A Peculiar Connection, страница 1
Table of Contents
Also by Jan Hahn
Also by Jan Hahn
AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE
A SECRET BETROTHAL
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A PECULIAR CONNECTION
Copyright © 2015 by Jan Hahn
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any format whatsoever. For information: P.O. Box 34, Oysterville WA 98641
Layout and design by Ellen Pickels
Cover art by Janet Taylor
Original paintings of the children on the front cover by Jean Baptiste Greuze
With heart-felt gratitude, I would like to thank—
Jakki Leatherberry, my more than able editor, whose efforts made my story read so much better;
Janet Taylor, whose talent and skill created the front and back covers from my glimmer of an idea;
Michele Reed, Ellen Pickels, and all the staff at Meryton Press who once again turned my little narrative into a book;
Debbie Styne, L.E. Smith, and Ellen Gelerman, for being the first to give their reviews and suggestions when this work was a story entitled Sins of the Fathers;
Ali from A Happy Assembly for sharing her knowledge of Ireland;
My dearest family and friends who continue to support my endeavors;
My readers who hold a special place in my heart; and, of course,
The incomparable Jane Austen who continues to inspire me each time I read her words.
Before I begin my tale,
I must share with you what I have been told.
Some one and twenty years earlier, on a night turned darker than usual in early springtime, a man ran through the wood of Pemberley as though chased by Satan himself. A storm had broken at the exact moment he learned that she was dead. He had staggered backward down the stone steps, so stunned he did not see lightning strike a tree beside the great house. He was unable to comprehend what he had heard, unable to think what he must do, unable to breathe.
Like a blind man, he turned in the direction of the wood with his hands outstretched. The wood had been sacred, the place where they first met, their haven against the world. Rain and wind lashed his body without mercy while thorn-covered branches reached out to tear at his clothing and skin. Heedless of injuries, he stumbled through the brush and lurched from tree to tree. Unspeakable sorrow pierced his heart.
Nature’s outburst endured throughout the night as did the man’s sojourn in the forest. With the first touch of dawn, the storm’s rage abated at last, and the man found himself outside the only place of comfort he could find. A single candle glowed within the old church, and he knew the door would be unlocked. He burst into the sanctuary. Throwing himself on the floor, prostrate before the altar, he cried one word over and over.
The noise interrupted the man of God’s prayers, and he hastened to minister to the man lying in misery. “My son, what has happened to cause such anguish?”
He attempted to brush back the mass of wet curls from the young man’s forehead and pulled him to a seated position on the floor. “You must tell me,” he demanded.
“All is lost. She is dead.”
“Dead? No, she is far too young! How can this be?”
“A fall. Her brother said—oh God—he said she fell from the head of the stairs to the bottom!”
He collapsed back onto the floor and beat the stones with his fist, unaware that blood flowed from his hand into the crevices in the rocks until they were stained crimson. “Oh God, oh God,” he cried again and again.
“I grieve with you, my son.” He reached out to bind the man’s hand with his handkerchief. “But let us pray. God will hear you.”
The man jerked his hand away. “You ask me to pray? How can I? There are no words. There is nothing I can— This is above what I can bear!”
“There is nothing you cannot abide with God’s help.”
The grieving man rose to his feet with difficulty, as though a massive millstone pressed upon his back.
“Why must it be her, and why now when God knows she is my life?” His voice rose louder and louder until he was shouting. “It is not fair!”
The old man shook his head. “Life rarely is, a conclusion all of us reach eventually.”
“I have nothing left.”
“Come now. You have suffered great tragedy, but you have your family, your future.”
“They mean nothing without her—nothing. What am I to do?” His voice cracked, and he began to sob anew.
“We are all in God’s hands. I have watched you fight for the life you desired, but now it has been taken from you. It is time, my son—”
“Time? Time for what?”
The man of God’s hand trembled as he placed it on the young man’s head. “Time to allow Him to work His will in your life.”
There was a time in my life when I expected an ordinary day to be just that. I have since discovered that expectations are fragile whether they pertain to a solitary day or to life itself. Circumstances can shatter expectations as easily as dropping a china cup upon a slate floor splinters its beauty into misshapen shards of pottery.
I no longer depend upon childish assumptions. In truth, the fates have taught me to fear an ordinary day. I have learned that, when one anticipates reason and routine, one may receive neither. I am now painfully aware that my life never was or ever shall be as I once envisioned.
That day—the day my life deviated with a vengeance from the commonplace—began like any other, lit with the shimmering golden haze with which autumn paints Hertfordshire. The good people of Longbourn village went about their lives as always. Rising early, they milked cows, gathered eggs, baked bread, and churned butter.
My family, who dwelt at the manor house for which the village was named, engaged in the usual activities to which they were accustomed. My father suffered through my mother’s harangues at the breakfast table until he escaped into his study. Mary applied herself to the pianoforte with zeal unappreciated by her sisters. Kitty set herself the task of answering Mrs. Wickham’s latest letter. Jane anticipated her intended’s visit by selecting a gown in his favourite shade of blue while I offered my opinion on which style the maid should do her hair. All in all, it could be accurately deemed the beginning of an ordinary day.
When I think back, I do recall a certain nervous anticipation, a feeling I had entertained for more than a week. Ever since Mr. Bingley had returned to the county and arrived at our door accompanied by Mr. Darcy, I longed to see the latter gentleman once again. Alas, on the day Mr. Bingley proposed to Jane, Mr. Darcy left for Town, but Mr. Bingley expected him to return, and I lived on that prospect.
I awoke each day in hopes I would see him. We had known each ot
I recalled how Mr. Darcy had proposed to me the previous spring and how I refused him with unbecoming resentment. At the time, I had believed Mr. Wickham’s lies and did not comprehend the truth of Mr. Darcy’s character. Eventually, events transpired to reveal how mistaken I had been. I now knew him to be a gentleman of the highest integrity, a man I could respect, a man perfect for me. I longed to thank him for uniting my sister Lydia in marriage with Mr. Wickham. Although my family did not know the generous part Mr. Darcy played in the affair, I did, and I understood the gratitude we owed him.
And I yearned—oh, I yearned with all my heart—for him to renew his addresses to me, for by that time, I had fallen in love with Mr. Darcy…deeply in love. When we had parted in Derbyshire, I had given up all prospects of seeing him again because of the scandal caused by my sister’s foolish elopement with Mr. Wickham. Some time later, upon gaining knowledge that Mr. Darcy had thereafter travelled to London and toiled day and night to find my sister, I had allowed my heart leave to anticipate that he might still harbour warm feelings for me.
He had given no hint that tenderness toward me remained. Since Mr. Bingley’s return to his estate in Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy had called upon us but once, and the visit had proved awkward. My mother had snubbed him most conspicuously, and I was shamed by her behaviour. Not a word passed between us, but I felt his eyes upon me more than once. I had no other cause for hope, but still, I began each day wondering whether Mr. Darcy would return.
And so, although I termed the beginning of that day ordinary, my feelings were not. Still, my familiar surroundings concealed any cause for undue anxiety...until she arrived.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh refused to wait to be announced but swept into our parlour like a bitter north wind. She barely acknowledged my mother and sisters before she summoned me to accompany her out of doors to the portion of our lawn she termed a prettyish kind of little wilderness. I scarce had time to grab my pelisse before she sailed out the door. Silence reigned between us until we reached our destination, whereupon she turned and fixed her stare upon my person.
Using her cane for emphasis, she paced back and forth, all the while accusing me of entering into an engagement with her nephew Mr. Darcy, an engagement she affirmed impossible. I was at a loss as to what had brought about the unexpected declaration, for I knew it to be untrue, but I would not give her the satisfaction of an outright denial until she asked me point-blank.
“Tell me, once for all, are you engaged to him?”
“I am not,” I had to admit.
She gave a great sigh of relief. “And will you promise me never to enter into such an engagement?”
“I will make no promise of the kind.”
“Miss Bennet, I am shocked and astonished. I expected to find a more reasonable young woman. But do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede. I shall not go away till you have given me the assurance I require.”
I refused to yield, and we continued to argue the horror of such a union. At last, she insulted my family and me to an extent that I could bear it no longer.
“Lady Catherine, I must beg to return to the house. I have nothing further to say. You know my sentiments.” I turned my back on her and took steps toward the iron gate.
“You refuse to oblige me? You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude? You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends and make him the contempt of the world.”
“Duty, honour, and gratitude have no claims on me in the present instance. None of those principles would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy.”
“Very well. I shall now know how to act. Do not imagine, Miss Bennet, that your ambition will ever be gratified. I came to try you. I hoped to find you reasonable, but depend upon it: I will carry my point. You err grievously to think you may pollute the shades of Pemberley with such a union. I will not allow it.”
I stopped short. My colour was high but not as florid as hers. “And how might you exercise this power of prevention upon either your nephew or myself?”
She reached inside her reticule and pulled forth a folded square of paper, creased and yellowed by time. “I hoped to avoid this, but you leave me no choice. You cannot marry my nephew. It would not only be despicable in my eyes and that of the world, but it would be a sin against Heaven itself!”
“A sin against Heaven?” I could not help but laugh. “Surely, even you cannot give voice to that claim. Mr. Darcy is a gentleman. I am a gentleman’s daughter. So far, we are equal.”
“You speak the truth. You are the daughter of a gentleman, but not the gentleman in whose house you have been reared.”
I blinked. Has she lost her senses? Of what is she speaking?
“You are not Elizabeth Bennet. In truth, you possess only your Christian name. You are the natural daughter of George Darcy. You and my nephew are brother and sister.”
My knees gave way, and I reached out to the nearby stone wall. A loud racket buzzed in my head, and I could not comprehend her conversation. She must have led me back to the bench, but I do not remember it. Evidently, several moments passed before my faintness subsided and I understood her words once more.
“Shall I call for a servant? Your countenance is uncommonly pale.”
I shook my head and attempted to focus my eyes. At last, the trees ceased to whirl in their contorted dance. Lady Catherine sat beside me, and I became aware that she held my hand. I stiffened and withdrew from her touch.
“No, do not call anyone. I am well.”
We said nothing for a moment or two while I tried to make sense of her statement. “I do not believe you,” I said at last.
“Whether you believe me or not does not change the truth of the matter.”
“How? How can I be the daughter of George Darcy? Do my parents know?”
“I have no idea what knowledge Mr. and Mrs. Bennet possess other than the fact that you were not born to them.”
“What…what proof do you have to make such a claim?”
She handed me the parchment, but I could not read the words, for they would not remain still. Instead, they leaped up and down like demons around a witch’s cauldron.
“My father…I must speak to my father.”
I heard Lady Catherine’s voice, but I forgot all manners. Rising from the bench, I ran from the park, across the wide expanse of green yard, and back to the house where I burst into my father’s study. “Papá!”
He looked over his glasses and placed a marker in his book. “Lizzy, child, what ails you? All colour is drained from your countenance.”
“I have told her the truth.” I heard Lady Catherine’s voice behind me and watched my father rise from the chair, a frown covering his face.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
“I have told this young woman that you are not her natural father, sir. I assume you are the man who fostered her.”
His face paled as he rounded the desk and took hold of my hands. “Lizzy, will you grant me the favour of an introduction to this lady.”
I opened my mouth, but before I could speak, Lady Catherine continued. “I am Lady Catherine de Bourgh of Rosings Park, aunt to Fitzwilliam Darcy, the son of my late sister. I know George Darcy fathered a girl child and that you raised her as your own. I insisted my husband tell me the truth of the matter before he died, and I have confirmed it with Fawcett. I would never have revealed the scandal but for the fact that this girl believes herself entitled to marry my nephew. She has drawn him in with her arts and allurements, but I shall not allow this travesty to occur.”
“Lizzy, are you engaged to Mr. Darcy?”
“No, Father, but what Lady Catherine says… Is it true? Tell me, I pray yo
By that time, my mother and Jane had heard the uproar and entered the room, hearing only my last query. Mamá gasped and began to wave her hands about.
“I knew this would happen. Did I not warn you time and again, Mr. Bennet, that this day would come?”
My father signalled for Jane to close the door to his study. “Calm yourself, Mrs. Bennet.”
“What does she mean, Papá?” I demanded. “I must have the whole of it.”
“Sit down, Lizzy. Jane, ring for some tea,” my father answered.
“I do not want tea. I want to know who my real father is!”
He winced at my words but turned to our visitor. “Madam, might I prevail upon you to grant us privacy?”
“Yes, I see you have a significant explanation before you. Very well. I shall be on my way, but be assured, sir, the pretence is over. The girl must know who and what she is.” She stalked toward the door, which Jane immediately opened for her. “Do not dare to entertain the foolish fancy of destroying that letter. It is merely a copy made many years ago. My barrister has the original safely locked away. If you wish to discuss this further, I shall be in residence at the home of my nephew’s friend, Mr. Bingley.”
Upon her leave-taking, Mamá resumed her hysterics while Jane attempted to quiet her. Papá took the wrinkled paper from my hand and sank down upon a chair. The line between his brows deepened the longer he read.
“Did you know about that note, Papá?”
“No, my dear.”
“Is it true? You must tell me.”
He kept his head lowered, raised his hand to his forehead, and began to rub the furrow back and forth as though he might somehow erase the ugly revelation.
“Tell her,” my mother cried. “Tell her once and for all.”
My breathing grew shallow, and a knot rose up in my throat until I could scarce draw breath at all.
“Lizzy,” Papá began, his voice sounding defeated.
“If you do not, I will,” Mamá declared. “But first, you must explain why Lady Catherine was here. Is Lizzy of possible kin to that great house?”