La Belle Dame

Title: La Belle Dame
Author: ExcentrykeMuse
Fandom(s): Belle (2014), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Downton Abbey, the English Patient
A Note on Dido Elizabeth Belle: Here Belle should be imagined as Belle in Beauty and the Beast to further the fact that she was born white despite having one white and one black parent and to have the possible couple of Emma Watson and Dan Stevens.

Unintended Cross-Characters: Hermione Granger/Belle, Beast/Matthew Crawley, Draco Malfoy/Mr. James Ashford, Count Laszio de Almàsy/Lord Voldemort
Possible Pairings: Belle/Mr. Oliver Ashford, Belle/Mr. James Ashford, Belle/Matthew Crawley, Belle/Count de Almàsy, Elizabeth/Mr. James Ashford, Elizabeth/MP

Warnings: Racism, War, Broken Hearts, Character Death (canon), Time Changes for use of the story (but have fun merging time period appropriate costumes in your head)

Captain Sir John Lindsay held his daughter to his side.  She was in a dress of pale blue, her soft brown hair done up on her head, a doll clasped within her white hands.  “Her name is Belle,” he told his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield.  “Dido Elizabeth Belle.”

“I had not heard that you were married,” Lady Mansfield stated in confusion, “only that you were enamored with a slave from a ship from the Ivory Coast.”

That was, of course, the truth.  Somehow, the child born of the union was as lily pale as any English Rose.  “You were mistaken,” he lied.  “Such a report is false.  My daughter is the product of my marriage to a woman of little standing but of honest stock.  Elizabeth—“ another lie “—is now dead and I ask that Belle be given all the privileges that flesh of my flesh should be given as I am to captain a vessel for the unforeseeable future.  Please do me this favor, Uncle.”  At such a time unions between whites and those of a darker color were anathema and Sir John would not have his daughter branded.

“She has a noble bearing, to be sure,” Lord Mansfield stated, taking in the girl.  “You call her ‘Belle’.  She cannot be called ‘Elizabeth’ for her mother.  We have the Viscount’s daughter here and she is ‘Elizabeth’.”

“Yes,” his lady concurred.  “And ‘Dido’ is too peculiar a name for an English girl.  ‘Belle’, then.  Are you satisfied, Sir John?”

“Yes, Aunt.  I thank you.”

He leaned down and looked at Belle squarely in the eyes.  “Sweet child,” he murmured.  “Forget your life before this moment.  Forget your dear mother, but know that you are deeply loved and that you will be well looked after by your uncle and aunt.  I will write to you from port.”  He grasped her to him and whispered in her ear, “Your doll is called Marguerite, but that is the only time you can say your Mama’s name.  Do tell me that you understand.”

She leaned back and shook her head.

He ran a hand down her cheek and tears welled in his eyes.  “A moment, Uncle,” he asked.  “I may not see her again until after she is wed.”

The room was emptied and not even a servant was left.

Taking her hands in his, he looked into Belle’s pale brown eyes, which were exactly the shade of his.  She had inherited nothing from her mother.  Her hair was even the hair of his own dear mother who was now passed.

“Belle,” Sir John told her.  “You may never say that your mother was a negro.  You may never say that you lived with negroes.  These must be our secrets.  Do you understand me?  It is dangerous to say such things.  People will hurt you if they know.  They will put you in chains like Mama,” he lied, hoping to scare her a little so that she would be silent on the subject.

“But you freed her,” she whispered.  “Mama told me.”

“Yes,” he agreed.  “But your mama, you must say, was called ‘Elizabeth’ now.  It is all right if you do not remember.  Just say you remember nothing before I brought you here.  All will be well.  You are much loved and much cherished, my dear sweet girl.  Now.  Tell me what you remember?”

She thought a long moment.  “There was a carriage and you brought me here and everyone decided to call me ‘Belle’.”

He smiled at her and touched her cheek again.  “Perfect.  Now I will leave you to your aunt.”  Sir John kissed her cheek gently and called back in the Mansfields and she was left in their care—and he was true to his word.  Every so often, Belle would receive a letter from him, telling her of the places he had been and inquiring after her studies although she knew she could never write back.

She applied herself to the piano and to her needlework and surpassed Elizabeth Murray, or Bette, her cousin, in everything including comportment and beauty.  Although she was half her rank, she heard Lady Mansfield say to her other aunt, Lady Mary, that she was certain Belle would receive as many offers as Bette when the time came.

Then the final letter came.  “I have no experience in imparting news of grave importance to you,” Papa—Lord Mansfield—told her as he handed her a piece of paper.

Belle looked at it and read words she had been dreading to ever read.  Her father’s ship had sunk and he had perished with it.  The Titanic was to set sail any day now and she could not believe that this had occurred.  Then something struck her.  “One hundred twenty thousand pounds?”

“Yes,” Papa told her.  “For a mere baronet your father was incredibly wealthy.  He seized many ships and their cargos and, as you know, rose high in rank.  He only captained ships because he loved the sea so very much.”

She sat down.  “What am I to do with such a sum?”

“The interest is yours until you marry, then it is my duty to come to an arrangement with your future husband as to what will be done with the capital.”

Taking a deep breath in, she blew it out through her nose.

“It’s in the five percents,” he told her.  “You’re worth six thousand a year and you are supported by this family.”

The world seemed to spin around her and Belle hadn’t even known one could faint from a sitting position until smelling salts were being waved under her nose.  Lady Mary helped her sit up and Lord Mansfield fetched her a small glass of brandy.

“Poor lamb has had a shock,” Lady Mansfield said.  “Did you tell her about Sir John?”

“Yes,” Lord Mansfield concurred.  “She was rather startled, however, by her yearly income.”

Elizabeth, however, was more than pleased.  “You’re an heiress!  You can marry whomever you please.  Some of us will have to pick and choose with dowries of much less, but you, Belle, can you imagine?”

She was trying not to imagine.  Sitting down at her vanity, she took up her brush and started to brush out her pale brown hair, wondering if she had inherited anything from her mother.  Despite what her father—Sir John—had told her, she did remember a kind dark face singing to her when she was quite small.  Her name had been Marguerite, like the doll she still kept that her father had purchased for her in London before he had brought her to Mansfield.

It was three weeks later when she began to understand the power she would now wield over men.

Belle and Elizabeth were sitting with Lady Mary at their samplers when their aunt said, “We are to have guests for dinner.”

“Whoever would visit us here?” Elizabeth wondered, leaning in toward Belle and whispering loudly.

“No one, I daresay, but the dead!” she responded, ready to laugh.

“Once again, Belle?” Lady Mary asked.

“Beds,” Belle supplied.  “We should have beds ready in case our guests wish to stay the night.”

“I see.  Lady Ashford, I am certain, will be much appreciative, as will her two eligible sons.”

Belle and Elizabeth looked at each other quickly and in excitement.

“Now,” Lady Mary decreed, “there will be no conversation in French, Italian, Latin, or any other language other than English—and there certainly will be no whispering in gentlemen’s ears!  Am I to be understood?”

“Of course, aunt,” they chorused, before looking at each other and giggling.

The younger Mr. Ashford, a Mr. Oliver, was certainly the more handsome, but he would not inherit the title or the estate.  Belle sat next to him at dinner and spoke about his potential career in the Navy, of which she could speak of freely given her knowledge of her father’s own career.  “He made his fortune in it,” she commented out of hand.

“His fortune?” Mr. Oliver asked and Belle paused.

“Forgive me,” she stated hurriedly, “I was speaking of family matters that have been much discussed of late.  I forgot I was in company.”

He put down his knife and fork and looked at her directly.  “My dear Miss Lindsay, you have me quite riveted.”

Her brown eyes looked into his blue ones and she decided to change the course of the conversation.  “I barely remember my father, I met him but the once, but I remember his hair was much darker than mine, but I believe we had the same eyes.  I have it on good authority that I look nothing like my mama, so I must inherit my features from the Lindsay and Murray families.  You and your brother do not favor each other.  Tell me, whom do you resemble in your family?”  She took a bite of her lamb and looked at him in interest.

He laughed good naturedly and picked up his utensils before answering.  “I look a great deal like my father, if truth be told.  James resembles my mother’s brother.”

“I see,” she answered.  “Miss Elizabeth Murray and I look nothing like one another, as I am sure you can tell.  However, we are second cousins.”  She smiled at him sweetly.  “Miss Murray just had the good fortune of welcoming a brother into the family, although neither of us has seen him.  I wish I might have had a brother or a sister.  Would you recommend it?”

“I am not certain,” he answered truthfully.  “I am a younger son.”

“Perhaps you are right.  I am a woman.  If I had a brother, he would inherit anything I have a right to now, I would suppose.”  She took another bite of her lamb, looking across the table at her cousin, not noticing Mr. Oliver’s eyes on her.

In the drawing room, Elizabeth and Belle sat together.  “Mr. James is the eldest,” Elizabeth reminded her cousin.  “He is to inherit a large fortune and estate from his father, along with the title Baron Ashford.  Mr. James is also to inherit a second estate from his mother’s brother, a man who shows little sign of departure.”  The two sister-cousins laughed behind their hands at the thought.

The brothers similarly were speaking of the cousins, their backs to them though they were looking back at them over their shoulder.  “She has nothing,” Oliver assured James, “while Miss Lindsay has a fortune.”

“Surely you have misinformation.”

“I assure you I do not.”

They looked at the two beautiful girls. 

“I intend to make a conquest of Miss Lindsay, despite the rumors of her birth,” Oliver stated.  “They make no sense given the fact that she nearly has the coloring of an English Rose.  She is quite the English beauty.”

“She has no land,” James reminded.

“If she has a vast enough fortune, then we can buy it.”

It was when Elizabeth was performing that Lady Mansfield went up to her second son.  “What has you so enamored apart from her natural beauty?”

“She accidentally said her father made his fortune in the Navy and that, unlike her poor dear cousin who recently had a brother born into the family, the future Lord Mansfield after Miss Murray’s own papa, Miss Lindsay herself did not have to share her inheritance.  They were all innocent comments, but if one reads between the lines, one can see the picture quite plainly.”

“Miss Murray has a brother?”

“A newborn, it would seem.”

“And Miss Lindsay a fortune of some kind.”  Her mind was set to work.  “We must hear her play.”

Elizabeth’s insipid song was soon over, Mr. James, the eldest, clapping for her dutifully, when Mr. Oliver stood and begged Belle to perform.  She glanced at him and then the piano, before sitting down carefully.

The first notes were played and then a pure, elegant soprano rang true in the drawing room:

Did you not hear my lady

Go down the garden singing?

Blackbird and thrush were silent

To hear the alleys ringing.

Mr. Oliver walked toward the piano, entranced, and Elizabeth glanced at Lord Mansfield, trying to hold back tears as her own paltry performance could not help but be compared to her sister-cousin’s.

It was Mr. James, however, who startled everyone.  He began to sing with her.

Though I am nothing to her

Though she must rarely look at me

And though I could never woo her

I love her till I die.

Belle glanced at him in confusion, briefly looking at Lady Mansfield, but continued to play as he sang and then added harmony to his singing.

But surely you see my Lady

Out in the garden there

Rivaling the glittering sunshine

With a glory of golden hair.

The piano music echoed through the drawing room and paused at the end, Belle leaving her hands on the keys before she lifted them up.  The brothers looked at one another, a challenge, and Mr. Oliver helped her stand.  He took Belle to her seat beside her cousin and then sat in the chair beside her, occupying her attention.

“I daresay you find us quite provincial to still play the piano after dinner,” Elizabeth told Mr. Oliver.  “I’m afraid we can’t quite give up the old traditions.”

“Not at all,” he stated.  “You both sang charmingly.”

“The Titanic sets sail in a week,” Elizabeth began again.  “I am looking forward to her maiden voyage.”

Belle paled, thinking of her own father’s death.  “Forgive me, I think I’ll go get some coffee,” she said, excusing herself. 

Mr. James was immediately there to assist her and she smiled at him.  “Are you quite well, Miss Lindsay?”

“Talk of the Titanic.  My father died at sea not a month ago.”

“Of course,” he stated in sympathy.  “I imagine any mention of the nautical must be painful.  Do you, perhaps, play any other instruments?”  He seemed so earnest in his question that she actually laughed.

Elizabeth was set to come out later that year while Belle was to wait, given that she was two years younger.  However, the two families spent time together.  When the Ashfords weren’t at Kenwood House, the sister-cousins were visiting at Ashford.  The brothers vied for Belle’s attention and as she was so young, she was uncertain what to do with it.

“Papa,” she asked Lord Mansfield, “am I not full young for suitors?”

“Legally you may marry,” he told her, walking along with her in the garden.  “I certainly hope that you have no wish to marry at the present.”

“The Titanic has sunk and the world has gone on, and I just have a fortune where I keep putting my interest back into the capital.”

“An intelligent move, my darling,” Lord Mansfield commented.  “All I can say is enjoy the friendship of Mr. James and Mr. Oliver and when they marry, wish them well.  You will marry someone else who will inherit a title or possesses one already with your fortune.  Let Bette alone with her marriage prospects.  She is after all the only daughter of Viscount Stormont.”

“She so cares for James Ashford.”

“And James Ashford cares for the forty thousand he believes you possess.”

Belle laughed.  “If only he knew.”

“If only he did.”


It was Elizabeth’s first season and Belle had decided she was glad she had not come out quite yet.  She was only sixteen that month and she could afford to wait.  She was in the library, reading a book, when a man in formal wear walked in.

He scanned the sections until he was in the classics and Belle couldn’t help but watch him in fascination.

He was perhaps not the tallest of men, but he had a trim figure, short blond hair, and the bluest eyes she thought she had ever encountered.  His finger went across the line of books and then paused at an empty place. 

Belle looked at the book in her hand.  “You fancy Latin then?” she asked, startling him.

He looked up at her and smiled.  “I do.”

“I’m afraid I’ve stolen this one for the night.  You may pinch it from the Earl of Grantham tomorrow, or at the end of the ball.  My cousin was afraid she couldn’t face a former beau’s intended on her own so I was dragged here against my will.  As such,” she paused for effect, “I found myself in need of a companion and I got to this book before you arrived.”

“Well,” he stated, “if I may make an observation, you made an excellent choice.  Which legend are you currently reading?”

She glanced down at the page and then back up at him again.  “Give me one good reason to trust you.”

“I’m hiding from my cousin,” he offered.  “Her grandmother told her we must marry, and I’m afraid I’m not inclined.”

Belle laughed at that.  “Papa—the man who raised me and is in fact my great uncle—gave me the opposite advice.  He told me specifically not to marry.”  She bit her lip and smiled at him.  “As you take his advice, I suppose you are worthy of my confidence.”  She held out the page to him.

“Psyche and Cupid,” he remarked.  “A beautiful and, dare I say it, whimsical romance.”

“Hardly whimsical.  He puts false shadows in front of her and makes her appear ridiculous in front of her own sisters.  It is a very cruel trick, is it not, sir?”

His eyes laughed at her.  “Well, if you put it like that.”

“I do,” she told him.  “However, I would much prefer the story of Dido and Aeneas but I’m afraid I’m a little too—“  she paused, searching for the word “—moved by the party spirit to go properly look for it without a heading.”

“There is a story,” the man told her. 

“Perhaps,” she admitted.  “So, why are you in here with me, hiding from your cousin, and not looking for a bride with a more than adequate dowry and a proper title to go with it?”  Belle was certainly teasing him and when he came and sat across from her, one leg crossed over the other in repose, she could tell that he was only pretending to be serious.

“I have little use for titles.”

“Really, sir?” she asked in mock horror.  “I am ashamed to be seen with you!  If you have one yourself, then you must want to add another to your offspring’s natural accomplishments and if you are not to inherit then, well, all the more reason to have one.”

He laughed openly and freely.  “I do admire your mind.  I am to inherit, but as I had no expectations until less than a year ago, titles are meaningless to me, my lady.”

“I congratulate you on your good fortune,” she stated.  “I myself am the humble daughter of a baronet, though one of military distinction.  Perhaps you will think less of me for having a father who held a profession.”

“No,” he stated adamantly.  “Although I am to hold a peerage, I still practice the law.  It is my passion and I will not give it up until my cousin’s death necessitates it.”

“Brava!” she stated.  “Papa practices the law, but he, of course, is a judge of high standing, so it is acceptable.  Perhaps if you ever meet you would find something to speak on.  Pray tell, what branch of the law do you find your passion?”

“Property law.”

“Property law,” she repeated, leaning forward.  Her book was closed around her finger, so as not to lose her place, but her interest was clearly turned away from it.  “In other words, if I had a fortune and wanted to spend the interest on, say, a small estate, you would tell me how I might do so in a manner and in such a way that I would own it outright and not my future husband.”

“An interesting question,” he complimented, “as you know the law of the land is very careful on such matters.  A woman may own property but it is highly unusual that she own it outright from her own husband.  She may own it outright before her marriage and perhaps even after her husband has perished but for the duration…” he paused.  “Are you thinking of buying an estate?”

Belle truly pondered the question.  “I have not the resources.  I cannot touch my capital and currently my plan was to reinvest the interest of my inheritance for future generations.”  She looked at the book for a moment, but did not open it.

She had not realized he had moved until his hand touched hers.  “What is it you fear?”

“Fortune hunters.  I want to buy a small estate that is all my own where no one can touch my fortune,” she admitted.  “Papa would never let me speak to a solicitor—and one happened to wander into the Earl of Grantham’s library.  You also have no idea who I am so I know you are not speaking to me in hopes of gaining my capital for your future estate.”

“Has it been that bad?  When Cousin Mary’s grandmother suggested she marry me, she compared herself to Andromeda and me to a sea monster.  I’ve yet to learn the identity of Perseus.”

Belle laughed behind her hand.  “I had two brothers fighting for my hand and ignoring my poor cousin whenever she was in the room.  She is of superior rank as the daughter of a Viscount and, in my opinion, more beautiful.”

He smiled at her.  “I would suggest that perhaps I have danced with her, but I fear I have not danced at all.”  The strains of a waltz were playing through the half open doorway—“unless you would care to dance with a stranger?”

She set her book aside and walked into his arms, her hand in his, his arm going about his waist.  “I’m Belle,” she told him simply.  “At least, that’s what I’m called.”

“Belle,” he tried.  “Matthew.”

They smiled at each other and, with the downbeat, they were waltzing across the library.  His blue eyes held her brown ones and her breath caught in her throat, and she felt almost as time were standing still as they moved about the room.

Then there were voices and Belle quickly pulled away.  “She’s quite the pianist, our Belle,” Lord Mansfield was saying.  “I left her in your library.  Miss Elizabeth Murray couldn’t be without her, I’m afraid.  I brought them up rather too dependent on one another.”

Belle quickly sat back down on the sofa and picked up her book, glancing at Matthew who had gone to the bookcases.

“A songbird?” another voice questioned.  “It’s rare to hear a true talent.  She must come and play for us here at Grantham House.”

“Belle!” a voice called and Belle stood to see her great uncle and another man.  “Belle, may I present the Earl of Grantham.  Lord Grantham, my grandniece, Miss Dido Lindsay.”  Belle curtseyed properly, holding the book in her hand, before standing once again. 

“Thank you for allowing me the use of your library, Lord Grantham,” she stated.

The earl looked at her kindly.  “I am sorry I could not offer you better entertainment.”

“Not at all.  There have been a few guests to your library who have proved interesting conversationalists, my lord.”

“Really?  I myself would occasionally hide during balls, but I had not realized that young ladies did the same.”  He laughed a little and she smiled back at him.

Matthew came forward from the shelves.  “I meant to give you privacy, Cousin Robert.  Miss Lindsay meant me.  We were speaking of Psyche and Cupid and, naturally, Dido and Aeneas.”

“Ah, Matthew,” the earl greeted.  “Miss Lindsay, in case you have not formally met, my cousin and heir apparent, Mr. Matthew Crawley.  Mr. Crawley is quite a devotee of the HMS Carthage and your father’s exploits before the ship went down.”

Belle looked at him in interest.  “I did not know you were interested in nautical culture, Mr. Crawley, nor Father’s career.  I daresay if you let me I could talk at you for hours about the subject.”

“That she could,” Lord Mansfield agreed.  “Captain Sir John Lindsay sent her ten page letters from every port he sailed into since she was a little girl, and I daresay she has kept them all.  She even has a map that traces the HMS Carthage and everywhere it went to port.”

She blushed.  “Papa.  You give away my secrets.”

“I daresay I have,” he agreed.  “Bette needs you.  She’s in the smaller drawing  room and quite distraught.  Your mama has her eating ices but I think she needs her sister, and this was the reason why you came tonight.”

“True,” she answered.  Belle turned to Matthew and gave him the book.  “I surrender the captive unto the leviathan,” she told him somberly before curtseying to him and Lord Grantham.

Elizabeth was beside herself, speaking about James Ashford, and in the end Belle and Lady Mansfield bundled her up into a motor and took her home before the end of the ball.

It was but eleven in the morning when Belle was told that she specifically had a visitor.  She was with Elizabeth and their Aunt Mary, who told her that she would chaperone.  Entering the room, Belle paused when she saw Matthew Crawley.

“Mr. Crawley,” she greeted.  “I do not believe you know my aunt, Lady Mary Murray.  Aunt, the Earl of Grantham’s cousin and heir apparent, Mr. Matthew Crawley.”

Belle called for tea and the three took seats around each other, no one quite saying anything.  Finally, Matthew spoke.  “I brought you this in case you did not have your own copy in the English verse,” he said, taking out a book.  “I marked the passages concerning Dido for you so you never need search for them if you wanted to quickly make a reference.”

Taking the book, Belle smiled.  “How kind.  I shall keep this in my room so it is always at hand, Mr. Crawley.”  She opened up to a blue ribbon, which had a pen line clearly marking the beginning of the passage.

“May I ask after your name?  I know you are called ‘Belle’ but your name is ‘Dido’,” he asked as Belle poured the tea.

“I was named ‘Dido Elizabeth Belle’,” she told him, “’Elizabeth’ for my mother.  My father called me ‘Belle’ and so I am called here among my family.  However, my Christian name, if you can call it that, is ‘Dido’.”

There was another pause when Matthew was clearly looking at Aunt Mary.

“Has your cousin much recovered?”

Aunt Mary finally spoke.  “I do not know what you mean.”  She set down her cup decidedly.

Belle easily tried to cover it up.  “He meant Elizabeth’s attack of the vapors last night, Aunt Mary.  I was speaking with Mr. Crawley when I was called away because of them.”

Still looking quite put out, Aunt Mary finally said, “I see,” before picking up her cup again.

Looking back at Matthew, Belle tried to find the correct answer.  “She recovered once we returned home.” —After hours of crying for a man who preferred Belle over her from nearly the beginning.  It had been exhausting.  “I believe she looks very much forward to her next ball.”

“Will you be there?” Matthew asked quickly.

Belle paused and glanced at her aunt.  “I do not believe so.  You know I am not yet out.”

“But did you like Grantham House?” he asked, clearly wanting to know the answer.  He sat at the edge of his sofa, his cup and saucer held precariously against one knee.  “I do so hope that you at least found the library comfortable.”

“Yes,” she answered with a smile.  “I did like the house, from what I saw of it.”

“Lord Mansfield has convinced Cousin Robert to invite you and your cousin over to dinner one night, and to specifically have you sing for us.  I wish you could have seen our piano and decided whether or not it was to your taste—“

“It’s a piano, Mr. Crawley,” she laughed.  “I daresay it will be agreeable.  But you told me last night you had cousins.  Do tell me of them.”

“I have three,” he told her plainly.  “Lady Mary is the eldest.  She’s the one so fond of Greek legends, if you remember.”

They shared a knowing look, which unfortunately Aunt Mary caught. 

“Then there’s Lady Edith, who I haven’t learned much about, and Lady Sybil is debuting this year.  She seems to be sweet and kind, from what I can tell.”

“The Honorable Elizabeth Murray is always loving and cheerful,” Belle shared.  “She always sees the good fortune in almost everything.  It’s quite surprising at times, but I do envy her that particular talent.”

Matthew smiled at her.  “I’m certain you have your own character traits that are to be admired.”

Belle laughed.  “Hiding away in libraries and snatching away books from respectable gentlemen?”  Her brown eyes sparkled.

“Indeed,” he found himself agreeing, taking a sip of his tea.

The first letter arrived a few days later.  It was simple and in a decidedly masculine script and was a poem by a Louise Glück.

            but he thinks

            this is a lie, so he says in the end

            you’re dead, nothing can hurt you

            which seems to him

            a more promising beginning, more true.

She was in the breakfast room when she read it and a tear fell down her cheek.  “Belle, my dear?” Lady Mansfield asked.

“I’m sorry.  It’s just—I was sent the most beautiful love poem.”

Lord Mansfield paused behind his paper.  “I will not ask to read your correspondence, Belle, but I would ask the identity of the sender.”

She paused, taking in a deep breath.  “Matthew Crawley.”

He put down the paper and looked at her.  “I see.  Did he include a note?”

Belle looked down at the poem.  “Miss Lindsay,” she read, “unlike your namesake and Persephone I wish you a passionate life and joyful youth, but nevertheless love equally as strong.”  She paused.

Lord Mansfield looked up at her.

“He signed it ‘The Leviathan’.  His cousin, Lady Mary Crawley, calls him a sea monster.  It’s become a bit of a joke.”

“I see you and this young man share intimacies.”  He didn’t sound very happy.  “I give you leave to write back as he is of excellent family.”

She looked up, startled, and then glanced at Elizabeth.

“Is he handsome?” she asked.

“I daresay,” she answered.  “I wasn’t looking at him to be handsome.”

Elizabeth dismissed her.  “All women are looking.”

She supposed some women always looked, but she didn’t.  Such would be just peculiar.  However, she thought Matthew Crawley was handsome.  Turning to her aunt, she asked, “Was he handsome?”

“Yes,” Lady Mary agreed, “though a little nervous, but I suppose that is only natural for a young man paying his first call.”

Belle sat for three hours trying to compose her letter.  Finally, her pen scratched against the paper:

            I wanted pomegranates—

            I wanted darkness,

            I wanted him.

            So I grabbed my king and ran away

            to a land of death,

            where I reigned and people whispered

            that I’d been dragged.

As she put down her pen, there was another ring to the door and Belle thought little of it until she had been summoned.  She blotted the ink and came to the drawing room to see her mama alone with Mr. Oliver Ashwood.

“Are we not to have tea?” she asked, looking about her.  Belle knew she had taken over five minutes.

“No, darling,” Lady Mansfield said, “Mr. Ashford has a particular question for you.”

His brother had had a particular question.  His brother had received a particular answer.  “I am so terribly sorry,” she responded.  “I’m afraid I’m not yet out.”

Before he had a chance to answer, however, there was another arrival.  “Lady Sybil Crawley is in the music room requesting Miss Dido,” a servant interrupted.  Belle didn’t need telling twice.  She quickly exited the door and didn’t care who followed her.

Lady Sybil was dark with laughing eyes and a sweet smile.  “Good heavens,” she apologized.  “Have I come too late for tea in London?  I did so try to be on time.”

“Not at all, Lady Sybil,” Lady Mansfield assured her as she came in through the door.  “It is such a pleasant surprise to see you again.  May I introduce my youngest niece, Miss Lindsay—and Mr. Oliver Ashford?”  Ah, it seemed that he had followed as well.

“Ah, yes, Mr. Ashford and I have had the pleasure of dancing together,” Lady Sybil stated, “but I came to see Miss Lindsay.  I have heard such glowing reports of you that I could not wait until our musical evening to make your better acquaintance.  I hope you do not mind my forwardness.”

“Not at all,” Belle admitted, following her example and taking a seat.  “Are you playing curious sister or overbearing cousin?”

Sybil laughed as she took off her gloves.  “The first, I hope.  Matthew spent days in the library and I only managed to find out just by chance that the letter he was writing was being sent to you.  I know that he’s called, but the rest is a mystery.”

Oliver’s shadow fell over her and she lifted up her hand in farewell.  “Mr. Oliver.  I expect we’ll be seeing less of each other now that you are in town and I am not yet out.”

“I daresay,” he agreed, kissing her hand lightly.

“Give your brother my best wishes for his health and happiness.  I hear Lady Georgina is a fine young woman and beautiful as well.  I’m certain she will grace the halls of Ashford with beauty and poise when the time comes.”

He nodded to her and then left the room.

“Have you met Lady Georgina?” Belle asked.

Sybil nodded.  “She is rather weak—she has a sickly constitution.  Lady Georgina has difficulty standing up for a waltz.”

“Good Lord.  I had no idea,” she paused.  “I’m not even certain if I feel sorry for Mr. James but he is quite a nuisance.”  Belle accepted her cup of tea from Mama.  “How are you enjoying your first season?”

“Quite well,” Sybil answered.  “I enjoy dancing.  I can’t get Matthew to dance at all.  He’s said he will only dance with you.”

Belle glanced at Lady Mansfield and back again.  “I’m flattered, naturally.”

“Flattered?” Sybil asked somewhat innocently, “or pleased?”

“I think,” Lady Mansfield stated, “Belle would like to note that her mama is present and she couldn’t possibly speak on the matter.”

Lady Sybil set down her cup.  “Of course.  I merely find it romantic.  But you are called ‘Belle’, Miss Lindsay.”

“For that I shall refer you to your cousin,” Belle said.  “He has heard the tale of it.  But would you mind carrying the post for me?  I have nearly finished writing a letter to him and if you would but carry it…?”

“I would be delighted,” she said with a warm smile.

The letter was completed, it was passed over, and it was sent away again.

Belle looked out the window at the young woman, Lady Mansfield behind her.  “Do you truly wish a suitor, Belle?” she asked.  “You have already turned two away, one to be Lord Ashford.”

She paused and let the curtain flutter away.  “I like this one.  He has something to say for himself.”  Belle smiled to herself.  “He writes to me beautiful words of poetry—other’s poetry, but poetry still.”

“Men speak of poets when they try to woo young maidens,” Lady Mansfield offered.  “It is only later that they speak of legal briefs.”

She turned away, but an idea had been put into Belle’s head.  Later that night, she got out the letter that explained her inheritance, and folded it up.  She wrote a brief letter to the Countess of Grantham saying she had a legal brief for Matthew Crawley and would she be permitted to call without a chaperone as she did not wish to worry Lord and Lady Mansfield?  Elizabeth was to be out, after all, she thought.

The note was sent out before breakfast and a reply came with a motor when she was working on her sampler.  “Aunt Mary,” she stated, “would you excuse me?”

“By all means, Belle,” she said, not looking up. 

Belle quickly put on a coat and speared a hat through her hair and was in the motor quickly with her letter. 

Lady Grantham was all American hospitality and sat in a chair, reading a book, as Belle sat across from Matthew at a desk.  “This is all I have,” she apologized.  “Papa—Lord Mansfield—surely must have something more, but I’m not quite certain how to ask for the legal papers regarding my inheritance.”

Matthew took the letter and read each line carefully until he came to the pertinent paragraph.  He looked up in shock.  “He made such a sum in the Navy?”

She looked over at him carefully.  “I understand it is quite unusual.”

“Quite,” he agreed.  Matthew read on.  “With this document alone, I cannot even determine if the interest is yours outright for your life, or if it becomes the property of your husband and then, after his death, your son.  The language is so unspecific that I know nothing.  I am surprised you seem to have any control at all given the nonspecificity of the language.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Lord Mansfield held control and was humoring you by letting you do what you will with the interest, given that he approves of your ideas.”

“It is really quite so bad?” she asked, taking the letter and looking at it.

“It very well could be,” he offered, “but I haven’t seen the actual documents.”

She glanced at Lady Grantham.  “The Lord High Chancellor is not going to give them up to a ‘silly girl’ or a mere solicitor, even if he is to one day be an earl.  I suppose it is my misfortune to be born a woman.”

“If I may interrupt,” Lady Grantham stated, looking over, “my daughter feels just such a sentiment.”

Belle smiled at her.  “I take it this is not Lady Sybil, whom I’ve met.”

“No,” she answered.  “My eldest, Lady Mary.  She quite wishes she were the heir and dislikes poor Mr. Crawley for having that privilege.”  Lady Grantham set down her book.  “Now that you are finished with your legal matters, perhaps some tea would be in order.  Shall I call for some?  I shall not bother the girls from their pursuits, if you can bear just us, Miss Lindsay.”

“I daresay it shall not be such a hardship, Lady Grantham,” she replied simply.  “I thank you for arranging this for me.”

“Not at all.  I know what great friends the two of you have become.”  She rang for tea, which promptly arrived.

“So tell me,” Matthew began, “if you can bear the uneducated to speak of your father’s heroic exploits, which was his favorite harbor?”

“I thought that was common knowledge,” Belle answered decidedly.  “The Ivory Coast.”

“Yes,” Lady Grantham answered, offering a macaroon.  “There were some rumors at the time.”

“I believe there were,” Belle replied simply.  “I am the evidence that they were unfounded.”  The picture of a woman with dark skin and darker eyes swam before her mind’s eye, but she quickly pushed it away.  “He loved the Ivory Coast, though, and captured many slave ships.  At this time he married my mother.  I think the two stories somehow got confused.”

“And she named you ‘Dido’,” Matthew surmised.

“No,” Belle rejoined.  “Father did, for his ship, but he called me ‘Belle’ because he thought I was beautiful.”

“Well,” Lady Grantham rejoined.  “I daresay neither of us will argue with Captain Sir John Lindsay on that account.  You shall break many a heart when you enter society, if you haven’t already, Miss Lindsay.”

“That is far from my intention, Countess,” Belle laughed, taking a sip from her tea.  “I hope my disposition is too kind to take such pleasure at another’s expense.”

“It may be unconsciously done,” Matthew suggested carefully, looking over at her.

“In my limited experience, my fortune breaks hearts; I do not.  I can do little about it as I have no control over it as you well know, Mr. Crawley.”

“So it would appear,” he murmured, his eyes never leaving hers before she quickly answered something Lady Grantham had remarked on.

Of course, her absence didn’t go unnoticed.  “Where were you?” Papa asked when she got in and he had a minute alone with her.  Of course, she thought they were alone.  They were in his study and she had come in to borrow a book, and she glanced at his desk.

“I sent a note round to Lady Grantham and she was so kind as to send her motor.”

“You’ve never met Lady Grantham, only her husband and various other members of the family.  Has Lady Sybil taken a liking to you?”  He shifted about some papers on his desk.

“Not quite,” she answered.  “I went to see Mr. Matthew Crawley, about a legal concern.”

Papa looked up.  “If you had a question concerning the law, my dear, or any of its  finer points—“

“He’s a solicitor, you see,” she added hastily, “and he’s not involved in any way.  I just want to buy an estate far away from all the Mr. Ashfords of this world.”

He glanced at her.  “I daresay he told you that you do not have enough information and he is hardly a disinterested party.  Mr. Matthew Crawley is quite smitten with you and now he knows exactly how much you are worth and that you are in the five percents.—Forgive us, Mr. Davinier.”  He looked over Belle’s shoulder.

She turned to see a man with green eyes and hair that was garishly long for someone in the 1910s. 

“Mr. Davinier is an intern of mine, one might say.  Top of his class at Oxford,” Papa explained to Belle.  “Now, you cannot buy an estate because you cannot touch the capital of your fortune, only your male next of kin, who is currently myself.  I have no intention of touching your inheritance and will leave it to your husband’s good offices.”

“You speak to me as if I am a child,” she complained.  “I only wanted to know my legal options.”

“I am telling them to you, Dido Lindsay.  If you will not listen to me, I will give all the pertinent documents to Mr. Crawley and he can explain them to you as your solicitor.”

She nodded to him once and without so much a glance at Mr. Davinier, she walked out the door.  Pausing at a picture she often stopped at, she looked at the portrait of a robust man with a negro boy looking up at him in adoration.  Her hand pressed against her taut stomach; it still surprised her how little she resembled her own race.  Remember nothing before the carriage ride… And yet she could do nothing but remember.  How could she forget?

Negroes walked across the city, not in chains like her father claimed, and sometimes she would pause and watch them in confusion.  Elizabeth would always look at her oddly, and she’d shrug it away, but still Belle wondered.

A new servant had been added to the staff and she brought tea when Lady Grantham was visiting with Matthew Crawley.  Belle looked at Lady Mansfield in confusion.  “I don’t understand.  Papa said negroes were all in chains.  They walk around London and we have one here, not in chains.  He said—“  She bit her lip, not continuing her thought.

“What a strange thing to say,” Lady Grantham stated.  “Abolition has been in practice here longer than in America.  We had to fight an entire war over the question.”

Belle just looked at her.

Lady Mansfield paused.  “I believe Sir John was speaking specifically about the slave ship he intercepted from the Ivory Coast.  The poor souls on board were in chains, although this is a forbidden practice in the West.”

“Why would he suggest it was still a common practice—?” Belle asked in confusion, looking about her.  “He said I would be put in chains—“

Matthew set down his teacup in horror and moved toward her, but she had already stood and moved toward the windows, playing with a cross around her neck and looking out at passersby.  “I’m sorry.  I’m off my head.  I think I was a little girl of seven.  I must be confusing a dream.  Of course I wouldn’t be put in chains.”

“Of course not, darling,” Lady Mansfield said.  “He must have been speaking about slave ships and so many speak about his connection to the Ivory Coast that it must have become mixed up in your dreams when you were a young child.  But, no, child, negroes are free here and have never been slaves although England, at one point, was engaged in the slave trade.”

“Yes,” she stated, pulling herself together.  “How silly that I needed it explained.  It’s just, in Hampstead, it never came up.”  Belle sat back down and recovered her teacup.  “The one time I knew my father he bought me the most beautiful porcelain doll.  I still have her.  I could never bear to resign her to the attic.”

“Dolls can be so beautifully made,” Lady Grantham agreed, allowing the change in topic.  “I always enjoyed purchasing dolls for my own daughters.  Matthew, though, must be lost in this line of conversation.  He never had any sisters.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I’m afraid I had tin soldiers, Miss Lindsay.”

“Did you fight a great many wars, Mr. Crawley?  Did you fancy yourself the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo?”

He set down his cup.  “I fear you have found me out,” he confessed.  “You read my mind too easily.”

“Perhaps I know that this is the most famous battle of ‘recent’ history,” she argued.  “Perhaps I played it as a child, although I could never convince Miss Murray to be Napoleon or to play at war at all.”

“So,” he stated, “we have another general in the room.  You must, then, play chess.”

“Must I?” she flirted with him, and he glanced around the room.

Lady Mansfield, sensing what he was looking for, put down her cup of tea and got out the board and the bag of pieces.  The game was soon set and the opponents placed against each other.

“We’ll never finish the game before luncheon,” Matthew commented as she took his castle.

The two countesses had withdrawn and left them to their game.

“I will save the game,” Belle promised, moving her knight.  “Perhaps I’ll sketch it so if I call on you, we can place the players back again.”

“We can bore one of my poor cousins,” he laughed.  “Have you learned anything new?”

“It all belongs to my nearest male relative, but as my solicitor you are welcome to the papers so you may explain it to me.  A Mr. Davinier heard the entire conversation.  He’s someone from Oxford who shows promise.  What he’s doing in London is anyone’s guess.”

“I’m a Cambridge man myself,” Matthew shared.  “They punt from the wrong end over at the other place.”

She paused and looked at him.  “If I asked you as a young woman with a good reputation to take me punting on the Cam when it was appropriate, would you, Matthew?” she asked.  “Forget the fact that I’m ward to the Lord Chief Justice or that I’m worth so much, and that you’re cousin to the Earl of Grantham, but if it were just us, would you take me?”

His hand had been hovering above his Queen, but he paused and let it rest upon the table.  “I thought I answered that, Belle, in the library the night we met.”

The two smiled at each other, their eyes locking on one another, and Belle felt truly happy.  She thought she had the hope of a man loving her for herself, just as her father loved her mother.

They were all startled when a Count Laszio de Almàsy was presented for Miss Elizabeth Murray.

His name was heavenly and foreign.  DahlMAHshee.  Belle had never heard the like.

Everyone stood and Lady Mansfield curtseyed.  “Count de Almàsy, what a pleasure to see you again.  I have just now sent for Miss Murray.  Do you know the Countess of Grantham, her cousin, Mr. Matthew Crawley, and my great-niece, Miss Dido Lindsay?”

He bowed to them.  “I hope I am not interrupting your game.”  His voice was dark, like something a deep wind had dragged through the sand, a rippling waterfall perhaps of something ancient and more primal than even water.

“Not at all,” Belle replied, trying to control her reaction.  “We are quite happy in our corner, if you do not mind murmurs of our conversation, Count.”

“Not at all, Miss Lindsay.  I have not seen you in the drawing rooms of London this season, I think.”

“Miss Lindsay is not yet out,” her aunt said and was pleased when she saw Elizabeth walk in, who curtseyed and took the Count’s hand. 

“I had not expected you to call so soon when you mentioned it last night, Count.  You were just telling me why you were in England when the dance ended.”  She shared a glance with Belle, who smiled at her, before Belle and Matthew returned to their seats.

“Where is this Count from?” she asked Matthew, terribly interested in this new man.  He moved something deep within her, that same primal source, and her former happiness had evaporated as if it had never been there.  She forced her eyes to draw themselves away from him, leaving him to Elizabeth’s good offices, where she was forced to remind herself—they belonged.

“Word has it from Hungary,” he told her, his eyes searching hers quickly for something and obviously not finding it.

“Not Saxony then?” she asked in question, trying to put him off.  “Elizabeth’s grandfather was a Count from Saxony.  Her mother supposedly had a very heavy German accent.”

He smiled at her and tried not to laugh.  There.  She had distracted him.  “You find the humor in the situation.”

“I want Elizabeth to be happy.”  That was the truth.  She just wondered at her desiring to contest this claim to a man she had barely spoken to.  “I just happen to know that her German needs to be improved upon and she knows Hungarian not at all.  Then again, perhaps the Count will prove a patient teacher.”  She somewhat envied Elizabeth that voice, though she could barely admit it, even to herself.  She could barely admit any of it, but a voice whispered in her heart that something was happening and if she just listened, she would discover it.

“He’s an archaeologist.  He spends all of his time in North Africa and he would bring his wife there on his digs.  He’s said to be incredibly wealthy.”  How strange.  How peculiarly like her father he was—an explorer.  All she had known was drawing rooms and wealth.  But he had wealth of his own.  This Count de Almàsy wouldn’t need hers.

“Elizabeth,” she hummed, “an archaeologist’s wife.  I don’t see it, but if he does, that’s what matters.  My rook to your queen.  Check mate.”

He looked down at the board in distress.  “Belle,” he breathed.

She glanced up at him.  He was still the man he had been ten minutes before.  She had hoped that would have been enough.

“I like strawberry sandwiches on lemon loaf,” she told him.  “I suggest you serve them at our rematch.”  There, that sounded normal.

The look of disbelief on his face melted into a genuine smile and they carefully set the pieces away, with Matthew trying to gain a promise that she would dance with him.

“If you can get someone to play a waltz on a piano and not have everyone be scandalized, then I will waltz with you,” she promised glibly, “but, Mr. Crawley, I am not yet out.  We flout propriety by playing chess, surely that is enough.”  Her eyes danced as she looked at him and he laughed openly at her before he and Lady Grantham took their leave.

Belle took a seat a little removed from the Count and Elizabeth and heard them talking about Roman aqueducts.  She was surprised Elizabeth had such conversation.  It was also a little confusing that after every word Elizabeth spoke, it took the Count a good ten moments to respond, even though he clearly had an excellent grasp on the English language.  It was almost as if he did not wish to speak.  Why was he here then?  Why did she hang upon his every silence?

“Do you have any interest in Africa?” the Count suddenly asked Belle, no pause to his words, and Belle looked up, his gaze entrancing her despite her better judgment.

“I’m afraid I know little of Egypt,” she answered honestly, going back to the piece of needlework that was left in a basket for whoever might happen upon it.  Belle forced herself to look away.  This man belonged to Elizabeth, her conscience demanded, but still that meant nothing to her, not with him, not with this man. 

She wished he would go back from whence he came and leave her to her peace.

“You are too modest,” he complimented her and Belle glanced at Elizabeth, hoping she would have some sense and send him away from them.

“Truly.  I know nothing nor have little interest in the area.”  Belle paused, wanting to say more, but unwilling to.  She took another stitch at the rose and then a second, then a third.  Still, there was no conversation.

“Belle,” Elizabeth begged, her voice quiet.

“Egypt, of course, would have been of interest as a Roman Province,” she stated carefully, trying not to arouse suspicion of what her heart thought.  “I believe it provided grain to the empire.  The Mohommadans had great influence over it later, however, so I would look for their influence on the architecture there.  Still, I dream away in letters, not in reality.”  She did not give him time to answer, though his eyes were forever on her.  “If you would excuse me.  I’m overtired from my game of chess.  Mr. Crawley proved a worthy opponent.”

She closed the door and stood with her back to the wood, breathing in deeply.  Belle had had to get away from that man and his strange influence over her.  It had been imperative.

Belle hadn’t expected to see Matthew from her bedroom window that looked into the back garden where she could see over the hedge.

Carefully, she walked down the steps and put on her coat before venturing between the roses.  She went to the door and whispered, “What are you doing here?”

“I could not leave you.”  His answer confused her and she was silent for several moments, thinking desperately what she should do.

“Surely you knew that would be the outcome.  Please, the Count has tired me with his bizarre questions about Egypt.  It’s as if he knew my father actually went there.  No one knows that except for me, my uncle, and now you.”

“Tell me you are not giving me false hope—“ he begged.  “Tell me that your affections are not a figment of my imagination.  I will stand here all day, all night just to hear my sentence.”

Biting her lip, she remembered what her uncle had told her.  “I am cautioned against marriage.”  Her heart, just now, had proved itself false—and yet Matthew was safe.  He cared for her.  He would treasure her.

“Cautioned, but not forbidden.  These are obstacles that can be overcome.  Tell me there is hope, Dido Elizabeth Belle.”

She pressed a hand against the wood and smiled, deciding to trust the love poems and not the smell of sand she had so recently discovered just by being in the wrong room.  “There is hope,” she promised.  “I give you my word as easily as I captured your king.”

“A difficult move,” he teased.  “Then I shall win your heart,” he promised, “as you have already won mine.”

“Who says the lady has not been conquered, although I would surely miss your poems and our visits?”  Belle could not say why she lied, and bit her lip in her one tell, but Matthew couldn’t see it.  No one could unless they looked through a specific window and Belle thought she was safe from observation.

There was a rustle behind the door.  “I wish there were not this wood between us.”

“It cannot be otherwise,” she stated.  “It will look compromising enough if someone were to look out the window.”  Her hand went up to the wooden door knocking lightly and waited for his answering knock, which answered.  She placed her hand over the spot, imagining that he was doing the same.

These arms would hold her safe and truly loved, as her father loved her mother, and would give her a life that a mulatto had never before possessed, although he knew not what she was.

He was gone too soon, and she had but to wait.

Belle had not expected another letter so soon.  This time he did not write about Hades and Persephone, but on Aeneas, Dido’s lover.

            (who can name the hour of a lover’s heart

            is changed

            Aeneas blinked and it had happened

            he was another man

            a ruthless Prince stood in his clothes)

Lord Mansfield looked over at her again.  “He plays chess with you and he continues to write you poetry.  What does he write to you about today, if you care to share?”

“Aeneas,” Belle admitted.

“How fitting.  Let us hope he does not prove as fickle and you do not throw yourself on your sword, Belle darling.”

She looked at him for a hard second, believing at least at present there was little chance of that, before turning to Elizabeth.  “You’re to make calls today?”

“Yes, Dido.  I’m afraid you will be able to receive no one unless he brings his own chaperone.  Your Aunt Mary is accompanying us and as you are not out, it is perhaps better if you remain here.”  Lady Mansfield looked at her kindly.  “Our musical night with the Granthams is later this week so perhaps you might like to practice.”

“Thank you, Mama,” she said.  “I will be sure to.”

She was practicing a piece by Mozart when Count de Almàsy was announced.  “I am unaccompanied, Winbridge,” she stated.  “I am not receiving visitors.”

“He has brought a lady with him.”

Belle turned.  “A lady?”

The Count was a handsome man of about thirty with brownish blond hair and deep startling blue eyes.  His skin was darkened from his archaeological work, and she suspected the golden tufts of hair were products of the African sun’s light.  The woman who came with him was his aunt, he claimed, and couldn’t speak a word of English.

“Miss Murray is out making calls with Lady Mansfield and Lady Mary Murray,” she apologized.

“No, it’s you I came to see.  There are rumors of you in Egypt, where I primarily work.”

Belle tried not to pale.  “Of me?  How ridiculous!  I’ve never been to Africa before.”

“There is a story about a girl saved from a slave ship whose belly grew large and a sea captain who pursued her there, and how although she was black as night she gave birth to a white child, named Dido for this captain’s ship.”

She lifted her eyebrows.  “That is a story,” she agreed.  “What happened next?  The sea captain took the baby and passed her off as an Englishwoman who happens to be me?”

He paused, which seemed to be his natural form of communication.  “Nearly,” he offered casually, sitting back in his trim suit.  “He took them both back to England but the slave died and then he passed the child off as an Englishwoman.  You’re the rarest find on the entire planet, Miss Lindsay.”

Not quite certain how to react, she smoothed out her skirts.  “I’m afraid, Count, that you’ve mistaken a piece of plaster for the rarest form of ivory.”

He leaned forward just a bit, to look into her pale brown, European eyes and stated, “I don’t think so.  I heard you were in London.  I danced with your cousin and called here just to meet you.”

“I’m not a collector’s item, if I am what you think I am,” she told him a little viciously, her heart nonetheless beating fiercely in her breast.  “I think I want you to leave.  I don’t much care to have my mother accused of being a negro from that ridiculous slave ship, which has proven to be more trouble than it was worth.”

“Your mother, my dear girl, was a Spanish slave named Marguerite.”

“I highly doubt that,” she replied, lying through her teeth.  “I was named for my mother Elizabeth, and I bear the name Lindsay.  If I had a slave for a mother, I would not bear my father’s name, nor would I be a respectable young lady of this house.  You’ve quite insulted me enough, Count.  Will you do me the honor of leaving before I have you thrown out?”

She turned away from him and sat down at the piano and immediately began to play Schubert.  A calm fell over her as she lost herself in the music and as soon as Mr. Davinier left for the day, she went to Lord Mansfield to complain about Count de Almàsy’s behavior.  “I don’t want him let in again.  I am not the daughter of a common slave.  It makes no sense.  He’s acting like I’m some rare archeological find!”

“You are, to him,” Lord Mansfield agreed sadly.  “I’ll have him denied entrance.  I’ll have your mama explain it to Elizabeth.  There were rumors that a rare beauty had brought him here to England for the season that he had attempted to locate although he has never been here before.  It seems the rumors were true.”

“I am not a trophy.”  Her voice was dark and unyielding.

“A white child born to a negro is certainly a trophy to a man like the Count,” Lord Mansfield refuted.

That particular conversation, at least, was over.

She received a note from him the morning of the musical gala: I meant to make an impassioned plea, Miss Lindsay.  I do find you something beautiful and wondrous and singular in this world, which I desire to possess although I do not usually believe in ownership.  However, how many men do you know will accept you for exactly who you are?  How many men, if you require it, will do whatever is necessary to fall madly in love with you given your singular background?  Give it a thought.  Count Laszio de Almàsy

“He writes to you the morning of the Gala,” Aunt Mary said with a smile.

“It’s not from him,” Belle stated in confusion, before folding it up and passing it to her aunt.  “For Papa.”

Lord Mansfield opened up the letter and read the signature and glanced at her.  He then read the contents.  He then refolded it and passed it back.  “I think I need to see you in my office, Belle.”

Half an hour later she was standing in front of his desk, holding the letter in her hand.  “Are you suggesting Matthew Crawley cannot love you because he does not know you?  You know of Egypt, then.”

“The woman who looked after me told me of it as a bedtime story,” she partially lied, “of how she ran away to Egypt and gave birth to a child, and she and this child were brought back to England, but Papa said to forget all of that.”

“Yes, I would imagine,” Lord Mansfield agreed.  “I had thought that it was a dalliance and the child had been put away somewhere or died.  But with the credence you’re giving this letter, I’m beginning to think the child has been hiding before my very eyes.”

“I am the trueborn daughter of Captain Sir John Lindsay,” she stated boldly. “He told me so when I met him.”

Lord Mansfield’s eyes softened.  “Of course, you are, darling.  I shall write to the Count and say that he is distressing you as you know you have a half-sibling but nothing more.  Let me have the note for my records.” 

She instantly handed it over and left the room, her heart shuddering as if she were breaking it.

Belle took too long at her toilette that evening.  She finally decided on blue and had a ribbon put through her hair.  Elizabeth was a wonder in yellow.

When they were to go into dinner, Matthew held her back a moment and leaned in carefully and kissed her.  She looked into his blue eyes before closing her own, wondering why it were not more pleasant, and gasped when he pulled her into his arms.  “Say you’ll marry me,” he begged, their noses touching.

The niggling note from the Count came into her mind.  “What if my mother isn’t who they say she is?”

“Who could she possibly be then?”

“Haven’t you heard those rumors, as strange as they seem?”

He let go of her.  “That’s simply impossible.”

Dinner was torture after that.  They were dinner partners, but it seemed all they had to talk about was the weather.  Everyone was clearly watching them and then looking at one another in confusion.

When she sat at the piano, he did not even seem to want to turn pages for her, and in the end Sybil gladly took up the office.  After centering herself, she stuck to piano pieces, pausing at Satie and Debussy as they were more melancholic, before she was begged to sing and she finally did, not daring to look at Matthew.

“Don’t,” she told everyone in the carriage when they were finally going back to their London address.  “His admiration is at an end.”

She barely slept for three days and it was then that she realized in the late evenings someone stopped and stood looking at the house.  “Winbridge,” she said at two in the morning.  Lord Mansfield’s lights still burnt bright.  “Tell me who is across from the house.”

“The Count de Almàsy,” he answered.  “He’s out there every night.”

“Send him out some coffee with my compliments.  The poor man is just standing there.”

“His lordship—“

“Must I go make the coffee myself?” she asked impatiently. 

Winbridge instantly went to give the orders and Belle walked to the front drawing room and looked at the count from her dark corner.  She watched as the front door was opened and a tray of coffee was presented to him, and he glanced up at the dark windows of the private rooms.

After he had his coffee, he took a note out of his pocket and placed it on the tray before looking up at the private rooms once more and then turning to leave.

Belle was instantly up and grabbed the letter quickly.  Your cousin has a loose tongue.  She said you were almost engaged but were disappointed at the last moment.  I am sorry for your pain.  I cannot imagine a reason great enough for me to abandon you once my honor had been engaged. Count Laszio de Almàsy

She turned it over and grabbed a pen.  Would you keep my secrets no matter how rare a jewel?

“Winbridge!” she called.  “Get this to him, at once.  He hasn’t gone far!”

“But Lord Mansfield!”

She cursed under her breath, grabbed her coat, and ran out in her slippers. She followed his path, ignoring Winbridge’s cries, and found him two streets down.  Pressing his arm, he turned and looked at her with wide eyes. She wanted him to—she did not know what—she could not know what—so she spoke.  “I know I look a fright—I’ve barely slept in three days.”  She handed him her note.

“I was merely surprised.  The coffee was such a kind and unexpected gesture from someone who has found me insulting.”  He looked down and then up again.  “Is that what he did to you?”

“I took your advice.  I did not even say outright and he treated me like—but would you forever keep it secret if I asked?”

He looked down, took her hand in his, and kissed it.  “If you say your mother was named ‘Elizabeth’, then I daresay that is all the masses will understand.”

“Well then—my reputation.”

“Your reputation,” he agreed, letting her go and she turned before rushing back to the house.

Belle heard from no one for three days until a package arrived for her just after breakfast.  She was sitting with her sister-cousin, who looked over at her anxiously.  It was a history of the Sahara desert.  They looked at each other and they quickly flipped inside, looking for an inscription: Desert Beauty, I restore your home to you, Count Laszio de Almàsy.

“What does he mean, ‘Desert Beauty’?” Elizabeth asked.  “It was sent to you, strangely, but surely he can mean neither of us.”

“He means me,” she stated.  “He is speaking of Egypt.  He has a fascination of my father’s time there.”  Belle stood and looked out the window and saw him standing across the street.  She told the servant to get Winbridge and gave the simple message, “Come tomorrow.”

“So now you like this Hungarian Count?” Lord Mansfield asked her in confusion, “the one who would collect you.”

“I think I’d rather be valued for what I am than falsely loved for what I am not,” she stated.  “I told him when he sent the book that he may come tomorrow.”

“You are full young to marry.”

“Then we need not marry this year if I like him,” she stated.  “We may wait till next year.  If he wants me he will wait.  I don’t think he’s a fortune hunter.”

“De Almàsy is many things, but he is not a fortune hunter.”  He sighed.  “You will not be alone with that man.  In fact, I’ll have you sing for him for most of the time so you won’t have to talk to him.”

Elizabeth was present, looking at him in interest.  She and Belle had discussed it a little, how he had insulted her but then had sent her an apology she felt she had to accept.  Elizabeth had felt she had forfeited another suitor to Belle, but could do nothing about it.  In the end, it was as it was said, Elizabeth was compliant yet hurt, Lord Mansfield had agreed to a kind of courtship that Belle should play for the Count.

Belle sat down at the piano, and glanced over at him.  “Tell me, Count, how do you like wearing suits?  Do you prefer it to—the normal wear of Northern Africa?”

“They are indeed different,” he admitted.  “They each have their place.  One is meant for politeness and the other to escape the heat as much as propriety allows.”

“What would a European woman wear?”

Lord Mansfield shot her a glance.

“I am truly interested.  If Mama had traveled with Papa, what would she have worn?”

“Pale trousers made out of a light material and a white cotton shirt.”

“How evolved,” she stated in shock, turning to the piano.  “I hope you like Handel.  I fear I know nothing Hungarian.”  Placing her hands on the keys she started playing from one of his lesser known operas and singing a part for Bass that had been transposed for Soprano.

She in fact played all Handel and Bach for him.  Belle had prepared other pieces, but he seemed to enjoy those two particular composers so she continued to play them.  Tea was served, but she just continued playing a piece initially meant for spinet.  The Count stood and placed a cup of tea at her side and she took a sip in between pieces.

Feeling mischievous, she ended with Handel’s “Did you not hear my lady?”  The Count did not sing with her, but he did come up behind her and looked at the complicated left hand accompiament before clapping and taking her hand and leading her to a chair.  He then fetched her her tea.  “I’m afraid we’ve quite tired you out, Miss Lindsay.”

“Not at all,” she stated.  “I enjoy playing.” 

Elizabeth joined the conversation.  “What is it you do exactly for the Royal Geographical Society?”

“Currently I am exploring the area around Cairo for signs of the Roman occupation.”  He didn’t look at her at all.  He was looking at Belle quite openly.

“Do you like it, then?” Belle asked, glancing at him before taking a sip of her tea.

He crossed his legs and set his cup down.  “I greatly enjoy my work.  I would not wish to put it off for long.”

“You put it off to be here,” she noted safely, mimicking him and putting down her tea.  She showed him her profile, the line of her jaw. 

He tilted his head, looking at her with unveiled interest.  “I found something interesting to draw my attention.”

Belle didn’t dare blush, though her heart lodged in her throat.  “You must have very good sources of information in Egypt,” she stated, “if you found whatever you were looking for all the way on our little island.”

He paused and didn’t answer at first.  “A Mr. and Mrs. Clifton.  She was a socialite five years ago.  Mrs. Clifton likes to keep her information current.”  He looked at her again openly. 

Lady Mansfield stood.  “I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid Miss Lindsay must rest her voice.  She sang a little more than I meant her to.  Belle, go to the kitchen and get some ices.”

Belle looked at her for a minute and then turned to the Count and held out her hand, which he took and held for a long moment, before she turned and went to her room.  She didn’t need ices.  Watching from her window, she saw him leave, but he looked up at the house and she knew he saw her there.  Their eyes connected and he bowed to her before he was gone around the corner.

She was invited to Crawley House the next day by Lady Sybil.  Of course, when she arrived with Lady Mary, Lady Sybil was not there.  It was Matthew Crawley and he stood up when he saw her.  “Lady Mary, may I have a moment with your charge?”

“This is most irregular.  Usually you would come to Murray House.”

“I didn’t want to raise expectations.”  He was wringing his hands.

Lady Mary looked at him.  “This is not a proposal then.”

He shook his head. 

“It’s about before,” Belle realized.  “I’m not saying anything else.  Either you still want to marry me or you don’t.  I did the honorable thing and I told you—I don’t want to hear anything you have to say.”

“I cannot marry a—“

“Shut. Up.”  Belle had never been so indecorous, but she didn’t want to hear him.  “Aunt Mary, I’m leaving.”  She swept out of the room and back into the motor, Lady Mary Murray closely behind her. 

“What did he mean?”

“It doesn’t matter.  He proposed and then he rescinded it.  Matthew Crawley is not a man of his word.  The Count has already assured me that he is, which is why I have agreed to see him.” 

The driver turned on the motor and it started to move into traffic. 

There were no more invitations to Crawley House or letters from Matthew Crawley.  The romance was truly over.  She knew from Elizabeth that he had entered into society and even occasionally danced, although his heart didn’t seem to be in it.  That at least seemed to be something.

The Count insisted that she should have the pleasure of dancing.  Elizabeth seemed to think this odd, but Lord Mansfield allowed it and all the furniture was pushed back in the music room and Elizabeth played a waltz and the two danced in each other’s arms.  It was hardly the same as dancing with Matthew.   Then it had been innocent.  Now it was eyes grasping eyes, fingers lingering against fingers, and breath catching in throats.  Laughing, she let him spin her.

As the season came to its conclusion with the warming months, Belle looked at him one day at tea when they were allowed to sit in a sofa removed from everyone.  “I can guess your intentions,” she stated.  “I’m not ready.  I had my heart broken.  It is too soon for it to mend the way you would like it to mend.  The way I would like it to mend.  Do you even love me?”

“I have a great respect for you.”

“Then go back to your Roman artifacts and think well of me.”

“May I have leave to come back next year?” he asked her quietly.  “Perhaps we will fall in love then.  Do I have leave to write you, though the letters will take several months to reach you here in England?”

“My father wrote to me.  You have leave to write.  I will not stop you from wooing me again.”  She blushed a little.  “I still won’t be out.”

“Then I shall return, though this will not be goodbye though we shall not see each other for months.  Miss Lindsay, I will forsake all others.”

This seemed to mean something dear to him and she nodded her acceptance of it.  “Then I shall not say goodbye,” she stated and looked in his eyes, so blue and yet so different from Matthew Crawley’s.

She had permission to go to the train station.  Belle was surprised to see that he had only a suitcase with him.  “So little?”

“I have a friend in London,” he stated.  “He agreed to keep the majority of my wardrobe for a year.  I just need a formal suit, a day suit that I am wearing, and my primary outfit for Africa.  The rest of my wardrobe is waiting for me.”

“I see,” she answered.  Belle held out her hand.  “Thank you for never judging me.”

He took her hand.  “I did judge you,” he answered.  “I just didn’t find you wanting.”

They shared a smile and he leaned forward and kissed her forehead, most likely to the surprise of her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, before Count de Almàsy got on the train.

Lord Mansfield came up to her.  “I am glad there was no engagement.”

“I gave him leave to write and to try for my hand next year.  My heart is too bruised at present.  Mr. Crawley proved untrue.  I am surprised how different both men are and yet how I find them equally as handsome, perhaps the Count even more so.  Do you see me as an explorer’s wife?”

“You are a Captain’s daughter.  Perhaps you have an explorer’s spirit.”

“Perhaps,” she agreed.  “Elizabeth certainly doesn’t have it.”  They shared a smile.  “Do you think she’ll marry that Member of Parliament who asked her?  What is he, the eighteenth son of the Earl of Winchilsea?”

“Fifth son,” he chided.  “Do not be unkind.”

“She’ll like the life of being a politician’s wife,” Belle proclaimed.  “I hope she decides in his favor though that means we won’t be in London for the season next year and I was looking forward to the Count’s return.”

“You are not indifferent,” he said as they entered the motor.

She looked at him.  “No,” she told him plainly.  “I am not indifferent to him.”

Life at Kenwood became smooth and easy again.  Mr. Davinier was there for the spring months and made love to her, she helped Elizabeth plan for her wedding, and then the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was assassinated.

Fortunately, George Finch-Hatton was not called up for duty as he was a Member for Parliament—but Matthew Crawley was.

He came to Kenwood House to see Belle.  “I am nothing,” he told her.  “Cousin Cora has given birth to a son.  They’ve named him Henry.”  Matthew swallowed.  “I have nothing to offer but a lifetime share in Crawley House and my rank as Captain.  We once said if we were no one—that we would love each other.”

She was standing on the stair.  “When I was stripped down and no one, you would not have me.”

“Belle,” he begged, but she stared at him.  He closed his eyes in pain.  “Miss Lindsay, the future Earl of Grantham was rejecting you.  I had my family to think about.  Now there’s only me.”

Looking away from him, she sighed.  “You nearly called me—I won’t even say it.  I cannot answer you, Mr. Crawley.”  She remained on the stair.

“Cannot or will not?”

She glanced at him.  “You broke my heart.  I don’t know if it will still want you once it has healed.  It’s too bruised at present for me to know what it wants.—I cannot answer you.”

Winbridge came up to her with a letter on a plate.  “From Africa, Miss Lindsay,” he told her and she picked up the thick letter, looking at the direction.

“You exchange letters with the Count de Almàsy?” Matthew asked, only partially in jealousy.

“Father spent time in Africa,” she responded.  “The Count leant me some books on the Ivory Coast.  Surely you can guess why I find the area of interest, although such an idea was so repulsive to you once.”  Her voice was stinging and she turned on the stairs to remove herself from the situation.  “Goodbye, Mr. Crawley.  If you leave your direction with Winbridge, I’ll write you when I have an answer.”

“May I write you, that way you will have direct knowledge of where I am?”

“If you must write, you must write,” she responded.  “I simply ask that you bring me no more pain, Mr. Crawley, and if you’re after my fortune I’ll have Lord Mansfield tie it up so tightly that only our eldest grandson can touch it.”  With a swish of her skirts, she was gone up the stairs, leaving Matthew Crawley behind.

Tears were streaming down her face and Elizabeth was waiting at the top of the stairs, clearly having heard everything, and Belle ran into her arms.  “He will only take me when he lost everything,” she wailed once she had heard him leave.  “Why are men so cruel?”

“He’s not worth your tears,” Elizabeth responded, her beautiful blonde hair down in natural waves as it was still before calling hours.  “Think.  You have a handsome Count who wants to carry you to North Africa and his first letter to you has arrived.  That must be good.  I am to be a lady of politics and distinction and you one of discovery.  We may write to each other of our grand lives that all the little people who have boring lives when they make their matches secretly envy.”

This, of course, made Belle laugh.

“What did you mean about the Ivory Coast?” Elizabeth asked when she had her hair being put up.

“Those silly rumors,” Belle told her sister-cousin.  “Usually my face discounts them but someone had been talking at Mr. Crawley’s club—he hadn’t seen me—and so Mr. Crawley withdrew his proposal when I told him it would be ridiculous for me to refute it, as it is.”

“What a heartless man!” Elizabeth declared.  “I would never allow you to marry him, Belle, even if he were to be a man of great property and title.  I’m glad he’s lost it.”

This caused Belle to laugh again. 

She spent hours that night pouring over the letter from Count Laszio de Almàsy, reading about how he was brushing away the sand from relics and architecture with a brush meticulously by hand.  Then there was a note at the end.  He had to return to Hungary because of the crisis there and would soon write.

Belle bit her lip in worry.  “Come back to England,” she murmured.  “Come back to England.”  Her fingers traced the lines of the page before she picked up the pages and tied them with a ribbon, placing the packet with the letters from her father.

Kenwood was silent after Elizabeth’s marriage.  News of the war siphoned in and Belle received somewhat regular news from both the French front and Hungary, both news vastly different.  In winter, when the season had begun, Belle went to Albernon House where Mrs. Elizabeth Finch-Hatton held court.  She wrote desperately to Hungary, “Do you not have friends in London?”

There was no news for three weeks until she was told she had a caller.  She had been sitting and reading the Aeneid in the original Latin, having left the copy from Matthew Crawley back at Kenwood House, and stood to receive Count de Almàsy.  Without even thinking of it, she ran into his arms and hugged him, breathing in his scent of sun and something she couldn’t identify. 

Stepping out of his arms quickly, she apologized, “I was so worried you were somehow hurt.  The war—it’s so dangerous now—“

“I am well,” he told her.  “I escaped Egypt before the fighting began and my estate in Hungary is quite safe.”

“I am glad to hear it,” she replied.  “I didn’t like thinking of you on the continent.  I have a contact in the trenches and he paints such a horrible picture that I cannot help but be worried for anyone I know across the channel, though I am afraid you are one of the very few as I am not out in society.”

“Then I am blessed to have such a guardian angel,” he stated, bowing his head toward her.  He took up a packet next to him.  “I do not believe you know this about me, but I sketch.  It is helpful in my profession.  I had about a month to myself and I visited Carthage, the home of Dido, and sketched this for you.  These are the Baths of Antonius.”

Belle carefully took the folder and opened to find a beautiful rendition of Roman Architecture that was so fine yet roughly hewn.  “Thank you,” she breathed.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“You need say nothing.  The look on your face is enough.”

She dragged her eyes away from his blue ones and back to the baths.  Her fingers hovered over the lines, tracing them before she carefully closed the folder and placed it to her right.  “When you arrived I was actually reading the Aeneid.”

“Has anyone ever asked you what you thought of Lavinia?”

“No,” she answered truthfully.  “I’ve been asked about Dido at various times over my life, but never Lavinia.  I think she loved Turnus and was a pawn in men’s games.  I have no desire to be like her.  I have a voice where she has none.  The most she does is blushes.  I would hope that I am able to express myself more than that despite the constraints of society.”

“You would never name your daughter that, then.”

“We speak of dangerous things,” she briefly quarreled.  “I would not.  My greatest fear is I would give birth to a Negro.”

He leaned back.  “From a simple study of genetics, it is possible though highly unlikely.  Your form, inheriting all of your father’s likeness, makes it a near improbability and yet still possible.  For you to have your mother’s genes locked away and for them to completely supersede both your father’s and your husband’s would be even more improbable than your own appearance.”

“I wonder—“ she began “—what any man would do if such were to occur.”

“I don’t think a man could know until it occurred,” he admitted.  “I do not know what I could do, only that I could not bring such a child back to Hungary so another solution must be found.”

“I wonder what my father would have done for me,” Belle wondered.

De Almàsy looked at her carefully.  “I hate to suggest it, but he perhaps would have found you a good place, even in the household of your family.  He would have ensured that you would have been well-treated, or given you to a free family and paid your way.  I do not know.  I do not know his character.  We do not have negroes in Hungary.”

“Of course,” she murmured.

“I, however, would never take your child from you unless it was a necessity,” he whispered, standing and coming over to her.

Belle was sitting in a chair, but he leaned down and stroked her cheek.  Their eyes met and held.  He leaned down and then softly kissed her, the merest touch of lips, and her eyes closed at the mere sensation of it.  When he pulled away, her hand reached up to the back of his neck, her fingers splaying in his hair, and she pulled him back down, their mouths barely apart, breathing in the same air.  Their eyes were once again open, searching each other for something, and she seemed to find it as she leaned forward and kissed him more gently still before she released him and sat back.

“I cannot stay for long,” he whispered into her hair.

“When shall you come again?”

“That is not what I meant.”  His voice was apologetic but distant.

Belle glanced up again.  “You must go back to Hungary?  Are you to fight against—Britain?”

“No, my work at the Royal Geographical Society excludes me from fighting.  However, I must go back to North Africa.”

“They’re in revolt!” she stated.  “You had to leave.”

“And now I have to go back,” he explained carefully.  “When you wrote for me to come to England, I had already planned to.  I wanted to say goodbye to you before my next trip.  I don’t know if I will survive it.”

“No,” she exclaimed, “I won’t let you.”

He laughed sadly.  “It’s not for you to let or not let me.  It is beyond your power.”

She stood and walked to the window, trying not to cry.  “Do you love me—at least enough?  Do you love me enough?”

“Miss Lindsay—“

“Belle.  If we’re having this conversation, I am ‘Belle’.—Do you love me enough, as we previously discussed, to marry me?  Weddings can be done in a hurry now due to the war.”  She didn’t look at him, didn’t want to look at his face.

“I don’t love you as I would wish to love you, Belle,” he answered.

Now she did turn to him, crying.  “But do you love me enough?  Do you love me better than any other woman you know, enough to forsake others for the rest of our days together?  Do you love me enough?  The rest can come.  I turned down an offer of marriage for you—I love you enough.”

He came up to her and took her hands.  “Yes, Belle.  I love you enough.”

“Then I shall write to Papa and you can go to Kenwood and ask for permission.  We can be married this week and go to Egypt together after.  How would you like to spend our wedding night at Kenwood?  Look at it and see if you like it.”

“I’m at a boarding house.  It would be better than there,” he admitted, kissing her hands.

The letter was written and handed over.

Belle was going through her dresses when Elizabeth found her.  “Good,” Belle said.  “Help me choose my wedding dress.”

“What are you talking about?” Elizabeth asked, coming into the room.

“The Count de Almàsy was here.  He has to go back to North Africa, which is in revolt, and I will not lose him before he is mine, Bette.  I sent him to Kenwood with a message for Papa and now I need to choose my wedding dress as there isn’t time to order one.”  She took out a blue dress that was of a lighter fabric that was usually worn in winter.

“Belle,” Elizabeth said.  “Do you mean to tell me that Count de Almàsy proposed and you accepted?”

“No,” she stated honestly.  “I proposed and he accepted.”  She put the blue away.  “Yellow!” she declared, finding a golden gown she had worn only once.  Belle had completely forgotten she had it.  It was quite unusual.  It was snug at the torso and then fell down in folds in a skirt.  She thought it was beautiful and rarely wore it.  “Do you like it, Elizabeth?”

“Do you not think this is hasty?”

“Elizabeth,” she explained quietly.  “I never asked if you loved Mr. Finch-Hatton because I knew you were happy to marry him and quite correct in being so.  However, if there was the possibility of losing him to war, would you not wish to grasp him and not let go?  I knew I did not love Matthew Crawley when he came and asked for my hand and I did not take it although he was to go to war.  I never cared for his future title.  However, when the Count told me, I knew I couldn’t lose him.  It could not be the last time I saw him with only a simple kiss having passed between us.  Please understand, Bette.”

“I understand,” she said after a pregnant pause.  “I think this dress is beautiful.  I know exactly how to do your hair and you may borrow my veil.  I’m certain George will not mind.”

When permission was granted, the four of them—Elizabeth, her husband, Mr. Finch-Hatton, Laszio (for that was who he was to her now), and Belle—toasted to the future.  The wedding was in a week and a day and Belle was to remove to Kenwood with Elizabeth until the wedding.  The newly married couple would spend three days in private apartments there before they left for Morocco.  Before leaving for Kenwood, however, Laszio took Belle to his tailor to make up her wardrobe for the Moroccan sun.  Elizabeth found it all terribly fascinating as she had never seen women wear trousers.

The day before the wedding, Belle wrote a long letter to Matthew Crawley.  She explained that she was to be married to Laszio, how she believed that she had found happiness in someone who could accept her, and that she wished him the best in the future.  She asked him not to write as she was to go to Morocco but if, when the war was over, he wished to write of his own happiness, she would be glad to hear of it though she supposed she would still be in Africa or in Hungary.

“Elizabeth,” she whispered, giving her the envelope.  “Would you send this exactly one week after I leave the country?  It’s for Mr. Crawley.”

“Of course,” she stated.  “I understand how delicate the situation is given that he believes himself in love with you.—Does your Count love you?”

“I think he loves me more than he thinks he does,” she admitted as they walked through the snow covered garden.  He did adore her heritage after all and loved her, Belle, along with that.  She believed that took a great deal of love.

“My dear,” he greeted her at the altar, and she smiled at him.  The wedding was attended by her family and the Cliftons, whom she had heard briefly referenced.  “My dear,” Mrs. Clifton said, “you simply are beautiful.  I had heard that you had captured de Almàsy’s attention, but never to the point of marriage.  I hear you are to come on our expedition.”

“Yes.  My husband, by all accounts, brought my new wardrobe with him.”

“We only just got in from Surrey and saved him from that boarding house he was in.  We had no idea my parents had locked up the house.  The poor man has an estate, I understand, three times the size of this and was in a boarding house.  I’ll never forgive Mama.”

“I hadn’t realized,” Belle professed.  “We barely speak of Hungary.  He mentioned going back there and then I begged him to leave and return to England.  I didn’t like the thought of him being near the war.  That’s the extent of our conversation on the topic.”

“Have you family on the front?”

“No,” she answered truthfully, “only a former suitor who writes on the horrors of it.  I can’t get him to stop and since we’re starved for accurate information, I read the letters, though I never respond.  I finally wrote back this week to tell him I was marrying, though I doubt that’s good for boosting morale.”

“Doesn’t sound like he thought he was a former suitor.”

“Men are allowed to think whatever they like,” she replied.  “We women really control the process.”

Mrs. Clifton clinked their glasses.  “I think I like you, Dido de Almàsy.  I’m Katharine, by the way.”

“Katharine, then,” she smiled.  “I’m called ‘Belle’.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Katharine told her.  “Someone found a letter from you and teased de Almàsy about it, and he forbade you be called anything but ‘Miss Dido Lindsay’.  You’re ‘Dido’ now to us.”

“I didn’t know,” she replied, a little startled.  Belle didn’t realize he held her name in so high esteem.

“My husband always got terribly jealous of my suitors before I gave him the time of day,” Katharine admitted.  “He was always my dearest chum and he hated every last one of them.  Men.  You’re right.  They think they have control, but we really decide when we give them leave to woo us.”  She mock-bowed, making Belle laugh.  “Now, I want to see your wardrobe before you leave.  Or, rather, I have a list for you.  Geoffrey!” 

Her husband left his conversation with Elizabeth with an apology and came over with a piece of paper.

Katharine handed it over.  “This is exactly what you need.  I mean what I wrote.  Those are the number of evening dresses and day dresses.  Men think we women can wear just one but we need three to rotate.  You’ll need two suitcases at the least.  Don’t let de Almàsy convince you otherwise.  Tell him you’re following my instructions.”

Belle looked down the list and laughed as her underthings were listed.  “I promise not to lose this.”  She placed it in the pouch that served as her purse.

After dinner and cake, Laszio claimed her by picking her up and taking the stairs less sedately than he might as a servant showed them the way.  The doors were opened for them and he dismissed the servants immediately. 

“Laszio,” she complained.  “My hair!  My dress!”

He set her on the bed gently so that she was sitting and looking up at him.  He knelt down and took off one of her shoes.  “Should a husband not have the right to undress his wife their first night together?”

“Undress?” she asked in shock, but he simply took off her second shoe and began unrolling one of her stockings, kissing the sensitive skin that was revealed there.  She gasped at the sensations, holding onto his shoulders and sighing.  The stocking was rolled further and further down until he was kissing her ankle and she gasped.

He looked up at her and their gazes met and then he kissed the ankle again.

“Laszio is quite a curious name,” she tried as her stocking was fully removed and flung away from him.  His hand brushed up her calf tantalizingly and she sucked in a breath.  “What does it mean?”

“It is Lazarus,” he answered, “the one who rises from the dead, so you have no worry for my safety, Countess.”  Laszio tantalizingly pushed her skirts up to her knees and then took her second stocking and pulled it right off quickly.  He picked up her leg and kissed it gently, trailing kisses from her knee down to her ankle.

“I don’t understand what you’re doing,” she admitted.  “Lady Mansfield—“

“Was wrong, whatever it was,” he admitted.  “I’m worshipping you because you deserve to be worshipped and I want to do it.”  He then pulled her dress back down and whispered in her ear, “Don’t move.”

Laszio came around the bed and looked at her hair.  Elizabeth had put some of it up in a bun with golden leaves around it, leaving the rest to hang past her shoulders.  It was hardly in fashion but it was beautiful.  Belle quite liked it.

Laszio carefully picked up the laurel crown and watched as her hair fell down into soft brown waves.  He moved to put down the leaves and picked up her brush, moving it through her hair and raining soft kisses against her jaw and neck when he combed her hair away from that side of her face. 

She laughed a little and he let her before setting aside the brush.  He moved to her front and offered her his hands.  She placed hers in his palms, their eyes meeting, and he pulled her until she was standing. 

Trailing a hand up her bare arm, he moved around her and undid the stays to her dress and then let it drop to the ground to reveal her corset and shift.  She placed her hands around herself, dropping down.

“How remiss of me,” he apologized, putting a finger under her chin and lifting it up.  Slowly he undid his bowtie and then discarded it.  He shucked off his formal jacket and then undid his cumberbund.

“Now,” he said, sitting.  He took off his shoes and threw off his socks so that she could see his bare feet and then finally unbuttoned his shirt.  With a look of surprise, he watched as she took the second button from his hands and did it herself, finally going behind him and helping him out of it.  He was left in suspenders, an undershirt, and his trousers.  “Are you more comfortable?”

She didn’t answer.

He cupped her chin and leaned down and kissed her achingly slowly until she responded to him and he pulled her into his arms.  The suspenders were soon pushed off as well as his trousers and underpants.  He found it silly to be in just his undershirt so he threw it off as well.

Belle was cradled against him in her corset and shift and he slipped his fingers up her inner thigh to remove her underthings.  Her eyes opened and she gasped into their kiss.  She tried to pull away, but he moved his hand soothingly against her thigh, making shushing noises against her cheek as she looked past him. 

“Darling,” he murmured, “all is well.”

“It is as she said.”

“But we love each other,” he promised.  “It will hurt later on, but we love each other.”

Belle thought back wildly to what Lady Mansfield had said, but she had never mentioned nakedness, only a joining and pain, and a union of souls.  Perhaps he meant the union of souls.

She let him strip her of her small clothes and stroke her thighs open until he was—she hadn’t been expecting his fingers or for it to feel so good.  Maybe they did things in Hungary differently.  Perhaps they knew secret arts.  Her thoughts turned fuzzy and she held onto him, her face at the crook of his shoulder and she cried out, not quite knowing why, but she wanted to again as soon as she had rested awhile.

He laid her on the bed and she realized they weren’t quite on the bed properly.  Her head was partially off the side and the pillows were more than an arm’s length away.

“Laszio,” was all she could seem to say as she reached up and ran her hand through his hair.  “We’re on the bed wrong.”

Her husband, for that’s what he was, her husband, laughed at that.  He helped her sit up and they moved until they were lying on the pillows, on top of the covers, facing each other.  He seemed content to let her breaths settle and just watch her, his hand moving down her corset to touch the gentle swell of her breasts.

“Do you have other secrets from Hungary?” she finally asked.

He rolled on his back and laughed again.  “I do, my darling,” he promised.  “Not all of them, perhaps, for tonight, but I will share all of them with you.”

“Mama did not speak of such things.”

“We are further East and have a different culture,” he told her.  “I don’t know the—practices—of England, only the ones of Hungary, and I will show them all to you.  Now, Belle, would you like your corset on or off when I make you my wife?  I will try and give you pleasure again but it may be difficult since you are untouched.”

She paused, uncertain if she should speak what she was thinking.  “I am not ignorant.  When I first saw you I compared you to Matthew and I realized that you had known more women than he had, if he had known any at all.  You promised you loved me enough so I trust you to have my best interest at heart.  What would you recommend?”

“I would think you would want to breathe.  Your modesty will remain in tact unless you will give me free reign of your body.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

He looked at her with a soft look in his eyes.  “Tell me to stop.”  Laszio reached out and touched her clavicle before gently moving a finger along it.  Then the finger dipped lower and a second finger joined it, then a third until they dipped under the shift above her corset to her breast.  Her breath picked up but she didn’t stop him.  When he moved closer and he began to plant wet kisses where her shoulder and neck met, she tried not to squirm, his hand attempting to lift her breast up out of her corset.  His mouth left her neck and he whispered in her ear, “Touch me.”

Hesitantly, she reached out and let her fingers brush his shoulders before they skated down his back as she drew them closer.  He groaned and his hands left her for a moment and then she felt them undoing her stays quickly.  Her corset was ripped from her so that only her shift separated them.  He lifted her bent leg so that her knee was resting over his hip and she wrapped her lower leg around his upper one as she thought it might be more comfortable.

Belle felt a hardness against her upper leg, which she didn’t understand.  He kissed her on the mouth desperately, his tongue slicing against her, his hands grasping at her legs until her shift was around her waist.  His fingers were there again and then there was a push.  Her eyes opened wide and her leg spasmed around him and he stilled.  A hand came around the back of her head, holding it down against his chest. 

“Breathe, darling,” he told her plainly—and she did just that, she breathed in and out, in and out.

After several long moments, she whispered, “I’m ready.” 

There was another push, and then a pull, and then a rhythm.  Belle felt a strange friction and she moved into it once and felt it grow.  She paused as her husband moved against her and then she moved into him again and the friction sparked again.  Soon she was moving and panting, and he was holding her to him, and she was certain her shift would be uncomfortable to sleep in as it was covered in sweat. 

Shouting something in a language she didn’t know, a warmth erupted into her, but she hadn’t finished yet.  Her husband slumped next to her, but after about a moment, his fingers had gone between them and found that place and was moving until, yes, there.  She was crying his name, and she was glad she had found that strange place again and this time she and her husband had found it together.

They lay, connected to each other, and she felt whatever was in her soften, but she didn’t move.  The two of them just stared at one another until he moved and kissed her as softly as their first kiss. 

After half an hour, she wondered aloud, “Is that the union of souls?”

“Yes, my dear.  That is the ‘union of souls’ you were told about.”

“Oh.  Mama said I wouldn’t feel that for years.”

“I think Lady Mansfield didn’t realize that we married for a love that was more passionate than just enough.”  He looked over to her and took her hands and played with her fingers.  “I didn’t realize I loved you so until these moments we shared together.”

“Then let’s be mad for each other,” she suggested, sitting up and dislodging whatever-it-was from her, which was now hardening again.  “May I take this off?  I fear it is quite ruined for the night.”

“I think I would like nothing better,” he answered with a wicked grin.

They took their meals in their rooms, wearing nothing but robes and shifts when it was necessary.  When Belle took out her list of things to pack, she did indeed fill two suitcases.  She said goodbye to the Mansfields and they set sail from Portsmouth with the Cliftons.

Geoffrey was terribly friendly.  “So, I see you’ve made de Almàsy happy.  I didn’t think such a thing was possible outside of Roman artifacts.”

“I suppose you were wrong,” she suggested.  “Still, early days yet.  We’ve been married for a week.”

The horrors of war meant deprivation, but they managed through it.  Katharine Clifton died in a mechanical accident of all things, but Geoffrey soldiered on.  Belle and Laszio were terribly happy and even held up in a cave for two years, eating lizards as there were no towns about and they could only find a water hole that was two days’ walk away.  They were finally saved by a German expedition of all things.  What the Germans were doing in Morocco was anyone’s guess.

They brought them back to Hungary, however.

The estate was vast.  She wandered around like a little girl, uncertain what to do, other than to show up for meals and to make love to her husband at night.  When the war was lost, she felt torn between her home country and the country of her marriage.  Austria and Hungary were broken up, the estate remained more than intact, and her fortune wasn’t even touched.  Children soon followed, Alysia and Franz.

She saw Matthew Crawley quite by chance when she was going through London two years after the war had ended.  She was twenty two.  Alysia had gotten away and tugged on his shirt, asking if he was “the enemy” in highly accented English.

“Alysia,” she chided, turning to look at the man.  “Mr. Crawley, I apologize for Countess Alysia.  She doesn’t understand.”

“Not at all, Countess.”  He tipped his hat as Alyssia was given back to Nurse, who was also pushing Franz’s pram.  “I hope you and the Count are well.”

“Quite well, thank you.  We had to live out of a cave in Morocco for part of the war, but it all seems a bit romantic now.”

“I was in the trenches, but you know that.”  His tone was cold, icy.

She paused, thinking whether or not she should ask.  “Did you ever marry?”

“Yes,” he said.  “A Miss Suire.  Lovely girl.  We met during the war.”

“Well,” she told him honestly.  “I wish you and Mrs. Crawley very happy.”  And she left, knowing she had made the right choice all those years ago.

The End

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