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Elizabeth Francis Parker.
“An educated lady must always hold her head high, have good posture, and stick her little finger out while sipping–sipping mind you, not slurping–her tea. You, my dear Elizabeth Francis Parker, are not an educated lady, nor will you ever be, unless you stop mingling with those colored workers. It’s bad for you,” Mary Ann, my illegitimate half-sister and daughter of our cook, said in a perfect imitation of Mrs. Crawford’s voice. We all shrieked with laughter.
At the time, I was in the fields of the plantation, using my position as my father’s eldest daughter as an excuse to wander about, talking to the workers.
The day before, Mrs. Crawford, my governess, gave me detailed instructions on how to be a lady. I, of course, could not care less, preferring to spend time doing something useful, but it seemed to matter to both my parents a great deal. My mother constantly chided me on my lack of attention during the lessons.
My mother was a great lover of Jane Austen’s work, particularly Pride and Prejudice. I suppose that is why I ended up Elizabeth, my younger brother Charles, my two younger sisters (twins) Lydia and Catharine “Kitty,” and my older brother Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Imagine the name. Fitzwilliam Darcy Parker. How unfortunate. I would so hate a name like that. How awful when introducing oneself at a social gathering. My dear brother was the subject of many, many jokes, but he always took them in good humor.
The year was 1874. I was a girl of seventeen years, with long black hair that fell in waves to the middle of my back, a delicate nose, and fair skin with a tint of pink. Every piece of me screamed a rich heiress.
“Miss Elizabeth Francis Parker!” a servant cried from the house. We had one of those newfangled voice amplifiers solely for the purpose of calling me home from the fields.
“Well, ladies, I must go,” I said with a grin, hiking up my skirts and running toward the house.
When I arrived, I learned from a maid that my mother and father were in the parlor with three distinguished guests. She would not tell me who the guests were, only that that they very important. The maid ushered me upstairs and gave me instructions to change into my best gown.
I was confused. Who could warrant a visit from me in my best gown? Nevertheless, I took the grand gown out.
It was violet with lavender edging and fell to the floor. The dress had a low square neckline and narrow sleeves that flared a little at my wrists. The whole thing was a mass of frills, pleats, and flounces, and extended quite a ways in the rear. I fastened my grandmother’s diamond necklace around my neck, slipped soft dyed purple shoes on my feet, and checked my reflection in the mirror.
I astounded myself. My dark black hair was swept up into elegant ringlets held up with a few silver pins. My grandmother’s diamond necklace sparkled at my neck and the gown beautifully brought out my deep, almost black, violet eyes. I pulled elbow length gloves on and gave my hair a last pat. I thought myself most beautiful.
I swept out of my room, hurrying down the stairs to the hall. There, a maid, dressed in navy blue and white, our company’s colors, led me to the parlor. She stopped in front of the room.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I stepped into the parlor.
I was dazzled by the finery. Mother was dressed in a dark blue silk gown and had a sapphire necklace at her throat. Father was wearing one of his costliest suits. I walked over to them both and kissed their cheeks. All the time, I was puzzled. Why would they dress like that?
My question was answered when I faced the guests. They looked to be a family of three. The man must have been over fifty, and was clearly wearing a tailored suit. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was ordered from Italy or France. Everyone knew the Italians and the French were the best tailors and dressmakers. The woman was wearing a rich red gown, and was positively dripping with jewels. The boy was fair haired and was extraordinarily handsome.
“Miss Elizabeth Parker, I assume,” the woman spoke in a high pitched voice. I winced inwardly. Her voice was an unpleasant screech.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered respectfully in what Mary Ann called my “ladylike” voice.
“Elizabeth, this is the Earl of Norwich,” my mother said, pointing at the man.
I nodded my head at him, adding a respectful “How do you do?”
“Lord Gordon, Lady Gordon, and their son, Richard Gordon paid us a most gracious visit, coming all the way from England to see us,” my mother said.
I was not aware that the so respectable Gordons knew a humble (but rich) family like ours. They were royalty, where as we were merely a trading family.
“Miss Elizabeth,” Lady Gordon said, stressing my non-royal title, “would you be so kind as to take my son for a tour of the grounds?”
“In these clothes?” I almost exclaimed. Instead I said I would be happy to show him around.
Richard Gordon followed me out of the room and out of the house dutifully, but as soon as he stepped outside, his attitude flipped. Richard Gordon took off his frock coat, unbuttoned his vest, loosened his tie, and stretched his arms in the air!
Richard Gordon was a string bean of a boy– tall and lanky. His fair hair tumbled over his bright, intelligent green eyes, and, if one looked closely, he had a sprinkling of freckles across his nose and cheeks. The freckles gave him a very real appearance.
Richard Gordon looked over at me and smiled, scratching the back of his head. “Think you’ll enjoy life in England?” he asked.
“Pardon?” I replied.
“You do know the purpose of this meeting is marriage, don’t you? Obviously, I won’t move to a barbaric country like America, so you must come to England,” he said as if explaining something to a child.
“Excuse me?” I spluttered, indignant. “My mother and father would never do that! I am afraid you are mistaken, Lord Gordon.”
“Call me Richard,” he said, dismissing me with a lazy wave of his hand. “We are to be married, after all. You will be Countess Gordon someday, and I shall be Earl.” Then, he had the audacity to yawn!
I took deep breaths. Flicking me away like a stray piece of lint on his shoulder? I had never been the subject of a careless wave. I had never been yawned at by anybody, not even my dog! He was so disrespectful. I was rich! He could not treat me like that! I was to be married to this irritating person? I would rather die. Inwardly I was fuming, but I painted a smile on my face. “We cannot be married, Richard, because my parents have said I am not to be married until the age of eighteen,” I stated.
He looked at me as if I said something most unintelligent. “You will have to get used to life in England before you can marry me. You must know your people,” Richard said condescendingly.
“Why?” I exclaimed, in a last effort to dissuade him. “Why am I to get married to you? You are the heir to the earldom of Norwich! You must have many eligible girls, more eligible than I am, following you. You are a noble and extremely handsome. So why pick me?”
Richard smirked at the comment on his looks. “If you must know, Elizabeth, it is because of your vast amounts of wealth. You are the eldest daughter, therefore, you have the largest dowry. It is true that my mother would like me to marry a noble, for we are not short of wealth by any means, but my father prefers financial security over a title. He drew up a list of the richest people in England, America, and France, and contacted every one of them. Out of the lists of the girls’ accomplishments, my father realized that you were the most suited to me and here we are.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered darkly under my breath.
“By the way, my dear Elizabeth, I do so love your bonnet,” he said, grinning.
Color rushed into my cheeks. Of course he made fun of it. The bonnet was a purple monstrosity. It had countless ribbons, satin flowers, and other paraphernalia. I should have gotten rid of it long ago, but my old governess, Mrs. Jackson, had made it for me, and I did love her so. I nearly fainted when they told me she and her husband were moving to England, and did not cease sobbing for three days. I think I loved her more than I did my own mother.
“I am so glad. I will make sure to wear it wherever we go,” I said with a sweet smile, pleased at the expression on Richard’s face.
When he saw I was teasing him, he started laughing. His laugh was almost musical. For all his faults, Richard was as good humored as he was good looking, and he had such a nice smile.
“I think we suit each other very well, Elizabeth,” he said, the corners of his mouth turning upward.
I had always known that when I married, it would not be for love, it would be for business. I had come to terms with a loveless married life. As long as my house and my life were comfortable, I had no other requests. I suppose I was like Charlotte from Pride and Prejudice in that aspect. Yes, Richard was irritating at times, but he was better than what I could have hoped for.
“Richard Gordon, you are an irritating, pompous idiot, but I think I just might marry you,” I said with a smile.
“Now, Elizabeth Parker, is it really fair to make judgements so soon? We have barely known each other five minutes,” he said lightheartedly.
“I am a very good judge of people,” I said.
“Don’t I know it,” he said with a slight chuckle.
“Miss Elizabeth, they want you and Lord Gordon in the parlor,” a maid said, leading us back to the parlor.
Richard entered the room first, I closely following. We stared at the assembly before us. The Earl of Norwich looked extremely pleased with himself, while the Countess Gordon looked like she had eaten something sour. Both my mother’s and father’s faces were grave, as if they had to tell me something unpleasant and they were afraid I would react childishly.
“Elizabeth,” my mother started.
“Elizabeth. Listen carefully,” my father said, standing up. “Earl Gordon has made you an offer. He would like you to marry his son Richard. We have accepted this offer, but will you accept?”
“Yes,” I stated simply.
“What?” my father spluttered, shocked. My mother sank into her chair with relief. The Earl of Norwich smiled happily.
The Countess stood up, fairly shaking with anger. “I will not...I will not have that girl married to my son! Richard is a Lord! He is not nouveau riche, like these...these commoners!” After this outburst, the Countess’ face was a bright red, and I’m sure my mother’s was too.
“Now, see here–” the Earl began.
“Mother.” The single word cut the air and froze us all into silence. The word was so cold, so laden with determination, anger, and contempt, that it frightened all of us, most of all the Countess.
“You will not come into another man’s home and insult his family. You will not behave in such an embarrassing manner. Most of all, you will not bother my future bride!” Richard tented his finders. “As I recall, I am the heir, and I shall make decisions concerning my future and the future of my family,” he said in a soft voice.
Richard did not seem at all like the amiable, irritating boy I knew just moments ago. No, this Richard was something far more sinister.
Suddenly, Richard turned to me with a smile. “Perhaps you can give me a tour of the fields, my dear Elizabeth?” he asked, offering his arm to me.
“Perhaps,” I replied, confused at the sudden change in behavior. My life just got interesting.