Blurb: In this Twelfth Night role-reversal, Lady Catherine De Bourgh and Darcy do a little do-si-do about the importance of family, rank, and the proper order of things after she is brought face-to-face with an unexpected visitor from the past. Co-authored by Jancat and JustineR
A Delicate Rose
by Jancat and JustineR
Lady Catherine shouldered her way through the front door of Darcy House, oblivious to Hudson's protests that the newlyweds were not currently at home to visitors.
"Stuff and nonsense! Darcy's manners are too good for him ever to turn away his own flesh and blood, his aunt. To the sitting room! Tell Darcy I demand his presence at once."
Hudson scurried off to find his master. Lady Catherine sat tapping her foot impatiently for nearly a quarter of an hour before her recalcitrant nephew finally appeared, a thunderous expression on his face and his cravat noticeably askew. His last letter to her had been his furious reply to the protest she had felt duty-bound to share with him upon hearing the news of his engagement. His words had been bitterly offensive to her eyes, certain though she was that he had not truly meant them. Nevertheless, the fact remained that he had gone and married that fortune-hunter, so the least she could do for the family was to make sure that the new Mrs. Darcy was not an embarrassment to them all.
Darcy bowed stiffly to Lady Catherine and said, "Aunt, to what do I owe the honor of your presence? As you have no doubt heard, my wife and I are not receiving guests at present. And in any case, I must tell you, ma'am, that I will not stand for any discussion or criticism of my dear wife's qualities or character."
She waved her hand dismissively at him. "Yes, yes, the die is cast. Too late for that now. I have come to offer my advice to Mrs. Darcy on her dress and comportment, and to assist in her presentation to society."
"Mrs. Darcy has no need for advice on her dress or comportment, Aunt Catherine—"
His explanation was cut off by her imperious stare. "Let me see her. I am a great proficient in determining the correct cut of a sleeve, the flow of a curtsey, the manner in which a soup spoon must be handled or tea properly served."
"Aunt—" Darcy cleared his throat and attempted to straighten his ruined cravat. "Elizabeth is occupied with her duties as mistress of the house. We will see you tonight for dinner, a family dinner, at your brother's home. We will be joining you there.
"You are staying at Himdale House, are you not?" he added nervously.
"Ah, yes." She waved her cane. "Send a card to tell them I am on my way. Let them know I expect the blue room. And the yellow room far down the hall for Anne, to save me from listening to her endless wheezing all night! She is far too ill to leave the carriage"—she gestured outside— "let alone to attend dinner this evening."
Her nostrils flaring, the great lady leaned closer to her nephew. "And for God's sake, Darcy. Learn to tie a proper cravat. Or keep it tied. That woman you married will bring you nothing but public shame. You've barely digested your breakfast. This is not a decent hour for her to display her arts and allurements."
She turned and stalked away.
When Lady Catherine descended the stairs at Himdale House that evening to greet her nephew and his so-called wife as they emerged from their carriage, she was not amused. The impetuous young man had not heeded a word of her advice. His cravat again was twisted, his cheeks were flushed, and his hair was snarled into small spikes. He was rapidly smoothing his locks and speaking softly to his wife, whom he shielded from view as they climbed the steps and passed through the front door. Lady Catherine opened her mouth to give the young pup a piece of her mind about how this might look to the neighbors, but she quickly snapped it shut. She had agreed not to speak ill of that trollop, so she contented herself with reprimanding him for his other trespasses.
"Darcy! It is one minute before 8 o'clock. You are almost late. Have you no respect for rank, for privilege, or for your elders?"
"Dearest Auntie," bellowed a cheerful voice from behind her. "I believe my cousin has great respect for his privilege, for his rank, and for his wife." Richard winked at Darcy, greeted Elizabeth warmly, and ushered them toward the drawing room. There, his parents, Lord and Lady Matlock, gave them a similarly warm welcome. His elder brother, Viscount Smythington—Reginald to his friends and relations—merely smirked.
Just then a loud knock was heard at the front door.
"Who could that be?" Lady Catherine demanded. "Are we not a small family party this evening? Why did no one inform me, that I might have worn my company jewels and tallest wig?"
Her elder brother, Lord Matlock, smiled at her indulgently, as though he had a secret. "Did I not mention it before, Kate? Our old friend, Lord Cadbury, will be joining us this evening." He winked at his wife.
Lady Catherine temporarily discovered herself at a loss for words. Finally, she found her tongue just as the others had given up waiting for her to respond and moved on to another subject, something about the weather, or perhaps it was the Prince Regent's socks. She broke in, "You have invited Cad? But I...does he know I am in town? Oh, I have not seen him since...why, I cannot remember the last time I saw him." In fact, however, she remembered it perfectly well, and she nearly swooned at the memory.
Lady Catherine noticed that the younger members of the family were eyeing her with some curiosity, while her brother and sister were both occupied with making strangled sneezing noises into their handkerchiefs. Perhaps they had taken some snuff when she had had her head turned.
The doorknob began rattling and a hearty chuckle could be heard as the doors to the sitting room slowly opened. The blood that had drained from Lady Catherine's face upon first hearing the news of the unexpected dinner guest quickly rose and she looked up, rosy-faced and red-eared.
It was he. Cad. Still tall, of barrel chest and regal bearing, his hair no longer that bright shock of red but a softer gray. Maybe to the others it might appear that he had grown portly and soft around the middle, and undoubtedly those were wrinkles about his mouth and aristocratic forehead, lines of good humor and laughter. But it was his eyes, his fine, fine eyes, that, as ever, captured Lady Catherine. They were still ice-blue, and now they were focused on her. Only her.
She felt a great fluttering in her chest. Was she having an attack of the vapours? No, her heart was still beating regularly, strongly. A great chill ran down her spine. Was it the change of life again? No, no, she was certain that was a thing of the past. What could it be? She felt suddenly transported to an earlier time in her life when everything had been simpler, back before she had done her duty to her family and married Lewis, back when she had idolized the tall, glowing, sporting friend of her elder brother when they had come down from Cambridge for the summer. He of the noble mien and dashing figure...and at twenty, far too grown up to notice the skinny, awkward 14-year-old lass who had loved horses and had followed him around moonstruck. Not even her younger sister Anne had known about the cravat she'd stolen from his room, nor about the miniature of him that she'd sketched out, so very frustrated by her lack of proficiency in the art. No one, she was certain, could ever capture the beauty of his eyes.
Ignoring the others in the room, Lord Cadbury came close to her, his gaze holding hers, and boomed, "Katie! It must be above forty years since we met last! You have not aged a day—still the most delicate rose, the finest example of English maidenhood…"
Hmm, maybe he had noticed her, after all.
Lady Catherine heard an unfamiliar sound issuing from somewhere near her, and realized, to her horror, that it was emanating from her own mouth: she was giggling like a schoolgirl.
Darcy, Reginald, Richard and Elizabeth gaped at them in great shock whilst Lord and Lady Matlock had turned away, apparently to examine something of great interest on the wall by the door. Or perhaps Lady Matlock was feeling ill, since she had burrowed her head into her husband's shoulder and seemed to be shaking. Lady Catherine glanced over at the young people and rolled her eyes. Then she turned them back to Cad and involuntarily fluttered her eyelashes. "You are too kind, Cad. And still as handsome as in my cherished memories."
Her voice trailed off and she extended a thin, bony hand toward him. It trembled briefly before her swain grasped it and pulled her closer. "Do come sit with me, Katie. I want to know everything about you," he thundered, obviously as entranced as she felt.
The Darcys and Fitzwilliams stood in stupefied silence until Elizabeth came to her senses and quietly urged her husband to introduce her to the tall man currently enfolding himself around Lady Catherine on the settee. Instead, Darcy took his wife by the elbow and, joined by his cousins, headed for the brandy bottle to spectate.
There was much to take in beyond the hypnotic beauty of Cad's eyes. So much about him had changed, it was true, but the things that mattered had not. He still had that appealing way of raising one eyebrow and leaning in a bit too close, and he still smelled of tobacco and Earl Grey tea. He spoke rather loudly, Lady Catherine noticed, his beautiful, mellifluous voice resonating through the room like a host of angels' trumpets. Trumpets, trumpets. Hmm, perhaps he was in need of an ear trumpet. A lovely bejeweled ear trumpet, such as the one she had seen just a few months ago on Bond Street. Surely it would be unexceptionable if she, a respectable widow, were to give such a gift to an old, dear family friend?
For the next half-hour, Lady Catherine stared, enraptured, at him, heedless of the tittering of her family, the ladies sat in one corner whispering and shaking their heads in amusement, and the men, lined up at the sideboard, their backs to the group and the sounds of muffled laughter and clanking glassware filtering through.
Cad's story was simple and sweet. He had been a lonely widower for nigh on 10 years, with two sons and six nearly grown grandchildren. Carpet monkeys, she sighed wistfully, imagining a half-dozen miniature Cads rolling about on the floor.
She sighed more throughout dinner, listening to her brother's inquiries about Cad's business dealings and recent travels, and heard admiringly how he had ably negotiated some delicate matters on his vast estate. Lady Catherine, seated across from her dear friend, stared dreamily at his cravat and wondered if his neck was strong and fleshy or flabby and wrinkly. Not that it mattered. She would only see the stallion-like, manly neck of his youth.
Lady Catherine wished she'd worn her biggest, most beautiful jewels, and perhaps a dress with a lower-cut decolletage. Miss Bennet, er, Mrs. Darcy, seemed to wear dresses cut to accentuate her bounteous attributes. The pair was fairly bursting from their confines. Perhaps she and Mrs. Darcy should have a talk, perhaps consult about a modiste who could re-cut some of her own gowns? Elizabeth seemed likely as well to have some advice on how to restore a youthful plumpness and higher elevation to the great lady's somewhat deflated bosom.
The cherry trifle was quite good. Cad had finished his. Would it be wrong to offer him a spoonful from her own dish? Certainly not. It was good manners to share. She laughed girlishly and called his name. His beautiful name. "Cad? Would you like a taste of mine?" His reciprocating smile blotted out the gasps and clatter of dropped spoons. She hoped no one noticed the blush that rose from her chest when his boot suddenly nuzzled her slippered foot.
At the end of the evening, Cad took her hand gently in his and kissed it. "May I call on you on the morrow, Katie? Will you be at home to visitors?"
In spite of her best efforts to remain dignified, Lady Catherine blushed and stammered, "Of course you may. In any case, you are practically family, Cad, hardly a visitor. You are welcome any time."
He made an elegant leg and limped off leaning heavily on his cane, his gouty knee apparently bothering him, while Lady Catherine admired his retreating figure from the doorway. When he looked back at her, she waved her hanky coyly at him, and he smiled. She was desperate to have him.
The next morning at an only barely decent hour, Cad's firm, assured knock came once again at the door and Lady Catherine fluttered to meet him. He was dressed for a formal call, fitted out in a swooningly handsome powdered perruque and carrying a single red rose, which she blushed to accept from his hand after he had kissed her ungloved fingers. She bit her lip and stifled a lovesick sigh.
At half past eleven came a knock on the morning room door, this time a light, frantic pounding. It was Anne. She burst into the room and stood, gasping for breath from the exertion.
"Mother!" she wheezed. "What is this I hear about...?" She stopped, aghast.
Lady Catherine looked up at her daughter. She glanced at her beloved, vaguely noticing that his wig was askew, and that the powder on his cheeks was streaked and blotted with rouge from her lips. His dear, dear eyes gazed at her ruefully, like a schoolboy whose nanny had caught him stealing a biscuit.
"Mother! Mind the servants! What will people say?" Anne squeaked.
"Hang the servants," the great lady beamed. "We are in love."
Later that evening, the family gathered once again for dinner. When the men withdrew to the library for port and cigars, Lord Cadbury took the opportunity to ask his boyhood friend for his sister's hand in marriage. It was strictly a formality, of course, since, as a widow, she was free to do as she pleased. His old chum clapped him on the back and welcomed him warmly to the family, urging him to have some brandy and another cigar. These Lord Cadbury had to refuse on account of his bilious liver, but the sentiment was deeply appreciated nonetheless.
Scandalized, Darcy all but dragged his uncle into the corner where he whispered furiously at him, huffing away about decorum, consequence, rank, duty to the family, the God-given order of things, and most importantly Lady Catherine's shocking rejection of all that was right and proper.
After his uncle had stopped laughing and wiped his eyes, he inquired, "Eh, worried about Lord Cadbury's arts and allurements, are you, Darcy? Let them have their fun as you and Elizabeth are having yours. Perhaps it will rub off on poor Annie."
Darcy remained unconvinced.
The gentlemen quickly returned to the drawing room to join the ladies, as Lord Cadbury was burning to share the good news with his beloved. Sitting close to her on the settee and taking her hands adoringly in his, he whispered loudly in her ear all that had passed in the library. As he spoke, Lady Catherine peered over her paramour's shoulder to see that Elizabeth, across the room by the fine mantelpiece, was teasing Darcy out of his black mood. He gradually became more relaxed as she smiled prettily, coaxing and joking, until finally he, too, smiled, his eyes on Lady Catherine, and nodded his head in agreement. He bent to kiss her discreetly on the cheek.
Lady Catherine bellowed, "Darcy, have a care! This is no public house—!" But she did not complete her thought, and even the memory of what she had meant to say quickly faded as her lover's lips wandered with a butterfly's touch to the tender spot just below her ear.
Lady Catherine and Lord Cadbury married only three weeks later by special license. Their long honeymoon, spent at his elegant house in Town, was interrupted by no visitors at all except for the physician who was called in several times to treat Cad for a sprained groin. Ten glorious years later, they both expired, in bed, with their arms around each other and smiles on their faces.
Freed from the constraints her mother had earlier placed on her out of concern for duty, honor, propriety, status, and family, Anne soon regained her health and not long thereafter married her true love, Nigel the gardener. They filled Rosings Park with a cricket team of sons who made merry mischief in the fruitful gardens of the parsonage.
As for the Darcys, they, too, lived happily ever after, always mindful of the great lesson their Aunt Catherine had taught them about the transformative power of love.
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