Elizabeth Bennet sighed as she stared out the carriage window. She did not care for riding anything but dragons; the rattle and jouncing of even the best-sprung carriage was quite enough to give her a headache, and an occasional touch of queasiness; dragons (even in the heat of battle) were far more graceful. As for horses, she did not trust them, whether they drew carriages or were ridden upon. They were too dumb for such a large and powerful creature. Relying upon a beast with which one could not speak unnerved her.
Of course, she thought, as she settled back into her seat, adjusting the unfamiliar skirts, it was quite possible that her mood was the result, not of the mode of transportation, but its destination. The village of Meryton, in Hartfordshire, wherein Elizabeth had been born and passed the first ten years of her life, until being sent away to Scotland to the Loch Laggan covert, was a small place, and as confining for a young woman raised to dragon-back as could be imagined.
Her father’s carriage was waiting for her at the inn at Meryton, when she disembarked from the post carriage. To her surprise, not one of her sisters awaited her with it, merely a servant she recognized but vaguely. “Good afternoon, John,” she said as she watched him transfer her trunk.
“Miss Bennet,” he said deferentially, nodding his head, not looking her in the eye. The coverts had servants, of course, but their manners were much different. And she was so seldom “Miss” Bennet, being more used to “Bennet” or “Lieutenant” Bennet or just plain “Lizzy.”
The carriage ride to Longbourn was mercifully short, and it was not long before the carriage stopped in front of a modest carriage house. Her family had come out to meet her, father and mother and three of her four sisters. Kitty and Lydia had grown almost out of all recognition since she had last seen them.
“Oh, Lizzy! My dear Lizzy, how I have missed you,” her mother exclaimed. Lizzy came forward to receive her embrace, before moving down the line to greet each sister in turn.
Mrs. Bennet glanced into the carriage, and at John unloading Elizabeth’s baggage. “No manservant? What if something should have happened? What if the carriage were set upon by bandits? Could not your aunt have spared a man to escort you home?”
“No, Mama,” Elizabeth said. She had a pistol and dagger in her reticule, and had used both in battle. In case of true danger, that would serve her in better stead than the servant who would have escorted her had she been a proper young lady.
“And but one trunk? Where is the rest of your luggage?”
“I shall only be here for a week,” Elizabeth said patiently as the family walked inside, out of the fall chill. “One trunk is all I need for such a short time.” Indeed, she routinely lived with less for longer, when on the front lines, but appearing in polite society—even the Meryton version of it—required such an array of dresses and petticoats and bonnets and other fripperies.
“One week! When we have not seen you these two years? No, you shall write your aunt and tell her that you require a full month, at the least. Then I may still have three of my dear daughters even when Jane leaves on her wedding tour. Besides, the Gouldings’ cousin has come, and he is young and handsome and has a thousand pounds a year, and he may do very well for you. Then you would not be dependent on that miserly aunt of yours—perhaps Kitty could be her companion for a few years, until she is of marriageable age. Mr. Bennet, you will forbid her to go!”
Elizabeth tuned her mother out, certain that her father—who knew her to be an officer in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps, and not merely the companion to an eccentric aunt—would deal with her mother’s request. Instead, she turned to Hill, whom she had fond if hazy memories of from childhood, and allowed her to take her coat and bonnet.
“Lizzy! Your hair!” Lydia, the youngest, who had been but five when Elizabeth went away, gasped in shock.
“What about it?” Lizzy said, self-consciously, patting it. She had had a close call, some months earlier, when a boarder’s sword had nearly taken her head off, and had succeeded in slicing off one of the plaits she kept it in while aloft. Although the hair had been neatly trimmed since, it had grown back and she did not believe it was too noticeable.
“It is shockingly ill-done,” Lydia said. “Fancy coming apart after only a half-day’s journey! And it is not the latest style at all.”
“Oh, dear, Lydia, you are right,” Mrs. Bennet said. “It will never do! Hill! Hill, call Sarah immediately, for she must see to Miss Lizzy’s hair. We are to have Mr. Bingley and his friends for dinner, and they must not see you like this!”
Elizabeth blushed. It was not as if she had much experience with ladies’ hair, and the servants at the covert were hardly ladies’ maids. Normally, when she was out in ladies’ dress, she kept her hat on. “Mama, I am weary from travelling. Surely, there is time for me to rest before I must prepare for dinner?”
“Of course you may rest, Lizzy,” Jane said. “I shall keep you company. Hill, would you bring tea to our room?”
“Yes, miss,” Hill said with a curtsey.
“But Jane! There is work to be done!” Mama cried.
“I am certain it can wait, Mama,” Elizabeth said. “Jane and I have not seen each other in so long, and this is to be such a short visit—surely, you and Kitty and Lydia may do whatever must be done, while Jane and I talk?”
“Oh, very well, I suppose you must arrange everything to suit yourself, as usual, with no regard for my poor nerves.” Mama made a face. “Well, then, if you are so tired, you may go off. We will stay to work.”
“Thank you, Mama, that is very kind,” Elizabeth said, biting back her first and second response. She saw her family so seldom. It was not that much of a sacrifice to hold her tongue, and there was little to be gained by stirring up trouble.
Once upstairs in Jane’s room, the room that the two had shared as girls and continued to do so whenever Elizabeth visited, Elizabeth flopped on the bed with a groan and stared up at the ceiling. “I do not know how you stand her.”
“Lizzy!” Jane said. “Some respect is due for the fact that she bore and raised us, however little you may care for her manners.”
“You she raised,” Elizabeth countered. “For myself, Aunt Nell was far more influential. Though I suppose you are right—you are too good. I can only count myself fortunate that Mama and I do not live together; I have no doubt we should be constantly at one another’s throats, which does not make for a pleasant home.”
“If you had been raised here—and were a little more conventional, perhaps—you would find things different, I think.”
“Mm,” Lizzy said. And what a frightening thought that was! To live here, trapped inside this little house with its little country relations, in the little things a woman was allowed to do—sewing, and cooking, and being ornamental. Though Jane seemed perfectly made for it; perhaps it was due to differences of temper, for they had always been very different. Elizabeth was so very glad that their Aunt Nell—Captain Bennet—had chanced to visit when Elizabeth was of an age to be sent to the covert, and had seen potential in her, and arranged to take her away.
“How is the Corps?” Jane said awkwardly. “And … Vulturnus?” Jane was the only one of the family besides Papa to know what Jane was truly doing, but it was far beyond her experience.
“Vulturnus is doing very well,” Elizabeth said. “He is quite recovered from his injury.” But Jane’s face was pinched and unhappy, because she hated hearing anything that reminded her that Elizabeth went regularly into battle. “But tell me about your Mr. Bingley,” Elizabeth said, “and your plans for the future. I have read all your letters, of course, but it is not the same.”
Jane blushed prettily, and began a lyrical praise of her intended’s many virtues, which, if only half of them were half true, would make of him a paragon of the like unseen since the days of Camelot. Elizabeth relaxed and let it wash over her, such a change from the war news which dominated the coverts.
It was a story fit for a novel, Lizzy decided. Two lovers separated by family and friends, reunited by true love and the remorse of a gentleman who admitted his fault. And that Mary should marry their cousin Mr. Collins, the parson of the aunt of the friend who had separated Jane and her beloved, and that Jane should visit Mary and Mr. Darcy his aunt at the same time—it was quite a coincidence. That they should, when thrown into company, further their acquaintance in such a manner that Mr. Darcy would recognize his mistake, and seek to correct it—if she read it in a novel she should not believe it possible. All that was missing was a second sister for Mr. Darcy to fall in love with, but Mary was already married and Kitty and Lydia were both too young and too silly for him.
That night at dinner, hair styled in a manner Elizabeth could never have managed herself, she met the men she’d heard so much about. Bingley was a pleasant enough fellow, and she wished Jane well with him; she was relieved to see how he treated her, for Jane was such a sweet and retiring woman that it would not take a very strong man at all to completely dominate her, if domination was his aim.
Mr. Darcy was handsome enough, she acknowledged as they were introduced. She hoped her curtsey was not too awkward, as he offered his arm to lead her in to supper.
Once at the table, the majority of Elizabeth’s attention was taken up by the need to remember all the myriad of details that made up good table manners.
“You live with your aunt, I believe, Miss Bennet?” Mr. Darcy said as the food was laid before them.
“Yes, my Aunt Bennet,” Elizabeth said. “I have since I was ten years old—I am glad to see my sisters, for although we write, it is not the same.”
“That is quite a young age for a girl to be separated from her mother,” Mr. Darcy observed.
“Yes, and I cannot deny I was homesick at first,” Elizabeth admitted. “But that soon passed, and now I cannot imagine having grown up any different way.”
“That is the way of things,” Mr. Darcy said. “We are all of us trained to our situations. Has your aunt any other family to care for her?”
“No,” Elizabeth said. “She never married, but lives independently. She does wish companionship, however, and wished to look to the future. And you must admit that in a family of five daughters, one could certainly be spared.” It was the closest she could get to the truth. Aunt Nell had never married, no, but kept quite busy as a captain, with all the companionship she needed from her dragon. And Elizabeth’s cousins Michael and Lucy, born as they were out of wedlock, were subjects best avoided in society.
“And will you then inherit?”
Elizabeth stopped herself before answering an automatic no. Unless she died in battle, Lucy would inherit captainship of Bonaventure, Aunt Nell’s longwing; Elizabeth’s ambition was to be put to a Longwing egg. But Mr. Darcy assumed that a gentlewoman living independently, and rich enough to keep a niece as a companion, must certainly have a fortune to live upon, and the possibility of an inheritance was reason enough for a family with five daughters to dower to send one away at such a tender age. “Yes,” she said, for it was the story that Mama and her sisters and the village had been told. “But that will certainly be some time from now.” All the Longwing eggs currently hardening were assigned to other women; though with her war record, Elizabeth was a strong contender for the next egg to be produced.
“I am glad to hear it,” Mr. Darcy said, and they sat in silence for the rest of the course, listening to the conversation of others around them.
At the next course, Elizabeth felt confident enough in her table manners to initiate conversation. “Jane tells me you have a sister, Mr. Darcy,” she said. “But she is not here for the wedding?”
“No,” Mr. Darcy said. “She and her companion are with my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. He will be leaving for his regiment soon, and wished more time with her—we share her guardianship, you see. Georgiana may make Miss Bennet’s acquaintance this summer, when Bingley and his new bride will join us at Pemberly.”
“A sensible plan,” Elizabeth said. “I understand that Pemberly is your estate. In Darbyshire, I believe?” And with very little prodding, she was able to convince him to carry the conversation, on the subject of his estate and his sister, through to the pudding.
After dinner, the gentlemen retreated only for a short time, before coming back to join the ladies. It was no surprise to see Mr. Bingley head straight for Jane, with an eagerness that suggested he was behind their early reappearance. While he and Jane monopolized one another, Mr. Darcy and Papa continued their conversation on the war and its progress, and what might be Napoleon might do next. Elizabeth sat with her mother and clenched her teeth, for she knew far more about it than either of them, but could not risk exposing her knowledge, for that might lead to discovering its source. Fortunately, Mama suggested that Jane open the instrument, and perforce that broke up the conversation.
As the party shifted, Elizabeth took a seat where she could hear the music—a rare treat—and was far enough away from the others to avoid being drawn into conversation. It was wearying, to remember what she could not say. To her surprise, Mr. Darcy joined her. Though, perhaps he too did not care for conversation, as he said nothing after greeting her. Thus they passed several songs in pleasant silence.
“And will you play for us, Miss Bennet?” he asked, as Jane searched through the music to find another piece.
“No, for I have never learned,” Elizabeth replied. “I admire the talent, but it is one I do not share.” She could sing, and had a pleasant voice; but the songs she knew were not the type to be sung as an evening’s entertainment outside the Corps. “I am a remarkably unaccomplished woman, for I do not care if I ever marry,” she said, feeling daring for telling one whole truth at last.
Indeed, Mr. Darcy’s reaction was all that she might hope for. His eyes widened, and his mouth dropped slightly. “Do not … care if you marry? But it is every woman’s ambition!”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth said, “though I wonder if that is because of natural inclination or simply because most women depend on marrying for security, status, and the most independence they can claim. As I am fortunate enough to have my independence, and am seldom in society for its disapprobation to affect me, I see little need for marriage unless I am truly in love. And I would hope a man would love me for my wit and personality, and not for my musical skills and ability to cover a screen.”
“That … is an interesting perspective,” Darcy said after a moment. He turned back as Jane began to play again, and the conversation was over.
The next morning, as Sarah did Elizabeth’s hair, Jane entered the room. “Lydia has received a letter from her friend, Mrs. Forster, the wife of the colonel of the regiment that was quartered here,” she said. “It says the regiment may be remaining at Brighton for another summer, and that if that is the case the invitation to Lydia will be renewed. Lydia has at once begun a campaign to be allowed it, since she was denied this last summer because of preparations for my wedding.”
Elizabeth looked at her in the mirror, far more appalled than Jane. Jane, after all, had never been around large camps of soldiers, (or sailors, or airmen), and had little idea just how disastrous that could be for a young, pretty girl with no sense and no decent chaperone. “Shall I talk to Papa?” she asked.
“If you would be so kind,” Jane said with relief.
“… and there, at least, she may expose herself with very little expense or inconvenience,” Papa said.
Elizabeth shook her head. “Papa, you have never seen what happens when that many young men gather together, away from families and all the normal things that would restrain them. It is a very dangerous situation, for together they urge one another on.”
Papa frowned. “And have you experienced this, Lizzy?”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. Papa occasionally had fits of remorse for having let her join the Corps, and his perspective on what was suitable was so different that she had to tread carefully. “I should hope I have more sense than Lydia,” she said. “And I am kept very busy by my duties, and I do not have to fear that the appearance of impropriety may spoil my chances for marriage.” And also, Elizabeth knew how to avoid pregnancy, should she choose. Though she did not believe her father would find that reassuring. “Lydia has not the sense to keep her head about her. Perhaps she and Kitty could visit our Aunt Gardiner in London, or some other amusement.”
“I shall keep that in mind,” Papa said.
The rest of the days until the wedding were a rush of last-minute details, accompanied by Mama exclaiming over how useless Elizabeth was. In the sewing-room it was true, though not on a dragon’s back, so Elizabeth bit her tongue.
The wedding itself was beautiful, and the wedding breakfast a triumph to her mother’s organizational skills. Elizabeth watched her sister, glad for her happiness, and endured another day at home without her sister to keep the peace between Elizabeth and her mother.
It was with a glad heart that Elizabeth boarded the coach back to London, from whence she would hitch a ride on a dragon back to Vulturnus, and her real life as second lieutenant on a Longwing’s back. A very little taste of the “normal” world was enough to suffice.