Elizabeth Bennet ran down the stairs of the Darcys' London home with a lightness that belied her thirty-five years. The Darcy family had just returned from Kent, where they had been visiting their de Bourgh relatives, and they were spending a week in London on their way back to Pemberley.
As she arrived in the hall, she met Darcy, who was still recognisably the man she had married fifteen years previously. In fact, if anything, he was more handsome. Age had improved him. His face had lost its former look of habitual arrogance and he wore an expression that made her heart lift. His dark eyes lit up as he saw her and he held out his hand, inviting her to join him as he stood looking up at an empty space on the wall.
"I think that spot will suit the portrait very well," he said, putting his arm around her.
Elizabeth followed his gaze and tried to imagine a picture of herself, her husband, and her children hanging there. As she did so, she felt how strange it was to have her likeness painted and then exhibited in such a way. Although it was nothing new for Darcy, who had been the subject of a variety of portraits throughout his life, she could never quite accustom herself to having her picture painted. She always wanted to get up and stroll around the room instead of sitting still for the artist, and once the painting was finished, she found it disconcerting to come across a life-sized image of herself when she turned an unwary corner in the gallery or on the stairs of Pemberley.
"I have just received a letter from Elisabeth Le Brun, and she has agreed to paint the portrait," he said. "I am glad. There is an air of informality about her work which will suit you very well."
Elizabeth, too, was pleased. Her namesake was famous for producing images of people with loose hair, flowing clothes, and natural poses, instead of presenting them in a stiff and formal manner. Perhaps this portrait would not be as trying as the others.
"Will she come to England?" asked Elizabeth.
"Alas, no, but she has agreed to work from sketches. Her assistant will make them for her."
"The young man we met last week? I cannot recall his name but I liked him."
"His name was Mr Paul Inkworthy, and yes, it is him."
"It is probably just as well she will not be coming herself," said Elizabeth, as the sound of her children's noisy play assailed her ears. "I think our children would frighten her away! At least now it is her assistant who will have the trouble of making them stand still, if such a thing is possible."
"Beth will be no trouble," said Darcy fondly, as they entered the drawing room.
Their eldest daughter was sitting on the window seat, quietly reading a book. Although named after her mother, and although she had her mother's dark hair and eyes, in all other ways thirteen-year-old Beth took after Elizabeth's sister, Jane. She was mild tempered and sweet natured, always seeing the good in others. With her calm and optimistic disposition, she went through life as serenely as a swan sailing on the water.
William, too, would be no trouble. At twelve years old, he was already much like his father: proud and honourable, although inclined to be haughty.
Eleven-year-old John, named after Elizabeth's father, took after Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. The main grievance of John's life was that his father did not yet consider him old enough to follow in the colonel's footsteps by joining the army.
Laurence, two years younger, took after his aunt Lydia. Wild, enthusiastic, and energetic, he was always into mischief, and his eight-year-old sister, Jane, followed him into every scrape and piece of trouble.
"How unlike her namesake she is," said Elizabeth, looking at her daughter with fond exasperation.
Jane had just run in from the garden, bringing a trail of soil with her. It stretched all the way from the flower borders, in through the French windows, and then onto the rug behind her.
"And how like her mother," said Darcy, as his eyes drifted down to her petticoats, which were six inches deep in mud.
"I have not provided you with very genteel children, I fear," she said.
"No?" asked Darcy, picking up Margaret, the youngest at six years old. "There are very few children as genteel as Meg."
Elizabeth looked at her neat little girl with love and affection. "With that I have to agree."
At that moment, John and Laurence erupted into an argument, while William tried to play justice of the peace and ended up with a punch on the nose for his trouble.
"The sooner the boys are back at school the better," said Darcy, adding pointedly, "All of them."
Elizabeth stiffened. She had accustomed herself to losing the older boys to their school each term, but she was not yet ready to let Laurence join them.
She had managed to keep him at home thus far because he had had a bout of ill health, but now that he was well again, the subject of school kept rearing its head. The idea was normal for Darcy. He himself had been sent away to boarding school, as had Georgiana. But for Elizabeth it was a strange thing, for she and her sisters had all been educated at home.
"Not yet," she said firmly. "Laurence is still too young. His tutor is giving him an excellent education and there is nothing to be gained by sending him away."
"His tutors are finding it difficult to hold his attention, and besides, I was at school by his age," said Darcy.
And see what it did to you, Elizabeth had to stop herself saying.
"Dearest Elizabeth, boys need discipline," Darcy continued teasingly but firmly.
"Dearest Fitzwilliam, they can find all the discipline they need at home," said Elizabeth, just as teasingly and no less firmly.
"Can, perhaps. But do? No. You are not very good at discipline," he said.
"My sisters and I-" Elizabeth began.
"But that is just it. You were born into a family of girls. We do not have just daughters; we have sons as well. I have given in to you over the girls' education, but now I expect you to give way over the boys' schooling. You cannot keep Laurence tied to your apron strings forever."
"Nor do I wish to," she said. "I know he must go to school eventually. But not yet."
Her cause was not helped by the fact that Laurence and Jane were now rolling around on the floor. Even to Elizabeth, who had grown up in a noisy, lively household, this was taking liberty too far. She set about restoring order, but it was more Darcy's authoritative tone that settled the dispute than Elizabeth's loving reasoning.
Once some semblance of calm had returned to the room, Darcy began to speak again, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Are we expecting anyone?" asked Darcy.
"Not to my knowledge," said Elizabeth.
A minute later, Edward Fitzwilliam was announced.
"Cousin Edward!" chorused the children.
Edward was in fact their father's cousin, a younger brother to Colonel Fitzwilliam. He had the same height and build but an altogether merrier disposition, as could be seen from the sparkle in his eyes.
"Edward!" said Elizabeth, greeting him warmly. "We did not know you were in town."
"I have only just arrived," he said, returning her greeting.
"What brings you here?" asked Darcy, depositing Margaret on the rug in order to shake his hand.
"Egypt," said Edward. "What else?"
"Egypt?" asked Elizabeth in surprise, adding, "You will stay to dinner?"
"I will do better than that, if you will have me. I was rather hoping I could stay for a week. Our town house is shut up at present. I could stay in a hotel but-"
"You will do no such thing," said Elizabeth, already ringing the bell and giving instructions for his room to be made up.
The children were still swarming round him, for he was a great favourite of theirs, and soon sweetmeats had made their way from his pocket into their hands.
Once the initial excitement had died down, Edward was able to take his place on the sofa. William sat on one side of him, Beth demurely took her place on the other side, and John sat at his feet. Laurence and Jane hovered nearby, while Margaret wandered over to a bag which Edward had left by the door.
Elizabeth and Darcy sat down on the sofa opposite and asked after his family. Between his answers, Edward told Beth how pretty she was looking, remarked upon William's height, and asked John if he were a colonel yet.
Laurence and Jane, having received their share of the attention, began to grow bored and drifted away to the door, where Margaret was examining the enticing bag. The children were unable to examine it more closely, however, as one of the footmen picked it up and carried it away.
"So Egypt still enthrals you?" Elizabeth enquired, as the servants entered with a tray of tea.
"Yes, it does," Edward replied. He turned to Darcy. "Ever since hearing about our fathers' trip to Luxor as young men I have longed to go to Egypt and see the desert for myself. The tales they recounted on their return made my head spin with excitement. Do you remember, Darcy?"
"Indeed I do," said Darcy, though with less enthusiasm than his young cousin.
"Even now, when I think of the letters my father sent home, I can almost hear the noise of the markets and smell the exotic foods. I was not even born at the time, but I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, to feel the heat of the sun on my face and gaze on the majestic, mysterious face of the pyramids, to set out down the Nile to the Valley of Kings and find an undiscovered tomb."
"You make it sound fascinating," Elizabeth remarked, somewhat enthralled herself.
"Edward has a lively imagination," Darcy said. "But he neglects to add that both my father and his nearly died on their trip. They, too, had hoped to find treasure, but they failed to find anything at all, despite owning a map they swore had been bequeathed to them by an adventurer they found dying in the desert. They came home with their health broken and their spirits in decline. Like most adventurers' tales, it is more romantic in the telling than in the experience."
"I should love to go there," declared John, his eyes shining with excitement. "I shall go there one day at the head of an army and we will find a tomb that no one has ever discovered before and bring back lots of jewels for you, Mama."
"Thank you, darling," said Elizabeth fondly.
"You must give me the chance to find it first, John," Edward said, patting the boy's head. "It will never do if you steal my thunder. Now, who wants some more sweetmeats?"
As Edward laughingly produced enough sweetmeats for the entire household and began giving them to Beth, William, and John, Elizabeth looked around for the youngest members of the family.
"Where are the other children?"
"Probably ran out into the garden when they heard I was about to bore you all with my stories of Egypt," said Edward. "And now, Darcy, you must show me the new phaeton you were thinking of purchasing on my last trip here..."
Laurence put his finger to his lips, admonishing his sister Jane to silence. The two children were not in fact in the garden, but on the landing.
Well used to obeying his commands in the pursuit of mischief, Jane nodded.
Both children waited with a patience that would have astonished their loving but resigned parents. They remained perfectly still in their hiding place, an alcove, while the servants deposited Edward's luggage in the room he habitually occupied when staying with the Darcys.
It was not his portmanteau, however, that interested them. They were hoping to see more of the battered leather bag, which contained all the most important documents and artefacts that he had collected in Egypt, and from which they were both banned on account of past transgressions.
They did not have long to wait. Soon Edward's valet appeared, holding the valise. He entered the room and after a few moments reappeared empty-handed, continuing on down toward the back stairs and the servants' quarters.
When all was clear, Laurence took his sister's hand and led her quietly along to their cousin's private room, where they peeped inside. Reassured that there was no one else present, they went in.
"There it is, Jane," Laurence said, pointing to the familiar brown bag on a handsome walnut pedestal desk by the window. "You stand guard in case anyone comes."
Jane pouted. "No. I want to see as well." Although younger than her brother, Jane was his equal in obstinacy. She followed him to the desk and they both looked at the bag for a moment before opening it.
They peered inside, staring in wonder at the objects within. They had intended only to look, but a ray of sunshine suddenly escaped from the covering of cloud and shone through the window. It fell upon a figurine partially encased in a soft chamois cloth. It was decorated in tiny specks of coloured glass and lit up in front of them, dazzling them with its beauty, sparkling like a treasure from the cave of Ali Baba, their favourite nursery story of the moment.
Laurence picked it up, for once taking the utmost caution, and they both examined the figurine. It was a wooden statue of a slim, lovely young woman with a heart-shaped face and eyes that were elongated in the classic Egyptian fashion with kohl. The top was a carved headdress that appeared to be in the shape of a snake.
"It's beautiful," whispered Jane in awe.
She reached out to touch a necklace of sea green around the throat of the woman. The stones were cool to the touch and her little fingers explored the rest of the statuette eagerly.
"Let me see," Laurence demanded, grabbing the head.
"No!" Jane hissed, her usually sweet face flushed an unbecoming red. They might have continued to fight had not a voice at the door interrupted them.
"Papa forbade you to touch Cousin Edward's bag."
Both children turned in surprise. They had been so engrossed in the figurine that they had failed to hear any noise from the hall.
Margaret stood in the doorway, watching her brother and sister struggle for ownership of the statuette.
"We're not doing anything," Laurence said defensively and also mendaciously.
"Yes you are. You're fighting over Cousin Edward's doll."
The word "doll" had a startling effect on Laurence. He stopped trying to wrest the little figure from his sister, nearly causing her to drop it.
"I'm not interested in any stupid doll," he said, suddenly aware of his dignity as a nine-year-old boy. "In fact there's nothing very interesting in here at all. I'm going to go down to the pond and see if the frogs are out yet."
He ran out of the door and Jane followed automatically. Then she hesitated a second and looked back at the figurine in puzzlement, before shrugging her shoulders and following her brother. With a noisy clattering down the stairs, they were gone.
Margaret stayed where she was. For a moment she examined the little figurine from a distance; then slowly, almost dreamily, she entered the room and reached up to take the object in her hands. She smiled at the doll and then, humming a little song, picked up the chamois cloth and began to polish its jewels.
It was some half an hour later when Darcy held out a brandy glass to Edward. The children had all disappeared and Elizabeth had gone to speak to the housekeeper, leaving the gentlemen in possession of the drawing room.
"Your good health, Cousin. And now that you've admired my phaeton, expressed delight over Elizabeth's garden, and enchanted my children, perhaps you should tell me more about your reason for being in London," Darcy said.
"I am afraid you will disapprove," said Edward with a rueful shake of the head.
"Does it have anything to do with Sir Matthew Rosen?" asked Darcy, as he took a seat and stretched his long legs out in front of him. He took a sip of brandy. "Sir Matthew has written some very interesting articles for The Times recently, and I hear he is trying to find more patrons for his Egyptian dig. In fact, I believe he is even willing to allow some enthusiasts to join his party-for a consideration, of course."
Edward took a drink of brandy.
"I knew you would not approve," he said.
"Perhaps not understand is closer to the mark. If you want to go then I cannot stop you, but think carefully before you commit yourself. Egypt is a long way from home if you change your mind."
He was fond of Edward. More than fifteen years Edward's senior, he felt like more of an uncle toward the young man than a cousin and he remembered Edward's many boyhood enthusiasms with affection. They had come and gone like the will-o-the-wisp, full of movement and colour, but with the same ephemeral lifespan.
With the one exception of Egypt. Ever since he was five, when he had first heard his father talking about his trip to Egypt with Darcy's father, Edward had been enthralled by the very mention of the place, and this was despite the fact that both men had returned from their ill-fated adventure being poorer and also worryingly ill with strange diseases.
Elizabeth was right, thought Darcy; enthral is a good word. It is as though they are bewitched by the place. Edward has never even been, and yet his eyes light up at the thought of it.
"Luncheon will be ready shortly," Elizabeth announced, walking into the room.
"I was just asking Edward what his plans are while he is in London," Darcy said as he got up and poured her a glass of ratafia.
"Tell us all about it," Elizabeth said, spreading the skirt of her white lawn empire dress on the chaise longue. She took the drink and savoured it. "I take it you will be visiting the Egyptian exhibition at the British Museum? I do hope so. I have wanted to go there for some time. We could all go together; it would be good for the children. Darcy is always worrying about the children's education," she said teasingly.
Darcy took the teasing in good part, having become accustomed to it in the years of his marriage.
"By all means," he replied. "It would be interesting. The children have never seen the Egyptian exhibits and I think the older children in particular will be interested to see the Rosetta Stone. Did you not acquire some prints of the Stone, Edward? I seem to remember you thinking you might be able to decipher the hieroglyphs."
"You are quite right," he said. "I was so excited by news of the discovery that I set to work right away, alas to no avail. It seemed as if it would be so easy, the Stone having the same message written in three different languages, one of them being the hieroglyphic language. But even understanding the other two languages was no help. Messages written in letters are one thing; messages recorded in pictures are quite another."
"There is no shame in having failed," said Darcy. "Better..." He stopped suddenly.
"Better minds than mine have tried and failed?" asked Edward.
"I was not going to say that," said Darcy.
Elizabeth and Edward both gave him a disbelieving look and he laughed. "Very well, I was. I would like to see it again," he mused. "I have not been to the Egyptian rooms for several years. When do you intend to go?"
"Tomorrow. I would be delighted if you would all accompany me. I have made an appointment to see Sir Matthew Rosen, but it should not take long. I would enjoy showing you around."
"I guessed as much," said Darcy.
"Sir Matthew Rosen?" asked Elizabeth.
"An authority on Egyptian tombs and artefacts," said Edward. "He has recently returned from an archaeological site near Cairo and I am anxious to talk to him."
"Then it is settled; we will visit the museum tomorrow. I am already looking forward to it," she said, her eyes sparkling.
She stood up as the gong for luncheon sounded in the hall, and the two gentlemen sprang to their feet. As they moved toward the dining room, Edward excused himself for a moment in order to retrieve a letter from his room that his father had given him for Darcy. Not wishing to delay the others, he bounded up the stairs two at a time and raced along to his room. But he stopped as he neared the door and heard a voice whispering softly. He walked slowly to the room and looked in.
Margaret was standing by the window, holding something in her hand, and talking to herself.
"Margaret? Are you quite well, my dear?" he asked. The child's soft brown curls were sticking to her face, which was flushed with heat. She turned at the sound of his voice.
"Oh, Cousin Edward, I was talking to your doll. She's very sparkly."
"Yes. Where did you find her?"
"I didn't find her. L-"
The little girl frowned and he guessed she was trying to avoid mentioning her brother's name. Edward was well aware of the fascination his leather bag held for certain members of the Darcy clan, and he smiled.
"Well, never mind. Do you like her? Her name is Aahotep."
"Is it? She's not very nice, is she? But I think she's rather sad."
"Why do you say that?" Edward asked, startled.
He had found the doll in the attic of his family home, along with several other artefacts his father had brought home from Egypt. It was of little monetary value, although the coloured glass made it look pretty.
"Because she was mean to someone and now she can't say sorry although she wants to. And it's making her mean toward other people. But I feel sorry for her."
"Well, I expect she will feel better when she has had some lunch," Edward said gently.
Margaret gazed at him with clear grey eyes.
"She's a doll, Uncle Edward. She doesn't get hungry."
Edward smiled. "Well, I do and I am sure you do too. Come, let us leave Aahotep to ponder her evil deeds and go down to lunch, shall we?"
Margaret nodded and, taking his hand, was soon busily reciting the tale of her recent visit to Kent, where she had visited her great-aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Her unusually rosy colour faded rapidly and Edward dismissed it as a peculiarity of the very young. It was not until much later on that he realised he should have paid more attention to the littlest Darcy's pronouncements, but by then it was too late.