A Lesson in Honour
YOUNG MASTER DARCY
A Lesson in Honour
The carriage rocked gently now as the driver began to pick his way through the teaming traffic of
. Master Fitzwilliam George Alexander Darcy sat up from his slouched position, an attitude that would have called forth his father’s rebuke at such thoughtless indulgence, and pressed his thirteen-year old face to the cold window. He was in a familiar part of Town, not far from his family’s
home, and nothing particularly remarkable presented itself to his gaze. That was disappointing! He had been away and on his own for several months, and it seemed only right that as he had changed during that time, so would the rest of the world.
The jangle of harness and the shouts of post riders penetrated the carriage. Curious, Darcy sat up even straighter and peered forward as far as the closed window would allow. Not enough! Impulsively, he pulled down the window and stuck out his head. There, passing him by in quick succession, came several marvelous coaches emblazoned with noble coats of arms and pulled by flashy teams of horses.
“Cracking!” Darcy shouted, smiling and waving as the high-steppers trotted grandly past him, but the smile faded in the time it took the horses to disappear down the street. Spanking—Father would not approve of such a word, one among many that Darcy had acquired during this, his first term away at school. It was not that Mr. Darcy was a harsh parent. He was firm and formal, yes; but certainly nothing like the fathers in tales other boys at school had told of their sires. Some of the stories had been rather bloodcurdling, and he would have been tempted to disbelief were they not faithfully sworn to by their tellers. If his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam, a year his senior and an old hand at Eton, also vouched for the lad, then he had, of course, no choice but to accept the tale.
Darcy thought of his cousin with warmth born of a life-long comradeship and, more recently, an immense debt of gratitude. He would most certainly have been sunk during his first term, had it not been for Richard. His cousin’s superior knowledge of
had been plumbed the summer before during their rambles about Pemberley or Matlock. Well, plumbed as far as Richard could be brought to talk about school on holiday. But for Richard, he would have had little preparation for the unspoken rules, the snobbery, and the stark cruelty of the place. Even so, it was his cousin’s tersely whispered promptings and frequent warnings that had enabled him to avoid most of the dangerous pitfalls that swallowed many a first year student.
All in all, it had been a grand first term, and young Master Darcy was well satisfied with his standing among his fellows at its end. He had suffered a few drubbings—they could not all be avoided—but none had broken him. His own fists and Richard’s had seen to that. Then, oddly enough, in their own way so had the many years he’d had to deal with George Wickham. Nearly the same age, he and the son of his father’s steward had been playmates in their infancy but increasingly uneasy companions as they grew older. George’s propensity for trouble and his ability to deceive and deflect the blame was extraordinary and, in Darcy’s experience, quite dangerous. Many a time he had suffered his father’s discipline or expressions of disappointment for something George had done. None of the lads at school had outshone George at this talent, and happily, Darcy’s experience had enabled him to sidestep most such attempts. Yes, one of the best things about school had been that George was not there to plague him, and the only blemish upon this Christmas holiday was that he would also be returning from the respectable school to which Mr. Darcy had sent him.
A sharply worded shout from his coachman to another passing driver brought Darcy back to the present. He was returning home to Erewile House, the Darcy’s
residence, for a few days before all the family set off for Derbyshire and Pemberley, their ancestral home. It was Christmas, and their traditional Pemberley celebration would close out this Year of Our Lord 1796. Christmas was always great fun at Pemberley, not only for the household but for all the surrounding neighborhoods, whether rich or poor. His family’s yearly largess ensured that no one would be in want. No, Mr. George Darcy was no Bluebeard or miser, but he was a man who held to the high standards of decorum and the noblesse oblige expected of men of his rank. Such words as “spanking” and others his son had learned at school lay quite outside those lines. He would need to watch his tongue.
The carriage slowed yet more, and swinging around the corner of Grosvenor Square, it approached Erewile House where Samuel Coachman, the Darcy’s driver, brought the horses to a halt. His oldest son James jumped from the box to open the door and let down the steps, but Darcy was too quick for him. Impatient to see his family, he threw the door open and leapt the few feet to the pavement. Although there was much he could not repeat to his father of what had occurred at school, there was still a great deal to share, and he could hardly wait to surprise him with all he had learned. Then, there was Mother to amaze…and the baby.
He raced up the steps, barely noting the Christmas greens decorating the doorway before he flung himself through the opening portal. “Master Darcy!” Witcher, Erewile House’s butler, exclaimed as he stepped back from the entering whirlwind. “Welc— Oh, take care, sir!” His warning came too late. Darcy saw the looming black presence occupying a great deal of the hall only a moment before he plowed straight into it. “Upfgh,” the all too solid apparition exclaimed as Darcy’s whole rushing weight hit him squarely and sent them both to the hall floor. For a few moments, all the boy could see was the ceiling, but that was soon obscured by the winged descent of the myriad papers the stranger’s fall had sent flying. The breeze from the closing front door soon sent them winging randomly about the entire hall. Brushing away what landed on his face, Darcy lifted his ringing head. What, or rather, who had he tumbled over?
“Master Darcy! Are you all right?” Witcher clasped Darcy’s hand, pulled him up, and dusted him off. The hall swam a bit before his eyes, but he soon came to focus on the figure lying at his feet A visitor? A servant? Whatever he was, he was dressed in unrelieved black, and his powdered and tied wig lay skewed over his forehead and into his eyes in so comical a fashion that Darcy could not but laugh.
“Mr. Hinchcliff, are you all right, sir? Can I help you?” Witcher asked, frowning at his young master before bending to assist the stranger.
“I am tolerable, Mr. Witcher, and have no need of assistance,” a voice rumbled with so extraordinarily deep a resonannce that the air itself vibrated. Darcy ceased laughing and stared in wonder as the man got his feet under him and slowly rose to his full height. He looked a giant! Long arms reached up to right the wig upon his head, revealing an enormous, high-bridged nose and eyes that seemed capable of discerning Darcy’s inmost secrets. The boy gulped. A clergyman? A schoolmaster? Darcy felt a cold tremor of apprehension. His father must mean him to stick to his books over the holidays and, here, he had not only tumbled him over but then offended his new taskmaster before they had even begun!
“Master Darcy, I believe.” the man’s words pierced through Darcy’s dread and disappointment at a holiday curtailed. “I am your father’s new secretary, Hinchcliff, and you, sir, are awaited in the library.” He peered down at him with a stern-jawed regard. “You will pardon me if I do not announce you, as I have now an unexpected task to complete; but I suggest you bestir yourself before your father comes into the hall in search of you.” The giant turned then, and began retrieving the scattered letters and papers blanketing the floor.
“Yes, sir.” Darcy’s voice squeaked. Carefully, he picked his way through the debris to the stairs and slipped up to the first floor, his face burning from the incident but his mind relieved. There would be no lessons, only a glorious holiday with his family and cousins! He ran lightly to the library door stopping only to straighten his waistcoat and pull down his cuffs before lifting his knuckles to tap out his arrival. As he did, a sound from within, a deep tremulous sigh that must be his father’s, gave him pause. Puzzled, he leaned his ear against the door. A few footsteps and the sound of a chair scraping across the floor gave him to know that his parent was seated at his desk. Another sigh reached him through the door and then a sudden loud slam of a fist against wood and a cry of “Damn!” caused him to jump and withdraw a step. His brows drawn together in consternation, Darcy stared at the door. What could be amiss with his father?
Stepping back, he again cocked his ear to the library door, but no further indication of his father’s temper escaped from behind it. Shrugging off his puzzlement, Darcy raised his fist once more and rapped his presence. A heartbeat of silence was followed by the command, “Enter.” He pressed down the latch, only to have it leap out of his hand and his father appear in the open doorway.
“Fitzwilliam! You have come home at last!” His father’s arm descended around his shoulders, and Darcy was pulled into the library and a brief embrace. Looking up into his father’s countenance, he beheld evidence of a heavy weariness that overshadowed his joy at his arrival. “My boy, how are you? Tell me of school.” Mr. Darcy resumed his seat at the desk while his son took his accustomed position, standing tall before him.
“I am well, sir,” he began. “Not too many bruises and none from the schoolmasters.”
“Good, good,” his father smiled. “And your marks, shall I be pleased when they arrive?”
“I have no concerns, Father. I was well prepared by Mr. Edridge and yourself and had no great difficulties. Cousin Richard was quite helpful as well”
“Richard was ‘helpful,’ eh?” Mr. Darcy snorted. “I can well imagine that scamp’s ‘help.’ It was not at lessons, I have no doubt.”
“You underrate him, Father!” Darcy protested but then laughed at his father’s knowing look. “He is a jolly good fellow to have for a cousin…or friend! He is really better at the books, or at least what is in them, than you or my uncle might think. It is the exams that…” he trailed off into silence as a note of interest appeared on his father’s face. Richard might not thank him for further revelations.
“Yes, well.” Mr. Darcy looked speculatively at his son. “Richard is, fortunately, your uncle’s to command and the authority to which he must answer. But,” he added with a wry smile, “in general, I believe him to be merely high spirited.” He paused. “Your uncle can not spare the time for
this year. Shall we ask His Lordship if Richard may accompany us to Rosings in April?”
“Oh, yes, sir! That would be cracking!” The slang no sooner escaped him than Darcy blanched and bit his lip. He had sworn to watch his tongue not half and hour ago! Had his father noticed?
Mr. Darcy nodded and continued without reproach. “It shall be done.” He sighed then and sank back in his chair, closing his eyes, the fingers of one hand working at his temple. Darcy watched this uncharacteristic display with silent concern. What could it be? Mr. Darcy’s eyes returned to his son as his hand dropped and gripped the edge of his desk. He took a deep breath. “Now, I must trust you with some distressing news, a blow, really…but you are a young man now, Fitzwilliam, and know what is expected of a gentleman in regard to misfortune.”
“Yes…Father.” Darcy looked wonderingly at his parent, trying but failing to suppress a frisson of dread at the serious turn of his father’s words and countenance. He straightened his shoulders even more, half expecting to hear them crack in the cold tension that gripped him. He waited, silent, watching as his father endeavored to master a swell of rare, unmanly emotion.
Mr. Darcy rose from the desk and turned to the window overlooking the Square. He leaned stiffly against the sash, his eyes unseeing. “Your mother has not been well, my boy. The doctors…” He sighed again, raggedly. “The doctors are undecided concerning treatment, but on this they agree: that nothing, ultimately, may be done.” He turned haunted, stricken eyes upon Darcy’s blanched face. “We shall have her for a year, mayhap a little more, but certainly not two; and she will be in some—considerable—p-pain,” he choked at the last, but recovered and stood straighter. “We must be brave and—”
“No! Father!” Darcy cut him off with a strangled cry. Mother dying? Mother? He could not accept his father’s words. His stomach heaved and hollowed as if from a physical blow, and he staggered. No, no, it could not be! He looked back up into his father’s face and found nothing with which to encourage his denial. “Fitzwilliam!” His father stepped toward him, a hand outstretched, but Darcy backed away, his eyes, ablaze with unstoppable tears, burning starkly in his bloodless face.
“W-when…” he gulped, his throat rebelling at speech. “When may I see her?”
“She expects you at the end of our interview.” Mr. Darcy replied, swallowing hard as his son trembled. So soon? Darcy’s frame shook. How was he…how could he?
“She does not wish to speak of it nor have her condition generally known. We must respect that, my son, and go on as before; and though every feeling cries out against it, Christmas…” he paused, unable to disguise the pain that forced another deep sigh. “We must continue with Christmas and do all we have ever done. I do not know how we can, but it is her wish, and so it shall be.” Suddenly, he stepped to Darcy and grasped his shoulders. “We must not fail her in these things, Fitzwilliam. I hardly know how we shall bear it, but we must and for her sake. Promise…” He stopped and searched his son’s face. “But I have said you are a young man, and so you are.” He released him and waited for Darcy to look into his face. “Rather, give me your word,” he demanded quietly. “Do I have your word that you will do as she asks, act as she wishes?”
Darcy looked away, his lip trembling as hot tears bathed his cheeks. How could his father demand this of him? It was impossible…fantastical! He screwed his eyes shut and wiped at them with the heels of his hands. Mother! His heart cried out. He felt sick, sick and weak as a baby, not the young man his father wanted him to be. He knew what was expected of him, what he must answer; but it was so very hard. He sniffed and cleared the lump from his throat, only to have it take up burning residence in his chest. “Yes, sir,” he answered, his voice hoarse. “You have my word…as a gentleman.”