Otherwise known as ANGSt – a Halloween Short Story in Four Parts
Author’s Note: I dusted off this story from some years back, cleaned it up and put it on the blog. Because, really, what’s scarier than Elizabeth Bennet married to…
Darcy stood at the fringes of the room, eyeing the swirling skirts and frock coats of the dancers gathered into two straight lines – men on one side, women on the other. Separate yet together—a tragic analogy to my life. The woman I love and I— permanently separated, yet thrown together with unfortunate regularity. Darcy snorted in derision, an expression of mockery toward his family, his so-called friends, the ton, the institution of marriage, but mostly toward himself. At one time, he believed he might rise above the pettiness of London society. If he had her, he might have done just that —spent long seasons at Pemberley lounging by the lake, riding his horses, making babies in the heirloom bed of the master’s suite and watching them grow up.
It had been at an assembly similar to this that he had first laid eyes on her. The room had been a tad bit shabbier, the decorations not so fine, but it too had been a congress of supposedly happy people. People getting together to dance, to talk, to flirt, or perhaps to find someone to fill the vast emptiness of life. If only he had recognized then what he knew now: a man’s happiness could come from the strangest places and show itself in the most bizarre forms. For those who saw and acted on the opportunity, life became a journey worth taking. For those who hesitated or let others lead them, well…he was a fine example of that kind of misery.
He caught her eye as she exchanged places with her husband in the dance. She gifted Darcy with a small shadow of a smile. Her eyes were still just as fine, although not as bright as they once were. He didn’t hear her laugh anymore, and that was a tragedy. That warm, perfect, slightly throaty laugh was one of his favorite memories of Hertfordshire and Kent that year.
The remembrance caused him to almost return her smile, but then she turned her back to him, and he locked eyes with her husband. There was a brief, but silent skirmish of animosity between the two men that simmered until it was about to boil over. Then the husband gave Darcy a calculating, evil smile, and with his eyes indicated the young widow on Darcy’s right before turning with the angry swirl of a red coat. Darcy seethed with anger and disgust. Bastard! He’s going to make a fool of his wife – again. Well, that poor excuse for a man wouldn’t shame Elizabeth this night, not if Darcy had anything to say about it.
His mouth was dry, and he wondered how long before he could slip away to the billiards room and get a good stiff drink. How had it come to this? Darcy had never imagined his life would be an endless nightmare of brandy bottles, reckless gambling, and carousing with lonely widows and courtesans— all liberally doused with these recurring bouts of jealousy and anger.
The dance came to a close, and before the husband could make his move toward the young widow wearing bereavement ribbons, Darcy intervened by stepping over and touching the woman’s elbow. Although he was still reputed to be a stern and taciturn man, he had learned over the years that he could be quite charming when he wanted something.
“Mrs. Hamilton?” He gave her his most dashing smile. He would make sure Elizabeth’s husband wouldn’t bed this young widow tonight, although Darcy hadn’t yet decided if he’d take her for himself.
“Yes, Mr. Darcy. How are you this evening?” She smiled with a wide-eyed innocence that was almost unheard of in the ton. Darcy knew she wouldn’t keep that look for long. He could probably be the man to divest her of it, if he chose. She had most likely never slept with any other man but her husband, a gentleman who had succumbed to pneumonia last winter after a long, debillitating illness.
“Would you care to dance, ma’am?”
“I believe the next is a waltz, sir.”
“Still a somewhat scandalous dance among the older crowd, I’m told. A dance for married couples…or lovers.”
She blushed at his insinuation.
She nodded and lifted her chin in defiance when a titter went through the crowd.
Darcy looked over and caught the husband’s glare. Foiled again, you braying ass! He grinned smugly and reveled in what he predicted would be his next victory over the man– until he saw Elizabeth’s face. She was watching her husband’s scowl—her expression crestfallen, her eyes bright with unshed tears. After looking between the two men, she quickly realized what had just transpired. After all, it had happened several times before. Sometimes Darcy gave her husband his comeuppance; sometimes her husband won the prize – usually a young widow, sometimes a courtesan, once or twice a young, unprotected girl. Elizabeth’s humiliation showed in her eyes, and she murmured her excuses and left the hall.
Darcy stopped mid-step.
“Sir? Are you quite all right?”
He shook his head a little to clear it, and a heavy, but invisible weight descended on his shoulders. He tried to straighten them and smiled awkwardly at his partner.
“My apologies madam. Suddenly, it seems I need some air.”
She looked disappointed, but capitulated gracefully. Perhaps she wasn’t as naïve as he thought. “Of course.”
“But let’s finish our dance first, shall we?”
“I would like that – very much.” She went on as they moved across the floor. “I was sorry to hear of Mrs. Darcy’s recent illness. Has her health recovered?”
Darcy frowned. He hated being reminded of Mrs. Darcy. “Unfortunately not.”
“I understand how devastating the failing health of a spouse can be. As I know from my own experience, it is often a lonely existence, especially for someone as young as you or I.” She gazed up from underneath her eyelashes.
Definitely not naïve then. “Yes, it is an all-too-common theme in our society – the burden of illness. I understand there has been significant disease in town this season, especially among the military.”
“Nothing new or alarming—just the usual indispositions that affect a hoard of traveling males.” He gave a pointed look at the husband’s red coat. “If you’ll forgive my bluntness in female company.”
Mrs. Hamilton followed his gaze with a queasy look. “I- I hadn’t heard that.”
Darcy had to press his lips together to keep from grinning. With that one comment, I managed to quash his designs on Mrs. Hamilton, and I didn’t even have to bed her. The music stopped and brusquely Darcy excused himself and left the hall in a rush.
His boots echoed down the long hallway of his uncle’s house. He knew where Elizabeth was going; he’d watched her many times before escape to the terrace when the nastiness of London society became too much for her. Carefully, he opened the French doors and slipped out into the summer night. He stood in the shadows and watched her for a couple of minutes. Moonlight glinted off her dress, making her look like a fairy or an angel. She rested her hands on the rail and peered out into the night. Slowly, she brought her hand up to her face, and he assumed she was brushing away a tear. He felt a lump rise in his throat, feeling sympathy for the fate that had been handed to her. Guilt washed over him. He had a pivotal role in that fate. I’m the reason she’s not happy. I could have been her husband, if only I’d dared. I would have loved her better than that lying, scheming… Another sound of disgust emanated from his lips, and she turned around, startled.
“Who’s there? Make yourself known.”
He stepped into the moonlight.
“Oh, it’s you.” Her voice held no emotion, no anticipation. Perhaps he had been wrong all those years ago, when he thought she was expecting his addresses during that spring visit to Kent. Or maybe she just put those hopes and dreams out of her mind, like he had tried to do. He cleared his throat and approached her, hands behind his back.
“I came to see if you needed assistance. You left the party quite suddenly.”
She let out a bitter laugh. “I doubt anyone will miss me.”
“Obviously, you are mistaken about that – for I missed you, and now I’m here. So how are you this evening…” He nearly choked on the next words.
“… Mrs. Fitzwilliam?”