A Lesson from the Past, a story by Jan Hahn and Cynthia Ingram Hensley

Welcome to Austenesque Extravaganza Traveling Tuesday! 

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A Lesson from the Past – Part 2

Almost two hundred years had passed since Elizabeth Bennet Darcy stowed The Journey away in Pemberley’s attic, when an early summer sun began setting on the valley that stretched out below the old manor like a sea rocking gently on the horizon. The burnt orange rays streaked the clouds purple and washed the field’s tender first sprouts with a final whisper of warmth before giving them over to the cool Derbyshire night.

Inside Pemberley’s study, Bennet Fitzwilliam Darcy—equally as handsome and possessing the same tall, proud bearing as his forefather’s—hung up the telephone after speaking with his broker, cheered that the price of grain was on the rise. In the nursery, his wife Sarah lifted a sleepy-eyed infant into her arms and smiled as the babe began to suck its fist with vigor, anticipating the nourishment that was soon to come. She carried the child through the corridor of Pemberley’s family wing, peeking in at her twin sons as she passed the playroom on her way to the family’s upstairs lounge.

“Catie,” she addressed her young sister-in-law, who was curled up on the sofa snug as a cat, reading with lip biting intensity. “I didn’t mean to intrude. Will it bother you, dear, if I feed Eliza Jane? The natural light in here better keeps this little sleepyhead awake.”

“Hmm?” Catie uttered absently, looking up. Only then did she realize someone had intruded into her sanctuary. “Oh, no, you shan’t bother me.”

Laughing softly at the girl, Sarah seated herself in her favorite chair, undid her blouse, and brought the seeking infant to her breast. Once Eliza had begun to nurse in earnest, Sarah questioned, “May I ask what you are reading that’s so engrossing.”

Again, Catie looked up albeit distinctively more guardedly. She simply replied, “A book.”

Sarah arched an eyebrow at her. “Yes, Catherine, I can see that.”

“It’s a romance,” the younger woman clarified, if a tad unwillingly.

Sarah glanced down at Eliza Jane and gave the tiny head a gentle adjustment. “Is it the sort of romance your brother would approve of?” she asked, keeping her gaze on the baby for Catie’s sake.

“No,” floated across the room in a soft, repentant whisper.

It was all Sarah could do to keep a sympathetic smile in check. Not so long ago, she too had been a curious girl, searching for the meaning of love and an understanding of men. It was a natural curiosity, especially when a girl’s mind was so preoccupied by a singular chap, as Catie’s was at present. To the great vexation of Bennet Darcy, his pretty teenage sister had quite hopelessly fallen in love last summer with her riding instructor, a handsome Irishman by the name of Sean Kelly. Although it was a bit of a shock for Ben, in his own good time he’d come around, eventually even approving of the young man who’d stolen his sister’s heart. He was, however, completely confounded by the dreamy, pining creature Catie had become in the wake of her first courtship. And so he did what men invariably do when they feel they have lost complete and utter control of a situation. He lost his temper—often.

Still admiring the angelic face of her daughter, Sarah said, “Then I should warn you to take great pains in keeping such contraband from your brother’s sight, dear sister.”

Catie grinned to herself; relived that she could always count on Sarah’s indulgent soul. “Oh, Sarah!” She brought the novel to her chest and heaved a wistful sigh. “In the story there are two identical Irishmen. One a hound of hell gypsy man, who has kidnapped the fair maiden from her betrothed, and the other—the man she truly loves—is the son of a Celtic chieftain.”

“Catie.” Sarah tried to interrupt the fanciful spiel but was ignored.

“You see, the girl’s quandary is that the men look exactly the same, and she’s about to give her virginity to the gypsy man—her wicked abductor no less!”

“Catherine,” Sarah repeated, more firmly that time, but Catie hardly took a breath.

“Wouldn’t it be romantic to be stolen away by a highwayman or a gypsy, forcing Sean to ride after us on a great white steed to save my honor? Can you even imagine?”

“What the devil are you going on about?” Ben’s voice came from the doorway, bringing Catie up short.

Inwardly cringing, she turned to her brother. “Oh…nothing,” she replied with a poorly played casualness, tucking the well-thumbed paperback behind her and feeling ridiculous. She was almost eighteen after all, certainly old enough to choose her own reading material.

“Let me see what you have there, Catherine.” He stepped over to her and held out his hand.

With a great show of reluctance and a tinge of resentment, Catie handed over the book, her cheeks flushing crimson as he studied the front cover at length—a powerfully built man clad in an unbuttoned linen shirt, staring wantonly at the novel’s reader from a lowered tricorn hat. Then Ben flipped to the page she’d dog-eared, and Catie felt her mid-section turn cold with dread.

As Ben scanned the page, his brows shot up. He read, “‘Brogan’s eyes fell heavy with desire and his loins ached in anticipation of the virgin’s imminent surrender.’ Catherine, have I not made clear my disapproval of this rubbish?”

“Yes,” she begrudgingly replied, barely tamping down a mounting temper that wouldn’t serve her well at the moment.

Ben pointed to the bare-chested gypsy. “These aren’t real men. They are figments of someone’s imagination. I can assure you that highwaymen, gypsy-men, or any men for that matter weren’t roaming the countryside two hundred years ago stealing virgins.”

“It might’ve happened,” she argued.

Ben sighed and his expression softened. “No, dearest, it didn’t. But even in fiction, these blackguards aren’t the sort of men I want my sister daydreaming about. What you should value in a man isn’t his brute strength or heroism. Now let this be the last of such rubbish. Eh?” He walked over to the waste bin and dropped the book inside.

The soft thump of her novel hitting the bottom of the waste bin was the final straw for Catie. Her sense of justice inflamed beyond control, she drew herself to her full height, looked squarely at her brother, and declared, “That is nothing short of censorship!”

Unaffected by her indignation, Ben sat on the sofa and opened the afternoon news. “I prefer to call it minding my sister’s mental well-being.”

“Is England not a free country? Do I not have rights?”

At that, he lowered the paper. “I am still your guardian, Catherine, and shall remain so until you reach your majority. Until then your rights are for my deciding.”

“I will be eighteen in less than six months,” she reminded him, a hint of mutiny in her tone.

“Then I can only hope that in such short a time, you will come to appreciate the lesson I am trying to teach you.”

Believing both parties had said quite enough, Sarah spoke up, “Catie, will you be a dear and go up to the attic and fetch down your christening gown. Since you’re to be Eliza’s godmother, I’d like her to wear it on Sunday.”

“Now?” Catie asked incredulously.

“Right now,” Sarah affirmed. “Please.”

Feeling an odd mixture of gratitude and annoyance for her dismissal, Catie turned and stormed out of the room.

Sarah put a cloth nappy on her shoulder and began to pat Eliza Jane’s back with purpose. “If you would like to build a bonfire tonight, I shall help you search your sister’s room for more immoral titles and we shall have a book burning. For that matter, we should probably search Pemberley’s library—”

“So I’m to understand you approve of her reading about Brogan’s aching loins?” Ben interrupted his wife and asked.

“I’m sure at her age we all—including you, Bennet Darcy—subjected our inquisitive minds to material that would have been deemed inappropriate by our elders.”

Eliza Jane burped loudly and flailed her tiny arms with delight for having made such a noise. Unable to resist, Ben reached for her. “Do you hear that, ’Liza, your mummy used to read very naughty books.”

Sarah threw out her foot to kick him, but Ben escaped the blow, chuckling. “I’m only saying that Catie is a sensible girl, who has proved herself so by choosing Sean Kelly as her beau. Even you must admit that he’s an admirable, sturdy lad.”

“Sarah, the question isn’t whether Sean Kelly is admirable or not. The question is why Catie is so enamored by him. Is it because he’s a hardworking university student, dedicated to his future? Or is it his rugged good looks and fiery Irish blood that’s stirring her? What I want for Catie is to see Sean—to see any man for that matter—for what he’s truly made of, for his character.”

To that Sarah could make no argument. Ben was right. “You have silenced me with astonishment, Ben Darcy. I suppose that is what I get for marrying a man for his rugged good looks.”

Ben smiled down at his daughter. “There now, ’Liza, you are my witness. Your mummy thinks your daddy ruggedly good looking.”

Sarah laughed and watched enamored as Ben strolled around the room with his daughter, speaking in a sweet sing-song voice that elicited several spirited squeals from the infant. Then, from some dark corner of Sarah’s mind, the fate of Brogan’s aching loins began to nettle her curiosity. Confident Ben was distracted with the baby; she leaned over with calculated nonchalance and reached down into the waste bin.

“Sarah,” he drawled admonishingly, cutting his eyes at her. “Leave it.”

Sarah jerked her hand back and began a dignified smoothing of her loosely gathered chignon. “Bennet Darcy, I have not a clue as to what you are referring?”

***

Alone in the attic, Catie kicked dusty boxes and cursed under her breath without abandon until her fury was expended.  She sat for a moment in defiance of Sarah’s instructions, but her stomach soon rumbled, reminding her that it was almost teatime. Sighing, she crouched down on her knees and began searching the trunk that held her baby things, but oddly, the contents weren’t familiar to her. She looked around and realized that things had been moved about and rearranged, most likely when Eliza’s nursery was set up. “Grand,” she grumbled, sitting back on her heels. “Just bloody grand.”

Making her way through generations of personal effects, Catie began to wonder why she hadn’t played in the attic more often as a child. There were dresses, hats, and gloves galore, old tea sets and a phonograph, but what really struck her interest was an ancient looking chest stashed behind a wardrobe. The light in that part of the attic was less than sufficient, so she hurried back to fetch the torch that hung on the wall by the steps. As she expected, the heavy lid groaned loudly as she lifted it and let it drop carefully open. Shining her torchlight inside, she saw an array of once loved items that had been long since packed away and forgotten. Sneezing several times, she sifted through yellowed handkerchiefs, a ladies parasol, old papers, and a gentleman’s top hat. She placed the top hat on her head and it slid promptly down to her ears. An object caught her eye, a silver money clip. She brought it to the light and read the engraving: Fitzwilliam Darcy. Catie gasped. “The Fitzwilliam Darcy?” In truth, it might have belonged to more than a dozen Fitzwilliam Darcy’s. Even her brother had Fitzwilliam for a second name. Still, her intrigue was piqued, and she began to rummage through the trunk more eagerly.

The first love story Catie Darcy had ever been told was that of Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Her ancestors’ fairy-tale marriage made up the very core of Catie’s passionate, romantic heart. Had she actually found some of their belongings? She brought out a few old books and blew dust from them. One was a half-filled botanical record of the kitchen garden, another had obviously been an inventory ledger for the larder, and the last appeared to be a journal of some sort. Catie opened the book and saw The Journey written on the title page in an elegant hand.  Sitting cross-legged, she propped open the book on her knees and began to read.

 

My back ached with a sharp, persistent pain by the time he slowed the horse to a walk. We had galloped hard…

 

There was no knowing how much time had passed when Ben called up the attic stairs and broke her trance. “Sis! Did you find the christening gown?”

Catie turned to her brother’s voice and then looked back down at The Journey. This was big—really big. Darcy and Elizabeth’s love story, which had been recited to her too many times to remember, was only a part of what actually happened. According to Elizabeth, she and Fitzwilliam—prior to their marriage—had been abducted by a gang of highwayman. Their leader, Nate Morgan, was a man Elizabeth described as having glittering blue eyes and a jagged scar, slashed across his handsome face. Catie could barely believe what she was reading. By her own admission, Elizabeth seemed more infatuated by her captor, Nate Morgan, than Darcy—the man she would eventually marry.

“Sis,” Ben said from the other side of the attic, startling her. “What did you find there?” He chuckled as he pointed the top hat still resting on her ears.

Catie reached up and pulled the hat off. “Just a few bits and bobs. I couldn’t find the gown.”

Ben smiled. “That’s all right. I’ll look tomorrow. Come down now. You must be starving.” He turned and started back down the steps.

“Ben,” Catie called out, stopping him. “May I be excused from supper? I…er…I have a headache from all the dust.” He stared at her for a long moment, and in his gaze she read his belief that she was being spiteful, still angry over his chucking her book in the waste bin. In fact, she was still angry…but she wasn’t being spiteful.

“As you wish, Catherine,” he replied shortly. “I shall have a tray and two aspirin sent up directly.”

For a fleeting moment, she considered confessing the truth and showing him her find but feared he’d think it rubbish. Or worse—far worse—what if Ben forbid her from reading it! “Thank you,” she said, clutching the book protectively until his footsteps faded.

***

Early the next morning, Catie read the last lines of Elizabeth’s narrative and with no small amount of reverence closed the book. She sat quietly for some time, reflecting on the journey Elizabeth took that December almost two hundred years ago and the profound impression that singular incident had made upon her life and happiness. Like Elizabeth, Catie too had initially been infatuated by Nate Morgan’s charms. However, as the story unfolded, it was Darcy who prevailed as the better man. Guided by the kind, gentle heart of the woman he loved, Darcy took into consideration Nate Morgan’s unfortunate past and came to pity the villain. It was by Darcy’s own doings that Nate Morgan’s neck was spared the ultimate punishment. Darcy’s actions weren’t grandiose or heroic…they were noble and just.

After dressing, Catie padded through the still quiet house to Pemberley’s gallery so that she could gaze upon the portrait of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Even as a girl, she had marveled at the handsome, stately gentleman but never more so than at that moment.

“Sis, why are you awake so early?” Ben happened upon her and asked worriedly. “Is your head still aching?”

Catie looked up at him, her heart heavy with words. “No, Brother, I’m well this morning.” Then in a whisper, she admitted, “I never had an aching head.”

“I see,” he said, not surprised.

Catie took a moment to gather her thoughts. “Ben, I better understand now what you said last evening. Only a simple-minded fool would fall for a highwayman when there existed in the world a man of such strong character as our Regency grandfather.”

Ben’s brows drew together. “Catie, I’m afraid I’m not following you.”

“Elizabeth Bennet, Ben!” she exclaimed impatiently, gesturing to the woman who hung prominently to the left of her husband. “She chose Darcy not because he was a great dancer, or witty, or handsome—though he might have been all those things and more. She chose Fitzwilliam Darcy because he was a good man, because he didn’t boast of honor—he lived it, and because her happiness meant more to him than his own.”

Although he felt sure he had somehow missed an important piece of the conversation, Ben gave his sister a single, fatherly nod. “I’m pleased to hear you say so, Catherine.” Fairly baffled, he too looked upon Fitzwilliam Darcy’s portrait.

“Ben,” said Catie after few minutes.

“Yes, dearest.”

“I do hope my Sean Kelly proves to be as good a man as Darcy was. That his intentions remain honorable, and his love for me as real as Darcy’s was for Elizabeth.”

“If any man’s intentions towards you, Catherine, becomes anything less than honorable, rest assured you big brother will make short of work of him.”

At that, she laughed softly. “Good”

“Fancy breakfast?” he asked.

Smiling up at him, Catie nodded.

The End ~

Thank you for stopping by and reading today. To celebrate Austenesque Extravaganza, I am offering a chance to win a free signed copy of Echoes of Pemberley. All you have to do is leave a comment below and tell me what you would like to find in Pemberley’s attic.

Also, for your entertainment and a special treat, I have posted a video by Keith Harkin from Celtic Thunder. See if he reminds you of anyone from our story….

LINK – Stand and Deliver Video