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. She had a loud voice and a way of looking down her long nose at people which made one feel nervous and insignificant. He glanced across at his mother, with her pretty, soft face and her gentle manners. Sometimes he wondered how Lady Catherine and his mother could really be sisters—the only thing they seemed to share were their dark hair and high, arched eyebrows!
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 could still remember the recent discourse his father had given him on the subject:
“A gentleman must at all times be courteous and considerate to others, particularly towards the ladies. It is not merely enough to be well-bred—a true gentleman must be of both good birth and noble character, always willing to fulfil his obligations and behave according to the highest ideals of chivalry and personal integrity.”
Furthermore, his father had emphasised that to take his place as a gentleman in society, Darcy would have to learn the niceties of social conduct, including, occasionally, enduring conversation and company which was not necessarily pleasing to him. Naturally, his father had hastened to add, this was not required if he was among strangers or those of inferior social class, but with his own family and those of similar consequence he must take the trouble to make himself agreeable.
Thus, Darcy pinned a polite smile on his face and walked across the salon to Lady Catherine, who gestured to the sofa next to her. Darcy sat down obediently in the space indicated—next to his cousin, Anne, who gave a delicate little cough into the lace handkerchief she held in her hands. Her governess hurriedly placed a shawl around her shoulders and fussed over her charge as Darcy shifted uncomfortably next to them.
Anne 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?”
Darcy shifted even more uncomfortably. He hated the way his aunt was always talking about him and Anne, wriggling her eyebrows and smiling in that meaningful way. Father had laughed and told him not to take the comments to heart but it was difficult to ignore them when Lady Catherine seemed to talk of nothing else.
Marry Anne? Darcy glanced surreptitiously at his cousin. He could not imagine being married to anyone. That was something that grown-ups did and even though Father had said that he was now no longer a boy but on the way to becoming a man, marriage still seemed too far away to even think about.
Besides… he glanced at his cousin again. What a bore it would be having Anne for a wife! He would certainly not wish to spend his life with someone so pale and insipid. She never said anything, except for the occasional whisper in answer to her governess’s question about whether she was too hot or too cold, or had too much or too little light on her… Darcy did not really know what he should like in a wife but he knew it would not be someone like Anne.
No, I’d like someone fun, he thought. Someone who enjoys reading like I do and who can talk about anything, not just silly girls’ stuff… someone who’d come exploring with me in the woods and we could have adventures together and climb up—
“Fitzwilliam? Did you heed what I said, Fitzwilliam?”
Darcy came back to the present with a start. He realised that his aunt was addressing him and wondered desperately what the right response was. He had no idea what she had been saying. Thankfully, his mother came to his rescue:
“Your aunt was just suggesting that you might like to read to your cousin this morning,” said Lady Anne, smiling at her son.
Lady Catherine nodded. “I have purchased a new book of poetry which Anne should enjoy. Her health, unfortunately, prevents her from reading herself—much too much strain for her eyes—but I know you should like to read to her, Fitzwilliam.”
“Oh… er… certainly, Aunt,” said Darcy, though there was nothing he wanted to do less.
He glanced at his cousin again and felt a small stab of guilt. It was not as if he really disliked Anne—in truth, he felt a bit sorry for her: cooped up in this great mausoleum of a house, with his aunt dictating her every move and no other children for company, save for the occasional visits from himself or one of his other cousins. Nevertheless, he had no wish to spend an entire morning in Anne’s dreary company.
No, what he really longed to do was to go outside and try out that sled! It had been a stroke of luck finding the old sled in the hut at the rear of the estate. Benson, the Rosings Park head gardener, had helped him pull it out from beneath the pile of broken furniture and discarded gardening equipment, and cleaned it off for him. It was waiting for him now in the front foyer, and he was itching to try it out, especially since the new snowfall they’d had yesterday.
Darcy leaned slightly to the right to look out of the windows on the other side of the salon. He could see the glittering white banks of fresh snow beckoning to him. How he longed to be outside, feeling the cold pinching his cheeks and the wind rushing against him as he sailed downhill on the sled!
He stifled a sigh. Instead, he was forced to remain here, listening half-heartedly as the grown-ups conversed and trying to sit with his hands on his knees, his face the picture of courteous interest, as his father had instructed him. He looked across at Georgiana, who was being held in his mother’s arms, and almost wished that he could be a baby like her. No one expected anything of Georgiana for she was barely a year old and could hardly even stand upright.
“I am going to write some letters now,” said Lady Catherine, standing up from her armchair beside the fire. “You will want to attend to your correspondence too, I am sure,” she said to Lady Anne.
“I believe I may go and lie down for a period,” said Lady Anne as she handed Georgiana over to the nurse, who had been standing quietly at the side of the room. “I am feeling a trifle fatigued.”
Darcy glanced at his mother. She had been looking pale lately and seemed to often be fatigued, spending much time in her room. He knew that Mother had had a hard time when Georgiana was born, but Father had always reassured him that she would recover with rest. He watched now as his father helped his mother solicitously to her feet.
“Fitzwilliam, you may come with me and Anne to the library—you may read to her there while I write my letters,” said Lady Catherine, waving her hand imperiously.
Darcy rose slowly, then on an impulse, 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. “Can I? Please, sir?”
Lady Catherine frowned and started to say something but Mr Darcy interrupted her. He smiled and nodded at his son.
“All right, Fitzwilliam. I know you have been champing at the bit to give that sled a try.” He glanced out of the windows. “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. Then he remembered the way his cousin was cosseted and protected—surely there would be no chance of Lady Catherine allowing her out in this cold!
“Have care where you take the sled, Fitzwilliam,” 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—”
“Benson has advised me that the 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 sat up in the snow and laughed as he brushed some off his face. He got to his feet and righted the sled, which had flipped over as it hit a hump at the bottom of the hill. Thus far, the old sled was turning out to be everything he had hoped for. Despite the faded wood and old metal runners, it glided easily across the snow and ice. The only thing was… well, maybe it was not quite as fast as he could wish.
Darcy looked back up at the slope he had just come down and frowned. If only he could find a bigger hill! He was sure that with greater height, the sled would gain more momentum and therefore faster speed. He turned and scanned the snowy landscape, looking for a hill worthy of tackling. The grounds of Rosings Park stretched out around him. Darcy realised that he had come farther from the house than he had thought—he could see it now, small in the distance, the plumes of smoke rising from the chimneys. He doubted that they could see him so far away and felt pleased. He did not like the thought of Lady Catherine watching and judging his every move from the windows. It was nice to think of being outside her influence.
He turned and looked to the other side of the park. The ground sloped downwards in that direction and in the distance he could see a faint line running across the landscape. A fence, he realised. That must be the border with the neighbouring estate. And just before it, he saw that the land dipped, dropping away from sight.
There must be a sort of shelf there, Darcy realised. Maybe where the land suddenly dropped sharply downwards. A steep slope! He grabbed the rope on his sled and began to walk towards the ledge with mounting excitement, pulling the sled behind him. The snow crunched beneath his boots and he felt a few flakes drift down and land on his face, melting almost instantly. The cold nipped at his cheeks but he was pleasantly warm from his recent exertions and did not really mind.
Darcy arrived at the spot to see that his guess had been right. The land curved over the edge and swept downwards in a steep slope which ended beside a small pond surrounded by fir trees. The sight of the pond reminded him suddenly of his aunt’s warning: “Make sure you stay away from the north side of the grounds, particularly near the pond.” 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. The snow lay in thick folds across the landscape and, below him, it covered the slope in a smooth layer of white powder which was particularly inviting. Everything looked pristine and peaceful.
Darcy thought of his cousin. Richard was a few years older than him and always seemed so confident and daring—he had told Darcy that he wanted to become an officer when he grew up. When he had been at Rosings together with Darcy in the past, he was always leading the way into fun and mischief. If Richard were here, Darcy thought, he would not be hesitating. No, Richard would laugh and say, “Old Benson the gardener is just fussing for nothing!”
Darcy set his sled down on the edge of the slope with sudden decision. He might be three years younger but he could be just as brave as his cousin! Quickly, he sat down on the sled, tucking his feet into position, then took a deep breath and looked down the slope once more. At the bottom, the surface of the pond gleamed dully and he realised that it must be frozen over. Perhaps he might investigate it when he reached the bottom—see if it might be suitable for a spot of ice-skating!
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. Darcy stretched his legs out, pushing his heels into the snow to attempt to slow the sled. But the snow was so soft that there was no resistance. The sled continued gaining speed as it rushed towards the bottom of the hill.
Darcy felt uneasy. The sled felt like it was careening out of control. He thrust his legs out harder, trying to keep his balance and remain upright as he jammed his heels into the snow. In vain, he threw his weight backwards but that only seemed to tilt the sled and cause it to shoot sideways down the slope.
“Ahhh!” cried Darcy, 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 felt himself dropping and 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. There was a terrible cracking sound and the next moment, he felt himself dropping again—only this time it was not through air but into icy water.
Darcy cried out again but the cry was cut off as he went under. He resurfaced, choking and spluttering as cold water filled his mouth and went into his nose. He gasped and kicked, paddling with his hands to keep his head above the surface. He must have fallen into the pond, he realised, and if he didn’t get out soon, he would drown in its icy depths. He shook the wet hair out of his eyes and looked desperately around. He was not far from the edge—just a few feet—and the surface ice of the pond was broken all around him.
He kicked as strongly as he could, but his legs felt curiously leaden and his fingers were swollen and numb. He could hardly feel them. His teeth chattered, and his body seemed to be seized by a violent trembling. He kicked again. 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. His breath was coming in great gasps and his entire body shook uncontrollably. He had his elbows on the bank, but he could not find the strength to haul himself out of the water.
“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. Who would be out here to hear him? Yes, they might start to search for him soon, but would they find him in time? Indeed, he had promised not to venture to this side of the grounds so they would not think to look here for him at first. Suddenly, Darcy almost wished that his aunt had been watching him from the windows—at least that way, she would have noticed his absence.
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 tired… so tired… he would just shut his eyes for a moment and rest… yes, rest… he was so sleepy…
Suddenly, he felt something tug at him. He raised his head, looking around in a daze, and, to his surprise, saw a young girl crouching next to him. She was bending over and grabbing a fold of his jacket, pulling with all her might. She was not very big—indeed, she looked to be no more than six or seven years old—but she was surprisingly strong and determined.
“Hold on!” she cried.
She heaved again and Darcy attempted to help her, grasping at whatever handholds he could find to pull himself out of the water. His strength was nearly gone but the girl’s determination galvanised him afresh. Slowly, slowly, he 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. He looked blearily up at her. 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. She was peering at him anxiously.
“Are you all right?”
Darcy tried to nod, wrapping his arms around himself as he began shivering violently. He had no strength to speak.
The girl stood up. “I must get help,” she said. “I will call Aunt and Uncle. Don’t worry—I’ll run as fast as I can!”
Again, Darcy tried to nod but he did not know if his head was simply jerking as part of the spasms that wracked his body. He saw the girl look worriedly at him, then she turned and scanned the area around them. She started suddenly towards the row of fir trees. In a moment, she was back. Darcy squinted and tried to focus on her. What was she doing? She was bending over, panting as if she had been walking with effort, and he felt something drop softly on 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.
Darcy tried to say something but nothing came out of his mouth other than a hoarse croak. The girl did not seem to notice. She bent down and looked at him one last time.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can!”
Then she was gone. Darcy heard the sound of her running feet and even in his dazed state, he marvelled at the rapid rhythm. The little girl must have been a very good country walker to cover ground so confidently.
Then his thoughts drifted… to Mother and Father… would he see them again? His little sister, Georgiana… Pemberley… his pony… his cousin Richard… even his aunt, Lady Catherine—he didn’t want to die here and never see them again… He had to try and stay awake and wait for the girl to return… But he was so sleepy… so sleepy…
His eyelids felt so heavy. Darcy let them fall. He wrapped his arms tighter around himself, curling into an even smaller ball and shivering beneath the layer of branches spread over him.