Still smiling, Darcy replied, "Of course, dear sir. There's always romance in the air, it's a fact of life. Just look around you and see for yourself. Isn't that your job? But if you will excuse us now."
"But, but... Mr. Darcy, could you please explain a little..." The reporter almost begged in a last attempt to elicit more particulars.
Casting him an authoritarian glance, he interrupted him, "That will be all, sir."
As William Darcy turned his back to him, the reporter knew insisting any further was fruitless, and left to hunt other VIPs to use as tabloid fodder.
William winked at his sister, who didn't say a word but looked at him with an expression on her face that was best described as a mixture of bafflement and amusement. The latter couldn't be said of Elizabeth, quite on the contrary: if looks could kill, he would have dropped dead, right on the spot.
Elizabeth was stunned. She couldn't believe her ears. Was he out of his mind? She looked at the glass in his hand and wondered if he had had too much champagne. Elizabeth was well aware of the fact she wasn't always an example of discretion; recent events were proof of that. But to voluntarily, no, deliberately, give food to the nonsensical speculations of a tabloid reporter was beyond her. If she was being impolitic, as Berend had called her, what was William then? A complete fool? If she didn't know better, it almost looked as if he was flirting with her. She shivered inwardly.
"I think I need some fresh air. If you will excuse me?" she finally said in a flat voice.
"Certainly, Elly. I could do with some fresh air too, actually. Would you mind if I accompanied you?" William asked.
"Suit yourself," she replied coldly, wondering whether he was downright arrogant or just thick-witted to make such a suggestion as if nothing had happened. Building up an almost visible wall of icicles around her, she softly concluded between her teeth, "The damage has already been done now anyway."
"I beg your pardon?" "Oh, umm... nothing."
With a faint smile on his lips, he excused himself to his sister and her boyfriend, then followed Elizabeth, who quickly found her way to the cloakroom. When the attendant put their coats on the counter, William instinctively took hers to help. However, his polite gesture didn't appear to be that easily performed; while holding up the coat for her, Elizabeth had trouble finding her sleeves -- probably due to her agitated state of mind on the one hand, and, perhaps, a little because she wasn't quite prepared for this kind of gentlemanly behaviour from William Darcy, on the other.
For William's part, standing behind her was a fortunate thing; she wasn't able to see how very amused he was with the situation. It almost certainly would have made her angrier. When they finally managed to get her into her coat and she was buttoning it up, he casually asked, "Will you join us for a night-cap at Charles's tonight as well?"
"I was planning to, yes," she replied curtly.
"Well, why don't we walk over to the hotel then, and see a bit of The Hague by night? It's getting late and I expect the party will soon be over anyway."
Again, Elizabeth couldn't believe her ears. After what he had done, he had the nerve to ask her to guide him through the city? "It'll take at least half an hour to reach the hotel on foot, and I'm not sure if I feel like such a long walk at this hour of the night. Apart from that, I can't very well leave my bike here, at the Conservatory."
Her reservations didn't seem to discourage him and he hurriedly, and perhaps a little too eagerly added, "But isn't this the occasion par excellence to carry out your promise and show me how unconfined and varying The Hague really is? Oh, and don't worry about your bike, I'll happily hold it for you."
Remembering this morning's conversation to which he was clearly referring, Elizabeth smiled, despite her anger and determination to not let him get away with what he'd said to the reporter. "I thank you, no. Really, I'd rather not walk. From here to the centre isn't exactly the most exciting part of The Hague, and it's deserted at this time of the night as well. The few things of interest on the way are better to be admired during the day. Besides, I'm wearing very uncomfortable shoes."
William cast an appreciative glance at her feet that were indeed graced by elegant high-heeled shoes, perfectly accentuating her well-formed ankles and slender legs. "Ah, but your shoes needn't be a problem. Instead of walking, I can ride the bike while you sit in the back and show me the beauties of the city. I've seen two people on one bike here so often."
"Oh, no ... you can't ... you're not used to riding a bike. Certainly not with someone sitting on the carrier."
"You know nothing of the sort, Elly, I might surprise you."
"Don't bother, you already did, and in a most unpleasant way, I might add." Elly whispered almost inaudibly, sighing resignedly. "Very well then, since you insist. I'd like you to clear up a little matter anyway, so I might as well walk as long as it's bearable."
"Splendid! But first let me warn my sister that we're on our way to the hotel. Please, wait here. We wouldn't want to add fuel to the tabloids' fire by coming back and leaving together again, now would we?"
Elizabeth got increasingly confused, and wondered if he was truly unaware he had done just that himself not ten minutes prior! While he quickly climbed the stairs taking two steps at a time, she followed him with her eyes, shaking her head in disbelief.
Upon his return, William opened the door for her and let her pass. "Right, Elly, tell me what you meant when you said I unpleasantly surprised you, and what is it you want me to clear up?"
Elizabeth looked at him annoyed. "You know very well what I meant." Shivering a little when feeling the cool of the evening, she wrapped her coat tighter around her while walking in the direction of the bike shed, followed by William who assured her he didn't have a clue. After unlocking her bike and taking it out of the shed, she asked, "Why, William, why did you do that?"
"Why did you tell that imbecile of a reporter that there's something going on between us? What in the world came over you to confirm that there's romance in the air ! Stupid expression by the way." Elizabeth couldn't help snorting.
"Something going on between us? Is there, Elly?" "Certainly not!" "Well, why did you suggest it then?" "Wait a minute, I did not!" "Yes, you just did!" "This is outrageous!" Infuriated, Elizabeth clenched her fists so firmly around the handlebars of her bike that her knuckles turned white. "It was you who told a reporter that there was romance in the air, right?"
"Yes, I did. But I don't recall mentioning you or me for that matter."
"Implicitly you did."
"I did nothing of the sort!" William seemed to have great trouble keeping a straight face. "I merely replied to the reporter's general question on romance. After all, there always has been, always is and always will be romance in the air. There's no denying that. Actually, I didn't expect you to think a thing like that doesn't exist."
Since she was holding her bike, she could put but one finger in her ear to block him out. She then cried, "Stop it! Please! I won't listen to that silly expression anymore! Are you pulling my leg or something? I never implied anything of the sort. I meant that there isn't any romance going on between us . Oh my God, I used that damn term again!"
"Frankly, Elly, I don't know what you're talking about, but when I answered the man's question in the affirmative, immediately after your -- categorical -- denial, I wasn't thinking of myself, let alone of myself and somebody else. Actually, I was thinking of Georgiana and Peter. This very evening she told me about him, and when I met him I was happy for her, for them. He seems to be a kind, intelligent young man and, as far as I can be the judge of it, devoted to her, which she deserves."
It didn't happen very often, but Elizabeth was speechless. Since the colour of her face had turned beet red, she was thankful for the fact it was dark outside. She never felt more embarrassed in her life! However, when she looked at him and saw the amused expression on his face, she was quite convinced he wasn't all that sincere, and actually did have had the object to make fun of her in front of that bloody reporter.
"Klootzak," she whispered in Dutch, having a hard time swallowing the other abusive terms that came to mind.
Turning towards him again, she argued, "But doesn't it occur to you at all, if I understood your reply to the reporter the way I did, he probably did as well? It was a very thoughtless thing to do. You deal with the English press for crying out loud. I thought you, of all people, would know what potential damage that comment could cause." Elizabeth hissed, "I can picture the headline already: Elly van Benthem denies relationship; William Darcy confirms. Sheesh, what a mess!"
"So what? I can't imagine you care that much about what the tabloids print," William replied, ignoring her negative judgement about his person, probably not even daring to imagine what the term klootzak meant, after the previous sukkel.
Elizabeth sighed at so much naivety, played or not. "No, I don't care, not really, but I see no point either in deliberately feeding their unhealthy need fornon-news."
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, William was the first to speak again. "I am curious to know though what made you think that I meant you and me."
Rather wishing to change the subject, she replied somewhat defensively, "Well, that's rather obvious, isn't it? Firstly, the reporter was referring to an article aboutusand secondly, when you answered the reporter's question after I had, you were looking at me in a certain way."
"I did? In what way?"
She realised if she didn't watch out, she'd make things worse. "I don't know... you sort of stared at me and smiled, as if to give what you said a particular significance, as if you deliberately wanted to undermine my statement. Is that a habit of yours, by the way? I mean, staring at people? Actually, I feel stared at a lot by you."
"I'm sorry, Elly, I wasn't aware I did that. If that's the case, it's unconsciously done. Perhaps I just can't help appreciating an eloquent woman such as yourself. I, for one, don't really recommend myself to strangers, but you're different. And you can't possibly blame me for looking at you while you speak. It would be utterly impolite if I didn't."
Elizabeth couldn't help smiling. "You don't recommend yourself to strangers, huh? How very inconvenient, considering the public function you're carrying out. And what about the potential voters in your constituency you need to convince? Perhaps you should practice more, William. Anyway, whatever you were thinking of or not, you cannot deny the logic of my deduction, particularly in the light of that article in the Kroniek."
She decided to swallow her anger and conjured a smile. "Too funny, come to think of it. How indeed could I have thought for one moment that you meant to say there's something between us: two people who are so utterly and completely incompatible as we are!"
"Utterly and completely incompatible? Why are you so certain of that?"
"Give me a break, William! Can you imagine a fervent supporter and an avid opponent of the foxhunt under one and the same roof? A man who wishes his wife to remain at home but who doesn't want her to give up her career? Oh dear, all those fights about dinners she can't cook for him because she's too busy. A relationship like that could never work!"
"Hmm, a woman's imagination is rapid indeed. Convinced about the impossibility of it all, you still sort of give free rein to your fantasies and picture the two of us under one and the same roof, quarrelling about foxes and food. Interesting."
"A woman's imagination? William, I don't believe a phenomenon such as imagination is to be characterised as either feminine or masculine, let alone to be so grossly generalised."
"Maybe not, but to return to your observations regarding opposite opinions, objectively speaking those are differences that might be worked out in a democratic way, through discussions in which valuable arguments of both parties are taken into consideration in the aim to meet each other half-way, at least. In short, by practising the strategy you Dutch use for your economic development, also known as the consentional model."
"Ah yes, our notorious poldermodel." Elizabeth chuckled. "That sounds all very rational and true... not to mention, funny. But I'm not talking economic strategies here. Believe me, I will never fall in love with a person who has ideas diametrically opposite to my own."
"Elly, you astonish me. Do you think your ideas are normative and those of others to be despised? Isn't there a remote possibility that one could learn from the other, complement the other? Besides, wouldn't it be a bit dull, in the end, if a couple always agreed on everything?"
"No, of course not! Are you suggesting I'm narrow-minded? For whom do you take me? Are you wilfully misunderstanding me or just teasing?" Elizabeth was annoyed. "Between love and contempt, there's a wide range of both positive and negative feelings one can have for another person, but in a relationship two persons should at least have a few conceptions and interests in common."
"You have a point there, but most of the time you don't know all that when you first become attracted to a person, do you? A pair of fine eyes, the sound of a voice or a pleasing figure are more likely to do the trick, I think. Did you ever fall in love with someone because of his taste in literature? However relevant, I can't imagine you did."
"If one believes in love at first sight, you're right, William. It's the looks, the scent, if you will. But in other cases, no, I don't agree. When you know the person longer, are acquainted with his ideas, opinions and tastes that are definitely not yours, it's not very likely you'd fall in love with that particular person. But wonders will never cease, I suppose, and love could grow gradually, despite seemingly unbridgeable obstacles."
"Well, now that we've raised the subject anyway, why not find out if our assumed incompatibility is as absolute as you seem to think it is? But before that, allow me to remove one bridgeable obstacle first."
Before she knew it, he took the bike from her to put it on its stand. The next thing she felt was his hand lifting her chin, and, while bending forward to her, he pressed his lips softly on hers.
Elizabeth was so taken by surprise that even if she uttered some unintelligible cries in protest, she didn't really make an attempt to stop him. And if she was honest with herself, she didn't want it to stop. His lips caused such funny electrical little jolts on hers, and the immediate sensation flowing through her body was so pleasurable, she actually closed her eyes to appreciate all that went through her to the fullest. Not knowing at first what to do with her arms hanging next to her body, she shyly lifted them and let her hands rest on his upper arms: lightly at first, then firmer when they continued to kiss.
Encouraged by her response, William pulled her closer to him and, when after a while their lips alone weren't enough to satisfy their search for compatibility, they started to use that utterly sensitive organ with which they explored the feel and the taste of their mouths more deeply. Above all, they enjoyed the union of the new territories that quite unexpectedly had become frontier free.
The kiss was sensual and seductive, lecherous and lustful, dainty and divine. It tasted sweet, but not too sweet, it was wet, but not too wet. It was just right ... or exquisite would perhaps be a more appropriate term. They licked, nibbled, sucked and even bit, ever so delicately, mind you. Breathing through their noses, they inhaled each other's scent, and their hands, seemingly leading a life of their own, were enjoying the warmth of each other's body as well as the softness of their hair.
Was it the champagne? Was it their silly conversation on their presumed romance? Was it the culmination of the conflicting emotions they had both undergone since they first met? Whatever it was that made this happen, it was fact that they were focussing entirely on this brand new aspect of their acquaintance and soon forgot all about time and space.
And that, by the way, wasn't such a bad thing since the location where this extraordinary event was taking place was noLovers' Lane, but, at night, quite a desolate corner of the city where hardly a soul was to be found; the back area of The Hague's central station, where old residential areas had given way to modern office blocks. Even though architecture was at least one field of interest they had in common, at this particular moment the beauty of the new buildings of the National Archives or Royal Library escaped them entirely. Their priorities lay elsewhere. Neither wished to break the spell; not only because they earnestly took pleasure in the physical activity to which they had both surrendered, but also because of a sort of vague apprehension in the back of their head of what might happen afterwards.
After a few minutes of intense gratification, Elizabeth couldn't help meditating that, their contrary political and social opinions notwithstanding, the kiss they were sharing was nothing but a sublime example of perfect harmony. Truth be told, however stiff-upper-lippishWilliam's speech was, he definitely didn'tkissthat way. Underneath that reserved attitude there was hidden a man who could be calledlively, to say the least. She found his kissing abilities to die for and, competitive as she was, she had no problem whatsoever showing him, with eager diligence, that she wasn't bad at it either. No man had ever kissed her so delectably, and she wondered who had taught him. Caroline Bingley?
Poor Elizabeth. Why did she have to think of Charles Bingley's silly, pretentious sister, of all people? What a shame! The image of that woman kissing William Darcy positively spoiled the magic of the moment and most cruelly brought her back to planet Earth.
When she tore her lips away from his and looked him in the eye with a mixture of elation and embarrassment, he cast her a triumphant but slightly smug smile. Casually brushing a loose lock of hair from her forehead, he softly questioned, "Tell me honestly, Elly. Don't you think things aren't as bad as that in the compatibility department? And, who knows, this little something in the air -- that I wouldn't dare call by its name again in your presence -- might be contagious."
Amused and a little befuddled by his wit and composure, she remained silent but managed to conjure a smile on her face. She straightened her coat and searched her purse for a mirror to check on the state of her lips and hair. She giggled nervously when she discovered there was lipstick on her face almost everywhere except where it should be: on her lips. Looking at William and observing he had his fair share of her lipstick smeared on his face, she searched for a handkerchief and without thinking, carefully wiped it from his face and her own. While conscientiously applying herself to the task at hand, she shook her head. "Oh my, why did I let this happen? What have I done?"
"You kissed me, we kissed." "I know that, but how, why...? I mean, this was the last thing I had in mind!"
"How, why? I'm sure you remember! It's not that long ago."
Keeping a perfectly straight face, he continued, "Allow me to refresh your memory. I was so bold as to press my lips on yours and I'd call that what followed a perfectly politically correct expression of affection. I believe we owe this satisfactory kiss to an unexpected bilateral agreement of two, until now, opposing parties. A kiss, moreover, that, if repeated on a regular basis, will greatly contribute to the improvement of Dutch-British relations."
Now Elizabeth laughed out loud. At first acquaintance, he hadn't exactly struck her as witty. She couldn't but admit he had proved to have a sense of humour more than once that evening.
Her heart still pounding fast and her breathing slightly irregular, she dearly hoped he wouldn't notice -- she felt a little timid with the awkwardness of the situation. "Politically correct, you say. Hmm... I'll have to think about that." Cheekily she added, "It has never happened to me before that a man has put me so on the spot like you just did; therefore, I'm not completely sure, but this could be described as unilateral action after all. In our political climate we normally but undertake action after ample deliberations. As far as Dutch-British relations are concerned, they haven't been really bad, I believe, since our quarrels about the territorial waters came to an end ages ago. And, if I remember correctly, we don't thank the improvement of those relations to a kiss."
"No indeed not, dear Elly, but in our case, where first impressions weren't that favourable and relations somewhat disturbed because of a minor incident, we'll just have to start making amends in one way or the other, now won't we?"
"So, this is your way tostartwhen amends need to be made." And not really knowing what to do or say next, she proposed to continue their way. Suiting her actions to her words, she fetched her bike, and suddenly noticed she walked somewhat unsteadily. She wasn't sure whether that had something to do with the physical effects of the kiss, which definitely had weakened her knees, her high heels or both. Whatever the reason, she dearly wished to sit down somewhere and kick off her shoes as soon as possible.
Again, William offered to ride the bike. "Come on, Elly, I can see you can't walk any longer. Trust me. You jump on the back and I'll pedal."
Elizabeth was a little embarrassed he had noticed her unsteady step, so her -- mistaken -- pride made her refuse to yield to temptation, despite her aching and tired feet. "William, you surprise me! Not one, but two MPs on one bike, no less! That'll be the day! Consider our position, apart from it not being very safe. Aren't you afraid your reputation might be at stake?"
"Spare me your sarcasms, Elly. Hop on and show me the way back to the hotel! I've noticed there are cycle tracks almost everywhere you go, so it's unlikely that we'll be hit by a car."
Having no other valid objection come to mind, she decided to make the best of a bad bargain and sat down on the carrier; both legs on one side, leaning a little backwards to keep her balance. William took off, with his passenger ready to leave the deserted scene of their search for compatibility.
Although a little awkward at first -- which coaxed a few cries of concern from his 'charge' in the back -- William acquitted himself quite well of his task, clearly enjoying the feeling of Elly's arm around his waist, whilst her hand was holding on to his coat for support.
Lost in thought about what had occurred, neither dramatising the event but both wondering what the consequences would be, they didn't talk much on the way. Elly limited herself to guiding William through the part in question of nocturnal The Hague and he simply followed her instructions. And so, they reached the hotel in less than ten minutes, where, to Elizabeth's surprise, William asked for the key to her cycle lock. Requesting him to park the bike in a safe place as if it were one of the many BMWs or Mercedes gracing the parking space of the hotel, he handed the key to the perplexed porter who recognised both bike-rider and passenger. After generously having tipped the more-than-grateful hotel employee, they entered the vast lobby of Charles Bingley's hotel.
Basking in the golden light of numerous chandeliers, Elizabeth was enchanted. The thick, velvety, warm red carpet absorbing the sound of her footsteps; the rich, beautifully draped curtains; the exotic plants; cream coloured walls graced with gold trimmed mirrors; the richly decorated fireplace; the wide, stately staircase and the void in the middle... every single detail that caught her eye suffused the grandeur of the 19th century town palace it once was. The Victorian atmosphere of the interior and the subdued bustle of the small groups of elegantly dressed, handsomely bejewelled and predominantly elderly guests, talking, laughing, enjoying a drink, or just reading a newspaper, made Elizabeth ponder that The Hague was in many ways a city of nostalgia and past glory. This hotel most certainly was one of the numerous locations in the city that reminded you of Holland's colonial past, since a great number of ex-colonials had chosen that town as their last refuge after having made their fortune in the former Dutch Indies. Indeed, it could not have had a more appropriate name: Hotel Tropic of Emerald .
Observing the hotel guests, she suddenly realised that she must look totally out of place with her messy hair and make-up. When she expressed a wish to freshen up, William invited her to his suite, where she had ample opportunity to do anything she thought necessary and where they could have a quiet drink in anticipation of the arrival of their party. However, before she could even reply, a familiar voice behind them cried, "William, darling, delighted to see you." It was Caroline Bingley.
- 'Klootzak', Dutch abusive term, best English equivalent: 'asshole'.
- 'Polder Model' is a term for Holland's (once) successful consensus-based economy, which is defined by wage-moderation, restrained public spending and reforms to labour market and social system.
And a darling here, and a darling there, here a darling, there a darling, everywhere a darling...How very annoying; Caroline's irritating filler drummed through Elly's head to the tune of Old Macdonald Had a Farm almost all evening, and even now that she was home it seemed impossible to rid herself of that blasted repetitive rhythm
Her discontentment grew. Her way of address, pathetic! The tone of her voice... gosh, what a phoney! It suddenly occurred to Elly that Caroline Bingley was the spitting image of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. The very thought cheered her up, and she couldn't help giggling. Well, as far as I can judge, she doesn't constantly nurse a bottle of vodka, but the resemblance is striking all the same. The difference being Patsy is a hilarious fictitious character in a comedy. No, Elly didn't exactly find Caroline entertaining and resented the pleasure she took in her own sarcasms. Fortunately, she was quite alone in that. Poor woman. What a pitiable creature she is! Elly imitated Caroline's voice and air, catching her reflection in her bathroom mirror.
A sudden feeling of exhaustion overtook her, and she longed for bed. While brushing her teeth, she reviewed the memorable evening in her mind; her conversation with William when leaving the Conservatory together, the kiss -- particularly the kiss -- the ride to the hotel and Caroline's shocked demeanour when she noticed the dishevelled state of Darcy and herself. Clearly doing her best to keep her true opinion in check, Caroline had advised them icily to have a peek in the mirror.
Elly couldn't help but imagine with some sort of delicious delight what agonies the woman must have suffered, wondering about all the things that might have happened on the way. Their tardy arrival at the hotel together in a rather tousled state must have increased Caroline's revulsion in having to spend time in her company to insurmountable heights.
Elly's smile, reflected in the mirror, froze shortly after that thought. If it hadn't been for a certain conversation between two gentlemen and Caroline's continuous digs to which, in the meantime, she had sort of grown accustomed, the get-together could have been an enjoyable affair. Unfortunately, the great and mighty Darcy had ruined everything yet again.
When she quitted the ladies', following Caroline's none-too-subtle hint, she had picked up scraps of a conversation between William and Charles. When approaching the lobby, she saw them sitting at a table, their backs to her, waiting for the rest of the party. Something Darcy said had made her stop dead in her tracks. To ensure she remained out of sight, she'd stepped aside to hide behind a huge fern close by. Eavesdropping wasn't her style, but she couldn't help it, curiosity had gotten the better of her. She had taken her powder box out of her purse so as to not arouse the suspicion of accidental passers-by, while listening with ears cocked to what the two men were saying. Unfortunately, their chat had neither cheered her, nor put Darcy in a more favourable light; despite the lively banter they had had on the way to the hotel, despite... the kiss.
That damned kiss! She couldn't think of it without blushing. If she was truly honest with herself, it was really all she could think about. Overpowered by embarrassment and vexation, she prayed there had been nobody there to witness their impetuous moment. It was the most ill-judged thing she had done since... well, since, calling Darcy a dork in the presence of the press, even though she hadn't been aware of that, not even aware of the fact it had been Darcy. She was now extremely disappointed, she had been right; he was a dork, a jerk, a miserable bastard!
"Give me a break, Charles, the love of your life?" She had heard Darcy say. How long have you known her? Two minutes?"
Angrily, Elly imitated the sarcasm in his voice into the mirror.
The rest of their discussion was indelibly stamped on her memory."She's an angel, Darcy, a bloody angel, and crazy about me, believe me!"
"Don't get carried away, old boy! She seems to enjoy your company, but doesn't that continuous smile strike you as somewhat fake? Haven't seen her without it so far. I think she smiles just a little too much."
While the gentlemen were arguing back and forth, she had noticed to her exasperation that, in the end, Charles became hesitant. After some final weak objections, he had asked Darcy if he was 'positive' to which the latter had replied he couldn't possibly be a hundred percent certain, but feared his friend's perspective was a little muddled. "Charles," he had continued, "I've seen you in love many times before, and as many times you've ended up either disappointed or hurt. Of course you wish your affection for that girl to be reciprocated, but I most strongly urge you to not be blinded by a pretty face, my friend."
Elly had heard enough. That girl?! There wasn't a doubt in her mind: he was talking about Janneke! Her sister, a fake smile? The nerve of that man! What a judgmental prick. Inwardly she fumed. He had hardly seen them together! Nobody had seen them much together, for the simple reason that they hadn't had a chance to be in one another's company much so far, but that wasn't the point! Words failed to express her fury, and if anyone could have seen her at that very moment, he would have kept his distance for safety's sake; her eyes were spitting fire, she clenched her fists and could barely resist the urge to stamp her feet.
She had been tempted to walk toward the two men and slap Charles's assiduous, but highly incompetent relationship counsellor right in the face. Obviously, she didn't know Charles well enough to know to what extent he valued his friend's opinion, but she dearly hoped he'd follow his own instincts. Janneke wasn't the type to show her feelings, but she was in love, head over heels, and so was Charles. She was certain about that. How dare that man interfere, what a nasty meddler! She thought back to what he had said about the Dutch in general and about her in particular in the pub. With a shock, she suddenly recalled what Wiek had told her about his work placement in London. That did it for her, she was turned off completely and decided to keep her distance from that man the rest of the evening -- no, the rest of her life -- if she could help it.
After a long refreshing shower, Elly put on her pyjamas and slipped into bed. She couldn't sleep though. She kept tossing and turning, brooding about the past events. Why had she kissed that man? Worse, why had she so eagerly responded to his kiss? Moreover, why couldn't she think back to it without that faint, pleasant flutter in her belly, while she so wished to be disgusted and forget all about it. The mixture of embarrassment, humiliation and pleasure made her confused, self-conscious and insecure. During the party, she had done her best to avoid the looks he had cast her. Surely, he must have been puzzled by her unresponsive attitude, and couldn't possibly have understood her coolness the rest of the evening. He had offered to accompany her home and the hurt look on his face when she resolutely declined had not escaped her. She couldn't have cared less.
Poor Janneke. She couldn't stop raving about Charles once they were home. Giggling, she had told Elly how very proper Charles had been. "He didn't even ask me to spend the night with him," she had said, a little surprised. Actually, he had been a little formal even when they had said goodbye -- a kiss on the cheek, that was it.
As prudently as possible, she had tried to point out that Janneke's own modest attitude might have caused his subdued reaction, but Janneke had brushed her suggestion aside. "Lord no, Elly, he's just your typical Brit: gentlemanly and reserved," had been her cheerful conclusion.Elly hoped she was right, but feared her wishes were against her better judgement.
When, finally, she found oblivion in Morpheus' arms, Elly was haunted by a dream in which incoherent, fragmented events happened in rapid succession. And so, Elly woke up the next morning, totally disoriented, having her feet located where her head should be, and suffering from a severe headache.
Since she rarely suffered from restless dreams, she was intrigued, and racked her brain to solve the strange puzzle of events in an attempt to recreate and comprehend it. Little by little, images returned. She had this blurred memory of an exchange of passionate, if not erotic kisses with a perfect stranger. The next moment she had heard the man shout 'tally-ho'! So very odd! What did he mean by that? She knew she had been angry, she had objected, cried and demanded him to stop. Stop what? A fox! Yes, it was because of a fox! She wanted to rescue a fox that was desperately trying to escape from its inevitable fate. However, her voice had been drowned by big city noises, mingled with delicate piano music, the characteristic mellow tone of a hunting horn and the clatter of hoofs. Dark eyes were scrutinising her, hands were touching her; a continuous clicking of cameras had resounded in the back of her head.
Elly was amused and mortified at the same time. How easy it was now to put two and two together; and what a twisted compilation of the events of the previous day it was! She was tired, very tired. With great reluctance, she stepped out of bed and, a little unsteadily, walked to the bathroom.
Not having the courage to face her sister, she washed and dressed as quickly as she could, swallowed two aspirins and, without making a sound, left the house. Since her part in the conference was over, she wasn't really expected there but for the closing gala at Charles's hotel later that night. So, she headed for her office at the Binnenhof to get back to business as usual. She'd solemnly promised Janneke to attend the ball and wasn't planning to disappoint her. But the way things were now, she wasn't exactly looking forward to it, despite the gorgeous, blue silk dress she had bought for the occasion, and her fondness for dancing, notwithstanding. With a faint smile on her lips, she imagined herself dancing a sexy salsa in her new outfit, with... with... yes, with whom? Ah well, as if that man could dance a dance like that anyway. I bet he's never heard of anything but the Viennese waltz or foxtrot... Fuck! Another fox! This is what I call Freudian, Elly concluded giggling.
She opened the first dossier on the pile on her desk. Right, she had almost forgotten; the new hunting bill, to be discussed in the afternoon with the Minister of Agriculture in the Standing Committee for Agriculture. "Getver!" She cried aloud, "It's official, this fox business is going to haunt me forever." Reluctantly, she started to read Berend's briefing that lay on top, promising herself to try to forget and focus on her work, and comforting herself with the thought William and she were too different to make any kind of relationship work.
Darcy hadn't fared much better that night. Quite worn out, bewildered and bathing in sweat, he awoke from a nightmarish dream; one that hadn't only frightened the hell out of him, but had also embarrassingly aroused him. Obviously, he didn't remember all of it, just some fragments: a young woman and he were in a bright-lit bedroom, lying on a bed, stark naked, surrounded by numerous cameras. People were talking, shouting, walking up and down. It looked like a movie set where the next scene was about to be shot. God, it had seemed so real! What had happened next made him blush beet red. What was worse, in his dream he hadn't even cared about the public exposure the young woman and he had been submitted to.
Mortified, Darcy shuddered, fruitlessly attempting to dispel the images from his head, wondering what the meaning of this horrid subconscious exhibitionism was. He concluded that in his dream the tabloid article, his reply to the reporter, not to mention the kiss, had been drawn totally out of proportion. He frowned. What is this Dutch girl doing to me, damn it? I don't recognise myself.
He turned on his back and linked his hands behind his head. Staring at the stuccoed cupids on the ceiling, seemingly aiming their arrows at him, he asked himself why Elly's attitude towards him had altered so profoundly the night prior. She had clearly done her best to avoid him during the gathering. Odd. After all, the way she had responded to his kiss should have been a precursor to something far more pleasant. Who knows, perhaps activities similar to the more enjoyable parts of his dream, but, alas, it was not to be. He had no clue why Elly had been so reserved and cold after what had happened, and he was quite put out by it. As a general rule, he had great trouble dealing with incomprehensible, unpredictable behaviour. "Woman, I cannot make you out; thy name is capriciousness," he whispered, sighing.
The question was, did he regret his actions? He couldn't help but admit he didn't, quite the contrary. Actually, he wished for more of her, much more. Never in his life had he kissed a woman like that, never before had a kiss felt, had tasted so breathtakingly delicious, so fresh, so new, so... so... like it should, so utterly sensuous. Yes, that was how it had been. She had definitely not given the impression she liked it any less than he. The soft pressure of her lips on his, her impertinent tongue eagerly invading his mouth as if it were new territory in need of exploration and mapping, her hands stroking his back and hair, had left him in no doubt of her own enjoyment. Closing his eyes, he licked his lips, revelling in the memory of the taste and feel, ignoring the less pleasant taste of morning breath in his mouth.
Looking at his watch, he cursed; it was still very early. Despite the ungodly hour, he decided to get up and take a stroll. Looking out of the window of his hotel room, he noticed the weather was a perfect reflection of his mood: cloudy, foggy, and not likely to improve anytime soon. A steady rain was falling on the well-trimmed lawns and in the puddles on the pavement of the still-deserted Lange Voorhout. "Well, at least the weather makes me feel at home," he grumbled. He had time to spare and could do with some fresh air. His active role in the conference was over, but in the afternoon, he wanted to listen to a few speakers whose lectures were of interest to him. Then, of course, there was tonight's ball -- an event he generally preferred to avoid if he could help it. He was astonished though to discover an unexpected eagerness this time. Obviously, that had to do with the probable presence of a certain person. Despite her changed attitude, he was determined to ask her to dance with him.
He imagined holding her lovely body in his arms, drowning himself in her fine eyes, waltzing the night away... Darcy couldn't help smiling at his own thought. Knowing her a little better now, he was convinced the idea of a waltz wouldn't be quite as appealing to her as to him; excessively old-fashioned, no doubt! Already he could see the irony in her eyes, he could hear her laughter while replying, "I thank you, no, William, I'd rather dance a salsa." Surely, she wouldn't object to a foxtrot, he pondered, amused. Blast, I must not have this woman bewitch me, have her control my thoughts. He yawned. Thank God, I'll be back in England soon. I'm sure I'll forget all about her in no time. Groaning, he stretched his fatigued body and walked in the direction of the bathroom, figuring a hot shower would benefit him greatly.
He called room service to bring some toast, marmalade, tea and juice and though he had no great appetite, he forced himself to eat a slice of toast, washing it down with a cup of tea, after which he discreetly left the hotel. Looking up at the dark sky, he turned up the collar of his coat and opened his umbrella. He hastily passed the Denneweg as if he was afraid of another unfortunate encounter with Elly, crossed the bridge over the Mauritskade Canal and, more at his leisure, walked in the direction of Scheveningen where he expected the westerly wind would clear his head.
Despite his dark mood, he couldn't help enjoying this romantic, quiet village-like part of old The Hague, a part of town he had discovered when searching for an apartment for Georgiana. It was too early to call on her, so he crossed the pretty court of almshouses where he had bought one for her. These courts, containing small houses, traditionally meant for destitute, single senior citizens, were now sought-after by yuppies for whom neither trouble nor expense had been too great to turn these characteristic 17th and 18th century buildings into little gems.
Following the tour he had done with Georgiana the last time he was in The Hague, he crossed the Javastraat, walked in the direction of the Peace Palace* and turned into the Scheveningseweg. With enthusiasm, Georgiana had told him that this used to be a dirt road that had been paved in the 17th century, especially for the fisherman's wives who had to walk all the way from Scheveningen to the fish market in the inner city of The Hague to sell their merchandise. She had explained these women thanked this to Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Stadtholder Willem II and one of Holland's famous poets, who thought it a disgrace those poor women had to walk for miles and miles through sand carrying their heavy charges. Typically, Georgiana, Darcy pondered warmly, always bearing affection for the less privileged.
Upon his arrival at the seaside, Darcy's empathy for the fishermen's wives was at least as great as Huygens's. It had been quite a walk, even over paved roads! He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh tonic of sea air. It did him the world of good. Looking down at his shoes, he hesitated to actually walk across the sand towards the water. Contemplating his footwear, he couldn't help wondering what Elly's expression would be when noting his traditional full brogues. Bloody hell, that woman makes me feel so self-conscious, he chastised himself. What do I care what she thinks! Still, as if to oblige her, he decided to disregard his shoes and walk down the stairs to the beach, crossing the moist, soft sand in the direction of the sea.
Contemplating the somewhat surreal sight the immense bluish-grey water surface produced when fusing itself with the dark grey of the sky at the horizon, a feeling of disorientation overwhelmed Darcy. This sentiment was emphasised by the continuous, rhythmic rolling, hence and forth, of the white-crested waves, an image only interrupted by a flight of loudly shrieking seagulls hunting for fish.
Tasting the salt on his lips, he imagined himself a sea captain who lost control over his ship, dreading if it would ever reach port safely. "How fitting," he murmured. His whispered words were blown away by the wind almost before he uttered them. Stop acting the romantic, Darcy! Do yourself a favour. Didn't you notice she's not really interested? And... why in the world would you be interested in her? A feminist, a career-woman? not even English. Hoping, rather than believing this thought could help him get over his attraction to Elly van Benthem, Darcy decided to try to ban the thought of a relationship with her from his mind.
"Meneer, gooi die bal even, alstublieft?"
The sound of someone addressing him awakened him from his musings. He shivered. It was a cold day indeed. Turning his head to where the sound of the voice was coming, he replied, somewhat confused, "Excuse me?"
"The ball, sir, the ball! Please?" He noticed a man a little further down the beach wildly gesticulating.
Darcy bent his head and looked right into the soft brown eyes of a young golden retriever whose presence had escaped him entirely, lost in thought as he was. He sat at his feet, one paw lifted, pleading eyes, begging for the ball he had deposited there. It was such an endearing sight, Darcy couldn't help smiling. He bowed towards the dog, stroked his head and picked up the ball. He tossed it in the direction of the owner and heard the man cry, "Kom dan, Hector, kom!" But the dog didn't need any encouragement. On his own accord, he went after the ball at full speed.
When Darcy was on the verge of returning to the Boulevard, the man called again. "Just a moment, sir."
"Beg your pardon?"
The man walked closer to Darcy, followed by his dog. "I didn't recognise you immediately. I know you, even though we weren't formally introduced."
"Yes. You're Fitzwilliam Darcy, aren't you? I was so fortunate as to be in the audience when you delivered your speech at the conference, which, by the way, I thought quite interesting. Apart from that, I had the pleasure of listening to your sister's excellent concerto yesterday evening."
"Ah, indeed. Thank you."
"But, how rude of me, let me introduce myself. The name's Woud, Berend Woud, I'm an MP for the Dutch Labour Party in our House of Representatives, so we're colleagues, although representing opposite parties." Berend cast him a friendly smile.
"Ah, quite. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Woud."
Shaking Darcy's outstretched hand, Berend suggested they look for a place where it was warm and comfortable. "Mr. Darcy, I haven't yet reached my caffeine level in order to function properly, so I'm badly in need of a strong espresso or two. Would you care to join me? There's a beach café over there that's already open."
Darcy grinned and nodded affirmatively. "Yes, why ever not, thank you, it's a cold day, and actually I could do with a cup of tea."
"Splendid! Tea it will be then, you're not British for nothing, are you?" Berend laughed.
Darcy couldn't help looking a little sheepishly at so much familiarity on first acquaintance. "I presume, I've just confirmed one of those persistent stereotypes about the British?"
"Ha! You presume correctly, Mr. Darcy. Excuse me for being so frank, but I think you British keep these stereotypes very much alive yourselves!"
"Definitely! Never a TV show without anybody offering a cup of tea at some point, or someone suggesting to 'put the kettle on'."
Darcy smiled. "Since you've mentioned it, you're right, but until now I've never given it a second thought. Shall we go then?"
"Sure!" And turning towards the dog, Berend cried, "Hector, kom!"
Darcy's eyes were momentarily drawn to what appeared to be a shiny and bright green stone in the sand. It seemed a somewhat alien object between the rather tarnished greyish brown colours of the North Sea shells. Picking up the flat translucent item, he saw it was a beach stone.
"That's what I call a pretty beach stone, Mr. Darcy," Berend said watching Darcy turning it in his hand. "Amazing isn't it, how sand, sea, wind and time, not forgetting, can turn a piece of broken glass into something so nice."
Absentmindedly tucking it in the pocket of his coat, Darcy couldn't help comparing it with Elly: a bright shining star amongst the colourless masses, dressed in their grey pinstriped suits? He imagined it having set in a delicate gold necklace and being allowed to lock it around her pretty neck. Immediately abandoning this ridiculous thought from his mind, he finally replied, "It's pretty indeed, Mr. Woud."
"Please, call me Berend."
"Very well, Berend, William to you."
Having the western wind and gusting sand at their backs, leaving deep footprints in the soft sandy soil, the two men slogged their way to the café while Berend amiably chatted along about the conference proceedings, and last night's concerto, Darcy, unable to rid himself of the image of Elly's slender neck, contented himself with an occasional affirmative nod of the head, or a 'thank you', 'yes', 'indeed' or 'ah!'
When Berend opened the door, they were welcomed by the pleasant scent of fresh coffee, unfortunately mixed with the remnants of the cooking smells of the evening prior. However, it was nice and cosy inside and Berend proposed a table near the hearth. When the two men sat, and Berend had ordered coffee, tea and water for his dog, he said, "Well, William, I understand your first acquaintance with my colleague Elly van Benthem was quite... umm... unceremonial, yesterday morning?"
"Elly van Benthem, right, I suppose you're referring to that silly article about our near-collision on the street?" Darcy frowned.
"Indeed I do!" Berend replied with a wink, but for obvious reasons, concealed the fact he had discussed the matter with her personally. "As I understand it though, from a verbal perspective, it was an actual crash, wasn't it? If one should believe what's written in the Kroniek, that is."
A little annoyed inwardly, Darcy remained polite and forced a smile on his face. "Ah, I suppose you can call it a collision in that regard."
"Anyway, I do hope you won't hold her abusive words towards you against her."
"Goodness, no, not at all. I thought it rather refreshing actually to be called something nobody's dared call me before. At least, not to my face. Besides, it wasn't my first verbal hurly-burly with her. She's quite the debater." Here Darcy hesitated for a moment. "Actually, we had already met the evening before the umm... incident. In a pub, to be precise, where I learned a lot about her umm... beliefs and convictions."
"I'm not surprised; she's quite an opinionated, outspoken sort of a girl. She's not always as politic as a politician ought to be, perhaps, and as the chairman of our group in the House, I wouldn't mind if she'd be a little less blunt on some occasions, but on the whole, we all appreciate her for her intelligence, honesty and zeal."
"Indeed, she comes across as a smart, lively young woman." Casually putting the teacup to his mouth, Darcy looked away, not wanting to reveal her intelligence, however attractive, wasn't the only thing that came to mind when he was thinking of her. At all costs, he wished to prevent anybody but themselves from knowing how well he was acquainted with her lips, her mouth and the soft touch of her body. And judging from the inquisitive look on his face, Darcy got the distinct impression Berend was sort of angling. He wondered why.
The latter took a sip of his coffee and continued, "She's quite emotional too, you know, which is her strength as well as her weakness. It makes her jump to conclusions from time to time."
"You don't say?" was all Darcy replied, furrowing his brow.
"Ah well, politics is very much a man's world still, and I often notice my female colleagues have this strong urge to prove themselves. Elly, for one, has her father to thank for a large part of her confidence. He's a gentleman farmer, who has always had the strongest belief in her abilities, and supports her in everything she undertakes."
"A farmer's daughter!" Darcy exclaimed, not able to conceal his astonishment.
"Yes, she most definitely is. Her father has his farm in the south of the country. Does that surprise you?"
"Umm... no, yes, well, I had no idea." Darcy felt caught. He had assessed her to be the daughter of a businessman, though he didn't know why. A farmer's daughter would never have crossed his mind.
"She's the second of five girls, by the way."
"Goodness, five girls!" Darcy cried, knowing how trying it could be at times to have but one sister! "Her poor father! Is it possible for one single man to hold his own against six women?"
Berend laughed. "Don't worry, he doesn't give the impression of suffering from it. He's a well-educated man, and loves nothing better than to retire to his study, whenever he gets the chance to be away from the noise his family can produce. The only thing he regrets is he has no successor. None of his girls are interested in continuing the farm. But he's very proud of them, particularly of the two eldest who have splendid careers."
"Obviously, you're well acquainted with the family."
"I'm a friend of the family actually. It's always a pleasure to spend some time amidst them. I visit them occasionally during the weekend, and their informal ways are quite refreshing after a week of essentially tiresome, boring meetings in the House. Sometimes I wish I was an English MP."
"Why is that?"
"Have you ever experienced a meeting in our House? Don't tell anyone I said this, but too often, they are utterly soporific! We Dutch aren't exactly known for our debating skills, you know. Wish we had more of the liveliness of the debates in your House of Commons." After a short pause, he added, "William, what would you say if I invited you to lunch, take you to a meeting afterwards to experience one of the most effective sedatives ever invented?"
"Ah, does it show I didn't have much sleep last night?" Darcy grinned. "Thank you, I'll happily join you. You mustn't think, though, our meetings are so exciting all the time. We make a lot of approving or disapproving noises, true, call that lively, if you will, but it doesn't always mean the debates are compelling, far from it."
"I'm sure you're right, but you British MPs at least give the impression you're listening to what someone else has to say, whether they agree or not. From our point of view it's terribly funny to hear your speaker shout: 'Order, order', when things are seemingly getting out of hand." Laughing, Berend imitated what he thought was a posh English accent.
A little baffled, Darcy looked at his partner in conversation. He hadn't seen anything witty in what the man had just said, and didn't really know how to respond.
"Anyway, this afternoon there's a meeting of the Standing Commission for Agriculture about the foxhunt that might interest you. Let's meet at twelve p.m. in the Binnenhof, I'll fetch you there. We needn't stay long, just to give you an impression about how things work here."
Good lord, of all possible issues, he proposes a meeting on the foxhunt! I don't believe my ears.
"That's settled then. But you must excuse me, it's time for me to go." Raising his arm, Berend snapped his fingers. "Kelner, afrekenen graag!" Obviously understanding from his gesture what Berend was up to, Darcy took out his wallet from his jacket saying, "Let's go Dutch, Berend."
"Go Dutch?" Berend cried laughing aloud. "There are quite a few English expressions, aren't there, in which 'Dutch' is either used as a subject, object or adjective, umm... mostly not in a positive way really."
Darcy opened his mouth, wanting to apologise, but before he could say something, Berend hushed him. "No, wait, let me think. Ah, yes, I know what this means: you want to split costs! No need, William. I invited you, so it's my treat, I insist."
Darcy was not able to entirely hide his embarrassment. He never meant to be offensive as he was only proposing a common English practice. He wished he'd bitten off his tongue before using this unfortunate expression...
- 'Getver' = the equivalent of 'yuck' in a literal sense, but in this case used as a milder form of 'damn'. Pronunciation: make a sound as if something's stuck in your throat and you're almost choking, then say 'adverb' without the 'b' ;)
- Darcy's dream has been inspired by an interview with Colin Firth in which he explains the shooting of a certain scene in his movie 'Where the Truth Lies'.
- The Peace Palace is, amongst other things, the home of the International Court of Justice and one of The Hague's main tourist attractions. In 1904 Andrew Carnegie offered a 1,5 million dollar cheque to the Dutch government for its construction with which Carnegie hoped to encourage his ideals: international co-operation in the fields of education, welfare and peace.
- "Meneer, gooi die bal even, alstublieft?" = "Sir, could you please throw the ball?"
- "Kelner, afrekenen graag!" = "Waiter, check please!"
Dancing the night away...
"...Mr. Chairman, minister, my party believes it high time the cabinet follows the example of various provinces and ban the fox hunt nation wide. The arguments to support this atrocious way of animal abuse are not valid. Even the most fervent supporters have yet to prove that killing foxes have any positive benefit, not even the protection of the field bird population. Despite their objections, it is definitely not..."
What the f..fox is he doing here? Why in God's name? And why Berend? Doesn't he have something better to do?
Elly was stunned when, mid-argument, she noticed William Darcy enter the assembly room, in the company of her party leader, with one of the House's interpreters following in his wake. Casting her a broad smile, the men took a seat in the area that was basically reserved for the press.
Barely starting the defence of her party's viewpoint regarding the fox hunt, Elly felt totally thrown for a loop, and consequently, speechless.
"Mrs. van Benthem? Mrs. van Benthem, are you still with us?"
Furiously blushing, Elly pulled herself together. "Umm... excuse me, Mr. Chairman. Where was I? Ah, yes, despite their objections, it is definitely not that difficult for the chicken farmers to protect their poultry from foxes. Adequate fencing should do the trick, but they just don't feel like investing money in that. Another objection to the ban is possible unemployment. It is stated from several supporting quarters that the foxhunt creates jobs. However, statistics show that..."
While talking, Elly looked in William's direction and couldn't help observing the critical expression on his face. Was that a cynical smile curling his lips? Those same lips that had kissed her so passionately the other night, those lips that had felt so good on hers. A shiver ran down her spine. Did he have to be so disapproving always? Again, she felt disconcerted.
"What do the statistics show, Mrs. van Benthem?" She vaguely heard the chairman ask.
Feeling awkward and anxious, Elly now forced herself to focus, trying to forget he was there and continue her argument. To her great relief, she regained her composure and expressed her views in a fairly coherent, if not eloquent, way.
Darcy, who obviously didn't understand a word she said, and only half listened to the interpreter whispering in his ear, did his best to feign interest. In truth, he was revelling in the sound of her lovely voice while observing her appearance. He was used to hearing her speak English with her delightful accent, but he enjoyed hearing her speak her own language much more. It sounded so intriguing. It gave him the same sensation of mystery, of enchantment as when he heard someone speak Gaelic, even though Dutch definitely sounded less melodious. Surprisingly, he was slightly aroused to hear her utter words he couldn't understand. His imagination getting the better of him, he pictured her in an entirely different, more intimate environment where she would whisper all the Dutch endearments she could think of in his ear, while their bodies were agreeably engaged in the art of love making. Totally unaware of what he was doing, he softly tried to pronounce Scheveningen, just like Georgiana had taught him... Skève..., Skevning..., Skeveninkén...
"Is there something wrong, sir? Are you quite well?"
Darcy heard the interpreter who looked at him with some worry. He abruptly awakened from his daydream and pulled himself together. "Umm... no, sorry, there's nothing the matter. Please go on, I'm listening."
I'll have to ask Georgiana to teach me properly, he thought amused. My pronunciation must be terribly inaccurate, if this girl thinks there's something wrong with me. He chuckled inwardly.
Doing his best to pay attention to the interpreter's translation, he observed how becoming the blushes were on Elly's cheeks, undoubtedly caused by the animated discussion in which she played such an active part. Did he detect a hesitation from her part when he had entered the room? Did he and Berend put her off?
He couldn't tell whether the surprised look on her face upon seeing him was one of annoyance or pleasure. He hoped the latter, of course. Musing along, Darcy looked at her intently, his attention particularly drawn to her mouth. He inadvertently grazed his own where her touch and taste lingered.
He sighed. The room was hot and combined with the scent of human bodies involved in heated debate, it was also stuffy. It definitely could do with a bit of airing. Or was the difference between the cold outside and the warmth inside too great perhaps? Whatever the reason, he refused to acknowledge the site of Elly had anything to do with his physical reaction. As discreetly as possible, he loosened his tie to breathe more freely and took a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his damp forehead.
Still trying to cool down, he looked away from Elly, taking in his surroundings. He couldn't help but admire the tasteful, modern interior of the standing committee assembly room. If she'd be willing to speak with him again, he'd enjoy a tour. Berend had offered to do just that, but he'd much prefer Elly as his guide.
"Mr. Chairman," the interpreter softly continued translating Elly's speech. "To get back to the issue of field birds; an often heard argument in favour of the hunt is their decreasing number. However, research shows in fox free areas those birds are decreasing as rapidly as in areas where foxes hunt. There's simply no denying the real enemy of these birds is not our Fantastic Mr. Fox, but a far more dangerous environmental threat: intensive farming."
Right, Darcy thought, and what about the loss of jobs, Mrs. Van Benthem, what have you to say about that?
"And as for employment," Elly continued, as if reading his mind, "horses, dogs or a tourist aspect are hardly factors, as is often the case in the United Kingdom. The loss of jobs is negligible. As a matter of fact, banishment could even increase employment: more professional gamekeepers will be needed to ensure the law is applied and the wildlife population management secured." While talking, she unintentionally looked in William's direction and saw him looking at her, noting that, for once, he didn't have a distinctly critical expression on his face.
Ah, there you have it, perfectly reasonable. Darcy mused. But what about tradition, history, folklore, dear Elly? Don't you think that at all relevant for a nation, for its cultural identity? Darcy debated on with her in his mind.
"And, frankly, the thought of killing animals for pleasure, for tradition, if you will, just because it has been done for centuries and is seemingly a part of a country's culture, is no reason for my party to support its continuation. It's our conviction that unnecessary cruelty, regardless of whether it's to human beings or animals, cannot be a part of civilised society. I like to think we are more polished, and that there's no place for such savagery any longer. Therefore, I urge the Minister of Agriculture to take my party's amendments into consideration."
When she left the lectern, she couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief. And when the chairman concluded the debate with his gavel, Elly was satisfied. With some regret, she realised she could have done better, but she was optimistic enough to think she had given the minister enough arguments to adjust the bill before presenting it again in parliament.
While putting her papers in her briefcase, she noticed William and Berend had already left. Oddly enough, she didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Shrugging her shoulders, she picked up her briefcase and purse and said goodbye to her remaining colleagues, eager to quietly relax at home, alone.
Karel van Delden, one of her opponents, a younger representative of the liberal party, called out to her. "Elly, won't you stay a bit longer? We feel like having a drink at Dudok's and we think you deserve one too." Opposite parties or not, he wasn't averse to flirting a little with her. Looking at her hopefully, he added, "Although you won't get a majority for all your motions, I fear, you've defended your viewpoint admirably. I'll buy you a drink to celebrate your excellent performance. Well? What do you say?"
"I accept, K. Can't stay long though, I have a busy weekend ahead of me. God, I'm exhausted." Elly yawned just thinking about it. "By the way, don't be too certain about my lack of success, esteemed colleague!" She replied, laughing a bit tartly. "The next time I'll show the assembly some pictures of fox cubs being clubbed to death after the mother having been shot first. God, I really, really cannot understand these practices, let alone that people actually enjoy killing these innocent creatures."
Shaking her head in disbelief, she followed her colleague to Dudok's, a highly popular café amongst politicians and the press opposite the parliament buildings. They soon drowned the long, difficult debate with beer and good wine.
While chatting along with her colleagues and enjoying her well-deserved cool beer, Elly was already thinking of her planned weekend at Charlotte's. She was very much looking forward to meeting up with her best friend again, even though she could do without that irritating, pretentious husband of hers: Willem Colijn, a minister and a distant cousin of hers, who had once made a pass at her. If it hadn't been so embarrassing, it would have been good enough for the stage as a farce. Elly shuddered inadvertently. Not even a day after her obviously unequivocal refusal he tried his luck with her best friend and, indeed, he finally got the opportunity to give free rein to his carnal desires, thanks to Charlotte's greatest fear: dying single and all alone.
Her friend had accepted the man without hesitation. For a while it had led to an estrangement between them. Elly simply didn't understand that well-educated twenty-first century women still made themselves so dependant of men and longed for the "security" of marriage. She herself preferred to remain single her whole life rather than sharing it with a man she didn't love and respect. However, Elly realised Charlotte seemed happy enough, and so, she had overcome her aversion to the man and allowed herself to enjoy the intimacy of their friendship again.
The couple owned a very nice house on the Vliet, the vicarage near Rozenburg to be precise, the estate of baroness Catharina Terborgh and her daughter Anneke. Elly would never have heard of her ladyship, were it not that Charlotte's husband couldn't stop trumpeting forth her praises. Toady creep, incorrigible social climber, Elly thought laughingly. So far, Elly hadn't had the pleasure of meeting her ladyship, but Charlotte had informed her that this time they were invited to dine with her Saturday evening. She had no idea whether she should look forward to it or dread it. But somehow she feared the latter.
In the meantime, having promised each other to keep in touch, Darcy and Berend took their leave. Opposite political views notwithstanding, the two men really enjoyed the other's company. Darcy walked slowly back to his hotel, deep in thought. He had seen Elly go off with a small group of her colleagues, and with a pang, he had realised he wouldn't be able to talk to her.
He felt, though, that he must talk to her before he left for England. The dance tonight seemed the only opportunity left. Saturday he'd be with his aunt, and he promised to spend Sunday with Georgiana.
Even though he thoroughly disliked silly diversions such as balls and dancing, he actually looked forward to this one. For him a ball meant a horde of sweating people brushing against each other like courting peacocks, or worse, stepping on your toes if you had the misfortune to be stuck with a partner who had no dancing ability whatsoever.
Initially he only agreed to attend because of Georgiana, Charles and Caroline, but now he put all his hopes on the very event. With that thought on his mind and a resolute expression on his face, he entered the hotel and went straight to his suite, longing for a long, hot bath.
Positioned in a somewhat concealed way behind the huge exotic plants at the left end corner of the ballroom, a palm-court orchestra was playing an indistinct tune while the guests streamed in. The music, the numerous crystal chandeliers, the mirrors in their gold frames on the walls, the gleaming parquet and the festively decorated tables, made the room a magical sight. And the guests, all in their finest, added to the spectacle, especially the preening ladies draped from head to toe in gold and diamonds, trying to best each other's jewellery.
"Caroline has outdone herself," Darcy said, looking amused at his sister Georgiana as they entered the ballroom. "Not a single detail has escaped her notice."
"Indeed, she has, Wim. I'd say we were playing a part in a Victorian costume drama." She looked around and added, "Well, except for the costumes, that is, although some of the ladies... hmmm... fashion, if not a bit of elegance and taste, is totally lost on some of them apparently. Sheesh, some look positively retro."
They both laughed and Darcy looked at his sister with pride; her fair hair tastefully swept up and dressed in a trendy strapless burgundy evening gown that accentuated her slim figure beautifully.
He looked around with a critical eye, and whispered in her ear, "Indeed, my dear, sometimes it seems the fashion taste of certain ladies belonging to the nouveaux riches is as poor as their appointments with a plastic surgeon are frequent."
"Wim! Normally you aren't so blunt, what's gotten into you!?" Georgiana snorted. "Look, over there. There's Elly. Let's say hello. What a relief; there's a woman with great taste for you. Doesn't she look gorgeous?! Must be old money," Georgiana whispered mischievously, enthusiastically slipping her arm through her brother's, while giving him a broad smile.
Although refraining from further verbal comments, he limited himself to a hardly perceptible nod of agreement while discreetly observing Elly who, judging by her laughter, was having a pleasant conversation with a couple of men who didn't even try to hide their admiration. He resented the sight of the men's familiar way of chatting with her, it gave him an unpleasant, awkward feeling and if he were honest with himself, it came close to ... to jealousy.
Fixing his eyes on her, he couldn't agree more with his sister. The young woman who - whether he liked it or not - had held his undivided attention almost from the very beginning of their acquaintance, looked absolutely stunning in her low cut, dark blue satin dress... or was it silk? He hoped to find out soon when having the pleasure of holding her during a dance. The gown smoothly hugged the lovely curves of her womanly frame, while her feet were adorned by elegant, matching satin high heels, her dark curly hair hanging loose on her shoulders. Focussing on her - in his view - rather daring décolletage, he couldn't help pondering, She's good enough to eat. What was that funny sounding Dutch term Georgiana always uses when she eats something delicious? He mused on. Ja, that's it: 'lekker'. She looks extremely 'lekker'. Darcy smiled inwardly, unaware of his mind's use of the Dutch word for 'yes'.
"Yes, Georgiana, let's go greet her," he finally replied. When he said Elly's name, she turned and he immediately noticed the smile on her face freeze.
"Ah, William. Good evening," she greeted him coolly. When she looked at Georgiana, she regained a friendly expression, and welcomed the girl warmly. "Lovely to see you again, Georgiana, and how fabulous you look! The colour of your dress is amazing."
"I can say the same about you, Elly. You look absolutely stunning. Don't you think so too, Wim?"
"Yes, indeed, hmmm... qui... quite lovely," he replied, smiling a bit sheepishly.
After a short awkward pause, Georgiana, who in the meantime had discovered the arrival of her boyfriend, Peter, offered to get them a glass of champagne. Casting a meaningful look at her brother, she left for the bar to get their drinks and meet up with her boyfriend.
Neither Elly nor William knew what to say; seconds seemed like hours, and the silence continued until both started talking at the same time:
"I enjoyed the meeting..."
"Why did you attend the meeting?"
Neither could help smiling.
"All right, let's start again; you first," William offered kindly.
"Why were you there?"
"Berend invited me. I met him this morning on the beach. He was walking his dog and he invited me to have a coffee. Very pleasant chap, I'd say."
"Oh, yes, he's very nice." And after a short pause, she continued, "I bet you didn't agree with anything I said."
"I now am acquainted with you long enough, Elly, to know you're not averse to jumping to conclusions. However, I must confess, in this case overall, I did not agree with you, although I realise there are huge differences between the English and Dutch situation. Your use of the term anything is a gross exaggeration though."
"No kidding?" Elly replied dryly.
"But let's not discuss politics now, Elly. I'd much rather prefer to focus on the ball and I was wondering if you're willing to dance the first dance with me."
"I suppose so, but let me check my dance-card," she replied in mock-seriousness, pretending to open her purse to pick it out. "Are they still used in your circles, William?"
"My circles? Umm... I'm not sure to which circles you refer, but it was commonly used amongst my ancestors, I believe."
Elly smiled. "Sorry, bad joke. Of course I accept your offer. But mind you, it's a waltz, and that's definitely not my forte," Elly replied with little enthusiasm, and even more trepidation, because there was no false modesty in her statement whatsoever.
"Don't worry, don't think about the steps, just follow my movements. I'm not particularly fond of dancing, but if I must, I prefer the waltz to all other dances I know."
"Why am I not surprised?" she replied, looking at him, her lips curling into an ironic smile: a thing that didn't escape his notice, observant as he was.
"And why am I not surprised it's not your favourite? You might think it terribly bourgeois of me, but there was a time this dance was considered scandalous." He winked at her.
"It's hard to imagine why, but I suppose we could envision ourselves back in the 19th century. The setting is a great help in that regard," she replied smiling, gesturing with her arm and casting her eyes over the room.
When the music finally started, William gently put his left hand in hers and his right lightly on her bare back -- the softness and warmth of her smooth skin causing an overwhelming flow of sheer desire through his body. He shivered.
"Are you cold?" Elly asked concerned.
"No, no, not at all," he quickly replied, a little embarrassed, and for a while they danced in silence.
Elly couldn't help but be impressed by her tall, handsome dance partner's dancing skills... and his appearance, if she were honest with herself. He looked absolutely dashing in his impeccable tuxedo.
She smiled inwardly; she ought to dislike him, but she feared that was too much to ask at this very moment. Closing her eyes, she let herself be led around the dance floor, enjoying the movements, feeling like she was floating on the music in a fairy-tale like world. Unfortunately for her, though, she was roughly brought back to planet Earth when she ridiculously started to imagine being Cinderella, with only a few minutes left before the clock chimed twelve.
"Umm... William, we cannot dance the entire dance without saying a word, now can we?"
William cast her a friendly look. "Your wish is my command, Elly. What would you like me to say?"
"I don't think I'm in the position to direct you, but you could give your opinion on the people present; I already said something about the décor ."
"How can I give my opinion on the people here? I hardly know anyone. I'm really not interested in their concerns, if you don't mind. Why not talk about books?"
"Books! Oh no, I can't imagine we'd have the same taste in literature, let alone discuss it during a dance!"
"Well, if we don't express our opinions in this regard, we will never know for certain, will we?"
"I think we've talked enough for the moment, let's be silent again."
"Not in the position to direct me...?" William whispered under his breath, half amused, half annoyed, not used to this kind of teasing. Observing her pretty, expressive face, he wondered why in the world she was challenging him in this way? Why she deliberately tried to make him feel foolish?
"Umm... do you often walk to Skefning, Elly?"
"Walk to what...?"
Elly chuckled apologetically and answered her question herself, noting Darcy's obvious embarrassment. "I'm sorry, William, I didn't mean to make fun of you. But it sounded so... so... sweet actually. I know how hard it is to pronounce this. You mean Sche-ve-ning-en," she pronounced the name of the beach very slowly to let him hear all syllables clearly. "During the war, the resistance used this name as a password to make sure they dealt with loyal Dutch instead of German spies. So, you see, it is very hard to pronounce. No need to be embarrassed at all!"
Smiling, Darcy attempted to repeat, but failed miserably.
"Well, yes, I often go there," Elly finally answered. "Not on foot, mind you. Generally I go by bike. By the way, a mutual acquaintance of ours lives there."
"A mutual acquaintance?"
"Yes, George Wiekamp. He works for my party. I know him well, and as I understand, so do you. You used to be friends in the past, right?" Elly knew very well she was fishing. She felt him stiffen.
"Indeed, we know each other. I've had dealings with him in the past, very true, but I don't think we have ever been friends. However, his social skills are beyond reproach, he makes friends quite easily. Whether he can keep them is an entirely different matter though." Darcy's sarcasm was mordant.
"Yes, I believe he's sorry to have lost your affection. And what about you, William, how would you describe yourself? Do you make friends easily, or is it harder for you not to make enemies?"
"Why are you asking these questions? What are you trying to achieve with them?" Darcy replied somewhat irritated.
"I'm trying to find out a little more about you, that's all."
"And what are your findings so far?"
"I'm not getting anywhere, I'm afraid. I don't think I can read you. I really don't know you at all."
"Listen, Elly, I'm sorry if I haven't been able to provide more clarity as to my character, but, frankly, I don't really fancy talking about myself and even less about people I don't care about. The last thing I'm worried about is what people might think about me. So, if you don't mind, I'd much rather talk books, music, politics, tonight's dance, rather than my presumed traits."
They danced the rest of the dance in silence, each of them lost in thought. However taken aback Darcy felt about the way she had interrogated him, he had great trouble resisting his desire to pull her close and kiss her like he had done in the street the other night. As a matter of fact, he longed for much more than devouring her luscious mouth again. He wanted her very badly indeed. Unfortunately, the circumstances weren't exactly in favour of indulging in such desires, and he thought he'd better keep his imagination in check. So, resignedly, he contented himself with the feel of the soft skin of her back and the warmth of her hand in his, while he led her over the freshly polished parquet floor until, to his regret, the music stopped.
Elly, for her part, was quite put out, muttering and snorting inwardly about his arrogant reaction to her questions, and it wasn't exactly difficult to read her mood on her face. Still, his dancing talent, the way he looked, and, last but not least, his stirring scent combining fresh perspiration with his cologne she recognised as Dior's Eau Sauvage -- the subtle, timeless fragrance she remembered so well from the time she was still a student and worked in a perfumery during her holidays -- were quite invigorating. Thoroughly disliking her own ambivalent feelings, she closed her eyes and let herself flow to the rhythm of the music and the apparent ease with which he had her spinning all over the floor. She forgot all about time and space and just mused on what a pity he was as he was, in vain wishing his character would have matched the faultlessness of his dancing and kissing skills a tad more.
"Charlotte, your garden is absolutely divine." Leisurely leaning backwards in her garden chair, basking in the soft warmth of the morning sun, and sipping her first coffee at her friend's place where she had just arrived, Elly looked around admiringly. "It must be an awful lot of work to keep it in this shape. Look at those gorgeous red rhodondrendons. Isn't it a bit early in the year for them to be in bloom?"
"Ask WC, you know how very little I know about gardening. I happily leave it all to him. He enjoys it so much, keeps him busy for hours, while I can do whatever I like without interruption, and especially recover from the umm...somewhat clumsy affectionate attentions he pays me quite frequently. Not that it's not endearing, mind you, he means well, but sometimes it gets a bit tiresome being complimented all day."
Charlotte cast her friend a meaningful glance, and they both exploded with laughter. Indeed, Willem Colijn was a piece of work. Minister in a small community on the river Vliet, he wasn't taken altogether seriously by his flock. His pompous way of address, his utterly boring sermons and, last but not least, his obsequious attitude towards the local aristocrats, Baroness Catharina Terborgh, and her daughter Anneke, hadn't exactly made him loved. It hadn't made him disliked either, the villagers just thought him somewhat pathetic and laughable. They were quite surprised, though, when he'd found himself a wife in Charlotte Lucas. It was hard for them to grasp -- as it had been for Elly -- that an intelligent woman such as she could fall for a silly man like him. Still, the fact he had managed to secure a woman like her had increased their respect, at least a little. When they walked through the main street of the little provincial town, arms linked, Willem looking smug, and Charlotte cheerful as ever, the inhabitants had some difficulty hiding their amazement of this awkward match.
When talking about him, Charlotte and Elly used his initials only between the two of them, since he had been teased with it from a very young age. According to Charlotte, the harassment from his peers during his childhood and teens had been traumatic, and probably one of the reasons he always felt like pleasing all the time, particularly people whom he thought were superior to him. However, his attitude, unfortunately, only had the opposite effect on almost everybody he met. Embarrassing maybe for Charlotte, Willem himself was too obtuse to ever notice the irritation he caused.
While discussing his gardening and other skills, the object of their discourse approached in a nervous, hurried matter, shouting from a distance about two visitors who would drop by in a minute.
"Apart from Elly, we weren't expecting anybody, were we Willem?"
"No, indeed not, lief musje van me." He looked at his wife with undisguised adoration.
Lovely little sparrow of mine?! Elly's mouth fell open and had obvious trouble holding back her laughter, so instead, faked a cough.
Charlotte guessed what her friend was thinking by the look on her face and whispered to her, "He calls me that to make it clear to me he doesn't hold my plain features against me, that he loves me anyway." She chuckled.
Elly raised one brow. The nerve, as if he's Adonis himself!. She was appalled but said nothing. She admired her friend; Charlotte's forbearance and, particularly her sense of humour apparently knew no boundaries.
"Mr. Darcy and a Dutch relative of baroness Catharina are due any moment, dear."
"Mr. Darcy?" Elly cried. "Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy? The politician? What in the world is he doing here?"
"Do you know him, Elly?" Charlotte asked surprised, noting Elly's shocked expression.
"Of course I do, he was one of the speakers at the conference and... didn't you read about it...?" Elly stopped, afraid to reveal too much. She felt her cheeks turning red already.
Charlotte looked at her quizzically. "No, I haven't seen the news or read a paper in days. He's Catharina Terborgh's nephew."
"Oh my, so she's the aunt he was talking about! He told me he'd planned to visit an aunt today, but obviously never mentioned her name. There wouldn't have been any point in that. What a coincidence," she replied flatly, feeling all the more awkward with the situation, since she couldn't think back to the events of the night before without blushing furiously.
They hadn't stuck to that one waltz.
She had expected their verbal sparring would have ended their time together, but what followed was them dancing the night away. And when it was time to go home, he had almost implored her to stay. "Please, Elly, please stay," he had whispered in her ear. "Let's talk a bit; have a night-cap in my suite."
"A night-cap in your suite?" she remembered having repeated slowly, articulating every word. She had felt a bit drowsy, and the feeling of his breath in her ear had a peculiar effect - it had liquefied her knees.
Elly was inclined to blame it all on the champagne rosé that had been poured abundantly, but knew very well she was fooling herself. Granted, she had enjoyed a few glasses of that noble French product, but not so many as to be totally intoxicated... at least, not that she recalled... or was that exactly it? She couldn't quite remember, simply because she had too much to drink?
However, the champagne, the exquisite food, the dancing, his strong hands leading her across the dance floor, his delicious scent had added up to a relaxing atmosphere after those stressful days of hard work, and sometimes of utter confusion. In fact, it had brought her into a state of euphoria, which had diminished her sense of judgement considerably. The entire situation had mellowed her; she had let go and no longer cared about anything but the pleasant sensations running through her body and the agreeable feeling of lightness in her head. Despite her earlier objections towards the gentleman, she had simply accepted his invitation and, so, regardless of the risks that might ensue, she had followed him to his suite...
As soon as he had shut the door behind him, he had rushed over to her and taken her in his arms, pressing tender little kisses all over her face. She had let him, with the greatest of delights, if she was honest to herself. Eagerly she had drawn his face closer to hers, pressing her lips on his. Before they knew it, they were kissing as they had done the previous day in the street. But in the seclusion of his hotel suite, their hands had played a more enthusiastic part, diligently exploring each other's bodies as their tongues quite attentively had reacquainted themselves with the depth, taste and warmth of their mouths.
Don't let it go too far, Elly, don't go too far, for God's sake, a soft voice had hammered repeatedly in her head. Shut up! Who cares? I love it! Go on! Go on! another, less scrupulous one had riposted much louder than the first.
When she had finally managed to tear her lips away from his, she had said with little conviction, "You asked me here to umm... have a chat, William. So, shou... shouldn't we...?"
"Yes, yes, of course, we will, indeed we must, later," he had replied in a hurry, silencing her with another deep, delicious kiss, while lowering his right hand from her shoulder to the curve of her left breast, stroking it gently, causing a wave of desire to rage through her body.
The next thing she had known they were on the bed, still clothed, but in all probability not for long. She had already lost her shoes somewhere in the sitting room, and with his hand working its way up from her ankle she would soon lose her stockings, gown and...
Elly's heart started to beat faster when remembering what happened next, she licked her lips and swallowed. The unthinkable had happened, yes, it had, it really had! The attraction, the magnetism, the chemistry had simply been too strong. They had surrendered to their acute need, gratifying each other's desires more than once and... with more than average enthusiasm.
Only listening with half an ear to Charlotte's chitchat about her gripping life as a minister's wife and all the duties her position as one of the dignitaries of the village ensued, Elly thought back to the event with great embarrassment. Conversely, the very memory sent rushes of heat to the intimate hollow of her womanhood; her body and mind didn't agree. She sighed. Will this man raise conflicting feelings in me always? she pondered. She thought of Janneke and what William had said of her. How can I possibly account for my actions? I ought to be thoroughly ashamed. Justified or not, Elly felt extremely guilty towards her sister as she recalled the last moments with William
In the middle of the night, the sound of a soft snore in her ear had roused her from her sleep, a snore produced by the man whose arm was firmly draped around her waist, his hand cupping her breast. She had cautiously turned her head and, even though the sight of William deep in slumber was definitely appealing, it had abruptly brought her back to her senses.
I've got to get out of here... now! Oh my God what have I done?
She knew exactly what she had done: she had made love -- passionate, libidinous, lustful love -- with the man who was peacefully sleeping next to her; a man, she had only just noticed had remarkably long lashes, a beautiful straight nose, and noble, high cheekbones. But she had also made love to the man who had, in the very beginning of their acquaintance, insulted her, who had doubted the integrity of her sister, the discernment of his best friend and who hadn't kept a promise to a young man which might have helped his chances at a better career. In short, she had been a complete fool and a simpleton to have given in to the sensations he had aroused in her when he had taken her in his arms. She was fair enough, though, to put the blame on herself, utterly and completely.
Obviously not wishing to wake him, she had disentangled herself from his grip carefully, stepped out of bed, quickly dressed by the light of the street lamps diffused through the lace curtains and, without making a sound, her shoes in her hand, had left the room.
For discretion's sake, she had taken the fire escape stairwell instead of the elevator and hoped and prayed to have left the hotel unnoticed by anybody. Barefoot, she had run the few yards that separated the hotel from her apartment, and went straight to bed, without checking on Janneke. She couldn't have faced her, not then. She had needed to be alone with her thoughts.
Elly was so lost in her musings that it was quite a shock to return to reality, to Charlotte's garden to be precise, when, behind her, she heard a familiar male voice huskily say, "Good morning, Elly. What an unexpected but pleasant surprise to meet you here."
On mistranslations and misapprehensions
As if stung by a wasp, Elly jumped to her feet and turned towards the man to whom the deep, melodious baritone belonged. Kissing her on the cheek, he hurriedly whispered in her ear, out of earshot from the others, "I missed you this morning when I woke up, dearest loveliest."
"William, give me a break, please" she said softly, blushing furiously; then loud enough for all to hear, she politely continued, "Good morning, William, what an unexpected surprise indeed." Carefully leaving out the but pleasant which had been his choice of words.
"How are you?"
In front of her stood the man she had met barely three days ago and whose bed she had already shared. Subtly observing him from head to foot, she couldn't help admiring his outfit. Wearing jeans, a sweater and sneakers, he was less formally dressed than she had seen before. That is to say, apart from his lack of attire she had experienced up close in his hotel room.
"I'm quite well, thank you, love. And you?" He smiled at her.
Love! Does he have to be so overly familiar? Teasing man! she thought, a bit embarrassed, hoping the others hadn't heard.
"I'm fine, thanks. Right, well, umm...," she began. Suddenly becoming aware of Charlotte's none too delicate poking in her ribs, she introduced her impatient friends. "This is my friend Charlotte Colijn and her husband Dominee Willem Colijn, the minister of this parsonage,"
"Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Colijn, dumbinay." Darcy said, doing his best to repeat the Dutch term for minister correctly. "Allow me to introduce my cousin, Kolonel Frits van Delfgauw."
"Just Frits to you, fair ladies, sir" the man standing next to Darcy jovially cried, while elegantly kissing the women's hands and shaking Willem Colijn's, who could barely suppress a cry of pain caused by the kolonel's firm grip on his hand.
"Mrs. Elizabeth van Benthem, how lovely to meet you at last. I've known you by reputation for quite some time, obviously, and admire you as one of the most astute representatives of my party, if not the entire House. Needless to say you're also the loveliest." The kolonel cast her a mischievous glance. "Don't look surprised, my dear, I'm not a traditionalist like my cousin here, I believe in change and equal chances for all. I'm indeed the renegade of the family!" He laughed heartily at this. "I cannot say how pleasantly surprised I was that an international conference brought you and my cousin together. He told me so much about you, you know, things you don't read in the media."
"Thank you, kolonel, I mean, Frits. Please call me Elly. Very pleased to meet you too, even more so in the knowledge that you vote for us."
Elly gifted him with a broad smile, quite taken by the easy manners of William's cousin, but her pleasant countenance altered when glancing at William, wondering what he might have said that couldn't be obtained from the press. He didn't flinch though, his expression remained perfectly blank, as if his thoughts were miles away.
"Please, call me Charlotte." "And me Willem!" The dominee eagerly completed the introduction, immediately seizing the opportunity to praise, in his best English, the character of his noble neighbour, focussing on his good fortune in being received in her home, and the honour her family members bestowed on him and his wife by calling on them in their humble home.
It didn't escape his wife's notice, already mortified by his pompous style of speech, that the two gentlemen either attempted to suppress a yawn, were trying to hide their amusement, or both. The continuous raised brow of William Darcy spoke volumes.
"Gentlemen, I consider myself a fortunate man to live next to your aunt, Baronesse Terborgh and her daughter Jonkvrouwe Anneke," the dominee carried on tirelessly. "It's a great privilege for me and my dear wife to be acquainted with her and what an honour indeed to sit at her dinner tonight. I've heard her ladyship has an excellent cock."
Seemingly proud of his well-turned phrases, he cast the men a broad, if not smug smile.
"Wat zegt u nu!?" "I beg your pardon?" The two cousins simultaneously cried, looking at the dominee in wonderment, not daring to look at each other for fear they'd burst out laughing.
The kolonel knew exactly what he meant, of course, but Darcy didn't immediately, and his imagination got the better of him. With a feeling of sheer disgust he quickly pushed a revised, anatomically incorrect, image of his aunt away to the deepest dungeons of his mind.
Noting his English guest's confusion, the dominee went on, "You know, a cock! Umm... someone who cocks meals. In Dutch it's almost the same: kok."
"A kok is a cook in English, honey." Charlotte corrected her husband.
"Ah, yes, musje, of course, how stupid of me!"
Not at all discouraged by the surprised, if not amused and relieved look on his English visitor's face, Willem added, "Anyway, I thank you from my heart's bottom and the one of my wife that you took the trouble to visit us. Please, sit. I'd be a very bad host if I let you stand all day!"
"Coffee, gentleman?" Charlotte interrupted to prevent further embarrassing observations from her husband. "Willem, would you please take care of the coffee? Nobody brews it better than you, dear. And don't forget to bring the cake. It's on the counter."
"Sure, my darling, you know I'd do anything to satisfy you."
A completely baffled Darcy lifted a brow. 'Anything to satisfy you'? There were limits to his ability to swallow the man's obsequious flattery or to understand the man's manner of address, even if Darcy considered himself 'the polite Brit' Please God, let him shut up for a moment, so that I can pull myself together, he prayed.
Elly didn't fare much better. She couldn't help her giggles from bubbling over, and suddenly let it all come out, without restraint. Mumbling that she needed to wash her hands, correctly presuming her make-up had become a mess, she walked away from the party. She kept her legs as snug as possible for fear of peeing prematurely, while mascara-streaked tears of laughter, formed two thin dark streams down each cheek.
Elly's reaction didn't help relieve Charlotte's obvious embarrassment, and the dominee, totally oblivious to the merriment he had caused, cheerfully continued, broaching a subject he expected his English guest would appreciate.
"Mr. Darcy, William, do you think the Tobies have a chance to win the next elections?"
"Willem, you mean the Tories. What about the coffee, dear?" Charlotte reminded her husband, dreading the fact that things were going from bad to worse, and desperately wanting to get rid of him for, at least, a couple of minutes.
"Of course, right away, dear, right away!"
Looking somewhat apologetic, Charlotte sighed deeply, following her husband with her eyes as he headed for the kitchen to attend to his duties, feeling the need to explain his double Dutch a bit.
"I presume some of what my husband said must have been quite incomprehensible to you, Mr. Darcy?" She giggled despite her distress. "Well, he merely wanted to say he cannot deny me anything. I won't repeat the other, perhaps, shocking term he used mistakenly, but I'm sure you understood what he meant."
Darcy cast her a reassuring glance. "I hardly speak a word of Dutch so, I cannot but be impressed by the command of foreign languages of the Dutch people I've met so far. I cannot tell you how many times I tried to pronounce Skevning correctly, but to no avail!"
Darcy gave his hostess a friendly smile.
Returning from the bathroom, Elly apologised for her behaviour, "I'm so sorry, Charlotte, so terribly sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. I just couldn't help myself. It all sounded so hilarious, particularly because it was all done in complete innocence."
Yet again a wave of giggles followed, causing her entire body to shake. "Willem's quite a character, isn't he? And as far as his command of the English language is concerned, at least he's inventive!" Elly paused again to chuckle. "Gosh, I haven't laughed like this in ages."
"Never mind, Elly, I... I..." Before she could finish her sentence, Charlotte burst out laughing also. Elly's delight was too infectious, and so the two cousins joined in, after which a lively conversation about misunderstandings, blunders and funny mistakes in translations ensued.
"Remember, Elly? That story I told you about Paris? Willem laughs about it heartily himself, he doesn't mind if I tell you too." Charlotte looked at the two gentlemen with a mischievous sparkle in her eye. "Well, Willem's got the same problem with French from time to time, confusing terms that are a bit similar, that is. On our honeymoon in Paris for instance, one fine afternoon, he asked the waitress in some brasserie for a sanglier instead of a cendrier. You should have seen the look on the waitress's face wondering why in the world a man would order wild boar. Well, he actually meant an ashtray for the ashes of his cigar!
The two men chuckled.
Elly couldn't help noticing how handsome William looked when he smiled broadly, showing his perfect set of teeth; and the pleasant sound of his merriment produced a warm feeling in the pit of her stomach.
He should laugh more often, she pondered, together with his casual outfit, it makes him look younger, more like an ordinary human being.
She realised with a shock though, that he hadn't exactly hid his human side from her these last couple of days, quite the contrary. Despite the problems she had with the man, the mere thought of his more than human actions almost took her breath away and set her body afire.
"Did I miss something?" Willem's voice rang out as he entered the garden, a tray filled with coffee cups and cake. He looked expectantly at the cheerful faces of his wife and guests, but everybody simply burst out laughing.
The idle chit chat of the dominee, as well as his silly blunders, eventually started to grate Darcy's nerves. He thought it high time to think of an excuse to get away for a while... with Elly. He needed to be alone with her, he needed to talk to her... really talk, this time.
Looking at the object of his undivided attention over the edge of his coffee cup, an idea crossed his mind. He realised it was risky, but there was no other way. It was now or never.
"Mrs. Colijn, Charlotte, would you mind very much if I steal your friend for an hour or so? I need to discuss Elly's part in the follow-up conference at Pemberley in Derbyshire, and there doesn't seem to be another opportunity before I return to England. I hope you don't mind, nor you Frits, umm... and you, of course, dumbinay," he added, almost forgetting all about Willem Colijn.
Follow-up of the conference at Pemberley? On his estate of all places? Elly was stunned. She definitely didn't know anything about that. Janneke hadn't mentioned it, and as far as she could remember there hadn't been an announcement during the conference. It was pretty presumptuous of him to speak of 'her part' in a conference of which she was ignorant without consulting her first. What could he be up to?
"By all means, William. You two could use the parlour undisturbed, but perhaps you'd like to take a stroll along the Vliet? It's quiet and peaceful and there are enough benches to sit on. Meanwhile, Willem and I will prepare lunch. Would you like to stay for lunch too, William, Frits?"
"Why not? I'll call Aunt Catharina and let her know she shouldn't wait for us," Frits replied happily, adding he didn't expect his aunt to be pleased with the news. "However, who wouldn't risk the wrath of an old aunt when it so happens that you have the opportunity to be in the company of two beautiful young women? What do you say, William, isn't that a great idea?"
William smiled approvingly. "Indeed, quite lovely. Thank you, Charlotte. At what time do you want us back then?"
"Would one o'clock be convenient?"
"Yes, of course it would, off you go," Frits replied for his cousin, "and while you're away I'll give Charlotte and Willem a hand with the lunch." He winked at his blushing hostess.
Elly just looked from one person to another, quite annoyed she apparently didn't have any say in the matter. Her mood didn't exactly improve when she heard Darcy conclude, "That's settled then. Let's go, Elly."
Resigned, Elly took his outstretched hand and got to her feet. She expected his mentioning of the conference to be an excuse to be alone with her and discuss totally different things, in all likelihood, things that had more to do with the two of them. She couldn't help admitting to herself that was the right thing to do. As much as she wished for an easy way out, it was silly to pretend nothing had happened.
They walked in silence for a while. Each of them seemingly lost in thought. Elly had plucked a reed stem and, leisurely chewing it, enjoyed her surroundings. It was a lovely day and she was glad yesterday's beating rain had stopped. She enjoyed the sun shining on the soft rippling water of the Vliet, deeply inhaled the pleasant scent of the still-wet earth, envied the carefree laughter of children rising from a rowing boat, and marvelled at the colours of the abundantly growing wild flowers on the banks.
"Look, William, over there, a mother duck with five ducklings," Elly cried enthusiastically, while grabbing his arm without thinking.
"Very lovely," he replied, clearly enjoying her touch. "Unfortunately, not all will survive. I remember, I always felt so sad as a child when, in springtime, playing at the lake in Pemberley, I noticed rats had killed half of the duck's offspring."
"Oh my, same here, I was devastated every time I discovered it, and ran home crying. Despite my father's reasonable explanations on the necessity of it, it didn't comfort me at all."
They both smiled, enjoying the sight of the duckies, pondering their mutual memory.
They turned toward each other, both starting to speak at the same time.
"You first," he offered.
"No, you. You suggested our private conversation on umm... the next conference." Her eyes sparkled archly.
"Very well, umm... quite.That's not really what I wanted to discuss with you, although I'm considering it." He took a deep breath. "Elly, despite the fact we've known each other but a few days, I have the feeling I've known you forever."
He stopped, looking at her intently. "The other night when we kissed, I already knew something extraordinary was happening to me. I have feelings for you I haven't experienced before. I did my best to fight them; I simply thought them too improbable to be true. However, my struggles to overcome my feelings led nowhere. This morning, when I woke up after our unforgettable night together, I was certain. I'm in love with you, Elly, head over heels."
Elly listened with trepidation, blushed, but kept silent, stunned as she was by the revelation he had just made.
"I cannot think of anything else but you. I cannot tell you how forlorn I felt, this morning, when you weren't in my bed, next to me, where I... I think you belong." Here he stopped for a moment casting a look that left no doubt about his desire.
"I know my family and friends will think it madness, I bet you will think this insane, and it's definitely contrary to my own common sense. After all, we've such a different background as far as social status, nationality and ideas are concerned. Still, I want you by my side and to, eventually, marry you. You'd make me the happiest of men if you'd come to England with me, to Pemberley."
Darcy spoke in a hurried way, as if he'd rehearsed it and was afraid he'd leave something out. After having declared himself, he went on for a while about his passionate feelings for her, as well as the various aspects of their mutual differences he didn't - in a general sense -- think in favour of a sustainable relationship. He concluded by saying that he was willing to overlook all his objections since he knew he couldn't bear to be separated from her. All he wanted was to have her near him.
Looking at her with as much anticipation as confidence, Elly could plainly see he wasn't in any doubt of a positive answer.
"So this is your concept of a follow-up conference on nature conservation," Elly replied dryly, attempting to compose her thoughts, not knowing whether to be angry, flattered, amused, or a combination of the three.
The passion with which he had expressed his feelings, however contradictory to all the accompanying rational objections, had struck Elly as being rather unBritish, and that most certainly had flattered her. She didn't want to hurt him, but obviously she could not respond positively to such a ridiculous, clumsy proposal... Proposal? Was it a proposal when someone spoke of an 'eventual' marriage? she wondered.
William cast her a warm smile, still having an expression on his face of a man who had done someone a great favour and expected to be rewarded accordingly ... at least that's how Elly chose to interpret it.
"William, I... I'm flattered. I really am. But for various reasons a relationship between us can't work, I fear. So, no, I'm not going to England with you to eventually marry you." She was a bit sorry about the slight sarcastic undertone of her last words.
"But why not?" he cried incredulously. "Surely, you weren't exactly averse to my actions, were you? Why did you kiss me back in the way you did? Why did you sleep with me if you didn't like me? Wasn't what happened last night reason enough for me to presume you felt for me as much as I for you? So, explain to me why, apparently, you've given me a totally different impression?"
"Explain to you...? Is that an order or something? Have you any idea how arrogant that sounds?" she cried. "Must you always act so superior to others? And what do you know about my feelings, if the only ones you really care about are your own?"
"What on earth do you mean?" Darcy asked, his eyes fixed on her face, catching her words with no less resentment than surprise. He looked positively pale and it was plain to see that she had put him off his stroke.
"Well, in your entire declaration of love I couldn't discover, not once, that you cared at all about what I might feel. Worse, you even chose to speak in a degrading way of my ideas, my background and -- if it weren't so sad the funniest objection -- my nationality, I presume, you find inferior to your own!" Elly shook her head in disbelief. "The conservative notion moreover that women are expected to follow the man wherever he goes, annoys me to the extreme! If you're so in love with me and cannot bear being separated from me, why not move to Holland then?"
"This is ridiculous. I'm afraid you've totally misunderstood me, Elly, but that wouldn't be the first time, now would it? You're deliberately twisting my words, and I honestly would like to know where this sudden hostile attitude came from, after all we've experienced together. Surely, you're not going to tell me it's true what they say? Dutch girls are easy? That it was only about sex, nothing more?"
"So, now I'm ridiculous? I misunderstand you? My ass! Mistrust you is a more appropriate and justifiable term. I have no idea to whom you're referring, but they must be a pitiable bunch to put all Dutch girls in one box." Elly grunted. "Dutch girls, easy? Ha! A very recent experience of mine proves that English boys know their way with that too... or is it different for a man? I bet someone like you, believing in traditional gender roles and rights, thinks that way."
Elly was fuming.
"I'm sorry, Elly, that platitude about Dutch girls was totally misplaced. Please forgive me. But what do you mean by mistrust?"
Elly realised that, if she told him what she knew about what he had said to Charles, she would implicitly admit she had been eavesdropping. However, she understood there was no other way if she wanted to make clear why she resented him, despite the strong attraction she felt towards him. Every fibre in her being felt his presence and reminded her of the night prior, the invigorating dances, his delicious scent and the unrestrained passion to which they had both surrendered, later, in his hotel room, in his... bed. She could still feel the smoothness of his skin under her hands when their bodies joined, his heartbeat against hers, hear his voice whispering endearments in her ear...
She had to swallow a lump and with a small voice finally said, "William, I... I'm attracted to you, I cannot deny it, and I'm not at all sorry for what I did last night. I mean, for having behaved like a 'presumed' Dutch girl. Indeed, I enjoyed being with you, making love to you. Actually, I didn't even know what it... never mind." She couldn't help giggling a little nervously almost having admitted that he was the first man with whom she had reached a climax. "And, no, it definitely wasn't the sex alone. So, I won't deny I have feelings for you, but I... I'm not sure how much I... if ever an us could be possible..."
She thoroughly disliked her stammering and looked away from him, too embarrassed to look him in the eye. "I truly wished things were less complicated, but they are as they are. You see, you might have had your objections, well, I have mine. But unlike you, I haven't overcome them."
Raising one brow, Darcy's expression grew cold. "Please, enlighten me, I'm all ears."
She took a deep breath, mustered up her courage and turned towards him again. "You can't possibly believe that I could ever become seriously involved with a man who has put a most beloved sister in an unfavourable light in the eyes of the man she's in love with? I happened to hear how disdainful you brushed his feelings aside when you and Charles were in the hotel lobby talking the other night." She looked at him defiantly. "I must tell you that my sister is a totally honest person and never in my life have I caught her with a fake smile, as you put it so subtly. She's just not the type of person who shows her feelings easily. The ungenerous way you spoke of her is one of the reasons I actually feel quite embarrassed to have let things get to this stage with you. I didn't even dare tell Janneke about what has happened between you and me."
Darcy looked positively stunned. "Bloody hell! You bluntly admit you've been eavesdropping? I would never have expected that from you, Elly."
"True, I'm not proud of it, I admit it, but that doesn't alter the fact you said it, right?"
"I don't deny it, no. What point would there be? You heard me. It's a pity though that you've taken it a little out of context, and don't know all the particulars. I wish you'd mentioned it before, at least before umm... we... I, before you gave me the impression you liked me."
"But I ... that's not all," she continued, conveniently ignoring the point he made. "George Wiekamp confided in me. What you did to him is, in my opinion, utterly despicable. Judging on what he has told me, I have more reason to doubt your integrity than you once doubted mine."
"Wiekamp?! That... that scoundrel, that loser. What the fu... has he got to do with us?." He paused for a breath and muttered under his breath, "I should have known!"
Looking Elly in the eye, he asked earnestly, "What do you mean by me doubting your integrity?"
In an agitated tone, Elly explained what Wiekamp had told her about the promises William had failed to keep while Wiekamp was an intern in London for the Conservative Party. She also reminded him of the very first conversation between him and Charles which she overheard in the pub on the Denneweg, when, he had implied she'd do anything to make a career, such as throwing all her assets into the fray.
Darcy looked completely discouraged, if not totally disillusioned.
He put his hands on her shoulders, looked her deep in the eye, and spoke in a low, discouraged voice. "I'm sorry, Elly, I've been labouring under a terrible misapprehension. I would never have thought things would end up like this. I assure you, I've never been more wrong in my life. Thank you for explaining it all and please forgive me for having bothered you with my feelings I mistakenly thought you reciprocated. I fear I can only be embarrassed by them now."
Then he let go of her and slowly walked away, in the direction of his aunt's mansion, Rozenburg, not once looking back, completely forgetting about the lunch at the Colijns's.
Elly's emotional distress soon resulted in a wretched migraine headache. She felt drained. With a heavy feeling in her heart, she watched him disappear in a turning of the path leading to Rozenburg. When she turned to walk the other way to the parsonage she almost knocked over a woman standing right in front of her like a statue. Casting a cold, critical glance at her, she addressed Elly in the snootiest accent she had ever heard.
"Mevrouw van Benthem, naar ik veronderstel?"1)
In a fraction of a second, Elly thought a character had emerged from one of Louis Couperus's2) novels, but almost immediately understood this must be Catharina Terborgh, with her daughter Anneke in her wake.
1) Mrs. van Benthem, I presume?
2) Louis Marie-Anne Couperus (June 10, 1863 - July 16, 1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet of the late 19th and early 20th Century. He is usually considered one of the foremost figures in Dutch literature. And, last but not least, Louis Couperus was from The Hague.
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