Snowbound – a P&P novelette

P&P ~ Regency ~ PG ~ PIP.

A little something for y'all while waiting for the publication of MR. DARCY CAME TO DINNER, due out Spring of 2013.

Blurb: What follows is a Pride & Prejudice "what-if" novelette in five parts. Elizabeth Bennet, on her way from Kent to London after receiving Mr. Darcy's awful proposal and life-changing letter, falls victim to a freak spring snowstorm, and the only man who can save her is the one she had totally rejected as "the last man on Earth she could be prevailed on to marry." I will post once a week.

Sequence of Events:
Sunday – Proposal at Hunsford parsonage.
Monday – Darcy's letter.
Tuesday – Aunt Gardiner's letter from London.
Wednesday – Elizabeth leaves Hunsford and beginning of this story.

Snowbound – a P&P novelette
by Jack Caldwell

Part 1 – The First Day

A heavy snow propelled by howling winds painfully pelted Elizabeth Bennet's face as she trudged through the deepening drifts, her bonnet offering scant protection. Elizabeth looked about, trying and failing to find the path through the woods that led back to the coaching station at Bromley. Panic arose in her breast, for the storm grew in intensity, the temperature was dropping, and she was hopelessly lost.

"Help! Help me!" she cried, stumbling in the snow. She fell against a tree. "Help me, please!"

Where had this storm come from? And in April! When she dashed out of the Bell, fleeing from Mr. Darcy and desperate for a mind-clearing walk, the cold air gave no hint of what was to come. She had not realized that the weather was changing, for she wrestled with guilt, pain, and mortifying thoughts. And now, it seemed her inattention was to be her doom.

Elizabeth tried to press on as she had done for the last half-hour, but the cruel snow punished her face exceedingly. There was no relief except to take shelter behind a rather large tree. Her thin coat was as nothing against the killing cold. She gasped, shivering, her tears freezing on her cheeks.

"Oh, God," she cried, "please help me!"

A little more than an hour before, Elizabeth was taking her rest at the Royal Bell Hotel at Bromley. The coach from Hunsford had turned back, and she expected a carriage from her uncle to arrive within a few hours.

She had not intended to leave Hunsford so soon. She was to stay for another week, but after learning the previous day from Aunt Gardiner's letter of Jane's illness, she impulsively decided to go to London forthwith. An express was sent to Gracechurch Street, and Mr. Collins was kind enough to arrange for private transportation as far as Bromley. Despite Mr. Collins' false modesty at his gesture, Elizabeth expected the kindness was due to Charlotte's entreaties rather than any innate benevolence in the heart of her husband. An express delivered early that morning from Mr. Gardiner assured his niece that he would send a man to collect her at the Bell by late afternoon.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins assured his cousin, was exceedingly distressed by the news from London, and by Miss Bennet therefore being unavailable to accept her generous invitation to dine at Rosings on Tuesday evening. Elizabeth felt this was because Lady Catherine's audience had diminished for her pronouncements, which passed for conversation at Rosings, given that her nephews had already departed that morning, and now it was to be further reduced by one.

Elizabeth reluctantly acknowledged that the letter was very timely, for intense was the turmoil in her mind. Two days before the arrival of her aunt's message, Mr. Darcy astonished her by delivering a most unexpected and dreadful proposal of marriage. The resulting argument had been painful enough, but the extraordinarily letter she received from the same gentleman the next day shattered her completely. Mr. Darcy had delivered an incontestable defense of his character, and Elizabeth could not but give him credit and herself censure. His actions in separating Jane from Mr. Bingley, while officious and wrong-headed, were done in the service of a friend. He could not perceive Jane's affection for Bingley, and that was too close to Charlotte Collins' observation for Elizabeth not to give the gentleman's explanation credence.

It was Mr. Darcy's catalogue of the mistreatment his family had received from Mr. Wickham, rather than the other way around, that destroyed whatever confidence Elizabeth owned in her abilities of discernment. How foolish she had been! Pleased with the preference of one and offended by the neglect of the other on the very beginning of her acquaintance with both, she courted prepossession and ignorance, and drove reason away where either was concerned.

"Till this moment I never knew myself," she had cried at the time.

Now, given the prospect of digesting this intelligence within the pleasant bosom of family rather than the inane company of Mr. Collins or the imperious attention of Lady Catherine, Elizabeth leapt at the opportunity. Maria Lucas declared she would abide by the original plan and leave on Saturday next, so it was that Elizabeth traveled to Bromley alone.

The last person Elizabeth expected to see at the Royal Bell Hotel was the very gentleman that had dominated her thoughts for the last three days. She had thought Mr. Darcy left for London the day before with Colonel Fitzwilliam. To see his tall and stately form was a shock. Worse was his countenance. On the surface he was as cold and expressionless as ever, but Elizabeth now knew better and clearly perceived his exhaustion and agitation by the dark circles under his blinking eyes. What strength of emotion he must suffer! To see the very lady who, in the teeth of his avowal of ardent love, had so harshly declared that he was the last man in the world whom she could ever be prevailed on to marry! No matter how wrong he was about Jane or how prideful he had been in Meryton, Elizabeth could not think of her treatment of him without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, and absurd.

She could not bear to be in the same room with him. In a moment, she dashed outside. She knew not where she was going; she only knew she had to be out of his presence. She made for the woods. Surely, a walk through the evergreens and budding trees would soothe her as it had done for all of her life. She meant to stay close to the village, but the sound of a stream drew her further into the forest. Deep in thought, she lost all track of distance, and then the storm was upon her.

This was no soft snowfall, which would be her delight. This was a blizzard, fierce and dangerous, and Elizabeth could not ascertain the way back. She recognized no landmarks, there were no tracks in the snow to follow, and as she left the path some time ago, she could not find it again. There was nothing for it but to trudge on and find either Bromley or shelter.

Elizabeth, frightened and exhausted, crouched at the base of the tree, trying to recover her strength and sense of direction. She knew she could not remain where she was, for to stop moving in this cold was to perish. From time to time she called out for assistance. Certainly her presence was missed. There could be men looking for her. All she had to do was remain strong and she would be saved.

But as the minutes dragged on, helplessness overcame her courage. She was just one young lady in a strange town used to travelers coming through. Why would she be missed? No one knew her; no one would notice her absence—at least until her uncle's man arrived from London. If he could reach Bromley, if the weather did not force him to turn back.

Is there to be no deliverance? Is this where I am to die? she wondered.

Something pierced her despair. A faint sound floating over the howling winds. "…iss ….enn…"

It was a voice! "Here!" she shouted. "Here I am! Help!" The sound was growing stronger! Elizabeth staggered to her feet and screamed with all her strength, "Over here! Over here!"

"Miss Bennet! ... I am coming…Miss Bennet!"

The deep, masculine voice was angel's music to Elizabeth's ears. "Oh, please, please hurry!" The seconds dragged by. Elizabeth shivered, not just from cold but also from anticipation of rescue. Oh, thank God, thank God! The words ran like a chant through her mind. She gave thanksgivings to her Lord, vowing that she would use this second chance to be a better person, to treat all with kindness, forbearance and patience, and never make sport of any person ever again!

Elizabeth was nearly blinded by the blizzard. Then, there—a figure was making its way between the trees towards her! A man—a man in coat and top hat! "I am over here, good sir!"

"I will be there…in a moment…Miss Bennet!"

Elizabeth's heart nearly stopped. She recognized that voice! No! It cannot be! It cannot be him!

Ten seconds later she was face-to-face with Fitzwilliam Darcy, and her knees had turned to pudding.

She felt Mr. Darcy's strong, gloved hands hold her up by her arms. "Miss Bennet, are you well?" he demanded in that earnest, clipped way of his. "Are you injured in any way?"

Elizabeth remembered this was the same tone of voice he used for his proposal. The choice of words then was terrible, but the sentiment behind them had been wondrous. "I am well, only dreadfully cold! How… how is it that you—"

Mr. Darcy cut her off. "We must not linger! Can you walk at all? If not, I will carry you."

The idea of anyone, particularly Mr. Darcy, carrying her was humiliating. "No! I…I thank you for the offer, Mr. Darcy, but I can walk. Lead on, please." Without another word, the two set off, Darcy holding Elizabeth close to him, warding off much of the wind and snow.

Elizabeth was embarrassed and ashamed. Mr. Darcy, of all people, had rescued her from her folly, a folly caused by her inability to remain in a crowded room with the self-same gentleman. She had run off, she had not minded her steps or the weather, she had endangered her own life, and the man she had misjudged and insulted was risking his safety to insure hers. How on earth could she ever repay such goodness?

"Blast it!" Mr. Darcy growled. "I cannot find the path! It should be right here!" Elizabeth looked at her savior in horror. Darcy caught the look, for he added, "Forgive me, Miss Bennet, but I have lost the way. I have been searching the wood for some time to pick up your trail, and now that I have found you, I am quite turned around." He looked up. "I cannot see the sun. I have no direction. It should be west, but I cannot tell." He stopped and looked at her most gravely. "Miss Bennet, you must trust me. Can you trust me?"

Elizabeth's teeth were chattering; she could only nod.

"In my search I came upon a small cabin. It is not far—it is near the stream."

"I…I passed it, sir."

"Good. Come, we must take shelter there."

"What? Stay in a cabin with you—alone? It is impossible! No, we cannot!"

"Elizabeth!" Darcy snapped. "We have no choice! We must get out of this cold, or we will freeze to death!"

Elizabeth could not answer otherwise, for the truth was before her. This was indeed a matter of their survival. She was so frightened she failed to react to Darcy's use of her Christian name. Bowing to the inevitable, she permitted Mr. Darcy to lead her through the woods, pulling her frozen body close to his. She allowed herself to take comfort in his strong arms and protection on his broad chest. Before long, the outline of a building could be made out in the all-consuming whiteness. Elizabeth put aside all feeling of impropriety as they grew closer. At that moment, she would do anything to get out of the cold, blowing snow.

The cabin was rough and small, gable-roofed, derelict in appearance, with a single door and shuttered window. Without question, it was a building Elizabeth would never enter but for the most dire of circumstances.

Before the door, Mr. Darcy stopped. "I must see if it is safe to enter, but stay close!" He turned and fiddled with the door. Just when Elizabeth was wondering if he would have to force his way in, the door opened. Darcy moved quickly inside, and before she knew it he had returned, seizing her arm. "Inside quickly, Elizabeth!"

The two dashed inside, Darcy securing the door behind them. It was very dark; the only light came through the shutters of the windows on either wall.

"A moment." Mr. Darcy's voice hung in the gloom. Elizabeth could see him squatting by what looked to be a fireplace. He seemed to be moving things about the hearth.

A nonsensical thought came to her. "Mr. Darcy, are you attempting to start a fire?" Despite her discomfort, the idea of the proud Mr. Darcy attempting a servant's task was excessively diverting!

Darcy stopped moving. "I am."

His voice, as cold as the wind outside, caused Elizabeth to flinch. She moved away as shame overwhelmed her. After their argument at Hunsford, after digesting his painfully revealing letter, and after he saved her from the raging snowstorm, her first instinct was to insult Mr. Darcy! Was it her fate to forever misunderstand and injure this man?

The sound of scratching drew her attention back to Mr. Darcy. A moment later there was a spark, and the gentleman labored carefully to nurse the glowing embers into open flame. Elizabeth held her breath, releasing it in response to the growing glow in the hearth. Mr. Darcy sat back on his knees, surveying his work closely.

Elizabeth tried to apologize. "Mr. Darcy, that is wonderful. Please forgive me my thoughtless words—"

Darcy cut her off brusquely. "That is quite all right, Miss Bennet. You have no reason to think well of me or to believe I possess any abilities other than what are usually found in men of my station."

She accepted his rebuke with a nod. She had certainly hurt him. His face she could not see, for she was behind him, but his tense shoulders were evidence of his unhappiness. "You are a constant surprise to me, sir. I do not think my own dear father, as well read as he is, has started a fire himself his entire life."

It must have been the right thing to say, for Mr. Darcy relaxed. "That is not surprising. It is certainly no mark against Mr. Bennet, or any other gentleman, to lack such knowledge. We are raised with servants all about, after all, and are intended for other duties." While he spoke, he slowly added wood to the growing flames.

"While I am certain that you carry out those duties exceptionally well, you must admit that fire starting is an unusual talent." Darcy's head jerked around, wonder clearly written on it. Elizabeth was relieved to see it—or any expression other than disdain or derision. "Would it be impertinent to ask how you acquired it?"

"Not at all." Darcy rose, and Elizabeth took a half-step back. Being in a small room with his tall, dominating presence was disconcerting, particularly since he still wore his hat. It nearly brushed the ceiling beams of the cabin. "My uncle taught me," he said as he placed a tinderbox upon the mantle.

"Your uncle? The earl?"

Darcy's lips quirked up. "The same. The Earl of Matlock owns a hunting lodge in Scotland and often brought me there when I was young. While in residence, it amuses my relations to live as rough and wild as their ancestors. Therefore, we mastered many mundane tasks customarily left for servants, such as fire starting."

"Indeed!" The idea of a young Mr. Darcy tramping about the wilds of Scotland was decidedly entertaining. "What other skills were you taught?"

"Stalking game, field-dressing our kills, skinning hides, tent pitching, a bit of cooking."

"Cooking?" Elizabeth could not believe it.

Darcy grinned. "Well, attempts at cooking, then. More often than not, our servants had to rescue us from our endeavors." He chuckled. "We did bring some servants. My uncle may be slightly eccentric, but he is not foolish, I assure you. None of us ever starved or got ill from bad food."

"I am glad to hear it." His eyes grew dark at her words, and Elizabeth thought it would be a good time to survey their surroundings. That intense stare of his brought back too many unpleasant memories.

It was a small, one-room cabin, little more than a shack. The fireplace dominated one wall; the walls to either side had a rough, square window, designed for cross-ventilation. There was no glass in either window, and therefore they allowed in no light from outside. Instead, wooden shutters, hinged at the top, were lowered and fastened to keep out the weather. There was only the one door. The wall opposite the fireplace was solid.

There was a shocking lack of furnishings in the place. By Elizabeth's side was a small table with a rickety chair and a low stool. Two woolen blankets were folded on the table. On the mantle, besides the tinderbox, were a mug and a cooking pot. A small stack of wood was piled near the hearth. In the far corner was a chamber pot. Missing were any other chairs, or a bed—or food.

Darcy's voice broke the silence. "This might be a shepherd's cabin or perhaps hunters'. The men who use this place would bring all their necessities with them."

Elizabeth nodded absently. She had seen such buildings on her rambles about the Hertfordshire countryside. Her curiosity never drew her to peek inside them, and she never dreamed she would find herself in one, especially with Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Darcy! Her mind screamed. She was alone in a cabin with Mr. Darcy!

"Miss Bennet!" Mr. Darcy cried. "Good heavens, you are soaked through!" He took her arm. "You must come closer to the fire—this instant!"

Elizabeth belatedly realized she was damp and cold, but her recollection of their unsuitable situation and Darcy's handing of her person was her most immediate concern. She stiffened under his hand, and the gentleman released his hold as if burned.

"Please forgive me," said Darcy, "but I must insist you come to the fire, else you will fall ill." He took the blankets off the table. "Wrap yourself in these."

As Elizabeth did so, Darcy drew the lone chair close to the fireplace. She then tried to untie her bonnet, but her shaking hands could not loosen the ribbons. Darcy saw her struggle.

He stepped close. "Forgive me." His voice was soft, as were his hands, and his gloved fingers gently freed the bow. He removed her sodden bonnet, setting it upon the table, his eyes never leaving hers.

His close attention could do naught but add to Elizabeth's unsettledness. "Mr. Darcy, I—"

"You should also get out of those wet clothes," he added in the same quiet voice.

"What? Mr. Darcy!"

Darcy jumped back as if slapped. "Miss Bennet, you misunderstand. You must get warm and dry for your health. Wet clothes are a danger." He paused. "One of those things I learned in Scotland." His eyes were full upon her.

Elizabeth blushed. "I understand, sir. My education is not that deficient. It does occasionally rain in Hertfordshire. But I am very uncomfortable with you here. I am sure you appreciate that." He was a gentleman—of course he would appreciate her hesitancy. She had accused Mr. Darcy of ungentlemanly behavior, but that was in how he treated those beneath him. No matter how rude he had been to people, or how much she had disliked him, she never felt danger in his company.

To her surprise, Darcy's expression closed up. "Of course," he said in a clipped manner. "I perfectly comprehend your feelings. I have overstayed, and you have long wished for my absence." He turned to the door. "I shall make straight away for the couching station. If I am fortunate, I should return with assistance before nightfall. I shall not fail you, Miss Bennet."

To be continued...