Only a week to go until the A Matter of Honor is released! Meantime, here’s Chapter 4, where we finally hear Elizabeth’s point of view. Links to earlier chapters: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. I’ll be posting Chapter 5 next Wednesday, and I’ll be celebrating the book launch on Sept 5 on Babblings of a Bookworm. The paperback should be available for order around Sept 3. Sorry to say there won’t be a blog tour for this book; after spending most of August sick in bed, I decided it was more important to focus on getting the book out quickly even if it meant sacrificing the blog tour!
Thanks for joining me on this journey to Scotland! I hope you’re enjoying the trip, even if Darcy and Elizabeth aren’t having fun yet.
Breathless, Elizabeth pressed herself against the back of the carriage seat. A foolish reaction, since Mr. Darcy would hardly be likely to peer in the window to discover her presence, but every instinct screamed at her to hide. If she could have crawled inside the seat, she would have done so.
What ill fortune had made him choose to come to Edinburgh, and, of all places, backstage at the Theatre Royal? What could have brought him such a long way? He had never mentioned any Scottish connections to her. And how did he know Mr. Fitzpatrick?
Her aunt stepped up into the carriage and sat beside her. “Why did you run away like that? Are you unwell?”
“No. I saw someone I knew. Someone from before.” Elizabeth tried to slow her breathing.
“Is that such a terrible thing? Would it not be pleasant to speak to an old friend?”
Elizabeth shivered. “He is not a friend. He is the reason I am here.”
Aunt Emmeline stared at her. “The man who compromised you? He is here?”
“Shh!” Not that anyone could hear them over the clatter of the coach on cobblestones.
“Do you think he has pursued you here?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “He has no reason to do so.” You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. But she had responded to his offer so harshly as to destroy any affection, and he was not the sort of man to pursue a woman who had refused him.
“Are you afraid he will try to compromise you again?”
“I doubt it. He never intended to do so in the first place. He was careless, not malicious.” That was one thing she could acquit him of. “I want him to stay away from me.” Perhaps he would do so. After all, he could have no interest in spending time with a woman who had humiliated him.
“Which man was he?”
“The one speaking to Mr. Fitzpatrick. Or berating him, perhaps. He appeared angry.” Hardly a surprise, given how ill-tempered Mr. Darcy was.
“The handsome one?”
Elizabeth grimaced. “I suppose you could call him that. Perhaps I should stay away from the theatre for a few days.”
“Nonsense. Why would he come backstage again?”
“I do not know why he did so this time!”
Her aunt shrugged. “You can ask Mr. Fitzpatrick about him if you like.”
“There is no need.” She wanted desperately to know what Mr. Darcy’s connection to the young actor was, but asking would only draw attention. It was a pity, though. She liked Mr. Fitzpatrick, perhaps more than liked him, but now she would have to be careful with him. She could not risk even the slightest association with Mr. Darcy. “I suppose I could give him the cut direct if he attempts to speak to me.”
“No need to do that. Simply tell him you are not the person he knows. You are Eliza Merton of Lincolnshire. Even if he does not believe you, he should take the hint and leave you alone.”
“I am certain you could manage that, but I am not actress enough for it.”
“Of course you are. Whenever you are annoyed but keep a pleasant smile on your face, you are acting. When you want to cry but keep your composure, you are acting. When you dislike your dancing partner but do not want anyone to guess it, you are acting.”
“In those cases, I am merely attempting to be polite.”
“What is politeness apart from acting?”
“Then you could have stayed at home to act instead of running off to go on the stage!” teased Elizabeth.
Her aunt leaned towards her. “Never!” she whispered dramatically. “I would rather play a drunken sheep on stage than a proper, polite girl at Longbourn.”
Elizabeth managed a pretense of normality until she was alone, but then all the memories came crashing back, like a wave swamping her and stealing her breath. That horrible meeting with Mr. Collins and the satisfaction he showed as he had made his threats, the nightmare of telling her father she must leave, and the cold that descended when he learned why she had no choice. Saying goodbye to Jane, who believed they would only be separated for a month, and struggling not to cry until the carriage had left Longbourn behind. Her father retreating behind a book as she sobbed.
Then there had been the weeklong journey, crowded into uncomfortable, smelly stagecoaches from morning till sundown, with only brief respites overnight at coaching inns. Her father had been amiable enough, but refused to speak either of their destination or the reason for their travel. At least he had not forced her to travel alone. The scenery slowly changed as the accents of the local people became more and more incomprehensible. The sun had come out when they arrived in Edinburgh, bathing the spacious streets of New Town in a golden glow, a ray of hope as she stood in front of her aunt’s elegant townhouse. Perhaps she would be able to make a life for herself here after all.
Mr. Bennet had presented his card at the door. The initially forbidding-looking butler had warmed at the sound of his English accent and told them they might wait in the hall while he inquired if the mistress was at home. Elizabeth had stepped over the threshold and sat down, but her father turned away without a word and hurried back down the street.
He had always hated saying goodbye.
Stricken, Elizabeth stared after his disappearing figure and slowly closed the door. She sat numbly in the chair the butler had indicated.
A moment later, a tall, stately woman in a colorful dressing gown hurried down the stairs, crying in a voice of shocked delight, “Thomas!” She halted, looked around the hall, and gazed down in puzzlement at the card in her hand.
Somehow Elizabeth managed to straighten her stiff, exhausted body. “He has already left,” she said quickly. “I am Elizabeth Bennet. I believe you are my aunt.” And she burst into tears.
Her aunt put a consoling arm around Elizabeth’s shoulder and led her away. Through her tears, Elizabeth had the vague impression of an elegant drawing room and a red velvet sofa. She fought to control her sobs.
“You are Elizabeth? I remember you from when you were a little girl,” her aunt said kindly. “What brings you here?”
Elizabeth’s breath caught. “Did my father not write to you and tell you we were coming? He said he would.”
Her aunt snorted. “Your father says he will do a great many things he never bothers to do. He sends me one short note every year only because I told him that was my price for staying away from Meryton. But if he has at long last agreed to allow you to come here, I will not complain.”
“He did not precisely allow me to come.” Elizabeth mopped her eyes. “I had to leave, and this was the only place to go. I was compromised.”
Her aunt clucked her tongue in sympathy. “I am sorry to hear it. Is there to be a child? It will create no difficulty here; I will introduce you as my newly widowed niece.” She seemed almost pleased about the prospect.
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open at the older woman’s startling practicality. “No, it is not like that! The most compromising thing was that a man gave me a letter privately, but his family is determined to make a scandal out of it. They were afraid he would want to marry me, so…” She swallowed hard, the tears burning her eyes again. “I cannot speak of it yet, not without crying.”
“Then there is no need to do so,” her aunt said warmly. “I am delighted to have you here.”
A maid in a frilly apron set a tea tray in front of Elizabeth’s aunt. “Call in two hours, Mrs. MacLean.”
“Ah, tea, just the thing. Do you take milk or sugar, my dear? Are you usually called Eliza or Lizzy?”
“Lizzy, if you please, and I like milk but no sugar.” Elizabeth watched her aunt pour the tea. A pile of small sandwiches to one side reminded her how empty her churning stomach was. “I thought your name was MacLaren.”
The older woman handed her a cup of tea. “It is, but when I returned to the stage after my husband’s death, I had to choose something else. He would not have wanted me to use his clan name as an actress, so I called myself Mrs. MacLean instead. The sound is close enough that I answer to it naturally. It is always best to keep your lies close to the truth. We must decide what to call you as well. I imagine your father would not want the name of Bennet associated with an actress, either, and the mere sound of it brings up bad memories. I never used it once I left Longbourn.”
Elizabeth had expected an argument about using an alias. “I think it is a good idea. Should I use MacLean as well?”
Her aunt tapped her finger against her cheek thoughtfully. “If you are to be my brother’s daughter, and it is best to stick to the truth, your name should be different from mine. The only person here who knew me before my marriage is Mr. Siddons, our theatre manager. I called myself Miss Merton then. It sounded enough like Meryton to make me notice when someone said it, you see.”
“Should I be Miss Merton, then?” Elizabeth did not particularly want the reminder of Meryton, but she was hesitant to displease the woman who had taken her in so generously.
“That should work.” Mrs. MacLean filled a plate with several small sandwiches. “Our mealtimes here tend to be irregular on the days I perform, since I must be at the theatre at a normal dinner hour. I eat a light meal before I go and another in the break between the first and second plays. You are always welcome to accompany me to the theatre, but I suspect tonight you will prefer to rest. That trip from London is exhausting.”
“I do not believe I will want to travel anywhere for some time!” said Elizabeth with deep feeling.
The maid returned and bobbed a curtsey. “Where shall we put Miss Bennet’s trunks, madam?”
“The blue room. Her name is Miss Merton.”
The maid curtsied again. “Pardon me, Miss Merton.”
She swallowed hard. How quickly Elizabeth Bennet had disappeared! “I am sorry to put your household to such inconvenience when you were not expecting me.”
Mrs. MacLean waved a hand. “It is nothing. Visiting actors often stay here when they come to perform at the theatre, so everything is always in readiness. The kitchen is accustomed to odd hours, so you may ask for food at any time. You do not wish to eat something now?”
“That would be lovely.” Elizabeth was very hungry indeed. Her anxiety about meeting her aunt had kept her from eating breakfast.
“Oh, how quickly one forgets! You will be among theatricals now, and we have less use for fine manners than the society you are accustomed to. When you are hungry, there is no need to wait for an offer.”
Elizabeth helped herself to the sandwiches and somehow restrained herself from tearing into them. “Are theatricals so different from the rest of society?” What had she got herself into?
“Oh, very different, and if you are anything like me, you will find it a refreshing change.”
After they had eaten, Mrs. MacLean invited Elizabeth to come up to her dressing room while she readied herself for the theatre. “After all, I have hardly learned anything about you yet.” Each of her gestures was larger-than-life, as if she were already on stage.
As her lady’s maid began to undo the buttons of Mrs. MacLean’s day dress, she said, “Tell me about yourself. You are the second daughter, are you not?”
“The second of five,” said Elizabeth. “I remember your visit to Longbourn when I was very small. You wore the most beautiful hat I had ever seen. I was fascinated by the ostrich plumes on it. You pulled one of them out of the hat for me and announced that the hat looked far better with three plumes instead of four. I still have that plume in my memory box.”
“That was you?” cried her aunt. “I am so glad. You were the lively one, and I always like lively girls.”
“I am still lively,” Elizabeth said ruefully. “Sometimes a little too much.”
“Not among theatricals, my dear!” Mrs. MacLean announced, as if it were a biblical truth. “You and your pretty sister were the best part of that trip. The rest was a disaster. I had hoped that once my parents were dead and I had married Mr. MacLaren and become respectable, Thomas would be willing to receive me. Alas, no. He told me never to return. Once an actress, always a fallen woman.” She gave an exaggerated sigh.
“I always hoped you would come back,” Elizabeth said impulsively. “When my father said you wanted one of us to come to live with you, I volunteered, but he refused to permit it.”
Mrs. MacLean frowned. “I do not know what is wrong with that man! He cannot possibly be able to provide all of you with dowries suitable for your station. He should have been delighted that I wanted to adopt one of you and make you my heir. I even said he could keep telling people I was dead!”
Elizabeth stared at her in shock, her exhausted brain struggling to find words. “He never mentioned that part, just that you wanted one of us to live with you.”
“Why, do not tell me you thought I wanted you to be one of those poor relations who are essentially unpaid servants!”
Normally Elizabeth would have made a polite demurral, but she sensed her aunt would value frankness. “Well, yes, I did.”
“Lord! No wonder you have not wished to speak up. Clearly you and I must start at the beginning. I was so lonely after Imogen died and thought how lovely it would be to adopt a girl who shared my blood. Since Thomas had so many of you, it seemed the obvious solution, but of course he had to be difficult.”
“Pardon me,” Elizabeth said hesitantly. “Who was Imogen?”
“Did he tell you nothing at all?” cried Mrs. MacLean angrily. “Imogen was my daughter. She died over two years ago.” Tears filled her eyes.
Mortified, Elizabeth said, “I am so sorry. He told me nothing. All I knew about you was that you ran off to become an actress, married a Scotsman, and moved to Edinburgh. I did not even know you were acting again.”
For the first time, Mrs. MacLean’s face looked old and bleak. “I am not suited to sitting at home in mourning forever. I always loved acting, and after Imogen’s death, I needed something more. I do not need the money; I do it for love. It has meant I am no longer completely accepted by society here, but I have never cared much for bored wealthy people. Fortunately, the theatre here is not as disreputable as in England. We must all live upstanding lives, or the kirk – the Scottish church – would close the theatre.”
Elizabeth nodded, although she could not then imagine a world where the theatre could be almost respectable. Now, half a year later, the theatre was such a part of her life it was hard to imagine a time when she had never set foot backstage.
“How was the play?” asked Mrs. Ramsay.
“I found her.” Darcy accepted the glass of port Ramsay held out to him.
“You found her?” exclaimed Ramsay. “Excellent! What did she say?”
“I did not speak to her,” Darcy said. “I could not reach her in time. But now I know she is here, and that her aunt is Mrs. MacLean, the actress. She is using the name Miss Merton, and she fled when she saw me.”
“Why would she flee?” asked Ramsay.
“I do not know.” And he did not like it, either. “Still, I know how to find her. I plan to wait by the stage door tomorrow night.”
For once Darcy slept well and woke refreshed. Everything was under control now. No more worries about whether Jane Bennet and Mrs. Collins had sent him on a wild goose chase or how he would ever manage to discover Elizabeth’s whereabouts. He knew how to find her, and now all he needed was a chance to speak to her.
Jasper dropped his script on the side table and collapsed onto the settee. “Time for a break. I cannot remember a single word more.”
“You do look tired,” Elizabeth said.
“Trouble sleeping. Too much to think about.”
“Is anything the matter?”
Jasper grimaced. “I saw someone from my past last night, and it put me in a sour mood.”
Elizabeth had been wondering how to ask him about Darcy. “Is he someone you dislike, then?”
“Darcy? Not at all. He is a very decent sort, but he reminds me of that other life, and I do not like thinking about it.” His usually cheerful face appeared drawn.
“I am sorry it was such a difficult time,” said Elizabeth. Jasper had never told her anything about his life prior to coming to Edinburgh. She had not minded, since it gave her an excuse to do the same. But hearing him praise Darcy was disconcerting.
He made a face. “I should not complain. I had everything – a loving family and an income to live on. But you can imagine what school was like for me.” He gestured to the discarded script.
“I suppose they did not allow you to run from room to room while you studied,” she said gently. It had taken a few weeks to discover that Jasper could not memorize unless he was moving. As long as he could walk through the part, he could learn his lines, but if he tried to sit still and study, it was a waste of time.
“No. I had to stay in my chair until I learned my lessons, which of course I never could. It was torture. The worst part was that everyone else in my family is clever. They all despised me for it,” he said bitterly.
“You are clever, too,” Elizabeth said firmly. “You notice things no one else does, and you are always the first to solve a problem. Memorizing is hard for you, but there are plenty of dullards who have memorized reams of books, yet are incapable of a single original thought.”
Jasper expelled a long breath. “Thank you. I could almost believe you, even as I take advantage of you to help me memorize.”
“It is a terrible chore,” Elizabeth teased. “I would much rather be practicing my embroidery.”
“At least I can spare you that!”
But there was one thing she wanted to know. “Did your friend Darcy look down on you?”
“No. That is why I liked him. He and his sister never acted like there was something wrong with me. Darcy can be proud and dismissive with strangers, but once he knows you, there is no one more loyal and supportive.”
That was difficult to believe. If it were true, it was because the only people Darcy knew were his social equals, so everyone beneath him was dismissed. “Was he in an ill temper last night?”
Jasper considered this. “No,” he said judiciously. “He was probably just uncomfortable because the backstage is strange to him. He did not like discovering I was acting, but he always hates surprises, and he seemed to come around after we talked. He is almost never ill-tempered.”
Of all he had said, this was the most surprising. Elizabeth’s firmest belief about Darcy was that he was ill-tempered. Could she possibly have been wrong about that? Had she mistaken his pride for ill-temper? “Do you think he could fit in your new life?” She was not certain if she wished him to say yes or no.
He frowned. “He would do his best, I imagine, but I cannot forget who I was, and seeing him reminds me. I wish it were not true, but it is.”
Jasper did not want to see someone from his past, even someone he liked. Elizabeth would be grateful to see anyone at all she had known in Meryton – anyone except Darcy. But it would be easier for her if Darcy stayed away from Jasper, so she kept that thought to herself.
Elizabeth threaded her needle and knelt down to mend the torn flounce on her aunt’s costume. “Hold still.”
“Are you certain you would not prefer to have the seamstress do it?” asked Aunt Emmeline. “That is why she is here.”
“She is repairing the crown, and I might as well be useful.” When she first arrived in Scotland, Elizabeth had loved the excitement of her evenings backstage. While the novelty of watching a play from the wings had worn off, she still enjoyed the bustle and activity. “I do not know how you managed to get offstage without falling over this.”
“It is hardly the first time I have had to deal with a torn costume. At least this time it was the skirt, not the bodice.”
“Thank you, my dear. I must hurry to catch my cue.” Aunt Emmeline held up her skirts as she walked quickly from the room.
Elizabeth wound the remaining thread on the spool and returned it to the sewing basket. She glanced up as a shadow covered the open door.
“Good evening, Miss Elizabeth. I hope you are well.” It was his voice.
A shiver went down her spine. She straightened slowly. “Pardon me. Were you speaking to me?”
Darcy made a gesture, but his face was in shadow. “Of course. I have been looking for you.”
Alarm took up residence in Elizabeth’s throat but she managed to say, “I think you must have confused me with someone else. Someone you are acquainted with,” she said pointedly.
“I could never confuse you with another woman. I do not know why you are calling yourself Miss Merton, but –”
“I call myself that because it is my name.”
“I intend you no harm, Miss Elizabeth. I only wish to speak to you. I just recently learned you were no longer at Longbourn and why. I wish to help you.”
Perspiration gathered on her forehead. “Longbourn? What is that? I think you can help me the most by realizing I am not the woman you know.”
“I can understand why you would be angry with me.” There was an almost plaintive note in his voice.
“Sir, I do not know you enough to be angry with you, but if you persist in this insistence that you know me, I might surprise myself. Pray move aside and permit me to leave.”
He stepped back with a frown. As she swept past him, he murmured, “Elizabeth, I beg you…”
She ignored him and hurried to the Green Room, where there were bound to be actors waiting for their next cue. She found an empty place beside one of the actresses.
Now she was safe, at least for the moment, but her heart pounded. There was far more at stake than Darcy knew, and she could not tell him.
Darcy bided his time until the play ended and the musical interlude began. As soon as Jasper was free, Darcy said, “Would you introduce me to Mrs. MacLean and Miss Merton?”
Jasper eyed him suspiciously. “Why do you want to meet them?”
“I admire Mrs. MacLean’s acting. I tried to ask her niece a question earlier, but she would not answer because we had not been introduced.”
“Are you planning to tell them about me? Why are you even here again tonight?”
“I am not planning to tell anyone.” Still, he needed to give some sort of reason for his presence. “I came here because I want a chance to talk to you, and this is the only place I know where to find you. I was upset last night. If you will tell me where you live, I will call on you tomorrow.”
Jasper chewed his lip. “I have a room in a private home, so it is difficult to have a guest. Where are you staying? If we must talk, I will come to you.”
“I am staying at 20 Hanover Street.” This was not how he wanted the conversation to go. He was not accustomed to having Jasper’s disapproval. Usually it was the other way about.
“If I do this introduction, will you stay away from here? The backstage, that is. You can still attend the theatre.”
“If that is what you wish.” Darcy cursed silently. He did not want to give up the one place he could find Elizabeth. “But if you want me to stay away for fear I will expose you, you need not worry.”
“You do not understand.” Jasper wiped his brow, and bent to check his appearance in the mirror. “The company is like a family. The Jasper they know is not the one you know. Whether you intend to or not, you drag me back into my old life when you come here. I am not a schoolboy any longer, but you make me feel like one.”
It was true. He was treating Jasper like a schoolboy, just as he had done to Bingley. That error had cost him his first chance with Elizabeth. “That was not my intention. I will leave now. Call on me only if you wish.” He would have to find another way to reach Elizabeth.
“Dammit, Darcy, that is not what I meant.” Jasper looked past Darcy and smiled suddenly. “Miss Merton, may I present my friend Mr. Darcy? Darcy, this is Miss Merton.”
Darcy bowed, unable to trust his tongue.
“Mr. Darcy,” Elizabeth murmured as she curtsied.
“You will be happy to hear I did not miss even a word tonight.” Jasper grinned boyishly.
“Well done!” said Elizabeth. “All your work has paid off.”
“Miss Merton is kind enough to run lines with me,” explained Jasper. “She has been very patient.”
“I am happy to help,” said Elizabeth demurely. “Poor Mr. Fitzpatrick has to learn not only his own lines, but also the three roles he understudies. It is no small task.”
Darcy suppressed the urge to strangle Jasper. First Elizabeth would not even admit to knowing him, and now it was apparent she spent hours cozying up to his cousin. How much worse could this get?
How much worse can it get? Umm, quite a lot, in fact! Come back next week for Chapter 5 and the grand release!
~~ Read Chapter 5 ~~