We have spent three summer holidays with Darcy and Elizabeth after they were married. In this vignette, Darcy and Elizabeth have their first meeting in a haberdasher’s shop in Ramsgate instead of the Meryton Assembly. I hope you enjoy this new encounter as much as I did.
An Encounter at Ramsgate
As he strolled upon the stone harbor with the gentle sea breeze lifting his dark, wavy hair away from his face, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s last shreds of misgiving for having agreed to remain in Ramsgate melted away. His sister had been correct: the town had too many pleasing attributes to allow the likes of Wickham to sully it for them.
Had they left for London immediately as had been his intention, Ramsgate would thereafter have been associated with such painful recollections as to make the idea of returning to it unthinkable. It is probable that their town house, ideally situated only a short walk from the beach, would have been sold.
Despite the marina being rather more populated with tourists than Darcy could like, and the inevitable, slight tightening of his chest muscles as they passed him, he continued unrecognized and unbothered, and the sights and sounds around him gratified his senses. The soothing rumble of the rolling waves as they repeated their dancing motion upon the sand was punctuated by the hungry calls of seagulls and the occasional happy shrieks of children playing by the water’s edge. The air itself—damp and tinged with the aroma of the ocean—was an invigorating presence. A pair of frolicking sea lions, not more than twenty yards from the shore, periodically came into view, and a number of ships and fishing boats dotted the ocean horizon. No wonder Georgiana had wished to remain! What did London have to compare to this? Not even his offer of taking her to Pemberley had swayed her.
Darcy had used the time set aside for Georgiana’s music practice this afternoon to slip from the town house with the intention of walking to High Street to find a gift for his sister. It had long been his habit to buy her a memento from each trip they took together, and now, more than ever, Georgiana needed to re-establish normality to her life. Upon leaving the house, he was drawn towards the ocean, and he took a circuitous path towards the main street in town. He entered High Street where it ended at the harbor wall.
Entering the large haberdasher’s shop, Darcy was overwhelmed at first by the dazzling array of wares on display throughout the store. Nearly every conceivable color was represented in the goods offered that included everything from items of clothing, accessories, and children’s toys, to locally made artwork, seashells, and even a fair-sized selection of books related to the sea and the town’s history. Outside of London, it was rare to find a shop that offered this much variety. How was he to choose an item for Georgiana?
As he wandered through the store, a clerk greeted him, and after he politely refused her offer to direct him, left him to his own devices. The shop was quiet with only a few other patrons. This was such a different experience from shopping in Bond Street, where he was apt to cross paths with acquaintances, a prospect that, for him, detracted from any excursion. He had, in fact, recognized a couple of people from London since his arrival, but they had not noticed him, and he was able to avoid them. Perhaps because no one expected to see him there, they were less apt to identify him as they would in London or Derbyshire. At least on this day, he could shop with a kind of freedom and anonymity not usually available to him.
Darcy stopped beside an artfully arranged display of ladies’ gloves. Georgiana could always use more gloves, and there were several here in colors she did not already have. A particular pair stood out from the rest, and he picked it up to examine it. It was made of a light blue leather, soft and supple to the touch, and decorated on the back with dark blue stitching in the shape of a rose. Unless he missed his guess, his sister’s favorite pelisse would match it perfectly. He would get it for her.
“Oh, I would not do that, sir.”
His spine stiffened even as he turned sharply towards the dulcet sound. What kind of woman would speak to a gentleman unknown to her this way? What could she mean by it? She had the appearance of a gentlewoman though modestly dressed. He was accustomed to being an object of intense interest by unmarried ladies, but none of them had ever been so brazen as to speak to him without an introduction. Did she know who he was? Many in London or Derbyshire knew him by sight. Was this some brassy, though admittedly imaginative, attempt to gain his notice? The young woman’s gaze was not upon him but the gloves in his hand, giving him the freedom to inspect her person with impunity.
She was rather short, with a light, pleasing figure. Her hair was a luxurious, thick, mane of dark curly locks, precariously pinned in such a way that they seemed poised to escape at a moment’s notice. Her face, oval and more tanned than was fashionable, suffered from more than one lack of perfect symmetry and could not be considered beautiful, but her eyes—large, expressive, and vivid—were exquisite. Nevertheless, he could not but be affronted by such a disregard for propriety as this. He used a cold tone to leave her in no doubt of his sentiments. “Did you address me, madam?”
Her response came in a light and cheery voice without a trace of repentance. “I did. I am well aware that I broke one of the basic rules of good society to do so, yet I could not stand by in good conscience and allow you to make a grievous mistake. The gloves in your hand are beautiful and stylish; they caught my notice as well. It is a great shame that they are lined with a fabric that is rough and uncomfortable. I tried them on earlier, and I was most disappointed.”
Removing his own glove from his left hand, he slipped two fingers inside the light blue glove. It was clear at once that the young lady was correct: the fabric was abrasive even to his skin; Georgiana would have certainly found it unbearable. It seemed the young woman had done him a good turn. He returned the gloves to the table. This time his voice was reflective of contrition and gratitude. “Indeed, you are correct. I must thank you for your timely warning.”
The hint of a smile played upon the young lady’s lips. “You are welcome. I can recommend the gloves two rows below in the same color. They have a different design, that of a butterfly, but more importantly, the lining is a smooth, comfortable fabric.”
As Darcy took up the pair she indicated and felt inside, he became aware of a pleasant scent wafting around him. It was a pleasing, floral aroma: lavender with a trace of vanilla. He inhaled deeply several times until he had the perception of being disoriented or off-balance. Just as she had stated, this pair of gloves was lined with a soft, sleek fabric. “Yes, the difference is rather dramatic. I appreciate the recommendation.”
“I am pleased to have been of service. If I had not stopped you, you would have been forced to come back and return the gloves.”
His jaw tightened as Georgiana’s likely reaction to such a gift from him flashed through his mind. “I fear not. My sister would have been reluctant to tell me of the problem with the gloves. She might have suffered through wearing them or else she would have just accepted them, thanked me, and kept them hidden away in the back of a drawer rather than take a chance on wounding my feelings.”
The young lady’s features softened into a depiction of compassion. “She sounds like a sweet, thoughtful sister.”
His voice mellowed as it often did when he spoke of Georgiana. “She is. I am fortunate to have her in my life.”
“I imagine your sister must be like my eldest sister, Jane.” A becoming smile overspread the lady’s countenance. “She is my closest friend, and she is beautiful inside and out. She would go to great lengths to avoid offending anyone. She endeavors to always find the good in others, however hard it may be to decipher. It is against her nature to hold a mean thought about anyone.”
“Yes, my sister is much the same way.” How extraordinary it was to have such a pleasant conversation with a woman he had never met. If only it did not have to end. Wait a minute―where did that thought come from? Why did he find this young woman, a total stranger, so easy to speak with? When forced into social gatherings, he was apt to produce naught but awkward, stilted dialogue, and even that came at the cost of high anxiety, but speaking to this particular lady was almost effortless. Was it because they were strangers that he had none of the discomfort that accompanied speaking to ladies of the ton?
The young lady’s gaze swept to the side and behind her as if in search of someone. Was she preparing to step away? How would he stop her from leaving? He must think of a question to ask her. He cleared his throat. “Is, ah, is this your first visit to Ramsgate?”
She turned back towards him, but her gaze did not surpass the level of his shoulders. It was as if she was suddenly afflicted with shyness. “Yes. It is my first time to visit the ocean, and it is everything and more than I had imagined.” A fanciful glimmer entered her eyes. “I am fond of walking. At home, I traverse the paths around our estate nearly each morning. While here, I have rambled along the beach each day, and I have found the ever-changing sights at the seashore to equal any of the stunning vistas of my own neighborhood. This is a vacation I shall never forget. My aunt was kind to invite me. She is occupied now at the other side of the shop, or she would have prevented me from breaking etiquette in this way. She is everything good and proper.”
Darcy tensed at her reference to the fact that they should not be speaking to each other. At present, it seemed a nonsensical rule. “Are you a long way from your home?”
“I am from Hertfordshire, sir.”
“Ah, that is not so far.”
She raised one brow. “It is in my view. It is the farthest I have ever traveled from home.”
It occurred to Darcy that Hertfordshire was an easy distance from London. “Yet I am certain you have not spent all of your days before now at Hertfordshire. Do you visit London often?”
She raised her chin and met his eyes. “A couple of times per year I stay with my aunt and uncle in Cheapside. My uncle’s business is located nearby.”
A spasm assaulted his stomach. An uncle in trade? The fantasy forming in his mind of the lady and the life she led was shattered at this revelation. This bit of information should have motivated him to end this tête-à-tête at once, but oddly, it did not. With a start, he found her studying him with an unreadable expression. Had his reaction shown on his face? In any case, he had taken too long to reply. He spoke the first words that entered his head. “Do you avail yourself of the amusements London offers such as concerts, the theater, and the museums?”
“Yes, I am fond of those things in addition to the parks and gardens. Do you spend much time in London?”
“More than I would like. When I am able, I prefer to spend most of my time at my estate in Derbyshire.” The tense set of her posture gave him the impression that she was preparing to leave him. A sensation of panic rose within him. “Might I learn the name of the lady who has done me a great favor today?” Had he gone too far? Would she find the question intrusive?
Her luminous eyes flitted up towards his before lowering again. “I am Miss Bennet.”
“Miss Bennet, I am Mr. Darcy, and I thank you again most sincerely.” As he spoke his name, his gaze was riveted upon her face; she showed no sign of recognition.
She dropped to a curtsy. “Good day, Mr. Darcy.”
He bowed. “Good day, Miss Bennet.” As she walked swiftly away from him, a heaviness suffused his limbs.
Darcy lumbered to the center of the shop, positioning himself behind a display of men’s coats. Angling his head between the two featured styles of coats, he had a clear view of Miss Bennet and an older, fashionably dressed lady at the other end of the shop. They stood facing away from him and were in discussion with a clerk. He could not have explained why—it was clear she was not of his social sphere—but he was seized with a yearning to know more of this lady. If he was blessed with the innate affability of his friend Bingley or his Cousin Richard, he might have contrived a way to do so, but as it was, he was at a loss. It was unusual enough that he had spoken to her as much as he had.
With a sigh, Darcy took a final glance at Miss Bennet before he walked to the counter, paid for the gloves, and left the shop. As he played back each moment of his remarkable encounter with the singular lady on the short walk to his town house, a growing confidence marked each step. In some manner, the experience of conversing with Miss Bennet, a virtual stranger to him, and perhaps the gratifying effect of that lady’s beguiling smile, inspired the certainty that Georgiana would move past her recent horrendous experience and emerge stronger and wiser than ever before.
Wasn’t it neat how this chance meeting touched Darcy’s heart and helped him deal with his concerns for Georgiana? I want to read more.. How about you? A few unsuspecting moments in time, and the fates are sealed for a man and woman.
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Books by Kelly Miller