Author's note: I originally posted this story as "The Face Behind the Mask." I really enjoyed writing it, but the last chapter I posted has some extremely unkind reviews. This is my first time posting anything at all, so I shut down. I've had some wonderful people reach out when they saw me take it down, and that has given me courage to try again. My husband has also been extremely supportive. I won't be able to write it as fast as I did before, though.
So thank you to everyone who wrote words of encouragment. I appreciate them more than I can say. This story is dedicated to all of you.
Also, there is a bit of an intense scene in this prologue where Lizzy sees a situation that may be uncomfortable for some people. It does not go into details, and it is the ONLY scene of this nature in the story, I promise.
Hertfordshire, September 1804
Elizabeth Bennet skipped down the path from her father's estate house, Longbourn, as she headed out for her morning walk. At thirteen years old, Lizzy knew that her days of skipping, running, and other unladylike behaviors were few in number. Her elder sister, Jane, had recently come out to the local society, and from Lizzy's perspective, it appeared dreadful.
Fifteen year old Jane required fittings for the plethora of dresses that their mother Fanny Bennet insisted were required for a daughter as beautiful as Jane. Jane, her mother declared, had a beauty that would lead to a great match if only she would follow all of her mother's instructions on what she imagined constituted appropriate behavior for a gentleman's daughter. Not being the daughter of a gentleman herself was immaterial, in her mind.
Opportunities to escape Longbourn and its noise were becoming increasingly rare since there had been no more children born since Lydia's entrance to the world eight years prior. Longbourn was entailed away from the female line, and an unknown cousin was due to inherit should Thomas Bennet not birth a son. Fanny Bennet's nerves had become increasingly agitated with each girl child she bore, and now it was clear that her childbearing days were over.
While Fanny loved all of her girls, she was quite vocal about her love for Jane and eight year old Lydia. Their appearance were like hers when she was a girl, so they were her favorites over the remaining three girls who favored the Bennet side of the family in both looks and behavior.
Lizzy reached the forested path beyond the hedgerows that bordered the small wilderness outside her home. Once she was sure she was out of view from the window, she broke into a run. This was freedom.
Several minutes later, Lizzy stopped, panting for breath. As she drank the cool water at the nearby stream, her thoughts again began to wander to her family and the chaos she had escaped that morning.
At eight years old, Lydia had quickly learned that her mother would give her anything she asked in order to avoid a tantrum or fussing. As a result, Lydia was becoming spoiled and unmanageable. Unfortunately, their mother did not see anything wrong with her precious daughter's behavior.
Just that morning, as Jane was being fitted for her new gowns, Lydia insisted on being attended to as well. Her rambunctious behavior upset the seamstress madame, who was threatening to leave and take her bolts of fabric with her. Lizzy had slipped out the door as her mother wailed for her smelling salts in between berating the seamstress for not allowing Lydia to touch the silks and muslins with her hands encrusted in sticky jam from the last of biscuits the cook had reluctantly given to a demanding Lydia before breakfast.
Lizzy grimaced as she recalled how Lydia had waited to eat them until Kitty and Mary had risen, shoving them in her mouth and chewing noisily while gloating to their faces that there were none left for them. Kitty had wailed in a fit of temper that was more appropriate for a child of two than of ten, only to be hushed by her mother for upsetting her nerves so early in the morning. Mary, on the other hand, betrayed no emotion other than a sheen of tears behind her glasses. Even at the tender age of twelve, Mary had long ago learned that to show disappointment only increased Lydia's joy in her success of upsetting her sisters.
Lizzy shook her head as she recollected her father's droll voice echoing above the din, mocking the scene in front of him, and Jane's placid face betraying no hit of annoyance. How can Jane be unaffected by such behavior? Lizzy wondered in frustrating. She knew Jane's mild temperament would find some way to excuse the uncouth behavior of both her mother and sister, as she always did.
Stumbling over a tree root, Lizzy realized she had reached the border of Longbourn and Netherfield, the neighboring estate, and quickly stopped, unease filling her mind.
Netherfield was owned by Lord _, who spent most of his time in London. His lordship gave his steward, Mr. Cartwright, carte blanche to run the estate and manage the tenants as he see fit. Many members of the aristocracy did similarly, but none of them had a steward as wonderful as Mr. Cartwright.
Mr. Cartwright was a favorite of the adults in the four and twenty families that dined together in the neighborhood. He was well-mannered, charismatic, and managed Netherfield with fairness and dedication. Indeed, he was all that was amiable and gentlemanlike. The children enjoyed him because he always had a sweet or two in his pocket when he encountered them on his calls.
However, Mr. Cartwright was also a bit particular and fastidious. He did not like it when neighboring children, whether tenants or gently-gently born, trespassed onto Netherfield lands. Since he was such a favorite amongst the neighbors, no one hesitated to disobey, including Lizzy.
Backing up slowly, Lizzy turned and quickly walked down the path she had just come up.
A few hours later, Lizzy approached her home. By the loud voices echoing across the lawn from the open drawing room window, it was clear that the seamstress was still there. Instead of entering the front door, Lizzy turned direction and walked towards the rear of the house to the servants' entrance in the kitchen.
When she entered the room, Lizzy saw Hill and Cook whispering animatedly near the pot over the fire. Upon hearing the door close, both women startled and fell silent. After a few awkward moments, Hill came forward and said, "Just look at you, Miss Lizzy! Covered in dirt from head to foot! Mark my words, your mother will be fit to be tied if she sees you! Quickly, up the stairs and I'll send Sally up with some water."
Lizzy turned towards the staircase and began moving towards it. As she reached the first step, she glanced back. Hill was staring at her, a peculiar expression on her face.
"Yes, Hill? Did you need something else?" Lizzy asked.
"Miss Lizzy, where did you walk today?"
"Along the stream towards Netherfield. Why?" answered Lizzy.
Hill hesitated, then said, "Miss Lizzy, just be careful when you're around Netherfield's lands. That's all."
Lizzy stared at Hill for a moment, waiting for her to continue. When Hill did not offer further explanation, Lizzy asked, "Why? Is it dangerous."
Hill hesitated again. "Just – just be careful, Miss Lizzy, that's all's I'm saying."
When it became clear Hill would not elaborate, Lizzy nodded and continued up the stairs to freshen herself before her mother noticed.
Some weeks later, Lizzy found herself walking the same trail towards Netherfield as she had the day Hill behaved so oddly. As she approached the boundary between Longbourn's tenants and Netherfield's, she paused.
While she deliberated continuing on to satisfy her curiosity about Hill's strange warning, something made the decision for her.
A faint sobbing reached Lizzy's ears. As she strained to hear where the sound was coming from, she saw a bonnet blowing across a Netherfield tenant's field, ribbons trailing behind. A few moments later, she saw a girl around Jane's age chasing fruitlessly after it, stumbling as she ran.
Lizzy didn't hesitate – she rushed down the small hill she was on and ran towards the bonnet that the wind was carrying towards her. Scooping it up, she slowed her pace but continued towards the girl, intent on returning the bonnet to its owner.
As the girl grew closer in sight, Lizzy was startled to recognize Becky, the daughter of one of Netherfield's tenants. Becky was twelve old, but she her height and development made her look a few years older. Becky's eyes were red with tears.
"Oh, Miss Lizzy," she gasped as she approached. "Thank you." Becky hastily wiped at her eyes and grabbed at the bonnet.
"Becky," asked Lizzy, "are you quite all right?" Lizzy's sharp eyes took in Becky's dress which was in disarray. The buttons were misaligned, and Lizzy could see grass and dirt on her back.
"Yes, Miss Lizzy," Becky answered, eyes cast down. She grabbed once more at the bonnet; this time, Lizzy allowed her to take it.
"Becky!" yelled a harsh, angry voice. Becky's eyes widened with fear as she frantically looked behind her. Lizzy could see the entire back of her dress was covered with grass and dirt, and she had twigs in her hair.
"Becky, you stupid chit, get back here right now!" The angry voice was drawing closer. Becky's wide eyes met Lizzy's, pleading in them.
"Quick!" Lizzy said. "Run towards the trees and hide! I'll distract whoever it is."
"No, Miss Lizzy! You mustn't!" Lizzy didn't think it was possible for Becky to be more frightened, but she was. "It will make things worse, it will. Mr. Cart-." Becky froze midsentence.
Lizzy gasped. "Mr. Cartwright? Is that who you are running from? I didn't recognize his voice." Lizzy paused a moment. "Wait, did he hurt you, Becky?"
Becky began to stammer and back up. "No, Miss Lizzy. Please don't ask any questions. 'Twill only make things worse."
"But Becky," Lizzy replied, "if someone is hurting you, then maybe I can help. Papa could –"
"No!" Becky said firmly. "Miss Lizzy, you mustn't say anything of what you saw to anyone, especially the gentry. I would be ruined, and my family would be turned from their homes. That's just the way it works at Netherfield."
"I don't understand," Lizzy said.
"Please, Miss Lizzy. Promise me you won't tell anyone about this. Not one word to a single soul."
Lizzy looked at the desperation in Becky's eyes. "Alright, Becky. I promise."
Becky sighed in relief, which quickly turned to fear as she heard, "Becky! Mark my words, girl, if you keep me waiting any longer, things will be much worse for you than they already are!"
Becky looked at Lizzy, "Run, Miss Lizzy. Run and hide."
Lizzy felt torn. Should she stay and help, or run as Becky begged her to?
"Go!" Becky shoved Lizzy towards Longbourn's fields, then turned and ran towards the voice.
Lizzy scrambled to her feet and ran as fast as she could up the slope towards the trees. Once hidden safely on Longbourn's land, she paused, gasping for breath. Turning, she could see Mr. Cartwright come over a knoll as Becky ran towards him.
"Forgive me, sir!" Becky cried. "The wind carried the bonnet faster than I could run."
Mr. Cartwright's hand lashed out, striking her across the cheek. Becky collapsed to the ground, and Lizzy gasped in horror, then covered her mouth with both hands as tears filled her eyes.
Becky's hands cupped her already swelling face. "Please, sir-" she begged.
The steward's normally handsome face skewed in anger as he hit her again. "You should have let it go and found it later. You are to tend to my needs before your own. Now get up, girl. I have waited long enough."
Becky rose, unsteady on her feet. She swayed as she walked, which led Mr. Cartwright to grab her by the hair that was falling down around her face. "Quickly, girl!" he ordered.
Lizzy watched mutely, tears streaming down her face. As they disappeared from view, she saw Mr. Cartwright begin pulling Becky's dress down around her shoulders.
Lizzy stood rooted in her place, time passing unnoticed as she kept her eyes on the spot she had last seen Becky and Mr. Cartwright. Being the second oldest of five children and a country girl who enjoyed nature, Lizzy was somewhat aware of the behavior between men and women. However, she had never before seen such brutality, especially towards someone her own age.
After what must have been hours, Lizzy began to feel chilled. She looked around and noticed that the sun was beginning to lower behind Oakham Mount. Realizing the lateness of the hour, Lizzy began to run towards home.
As she ran, Lizzy's thoughts raced furiously, trying to process everything she had seen. She knew that tenants were under the power of stewards and masters. She knew her own father was indolent, but he was never vicious or cruel. She had thought the same of Mr. Cartwright. Who knew such evil was hidden behind a handsome face?
Should she tell someone? Lizzy immediately discounted her mother – all her mother would do would be to tell all the neighbors, which would ruin Becky and destroy her family.
Perhaps Papa? Lizzy imagined her father sitting in his study with a book and port, feet up as he reclined day after day in the same position. If he couldn't stir himself to tend to his own daughters' behaviors, he probably would not put effort into someone who wasn't even his own tenant.
Lizzy considered her dear Jane, but she knew Jane's gentle nature would rebel at such wickedness. Jane would insist that it was all a misunderstanding. Certainly Mr. Cartwright has the appearance of goodness and amiability! Jane would insist.
Next, Lizzy thought of Hill. Based on Hill's odd behavior in discussing Netherfield land a few weeks before, the trustworthy servant most likely already knew, or at least suspected, Mr. Cartwright's true character.
No, Lizzy thought. I mustn't tell anyone. And I will never trust a handsome face again until I know what character lies behind it.