as the lady continued relentlessly.
"If, and I must stress the if part of this, you are ever asked directly about the state of that man, you will state truthfully that he was alive and well the last time you saw him. Do you understand?"
She nodded again.
"Can you sneak into the house?"
The girl nodded. She sneaked out and could get back in undetected.
The lady then walked around the girl, whilst keeping a wary eye on the unconscious attacker and keeping her weapon handy. She very carefully examined the girl's clothing and appearance. Through what could only be considered the very best of luck in this unfortunate situation, the girl's clothing was completely undamaged, so that fact was remarked with some relief.
"All right, here is what you will do. Your dress is mostly undamaged, so get back to your home and get to bed with nobody the wiser. Then, you need to get rid of your companion subtly, and not for several weeks. Write to your guardian, whoever that is, but do it with normal post, not express. Do not do anything suspicious. Do nothing to raise concerns in your guardian or your companion. Get him to visit, and then tell him some relatively innocuous tale that is enough to dismiss the companion, but not without reference, and not related to this scum. Can you do that?"
The younger looked shocked, and said, "You wish me to lie to my br…"
She managed to just barely stop before mentioning the relationship to her guardian and colored in embarrassment once again.
"Yes, you need to lie. Disguise is my abhorrence, but it is imperative he not know what happened here. Do you want him to carry the burden for your mistake, in addition to what he already carries? What would that accomplish? You would be just as miserable, and your revealing it would double the burden rather than halve it. Do you think he will feel he has just narrowly avoided disaster, or will he feel like a failure because he did not protect you? Will he ship you off to relatives in shame? Worse yet, should you reveal what happened here; you will add one more person that is a danger to me! You cannot do it. You and I will have to carry our secrets to the grave."
The younger looked a bit petulant and said, "That is tremendously unfair!"
Sighing, the more mature of the two said, "Yes, it is, but it is the way of the world. Tell me something young lady. Did your governess fail to teach you the basic rules of propriety? Did your companion drag you out here to meet that man against your will? Were you in some way unaware just how improper it was?"
The look of shame was enough to answer the question, and trying to decide between harsh or gentle discipline, her companion continued, "You made your own bed, my dear, and you made mine while you were at it. Your actions brought you to this place. I cannot blame you for wandering alone since I am doing the same thing, but I am not clandestinely meeting a man. I would never do so!"
The younger looked as if she might fall over in shock, or shame, or perhaps just the entirely new experience of being taken to task by someone who was not impressed with her name, connections or position in life. Either way, she seemed incapable of responding.
"This is important young lady, so hear me well. That cretin has almost all the blame for this debacle that will affect both of our lives forever, but you need to own your share. I will also own my share. Basic honesty demands that. You will have to lie to everyone you know, at least by omission, for the rest of your life. I will have to do the same, but at least give yourself the honor of not lying to yourself. We will be just two more of the many-many‑many people in the world that must carry a burden they do not deserve. Get used to it and quit whingeing about it. You will never heal if you do not own your share of the blame, and correct whatever defect of your upbringing and character brought you to this place."
The young lady seemed ready to fight the stricture, but there was truly no more time, so the elder concluded the discussion.
"Go home, Miss. Think about what you have done and not done. Correct whatever part of your character needs correction. Learn whatever rules of society you have remained ignorant or willful about. Do not let this incident define you! Become the lady you were born to be. Become a woman of substance and character. On second thought, do let this define you! Let it define you as a lady who faced up to her difficulties like a grown woman, learned from it, and then did the right thing. Can you do that?"
They stared at each other for a moment and, finally, the younger nodded.
"Very well. Do not look at that creature. Do not even turn in that direction. Walk the other way. Go home. Make something of yourself. Take my blessings with you and live a good life. We shall never meet again, but please remember that I am somewhere in the world thinking well of you. You have survived this, and your bad day might one day save some other hapless young lady from the same fate. Do not try to redress the past, but rather move forward with a worthwhile life. You have my respect in advance, I entreat you to earn it."
With that, she placed a small kiss on the young girl's forehead and bade her to be on her way.