Science Fiction Historical

Mary Bennet and the Irish Professor

By Alex Isle
7,252 words · 27-minute reading time

Photo by 𝚂𝚒𝚘𝚛𝚊 𝙿𝚑𝚘𝚝𝚘𝚐𝚛𝚊𝚙𝚑𝚢 via Unsplash.

From the author: Mary Bennet's sisters aspired to romance and marriage, but Mary herself had other plans.


Mary Bennet had withdrawn to her bedchamber that chilly summer morning.  She had avoided her mother once already since rising and hoped she was now safe.  Mary was writing in her journal; no scholarly extract but merely an account of her early morning walk when Mrs Bennet’s screech rushed up the stairs and stabbed both her eardrums at once.  “Mary!  Mary, where is the foolish girl?  Come downstairs at once, Mary, I want you!”

Wearily Mary set down the book and made her way down the staircase.  She glimpsed her father in the parlour entrance and was curious; he rarely appeared outside his study and would certainly not do so merely to gratify his wife.  Then she gained the room and saw that a gentleman was within, rising as she entered.  The new neighbour, she thought, perhaps Father has called upon him or happened to meet him. 

He was not what her sisters would have called an attractive man, being somewhat stooped of shoulders and scant of hair upon his head, but his gaze was direct and had thought behind it.  His head moved, a slight oscillation to the right and then back again; once, twice, as though the gentleman could not control the movement.  He was conservatively clad in a sober black day-suit as befitted a man of mature years.

“Mary, my dear,”  her mother trilled, “this is Professor James Moriarty, who has taken the Meryton Grange.  Professor, this is my daughter Mary.  I do wish some of her sisters were at home that you might meet them all but alas, three of them are already wed and the fourth, well, we can say nothing yet but there are great hopes, you understand?”  She persisted in this vein for several unheeded minutes while Mary and the gentleman looked at one another.  “Mary is a most studious girl,”  her mother was saying, “but please do not think, Sir, that this means she knows nothing of the world; indeed, she has moved among the highest of society, Sir…”

High society.  The stupid greed of Wickham, thought Mary, chilled to the bone.  The cheery emptiness of Bingley, the cold reserve of Darcy, whose wife still may not laugh at him.  She opened her mouth finally to say some pleasantry, anything, that might still the pointless flood of her mother’s words.

Professor Moriarty spoke in the instant before she had to decide what she might say.  “I have heard you know something of mathematics, girl, perhaps of what passes for science in this age.  Have you been properly instructed?”

“I have read my father’s books since I was very young and absorbed all that I might from him,”  Mary answered, fired by the cool appraising look in the Professor’s eyes. 

“But never away to school?”

“No, sir, my parents would not hear of it.”

“I require an assistant with some of my work and have come to speak with your father concerning your possible suitability,”  the Professor said, appearing to dismiss her.

“But Sir, a mere girl could not assist you, surely, and it would not be seemly…”  Mrs Bennet seemed caught between outrage and the desire to find a husband, any husband, for her last daughter.

“As to that, Madam, I have a housekeeper and a maid to serve as chaperones,”  the Professor said.  He did not even look at her.  “The young gentleman assisting me before this has gone up to Oxford and it will be some time before I can secure someone else.  My work will not wait.  What I require is fairly simple record-keeping and maintenance duties.  If you are interested, Miss Bennet, I will see you at the Meryton Grange tomorrow morning at eight.  Good day to you.”

The following morning, Mary left the house for her usual constitutional.  This happened to take her past the gates of Meryton Grange, rather earlier than had been stipulated but no matter, she thought.  She would perhaps encounter the housekeeper and find out something about her mysterious employer.  Certainly Professor Moriarty had not been so crass as to mention payment before her parents and Mary was not even sure that she cared.  If he would simply allow her to observe his work, perhaps to read the books…

“Bennet!” 

She jumped violently for the call had come directly above her head. 

When she looked up, Mary saw the professor leaning out of a window.

“Good, you are prompt.  Take the staircase up to the third floor, Bennet.”

The front door opened to her hand and Mary proceeded to climb as directed.  Bennet?  she thought.  As though I am a chambermaid, hardly worth his notice!  But if I am not worth his notice, why did he seek me out?

The door on the third landing was closed.  Mary waited for some direction but none seemed forthcoming, so she gently pushed at the door, which creaked open.  “Hurry up, Bennet,” came the irascible voice from by the window.  “Have you writing materials?”

“No, Sir, I . . .”

“No matter, you could not have suitable in any case.  Look in that cupboard to your right, no, not that one, further along, and you will find various samples I brought from a more enlightened time.  We will see to your education later, for now pen and paper must do.  Hurry up, Bennet!”

He was so unconscionably rude, Mary thought with a kind of fascination.  Jane and Elizabeth would have dug their heels in and answered him back in fine and saucy spirit.  The Professor would probably have taken one look and proceeded to forget their existence.  She sorted through a box in the indicated cupboard and brought forth several pencils, she supposed, of an odd smooth texture.  Some were red, others blue or black.  A new form of ink, perhaps, she supposed, selecting a black one and also a notepad of smooth, evenly lined paper.  As she straightened, she got her first look at the Professor’s study, for so she supposed she must call it.

Two long tables were pushed against the walls and these were loaded further with books, metal implements, glass containers and boxes such as Mary Bennet had never seen.  The cupboards sat beyond them, crowding the third wall to her right.  Something was making a noise, she realised, something within the room.  She looked harder at something she had taken to be a table, stacked with more metallic objects.  No, not a table, more like one of those bizarre creations within the gardens of a great house, a gazebo, humming like a living thing.  Bright fiery sparks leapt along a wire as she watched, making her jump. 

The Professor paid it no heed at all, being occupied with an object before him, resembling a picture-frame.  He pressed his fingers down upon the table before it.  Mary, moving closer to look, saw there an arrangement of letter-blocks, such as children played with, but set fast together.  Upon the screen, letters sprang up as though an invisible hand wrote there.  She clutched the pen and paper in her hand.

Professor Moriarty glanced around with irritation to see why his will was not being immediately obeyed and saw the direction of Mary’s gaze.  “Go over to the machine,”  he said, pointing at the humming gazebo.  When she hesitated, he sighed deeply.  “Of course, I forget – you will not know what I mean by a machine.  You may think of it as an apparatus of several parts, which work together…”

“As a mill wheel, perhaps,”  Mary said, “or a steam engine.” 

“Well.  Yes.”  He seemed faintly surprised that she had the temerity to interrupt him.   “Hurry up, girl, it won’t hurt you.  Go up the steps and sit in the seat on top and look forward.  You will see a set of numbers on the readout.  Call them out to me as thousands, hundreds and so on.  You can do that?  Go on.”

“Do you wish me to write them down, Professor?”

“Not yet, not yet, just call them out.”

Mary climbed the iron steps of the gazebo, no, the machine, and sat in the leather carriage seat as directed.  She felt somehow that rude though the Professor was, one could trust him to know what was safe.  A small window was cut into the metal, forward of the seat and there she read flickering numbers, like many small candles blowing into being and out again.  “One thousand, eight hundred and ninety one,”  she read.

“Louder, girl, your ladylike tones don’t reach the bugs on the floor, let alone my ears.”

Mary hesitated.  Years of gentle mockery at the hands of her sisters, for being plain and bookish and wearing spectacles, unable to retaliate except by sulking, for her intelligence was not that of quick, facile replies, had worn her down.  If she flounced out, she was never going to discover the huge mystery of this room and this man, but would it be worth it, she thought, if he was going to break every convention of behaviour and propriety, surely bringing down the wrath of father, mother and other right-thinking persons of society?  Society, she thought, our time, the year of grace, the year of peace 1816.  And he said he brought the pens from a more enlightened time.  Not place, as I at first thought he said.

Moriarty had turned from his writing machine and opened his mouth to say something else, something impatient.  Mary gathered up all her resources and looked quickly at the small window.  “ONE THOUSAND, EIGHT HUNDRED AND NINETY FIVE, IS THAT BETTER, PROFESSOR?”

Moriarty blinked.  “Yes, Bennet.  That will do well.”

And he smiled, a brief, almost reptilian look involving a single blink of amber-brown eyes.  Again his head moved in that slight, involuntary gesture, but he continued to watch her.

Despite what Professor Moriarty had said to the Bennets, no servant ever entered the upper chamber.  Cleaning and tidying duties fell to Mary, as did note-taking, which she was enjoined to do whenever a sudden idea struck the Professor and he was not near his writing machine.  He did not seem to use any of the wonderful pens, which never seemed to require re-filling with ink.  He told Mary never to take home any object from the chamber, which direction she was glad to follow.  She wanted no more questions from her mother.  Every evening she turned over the writing pad to the Professor, tidied the chamber and left for home.  Invariably, Moriarty was still working.  He gave no clue as to his reasons or what he hoped to do with the gazebo, as she still thought of it, once it was complete.

He dropped the occasional word here or there, so that many previously unnamed and mysterious things were now identified as the computer or the console or the Bunsen burner.  They were, Mary had to admit, as mysterious as ever but at least she knew what to call them.  She wondered whether the Professor had brought them from London University, whether all the great mathematicians were allowed to use such wonderful things.  Pointless to wonder, she thought, a girl would never be allowed to do anything so unwomanly, but why had she never even read of these things in her father’s books?

“What is the matter, Bennet?”  that voice snapped from behind her one day as she regarded the computer’s glowing screen.

“I wish that I could attend university and learn to use these things,”  Mary said.  She had not meant to sound so longing.  She had learned at a very young age not to give those weapons to anyone, least of all family.

Moriarty laughed.  “So would your men of science,”  he said.  “And mine.”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Bennet, let me put it this way.  If your father were to walk into this chamber, he would be utterly mystified.  He would have no more knowledge than you of what he was looking at and your father was educated as a gentleman, was he not?  Did he go up to university?”

“Yes, sir, he had a year at Cambridge.”

“A year.  Did he?  Certainly adequate for the son of a country gentleman.”  Moriarty muttered something else beneath his breath, something Mary halfway caught as concerning “bucolic freezing countryside thank the Devil I’m almost done and I will deal with Holmes at last!”  “All right, Bennet, time to take one last set of readings and then we’re done for the day.”

“Sir,”  Mary remembered to say after this was accomplished and she was putting on her bonnet before leaving, “I will not be able to assist you until Tuesday next.  My sister and her husband are visiting for a week and I must be present.”

“For the whole week?”

“Yes, sir, it is a considerable distance and my parents have not seen Elizabeth for some time…”

“Yes, yes, benighted age and all.  Damnation, I completely neglected to examine the local fluxes….”  He trailed off, looking as indignant as though Mary had arranged this event purely to hinder him.

“Sir, if there was any way I could avoid it, I would,”  Mary said with that bluntness he seemed to bring out in her.  “My sister Elizabeth and her husband Mr Darcy, though they possess a most excellent library…”

“Fitzwilliam Darcy, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.  Although I am permitted to use the library, I feel that they…”

“They what?”

“They find me amusing, Professor.  Plain and quaint.”

His cold amber stare rested on her and for one of the few moments since they had met, Mary felt that Moriarty was focusing on her, aware of her as a person.  Though her long dress and bonnet covered nearly all of her, she still felt that she was being immodest, simply by standing in front of those eyes.  She reached to gather her shawl more closely about her shoulders.

“Amusing?” he said in a tone of noncomprehension that was somehow more heartening than the most flowery denial.  He shook his head.  “Well, Bennet, I will see you here next week.  If I find some way to rescue you, I will use it.  Good day to you.”

“There is to be a ball at Pemberley!”  Her sister Kitty’s voice was fractionally below the resonance which would shatter glass.  One would think, Mary reflected, there had never been such a thing as a ball.  One could only wish.  Certainly the worst of Kitty’s silliness had been tamed following the unfortunate fate of Lydia but it was always there, waiting to erupt. “Next week, Mary, we are all to return there with Elizabeth and Darcy!  And you shall be there, you must!  If only we could invite the officers of the regiment, were they still in Meryton!”

Mary glanced at Elizabeth to see how her sister was taking this.  Darcy had managed to escape, to have the nearest thing to a sensible conversation possible in this house by talking in his study with their father, but there was no help for Elizabeth.  Her expression, usually so quick to show laughter – merry or mocking – was unusually restrained.  Mary managed not to mention that the Battle of Waterloo and the imprisonment of Bonaparte last year was unfortunately bound to impact upon Kitty Bennet’s social life.

“There is to be a party down from London as well as neighbours,”  Elizabeth said, as though the subject of scarlet coats had never arisen.  “It includes a gentleman from the University, so Mr Darcy tells me.  Perhaps you shall like to meet him, Mary.”

Mary murmured a conventionally polite response.  A colleague of the Professor’s, she wondered.  That could be interesting. 

“This Professor Havers is a colleague of the gentleman at Meryton Grange,”  Elizabeth continued casually.  “He has asked Mr Darcy whether he might bring him and of course Darcy was pleased to agree.  You shall perhaps dance one dance this time, Mary?”  Something in her tone made Mary look up.  Kitty squealed in delighted laughter.

“Mary has a beau!”  she shrieked.  “I must write and tell Lydia, she will think it ever so jolly.”  She jumped up and ran out, calling to her mother, who had made yet another unnecessary journey to the kitchen to annoy the cook.

“Quick,”  Elizabeth said at once, “let us walk outside before mother sends Kitty back to us or comes herself.”

Mary assented, a little bewildered, for Elizabeth had never before sought her company in any thing.  At Pemberley, she was more often left to her own devices, occasionally presented as a curiosity, a scholarly female, to any other guests which her sister and Darcy happened to have.  She followed Elizabeth slowly into the walk beside the house, shaded by oaks and grown about with ferns and violets.

“What do you know of this gentleman whom you are assisting?”  Elizabeth asked, facing her.  The question had all of Elizabeth’s usual alarming bluntness; what she wished to know, she sought without subterfuge and when younger, she had reduced Mary to tears over her forthright teasing declaration that since Mary was without looks, she resorted to books to impress their father.  These tears were close to Mary’s thoughts as she watched the pretty, vivacious face of her sister.  Elizabeth was plumper, she thought, and then a second idea followed it and she almost smiled.  That wanted Elizabeth’s telling, though, she could not ask.

“He is a scholarly gentleman,”  Mary said at last.  “He works in a room of strange instruments, where I record numbers for him or do other work as he directs.  He has been at Oxford and his manner is completely proper.”  She gave her sister a direct stare.  “You need not have teased me as to dancing, Eliza.  I seek no invitation; you well know that balls and socialising do not suit me.  There need not have been mention of Professor Moriarty at all.”

“There is not,” said Elizabeth, “anywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“Professor Havers did not ask of his own will to bring your professor Moriarty.  Moriarty sought an invitation of him.  Professor Havers told Mr Darcy, when he asked, that Professor Moriarty was new come to the college, only that year, and that he was a considerable mystery; an obviously learned man with no known publications, though he showed Havers a completed manuscript,”  Elizabeth said, clearly paraphrasing the letter.  “Professor Moriarty apparently bequeathed a considerable sum to the University to secure a position as lecturer and Professor Havers stated that he had clear mastery of his subject, none questioned it, except to wonder why such a man had not a string of books and papers to his name.”

“Does it matter?”  Mary’s voice was flat, almost hostile.  She glanced at her sister’s midsection; yes, she was sure of it now and she decided she didn’t care about decorum.  “Do you plan to tell our parents of your situation at this time or perhaps later this year?”

Elizabeth blushed furiously.  “That is very indelicate of you, Mary!”

“Is it not?” said her sister and walked away.  She intended to do no more than get out of Elizabeth’s sight, reasonably sure that she had embarrassed her sufficiently not to pursue Mary.  Yet when Mary gained the front of the house, her mother’s voice rose raucously from within and without clear volition on her part, Mary’s legs continued to carry her onwards and down the lane towards Meryton, off to the right of the turn-off that would take her to the Grange.  She found Professor James Moriarty standing like a tall black windswept crow beside the gate of the Grange, almost as though he had known she was coming.  She said to him, “My sister Elizabeth has spoken of you.”

“Yes,” agreed the Professor.  “I expected that she would.”

“She and her husband are to have as guest your friend Professor Havers of Oxford, who is most curious about you, sir.”  Moriarty inclined his head but gave no other answer.  “If I might suggest, sir, perhaps it would be wise not to attend Pemberley this coming week.”

“Unfortunately, Bennet, there is work I must undertake there.”  Moriarty’s expression was very grim.  “Tell me, has your sister told your parents yet that they are to have a granddaughter?”

“Not yet.”  Mary felt a growing numbness but she managed to speak with collected calm.  “I believe she wishes to be out of earshot when my mother receives the happy news….granddaughter?  Sir, even if Elizabeth is with - with child, there is no possible way any could know the sex!”  She felt her cheeks burning with embarrassment at discussing such a topic with a man.

Moriarty smiled, brief and mirthless.  “After what you have seen, you still say impossible, Bennet?  Tell me, are you devoted to your sister Elizabeth?”

Mary blinked; the question was unexpected and seemed too intensely put for such a subject.  She opened her mouth to give the conventional answer:  Of course she must love her sister Elizabeth, the same as she did Jane, Kitty and Lydia.  A woman’s closest relationship must always be with a sister, for what other person could so intimately understand…The words dried up unspoken before the Professor’s reptilian stare as he waited for her answer.  His head performed its strange oscillating movement one complete cycle before she spoke.

“No, sir.  I am not.”

“Come with me, Bennet.  I wish to show you something.”

It was the same offhand tone as always, yet Mary was on guard as she followed the Professor into the house and upstairs to the study.  The gazebo-machine was on, bright lights flashing and buzzing as though the thing talked to itself.  Moriarty went straight to it and gestured Mary to precede him.  “Sit there,”  he said, then joined her and began to press controls on the keyboard.  “You will feel a temporary discomfort, no more,”  he said and the world went away.  A gray souplike fog enveloped them or perhaps Mary’s eyes ceased to function.  She tried to speak and nothing came out.  When she tried to move her hand, she could not. 

Then the light returned but it was not the light of the sun through the windows.  They still sat in the machine, but it sat now upon a grassy lawn, with trees and stones all around them, big stones. The day felt far warmer than when she had entered the Professor’s house.  A moment later Mary realised the nature of those outcrops.  They were not stones but tombstones and she had been transported into a cemetery.  For the first time in her life she considered a conventionally feminine shriek and faint.

“Bennet,” said the grim voice beside her, “do not even think of having the vapours.”

Moriarty had climbed off the machine and waited to help her down.  Mary swallowed hard and accepted his hand, trying to think of this as just another carriage ride.  She glanced about but there was no one to be seen.  The time appeared to be early morning, which was not right at all.  She had left home not long before noon.  She tried to ignore that and look for any familiar signs of where she was.  The cemetery’s church was in sight, to the west, but she had not seen it before.

“Where are we?”  she asked finally.

“We are in the year 1819,”  the Professor replied, turning to walk away from her.  “Follow me, Bennet.”  She did, afraid of losing sight of him.  He stopped before one of the tombstones.  “I do appreciate this is rather dramatic of me but I need you to understand quickly.  Read the stone.”

“Mary,”  she read in confusion, “beloved daughter…typhus…1818.”  She read it again, feeling curiously lightheaded.  There were her parents names.  She glanced at the stones nearby but no other family member’s marker appeared to accompany hers.  She wished for a drink of cool water, to be home with her mother calling for her.  After a few moments the dizzy sensation passed and she looked at Professor Moriarty.  “We have stepped out of time, have we not?  The – the gazebo carried us here?”

“The gaz – oh, I see, that is what you call the time machine.”

“Time machine,”  Mary repeated obediently.  It made sense, once said.  “You built it.”

“More accurate to say I acquired it from its creator, Bennet, but that is beside the point.  Do you accept that we have travelled, for you, three years forward in time, past the point of your own death?”

She nodded.  “Sir, precisely when do I die?”

“You will not, Bennet.  The time stream is already altered by my entering it and bringing you here.  I will innoculate you myself once we return, in exchange for your help.”

“I am already assisting you, sir.”

“Not as I wish your assistance, Bennet.  In my own time, I have an enemy.  I have attempted to defeat him in vain, as he has attempted to destroy me.”  Moriarty stared thoughtfully at Mary’s tombstone and turned about.  She hurried to catch up with him as he returned to the time machine.  “I have already altered the future in several small ways so I know that it can be altered in large.”

“You mean to go back in time so that you can – destroy your enemy?”

“Not exactly, Bennet.  I have already gone back in time to the point where I need to be.  My battles with my foe are concentrated in the 1890s, in the normal time stream of my own life.  In the year 1891, he believed that I had fallen to my death from the Reichenbach Falls…fool, he did not even try to make certain!  Then late in the year 1894, his name came again to my ears.  I was able to obtain this device and to discover that here, in your time, my enemy’s grandmother is about to be born.  Would have been born..”  His eyes glittered as he regarded her.  “It is a revenge he will unfortunately never appreciate.  Get in, we must be on our way before someone arrives.”

Mary was seated in the elegant drawing room at Pemberley, able to see the dancers in the adjoining ballroom if she raised her eyes.  She did not do so.  She already knew how the gaslight would show their beautiful gowns and the finery of the gentlemen, the bright hair arranged to perfection, the brittle laughter.  She was counting the minutes before she would be able to leave without causing gossip.  One could calculate this to a nicety.  The music was fading; one more dance and she could quietly withdraw.

“There you are, Bennet.  Do you hide deliberately?  Hurry up, the dance is about to begin.”

Mary jerked her gaze upwards in shock.  She had seen no sign of Professor Moriarty at all and believed he had not come, but here he was in most conservative evening wear, imperiously holding out a hand to her.  She was on her feet before she thought, her arm swept through his and being led off to the dance floor.  Panic flooded through her. 

“Professor!  I do not dance!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Bennet, it is only mathematics.”

“Professor?”

“You begin to sound like a parrot.  Mathematics, a sequence of movements and repetitions which should be simplicity itself for a mind such as yours to master, particularly as your task is only to mirror my movements.”

Mary gulped and would have fled, particularly as she encountered in the next moment the startled gaze of her sister Jane, partnering Bingley next to herself and the Professor.  Elizabeth was no doubt somewhere near, she thought.  The orchestra began to play and they moved.  She fixed her gaze on Moriarty, concentrating as he had said.  Mathematics, a mnemonic sequence.  Forget the elegant ladies and gentlemen, they were numbers only.  For the first time in her life outside her own family drawing room, Mary Bennet danced with relative ease.

“Are your parents attending this event?”  the dry voice said, so quietly no one else could hear.

“Ah – my mother only.  My father is not well, he says, and he has been sent a new novel to peruse.”

“And has your sister mentioned her own incipient event?”

“Not yet.  She will send a letter, I believe, after our mother and the other guests have left…”

“This child of Elizabeth’s will not improve her lot,”  Moriarty’s sibilant murmur continued.  “It will damage her womb and leave her unable to provide her husband with the male heir he needs.  Nor will the girl marry in such a way as to provide a useful son-in-law.  If the pregnancy…ends, Elizabeth will later be able to give birth to a son and thus retain the affection of her husband, which will otherwise fade.”

“Why should that concern me?”  Mary whispered back.  “I will be beneath the earth and beyond caring!  You have already said you will protect me against that sickness only if I help you, so why do you waste your time trying to persuade me?”

“Well done, Bennet.  Well reasoned.  The truth is that I have already innoculated you.  You remember when I gave you what I claimed to be a blood tonic, that day you felt unwell?”  She nodded, swept away into a turn by the music, brought back by its tide.  “That protected you.  You will not die by typhus.  I have not, of course, looked to see what other fate may await you, but I have glanced ahead a few years.  Do you want to know what I saw?”

Mary tried not to speak, not to hear him, but a terrible curiosity possessed her.  Moriarty seemed to take her silence for assent.  “Your family is in a bad way,”  he said dispassionately.  “Following the death of your father five years hence, your mother, yourself and Kitty go to live with Jane and her husband, but not long afterwards, Bingley’s gambling debts destroy the last of his fortune and he is destitute.  He kills himself.  There is then only Elizabeth and Darcy and as I have told you, Elizabeth has only a wayward daughter and no ability to produce a son.  Darcy puts her aside and the rest of your family lives a coat-tail, miserable existence, hidden away on the Pemberley estate and not permitted to approach this great house or its master.”

“I do not believe you!”  Mary hissed, loudly enough to make the next dancers glance at her in surprise.  She manufactured a smile and said nothing for the next few movements, approaching the end of the dance.  “One truth does not mean all you say is truth, sir.”

“Indeed not,”  Moriarty agreed, perfectly amiable as the music died down and the dancers bowed and smiled to one another, peacock bright and as mindless.  Mary walked towards the seats where she had been waiting out the time, aware of Moriarty moving beside her.

“I do not wish to dance again, sir,”  she said as though he had spoken.  “Forgive me, I am fatigued.”

“I believe supper is about to be served in any case,”  Moriarty said.  “Shall I fetch you a drink?”

“No – I thank you.”

It was very late before the last of the guests sought their beds.  Mary, unable to sleep, rose from her bed, put a wrap about her nightgown and went to the library.  She took with her a candle, expecting the great room to be in darkness but instead found the glow of a lamp ahead of her.  Professor Moriarty was seated in an armchair, the lamp beside him casting its light upon the book he was perusing.

“Sir,”  Mary said before courage could abandon her, “if my sister Elizabeth has a son, would that mean Darcy will protect the rest of my family?”

“It is possible,”  Moriarty said slowly.  He seemed slightly surprised as though unsure why Mary should care.  Wearily, Mary wondered about that herself.

“But nothing can be done about Bingley’s gambling?”

“Only exposure,”  the professor shrugged, “and that may not stop him.  He might put aside his wife before suiciding and that would mean she would have nothing at all.  As it is, she may keep a little money.”

“Might.  Believe.  They are not certain words, sir.”

Moriarty looked directly at her and smiled.  “No, but we have not yet acted to alter the time stream and so my guesses are as imperfect as any man’s.”

There was something amiss but Mary was unable to cut to its heart.  She thought of Elizabeth’s merry face and beside her, the cold suspicion of Darcy.  There might be no son, she realised suddenly.  Even if it was truth that stopping this pregnancy would give Elizabeth the chance of another child, there was no saying that another child would be a son.  Moriarty had not said that.  She felt dizzy.  She should not be alone with Moriarty, Mary thought foggily, propriety….She must have said something of that aloud for he laughed, too loudly.

“Mary Bennet, I will take you away from your cage to a time where they will appreciate your mind.  You shall wear dresses or trousers as you please with none to even glance in censure.  You may undertake studies which will give you the title of Doctor or Professor, just as you please, for you are the first woman I have met with a mind that approaches my own.  We will jump 200 years and leave our enemies drowning in our wake – or never born.”  He rose from his chair, setting down the large leatherbound book, and held out his hand to her.  “Will you join me?”

Thus Lucifer might have spoken, Mary thought with a chill that owed nothing to the night air.  Her heart’s desire – and the price an unborn child, not really alive at all.  The security of her family.  However strangely achieved, this should be important to her.      She reached out her hand and he grasped it, his flesh rather cold and reptilian to the touch.  She swallowed, wishing she could reclaim the hand which Moriarty still gripped.  “Sir – do you know what will happen if you succeed?  I cannot fathom it, but surely we will never clearly see our foes drown in our wake.”

“And if I do not have Holmes to temper me, will I still be what his fool of a biographer named me,”  Moriarty mused, his cold bright stare fixing her.  “The Napoleon of Crime!”

“Napoleon?  I do not understand…”  Mary was not used to feeling foolish.  Humiliated, yes, dowdy before her bright and shallow sisters, but not foolish.

“I think you do.  You have seen more clearly than have I.”  His grip dug into her flesh and Mary, alarmed, tried to pull free.

“Sir!”

Moriarty released her hand, not so much in response to her panic as because he had forgotten to hold on.  He took a few strides away out of the lamp’s circle of light, becoming perfectly a creature of the shadows.  Mary listened for the sound of feet, of voices, but it seemed that the great house and its occupants slept as one.  The child, she thought numbly, the child’s life was the price of her family’s survival, for the dreadful tale Moriarty had spun, the death and disgrace and abandonment suddenly seemed all too real to her.  It crowded close upon the circle of lamplight where she stood.  Her candle, she abruptly noted, had flickered out.

“Will I be,” whispered Moriarty, “a man who may keep company with Mary Bennet?”

“Not in this time, sir.”

“No.”

“Sir, I cannot allow you to harm my sister’s child.”

He grinned suddenly, turning back upon her with terrifying speed.  Mary did not shrink.  They were beyond that.  He did not ask her how she proposed to prevent him, for they were beyond that as well.  “Not even for the survival of your family?  The family you love so well?”

“You cannot be sure,”  Mary insisted.  “You see only probability, is that not so?  It may turn out other than you believe!”

“Mary?  What do you do here?”

The loud arrogant voice made her start and gasp as all the Professor’s drama had not.  She was too close, far too close, to Moriarty as her handsome brother-in-law, Fitzwilliam Darcy, strode into the library still dressed impeccably for the evening, a candle in his hand.  Behind him was a flustered, middle-aged man in a somewhat aged but quite respectable suit.  This, Mary divined, must be Professor Havers.

Darcy looked from Moriarty, barely a pace from his young sister-in-law and looming above her, to Mary herself, noting her flushed, embarrassed face.  “Step back from her, sir,”  he said flatly.  “You will not compromise her beneath my roof.  And you, Mary, have not answered my question?”

He was angry, Mary realised suddenly, with a twinge of unease.  It was not easy to tell with Darcy, whom anger made more still and correct than when he was pleasant.  And his anger was focused not so much on Moriarty, who as a man was expected to do such things, but on her, a gentlewoman who was clearly under no physical duress.  Her own unexpected resentment rose hot in her.  Surprise, yes, she would certainly have expected that, but within a moment Darcy had assumed and judged her. 

“Sir, what I do is choose a book,”  she said crisply.  “This gentleman was here also, I presume for the same purpose.”  She did not dare look at Moriarty for his reaction to this falsehood but instead took a pace towards the glowering Darcy.  “Come, brother,”  she said in as cajoling a tone as she could manage, “what you see is but an accidental trickery of the eye.  I assure you I have done nothing improper and nor has this gentleman.”

“Go to your chamber,”  Darcy snapped.  “I will speak to you on the morrow, Mary.  As for you, Sir, you are no longer welcome at Pemberley.  I will send the chaise around at the hour of seven in the coming morning.”

He began to turn his back, having dismissed her as a conniving child.  Mary stared, too furious to speak and too helpless to be wise.  She could think of no words to warn him against Moriarty, if indeed warning was still necessary, but she feared suddenly, that he would return to his own chambers and take his bloated fury out on her sister Elizabeth.  “Sir,”  she blurted – brother was clearly too great a liberty at the moment – “I know it is none of my concern, but I pray you will be gentle with your wife, despite your anger with my foolishness.”

Darcy turned back, still simmering.  “I had no mind to be anything else,” he retorted.  “Why is it such a concern after you have shown your…foolishness?”

Perhaps he also does not know how to show tenderness, Mary wondered.  He is as trapped in this time and its expectations as is Elizabeth….as am I.  She remained still as Darcy gave one more glare to Moriarty before stalking out of the library with Havers following.  It meant something, Mary thought, that he had not forced the Professor or her to leave with him.

“Come, Bennet,” Moriarty’s level voice came from directly above her. 

Not sure why she did, she accepted his hand and let him direct her path in the wake of Darcy’s, emerging into the elegant hall  “We have to return to my lab immediately.”

“But how – we cannot obtain horses without some servant informing my family or someone else seeing us…”

“I will obtain them but you must do as I say.  First, return to your chamber for suitable apparel…”

“I am tired of doing what everyone says,”  Mary interrupted him.  She was immediately horrified at herself but Moriarty merely waited.  His expression, she realised, was one of quiet approval.  “But you clearly know what you are doing, so I choose to follow your direction.”

Mary Bennet waited in the cold breezy dark by the servants’ door, alert but still nervous enough to gasp when she heard the sound of hooves.  “Mary?’ came the Professor’s low sibilant voice and she then made out his black-against-dark outline and that of a puzzled but obedient horse.  Faint metallic sounds informed her that the horse wore tack.  “I trust you can ride pillion,”  Moriarty said.  It was not a question.  “Get up behind me when I reach for your hand.”

She was almost a block of ice by the time they returned to Meryton.  The horse was stumbling with weariness and the sky streaked with grey and pink.  Moriarty spared no look and word for Mary’s discomfort, only tersely commanded her to follow him into his house and upwards to his laboratory.  There she spied a cloak and quickly seized it from the back of a chair and put it on.  Moriarty was already at the gazebo – no - the time machine, working swiftly with its controls.  Something he heard or saw made him whisper words that made Mary redden, despite all the shock and stress of the night.

“What is it?”  she asked.

“Your presence in my timeline has changed things, not as dramatically as would have been the case had I succeeded in my original mission….”

“Of killing Elizabeth’s daughter!”  Mary said sharply.

Moriarty shrugged that off.  “It did not and will not happen now.  It seems that my enemy’s sphere of influence will not intersect so disastrously with my own.  We will meet – that seems sure – but the circumstances are changed.  I need him, to be fully myself, but less interference will assist me.  And that is where you come in, Mary Bennet.”

“I come …”  She reminded herself belatedly that repeating the Professor’s words annoyed him.  As well it should.  “I am not yet recovered from our ride, sir.  Perhaps you would explain?”

“Do you have any difficulty, Bennet, with turning your unused intellect to the hunting of an adult enemy?  To deceiving him with shadows and suppositions?  To leaving your world and your time behind?  They have no use for you, you know.”  He looked at her, a swift cold glance assessing and impatient but not dismissive.

"You will not tell me any more about my family’s fate, will you?”  she asked.

“No.  There is no need and besides, as I told you, what happened tonight has changed what I previously saw.  I have no further interest in hounding a group of dull provincial country gentles.”

“I will be in your power, if I…”  Mary could barely accept the concept.  “If I leave my own time.”

He snorted and held out his hand.  “People put themselves in the power of others, Bennet.  I have not noticed that weakness in you.  I do not say you are an equal, I have not yet met my equal, but trust me, I have no use for another slave.  Come with me into the mystery or remain here to rot, as you please.”

Mary Bennet stared at Professor James Moriarty, who shook his extended hand slightly as though to bid her hasten.  Then she gathered her skirts with dignity and accepted the hand to assist her up into the seat of the stolen Time Machine.   She did not look back.

       

THE END

 

The author wishes to acknowledge his debt to Jane Austen, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells, from whom Professor Moriarty stole a time machine.

 

 

This story originally appeared in Borderlands.


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  • 1 Comment
  • leece
    February 6, 2:20pm

    Such a cool premise!