Teaching Eliza

From Chapter One of Teaching Eliza

copyright Riana Everly 2017

 

Autumn, 1811

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” said the gentleman as he stretched out his long legs and crossed them at the ankle, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Fitzwilliam Darcy paused, sighed dramatically, then snorted, and took a large sip from the delicate crystal glass cradled in his large hand. Turning back to his friend, he added, “And yet, Charles, here I am, a single gentleman indeed, and rather suitably wealthy, but wanting nothing more than to be left alone with my studies. Oh, how I loathe the endless parade of young women, led through ballrooms and evening salons and even my very own parlour when my aunt thinks she might influence me, all hoping to catch my eye and tempt me into matrimony. It is a veritable curse, I tell you.” Despite a very definite edge of displeasure, his enunciation was beautiful and precise, his voice melodious and smooth.

Charles Bingley shook his head vigorously in denial and sputtered some syllables of disavowal, but his companion ignored them all and lapsed into a silence broken only by the quiet sound of his breath as he contemplated the contents of his glass.

Darcy glowered in the subdued light of the lounge in which they sat and he took another sip of his brandy. His eyes roved across the dark woods and greens of the luxurious space, which absorbed candlelight from the numerous chandeliers and reflected back the opulent glow of elegance and restraint, then moved back to his companion. He snorted again. “Why do they not accept that I am not interested in being leg-shackled to one of these vacuous girls? That my interests in the affairs of society are nil? That I want only to be left alone? I am a grumpy old man, Charles, and wish to remain so.” He turned his head heavenwards and sank back into the upholstery of his large chair.

With an ill-concealed smile and a half-stifled laugh, Bingley replied. “Grumpy, indeed, Darcy! That I would never contradict. But old? Even you must admit that seven and twenty hardly counts as old. For the schoolroom, perhaps, but whilst you do spend your time there, I own, it is as professor and not pupil. Indeed, you are remarkably young to have achieved your rank.”

“I am still young in years, perhaps, but oh so old in spirit.” He sat bolt upright and leaned forward in his chair, hands clenched on his knees as he levelled his dark brown eyes at his friend. “I have no interest in what my contemporaries enjoy. Yes, I include you in that group, for all that you seem to understand me better than most and bring out my less curmudgeonly side on the rare occasion. But even you, for all your unaccountably cheerful disposition and propensity to be pleased with every one and every thing, must admit that I am simply not like most men of my years.”

He reached for his glass once more, nearly knocking it from the low table in his suppressed agitation. “Bah!” he huffed as he straightened the crystal before pouring the remaining liquid into his mouth. “I have no interest in horse races or gaming or cosying up with the dandies who surround the Prince. I have serious concerns: my estate, my books, my work.” He swept his hand around, gesturing at the refined and restrained furnishings of his club. “Even this place I tolerate only because it is quiet and not fashionable amongst those of my own age. I require calm and intelligent conversation. Let them dance and drink and raise what havoc they will. I am satisfied with my lot. If only the mothers of those husband-hunting girls would accept this!”

His eyes scanned the scattering of tables occupied by groups of two or three, the thick carpet muffling the ambient noise until there remained merely the quietest hum of conversation to cushion one’s thoughts.  Indeed, those who wished to carouse and make a scene found other, more suitable locations for their revelries. He and Bingley were by far the youngest men he could see in the room. Most were the age his father would have been had he lived. Even the grizzled soldier hidden in the shadows of the alcove just past his own table seemed, by his posture and solitude, at least ten years Darcy’s senior. Let the others attend their parties and balls. He was satisfied with more sedate and sober choices.

At a gesture from Bingley, a liveried attendant, smart in his dark green suit, brought over two more glasses of the fine brandy. When the man had walked away, Bingley asked, “Is that why you have holed up here, then? To avoid the predatory mamas on the hunt? The knocker on the door of your townhouse is down, and you have informed no one else, other than myself, of your presence in Town. Do you begin to hope that this will dissuade them all?”

“That is one reason, yes. The look in their eyes when my name is mentioned is positively predatory. They look upon me and see not a man, but carriages and jewels, dresses and my estates. But it is not only them. I am also seeking to avoid my aunt.”

“Lady Catherine?” Bingley’s head snapped up, his eyebrows rising in surprise. The solitary soldier at the nearby table shifted in his chair at the volume of Bingley’s exclamation, and Darcy caught the glimmer of candlelight as it reflected off the gold braid on the man’s uniform.

Ignoring the soldier, Darcy exhaled heavily and nodded. “Yes. Lady Catherine. She still believes that I shall marry her daughter and had the temerity to send a message to my rooms at Oxford informing me that since I am not wed, nor do I seem to be interested in finding my own wife, she would announce an engagement between Anne and myself at the start of the next Season. I sent back an immediate response insisting that she do nothing of the sort, and then… well, to make no bones about it, I fled. If she does not know where I am, she cannot find me, and if she cannot find me, she cannot make unreasonable demands of me. To all appearances, I am not in town, and I would have it remain thus.”

“Then, Darcy, it seems that in order to dissuade both these mamas-on-the-hunt and your own aunt, you need a bride!”

“Are you mad?” he spat with a huff, drawing the eyes from patrons of several nearby tables. These glares he returned with his own until they retreated, then he lowered his voice. “You cannot possibly have meant that, Bingley. Have I not just said…?”

His friend pushed the crystal glass closer to Darcy’s hand, and as Darcy raised it to drink, Bingley smirked, “Perhaps not an actual bride, but the rumour of one. Let it be known that you are married, or even betrothed, and perhaps you shall be let alone. At least, that is, until the hounds sniff out the truth about their prey.”

The glass did not quite reach Darcy’s lips. He placed it back on the table in an ominously controlled motion and stared suspiciously first at the glass and then at his companion. “There must be something in the food at this estate you have let, Bingley. Perhaps your chef is drugging your meals. You speak nonsense.”

Bingley merely smiled serenely and murmured, “Perhaps. But think on it, Darcy.” He took a healthy drink from his own glass, before changing the topic. “How goes your recent project? You had been most interested in some new specimens of dialect when last we spoke on the subject.”

Darcy brightened. “Yes! It was most fascinating. I was in the north of Wales doing research on that odd little Quaker-like commune that has settled there—I believe I have told you about them. When I heard mention of this small cluster of fishing villages on the islands off the coast, of course I had to pay a visit. My Welsh is only passable, but these villagers’ English was positively atrocious. Those vowels,” he groaned, “Oh, Bingley, you cannot imagine those vowels. I was ready to ask them to speak to me in French, my poor ears ached so from such desecration of the King’s English.

Charles laughed.

Darcy scowled. “You are amused, but ought not to be. You have done much work to eliminate the north from your own speech, but I still detect a trace of Scarborough in your accent. Most would not, of course, but my ears are most particularly sensitive and attuned to these matters. Even should I not know this from our years of friendship, I should be aware that your father was from Scarborough, born into a wealthy merchant family but educated at Oxford, and that your mother was from an estate near Flamborough. Your own youth was spent in Scarborough, albeit with fine enough tutors, and I can detect the trace of Cambridge in your alveolar consonants. The work we have done together, you and I, has erased much of this from what the common ear hears, but I still detect it. Therefore, do not laugh at me when I cringe at the sounds issuing from the mouths of the fisherfolk of the Irish Sea.”

The old soldier at the neighbouring table shifted and interjected, “You seem to think you know a lot about this, sir. Pray tell, whence comes the arrogance that precedes your pronouncements on the origins of your fellow man?”

Darcy narrowed his eyes and addressed the shape in the shadows. “I shall ignore your rude intrusion, sir, and instead shall deign to answer your question. I do not imagine you have heard of me. I am Professor Fitzwilliam Henry Darcy, late of Cambridge and Wittenberg, now lecturing at Oxford. My expertise in linguistics and phonetics is sought after by my colleagues at the Sorbonne and Cambridge as well, and I have published several treatises on my chosen subject. Therefore, sir, you may take issue with my arrogance but not with my skill and knowledge.”

“You speak very proudly for such a young man,” the soldier mumbled. “I have not the information to refute your credentials, but would be curious to put your self-professed expertise to the test. Whence, sir, come I?”

Darcy peered intently at the brazen stranger, still mostly obscured by shadow. He could see little of the man’s features, for his long hair fell heavily over his face and one eye was obscured by a patch. Much of the rest of the man’s face was hidden beneath an unkempt beard, most unfashionable amongst anyone who might be able to afford membership in this exclusive club.

Stroking his own clean-shaven chin, Darcy pondered for a moment, then slowly uttered his assessment. “You are well born. Very well born. I would imagine your sire is an aristocrat—perhaps a baron or an earl. You were born and raised on an estate north of London, near Northampton if I am correct (which I always am), and were sent to Harrow at the age of eleven. From there you went to Cambridge, and then into the army. Your mother, too, is of aristocratic birth, from an estate near Basingstoke. You have recently returned from Jamaica, where you have spent at least three years. You have also, in the past, spent some considerable time in Kent, but have never resided there. You may now tell me how accurate I am.”

The soldier laughed. “Where in Kent, my friend?”

Darcy blinked. “Hunsford…” He stopped. “Wait, sir. Ask me that again.”

The soldier did so, and Darcy let loose a roar of laughter. “Brush back your mane, sir, and let me see your face.” The soldier did so, and Darcy leapt to his feet and grasped the soldier’s hand. “By God, Bingley, do you know who this man is? Charles, please allow me to introduce to you my cousin, Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam.” Then he stood back and surveyed his cousin’s countenance. “Richard, what on earth has happened to you? It has been five years since last you were on English soil if I am correct. That beard… your eye!”

“I tried my hand at pirating the seven seas, but I was mocked by all I tried to rob until I thought of this clever disguise! A pirate with two good eyes and no beard is a sorry sight indeed.” Darcy chortled at his cousin’s joke; ah, how he missed Richard’s quick humour.

“But tell me, am I that changed, Darcy?”

“For one not expecting to meet you in this club, you are indeed. You seem much the worse for battle. I should, at first, have taken you for forty, at least, with that pirate’s disguise you seek to exhibit. But now, seeing you in better light, I fancy I should alter my estimate by some five or seven years, which still marks you older than your years. Now, meet my friend and relinquish your lonely table.” A wave of Darcy’s hand quickly summoned the liveried attendant, and in short order a third chair and another glass of brandy were brought to the table.

Bingley raised his glass and toasted the cousins, “To the family we like!” The men cheered and drank deeply.

“As I look between you, I see that you do rather resemble my friend,” Bingley commented between sips. “There is something about the eyes and brows, and you both share a noble wide forehead. ‘Tis also unlined, which puts your age much closer to that of Darcy here than I had initially guessed.”

“Ah yes, the noble forehead,” Richard nodded, “so much more handsome on my face than on my cousin’s. It is attributed to the great Fitzwilliam family.”

Darcy raised an eyebrow and asked, “But to what do you attribute that atrocious beard? Surely not to my dear mother!”

Richard laughed. “This atrocious beard was the result of a particularly rough sea voyage back from the West Indies, during which I had no desire to subject my delicate throat to the whims of the rolling sea and my batman’s unsteady hand. I would have shaved it upon returning to solid land, but it bothered my mother to such an extent and to such loud objections that I decided to let it remain some days.”

Darcy smiled, “How does the countess?”

“Mother is well,” Richard smirked, “delighting in her success with my younger sister and eagerly anticipating the arrival of a grandchild, no matter that we have had no news concerning any potential offspring: Laetitia is married, and to a viscount, and thus it is only a matter of time before she produces the expected heir. And yes, before you ask, Mother is in Town, and no, I shall not inform her as to your presence here.”

“And your eye? Surely the state of your facial hair is nothing compared to the necessity of covering your eye with that patch.”

“This, too, looks more dire than it is. On that same rough voyage, just before we made port, I received a nasty knock to the face, which scratched my eye and bruised the area around it rather severely. The doctors assure me it will heal completely in time, but it is very painful to keep open, and is most sensitive to light. Within a week, however, I shall most likely look once more as you remember me.”

“Pity the world,” Darcy teased, his voice light. “It is wonderful to have you back, Richard, it truly is. I have missed your company.”

“I say, gentlemen,” Bingley leaned forward, “Why not come and spend some time at my estate in the country. Darcy, it will provide you with convenient lodgings not in London, Pemberley, or Oxford. You may read or write up your recent studies, or whatever it is you do, in peace. And you, Colonel, may enjoy the countryside and the very pleasant society I have met there. My house, Netherfield, is more than adequate to provide you with all the company or solitude you desire, and I should be delighted to have you as my first guests.”

“You shall inform no one as to my presence?” Darcy asked, at the same time as the affable colonel inquired, “Pleasant company?”

Bingley chuckled. “No, Darcy, your presence shall remain as secret as you desire. The society there cares little for the goings-on of the ton. We might even find you an alias, should you so desire. And Colonel, the society there is most pleasant. At a recent public assembly—Darcy, stop grimacing so!—I dare say I had never seen so many pretty girls in all my life! Oh, their manners are country manners to be sure, but they are no less delightful for the lack of pretence and formality. And…” he paused, unsure whether to continue, before spitting out, “I have met the most delightful angel there! I have requested and been granted permission to court her, Darcy, and expect soon to announce our engagement.”

That is why you suggested I take a wife,” Darcy growled. “You wish for company in your misery.”

Bingley winced and shook his head. “No! Not at all! There is no misery where my Miss Bennet is concerned. And as for you, Darcy, I suggested that the rumour of a lady might suffice as well as the actuality of one, if you recall. But Miss Bennet does have four pretty sisters.” He raised his brows and beamed widely at his friend. Darcy scowled, while his cousin laughed.

“You shall not join the matchmakers, Bingley! Is that understood? But yes, thank you. I shall accept your kind offer of asylum in the country, and look forward to visiting Netherfield.”