Emily C. A. Snyder
...Suddenly a shriek rang out.
Greatcoats flapped, bosoms heaved, a breathless “May I?” uttered, a shockingly bared ankle examined.
“I shall have to carry you,” the man said, his curly locks plastered to his brow by the rain which had subsided to a romantic mist that complimented the pale girl’s own complexion.
Wordlessly – unless one counts the frantic batting of her eyelids – the lady consented, not asking until some quarter of an hour had passed, “And to whom do I owe my gratitude?”
She sniffed, playing with a small rope of pearls. “And are you in the habit of seeking out hilltops for fallen virgins, good sir?”
“Do you think me most a fool or a knave!” he replied with a crooked smile.
“Both, if you do not ask the name of she you carry.”
Bending low to her, he whispered, “And what is your name?”
The girl tossed her curls – no mean feat considering the atmosphere – and replied, “Miss Isabella Thorpe, your most grateful servant, sir.”
More might have been said, despite the cracking thunder, but that they had arrived at Combe Magna and, after a little hesitation – but not very much – about the propriety of bringing strange ladies of quality into a bachelor’s home, the couple decided to let custom hang and warm themselves by the fire.
They had no sooner entered the Hall, though, than Brinley – Willoughby’s man – took his master aside and informed him, in tones of severely correct formality, that Mr Crawford was in the Billiard Room.
“Apparently Plymouth no longer agrees with him, sir. He has come here for the evening, and intends to repair to London tomorrow, to visit a Mrs Rushworth. This way, sir, madam.”
The Billiard Room was a ghoulish affair in the rain-slashed light, but the corner in which Mr Henry Crawford stood with his cue, examining the table, was lit like a sunblaze, glinting off his gold-threaded waistcoat, and shivering over the smoke from his pipe that lead and swirled up to the high ceiling.
“Still using my barber, are you Crawford?” Willoughby asked, lowering Isabella to the divan with an easy grace.
“My barber, Willoughby,” Henry answered with a similarly crooked smile. “And who is the lady?”
“Miss Isabella Thorpe – I met her just now in the rain.”
The force with which Henry hit the ball was perhaps a tad excessive, but his voice was light as he remarked, “A habit of yours, I see. I never meet ladies in the rain, a whole ocean at our disposal and I don’t meet her in the rain...although my sister has.”
“Your sister? Is she as dark as you, Mr Crawford?” Isabella asked.
“Wickham!” Willoughby cried. “In my Kitchen, no doubt.”
“He certainly wouldn’t be in the Study,” Henry returned.
“Oh, have you a Library, Willoughby?” Isabella asked excitedly, forgetting her supposedly invalid condition.
“Indeed – shelves of Shakespeare! ...I...carry them always with me,” taking out a little book and kissing it.
“So long as you don’t read a sonnet with starlings,” Henry muttered, hitting another ball.
Isabella made a face. “Horrid sonnets. Have you no novels, Willoughby?”
“A few, Miss Thorpe. I must admit that I vastly enjoy poetry more, however.”
“He’s brought a chit with him,” Henry said a moment later. Then, after another pause, “She’s in the Conservatory with the revolver.”
“Perhaps she’s playing someone,” Henry answered.
“You keep your revolver in the Conservatory?” Isabella interrupted.
Willoughby shrugged, “Well I could hardly keep it in the Dining Room.”
Just then, a huge crack was heard!
“My revolver!” Willoughby cried.
“My game!” Henry complained.
“Montoni!” Isabella laughed.
The two gentlemen turned to her, “What was that?”
For answer, she turned her back.
Ever efficient, Brinley reentered, followed by two rather fashionably attired gentlemen, each with long blond hair, gold tipped canes, and simply extraordinary top hats.
“Sorry to burst in on you like this,” the first said, bustling into the room and shaking hands all round. “But our carriage broke down outside - although I can’t imagine a pianoforte could weigh that much - and we thought you mightn’t mind if we came in until the wheel is fixed – axle just needs a wrench is all.”
Three crooked smiles answered him, but it was Isabella who – lying back languidly on the divan – asked his name.
“Oh, dreadful sorry, miss. I’m Frank Churchill. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“And you, sir?” Isabella asked, extending her hand for the second man to kiss.
“Mr Elliot, miss...?”
And thus more introductions were made, chairs brought in, and cues made ready.
“We were just discussing the weather when we came in,” Frank said amiably, pausing by the billiard table. “I had just remarked to Mr Elliot that what was needed was an umbrella, and he had just told me that he’d left his in Bath – although he seemed to recall that he’d had a misfortune with another umbrella, which had been pinched, not lost, during some sort of lecture. I say – what was it called again, Elliot?”
“Music and Meaning,” Elliot replied, slinking towards Isabella and sitting beside her. “Do you appreciate music, Miss Thorpe?”
“When I can dance to it,” came the response. “And I dare say since Willoughby has a Conservatory, he has a Ball Room to match in this drafty old place.”
“A Ball Room!” an unfamiliar voice cried, followed by a shrill giggle. “Oh, Lord – how I long for a Ball!” Without waiting for askance, the girl who had spoken bounced in, bobbing a poor curtsey and announcing, “Lydia Bennet – no, oh Lord! Mrs Lydia Wickham now! Lord! Doesn’t that sound droll!”
From his corner, Henry choked.
“Felicitations, Mrs Wickham!” Frank said, taking her hand and bowing over it. Then sighing, “How I envy you that happy state.”
“Or what any other woman has, either,” Henry murmured, eliciting a rather amused nod from Willoughby.
“But where is your husband, madam?” Frank asked. “I would congratulate him, too.”
“Oh, Lord, I don’t know. This place is so big and drafty.... He met me in the Conservatory, and then told me he’d meet me later. Well, it’s later, and he’s not here,” with a small sniff. “Lord, I’m fagged. You keep a poor pantry, sir!”
Willoughby bowed apology.
Then, in another thunderclap, Brinley came in, the essence of morbidity.
“Yes, what is it?” Willoughby asked when Brinley did not speak. His man motioned for his master to follow him, and – with crooked smiles all round – he did. The room remained silent until his return, and silenter still as their host told them that Brinley had found Wickham – dead in the Conservatory.
“Good God, Willoughby!” Frank cried.
“Oh Lord!” Lydia wailed, falling against Mr Elliot.
“What happened?” Henry demanded.
Willoughby blanched. “Apparently – forgive me Mrs Wickham – apparently he... shot himself.” “Marvellous!” Isabella cried.
“Messy,” Mr Elliot opined.
“Well,” Frank said, shifting from one foot to the other. “Terrible business. Not witty at all. My condolences, Mrs Wickham. Coming Elliot?”
The latter gentleman extracted himself from the rather soggy embrace, and the both of them made their rather hasty exits, followed soon after by Isabella who was determined to see the horrid body for herself. As she left, they could hear her say, “Oh, I wonder if they’ve put a black veil over him?”
With Lydia occupied sobbing on the divan, Henry took Brinley aside, and asked in a very low voice what had actually happened.
“Was it suicide? Did the girl kill him? Tell me, man!”
Brinley shook his head, “It was that soldier, sir.”
“He killed himself!”
For answer, Brinley glanced in at the wailing form of the dead man’s widow.
“Ah, well, reason enough I suppose. But how?”
Brinley shrugged. “All I can tell you, sir, is that it was Mr Wickham in the Conservatory with the...Revolver.”
Henry shuddered as lightning lanced by outside the window. “I must go,” he said, and went.
With a polite bow, Brinley closed the massive outer door behind him, turning to rest against its wooden side. A small giggle escaped from the old gentleman’s lips as, with a sudden movement, Brinley removed his wig, pinched his cheeks and straightened – revealing himself as a young pretty girl with wicked eyes.
“Ah, Lucy Steele, you sly thing!” She giggled to herself, resting a small knife against her lips. “I do so love a secret!”
(c) 2 May, 2000
(c) 2 May, 2000