Chapter 1 - An Unappealing Trip
It's a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, a politician with an overfull agenda and beyond that, bearing responsibility for a large estate, most definitely needs an excellent secretary. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, landowner and MP for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons was very fortunate as to be able to rely, as his father had done before him, utterly and completely on Mrs. Jennifer Reynolds.
Sitting at his desk in his office in the palace of Westminster, Darcy was so absorbed by his papers that he didn't hear Jennifer enter the room and even when she stood in front of his desk addressing him, he didn't immediately react.
"Goodness gracious, Fitzwilliam, why are you still here? Don't you have to prepare for your trip? Oh, if I had known, I would have kept you from coming to your office in the first place."
Much like his mother, Jennifer understood the mystery of Fitzwilliam's innate reticence and reserve. A look or a gesture was enough for her to read his mood. Just now, the frown on his face told her what to do and she smiled, recognising her boss's occasional absentmindedness.
"Fitzwilliam? Your trip! Holland!"
Finally looking up from his extensive pile of papers for the international meeting on Landscape Preservation and National Heritage Conservation, his distant stare gradually focused on the outgoing, youthful-looking woman before him. "I like your earrings, Jen."
"Thank you, William." She replied blushing, carefully touching the exquisite antique silver Indian earrings she was wearing. As always, Jennifer's slim figure was elegantly dressed in an outfit that betrayed, in a modest sort of way, the 'flower power' days of her teens. She still had a predilection for Indian silk and jewellery, but she had succeeded in finding a subtle balance between trends, nostalgia, and her age so as not to look like an aged hippie. The colours were less bright and she didn't wear showy rings on each finger anymore; she had exchanged those for a wedding ring and a simple gold band with a 'ban-the-bomb' symbol engraved on it. Her long braids had given way to a stylish short cut, which indeed accentuated her weakness for large earrings.
Apart from her efficiency as a secretary, without which he couldn't function, Darcy appreciated Jennifer for her intelligence, her wit and most of all for her spontaneity and lack of pretentiousness. So, he conceded to her rather -- for his taste -- unconventional attire. If he were honest with himself, he thought it endearing actually, and a proof of real personality that she dared to dress quite differently from most women her age.
"Ah, of course, my trip. Yes, you're right, Jen, but don't worry, there isn't really much to do and I still have enough time before check in. I was flipping through the conference papers. Did you have an opportunity to proof-read my speech?"
Darcy insisted on writing his speeches and did a fine job, but the polish from his secretary gave the texts an accessible, everyday feel that connected with people better than he could achieve on his own.
"Yes, I emailed the document to you last night. I hope you'll get a chance to take a peek. I highlighted my suggestions. The sentences are shorter and it has a nicer flow. That will make it easier for you to read and for the conference audience to listen. Remember, many of these people won't use an interpreter. Disregard anything you don't agree with; the old version is still in the file."
He looked up in appreciation at the woman who had become his confidante from the moment his mother had grown too ill to take care of him, who had comforted him at her deathbed when his father had been absorbed in grief. "No, I won't, don't worry, I'm always grateful for any suggestion you make, you know that. Oh, and I forgot to thank you for the minidisk you put on my desk. I'm particularly pleased with the Steve Miller and Eric Clapton songs you recorded for me. You know how much I dislike having to listen to the musak the airlines impose on us!"
"Don't mention it, William. I'm so thrilled that you like my music! To think that at least we have that in common! Ah well, I've always known you were a man of discernment," she said with a wink. "I swear, I couldn't mention any contemporary band that would beat the music of the sixties!"
Darcy smiled. "Jen, people who think that everything was better in the past are getting old, you know that, don't you?"
Upon hearing Darcy's dry observation she burst into a loud laugh and riposted, "I presume that you were born old then?"
"Jen! I'm conservative, I grant you, but there are elements of modern society I consider to be grand achievements, you know," Darcy replied in mock-anger, pointing at his minidisk player and laptop. Both laughed heartily at their friendly banter.
"By the way, William, at Schiphol Airport you will be picked up by one of the conference officials, a Ms. Janneke van Benthem. She will take you directly to your friend's hotel. I suppose she'll have a sign with yours or the conference's name on it, but to make sure you won't miss her, here's her picture. I've written the number of her mobile on the back."
"What did you say her name was, Jen?"
"Van Benthem, Janneke van Benthem."
"That's funny," Darcy began fumbling through the thick stack of papers and pulled out a picture. He cast a glance upon the image of a young woman and continued, "I stumbled on an 'Elizabeth van Benthem', MP for the Dutch Labour Party, and one of the speakers at the meeting. Her picture together with her bio fell out of the pile when I went through the conference papers. This is her."
Looking at the picture Darcy showed her, she said: "No, no, William, pronounce the 'a' of 'van' as in 'love' and 'th' is just 't' in Dutch, so it's 'Bentam' sort of. My, this girl has an intelligent look in her eyes. She's young by the way, even younger than you are, I think, at least, if the picture is recent. Do you think the two women are related?"
"I've no idea."
"They don't really resemble each other. What do you think of the possibility of two women with the same family name being connected to this conference?"
"A family name as such doesn't mean a thing, Jen, 'Van Benthem' could very well be as common in Holland as 'Smith' or 'Jones' here."
"You might be right, but it's a coincidence all the same, just as coincidental perhaps as the fact that two Darcys are connected to this meeting, two Darcys who are closely related. After all, Georgiana's recital is part of the cultural and entertainment programme of the conference. These Benthem girls are pretty lassies by the way, aren't they?!" Darcy contemplated the pictures with a critical eye. "Hmm, they are tolerable, I suppose, but nothing out of the common way, if you ask me. Besides, judging from her bio, Elizabeth van Benthem is too much of an activist for my taste," he concluded in a deadly serious tone, doing his best to pronounce the name correctly.
His remark made Jennifer smile. Professionally they formed a perfect team and their personal relationship was based on mutual affection and respect, even though their views on social and political matters differed greatly. The fact that a grown young man who knew that social roles were dynamic and susceptible to change still insisted on the relevance of tradition, good breeding and the standards and values of his class, amused rather than annoyed her. Fed with a silver spoon passed down for generations, he had taken in those principles with his mother's milk, unlike Jennifer who, as a miner's daughter from Derbyshire, knew from experience that for most people social success doesn't come on a platter.
At times Jennifer thought Darcy could be called haughty. His voice was one component to this equation. Its rich baritone sound was a pleasure but, for a man of 32, the posh accent combined with rather old-fashioned words and formally structured sentences led those he wasn't well acquainted with to accuse him of supercilious, if not superior behaviour. But Jennifer knew better. He was always professional, whether in his dealings with the media or chairing a committee, but associating with people he didn't know or knew only casually wasn't his forte. He simply was uncomfortable around strangers.
"Aha, you read her bio. Tempting enough to pique your interest then?"
"Umm... well, I plan to read the bios of all the participants, hers just happened to fall out." Darcy felt slightly caught out and moved to change the subject. "You know Jen, if it weren't for Georgiana and Charles, I'd probably not have accepted the invitation to deliver a speech."
Jennifer was astonished. "Why ever not, Fitzwilliam? The conference theme is so interesting and no one is better informed on the subject than you are! Oh, how I'd wish to accompany you to Holland. As you know I lived in Amsterdam when I was young, and I'd very much like to visit a few old friends. I love that country"
"I don't really share your opinion, I'm afraid. Well, I do like The Hague, even though the town arouses a certain aversion because of what happened to Georgiana over there." Darcy stopped for a moment, attempting to suppress the thought of his beloved sister's near ruin during her first year as a piano student at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. He swallowed down his emotion with some difficulty.
" It... it's a pleasant enough town, and I have gotten to know it better since Georgiana has lived there, but I just cannot help it that some ways of the Dutch make me feel uncomfortable. Almost at first acquaintance they think they can be on a first-name basis with a person. I can't explain it, but they're so 'slap-on-the-shoulderish' and very straight forward in everything they say. So far I've detected very little diplomacy, let alone sophistication on their part."
"Oh, William! that kind of behaviour must make an odd impression, to put it frankly, on a person as reserved as you, but as they say, so many countries, so many customs! I understand your frustration because of that troublemaker, what's his name, umm... ah, yes, Wiekamp, bent as a butcher's hook!" Jennifer's typical Derbyshire expression was accented by a charming miner's drawl that surfaced when she was indignant or emotionally affected. "Perhaps your objections are based on these unfortunate personal experiences you've had. You wouldn't want to go through life as a prejudiced person, now would you? The Dutch are fairly easygoing people, quite friendly and tolerant, and what I particularly like about them is their respect for one's privacy. Celebrities can go out shopping without being disturbed, nobody ever gets hysterical when discovering an actor or rock star in the street. Apart from that, their generally excellent command of our language should please someone like you, who does not speak theirs. So, just accept them as they are; you'll have a great time if you make that effort, I'm sure."
Darcy felt fully at ease talking about such things to the woman who was so much more than a mere secretary to him. "I believe you Jen, but I don't know what to think of their liberal views on drugs and sex! Not to mention that their lack of discipline appals me! I've travelled the world, but nowhere, absolutely nowhere, have I seen so much dog shit on the sidewalks as there is in Amsterdam. I could barely look at, much less admire the canal houses, for having to look down all the time to keep from stepping in it. No, so far I noticed very little to recommend them, besides speaking more than one language."
Drugs and sex... In a flash Darcy's words brought Jennifer back to 1969; the year of Woodstock and the death of her idols Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. That was also the year that Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon, but for her it would always be most essentially the year that she had actually lived in Holland. 'Lived' was too tame a term really, 'survived' was more appropriate an expression. And as in a movie, she experienced in her mind now everything that had happened to her then: from protest marches against the war in Vietnam; to distributing flowers in the wonderful Vondelpark, the 'Hyde Park' of Amsterdam; to propagating love and peace; to sleeping on the Dam monument, and finally to the day she joined her boyfriend, an active member of the notorious Dutch counterculture movement Provo, in his 'squatted' houseboat. Smoking marijuana or hashish had been a normal part of her life at the time, everybody did it. Jennifer could almost smell the cannabis again.
I'd better not share all my actions of that period of my life; he'd be so shocked. After all, I was as young as Georgiana is now. She looked him straight in the eye, giggling at the expression of disgust on his face.
"Dog shit on the sidewalks! True, the Dutch are a little undisciplined in certain respects, maybe because they have a thorough dislike of authority, so they tend to ignore rules wherever they can. But one should not generalise. 'I could barely admire the canal houses'... Tsk, you're exaggerating and you know it! Drugs and sex, hey? Fitzwilliam Darcy, what era are you living in? Queen Victoria died quite a while ago, you know. I'm almost twice your age, but, good heavens, William, I sometimes feel a lot younger than you!"
Jennifer's outburst caused one of those rare toothy smiles across Darcy's handsome face accompanied by an arch twinkle in his dark brown eyes. "I know, Jen, I'm sorry. It's just that I'm not really looking forward to this conference. I browsed the participants' list and I'm quite certain that my, or should I say the party's, views on conservation issues will not be received with a standing ovation. Ah well, a man must do, what a man must do."
Resigned to his fate, he stood up from his desk and put the conference papers in his attaché case. He took another look at the intelligent eyes staring ironically back at him before slipping her inside with the others, and gathered his belongings while Jennifer followed behind handing a few forgotten items. "Right, it's really time to leave now, William. Don't forget to take your laptop! And remember to give my regards to Georgiana, Charles, your aunt and cousin. Oh, and pack your tuxedo or you won't have anything to wear to the ball on the last night."
"Of course, I will and thank you for reminding me. I'll have to pick it up at the dry cleaner's on my way home."
"Very well, William, and now... gerrouttertheer!!
Laughing, he pressed a quick kiss on his secretary's cheek and left his office to prepare for the trip he so dreaded.
Fully aware of the fact that he was about to return to his large, empty apartment to pack his suitcase, where no one was there to greet him or kiss him goodbye, Jennifer watched her boss leave his office with compassion. When, oh when will he finally fall in love with a girl who deserves him?
Jennifer let her thoughts wander. The only thing he needs is a little more liveliness in his life and a marriage to a woman he loves, someone with sparkle and verve would fill in that gap just fine. There are so many young women who simply adore him but no one catches his fancy, however hard they try.
Unconsciously shaking her head, she thought of Caroline Bingley, senior manager of her brother's hotel 'Tropic of Emerald' in The Hague. Poor Fitzwilliam, the agonies he must suffer once he's checked in there! I bet she's looking forward to his stay with great anticipation and will be as attentive as ever, if not imposing even. I'm sure he'll bear it with admirable calmness but let's hope that ghastly woman doesn't claim every free minute he has for herself and her scheming plans to draw him in. Wouldn't it be a laugh if he fell in love with a Dutch girl?
Smiling at the thought, she locked the drawers of his desk and filing cabinet, switched on the answering machine, put out the lights and left the office to fetch the train for her beloved Derbyshire, where she'd be reunited with her husband for the rest of the week.
"Oh my God, Elly, it's almost noon and you're still in bed? Get your lazy bum in gear! You promised to come with me to the airport to fetch Fitz... what's-his-name Darcy; you know that English VIP, and I have to leave in an hour at the latest! I really can't afford to be late."
Much to Elizabeth's annoyance, Janneke pulled the duvet from her sister's bed. "Jan, give me a break! I'm exhausted. I really can't come with you. I worked on my speech all night, and I'm still terrified that it'll be a total failure." Elizabeth grumbled, pulling the duvet out of her sister's hand.
Her upcoming speech would mark the first time in her short career as an MP that she would speak before an international audience and Elizabeth was a little apprehensive and insecure, which is why she had worked harder on her speech for the LPNCH conference than on any other she had written for previous occasions.
"Please, please, please, let me sleep in. You know the way to the airport."
"Very well, sis, I'll go alone, but you might be sorry. Boy, is that man handsome!"
"I know what Mr. Darcy looks like, Jan. I saw his picture in the conference papers. It fell out of the pile when I was searching for the participants' list."
"Well, don't you think he's good looking then?"
"I don't know. He's attractive, I suppose, but he looks very tight-assed, stiff upper-lip British; a real snob if you ask me. Didn't you notice the contempt in his eyes? Either he thoroughly disliked the photographer, or he isn't so taken with mankind in general," Elizabeth said, yawning and snuggling down under the covers again.
"Elly, as usual, you're jumping to conclusions. When will you finally grow into a real politician and be more diplomatic and less outspoken?" Janneke cried in mock-despair. "Maybe the man is just shy or reserved and doesn't like to pose for pictures. Perhaps he was in a bad mood, or the flash startled him, who knows? You must realise that a picture is the result of instantaneous exposure. It doesn't say anything about a person's character."
"Of course you're right. I'm sorry." Elizabeth replied, "I know how different I am from you, who are wise enough to think before you speak. It was simply my first impression. He's definitely handsome, but I can't help feeling a certain coldness or at least a certain standoffishness from him."
The two sisters were opposites in appearance and also in their observations and outlooks on life, which was probably the very reason they got along so very well. Actually, as long as either could remember, they had been one another's sounding board and they still confided their innermost thoughts and feelings to each other. They shared certain qualities such as intelligence, honesty, and zeal; but beautiful, blond, blue-eyed Janneke was circumspect, rather shy actually. She was one of those genuinely kind people to whom cynicism was completely foreign. But Elizabeth, whose dark eyes looked right through a person, was extroverted, outspoken, opinionated, quick-witted and therefore in certain quarters considered to be somewhat sharp-tongued. Janneke preferred a low profile; she was the 'silent force' of the company, as her boss was in the habit of calling her, and therefore an invaluable manager for C.C., Conference Co-ordinators, the congress organisation agency she worked for.
Elizabeth always wanted to be a factor, to make a difference. From a young age she felt strongly about social evils and was determined to devote herself to the cause of a better and more equitable society. And so, with a sound amount of idealism inherent to her young age, Elizabeth became politically active for the Labour Party from her first year as a student and had played an important role in the students' union. Her analytical capacities, excellent clarity of expression and her charisma led to an invitation to be the union's spokeswoman. When, after university, the Labour Party offered her a place on the list of candidates for the House of Representatives, she had not hesitated for one moment.
"Stand-offish? I really don't see that, Elly, as far as I'm concerned Mr. Darcy's a looker. And I understand that he's filthy rich, owns a huge estate in the north of England and... that he's single." Janneke said with a wink.
"His secretary, Jennifer Reynolds, I spoke to her on the phone early this morning. Well, she didn't tell me in so many words, but from what she said that he must be very well off. And you know what? She spoke Dutch with me! I had such a cool conversation with her."
"Dutch?! An English woman? Where did she learn that?"
"Yes, Dutch. She told me that she lived in Amsterdam for a while in the late sixties." Janneke chuckled: "She actually slept on the Dam, like mum did in her wild days! And she said that, at the time, she was friends with a couple of guys who were active in Provo in the mid-sixties. So, if Darcy is really such a tight-assed, stiff-upper lip Brit as you think he is, I can't imagine he'd hire a secretary who talks about her anti-establishment past so openly. She seems very fond of her boss, by the way, and couldn't stop talking about him."
"Excellent, a rich single MP from England and good-looking on top of that? That's a rare species, isn't it? But do you think he would be interested in a farmer's daughter? Nah, probably not. After all, it's a truth universally acknowledged that money marries money!"
Both sisters chuckled heartily at her cutting observation before Elizabeth continued.
"Whatever he is, at least he knows what he's talking about. The summary of his paper is interesting. Even though it echoes of the conservative approach to the issues it basically focuses on withdrawing government involvement and favouring private initiative and free enterprise. Anyway, I'll tell you what I think of him tomorrow, after I've actually met him.
"Elly, who knows, he might astonish you."
"Ah well, I don't know what to make of the English. They always look so utterly correct and polite in their own country, so perfectly in control of themselves. And they seem to have a rather strong view of social hierarchy that's really old-fashioned. But as soon as they cross the border for a holiday in Spain or a soccer match, they fly off the handle: intoxication, hooliganism... I'm inclined to think that that has a lot to do with the discrepancy between the pubs' early closing hours over there and the ones here on the continent that never close before midnight."
"My, Elly, now you sound really prejudiced! I have yet to meet a Brit who's not friendly and polite. Hooliganism, yeah right! I think that our Ajax or Feyenoord supporters measure up with any Arsenal, Manchester United or whatever supporter from over there! Surely you know the damage our hooligans create practically every weekend, not to mention the terrible slogans they shout."
"Maybe you're right, Jan, and truth be told, their sense of humour is very appealing. I never get enough of their TV shows, I love The Office and Coupling, they're original and hilarious. Their specific sort of self-mockery is so refreshing; a thing that cannot generally be said about the Dutch. Oh, Jan, would you do me a favour?" Elizabeth asked, stretching out as far as she could, as another intense yawn escaped her throat.
"Of course, what is it?"
"I'm hungry and craving an 'H-C-H' sandwich from Zero 70, could you get me one?"
"Sure, I will. I need to go to the shops anyway before I leave. I think I'll get one for myself too."
When Janneke left the house, Elizabeth decided to get up, since she was too awake now to go back to sleep. She went to the kitchen to brew her first cup of coffee. As she waited, she enjoyed the view from the window; the bustle in the streets, the historical facades, the antique shops, the restaurants and pubs with their terraces all drew her in. How fortunate I am to live here, I so love this cosy neighbourhood. I'll never get enough of it, she pondered, a contented smile effusing over her face.
The sisters had been born in the village of Langenboom in the South of the country -- a fact betrayed by their soft, melodious accent. Janneke had moved to The Hague when she started her PR and Communications studies at the College of Higher Education there, and she was followed a year later by Elizabeth, who had enrolled as a student of political sciences and law at nearby Leiden University. For the last six years Elizabeth and Janneke van Benthem shared their spacious, light apartment on the Denneweg in the old centre of The Hague. It was on the second floor, above a petit restaurant called Zero 70 where Elizabeth's favourite warm ham-camembert-honey sandwich was served, and opposite the well-known artists' association Haagse Kunstkring where they hardly ever missed an exhibit. The Denneweg was part of one of town's most popular entertainment districts, including Holland's most prestigious avenue Lange Voorhout where practically all of the buildings, essentially dating from the 17th and 18th century, were listed as historical monuments. All this was a stone's throw from the Binnenhof, the beating heart of Holland's parliamentary democracy, where Elizabeth worked.
Sipping her coffee in front of the kitchen window, Elizabeth's eye caught the stunning tall, elegantly dressed young blond man across the street. Hey, who's this? Isn't that Janneke's new flame, the English guy? I forget his name, Chris? Charles? I'm not sure, but she seems quite taken with him. Hmm, he's easy on the eye indeed, and a real gentleman too. The few times Janneke had met him in their favourite pub, cafe 2005, she tended to drink her rose little too swiftly in an attempt to hide her shyness. She had always been afraid to show her feelings, a trait often misunderstood by men, who admired her for her beauty but thought her unapproachable and cold. So generally speaking Janneke had been admired from a distance, until this still rather mysterious Englishman crossed her path. He hadn't hesitated to seek her company when he'd first laid eyes on her. And from the looks of it, Janneke didn't mind, not in the very least. Elizabeth smiled at the memory.
Lost in her musings Elizabeth didn't notice that Janneke had returned from her errands.
"A penny for your thoughts!" she heard her sister say right behind her.
"Jan! Geez, you frightened the hell out of me. I was lost in thought," Elizabeth laughed. "You'll never guess whom I saw walking down the street just now!"
"No idea, Elly, there are so many people walking the street here. Who was it?"
"That English guy you like, and who likes you too judging from the way he was undressing you with his big blue eyes in the pub the other day. Did you bring the sandwiches? I'm starving."
Janneke blushed furiously. "Of course, here you go. But Elly! He did nothing of the kind. Anyway, I saw him too. We bumped into each other at the magazine department of the bookshop."
"Well, did you talk to each other?" Elizabeth asked, eagerly taking a bite of her sandwich. She closed her eyes in sheer bliss when the delicious sweet-salty taste of the first bite tickled her tongue. The combination of warm Camembert cheese, ham and honey, came together in a unique combination of gastronomic delight.
"Not really, we were both rushed! We bought the same morning paper and he told me that he buys it every day to improve his Dutch. Oh, Elly, his Dutch sounds so cute!" Janneke's look became distant and somewhat dreamy. "Anyway, he said he wants to see me again soon. As he hurried off he mumbled something about expecting a good friend from England today. He sounded like he was really looking forward to that."
"Did you find out what your Chris does for a living? Why and where he works?"
"No, not exactly actually. And he's not my Chris, nor my Charles, which is his name by the way! At first I thought he worked for the British embassy. Judging from his slightly la-di-da accent, his clothes and manicured hands, it's not very likely that he's one of the English workmen renewing the tram rails on the Buitenhof at the moment. He told me he's in the hospitality business. I believe he even said where, but the music was so loud that I didn't hear it. I'd already had to ask him to repeat himself and I didn't dare to ask him again."
Elizabeth giggled. "Manicured hands, hey? Definitely not an English workman. You're very observant, dear sister! The hospitality business. Hmm, I bet he's not a waiter, but someone who gives waiters orders. Ah well, you can't blame me for being curious to know the background of the man who piques my favourite sister's interest, now can you?"
"Stop it, Elly, that's quite enough." Janneke replied, embarrassed. Looking over her cup, Elizabeth cast a meaningful look, which made Janneke blush even more.
Enjoying their sandwiches, the two girls cheerfully speculated about the proceedings of the upcoming conference. The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, whose portfolio included nature conservation was supposed to deliver the opening speech. A good speaker, who was capable of retaining the attention of an audience thanks to his erudition and sense of humour.
"He's good, Jan, he at least pretends not to read from a piece of paper. He's one of the very few who doesn't put me to sleep when he's defending a bill in the House.
"I do hope that everything will work. I'm a little anxious though. Will he actually show up? You know how ministers are: cancel at the last moment and send one of their boring policy officials instead. Let's keep our fingers crossed that won't happen."
"Don't worry, he'll be there. There'll be so many VIPs present he simply can't afford to not show up. Ah well, unless the Queen summons him, but why would she?"
The girls shared a knowing smile.
"I'll be so relieved when everything is over and I can relax for a couple of days on the farm with mum and dad, Elly."
"Me too. It's not only the first time that I have to speak in front of an international audience, but the fact that you organised it makes me a little nervous. I don't want to embarrass you, you know."
"Don't be silly, C.C. is thrilled to have you. We know how well informed you are and you're a good speaker, you know that. Personally, I think it's special that my own sister will be part of a conference I organised. My boss is already looking forward to the media attention the conference will attract, thanks to your participation," Janneke said enthusiastically.
"Janneke! You're not going to tell me I was invited to participate because the media attention I may draw might be advantageous for your company, like a little free publicity? I'd resent that."
As the youngest MP in the House of Representatives, Elizabeth was in the spotlight quite often and even the tabloids had discovered her. She was clever enough to understand that the media's interest in her wasn't always for her performance in the House, but instead because she was the youngest Member. They continually singled her out as being smart, single, and pretty. She was well aware of the need to keep her feet firmly on the ground. The one thing she really wanted was to be taken seriously by the media, her colleagues and the public in general, for her ideas -- not her fine eyes.
"Of course not, silly. You know very well that C.C. didn't invite you; we merely organise. We were lucky to be selected for this major commission. If everything goes well, I won't have to worry about my job," Janneke said with a wink.
Going through the conference programme that she had taken from her desk, Elizabeth whistled approvingly. Aside from the interesting themes and highbrow experts from Western and Eastern Europe, the programme contained a very interesting good practices excursion to the Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie. This historical area, where in the past land was flooded as a means of defence against enemies, was a unique example where nature conservation and cultural inheritance preservation went hand in hand, apart from being it so typically Dutch.
"I really love the choice for the excursion. I don't know who came up with the idea, but I can't think of a better one. Where else can you find a place where nature and culture are so happily united?"
But, however interesting the programme's content, Elizabeth's real delight was with the planned diversions such as a dinner-dance at the best hotel in town, the Hotel Tropic of Emerald, right around the corner from where Elizabeth and Janneke lived, and a recital by pianist Georgiana Darcy in the Schoenberg Hall of the renowned Royal Conservatory of The Hague.
"The entertainment programme is excellent as well. Hmm, Jan, is Georgiana Darcy related to Fitzwilliam Darcy perhaps?" Elizabeth considered the friendly, soft eyes belonging to pianist Georgiana Darcy that looked up at her from the photo on the programme. She deduced them to be different from those belonging to the British MP. "Judging from her photo, it's not very likely."
"I wouldn't know, Elly. I know that one of my boss's friends, a cellist at the Residentie Orkest, recommended her but I didn't negotiate that part of the programme so I haven't put two and two together so far. They could be related, but maybe the name Darcy is as common a name in England as Jansen or De Vries in Holland."
"It's a coincidence though, two people with the same family name connected to the same conference. Hmm, actually four come to think of it: you and I obviously have the same name too. Anyway, both Darcys are good-looking to be sure, but they don't resemble each another at all. Besides from the fact that the irritating something in Mr. Darcy's air is completely absent in hers, they look very different," Elizabeth concluded with another look at the photo.
"They do. But I really must go now. I don't want to keep Mr. Darcy waiting and I have to drive to the office first to get a company car. The boss doesn't want me to pick up the participants in my old Deux Chevaux." Janneke chuckled about her outdated and unpresentable mode of transportation to which she was very attached.
"Fortunately my boss promised to pick up the others; two speakers from Poland and Hungary and one from Spain. They'll all arrive tonight. Mr. Darcy is the only one, by the way, that I had to book a different hotel for, the one where we're having the dinner-dance. The rest are staying at the hotel next to the congress centre."
"Ha, you see! I knew it, Mr. Darcy does think highly of himself. Of course he doesn't feel like mingling among the plebs."
"There you go again, Elly. Maybe he has a perfectly plausible explanation. I hope to tell you later." Pressing a kiss on her sister's cheek, Janneke quickly put on her coat and quit the house.
After Janneke left, Elizabeth tossed the photos back on the pile on her desk and didn't give either Darcy a second thought. She went to the bathroom to shower and dress, after which she planned to go through her speech one more time.
"Elly!... Elly!!" Janneke barged into the living room, closed the door behind her and leaned against it breathlessly. "You'll never guess what happened."
Somewhat startled, Elizabeth looked up from the paper she was reading. "Apart from your meeting with Mr. Darcy, nope I won't. So you'd better tell me. I hope it's not bad news though. You look like someone who's just seen a ghost," she replied, a little worried.
"In a way I have actually! But don't worry everything's all right, it's just so unexpected, so surprising, and so cool. I still can't believe it."
"Come on, out with it, I'm dying of curiosity. How's our gorgeous, rich, single Tory from across the North Sea? Is his behind as cute as his face?"
Taking off her coat and tossing it on the nearest chair, Janneke took a seat opposite her sister at the table and started to talk with such haste that she stumbled over her own words. Red cheeked and with great excitement in her eyes, Janneke gave an extensive account of meeting Mr. Darcy, all the way through to delivering him to his hotel.
"I recognised Mr. Darcy immediately. It's just impossible to overlook him; he's so tall and even more stunning in person than in his picture. Woohoo! I was impressed. At first he was polite, but stand-offish. He shook my hand and gave me a faint smile. The trip home was a little awkward. Without hesitating he took a seat in the back of the car. What does he think I am... his personal chauffeur or something?
"didn't I tell you? He's a snob!"
"Oh well, I thought it sort of amusing though." Janneke laughed. "He must be used to having a chauffeur, or else he takes taxis all the time. I tried to make conversation, be polite and friendly, but he would only reply with a yes, a no or an occasional ah! A pity, really, 'cause his voice is a treat -- very deep and sexy."
Reaching for her purse to grab her compact and check on her make-up, Janneke cast her sister a knowing look. "It just seemed like he would much prefer me to say nothing at all actually."
"Good looking and a sexy voice! Aw, what a shame that those appealing assets are undone by a dull character." Elizabeth said with mock disappointment, standing up to get them both a cup of coffee.
"Not so quickly, Elly, it was only later that I noticed he was listening to music!
"Listening to music?"
"Yes, music. He was going through some papers, and humming a few of those golden oldies from the sixties that mum and dad are still crazy about. That was rather cute." Janneke giggled. "Anyway, the only time he showed any genuine enthusiasm was when I asked after Georgiana Darcy, whether she was related to him. And you know what? They're brother and sister! I could tell that he's very close to her. But that was about it, otherwise, it was a very quiet trip back."
"Humming tunes of the sixties? What a laugh! And what a boring trip that must have been for you. Fortunately it's not long" Elizabeth said with a snort. "It's amazing that the two Darcys are so closely related. Did you tell him about us?"
"Yes, but he didn't seem impressed, he just said 'ah'. But you're not going to believe the rest; it's far more surprising and exciting than the Darcys being related." Janneke said, shaking her head.
"Don't keep me in suspense any longer, spill it!"
"Remember this morning I told you Charles was expecting a friend from England and that he seemed rather excited about it? Janneke gesticulated forcefully, emphasising her excitement before she dropped the biggest news. "That friend is our Mr. Darcy!"
"You gotta be joking!" Elizabeth cried, slapping her hand on the table in utter surprise. "But umm... how did you find out? Did you meet Charles at the airport as well?"
"No, I'm not joking, and no I didn't meet Charles at the airport! He was waiting for his friend at the hotel. I now finally know what Charles does for a living, sister dear. He's the managing director of The Tropic of Emerald. You know, the hotel where I booked a room for Mr. Darcy! Isn't that quite a coincidence?"
Janneke shot her sister a look that was both triumphant and excited. "He's the boss of the bloody place and he has a sister, Caroline, who works there too. She's his right hand."
"No wonder Mr. Darcy wanted to stay over there." Elizabeth replied thoughtfully. "I guess he wanted to be as close to his friend as possible while he's here."
"There you go, Elly, a crystal clear, perfectly reasonable motive, no haughtiness in sight. Charles and The Tropic of Emerald, the best hotel in town, I still can't believe it." Janneke sighed with contentment.
"How was it when you saw him at the hotel? Your surprise must have been written all over your face."
"Oh, yes, it was so embarrassing really. I couldn't speak for at least a minute. I wasn't the only one though." Janneke ran her fingers through her hair and looked down to conceal her uneasiness.
Elizabeth smiled at her sister affectionately. She loved it when Janneke was excited and enthusiastic. It happened so rarely. Most of the time her shyness, and her reluctance to show her feelings hid her sensitive nature behind a calm mask of composure. "What was Charles' reaction?"
"From the looks of it, Charles was just as astonished." Janneke went on, "I felt so silly and I'm sure Mr. Darcy noticed. Anyway, when we had pulled ourselves together, and Charles had greeted his friend properly, he invited us for drinks at 2005 tonight. What do you say?"
"I don't know, Jan, this sounds a little like a blind date and I don't need that with Mr. Darcy. I can't think of a more boring way to spend an evening than in the company of somebody who speaks in monosyllables and hums along to outdated pop music. I'd much prefer a quiet evening at home. The coming few days will be tiring enough." Elizabeth replied, sighing.
"Oh please, please, Elly. I already said yes, but I don't feel like going on my own. We don't have to stay long, just for a drink or two and then we can head home."
"You're very anxious to go." Elizabeth looked resigned. "I can't say that I blame you. OK, I'll go, but don't expect me to chat with the Brit, I'm not racking my brain for conversation topics."
"I'm sure you don't have to, silly. You're both in politics, and from opposite ends of the spectrum; the ideal situation for a heated discussion." Janneke winked. "But I don't think you've got anything to worry about. There will be others there, perhaps Charles's sister, and who knows; even Mr. Darcy's sister might be there. Caroline Bingley seems quite taken with Mr. Darcy, by the way. I bet she'll happily take care of him. So, don't flatter yourself, the man might not have time for you at all."
"Hey, you should feeding my ego by telling me how all these men will be lining up to speak to me, not telling me they won't give me the time of day! What a cruel big sister you turned out to be," Elly fired back punctuating the outburst with a poked tongue out at her sister. "Okay I'll behave. Did you agree on a time?"
"9.00 pm. So we have plenty of time to eat and change."
"I don't feel like cooking, so while you're having quality time with your mirror trying on all your gorgeous, sexy outfits and deciding which one will impress Charles the most, I'll order us some Chinese."
"Moi? Needing quality time with my mirror? Nevah! Chinese is a great idea though" Janneke replied, laughing and blushing, with an expression of mock innocence on her face."
"There they are, Elly, Charles and Mr. Darcy." Janneke whispered in her sister's ear, pointing out with her head the two men sitting at the bar. They were deep in conversation with their backs to the door, and they didn't immediately notice the two sisters who had just entered the pub and headed in their direction.
"Charles, why did you insist on a pub such as this? I'd much rather have stayed in the hotel and had a quiet evening with you instead of having to talk here, in this noisy, smoky and smelly place, crowded with people I don't know. And the beer; it's so bloody cold that I can hardly taste a thing, and half of it is froth. Isn't that illustrative of the proverbial stinginess of the Dutch? I want beer, not froth." Darcy said, looking down in his glass with horror.
"I assure you, William, the Dutch are as revolted by our lukewarm beer -- which they compare to horse-piss -- as you are with theirs. The way they drink beer has nothing whatsoever to do with stinginess, it's just a question of differing tastes." Charles patiently replied, casting a compassionate glance at his friend. "Come on, I love this pub; its simple wooden interior is such a refreshing contrast to the red velvet and gilt of the hotel. The people who come here are easy-going and friendly, whereas many of the hotel guests are rather umm... challenging, to put it mildly." Charles chuckled at William's suspicious look. "Don't worry, I wasn't referring to you. Anyway, I like the informality here; there's no stiffness or stuffiness. Besides, Janneke and Elizabeth van Benthem are regulars; I met them for the first time in this pub. I'm sure you'll like them. You've already met Janneke and her sister is a very nice girl too."
"You seem quite taken with Miss van Benthem, Charles. I must confess, I was rather surprised that you were acquainted. As surprised actually as I was to find out that her sister is one of the speakers at the conference."
"Yes, amazing, isn't it? Don't you think Janneke's a perfect beauty? Oh, before I forget, don't call them 'miss'! That's not done here. Every adult woman, married or not, is called 'mrs' if you're not on a first name basis."
"I'll try to remember that. And yes, she's pretty alright, but she smiles a little too much for my taste."
"Smiles too much! Smiles too much! Admit it man, she's an angel; a woman in a million! Tell me, where does one find beauty, kindness and intelligence so happily united?"
"Charles! How long have you known this woman? How can you possibly tell she's all that?"
"My friend, with some it takes a life time, but as far as Janneke is concerned, I knew the moment I met her she's all that and more." Charles replied with a broad smile on his face, ignoring Darcy's rolling eyes. "Her sister Elizabeth is an interesting girl too, actually." He continued, "It's quite extraordinary, I think, to become an MP of one of the largest parties of Holland at such a young age. You have to possess very special qualities before any party puts you on an eligible place on their candidates' list when you haven't been on it before. From what I understand, she was politically active as a student. She must have worked very hard to..."
"...get herself into the picture? There are so many social climbers out there who'd do anything to enter political life. God knows how your new flame's sister managed to stand for a winnable seat: threw all her feminine assets into the fray, no doubt!" Darcy interrupted his friend, smirking at his own wit.
"Worked hard to defend the students' rights, I meant to say, William. She..." Here Charles stopped abruptly. "Oh my God," He whispered, when he noticed the girls. The shocked look on the face of one, and the utter indignation on the other, left no doubt as to the tough version of reality a Darcy the girls had overheard. Embarrassed and attempting to make the best of an awkward situation, Charles conjured a broad, though somewhat guilty smile and greeted them.
"What's the matter, Charl..." Darcy turned his head and found himself eye to eye with a young woman, whose dark thick curly hair was hanging loose on her shoulders and who was dressed in an outfit so provocative he couldn't imagine a female English MP ever wearing it, not even in her free time. So, there you are, Elizabeth van Benthem and I was right, you do know how to make use of your feminine qualities to impress; this time me no doubt. Well, you may dress as sexy as you wish, but it won't have the desired effect on me. I will make it perfectly clear to you that you might as well forget any encouragement from me. Darcy furrowed his brows, while his eyes wandered from her neckline to the low cut of her jeans. He couldn't help it if his annoyance wasn't altogether in accordance with the appreciation a man of the world had for her fine pair of... umm, eyes.
Elizabeth's face spoke volumes and inwardly she fumed. My, Mr. Darcy, I guess this sets the tone for the coming days. You're not only a bloody bore; you're a sexist with the audacity to doubt a woman's integrity without knowing her. If you consider this a joke, your sense of humour is very poor indeed.
With clenched fists, cheeks and neck red with indignation, Elizabeth couldn't help casting him a glance of contempt. On what do you found a remark like that? Personal experience perhaps? Did you crawl into Margaret Thatcher's butt when your political aspirations awakened?
Noticing that Mr. Darcy was critically examining her, she followed his eyes and looked down at herself. Oh my God, of all my outfits, did I have to put this on? Elizabeth read from his expression that she had just confirmed his assumptions about her feminine assets. But of all the thoughts that raged through her head, this last one gave her the giggles, however great her indignation and anger.
Janneke and the two men cast puzzled glances at her, so she pulled herself together and greeted Charles in the friendliest way she could muster under the circumstances. When he introduced her to his friend, she held out her hand and with ice-cold civility said.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Darcy."
"Very pleased to meet you too, Mrs. Van Benthem."
"Why don't we go sit over there and I'll get you something to drink. Janneke and Elizabeth, what would you like?" Charles asked cheerfully, indicating the last empty table in the pub and hurriedly filling a silence that threatened to become awkward.
"No way, Charles. This one's on me. What can I get you? I'm determined to prove that the dubious reputation we share with the Scots of being cheap is unjustified." Elizabeth sighed, shaking her head in mock-indignation. Putting on a saucy smile and pointing at Darcy's empty glass, she continued: "May I offer you another beer, Mr. Darcy? Since you're a Brit, I'll bet you'd prefer a pint without all that froth. I don't blame you, but I'm afraid I can offer you no beer but our Dutch beer in a pub such as this."
"Oh, that umm... that doesn't matter, it's... umm quite alright, thank you, yes."
Noticing Mr. Darcy's confusion, Elly could hardly stifle a chuckle. Truth be old, she revelled in her success at disconcerting him. As the others took their seats at the table, Elizabeth ordered drinks at the bar. Distributing the glasses, she couldn't resist riding a little further on her stereotype hobbyhorse, since Mr. Darcy had given her such a perfect occasion; besides, he seemed a very easy sort of person to tease. "Mr. Darcy, I suppose you're not inclined to allow yourself to be guided by prejudice and stereotypes?"
"I hope not," He replied, alert to the ironic tone in her voice, however sweet her smile.
Taking a sip from her glass of red, she replied, "Neither do I, but sometimes I catch myself at it all the same, I'm ashamed to admit. In particular where national characters are concerned. Those prejudices are hard to stamp out once they've taken root, don't you think?"
"You might be right, there." He replied softly.
"We Dutch, for instance, think that Brits are very well-behaved in their own country, but forget their manners once they're abroad." Here she paused deliberately, quietly taking another sip. "And you Brits often consider us to be penny-pinchers. This is as odd as our prejudice against you, since we pay comparatively high taxes so that the less privileged won't die of starvation, to ensure proper health care and to see that the elderly won't be neglected. And you must know that we're one of the world's leading foreign aid donors and contribute large amounts of aid through the UN and other international institutions."
Elizabeth looked at him archly, enjoying the embarrassment on his face "It's true though," She continued, "that our pattern of spending could be called 'careful'; generally speaking, we're not fun-shoppers like our fellow Europeans."
Elizabeth looked over her glass and saw that Mr. Darcy's lips curled up in a smile.
"Here's to the Dutch then, who are generous after all, but who aren't so keen on fun-shopping. And I promise to do my best to behave during my stay, if you'll be so kind as to call me William." Darcy replied light-heartedly, raising his glass and, in an attempt to break the ice, added: "I compliment you on your command of English, Mrs. Van Benthem. I studied French for quite a few years, but I'll never be able to reach the conversation level in that language that you have in mine."
"Thank you, William, and it's Elly to you." Elizabeth replied smiling.
After exchanging polite cliches and some expectations regarding the conference, the party was interrupted when a tall, elegant, good-looking woman in her early thirties entered the pub with a coiffured Yorkshire terrier in her arms. Heading straight for the party at the table, she kissed both men on the cheek and pouted. "Charles, William, how very unkind of you to leave me on my own in the hotel so soon. It's not fair."
"Well, you're here now, Caroline, so stop whining." Charles said, somewhat embarrassed at her theatrical behaviour, "Allow me to present Elizabeth Van Benthem, Janneke's sister. Elly, meet Caroline, my sister."
Smiling at her in a professional sort of way, rather than a spontaneous one, and giving her a quick, weak hand, Caroline openly scrutinised Elizabeth's outfit before saying, "Pleased to meet you, Elizabeth. Charles told me that you're Holland's youngest MP. Hmm... Isn't it rather tedious for a girl like you, having to meet with all those three-piece suits and tartan skirts day in day out? Oh, I almost forgot, this is my baby, Fifi, say hello to Elizabeth, Fifi."
"Aww what a cute dog. Delighted to meet you, Caroline, and I assure you, my work environment isn't tedious at all." Elizabeth replied, not entirely able to hide her annoyance at Caroline's observation. "I don't really care about a person's clothing style, as long as it is worthwhile listening to what he or she has to say. What do you think, Mr. Darcy, I mean William? I can't imagine you would judge anybody on his or her style of dress?" Elizabeth had not entirely gotten rid of her revengeful mood, and couldn't resist. She stifled a chuckle.
"I hope not," Again Darcy was confused. What the hell does she mean? Why does she address me so specifically? Is she deliberately pinning me down on my statements? If not for her position, I'd ignore her altogether. Good lord, that girl knows how to checkmate a person. Still, I like that sweet smile -- it's genuine, so different from Caroline's affected manners. And boy, she smells good. Her scent tickles my nostrils in a most pleasant way. It makes me think of the fresh colourful bouquets of spring flowers mother used to fill the vases in Pemberley with.
However, instead of showing any annoyance or confusion, he said, "True, our occupation has nothing whatsoever to do with how we dress, even though the media plays an important role in our lives." And after a short pause in which he looked pensively into her eyes, he concluded with a faint smile at his own suit, "It's our mission and our message that count. I've never experienced my work as dull, however many three-pieced suits or checked skirts I've had to deal with."
Adjusting the pink ribbon in her dog's fringe, Caroline cried: "Oh certainly, William, clothes as such definitely have nothing to do with the professional activities of an MP. I do believe, though, that good MP's, in particular the women who represent us in parliament, only deserve the adjective 'good' when, apart from mastering at least two foreign languages, they possess a certain something in their air, in the tone of their voice, and in their manner of address and expression when having to convince the public and the media of their views. Otherwise, they might as well forget ever being taken seriously."
Elizabeth said nothing but followed the conversation with interest and not a little surprise. Hmm, Caroline's opportunism wouldn't do badly at all in certain political quarters. I wonder if she always tries so hard to please him? How extraordinary for a woman who has a career of her own. Fixing her eyes on her flat chest, she thought: She can't have obtained her position because of her feminine assets, apart from the fact that her brother is in charge of her operating environment.
Awakening from her musings, Elizabeth heard William Darcy say "Women must possess all that, as well as other more substantial qualities before I consider them fit to take the position of MP."
"Besides the necessary communicative and physical qualities Caroline just mentioned, you're referring to more essential ones such as idealism, commitment and vision perhaps?"
Darcy looked at her intently. "Apart from thorough file knowledge, yes. Elly, you took the words right out of my mouth."
"I'm glad you think that way. You do puzzle me though." Elizabeth replied, narrowing her eyes.
"Oh? Why is that?"
"I wonder why you insist on women possessing such qualities. Shouldn't men have the same?"
"Allow me to answer that question for you, William," Caroline interrupted their conversation, unconsciously stroking the back of her little dog and shooting a disparaging look at Elizabeth. "It's a fact of life that women have to work harder, be smarter and look better than their male colleagues to earn the respect that a position such as yours requires."
"A fact of life, you say? Hmm, are you asserting that there's no need for men to work hard and that they don't necessarily have to be smart? Or at least, not as smart as women?"
Not without difficulty, Elizabeth stifled the snort that bobbed up in her throat. "How fortunate men are! Don't you think so too, William? Unlike a woman, a man needn't throw his masculine assets into the fray to become an MP." Seeing the look of sheer embarrassment in William's eyes, Elizabeth enjoyed the fact that he was a rather easy victim. "I must confess, Caroline," she continued, "that it escapes me what appearances have to do with our job, let alone with gaining respect; a job that isn't remotely comparable to modelling or acting!
Whilst Caroline shrugged and cast her an irritated glance, William's eyes were fixed on hers. His interest in the challenging young woman before him was definitely piqued. Good lord, she is a tough nut to crack, and I can't help but like her sense of irony. "I agree with you, Elly, looks most certainly have nothing to do with one's capacities in a job, apart from the ones you mentioned, and particularly modelling. It's nonsense that women should have to work harder than men to earn respect, even though, as I understand it, women themselves often feel that's the case. I do believe, however, that there are different complications for a woman when she occupies a high position."
"Well, umm... I'm not opposed to women who desire a career as such, not at all, but often the combination of a career, and being a mother with a household to consider as well, is very draining. It can cause continuous fatigue, stress, domestic conflicts and umm... reduction of sexual interest."
When he mentioned his last point, Elizabeth noticed that he blushed. Fixing her eyes on his, she smiled rather significantly. He looked as if he was already sorry that he'd said it, but, seemingly undaunted by the ironic expression on her face, continued by saying, "Frankly, I'd prefer a wife who's at home to take care of the children, over a career girl who leaves the house early in the morning and returns late at night, where laundry, dishes and God knows what are still waiting for her. When both partners have careers, in the end there's not much room for a relationship, in addition to the fact that their children are practically raised by strangers."
"Oh, being a wife and a stay-at-home mother of a couple of adorable children seems such a lovely prospect!" Caroline cooed, pulling her little dog close against her chest, kissing its head and looking affectionately in William's direction.
The laundry waiting for her? Elizabeth was stunned, not entirely able to hide her amusement at Caroline, who sounded most insincere in her pursuit of William Darcy. Elizabeth simply didn't grasp how a 21st century man, who must know the ways of the world, could have such old-fashioned views on the opposite sex.
She felt she could do with a little support from her sister, but Janneke and Charles were so absorbed in one another that they seemed to have forgotten all about the world surrounding them. Elizabeth was very pleased that her sister was enjoying herself, and hadn't the heart to disturb her. I guess I'm on my own in this one. Ah well, it's not the first time I've had to deal with a sexist pig, or even one who's supported by a woman who pretends to be a Stepford wife, but clearly isn't.
Elizabeth decided to ignore Caroline's remark. "I wish you the best of luck in finding such a wife, William, if you haven't as yet. I'm afraid you have a rare species in mind. They most definitely don't grow on trees these days, and I'm not even taking into consideration those for whom a job is a mere necessity to survive." She said casting a derisive glance in Caroline's direction.
"As far as I'm concerned, I think my parents, the tax payers and not least of all I, have invested a little too much in my master's degree for me to be contented with a partner in life who expects me to hand him his slippers when he returns home, cook his meals, take care of his children single-handedly, full-time, and be permanently ready and at his disposal to satisfy his physical needs."
Giving Darcy one of her arch smiles, she concluded: "Oh well, your party isn't exactly known for its woman-friendly show, William, so I'm not really surprised about your viewpoints."
William said nothing. With a smile on his face, he stared at the outspoken girl opposite him with increasing interest. How beautiful you look when you're expressing your strong views, and I like your straightforwardness; one of the traits of the Dutch, just as Jennifer told me. Are they really opinions of your own? Mark my words though: you'll change your tune if you fall passionately in love with a man who thinks like I do.
"How shocking!" Caroline cried. "I have a career of my own, but I think it would be just wonderful to have a loving husband to protect me, who wants to take care of me and our children. I'd most happily hand him his slippers every night. That seems a very small favour in comparison to what he'll do for me, or for us."
Is she really that stupid, or is she just acting? Elizabeth wondered. "You're perfectly entitled to think the way you do, Caroline. As long as it's a girl's own free choice to lead a life like that, I'll be the last to object or not respect such a choice. Though such women are very difficult to find among my acquaintances. Anyway, I must dash. I wouldn't want to jeopardise my career by staying in a pub too long when I have a couple of very busy days ahead of me." She concluded with a wink. "Janneke, what do you think?"
"Huh, what? Oh, oh, yes, I mean, umm... I'll stay a little longer, Elly, if you don't mind." Janneke replied absentmindedly, slowly turning her head away from the object of her undivided attention, who, for his part, welcomed her reply with a very encouraging smile.
"Of course not, dear sister, enjoy yourself. I'll see you later."
Much to Caroline's annoyance -- judging from the shocked expression on her face, and, admittedly, much to his own surprise, William stood and spontaneously offered to accompany her home. In spite of the radical feminist mood she was in, Elizabeth enjoyed Caroline's frustration enough to be flattered by his gentlemanlike gesture in spite of herself. She cordially declined, however, explaining to him that she lived just across the street.
She took her purse and coat, wished the party a pleasant evening and left the pub, totally unaware of a lingering look of undisguised appreciation from her partner in conversation. A look, however, that did not escape Caroline's notice, and proved to be a source of anger to the young woman.
After a restless night, filled with vain attempts to rid himself of the vision of a certain young woman he had met the evening before, William Darcy got up somewhat disoriented. Following a long, hot bath to wash away his fatigue, he was amused to find that he had chosen a three-piece pinstriped suit as his outfit. He remembered Caroline's typology of MP's, and Elly's reply that it was of no import to her how people dressed. And here he stood, looking as conservative as an MP decades older than he. Feeling the need to make the suit look a little less dull, he selected a jaunty red silk tie with tiny white polka dots and knotted it with care.
He cast a last glance in the mirror and thought of his phone call with Jennifer late the night before and smiled. Once he had told her about his meeting in the pub, she had insisted on knowing all the details.
"She dared to contradict you?!" Jennifer's tone dripped with mock indignation."Contradict is too strong a term, Jen," he had replied, "but she gave me the distinct impression that everything I said sounded ridiculous. To tell you the truth, it was a little unnerving."
Jennifer had asked what Elly looked like, and his unguarded answer gave her enthusiasm no bounds. "As the Dutch say, you certainly didn't have your eyes in your pocket, William!" Darcy shook his head regretfully. He could still hear her delighted laughter through the phone. I wish I hadn't been so forthcoming on her looks. Jennifer will never let me forget it.
He sighed and sat down for breakfast. Since he did not expect Charles to be at the hotel this early, Darcy ordered breakfast in his room to avoid an encounter with Caroline. At this hour of the day, he preferred peace and quiet. Grumbling a bit over his failure to order an English breakfast instead of Continental, he drank his orange juice, buttered a croissant and resignedly ate it, washing it down with his favourite tea, Earl Grey.
Since his impression of Holland basically had been one of grey skies and rain, William was pleasantly surprised that the first conference day appeared to be bright and sunny. Keen walker that he was, he decided to walk to the Congress Centre where the participants were expected.
After making sure that his briefcase contained all the necessary papers, he stuck a street map in his coat pocket for safety's sake, left the hotel and turned into the Denneweg. Since he didn't need more than 30 minutes to cover the distance from the hotel to the Congress Centre, and he knew The Hague well enough not to get lost, he walked at a leisurely pace, enjoying the shop windows and the bustle of the shopkeepers displaying their merchandise. He noticed the beautiful facades and was particularly impressed by the characteristic glass and steel front of a genuine Art Nouveau building housing an interior design shop.
To get a better look at the detailed cast-iron roof he stepped backward into the street, never taking his eyes off the medallion announcing the year 1898 on top. Too engrossed in the minutiae to pay attention to the road, he didn't hear the young woman on the bicycle who, in her attempt to avoid a collision, insistently rang her bell, shouting: "He, uitkijken, sukkel!"*
Belatedly, William looked over his shoulder and started when he saw the bicycle coming straight at him. He jumped out of the way in an indecorous manner that contrasted sharply with his attire, reaching the sidewalk right before the cyclist hit him. "Excuse me? I, I... wasn't looking."
"Goodness, William, it's you! Are you in the habit of crossing streets without looking first if there's any traffic? You scared the hell out of me."
There she was. Elly van Benthem of all people, looking at him with an arousing mixture of anger, fright, surprise ? and if he was correct, relief in her eyes. William wondered if it was because she avoided a fall or because he couldn't quite understand what she had shouted in Dutch. He was pretty sure what she said wasn't complimentary.
William was mortified by the reproachful tone in her voice. "Umm? yes, I mean, no, normally I'm more careful when crossing the street. I was distracted by the beautiful architecture of this building, I suppose." He pointed to the object of his admiration.
Elizabeth smiled. "It's lovely, you're absolutely right, and there's much more Art Nouveau to admire in The Hague, did you know that?"
"No, I didn't, how interesting. This building is a very fine example of the movement, and so well maintained. I'm quite impressed." William felt a little off his stroke, standing there so unexpectedly, eye-to-eye with the woman he couldn't get out of his mind. Worse still, about whom he apparently could not stop talking, as Jennifer had so subtly had pointed out to him last night.
Inexplicably, their discussion in the pub resounded in his head. It wasn't exactly what she said that impressed him so much; that was just regular feminist claptrap as far as he was concerned. Although, truth be told, it wasn't all nonsensical; he particularly admired the responsibility she felt towards those who had helped her achieve her goals. The thing that struck him most was the ironic, yet sweet look in her fine eyes when one smart retort after the other had rolled from her lips in reply to practically everything he or Caroline had said. He was enchanted by her melodious voice, her charming accent and, from time to time, the idiosyncratic nature of her English with its funny choice of terms and unusual syntax.
He did not know what to make of it. Never before anybody had made him feel so archaic, and yet at the same time so much like a schoolboy being reprimanded. It didn't offend him though. He thought it amusing, and apart from a slight feeling of annoyance -- mostly because he did not like being less quick-witted than she -- he admired her for it and it was the first time he felt respect for a woman so wholly unconnected to him.
Lost in thought, he wasn't following what she was saying, but he picked up the end. She told him that even though she wasn't born in The Hague, she felt quite at home and wouldn't mind living there forever.
"I'm not surprised, the town has many attractions. But, small as it is, the society must be somewhat confined and unvarying, I suppose."
"Small? Confined and unvarying? Are you kidding me? As far as size and population are concerned, The Hague can't compete with London, to be sure, but one can't call it a village either!" Elizabeth wagged a warning finger as if to teach him a lesson. "Apart from that, this is the governmental centre of our country, and there are numerous global and European organisations established here, such as the International Court of Justice and the Yugoslavian Tribunal, more reasons why this community is really as varied as can be! And I'm not even taking into account the large Surinamese, Indonesian, Moroccan, Turk, Chinese, Italian and many other communities who have lived here for generations."
When he had a chance to jump in, William apologised. "I didn't mean to offend, and I assure you, I'm convinced."
"You didn't offend; I was just surprised at your assumption." Furrowing her brow and curling her lips in an impish smile, she continued. "For a person who has been here before, you know remarkably little of this town. You definitely need someone to show you around."
"Perhaps you're right. Would it be too much to ask for a guided tour? We could start with a walk to the Congress Centre." He was a little surprised by his own spontaneous reaction.
"I'd really like to, but I can't accompany you, I'm sorry. I have to stop by my office first. So, I'll just have to stick to my bike. Some other time maybe."
"You're going to the conference by bike?"
"Yes, I am. What's wrong with travelling by bicycle? Do you think that strange?"
"Strange? Well, umm? I don't know, unusual for a public official maybe."
"Nothing unusual about that here, William, even our Premier goes to work by bike, if he's so inclined."
"Yes, our premier. How do you say it? Our prime minister."
"Good Lord, I can't imagine Tony Blair travelling from Downing Street to Westminster Palace by bicycle. It's undignified in view of his position; and not safe either."
"Undignified? Not safe? An environment-friendly means of transportation such as a bike? I don't see why not."
"Apart from the fact that a Prime Minister riding a bicycle would be an easy target, and in today's world, life-threatening situations can be anywhere, I don't see how Blair could command due respect for his position riding a bike!"
"Ah, the matter of security, you might have a point there. Indeed, recent events have shown the danger for public figures to move about unprotected, certainly those who have a controversial reputation..." Elly's pensive gaze clouded over.
Will wonders never cease? She actually agrees with me! Darcy felt a vague sense of triumph.
"...but," she continued, "I simply can't see how the dignity of a person could possibly be judged by his means of transportation. What example would we be setting if we took our car everyday to span a distance of less than two or three kilometres? No, I'm afraid I don't agree with you, William. I prefer to think that politicians who ride their bike to work are giving a good example of being environmentally aware. By the way, talking about risks, you yourself go on foot, and put yourself in danger by crossing a street without watching." She concluded with a smirk.
"Quite," was all Darcy could say. I cheered too soon apparently. She doesn't agree with me after all. Is this woman with her pert opinions determined to contradict me on everything I say, except on fine architecture perhaps? And I'll never beat her eloquence. She certainly wants to have the last word.
While she was defending the use of the bike in general and by VIP's in particular, stating that statistics show that far more victims of attacks happened to be in a car instead of riding a bike, he considered her intently. Her hair hung loose on her shoulders, her cheeks were rosy, and her soft, natural lipstick accentuated her full perfectly shaped. Lips. He appreciated how attractive she was and couldn't help approving of her delicious, fresh scent. It suddenly occurred to him that they agreed on something after all: they both wore grey three piece suits. Did Caroline inspire her too? Darcy shuddered at the thought of his friend's sister with her ostentatious make-up and her excessive use of an undoubtedly very expensive perfume that, with a gasp and a choke, literally took one's breath away.
Admiring her austere outfit, he decided that it made her look even more feminine than the low cut jeans she had worn the previous night. There was something very sexy about her this morning. She fills out a suit much better than I do. The only difference between their attire was that Elly was not wearing a tie. Her blouse was unbuttoned to the first button of her vest, showing a glimpse of her cleavage, adorned by a tiny gold crucifix. Worried that she might notice what he was contemplating William discreetly tore his glance away and attempted to rein in his thoughts.
Endeavouring to distract his mind from thoughts that easily went beyond mere admiration of her fine eyes, he remarked that he'd very much like to see more of the town, in particular the Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum. "I hope I have enough time."
"Will you stay longer than the duration of the conference then?" "Yes, I'll stay over the weekend after the conference. I have to pay a visit to my Dutch aunt and cousin and my sister and I will spend some time together as well."
As they made their way down the street, Elizabeth walking her bike, a small red sports car pulled alongside and a woman whom they both recognised opened the window. The driver, in her most polite manner, offered only William a lift.
"I thank you, no, Caroline. I prefer to walk. Besides, I'm not alone, as you can see."
"What do you mean, you're not alone?" Caroline cast a cold, indifferent glance in Elizabeth's direction. "As far as I can tell, she's going by bike." Caroline barely hid her disdain for the woman next to William and her form of transport.
"Caroline, I'm walking. Thank you for your offer. Ms. umm? Mrs. Van Benthem and I will be late if we don't leave now. I'll see you later."
Caroline persisted, but when she was finally convinced that it was pointless, she accelerated, leaving enough exhaust in her wake to cause someone to call the fire brigade. William turned to Elizabeth, slightly embarrassed: "I apologise for my friend's sister. She can be quite rude."
"Don't worry about it, William," Elizabeth coughed and waved away the fumes with her hand. "I don't care how she behaves towards me. That's her problem, certainly not yours. I hope for the sake of the hotel and its guests, though, that she manages to maintain a more customer-oriented attitude while she's working."
"Oh, yes, she's professional enough." William laughed.
"Anyway, it's getting late, I really should go. I'm sorry to leave you on your own, I'd like to walk with you, but I can't. As said, I still have to attend to some business in my office before the start of the conference. So bye, see you later!" And off she went on her bike, admiring eyes following her until she turned left at the end of the street.
"...In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, as evidenced by the Derbyshire case, in order to survive and prosper, the countryside will have to embrace change. However, the sustainable use of the land itself must remain the foundation of such change, not become the victim of it. It is my conviction, therefore, that rural policy must centre on community empowerment, and not environmental protectionism.
I thank you for your attention."
When William Darcy concluded his speech, benevolent applause was his reward. There was only one person in the room who sat quite still, deep in thought. Elizabeth's speech, just prior to William's, had contained the protectionist message that Darcy warned against. Elly thought it all sounded very progressive, integration of environmental policy and economic activity, 'change' based on a policy of sustainability. But she wondered if William was aware of how often he discussed 'economic development' and how often he stressed the importance of 'healthy local economics' for rural areas. She lost count. Is it really possible to reconcile that in the way you see it with the protection of our threatened landscapes and environment? I'm very intrigued by the success of this specific Derbyshire case, and wonder whether you didn't show it all in too favourable a light. Maybe I should go there and see for myself. She wasn't surprised by the success of his speech, his voice alone could convince the Pope that God doesn't exist. In spite of the fact that she couldn't concur on much of what he said, she had enjoyed listening to him.
After Darcy's speech, the conference broke for coffee. As Elizabeth was evaluating the morning session with the other speakers, she noticed someone was trying to draw her attention from a different corner of the room. It was George Wiekamp, one of the party's parliamentary assistants. She excused herself, and went to ask him what he wanted.
Wiekamp, a man in his early thirties, could be called handsome if one liked the showy type. With his fake tan and light-coloured, wash-and-wear suits, he subscribed to the notion of looking the part of an influential politician, a role to which he clearly aspired, though the party committee had its doubts. Most members didn't think him fit, at least not yet, to represent the party in parliament. He wasn't dumb; he had studied Law and Communication Sciences -- although it was rumoured that he hadn't finished. He possessed a certain foxiness that could be invaluable in politics and his greatest strength, his easy manners, suited the responsibilities of his post admirably. Still, he had not as yet been able to impress the party committee with any original ideas on the major social and economic questions and therefore, the closest he had been to the House of Representatives so far was his position as the party's factotum on the Binnenhof.
Elizabeth was well aware that he was a smooth operator and a gossip too. She was often amazed to hear the private things he knew about other MP's -- things he shouldn't have known. She wondered where he obtained his information. But on the whole, she couldn't help liking him. He was very compliant and he always did whatever she asked him to do. On top of that, he made her laugh, and Elizabeth loved a laugh.
"Hi, Elly." He pressed three kisses on her cheeks. "My compliments on your speech, hon, you did a marvellous job. And you've already met the illustrious Fitzwilliam Darcy, I hear."
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, on her guard immediately. "Thanks, Wiek, and yes we've met, but how do you know that? Unless you're referring to the chat I was just having with the other speakers."
"I was actually referring to last night, your sister told me this morning about your having met him in the pub. Well? What do you think of him?"
"Ah, did she? But why do you want to know my opinion on Mr. Darcy?"
"Umm? no reason, really. I just thought you've got such good insight into people, you might have him all figured out already." He replied in a casual sort of way studying his nails to avoid her inquisitive gaze.
Elizabeth waved his remark aside. "Stop trying to flatter me, Wiek. Why would I figure him out? Why don't you tell me how you know him and why you're so interested in my opinion of him?"
"Oh no, that's a long, boring story, I'd better not. Look, he's watching us right now. And he doesn't look very pleased either."
"Hmm, yes, looks like it." Elizabeth, somewhat puzzled, looked from one man to the other. The shocked expression on William's face and the beet red complexion of George's troubled her. On a slightly impatient note, she said, "Come on, Wiek, you brought him up yourself. Now I want to know."
"Very well, At uni I obtained a trainee post at the campaign manager's office of the Conservative Party in London. It was my job to assist in fund-raising. Darcy was the chairman of the campaign's fund-raising committee. That's how I know him."
"Gauging from your reactions to each other, I'd guess you didn't get along very well, did you?"
"No, we didn't, exactly. In the beginning, we got along fine. Later he cooled off towards me."
"You have no idea how much money I managed to raise for the party's elections. But the party didn't appreciate it at all. I didn't get so much as a 'thank you'."
"It is, isn't it? I have William Darcy to thank for that."
"Initially, Mr. Darcy promised me a percentage of the funds I raised as compensation for my efforts. But Mr. Committee Chairman withdrew his own promise in the end. When I submitted my claim, he reminded me in a memo that I was an intern and that interns were only paid with room, board and travelling expenses. Other than those expenses, an intern's efforts fall under 'volunteer work'. So, according to Mr. Darcy, I had no right to request remuneration, despite our prior agreement. The original agreement was never in writing, so I had nothing to fall back on and nobody else supported me. They all quake with fear before the almighty Mr. Darcy."
"Wow, Wiek, that's appalling. A party that makes promises, but doesn't keep them? Gosh, I smell politics." Elizabeth chuckled. "Anyway, you should have gone public and shown everybody how unreliable the Conservatives are!"
"I was tempted, but decided against it in the end. I had no proof of our agreement and on the whole, I had a great time in London. There are a couple of decent party officials, but their hands were tied, they couldn't do anything for me. Besides, I haven't done badly since. I have this job that I like very much. I haven't given up hope that I'll be able to forge my political career in the Labour Party, and that you and I, dear girl, will be married one day." He put his arm around her shoulder and smiled impishly.
The glance of contempt William cast in their direction didn't escape her and she released her shoulder, with a forced smile on her face. "Not in a million years, Wiek, but I'm happy you're satisfied. It's a disgusting story all the same. I mean, a promise is a promise, even though it was contrary to the party's policy. When I met him last night, I thought Mr. Darcy was quite rude at first, positively unsympathetic, but I'd never thought he'd be a man who wouldn't live up to his word."
"Rude, you say, unsympathetic. Why am I not surprised?" He replied, his voice full of sarcasm and disgust. "Oh well, the Conservatives are just a bunch of bad losers. However hard they try, since the departure of Maggie's lap dog, they haven't managed to persuade the electorate of the sense of their policies and so they lose the elections, regardless of the amount of money they put into them."
"I don't know, Wiek, don't lump it all into one box. In all fairness, you shouldn't blame the entire Conservative party because of one man's actions. Anyway, it must be hurtful to see him here."
"Oh well, I don't care, not anymore. Even though we're not on friendly terms, and probably never will be again, he doesn't intimidate me. If anything, it irritates me to see him here, after what he's done. It won't prevent me from enjoying this interesting meeting though."
"Did you ever meet his sister, Georgiana?"
"Yes, on one or two occasions. They're very close, you know, I suppose because they're orphans. I can't say I liked her much. She's as arrogant as her musical talent is great. She's a beauty though. But as far as I can judge, like brother like sister."
"Hmm," was Elizabeth's only response. Casting a pensive glance in Darcy's direction, she saw him deep in conversation, back turned towards her. Although dying to ask more questions about Wiekamp's experiences in London, she found the subject a bit delicate and decided that maybe she had said too much already. So, she switched to more general topics until it was time to return to the conference room and take her seat again.
* Watch out, dork!
Every seat of the Schoenberg Hall, the largest concert venue of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, was taken. In addition to the conference participants, it seemed the entire international community had been invited to attend Georgiana Darcy's concert. Before it began a cacophony of Dutch, English, German, French, Polish, Italian and Spanish almost drowned out the sounds of the orchestra tuning their instruments. All the white noise escaped William Darcy's notice. He absentmindedly browsed the programme and paid no more attention to the cheerful chitchat of the British ambassador's wife, next to him in the front rank, than politeness required. His thoughts were miles away. He had planned to meet Georgiana before the concert to wish her luck, but he had gotten lost in the labyrinth-like interior of the conservatory. Because of his interest in architecture, he noted that the building was very interesting and that it had a sculptural quality to it. He imagined it was one of The Hague's late 20th century gems, but as far as the functionality of the place was concerned, Darcy felt it left a lot to be desired. Since time was short, he had hastily found his way back to the concert hall, trying to be content with waiting until afterwards to find an employee to lead him to his sister's dressing room. He was relieved he hadn't promised to see her before the performance; if he had promised, the fact that he hadn't shown could have disconcerted her. He couldn't help smiling at his own unintentional pun.
When the concertmaster signalled the orchestra to stand and Darcy saw his sister approaching with the conductor, his mood changed from irritation to anticipation. The eyes of the siblings seemed to meet for a short moment and, knowing her well, he could see timidity, if not anxiety, in hers, despite her smile. He closed his in reassurance, subtly bringing his fingers to his lips to blow her a kiss in the hope she would see, or at least sense his commitment.
Darcy was moved seeing her gracefully taking her seat in front of the grand piano, in deep concentration. And, during the concert, if anyone had paid the performer's brother any attention, it couldn't have escaped notice how very pleased he was. The continuous smile on his lips and the sparkle in his eyes were proof enough of the pride he felt for his sister's achievement. When Georgiana graciously bowed to the standing ovation, Darcy turned his head for a moment to pick up a glimpse of the audience and revel in the enthusiasm on their faces. However, he froze when he caught sight of Elly, whom he hadn't noticed before in his haste to find his seat. Smiling, she leaned over to none other than Wiekamp and whispered something in his ear. It cast a chill over his mood; he felt a pang of discomfort to find that loathsome man in the audience. The indecency of it, the nerve... that he of all people dared to attend his sister's concert! Darcy was appalled. To be confronted with this man twice in one day was too much to bear. Quickly he turned towards the stage and was happy that Georgiana took her seat again to play an encore. The piece she had chosen was for him. There was no doubt about that: his all time favourite, the toccata of J.S. Bach's partita # 6 in E minor. He closed his eyes, leaned back and completely enjoyed her sensitive, subtle touch, attempting to forget what he had just witnessed.
As the applause died down again and the soloist left the stage for the last time, Darcy hastily left the hall to find someone who could lead him to his sister.
"Georgiana, at last!"
In her dressing room, Darcy rushed to his sister who sat in front of the dressing table, re-adjusting her hair and make-up for the after party. She turned and immediately stood up to take his outstretched hands in hers.
"Wim! Gosh, I thought we'd never meet. I've missed you so much. Thank you for the roses. They're gorgeous. You're spoiling me, as usual!" Georgiana cast an admiring glance at the large bouquet of exquisite pink roses he had ordered to be delivered before his arrival.
Darcy sighed. He definitely had trouble getting used to his Dutch nickname, which Georgiana had started to use shortly after she had moved to Holland. It felt awkward to be called a name that sounded exactly like whim. But as long as Georgiana was the only one who called him that, and did so only privately, he accepted it with a reluctant forbearance.
"I've missed you too, love. I tried to catch up with you before the concert, but stupidly, I got lost. I had to return to the hall without wishing you luck. But obviously you didn't need it; you've played so beautifully. It was truly magical. And now, let me look at you."
The siblings looked at each other in silence for a moment, smiling affectionately before they embraced. How happy he was to see his tall, yet fragile sister after so many months. Her silk gown was a brilliant shade of blue that brightened her eyes and complemented her long blond hair and pale complexion. In it she looked older, sophisticated, more adult. A fact Darcy found a little difficult to acknowledge but made him feel proud all the same. She had been so young when she left for Holland, and Darcy had known that their separation would be full of worry about her wellbeing. However, he had also realised it was the best thing to do for her career, since she believed the only pianist who could help her develop her talent to the fullest taught exclusively at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. If he had known beforehand that wretched crook, that fraud would cross her path, he'd never have let her go, career or no career. How very fortunate, his unexpected visit to The Hague! Thanks to his desire to see her, he had prevented.... No, he refused to think of what might have happened. And now he had to inform his sister of the bastard's presence here tonight. Unconsciously he ground his teeth.
When they let go of each other, he pulled himself together and forced a smile to his face. "Every time I see you you're not only more beautiful, but your performance has gained in timbre and depth. I'm very proud of you!" "Thank you. I was scared to death at first, but as soon as I saw you in the audience my nerves vanished. So, I managed to do the best I could and a little more, especially for you."
"The audience was lucky then to have me there," Darcy replied with a wink. "And let me tell you, I thought Mozart's 20th piano concerto was exquisite. The conservatory's orchestra impressed me as well. Admittedly, I had my doubts: such a well-known, difficult piece performed by young, relatively inexperienced musicians... I'm glad I was proven wrong. There was such obvious chemistry between you and the orchestra. It was warm, passionate, fresh and never dull for a moment."
"We took a risk and, believe me, we worked our butts off! Fortunately there's solidarity among us students and a great willingness to help and support each other. I love it here. I've made so many great friends."
Darcy smiled. Her enthusiasm and obvious relief that everything was going well for her moved him.
"I'm happy to hear it, and thanks for the encore, by the way. Am I pretentious to think that you chose the partita for me?"
"For you? What makes you think that?!" Georgiana cried in mock surprise. "Dumb question, Wim, of course I chose that one for you." She cast her brother an affectionate glance, leaning towards him to kiss him on the cheek.
"By the way, how's your stay so far? I understand today was quite adventurous. I hope you didn't mind being criticised so badly."
Darcy looked puzzled. "Adventurous day? Criticised, me?... What on earth are you talking about? My speech was well received. Quite unexpectedly, I might add." "Yes, of course, I'm not talking about your speech, silly, no comments there. I'm talking about something that happened this morning, before the conference. Would you like a glass of wine?"
"Yes, please, Georgiana. But tell me, what happened this morning that you can possibly be aware of?" Picking up a bottle of Chablis from a cooler and pouring two glasses, Georgiana could hardly hide her amusement. "Ah, you don't read Dutch magazines, obviously." She handed him his glass, raised hers and took a first sip, looking at her brother mischievously. "No, I don't. Is there something in it I ought to know? And why are you looking at me like you're going to burst?"
"Well, I noticed a rather 'revealing' article in the Haagse Kroniek, a silly local rag that focuses on events and celebs in The Hague. I guess I should be happy to have you here in one piece, instead of having to visit you in a hospital." Georgiana smiled and handed him the magazine, opened to the page in question on which the following headline was printed in big, bold letters. "Uitkijken, sukkel! Bijna-botsing tussen fietsend PvdA-kamerlid en wandelende Britse Tory illustratief voor sfeer conferentie?"
Darcy didn't understand a word, but almost choked on his wine upon seeing no less than three pictures chronicling for posterity the near collision of that morning between Elly and him: her angry face, mouth wide open, obviously shouting, his startled look as he made a reflexive move towards the sidewalk to avoid the impact, and finally one in which they smiled broadly at each other...
"Oh God, no! How is this possible? I didn't notice any photographers. Those press hounds get more insolent by the day. Please read it to me."
When Georgiana teasingly started to read in perfect Dutch, Darcy cried laughing: "I know how well you speak Dutch, would you please read it to me in English?"
"Sure. This is what the headline says: Watch out, dork!"
"Aha, I knew it! I knew that that... woman was calling me names. No breeding at all, very little sophistication, obviously." Despite the warm feelings for Elly van Benthem that had been growing, Darcy couldn't help being annoyed.
"Umm... Mrs. van Benthem."
Georgiana looked at him, somewhat confused, but continued:
"Listen, there's more: near-collision between distinguished Dutch Labour cyclist and eminent British Tory pedestrian illustrative for conference's atmosphere? Should I read on?" First rolling his eyes, Darcy reluctantly nodded his head affirmatively.
From our special reporter
This morning, our youngest MP Elly van Benthem and speaker today at the international conference etc. etc. almost collided with an other participant, Britain's conference representative and MP for the British Conservative Party, William Darcy, in Holland basically known for his fervent defence of the fox hunt. Apparently she couldn't hide her annoyance with the inattentive pedestrian and expressed her wrath in no uncertain terms. Judging by his posture and gestures, her British victim apologised profusely for his carelessness, whereupon a conversation followed which your humble reporter unfortunately could not hear, but isn't the smile on their faces telling enough, readers? It looks as though our representative impressed Mr. Darcy in quite a positive way and vice versa. Is romance in the air? Will there be an announcement before the conference is over? Otherwise the incident didn't appear to be a bad omen for the proceedings of the conference, since the speeches of both -- however opposite -- were well received... and lead to a lively panel discussion in the afternoon ... bladibla, bladibla...
"Well, have you actually met before? Is she as pretty as the reporter suggests? And, Wim, tell me honestly, is romance in the air?" Chuckling with glee, Georgiana looked at him expectantly. It was clear that her questions were a cross between teasing and an eager wish to know more.
"Yes, we met the evening before, in a pub near Charles's hotel. Elly's the sister of his latest flame. But the journalist's ridiculous statement about romance is sheer fantasy. Georgiana, I hope that you don't swallow everything that's being printed. They're as fallacious here as they are in England apparently."
Georgiana chuckled: "Oh no, is Charles in love again?! How long will it last this time, do you think? But umm... Elly? Wow, you're already on a first name basis with her!"
Feeling caught, Darcy continued impatiently: "Yes, we are. We're in Holland, you know, and you must have noticed by now that it happens quite quickly here. And, yes, Charles has a crush on her sister. Can't stop talking about her, calls her an angel all the time, that sort of thing, you know how he is." Darcy rolled his eyes. "Anyway, to answer your previous question, Elly's attractive, I suppose, quite a vivacious young woman." Here he stopped for a moment, remembering the looks of sheer irony she cast in his direction during their conversation in the pub last evening. "She's bloody opinionated though. Her ideas are far too radical for my taste; I'm probably the dullest, most conservative creature in the entire universe in her view. At least she made no attempt to disguise how very much she disapproved of my opinions."
As he finished talking, he looked amused, embarrassed and resigned, all at once. Georgiana could tell the girl had made quite an impression on her brother. Calling a relative stranger by her first name! That was quite new for him. Could the impossible be possible after all? Could he finally have met a woman who stole his heart? Young and romantic as she was, Georgiana was perhaps a little carried away by her thoughts, but she couldn't help thinking how great it would be if her brother were in love. If so, she'd better be worthy of him.
"Do you want me to read more? The rest is about the conference itself and some nonsensical personal information about some of the participants."
"Umm... no, Georgiana, I've heard enough. If you like, I'll introduce you to her. Darcy hesitated, brow furrowed. He started pacing up and down the room, now and again running his hand through his hair, as he often did when something was bothering him. "There's something I must tell you though before we go." "Cool, I'd like to meet her very much. But what's up? You look so serious."
"I had an unpleasant confrontation today, twice actually, and I'm afraid I can't keep this from you, however much I'd prefer to. A person we'd both much rather forget was at the conference: George Wiekamp. He appears to be the Dutch Labour Party's factotum. He was in the audience tonight, too.
"Fuck! He's got a nerve!" Georgiana changed colour. "Good thing that I didn't notice him in the audience."
It was clear the information affected her. "I'm sorry, Georgiana, I felt I had to tell you. Let's hope not, but he could be at the after party as well and I don't want him to take you by surprise."
"Look, it's a bloody shame that I might see him, here, of all places. But don't worry. I can handle it. Besides, I have my big brother with me to protect me." Georgiana stroked his cheek affectionately, "And...there's someone I'd like you to meet, you've seen him from a distance already. Actually I can't think of anyone better to help me get over that flapdrol, to use a Dutch term that couldn't characterise Mr. Nobody better. Once you're introduced you'll understand." She concluded with a smile, cheeks blushing. Darcy couldn't help grinning at the odd word Georgiana just used and repeated it in his head... flapdrol, flapdrol...
Slowly becoming aware of what she had just said, he replied with a slightly unsteady voice: "I'm glad to hear it, sweetheart. Although you're being a little cryptic, I look forward to meeting your beau, since I suspect that's what you're trying to tell me. Come, let's go now."
Darcy and his sister left the dressing room, arms linked, chatting about their plans for the weekend, forgetting all about Wiekamp and walked in the direction of the conservatory's restaurant to mingle with the guests.
Even though Janneke was cheerfully chatting and evaluating the day with her, Elly noticed she was somewhat distracted. "Why do you keep looking at the entrance, Jan? Are you expecting someone? You didn't ask Charles, did you?"
"Of course not, silly. I'll see him later though for a night-cap, in his hotel. Oops, I forgot to ask you. You're invited as well. But right now it's my job to receive the Darcys and introduce them to a couple of British VIP's from The Hague. I wonder what's keeping them? Ah, there they are, finally. I have to go!"
"Oh, la la, a night-cap in his hotel!" Elly replied teasingly. "I'd like to come, but are you sure you want me there too? I don't want to intrude."
"No, you won't be. William Darcy and his sister will be coming too." "Ah. Well, go, go now! I have to talk with Berend anyway; he wanted a word. Can't imagine why, but he asked me to meet him in the library in a couple of minutes. See you later!"
Elizabeth set her glass on the nearest table and went to the library where the Labour Party's leading man, Berend Woud, was waiting for her. Like Elly, Berend belonged to the younger generation of politicians who managed to dispose of politics' dull, dusty character and give it new flamboyance. Good-looking and charming, photogenic and always civil with the press, the media hardly ever gave him a rough time. He was popular, particularly with the women. Since his emergence from a relatively obscure place in the House of Representatives, the polls in favour of their party hadn't ceased to rise.
"Ah, there you are, Elly. I won't keep you long, but I must speak with you about an article in the latest Haagse Kroniek. Maybe you can guess which one I'm talking?"
"No, I can't. I haven't seen a single paper or magazine today. And that one would be the last I'd be interested in anyway. So, tell me, what's up?"
Without saying a word, Berend Woud opened to a page of the magazine he held in his hand and showed her the article in question.
When Elly saw the headline and pictures she burst out laughing. "Oh, my, Berend, I had no idea there was a photographer around! Look at those pics! It's kind of funny, but it gives me the creeps as well. Big brother is watching you, right? Feels sort of flattering too; it must have been a last minute job inserting this."
Ignoring her remarks, Berend asked: "Did you actually call him a dork, Elly?"
Skimming the article, she replied: "Yes, I believe I did, but at the time I didn't know it was him. He can't have understood what I said, but he might have guessed, I suppose. Anyway, he was a dork, wasn't he, to just walk into the street without looking first?" Laughing she returned the magazine. "Actually, I don't really see what's so funny. Apart from the fact that it doesn't sound very civilised, it's very impolitic too in your position to shout things like that in public, regardless to whom. Surely you understand that this could harm the party's image, and, in this particular case, compromise Dutch-British relations."
"Impolitic? Harm the party; compromise Dutch-British relations, because of a quote in a silly magazine? Come on, Berend, you can't be serious?"
Elly watched in utter disbelief.
"I most certainly am. I just spoke to the British Ambassador, and believe me his Excellency was not amused."
"Ridiculous, absurd! And it saddens me that you're more worried about the British Ambassador than about the fact that I might have hurt myself from a nasty fall! It's logical that I shouted, the situation frightened me."
Elly wondered if Berend was telling the truth. His eyes were sparkling a little too much.
Noticing her confusion, he couldn't hide his amusement any longer. "Okay, I was joking, Elly. The British Ambassador and I did talk about it, but you know how the Brits are, far more used to tabloid nonsense than we are, and generally they have a fine sense of humour. So, he wasn't exactly annoyed -- at least even if he was he didn't show it; perfect example of British proverbial politeness, no doubt. He was surprised, like the rest of us. I must stress though that you do have to at least try to contain yourself when things like this happen. You can see for yourself how vulnerable you are, as a public figure. Your spontaneity can turn against you, and eventually, against the Party."In an attempt to lead the conversation in a more positive direction, she said: "It's a pity that this minor incident hit this silly magazine but, even though I only skimmed, the report on the conference itself was rather positive, right?"
"True, Elly, but you know how people are, often too lazy to read an entire article, but all too anxious to read headlines that only seemingly reflect the contents of the article. They're not printed so huge for nothing."
"Okay, okay, I get your point, but who expected a reporter at that very spot at that precise moment when William and I almost collided? It was a one-in-a-million chance!"
"They're omnipresent, you know that! And it's not the first time you've been caught by surprise, so you should be more aware by now. 'William'? You two are on a first name basis? The journalist is right then in his assumption that you've met previously?" Berend was surprised. "Is there some truth in the romance observation too?" He narrowed his eyes, and a smile teased his lips. "Yes, we met before the conference; yesterday evening in the pub. He's a friend of a friend of my sister's. But a romance? Definitely not." A hardly noticeable snort escaped Elizabeth and, skimming the article again she said: "Geez, I don't believe this. Of course there isn't. You cannot honestly believe that a girl like me would date a stiff upper lip, anti-women's rights, utterly conservative Brit like William Darcy? No way! Two more unsuitable persons have yet to be born. If you knew the man's ideas on marriage and the woman's position in it, you'd be appalled; one of the worst cases of male chauvinism I've experienced in my life! That man should have been born a couple of hundred years ago. Yes, the nineteenth century would have suited him far better," A satisfied smile graced her lips. "Apart from that," she continued, "he's arrogant, conceited, quite offensive, and from what I've heard he's a man who doesn't keep his promises."
When she was done, she folded her arms, giving her party leader a glance of triumph, quite pleased with what she had said.
The indignation in her eyes and the tone of her voice didn't leave any doubt of the lack of romantic feelings from her part... or did it? Her reaction sort of puzzled Berend and he looked at her inquisitively.
"Elly, you seem to know a great deal about him already. What in the world did the poor man do to you for you to dislike him so intensely in such a short time? I haven't met him, but he seems to be a quiet, rather reserved sort of a chap. Typically British, if you ask me. Objectively speaking, I thought his speech rather interesting. A politician who doesn't keep promises, you say? How very odd! " Berend concluded with a chuckle.
Elly didn't answer. The fact that William Darcy, of all people, was indirectly the cause of this thinly disguised disciplinary chat with her party leader, hadn't put the man in a more favourable light. It annoyed her, and her irritation forced her to be more outspoken than she would normally have been, even more than she would have liked to be if she was honest with herself, thinking back on the rather friendly chat of this morning. Unconsciously shrugging her shoulders, she proposed returning to the party, mumbling a promise to try to be a good girl in the future.
As soon as Elly entered the restaurant, she heard a familiar voice say, "Good evening, Elly."
She turned and found herself eye to eye with the central figure of her recent chat, at this moment with his arm linked through his sister's. Elly recognised tonight's conductor standing just behind them.
"Allow me to introduce my sister. Georgiana, this is Elly van Benthem, Elly this is Georgiana Darcy."
She looked at him coolly, but managed to cast Georgiana a friendly glance. "Very pleased to meet you, Georgiana. Your performance was wonderful. I enjoyed myself very much, particularly Mozart's 20th; my absolute favourite."
"Thank you, Elly, and I'm very pleased to meet you too; William has told me so much about you."
Surprised, Elly looked at William, who, for his part, turned away at his sister's revelation.
"I like you to meet Peter Cornelissen, the conductor of our orchestra and my prop and stay." Georgiana affectionately gazed at the tall, handsome young man as she took his hand in hers.
"Very pleased to meet you, Peter, you and the orchestra did a remarkable job. My sincere compliments."
"Very pleased to meet you too, ma'am, and thank you. We all did our very best, for it's always a privilege to accompany Georgiana." He replied passionately, casting Georgiana a warm glance which she returned equally.
While they were evaluating the concert, they were interrupted by one of the journalists scouring the party for hot news. Quickly introducing himself, he pushed a microphone under their noses: "Mr. Darcy, can you tell me what went through your mind when Elly van Benthem called you a 'dork' this morning?"
Doing his best to remain civil, Darcy replied: "Actually, very little, sir, since I had no idea what Mrs. van Benthem was shouting. I don't understand Dutch. However, I wouldn't have expected it to be complimentary. But now that I do know what she said, I agree with her: You shouldn't cross a street without watching first, should you?
"Right," the reporter muttered, and continued, "I have a burning question to both of you. Is romance in the air, as the Kroniek suggests?"
"Not that I'm aware of, no!" Elly denied emphatically.
With a warm smile curling his lips, William Darcy ignored the reporter and looked straight at Elly when he answered, "Oh yes, it definitely is..."
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