Elizabeth heard footsteps, and looked up to see Rose in the doorway to Sonya’s second-floor office. “Hello, Mrs. Darcy,” she said.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“No, not at all. I was just borrowing Sonya’s computer to answer some email, but I’m finished.”
“Perhaps this would be a good time for us to talk.”
“Of course.” In truth, Elizabeth would have preferred to do almost anything else, but she had to do it sooner or later, and at the moment they had privacy. Georgiana and William were in his sitting room, poring over Anna’s diary.
They walked together past the staircase, through the breakfast room, and into the large family room. It was one of Elizabeth’s favorite rooms in the house, with comfortable chairs and sofas and frequent splashes of bright colors. According to William, Anna had redecorated this part of the second floor during her lifetime. At one end of the room, a gallery overlooked the two-story library, with a second level of bookshelves on two sides and a wall of windows at the back.
Elizabeth stared at the gallery and shook her head. This wouldn’t do; they could be overheard far too easily by anyone who happened into the library. “Actually,” she said, “let’s go back to the breakfast room.” It was another pleasant room with its effortlessly elegant furniture and frequent pops of color.
As Rose seated herself, Elizabeth was struck—as always—by the woman’s regal air. She perched on the edge of her chair, her back straight, her neck elongated, her perfectly-coiffed head held erect, though she raised one pale, blue-veined hand in a graceful gesture to brush an invisible strand of hair aside. She needed only a coronet to be the picture of a monarch—a monarch whose domain was about to be turned upside down.
“I suppose we should start with the rest of what Catherine told me,” Elizabeth said.
Rose inclined her head in a queenly gesture of assent.
“For starters, she told me about the military school idea for William.”
“I see.” Elizabeth saw a brief flicker of something—perhaps surprise—in Rose’s eye, but it was quickly extinguished.
“And she said you supported the idea. I wasn’t expecting that. William said you always supported his career plans when his father tried to interfere.”
Rose cleared her throat before responding. “Ordinarily, yes. But there were several factors at work. I had begun to feel that we were being unfair to Edmund, completely depriving him of any influence over William.”
“And your solution was to let Edmund ship William off to military school? A shy, sensitive boy who was developing into an incredible musical artist?” Elizabeth forced herself to stop talking before the impassioned rant threatening to spill out through her lips succeeded in doing so.
Rose, for her part, remained calm as always. “Discipline has value in a musical career.”
“So does practice time and access to good teachers! He would have lost all of that. And what about his health? Catherine said that Edmund picked a very tough program. What if all the exercise had done permanent damage to his heart?”
“The doctors assured us that he was healthy enough for normal activities and a reasonable level of exercise,” Rose retorted, her tone cool. “In fact, as we learned later, at the time he was secretly running long distances with Richard on an almost daily basis. I imagine he’s told you about that.”
Indeed, he had. And Elizabeth had heard about Anna’s obsessive worry for William’s health from Catherine, and from the man himself. “Well, okay. But don’t you think Edmund’s primary goal was simply to take William away from his mother as a way to punish her? Or maybe just to prove that he could win a battle? Either way, William was an innocent pawn. How could you have supported that?”
Rose’s mouth set in a firm line, but after a moment her face grew calm again. “I’m not accustomed to being spoken to this way, but I realize that you’re angry because you’re very protective of William.”
“Yes, I certainly am.” Elizabeth lifted her chin in a defiant gesture. Two could play the “regal body language” game … or at least try.
Rose seemed to be wearing a faint smile. “My grandson is very fortunate to have you in his corner. As I’ve told you before, at times you remind me of his mother.” Rose paused, and her eyes softened. “I’m sure you’re aware that Anna adored William. He was her life, and his career was almost a sacred mission to her. But Edmund felt that she was smothering him, that he needed toughening to survive in the world no matter what his future held. And I came to agree with him.”
“But a spartan military school, far from home? Wasn’t that an extreme reaction? I can’t imagine how difficult—emotionally, I mean—it would have been for him to be forced into that environment after living such a sheltered life.”
“Yes, it would have been.” Rose sighed. “At the time I probably didn’t give that consideration enough weight. I must admit, I was relieved that it never came to pass.”
“Did Edmund tell you why he changed his mind?”
“No. It seemed to happen when Anna announced her pregnancy. I assumed they had reconciled and reached an agreement about William’s future. But as her pregnancy advanced, they seemed to avoid each other, or at least made no noticeable attempts to seek each other out.”
“You never asked Edmund to explain?”
“I tried, once, and he refused to discuss it. We were not on good terms.”
Elizabeth had always wondered if Rose was as ignorant of the situation as she claimed, or if she had simply been concealing what she knew to protect Edmund. Apparently, it was the former. “Well, then, let me share what Catherine told me.” She went on to explain Anna’s agreement with Edmund. Rose listened in silence, her expression impassive.
When Elizabeth finished, Rose nodded slowly, as though to herself, her gaze fastened on a large photograph of herself with William and Georgiana that appeared to have been taken about ten years before. After a brief silence, she asked, “What was your reaction when you heard the story?”
“I was shocked,” Elizabeth replied. “All I could think was how terrible it would be, to have to go to bed with someone you hated and then carry his child. It shows how desperate she was.”
Rose nodded, expressionless, but didn’t speak.
The silence began to rattle Elizabeth, and she blurted out, “And I was angry with you. I guess I still am. If you’d supported Anna and William, she wouldn’t have been forced to do something so drastic.”
Rose’s eyes were still fixed on the photo. “I can see how it might seem that way now, in retrospect. But I had no idea she would go to such lengths. And she seemed thrilled to be pregnant. She told me that she wanted another child and was very happy.”
“Catherine said that, too. Did you ask her who the father was?”
Rose recoiled and stared at Elizabeth. “Heavens, no. To even suggest that there was any doubt would have been a tremendous insult to her.”
Elizabeth had never thought of it that way, but it was an excellent point.
“Besides,” Rose continued, “genuine doubts only arose after Georgiana was born, due to Anna’s closeness with Wickham and her complete avoidance of Edmund. Until then, most people assumed Edmund was the father—or if they didn’t, they said nothing to me.”
“That’s what Catherine said—that it was the way she and Wickham behaved together, like a little family with their newborn daughter, that started the gossip.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“That was pretty much it,” Elizabeth replied, skating on the edge of lying but avoiding a flat denial that there had been more. Catherine’s final words would remain a secret, as promised.
Rose eyed her with a speculative air. “Does William know what you’ve just told me?”
“Yes, I told him last night.”
“And how did he respond?”
“It hurt him, both to hear what his mother had been forced to do for his sake and to be reminded of how disdainful his father was toward him. He went out of his way to justify your role in it, though, so you don’t need to worry about that.” Elizabeth made no attempt to keep the bitterness out of her voice. Despite Rose’s explanations, some of which had been reasonable, she still blamed the woman for failing to support William and Anna.
“I’m surprised you told him. You must have known it would be unpleasant for him to hear it.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed at the implied criticism. “William and I don’t keep secrets from each other. It would hurt him far worse if some day he found out that I’d kept the truth from him.”
Rose regarded Elizabeth in silence, wearing a pensive expression. Elizabeth, entirely unnerved, grasped for something, anything, to say. But before anything popped into her mind, Rose spoke softly. “I owe you an apology.”
Of the thousands of things Rose might have said, Elizabeth would never have expected that. She decided to use Rose’s own technique, and studied her in silence, eyebrows arched in an invitation to continue.
“You’re well aware, of course, that I tried on several occasions to convince William to look elsewhere for a wife. The wide social gulf between your family and ours, so similar to Anna’s situation ….” Rose shrugged. “We’ve spoken of this before.”
Does she seriously intend to insult my background again? Elizabeth took a slow, deep breath. It required every ounce of restraint she possessed to resist such provocation to speak. But Rose’s own example had demonstrated the power of silence.
“But as both you and William have pointed out on different occasions, you are not Anna, and—perhaps even more importantly—he is not his father. You have Anna’s determination and her warmth, but her emotions were volatile and often escaped her control.”
“And you’re surprised? She was denied the career she loved by a man who was supposed to love her. That had to be a terrible betrayal.”
Rose shook her head slightly. “While I don’t disagree, I see no point in rehashing the past. What matters is the future, and I think you and William are going to do well together.”
At last, Elizabeth allowed herself to smile. “That, Mrs. Darcy, is something we agree on.”
“And, incidentally, I think ‘Mrs. Darcy’ is too formal a name for my granddaughter-in-law to use. Please call me Rose—or Gran, if you prefer, as William and Georgiana do.”
“Thank you … Rose.” Of the two choices, that one seemed to convey a status of equals—or near-equals, at least.
“Lizzy? Are you down here?” It was Georgiana’s voice, calling from the steps above the second-floor landing. “We need to go soon.”
Elizabeth glanced at the grandmother clock in the corner. “Oh, she’s right! Georgie wants to buy a CD, and I said I’d take her there on the way to the Plaza. We’ll meet you there, if that’s all right.”
“Great! Then we’ll see you there.”
Elizabeth checked her watch for what seemed like the tenth time in as many minutes as she and Georgiana passed through the main entrance of the Plaza Hotel. It was precisely four o’clock, the agreed-upon meeting time for tea. She had planned to arrive at least ten minutes early, thus giving Georgiana a strategic advantage, but she had underestimated the challenge in prying a fifteen-year-old girl away from a record store. Finally, she had dragged Georgiana, clutching a Tower Records bag containing half a dozen CDs she swore she couldn’t live without, through the doors and onto the sidewalk. They had hurried down Broadway and through Central Park, pausing only briefly inside the hotel’s main entrance to catch their breath and smooth their hair.
Rose offered a faint smile as they approached. “Ah, here you are,” she said, her statement suggesting that they were late. Elizabeth’s lips twitched; her tea with Rose last Thanksgiving had started much the same way. Obviously, Rose was also aware of the power of a strategic advantage.
“Hi, Gran,” Georgiana said, as she seated herself. “Lizzy took me to buy a CD I really wanted; it had a song Mamma used to sing to me when I was a baby.”
“Perhaps the Brahms Lullaby?”
Georgiana nearly executed an eye-roll; Elizabeth could see the telltale widening of the eyes and pursing of her lips. But the girl managed to stop herself, impressing Elizabeth with her restraint. “No, it’s a song that was popular when I was born.”
“Shall we have our tea? I’ll call Margaret over to take our orders.”
“Actually, Gran, I asked you to tea today, so you’re my guest. I think that means I should be the one to call Margaret.”
Rose’s smile was possibly the broadest one Elizabeth had ever seen on the woman’s face. “Quite right, my dear. Margaret is right over there.”
Georgiana managed the ordering of their tea service while Elizabeth gaped at her, impressed by the girl’s smooth command of the process. This, she supposed, was an example of the training a privileged upbringing afforded—the kind that, as Rose had remarked more than once, Elizabeth lacked. This reminder dampened her confidence. What do I know about reconciling a teenager and her grandmother? About as much as I know about absurdly expensive afternoon tea.
After Margaret departed, silence fell at the table. Georgiana’s gaze was fastened on the tablecloth, her initial burst of confidence clearly fading just as Elizabeth’s had done. Elizabeth rummaged through her brain for a subject that would engage the others, and finally found one. “Georgie, did your grandmother ever tell you about having her bridesmaids’ luncheon here?”
“Yeah … I mean, yes, she did. She showed me the table where they all sat, over there.” Georgiana tipped her head toward a large round table in the middle of the room, the same one Rose had indicated to Elizabeth during their November visit.
“Oh, so the two of you have been here together before?” Elizabeth knew the answer, but thought the question might still have value.
“Oh, my, yes,” Rose said. “I used to bring Georgiana here on her birthday, starting when she was about six. And usually during the holidays, to see the decorations.”
“Why did you stop?” Georgiana asked. “We didn’t come for my last two birthdays, and not this Christmas either. I mean, I suppose at Christmas you didn’t want to be seen in public with your granddaughter, the thief.”
Rose stared at Georgiana, clearly shocked by her accusatory tone. “No, of course that wasn’t the reason.”
“Whatever.” Georgiana shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
Elizabeth watched her tablemates with equal parts of interest and frustration. This was not the way she and Georgiana had planned to introduce the subject of her fractured relationship with her grandmother, but perhaps it would suffice … if she could keep them talking. However, before anyone had the chance to speak again, Margaret arrived at the table with their tea service.
Once Margaret was gone, Rose focused with remarkable intensity on her delicate china teapot. She looked up, but Elizabeth’s hopes for a meaningful comment were dashed when Rose merely remarked, “Isn’t the china here lovely?” Elizabeth answered with a nod, suppressing her own urge to execute an eye-roll. Georgiana ignored her tea in silence, staring into her lap.
Elizabeth’s frustration nearly emerged in a loud groan as she watched Rose study the plates in silence, selecting half a dozen morsels with painstaking deliberation—including, of course, two cucumber sandwiches. Georgiana grabbed a scone and gnawed on it while she stared across the room, her face as expressionless as her grandmother’s. It appeared that the master plan—to get the two into a formal setting where they would be forced to sit together and talk for a time—was a complete failure. They seemed satisfied, even relieved, to sit in silence until the food was gone.
Had there been any doubt, it would now have been clear where William had learned to retreat into impassive reserve whenever he felt threatened. But unlike Rose, he shared his mother’s emotional nature, with the Darcy reserve only a thin veneer shielding the vulnerable soul beneath. Rose was far tougher than her grandson, her shell hardened either by disposition or through decades of societal pressure. And Georgiana, in this moment at least, seemed to be taking her cues from her grandmother.
The silence continued as the trio sipped, munched, and glanced around the room in awkward misery. At least, Elizabeth was miserable; she couldn’t tell how the others felt. With no idea what else to do, she plucked a miniature roast beef sandwich from the tray. She was curious to try a cucumber sandwich but didn’t dare touch them for fear of arousing Rose’s wrath; instead, she tried a mini éclair and a strawberry tart. At least the food was tasty, though it was difficult to enjoy it with tension swirling around them.
She sent questioning glances to the others, hoping to provoke them to speak, but they refused to notice. The tea room was alive with the hum of voices and the clinking of spoons, yet the sounds seemed to stop just short of their table, drowning them in waves of silence.
Finally, her patience was exhausted. She set her teacup in its saucer with unnecessary force, causing both Georgiana and Rose to look up, startled by the clatter. “I thought the two of you came here to talk, not to sit here eating tiny food, drinking tea, and avoiding eye contact. If that’s all you wanted to do, we could have stayed home; I bet Mrs. Reynolds makes a mean cucumber sandwich.”
“Nonsense,” Rose answered calmly. “We’re enjoying our tea.”
“I’m not,” Georgiana retorted. She reached for a cucumber sandwich and bit into it with a defiant air. Apparently, a privileged background also taught one how to turn a bite of a tea sandwich into an insult.
As Elizabeth watched in astonished silence, Georgiana swallowed the sandwich and glared at Rose over the rim of her teacup before taking a long sip. Then she spoke again. “Lizzy is right. This is stupid. Gran, can’t you see that this is what’s wrong with our whole family? We’d rather do almost anything than talk.”
“Nonsense. We talk frequently. Every Sunday at brunch, for starters.”
“I don’t mean a bunch of dumb, boring small talk. I mean really talking, about things that matter. We don’t do that, like, ever.”
Georgiana flashed a quick glance at Elizabeth, who didn’t know whether to encourage her or to try to calm her. The girl’s flushed expression and rapid-fire speech suggested that she was losing control, something Rose would not tolerate, particularly not here in the tea room. But she seemed to know that; she was speaking in a hushed near-whisper, full of tension but with little volume.
Rose, for her part, looked perplexed. She sat and stared at her granddaughter, one hand wrapped around her teacup. Perhaps encouraged by Rose’s silence, Georgiana continued. “I did more real talking last weekend, with Lizzy and her aunt and uncle and cousin, and then with her sister, than I’ve done my whole life. They asked how I felt and what I wanted, and they really listened to what I said. They didn’t just tell me what I was supposed to think and feel and how I was supposed to act, like you always do.”
Rose had regained her normal placid expression. “I suppose it’s true that we don’t—perhaps the expression is, ‘let it all hang out’—the way some families might.” Rose glanced at Elizabeth and hesitated, and Elizabeth guessed the reason: Rose was walking a tightrope. She wanted to claim superiority for the Darcys’ approach to communication, but she didn’t want to antagonize Elizabeth in the process.
“Well, maybe we should. I mean, when was the last time you asked me how I actually felt about anything?” When Rose didn’t answer immediately, Georgiana forged ahead. “Like, you never even asked me why I shoplifted.”
“You told us that Courtney pressured you into it.”
Georgiana shook her head. “Actually, you told me that. You said, ‘You did this because that dreadful girl forced you into it, didn’t you?’ And I said yes, because I knew that was what you wanted to hear. You didn’t care about the truth; you just wanted to know that I was still a good girl who just made a mistake. You didn’t want to know that, yeah, it was Courtney’s idea at first, but it was exciting to be daring and sneaky and see what we could get away with.”
“Georgiana, don’t say such things. I know you don’t mean it.”
“Yes, I do!” Georgiana cried, her volume rising. “I’m tired of always being the Good Little Granddaughter who never causes trouble and always does what she’s told. The one nobody notices.”
Rose’s eyes darted from side to side. “Georgiana, lower your voice.”
“Because what these people think matters more than my feelings?” Georgiana, her voice quiet now but full of pent-up rage, jumped to her feet. “Fine. I’ll just leave, and then you won’t have anything to be embarrassed about.” She glanced at Elizabeth. “Thanks for trying, Lizzy, but it’s hopeless.” She whirled and stormed out of the tea room.
Elizabeth pushed back her chair. “I’ll go after her.”
“What has gotten into that child?” Rose asked, her eyes wide, her brow furrowed.
“I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what’s gotten into her,” Elizabeth replied. “I don’t think you’ve noticed that she’s not a child anymore.” Before Rose could respond, Elizabeth hurried out the door in pursuit of Georgiana.
I’d love to read your comments! You have several ways to comment:
- On the AUS comment thread on A Happy Assembly, a JA fanfic site; we have a great community of readers there who have been reading (or rereading) the story together since mid-June.
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A few notes on tea at the Palm Court:
First, a disclaimer. Most of the restaurants and experiences I talk about in the story are things I know about through personal experience or through reports from friends. However, the closest I've come to having tea at the Palm Court is walking past it at tea time, peeking in, and seeing Julie Andrews (in her Nanny garb from the Eloise movies) standing by a table chatting with someone. We later encountered her near the elevators, and forever after she became (very much tongue in cheek, of course) "our close personal friend, Julie Andrews."
Afternoon tea at the Plaza has a reputation for being very touristy. Also, the hotel has changed hands so many times lately, with so many different ideas about its future, that the whole place has no doubt suffered. I mention this because some readers have made a point of visiting story locations in their travels. This is one I'm mentioning not as an endorsement, but because for Rose it's a tradition, an important link to her past. If you're in New York and want a nice, but not highfalutin', afternoon tea, I recommend Tea and Sympathy, a charming little British tea shop in Greenwich Village.
Here's the current menu for afternoon tea; thanks to user carolgold in A Happy Assembly for hunting it down. I based tea in the story on the New Yorker Tea (at $89 per person): https://darcymania.com/images/2.17.20-Afternoon-Tea.pdf