Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Last Waltz

I wonder, should I go, or should I stay?

The strains of the penultimate song reached his ears, and Ben Gardiner sighed deeply. Perhaps, just perhaps, Nina had been mistaken -- it wouldn’t be the first time. Even if That Woman had attended, he could scarcely walk up to Georgiana Fitzwilliam and demand to examine her niece.

Eliza, where are you when I need you?

He was on the verge of stalking away, leaving the attendees to their ill-gained pleasures. That the profits from the annual Meryton Charity Ball were funnelled directly into the war effort was little comfort; he felt misplaced, awkward, and had no desire to ever participate in such an event again. But he would, again, and again, until he found her. She was not here -- there was no reason to remain --

In the very act of slipping away, he was stalled by conversation between two young débutantes which bizarrely intrigued him. “You must dance,” one was saying.

“I certainly shall not,” the other replied quietly. “You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.”

Mildly curious, Ben turned his head to glance at them. The first was a pretty girl, who he recognised after a bewildered moment as Emma, John Knightley’s much-younger sister. The other, taller and older-looking, he had never set eyes on before -- hers was not a face one would forget. He was frankly astonished she had managed to evade notice this long, even by cowering in a dimly-lit corner -- she did not have much in the way of sex appeal, it was true, but she was still devastatingly lovely, if more reminiscent of the Pietà or Nefertiti than Margaret Lockwood or Phyllis Calvert.

Something about her caught his eye, but it was only when she turned her face away from her friend that he was able to perceive her expression. There was fierce intelligence as well as flawless beauty in that face, and almost unconsciously he took a step closer. Her eyes were a gentle, brilliant green, very large in her narrow face.

“No, Emma, I shan’t do it, I can’t, please don’t make me,” she said, her voice rising shrilly. Then her tone altered from anxiety to arrogance, her expression closed, her lashes dropped -- “At a gathering such as this? It would be insupportable.”

“I would not be as fastidious as you are for a kingdom,” Emma laughed. “Didn’t you see -- ”

“I don’t care who you saw,” the other girl said stoutly. “There are a few here that are tolerable, to be sure -- but none handsome enough to tempt me.”

Ben could not but be amused at her rapid vacillation between pride and nervousness -- until he realised why her eyes had caught him. No, he did not know her, but he knew those eyes. They were Aunt Chris’s eyes, and more importantly, Marianne’s --

He loathed hypocrisy, but he knew who she must be, knew what he had to do, and so he stepped forward, bowing smartly to Emma. “Miss Knightley?”

Emma beamed. “Oh, Ben, it is a pleasure to see you here. Darling -- ” she turned to her friend, “Mr Gardiner is an old friend of John’s -- Janine Carleton is his sister.”

He looked into the young woman’s face, pale and frightened beneath the mask of hauteur, and smiled charmingly. The poor thing obviously needed to be saved from herself.

“Good evening,” he said politely, and she returned his smile rather hesitantly.

“Good evening, Mr Gardiner.”

“Ben,” Emma went on happily, “this is my dearest friend in the world, Daria Fitzwilliam -- we went to school together. She and her brother and Carl were as thick as thieves -- still are, as far as I know.”

Fitzwilliam. So he had been right. “Any friend of Janine and Carl's is a friend of mine,” said Ben.

“Thank you,” murmured Daria.

He quashed his rebelling scruples, and bowed. “Miss Fitzwilliam, will you dance the last waltz with me?”

She blushed deeply. “Thank you, sir, I would be honoured.”

As he led her onto the dance floor, absently admiring the way a few wayward dark curls fell against the long white slope of her neck, he could not keep himself from leaning over and whispering, “Should I be honoured, Miss Fitzwilliam?”

She turned to face him as the music began, her eyes wide. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Why, that I am handsome enough to tempt you!”

Daria looked horrified, but only said defiantly, “I did not know anyone was listening.”

“Let us not quarrel over what you should not have said, nor I heard, Miss Fitzwilliam -- the waltz is beginning.” He pulled her into his arms, determined not to look too deeply into her lonely eyes -- there danger lay. I cannot be in love -- I only just met her -- it’s only a dance. For heavens’ sake, she’s a Fitzwilliam -- and if she knew the truth -- I don’t even want to think of it.

So he did not think of it, he did not think of anything at all; instead he allowed the light and bright and sparkling mood to envelope him; he danced the last waltz with Daria Fitzwilliam, as the orchestra played.


Ben scribbled out a line, enjoying the brief cessation of rain. He had never written a more difficult letter in his life, but he had no intentions of encouraging her busybody tendencies by failing to correspond regularly, telegraph lines and the Atlantic Ocean notwithstanding. If she discovered what he had done, or more accurately, not done . . . he could not say whether her hatred of the Fitzwilliams or desire for social prominence would win the day, but he wasn’t about to find out.

“Mr Gardiner?”

Ben jolted, nearly knocking over his cup of tea, and met a pair of familiar green eyes. Belatedly, he stood. “Miss Fitzwilliam, what an . . . unexpected . . . pleasure.”

She smiled. “Yes, it is rather.” She looked around the shop distastefully. “This is very . . . quaint, isn’t it?”

Beautiful she might be, but charming she most certainly was not. Ben could not prevent a certain frostiness entering his voice as he said, “I daresay it is very different from what you are accustomed to.”

“I meant no offence. The best books are just across the street, and I was hungry, so Mr Solomon directed me here. He said I wouldn’t find better tea anywhere. What do you think?” She settled herself across from him without so much as a by-your-leave. It took every ounce of composure he possessed to keep from desperately searching the letter for incriminating material. She would only have to look down to catch the name -- he was sure he had mentioned Marianne -- but snatching it up would look even worse.

“My preferences are too plebeian for you, I fear,” he said, reaching for the letter and folding it up as casually as he could. “I find that it tastes very much like tea, which is enough for me.”

“Oh!” She looked embarrassed. “Did I interrupt you?”

“Yes,” said Ben, smiling; “but it does not follow that the interruption must be unwelcome. It was simply a matter of obligation, very dull.”

“Well, then -- you do not mind my sharing the table?” There was a faint smile on her face, and Ben briefly wondered if she was as oblivious as she appeared.

“Of course not. You must tell me how you met Janine and Carl.”

“Actually, I don’t know Janine that well, although she seems lovely. Carl is my friend. He and my brother were schoolmates -- Eton -- and bonded over some dreadful thing, although they are not really similar at all. I met him when Darcy brought him along when he came home for the holiday, Carl’s family was abroad or something -- they were very laissez-faire sort of parents, you know -- do you know the Carletons well?”

“No, I’m afraid not -- is Darcy one of his cousins?” inquired Ben. He was not truly curious about the ins-and-outs of this overbred young lady’s connections, he assured himself -- in fact, in the light of day, he knew that he did not truly care about her at all -- it was only for Marianne’s sake.

She looked both astonished, amused, and horrified at once. It was a rare feat. “No, he is my brother.”

He could not keep his mouth from twitching. “Darcy and Daria?”

“We’re twins.” An attendant who had always treated Ben with familiarity bordering on insubordination set a cup of tea before Daria.

“Your tea, Miss Fitzwilliam,” he murmured deferentially.

“Thank you,” she said absently, every inch lady of the manor -- even when there was no manor. “It’s a family name, actually. There were plenty of Fitzwilliam Darcys in mother’s family, and Darcy Fitzwilliams in father’s -- they intermarried often enough. Mother and father are only distantly related, though.”

“That must be a great comfort to you.”

She looked faintly puzzled. Ben sighed. No sense of humour either.

“That is how I met Carl, and when he met Janine -- ” she shrugged. “Darcy and I weren’t certain about it, but he was determined -- and since it was the only thing he’d ever been determined about in his life, we gave him our blessing. Fortunately, it turned out well. She is a lovely girl.”

“You gave him your blessing?” It was only with the greatest of efforts that he kept his face straight. “Surely he’s old enough to make his own decisions?”

She gave him a patronising glance. “You haven’t known Carl very long, have you?”


After patiently listening to his long string of complaints, Elizabeth reached out to pat his hand. "The plot thickens," she laughed. "So now you are infatuated with Daria Fitzwilliam, of all people."

"I -- wha -- infatuated?" Ben snatched his hand back and glared as ferociously as he was able. Elizabeth returned his gaze imperturbably.

"Ben, darling, you have spoken of nothing else for --" she glanced at the clock -- "a full forty-five minutes."

"I don't like her," he muttered sulkily. Elizabeth smiled.

"Of course not." At his suspicious look, she added, "That is obvious from your latest diatribe."

"We are merely . . . common and indifferent acquaintances."

She stared incredulously. "You must be joking. Have you even considered how valuable she might be?"

Ben winced. "Eliza, I can't."

"If you are truly indifferent, why should it matter?"

"I am not a hypocrite."

"That is why you have been attending parties which you loathe? Because you have a hitherto unrealised desire to mingle with the rich and mighty?"

Ben flushed. "Eliza, that's different. I don't like her, but I won't use her."

"Bare civility hardly qualifies as --"

"No, Eliza."

"I was going to say, why don't you simply ask her, honestly?"

"She'd be livid," he said confidently.

She shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. If Aunt Nina goes through with this harebrained plan of hers, she deserves to know. She's as much Marianne's blood as we are."

Ben did not care to consider that, and pushed the matter out of his mind. "Blood or not, she wouldn't understand."

Elizabeth lit a cigarette, delighting in the irritated look on her cousin's face. "And you are such an excellent judge of women, to know her every reaction before even she does. She's gone to university, she can think for herself. It's her business, and she is Aunt Chris' niece. She has a right to know. But even if you won't allow her that, there's still no reason to atagonise her. She's the best hope we have for getting within earshot of Pemberley. Keep a grip on your prejudices, will you?"

"My prejudices? I'm not the one who --"

"Ben." Elizabeth breathed in deeply. "You're twenty-seven, not four. Try and act it."


He haunted Solomon's Books for over a week before his visit coincided with hers. For a moment he played with the idea of telling her, before shaking his head dismissively. Impossible! Eliza was utterly mad to consider it. But she was right about one thing. Ben swallowed, feeling sick, and watched her surreptitiously for a moment. The Daria who sat amidst piles of old books -- the sort of books that have a life of their own, multiplying and conquering the unwary store and its apathetic proprietor -- was most assuredly not the Miss Fitzwilliam he had thought he'd perfectly understood after one slow dance. She had a dazed smile on her face, and several layers of dust seemed to have taken up permanent residence upon her fine clothes. The wire-rimmed spectacles resting on her nose, along with the blissful, oblivious expression of one lost in the realm of Faerie, only aded to the effect, which was bizarrely endearing as she leafed through the pages of one of several heavy tomes in her lap.

"Miss Fitzwilliam?"

Her eyes lifted and met his. Daria leapt to her feet, vainly attempting to dust herself off, before giving up the effort and smiling crookedly at him, her spectacles slightly askew. "Mr Gardiner!"

For the first time, he realised that she was pleased to see him. He had been so certain that she was displeased with the entire world and everyone in it -- and while she had done plenty to create that impression, there had also been plenty of hints otherwise. Ben suppressed an impatient sigh. Why had Eliza, who had never even set eyes on them together, seen what he had not? What a stupid question; because it was patently obvious to anyone with two eyes.

"What an unexpected pleasure to see you here, Miss Fitzwilliam," he said, accepting her grimy hand, and hiding a smile as she straightened her spectacles. She slanted him a sideways look.

"Very unexpected," she said; "did you take my recommendation?"

He seized on the opportunity. "Yes, as a matter of fact. It is certainly very . . . eclectic."

She nodded gravely. "Yes, there's something of everything. I could lose myself for days in here."

Before he could stop himself, he said, "You look like you already have." Then he froze, realising he had spoken aloud; but Daria laughed delightedly.

"Yes, I suppose I do." She looked down at her skirts in some dismay, then shrugged it off. "I'll have it cleaned. Have you found anything that interests you?"

"No, I'm afraid I hadn't been here very long when I found you. I'm not sure where to start, to be honest."

Daria absently rubbed her cheek, unconsciously smearing the line of dust stll further. "It depends on what you're looking for. If you just browse, without any real purpose, you probably won't find any of hte better material. Do you have any particular interests?"

"I'm an artist," said Ben. Daria stopped and stared, with the look of a child at a zoo exhibit.

"Oh? What do you paint?"

"I don't paint," he said stiffly; "I'm a sculptor."

Her eyes widened still further. "Really? How marvellous, I've never met a real artist before, except portraitists, and that's not real art, is it?"

Ben could not help smiling at her enthusiasm. It was easy to forget that was really very young. "What is art?" he asked rhetorically.

"Beauty in the eye of the beholder, and all that?--but anything could be art by that rationale, and then there's nothing particularly special about any of it." She frowned. "Not that I know much about art -- except the classics, of course -- art these days, I mean -- but still . . . Well, it's this way."

Ben, a little dazed, followed the elegant figure easily making her way through the teetering towers, as if she had spent her life in cluttered bookstores. "Art," she declared, waving her hand grandiloquently. Indeed -- the shelves were piled with rows upon rows of volumes on the subject.

"Thank you," Ben said, rather awkwardly.

"You're welcome," she replied. It was apparent that she was starting to return to an awareness of who she was, the surroundings notwithstanding. Her posture straightened, her features set in familiar neutral, haughty lines; Ben felt it as a challenge, and could not resist. He reached out and brushed his finger along her nose, halting the expression of outrage before it began.

"You had dust on your nose," he said, holding his hand up. She blushed.

"Oh . . . thank you." She twisted her fingers together, and Ben noticed a diamond ring on her left hand. Before he thought, he blurted out,

"You're engaged?"

She looked down. "Oh, no -- this is just an heirloom. It'll go to Darcy's wife when he gets married."

He ignored the thrill of relief. "I see. Well -- I hope I'll see you again, Miss Fitzwilliam?"

A smile lit up her face. "I think so, if you spend very much time here. I am --" she hesitated, biting her lip, looking torn, before ading quietly, "I come on Thursday afternoons." With that, she was gone in a whirl of skirts, dust, and old books.


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At 12:23 PM, Blogger aquamum said...

I love this first chapter.
Well written and interesting characters, I will look out for updates!!!!!

At 12:24 PM, Blogger aquamum said...

I just love this first chapter, are you going to post more??
It's well written and I like the characters.


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