Monday, September 25, 2023

Conversations with Bard 6: Chapters One and Two

I'm making progress! It's slow, but it's also almost steady. Best of all, I'm actually enjoying it, not just forcing myself to write. Whoa, that feels good.

I'm starting to expect that this next draft will be considerably shorter than the previous one. There's a whole lot of hacking going on.

I'm now posting the story at A Happy Assembly. Comments are super motivating, so please, if you're following this, do grab your share of the conversation and tell me what you think:

Chapter Three: The Ladies of Longbourn


There’s no use sitting around despairing, I admonish myself. Focus on what you can accomplish!


I shut the computer. Deep breathes. In, one, two, three. Out, one two three. Again, and again, until my thoughts stop rushing like rapids and settle into more manageable waters.


My clothes! The thought almost sends my mind back into race mode. What must Mr. Tilney have thought of me? How can these characters ever trust me if I cannot present myself in some 19th century respectable way? Their prejudices must run so deep and their innate assumptions be so engrained that even as an historian of the period I am unlikely to be able to fully understand and comprehend their perspectives. Living in a foreign land has taught me well that there are unseen and frankly incomprehensible obstacles confronting any outsider seeking to assimilate into a culture not their own. Adding to that the passage of a few hundred years just further complicates the matter. To my advantage, I do look European, no matter that my heritage is that only achievable in a melting pot. Besides, there is no need to mention my mixed ancestry. They would only write me off as a money lender or barbarian. Better to try and pass as something like one of their own. Hypocrite, my conscience chides, but I ignore it as best I can. After all, I reap the advantages of this appearance every day in my life in Switzerland, where I am happily tolerated as the desirable sort of Auslander, maybe not as good as a Swiss, but generally welcome and assimilable. Why quibble with privilege now?


I approach my wardrobe, an overflowing spectacle of shopaholism in a land where built-in closets are virtually unknown, and pause. Keep breathing, I tell myself. Are you sure getting dressed is actually a good idea?


Most people don’t think so much about their clothes. For me, clothes have always been my armor. When I am happy with my attire, I feel like I can take on the world. When I am insecure in it, I have a tendency to crumble. Since childhood, no matter how disrupted or dysfunctional my family was, we hid it behind fashion. It’s the family business, and in a world long before Instagram, my parents were always camera ready, and they made sure that I was, too. We always looked prosperous, even when we were broke, which fortunately wasn’t too, too often. Donning Regency garb wasn’t such a different deception. Don’t over think it! My philosophical contemplations will have to wait for another time.


Recent events have given me a lot of practice in compartmentalizing. 


I slide open the door and dig out my Austen festival gown, relieved I veered from the costume pattern I based it on and added additional fabric to the back. It created a better silhouette, fully draped, even though it took nearly twice as much fabric to achieve it. That was a good decision, I commend myself. Now make some more. Shoes are a bit of an issue, ironic for a person with so many, but I do have a pair of leather ankle boots that look something like they ought. Gloves are also a problem, as the ones I own are stained, but they’re better than letting all those Regency ladies and gents see my broken and chewed up nails. Undergarments are impossible, as I never did invest in proper stays and chemises, but I do the best I can to fake the silhouette with an old-timey nightgown and shelf bra, and I don’t think I look half bad when I survey the final effect. White gown, check. Spencer, check. Reticule, check. Bonnet, check. I may not pass Bernadette Banner’s scrutiny, but it will have to do. I can’t let myself fall down the rabbit hole of trying to fix it the irreparable. There is no time right now to fall apart.


Funny how crisis can stop a meltdown in its tracks. Or escalate it. Our brains are truly fascinating.


I have just put the finishing touches on my hair, which being naturally curly easily conforms into something like a Regency do, when I hear the door unlock, and the chatty voices of my two children fill the apartment. The sound is a welcome reassurance that they’re still on this plane of reality, but also a source of self-criticism, as I wonder how I could have possibly failed to remember they would be home for lunch. They have been my first concern for so many years. A surreal day feels even more so as I contemplate being pulled outside my domestic world, pulling a stray curl from beneath the bonnet for effect. I grab my passable boots and head for the door.


“Mommy!” Matt yells out. He only has two volumes: loud and louder. “You were supposed to pick me up from Kindergarten!”


I come out into the hall where both kids are taking off their shoes before entering the house, a habit learned here. “Oh, I am sorry honey. I got busy and totally forgot. How was the first day back?”


Before he can answer, my tween, though poking busily at their phone, interrupts. “Have you been outside, Mommy? There’s something seriously sus going on, all over town! This massive old house just appeared out of nowhere on the Spielplatz at school, and it’s not the only one! They are all over town! Sophia says there’s a whole mansion in the Dorfplatz. It looks like something right out of one of your Austen movies,” they finally look up, holding out their phone to show me a picture, and notice my appearance, “What are you wearing?”


“My Austen costume.” I say it like it’s a question, taking their phone and examining the image. “Sure looks like Pemberley.”


“Why,” they demand, eyes narrowing, “are you dressed like that? What is going on, Mom?”


“I don’t have time to explain it all right now. I need you to feed yourself and Matt today. Just heat up the leftover pizza from the weekend, and I bought a bunch of apples. Eat them. Then I need you take Matt back to Kindergarten, please.”


“You’re not taking me?” he looks at me with ready tears. “But you were supposed to pick me up! I waited and waited, and then Rose walked by and told me to come home. But I don’t want to walk with Rose! I want to walk with you, Mommy! It’s my first day back at Kindergarten, remember? And I’m scared to be alone in the street.”


“Of course I remember, my love,” I bend down to his level and give him what he calls a “smush hug.” We’ve had a lot of smush hugs in the months since his accident, like somehow we could squeeze the memory away. “I am so sorry I wasn’t there today, and on your very important day, too, but this is an emergency. I need you to be brave and let Rose help you. You’ve been so brave! I know you can do this, and I’ll pick you up. I promise.” Better set a reminder! I pull my phone from the reticule hanging round my wrist. My WhatsApp is exploding, but I ignore the many messages and set an alarm. “But if I’m not there, honey, please just walk home. Or wait for Rose again. You’ll check on him, won’t you dear?”


“No need. School is cancelled for the rest of the day. Maybe tomorrow, too. It’s hard to teach with a random house in the middle of the schoolyard.”


“You could have told me that upfront. Is Kindergarten cancelled, too?”


“I don’t think so.”


“Walk him over and please make sure. I’ll pay you to babysit,” I say to mollify them, awkwardly jamming my feet into the boots. This gown is a nuisance. “Just call me if you need anything.”


They look at me skeptically, arms crossed. “Sure, if it’s really an emergency, and you’re not just off to have tea with your Janeites.”


“Actually, my appointment is with Mr. Tilney. I had asked for Darcy, but Bard sent Tilney. But maybe they’ve found each other, and I can have tea with both.”


“You’ve really lost it this time, haven’t you?”


“If it’s an emergency,” pipes in Matt, who has been listening with both attention and incomprehension, “then where is the ambulance?”


“Not all emergencies require ambulances, my love.” I smush him again, for good measure. “I need to be going. Rose, I promise I will explain to the best of my ability after school. Please, just take good care of Matt. I’ll see you soon.”


“OK, Mommy, but I have a weird feeling that all these funny houses about town are somehow your fault.”


I look at them, wanting so badly to properly explain, but knowing that time is of the essence. “I’ll tell you everything when I get back.  If daddy gets here before me, tell him to order something for dinner. Thanks my dears.” I kiss them both on the head and enter the waiting elevator. “Be good,” are my parting words. The elevator shuts on their worried faces, and I leave them behind.




Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley hastened towards Longbourn, quite forgetting their intended purpose as they strode towards the home of the ladies who held their hearts. Mr. Darcy could feel the letter in his breast pocket, the slight friction it created a constant reminder of his disappointment and the agony suffered in its writing. But if Miss Elizabeth Bennet was at home, how would he ever be able to deliver it? It was impossible. He would have to find a way to meet her in private, which is precisely the circumstance she would be most determined to avoid. Perhaps she remained at Hunsford, wherever it might be. He knew not why he continued to hurry towards one of the few familiar landmarks in a most bizarre landscape, knowing he must expect a very cold reception. Even should she not be there, he gathered Miss Elizabeth's feelings for him were potentially indicative of her entire family's opinion of him, and if this proved the case, his wrongs against them multiplied. Were the Bennets motivated by the purely mercenary concerns to which he had always attributed them, they would not hold him in such disdain. He had enough experience of the world to know that the truly grasping would forgive him almost anything, at least as long as they thought he had anything to offer which might be of benefit themselves. Instead, Mrs. Bennet had gone to some length to offend him. Why had he not seen it before? He had dismissed her as simply uncouth.

And how would the Bennets greet Mr. Bingley? What would he say upon learning of Mr. Darcy's involvement in separating him from Miss Bennet? His pace slackened, and he began to fall behind his friend. There was every possibility that Miss Elizabeth would tell her sister what she had learned of his interference. Looking about him, he saw with guilty feelings all the houses they had passed by, the residents of each requiring interview. "One moment, Bingley!" he called out, coming to a complete stop.

"What is it Darcy? Do you not see it is Longbourn? I know you think she thought little of me, but I have been unable to forget her. I must see if Miss Bennet is home."

"For once I am as anxious to greet familiar faces as you are, but we really should not have hurried past so many other homes. It was negligent. We have a responsibility to fulfill."

"We can retrace our steps as soon as our call is complete, but I for one will begin nowhere other than Longbourn," he said with unaccustomed firmness.

"Very well," Mr. Darcy conceded, loath to come between Mr. Bingley and the Bennets again, and he lengthened his strides once more. It was only a few moments before they were at the door and being announced by a harried looking Mrs. Hill.

"Mr. Bingley! How excellent to see you again. And Mr. Darcy, too," Mrs. Bennet’s tone shifted from welcome to disdain as she concluded her greeting. Mr. Darcy noticed how her sudden coldness raised the eyebrows of three unknown ladies on the sofa, two of whom shared a significant glance. If Mrs. Bennet's lack of hospitality did not make him uneasy enough, their acute inspection solidified his discomfiture. Instinctively, his hauteur rose, even as he searched the room for the lady he most wished and feared to see.

"You find us in uproar, as I am sure you know," their hostess said upon completing the introductions. "Do tell me, Mr. Bingley, if you returned to the neighborhood on purpose, or just happened to find yourself amongst us again?"

"The latter, I am afraid, but I always intended to return to Netherfield. It was really very convenient that I just happened to wake up there this morning. Oddly enough, I now find myself neighbor to your cousin's benefactress. Are your older daughters at home?"

"Sadly not. As I have been saying to Mrs. Dashwood, who also has daughters, somewhere in town, no one can know the agony we suffer, not knowing where our dear ones might be!"

"And I have repeatedly assured you, Mrs. Bennet," said Mrs. Charles Musgrove, "that all mothers know such suffering. I have two boys of my own, gentlemen, and very fine lads you will find them. You must come to Uppercross and shoot with my husband. It is not a quarter mile from here." She smiled amiably, pleased with the appearance of these new acquaintances.

 "You forget, Mary, that the park is gone,” her sister, Miss Anne Elliot, reminder her.

"Oh dear! I quite forgot. We must hope that someone has retained their park, or else I know not what Charles will do with himself. He must have something to hunt."

"Perhaps he will begin with his own grounds."

Mr. Darcy looked eagerly towards Miss Elliot. "That must be the first object with us all. We passed several homes on our way here. In which direction lays Uppercross?"

"Due North," Miss Elliot replied.

"Then we must have passed it on our way here."

"It is a Tudor building and quite conspicuous sitting in prominence on the corner. It was much more at home in its cozy grove in Somersetshire."

"I recall it well. Your description is most apt."

"My husband and I live in the Cottage, which is now just a block beyond." Mrs. Musgrove supplied.

"The handsome property with French windows," Mrs. Dashwood added.


“You see, Darcy!” Mr. Bingley remarked. “It was most expeditious coming directly to Longbourn. We would have wasted a great deal of time knocking on doors, just to find most of the occupants already gathered here.”

"It is very convenient we have met you all," said Mr. Darcy seriously. "Several of us have banded together to search the area at the behest of a rather unusual woman, one Mrs. Adams, who seems to be somehow implicated in causing our predicament. I believe we may have met your father and sister there. A Sir Walter and Miss Elizabeth Elliot.”


“My father and Elizabeth are here as well?” Mrs. Musgrove confirmed delightedly. 


“Indeed. They along with any others we can locate will convene with Mrs. Adams at Donwell Abbey, which is the unmistakable property at the top of the street." He addressed Miss Elliot directly, whom he was glad to find a sensible lady of great contrast to the rest of her relations.  “It too looks most conspicuous and out of place, unless Mr. Knightley intentionally designed his stables in the Swiss style.”

"Are we in Switzerland?” Mrs. Dashwood asked. “The scenery resembles that in several watercolors depictions that my late uncle collected in his youth – you recall them, Margaret – but I have never seen buildings in the style I have observed today anywhere before. Further, the people speak German, but their attire! It is all unaccountable. I shall be very pleased to make Mrs. Adams’ acquaintance, should she be able to explain the unexplainable," she concluded.

"So will I,” affirmed Mr. Darcy. “From what those gathered at Donwell have been able to ascertain, we find ourselves in quite dire circumstances.”

"Well I for one am very pleased to find myself amongst so many new acquaintances," declared Mrs. Bennet defiantly. "Even you, Mr. Darcy, can no longer find the society of our neighborhood limited. Only think of the dinner parties we are sure to have!"

"Forgive me, Madame, but I cannot think of such things at a time like this. It is imperative that we learn what has happened to us, and I should think,” he realized he was now scolding the silly woman, but could not help but continue, “that you, for one, would be more concerned for the whereabouts of your daughters than social engagements!"

"I think Mr. Darcy is quite right," inserted Mrs. Musgrove, who had taken to keenly disliking Mrs. Bennet in their short acquaintance. "Social concerns certainly must wait until some very pressing questions have been answered. Then we may consider entertaining, and I have no doubt that Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove will be amongst the first to open their doors to our new neighbors." Secretly, she worried that such behavior would force her to associate with those beneath her notice, but she wisely kept such concerns to herself.

"Perhaps Mr. Bingley will have another ball at Netherfield," put forth Lydia Bennet. "The last one was marvelous! I'm sure I danced with every one of the officers."


“It would be my pleasure to entertain you once more, Miss Lydia,” said Mr. Bingley with his habitual and rather thoughtless gallantry. 

"There will likely be quite a competition to see who can be most hospitable," said Mr. Darcy dryly. "I think we had best send these good ladies on to Donwell, Bingley. Where is your home located, Mrs. Dashwood?”


“It is Barton Cottage, now near-neighbor to Uppercross Cottage. It better fits one’s notion of a cottage than Mrs. Musgrove’s fine home, though sadly of too equal proportions to truly merit the name. It is just across the road.”


Mrs. Dashwood pointed and Mr. Darcy looked as directed, but he was distracted by an unexpected sight. "Mrs. Bennet, are you aware that Hunsford Rectory is just next door?" 


He instantly found himself crowded out by the two youngest Bennet girls and their mother, as well as young Margert Dashwood, loath to miss the fun, all jockeying for position at the window.

"Mr. Collins? Dear me! How disagreeable! So that is Hunsford? I imagine Charlotte felt some disappointment upon seeing it, considering how Mr. Collins described it. Well, at least we will have Lizzy at home, though Jane would be much more to the point! You will excuse me, I'm sure, but I must collect her at once. There is no need for her to be keeping Charlotte company, when I could very well use her assistance here. Mary, you will entertain our guests until I return."

"Yes, Mama," she replied importantly. "Shall I open the pianoforte? Perhaps some of our new neighbors are musical."

"Yes, yes! Whatever you like. I must be off! Kitty, you are to accompany me."

"But I do not want to see Mr. Collins any more than you do, Mama! Why must I be the one to go?"


Mr. Darcy struggled to not show his contempt as mother and daughter bickered. “Excuse me, ma’am, but it is imperative that we all return to Donwell before Mrs. Adams arrives. I would be happy to call at Hunsford and tell those in residence to join you there, as well as convey any particular messages you might have for your daughter.”


“Oh, very well, Mr. Darcy,” she conceded. Much like Miss Margaret, she was loathe to miss the fun. The world might be topsy-turvy, but Mrs. Bennet had not been so diverted in many years. “Do tell Lizzy to have her things packed and prepare to return home.”


“Bingley, perhaps you should escort the ladies, and gather Mrs. Musgrove’s family along the way?”


“Oh, Mr. Bennet can do that,” Mrs. Bennet insisted. “You gentlemen be on your way. Girls, go put on your best cloaks and bonnets. It is not every day that one is invited to an Abbey!”


All the ladies seemed to descend into movement at once. Amidst the uproar, Mr. Bingley asked, “Mr. Bennet is here?”


“In his library as usual. Not even today’s events can pry him from his books! But I shall be certain to bring him along.”


“Very well then,” replied Mr. Darcy, eager to escape the bustle. “Bingley, we had best be on our way.”




“My dear Mr. Bennet,” his lady called out, invading his domain. “You do not know who was just here!”


He confirmed that he did not.


“Mr. Bingley! He and Mr. Darcy were both here, and they say we are to go down the street to Donwell Abbey, there to converse on what is to be done for us.”


“I had much better stay here and continue my research,” he replied, showing no sign that he had ever paused his perusal of the large book open before him. “For what can be done until we know what has happened?”


“You had much better come along. All the different people who have been misplaced are going to be there, and quite a fine society we are in, too! Mrs. Musgrove and Miss Elliot are the daughters of a baronet, and we know how very fine Mr. Darcy is. He mentioned Lady Catherine, as well. Lady Catherine de Bourgh! And who can say how long we might stay, as this is no customary call. We shall surely have tea at the Abbey! What a fine thing for our girls!”


“How so? They have been uprooted through time and space. The situation is most desperate, not cause for celebration, but far be it for me to expect society to cease its inanities. You and the girls may go, if you wish, but I shall remain where I am, trying to uncover the location of my ancestral lands.” 


“My dear Mr. Bennet, how can you be so tiresome? Of course you must come with us! How else will you meet this Mrs. Adams, who is said to be the cause of it all?”


Mr. Bennet looked up. “I fear the cliché even as I form the words. You say some woman is to blame?”


“I don’t know if she is truly to blame or not, but Mr. Darcy seems convinced that she can at least explain what has happened. You shall like to hear what she has to say, shan’t you?”


“I shall,” he conceded, closing the book and rising. “If nothing else, perhaps the library there is better supplied and can provide the answers I am seeking.”


“I had not thought to persuade you so easily,” Mrs. Bennet remarked, her surprise evident.


“Do not underestimate your abilities, my dear. You cannot appreciate how very often your words and actions influence my own.”

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