Fifteen years ago…
“You will come and sit here next to me, Fitzwilliam.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy got up reluctantly and eyed his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with slight apprehension. It was not that he was scared of her, exactly, but she was an intimidating woman, with her tall, imposing figure and flashing dark eyes. Still… Darcy straightened his shoulders. He was nearly twelve years old now and his father had said that it was time he began to conduct himself like a gentleman. He sat down obediently in the space indicated—next to his cousin, Anne, who sneezed and dropped her handkerchief, which fluttered to the floor. Darcy bent over to retrieve it and as he straightened and handed it to his cousin, he caught his aunt eyeing him with a speculative gleam in her eyes. She leaned across to his mother and nodded smugly.
“There, you see, Anne? Behold how well they suit each other. I knew it would be a good match! Have we not always planned this union from the cradle?” Lady Catherine waved her hand imperiously. “Fitzwilliam, you may read to Anne while I write my letters.”
“Oh… er… certainly, Aunt,” said Darcy, though there was nothing he wanted to do less.
What he really longed to do was to go outside and try out the old sled he had found at the rear of the estate. On an impulse, Darcy turned to his parents and said:
“Mother—Father—may I go outside for a short while first? I should like to have a go on the sled.” He looked eagerly at his father. “Please, sir?”
Lady Catherine frowned and started to say something but Mr Darcy interrupted her. He smiled and nodded at his son.
“It looks like we have had some good snow. It would certainly be an excellent opportunity to test the sled.”
“But—” Lady Catherine started to protest.
“It is advantageous for Fitzwilliam to get some air and exercise,” said Mr Darcy quietly but firmly. “Not good for the boy to be cooped up indoors all the time.”
Lady Catherine compressed her lips into a thin line but did not say anything more.
“Thank you, sir!” cried Darcy happily, turning to leave the room.
“Wait. Fitzwilliam—” called Lady Catherine.
Darcy stopped and turned back warily. He hoped that his aunt would not ask him to take Anne out sledding with him.
“Have care where you take the sled,” said Lady Catherine. “Make sure you stay away from the north side of the grounds, particularly near the pond. The hill there is very steep and you could have a bad fall.”
“I have been sledding before,” said Darcy indignantly. “I am not afraid of steep slopes—”
“That area is most dangerous,” said Lady Catherine, giving him a stern look. “You are not to go there, is that understood?”
“Yes, yes, all right,” said Darcy impatiently. Then before his aunt could say anything else, he turned and rushed out of the room.
Darcy turned and scanned the snowy landscape, looking for a hill worthy of tackling. The grounds of Rosings Park stretched out around him. In the distance the land dipped suddenly, dropping away from sight. A steep slope! He grabbed the rope on his sled and began to walk towards the ledge with mounting excitement. The snow crunched beneath his boots and he felt a few flakes drift down and land on his face. He arrived at the spot to see that the slope swept downwards and ended beside a small pond surrounded by fir trees. He remembered his aunt’s warning—had Lady Catherine meant this pond? He looked around. Yes, he was on the north side of Rosings Park, but he could see nothing that looked dangerous here.
Eagerly, Darcy pushed off, giving a shout of delight as the sled dipped forwards, then shot downhill. He felt that familiar thrilling lurch in his stomach. The wind rushed into his face as he gathered speed and the landscape around him became a white blur as he went faster and faster…
… And faster…
The blinding snow began to make him dizzy. The sled felt like it was careening out of control. Darcy jammed his heels into the snow to try and slow his descent.
“Ahhh!” he cried, as the sled skidded and turned, then gave a great jolt as it hit something hard just beneath the surface of the snow.
The sled flipped. Darcy was thrown through the air. Everything was upside down and spinning, then he saw the row of fir trees rushing up to meet him.
He landed on something hard. The breath was knocked from him and he cried out in pain. The next moment, he felt himself dropping again—only this time it was not through air but into icy water. He gasped and kicked, paddling with his hands to keep his head above the surface. He must have fallen through the frozen pond, he realised, and if he didn’t get out soon, he would drown in its icy depths. He kicked as strongly as he could, but his legs felt curiously leaden and his fingers were swollen and numb. Slowly, agonisingly, he managed to make his way to the edge of the pond, but by the time he reached there, he was almost spent.
“Help!” Darcy called weakly. “Help!”
He felt a sense of dread as he realised that no one could hear his faint cries. He was too far from the house. Once more, he tried to pull himself out of the water but he had no strength. Indeed, he was overcome by a sudden urge to just lay his head down and shut his eyes. He was so sleepy…
Suddenly, he felt something tug at him. To his surprise, he saw a young girl crouching next to him. She was grabbing a fold of his jacket and pulling with all her might. She was not very big—she looked to be no more than six or seven years old—but she was surprisingly strong and determined.
“Hold on!” she cried.
Slowly, slowly, Darcy felt himself being hauled out of the water until, with one last heave, he collapsed on the snow. Panting, he rolled over and lay there shivering as the girl knelt down next to him. In the dazzling brightness of the snow, and with ice forming now along his eyelashes, he could barely see her properly. He had a hazy sense of dark hair and enormous brown eyes, bright and intelligent.
Darcy tried to say something but nothing came out of his mouth other than a hoarse croak. He saw the girl look worriedly at him, then she hurried towards the row of fir trees. In a moment, she was back, panting as if she had been walking with effort, and he felt something drop softly onto his body. A sharp, fresh smell came to his nostrils. Memory stirred. Pine needles. Darcy turned his head and saw that the girl was covering him with several fallen branches from the fir trees.
“… keep you warm…” she said breathlessly, pulling one last feathery branch over his head. “I must get help. I will call Aunt and Uncle. Don’t worry—I’ll run as fast as I can!”
Darcy slowly opened his eyes and blinked, looking around in confusion for a moment. His body was aching in strange places. Then, all of a sudden, he remembered what had happened.
“The girl…!” he said, struggling to sit up.
“Darling?” His mother was at his side. “Are you feeling better?” She held a glass of water to his lips and Darcy sipped gratefully.
“What happened, Mother?”
“You had a very lucky escape, my dear,” said Lady Anne, smoothing the hair back from his forehead. “You must have had some mishap with your sled, down by the pond on the north side of the estate. You are extremely fortunate that the servants found you in time—”
“The servants found me?” said Darcy, frowning. “What about the girl?”
“What girl?” said Lady Anne. “You have been talking about her in your sleep, but we do not know which girl you might mean.”
“There was a girl…” said Darcy. “She saved me. I had fallen into the pond and it was so cold… I could barely move my legs… She helped pull me out of the water…”
“What an extraordinary story,” said Lady Anne. “Are you sure that you did not imagine it? The servants made no mention of a girl and there has been no report of anyone else in Rosings Park.”
“She was there,” insisted Darcy.
“Was she your age?”
Darcy shook his head slowly. “No, much younger. Maybe… around Anne’s age?”
Lady Anne smiled indulgently. “Come now, Fitzwilliam, the girl must be a figment of your imagination. Anne is only eight years old. How could such a little girl help you out of the pond?”
“No, Mother, I did not imagine her! Had she not been there, I would have surely drowned—”
Lady Anne shuddered and made a compulsive movement. “Oh! Do not speak of such things! You are safe now, Fitzwilliam, and that is all that matters.”
The next morning, Darcy found himself wandering down to the kitchens. Lady Catherine did not approve of him mingling with the servants, but he enjoyed speaking with them. He liked Cook in particular for she often gave him some extra treats; he found her at the large wooden table in the centre of the kitchen, strenuously stirring something in a large bowl.
“Ah, young Master Darcy—’tis good to see you up an’ about,” she said, beaming at him. “Gave us a right scare, you did. Did you like the chicken broth I made fer you? Real nourishin’, that is; good fer buildin’ up the strength again.”
“Yes, thank you, Cook, it was delicious.” Darcy advanced towards the table. He watched her with interest. “What are you doing?”
“Why, young Master, do you not know what day it is today? ’Tis Stir-Up Sunday!” She gestured to the bowl. “’Tis the day we make the plum puddin’s, so that they ’ave time to age afore the Christmas feast.” She gave the wooden spoon another vigorous turn. “See ’ere’s the mixture; ’tis really important to stir it well.”
“Can I try?” asked Darcy. “Father says that now I’m almost twelve, I’m almost a man. I should be strong enough.”
Cook eyed him approvingly. “Aye, an’ your father be right, young Master Darcy. Likely you’ll be a fine young man when you grow up.” She wiped a hand on her apron and pushed the bowl towards him. “All right—’ave a go if you’d like.”
Darcy took the spoon and began to move it around the bowl. He did not want to admit it but Cook was right: the mixture was thick and sludgy and not easy to stir at all.
“Needs a bit o’ elbow grease, ain’t it?” said Cook with a chuckle. “Still, there’s a good reward fer them who does the ’ard work…”
“The wish, young Master. The plum puddin’ wish”
“A wish?” said Darcy, looking up at her with interest.
Cook nodded. “’Tis part o’ the plum puddin’ tradition. First, you’ve got to put in thirteen ingredients… see? There’s suet, brown sugar, raisins, currants, citron, lemon an’ orange peels, spices, crumbs, flour, eggs, milk an’ brandy. That’s to remember Christ, our Lord, an’ ’is twelve apostles. An’ you’ve got to take care that the mixture’s not made too thin, or else the fruit will sink to the bottom… Aye, an’ then you mix it well—an’ that’s when you make your wish. You can add some charms too, if you like… An’ then boil it in this cloth ’ere…” She indicated a large white cloth next to her. “An’ afterwards, you ’ang it up to dry ’til Christmas Day.”
“Can I make the wish now?”
Cook smiled at him. “Go on then, young Master Darcy. I reckon you earnt it.”
Darcy looked back down at the bowl, then an idea occurred to him. As he gave the wooden spoon one last turn, he closed his eyes and thought: if the girl who saved me was real… I wish I might meet her again. He opened his eyes and looked at Cook. “There, I made my wish. Do you think it’ll work?”
Cook shrugged and laughed. “That I can’t answer, young master! Could be just an old wives’ tale, to be sure—but there can be no ’arm in wishin’, eh?”
That night, as Darcy crawled into bed, he thought of the plum pudding wish. It was nice to think that there could be a chance he might meet the girl again someday. He tried to recall her face again, but already the memory was hazy. Her eyes, though… she had the most beautiful, fine brown eyes… He did not think that he would ever forget them…
“Come and sit here next to me, Darcy.”
Fitzwilliam Darcy stifled a sigh. Sometimes it felt as if time had stood still and he was a young boy once more, visiting Rosings Park for Christmas, as he was wont to do with his family. He looked at the seat that Lady Catherine was indicating. As usual, it was next to his cousin, Anne. He observed her surreptitiously—it seemed that she had hardly changed with the passage of years. She was still almost as small as she had been as a girl, her thin body huddled beneath layers of expensive cashmere shawls. She now wore her hair up, as befitted a young lady, and an elderly companion fussed over her as opposed to a governess, but otherwise she was much the same as ever, clutching a lace handkerchief and coughing delicately into its folds.
For a moment, he was tempted to refuse the order. He was a man now—not a little boy in awe of his aunt—and there was no need to bow to her every whim any longer. But as he looked at Lady Catherine, his annoyance faded. Though she sat as erect as ever, he could see the signs of advancing age: the hair on her head was grey now and her hands were thin and frail. He realised that his aunt’s peremptory manner perhaps hid a longing for affection which she was too proud to show.
Darcy rose and went to Lady Catherine, settling himself on the sofa next to her. He looked across the room and felt a little stab of pain in his chest. Here was another difference brought about by the passage of years: the sofa opposite him did not hold two familiar beloved figures. His parents were gone: his mother so long ago that he sometimes wondered if he could still remember her properly—and his father long enough now that many could think of no other but him, Fitzwilliam Darcy, as the master of Pemberley. He missed them terribly, particularly at times like this, during Christmas and the New Year. With his parents gone, there was only himself and his sister, Georgiana—though the great difference in their ages made him often feel more like a parent than a brother.
Darcy leaned back on the sofa and sighed. He longed for the warmth of a family again. He knew that many would advise him to take a wife as the solution. A wife to provide him with an heir, a mistress to give Pemberley the warmth of a woman’s touch… He knew that at the age of twenty-six, he was already neglecting his duty by not having married yet.
But this was one area where he railed against doing things purely for duty. For he knew where duty would dictate him to offer his hand. He darted a sideways look at his cousin, assessing her surreptitiously once more. He did not dislike Anne but he could find no warmer feeling for her. She was almost like… a delicate tapestry on a wall, which he had known since childhood and grown accustomed to and yet barely noticed when he walked past.
No, he thought. He wanted more from a wife than that. He wanted a vivacious, intelligent woman who would challenge him and inspire him and provide the warmth and softness which had been missing from his life as of late. He wanted the mistress of Pemberley to be a woman he could respect and admire, a partner of his own choosing.
His eyes strayed across the room of their own accord and alighted on Miss Elizabeth Bennet, sitting on one of the other sofas. She was talking animatedly with Colonel Fitzwilliam. He looked at her, admiring her light, pleasing figure, the glossy curls of her dark hair, her spirited, playful manner… and those beautiful, expressive brown eyes… Yes, there was something about her eyes in particular. They had drawn him to her from the first time he had met her. There was something vaguely familiar about them. Almost… as if he had seen them before…
Darcy gave his head an impatient shake. What an absurd thought.