The first day of summer has arrived, and long summer days begin. Darcy and Elizabeth are letting a house in Cromer close to the sea. Shall we join them?
Below the cliffs, the sea roared. Weeks of reading, careful planning and an active imagination had done their utmost to prepare her for the sea, and with great pleasure, she found they had all been insufficient. When it came to deciding how to spend one’s time, books and travel guides did quite nicely, but no book could capture the stinging wind that tore straw from her bonnet or the strong sea smell that seemed to permeate everything. Her skin felt different, somehow, as if the sea air itself had coated her. Tales of the curative powers of the sea had been bandied about all her life, and she had heard them with sceptic pride. What could the sea do for one’s constitution that rolling grasslands could not? It made sense now. There was vitality here, something unexpected for every sense. She was more alive than she had ever been.
Laughingly, Elizabeth cried, “Can you hear the bells, Mr. Darcy?”
He smiled. “Perhaps we shall have better luck at low tide.”
The tails of his coat billowed madly behind him. Mr. Darcy was as buffeted by the wind as she, but he held himself straight and steady. One could look at him and suppose he felt it not at all, that he stared out at the open sea with impassive immunity to the wonder and fervour of nature. But his coat betrayed him.
And besides, she knew better. “How fanciful! I approve though I do not believe you meant it.”
“I assure you I do. Church Rock is submerged now, but at low tide, we shall have a much greater chance of hearing them.”
Teasing man! He was trying not to look too pleased with himself, but the degree of success he almost certainly wished for had eluded him. “Without anyone there to ring them?”
“More likely, dearest, not very likely. Were we to first accept the supposition that the bells were cast in a metal not only able to weather the sea air but the sea itself, and second that they remain intact despite centuries without maintenance, then we must assume it to be within the realm of possibility that a singularly strong wind or the crash of a wave may generate the force necessary to make them sound. And that, however unlikely, is still more likely than you and I hearing them while they are submerged.”
She muffled her laugh against his shoulder. “Delightful speech. Pedantry suits you better than whimsy. Have no fear—my approval stands.”
Before much more time passed, they decided the wind would be far more enjoyable from the indoors, and gingerly walked back to the village.
Elizabeth’s primary interest in coming to the seaside was the landscape. The flat expanse of Hertfordshire had accrued a lifetime of familiarity. Derbyshire’s peaks and valleys were well worth the hours of exploration she had dedicated thus far, dazzling and dear in equal measure. Months of marriage had been ample time for her husband to introduce her to his favourite amusements in London. She had wished to see the Lakes, mentioned an aborted trip once during a conversation about something else, and Mr. Darcy took her there as quickly as he could manage it.
The sea was brand new.
When summer approached, Mr. Darcy let a house in Cromer. They were to have it for six weeks, and they spent the time in between his making the arrangements and their arrival firmly agreeing on all the seaside things they wished to do. Sea bathing, of course, and admiring the famous wild poppies. There would be Punch and Joan shows in the streets, assemblies in the evenings. A lighthouse watched over the ships at sea, and Mr. Darcy thought they might be able to go to the very top. And in the sea beyond Cromer lay the sunken village of Shipden. The travel books said one should be able to see the old church steeple at low tide, which Elizabeth believed, and that some claimed to hear its bells, which, teasing aside, she did not.
The house itself was about a quarter-mile from the sea. Mr. Darcy had selected lodgings small and close, as different from the sweeping manse at Pemberley as Derbyshire from Norfolk. It had only what rooms were absolutely necessary to daily life. Rooms to eat, rooms to sit, but no study. The travel books and seaside guides they had brought had to be stacked on a table in the bedroom because the house had no library, and what few shelves were present were already full by the owner’s design. And the bedroom itself! Mr. Darcy’s purpose in choosing such a small house was an intimate holiday; there could be no two ways of thinking about that.
And to all of this, Elizabeth added yet another object, this one perhaps a bit too whimsical. But she wanted it, and she never shied away from telling her Mr. Darcy every wish of her heart. He encouraged it in word and deed. He always wanted to know, and he was always firm that any desire of hers must be met straight away.
When the tide went out, they quitted the house and ambled to the beach. At high tide, there was no beach; the sea came all the way to the cliff face. When the tide went out, though, the shoreline changed, revealing a long stretch of beach accessible by steep steps. It was too late in the day for the best sea bathing, but that suited them. The tides changed every day, and they would be in Cromer for weeks. There would be early morning low tides and bathing in the brisk water. As for today, Mr. Darcy had already decreed that their first day must be spent collecting seashells for Elizabeth to take home.
Her interest in seashells was a simple one born of living inland her entire life. Before she lived in Derbyshire, she had wished for petrified spars and could now boast of a fine collection made all the more dear by Mr. Darcy accompanying her when she searched for them. Their first visit to the sea deserved mementos. What should they be if not seashells? Elizabeth studied the variety of shells she may find in the books they brought, made her peace with the fact that they were in the wrong part of England to find long, spindly augers, and imagined what it might be like were she fortunate enough to find a fossil.
It was not particularly difficult to find shells.
Elizabeth could not have described precisely what she had expected. Part treasure hunt, perhaps, mixed with a bit of mystery. But the seaside had already proven itself to be so much more intense than anything she could have predicted. Wet sand was a new experience beneath her slippers. Her feet sank into it like mud, but the sand released her without protest. And though the beach was mostly sand, it was also more than that! Bits of colour burst everywhere, hinting at buried shells and glass, driftwood and stone.
The difficulty was in knowing where to begin.
Mr. Darcy delicately removed her hand from his arm, crouched on his heels, and plucked something from the ground. He straightened, worried at it with his fingers until most of the wet sand had been rubbed away, and offered it to her.
“Oh,” Elizabeth breathed, “what a lovely specimen. Our first!” The paralysis brought on by too many possibilities vanished the moment Mr. Darcy laid the shell in her hand. It was a clam shell, the outside showing the creature’s growth in alternating light and dark brown stripes. Elizabeth turned it over, and the underside was smooth violet. What a folly it had been to bring only a net purse! Now that they had their very first shell, she wished for a pencil to mark it. She could hardly believe the bounty before them. “Shells are so plentiful. We may find enough to decorate a garden wall!”
“Surely you want flint for that.”
Elizabeth waved him off. “I do not intend to build a wall! Perhaps just add a bit of decoration to an existing one. Do you not think it would be charming to have our holiday mementos find a purpose at home?”
Mr. Darcy appeared puzzled for a moment and then said, “It is a cockle shell?”
“Not all seashells are cockle shells! Cockle shells are ruffled. Look, this one has tiny grooves.”
“I see.” Mr. Darcy shrugged. “I have been used to thinking cockle shells go in a garden. Clearly I am mistaken.”
Elizabeth laughed. “I commend you for how seriously you take your impending fatherhood. Mother Goose and Tommy Thumb are pleased to take you as a student, I am sure. But, you know, one cannot abide by such rules if they wish to be truly contrary. I shall put whatever I like in a garden! Cockle shells or ones like this or even a periwinkle!”
“You may find periwinkle difficult to rhyme.”
“Twinkle. Wrinkle. Crinkle. I think the meter would be harder with periwinkle than a rhyme would be.”
“You have another five months to perfect it.”
“It shan’t take me that long! Let me see…I do not think I need to use the word periwinkle at all:
Mistress Lizzy leaves you dizzy,
But what may the village of Cromer know?
Only Shipden’s bells, many seashells
And sea-bathers all in a row.
“A fine first effort, if I do say so myself.”
Mr. Darcy was very red when he suggested, “Pray teach the children the traditional version.”
She looked up at him through her eyelashes. “You say that, but I cannot help but notice you have already changed the child I am expecting to children. You do like my poetry—do you not, Mr. Darcy?”
He threw back his shoulders, clasped his hands behind his back and said, “I believe you wished for seashells, Mrs. Darcy? Perhaps we ought to continue our search.”
Elizabeth took pity on him and acquiesced. That sort of teasing was better done in their little house than on the beach.
Mr. Darcy took a moment to collect himself then turned his attention once more to the mysteries buried beneath the sand. His work uncovered a bit of pink—very promising—and a jagged edge. “Ah. I suppose it cannot be helped.” He held out the broken shell. “Do you wish to keep it?”
“For now,” Elizabeth said. “If we were to find a whole one this colour, I should not care to keep a broken one, but I shall take the broken one over none at all.”
“We may have better luck closer to the water.”
She frowned. Mr. Darcy, in his sturdy leather boots and wool coat, could wade into the sea up to his knees without feeling it. Ladies’ gowns were not nearly as forgiving. Oh, when she went sea bathing, she would wear a flannel gown, but since they had not intended to do that today, her only concession to the seaside was a white walking gown with a higher hem than usual. The beach was crowded, and wet cotton was transparent. “We have barely begun to look, and there is no shortage of shells out here.”
He was persuaded. They strolled together, far from the tide’s edge, weaving through the other beach-goers in search of places where the crowd was thin enough to examine the sand for shells. The broken thin tellin, Elizabeth soon discarded when Mr. Darcy found two intact replacements, one pink and white, the other a shade of brown she was tempted to call green. To the original shell, they added a number of white and yellow ones like it—banded wedge shells, she thought. They found more brown ones than anything else, but Elizabeth set those aside. She wanted that first shell to remain identifiable. Regardless, there was a variety of shells looking to be found, and her purse was only so large.
“Mr. Darcy!” she cried when she found something new, “Look, a cockle shell for your garden!” It was perfect, large and ruffled and uniformly white.
He smiled. “More to the point, has your garden become receptive to cockle shells?”
Elizabeth bit her lip. He was certainly tempting her to be impertinent, but she would not wish to cross a line in public. But what did he love her for if not that? “My garden has always been fond of your cockle shells, which is why I thought to offer this one to you.”
“You are most generous, my dear. I accept, of course, but as I am without a bag myself, I must ask that you hold it for me.”
“Say no more. Any cockle shell of yours is welcome in my garden as long and as often as you desire.”
Like banded wedges, cockle shells were everywhere. They were always pretty, and their collection grew and grew. Other shells proved more elusive. To find a common oyster would be a stroke of luck. Her reading had left her feeling the blunt gaper was more fascinating than a clam ought to be, but they did not find any of those.
As their search continued, Mr. Darcy edged closer and closer to the sea.
Was this adventurous spirit all his own? Or was he driven by a wish to please her and really felt the water to be the better hunting ground? In the distance, a large wave crashed, and the sea stretched out so far it lapped at his ankles. Mr. Darcy stood indomitable, looking out towards the horizon. The water receded, and the next wave was not powerful enough to reach him. Elizabeth stepped towards him. He was being cautious. Only a particularly large wave could come in far enough to reach her gown if she stood beside him.
But then Mr. Darcy waded further out, and she dared not follow. The water came half-way up his calves. Mr. Darcy leaned forward, dipping his fingers into the water. Elizabeth watched him.
The sea ebbed, and when the water was at his ankles again, Mr. Darcy crouched down and picked something up. With sure steps, he returned to her side.
“For your garden.”
Their other shells had all been clams, but this was a snail shell, tightly coiled into a point. A wide, white opening gave way to a grey facade that twisted and whorled. Some long-forgotten wave must have carried the snail away from its home at high tide, leaving its empty shell adrift until Mr. Darcy plucked it from the sea for her. Elizabeth’s hand closed around it.
And suddenly, she was struck by the unexpected beauty of his gift. True, it was only a tiny snail shell, insignificant in every way save she had not had it a moment ago, and she had it now. Because she had a husband who was not only capable of giving her endless new experiences, but wanted to. A partner who sincerely cared about whatever little whim might make her happy, no endeavour too silly or juvenile. Mr. Darcy would make an enemy of Poseidon himself if she were to rail at the sea for not giving her enough clams and fossils. Send a strongly worded letter all the way to Mount Olympus because his wife thought blunt gapers were fascinating and the sea had provided none.
When they were alone in their little house, she would reward him. On the beach, she gave him trouble and mischief. “Who puts periwinkles in a garden?”
“You would, if I recall correctly.”
Elizabeth shook her head. “Oh, no, I reformed when I learnt how much you prefer cockle shells. My garden allows only those, you have my word.”
“You give up very easily for someone determined to be contrary.”
“Which simply shows what an admirable job I do of being contrary! I defy expectations.”
“It is truly an expectation when you set it for yourself?”
“I set it, so I have the freedom of naming it. I stand by expectation.”
“What of your expectation to see Church Rock? Look.” Darcy moved to stand behind her, pressed her arms so that she turned in just the manner he wished. He extended one arm over her shoulder and her eyes followed the line it made, over the sea to the horizon.
She whispered, “Can you hear that?” and felt him nod.
The bells were ringing.
What do you think? Does this sound like a nice holiday? Would you like to visit Cromer by the sea? What about the bells? Have you heard of Shipden, the sunken village? It sounds fascinating! Thank you, Ann, for sharing your vignette with us. It is a delightful scene.
Leave us your thoughts in the comments below. Not only do we want to hear from you, but commenting will also enter you in the giveaway. There will be two winners and each will be able to select one Meryton Press eBook from a list of eligible books. The drawing will be on Friday, one week after the last vignette has posted.
Meryton Press will be posting one vignette every Friday for several weeks. The featured author of the first summer holiday vignette is Ann Galvia.
Books by Ann Galvia