It’s the dog days of summer and much too hot to read–or write–anything serious. Below is the first chapter from a short story/novella/novel I have been working on for about a year. In the story, Austen expert, Chris O’Malley, meets the very real Mr. Darcy at a convention in Baltimore in 2011. Why is Mr. Darcy there? Because back in the Regency Era, the master of Pemberley is in hot water with Elizabeth Bennet. Not only did he insult her at the Meryton assembly, but he messed up the timeline for Pride and Prejudice. If he can’t convince Chris O’Malley to help him, he is in danger of losing the girl.
Before going on stage, Chris took one last look in the mirror of the ladies’ room of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor Hotel. She was nervous enough without having to worry about unruly hair and badly applied lipstick. The previous year, while appearing on a panel discussing Regency fashion, a woman in the audience had challenged Chris’s use of the word couturier in an article she had written for a Regency Era magazine three years earlier. The correct term was modiste as couturier would not be coined until the Edwardian Age. Chris had caught the mistake herself, but not before the magazine had gone to press. Like a dog worrying a bone, her inquisitor wouldn’t let it go, waving the offending article in her hand with religious-like fervor.
Her current co-panelists assured her that such a thing was an aberration and to forget about the whole episode, and it was her intention to do so. After all, she had her master’s degree in English Literature and was working on her doctorate. Although teaching at a junior college wasn’t exactly the same as being a professor of English literature at Johns Hopkins or Goucher, it was a good school, and she was proud to be associated with it.
Although this year’s session was supposedly a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when the session was opened for questions, it was obvious that Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, was what was on everyone’s mind. As the time allotted for questions drew to a close, Chris noted that the panel had answered eight Pride and Prejudice questions and three pertaining to Persuasion, but only two on Sense and Sensibility.
With her eye on the clock, Mrs. Goldstein was about to wrap it up when the double doors of the room opened wide, and a tall, dark, and handsome gentleman dressed in full Regency attire, from top hat to Hessian boots, made his way to the center of the hall, cutting ahead of the people queued up in front of the microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, bowing in the direction of the panel, “I have come to make a formal protest.”
“Make it over here!” someone from the audience shouted.
“As I was saying,” the gentleman answered in a stern tone, “my protest is in connection with my side of the story in Pride and Prejudice, much of which lies hidden. I can assure you that if more people knew my thoughts following the Meryton assembly, they would…”
But that was all the intruder got out before the moderator in charge of the microphone informed him that the question-and-answer period had ended. But when a cry of “Let the man speak” rose up, an unhappy Mrs. Goldstein acceded to the wishes of the group.
After bowing his thanks to the assembly, the man continued. “Yes, it is true my behavior at the Meryton assembly was less than exemplary…,” and the room burst into laughter, with someone shouting, “Now that’s an understatement.”
“If I may continue?” the man said in a voice demanding obedience. “Chapter IV of Volume I of Miss Austen’s Pride and Prejudice states, and I quote, ‘Bingley and Jane Bennet met tolerably often in large mixed parties.’ Now I ask you, as Mr. Bingley’s guest at Netherfield Park, where was I whilst all this mixing was going on?”
“Excuse me, sir,” Mrs. Goldstein said, “but exactly who are you.”
“My apologies, ma’am. I thought it was obvious. I am Fitzwilliam Darcy, the scion of Mr. David Darcy of Pemberley Manor, Derbyshire, and Lady Anne Fitzwilliam Darcy, the daughter of the Earl of Stepton.”
To this incredible announcement, the room burst into sustained applause. Their response earned a nod from the gentleman.
“He’s obviously an actor,” Chris whispered to Mrs. Goldstein, who was showing signs of unraveling. “Someone associated with the conference must have hired him to add a little levity.”
“Levity? At a Jane Austen conference?” Mrs. Goldstein said with a wrinkled brow. “If you want levity, read Miss Austen’s books. A conference is serious business.”
“As I said,” Darcy continued in a rich baritone, “whilst my friend was becoming better acquainted with Miss Bennet, where was I? I see you have no answer,” he said, scanning the room, “the reason being, Miss Austen elected not to include that in her story. It is my wish to correct this oversight, and I shall tell you that I was at all of those large mixed parties, and at each of these venues, I made subtle overtures to Miss Elizabeth in an attempt to right any perceived wrong. However, all such gestures were rebuffed with no attempt at civility.”
“Did you speak to her at one of those card parties they were always having?” an audience member asked.
“Yes, I did. During the week immediately following the Meryton assembly, we sat at the same card table twice during a game of Vingt-un, but when I tried to engage her in conversation, Miss Elizabeth answered all of my questions with nods or one-word answers.”
“You should have kissed her,” a college student said, bringing the house down.
“Surely, you are in jest,” Darcy said, chastising the young woman.
“Hell no! I’m serious.”
“Madam, unlike Charles Bingley, I am a man of rank. As such, no matter how attractive the lady, I cannot throw myself at her. It simply is not done. However, whilst at Lucas Lodge, I attended to Miss Elizabeth’s conversation on the subject of dancing. And how was I rewarded for my efforts? With mockery: ‘Do you not think, Mr. Darcy, that I spoke uncommonly well?’” he said, mimicking her sarcastic tone. “That statement was meant as a putdown.”
Realizing the session had been hijacked by an actor, Mrs. Goldstein thanked Mr. Darcy and asked that he sit down as the session was now over. But, again, the crowd insisted he be allowed to continue, and Mrs. Goldstein, with tears in her eyes, fell back into her chair. That was enough for Chris, and her blue eyes bored into the interloper. On paper, this might have been a good idea, Chris thought, but for someone to engage the services of an actor without consulting the panel was wrong, and this clown had gone too far. Mrs. Goldstein was clearly upset, and she was getting there.
“Mr. Darcy, how do you defend your remark that ‘every savage can dance?’” Chris asked, rising from her chair. “Was that not meant to be a putdown of Sir William Lucas and all the other guests? Is that acceptable behavior for a man of your rank?”
And to whom do I have the honor of speaking?” the actor asked.
The gentleman smiled. “Miss O’Malley, you are the very person I have come to see!”
With that astonishing declaration, Chris looked at Mrs. Goldstein and shook her head to indicate she had no idea who this gentleman was and that she was not in on the joke. After telling “Mr. Darcy” that she would speak to him in private, she left the stage to take care of the seminar crasher.
Personally, this was a huge disappointment for her as she had hoped to make an impression on her fellow Jane Austen enthusiasts, especially since the conference was being held in Baltimore, her hometown. Instead, a wanna-be actor had stolen the show.
Mr. Darcy was waiting for her outside the side entrance to the ballroom. Without preamble, she told him she was surprised he wasn’t out in the lobby handing out business cards. But her statement seemed to confuse the man.
“Business cards? Why would I do that? There is no one in the lobby with whom I would wish to form an acquaintance.”
“Well, you certainly have Darcy’s arrogance down pat,” Chris answered.
“Who hired you?” Chris asked, the anger evident in her voice.
“Hired me? I can assure you I am not now, nor have I ever been ‘for hire?’”
Chris now had steam coming out of her ears, and she poked the man’s chest with her finger.“Listen, mister. If you want this conversation to continue, you will tell me who you are or I am going to ask the hotel staff to escort you from the premises. You may think your performance was funny, but I can assure you I did not. Acting the part of Mr. Darcy may have been a crowd pleaser, but there are some serious Austen scholars in that room who could have made a difference in my career. Instead of dazzling them with my expertise, I am having this conversation with you.”
Shocked by her diatribe, Darcy took a step back. “Madam, I can assure you I am no imposter. I am Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley Manor in Derbyshire. If you would allow me to explain, I…”
“Miss O’Malley, there is an explanation,” Darcy said, running after her. “The explanation involves Joseph Caswell.”
The mention of Joseph Caswell’s name caused Chris to stop in her tracks. Absent Mr. Caswell’s generosity, she would have been unable to attend a four-year university. By the time her parents had paid tuition to the University of Maryland for her four brothers, money was scarce. The Joseph and Patricia Caswell Foundation had provided the scholarships and stipends she needed to pay her college tuition.
But Darcy had no time to elaborate before being spotted by a few of the young ladies who had witnessed his performance in the ballroom.
“There are you are, Mr. Darcy. We were afraid you went back to Pemberley,” the spokeswoman for the group said, and they erupted into a fit of giggling.
“I’ll leave you to your fans,” Chris said, looking at her watch. “I have another session to attend,” and she turned on her heel and left. After taking a seat, she tried to shake loose the disaster of the Sense and Sensibility session, but it was not to be.
“You were on the panel, right?” the woman in the next seat asked her. “What did you think of Mr. Darcy? I mean, other than his tight breeches? My goodness, he’s packed!” she said, placing her hand over her heart.
Chris had to admit the actor employed to play Mr. Darcy was a hunk: tall, with black hair, black eyes, a cleft in his chin, and a dimple in his cheek. And the lady was right. His breeches did show off his assets, but maybe he was wearing a cup. If it was the real thing, his girlfriend must be happy.
“He made quite a splash, didn’t he?”Chris nodded, accepting the fait accompli. “I imagine there were people who wished he had waited until the end so that others could have asked questions about Sense and Sensibility. Not me. Who cares about Sense and Sensibility when Mr. Darcy’s in the room?”
Exactly, Chris thought. – To be continued…
Well, what do you think? Should I keep going? I hope you’ll let me know.
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