There were moments of time during the days that followed the departure of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins when Elizabeth could well imagine that Pemberley had left its earthly plane as if transmuted into a fourth dimension where ticks of a clock no longer existed. Only the changing shades of light and dark could call her to bed or wakefulness, leaving her with a feeling of hopelessness and a roiling sense of his negligence. She knew she was being uncharitable. She knew he owed her nothing. Still, he might at least have called. Unbidden, that last thought drew from her a mortified groan at how far she had fallen with this foolhardy adventure. She was beginning to see herself as a wilted lily in some ghastly railroad novel. It would not do! She had to call a halt to this self-defeating masochism before she began to enjoy it too much. She decided to give him another week...or maybe ten more days to contact her. If he couldn't make an effort during that time, she would pack up and leave and never look back.
The decision made, Elizabeth whiled away her mornings watching the schoolhouse rising board by board, questioning whether the building would ever be put to use. She had begun to doubt it. He seemed to be unable to focus. He no longer resembled the man she had known at Longbourn. That man knew what he wanted and went after it. The man she knew as the master of Pemberley seemed to have been cast in a different mold. She feared he might not have any time or interest in going on with his original plans. He had been so enthusiastic about buying up the long fallow lands around England and growing crops and raising livestock so that the project would be self sustaining, that she had grown excited just to be part of the experiment. Now, however, she had begun to suspect that his interest had waned. Now he was focused on politics and had little interest in discussing his initial plans. Politics paled in comparison with the good that education of the poor could do and Elizabeth felt a keen disappointment that he had apparently lost interest in that project. And if he found his latest pursuit not nearly as challenging as he hoped it would be, or more morally corrupt than he believed it to be, where would his next endeavor lead him? She supposed he might buy himself a beret and start painting portraits. He might even run away and join the circus. For all she knew, he might decide to turn Pemberley into a Bed and Breakfast. Her unkind thoughts were traitorous she knew and were an indication of the bitterness growing in her heart. And so be it. Better than groveling in self-pity.
Afternoons were spent in the library rearranging the lower shelves which should have displayed only light novels and adventures catering to the taste of children and the gentler sex. Unfortunately someone with a more prurient taste in literature had chosen, then carelessly replaced several of them in the lower shelves. With Caroline Bingley and Lady Catherine in residence for several months, Elizabeth wasn't too surprised to see several books displaying paintings of the "other" sex, but she was shocked and amused to find ancient books written in Greek and Latin with graphic drawings indicating that the human body was capable of the most tortuous contortions which apparently gave them much pleasure. She climbed the ladder with a dozen or so of the more interesting books and placed them out of the reach of those with weak hearts and no sense of humor.
In the upper shelves, she found the journals and diaries of the families who had made their home at Pemberley decades and centuries earlier. Most were dry uninteresting accounts of everyday expenses and the dinners and balls they were invited to. There were no indications of flirtations or romance, nor of happiness in their marriages. Either these ghosts from the past lacked imagination or they were circumspect whenever they put pen to paper. The only striking evidence she found of what was important to them were the many comments she found during the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently, the cricket season had suffered mightily owing to loss of investment and manpower. Of the young happy couple in the portrait which still so entranced her, there was not a trace. Any memory that may have lingered in the home they had shared remained blurred and illusive, and she was saddened to know there was a good chance that they would continue to be so during the remainder of her time at Pemberley. And maybe that was a good thing. If she learned that their happiness had turned ugly and bitter, disillusionment would be complete. She preferred to believe that their marriage had been blissful...or at the very least hadn't ended up with threats to strangle each other once a week.
In desperate boredom she spent a couple of evenings trying to renew her acquaintance with the Bronte sisters hoping her own woes would pale in significance to those of Catherine and Jane. Unfortunately, her brain refused to co-operate. Her mind digressed into flights of fancy, especially when Heathcliff arrived on the scene. No longer that dark-skinned gypsy whose ungoverned passions harbored cruelty and vengeance, but transmogrified into the handsome master of Pemberley, ruled by all the passions...which as the saying goes...would make a schoolgirl blush.
Elizabeth sighed and tossed Wuthering Heights aside and reached for Jane Eyre. Here she paused, thinking of the master of Thornfield, another romantic figure whose passion would eventually betray him. He also preferred to forget the past. In her growing bitterness, Elizabeth could well imagine herself locked in the tower, mad as a hatter, with Caroline Bingley as her nurse and drinking companion.
Frustration and anger lying beneath the surface, had begun to simmer. She was lonely, feeling unloved and weary of the situation. How long could unrequited love endure? She'd felt at least a sexual tension between them on the last night she saw him. Had it been only wishful thinking? He'd said that she had become an integral part of his family. Was this how he treated his family? It surely wasn't the man she'd known at Longbourn. But she had to remember that the man she knew, no long existed. He was Mr. Darcy, a man she didn't know and the irony of referring to her employer as Mr. Darcy signaled at least a subconscious withdrawal from the situation. She had no one but herself to blame for her continuing heartache and she knew that it couldn't end unless she left Pemberley. The alternative was finding herself ten years down the road employed as a nanny tending to his brood of brats. She sighed, appalled at the direction her thoughts had taken, and switched off the light, determined to sleep her worries away.
The monotony of days passing by at a snail's pace ended abruptly three days later with the arrival of Anne De Bourgh just in time for the cocktail hour. If Lydia hadn't kept her apprised of the changes she had made to Anne, Elizabeth doubted she would have recognized the young woman who returned to Pemberley. She was no longer the brown mouse. She was no mouse at all. Lydia had worked a miracle. Mousy brown hair had been colored into a rich chestnut and shingled into an androgynous style favored by young women. Why women wanted to look like young men, Elizabeth still couldn't imagine, but in Anne's case it had done wonders for her boyish figure. With shadowed eyes and a dress the color of a foamy sea, Anne De Bough was a sight to behold and she knew it. She was giddy with happiness and wasn't afraid to show it. She twirled around the drawing only stopping long enough to strike a pose she had seen in the various fashion gazettes Lydia had bestowed upon her. "I feel so pretty," she twittered and chirped like a tiny songbird with every pose, before she finally dropped into an armchair in exhaustion and regarded Elizabeth with an infectious grin. "So what do you think?" she asked, "And don't tell me I'm acting silly. I know that!"
Lydia had not just draped clothes on Anne but had caught the essence of the woman. Her dress was quietly elegant but modest by the day's standard. It was more the way she carried herself with that mysterious combination of shyness and madcap bravado. Her dark eyes flashed with good humor letting her audience in on the joke. Clothes and a new hairdo had made the woman and Elizabeth was delighted with the result. "I hardly recognize you," Elizabeth replied. "You've turned into a butterfly. You truly are a stunning woman, Anne, and never forget it. You're beautiful!"
Anne blushed prettily. "No" she replied, "not yet. Lydia says that I won't become beautiful until I mature more and stop giggling nervously when a man offers me a compliment. She says I must learn to look supercilious when a man looks me over and to keep my mouth shut lest something stupid or intelligent slips out. She says that there will be plenty of time for him to learn about me once he is in full lust and must have me."
Elizabeth sighed, "My sister has a book full of silly bromides, none of which she follows herself. She says and does anything she pleases and lets the chips fall where they may. I've seen grown men blanch hearing some of her opinions. She sees herself as progressive, a woman born for the future, where she stands on equal footing with men. And, naturally, there will be no "obey" in the marriage ceremony. But she's living in a fool's paradise. Equality will never come in our lifetime. It's a man's world and they rule with an iron fist. So I suggest you tread lightly when dealing with male acquaintances. You're lovely, wealthy, and well-read. There is no reason to sit mute when in conversation with a young man. Just soften your opinions and try not to yawn in his face if he becomes too tedious. I love my sister dearly, but some of her ideas lack good judgment. Did you know that she's actively searching for the perfect man...someone handsome and rich? If there is any other requirement for her future happiness, I've never heard her mention it."
"Yes, I know. In a moment of weakness I came close to suggesting Will, but my wounds are still too fresh. I don't think I could bear seeing him in love with another woman."
In the silence that followed, Elizabeth tried to gather her thoughts but nothing sensible came to mind. Had they been a couple? If so, when? Before the war? After his return to Pemberley? How serious was it? "I didn't know you were a couple," she finally managed.
"Neither did he," Anne laughed shortly. "I was in love all by myself. Lydia says that it was probably only a childhood crush and maybe it was. But it hurts just the same. With the exception of Georgiana and Jane, the entire family has been teasing me for years. A part of me knew that I didn't have a chance with him but I couldn't seem to help myself. My eyes had a mind of their own. I could be in a room crowded with family and friends and I could see only him, could only hear his voice. There were times I thought I was losing my mind, I was so obsessed with him. My days were difficult but I could manage them with walks in the park and spending time in museums and bookstores. But I came to dread the evenings, yet looked forward to them when I could indulge in obscene fantasies where I was seduced by the Sheik of Araby who looked suspiciously like William Darcy. Oh, Elizabeth, you must think I'm a horrible woman."
Elizabeth refused to believe that. Anne was simply offering another version of her own trials and tribulations. She managed a smile that wasn't too ironic, "Men aren't the only ones who fantasize. Don't get me started on mine."
Somewhat reassured, Anne sighed. "I treated Charles abominably. He's so sweet and he didn't deserve it. I used him just to hear his stories of their college days at Cambridge. I imposed myself on Georgiana, pretending that we were great friends just to hear more stories about him. I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself." Anne took a short breath before continuing her tale of woe, "Have you ever loved someone who didn't love you back?" Mercifully, Anne didn't wait for Elizabeth's answer. "Well, don't! There's nothing to gain and everything to lose. You exchange dignity and common sense for daydreams and sleepless nights. Not to mention the constant fear that one day he will fall in love with someone else and you won't be able to bear it. I suppose I could stand it if he fell for the likes of another Caroline Bingley. Would serve him right. And there I go again, being spiteful. But I'll get over it. I have to. I'm for the continent and have no doubt you'll hear someday that I've married a prince who adores me just the way I am. Doesn't that sound like fun?"
Happily, Elizabeth was spared an answer when the dinner bell rang. But her trial was not yet over. There were three servants overseeing dinner so Anne mercifully changed the subject from sexual frustration to her shopping sprees in London. Elizabeth endured three courses of lacy underwear in astonishing hues, to the shoes, silk stockings, dresses, skirts, blouses and jerseys she had purchased under Lydia's guidance By dessert Anne had moved to accessories, jewelry and perfume. Elizabeth's ears were ringing and her head spinning. She couldn't imagine what the staff thought listening to this litany of unchecked spending. Though Darcy was known to be very generous employer, Anne's dress no doubt would constitute a month's wage for the servants at Pemberley. The girl was obviously ignoring Lydia's instruction to keep her mouth shut lest she say something stupid.
By the time they returned to the drawing room, Elizabeth was mentally exhausted, but the ordeal was not yet complete. Anne ordered two brandies, then dismissed the servants before returning to her source of misery, picking up exactly where she had left off before the dinner bell had rung. Elizabeth wondered idly if becoming beautiful had short-circuited Anne's brain. Whether the wine that Anne had imbibed freely at dinner or her new sense of freedom, Anne continued to ramble on about her lost love and her guilt. She didn't seem to require an answer so Elizabeth allowed her to ramble unchecked. There really wasn't much she could say since she found her own condition less than promising. Darcy had been gone for more than a week and not a word had she received from him. Once more it seemed likely that he had forgotten her existence.
At length, Anne finally changed the subject, "Lydia says that I should go to Paris and study all the great writers. Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Samuel Becket. All living in one city...can you imagine? Maybe I'll rent a garret and take a lover. He can be my muse. Or vice versa."
That was all utter nonsense. Once the novelty of freedom, her new wardrobe, and the alcohol she'd consumed had worn off, she had no doubt Anne would settle down and behave herself. "You will do no such thing."
"Probably not," She agreed with a giggle, "but Lydia says I should write my own story. I just have to find the plot, then fill it with characters. For a start, I've decided to join my stepmother and Mr. Collins on their trip to the continent. They're only planning to go as far as Rome, but I might continue on to Constantinople. Care to join me?"
Elizabeth decided to ignore the question when Anne paused to refresh her drink, and took advantage of this short interim by asking the question which had consumed her for the past week. "I don't suppose you've seen Mr. Darcy lately? I haven't heard a word from him since he left Pemberley."
"Last I heard he headed up North to the lakes. Knowing him," Anne shrugged, "he could be gone for weeks or months." Unaware of the effect her words had on Elizabeth, Anne dismissed the subject and merrily continued, "I'm serious, Elizabeth. Why not join me? Think of the fun we could have.
Elizabeth felt an overwhelming grief take hold of her heart. The room seemed to darken as black despair settled in. It was all so hopeless and Anne's offer was tempting. Writing her own story had become more difficult due, no doubt, to writer's block. All her characters had abandoned her in search of their own stories. Her hero had gone missing once more. The heroine was locked in the past, smothering in sorrow, trapped by her own design. She could see the writing on the wall and it didn't look promising. If she had any sense she would pack up and leave with Anne and put the past behind her completely. But hope springs eternal, and she still had a few days to wait for his call before she packed up and left. She desperately wanted to see him one more time. "I'm supposed to help him with his speeches," She managed dully.
Anne frowned, "What speeches?"
"For the coming election."
Anne waved her hand in dismissal, "Oh that. It's off before it began."
"Did you know that he was summoned to Lambeth Palace? Or as Will described it...he was bade to call on the pompous ass of Canterbury."
"You mean the Archbishop?"
"Oh how I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when that conversation took place."
"What did the Archbishop want with him?"
Anne snickered, "He wished to advise him."
Here, Anne began to laugh so hard Elizabeth couldn't understand a word she was saying. Despite the shock she was feeling at this news, Elizabeth, herself, began to laugh and it was some time before they were able to calm down. "Now, Anne, tell me all!"
Anne took several long breaths before attempting to speak. Finally, struggling to get the words out, "He wanted to advise him... on...on... how he should go about procuring a proper wife which was suitable...for a Member of Parliament. Good soul he thinks he is, he had...he had a list of acceptable females he advised Will to contemplate." Another deep breath and a gulp of brandy enabled her to continue. "Mind you, I had this all from Georgiana who found nothing amusing about the Archbishop of Canterbury acting like a pimp. And apparently neither did Will. According to Georgiana, Will's hair was on fire, his nostrils flaring like an incensed stallion when he came home from the meeting. He stomped around the drawing room sputtering and spluttering, incapable of rational speech. Finally at a loss, he marched down the hall and slammed into the library with orders not to be disturbed. He spent the night drinking and talking to himself."
Elizabeth fell back in her chair in shock and some dismay though it was tinged with amusement and relief, "Anne, how much of this story is embroidered? It all sounds like a French farce."
"Well, Will's hair was not actually on fire, but the rest is true. Georgiana would never embellish what happened. She adores her brother and she was distraught to see him in such a state. You have no idea what she went through when he was missing for so long. And when he came back from the dead she was so grateful she ignored the change in him."
"How had he changed?"
"For one thing, we couldn't imagine why he was so tolerant of Caroline being his housekeeper or that my stepmother and her boyfriend were living in his house. He didn't seem to care about Pemberley anymore. When he was here, he wandered around like some lost soul. He spent most of his time in Town locked away in his office or wandering the streets. He complained about his headaches but refused to see a doctor. And most nights he spent with a bottle of brandy as his only companion. This went on for months. As if that wasn't bad enough, he would disappear for days without a word of warning which terrified Georgie. Seeing him so distraught, she began to fear for his sanity as well as her own. And meanwhile, I was afraid I was losing my mind with all the day and night dreaming that had become the center of my own little universe. Jane was mooning over Charles but keeping a stiff upper lip. Charles was pretending that I would eventually see him as the man of my dreams and Charlotte was pretending she wasn't madly in love with Richard."
Elizabeth's eyes widened shock. "Charlotte?"
Anne smirked. "Oh, yes. She thinks she's so clever. She says that the entire family is just a pack of dysfunctional loonies and we should learn to live with it. Her answer for everything. But Jane and I have known for years that Charlotte is just as crazy as we are. She's always going on about Richard not growing up. And he's always laughing at her saying "You're crazy about me, aren't you sweetheart?" "This, of course, inevitably throws her into a rage. I've actually seen her so mad that she's forgotten to put a cigarette into that ebony holder of hers and puff and blow out non-existent smoke."
Elizabeth shook her head at the irony of the situation. Anne was painting an hilarious picture of two more love affairs that seemed to be as ridiculous as her own. Didn't the course of love ever run smoothly? Didn't anyone fall in love without drama? She'd have to ask her mother about her own courtship. She might even consult with the couple in the portrait. With that last thought, Elizabeth decided they had gone too far off point. "Anne, did Mr. Darcy ever say where he'd been? Did he remember anything?"
Anne shook her head. "By common consent we didn't ask him about those missing months and he didn't volunteer. We were just happy that he was home safe. We speculated of course...especially with that habit of his with that key. And too, we were afraid that if he remembered those lost months, he might forget his family again. We decided to leave well enough alone and let nature take its course. And he's improved considerably in the last few weeks. He's laughing again and seems to enjoy his guests once more." Anne stopped speaking and regarded Elizabeth with interest and narrowed eyes. An arched brow raised a question.
Elizabeth ignored the silent query, "So, you've decided to spread your wings and fly away. It sounds wonderful."
"Yes. And there's no reason you can't join me. Or have you fallen in love with Pemberley and can't tear yourself away?"
Elizabeth brushed aside the sarcasm, "I might just take you up on your offer. Pemberley is empty now and rather lonely. From what you say, Mr. Darcy might absent himself for weeks. Since he hasn't bothered to let me know what his plans are, I can only assume he no longer has any use for me. To tell the truth I'm bored to distraction." She hoped her response would allay any suspicion Anne might have concerning her relationship with Darcy.
"Lydia can manage five days in Paris and then you and I can take the train down to Turkey. Lydia thinks a change of scenery would do you a world of good. She's under the impression that you're miserable. Are you miserable, Elizabeth?"
Elizabeth sensed the question hadn't been asked lightly and tried to answer honestly. "No more than usual. The trouble is I've grown distrustful of any decision I make. My story would never be on the Best Seller list in the London Times. Becoming a nurse was my first mistake and not quitting after I emptied my first chamber pot, my second. Then came my third when I refused to give up when I saw what a bayonet could do to flesh. Then I filled my life taking courses in studies which I will probably never use. Wasted years...all of them. And what was my next decision? Against my better judgment, I took this job as incompetent as I was, and ended up in isolation with time on my hands, reviewing the past, and to my embarrassment, began to wallow in my own self-inflicted misery. I confess that my goals since I left nursing have been as elusive as a will o' the wisp. I think perhaps it's time to close this chapter in my life. But let me think about it."
Anne regarded Elizabeth somberly, "Oh, Elizabeth, how I envy you for your fearlessness. All my knowledge of life comes solely from books while you were out in the world living life to the fullest. I'm the one who should bemoan my wasted years. But no more. I won't deny that I waver between anxiety and excitement, but I just can't go back to the life I've been living. I just can't. I speak French and I can get by with Italian, so I may not make it as far as Constantinople, but I can get to Milan or Venice for a start. "It will be the adventure of a lifetime. If we're lucky, we'll find two princes. One for both of us."
The following morning Anne slept late and as a consequence, Elizabeth didn't see her until luncheon when she arrived in the dining room looking the worse for wear due to her indulgence the previous evening. "Do I need to apologize for last night?" She asked shyly.
"Enjoy thy youth," Elizabeth quoted, "it will not stay. For oh, it is not always May!"
Anne thought for a moment before responding with a sardonic smile, "And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse.
Elizabeth regarded Anne with amusement and affection. "You're a clever woman, Anne. I predict that you will be a very happy woman too. Just choose the characters in your story with care. If you don't, you'll learn what real heartbreak is and you might never recover."
"And you know that how?"
Elizabeth shrugged, "I don't believe it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Now let's eat and talk about something more pleasant. When do you sail for France?"
Anne's spirits lifted quickly with the question. "Four weeks, and I can hardly wait. Have you given any thought about joining us?"
In truth, Elizabeth had given the invitation a great deal of thought during the sleepless night. Looking back on the previous five years, she realized she hadn't had much fun. Nursing school followed by a three year stint in Sussex and ending with this time at Pemberley she had not 'Enjoyed the fragrance of thy prime.' Spending a week in Paris with two young women who were determined to have fun sounded enticing. On the other hand, seeing lovers strolling down the boulevard wouldn't be conducive to mending a broken heart. "I don't know, Anne. My parents are going up to Edinburgh next week and I've half promised to join them." It wasn't a complete lie for they had invited her because they were worried about her despite her assurances that she was perfectly fine. She'd never been able to fool them. She was able to soothe their concerns on the phone, but she wouldn't have had a chance to fool them when face to face. They thought she was still mourning the loss of Smithy. If they somehow learned the truth about the situation they would both be distraught and she wouldn't have them hurt for anything in the world. But of course, the truth was that she didn't want to leave England. She didn't want to leave Pemberley. She seemed incapable of rational thinking. She didn't know what to do.
It was perhaps only her imagination, but when she bid Anne a fond farewell later that afternoon, she suspected that Anne knew the truth. Whether Lydia had let slip something or she recognized the signs of hopelessness, Anne hugged her tight and thanked her for introducing her to Lydia. "You've changed my life forever, Elizabeth. I'll always love you for your kindness. She turned towards her car and took a few steps then turned back. "I wish you luck, Elizabeth. And who knows? He may be back before you know it." With those words of wisdom, she slipped into her Crossley convertible and drove off to her future.