Part 2: August-November, 2001
Elizabeth sat in her office at the conservatory, fingering the thick engraved card. Although she had read it dozens of times since receiving it a week ago, it still had the power to set her pulse racing.
Two months had passed since she had hurried from the hospital to catch her flight to California. After her initial disappointment when William hadn’t responded to her calls or her note, she had done her best to forget him and build a new life in San Francisco. She loved being at the conservatory and couldn’t wait for the fall semester to begin. She also loved living with Jane, and it was an unaccustomed treat to see Charlotte so frequently. In addition, she was pleased to be performing on a regular basis as the new vocalist for Golden Gate Jazz, the ensemble started by Charles Bingley.
Only one thing was missing, at least, according to Jane and Charlotte: a man. They were forever suggesting single men they knew as possible dates for Elizabeth.
“Oh, please,” Elizabeth had groaned the last time the subject arose. “Char, you wouldn’t recognize romance if it tripped you and knocked you to the ground. And you’re saying that my love life is lacking?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” Charlotte had retorted. “Every time you get asked out, you always find some excuse to say no. You’re living like a nun.”
“I am not. That’s ridiculous.”
Elizabeth wasn’t trying to avoid going on dates. She would have been happy to spend some pleasant evenings with the right sort of man. But so far, no one had measured up. When she had tried to explain this, Charlotte had asked the inevitable question: “Measured up to whom, Liz? As if I didn’t know.”
Elizabeth preferred not to think about the answer. Meanwhile, she was doing her best not to “hide from men,” to quote another charge Charlotte had leveled at her. She had gradually succumbed to Jane’s gentle but persistent encouragement and had upgraded her wardrobe. Her collection of oversized shirts, except for a few favorites as nightshirts, had joined the dust rags in the hall closet, and she used part of each paycheck to buy more flattering clothes for school and casual wear.
Two weeks ago, primarily to silence Jane and Charlotte, Elizabeth had gone on her first date in San Francisco, with a neighbor in the condominium building. He was nice enough, and he shared her interest in music. They had found plenty to talk about over dinner. But his hair was medium brown and straight, not dark and wavy. His eyes were brown, but they were a light shade, like brandy; they weren’t dark and hypnotic in their intensity. He wasn’t tall enough, nor were his shoulders broad enough, and his voice lacked the deep, caressing tone that would have made her shiver.
As an experiment, she had allowed him to kiss her good night. She had felt nothing. The touch of his lips hadn’t made her feel hot and weak and dizzy all at once, and there had been no yearning to feel his arms enfold her. Obviously she hadn’t made much progress in putting William behind her.
It hadn’t helped that William’s health problems had been a major topic of discussion in the classical music community over the summer. Her heart had wept for him when she heard that he’d been forced to cancel several months of performances. After hearing this news, she had decided to call him. The call had been answered by Sonya’s voicemail greeting, as usual, but after two vain attempts to leave a coherent message, she gave up. Besides, it wasn’t as though he needed or wanted her sympathy; he hadn’t even wanted it when he was in the hospital.
But she couldn’t stop worrying, no matter how hard she tried. She still held a picture in her mind of William as she had last seen him, lying in his hospital bed looking pale and drawn and so vulnerable. He had borne two heavy burdens within just a few hours: his physical collapse and her insulting accusations. It was no wonder he wanted nothing more to do with her.
And now he was to spend a semester at the conservatory. At first, she had wondered if it meant that he wanted to see her again. Jane and Charlotte had endorsed this view. Charlotte had gone even further, certain that Elizabeth would hear from him before his arrival in California. Although Elizabeth had laughed off this suggestion, she had paid an unusual amount of attention to her voicemail for almost a week. Then she had realized the foolishness of this line of reasoning. Why would William plan his life around her? He had made his lack of interest clear. He would come and go as he pleased, and why not? She didn’t have exclusive rights to the city of San Francisco.
She looked up and saw Bill Collins in the doorway to her office. He tilted slightly to one side under the weight of a battered leather satchel slung over his shoulder.
“Hi, Bill. I thought you’d be on your way to Rosings by now. Aren’t you in charge of coordinating the musicians?”
“Indeed I am. Dr. de Bourgh is depending on me, and I shan’t let her down. But I wanted to see if you’d changed your mind. I’d still be very pleased to give you a ride to Rosings this evening. I need to be there early, but if you arrived early as well it would give you a chance to see Lady Catherine’s extensive art collection.”
“Thank you, but I’m all set. I’ll see you there.”
“I’m looking forward to it. I know you’ll be the belle of the ball.”
Bill executed an awkward bow and departed. She smiled at the sound of his Rockports squeaking their way down the hall. She heard a door creak open and closed, and then silence.
Continued exposure to Bill, both at school and in his role as the jazz group’s keyboard player, had been a trial to Elizabeth’s patience at first. He had embarked on a determined campaign of romantic overtures as soon as she had arrived in San Francisco. It had taken a month of patient but persistent refusals before he had finally desisted. Things were better now; occasionally she even shared his table at lunchtime in the conservatory’s dining hall. Now that she was accustomed to his peculiar manner, she found his company almost pleasant. Despite his many oddities, he was kind and well-intentioned, and his obvious admiration was a balm to her wounded heart.
Bill also had an encyclopedic command of conservatory gossip, and he relished sharing his knowledge. While Elizabeth sometimes tired of his compulsive dissection of faculty politics and personal lives, she usually learned some interesting tidbit in the course of lunch.
What came through loudest was his reverence for Catherine de Bourgh. Elizabeth had learned all about the woman: her marriage to Sir Lewis de Bourgh, her massive home called Rosings across the Golden Gate Bridge, and her daughter Anne, who worked in Development for the conservatory “when her health permits,” as Bill had added in a mournful tone.
Glancing at the invitation again, Elizabeth snorted and shook her head. Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Well, excuuuuuse me. Technically, she was a Lady, since Catherine’s husband had been knighted during their marriage, but school gossip held that “Catherine, Lady de Bourgh” was all she was entitled to call herself. Not that it made the slightest difference; Catherine considered herself the queen of the conservatory, regardless of her title.
According to Bill’s information, Catherine had invited every noted musician and arts patron west of the Rockies to tonight’s party, as well as some luminaries from New York and a few carefully-selected members of the press. Despite the short notice, many had RSVP’d in the affirmative. The entire faculty was also invited, which explained Elizabeth’s inclusion on the guest list. Even so, she sometimes wondered if Catherine had simply forgotten to instruct her secretary, “But don’t send one to that horrid Bennet woman.”
Elizabeth didn’t know what she had done to offend Catherine, but whenever they met—usually just a chance encounter in a hallway—the dean simply stared at her with glacial disdain. Elizabeth had tried once to question Bill about the matter, but he had insisted, “Oh, no, you must be mistaken! Dr. de Bourgh is so supportive of the faculty, so generous with her suggestions and advice for their improvement! I’m sure she thinks as highly of you as I do.”
She glanced at her watch and wrinkled her nose in displeasure. She needed to leave for home immediately to ensure that she’d have enough time to get ready. For reasons she preferred not to examine too closely, it was essential that she look her best tonight. But first she had to prepare for her first class of the fall semester, which started on Monday. It was a seminar in song performance technique, in which the students would critique one another’s performances with Elizabeth’s guidance. She planned to sing at the first class in order to help them to learn the critiquing process, and she needed to double-check the sound system in the classroom.
She grabbed a CD containing the orchestral accompaniment to her song. She would play it through the sound system, testing the equipment and rehearsing at the same time. Then she would go home, dress for the party, and gather her courage.
William left the Dean’s office with a sigh of relief. Catherine had invited him to her office for a late lunch, and more than two hours later she was still pontificating on a variety of topics, few of which interested him. She had finally checked her watch and realized that she needed to get home to oversee final preparations for the party, leaving him to his own devices. He needed to be home soon, too, but first he had something important to do.
Elizabeth Bennet, Room 132. Fortunately, Catherine’s secretary kept a directory listing taped to the wall beside her desk. He followed the exit signs until he found a stairwell, and began his descent from the third floor. He had decided it was best to say hello to Elizabeth in private. Seeing her for the first time in two months would be awkward enough without doing it against the backdrop of Catherine’s glitzy party.
Catherine had initially planned to issue party invitations only to senior members of the faculty, along with top administrators. He had casually suggested that if she invited the entire faculty, she could ask some of the junior professors to entertain the guests. “A string quartet on the terrace, a pianist in the library … the conservatory could show off some of its fine musicians.” Catherine had snapped at the bait, thus ensuring that Elizabeth would receive an invitation.
He had considered calling her from New York, but had decided that he could present his case more effectively in person. He had planned what he would say; in fact, he had rehearsed it several times. He muttered the words to himself as he arrived at the second-floor landing and continued downward: “Elizabeth, please allow me to apologize for my ungentlemanly behavior that night in June. I regret it more than I can say, especially that you thought my interest in you was purely physical. If you’re willing to resume our relationship, I promise to show more restraint in the future. But if you don’t want to see me anymore, you needn’t worry that I’ll pursue you or do anything else to make you uncomfortable.”
The speech sounded stilted and cold to his critical ear. He wanted to say, “Lizzy, I need you. You’re always in my thoughts. Please forgive me and let me back into your life, because I’m miserable without you.” But each time he imagined himself saying that, he saw her eyeing him with cold disdain and rejecting him again.
In random moments he also imagined finding that, due to his need to escape his bleak existence over the summer, he had amplified her charms far beyond reality. She couldn’t possibly be as beautiful and alluring as he remembered. And she wasn’t the fantasy woman who had stayed by his side through his dark days, warm and pliant and loving. The real Elizabeth was headstrong and quick to anger. Would he discover, on seeing the real woman again, that he had loved a mirage all summer?
He reached the bottom of the steps and entered the first-floor hallway, adrenalin coursing through his body. He paced down the dim, silent corridor, and at last he found himself in front of Room 132. He stood still for a minute, inspecting the nameplate that read, “E. Bennet.” Raising an unsteady hand, he knocked on the door. There was no answer. He wasn’t sure which emotion was stronger, disappointment or relief.
According to his watch, it was just past four o’clock, and time to head for home; he wanted to rest for a while before dinner. He continued down the hall, searching for a door that led to the parking lot.
He entered an area of the building that contained classrooms. He was surprised to hear the sound of an orchestra coming from one room. He paused and peeked through the half-open door into a large room with tiered seating, the aisles leading down to an open stage area in the front. A gasp escaped his throat when he saw Elizabeth off to one side, fiddling with some electronic equipment. She was dressed in faded jeans and a pink blouse, her hair in a pony tail, looking even more beautiful than he remembered. He tried to propel himself forward, to announce his presence, but he froze in place when she walked to the center of the stage area and began to sing. As her sweet voice washed over him, he was helpless to do anything but watch and listen, spellbound.
The kind of eyes that welcome you the minute you walk in.
A tender glance you simply can’t refuse.
It’s times like this a girl could use …
He listens when you tell him things, there’s nothing you can’t say,
And unlike certain people, you can teach him how to stay.
And if the world is giving you the blues,
He cheers you up by chewing up the news.
It’s things like that that make you choose …
Other people need romance, dancing, playing around,
Other people need constant fun,
Well, I’m not one.
I have my feet on the ground.
Give me a quiet night, a stack of books, a tuna melt on rye,
A simple walk together underneath a starry sky,
And suddenly, the night is something rare,
And all because there’s someone special there.
Who’s gazing at the views, his head upon your shoes.
It’s times like this I sure could use …
The song ended, but William remained immobile, enchanted. He had forgotten the power of her voice. And the message of the song! She was too brave to let life defeat her, yet the song’s wistful undertone exposed her tender heart. No, he had not loved a mirage for the past two months. He had loved the woman standing in front of the classroom.
But he was miles ahead of himself. The song wasn’t about him, or about anyone else, for that matter. She was an actress playing a part. He had gotten into trouble before by assuming that her feelings were the same as his. And here he was, in San Francisco for only 24 hours, already repeating his mistake.
He considered descending the steps and speaking to her, but his emotions were too unsettled. He would wait until tonight, when he could be calm and rational. With a sigh, he slipped away and continued his search for the exit.
Elizabeth rushed into her apartment and tossed her keys on a small table just inside the door. She was running late. Roger was to pick her up at 6:00 so that they could get a quick dinner before going on to Rosings, although the tales of Catherine’s legendary hospitality suggested that eating beforehand was superfluous.
It had been Charlotte who suggested that Elizabeth ask Roger Stonefield to the party. Charlotte didn’t mind lending Elizabeth her “beau,” as she euphemistically called him, for the evening, and he had agreed to the plan.
“Sure, why not?” he had said. “I can’t wait to see the house. Architectural Digest ran a feature about Rosings a couple of years ago. It sounds like quite a place.”
Elizabeth was grateful that Roger would be there with her. She didn’t want William to think she couldn’t get a date. Besides, Roger, the drummer for Golden Gate Jazz, was good company. And since he was involved in a casual affair with Charlotte, she didn’t have to worry about romantic complications.
As she passed the breakfast bar, she noticed the message light blinking on the phone. She stabbed the “Play” button.
“Liz, it’s Roger,” croaked an almost unrecognizable voice. “I’m sorry to do this at the last minute, but I can’t go with you tonight. I’ve been sick all afternoon. Either it’s something I ate, or I’ve got the flu. Trust me, you don’t want to know the details. Charlotte is coming over to mop my fevered brow, so you don’t need to worry about me. I’m sorry, sweetie; I know you were counting on me.”
Elizabeth gnawed her lip as she contemplated this bad news. She didn’t blame Roger for standing her up, of course—the poor man sounded miserable—but the prospect of arriving at William’s party alone was unattractive.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, freshly showered and wrapped in a thick terrycloth robe, she had regained her confidence. She went into the living room just in time to see Jane arrive.
“Hi, Lizzy! I’m home, ready to help Cinderella prepare for the ball.”
“How was your day?”
“Good. But aren’t you running awfully late?” Jane asked, glancing at her watch. “I thought you’d be closer to ready than this. Isn’t Roger due here in a few minutes?”
“He had to cancel; he’s sick.”
“Oh, no! Is it serious?”
“I don’t think so, but apparently he feels awful. Char is going over to look after him.”
“Poor Roger. And I’m sorry for you, too. I know you didn’t want to go there alone.”
Elizabeth nodded and sighed. “Yeah. But it looks like I’m flying solo after all.”
“Well, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Maybe you’ll meet someone at the party. Or who knows what might happen with William?”
A few minutes later, Elizabeth was perched in one of the dining table chairs. Jane hovered over her, a flat iron in her hand.
“What are you doing tonight?” Elizabeth asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll just have a quiet evening at home. Unless ….”
“Well … what if I went with you tonight? It’s not the same as bringing a date, but at least I can offer moral support.”
Elizabeth thought for a moment. “You’re seriously willing to go? You’ll hardly have any time to get ready.”
“It won’t take me any time at all. I’ve got that black and white dress I wore to the Bar Association event last month.”
“If you really don’t mind, I’d love to have you go with me.”
“Of course I don’t mind. I know it won’t be easy for you, seeing William after all this time.”
“You’re the best! I’d offer to help you with your hair, but you wouldn’t want me touching it.”
Jane shrugged. “I’ll just fluff it up a little, and I think it’ll be fine.”
“You’re right,” Elizabeth answered, sighing. “Ten minutes and a little fluffing, and you’ll look perfect. Whereas I need a week of preparation and a crack team of specialists from around the globe.”
Jane laughed. “Don’t be silly. We went on one little shopping trip, and I’m helping you with your hair. Which, by the way, is done. Go look in the mirror and see if you like it.”
Elizabeth jumped up and hurried into her bathroom. Jane had arranged it in an elegant twist, leaving some loose curls framing her face. “I love it!” she called out.
“Good.” Jane popped her head into the bathroom, holding a can of hair spray. “I need to spray it.”
Jane wielded the hair spray, reminding Elizabeth of their childhood, when for a brief time Jane had wanted to be a hairdresser. She had practiced endlessly on Elizabeth, with occasionally comical results.
“Okay, that should be enough to hold it in place, but it won’t feel like helmet hair,” Jane said. “Do you need my help with anything else? ‘Cause if not, I’ll go get ready.”
“Go ahead, I’m fine.”
Elizabeth quickly put on her make-up and inspected herself in the bathroom mirror. Years of stage performing had helped her to develop skill in applying make-up, but her hair had always been a challenge.
She slipped off her robe, standing in her black underwear, and smoothed her favorite jasmine and vanilla-scented lotion onto her arms and shoulders.Then she returned to her bedroom and retrieved her new dress, purchased a few days ago especially for the occasion. It was simple, but she loved it: a floor-length black gown with a velvet bodice liberally sprinkled with tiny beads. And Jane had lent her a pair of black earrings cut so they sparkled in the light. She felt like Cinderella dressing for the ball, not an entirely comforting thought, considering what had happened at midnight. But things had worked out for Cinderella in the end, thanks to the glass slipper. She hoped her black sandals were up to the task.
The evening would probably grow cool, so Elizabeth searched for something to cover her bare arms. Her black lace shawl, a long-ago gift from her grandmother, would be perfect. She knelt on the floor and opened her bottom dresser drawer. As she drew the shawl out of the drawer, her eyes fell on an envelope lying beneath the shawl. No. Don’t do it. But it was too late. She opened the envelope and withdrew its contents: a dried stem with a few faded orchid blossoms attached.
She should have left the stem in the garden after dropping it out the window. But the next morning, she had rescued it and hidden it in this drawer. She hadn’t permitted herself to look at it until now.
“Lizzy, are you ready?” Jane called from her bedroom across the hall.
“I’ll be right out.”
Elizabeth slipped the orchid back into its envelope and returned it to the drawer. She stood up, smoothed her skirt, and took one last look in the mirror. Then she collected her shawl and, taking a deep breath, left the bedroom.
1 “Times Like This,” music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. © 1994, WB Music Corp, Pen and Perseverance, and Hillsdale Music, Inc. Sung by Christiane Noll on Broadway Love Story, © 2016; originally released 1998. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube. You can also view a performance of this song on Youtube, from a special event on Sirius XM Radio (recorded by an audience member, so the quality isn’t great). Lynn Ahrens, the song’s lyricist, sings the introduction, after which Ms. Noll takes over. The first time I heard this song, it was eerie how perfectly both the song and Ms. Noll’s performance portrayed my version of Elizabeth.