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The Darcy Connectionby Elizabeth Aston
"They cannot marry! It is impossible. Out of the question. I will not have it."
The bishop, for once shocked into silence by the vehemence of Squire Diggory's words, stared at his neighbour, his mind divided into alarm at the prospect of losing the goodwill of a man of consequence and influence, and displeasure at the folly of his younger daughter.
Sir Roger Diggory and his neighbour the Bishop of Ripon were sitting in deep leather armchairs in the library of Diggory Hall, a rambling mansion dating from the days of Queen Elizabeth, which had been shaped into some semblance of modernity by the addition of a noble classical façade and here in the library, by a remodelling in the style of Adam.
It was Sir Roger's mother and the present Lady Diggory who were responsible for these improvements; for himself, the squire was perfectly content to have his house and possessions just as they had been for generations of former Diggorys, who now lay in seemly ranks in the Diggory vaults of the nearby church.
A church that would not, Sir Roger insisted, thumping his fists on the arms of his chair, ever celebrate the nuptials of his son and Bishop Collins's daughter.
The bishop found his voice at last. "No, no, it is not to be thought of." No such marriage could possibly be countenanced! Yet, was Sir Roger perhaps making too much of a mere friendship? Anthony Diggory and the bishop's daughter Eliza had known one another for several years, were accustomed to being in one another's company. For himself, he had no idea of anything stronger than a kind of brother and sister affection.
"That's because you're a fool, Bishop." Sir Roger had a reasonable respect for the cloth, but first things first, and his family and his ambitions for his children far outweighed any need for civility to a man simply because he wore gaiters and a bishop's apron. Clergyman or not, the man needed to be sharper than that. "Maybe Miss Eliza wasn't making sheep's eyes at Anthony when he went away to Oxford. That don't signify; it's what she's been up to since he got back that worries me. And his mother. And should worry you."
Bishop Collins squirmed in his seat, which creaked at the pressure, causing the dog lying before the fire to raise his head and look at him. A look that seemed to say, Take care, Bishop.
Sheep's eyes! What had Eliza been up to behind her parents' back? That he should live to hear a daughter of his described in such a fashion. "I have no wish to defend my daughter's behaviour, if it is as you say — "
"It is, or I would not have said it."
"However, Anthony cannot be entirely... He is older than she, and — "
"Pooh! Older by some eighteen months, what's that?"
"He has a wider experience of the world, and surely — "
"Are you suggesting that my son has wilfully set himself to win the affections of your daughter? Are you calling him a seducer, sir? A rake, perhaps?"
Sir Roger was a bulky man, and his normally florid face was assuming an even more alarming hue; he might be about to succumb to an apoplectic fit. The bishop was quick with his protestations that he meant nothing of the kind. "Eliza is young, and young for her years. She is inclined to be impulsive — "
"Any inclination to impulsiveness should have been whipped out of her when she was a child."
"What I am saying is that we should not mistake high spirits and innocence for anything worse."
Sir Roger glared at the bishop from beneath bristly eyebrows. "I am not in the habit of making mistakes. The mistakes, sir, lie with your daughter in presuming to lay out her lures for my son, and with you for not having seen what she was up to, and putting an immediate end to it."
"I will speak to her directly we are home. I assure you that she will feel the full weight of a father's anger and disappointment."
The squire grunted. "All very well, but what needs to be done is to separate them."
"You think Anthony should go away for a time?"
"Anthony? I do not. Why should he be driven from his home, just when I need him to learn about the estate? No, no, that's not what I mean at all. Eliza must go. Send her away. Send her to Derbyshire, to those grand connections of yours, send her to stay with the Darcys."
Send her to Pemberley? It was a tempting thought, an easy way out of a difficulty — only, how to justify such an action to his daughter, or his wife? Mr. Darcy's daughters were all away from there, all married — one way or the other — Mr. Collins made it his business to know all the secrets of the Darcy family. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were not in Derbyshire at present, he recollected. They were abroad again, on government business, Austria once again. Eliza would not want to go to Derbyshire to stay with her two youngest cousins, that was certain.
Sir Roger rose, hitched his breeches up over his spreading waist, and kicked a log into the fire. "See to it, Bishop. Talk to your wife, she don't want for sense. And now we must join the others, or they'll begin to wonder what we're so busy about, here in the library. Ecclesiastical business, we shall tell them, that'll put a stop to any questions. Ha!"
It had been a large gathering for dinner at Diggory Hall, for Sir Roger and his lady enjoyed entertaining and were on good terms with most of the inhabitants of houses within visiting distance. A full moon made driving easy, the Diggorys' cook was a master with the substantial viands that pleased Yorkshire people, and Sir Roger's cellar was famous; no one refused his invitations to dine.
The party from Ripon filled the bishop's carriage. Apart from Bishop Collins and Mrs. Collins, their two daughters accompanied them: Charlotte, who was twenty-one, and Eliza, who had just had her twentieth birthday. In addition, making rather a crush on the seat, was the formidable presence of Lady Grandpoint, Mrs. Collins's aunt, who was paying a visit after taking the waters at Harrogate. The bishop had set off in good spirits, feeling his consequence enhanced by a ladyship in the family; now, on the way home, he was silent and gloomy.
The carriage rattled through the stately gates and up the drive to halt with a flourish before the doors of the Palace. Usually, the bishop gave a sigh of contentment at this point. A man of little intellect and less understanding, he felt vastly satisfied with his lot. Advancement in the Church had been more rapid and taken him further than he could ever have hoped, and until this last week, he would have defied any churchman in the kingdom to be more pleased with his life.
Tonight there was no long exhalation of prelatical breath, no expansion of his chest, decked in purple, no gracious nod to the coachman or to the waiting butler.
"Old gas and gaiters is in a mood tonight," the coachman observed to the groom as he swung down from his perch.
The groom, who had swiftly and expertly removed the carriage horses from their traces, paused in his work of rubbing one of them down. "Dined up at Diggory Hall, didn't they? Squire's in a rare taking on account of Mr. Anthony being sweet on our Miss Eliza. I dare say they had words about it." He gave the horse a slap on its broad rump to emphasise his point.
"It'd be a good match for her, she'd be Lady Diggory one day."
"It won't come to that, her ladyship has other ideas for Mr. Anthony, you mark my words."
Neither of the girls paid any attention to their father's brooding mood. Had Eliza thought about it, she might have wondered why, after a convivial evening, with plentiful wine, her father should be so morose, why his heightened colour spoke of temper rather than joviality. As it was, she cared nothing for how anyone looked or felt, since she had no thoughts for anyone except Anthony.
She had looked forward to the dinner party with the keenest anticipation, revelling in the delight of the hours to be spent in Anthony's company. He would contrive it so that they would sit next to each other at dinner, and then later there might be dancing, Sir Roger loved to see young people enjoying themselves, and Maria Diggory's governess was a dab hand at playing waltzes and country dances upon the pianoforte.
Until she entered the great hall at Diggory Hall, where the company was assembled, it never occurred to her that Anthony might not be there. As she dropped her curtsy to Lady Diggory and greeted the numerous company, all known to her, her eyes scanned the room, as though Anthony could be lurking in the shadows.
He was not. Anthony, Sir Roger blandly informed Mrs. Collins in Eliza's hearing, had gone away for a few days, to Udall Farm, where a few matters needed attending to on his father's behalf. Too far for him to ride over for the dinner party, although he had been eager to do so.
"No, no, I told him. There's no one here this evening that he won't see again while the good weather holds, and he's not to be riding twenty miles each way for a party at his father's house. I dare say he'll have found some like-minded young men around there to pass a pleasant evening with, no need for a young man to sit alone when the day's work is done."
It was all said in a light-hearted tone, but Eliza knew that his beady eyes were regarding her with no great liking. She turned away to find Charlotte standing beside her.
"You were set for an evening's flirting," her sister said. "Instead, you look as though you couldn't find yourself in more disagreeable company."
It was amazing that Charlotte could be so blind. If Eliza didn't know her so well, she would have said Charlotte was being malicious, but Charlotte was never malicious. Eliza knew how little notice her sister took of other people, and she suspected that Charlotte, wrapped in her own remote world, cared too little about most of her fellow human beings ever to need or to want to be malicious. Charlotte clearly had no idea how things were between Eliza and Anthony; well, that was all to the good, otherwise she might feel obliged to mention it to Mama, and then there might be trouble. No, would be trouble, and Eliza and Anthony had been so careful, so circumspect, had made so much effort to keep secret their growing delight in one another's company, that it would be dreadful to have it come out in such a way.
From the moment, a mere few weeks ago, when she had laughed up at Anthony and said in her curiously husky voice, "You are grown mighty fine, Mr. Diggory, after your time at Oxford," and he, about to refute any such suggestion with vigour, had instead gazed at her for one long moment before folding her in his arms for a kiss that had nothing of the brotherly about it, Eliza's world had changed.
The sun rose in a glory she had never before noticed. The greening countryside, alive with the promise of spring, glowed with life. Her mother seemed all amiability, and she even felt tolerant towards her father, instead of daily reminding herself that she must accept him for what he was and telling herself it was not her place to be passing judgement on her papa.
The simmering resentment that had accompanied her growing out of childhood into adulthood, the resentment born of the knowledge that she was the favourite of neither of her parents, fell away, and like so many other small rubs and pricks dropped out of her consciousness altogether. Her older brother's prosy ways no longer irritated her, and she did her duties with a good grace, scattering the corn in the poultry yard and gathering eggs, laughing at the antics of birds as they clucked and fought and pushed against one another, spending quiet hours in the herb room and even making some efforts with her needlework, no longer a thankless task when she could think of Anthony while she set her stitches.
It was the first time she had been in love, if you didn't count an early and unaccountable passion for Prince Leopold, glimpsed at a distance on a childhood visit to London. And Anthony, too, told her that she was his first love, although Eliza's more rational self told her that after three years at the university, with trips to London whenever he could manage it, this was unlikely to be true.
"That's not the same," he protested when challenged. "I've never been in love, I've never felt like this before. Every day is dazzling to me, simply because you exist! I don't understand it at all. How have you grown so beautiful and so dear to me? How came I never to notice what you were like before?"
He must be in love to call her beautiful. Eliza had no illusions about her looks. Her face was well enough, and she had a good figure, but beside Charlotte, whose beauty grew more astonishing every day, she was a cipher.
"Charlotte doesn't have your lovely eyes," Anthony said, kissing her eyelids to make his point.
What nonsense; Charlotte's eyes were remarkable for their size and brilliance.
"A painter might like them," Anthony said. "I don't, they aren't sparkling like yours, and they don't crinkle up when she smiles. Not," he added, "that Charlotte does smile very much."
"Charlotte has a lovely smile."
"I suppose so, but has she any heart? Oh, well, she'll marry a rising clergyman and all that perfection will go to waste."
Which was probably true. Whom else could Charlotte marry? With a very modest fortune, and of no particular family, she would be lucky to catch the attention of any youngish clergyman and could not hope for a handsome one. With so few eligible young men in the neighbourhood, the outlook for her was not good. Nor was it for Eliza, and when she and her close friends talked over the talent of the neighbourhood, they were wont to sigh and declare that it was hopeless, that unless their various mamas took them to York or Harrogate to the assemblies, or, best of all, to London for a season, how were they ever to find good husbands?
There was no question of assembly balls and parties in York or Harrogate for Charlotte and Eliza. Mr. Collins didn't approve of frivolity in any of its guises, and although Eliza knew that her mother had tried to persuade him that the girls needed to spread their wings so that they might meet suitable young men, he had always disagreed. His girls would find husbands at home, here in Ripon, among the unmarried clergymen who visited, or were appointed to livings in the diocese.
And now this miracle had happened, and Eliza had fallen in love with Anthony, and he was head over ears in love with her. And Aunt Grandpoint had appeared, like the fairy godmother in the stories, wanting — no, demanding — that she take Charlotte to London. Eliza wished her sister well, she wished everyone well just now. Why should Charlotte not have a chance of finding the same happiness that she had found with Anthony?
Lady Grandpoint was by far the grandest member of her family. She was sister to Mrs. Collins's mother, Lady Lucas, and had been married young to a respectable man of no especial position or fortune. Later on, widowed, and grown into a remarkable beauty — "I was very much like Charlotte is when I was her age," she informed them with some complacency — she had made an excellent and unexpected second marriage, far better than she could have hoped for, when a distinguished nobleman had met her on a trip to Bath and fallen in love with her. They had had no children; the younger Charlotte was her goddaughter, and this chance trip to Yorkshire had brought to fruition a plan that had long lingered in Lady Grandpoint's mind.
"I wasn't sure whether it would be kind until I set eyes on Charlotte, now that she is grown up," she told Mrs. Collins. "For a girl who has nothing to recommend her, no family, no money, no looks, a London season is the cruellest thing. But heavens above, the girl is a diamond, an astonishing beauty! With looks like that, there's no knowing whose fancy she may not catch. And, moving in the first circles as we do, she will have every opportunity to shine in the best company."
Lady Grandpoint had reckoned without the bishop. He did not want his beloved Charlotte going off to London, where she might fall prey to all kind of adventurers.
"Adventurers? Not under my roof, Bishop, I assure you," said Lady Grandpoint, her eyebrows raised in a haughty stare.
Bishop Collins could not give his consent. His girls had been brought up to be sober, industrious creatures, who would make good wives to hard-working, respectable clergymen, just as their mother was. Charlotte was a serious girl, with a mind above dancing and parties and the foolishness of London, a dangerous place for any young woman. True, her portion was small, and therefore every effort should be made to find her a suitable husband, but once the estate at Longbourn was his, he would be much better able to provide for his daughters from the income it provided.
"As to that, Eliza may marry a hard-working clergyman, if one can be found to have her," said Lady Grandpoint. "I detect a pert quality to that girl, Bishop. But Charlotte's beauty is an opportunity, not only for herself but for the whole family."
Bishop Collins had begged to differ, he must be permitted to know what was best for the women in his family.
His son, Charles, was keen in his support. "There is the expense, madam," he said to his great-aunt. "A London season, on however small a scale, is not to be thought of for a girl in Charlotte's circumstances."
"Circumstances may change," said Lady Grandpoint, with chilly disdain.
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