Mr. Darcy might be possessed of handsome features and fine manners, but little else recommended him. Elizabeth Bennet could not and did not wish to contain her fury as she took Mr. Darcy’s letter and opened it.
The letter began: My dearest Georgiana…
“This letter is not addressed to you,” Elizabeth remarked.
“My late brother. Reginald Darcy, sent this to our younger sister.”
Elizabeth knew she ought to feel some charitable sentiment for a man who had recently lost a brother, but considering how dismissive Mr. Darcy had been of her and her capabilities—just the slightest hair of being outright rude—Elizabeth could not muster the emotion. “My condolences,” she said stiffly.
“Thank you,” Mr. Darcy said, his voice as flat as her own.
If this were a young man in mourning, he took care to hide such emotions from those around him. More likely, he did not possess much familial regard at all.
No. That was unfair. She hardly knew the man. Still, however Mr. Darcy mourned, or did not, stealing away his own sister’s correspondence did not incline Elizabeth to think well of him.
“If your late brother sent your sister a message in some form of code, would it not make sense to assume she had the tools to decipher it?” Elizabeth asked.
Mr. Darcy’s expression froze for the briefest moment. “It is because my sister might decipher it that I have brought it to your father’s attention first. My sister Georgiana and my brother Reginald were close. It has been five months since his passing, and she is only beginning to step out of her deep mourning. For the first month, she did not smile, and she hardly ate. As her guardian, I must see to her well-being of the body, mind, and spirit.”
Elizabeth weighed Mr. Darcy’s explanation. Devotion to family, to especially a beloved sister, was something Elizabeth understood all too well. Though her own sister was the elder, Elizabeth had always been protective of Jane’s happiness. Jane had a sweetness of temperament that brought joy to every room, but there was also a fragility to it. Like the bloom of a prize rose, subtle alterations to the soil and air could harm its petals or keep it held tight in bud until it withered and fell.
“And if this letter’s contents are something innocuous?” Elizabeth asked.
“Then I will seal it and pass along it with your father’s translations to Georgiana immediately. I do not intend to hide our brother’s last words from her, but to ensure that they do not add to her grief.”
And yet, while Elizabeth understood the urge to protect, she did not, in her heart, agree that Mr. Darcy had the right of it. Did not Georgiana have a right to her own grief?
A difficult tangle and one Elizabeth was not charged to decipher.
Thankfully, Mr. Bennet interrupted her musings with a practical question. “Is the entire letter in code?”
“No,” Mr. Darcy said. “The first page is ordinary pleasantries, and Reggie shares—” Mr. Darcy swallowed. It was the only concession in his manner to what Elizabeth was beginning to suspect was a far deeper grief than his general demeanor suggested. “He shared small ordinary details of his life in the French capital. Nothing, as far as I can ascertain, relating to the Emperor’s designs or movements. And the latter pages were wet. Some words are almost indecipherable even if they made sense before.”
Elizabeth skimmed over those pages, trying hard not to feel like a voyeur picking over the silhouette of another man’s remains. Nothing immediately caught her eye as a code key. No letters were oddly capitalized or written in a different style. Nor were other simple tricks used. The first letter of each paragraph spelled nothing; neither did the last.
Still, for Mr. Darcy’s brother to be in the French capital at all suggested something deeper at play. Through assisting her father, Elizabeth well knew that both Bonaparte and the prime minister employed at points less than honorable means of getting information about their opponents. War was far messier than what the officers in their sharp regimentals shared when flirting with young ladies. But if Reginald Darcy was doing special, secret work for the crown, it would do no good for Elizabeth to suggest such a thing to his grieving and overly constrained older brother. Not without more than a suspicion. The letter continued.
Admittedly, my dearest sister, there is more to life here than the acquisition of pastry. I have found points only the comfort of the Almighty can offer a degree of solace. Sometimes it is only the hand of the Lord who can comfort and protect us in times of trouble.
After that, it was as Mr. Darcy described. Two pages of neatly scribed Latin, formatted as though it was a prayer.
The words were nonsense. At first, Elizabeth thought it might be a Latin Gibberish cipher, but nothing was spelled backwards with false Latin suffixes. Maybe it was an Ave Maria cipher with each letter a faux Latin word, Elizabeth surmised. But lacking the key, deciphering it would take work, not even considering the later water-damaged sections.
Elizabeth handed the letter to her father and outlined for the pair of them what she had seen, suggesting only at the end she believed it was likely there was a cipher at work, but not one easily unraveled in an afternoon.
A knock sounded at the study door. “Mr. Bennet?” Before any of the room’s occupants could respond, the door opened, and Mrs. Bennet stepped inside. “A light dinner is ready if Mr. Darcy would like to join us when you have finished your business.”
Elizabeth glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to four. They took dinner at four thirty and tea after. Mrs. Hill must have been working like a dervish to have a dinner together so early for the Bennet household.
“I could not impose,” Mr. Darcy said stiffly. They took dinner at six thirty in the city. Was Mr. Darcy looking down his nose at the Bennets for having such country hours?
Mr. Bennet nodded. “You may leave the letter in our care, Mr. Darcy, and I shall write to you when the translation is complete. I will fit it in between my other work as Bonaparte and his disciples do not wait for our convenience to make their moves.”
“Yes. I have heard your skills are in great demand from many sources. And my brother is long passed. This is for my peace, and my sister’s peace, entirely.”
“Shall I direct my missive to the address from which you wrote before?”
“For the duration of the holidays, I will stay as a guest with Mr. Charles Bingley, who has recently leased the nearby estate at Netherfield Park.” Mr. Darcy looked resigned. “It should be a simple thing to send any necessary correspondence there.”
“But that is such a short distance!” Mrs. Bennet exclaimed. “You must return here to discuss the contents of your brother’s correspondence when my husband has finished his work.”
Another knock, and Lydia, her voice pitched higher in an attempt at flirtation, said through the door, “Mother! Are you there?”
“Yes, my dear,” Mrs. Bennet went to the door and opened it. “Lydia,” she admonished with no especial fervor in her tone. “You know better than to interrupt your father while he is working.”
Lydia had dressed speedily but with obvious attention to flirting with a young gentleman. Her hair was arranged in perfect ringlets peeking from beneath her bonnet, and her dress was a pale yellow that highlighted her light blue eyes. Unlike Elizabeth, whose mitts were dark beige speckled with ink, Lydia’s were the same white silk she wore when attending a local assembly. She smiled at Mr. Darcy and looked up at him through her lashes. “Papa, I apologize for disturbing you. And your guest.”
“We had just asked Mr. Darcy to enjoy his luncheon with us,” Mrs. Bennet said brightly. “Mr. Darcy, how do you take your tea?”
Mr. Darcy did not acknowledge Mrs. Bennet’s invitation the second time. Instead, he inclined his head towards each of them and said, “I must take my leave. Thank you, again.”
“Lydia!” Mrs. Bennet called to her daughter. “Will you show Mr. Darcy to the door?”
“Yes, Mother!” Lydia said with delight. She managed to get ahead of the taciturn gentleman. “This way. Are you fond of dancing, Mr. Darcy?”
Mrs. Bennet rubbed the thumb of her right hand along the ridge of the other as she left to follow the pair at enough of a distance as to maintain the illusion of propriety.
After they had gone, Elizabeth muttered. “I wish Lydia the best with him.”
Mr. Bennet smiled. “So you, like my wife, would wish Mr. Darcy to become a member of our family?”
“I’d rather marry his horse!” Elizabeth stated with vehemence. “And you know how I despise riding.”
“A horse can be led by the reins. A man…” Mr. Bennet laughed, and after a moment, Elizabeth joined him.
Still, Elizabeth’s mirth felt hollow. It disturbed her to have been so affected by the man. Granted, her primary emotion concerning Mr. Darcy had been dislike. She tried to tell herself it spurred from his disdain for her abilities. But others had disbelieved her skills in cracking ciphers. None had spurred such instant fury.
As the laughter died, Elizabeth took a second piece of paper and a pen for notes, but her mind was occupied with the first mystery of why Mr. Darcy had affected her so.
“Will you read that out for me?” Mr. Bennet asked.
“Yes, Father.” Elizabeth started to read, but her mind wasn’t on the code.
Mr. Darcy’s handsome features had tricked Elizabeth into expecting more from him, she concluded. That was her mistake, not his. At least his rational desire to flee had spared them all an awkward meal.
That night, in their shared bedroom, Jane sat down on the edge of Elizabeth’s bed. “So is Mr. Darcy as terrible as Lydia says?” she asked in a hushed tone.
Elizabeth initial thought was to give a quick yes, but in only the company of her favorite sister, she could not state the man had been wholly terrible. “He was cold, and at points short-tempered, and he dismissed my abilities, but…”
“Usually you are not so restrained in your opinions, Elizabeth. Did you find him handsome?” Jane added, “Lydia found him very handsome. And rude. And generally awful.”
“He was handsome.” Not that it mattered, considering the nature of their meeting and his temperament. “Like a marble statue and with about as much warmth. I doubt his lips have experienced a smile in all of his years of life. His face would likely shatter into a dozen pieces if he tried.”
“You are incorrigible,” Jane said with a laugh.
Elizabeth joined her sister in laughing. But even in her shared levity, Elizabeth could not help wondering why she couldn’t erase the intensity of Mr. Darcy’s gaze from her mind and how it might soften his features if he smiled.