I am close to having a new story ready for posting on the forum and to be published next month, so for you, my readers, that means you get another Saturday Sneak Peek!! I know y’all are all anticipation for the coming Christmas Season, so maybe this will get you in the mood with this excerpt from chapter two. In this story, Darcy, Bingley, and Georgiana along with them, returns to Netherfield Park for the Christmas season instead of remaining in London. Enjoy!
Chapter 2: Calamity
December 12, 1811
Elizabeth was glad to finally escape the confines of the dining room where her mother insisted the entire family break their fast together. It was, after all, tradition. Every December would come, and her mother would insist upon doing things the family hardly ever did together any other time of the year. Then by Twelfth Night Mrs Bennet was glad to go back to her usual ways once again.
This morning’s meal was quite the chaotic exchange. Neither Lydia nor Kitty were in good spirits, giving them both reason to argue incessantly over the proper way to hold a piece of bread over the fire. Mary, always apt to ramble on, talked this morning about the serious nature this holiday season should bring to our lives. Jane was quiet and solemn due to her heartbreak over Mr Bingley’s decision not to return to Netherfield. As indicated in the letter from his sister, she imagined the Bingleys and the Darcys were, at this time, having a grand time in London.
Ahhh, London! How she longed to see it during this wondrous time of year! Her aunt had told her stories of the parties and reverie, the shopping, and even the confections being sold on nearly every street corner of the most fashionable places in London during this season. It was something she longed to see one day, but it was not to be this year. Instead, in a few weeks, her aunt and uncle would join them here in Hertfordshire. Perhaps I can talk Father into allowing Jane to return to London with our relations? It might be just the thing she needs to boost her spirits and forget about Mr Bingley.
Before she knew it, she was atop Oakham Mount. Now this was a tradition she could enjoy! The sights from up here were breathtaking! She stepped closer to the edge of the rocky incline and lifted her chin in the air, closing her eyes as she drew in a deep breath. The smells of winter filled her with joy. This was her favorite time of year. The fallen leaves would soon be covered over with a thin layer of white, washing the ground anew with its freshness. The air would turn crisp, carrying on its wings the smells of pine trees as they rose out of the depths of white with their green branches.
Elizabeth looked around for a place to sit, and after having settled on the ground with her back against a sturdy tree trunk, she again turned her gaze out over the valley below, where, in the distance, she could see the smoke rising from the chimneys of the town of Meryton as businesses were coming to life on this crisp morning.
Though winter was not yet ready to fully descend upon Hertfordshire, it would not be long. She could feel it in the air. Perhaps even this week they would have their first snow.
Her eye caught someone on a horse riding across the fields. The rider stopped and looked up to the ridge where she sat. She smiled. It must be her friend Mr Lucas. He often saw her up here when he was out on one of his rides, and would wave. Today he was too far away though, so he only gazed in her direction, then turned his horse and rode on.
Although she did not wish her mind to go there, she was immediately brought back to the morning just two months previous when she sat just where she was now and gazed out over the lands, seeing two riders take to the fields. They were both skilled at riding, but that day her eye was drawn to the taller of the two gentlemen.
She later determined that the shorter of the two riders was Mr Bingley, who had let Netherfield, and his friend, Mr Darcy, who was visiting his friend’s estate, was the taller gentleman.
Her eyes were drawn, once again, to the rider. His shoulders were straight, his carriage strong. It was clear he was a skilled horseman. Was it Mr Lucas? If there was anything at which Charlotte’s younger brother did not excel, it was riding, so she knew it could not be him. She knew she recognized the rider, but she just could not place who it was. What she wondered even more though, was how he knew she was up here watching?
The rider no longer in her line of sight, her mind began to wonder beyond the fields and into the parlours of the neighbors she knew so well. The traditions that made each unique, and the ones that bound them together in unity as a culture, were most prominent in her thoughts.
The Lucas family would be hosting their card party in a few days, and of all the yuletide celebrations this was the one she most wished she could avoid. She dreaded the spectacle her younger sisters would inevitably make, and, more than that, she was not very good at the games chosen for the evening’s entertainments.
She would much rather spend her evening playing Snapdragon in front of a fire with her closest friends and relations, enjoying plum pudding while hoping to receive the hidden treasure baked within, or dancing long into the darkness of night to lively music. Even an evening of listening to Mrs Long’s vocalizations that were far beyond what she could actually attain was more enjoyable than playing cards.
Yet, she would attend the dreaded card party, as well as the dances, and even the musicale where many neighbors would display their severely lacking abilities. She would, herself, even contribute to this evening as well. It was, after all, tradition. She would enjoy every opportunity set before her to spend time with her best friend before Charlotte and Mr Collins were to marry next month.
There were some traditions she anticipated—such as the caroling. There was something about the thought of standing in the cold with loved ones all around and singing of the joy of the season that brought a smile to her lips even now.
The tolling of the church bells brought her mind back. As the wind began to whip around her, Elizabeth stood and pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders. It would not be as windy once she was down the mountain. With thoughts still troubling her mind about the rider, she made her way down Oakham Mount and began down the path that would take her to her next destination—the one duty that had allowed her to escape her mother this morning. She was tasked with finding the largest bunch of mistletoe in the surrounding wood of Meryton for Mrs Bennet to hang at her Yuletide celebration in just eight days’ time.
Knowing just where she could find the perfect tree, Elizabeth wound her way through the surrounding wood with ease. For just a moment the thought ran through her mind that perhaps this might not be the best outing to go on without at least Jane, but she quickly put it behind her and pressed on.
Finding mistletoe was always a job given to Elizabeth. From an early age, she could climb to the top of the highest trees with ease where the plants would grow. Mrs Bennet was always complaining of this ability until December came, then she would encourage her daughter in these endeavors. It was always with the intention of finding the largest bunch and gaining the awe inspired gasps from the neighborhood.
Elizabeth didn’t mind. After all, when her mother received such attention from others, she often showed some small affection for her in return. Though it was not much, and though she would not dare give voice to such words, it did warm her heart slightly to know that, on some level, her mother did, indeed, care for her.
When she finally saw the sycamore she sought, Elizabeth gave a heavy sigh. Though it would be chilly, she knew from experience that it was best she leave her shawl and spencer on the ground below as they only hampered her climbing abilities. So those items, along with her gloves and bonnet, were stacked upon a nearby fallen log and she began to climb.
Higher and higher she went. The branches were just close enough to each other, and her legs just long enough, that the journey up the tree was made with relative ease. She was nearly to the top when she saw, just above her head, the large bunch of mistletoe that had attached itself to this tree years ago. This was her secret spot that no one else (except her maid, of course) knew of—the spot she had come every year since she was a child. She was never disappointed in what it would produce.
She reached up, her fingers tangling in the leaves of the mass. She knew just how to coerce the vines to let loose of the tree’s trunk just enough to not kill the entire plant. When enough of it was gathered, she began the climb down the limbs, made more precarious with the added mass of leaves and sticky berries she dared not let touch her dress.
There was a snapping sound, and suddenly she had lost her balance. The next thing she knew, Elizabeth was falling through the branches. She expected to reach the ground with a hard thud, but instead found a softer landing—right in the arms of a gentleman.
“I… you… that is…” She knew not what to say as the gentleman continued to hold her in his arms, staring intensely into her eyes. “What has brought you to our neighborhood?” she finally inquired.
A chuckle escaped his lips and he blinked heavily, breaking the moment between them.
“Is something funny sir?”
“I did not expect you to ask such a question of me, especially given that I am currently holding you in my arms as we stand beneath this tree from which you just fell.”
She looked around and smiled. “Yes, it is quite the situation, is it not? What would Miss Bingley say to such antics? Certainly one cannot count climbing trees among the accomplishments she finds so endearing in so many of the Ton.”
He looked at her oddly, but said nothing.
“What is it?”
“Certainly you owe me no explanation, but I wonder just what would bring you into my arms so suddenly, and yet here you talk of Miss Bingley and her ideas of an accomplished woman. You baffle me, madam.”
“Perhaps you should put me down, sir,” she said with embarrassment. He lowered her feet towards the ground, but as soon as her foot touched the cold earth she felt such a shooting pain that she grasped his masculine shoulders tightly again.
Lifting her again, he asked, “You are in pain?”
She bit her lip, her eyes remaining closed tightly as the pain continued. All she could do was nod her head in answer to his question.
“Is it your ankle?”
She nodded again.
Darcy looked around and saw the log upon which her bonnet and a few other items were stacked. He made his way over to it and carefully sat her down.
Elizabeth could finally open her eyes, though she could not bring herself to look into the face of the gentleman with her, so she stared forward, refusing to turn towards his direction. She felt him lift her spencer to her shoulders and she nodded her thanks as she threaded her arms through the sleeves and pulled it tight to button the front. She then felt something else warm wrap around her shoulders. Thinking it was her shawl, she wondered at its warmth. Then she looked down and realized it was, instead, the gentleman’s jacket. Her eyes darted up to see him standing before her in his shirtsleeves and waistcoat.
“Sir, it is not necessary that you remove your coat.”
He began to roll up the white sleeves, showing his muscular forearms. “My valet would not be pleased if I were to ruin it.”
“How could it be ruined?” just as the question escaped her lips, she knew the answer.
“I certainly cannot let you retrieve your prize from that tree now.”
She started to stand, “Oh, sir…” The pain made her stop and suck in a breath. She sat back down, “It is not necessary.”
He was now ready, so he turned back towards the tree, and with a small lift to his lips, he replied, “I am not so unfamiliar with the practices of Christmastide, Miss Bennet.”
Elizabeth watched as he scaled the tree to where the mass of mistletoe was left. He gathered it, and without incident was back down the tree quickly. When he was once again in front of her, she could not help but smile as he held the plant out in front of her. “Thank you, sir. You have saved me this day from a great fate.”
His eyebrows furrowed, “Just what fate is that?”
“That of my mother’s nerves.”
“Oh, is this to be used in a medicinal manner? I hoped… that is, I thought, it would be used for decorating the halls of Longbourn.” Darcy’s cheeks became pink with the thought of what he almost said to her.
Elizabeth saw his discomfort, but chose to ignore it. Certainly he was being more of a gentleman than she had ever given him credit for before today. “While my sister and I do often use the dried leaves in my mother’s smelling salts, this bunch is actually to be tied to the boughs of pine and holly for my mother’s annual yuletide party.”
“Well then I am certainly glad to have climbed the tree for you today. Perhaps this mistletoe will work some much needed magic this Christmas.” Elizabeth still had not reached for it, so he placed it with his hat and sat down on the log beside her. “May I check your ankle?”
Elizabeth’s brows furrowed. “Just what sort of magic is it you hope will come this Christmas, Mr Darcy?”
“The particulars are best left to fate, are they not, Miss Elizabeth?”
“Yes, perhaps they are, sir.”
“Now, may I check your ankle to see if it is broken?”
“It is only a sprain,” she said with confidence. “Truly, it feels much better already.” She started to stand and nearly fainted at the surge of pain that shot through her.
Darcy reached out and caught her, urging her to remain on the log while he retrieved his horse.
After a comical few minutes of the two trying to determine the best way to return Elizabeth to Longbourn, Darcy’s method of him lifting her onto his horse won out and she was finally well settled, her shawl draped over her legs and his jacket still around her shoulders.
Elizabeth was not comfortable around horses, but she was not about to let this situation get further out of hand, as she was certain the gentleman would ride with her if it came to that. So, she tried to remain calm as the horse strode along following his master through the wood and on to Longbourn.
It was fortune itself that shined upon Elizabeth when her father came to the door announcing that her mother and younger sisters were off to Meryton. What she had forgotten until that very moment was her cousin.
“Oh my dear cousin, what has happened? Mr Darcy! Why, I did not expect to see you again, sir, until you were to visit your aunt for your annual trip at Easter.” Mr Collins came upon them from the garden path, his words coming fast as he tried to walk and bow in deference to his patroness’ nephew at the same time.
Darcy helped Elizabeth down from the horse, not allowing her to place her feet upon the ground as he deftly carried her in his arms. He swept past the effusing parson with ease and addressed the father instead. “Mr Bennet, I am afraid Miss Elizabeth has injured her ankle. Perhaps the apothecary should be called.”
Mr Bennet turned to his cousin, “Mr Collins certainly can accommodate such a request.”
The parson tripped twice in trying to show his appreciation for being given such a task, but he was soon gone to find the apothecary, though he had no idea where the man would be. Having pity upon the man, Mr Bennet called for the stable boy to attend to the matter as well, then he joined his daughter and their guest in the sitting room, where Elizabeth was now seated upon the sofa insisting Mr Darcy need not bring her any more pillows.
Bennet went over to his daughter’s side and leaned down to kiss her forehead. “Just what have you done to yourself now, my girl?”
“It is only a sprain, Papa.”
He leaned down and began to remove her boot and examine the swelling as Mr Darcy looked on in silence. “And just what brings you back to our neighborhood, sir? I was under the impression that Mr Bingley was quite settled in London for the remainder of the year.”
“His sisters are settled, but he and I returned just last evening.”
He smirked while looking at Elizabeth’s face for signs of how much pain she was in. “It is a wonder I did not hear of your return immediately upon breaking my fast this morning. My congratulations to you for keeping the gossips at bay for a few more hours.”
“I doubt Mr Bingley would mind the neighborhood knowing of his plans to remain in the country.”
“And you, sir? Are you to remain with him?”
“Though Mr Bingley’s relations have remained in London, my sister has joined our party, and we are both to remain at least through Twelfth Night,” Darcy said, looking to see what Elizabeth’s reaction to such news would be. It was hard to say though as she had her eyes closed and was biting her lip because of the pain caused by her father’s examination of her ankle. “Perhaps I could call for some ice?”
“Mrs Hill is gathering some from the ice house now. Ah, here she is,” he said as the housekeeper entered with a bowl and cloths. He stepped back from the two ladies and stood beside Darcy. Quietly he said, “I am not one to speculate about the goings-on of the younger generation, however my curiosity does request satiation, especially given your state of undress, Mr Darcy.”
Darcy suddenly remembered that his jacket was still around Elizabeth’s shoulders and he immediately knew what her father must think. “It is perfectly innocent, sir. I came upon her when she was in need of assistance. In gathering mistletoe, her foot slipped on a branch, and she toppled down out of the tree. Luckily I was able to break her fall.”
“Then I must offer my sincerest gratitude and ask if you were also injured?”
Darcy shook his head, replying quietly, “I have come out of this unscathed, sir.”
“That may be true for you, but if my cousin returns with the apothecary, or my wife with our daughters, and finds you so clad, I cannot be responsible for the smelling salts that shall be needed. Certainly if you feel any concern for my peaceful abode, then you will procure your jacket with haste.” With that, he called for the housekeeper, “Mrs Hill, perhaps my wife has some potions in the stillroom that will help alleviate Elizabeth’s pain. Come, I will search my study as well.” With that he gave a slight nod to Darcy and left the two alone for what he knew would only be a few minutes.
Elizabeth saw the exchange and wondered at her father’s leaving her alone with the gentleman. “There is no need for you to remain, sir,” she said to Darcy.
The corners of his lips turned up just slightly as he said with a slight cock of his head, “It might prove to be a chilly ride back to Netherfield without my coat, madam.”
She was immediately embarrassed and looked to her shoulders, where the thick wool still sat firmly in place. She leaned forward, adjusting so she could pull it off. The chill of the room was immediately felt. She held it out to him expecting him to immediately put it back on himself, however he set it aside and lifted a large knitted blanket and draped it around her shoulders.
“It would not do for you to catch a chill on top of having a sore ankle,” he said as his fingers just grazed the tops of her shoulders.
Elizabeth reached up to grasp the material, her fingers touching, for just a second, the gentleman’s ungloved hand. He had removed his gloves to gather the mistletoe and, in an effort to keep them from the sticky white mess of the berries, had left them off. Now, as she looked at the gentleman so close to her and in such an intimate situation she was remiss to remember all she held against him only a week ago.
Assured of Miss Elizabeth’s comfort, Darcy bid her farewell and took his leave of Longbourn. However, the exchange today made him realize, more than ever before, that his sister was correct—he had been selfish in not pursuing a wife. He could not walk away from this opportunity in hopes that fate might make their paths cross again in the future. There was no certainty in that. Though he had wrestled with the decision to return since making it, he was now glad to have traveled back to Meryton with Bingley.