Part One – 1784
“Is it not gratifying to have the sound of music echoing about the house once more?” Lady Cat, as everyone called her, declared contentedly upon entering the morning parlor. She seated herself beside her eldest daughter and namesake, who was busily pursuing her work. “How wonderful it is to have Anne home once more.”
“She no longer considers Ecclestone Court her home, Mother,” Lady Catherine remarked.
Lady Cat might not have heard the comment, as she continued without regarding it. “Young Fitzwilliam has grown so fast, he seems not much the baby any longer. So very handsome, with such an astonishingly serious demeanor! The obvious intelligence with which he observes all that transpires about him might lead anyone to mistake him for a child twice his age.”
“He seems a very fine boy, but of course we are partial.”
“Nonsense! Everyone who sees him declares him the most magnificent baby ever encountered.”
“One must wonder to what degree his being the future master of Pemberley influences that perception.”
“You seem rather cross this morning, Catherine,” her mother observed. “Are you not pleased to have your sister home?”
“Pemberley is now Anne’s home, Mother, and yes, of course I am pleased to have her with us again.”
“You do not seem terribly happy about it,” Lady Cat commented smugly, settling back into the cushions of the sofa. “I suppose her presence is a reminder of your yet unmarried state?”
“It need not be, would you cease mentioning it.”
“What elder sister would not resent a younger sister of better fortune?” Lady Cat queried, paying no mind to her daughter’s complaint.
Lady Catherine put aside her work and looked seriously into her mother’s eyes. “I love my sister and my new nephew; you must know that, Mother.”
“Even the deepest affection has never been a barrier to jealousy amongst sisters, and no one would blame you for such feelings. It is only natural when Anne has made such a gratifying match, though not a noble one, and produced such a fine heir so soon.”
Lady Catherine stifled a retort, resuming her work instead of capitulating to her mother’s provocations.
“We gave you plenty of opportunity to find a match before bringing Anne out. If only you would endeavor to put yourself forward, I am certain you might have half of London at your feet.”
Lady Catherine eyed her mother skeptically. “Half of London can only see my feet, I dwarf the gentlemen so.” She patted her unpowdered hair with a hint of self-consciousness. “If only such towering wigs were not the fashion, I might fare better.”
“Ridiculous! You are barely an inch taller than I was at your age, and my height proved no hindrance to making an excellent match. You must merely smile more and flirt a little with the gentlemen. It is not so very difficult.”
“I cannot perform for strangers, Mother,” she said, concentrating fixedly on her embroidery. “They must take me as I am.”
“A serious fault in your education! I suppose I must take responsibility for that. Mrs. Spencer tried her best with you, I am sure, or as well as she could with such an unyielding personality. Anne certainly prospered under her tutelage. A lady must perform for the world. It is expected of us. After you are married, you might command things as you choose, but until that time, I do wish you would endeavor to render yourself more pleasing.” She rose with a dramatic sigh and began pacing the room. “You might at least have been more diligent towards your instrument. If you had a talent to highlight your natural nobility, as Anne does, you would show better.”
“I could not tolerate the music master, as you well know.”
“Signor Abatescianni is the most sought after harpsichord instructor in London! Your father paid a vast sum to secure him for you girls, and see how you squandered the opportunity!”
“He pinched, Mother. It was intolerable.”
“You foolish girl! What is a little pinch or prod here and there? You can expect much worse from the gentlemen in town.”
“So I have learned,” Lady Catherine tersely replied, redoubling her concentration on her work as the multiple humiliations in the wandering hands of so-called gentlemen intruded upon her memory, “but I ought not suffer such treatment from a mere musician!”
“You are entirely too nice in your notions, Catherine! Senior Abatescianni knew better than to overstep the proper boundaries. Anne never complained of him.”
“Anne’s notable talent kept his attention focused elsewhere. My plodding performance was not so distracting.”
Lady Cat stopped her pacing and directed a piercing gaze upon her daughter. “Well, that is now beside the point. Signor Abatescianni has moved on to more promising students, and you remain unmarried. I have little power over the former situation, but I intend to do something about the latter.”
Lady Catherine gazed up at her mother wearily. “And what would that be?”
“Your father has invited Sir Lewis de Bourgh to stay with us after Anne and Darcy depart.”
Lady Catherine betrayed not a trace of emotion at this announcement, returning her attention to her embroidery before replying, “I have never heard of him.”
“He is recently returned to England after several years abroad and is interested in finding an appropriate match and settling down.”
“And what is that to me?”
“Do not be impossible! You know we mean him for you! He has seen your portrait and expressed interest in making you an offer.”
If Lady Catherine nearly dropped a stitch at this announcement, no one could have detected it, so determined was her sangfroid. “I know not how he can have formed such a notion without ever having met me.”
“He has purchased an estate in Kent, Rosings Park, of great potential. The land is good, but the house is in need of improvement, and a handsome dowry would go far towards its refurbishment.”
“Ah,” Catherine replied, still without looking up. “That is his only property, I presume?”
“Then not a baronet.”
“He was knighted for diplomatic services performed for the crown while in Spain.”
She finally returned her eyes to her mother’s imperious face. “So you intend for me to wed a knight of poor estate? I suppose you really have lost all hope of anything better if this is to be my fate.”
“You have had ample opportunity to do better yourself, yet you have squandered it. Now, while Anne is still with us, she will tutor you in the performance of at least one, preferably two pieces with competence on the harpsichord that you might entertain Sir Lewis in the evenings. You recite well, so prepare some flowery pieces for his amusement. You are to put your best foot forward, my girl! I will not have you ruin yet another good prospect with your haughty ways. If Sir Lewis wishes to talk with you, you will smile and flirt with him. If he requests your company in the garden, you are to walk with him, and if his hands should wander to your person, well, it is only to be expected that he would want to inspect what he is buying before finalizing the purchase.”
“Mother!” Her composure finally rattled, Lady Catherine’s cheeks flushed at this suggestion.
Lady Cat smirked, pleased to have finally unnerved her daughter. “It is well past time you recognized the world for what is it, Catherine. Do you think you might remain aloof and distant in the marriage bed? The sooner you resign yourself to overcoming this intolerable prudery, the better for us all.”
“I cannot believe you have not pride enough to be repulsed by such notions,” Lady Catherine exclaimed. “Am I not an earl’s daughter? Ought the descendent of noble blood on both sides allow herself to be subjected to the disrespectful advances of a common man?”
“You think entirely too much of yourself, my girl, and Sir Lewis is not so common as you suggest. The family is of Norman descent and can trace their ancestry farther back than we can. His cousin, the Earl of Clanricarde, is extremely influential.”
Catherine sneered. “An Irish peer?”
“One with whom an alliance would well benefit your father!” Lady Cat threw up her hands in frustration and began pacing once more. “I do not know how else to get through to you other than promise you, Catherine, that you are not too old or proud to suffer a thorough beating should my will be thwarted in this. Do not test me! The alliance is a desirable one, and when you think on it further, you will see the advantages in marrying a man whose estate is his to dispose of as he will. You are not getting any younger. Do not spoil your chances of being properly settled in life. Now, I suggest you retire to your room to consider the matter properly.”
“Yes, Mother,” replied Lady Catherine coldly, summoning all her poise to raise gracefully and calmly exit the room. She maintained her reserved pace and demeanor as she passed through the halls, nodding in acknowledgement to the servants who curtseyed and bowed to her along the way, until she reached the sanctuary of her own rooms, where she promptly burst into tears.
Over the next several weeks, Lady Catherine was forced to practice the harpsichord for several hours daily, eat a special diet of cold meats, bathe in pigeon-water, and squeeze into a new and excruciating corset. She bore it all without complaint, though her brain was in a constant state of rebellion. She was certain she would loathe Sir Lewis, though she was determined, nonetheless, to charm him. She would not tolerate again being accused of shirking her daughterly duties, nor was she willing to bear any more of her mother’s increasingly tyrannical methods of marrying her off. If Sir Lewis proved at all tolerable, or even better, pliant, she would have him. To finally be her own mistress had become the all-consuming goal.
There was another matter that checked her mutinous impulses. If in nothing else, Lady Cat was correct on one point: Lady Catherine hated having her sister so well-established while she, the eldest, remained on the shelf. It was a terrible blow to her notable pride to yield to Anne in precedence. Sir Lewis might not be noble, but his rank was high enough to ensure that proper order was restored. A title was worth something, no matter how lowly. The world would always value a Sir above a mere Mister, no matter how great an estate he owned.
When Sir Lewis finally made his eagerly awaited appearance at the earl’s table, Lady Catherine found him more to her liking than she had imagined. Certainly, he was shorter than she, and his frame was small enough that she felt much like an Amazon beside him, but he had a good figure, carried himself with grace and dignity, and showed every symptom of infatuation with the young lady of the house. Many a more stalwart woman had capitulated to such sincere flattery as that with which the young knight daily plied her. She was, furthermore, much relieved to find that he had not the disrespectful and ambling hands her mother had ordered her to indulge. She was, therefore, perfectly at ease entertaining him in the garden on several occasions, knowing she was not in danger of molestation. Her mother’s words, on the other hand, were almost as invasive.
“He sets you up like a Juno to worship on a throne,” Lady Cat gloated one evening, perhaps under the influence of too much of the earl’s best wine. “You appear an amusing enough couple, with him being so slight beside you, but I have heard of gentlemen who quite thrive on the notion of conquering large, indomitable women like yourself. Once you are married, you might find he has unusual tastes in bed.”
“Mother!” admonished her scandalized daughter. “He has not yet declared his feelings for me in any way. Such talk is entirely premature, as well as offensive. Sir Lewis has been a thorough gentleman in all our interactions.”
“Oh yes, I can see that he has been, or your embarrassment by such talk would have eased by now. You young people are so puritanical in your notions. What a very dull world we shall have when you are in charge! With any luck, I will have seen you all married, greeted my grandchildren, and moved on before that sad day.”
The anticipated proposal took place the day before Sir Lewis’s departure. Having followed form by soliciting the earl’s permission, he proposed in the arbor, where the two often strolled. He was accepted graciously, and if the bride were not in raptures, her satisfied smile provided sufficient gratification to the young knight’s sensibilities. As his carriage lumbered away the following morning, the combined promise of an elevated marriage and bountiful dowry saw him both complacent and sanguine about his prospects.
As for the future bride, she refused to allow herself any reservations regarding the change coming upon her in a few months’ time. The prospect of being mistress of her own home, the renovation of which Sir Lewis had promised to allow her the direction, was diverting enough to keep her mind from any sense of discontent. Further, the attention her engagement garnered from her friends was pleasing. Lady Anne sent an enthusiastic letter, complete with visions of their children playing together in the years to come. What having said children might entail was banished from Lady Catherine’s mind; she would contend with such unpleasantness when the need arose.
In the meantime, Lady Cat had mercifully left off tormenting her daughter, as her mind was more happily engaged in buying clothes and planning the wedding breakfast. Catherine let her mother have her own way in all such matters, so happily did they keep her occupied. It was left to her only to complacently accept congratulations, receive presents, and count the days until she was her own mistress and could forge herself a place in the world. She would be a wife but Lady Catherine still, and the permanence of that title and identity swathed her in an immutable sense of security, one she could carry with her into the future, always and forever.
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