Chapter 144

When Elizabeth had departed Pacific Conservatory in December, juggling her briefcase and a box of personal items, she would never have guessed that she would be back so soon. Yet here she was, making the familiar trek through the parking lot.

Anne de Bourgh had come through in response to Elizabeth’s phone call. Showing grit and determination she could never have summoned only a few months before, Anne had convinced Catherine to read—and answer—Elizabeth’s email. In an even greater miracle, she had arranged an audience with Catherine despite the short notice. Perhaps the dean had an empty, tedious Monday looming ahead, and thought she might relish batting Elizabeth around the room for a while before lunch.

Catherine claimed that she could solve the mystery of Georgiana’s parentage, but she hadn’t provided the answer in her email, perhaps seeking to maximize the drama of her revelation. Elizabeth was ironically grateful to Wickham for his brief mention of ‘Lady Catherine;’ it had brought to mind past comments from both William and Rose about Anna’s close relationship with both of the de Bourgh women.

About thirty minutes after their scheduled appointment time—Catherine wouldn’t be Catherine if she didn’t make people wait—Bill Collins ushered Elizabeth into the dean’s office.

“Dr. de Bourgh, thank you for seeing me.”

Catherine remained seated behind her desk and stared at Elizabeth, expressionless and silent.

“I know this is an imposition, considering how much you dislike me.” Elizabeth cringed inwardly. This was not the best way to establish a position of strength, but the words had already escaped.

“I don’t dislike you,” Catherine retorted, scowling. “You’re unworthy of that kind of emotional investment.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath to steady herself. “All right, then. I’m not someone you’d ordinarily choose to meet with, and I appreciate that you’ve made an exception.”

“Your email said that the Darcys have questions about Anna and her relationship with George Wickham, particularly as it pertains to Georgiana.”

“Yes. Wickham has made some … questionable claims about Georgiana’s parentage.”

Catherine nodded. “Then, as I said in my email, of course I must speak on Anna’s behalf. She was a dear friend and would not wish her daughter to live under the burden of such uncertainty. That is the only reason I consented to meet with you, out of loyalty to Anna.”

“I understand.”

“I was surprised that you were chosen as the family’s emissary. In fact, I called Rose this morning to confirm that you were telling the truth about representing them.”

“It was my suggestion. I thought that, depending on what you were going to say, it might be easier for someone who wasn’t a member of the family to hear the story.”

“I find myself in the unfamiliar position of agreeing with you. I can be utterly frank without the need to spare anyone’s feelings.”

Elizabeth almost laughed at the notion of Catherine concerning herself with the feelings of others, but she simply nodded and said, “That’s what I thought, too.”

“Very well.” Catherine’s expression softened, something Elizabeth had never seen before. “Anna was a good woman, despite her rather haphazard upbringing in Italy. We were dear friends and I still miss her. She would never have tolerated the way I was treated by William and his family—and by you, not that your behavior surprised me—back in November. For which, I might add, I still have not received an apology.”

“I can’t speak for the Darcys, but on my own behalf, I apologize. Something you said about William made me angry. I’m very protective where he’s concerned, and I get a bit overwrought sometimes.” It wasn’t the heartfelt apology Catherine was no doubt seeking, but it was all Elizabeth could manage.

Catherine grunted and waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Let’s not waste time. Ask your questions.”

“This all started when Georgie and I met Wickham on New Year’s Eve, at the Kennedy Center.”

“Ah, yes. I had intended to be there, but Anne preferred to stay quietly at home over the holidays.”

Elizabeth held back a smirk. Anne had spent New Year’s Eve at the Clift Hotel with Jane, Charles, Roger, and the rest of Golden Gate Jazz. “I met him, as did Georgie, that night, and I learned about his involvement with Anna. Then, about two weeks ago, he established contact with Georgie via email. She wanted to know about her mother, and he told her some true stories mixed with lies about William and Rose.”

“Anna should never have let him into the foundation, and especially not into her life,” Catherine said, shaking her head. “I could sense something disingenuous about him from the first time I met him, and I did my best to dissuade her. But she was infatuated with him and couldn’t see past his charm. So, he wormed his way in with Georgiana, did he?”

“Yes; she was having a tough time for several reasons, and she was desperate to learn about her mother. I’m sure it seemed like a huge blessing to her, to meet someone who had known her mother back then.”

Catherine shook her head. “I heard about the shoplifting mess she got into; she was lucky it was mostly hushed up. She obviously needs a stronger hand guiding her. Rose Darcy doesn’t have a clue how to raise girls; look at her overgrown hippie of a daughter.”

Elizabeth ignored Catherine’s remark and continued the story, explaining the events of the previous weekend in Washington and ending with Wickham’s demand for $1 million to take a paternity test. Catherine said little, but shook her head occasionally, often accompanied by a “tsk” or a sigh.

When Elizabeth finished, Catherine said, “So, you said in your email that you hoped I might know the identity of Georgiana’s biological father.”

“It’s the most important question, yes.”

“I’ve heard the rumors over the years, of course, but I had no idea that there was any question within the family.” Catherine paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, and Elizabeth held her breath. “No, George Wickham is not Georgiana’s father.”

“And you’re sure?”

Catherine scowled at Elizabeth. “Young woman, if I say something, you may be assured that it is the truth. I am well known for my frankness in all situations. Georgiana is Edmund Darcy’s daughter, biologically and legally.”

“But—” Elizabeth stopped, not sure how to ask the question.

“But how did that happen, given that they had been estranged for years before Georgiana was born? Is that your question?”

Elizabeth nodded.

“I’m surprised Rose doesn’t know this already. But at the time, Anna was angry with Rose; in fact, she blamed Rose for the situation she found herself in. And she may have assumed that Edmund would explain things to his mother.”

“So, what happened?” Elizabeth was dying to hear the story, especially with the suggestion that it was somehow Rose’s fault that Anna had gotten pregnant.

“Don’t rush me!” Catherine glared at her. “I shall answer your question, but I will not be rushed.” She sat quietly for a time, probably to punish Elizabeth for her impatience, and then asked, “How much do you know about Edmund Darcy?”

“William doesn’t talk about him much. I know that he forced Anna to give up the opera, and that he didn’t want William to be a professional musician either.”

“Such a waste. Anna was a magnificent singer and actress; when she met Edmund, she was already well on her way to a brilliant operatic career in Europe. But he and Rose had definite ideas about Anna’s role in the family.” Catherine adopted an air even more self-important than usual. “I’m pleased to say that those ideas have never been embraced in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s family.”

“I’ve often thought how devastated Anna must have been. I would hate it if someone told me I couldn’t ever sing again.”

Catherine scoffed. “You don’t have a tenth of her talent; what a joke, for you to think you could even begin to comprehend what a blow it was for her. By the time I met her, she had done her best to adapt, but she had also grown to hate Edmund. She told me about their life in Italy; he was different then, and seemed to enjoy her admittedly passionate nature. But returning to the United States and taking charge of the business changed him, and they had nothing in common.”

“What did you think of him?”

“I hated him on her behalf, and in person he seemed cold and remote. He wanted nothing to do with William; he was ashamed of having a son with a physical defect, especially one that prevented him from excelling at sports. Unfortunately, William’s musical talent made things worse. In his mind, musical training was a frivolous waste of time, and by encouraging it, he believed that Anna was turning their son into a useless weakling. If it hadn’t been for Rose, Edmund would probably have succeeded in putting a stop to William’s musical education. I think Anna hated him for that even more than for what he had done to her.”

“William said that his mother worked hard to make sure he got the career she had been denied,” Elizabeth remarked.

“She did. Once he was old enough to begin performing in public, she resigned from all her committee and board positions—for local arts organizations and charities. She never cared about most of those causes in the first place; she had only volunteered for the sake of appearances, to placate Rose. From then on, she devoted herself full-time to William’s career, taking him to festivals and competitions to get him noticed. And she convinced Rose to help her launch the arts foundation. That way, she could be seen as a supporter of the arts and uphold the family’s reputation, but she could arrange her obligations around William’s schedule.

“When he was about thirteen, she started to work on getting him admitted to Juilliard. Although he was much younger than the typical college freshman, he was more than qualified, musically speaking. I questioned the necessity; he was already working with an outstanding teacher and his technique and artistry were already nearing the professional level. But she bought into the Juilliard mystique, and believed that he would make the necessary connections there for a solid career. Then, she thought, he would be permanently safe from Edmund’s interference.

“Edmund got wind of her plan and was furious. He said that it was time for him to take charge of William’s education. He planned to send the boy away to military school. I happened to be there the day he told Anna and I overheard their argument, as did everyone in the house, I imagine. Edmund said that the discipline would toughen William and counteract the weaknesses inflicted by her coddling.”

“Military school? Oh, no.” Elizabeth shuddered at the thought of shy, sensitive, thirteen-year-old William being forced into that environment.

“Anna was horrified. She feared that the atmosphere at a military school would crush his spirit. In addition, she was afraid that the exercise required would damage his heart, perhaps even killing him. And even if he survived unscathed from an emotional and physical perspective, he would have little or no time for the piano, setting his career back significantly. The teen years are essential to the development of a professional musician, even one as advanced as he was. And she had personal reasons as well. William was her pride and joy; he was the only reason she hadn’t left Edmund and returned to Italy. Had the boy been sent away, it would have broken her heart. So on every level, it was a cataclysm.”

“Wow.” Elizabeth wasn’t sure how this was relevant to Georgie’s conception, but she was gaining horrifying insights into William’s relationship with his father. “Did William know what Edmund was planning?”

“He wasn’t at home when Edmund first told Anna, but I’m sure they had several other shouting matches that William could have overheard. It’s also possible that Anna told William about it. She forced everyone around her, William included, to take sides in her battle with Edmund. She was a fine woman and a good mother, but her hatred for Edmund caused her to make poor choices at times.”

Elizabeth had to fight back tears, thinking of William being a pawn in his parents’ battle. “What did Anna do to stop Edmund? I know William didn’t go to military school, so clearly she found a way.”

“First, she went to Rose to beg for help. Rose had continually supported her in allowing William to keep studying the piano; in fact, her support of Anna and William had caused a serious rift with Edmund. But this time, Rose sided with Edmund, saying that he deserved a say in his son’s education, and that a little discipline might even help William in his musical career.”

Elizabeth wasn’t surprised to hear this. Discipline was Rose’s watchword. “But what about the physical risks?”

“My impression was that the others thought Anna was exaggerating those risks. And that wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. She had always insisted that William was far more delicate than his doctors said.”

That was consistent with William’s own stories of Anna’s restrictions on his activities. “So, what did she do next?”

Catherine glared at her, and Elizabeth resolved to try harder to control her impatience. “Anna came to me, desperate for an idea, no matter how outlandish. Edmund had already enrolled William for the fall semester; I don’t remember where, but it was far from New York, which I’m sure was intentional, and was reputed to be a harsh, regimented program. We talked at length about options. Finally, I suggested a last resort that might induce Edmund to leave William alone. It was an extreme solution, but we were out of options.”

“So, what, she offered to sleep with him if he’d drop the idea, and she got pregnant by mistake?” Elizabeth flinched when she realized that she had interrupted again, but this time Catherine didn’t seem to notice.

“If only it had been that simple. But Edmund was by no means hard up for bed partners; in fact, by then he had a mistress, a divorced woman around ten years his junior. Officially he resided in the townhouse, but in reality he lived with her in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. But there was something Anna could offer that his mistress could not: another child, or rather, a legitimate one.”

Elizabeth gasped. “You’re kidding.”

Catherine blasted an icy stare at Elizabeth. “Obviously, I am not. He wanted a proper heir—by his standards—for the family and the company. We decided that Anna would acknowledge that William lacked the temperament of a business leader, and she would suggest that military school was unlikely to make a difference in that regard. Further, if William was unable to adapt to the rigors of military school, it could harm the family’s reputation, even reflecting on Edmund as his father. We expected that suggestion to make quite an impact.”

Elizabeth stared at Catherine, speechless.

“So rather than try to force William into a role that didn’t fit, they could start over. A second child could be brought up from the start to understand his—or her—role in the family and the company. In effect, she was proposing that William could be her child, and the second one could be Edmund’s.”

“That’s almost like when people have a second child because the first one needs a new kidney.”

“Your analogy is somewhat apt. Anna cherished William exactly as he was, and she feared that Edmund’s plans would destroy him. In her view, she was saving, if not his life, at least his emotional well-being and his professional future.”

“You said the child would understand ‘his or her role in the family.’ Edmund didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl?”

“He cared, but he also knew that time was running out. Anna was nearly forty.”

“Why didn’t he just divorce her and marry his mistress? Then he could have had all the heirs he wanted.”

Catherine lips twitched into a smirk. “Anna was a strict Catholic who opposed divorce, but in addition, she had a significant bargaining chip. Did you know that she and Edmund were married in Italy?”

Elizabeth nodded. “And it sounded like they more or less eloped.”

“Yes, they married impulsively and without any real planning. What you might not know is that prenuptial agreements are not commonplace in Italy—or at least they weren’t back then. Now, I really couldn’t say. Apparently Edmund was so besotted with her that he forgot to get one.”

“They were married without a prenup?”

“Indeed they were. A divorce could have cost the Darcys a huge sum of money, and perhaps even partial control of the company. But had Anna tried to divorce Edmund despite her religious objections, he and Rose would have done whatever was necessary to get custody of William. It was a stalemate.”

“So they were basically stuck with each other,” Elizabeth mused. “But how did she talk him into this plan? I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like for her, going to him and saying all of this.”

Catherine, who seemed to be warming to her role as storyteller, nodded. “She found a … unique way of dealing with that. He came to the Darcy home from time to time for evening social events at which his presence was necessary for appearances, and he tended to drink a little too much. Sometimes after he’d been drinking, he behaved amorously toward Anna; clearly, he still felt some desire for her. Anna was able to use that to her advantage.”

It was a nice way of saying that Anna had waited till he was drunk, and then seduced him. Yikes. “And when he woke up the next morning ….”

“She made her offer. Fortunately, after some reflection, he accepted.”

“So, she slept with a man she hated—more than once, I assume—and gave birth to his child, all for William’s sake.”

“Not entirely for William’s sake. The truth was, she had always wanted another child. She was thrilled when she found out she was pregnant, and ecstatic that the child was a girl.”

“But to have his child, and to know she was going to have to interact with him continually as the child got older! I don’t know if I could have done that.”

“You’ve never been a mother. There are things a mother will do for her child that no one else could ever understand.” Catherine fell silent for a moment, glancing up at the ceiling. Then she continued. “Would she have preferred to love—or at least like—the father of her child? Of course. But she didn’t believe in infidelity. Edmund had one affair after another until he settled down with his mistress, but Anna wouldn’t stoop to his level.”

“And Rose didn’t know why Edmund dropped the military school idea?”

“I assumed that she knew, but apparently not. The day he found out Anna was pregnant, Edmund announced to the family that he had, in essence, given up on William as his successor at the company, and that he no longer cared how his son was educated.”

“All right, so that explains how Georgie was conceived. But how did Wickham figure into the situation?”

Catherine paused for a moment, started to speak, and then stopped. She stared at Elizabeth and finally said, “I should have asked this at the start. Are we clear that I am telling you these things to be shared no further than the Darcy family?”

“Of course.”

“Obviously, they trust you. I hope they’re not misjudging you.”

“They’re not,” Elizabeth replied, lifting her chin in a gesture she belatedly realized was an imitation of William.

“All right, then. Anna had enjoyed a flirtation with Wickham almost since their first meeting, before she hired him. He was handsome and charming, and he gave her the attention she wasn’t getting from anyone else. She was the sort of woman who needed a man in her life, someone to admire and appreciate her. He must have sensed that need in her, and he exploited it.”

“Then how can you be sure she wasn’t sleeping with Wickham as well as with Edmund?”

Catherine heaved a loud sigh and sent yet another glare in Elizabeth’s direction. “Because we were very close, and she told me so. As I already explained, Anna didn’t believe in infidelity. She had strong religious beliefs, and to her it would be a terrible sin, even though she and her husband were separated. However, she could justify a flirtation in her mind, since Edmund was rarely around and didn’t want her company. There were some concerns among the members of the household, from things they saw, that it might have gone too far—in fact, Rose spoke to me once in confidence to see what I knew. And once William saw them kissing. Anna was in tears when she told me about that.”

“William told me about it. He was really upset afterwards.”

“Evidently she tried to talk to him about it, but he refused.”

“So, she and Wickham had an ongoing flirtation, with some kissing and … whatever, but not sex. And that just continued?”

“Anne and I moved to California not long after Anna learned that she was pregnant, but we talked on the phone frequently. Wickham was very angry when he heard about her pregnancy, and she followed it up by telling him that they had to keep their relationship strictly business going forward. So far, their relationship had looked strictly professional to the outside world, but I think she was worried about exactly the kind of gossip that arose later.”

“Then why on earth did she name her child after Wickham?”

“You are making a false assumption, as so many others have made before you,” Catherine retorted with a superior air. “Edmund asked to choose the child’s name, and Anna agreed, having no idea that his choice would create so much gossip. Rose’s mother was named Georgiana, and Edmund apparently adored his grandmother. Anna found it amusing that Edmund would name his daughter after his wife’s … special male friend, I suppose one could call him. As I said, there wasn’t any real gossip about Anna and Wickham until after Georgiana’s birth, so Edmund was unaware of the irony of his choice.”

“So, then, bottom line. Edmund is Georgie’s father, and Anna and Wickham never slept together, despite what he says.”

Catherine hesitated. “I didn’t say that. I’d prefer not to tell you this part, but given that you’re dealing with Wickham and I don’t know what he might tell you, I think it’s best to continue. So far, what I’ve told you is fact; from here on, it’s a mix of things I know and things I only suspect. And because of that, you must promise me your absolute secrecy.”

“I already did.”

“No. I mean secrecy from everyone, including the family, unless Wickham’s behavior makes it necessary to use this information.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Wow. It’s hard to make that promise without hearing what you’re going to tell me, but if you think it’s that important ….”

“It is. Do I have your word?”

Elizabeth considered the question briefly and then nodded. “Yes, Dr. de Bourgh.”

“All right, then. After Georgiana was born, Anna began to regret the bargain she had struck. It occurred to her that Edmund might take Georgiana away from her. I spent many nights on the phone with her, listening as she cried over horrible scenarios in which the child would suffer. I told her I didn’t think it needed to happen that way. I couldn’t imagine that Edmund had any interest in raising Georgiana himself; as long as her upbringing and education were appropriate for a future business leader, I doubted he’d take an active interest at least until she was in her teens.

“But Anna was distraught. She adored her daughter and couldn’t bear the thought of losing her. And looking back now, I suspect she was also suffering from postpartum depression. That was when Wickham started moving closer, when she was at her most fragile. She spent most of that summer at my estate in the Hamptons with Georgiana, and Wickham came down every weekend, sometimes even at mid-week. Anne and I came back east in early August for a couple of weeks, and of course I saw them constantly during our stay. Anna had clearly dropped her “business only” rule where Wickham was concerned. They looked and acted like a happy family, and that, combined with Georgiana’s name, had started tongues wagging among our acquaintances.”

“That makes sense. But I think the family knows most of that already.”

“Here is the part they don’t know. A few days before I returned to California, Anna and I had an opportunity for a private conversation. She confessed that Wickham was pressuring her to engage in … physical intimacy with him. She still felt that infidelity was wrong, despite the sorry state of her marriage and her husband’s very public relationship with another woman, but she feared losing Wickham if she didn’t give in to his demands. I encouraged her to hold fast to her principles; in fact, I hoped that he would  leave her, as I had never approved of him. But I doubted it would happen; he was too fond of the lifestyle her money afforded him.”

Bill Collins popped his head in the door. “Dr. De Bourgh, Professor Abernathy is here for your 10:00 meeting.”

“Collins, I told you I was not to be disturbed. We will be done soon enough, and until then, Abernathy will just have to wait.”

Elizabeth, who had expected Catherine to boot her out the door when the next appointment arrived, was momentarily flattered. But then she remembered that Catherine never saw anyone at the appointed time. Besides, Catherine seemed to be enjoying being in the know, thus gaining the upper hand with the Darcys after the rude dismissal she had received at Thanksgiving.

Catherine frowned. “Where was I?”

“Wickham was trying to get Anna into bed.”

“Crudely put, as I would expect of you, but, yes. Two mornings after our tête-à-tête, as Anne and I were preparing to leave for the airport, something in Anna’s manner—and his—suggested that she had succumbed to him at last.”

“But she didn’t actually tell you that?”

“No doubt she felt too much shame to admit what she had done, even to herself. Not to mention that she was disregarding my excellent advice while living under my roof, which no doubt added significantly to her guilt.”

“I’m sure.” Elizabeth pressed her lips together, suppressing a smirk with every ounce of determination she could muster.

Catherine stared, frowning, perhaps trying to decipher Elizabeth’s expression. “I hope you can see why I would wish to keep these events confidential, even from the family.”

Elizabeth nodded. “I wouldn’t want William or Georgie to know this part.”

“And Anna’s reputation should be preserved; she was an excellent woman. But in case Wickham can somehow prove that he and Anna had a physical relationship, it is important for you to know that it happened only after Georgiana’s birth.”

“Yes.” Elizabeth paused. “Wickham said some things about a plan for Anna to leave Edmund. Then they could truly have been a family. Does that sound plausible?”

“She would never have done that. As I said before, Edmund and Rose would have seen to it that Edmund gained custody of the children, and they were too precious to Anna to risk losing them.”

“Were you in the Hamptons when she died?”

“No; we returned to California about a week before it happened. As I’m sure you know, she died in a car accident with Wickham behind the wheel. There were rumors that he seemed angry, and was drinking heavily, that night, but the police didn’t require him to take a breathalyzer test.”

“Wickham said the other driver was drunk.”

“Yes, I heard that as well. Beyond that, I only know that I lost my best friend that night.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Elizabeth said. “She must have been a remarkable woman. William has told me so much about her, and I know how much he misses her. I wish I could have met her.”

“Well, you have your story,” Catherine said brusquely, avoiding eye contact. “Is there anything else?”

“Actually, yes, just one more question. Do you think Wickham loved her?”

Catherine pressed her lips together and frowned, tipping her head to one side. “I think he enjoyed her company, and he certainly seemed to enjoy their flirtation. And no doubt he found her desirable; she was a beautiful woman. But love ….” She shook her head. “No. I think he sensed an opportunity to ingratiate himself with a lonely and very wealthy woman.”

“I suspected as much, but when I met with him, he put on quite a show of devotion to her.”

“I can easily believe it. As I said, he always seemed disingenuous to me. Poor Anna; she truly deserved better than Wickham … or Edmund.” Catherine paused for a moment, her eyes focused across the room. Then, suddenly, her gaze snapped back to Elizabeth, her expression haughty as ever. “So, you have your information. I have important things awaiting me while we sit here rehashing the past.”

Elizabeth rose to her feet. “Thank you for taking the time to tell me all of this. It’s going to make a tremendous difference, especially to Georgie. Speaking of Georgie, if she wanted to confirm any of the details—the ones you’d be willing to share, of course—with you over the phone, would you be willing to do that?” Elizabeth thought that Georgiana would trust her word, but the offer of Catherine’s confirmation would lend her story extra credibility.

“I suppose so,” Catherine said with a shrug. “Incidentally, does William still intend to follow through on his threat to drop financial support of the conservatory? We haven’t received any funds so far this calendar year.”

Elizabeth finally understood the real reason Catherine had agreed to meet with her. Catherine’s attempt at a casual tone when asking the question had been entirely unconvincing. Elizabeth decided to have a little fun in return. “While I can’t speak for William with any certainty, he might reconsider his plan, as a way of thanking someone who has been so helpful to the family. I can certainly suggest it. However, if he were to hear that anyone associated with the conservatory had made unkind remarks about any member of the family, in either a personal or a professional setting, I think that would influence his decision.”

Catherine gave Elizabeth a long, hard stare. At last, with a cold nod, she said, “Goodbye, Ms. Bennet.”

“Goodbye, Dr. de Bourgh. I hope we’ll see you and Anne at the wedding. It’s going to be on June 15.”

As Elizabeth left Catherine’s office, the woman’s imperious voice followed her. “I can’t say if we’ll be able to attend; it’s a long trip for Anne, given her health.”

Elizabeth grinned, wondering what Catherine would say if she knew that Anne had already agreed to attend.

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