A Novella by Riana Everly
Also available as an eBook from Smashwords
The Mystery of the Missing Heiress
A Pride and Prejudice Diversion
©Riana Everly 2020
One ~ The Missing Heiress
Fitzwilliam Darcy picked up his drink, then put it down again, and then, as if coming to some earth-shaking decision, picked it up once more. He did not drink, but held it in his hand as if it held the answers to the universe.
“Darcy? You have been out of sorts all evening. I have yet to get two words of sense out of you. What is the matter?” Peter Ecclesford, tall and slim and very fair, peered out from behind a pair of owlish spectacles. Darcy blinked and put down his brandy once more.
“Forgive me, Ecclesford,” he sighed at last. “I confess to being… distracted. No, disturbed. Greatly disturbed. I cannot find word of her anywhere.” Darcy crossed his legs and shifted in his chair. No position seemed comfortable. He placed one ankle on the opposite knee, as his aunt had chastised him never to do, and shook his head.
“Will it help to tell me? I may be able to help.” Ecclesford’s look was sincere and Darcy knew his friend was correct. The two had been schoolmates at Eton as boys, friendly but never friends, and then parted ways when one went to Oxford and the other Cambridge for university. It was only as men that they were reintroduced and developed that friendship that had eluded them as lads. Ecclesford would never quite be as intimate a friend as Darcy’s cousin Richard, but his company was always pleasant and Darcy was never upset to spend some time in the other man’s company. He had both native intelligence and a thoughtful manner, and he often had some insight into matters that proved useful.
“Yes.” Darcy trained his dark eyes on his friend. “Perhaps I shall. Heaven knows, it has been gnawing at me and perhaps my pain shall be lessened with the telling of it.” Now he finally raised the glass to his lips and took a sip. The sun still brightened the sky, despite the progression of the day into evening, and it shone clearly through the spotless windows of the club, illuminating the amber liquid and glinting off the fine crystal of the vessel. The brandy slid down his throat and Darcy fell back into his chair to relate his woes to his friend.
“My sister, Georgiana…” He looked up and Ecclesford nodded. Ecclesford had met Georgie once or twice when he had come to dine at Darcy’s town house, but the two had exchanged no more than four of five words in all the time they had known each other. “You see, the thing is, Georgiana has disappeared.”
Ecclesford stiffened and his pale blue eyes widened behind their lenses. “Disappeared?”
Darcy nodded. “She had been at school, but was most unhappy there, and I resolved to find her a companion instead. The two seemed to rub along well together, and I was pleased with my decision. They were supposed to join me up at Pemberley at the start of July. I had planned their journey from London to the last detail, and knew to the hour when they ought to arrive, but…” his voice trailed off.
“They never arrived?” The pale eyes blinked.
“Just so.” Darcy let out a bottomless breath and collapsed further into his chair. “I sent messengers to every stop, every hotel, every toll gate between my estate and London, and not a soul had seen them. It was as if they had disappeared into the ether. I made immediately for London and have been searching for them since. Richard,” he mentioned his cousin, a colonel in the regulars, “has been at it with me, for we are joint guardians under the terms of my father’s will, and even with his military connections, we have found nothing. Nothing!” His long frame seemed to shrink as he spoke.
Ecclesford’s expression was mild, but his mind was shrewd. “She is wealthy, I presume.”
“Why, yes!” What had this to do with her disappearance? “She has a dowry of thirty thousand pounds.”
“More than enough to entice many a lover. Oh, that I had such a problem.” These last words were muttered under the blond man’s breath. “Could she have been taken advantage of by some unscrupulous man, or otherwise be sought for her fortune? An heiress with that sort of wealth is not to be ignored!”
“Oh God…” Darcy had briefly considered this possibility but immediately discarded it, more from wishing it not to be so than from any solid evidence to the contrary. “What am I to do?”
Ecclesford took a drink from his own brandy glass. “Allow me, if I may, to tell you a story. Afterwards I shall explain it.” Darcy nodded and his friend began to speak.
“As you know, I am the fourth son of a baron. My lineage is impeccable,” he grinned in self-deprecation, “but my finances are not. I must support myself, make my own way in the world.”
This Darcy understood well. His cousin Richard, despite being the son of an earl, must rely on his military commission for his livelihood. He nodded and his friend continued.
“I undertook to study the law, which I enjoyed, and have joined my uncle in his practice. Some time ago, perhaps two years, a most interesting case came our way. It seemed quite simple on the surface: a family was unhappy with a will. But it was not quite that clear. It involved Old Fotheringham’s estate. Do you know of him?”
Darcy nodded. Fotheringham had a small but prosperous estate near his own in Derbyshire, but had also speculated wildly, and very successfully. The man had a gift for putting his money into all manner of questionable schemes and then pulling it out just before the schemes collapsed. Whether this was by sheer happenstance or by some nefarious design, nobody knew. But what was known was that the man was worth a fortune, as much as four or five hundred thousand pounds, if rumours were correct. The man’s will must have been fascinating!
“For the most part, there were no surprises,” Ecclesford’s eyes drifted to the wall behind Darcy. “His son received the estate and the bulk of the fortune. His daughters each received a healthy sum for their children, and there were gifts for the staff and some donations to charitable causes close to the old man’s heart. For all his financial acumen, he wished to make use of his wealth in the interests of others. And of course, he left bequests for his two nephews. And here is where things grew interesting.
“To the older, Francis, he left the amount of six thousand pounds.” Darcy whistled. That was a grand amount of blunt! “And to the younger, James, who had been a sort of assistant to his uncle when the old man grew infirm, he left a larger gift.” Ecclesford paused for effect before adding, “Fifty thousand pounds!”
Darcy almost choked on his brandy. “Fifty thousand? My God! That is a king’s ransom! I can hardly believe it!”
“Neither,” Ecclesford quipped, “could the family. It seemed… unusual. That is when they brought the will to us.
“Now, we had, at the time, engaged a clerk upon the recommendation of one of uncle’s friend’s from the north. He was a bright, if somewhat unusual young man. We asked him to do some preliminary work on the will, to check that all the terms were valid, that sort of thing. He became like a dog with a bone, and asked leave to do a bit more work on it, which uncle granted. He came back to us a few days later, claiming that the will had been altered! And let me tell you how he discovered this.”
“Yes,” Darcy was most intrigued now. “Please do. I am fascinated.”
“The clerk had noticed that the will had been written some fifteen or sixteen years before. During that time, the ink had faded to a small degree. But there were two small places where the ink was darker. Fresher. Somebody had taken the initial written amount of five thousand pounds and changed the ‘e’ to a ‘t’ and then added a ‘y.’ Then that same person had added a naught to the end of the figures, turning 5000 into 50000. Suddenly a small fortune became a great one.
“It seemed clear who had done the deed: it must have been James, the nephew, for he was the one who benefited so greatly. But how had he done it? The will had been in the keeping of the family’s lawyer all the time. Our young clerk did more investigating and found some very interesting things.
“The family’s lawyer himself had a clerk, the son of an old school chum. This clerk was known to frequent the gaming dens, despite living on a modest income, and had accumulated some debts. It turned out that James knew of this from his own time at the card tables and approached Watkins—for that was the clerk’s name—with a proposal. Watkins would procure the will for him so he could effect those two small changes, and in exchange James would discharge Watkins’ debts and provide him with a gift of a thousand pounds in excess.
“When confronted with this discovery, James Fotheringham eventually crumbled and confessed to the lot of it, proving our own clerk to be correct. We were most pleased with him. And Fotheringham’s son was so pleased that he offered to be of assistance to the young man. Several other people heard of this and soon began to approach this chap with small problems of their own, and before long our clerk announced he was leaving our practice. He would never achieve great success as a lawyer in London, due to reasons that had nothing to do with his abilities, but he discovered he could achieve success as an investigator.”
“And?” Darcy knew what his friend was about to suggest, but asked the question regardless.
“And I recommend you visit him and see if he can help locate your sister. He is a fine fellow, although quite young. I only beg you, do not take his measure on your first impressions. He is much more than he seems upon a first encounter.”
This was a strange comment to make! But Darcy nodded. “How do I find him?”
“I shall write his direction on my card.” Ecclesford called to one of the attendants for a pen and ink. “His name,” he spoke clearly, “is Alexander Lyons.”
Two ~ The Investigator
Darcy gazed at the doorway before him. There was little here to inspire, nor—should he be honest with himself—to repel. He was in a small laneway just off the main square at Covent Garden. There was a respectable-looking bakery at the corner, from which the aroma of rich vegetable pies and fresh bread teased at his senses. He would never confess this to his housekeeper, but perhaps after his meeting, he might indulge…
How often had he been in this area of London, at some theatre or another, or joining a friend at a coffeehouse or tavern for an hour or so? He had even once accompanied his cook here on market day as she sought the best vegetables and flowers for an evening’s dinner. And yet never before had he ventured from the main square and the streets leading to the theatres. Never had he been down this narrow alleyway. The area, at night, was less than respectable, being the centre of the demimonde, where the streetwalkers plied their trade. But now, in the bright light of morning, it seemed tame and calm, this laneway seeming to be a world away from the chaos and hustle of the market only steps past the street at the corner.
He looked at the door once more, checked the address, and entered to climb the stairs. There, on the first landing, he saw three doors, one that boasted an attorney’s office, another that told of a bookbinder, and one with a small sign that read Alexander Lyons, Investigator. He knocked, and upon hearing a welcome from inside, entered.
The room was compact with a large window to let in the day’s light on one wall, a fireplace on another, and a very large desk in the centre of the room. There were two chairs for clients, one of which he approached, while looking at the occupant of the third chair on the other side of the desk.
A young man looked back at him. He seemed no more than five-and-twenty years of age, about two years younger than Darcy himself, with a handsome if unremarkable face and mild brown eyes. What caught the eye, however, was the man’s hair. In the light of the morning’s sun, it glowed flame red on the man’s head. So this was the storied investigator, of whom Ecclesford had crowed and who had helped some of the loftiest names of the ton. Youth was no barrier to brilliance, and Darcy had no qualms about setting his tale before the young man.
Then he spoke. “Good morning. I am Alexander Lyons. How may I help you?”
Every notion of a sedate, well-educated, civilised Englishman fled from Darcy’s mind. The voice was pleasant enough, but the sounds he made! This was a wild Scotsman, his brogue nothing like the modulated tones of the elite Darcy had known in Edinburgh, or even the street vendors and grooms at the stables. No, this man sounded like he had been dragged off the moorlands or some brae, or worse, out of a dark and foreboding loch somewhere. Darcy looked carefully at him to ensure that he was not still covered in heather. Was the man wearing plaid? Surely not a kilt? He must have the wrong investigator! This could not be the person Ecclesford suggested!
Lyons rose from his chair. He was, thank God, wearing trousers, and perfectly normal linen ones at that. There was not an inch of plaid in sight, which relieved Darcy’s mind somewhat. He knew, at an intellectual level, that he must not judge a man on his place of birth, but instinct was a hard matter to overcome.
He could not divulge his private family affairs to this rustic, but he was here, and would be paying the man for his time at this interview. He might set one or two small matters before him to make the journey to this part of town worthwhile.
“Good morning,” he replied. “My name is Darcy, and I have some matters I would set before you, if you are available. They are nothing, really, mere pittances that I would prefer be cleared up.”
“Aye, very well. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Darcy.” Was that Glasgow he heard in the investigator’s voice? Did they have schools there? Could the man even read? The pile of papers on his desk suggested some degree of literacy, but still! “Speak on, and I shall do what I can to assist.”
Darcy searched his memory for some issue. “My cousin,” he said at last, “has been encouraging me to invest a small amount of money in a venture suggested by one of his fellow officers. I have been able to find very little information on the company—all about building canals—and I had hoped to learn something about the officer involved. Is a reliable sort of man? Does he have business dealings that we ought to know about with regard to this scheme? I am reluctant, but my cousin is more sanguine…”
Lyons nodded. He seemed to understand well enough what Darcy and asked several intelligent questions about the matter. At least, Darcy thought they were intelligent, for all that he could hardly understand the man. Was there a business prospectus? Who else was investing? What sort of contracts and documentation were available? He took down the particulars in a notebook that sat on his desk in a firm and remarkably elegant hand. “I shall look into this at once. Here are my fees for this manner of work.”
The amounts he quoted seemed more than reasonable; and indeed, Darcy had been unsettled by this investment scheme that Richard had mentioned. It would be good to have some solid information on it, and he hoped the investigator would be able to provide it.
“Anything else?” The brogue seemed, perhaps, a bit less pronounced. Was it really lessening, or was Darcy merely becoming accustomed to it?
Darcy’s mind wandered to the street outside, and then to the vegetable market so close by. Yes, he realised. There was something else.
“This will sound very strange,” he gave a twisted half-smile. “It is a minor matter, a mere pittance, really. But my cook is quite distressed, and I will do almost anything to keep her happy.”
Lyons grinned back and their eyes met. Perhaps Lyons was not quite the country hick he first seemed. “Aye! A happy cook is the key to a happy home; almost as important as a happy wife. I, too, should do a great deal to keep my cook content. What is the matter?”
This was almost embarrassing, and yet it had become an issue. “Cabbages. That is, my cook is most convinced that cabbages are disappearing from the kitchens. It had been happening for a month before she spoke to me about it, thinking it was a matter of them being misplaced, or not delivered as expected. But now, well, she has been recording what comes into the kitchen and what is cooked, and it is true: cabbages are disappearing.”
Lyons turned to a new page in his notebook, but his pencil did not touch the paper. “Tell me more about the kitchens,” he said. “Who enters? How are they laid out in the house?” This Darcy did. He spoke of the cook, her two assistants, the delivery boys who came by with milk and eggs and cheeses as needed, of the grocer whose cart rambled down the streets laden with fresh fruit and vegetables as the seasons allowed, of the chandler and coal drays, and of the servants who took their meals in the small room off the main kitchen.
“And is there anybody new in the house, since these, er, cabbage disappearances began?”
Darcy screwed up his forehead. Anybody new. “I have not engaged any new staff in that time. I treat my servants well and they seldom leave. The only person is young Tim. But he would hardly be stealing cabbages…”
Lyons laughed. It was a pleasant sound, devoid, as it was, of a heavy Scots accent. “Please, tell me about Tim.”
Darcy could not help but smile in response to that laugh. He felt his eyes crinkle at the corners in mirth.” He is a grand lad. He is my groom’s nephew, his sister’s boy, just come down to London. Hugh—that’s my groom—is from my estate in the north, and Tim’s parents are my tenants. They have a small farm, but also seven children, and when Tim turned twelve, they asked Hugh if he would take the boy on and find him employment in London. Hugh asked my permission, and of course I agreed.
“Tim is a bright lad, smarter than most, and did well at the small school in the village near his farm. I have engaged a tutor for him three mornings a week, for I believe he might make something of himself one day. In exchange, he acts as a bit of a messenger boy for the household, running errands and the like. But twelve-year-old boys do not steal cabbages, not when there are apples and fruit pies and good cheese for the taking.”
Lyons laughed again. “Indeed! I can recall being twelve. We lived not on a farm, but in a small village, and cabbages were surely the last food I would wish to take had I any choice in the matter. What more on Tim?”
“I cannot think of much more. He works hard when needed, and his tutor is pleased.”
“And you simply pay for the tutor as a matter of kindness?”
Darcy cocked his head. Whatever could the man be getting at? “Yes! Of course. It is my duty as his mother’s landlord to see to his welfare. I…” His eyes opened wide. “You cannot mean…!”
“No, no, never fear. I was merely seeking to find all the information I could. You sound like a good man, to care for a tenant’s child like that. How does Tim enjoy London? I recall it being a strange place indeed after my youth. Even after Glasgow, where I took my education, London is vast and almost unfathomable.”
Darcy thought for a moment. “He seems pleased enough to be here. He talks of the adventures he has, but I know he misses his family and the countryside. He always loved animals, so Hugh tells me, and misses his pets. Hugh allows him to help with the horses, which makes both happy.”
Lyons leaned back in his wooden chair, pressing so far back that the chair tilted and balanced for a moment only on its two back legs. Then he settled back to the floor. “I believe I have the answer,” he smiled.
“Aye! I suspect this young man could not live without caring for the creatures around him. If you ask him carefully, I believe you will find he has discovered and befriended something like a wild rabbit, and has taken it as a pet. He is filching cabbages to feed his new friend. I would be most surprised to find it anything more dire than that.”
Now it was Darcy’s turn to laugh. “A pet rabbit, indeed! And I imagine he keeps it in the stables where Hugh works, under some pile of hay where no one looks.” Now he turned more serious. “But what are we to do about it? While I cannot begrudge the cabbage, I would not have Tim grow up thinking that there is no consequence to theft.”
“No, indeed not. He is only a boy, but a lesson must be learned. You could press charges…”
This did not sit well in Darcy’s ears.
“But,” Lyons continued, “such would carry a dire punishment, and I do not believe you wish the lad to suffer. Perhaps I have a better solution. Confront him on the issue, and press him for the truth. Then bring him here. I shall write up a contract between you and him, setting out what extra duties he must take on in recompense for the cabbages he is filching to feed his friend. This way he will learn that he cannot go through life taking what he wishes, but will also not suffer. I beg you to consider what duties he might take on….”
“I have it! I have a hound who often travels with me, but who needs a great deal of exercise. He can walk my dog!”
“Excellent! When you are ready, let me know and I shall write up the contract in simple language that a boy of twelve can understand, while still being of legal standards, no matter than he is too young to enter into a contract.”
Darcy narrowed his eyes. “You know a lot of the law,” he pursed his lips. Of course, Lyons had been clerk to Ecclesford and his uncle. Of course he had some legal training.
“Glasgow,” the Scotsman said. “I took my degree at Glasgow and read for the bar.”
Suddenly the scales fell from Darcy’s eyes. He might have been wrong about this investigator. Suddenly, the notion of having Lyons search for Georgiana did not seem quite so impossible.
“There is one more issue,” he said at last, “and a rather serious one at that. Perhaps I might explain…”
Three ~ The Doomed Affair
Darcy related his story to the investigator, who looked most serious about the matter and who took copious notes on his notepad. Once more he asked a great number of perspicacious questions, which Darcy answered to the best of his abilities.
Where had Miss Darcy been at school? The Allenby School for Girls, catering to the daughters of England’s best families. When was she taken out of school? Last April. Who was her companion? Mrs. Dorothea Younge. What references did Mrs. Younge provide? Three previous families, all of excellent names but none known personally to Darcy, all with glowing references. Where did that lady last reside? With the de Winters, he believed. Her other address was with a maiden aunt in Basingstoke. When were they expected at Pemberley? When had they departed? What day was their disappearance noted? What had Darcy done so far to discover them?
He shuddered in his chair at this last question. Before he knew it, Lyons had risen and turned to a small chest in a corner, from which he withdrew a delicate goblet and a decanter. He filled the glass with the whisky and handed it to his client. Darcy looked up with appreciative eyes, and thanking the investigator, took a drink.
“What have we not done? We—that is, my cousin Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam and myself—have scoured London from top to bottom. We have looked in fine establishments and less suitable ones. We have spoken to everybody we know, have sent out letters to Mrs. Younge’s three prior employers, have knocked at more doors than I can count. Richard has set a veritable regiment of his men on the task, and we have inquired at every inn, hotel, changing post and hamlet between here and Derbyshire, and there is not a single word of them.” He took another drink.
“How long have you been at this?”
Darcy groaned and ran a hand through his dark hair. “Three weeks. Three long weeks of sleepless nights and a clenching at my stomach. I am worried sick and know not what else to do.”
“And you have no notions, no clues? No communications from either? So it is not a case of kidnapping…”
“No, not that. I did receive, early on, one letter from Georgiana, but with no suggestion as to where she is. It was delivered by hand, so I cannot even guess at where it was sent. The only balm it offered was that she did not sound distressed, although she suggested she ought not to be writing to me at all.”
The investigator raised his eyebrows. “That is excellent. Do you still have the letter?”
“It is at home. I thought to bring it, but then changed my mind several times. I can retrieve it and bring it back here forthwith.”
“Yes, perhaps.” The strong Glaswegian accent was much less pronounced now. Was it a show that Lyons put on to test his clients? “Did you arrive by carriage?”
“No, no. I walked. My housekeeper has all but banished me from the house. She claims I am wearing holes in the carpets. I thought a brisk walk would do me good. ‘Tis only a half hour or so.”
“Then, if I may, I shall accompany you at least part of the way. I, too, could do with a stroll, the better to work my brain. If you do not mind the company.”
To his surprise, Darcy was pleased with this suggestion. He had not expected to find any commonality with the investigator, and especially so upon first meeting the man, but he discovered he rather liked the young man. He had been pleased with the creative thoughts behind the issue of the missing cabbage, and upon learning that Lyons not only had a degree, but was a lawyer as well, improved his impressions even more.
“I would be pleased. Perhaps I can offer you a coffee and pie at one of the local establishments… on top of your fees, of course! Purely as my guest. I was ejected quite early from my house and find myself rather hungry. That bakery at the corner…”
“Mr. Jacobs makes a fine leek and cheese pie. Thank you.”
The two set off and were soon settled at a small table in the corner of Mr Jacob’s establishment, a cup of ale and a fragrant pie before each. At Darcy’s insistence, they did not discuss the case whilst they ate. No matter how anxious he was about his sister, a gentleman did not discuss business while dining. There would be ample opportunity to return to the matter once the meal was concluded. Instead, they talked of things new acquaintances discuss. They talked of books and sports, and whether Lyons preferred cricket to football, or liked the races instead, and whether each man thought it would be a good season for grouse hunting. More and more, Darcy discovered he quite liked this man, for despite his atrocious accent and less than polished manners, he was attentive and thoughtful, neither obstinate in his views nor sychophantish in the echoing of Darcy’s. He was well read and comfortable with his position in life, and the time in the bakery passed quickly.
They were about to leave when Darcy looked up and saw, out of the window, a figure he recognised.
“What ho!” he called from the doorway. “Ecclesford! Come and have an ale.” How unexpected to see his friend here.
Ecclesford smiled as he entered the bakery. “Mr. Lyons,” he shook the investigator’s hand. “I have not seen you since you clerked for my uncle. A pleasure. You look very well.”
“Mr. Ecclesford, the pleasure is mine. As you see, I have found some success.”
“Good, good! In fact, I have come expressly to see you. After sending my friend Darcy here your way, I thought I ought to take my own advice and consult you on a small matter. Or, rather, not so small to me. Would you prefer to return to your rooms? Or shall we talk here, with an ale and a plate of food before us?”
Lyons laughed. “If you do not mind being overheard, here will do fine for me!”
Darcy stood. “I shall treat you to a beer, my friend, but shall depart. You do not need me listening in on your private affairs.”
But Ecclesford stopped him. “No, please stay. You might have some ideas as well.”
Darcy called for more ale and sat back as Ecclesford presented his problem.
He had, the gentleman explained, fallen in love with a young woman, and wished to marry her. The round of congratulations was cut short when Ecclesford explained that there was a problem. The lady, it transpired, was of the wrong class. She was a seamstress.
“A seamstress! By Jove, Ecclesford, you might as well marry an actress! Although Heaven knows, that has been done several times.”
“No, no, Darcy, you misunderstand. Isabelle is not a common seamstress; that is, she is not a working girl, but the proprietress of a very fine establishment that designs and creates fine clothing for a select number of customers. A modiste, and much in demand.” He named the shop. Darcy’s eyebrows shot up.
“Oh, I see. My sister has commissioned a gown from her. It set me back a fine penny as well. Yes, I see. She is an artist. But a working woman nonetheless. Still…”
“Still, my father refuses point blank to sanction the match. I do not expect a great deal, and I do well enough from my law practice to be comfortable, but Father declared he will forbid me ever to see my mother or sisters again should I marry Isabelle. I cannot think of giving her up, but my mother—how can I abandon her? And Margaret and Anne! What a cruel choice my father has placed upon me.”
“This is pitiable indeed,” Lyons spoke from behind his beer. “But what can I do? Find some way to change your father’s mind?”
Ecclesford sighed. “Perhaps more. Isabelle knows very little of her past. Her parents were French, but never spoke of their life before they arrived in England. She was only four years old when they came here, immediately after the revolution in France. She does not even speak French, because her parents refused to speak that language in the home. And yet…”
“Yes?” Darcy was intrigued now. He had never heard his friend speak of this lady.
“And yet she wonders if there is something she does not know that might be of benefit to us. She has heard suggestions that her family is not, perhaps, so low as my father seems to think.”
“Can she not ask her parents? Surely, with their daughter’s future at stake, they might condescend to talk of it.” Lyons leaned forward and placed his elbows on the small table. Darcy cringed before schooling his features.
But Ecclesford sighed. “Alas, no. They died some years back when a fever swept through the village. There is no one else to ask, for they kept their secrets close and took them to the grave.”
“And you wish me to see if I can dig them up.” Lyons offered this as a statement rather than a question. “Let us start with some basic information.” Out came the notebook and pencil. Lyons turned to a fresh page and began to write. “What is your lady’s full name?”
“Isabelle Mary Rose Wood.” He sighed. “Common enough.”
“And not very French,” Lyons agreed. “Since she was born in France before the revolution, I assume? Good. Then let us presume this to be an English version of her birth name. Isabelle is easy enough. Mary would be Marie. Rose is the same in both languages. Wood…” He paused.
“Dubois?” Darcy asked.
“Just so. And where did she grow up? In London?”
“No, a small village near the coast, near Whitstable. Unlikely name of Pugsmuir. I have inquired there by letter. People remember her parents, but know nothing about them, other than the people they became upon moving to the town. I wrote to the parson, to see if he had anything to tell me, but the old man died shortly after they arrived in 1790. There was another who had been retired, but who took the living until the current young parson came of age to take orders, but he too has been gone from the place for an age, and the young man knows nothing.” He shook his head and sighed.
“What about her parents? What do you know?”
“Her father was a carpenter—he made beautiful furniture from what I hear. And her mother was a seamstress, from whom Isabelle learned her craft. Very respectable people, but quite unexceptionable. Not really good enough stock for my father. Oh, he is such a bore! There is nothing I could discover.”
“Let me think a while. If you do not mind waiting until after I have begun on Mr. Darcy’s concern—ah, I see you know all about that—then I shall put all my efforts into yours.”
Four ~ The Letter
Darcy parted ways from his companions about half-way from his destination. He returned to his house to find a large and imposing bicorn hat on the side table in his front hall. Richard was here!
He found his cousin in the library, most of the way through a tray of cold meat and preserved vegetables. The colonel was a frequent enough visitor that the staff treated him like the family that he was. Indeed, Darcy had informed his housekeeper that she was to offer to Richard everything that he requested, including food, drink, and a bed if necessary. “Good day, cousin! I have scavenged in your kitchens and found my luncheon. Delicious. Join me in a tray?”
“I am pleased you approve. Thank you, but no. I have recently eaten. Excellent vegetable pies near Covent Garden. I spoke to that investigator.” He had sent a note to Richard last night upon returning from his club. Richard had been unable to join Darcy on his visit to the investigator this morning due to his military obligations, but he would necessarily be party to the investigation. Georgiana was his ward too.
“And? What thought you of the man? Gentleman?”
Darcy laughed. “No, indeed! A rough sounding Scotsman with a mane of red hair to rival the colour of your coat.” He glanced at Richard’s scarlet uniform. “First impressions did not, well, did not impress. But he improves greatly upon further exposure. I believe that if anybody can find her, he will. Here, I must find that letter and take it to him. Will you join me?”
Richard speared a pickled onion with his fork and placed it onto a slice of bread, along with a piece of ham and a slather of mustard sauce. This whole he pushed into his mouth and chewed silently for a moment before agreeing. “By all means. I must meet this man to form my own first impressions!”
An hour later they stood in Lyons’ small office, damp with the heat of the day. Introductions were made, and to Darcy’s surprise, Lyons said and did all the correct things upon meeting the colonel. Perhaps his manners were not so atrocious after all. Even that accent was milder. What was the man playing at?
“Please sit,” Lyons invited his clients. “Mr. Darcy, have you brought your sister’s letter? Ah, good. If I may?”
He reached across the desk and accepted the papers. Darcy sat in the creaking wooden chair and stared in silence as the investigator hunched over his desk to read the note. Darcy could almost hear the words as Lyons scanned them. Heaven knew, he had read them often enough himself that he had all but memorised each one!
Do not be alarmed, for I am very well! They told me not to write, for this is a grand joke, but I did not wish you to become worried. I am quite safe with Mrs. Younge, although I must not call her that! I found some paper from her pile, which I explained I needed to sketch the kittiwakes, and a pencil as well. There is so much here to draw, my pencil shall never want for something to do. We are kept busy all day and into the night, and this moment alone is a welcome respite for me. I enjoy the flurry of events, but am pleased for some silence as well.
I shall have a wonderful story to tell when we return, but now I must sketch the birds and clouds in case they ask to see what I have done. There is a case of watercolours as well, so perhaps I can make you a painting for when I am home. I shall endeavour to send this by messenger.
La! What an adventure this is!
All my love,
Your sister Georgie
Across the desk from him, Darcy watched Lyons read and reread the short missive. Eventually he raised his eyes from the paper. There was a small smile on his face.
“Your sister is very young. Fifteen, is that correct?”
Darcy nodded. Beside him, he saw Richard do the same.
“This letter tells me a lot. She believes it all to be a game, which is a good thing. Unless matters have changed, her companions mean her no harm. Had there been serious ill intent, she would not have written such a carefree letter. She is a bit concerned that she is not supposed to write to you, of course, but the overall tone of the letter is not one of distress. She fully expects the adventure, as she calls it, to continue for a while, and then end with a return home.”
Darcy let out a breath. “I agree she is not distressed. I, however, am most anxious.” As if to press his point he rose from his chair and paced the few feet of floor behind the desk.
“Perfectly understandable. However, one matter concerns me. Your sister writes that she should not call Mrs. Younge by that name. This makes me wonder what schemes that lady has in mind. That she is not quite the thing, I believe we already know, for she would not otherwise have disappeared with your sister. But now I see that they are all using names not their own. This will make finding them more difficult, but—” he paused at Darcy’s sudden intake of air, “not impossible.”
“I had wondered that same thing.” Darcy felt the weight of the world settle onto his shoulders. “I could not imagine why they should adopt assumed names.”
Lyons gave a reassuring nod. Then he spoke again in a more cheerful voice. “But I have more. I know where she is.”
“What?” Darcy could hardly believe this. “From that note? But she says nothing!”
“Be calm, Mr. Darcy. I do not know exactly where to find her, but I have some definite notions. You have been searching the inns and changing posts north of London, in the direction of your estate. But I believe she is east, or to the south. She is at some seaside resort town, somewhere where there is a good deal of society.”
“And how do you know this?” Richard asked the question that was on Darcy’s lips.
“She talks about being busy well into the night, and on a daily basis,” replied Lyons. “Hence my belief she is in some heavily frequented location. Further, she writes of sketching the kittiwakes. Those are birds, a type of gull that lives along the sea coast. They must be at the seaside. But it cannot be anywhere too popular, else she would meet somebody she knows and the whole ‘game,’ as she puts it, would come to nought. It is unlikely to be Brighton. I have ideas that I would like to ruminate on.”
He handed the letter back to Darcy, but then, with a furrowed brow, drew it back. He held the letter at an angle, and then held it almost parallel to the floor and peered across the paper. “One moment!”
Lyons reached into a drawer in his desk and withdrew a pencil. “May I? I shall not damage the words she has written.”
Darcy nodded. What was the man up to? He scowled in confusion as Lyons rubbed not the tip of the lead, but the side of it, lightly across the page. Now Richard let out a quiet chuckle, and Darcy could see his cousin was smiling broadly.
“Of course!” the colonel said. “Why did I not think of that? Can you see what he is doing? Have you ever done brass rubbings, when you run some wax or pencil lead across an embossed image to bring it into relief? I believe our friend has discovered something of interest.”
Lyons looked up and returned Richard’s smile. “Just so. An indentation, an impression, if you will, very light and faint, of some words. This sheet was under another when those hidden words were written, and the pressure of the pen left a mark on this paper. Let us see if we can discover it.”
He stood and took the paper with its faint coat of lead over to the window. “Ah….” He examined the paper for a while, turning it this way and that to best catch the light. “Tomorrow we shall have an appointment with a leasing agent. Do you wish to join me? Ten o’clock? Perfect!”
Now he ceded the letter back to Darcy’s hand. Darcy looked down to see what the investigator had found. Very lightly, almost illegibly, he could see the words Messrs Garrick & White. Of course! He had not used these men himself for procuring accommodations on holiday, but knew of others who had. They were respectable businessmen and he wondered whether they were involved in the deception. Ah well, tomorrow he would find out!
“He seems a capable person,” Richard opined as they walked back to Covent Garden to find a tavern. The heat of the day was growing oppressive and both men were ready for something to drink. It was now three o’clock in the afternoon; there would be several hours yet of bright sunlight before the air cooled, if it did so at all. Why, Darcy complained to himself, did Georgie not insist on coming to Pemberley to wait out the worst of the summer’s heat in the cooler countryside, in the shade of some ancient stand of trees?
“Darcy? Are you listening?” A sharp elbow dug itself into Darcy’s side and he glared at his cousin.
“Yes, yes. Just wishing I were anywhere but London. What did you think of Lyons?”
Richard chewed his bottom lip. “I did not find him so objectionable. I had expected a wild man covered in woad. Instead, he is intelligent and articulate despite his accent. His manners might not please my mother,” he rolled his eyes at the mention of the countess, “but they were far from offensive. I cannot understand your initial dislike of him.”
Darcy grimaced. He, too, was wondering what had rubbed him so much the wrong way about the man. “Perhaps,” he mused, “I was expecting a proper English gentleman, such was Ecclesford’s recommendation, and I was taken aback to discover this man is neither.”
“I love you, Darcy,” his cousin said through a wide grin, “but you can be a terrible bore! To judge a man on the superficial! I thought you better than that.” Richard’s expression was light but his words were not. “You must know from your own tenants at Pemberley that a rough exterior can house a fine man. Why, in my years with the army, I have discovered that one cannot tell the worth of a man by his accent or his birth, or by the colour of his skin even. I have seen the most refined and polished men from the best families betray themselves as terrible officers and repugnant men, and I have seen lowborn privates or men from Africa or India exhibit great valour and strength of character.” He grew more serious. “A mere Scotsman, and a university-educated one at that? Were he in my regiment, I would not give his origins a second thought. I rather liked the man!”
He bit back a retort. He did not know, exactly, what he ought to say, and perhaps his cousin was correct. No… not perhaps. His cousin was undoubtedly correct. He glowered into the distance and said not a word until Richard had selected a clean-looking tavern just off the main square and requested two ales from the serving girl.
“What of the letter? Listening to the investigator speak, I cannot believe we did not notice those same elements. I also wondered about the names, but knew not what to make of it.”
“To guess them at the seaside,” Darcy added, “was clever indeed. I had been so taken with the idea that they disappeared on the road to Derbyshire that I never thought to seek them elsewhere. I had no notion that a kittiwhatever was a sort of sea bird. I know nothing of birds and was pleased enough to understand that Georgie had found something worthy of her pencil.”
“I had rather thought,” quipped Richard, “that a kittiwake was some sort of funereal commemoration of a dead cat.”
Darcy groaned. “Really, Richard! I thought better of you than that!”
His cousin remained placid. “Then we have chosen well in Mr. Lyons. Come, let us enjoy our ale and then walk home. I plan on staying with you tonight, for my bed in the guest room is far preferable to my cot at the officers’ hall. A game of billiards after dinner, perhaps, and then an early night?”
“Just so.” Suddenly Darcy felt he could scarcely keep his head up. “I have not slept well for three weeks and more. Knowing that another is at the task is a greater relief than I could have expected.” He looked out of the tavern’s window. “Here comes some rain. Perhaps this break in the weather will portend a break in the mystery of my sister’s whereabouts.”
“Aye,” said Richard as he hoisted his tankard into the air. “Let us hope!”
Five ~ The Leasing Agent
After a night of heavy rains the clouds cleared and the morning dawned bright and clear. The heavy weight of humidity had cleared from the air, and the city felt almost fresh. Darcy rose early and made his way to the breakfast room to take his tea and bread before setting off to meet Lyons at the leasing agent. Richard was at the table already with his coffee and eggs and the day’s newspaper spread open before him.
A pile of mail sat in a neat stack by Darcy’s seat. As he did every day, he rifled through them in hopes of finding one from Georgiana, but once again he was disappointed. Still, perhaps today, they would learn something.
One envelope caught his attention. He did not recognise the hand, but thought he knew who had sent it. He broke the seal and read what was enclosed.
“News?” Richard mumbled around his toast and eggs.
“Good morning to you too. Yes, news. It seems our Mr. Lyons is an intrepid sort. He is earning his pay, I will give him that. Here is a report on his activities yesterday. He outlines the meeting I had with him, and the second one where you joined us, and then some more. After we left, it seems, he hired a horse and rode out to some of the inns and changing posts near London. It seems,” he scanned the note further, “that he engaged some of his associates to do likewise until they had covered a ring around London. Here, let me read it to you.”
Unfortunately, but as expected, I learned nothing, other than that nobody recalled two ladies stopping there nearly a month ago. I am not surprised, for the number of people passing through must be tremendous; however, it was necessary to confirm this. If you have further questions, I shall gladly answer them when we meet at ten o’clock.
One matter more, Mr. Darcy. If you have any letters or correspondence from Mrs. Younge in your possession, please bring them. I wish to see them if I may.
The man was diligent. “But how much will this cost me?” Darcy rolled his eyes skyward. “No, never mind. Every penny put towards finding Georgiana is well spent. I have enough that I need not stint.”
“We had also inquired at these places.” Richard’s words came out as a grumble. “I sent several of my best soldiers to see what they could learn.”
“Yes, that we did. But Lyons might have other methods of coaxing information. Certainly he is not as intimidating as a phalanx of soldiers in their red coats, looking like they are about to tackle Bonaparte in the tap room.”
“Would he get any cooperation with that accent, though?” Richard asked. “I know innkeepers are a tolerant lot, for all the travellers they deal with, but still…”
“I can only imagine he has his ways,” was Darcy’s response as he poured himself another cup of tea.
Those ‘other ways’ were soon made evident.
When Darcy and Richard arrived at the location where they were to meet Lyons, they saw not a glimpse of the now-familiar coppery red hair. Darcy’s eyes asked the question and Richard shrugged in response until a familiar voice caught their attention.
There stood before them a well-dressed gentleman in simple but elegant morning garb, a light silk waistcoat in mid green over fawn coloured trousers and a darker brown coat. His hat was perched at just the angle on his head, his face handsome but unremarkable, his hair a dark brown. But that voice…
“Lyons? I hardly recognised you!” Darcy exclaimed. It was true. Without his characteristic red hair grabbing the eye, the investigator looked like any other prosperous Londoner: smart, elegant, and completely forgettable.
“That is what I had hoped to hear!” the man returned. “I made a stop at the theatre around the corner from my office. I have an arrangement with them. This clothing,” he posed so his companions could take stock of what he wore, “is from their costume department, and the hair and makeup are thanks to Miss Nancy who does the actors. I could never afford the wardrobe I need, and so I have found other means of procuring what I desire.” He gave them a cheeky smile.
“Makeup?” Richard asked.
Darcy peered closely. Lyons’ skin, now that he looked closely, was a shade darker than its natural fair hue, the better to go with his new dark locks. It was artfully done. Had Lyons not mentioned the fact, Darcy would never have noticed. But it did complete the disguise. He would never be known. Except for that voice!
“Before we enter, Mr. Darcy, did you find any of Mrs. Younge’s letters?”
Darcy reached into a pocket and withdrew a small stack, tied with a piece of string. Standing against a building so the wind would not take away any paper, the investigator examined each one carefully, concentrating very hard if the lines on his forehead between his eyes were any indication. Eventually he folded the last one and handed the stack back. “Thank you. I believe I have what I need. Now,” gesturing to the doorway, “shall we begin?”
Here again, Lyons was a font of surprises. They entered the leasing agents’ offices and stood quietly until a stout man of middle years entered the room from an office behind a large door. “Gentlemen, how can I help you?”
“Mr. Garrick? Excellent, excellent! I have a small problem and I do hope you can assist me.” Gone was the brogue. Vanished was every trace of Scotland, every suggestion of heather and plaid. Instead, all Darcy could hear were the polished tones of the upper classes, whose speech was so carefully modulated by parents and tutors alike. It would never do to have the heir to this earldom or that great estate speak like his farmers! No, indeed! And Lyons had learned that rarified speech and mimicked it precisely.
“Glad to be of assistance,” the leasing agent replied. “What might I do?”
“Well, it is rather embarrassing.” Even Lyons’ mannerisms and gestures were different. “Is there somewhere we can sit?”
Dripping with flatteries and compliments, Mr. Garrick led the three into his office and saw them settled in comfortable chairs by a highly polished oak desk, the surface of which was covered with neat stacks of brochures for this resort and that building, all over England from what Darcy could see. When they were all seated, the agent speak out his hands in invitation and Lyons began his speech.
“You see, it’s like this. My sister Susan has a friend who long ago had invited her—Susan, that is—to spend some time with her—the friend—at the coast this summer. Now Susan has been up at our northern estate with Mother for the last six months and has not seen her friend. But I did meet the friend at a soiree only last month, and she reiterated the offer, asking me to transmit it to Susan. Only, well, there was good wine that night, and a rollicking card game, and don’t you know, but I quite forgot every detail. All I know is that it is at some seaside resort. She has been there for about three weeks now. Oh, of course! And I recalled your name, for I have heard so many of my set talk of you. I am also thinking of a house on some beach somewhere, but that must wait. Susan will be so disappointed if I cannot find her friend, for after spending so long in Scotland. Beastly place, that! She quite pines for the warm seaside! Please, Mr. Garrick, tell me you can help.”
The agent stroked his greying sideburns with one finger. “Perhaps, sir, perhaps. Your name?”
“Oh, silly me!” Lyons gesticulated wildly. “Trenton. John Trenton. I was just in the country at my friend’s estate,” nodding to Darcy, who tried to look agreeable, “and only yesterday returned to Town, where I recalled the invitation. Susan arrives tomorrow and is so longing for the sea air.”
“I shall also need the friend’s name. Our records are kept alphabetically, so she may be easy to find.”
“Her name is Mrs. Dorothea Younge. About thirty years of age. Oh, but you do not need that, do you? Silly me!” He tittered. If Darcy had not known the man before, he would have been quite deceived as to his true character. What sort of a man tittered?
Mr. Garrick rose and started looking through a series of papers in one drawer in a heavy cabinet. “Younge, you say? Spell that please.”
“I am afraid, gentlemen, that I can see nothing here taken by a Mrs. Younge. Let me check my daily ledger. Our secretary does not always file things as he ought.” Garrick now reached into a drawer in the desk and pulled out a large volume. As he flipped to the page he needed, Darcy could see it was filled with line after line of names in a variety of hands, and notes, presumably addresses and sites of interest. Eventually Garrick let the book fall open. “August first… no. Second? No. Hmmm…”
Suddenly Lyons began to cough uncontrollably. His face turned an alarming shade of red—almost as bright as his hair beneath the dark hair powder—and his eyes watered.
“A drink…” he managed between gasps. “Any…” gasp, “water?”
“Yes, yes, of course! A moment.” Garrick leapt to his feet and dashed from the door. There must be a jug somewhere in the outer office.
Immediately Lyons stopped coughing and bent over the still-open book. He scoured the page, then turned to the one before, and the one after, and then started coughing again as Garrick came through the door with the requested drink.
“This happens from time to time,” Darcy dared. “Weakness of the lungs. City air does not help.”
By now Lyons was drinking heavily from the offered glass and looking a great deal better.
“So sorry to have taken your time, Mr. Garrick,” he said when the glass was empty. “And I do thank you for this water. Saved my life, I’ll warrant. Here, let me take your card. It is always good to know a reputable agent should I decide to take my own turn at the sea. Very grateful! Come, fellows. Let me plan my apologies to poor Susan. She will quite have my hide.”
And on that note, they made their bows and left the building.
They had walked for three blocks and turned two corners before Lyons reverted to his own character. He turned to his companions with a great grin. He had learned something, although Darcy could not imagine what.
“Care to explain that little display, Lyons?” Richard raised his sandy eyebrows. “It was most impressive, but to what end, I cannot imagine.”
“Come back to my rooms, gentlemen,” Lyons replied, “and I shall tell all. It is only another ten minutes on foot, or we can find a hack.”
Darcy snorted “Walking will do for me. I am no pampered milksop who cannot walk half a mile. And Richard is a soldier. Lead on.”
Lyons did, and before long the three were seated once more at that great desk in the small room. Lyons opened the window to let in the fresh breeze and then explained in his accustomed Glaswegian brogue.
“You might be wondering, Mr. Darcy, why I had you bring Mrs. Younge’s letters.” He levelled his eyes across the table.
“I was, rather,” Darcy confessed, “but thought you might find something of use in there. Some name, some address…”
“I did wish to see that, and I might ask for the letters back to examine again. But what I really wished to learn was what her handwriting looked like. I suspected Garrick would have a ledger like that volume he opened, and hoped that he would have his clients sign their own names. In this, I was not disappointed.
“You see,” he continued, “whilst it was possible that Mrs. Younge had reserved her accommodations under her own name, I did not quite believe it to be the case. After all, if Miss Darcy is instructed to call her something else, it would stand to reason that her landlord also knows her by that other name. And for that, she would have to secure the accommodations under that name.”
“Then,” Richard began, “you need not have asked for her by name at all!”
“No, perhaps not. But when one is required to offer a lie, the most credible lie is the one that is closest to the truth. By asking after the very person we sought to locate, my misdirection was limited. And,” he added, “she might even have been known by that name to Mr. Garrick. That would have saved us a great deal of trouble.
“Nevertheless, we were not unsuccessful!” He sat up straight and squared his shoulders in triumph.
“And that coughing fit?” Darcy asked.
“Enough to send the man out of the room for the few seconds it took me to scan the ledger. With Mrs. Younge’s handwriting in mind, I hoped to find her entry and ascertain her adopted name and hopefully, her chosen location for this ‘game,’ as Miss Darcy puts it.”
“And did you?”
“Aye, Colonel Fitzwilliam. I did.”
Six ~ The Modiste
The day remained lovely and Darcy and Richard decided to walk back to Mayfair. Lyons asked if he could accompany them.
“I am meeting with Mr. Ecclesford and his betrothed at his home. This is more common for me. I am normally summoned, and I attend. You two are unusual in deigning to visit my offices. I should appreciate the walk.”
This was more than acceptable, and the three walked and talked of matters that had nothing to do with either case. Darcy was finding more and more that, despite his initial impressions and despite Lyons’ lower birth and occasional rough manners, he liked the man a great deal. Wit and intelligence were rare enough in the highest circles that one valued them when one came upon them.
At last they were at Ecclesford’s door. They were about to part ways with Lyon, but Darcy’s friend saw him and Richard and called them inside. There were no secrets, he insisted, and hoped that they might provide some insight. When Ecclesford repeated the invitation with the promise of lemon tarts, they accepted.
Miss Wood was sitting in a sunny parlour with her maid in the corner as a chaperone. She rose as they entered the room and dipped a pretty curtsey to each man as they were introduced. She was, Darcy observed, a lovely young woman with an exotic air to her. Her eyes and hair were dark and her face broad and open. Unusually for him, Darcy even noticed her gown, for she was dressed beautifully in a perfectly designed and cut dress suited exactly to her colouring and figure. As simple as it was—for its merits were in its elegance rather than its ostentation—it was beautiful. There was a reason, he reconned, that she was so well regarded for her dress designs and skills.
Miss Wood greeted them all with excellent manners and blushed prettily when her eyes alit once more on Ecclesford. She was as besotted with him as he with her! For a moment, Darcy felt a pang of jealousy. He had never met a lady who looked at him like that, or who made him look at her. Did such a perfect match exist? He would have to marry eventually, this he knew. But the idea of a purely mercenary match for wealth and for the next generation was abhorrent to him. Was there any lady in all of England who might love him and whom he, in turn might love? He stifled a sigh and returned his thoughts to his company.
They took their offered seats and waited until a maid had brought in the promised tray of lemon tarts and cool drinks before addressing the matter at hand. Lyons asked several questions of Ecclesford, many of which he had asked the previous day, and then at last addressed the lady.
Darcy listened to her carefully. She spoke perfect, fluent and completely unaccented English, the sort learned not at a country craftsman’s table but at a fine school, where every syllable was molded into perfect shape. It was the voice of the highest circles of society. He wondered if Lyons had noticed that as well, or if all English men and women sounded the same to him. Then he recalled Lyons’ perfect imitation of an upper class accent that very morning and chided himself once more on his lingering disparagement of the man.
“What can you tell me,” Lyons asked in the gentlest voice Darcy had heard from him, “of your childhood? Do you have any recollections that might help us learn more of your family?”
The modiste gave a rather gallic shrug and wrinkled her pretty nose. “I cannot think what to tell you. Pugsmuir is all I knew until I was sent to school. My mother insisted that I learn; she and my father saved every penny they could so I might receive an education. ‘Like a lady ought,’ they told me.”
“And you recall nothing before Pugsmuir? An image? A sound, even?”
Miss Wood closed her eyes and her forehead tightened above her delicate brows. “There are notions more than images, brief imaginings… I sometimes picture a large hall in white and gold. It seems like a dream more than a real place, like something from one of the tales my mother used to tell me. I can see a lady in a very fine dress in the olden style, with the panniers at her sides and her hair piled high upon her head. But once more, it is more of an imagining than anything real. Perhaps my mother described for me, as a child, one of the dresses she helped to create for some great lady. I truly do not know.”
“Do not vex yourself. Every memory helps.”
“I do have this,” the lady offered. She put a hand to her neck and held out a delicate pendant on a simple chain for them all to see. “Peter?”
Looking as proud as a peacock, Ecclesford rose to stand behind her so he could undo the clasp on the chain. Darcy noticed his fingers lingered a moment longer than necessary on the skin at the back of her neck, and once more he felt that frisson of envy. He was not jealous of Ecclesford’s fortune in finding Miss Wood, but rather, he longed again to find that sort of love for himself.
When he had completed his task, Miss Wood removed the necklace and handed it to Lyons, who peered at it as if it held the answers to the world. He turned it this way and that, looking at it from every angle and in every glance of light.
“It is all I have of my early childhood,” Miss Wood explained. “It was a christening gift from my grandmother. It is quite fine and makes me believe that perhaps we came from some degree of wealth or status.”
When he had concluded his examination, Lyons handed the pendant first to Richard and then to Darcy. It was a gemstone cross embedded against a tiny enamel background painted with delicate flowers and an azure sky. The style was not to his personal taste, but it was clearly a fine piece of jewellery and must have been very costly. He wondered at first if it was a locket that held some secret message, but there was no inner compartment. On the back, which he saw was gold, were inscribed three ornate letters: IMD.
“Your initials?” he asked the lady. She nodded. He made a comment on the beauty of the piece and handed it back to its owner.
Miss Wood now pulled a second chain from around her neck. This was longer, the pendant at the bottom hidden below the neckline of her beautiful dress. It proved, however, to be not a piece of jewellery but a key. “I also have this. I know not what it is to, but I was told it was important and to keep it safe. Have you any ideas?”
Not one of the men could answer her question. She returned the key to her decolletage.
“This brings up another question,” Lyons now said. “What else do you know that suggests your family is of some wealth, something that would make you acceptable to Mr. Ecclesford’s father. Can you tell me of that?”
Now the young woman’s face cleared. “My mother was normally a cheerful person, but at times strange moods took her and her spirits became low. It never lasted long—an afternoon, perhaps, or a day at most. But during those times she would stare out the window as if seeing things there were not there and she would say to me, ‘Oh, if only I could give you what is yours,’ or, ‘You were born to more than this.’” She looked from Lyons to Ecclesford and then back again. “And once or twice, my father told me, ‘when it is safe I will show you great things, and then you will be pleased.’ He refused to explain, but I wondered if, perhaps, there is some small wealth that I might inherit, or something to suggest I am gentry and not merely the daughter of two artisans.”
Lyons nodded and peered at the young modiste. And then, to Darcy’s surprise, he began to speak to her in excellent and very careful French.
A most strange expression overcame Miss Wood’s face. She looked partly perplexed, partly confused, and partly delighted.
“What is it, Isabelle?” Ecclesford asked in alarm. “Are you well? He said nothing objectionable, surely!”
With wide eyes, his lady answered him. “No, not objectionable at all. It is so long since I have heard that language. At school, even, my parents insisted I not learn French, but Italian instead. And yet… and yet, whilst I cannot say a single thing in that language, I understood nearly every word he said. How can this be?”
“What ho, Lyons?” These were Darcy’s first words since his initial greetings. “You speak perfect French? A lad from the countryside in Scotland? You constantly surprise me. Next you will confess that you speak Latin as well!”
“Certe. Post omnes, sum causidicus.”
Darcy’s face grew hot with shame. Of course. The man was a lawyer. Naturally he would speak Latin, and most likely better than Darcy himself.
“I apologise, Lyons. Once more I have made assumptions that are below me. You speak other languages as well?”
“One or two.” The brown eyes did not seem so mild now as they bore into Darcy’s own, but he said nothing more and turned back to Miss Wood.
“Madam, your words have me thinking. I believe you were misled by your parents, out of the very best of intentions, of course! Had you arrived in England as a child of four, and never heard French again, it is unlikely that you would have remembered so much. But if you were older—perhaps seven or eight—it is not surprising that you recall the language.”
The lady looked at him with wide eyes. “I almost feel I should be able to respond. It is as if the words are there, but I cannot reach them.”
“Just so. Were you to apply yourself, I believe you would learn the language quickly and easily. But that is another discussion. Mr. Ecclesford, tell me once more who you wrote to at the village.”
“I wrote to the vicar, believing that he would know the best townsfolk to ask. He told me that he had no exact knowledge, for the Woods were established as residents of Pugsmuir when he arrived in 1795. He explained that the previous vicar had retired upon his taking the living—for he had only just turned twenty-five—but that the man had died shortly thereafter. The old man had only been in the parish for four years before he left, taking the position as a favour to the bishop until young Mr. Carlson was of age to take the living. I do hope I have the details correct!”
Lyons looked encouraging. “That will do.” He scribbled something in the notebook that he carried with him at all times. “The older parson’s name?”
“Mr. Langer, I believe.”
“Excellent. Had he any family?”
Ecclesford thought hard. “No. He was widowed; he had no children.”
Miss Wood peered at Lyons. “What, sir, are you thinking?”
“I am thinking,” Lyons grinned, “that you did not come to Pugsmuir in 1790, but in 1793, after the worst of the Terror. I believe your parents were desperate to escape France and fled the moment they could, wishing to protect you at all costs, even if that meant giving up their past, their family, everything! We have been asking for information from the wrong years. Who was before Mr. Carlson?
“I cannot say! I was so young when he died. Oh, you think he might have known something about us when we arrived in Pugsmuir. But the current vicar will know.”
“Then I must write to him at once. I have a rather strange notion, but if it is correct, you may start designing your wedding clothes.”
Seven ~ The Journey
The next morning Darcy’s carriage rolled out of London, heading eastward towards Margate. Darcy sat facing forward, watching the world pass by the coach’s windows. Facing him were his cousin Richard and Alexander Lyons, the former staring at the flask of coffee and basket of baked goods at his feet, the latter alternately gazing at the passing scenery and scanning his book of notes. Every now and then he would utter some incomprehensible comment, then apologise and return to his musings until his next exclamation.
Darcy hoped the man had the right destination. One did not undertake a journey of nearly eighty miles on a guess. But Lyons had seemed convinced, and Darcy was willing to do whatever was necessary to find his sister and bring her home to safety.
The man’s argument had been simple: he had seen a name written in Mr. Garrick’s ledger that struck him as being exactly Mrs. Younge’s handwriting. The name the writer had used was Mrs. Frederica Newman. In the section for notes beside this name Mr. Garrick had written, ‘coast; Margate, Ramsgate.’ These, presumably, were the areas in which the person had expressed an interest in visiting. Margate was five miles closer to London than was Ramsgate; therefore, they would begin their search there.
There would be a great deal of time to ruminate on this decision. The journey would take the better part of two days; more, since Lyons had requested a short detour to visit the town of Pugsmuir where Miss Wood had grown up. The town was a mere two miles from the main road. They must stop somewhere to rest the horses and take their refreshments, and Pugsmuir would do as well as anywhere. Lyons insisted he needed only to have a few words with the parson and drop off two or three letters. There seemed little reason to refuse this request.
And so Darcy settled himself into his seat and tried to enjoy the journey.
He had been dreading the trip. Eighty miles—two days—trapped in a carriage heading off to heavens knew where in search of a chimera. Was Georgiana really in Margate? Or had Lyons been mistaken at the name? And even if it was Mrs. Younge’s writing, might she have changed her mind about where to travel? Had they even been at the correct place to ask after her? An indentation on a sheet of paper was hardly a firm piece of evidence on which to base an entire investigation, and yet it was all they had. He was a man given to sober second thought and careful determination. But suddenly, here he was, rushing across England on an instinct. Deep inside him, a very small part of his being revelled in the spontaneity of it all.
More to his surprise, the journey was not at all unpleasant. The weather remained fresh, the countryside beautiful, and his two travelling companions were excellent company. No time spent with Richard was wasted, and Lyons grew on him more and more with each passing mile. If not for the social chasm between them, he could imagine the investigator becoming a firm friend.
They talked of books and politics and the state of the war on the continent. Richard mused that his regiment might be sent to Portugal, and Lyons had some very insightful things to say about the campaign there, although confessing to speaking not a word of Portuguese.
They discussed architecture and topography, and even the growing fashion for studying nature, from rocks and flowers to birds. As they travelled, he would point out any avifauna of interest that he happened to notice.
“An investigator,” he explained, “must be knowledgeable about a great many subjects. One never knows when a piece of information might be useful.”
“Like the kittiwhatevers,” Richard offered.
“Kittiwakes. Just so! Miss Darcy’s offhand comment was the clue I needed to plan our next steps.”
“I only hope you are correct,” Darcy grumbled and turned back to stare out the window.
Halfway through the second day of travel the carriage pulled off the main road to traverse the short extra distance to Pugsmuir. Darcy was not sure what he had expected—the name put him in mind of a lake full of ugly little dogs—but the village was pretty and compact with a bustling main street and the tang of salt in the air. There was a clean-looking stone inn across from the ancient church, and a stable in the back. Darcy and his companions folded themselves out of the coach whilst the driver led the horses around the back to rest and be fed and tended to before the next stage of the journey.
Lyons excused himself almost immediately. He wished to speak to the vicar, if possible, and leave his letters for the appropriate people. Darcy and Richard took a quick stroll around the perimeter of the church and inn before venturing inside to see what the proprietor could serve them.
The innkeeper was a compact man with greying sandy hair and a large welcoming smile. He saw the newcomers to a comfortable table by a bright window and brought them their requested drinks and plate of cold meat and bread. “Fine day for a drive,” the proprietor said as he placed the food on the table. The tavern was all but empty and the man seemed like he hoped for a chat.
Darcy had never been one for small talk, or to take immediately to strangers. He was shy, this he knew, and needed time to get to know a new person’s mannerisms before fully understanding him. Was this why he had bristled so much upon first meeting Lyons? Perhaps Lyons had not improved upon further acquaintance, but Darcy himself had improved his willingness to trust the man. He really must check this tendency in himself, to judge so quickly, and based solely upon his own shortcomings!
Richard, on the other hand, was a different sort of man entirely. He had never met a stranger whom he did not immediately count as a friend, and thus it proved with the innkeeper.
“A grand day indeed,” he beamed back. “Plenty of sunshine, but a fair breeze. And what fine countryside. You have a nice establishment here, sir. I never expect much from cold meat, but this was most excellent. My compliments. And the bread—are you hiding a French chef in your kitchens?”
The innkeeper was now his best friend. He introduced himself as Tomlinson, and at Richard’s invitation, sat down. “Just for a moment, gents, but thank you!”
Richard kept up a fine stream of conversation, explaining how they and a companion were heading to the seaside for a short holiday, and remarking on the coincidence of needing to take a rest exactly as they were approaching Pugsmuir. “We never would have gone off the main road,” he explained, “but I have a friend who is engaged to a lady from Pugsmuir, and felt a sudden need to see the town for myself.”
Tomlinson’s eyes crinkled in pleasure and he leaned forward, forearms resting securely on the table. “A lady from Pugsmuir? And who would that be, pray tell?”
“A young modiste by the name of Wood. Isabelle Wood. Do you know her?”
“Ah,” the innkeeper’s eyes drifted upwards. “Young Bella! Haven’t seen her in years, and more’s the pity. Bella by name, bella by nature. Such a lovely thing, beautiful like her mother. That was a sad loss, no matter that they were Frenchies. They can’t help where they’re from, and they tried right hard to be good Englishmen! Never spoke a word of that Frenchie language, stopped being papists, all of it. He was a first-rate carpenter. Made cradles and cabinets and toys for the children. And she started off repairing clothing, but when the women saw what she could do, they started asking her to make their clothes. Never charged a penny more than the dresses were worth too. We were all sad when they died. The girl, Bella, she was at school then, and afterwards set herself up in London. But I suppose you know all of that.”
Richard nodded sagely. “Do you recall when they arrived. Surely the name they had then was not Wood.”
The innkeeper shrugged. “Can’t rightly say. I was away for a time, in the army, and when I got back, here they were, all settled and at home-like. Wood and the missus spoke some English, but the little girl gabbed on in both languages like she was made for it. Ah,” he looked up. “Here’s another. Must be off, gents!”
Lyons had just walked through the door and spotted them at once. He walked over as Richard bid Tomlinson to stay. “Here is our friend. Would you mind repeating this to him? We are hoping to discover something of great benefit to the lady, and your words might help.”
“Fair enough. But first, an ale and more meat, sir?” The innkeeper was on his feet, addressing himself to Lyons.
“Ale indeed, but have you a plate of cheese and preserves instead? That shall do well for me.”
Tomlinson bustled off to fulfil the order and returned a few moments later with a tankard in hand. “Nan will be out with your food in a moment. Now, what did you wish to hear?”
He repeated his account to Lyons, who asked one or two questions. Then he asked, “Did you feel that the Wood family had recently arrived from France? Or did you feel they had been in England for a time already?”
Darcy felt his eyebrows rise. He had never considered this.
“Never put much thought into it,” Tomlinson replied. “All we cared was that they made a great effort to be good townsfolk. But thinking about it, they seemed to know something of our ways, and the little girl did already speak English, and like an Englishman too, not like a Frenchie. Perhaps this was not their first home.”
From the corner of his eye, Darcy saw the satisfied gleam in Lyons’ eye. “I am beginning to think that it was not.”
Eight ~ The Discovery
Back in the carriage, Lyons recounted what he had learned. The vicar had been available to talk and had offered some small pieces of information. The man who held the post before him, as they had already learned, was now deceased. But he had left some records by way of a sort of diary that were informative. In November of 1793, a small French family had arrived in the village. What was surprising is that they had not arrived from France, but from another part of England.
“The reason Miss Wood speaks such perfect, unaccented English is that she has spoken the language since she was four years old. And the reason she still understands French is that she spoke it at home, I am surmising, until she was about eight. Something changed in 1793 that caused her family to move from their initial home in England to Pugsmuir, and I believe it is no hardship to guess what.”
“The Terror,” Darcy supplied.
“Just so. If I am correct, the family departed France immediately after the Revolution, but felt secure enough in their new home not to abandon their past. When news of the horrors in France reached them two or three years later, they felt afraid—no, terrified—and moved again, this time trying to melt as completely as possible into some English town so their history might be unknown. They even stopped speaking French to allow their daughter to pass completely as an English girl. Now who,” Lyons asked with raised eyebrows, “would feel so absolutely fearful for their lives?”
“All I can imagine is the old French aristocracy.” Richard was nodding his head slowly up and down.
“So Miss Wood is really Lady Isabelle?” Darcy asked. “How fortunate for Ecclesford!”
Lyons gave a chuckle. “We shall find out for certain when we return to London. For I now know where the family resided before moving to Pugsmuir, and that place is the city itself. I have the name of the parish, and perhaps there is something there that will give us the evidence we need to support our suppositions. Now… is that the signpost to Margate I see?”
Before long the horses pulled to a stop at the main square in Margate. Darcy and Richard climbed out of the carriage to stretch their legs whilst Lyons headed off into the inn to make his inquiries. The town was pretty, and very much a sea-bather’s holiday place. On one side of the main road there stood a bank of buildings and assembly halls, with shops and hotels and all manner of places of delight and entertainment. To the other, there was a series of stairs leading down the cliff to the beach itself, where rowboats and bathing machines stood for use of the visitors who wished to avail themselves of the local delights.
A bit further along, a large pier jutted out into the sea, providing access to a variety of sailing ships and fishing dories, and busy with every manner of working men lugging casks and nets and barrows, and with ladies and gentlemen taking a stroll along its length, the better to enjoy the seaside. After the long hours spent in the carriage, Darcy was most pleased to walk around and see the sights, and was almost disappointed when Lyons came rushing up from the direction of the main assembly rooms with a frown on his face.
“Been to Mr. Michener’s rooms,” he called across the distance. “There is no suggestion that they have been here. No Mrs. Younge has signed the register, which was to be expected, nor is there any evidence of Mrs. Newman—the name she signed at Mr. Garrick’s office—or anybody else with her handwriting. Likewise, I saw no hand similar to that of the letter sent to you by Miss Darcy.”
Darcy felt the strength sap from his bones. All this distance, and for nothing.
“Then they are not here.”
“I do not believe so. But buck up, man! We are far from defeated! Margate was only one of the places we were to look. Ramsgate is another great location for holiday-makers, and it is a short five miles south, less than one hour once the horses are rested and ready to travel again. I am certain we shall find them!”
“The man is correct, Darce,” Richard spoke from his other side. “They are in these parts somewhere, I feel it in my bones. And once we find the right town, it will be no difficulty in locating people of quality. For trust me—Mrs. Younge, or whatever she is calling herself—will not be satisfied with anything but the best in accommodation or entertainment!”
They were, of course, correct. Darcy strove to straighten his spine and adopt a cheerful mien for the remainder of their stroll, before returning to the carriage for the last leg of the day’s journey.
They arrived in the centre of the town by late afternoon. It was not yet time for dinner, and the streets were crowded with merchants and local denizens, holiday-makers and military men. The royal harbour was awash with rowboats and sailing vessels, and the beach, like in Margate, was lined with bathing machines, with an equal number pulled forward into the sea so their occupants might take the waters in privacy.
As before, Darcy and Richard chose to stroll along the street that topped the cliff by the beach, whilst Lyons headed to the assembly rooms, there to make his inquiries. The air was fresh, and the water glistened like a million diamonds, and the piers stretching out on either side of the great harbour looked too appealing to resist, and Richard dragged his willing cousin down towards the water.
They were half-way down the east pier head when Darcy stopped in his tracks.
“Richard—” His eyes were fixed on a figure not too far ahead of him.
His cousin let out a gust of air. “Yes.”
Within seconds, Darcy had crossed the distance towards the figure, who turned to look at him with great eyes.
“Brother!” Georgiana dashed towards him and wrapped her arms about him. “And Richard! What a surprise! Whatever are you doing here? Did you like my joke? Only it was Mrs. Younge’s idea, not mine. But I must call her Mrs. Newman now, until we return. She thought it would be grand to enjoy a summer of not being known, so we might just enjoy ourselves and not always be crushed by people wanting to be in company with me. You are not angry, are you? Oh, please say you are not angry!”
Darcy crushed his sister to him. “No, not angry, not now. I shall be so later, I am certain, but now I am too relieved to see you safe.”
“Where is Mrs, er, Newman?” Richard asked. “Do say you are not out by yourself.”
Georgiana giggled. She was still so young, Darcy realised. “No, not alone. I have become friends with Miss Milsom over there,” she pointed to a young lady of about her years, accompanied by a lady who, by her features, could only be Miss Milsom’s mother, “and, oh Will, you will never guess who is here! Oh, this is the best joke ever!”
Mrs. Milsom began to walk towards them, but Georgiana called out that these men were her brother and cousin, and the older lady stepped back with an apologetic smile.
“Who, Georgie, is here? For I never shall guess.” This was no time to chastise his sister, but to coax information from her.
“Oh, Will, it is too amazing! I had no notion he might be here, or that he would even remember me. But he has been so charming. He said he thought I would be lovely, but that he had no idea what a beautiful woman I would become. He has been escorting me all around town, and Mrs. Younge has even allowed us to walk unchaperoned during the day. We are,” she dropped her voice, causing the men to lean forward, “engaged! Oh, it is such a great surprise, is it not?”
“Engaged?” All the anger that Darcy had suppressed upon first seeing his sister now rushed forward. “Engaged to whom? You are but fifteen years old!”
“Oh, did I not tell you?” The young lady’s face was a beautiful rosy tint that had nothing to do with the sea breeze or the sun. “Why, to—”
At that moment, Lyons ran up to them as if from nowhere.
“Mr. Darcy!” he all but shouted as he closed the distance. “A great matter of alarm! I have located Mrs. Younge and believe your sister is right here, but that is not all. She is said to be engaged to a certain man of your acquaintance, by the name of George Wickham!”
Darcy could not recall when last he had been so furious. He prided himself on his self regulation and calm reason. Now he wished only to rant and yell like a fishwife. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides of their own volition, and he fought to urge to hit something… Someone.
Lyons noticed this immediately upon relating his news. “Tell me of Wickham,” he asked as soon as Georgiana was back with the Milsoms, taking her leave for the nonce. He looked from Darcy to Richard and back again.
“That cur…” Darcy began.
“Bastard!” Richard spat out.
“Ah, so an unpleasant sort of fellow.”
Darcy took a deep breath and turned to where his sister was chatting happily with her friend Miss Milsom. He blew out a puff and managed to calm himself enough to relate something of the story. “He had been a friend of sorts when we were children. His father was steward at Pemberley when my own father was alive. He was afforded every advantage in the world, but he wanted more, and without expending the effort to earn it. He was promised the living attached to our estate, but declared he had no taste for the church. This was a reasonable matter, and in lieu of the living, I gave him three thousand pounds to study the law. How he spent that in a year I will never know, but he came back and demanded the living after all. This is merely symptomatic of his character. He has always been up to no good.”
“And now he wishes to make his fortune by marrying your sister…”
“And claiming her dowry and getting his revenge upon me for denying him what he had voluntarily given up. Yes. This is exactly what I believe.”
Lyons pursed his lips. “I see. This well explains your displeasure.”
Richard let out a string of oaths most unsuited to his rank and status, biting his words only when Georgiana returned, waving goodbye to her friends.
They walked in silence back to her rooms. Mrs. Younge was waiting for her charge and looked most alarmed to see Georgiana return not with Mrs. Milsom but with Darcy instead. She schooled her features at once, but Darcy could tell that Lyons had seen this too. Good! He was certain that Mrs. Younge was somehow implicit in this strange arrangement, and all the better to have Lyons see it as well.
“Mr. Darcy!” the lady bounded to her feet. “How unexpected to see you here!” Her smile was wide but disingenuous.
“Unexpected, I am certain, as you took all manner of precautions to ensure I should not find you.”
“Ah, well, you see…” she began, fumbling for words. “Let me call for some tea.”
“No tea.” Darcy growled at her. “Sit. You have a great deal to explain, and I am most eager to hear what lies you have to tell me. Sit now.”
The lady did so. The smile never left her face.
“I thought it would be a grand adventure,” she said at last, “for Miss Darcy to be able to enjoy the seaside without the constant flurry of attendants wishing only to insinuate themselves into her good graces.” She paused, and then with a new wave of enthusiasm, added, “You must know how many young women hope to befriend your sister, sir, in hopes of becoming known to you. You are one of the more eligible single men in London, after all. I thought only of you.”
“That is sheer rot, Mrs. Younge. Pardon me, Georgie. If this had been your intention, you would have told me of the plan. But you hid your aims and plans and left me to worry ceaselessly for three weeks and more, wondering if my precious sister was even still alive. There can be no excuse for this, madam!”
“Now, Mr. Darcy, you must understand…”
“And what of Wickham? How did he come to be involved in this scheme? You disappeared, hid your destination from me, changed your names, and somehow managed to come across Mr. Wickham? This cannot be by accident!”
“It was a mere happenstance,” Mrs. Younge soothed. She sat as straight as an arrow in her chair and sounded like a schoolmarm trying to explain some simple fact for the eighteenth time. “We were out on a promenade and Mr. Wickham just chanced to walk by. He was here with a friend in the military. He recognised Miss Darcy and renewed the acquaintance.”
“But…” Georgiana began, but her companion hushed her.
“Not now, Miss Darcy.”
“But Mrs. Newman… Mrs. Younge…”
“Not now, Miss Darcy. Allow me to continue.”
At last, Lyons rose from his chair and faced Mrs. Younge. “No. I wish to hear what Miss Darcy wants to tell us. You have said enough. Mr. Darcy?”
He turned to Darcy for approval; Mrs. Younge was in Darcy’s employ; he was the one who had the authority to tell her what to do. Darcy nodded. “I agree. Enough is enough.”
Georgiana folded herself back into her chair and spoke in a very small voice. Her eyes kept flitting to her companion as if she expected to be punished for her transgressions. “Mr. Wickham did not just walk by, but he approached Mrs. Younge first. I do believe he expected to find us here. I heard him whisper to Mrs. Younge using her Christian name; they must have known each other before.”
Mrs. Younge glared at the young woman. “You are entirely mistaken.”
Lyons shook his head. “I do not believe so. But please, Miss Darcy, continue.”
“She encouraged us—George, Mr. Wickham that is, and myself—to spend time together. I believe she wished us to fall in love, for she made certain to leave us time together, on walks and in the parks. I had no notion, at first, of George thinking any more of me than a little girl who he used to know. But he told me so often of his affection, how could I doubt him? I love him too!”
“There,” Mrs. Younge asserted. “It is all for the good. No matter whether the meeting was planned or not.”
“We were going to elope!” Georgiana said, a small smile beginning to trace itself upon her face. “We were to take a ship from the harbour right here up to Scotland, and surprise you when we returned. But now you may attend our wedding. You will attend, will you not?” She looked with hopeful eyes at her brother and cousin.
“How much did he offer you?” Lyons stepped towards Mrs. Younge with menacing steps. “A quarter of her dowry? I would not have done it for less.”
“I… I do not know what you are talking of!” the lady sputtered. “You are spouting nonsense.”
“Half? Fifteen thousand pounds is a great deal of money. It would set you up comfortably for life.”
“That is utter rot! Sorry, Miss Darcy. You cannot believe that of me. Sheer nonsense.”
Richard now spoke, his voice deceptively mild, as Darcy knew it so often was when he was about to deal a blow. “I, as Georgiana’s guardian, forbid the match. She may not marry without my consent, and I refuse it. And now there is no chance of an elopement. It was a good plan, for if you traveled by ship you would be very difficult to trace. But do not forget, the bestowal of her dowry is dependent on our goodwill, is it not, Darce?” Darcy nodded. “Then, even should the marriage have gone ahead, which it will not, Wickham and you would not get a penny.”
“But he promised!” the companion began, and then, realising what she had done, slammed her mouth closed and refused to say another word.
“George loves me!” Georgiana wailed. “He loves me enough to marry me without my dowry. He can take a commission. We shall be perfectly happy with nothing. I know it.” She sounded very young. Perhaps, Darcy thought, he had been precipitous in taking her from school. And what had he been thinking, allowing her to reside and travel with a woman whom he did not know at all? Utter madness!
At that moment, there came a knock at the door and the maid let in the newcomer.
“Wickham.” Darcy all but growled the name. It was not a greeting.
“Oh George,” Georgiana rushed to him and took both his hands in hers. The maid stood by holding his hat and looking most uncomfortable. “My brother says you only wish to marry me for my dowry! Tell me that is not true, that you love me.”
The man simpered. He glanced at the others in the room, barely sparing a nod for Richard and all but ignoring Lyons. Then he turned back to Georgiana with a smile that matched Mrs. Younge’s. “Of course I love you. That is the only reason to marry, is it not?”
“But how much would you love her,” Darcy hissed, “were I to withhold her dowry entirely? It is within my rights…”
“And mine,” Richard echoed.
“I forbid my sister to wed; if you are so in love with her, you will wait the six years until she is one-and-twenty and no longer needs my permission. That will give you ample time to make your fortune, for you shall not get her dowry.”
Wickham’s face went white. Lyons’ looked satisfied. Darcy knew they had him.
“Six years is a very long time,” he cooed at Georgiana. “Perhaps too long… perhaps we ought to reconsider our decisions…”
“You do not love me!” the girl wailed, and Wickham’s expression turned stern.
“I did not say that,” he prevaricated. “Surely you must understand. It is only that…” he left off.
Georgiana ran from the room weeping. Richard leapt up to run after her, but stopped short.
“Now, Mr. Wickham and Mrs. Younge,” Lyons said, sounding much older than his years, “it is time we all had a serious talk.”
Under Lyons’ unrelenting glare, the whole story came out. Mrs. Younge and George Wickham had known each other for some time, and both were always eager for any plan whereby they might become wealthy. Wickham had lamented many a time to his friend about his supposed poor treatment at the hands of the Darcys, and when it became known that Miss Darcy was in need of a companion, the current plan was hatched. Dorothea Younge would ingratiate herself with the family, and then abscond with the heiress to a place where Wickham might woo, win, and wed the lady, and thereby procure her handsome dowry of thirty thousand pounds. For her part in the scheme, Mrs. Younge would receive ten thousand pounds.
Once more, Darcy felt the full weight of his fury. Beside him, he saw his cousin’s face grow red and hard and his eyes narrowed. Richard lunged from his chair, arms outstretched, reaching for Wickham’s neck. Darcy and Lyons had to jump after him and restrain him to prevent the soldier from inflicting bodily harm upon his former childhood friend. It was thankful, indeed, that Richard had not brought his sword on the journey, for there would certainly have been blood spilled on the elegant carpet in this pleasant room.
Wickham was sent off with a litany of threats in his ear, and Mrs. Younge was dismissed immediately without a reference. “That is of no matter,” Darcy grumbled, “since she will only write her own, as I am now certain she did for me.” She was told to depart the rooms the very next morning, for Darcy had already written to the local agent to discontinue the rental. He would have turned her out at once, but even in his ire he could not send a woman out into the night without a place to lay her head.
He called to the maid to help Georgie with her packing and removal to the rooms that Darcy had taken for the night, and as the others stood around debating what ought to be done next, he ventured into Georgie’s room to hold her against his chest as she wept from the agony of a broken heart.
Ten ~ The Return
The return trip to London had a much different mood than the drive to Ramsgate. Gone was the crushing worry that had sat so heavily on Darcy’s shoulders for nearly a month. His relief at having Georgiana safe and returned to him was beyond expression. But in its place was the sorrow of the young woman’s broken heart. Richard and Lyons opted to ride ahead to secure lodgings half way back to town, leaving Darcy to comfort his weeping sister in the coach. Her maid and the luggage would follow in another carriage.
“I thought he loved me,” she sobbed again and again. “I really thought he loved me.” It was all Darcy could do to hold her against him and let her cry out her misery. Time would heal her wounds, but he suspected it would be a long time before he saw his sister’s former cheerfulness return.
By the time the group returned to London it was decided that Georgiana would return to Pemberley, there to recover her spirits and concentrate on her skills at the pianoforte. For this she would need a new companion, and Darcy immediately set Lyons on the task of fully investigating every person whom Darcy considered for the position. He would not make the same mistake a second time! Already Georgiana seemed to be improving, and when she insisted yet again that she required time alone to consider what had occurred, Darcy agreed to allow her to return to the estate whilst he found occupation elsewhere. His friend Bingley had intimated that he might lease an estate near London; perhaps he would agree to guide the young man through some initial steps in management.
It was now four days since the group had returned. Lyons had presented his bill with a look of apology on his face. “I have come to think of you more as a friend than a client,” he blushed, “and hate to request payment for a task that any decent man would have completed from a sense of justice, but I have my own expenses…”
“Nonsense!” Darcy walked to his desk to write a draft on his bank account. “Your fees are reasonable and I agreed to them. I would have paid anything to have Georgie back safe and well.”
“I have one more obligation in this part of town,” the investigator told him, “and one which will hopefully have a very happy conclusion. I am for Mr. Ecclesford’s home right now, and if you wish to join us, he is expecting you. I have found some rather fascinating information.”
Good news was a welcome respite from Georgiana’s still low spirits, and Darcy was more than pleased to oblige. Darcy called for his hat and cane and Lyons retrieved a large bag from the housekeeper, who had set it aside for him. He refused to answer any questions about the bag until they were seated in Ecclesford’s front parlour. Miss Wood was present, her face a picture of anticipation mixed with trepidation, and across the low coffee table sat Richard, who had obviously also been invited to this little gathering.
Lyons looked quite pleased with himself and laid the heavy bag on the table. “Before I pass this to Miss Wood to open, please allow me a moment to crow.” He beamed at the others, and Ecclesford ceded the floor to him.
“As you all know, I discovered in Pugsmuir that Miss Wood’s family had first come to London in 1790, immediately after the revolution in France. When it became apparent that matters in their home country were becoming greatly more dire and they began to fear for their lives, lest they be found and taken back to France somehow, they moved again to a small village in Kent: Pugsmuir. There they abandoned everything from their old home and raised Miss Wood to believe her family were of no great name or station.
But to rediscover what had been hidden, I had to come back to London. Using what I had learned from the vicar at Pugsmuir I found where they had lived, and the church where they had worshiped. They were, at that time, still of the Catholic faith. I went to speak to the priest there. He is fairly new to the church, but he did allow me to look at some old records. Sadly, I found nothing about the Dubois family, or the Woods, for I had no knowledge of when they changed their name.
“Then something struck me. I recalled how Mrs. Younge insisted on new names for her and Miss Darcy, and I wondered if there had been another change of name about which we knew nothing. I recalled Miss Wood’s pendant, with the initials IMD, but I also recalled Mr. Ecclesford telling us her full name was Isabelle Marie Rose Wood. Where, in those initials, was the R? Was the R, perhaps, a new name, a commemoration of sorts of the family’s true name? And I strove to recall all French names I could that began with ‘Rose.’ I was mistaken, it seems, about the family name being Dubois.”
“I was musing out loud, and the priest, a kindly gentleman with a determination to help, asked if I meant the des Rosiers family. He searched through his records, and what we found matched exactly with what I knew from Miss Wood. They had, before they departed for Pugsmuir, entrusted this box to the former priest. I now return it to you, its true owner.”
He reached into the bag and withdrew a wooden box that he passed to Miss Wood.
She took it with trembling hands and surveyed it, her eyes landing on the lock that kept the lid closed. Lyons explained, “I told the priest that if you could not open this, I would return it to him.”
Miss Wood reached behind her neck to pull at the chain that held the mysterious key and asked her betrothed to undo the catch. This completed, she took the key and inserted it into the lock. It fit perfectly, and with only enough effort to overcome twenty years of gathering rust, opened the lock.
The box was lined with padded silk. Inside lay a stack of papers and a velvet bag.
“Names,” the lady breathed. “Names of my ancestors. Their names, their dates, and… oh my! Their stations and holdings. Here… my father… Oh Peter! He was not a tradesman, not a landholder, not just of the landed classes. He was a nobleman, a count! That is why they felt such fear. I must read these all later, but…” she turned damp eyes to him and his return gaze spoke louder than any words.
“Now my father must approve of the match!” He smiled as if the heavens had opened and blessed him.
“What is in the bag?” Miss Wood picked it up and undid the cord. A cascade of light tumbled from the pouch and coalesced into a diamond necklace. It was stunning, if a bit opulent for Darcy’s tastes, in the old style and obviously very, very valuable. She picked it up and held it by the ends, marvelling at how the light caught and reflected from a thousand glittering gems. “Oh…”
“What is that?” Ecclesford picked up a slip of paper that had fallen from the bag with the necklace. “A note explaining the origin of the necklace. I thought my French good, but I can hardly believe what I am reading.” He passed the paper to Darcy, and then to Lyons.
“It was a gift,” the investigator shook his head in disbelief, “to your mother. It seems she was a favourite of the late queen. This was a gift to her from Marie Antoinette herself. Its value is incomparable.”
“I believe, Ecclesford, that there will be no objection from your father at all.” Darcy stood to shake his friend’s hand. “My heartiest congratulations!”
They soon left Ecclesford and Miss Wood to celebrate their success alone. Richard had his military duties to attend to and also went his own way, leaving Darcy and Lyons to walk the remaining distance back to Darcy’s house.
“I look forward to receiving your report on this new companion I am considering,” Darcy said as they walked.
“Mrs. Annesley seems to be everything she claims and nothing more. I am awaiting final confirmation from my associates, and then shall inform you as to our findings.”
“Please come in person to bring your bill. I would like to take you to my club and buy you a drink in celebration.”
Lyons grinned and replied in his broadest Glaswegian accent, “Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I should be delighted.”