Secrets at Pemberley (a Pride and Prejudice variation) – free book excerpt

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CHAPTER ONE

 

PEMBERLEY-cover(SMALL)Elizabeth Bennet heaved herself onto the last rocky outcrop and stood up slowly, gasping in delight as she took in the view below her. It seemed as if the whole of Derbyshire was stretched out before her eyes—from the rolling dales and the grassy moorlands, cut by the pattern of dry-stone walls and winding hedgerows, to the rising woodlands and rocky escarpments, with their craggy cliffs and huge boulders. It was a spectacular view which truly took one’s breath away.

The sound of scuffling and falling pebbles made Elizabeth turn around and look down the hill behind her. Her uncle was helping her aunt carefully make the climb up the incline and, at length, the two of them gained her altitude and shared her delight with the view.

“Absolutely wonderful!” exclaimed Mrs Gardiner. “Though I spent much of my childhood in Derbyshire, I confess I had forgotten its unique beauty. Is there not a more glorious county in the whole of England?”

“I would have to agree wholeheartedly, my dear aunt, now that I have witnessed the magnificent landscape,” said Elizabeth with a smile. “Indeed, I am no longer sorry in the least that we were obliged to limit our tour of the northern counties to just this one area.”

“I am delighted to hear that, as it removes my guilt for having to constrain our tour due to my business commitments back in London,” said Mr Gardener with a twinkle in his eye.

Mrs Gardiner looked at her niece approvingly. “And I am pleased to see some colour back in your cheeks, Lizzy. I was greatly shocked to see your pale demeanour when we arrived at Longbourn to take you away. I do not know what has occurred recently to distress you so, but whatever it is, I hope it is of short duration and will soon pass.”

Elizabeth gave a weak smile. She could see that her aunt was still watching her anxiously. “Do no fret for me, my dear aunt. I am well. Perhaps I was a trifle fatigued after my trip into Kent and the rigours of life by Rosings Park.” She hastily assumed a more cheerful expression. “But the wonders and beauties we have seen on our recent travels have more than restored my spirits.”

Mrs Gardiner gave Elizabeth a shrewd look, but did not say more. Instead, she turned and wandered over to where Mr Gardiner was examining an unusual rock formation. Elizabeth sighed. Though she and her aunt were very close, she could not divulge the agonies of her heart—she could not relate all that had occurred during her recent visit to Rosings Park, when she had been compelled to sacrifice her own happiness in order to safeguard that of her beloved sister, Jane.

Her heart skipped again now as the memory of that evening in Hunsford Parsonage came flooding back: Mr Darcy, his eyes dark and ardent, confessing his love for her and offering his hand in marriage. Oh, how she had longed to accept! Her own feelings for the tall, handsome gentleman had undergone such a radical change in the time since she had first known him. At first, she had thought him nothing more than a proud, disagreeable man, full of self-consequence and contemptuous of all beneath him… but since the many events which had thrown them together, unravelling the various intrigues at Netherfield and Rosings, she had come to know a very different side to him. True, he could appear reserved and arrogant at times, but she had come to realise that his taciturn exterior hid a noble heart with great compassion, chivalry, and generosity. And she had also come to realise that Darcy was the one man she could truly love and respect.

But such discoveries were of little use in the face of Lady Catherine’s threats to destroy Jane’s happiness. Darcy’s formidable aunt was determined to prevent her nephew from marrying anyone other than her own daughter and she had made it clear that she would not hesitate to vilify the eldest Miss Bennet in society, should Elizabeth not agree to reject Darcy’s suit.

Elizabeth had had no choice. She was forced to not only refuse Darcy’s offer of love and marriage, but to repel him in such a manner as to drive him away. It had been the worst thing she had ever had to do.

But Fate had stepped in—and it had seemed as if they might have a second chance…

Her heart filled with hope, Elizabeth had left Rosings Park remembering Darcy’s last words to her. He had promised to return to Hertfordshire soon, to renew their acquaintance, and she had waited eagerly for his arrival. But days, weeks, soon a month passed with no further sign of him. With an aching heart, Elizabeth was forced to conclude that Darcy had not meant what he said or had since changed his mind. Perhaps he had met another young lady in London—he was one of the most eligible young men in England—and no longer cared for Elizabeth. After all, with her lack of fortune and connections, she could have little to attract him beyond her personal charms.

Seeing Jane so happy with Mr Bingley, as they enjoyed their engagement, had given Elizabeth some comfort in reminding her of the value of her sacrifice. But it had also underlined her loss even more deeply, for it showed her exactly what joys could be experienced by a couple deeply in love and able to plan a lifetime together.

Elizabeth came out of her thoughts now to see that her aunt and uncle had begun descending the hill and making their way back to the waiting carriage. She hastily followed them, and soon they were conveyed to the nearby village of Lambton. This was the place of Mrs Gardiner’s childhood residence and where they planned to stop for several days whilst they explored the neighbourhood. They were to stay at the Lambton Inn and a few hours later saw them being shown into their comfortable apartments.

“Thank you,” said Elizabeth to the maid as the girl helped to unpack her trunk in the pretty bedroom. They were joined by Mrs Gardiner a moment later and Elizabeth could see that her aunt was excited to begin exploring Lambton.

“It does not appear as if the village has changed much since my youth,” she said eagerly. “From the views from the carriage windows as we drove in… that beautiful oak still stands on the village green, and the old smithy by the bridge… and the flowering ivy over the wall of the churchyard… Oh, I cannot wait to revisit the scenes of my childhood!” She glanced towards darkened windows. “I wonder if we might take an evening stroll before we have supper?”

“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but ’twould not be a wise notion,” the maid spoke up suddenly from across the room.

“Indeed?” said Mrs Gardiner. “And pray, why is that?”

“On account of the highwayman, ma’am,” said the maid.

“A highwayman!” said Mrs Gardiner.

The maid nodded. “Wicked George, ’e be called.”

Wicked George! George Wickham, thought Elizabeth. What is he doing here in Derbyshire?

“’E’s been seen in the local area and several travellers ’ave been robbed on t’ roads. The village constable’s advised us all to stay indoors after dark an’ not t’roam the streets.”

Mrs Gardiner raised her eyebrows. “How long has this been going on?”

“Since early last week, like,” said the maid. “Monday, I think ’twas. They say ’e’s come up from down south. Come to see family, p’haps. Seems that ’e grew up round ’ere.”

“And is he known to be dangerous?” asked Mrs Gardiner.

The maid shrugged. “That’s what the rector an’ constable says, though I’ve ’eard tell of other stories—’twere mainly from ladies, of course—who paint ’im in a different light.” She gave a mischievous smile. “’Tis rumoured that ’e’s fearful ’andsome an’ a real gentleman, wi’ charm enough to rob any lady of her virtue. Some ’ave even gone about t’roads hopin’ to be robbed by ’im so they might enjoy a dangerous flirtation.”

“Well, I certainly do not wish for an encounter,” said Mrs Gardiner. “Very well, I shall have to restrain my impatience till the morning and view Lambton in the daylight. And now, perhaps you would be so good as to arrange a meal for us in the joint parlour?”

They enjoyed a light supper of cold meats, bread, and wine, then retired to bed. Elizabeth lay awake for a long time, however, wondering about Wickham and his reasons for coming to Derbyshire.

 


CHAPTER TWO

 

The next morning, they set off early for an exploration of the village and spent a happy two hours wandering around Mrs Gardiner’s favourite spots of old. By late morning, they had exhausted the local sights and were thinking of roaming farther afield.

“Lizzy,” said Mrs Gardiner as they were eating luncheon back at the inn. “I had a mind to visit Pemberley while we are here.”

Elizabeth looked at her aunt in alarm. “Pemberley?”

“Yes, it is barely five miles from Lambton and would be a convenient destination for this afternoon’s activities. It is renowned as one of the most magnificent estates in the north and well worth a visit. Besides…” Mrs Gardiner looked at her curiously. “Do you not claim a passing acquaintance with its master, Mr Darcy? I understand he was in Hertfordshire for some time and you met often in society. And again at Rosings Park in Kent?”

“I… yes, we did meet,” said Elizabeth, feeling herself colouring and hoping that her aunt might not notice. “But… But the acquaintance is not such that I would feel easy about visiting the house without an invitation. Indeed, we have seen so many great houses now—I must own, I grow rather tired of them. Do you not feel some boredom at the prospect of more fine carpets and satin curtains?”

“Well, if it were only that, then I should heartily agree with you and be happy to overlook a visit. But Pemberley is not merely a fine house richly furnished. The grounds are known to be some of the most beautiful in the whole of the country.”

“Aye, I have heard that they have some of the finest woods you will see—and streams and lakes full of the best game. I should dearly like to see them for myself,” said her uncle.

Elizabeth hesitated, her mind in a turmoil. The last thing she wanted to do was to visit Pemberley. With the events that had passed between her and Darcy during their last meeting—and his absence in her life since—she feared that her presence at his estate could be construed as an embarrassing pursuit on her part.

Would it not appear as if she deeply regretted her refusal of his offer and was now desperately seeking to renew their acquaintance, to the point of visiting his home uninvited?

She squirmed at the very idea. And yet, faced with her aunt and uncle’s eagerness for the excursion, she could think of no good reason to give for avoiding the place.

At this point, the maid entered the parlour bearing a platter of cheese and crackers, and a bowl of fruit.

“Those are very fine looking grapes!” said Mr Gardiner, admiring the fruit in the bowl. “I declare, I have not seen such large globes before.”

The maid smiled. “They be from t’vinery at Pemberley, sir,” she said. “Them estate gardeners grow t’best fruit in t’greenhouse an’ they often offer the excess to those in t’village so as we can sample t’fruit. ’E’s ever so generous, t’master of Pemberley.”

“Indeed?” said Mrs Gardiner, perking up with interest. “We were just thinking of visiting Pemberley this afternoon. I have heard that it has some of the most delightful grounds in all of Derbyshire, if not the country.”

The maid nodded eagerly. “That it ’as, ma’am. Me brother works in t’stables there an’ he says there’s nothin’ grander than t’park round Pemberley House. You’d need a carriage, though, for ’tis ten miles round.”

“Is the family in residence?” asked Elizabeth nervously.

The maid frowned. “They ’ad come up from down south t’week before last an’ they were there last week—I know, because me brother ’ad to ’elp with t’arrival of a new pianoforte for Miss Darcy from London. But I believe they’ve gone away again, to a summer party in ’nother country ’ouse nearby.”

Elizabeth felt a strange mixture of relief and disappointment. Though she had no wish to experience the embarrassment of Darcy finding her on his estate, she could not help at the same time wishing for some chance of luck that would throw them into each other’s company again.

“A pianoforte from London, eh?” said Mr Gardiner, who had an interest in the import and export of instruments, as part of his business. “I imagine it must be a very fine one, to grace the house of Darcy.”

“As to that, I don’t know, sir. But…” The maid looked suddenly uneasy. “There’s been some talk ’bout this new pianoforte.”

“Talk?” Elizabeth looked at her curiously.

The maid shook her head. “I ought not to be repeatin’ it, Miss. Servants’ gossip, y’know.”

“So if we should apply to the housekeeper when we arrive this afternoon, we should be able to see the house?” asked Mrs Gardiner.

The maid nodded. “Aye, I’m sure she’d be ’appy to show you round. She be a nice woman, Mrs Reynolds.”

 

With the house confirmed to be empty of its owners, Elizabeth felt that she could not raise any more objection to their visiting Pemberley and, accordingly, they set off after lunch. The journey was a pleasant one, though Elizabeth found herself unable to partake in much of her aunt and uncle’s conversation, her thoughts being so preoccupied with the prospect of seeing Darcy’s home at last. Despite the assurances that the owners would be absent, she felt an increasing nervousness take hold of her as they drew near their destination.

Then they turned into the grounds and Elizabeth forgot all as she was struck by the beauty of the estate: from the charming views of the valley and the narrow glens along the stream, to the peaceful woods that stretched in all directions. There was a large variety of landscape within the park and they found themselves ascending and descending in the carriage, pausing often to admire a remarkable view from a certain vantage point. Eventually they came out of the woods and were met by the grandeur of Pemberley House, situated on a ridge of high ground overlooking a large lake. It was a magnificent structure, the classic architecture lending a stately elegance which blended beautifully with the picturesque surroundings.

Elizabeth caught her breath and could not help her mind returning to her refusal of Darcy’s proposal. To think that she might have been the mistress of all this by now! She hastily turned her thoughts away from the wistful bitterness that might arise and instead joined her aunt and uncle in admiring the scene before them.

The carriage pulled at last into the gravel driveway in front of the house and they entered the manor to be greeted by Mrs Reynolds, the housekeeper. She was an elderly woman with a kindly face and an easy, friendly manner which surprised Elizabeth, for she had anticipated a more superior attitude from a servant of such a grand estate. That was certainly what she had been led to expect from her visit at Rosings Park and from the contemptuous remarks of some of Darcy’s acquaintances, such as Caroline Bingley. However, Mrs Reynolds welcomed them in a very civil manner and showed them over the various apartments and rooms of the house with almost as much pride as if it were her own property.

“And this is the music room,” she said, leading them into a beautiful sunlit room with a view overlooking the lake at the front of the house. It was decorated in light, pastel colours with a feminine touch. “It is Miss Darcy’s favourite room in the house and my master had it redecorated to suit her taste last autumn.”

“He sounds the most doting older brother,” observed Mrs Gardiner with a smile.

“That he certainly is, ma’am,” said Mrs Reynolds, nodding. “There is nothing he would not do for his sister.”

“Yes, we had heard of the fine instrument that he had purchased for her from London. I believe that is it?” said Mr Gardiner, indicating a beautiful pianoforte sitting in pride of place on the other side of the room.

Mrs Reynolds compressed her lips slightly. “Yes, Miss Darcy saw that instrument during a recent visit to London and set her heart on having it. She particularly liked the ornate rococo style. Mr Darcy, of course, immediately purchased it for her. Perhaps he is too overindulgent an elder brother at times…”

“Why do you say that?” asked Mr Gardiner, going over to examine the pianoforte. “It is a beautiful instrument and a fine addition to this house. Indeed, its appearance suggests a valuable antique.”

“There are other instruments as fine which might have been better choices,” said Mrs Reynolds, eyeing the pianoforte askance. “This instrument is old and… and there are stories attached to it…” She hesitated, then dropped her voice. “It pains me to question the master’s decisions, but ’twas not a wise move to bring it into the house.”

Elizabeth gave her a curious look. “What stories, may I ask?”

Mrs Reynolds looked uneasy and Elizabeth saw a flash of fear in her eyes.

“I know not the truth of it, miss, but there are whispers that this pianoforte is haunted.”

“Haunted?” said Mrs Gardiner in surprise. “And have you seen evidence of supernatural activity?”

Mrs Reynolds shifted uncomfortably. “There… There have been… The servants have heard things at night… music when no one should be playing…”

In spite of herself, Elizabeth felt a chill creep up her spine. She looked again at the pianoforte. It seemed so innocent, bathed in a ray of sunshine coming in through the windows. It was ridiculous to imagine a ghostly presence playing on its keys.

“Ah, well, these old antiques often have legends and stories attached to them,” said Mr Gardiner cheerfully. “Oftentimes they are nothing more than idle gossip and saucy tales spun to give the item more character. I have dealt with many such articles in my business. Do not let it distress you.”

Elizabeth remembered the music box from the Orient that her uncle had given her younger sister, Mary, and the belief that it too was cursed. Indeed, it was Darcy who had disproved that theory and shown that the horrific illness which had struck down the guests at the Netherfield ball was nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence.

And yet…

Elizabeth glanced at the pianoforte again, wondering if there was any grain of truth in the speculation about this instrument. Mrs Reynolds seemed like an eminently respectable, sensible woman. For her to take fright and view the instrument with such hostility suggested more than a passing coincidence.

 


CHAPTER THREE

 

“Is this a portrait of your mistress?” asked Mrs Gardiner, pausing in front of a painting situated on an easel in front of the old, disused fireplace. It was of a young lady dressed in a pretty muslin gown, sitting in a garden, her arms filled with lilacs.

“Yes. Is she not the prettiest young lady you have ever seen?” asked Mrs Reynolds, beaming with pride. “The master had this done during her recent trip to London. It was delivered together with the pianoforte last Monday.”

“And I have heard that her brother is very handsome too,” said Mrs Gardiner.

“Oh yes, there are none so handsome as my master!” gushed Mrs Reynolds. “If you follow me, there is a fine portrait of him in the gallery.”

Mrs Gardiner gave Elizabeth a mischievous look. “Lizzy can tell us if she thinks it is like, for she has seen the original and is in a position to compare.”

“Oh? Does this young lady know the master?” asked Mrs Reynolds, turning to look at Elizabeth with new interest.

“Yes. We… We met whilst he was in Hertfordshire.”

“Ah! Yes, the master must have had a grand time there for we were expecting him back much sooner. Indeed, the steward had several business affairs to settle with the master and was surprised to find him postponing his return several times. He had told us that he only intended to stay a few days at his friend’s estate, but it seems that he changed his mind. There must have been great attractions in Hertfordshire to hold his interest there for so long.”

Elizabeth coloured and looked away, but not before she caught her aunt giving her another shrewd look. They followed the housekeeper to the upstairs gallery—a long, stately room with several oil paintings hanging on the walls. Mr Reynolds halted before a large portrait of Darcy in riding jacket and breeches, standing next to his horse, and they gathered around her to look at the painting.

Elizabeth’s heart skipped a beat as she looked up at that handsome countenance. She had not seen Darcy for many weeks now and the sight of those intent dark eyes, chiselled features, and strong mouth stirred something in her heart that was almost like a physical ache. There was a hint of a smile at the corners of Darcy’s mouth, in the portrait, and Elizabeth vividly remembered a similar expression on the gentleman’s face when he had looked at her in the past. She wondered suddenly if she would ever see Darcy’s eyes on her again.

Unable to bear the feelings of pain and regret, Elizabeth turned abruptly and walked to the other side of the gallery. Here was a glass case containing several miniatures, many of them very old. It seemed as if Darcy was determined to plague her, however, for the first thing she saw upon looking into the case was a miniature of his likeness. It had obviously been done when he was much younger—his mouth had less of its present sternness and his eyes seemed less guarded—and she delighted in this glimpse into Darcy’s youth. Now that he was forever lost to her, she seemed to crave any additional insights she could gain about him, any titbit of information about his background or character.

Then she was brought short by the miniature next to his. She leaned forwards and peered through the glass. Yes, there was no mistake: it was a portrait of George Wickham! Again, done several years ago, when the highwayman’s face had not been so weathered by debauchery and dissipation. Though he undoubtedly had striking looks too, Wickham’s cocksure handsomeness was in complete contrast to Darcy’s quietly aristocratic demeanour. And even at a young age, one could see the weakness about Wickham’s mouth and the gleam of devilry in his eyes.

Her aunt and uncle had followed her over to the case and were now copying her interest in Wickham’s portrait.

“Here is another handsome young man,” commented Mrs Gardiner. “I did not know that Mr Darcy had a brother? Though there is no likeness between them.”

Mrs Reynolds joined them. Her mouth pursed in disapproval. “That is no brother of my master. That young man is called George Wickham and he has turned out to be a bounder and an utter disgrace to the family. Indeed, his name is never mentioned in this house anymore.”

Mr Gardiner raised his eyebrows. “In that case, why is his portrait here with the others?”

“He was a favourite of the late Mr Darcy’s,” said Mrs Reynolds stiffly. “That miniature was done in the old master’s time and, out of respect for his father’s memory, my master has not removed the miniature from the collection, though it gives him pain to see it.”

“He sounds a most noble gentleman,” said Mr Gardiner.

“Aye, he is,” said Mrs Reynolds fiercely. “Some call him proud, but I have never seen any improper pride. He is always affable to the poor and generous to all under his care. Ask any of his servants or his tenants. We are all in agreement that we could not have a better landlord or master.”

Elizabeth longed to ask more but she did not dare. Why was Wickham—a highwayman—here in a portrait in this fine house? What was his connection to this noble family? She had known from observing their past interactions that Darcy and Wickham had had a prior acquaintance—and that it was not a happy one. But she knew not the particulars and Darcy had never explained them to her. She had always assumed that his disapproval of her previous association with Wickham was due to the fact that the latter was a highwayman—but now she wondered if there was some other cause for Darcy’s hostility towards the man.

As for her own feelings, she was deeply ashamed of having been duped by Wickham’s smooth manners and easy charm. She had been lulled into feeling pity for him and her mistake had nearly cost her family its respectability and good name. She cringed now to think of her misguided behaviour at the Netherfield ball. Had it not been for Darcy’s intervention, both she and Jane could have presently been suffering the disgrace of imprisonment. It was yet another reason for Elizabeth to feel grateful towards Darcy. How many times in the past months had he watched over her and saved her from scandal and danger?

 

They soon completed their tour of the house and Mrs Reynolds passed them over to the head gardener. The Pemberley gardens were extensive, featuring over a hundred acres of carefully cultivated land, including water features, streams and lakes, an impressive maze, a rockery, a rose garden, and a bountiful kitchen and herb garden. Mrs Gardiner was particularly taken with the Lake Gardens on the south side of the house, where a large pool of water took pride of place in the centre of a gallery of fanciful sculptures. They spent several minutes wandering amongst the sculptures, admiring their workmanship and attempting to guess their forms, before walking slowly back towards the house.

Elizabeth fell behind as she paused by the lake again to admire its calm beauty. Something broke its surface with a splash, then another, and she saw a shape that looked like a tail. Was it a fish? The head gardener had been boasting of the monstrous pikes inhabiting the waters of Pemberley—was this one of the impressive specimens?

Curious, Elizabeth made her way out onto a small ornamental pier which extended slightly into the lake. She reached the end and bent over, peering into the water. It was dark and difficult to see, but she fancied that she caught the hint of a sinuous shape moving just beneath the surface, a few feet farther out…

A rustle behind her made her glance back over her shoulder.

The bushes near the pier parted and a tall, handsome gentleman in riding clothes stepped out.

“Mr Darcy!” cried Elizabeth, jerking up in surprise.

She lost her balance, tipping backwards over the edge of the pier. She flailed her arms, desperately trying to save herself. Her foot slipped and then, with a cry of alarm, she plunged into the water.

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