Chapter 61. A Ball at Pemberley.
Posted on 2014-01-04
"Smile and nod," thought Elizabeth to herself. "Just smile and nod. And introduce some other subject that will divert their attention as quickly as possible."
Although she herself had no experience with fox hunts (Mr. Bennet had never bestirred himself to attend such an event, much less host one at Longbourn), she had assumed that it would be much like any other day of sport, albeit one that ladies might attend if they so desired.
Although Elizabeth's equestrian skills had improved over the last year, she had no interest in jumping over hedges and fences, much less participating in any sort of activity in which the hounds would chase such a graceful creature to exhaustion and then rip it to pieces. Mr. Darcy had pointed out that foxes hunted the lambs in much the same manner but could not deny that there were more humane ways to eliminate a predator. In the end, she had bowed to the tradition of the hunt while being thankful that her position as hostess made it entirely acceptable for her to remain at the house.
All of which had led to Elizabeth's current position. Not three hours ago, those ladies preferring to stay behind had farewelled the hunt. It had been a grand sight-- she could easily understand why so many artists took it as their subject--but even so, nothing as static as paints could reproduce the vitality of the gathering; the huntsmen with their polished horns glinting in the morning sun, the hounds lifting their noses to sniff the morning breeze, and the horses, coats shining and ears pricked, appearing as eager as their riders to be underway. And above all, her handsome husband, dressed in his scarlet coat as befitted the master of the hunt. From the moment that he vaulted into the saddle of his tall dapple gray, it seemed to Elizabeth that all the other riders turned to him, arranging themselves around him like iron filings to a magnet.
Her gaze had been so bright and admiring that Darcy had caught his breath upon catching her eye. His thoughts only returned to the present when she had touched her fingers to her lips and blown him a kiss. Understanding both the message and the promise, he had burst into a great grin before their sight line was broken by riders milling around him. "Release the hounds!" he called, and the golden sound of the horns melded with the dogs' gleeful chorus and not a few whoops from the riders. Feeling the excitement, the horses pranced and soon the melee was racing across the fields.
Elizabeth had continued watching until she saw her husband and his grey fly over a stone wall into the woods. Recalled to the present, she had turned back to those ladies who had chosen to remain behind. It was a motley group of the elderly and the timid mixed with several whom she suspected to prefer nature to be kept behind glass jars.
"Well ladies, shall we go back in? A fresh breakfast has been laid out for those of you who preferred not to join our brave hunters at their dawn repast." Her archly worded invitation prompted no little laughter, for more than one lady had descended only in time to wave off the hunt from the front steps.
Several excused themselves to return to their dressing chambers but most followed Mrs. Darcy's lead to the dining room. Once she was certain that her guests were happily situated and well-provisioned, Elizabeth excused herself to check with Mrs. Reynolds on the preparations for the evening's ball.
Once they had confirmed that enough white soup had been made, the pigs were roasting on their spits, and all those other little details deemed necessary to make the event a success were being seen to, Mrs. Darcy relaxed a little and set aside her list. "I have no idea why I bother to check, Mrs. Reynolds. As always, you have managed it as if Pemberley were accustomed to hosting such gatherings once a month rather than for the first time in nearly two decades."
The housekeeper accepted the compliment on behalf of all the staff with modest words but a pleased glint in her eye. "I'm sure none would wish to host such an event so often, but 'tis exciting for those below stairs as well, to have so many new faces mixing about. I thought young Sally might burst into flame, her face went so red when one of the Somersets' footmen asked her where the gun room was." Once their amusement quieted, Mrs. Reynolds added, "T'was a blessing that you found Lady Edna's diaries. I'm not ashamed to say that I wouldn't have known where to begin without them."
Elizabeth beamed. Her discovery of a trunk containing diaries written by her husband's grandmother had given her a great deal of pleasure. That lady had been meticulous in recording the various events and traditions held at Pemberley from the day she arrived as a new bride. Interspersed with wry witticisms, Lady Edna's records documented not only a life at Pemberley, but also the eager investigations into its history and traditions by one who had obviously fallen in love with the estate upon first sight. "I wish I could have known her," murmured the newest mistress.
The enjoyment Elizabeth derived from her predecessor's diaries had inspired her to begin her own, written in much the same style and recording not only the events some might consider of historical significance, but also those little day to day happenings that some future Mistress of Pemberley, newly arrived, might find of interest, much as she had. Lately, Lizzy found herself pausing in her writing, hand cupped over her belly where a new life had begun to grow, gazing out of the window and imagining the future.
She and Mrs. Reynolds exchanged a few more thoughts before Mrs. Darcy returned to her guests. Unfortunately for her, a group of otherwise well-bred ladies had gathered in the drawing room to drink tea and trade increasingly horrific tales of disfigurement and death that had occurred at past fox hunts. Suddenly very grateful that Georgiana had chosen to ride with the hilltoppers (a secondary group of riders who bypassed most of the jumps and rougher riding, preferring to observe), Elizabeth noted that she was not the only lady who appeared discomfited by the bloodthirsty stories.
Taking advantage of a brief pause between stories, she asked, "Lady Forsythe, would you care for more tea?" When that lady declined softly, Lizzy turned to the other women whose conversation had paused in deference to their hostess. "Ladies, yesterday I promised the Countess a tour of Pemberley House and this seems an opportune time. Would any of you care to join us?" She was pleased when the promise of exploring Pemberley rapidly overtook any interest in remembering how many bones Lord so-and-so had broken after coming off his horse and being dragged by the stirrup for a mile.
Other than redecorating Lady Anne's drawing room (the collapse of its ceiling due to water damage having given her an excellent excuse to do away with the overwhelming floral print covering the walls) and replacing some faded drapes and upholstery, Mrs. Darcy had made few changes to the public rooms, feeling that the timelessly elegant styles complimented the house perfectly well. Elizabeth felt no little pride in receiving the genuine compliments from her guests.
After the tour, most of the ladies moved on to the music room while Elizabeth delayed Lady Forsythe in the conservatory. There, the lush greenery and fragrant blooms were as far from the crisp autumn outdoors as could be possible.
"Oh, Mrs. Darcy... how perfectly lovely! If I had such a place at Forsythe Hall, I would never leave!" exclaimed Lady Jane with more verve than Elizabeth had yet to see from the younger lady.
She smiled and drew her guest along to a favorite corner where jasmine formed a fragrant curtain. "As much as I love Derbyshire, I do not believe I would survive the winter without this place. My childhood in Hertfordshire did not prepare me to be snowbound for weeks at a time, I fear!" Her gay laughter encouraged her companion.
"So far away--don't you miss your home county? Except for the years I was at school, I have never traveled further than thirty miles from Nantwich in Cheshire." Suddenly recognizing how much her words revealed about her newness in Society, the young lady blushed in embarrassment.
Realizing that the gossip about her own lack of connections seemed not to have reached the Fitzpatricks (not surprising given that the family had only recently finished mourning the old Earl), Elizabeth found it even easier to befriend the timid young woman before her. "At least you had the experience of going to school! Aside from a trip to Kent and a holiday in Derbyshire with my aunt and uncle, I'd never ventured further than London before my marriage!"
The pair spent nearly an hour in increasingly sympathetic conversation. If Lady Jane was surprised to discover that the new Mrs. Darcy was the dowerless daughter of a minor country squire, it was nothing to learning of her relations in trade.
"And your husband has welcomed them into his home?" she asked again with no small astonishment. Upon hearing that Mr. Darcy considered the Gardiners to be among his favorite relations, the former Miss Pritchard admitted that her late father-in-law and new sister-in-law had constantly impressed upon her the necessity of concealing her roots in trade, no matter how necessary the infusion of funds from her large dowry had been to the estate.
As Lady Jane spoke of her own, dear father, Elizabeth drew a mental image of a jolly man similar in manner to Sir William Lucas, successful in his brewing business but naïve in the ways of Society. Perceiving only the very great honor of marrying his daughter to a future earl, Mr. Pritchard failed to comprehend any difficulties that a tradesman's daughter might encounter living in such a condescending climate.
Elizabeth did notice that Lady Jane's tone became softer whenever speaking of her husband, however, and guessed correctly that it was the overwhelming presence of the recently widowed Lady Caroline in the Fitzpatricks' household that prevented the newly married couple from coming to a better understanding. What was it about sisters-in-law named Jane and Caroline, she wondered?
By the end of the morning, the two ladies were calling one another by their names and parted with a great sense of friendship and assurances of a faithful correspondence.
The hunters returned at half past three in the afternoon, a muddy, windblown lot rowdy with their success. The gentlemen fell upon the late luncheon laid out on trestle tables in the courtyard with an enthusiasm only barely surpassed by that of the hounds at the water trough.
Even as Elizabeth circulated among her guests, her eyes were continually drawn toward her husband. She had never seen Mr. Darcy behave in such an open, nearly ebullient manner in such diverse company. Observing him finish his mug of ale while laughing at some story the Marquess of Worcester was relating to Richard Fitzwilliam, she motioned for a footman with a tray of full tankards to follow her as she joined the group.
"Gentlemen, may I congratulate you on a successful hunt?" The boyish grin that William turned upon her sent a tingle down her spine, but that was nothing to when he wrapped one arm around her waist and kissed her full on the mouth in complete disregard to propriety.
"Elizabeth! T'was an excellent morning, indeed! I cannot fathom why we have not done this before!" he enthused, ignoring the looks of astonishment (and in some instances, jealousy) he was receiving.
Lizzy laughed heartily and responded, "I shall remind you of that sentiment this evening at the ball, dear husband."
William was too content with the world to let that diminish his high spirits. "As long as I have the pleasure of dancing with you, my dearest, loveliest wife, I can have no complaints."
Darcy might have kissed her again then and there had not his words been met with exaggerated groans from his cousin. "A great, sopping romantic--who would ever have thought that my cousin, of all men, would turn out to be a great, sopping romantic! Does he have a garret in the attic where he goes to compose sonnets in honor of your eyes, Elizabeth?" teased Richard.
Recalling a verse on just such a subject that he had attempted not a week ago, William blushed but responded gamely, "I fear I have not the talent to do them justice, no matter the setting, Richard."
Lord Andrew Forsythe could not help grinning upon hearing such warm and genuine sentiments spoken in company by such a great man. However, noting the Darcys' embarrassment, he took pity on them and raised his tankard in the air, gaining the attention of the entire company. "Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast to our most excellent host and hostess."
Immediately the yard was filled with enthusiastic voices, "Hear, hear! To the Darcys!" Not much later, the company began to disperse, most returning to their rooms to bath and rest until it was time to dress for the ball.
Once Darcy's valet was satisfied with the master's appearance and departed, William retrieved a jewelry box from his vanity. After checking the contents, he observed his watch and then moved to the door of Elizabeth's dressing room. Whatever he had planned to say was driven from his mind by the sight of her.
Elizabeth had chosen a gown of deep yellow, its silk glowing with the warmth of old gold. Her hair had been arranged in an elegant manner that left thick curls to dance beguilingly down the back. "Well husband? Shall I embarrass you, do you think? I have foresworn any jewelry, as you requested." Although a year of marriage enabled her to interpret the intense look in his dark eyes, his silent study still had the ability to unsettle her.
Three long steps and William was before her, his strong hands tracing up her arms and shoulders to hold her face between his fingers. With one thumb brushing over her lips, he tilted her head back so that she looked directly into his eyes. "You are the most beautiful woman I have ever beheld."
"Oh!" breathed Elizabeth, all wit dissolving in the face of her husband's obvious desire for her. The passionate kiss that followed left her breathless. Their guests were forgotten for some minutes until the gasp of a maid who quickly closed the door again recalled them to the present.
Feeling oddly unsettled that such wanton desire could overtake her so suddenly, Elizabeth turned back to the mirror of her dressing table and was relieved to see that, for once, her hair had not come undone. Before she could think of a witty remark, however, her husband reached to place a necklace set with citrine and diamonds around her neck.
"Oh Will... how exquisite!" breathed Elizabeth, brushing it with her fingertips.
Once Darcy managed to hook the clasp, he looked up to see her wondering look in the mirror. "They sparkle almost as much as your eyes," he said softly. When she rose to face him, brushing out imagined wrinkles from her skirts, William could only smile. "You are exquisite, my dear--the jewels are just a bit of tinsel."
Lizzy quirked an eyebrow at him. "Rather expensive tinsel, Mr. Darcy."
Eyes twinkling, he shrugged. "Just something I found lying around in an old box."
"Then I shall try not to misplace them!" Placing her hands on his chest, taking care not to rumple the exquisite knot his valet had tied, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him softly. "Thank you, dearest. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined such finery would be mine to wear."
Knowledge of their growing babe made William more nostalgic than usual. Tracing the jewels around her neck, he enjoyed the shiver his actions prompted. Without looking up, he spoke softly, "It seems as if I have always known I would be Master of Pemberley--the land and wealth and the responsibilities. I remember the last ball that my parents hosted here; I could not have been much more than eight and was certainly not allowed to attend... but I remember peeking from the schoolroom window. They opened the ballroom doors so that the guests might step into the courtyard for air. It was a magnificent sight--all the ladies in a rainbow of silks and glittering jewels and the gentlemen in their finery. I remember wondering what sort of lady would be my consort when it was my turn to host such an event."
He was quiet for a moment and Elizabeth laughed softly. "Do I dare ask how I match up to your childhood fantasy?"
William grinned. "I remember that my primary stipulation at the time was that she not scream at the sight of a frog--I had something of an obsession with them at the time--and you certainly pass that test with flying colors!"
Elizabeth laughed heartily. "Such compliments--be careful or I shall become quite vain!" She studied him for some moments with a considering look in her eye before giving him a quick kiss and moving away. After asking him to wait, she disappeared into her dressing room for a minute, returning with a small box barely the size of her hand.
"I had planned to give this to you at Christmas but after such a story, I cannot wait another day." When he hesitated, she pressed the box into his hand. "Please, open it."
Darcy took the box hesitantly. "There is no need... truly, I had not expected anything."
Laughing openly, Lizzy urged him again. "Are you the only one allowed to give gifts, Mr. Darcy? Am I not allowed to spend my pin money as I please?"
Still appearing slightly disconcerted, William had to admit to her logic. When he carefully cracked open the little box it was to find an elegant gold stick pin set with small emeralds in a design that, when one looked closely, formed a small frog. Chuckling, he asked with astonishment, "How on Earth did you know?"
While Elizabeth helped him settle the pin in the snowy folds of his cravat, she reminded him of the story she had heard of him gifting his own father with a frog upon old Mr. Darcy's birthday (and that amphibian's subsequent exploration of the birthday cake, to Lady Anne's horror).
As a result, Darcy began the evening in an exceptionally lighthearted mood despite having a houseful of guests. Whenever his spirits seemed about to decline, Elizabeth would quirk an eyebrow and look pointedly at his cravat as if daring him to be entirely serious while wearing such an ornament. Without fail, her looks lightened mood, although to be perfectly honest, while the pin amused him, it was watching Elizabeth sparkle in her role as hostess that made him so happy. When not dancing, they could be found together more often than not. Where Darcy might have previously adhered to the walls, now he moved among the revelers with his wife on his arm, generally following her lead as she glided among their guests, making an introduction here, starting a conversation there, occasionally recommending dance partners or pointing out the nearest punch bowl. She made it all appear so effortless that occasionally he could only watch her with a sort of proud awe.
That is not to say that the occasion was entirely without its bumps. An elderly neighbor accidentally spilt a glass of punch upon Lady Caroline's bodice halfway through the night. Luckily the gentleman was quite deaf and thus not aware of the invectives she spewed at him before she was convinced to retreat upstairs.
Far less humorous to the Darcys was the behavior of one much closer to them. Jane had felt incapable of either traveling to Pemberley or leaving her infant son behind at Holloway Manor, but had insisted that her husband attend. Without his wife's steadying presence at his side, Bingley imbibed a bit too much wine and reverted to that lively behavior which had so endeared him to all the pretty young ladies in London when he was a bachelor.
At first, Elizabeth merely smiled indulgently at her brother's easy amiability and appreciated his insistence that no young lady be left sitting when he was available to dance. However, after finding herself dancing an uncomfortable set with an overly flirtatious Bingley, she was forced to communicate the situation to her husband. Darcy acted quickly to remove his friend from the public rooms and send him off to bed with well-bred subtleness but very little compassion. Although Darcy had worked to treat Bingley more as an equal over the last year, he had no compunction with summoning the younger man to his study the next day and lecturing him sternly on proper behavior of a married gentleman.
As a result, Mr. Bingley could barely meet Elizabeth's eyes and departed for home and his (much beloved) wife the very day after the ball.
Although some of the other guests remained an additional day or two, soon the party at Pemberley was reduced to family or those expected to become so.
Three days after the ball, Darcy found himself in his study, entertaining Lord Jonah Somerset's petition for Georgiana's hand in marriage. Both seemed impossibly young to him, but he could not argue with their genuine affection nor that the gentleman could support his sister financially. Upon reaching his majority, Jonah had received a sizable inheritance as well as a small estate in Oxfordshire from his father. After receiving the blessings of both Miss Darcy's guardians, the young couple spent the remainder of the day in a euphoric bubble of happiness, already planning the parties and musical evenings they would host in London and at Pennywell Park.
Mr. Darcy tried to appear delighted and prayed that he at least managed to look content for the remainder of the evening. When the company finally retired that night, he confided to Elizabeth that he was only thankful that they had not yet pressed him to set a wedding date.
"My poor, darling Will," soothed Elizabeth, as they cuddled together under the covers, their bedroom lit only by yellow flickers from the fire. "I believe that they shall be very, very happy together, truly."
"I cannot argue--he is her match in every way that matters. It is only... I can remember when I first held her--it was my tenth birthday and she was not yet a day old. I cannot recall a time when I did not feel responsible for her safety and happiness... it is so much a part of me that I do not know how to stop."
Elizabeth ran her fingers through his dark curls. "I do not think Georgiana would wish you to stop, and I believe Jonah is wise enough to respect the uncommonly close relationship the two of you share."
William nodded. "Richard told me to think of it as gaining a brother rather than losing a sister." He attempted to laugh but it ended up sounding more like a sigh.
Smiling sympathetically, Lizzy searched her mind for something that might comfort him. "Oxfordshire is not so very far--two days by carriage--and we shall see them very often when we are all in London."
Will had lost most of his morose air but she could still see the wrinkles upon his brow. Sitting up, she held his chin so that he looked her full in the face. Your parents would be proud of you, Fitzwilliam. Grateful, as well, I believe, for the excellent care you have taken of their daughter."
Although her words embarrassed him, the bone-deep sincerity evident in her face could not help but comfort. For a minute, he simply looked up at her, this beautiful, intelligent woman whom he trusted with more of himself than he had ever expected to share with another person. What would have happened to him if he had never found her? Or worse, had he known she was alive in the world but thought ill of him.
Fortunately, before his musings could become any darker, he was distracted by the feeling of her soft lips on his own and soon enough his worries were pressed aside by other, more pleasant feelings. After enjoying the kiss, he rolled her on her back, kissing that sweet place on her neck, just behind her ear. For an instant, he hovered above her and wondered if the strength of his attraction for her would ever cease to surprise him, but then all thought was brushed away as she reached for him and whispered, "Will... love me."
"Oh Liz..." was all he said before proceeding to honor his wife's request to the best of his ability.
The next morning, Darcy's wish to delay his sister's wedding was granted, although not for any reason he would have chosen. While the family gathered in the drawing room for afternoon tea, a messenger arrived with an express for Lord Henry. He stiffened slightly upon seeing that it was from Scotland but maintained his composure while excusing himself to read the letter in privacy.
Not much later, the other members of the Fitzwilliam and Darcy family were summoned to the library to hear the news; Lord Edward Fitzwilliam was dead. Grief was thick in the room although very little was said about the man himself. Son, brother, and cousin he might have been, but he had lived his life in such a way that none of them did not feel at least some relief at his passing.
Instead of reminiscences, much of the time was taken up with discussion of logistics.
"We shall return to Matlock tomorrow," announced the earl. "The servants who were with Edward in Scotland have arranged to transport him home; they expect to arrive Friday at latest and I have written my steward and the vicar to make arrangements for a service on Monday."
When his wife sniffed, he spoke to her sternly; "It must be done quickly, Eleanor; you must see that. The weather has been cold thus far, but he cannot... they cannot... delay it very long," he ended weakly.
Lady Eleanor wiped her eyes with her handkerchief before standing. "I understand perfectly, husband. Now, if you have no further need of me, I shall see that the packing is begun and write a letter for the housekeeper; we must arrange for mourning clothes and so forth."
Before she could turn away to the door, the Earl had risen and taken her hand in his. He said nothing, but the couple shared a long look of shared sorrow before she nodded and took a deep breath. "If you will delay sending your letters, I shall write to Mrs. Burgess immediately and have it brought to you so that they may be carried together."
Lord Henry grunted his approval and watched his wife depart before resuming his seat. The remainder of the family sat quietly for some minutes before Darcy spoke gently. "How may we help, uncle?"
After some discussion, they began making a list of the people who needed to be notified of Ashbourne's passing and divide up the work among them. At Elizabeth's suggestion, a letter to Lady Almida was added to the packet that would be traveling to Matlock that afternoon. Notification of her husband's death by post was not ideal, but none of them wished her to learn of it by chance before one of them could see her in person. She had not felt up to the house party at Pemberley and all hoped that the privacy of the dower house at Matlock had allowed her and her son to heal.
Upon learning of the situation, the Somersets politely decided to leave a week earlier than planned. Before they departed, it was agreed that Miss Darcy and Lord Jonah would marry at the Pemberley chapel in July. That allowed the Darcys and Richard an appropriate mourning interval (six weeks for a cousin, six months for a brother). Lord and Lady Matlock supported the proposal of a summer wedding and, although they would not be finished with the year of mourning for a son, it would be acceptable for them to attend the wedding ceremony as long as they did not appear at any of the festivities.
"But Elizabeth, when do you expect your confinement? Shall you be recovered in time to plan all of this?" asked Lady Eleanor suddenly, only just remembering the Darcys' own news. One more brick of sadness was added to the weight that seemed to press down on her, recalling her own eagerness during her first confinement.
Feeling William tense beside her, Elizabeth reached out to touch his arm reassuringly. "The midwife and doctor both agree that we should expect the birth in early May, so I hope to be well recovered by July. As long as Miss Darcy is happy with a small family wedding," she paused to laugh at Georgiana's decisive nod, "I believe it will be fine."
Noting Lady Eleanor's look of doubt, she added, "We shall do as much of the planning as we can this winter. Perhaps I may write to you?" She took note of the Countesses' look of relief and made a mental note to keep up an active correspondence with her newest aunt; the next months would not be easy for the Countess and Lizzy imagined that participating in the wedding planning might provide a pleasant distraction, even if much of it must be done through the post.
"I expect Mrs. Reynolds shall be very happy to help, as well. If she is made to accept that Georgie is old enough to leave home, that is," added Darcy. There was a moment of silence before everyone burst into laughter. As a result, the evening ended on a much lighter note than one might have expected.
Chapter 62. Legacies.
Posted on 2014-01-10
The funeral for Lord Edward Fitzwilliam, Viscount Ashbourne, was a somber occasion although perhaps not for the usual reasons. Between his parents, there was a great sadness for the boy he had been and the man they had hoped he might become. If the feelings of Edward's younger siblings and cousins were more mixed, they might be excused for having witnessed (and been subjected to) his casual cruelties all their lives without the filter of a parent's love.
The only people who might have felt genuine remorse over the Viscount's passing were the cardsharps and bookies who had padded their pockets from his losses for years, but they were not invited to the funeral.
The newest Viscount Ashbourne stood beside his grandfather, back straight and dark eyes solemn beyond his not quite six years. With the resilience of youth, he was coming to trust that not all gentlemen were as likely to apply their fists as his late father. Even so, he was a thoughtful, quiet child more likely to look to his Uncle Darcy than his jolly Uncle Richard or gruff grandfather, the Earl.
The Darcys stayed at Matlock for a fortnight. Elizabeth sat with the Countess and Lady Almida, providing whatever aid and support they needed. Likewise, William spent many hours in Lord Henry's study, helping his uncle and the solicitors work through the practical matters of transferring titles and changing wills to reflect the Earl's new heir.
"Well then, what is to be done about Willomere?" said the Earl, wiping a hand across his eyes tiredly. "It's a pretty enough estate, I suppose, but property values are high in Essex right now and there's a nice bit of property coming up for sale in northern Cheshire, not twenty miles from here; good land and much more convenient to keep an eye on. I sent an express to Edward's steward but he has yet to reply. I fear that I shall have to go there myself to sort it. I'd send Pinchin to chivy the man along," he added, referring to his own steward, "but his wife's due to go into her confinement next week so I can't ask him to leave, particularly as the poor woman nearly died giving birth to their last child."
Suddenly the Earl remembered Darcy's worries concerning his own pregnant wife and shut his mouth abruptly.
William grimaced but tamped down the fear that threatened to liquefy his guts. "Although you, of course, are in charge of managing Reggie's inheritance until he comes of age, I should think Lady Almida should be consulted with regard to Willomere. It is, after all, the Warren family's ancestral estate and I believe she is quite attached to it. The boy is also to inherit the Baron Asbury title from his maternal grandfather, in addition to becoming Viscount Ashbourne and your heir," he reminded his uncle in as tactful a tone as he could muster.
Matlock grunted and threw down his pen in frustration. "Good God, of course you are right. Forgive me--I was not thinking." From the Earl, this statement was tantamount to an admission of abject misery.
Darcy checked his watch. "It is getting late and we have accomplished a great deal. Why don't we quit for the day and have tea with the ladies?" He stood as he spoke, making it clear that his statement was not a question.
Lord Henry nodded tiredly. "Indeed. Why don't you go ahead--I'll be there in a few minutes."
William gave his uncle a long look but was too eager to check on Elizabeth to quibble.
As soon as the door shut behind his nephew, Lord Henry dropped his head into his hands. He had thought that he had prepared himself for his eldest son's demise over the last months but found himself bereft and guilt-ridden. What had gone wrong, that Edward had gone so far off the path his father had planned for him? What had he, Henry, done wrong?
The Earl was not a man prone to self-doubt. Even so, he spent some long minutes gravely contemplating the life and death of his eldest son. A father, he thought to himself, should not have to bury his son... and an earl should not feel relieved when his heir dies before him.
Henry sighed. That was the crux of the matter, was it not? Even when Edward had been a boy, there had been a certain meanness to him. He had done as his father directed him, learnt the history of the estate and the family, studied estate management and their various business investments, but there had always been a tendency toward indifference. Except when discussing his inheritance, thought Henry sadly. His son had always shown a great deal of energy when coming to beg for an advance on his allowance or better yet, a loan to be repaid at some nebulous point in the future.
The Earl sighed again and rubbed his face before slamming his hands down on his desk and standing. "Well old man, you have a second chance, a five-year-old boy who has no reason to love or even respect you. If you want to go to your grave feeling that your forefathers' legacy are in good hands, then you had best give it just as much consideration and effort as any act of parliament."
Not much later, the Earl asked Lady Almida to attend him in his study. It was nearly two hours later that she sought out Mr. and Mrs. Darcy in the library.
Elizabeth took one look at the other woman's face and moved quickly to help her to a seat. "What has happened, Almida? What is wrong?" Almida Fitzwilliam was not an easy woman to know but Lizzy had spent much of her life in a houseful of strong female personalities. Her ladyship occasionally reverted to her haughty, Society persona but Elizabeth was determined. For now, she was simply pleased to see that Almida had sought the Darcys out when she needed help.
Almida rubbed her cold hands together and held them out toward the fire. "Nothing is wrong, precisely. It is only that I have had the most shocking conversation with Lord Henry. Well, perhaps shocking is a bit much... astonishing, I suppose. Yes, astonishing sums it up quite well."
The Darcys shared a look, William having summarized his conversation with the Earl earlier in the afternoon. "Is everything well?" asked Elizabeth. She had come to feel a great affection for her husband's uncle since their marriage, but was well aware that the older gentleman could be gruff and overbearing.
When Almida turned back toward her, there was a certain wonder in her eyes. "He wished to know my feelings towards Willomere. Whether I thought I would ever be comfortable going back there after what Edward did, or if it should be sold." She brushed a tear from her eye roughly, determined not to show just how much it pleased her to have her opinion taken into consideration after living so many years under her late husband's malicious authority.
Seeing the Darcys' curiosity, she answered their unasked question, "I wish to keep it, of course. It has so many happy memories from my childhood and all of my family's history. A few bad times cannot wipe that away." She smiled brightly. "Once Lord Henry accepted that, we discussed how best to give Reggie a chance to learn about both his Warren and Fitzwilliam heritage. Lord Henry and Lady Eleanor are to accompany us to Essex after Christmas, to help me sort out whatever sort of mess Edward's steward has made of the books. And when we all return to Derbyshire next summer, they've asked me to stay here at the manor house. Reggie and I are to have an apartment of our own, but Lord Henry wishes us to move up from the dower house so that he might have more opportunity to know his grandson."
Almida laughed a little breathily after such a rambling speech and couldn't help but add, "He isn't going to take my son away from me, even though he has every right to raise his heir as he sees fit."
Elizabeth moved to wrap and arm around the other lady. "Oh! I never even thought... It would take a heart of stone to separate the pair of you after all you have been through, and for all his gruff exterior, Lord Henry is a very good man." To lighten the mood, she teased, "And even if he had suggested it, I have no doubt that Lady Eleanor would put an end to it as quick as a wink!"
The two ladies began to laugh, joined after a few moments by a relieved Darcy.
The Earl proved to be as good as his word and over the subsequent months and years that followed, the tenants of both great estates became accustomed to visits by the old master and his grandson. Lord Reggie would never be called lively, but he showed a great love of the land from an early age that gained their respect and it was not long before they were satisfied that the estates' future was stable once again.
The Darcys left Matlock some days later with fond farewells but an underlying eagerness to return to Pemberley. Certainly there was a great deal of work to be done around the estate, but they could also look forward to many cozy hours spent together in the library reading or playing chess.
Georgiana remained at Matlock; after the new year she would return to London with Richard and Charlotte so that she might purchase her trousseau (and be closer to Lord Jonah). Mr. and Mrs. Darcy braced themselves to spend Christmas with her family at the Bingley's estate.
Mrs. Bennet was still displeased that the Bingleys had left Hertfordshire; it had been so convenient to have her dear Jane just three miles away! And Netherfield was such a fine estate--the finest for miles around! She comforted herself with memorizing all those details about Holloway that she was certain the ladies back in Meryton would be eager to hear about. If only it wasn't so far away!
When the Darcys arrived, the Bennets were already settled in and Mrs. Bennet welcomed them as if into her own home. Her daughters only shared a knowing smile before embracing. "Dear Jane, it is very good to see you."
"And you, Lizzy. Letters just aren't the same. But let me look at you." Jane kept hold of her sister's hands even as she stepped back. "Oh dearest Lizzy--you are glowing!"
Unfortunately, that comment drew the attention of their mother. "Yes Lizzy--you do look well enough. I hope you're not still running about in the wild manner you were accustomed to at Longbourn--you must not do anything to put Mr. Darcy's heir in danger! I hope you've paid attention to the advice in my letters, of course--Oh, and Lady Lucas said that Charlotte ate a great deal of orange marmalade while she was pregnant, and she had a boy. Don't tell her but you might as well try it--I've brought a jar along in case you didn't have any in Derbyshire. Don't roll your eyes, young lady; no matter how high and mighty you may have married, I am still your mother! Mrs. Collins and Mrs. Bingley both gave their husbands heirs--it would be a great shame if you can't manage the same! A man wants a son, and no amount of book reading will help you!"
"Mrs. Bennet!" exclaimed Mr. Darcy, finally interrupting the matron's flood of words. He took a breath and softened his tone as best he could despite his irritation. "We thank you for your advice, Madam, but on this, you are very wrong. I shall rejoice to have a daughter or son equally, as long as mother and child are both healthy. Now, shall we go inside?" His serious look wiped away any indignation Mrs. Bennet might have felt at being contradicted.
Later, Mr. Bennet drew the Darcys aside under the context of sharing a letter from Mary. "I apologize; your mother has become somewhat obsessed with the subject of birthing boy children. As you shall see from Mrs. Tucker's letter, I have been gifted with another grandson."
After Elizabeth's happy exclamations and William's congratulations subsided, Mr. Bennet continued, "I enjoyed having Richard and Charlotte Fitzwilliam at Longbourn, and young Collin is a good lad. I should like to see him come to know the estate as he grows up, but your mother cannot seem to forget her bitterness that her own offspring shall not inherit Longbourn."
Elizabeth was beginning to realize that her father was genuinely worried. "I had not noticed much change in her letters but perhaps I have not read them carefully enough; certainly she writes a great deal about having and raising children, but I assumed it was because I am expecting."
"Perhaps Mrs. Bennet is feeling the quietude of having only one daughter left at home?" offered Darcy, still irked over that woman's tactless speech to Elizabeth.
Mr. Bennet shrugged, losing interest in the subject and inquired after the Fitzwilliams.
Elizabeth was happy to spend time with her sisters. Jane was as serene as ever, and both Bingleys were quite devoted to their young son. Lydia was as boisterous as ever but less inclined toward vulgarity. She bubbled over with stories that kept her mother in raptures and if she spoke more about the other girls at her school and their clothes than her studies, that lady certainly did not mind.
Perhaps most changed in manner was Catherine. She no longer trailed along behind Lydia, desperate for any crumbs of attention that might fall her way from their mother. Now she seemed quite comfortable sitting quietly to the side, with her sketchbook more often than not.
"May I peek?" asked Elizabeth, coming to sit beside her younger sister.
Catherine started and snapped the book shut, but then shyly offered it to her sister. "If you like... they are nothing very special."
"I disagree, Kitty. Look here, you've captured Mrs. Long perfectly-- I can almost hear her laughing. Oh and here is dear Hill with that expression she gets when Mama is complaining about her nerves and calling for her salts. Oh Kitty, these are wonderful--I feel as if I am back in Meryton again!"
Catherine murmured her thanks, embarrassed but obviously pleased.
"And who is this young man? I recognize the stable at Longbourn, but not the gentleman standing before it." Elizabeth was intrigued by the way her sister's cheeks immediately flushed with a rosy blush.
"Lieutenant Wright. He is training Colonel Fitzwilliam's horses. Although now that they are both retired, I suppose they are both misters. Oh! But the Colonel is the son of an earl! Would he be the Right Honorable Mister Fitzwilliam now?" Catherine flushed with embarrassment over her ignorance.
Before Elizabeth could answer, Mrs. Bennet's piercing voice interrupted them. "Are you speaking of that Wright boy, from the stables? Really Kitty--I've told you time and again to ignore him. He's nothing but the younger son of some country squire no one has ever heard of. You won't be wasting all the connections your sisters have gained you, not if I have anything to say about it!" She turned back to Lydia and continued scornfully, "His father could afford nothing but a cornet in the cavalry and now that he's retired, he's nothing but a glorified stable boy."
"He was promoted to lieutenant on his own merit and awarded a medal for bravery, Mama," said Kitty, though too softly for her mother to hear.
Elizabeth heard her, however, and reached over to squeeze her sister's hand. "Remember what happened with Mr. Collins," she whispered. "Mama will have her say, but if you can convince Papa that you share a genuine affection and have adequate means to live on, I believe that he will support you."
Catherine looked so desperate to believe her that Lizzy leaned over to give her sister a hug. "All will be well, dearest." She glanced over at Mrs. Bennet and then stood and gave Catherine's hand a tug. "Come, let's go for a walk in the gallery. Bingley bought the family portraits along with the house, but no one knows who any of them are, so I like to make up stories about them."
The sisters excused themselves and spent a pleasant afternoon trading confidences. Later, when the Darcys had retired, Elizabeth shared some of Catherine's hopes with William. "Apparently he is quite a talented artist as well. They began talking when Kitty came upon him sketching horses in the yard."
"And his father has an estate in Essex?" asked William. He had not spoken with Elizabeth's younger sister himself, but his wife's enthusiasm was enough to make him take notice.
"Indeed. And you will enjoy this-- it is a most unusual sort of farm-- they grow white willows for cricket bats!"
William was so surprised that he actually guffawed. "Well now, that is a crop I have never considered!"
After some further discussion, they agreed that William would write to Richard Fitzwilliam and inquire as to Mr. Wright's career options. "It may well be that Richard knows of an opening at Whitehall for him."
"Well, I believe they both prefer the country, but if it would allow Kitty to marry her Mister Right..."
William rolled his eyes at her pun but still chuckled.
In the end, none of their assistance was required except to help defend Catherine against Mrs. Bennet. Not many weeks after the Darcys returned to Pemberley, Elizabeth received a joyful letter from her sister. Lieutenant Wright's elder brother was dead of typhoid (a sad thing to be sure) but now that Aaron was his father's heir, he could afford a wife.
Old Mr. Wright had written to Longbourn, asking his younger son to come home as soon as possible. Aaron had burst into the Longbourn drawing room, dropped to his knee, and asked Kitty to marry him in such an incoherent fashion that it took the young lady some minutes before she could comprehend the change in his circumstances. However, once she did understand there was no mistaking her joyful answer and in short order the couple were speaking with her father.
Mr. Bennet had no specific qualms with the attachment but suggested that Mr. Wright return to his father's estate and spend time with his family before any formal engagement was announced; it would be six months before Aaron was finished mourning his brother and able to marry, after all. Having only recently discovered that Kitty was not as silly as he had always believed, Thomas was in no rush to lose her, particularly without having ever met the young man's parents. He did agree that they might exchange letters once Mr. Wright's father had agreed to his son's engagement.
"Well now; why don't the pair of you run along to the drawing room and talk over your plans, such as they are. I shall write a letter for Mr. Wright to take to his father. Oddly enough, although I have three daughters married this shall be the first time that I have discussed the marriage settlements with the applicant's father," said Mr. Bennet with a resurgence of his usual sardonic wit.
"Thank you, Papa," said Catherine breathlessly, kissing her father's cheek before taking Mr. Wright's hand to pull him away.
Aaron resisted just long enough to shake Mr. Bennet's hand gratefully before following.
Mr. Bennet watched them go, chuckling to himself, but feeling a little sad as well.
The Darcys passed a quiet but agreeable winter ensconced at Pemberley. They occasionally ventured out to pay calls or dine with various neighbors, but were, for the most part, perfectly content with their own company. The arrival of the post assumed some natural prominence in their days, providing as it did their only news from family and friends.
One morning in January, the couple was taking tea in the library when the butler delivered the mail.
"Thank you, Allen," said Darcy while amusedly watching his wife snatch up a letter from Longbourn, but soon his attention was distracted by a letter of his own.
A moment later, both uttered exclamations, then laughed. Darcy motioned for Elizabeth to share her news first.
"Oh, 'tis nothing of great importance! Only that the Wrights have invited Kitty and my parents to visit them at Boreham Park. Kitty seems both thrilled and terrified... she writes for advice on keeping Mama from doing something embarrassing." The Darcys shared an amused look before Elizabeth waived at the paper in William's hand. But what is your news?"
Will glanced back at the letter. "It is from my Uncle James. He insists that he is quite recovered from the fit of apoplexy he suffered in December, but apparently it has prompted him to consider his situation. He has decided to resign his position with the court at the end of spring term and then focus on finishing his book monographing the birds of England."
"Well, that sounds like a splendid decision, don't you agree?" responded Lizzy, not entirely sure why her husband appeared so uncertain.
Darcy looked up at her. "He proposes to leave his house in Bloomsbury to Georgiana and Jonah so that they would have an establishment in town as well as their estate in Oxfordshire... and he asks if I might allow him to come live in the dower house here at Pemberley. He has funds enough to buy or lease a house anywhere he wishes, but he finds himself missing Derbyshire."
"Oh, but that would be marvelous, don't you think?" Elizabeth said, springing up and moving to her husband's side so that she might look at his uncle's letter herself. "Bloomsbury might not be as fashionable as Mayfair these days, but it is much closer to the museums and theaters... and the parks there are lovely. I should think that Georgiana and Jonah might even prefer that area to Mayfair."
William leaned back and tugged her hand to sit in his lap. "Indeed, and it is very generous of him. What do you think of the idea of him living at Pemberley?"
Lizzy turned her head so that she might see her husband's eyes, wondering why he appeared so hesitant. "I would like it very much; I have always enjoyed Sir James' company, and giving him the dower house would allow him to maintain a sense of independence while still being close by. He can install his own servants and whatever furniture he wishes. Will, my love, I can see no negatives but please tell me what you are thinking... I cannot read your mind."
Darcy smiled, wrapping his arms around her and kissing her cheek. "I should like to have him here... I would like it very much. Especially when..."
He trailed off until Elizabeth prompted, "When?"
Squeezing her close, he finished hesitantly, "when the child comes... I was thinking that Uncle James could tell him or her stories about my father and grandparents."
Elizabeth's heart nearly broke to see the grief that flashed across her husband's face. He always seemed so capable, as if he were born knowing how to manage the estate, that sometimes she forgot how alone he must feel after losing his parents so early. She tucked her head in the crook of his neck and hugged him tightly. "That would be brilliant. I should very much like to have this child of ours spend time with Sir James... though you realize we shall have to set aside a room for all the creatures that will be brought home; I'd prefer they not be allowed to go flying, crawling, or slithering in the nursery!"
William laughed, just as she had hoped. More confidently, she urged, "Well then! You must write to him immediately and work out on the specifics. Perhaps you can deal with the solicitors and whatever paperwork is necessary when we are in London this February?"
Darcy's arms tensed. "Yes, it would make sense to include the Bloomsbury house in Georgie's settlement papers."
"My poor, dear, sweet William... she shall be happy, you know," soothed Lizzy.
"Must we go to London?"
"I'm afraid so, dearest. But just for three weeks... nothing like last spring."
"Praise the Lord," muttered William, much to his wife's amusement.
"We shall go to a few dinners, a ball or two, and see that new exhibit you read about. I shall do some shopping with Georgiana while you see to your business with the solicitors," she said, speaking over Will's moan, "and then we shall all come home again, just in time for the spring planting."
"And in time to count the days until Georgie's wedding," he grumbled, miserable but resigned.
"Oh!" exclaimed Elizabeth, sitting up straight with a startled look.
"What is it? What's wrong!?!" demanded William. "Should I call for the doctor?"
He seemed about to carry her off to her bedchamber, so she spoke quickly; "No, no... it is perfectly well. Come, here," said Elizabeth, guiding his hand to a point on her stomach. "Your child only wishes their share of the attention."
Any thoughts of sisters or uncles were immediately disregarded in favor of the next generation of Darcys.
Chapter 63. Turning Points.
Posted on 2015-05-27
"How do you feel?"
Elizabeth kept her eyes closed and held her tongue for a few moments, trying to dredge up every remaining scrap of patience. Traveling from Derbyshire to London in February was never very agreeable, but over the last few days she had discovered that being pregnant made the trip infinitely worse. "Quite dreadful, to be honest."
"Should we stop?"
At least he had asked her opinion this time, rather than barking an order to the driver and acting as if she was a child with no sense. Having a caring, worried husband who desperately wanted to make everything better was lovely in theory, but in practice... Lizzy had already snapped at him twice for doing no more than trying to help and she desperately wished to avoid seeing that hurt look on his face again. "No, thank you, Will... it would only come back when we started going again... I would truly prefer to push on and get there as quickly as possible."
Darcy nodded shortly and said nothing more, although he continued to berate himself silently for allowing his wife and unborn child to suffer such a perilous journey. What had he been thinking? There was no reason to travel to London--surely any necessary business could be conducted by post! What was the worth of being so very rich if he could not protect those he loved best?
Reading his silence, Elizabeth sighed. "Fitzwilliam--please, stop blaming yourself. We both have people to see and things to do in London. And there is no telling when we will be able to make the journey down again." She finally turned away from the cool window and leaned against his shoulder, feeling infinitely more comfortable when he wrapped his arm around her and held her close.
She felt him kiss her hair even as he muttered, "I still say we should never have come."
Lizzy only smiled and kept her eyes closed. "You just want to avoid the Somersets' dinner party next week. It won't work, you know. Even if I were unable to attend, Georgiana would have dragged you kicking and screaming to Grafton House."
Darcy groaned, but a thread of humor found its way into his voice. "Perhaps you will need some days to recover... surely no one would question my absence if I am required to tend my wife?"
"For shame, Mr. Darcy--using your poor, sickly wife as an excuse to avoid a party celebrating your own sister's engagement! If you wish to stay home, you may certainly do so--go to bed if you like! I, however, shall be attending--Madame Lavoisier has designed a new evening gown for me to wear. It's a pity, really; I was quite looking forward to seeing your reaction to it."
The rumble in her husband's chest might have been a groan, a chuckle, or an expression of anticipation... or, most likely, a mixture of all three.
The couple's remaining hours of travel passed in a similar manner of gentle teasing, quiet laughter, and some discussion of their plans.
They finally arrived at Derwent House just as the sun was going down on the fourth day and were met in the foyer by Georgiana and Lord Jonah (who just happened to be visiting), as well as Richard and Charlotte. Although all three couples had news they were eager to share, Mr. Darcy waited only a few minutes before firmly announcing that Elizabeth needed to rest and herding her off to their chambers.
Tilly and Hawkins had water ready in anticipation of their mistress and master's needs. Lizzy might have protested her husband's insistence that they retire so early, but the moment she slid into the hot bath, she accepted that he was right. She might have fallen asleep then and there if her maid had not come to help her prepare for bed.
As a result of this efficient care, Mr. Darcy returned from his own dressing room to discover his wife curled up on their bed, sound asleep. After drawing the quilts more closely around her, he sent his valet to order a tray and then settled down at the writing desk to review the notes from his secretary and plan out his week.
The next morning, Georgiana was pleased to see that her brother and sister were already present when she arrived in the breakfast room. "Oh! Will, Lizzy--I'm so glad that you've come! Are you feeling better?"
Elizabeth grinned. "Indeed--ten hours of sleep has set me up for life, I believe."
"Then may we go out tonight? There is a new opera playing at the Theatre Royale and Jonah heard that it is supposed to be wonderfully original!"
Darcy looked slightly pained, having hoped for at least one evening of grace before being forced out into the social maelstrom of the London Season.
Seeing his hesitation, his sister wheedled, "Please, Will? It's been so dull here--we haven't been able to do anything!"
This was probably not the wisest approach to take, as it reminded Mr. Darcy of why Richard and Charlotte could not take his sister out into Society. "You have been permitted to receive Lord Jonah, which is more than most guardians would allow given that we have been in mourning for our cousin until very recently, and Richard is still mourning his brother!"
"Yes, Fitzwilliam," whispered Georgiana, instantly contrite.
Elizabeth decided it was time for her to step in. "Perhaps we could attend a performance tomorrow or Monday? I'd hoped we could have a quiet evening with just family tonight--I plan to take our cards around this morning, and I need not tell you the sort of avalanche of invitations that shall follow."
Looking slightly less wilted, Georgiana agreed quietly. After studying his sister for a few more moments, Darcy turned his attention back to his wife. "Holmes mentioned that my new cards have been delivered from the printer--they should be in my study."
Lizzy smiled. "Excellent--I'll come get them before we leave." They had already agreed upon the people whom they wished to notify of their presence in town, although even the most parsimonious distribution of cards seemed to have little affect on the volume of eager callers to Derwent House when word got out that the Darcys' knocker was up. "Georgiana--shall we leave at ten?"
Miss Darcy's expression showed her surprise. "Oh! But I'd expected Jonah to call this morning. We were going walking in the park..." She trailed off as her brother's expression became stern again.
"Georgiana, you know the rules of polite society as well as I. You shall accompany Elizabeth in the carriage and leave your own cards as well as mine and hers." Observing her disappointment, Darcy spoke grimly, "Doing your duty without being told, even when it is contrary to your personal wishes, is a part of being an adult, Georgiana. If you do not understand that, if you believe you have nothing to do all day but play and sing and go walking in the park with your beau, then you belong in the schoolroom and are certainly not ready to have a household of your own. I have not yet sent the announcement to the Times. Shall I inform Grafton that it will be another year before you are prepared to marry?"
"No, Brother," whispered Miss Darcy contritely. "I'll be ready at ten."
"Good," remarked her brother decidedly before turning back to Elizabeth. "Now, which is to be your morning in? Georgiana must make certain that she has not scheduled any walks or visits or shopping trips that might prevent her from attending that, as well."
Although she would have preferred to be absent when her husband reprimanded his sister, Elizabeth answered immediately; "Tuesday, I think, but first I must speak with Charlotte to check when they shall be moving into their own house..."
"Saturday!" announced Richard Fitzwilliam's cheerful voice from the doorway, having arrived just in time to hear the last comment. "Come hail or high water, we shall sleep under our own roof on the Sabbath."
"At least we are assured that there is a roof," added Charlotte in a dry tone. "The walls, however, remain something of a question."
"Ah, keep your courage up, dear girl... I'm assured by our august plasterer, Mr. Thatcher, that the work will be done by the end of this very day." At his wife's raised eyebrow, he emended, "Well, at least the main rooms should be done." She rolled her eyes and they both laughed.
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy smiled, pleased to see their friends so content, while Charlotte prepared two cups of coffee and Richard filled plates for them both. "Are you certain you wish to leave before all the work is completed?" asked Elizabeth. "You know you are welcome to stay here as long as you wish--we are very happy to have you."
The former Miss Lucas smiled at her friend fondly. "Thank you, Lizzy, but the new house is much closer to Whitehall for Richard, and I would like to be there to oversee the workers."
Reading Charlotte's genuine eagerness to be settled in her own home, Elizabeth relented. "Very well, though I hope you know that a little dust shall not keep me from visiting!"
They all laughed and the conversation turned to more commonplace topics as the group caught up with one another. It was not long, however, before Richard admitted to having an early appointment at the War Office. While the others dispersed to their rooms, Lizzy followed her husband into his study, ostensibly to retrieve his cards, but also to make sure that he did not spend the morning brooding over his sister.
Shutting the door behind her, Elizabeth observed Darcy for a few moments as he stood at his desk and shifted some papers around. Eventually, he tapped them back into a pile and squared the corners before straightening and facing his wife. "I will not apologize. If Georgiana wishes to be married this summer, then she must demonstrate that she can conduct herself as an adult. I will not have her shaming either the Darcy or the Somerset names."
Lizzy's eyebrows rose. "And I quite agree. Were you under the impression I believed otherwise?"
His expression lost a little of its fierceness. "I assumed you would say I was being too harsh."
She gave him a long look. "Fitzwilliam, you reproved her immediately, explained clearly how she was expected to act, and informed her of the consequences if she did not in a manner that left her in no doubt that you would do just that. If she comes to me looking for sympathy, I shall tell her that I agree with you entirely."
Just as Will's expression had changed from relief to mild astonishment by the end of her little speech, Elizabeth's became fiercer. "Mr. Darcy, I have spent a lifetime wishing my father would take the trouble to discipline his daughters and correct their behavior. And even if I did disagree, I hope you know that I would not undermine your authority with your sister by telling her so behind your back!"
She turned on her heel and was about to stalk out of the room but, in three long strides, her husband reached the door before her and held it shut. "Lizzy... I'm sorry--I didn't think. This entire situation has me off balance, I fear. Sometimes she seems so very young... they both do, to be honest."
Elizabeth took a sharp breath and attempted to let go of her irritation. "I know, Will." Having nothing better to say, she rose on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek, only to find herself engulfed in a tight embrace.
They stood thus for some time until a tap at the door indicated the arrival of his secretary. Stepping back, she fussed over his rumpled cravat for a moment. "Perhaps you should talk to Richard this evening after dinner. He may have a more detached perspective on Georgiana, in addition to the experience of seeing several sisters married."
Darcy kissed her forehead before turning back to his desk. "Yes; I must inform him about my uncle's house, as well. Harvin will know whether we are to meet today or tomorrow with Sir James and the solicitors to deal with the legalities of the trust," he added.
Finally realizing why her husband was so disquieted on this particular morning, Elizabeth moved to touch his arm. "Georgiana is a sensible girl, Will, and she has been given good principles. She has applied herself to learning the mistresses' duties at Pemberley, and I shall make sure she does the same here in town, though the fundamentals are much the same." Observing that he appeared slightly reassured, she added in a lighter tone, "I can also take her over to the Fitzwilliams' new townhouse today, if you like. I'm certain that Charlotte would be happy to give us a tour and, if we are to believe their stories, the sight would certainly make Georgie appreciate how lucky she is."
When Mr. Harvin was finally admitted to his employer's study, he was glad to see that the Master appeared to be in reasonably good spirits and, after bidding good day to Mrs. Darcy, they got down to business.
By evening, Darcy rather wished that Georgiana's dowry and inheritance were all he had to worry about. After dinner, he and Richard had parted from the ladies and settled in his study with some excellent port. Upon hearing the news, his cousin had had no qualms at all over Sir James Darcy's plan to bequeath his townhouse to the newlyweds.
"Well--that's a fine idea, isn't it? Bloomsbury is a nice neighborhood and they'll appreciate having their own house in London. I swear, that pair has more plans... there's to be a quartet practicing on Tuesday evenings and a salon to discuss new composers on Thursdays, and a dozen other events I can't recall at the moment. You'll hear all about it, now that you're in London, I'm sure. It's good that they'll have their own house--I don't know about Grafton but I'm not sure how readily you would have taken to their plans if they were entertaining all and sundry under this roof." Richard chuckled when Darcy grimaced, for, although his cousin had become easier since marrying, he would never be a particularly social being.
"You don't think it will be too much for them? Sir James assures me that he has an excellent housekeeper who will be happy to stay on, but I know nothing about this property in Oxfordshire that Lord Jonah has inherited from the Duke."
"Oh, Worcester mentioned it to me--sounded like a pretty little estate. Nice manor house for entertaining in the country. Not a great deal of land, but enough to give them an income of four or five thousand a year if managed well."
"But who has been managing it? Grafton? Worcester? Lord Jonah?"
Richard shrugged easily, craning his neck to watch a good-looking horse pass by the window and thus missing the extent of Darcy's concern. "Don't know--there's a steward, I suppose. Anyways, I'm sure that everything will be shipshape by the time you're done looking it over." He turned back in time to catch his cousin's startled expression and roared with laughter. "Oh come now, Darce--I am absolutely certain that you will insist on going over every field and every ledger before you let your precious little sister move in there!"
The ex-cavalryman slumped back into his chair with a contented grin. "Well now, was there anything else? I'm very pleased with this little chestnut filly I brought back from Spain--come riding with me tomorrow morning and I'll let you take her through her paces. Light on her feet and can turn on a pin, but steady as anything and can trot all day..."
Before his cousin could get started on horses (a topic that, though usually of great interest to Darcy, was not now foremost on his mind), he inquired, "Have you been up to Longbourn recently? Are plans for the spring planting in place?"
Richard rolled his eyes but admitted that he had been to Meryton just the previous week to install his new trainer. "The horses have settled in exceedingly well. It really is an excellent situation--just a few hours ride out from London for me to check on them, I mean. No need to stay overnight if Madame Bennet is on one of her rampages, and this new man I've hired seems to have moved into Wright's place without any fuss."
Darcy noted the slur against his mother-in-law but held his tongue. "But what of the estate, Richard? Have you talked to the steward at all?"
The other man waved his hand as if diffusing a foul odor. "Don't be ridiculous, Darcy--all I care about is that the stables are fixed up, which they have been, and the pastures I've rented are in good shape, which they appear to be. Here now, what is this all about? I'm sure Bennet and his steward have it all well in hand--he's been master of the place for nearly thirty years, hasn't he?"
Rather than answer, Darcy turned to refill their glasses. "I received a note from your father today."
"Oh, do tell! What orders does the Earl have for his minions this month?"
Darcy's jaw tightened but he forced himself to speak neutrally. "Ashbourne's steward has not been very forthcoming about the state of Ravenswood. Uncle Henry wishes us to go into Essex and assess the estate for him."
Richard roared with laughter. "By which he means you! Sorry, Darce--I trotted along to Rosings every Easter like a good little soldier, though we both know my input was mostly limited to insulting her Ladyship's taste in horseflesh."
"Richard, be serious; you know a great deal..."
"No, Darce--this one is all yours." Chuckling, Richard stood and, after tossing back the last of his wine, began heading for the door. "I've a wife and a son now, and a job that keeps me very well occupied. The Earl will not be using me as his errand boy any more, whether he knows it yet or not. Now then--I would prefer to see my aforementioned wife before she falls asleep, unless there was something else? Did you need advice on Bingley's estate, perhaps? Or Rosings? No? Come along then--our ladies await!"
With another great roar of laughter, Richard led the way toward the music room from which some desultory notes on the pianoforte were issuing. "Come now, Miss Georgiana Darcy! If that is the best you can manage, then I shall have to report to your brother that all his money on masters and instruments has been entirely wasted!"
Darcy waited until he could assume a phlegmatic expression but, when he appeared, Elizabeth guessed that he was unhappy. He took a seat to the side of the room and, although the clapped for his sister's performance at all the appropriate times, the music did not appear to be foremost in his mind.
After they retired for the night, Elizabeth did her best to discover his concerns, but Darcy merely explained that Richard had agreed the Bloomsbury house would do very well for Georgiana and Jonah, and that they (Sir James and Mr. Darcy) would be meeting with the solicitors on Monday to work out the legal details. Lizzy suspected that there was more, but chose to delay any further interrogation for a time when her eyelids did not feel like lead weights.
In truth, Darcy felt as if he was being pulled in twelve different directions. In addition to all his own business concerns, he had returned home from a meeting at his club that afternoon to discover Elizabeth asleep at her desk, ink from a half-finished note staining her cheek. She was sleeping so soundly that she never even woke when he picked her up and carried her to their bed.
Fitzwilliam was not one to seek out advice on his personal concerns, even when it was most needed. It was probably fortunate, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Darcy joined the Gardiners for dinner some nights later.
As always, conversation between the two couples was comfortable and far-reaching and Mr. Darcy found himself relaxing for the first time in days. He did not realize that the Gardiners had already taken note of his preoccupation until he was settled in a comfortable chair by the fire in Mr. Gardiner's study with a large glass of brandy.
"How are you holding up, son?"
Will was too startled to mask his surprise, and it took very little for Edward to draw him out. Once it was all laid out and Darcy fell quiet, his host refilled their glasses in silence. "Well, you've got quite a lot on your plate, that's no lie." He took a sip of brandy and savored it for a moment. "I won't tell you not to worry about Lizzy--that would be impossible for any good husband--but I can tell you that Maddy was much the same during each of her pregnancies, and the doctor and midwives I consulted assured me it was quite normal. She would appear to be perfectly well one moment and then fall sound asleep the next. I suppose that such a change is especially noticeable when the lady is normally very active."
Darcy nodded absently but continued to stare silently into his brandy. Logically, he knew the other man was correct, but it did not relieve all his concerns. "I wish I could just take them both back to Pemberley," he muttered, and then started when he realized he had spoken his thoughts aloud.
"Well then, why don't you do just that?"
Fitzwilliam began repeating all of his own and Elizabeth's obligations until Edward waved him off. "Maddy is talking to Lizzy right now, and if I know my wife, she'll impress on our niece that she need not, and in fact, should not maintain her usual schedule." He eyed the younger gentleman but spoke his mind; "You must do the same."
When Will looked slightly affronted, Mr. Gardiner's expression grew even more serious. "Mr. Darcy, you are not obliged to take my advice by any means, but I will give it to you just the same. You are no longer a bachelor--if you wish to spend your days slaving away in your study over your estate business and investments, and then fill in any spare time solving other people's problems instead of spending time with your family, then that is your choice. However, I do not believe you are the sort of man who will find satisfaction in such a life, and I fear it would make my niece very unhappy as well."
Darcy sprung to his feet and paced a lap around the room. "But what can I do? Who can I say 'no' to? They are all family!"
Gardner watched him steadily. "They are indeed, but sometimes even family must be told to shove off and stand on their own feet, occasionally." He sighed. "I shall not comment on Lord Matlock's request, except to remind you that you are not his son, even if his trust in your abilities is a very gratifying compliment."
While Darcy considered this, Mr. Gardiner continued, "As for Longbourn, do not give that matter another thought. I shall be going there myself within the month and taking Sir Richard Fitzwilliam with me. I don't care how exalted his position is in the War Office; he and Bennet are Master Collin's guardians and, as such, are responsible for looking after the boy's interests until he is of age. I was not aware that you had arranged for the steward at Longbourn and, quite frankly, I am mortified that my brother has continued to allow you to pay the man's salary." He grumbled a bit more before concluding, "You see to your wife and sister. I'll take care of Longbourn."
Mr. Gardiner's expression was such a combination of fierceness and determination that Darcy actually laughed aloud in relief. "Thank you, sir. I did not mean to lay all this on you... but thank you, just the same."
Gardiner waved him off. "You were trying to ease Lizzy's mind--something to which I can easily relate. However, Bennet should not have taken advantage of your dutiful nature just to maintain his own idle lifestyle... and it is my duty as Fanny's brother to remind him of that."
Darcy smiled, trusting the man implicitly. After a moment's thought, he offered, "I believe I will be telling my uncle something rather similar. For all intents and purposes, Ravenswood is now part of the properties associated with the earldom, and I do not have time to see to it as I did with Rosings when Lady Catherine and Anne lived there."
"Good man," Gardiner nodded approvingly. "Though now that I am becoming more familiar with the workings of Rosings Park on behalf of my own son, I must thank you for your efforts there over the years. Lady Catherine had some strange ideas on economy; I suspect that none of the tenants would have remained if they could not rely on the relief you provided each Easter."
Darcy responded modestly, though he appreciated the acknowledgement. The gentlemen spent the remainder of their time discussing various details of Rosings and Longbourn until a maid came to tell them that tea and cakes were to be served in the sitting room.
Mr. Gardiner paused with his hand on the door and turned to the younger man. "I have one request, if you don't mind, and that is that you share all of this with Lizzy, preferably in the next day or two. Madeleine has been worried that our niece will feel a failure if she cannot keep up with all her activities--her charity work and social obligations and so forth. If you will tell her of your own decision to shed some of these duties, she is more likely to feel comfortable doing the same."
Darcy agreed and the two gentlemen left to join the ladies.
Mr. Gardiner's advice proved to be sound, and by the end of the next day, both Mr. and Mrs. Darcy were feeling much less strained. With only a little trepidation, Will had informed the Earl that he would not be able to see to Ravenswood; after some obligatory grumbling, his uncle admitted that he probably wouldn't rest easily until he saw it for himself. With surprisingly little fuss, it was decided that the Earl and Countess of Matlock themselves would accompany Lady Alameda and her son to Essex for some weeks at Easter while parliament was out.
Likewise, Elizabeth wrote to Longbourn, informing Mr. Bennet that the Darcys would not be able to stop in Hertfordshire when they next travelled north. She did not hear back from her father, which was not unexpected given that gentleman's aversion to correspondence. Instead, she received yet another thick epistle from her mother that, though filled with copious words, contained little Lizzy cared to read.
In truth, Mrs. Bennet continued to feel very ill-used, left as she was with only Kitty at home (and that daughter showing far less interest in her mother's complaints than the matron felt she was due). Certainly Jane sent letters with satisfying regularity, but they were all filled with news about young John Thomas Bingley, and Mrs. Bennet had found that boasting about the boy was far less pleasurable when his presence was not accompanied by access to Netherfield.
To top it all off, those artful Lucases continued to parade the dreadful little Collins boy around, just to rub it in that she had not produced an heir for Longbourn herself.
Fanny's primary release from this self-inflicted misery was in her letters, and as Mrs. Darcy was the daughter who had not yet produced an heir for her husband's estate, she was the unhappy recipient of the majority of Mrs. Bennet's complaints, advice, and exhortations.
Elizabeth was in the process of skimming just such a letter when a pair of familiar arms wrapped around her waist. "Did you shut the door? My husband is known to be frightfully possessive and I would hate to see him run you through," she teased.
Will pulled her back against him so she could feel just how pleased he was to see her. "I'll run you through, minx."
Lizzy took no little satisfaction in knowing that, even six months pregnant, she could still inspire lust in her husband. She relaxed back against him and sighed in contentment when he nuzzled her exposed neck.
"Hmmm... was there anything in particular you needed when you invaded my boudoir uninvited, or was it only to interrupt my correspondence?" she murmured.
Wrapping his hands around the growing swell at her waist, Will smiled. "It is nearly time to dress for the dinner party.
"Ah... and you are eager to see my new evening gown? Perhaps just a little?"
Darcy refrained from commenting that he was even more eager to see her out of her gown, saying only, "You have mentioned it several times and I will admit to some curiosity." Slipping one hand into his pocket, he added, "Your modista did give me a hint, however..." and a string of sparkles cascaded over her shoulder.
"Oh Will... you shouldn't have..."
He chuckled, always amused by the persistence of her frugal nature even with access to the Darcy coffers. "It was just sitting around in the vault gathering dust... I thought it would be a shame not to bring it out into the light. And besides, we Darcys are known to be very proud of our family jewels, have you not heard? Do they not deserve to be displayed upon occasion?"
Elizabeth turned in his arms to face him and the glitter in her eye made him realize his unintentional double entendre. Feeling color rise in his cheeks, he focused on fixing the delicate concoction of diamonds and pearls around her neck. "Did your mother have any particular news?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Much of the same, I fear. Fortunately, Kitty sent along a note as well and, though far less in volume, its content is much more useful."
By mutual agreement, the couple headed toward their rooms. "The visit to the Wrights' estate seems to have gone surprisingly well. The only fly in the ointment appears to have been Mrs. Wright's mother who was visiting at the same time. By Kitty's description, she sounds astonishingly like Mama and, needless to say, the two appear to have developed an instant antipathy."
Darcy merely raised an eyebrow, preferring not to dwell on the existence of two Mrs. Bennets in the world.
"Of course, both women wished for their daughters to make better matches... which has had the happy result that Kitty and Mrs. Wright understand one another very well." Lizzy was pleased to hear Darcy chuckle. "They plan to marry in the autumn. Kitty had to return to Hertfordshire with our parents, but Papa is allowing her to exchange letters with young Mr. Wright."
Mr. Darcy smiled and Elizabeth raised her own eyebrow. "I enjoyed exchanging letters with you during our courtship," he admitted quietly.
The smile she gave him was as glorious as a sunrise over the Peaks.
Elizabeth had good reason to be pleased with her gown. The bodice and skirts were a warm apricot silk that complimented her complexion perfectly. The melon sleeves and trim were formed from the same fabric some shades darker, and the modista had devised a cunning pattern of ruching decorated with tiny seed pearls that drew attention away from her small bump and toward her bosom.
When she descended from her dressing room, Mr. Darcy announced, "You must go back and change," in such a stern manner that Elizabeth actually froze for a moment on the stairs, but when she descended the final step and stood before him, there was a twinkle in her eye.
"Shall I send it to the ragman, then?"
Will attempted to think of a suitably teasing reply but eventually just shook his head in wonder. "You are too beautiful for words."
Lizzy blushed very deeply, as she always did when her husband paid her such heartfelt compliments. "'Tis just fine feathers and some pretty tinsel."
Darcy took her hands and leaned in to kiss her lightly on the lips. "No--it is you... you are glowing." The reverence with which he spoke left her quite speechless.
There was no telling how long the pair might have remained in that position if Miss Darcy had not come tripping down the stairs while simultaneously trying to pull on one of her long white gloves. "Oh! You're both already here! Am I late? Is the carriage here?"
Fitzwilliam blinked several times at his sister while Lizzy moved to help her sister with the recalcitrant glove. "You look lovely, Georgiana"
Darcy struggled manfully against ordering his sister to return upstairs and change into a less... womanly gown. "You are not late; the carriage is just being brought around."
When his sister turned to him, gloves in place and eyes full of anxiety, he sighed and admitted in a gruff voice, "You look very beautiful, Georgie... and very grown up. Mother would be happy to see you wearing her necklace."
Georgiana touched the jewel at her neck. "I felt as if I should like to have something of her with me, tonight."
Darcy nodded, took a deep breath, and then offered an arm to each of his ladies.
Since her marriage, Elizabeth had been invited into any number of grand houses for balls and parties, dinners and soirées, and more teas than she could count. Some had been gaudy, some tasteful, and some had hinted of the uncertain solvency of their masters. To her mind, none were the equal of Derwent House. The Duke of Grafton's mansion came close, however.
"I do believe it is larger than yours, my dear," she teased her husband.
Darcy's lips twitched. "There are, perhaps, more rooms. Derwent House is likely to have more of the modern conveniences, however; Grafton House is of similar age to Etherow House," he added, referring to the residence in Bloomsbury that Sir James was leaving to Georgiana, who nodded thoughtfully.
"You Darcys do love your rivers! Why not simply call it Darcy House?" inquired Elizabeth with genuine curiosity.
"My grandparents had the house on Grosvenor Square built when they married, but Worthington Darcy's parents remained at Etherow House until they died and then left it to their younger son, my uncle. I assume the new house was named after the River Derwent to follow tradition."
Observing that he had the attention of both ladies, he expanded, "The land and the water of Derbyshire have always been the lifeblood of the Darcy family... without it, there would be no houses in London... or pretty stones to decorate our ladies' necks," he nodded toward his wife and sister with a smile.
"The motto on the Darcy crest... Terra, aqua, sanguis... Earth, water, blood... I hadn't really understood it, before," mused Elizabeth.
"I knew it, but I didn't really know..." murmured Georgiana.
"Well, if you find yourself searching for subjects, you might ask His Grace about the Somerset crest... I'm certain he will be pleased to tell you about the family history." Will suppressed a painful twinge at the thought of his sister trading the name of Darcy.
Sensing her husband's discomfort, Lizzy teased, "Yes, please do, Georgiana. That sounds far more interesting than listening to your brother and the Somerset gentlemen discuss horses all night!"
The Darcys were shown directly into the drawing room and were greeted warmly by the Duke and Duchess while Lord Jonah proudly took his place at Georgiana's side. Most of the Somerset siblings and their spouses had been introduced to the Darcys on one occasion or another, but here there appeared to be a plethora of cousins as well as aunts and uncles to meet.
Mrs. Darcy was quickly drawn into a conversation with several of the ladies who wished to arrange a day to go shopping with Miss Darcy. She was pleased to see Georgiana exerting herself to know Isabella and Harriet better; the three ladies were close in age and had similar interests, though their quieter natures were often overshadowed by their sisters when the family had gathered together. Over the last year, Elizabeth had come to consider Ava and Violet to be close friends; the ladies could never replace Jane in her heart, but they were extremely amiable and she particularly appreciated their willingness to share advice after a lifetime in the first circles.
When Elizabeth had a moment to look around the room for her husband, she observed that he appeared to be involved in an intense discussion with Lord Worcester and the Marquesses' next eldest brother, Lord Granville. Quietly detaching herself from the ladies, she moved to take her husband's arm.
Darcy looked down to see his wife and pressed her hand. All three men had such an air of schoolboy mischief about them that she expected to be subjected to bloody tales of cricket pitch heroics. She soon learned that the bloody tale being shared had been played out on a different sort of field altogether.
"Lord Guy Westinghouse, 7th Earl of Corning, has been arrested and is to be tried for treason," announced Worcester gleefully.
"I beg your pardon?" was all Elizabeth could think to say. She knew enough about that man's personal life to consider him despicable, but she had never heard anything that hinted of treachery toward the crown.
Lord Granville spoke with slightly more circumspection, "Apparently the Prince Regent took a liking to Westinghouse some months ago and has been allowing him into the Royal presence for parties and such more and more recently. Looking to gain even more Royal favor, the fool brought a bunch of... errr..."
Granville flicked a look toward Mr. Darcy and only continued when that gentleman gave a slight nod. "...loose females... into His Royal Highness' company. The girls turned out to be French and, when they realized to whom they had been brought to entertain, at least one decided to rehash the Battle of Waterloo, hoping for a different outcome, I suppose."
"Good heavens! Whatever happened?!?" exclaimed Elizabeth in astonishment.
"Fortunately, the table knives they armed themselves with were blunted, and the only injury His Royal Highness suffered was due to the application of one lady's nails. However, although the Prince Regent's retainers were able to subdue the woman as soon as they realized what was happening, some drops of Royal blood was spilled, not to mention the Royal ego being greatly offended."
With no small amount of glee, Worcester added, "As if the fact that he was the one who procured the girls was not enough, Westinghouse appears to have had some sort of fit during the affair... incapacitated by laughter was the report I heard. The best he can do now is pray to be hung before he is drawn and quartered, and not the other way around."
All Elizabeth could manage was to say, "Well, we shall pray that His Royal Highness soon recovers from his injuries."
Such news could not be easily set aside, though the dinner table was magnificent and the food delicious. The Duke was an amusing conversationalist and Elizabeth (seated at his left) had given herself the responsibility of keeping Georgiana (seated at His Grace's right) involved in the exchange. Lizzy's attention drifted occasionally, however, and, though she could barely see Mr. Darcy, seated as he was at the opposite end of the table, she suspected that their minds were similarly distracted.
Service was in the new style, á la russe, and Elizabeth found that she liked the cleaner look of a table that was not groaning under dozens of serving platters, particularly as the Duchess had not bothered with the grand epergne so many of Society's hostesses deemed necessary to demonstrate their wealth. Instead, in honor of the betrothal they were celebrating, Her Grace had decorated the table with a long plait of ribbons and ivy threaded with primroses, myrtle, and violets that reached from end to end in a charming serpentine around the candelabra.
When the guests stepped away from the table to allow the footmen to complete the remove and set the deserts, Mrs. Darcy was amused to observe Lord Jonah craning his neck to catch a glimpse of his betrothed. Beside him, his mother and elder sister were clearly diverted by his inattention, while Mr. Darcy appeared to be wavering between amusement and disapproval. Lizzy caught his eye with a pointed look.
With only a subtle eye roll, Darcy turned to his future brother-in-law and, after two failed attempts, finally succeeded in gaining the younger man's attention. The pair entered into a conversation that carried them through the final course and extended into the gentlemen's separation from the ladies.
Later that night, Fitzwilliam admitted that he had asked Lord Jonah about his estate in Oxfordshire. "It is called Pennyworth Manor and, though he claims to be very dense about such matters, Lord Jonah appears to have a good understanding of its running. He has been in charge of it since he came of age, and Worcester in particular seems to have spent considerable time there helping him learn to manage it."
Elizabeth curled up beside her husband and tucked her feet up under her robe. "And is there a steward?"
"Yes; in fact, he is the son of Grafton's steward at Fairlee, the ducal seat in Gloucestershire." Beginning to relax, Will stretched one arm out over his wife's shoulders and began playing with her hair.
"So, shall we be visiting Pennyworth on our trek northward?"
In truth, Darcy was becoming distracted by the sight of Elizabeth's toes peeking out from beneath her robe. "Hmmm... yes? Yes, Worcester and his wife will accompany Lord Jonah so that the Lady Lavender may act as his hostess while we are there. It will only be a few days, and then we are bound for Derbyshire."
Lizzy did not bother to suppress her laughter and turned to smile up at him. "Beloved husband, lord of my heart, I fear it is incumbent upon me to pass on a most critical piece of information."
Will could not resist stealing a kiss and for a moment she dissolved into giggles as his hand traced a ticklish spot on her side, before quieting under a long, warm kiss. "And what is this key fact, my precious intelligencer?"
It took her a moment to recall her train of thought. "Ah... yes. Dearest, if you ever call Ava Somerset 'Lady Lavender' to her face, she will either ignore you or slap you." Lizzy was very pleased when her husband actually guffawed. Assuming a very prim attitude, she commented, "What shall people say when they discover that you married me only to counsel you on matters of etiquette?"
Deciding that he had suffered quite enough teasing for one night, Will whispered something in her ear about why he had married her that made her giggle and then sigh. No further conversation was to be heard in the Master's bedchamber at Derwent House that night.
Chapter 64. New Threads.
Posted on 2015-06-04
"I say, Darce--stop pacing and have another whiskey. You're making me dizzy."
"Thank you, Bingley, but for the fourth time, I do not wish for another whiskey. As you can plainly see, I have not yet finished the first that you poured for me."
Charles squinted at the glass that had been set upon the mantle several hours before (and was, indeed, nearly full) and then at the half empty bottle in his hand. "But this is whiskey from the case my father left! I brought it just for you, in your time of need! If you've not drunk it, then where's it gone?"
Mr. Darcy gave his friend a dark look and muttered, "Drink your whiskey and go back to sleep, Bingley," before turning his attention back to pacing the length of the library.
"I haven't been... have I?" Charles was distracted from his argument by the glass in his hand that now appeared to have magically refilled itself. "Oh whatever." He downed the whiskey rather more quickly than his father might have approved of and soon drifted back to the Land of Nod.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Matlock continued snoring without a pause.
In truth, Darcy was relieved. Although he appreciated that both the Bingleys and Fitzwilliams had come to Pemberley in time for the birth of his first child, there were moments when he very much would have preferred to be alone in this particular vigil.
He had been awakened not long after midnight when Elizabeth had rolled to the side of their bed and tried to stand. Since returning from London, her belly had grown at such an astonishing rate that Will had found it nearly impossible to drag his eyes away whenever his wife was in the same room. Fortunately, Lizzy had claimed to find his fixation amusing and teased that it must be something in the Derbyshire air.
When he realized she was trying to rise, Will had leapt from the bed to help. After using the water closet, she had tried returning to sleep, but after enduring nearly an hour of restless wakefulness, Elizabeth finally admitted that the birthing pains had begun. Darcy had immediately insisted on waking the doctor. When she protested, he pointed out that the man had been hired to stay at Pemberley for precisely this reason and might as well be of use.
The specialist turned out to have little information to offer other than to agree that the birth had probably begun. He recommended that both Darcys try to sleep or, if that was not possible for the lady, that she attempt to walk. Fitzwilliam had insisted on doing whatever she did, and as Elizabeth knew it would be quite impossible to even feign sleep, he had found himself walking with his wife through Pemberley's halls and galleries through the wee hours of the morning, entertaining her with stories of the various Darcy ancestors who stared down upon them.
The rising sun was just beginning to flood the hills with light when Elizabeth had doubled over in pain for the first time. Thankfully, the servants were up and about by then and, in an instant, there had been a dozen hands reaching to help her, Mrs. Reynolds and Tilly at the fore. Darcy had demanded the doctor and a footman had been sent running. Fortunately, the physician was a learned man with experience in both pregnant women and nervous husbands.
Fitzwilliam had helped Elizabeth to the door of the birthing chamber and then she had been taken away from him. He had been preparing to argue when his aunt and uncle found him in the hallway, doubtless summoned by Mrs. Reynolds.
"No, Darcy; I will check on her. Why don't you go have some breakfast, or perhaps there is some work on the estate you should see to?" Lady Eleanor had given her husband a pointed look and then slipped into the room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Fitzwilliam continued staring at the door until Matlock caught his elbow and drew him away. "Come, son; there is nothing left for us to do here. It is up to the women, now."
This statement might have been meant to reassure the younger man, but Will found himself even more agitated than before. However, in his distraction, Lord Henry succeeded in drawing him away and in short order Darcy found himself in the breakfast parlor with Bingley and Matlock as if it was any other Tuesday morning. When his uncle attempted to serve him a plate piled with kippers and eggs, however, Darcy turned a disturbing shade of green and took coffee and toast in his study, instead.
Nearly an hour had passed and Fitzwilliam had just decided to return upstairs and demand to see his wife when he caught the sound of his aunt's voice ringing down the hall. When he discovered her in the breakfast parlor, calmly serving coffee to the doctor, however, he was so shocked that he stood in the doorway for a full minute before anyone noticed him.
"Mrs. Bingley is with her sister, Fitzwilliam," said the Countess in a tone that was meant to be soothing but which sounded to Darcy like an admonishment to a child. He turned on his heel and completely disregarded the voices calling for him to come back.
After ascending the stairs two at a time, Will ignored the fact that he was out of breath and rapped sharply on the door. Before he had lowered his fist, the door opened and Elizabeth stood before him with a mischievous smile.
"And here he is, just as I predicted." Glancing back over her shoulder, she called, "Jane, I shall be touring the gallery with my handsome husband. Why don't you go down to breakfast?"
Turning to Mr. Darcy, she took his arm and drew him along the hall. Observing his confused expression, she explained, "Your aunt felt that Bingley and Lord Henry would keep you occupied, but I said... oh!" She leaned on his arm with both hands as a pain took her, leaving Will feeling entirely helpless.
"Are you sure you would not feel better in bed?" he asked worriedly.
"Ahh... ahhh... no." She took a breath very carefully, and then, reassured that it was over, tugged on his arm again so that she could continue walking. "The doctor believes it will be some hours yet, but walking may help things along."
"And is there not something I may get for your relief? Tea, perhaps, or a glass of wine?"
Elizabeth only shook her head. "They gave me some broth earlier." Darcy gave her a sharp look and she rolled her eyes. "I drank it... well, most of it."
Deciding to accept her answer for the present, Darcy muttered, "Count your blessings. Matlock tried to feed me a plateful of kippers."
Knowing of her husband's distaste for that particular delicacy, Lizzy laughed aloud. They continued their strange promenade for another circuit of the halls until the pain immobilized her again. When it faded, she continued to cling to his arm, resting her head against his chest. "I'm frightened, Will," she finally admitted in a whisper.
He wrapped his free arm around her shoulders and held her as close as he dared, burying his face in her hair. "I know, dearest... I know. It will all be well, I promise."
Normally, Lizzy would have teased him for professing such omnipotence, but today she found that she did not have any zest for the contest. After surviving another round of contractions, she took a deep breath and rallied her spirits. "Well, if you are determined to ignore all the business that I know is piled up on your desk, then perhaps you can tell me about this very mischievous-looking lady whose portrait hangs down at the end of the hall. She looks to me as if she was plotting to pepper the artist's snuff box."
The Darcys walked and talked for nearly two hours before Mrs. Reynolds appeared to claim her mistress. "The doctor would like to check how you are progressing, ma'am."
Left standing at the door again, this time Mr. Darcy found himself drawn downstairs and out to the stables by the other gentlemen. It took some time, but eventually he convinced his uncle that they would have to knock him out and tie him to the horse before he would go riding about the countryside while his wife lay laboring above.
Next, Lord Henry did his best to draw his nephew into a discussion of the pedigrees and breeding plans for the various horses in the Pemberley stables, but when his questions drew only monosyllables, he became understandably exasperated. Fortunately, at that point Bingley came through with an activity that required nothing more than a hound and a stick.
This sequence of events would be repeated with only minor variations for the remainder of the day and into the evening, finally culminating with the current situation wherein Darcy paced the library, entirely sober, while Matlock and Bingley had long ago succumbed to the aforementioned whiskey.
Pemberley's master was just resolving to return upstairs and storm the birthing room when a very tired Mrs. Bingley appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Darcy? Oh dear--they don't look as if they have been much use to you... I told Charles that the whiskey might not be such a good idea, but he was so very pleased to have it to offer you, particularly after his father..."
Deciding that it would be faster to seek out the information he desired rather than wait for Jane to get to the point, Darcy stepped around her and took the stairs two at a time. He reached the door just as his aunt was stepping out into the hall.
Taking in his wild appearance, Eleanor smiled kindly and kissed his cheek. "Your wife is a very brave girl, Fitzwilliam. Congratulations."
Still lacking any solid information, Darcy managed only a small nod before stepping around his aunt and into the room beyond. The drapes were drawn and only a few candles lit, making it very dim and far too much like a funeral vigil for his peace of mind. Even before his eyes adjusted, however, he heard the soft murmur of his wife's voice. "Elizabeth?"
"Will--come here! There is someone who would very much like to meet you."
As he drew closer, he could see his wife's face wreathed in exhausted smiles as she held a small blanket-wrapped bundle to her breast.
She held out her free hand to her husband and he gingerly eased his way onto the bed, as if any sudden movement might cause the whole structure to collapse like a soap bubble. He had barely settled his back against the headboard when she shifted the bundle into his arms and a pair of enormous eyes stared up at him owlishly.
"The doctor says that his eyes will probably darken."
"Good heavens... wait--did you say 'he'?" exclaimed the new father.
"Oh, poor Will--did no one tell you yet? Yes, love, please allow me to introduce you to Mr. Bennet George Darcy, who arrived in this world with ten fingers and ten wee little toes, and a mighty wail that shook the roof tiles."
The new father was so overwhelmed that he said nothing for a time, fascinated as two tiny fists grabbed hold of the finger he had extended to brush his son's forehead. "He is beautiful. Thank you," he added, leaning over to kiss his wife's brow.
"Hmmm... I cannot argue--indeed, I can barely look away from him." She reached over to stroke a little foot before tucking the blanket around it again.
"Mmmm..." responded Lizzy drowsily. "I think he looks like a Ben--though he has your nose, you know. A beautiful, beautiful baby boy..."
"But 'George'? Are you sure?"
"It would honor your father, of course, but also your grandmother, Lady Edna... I have come to like her very much from your stories, and from reading her journals."
"Bennet George Darcy..." repeated her husband. "Ben..." The babe gurgled and grabbed his father's finger, thus cementing his fate.
Both mother and son were drifting off to sleep when a light tap came from the servant's door. Before Darcy could decide what to do, Mrs. Reynolds herself peeked into the room. Assessing the situation quickly, she opened the door a little wider to allow Tilly in with a tray. "We brought up some beef broth for Mrs. Darcy... I know she is exhausted, but it will help her to recover."
"I am lying right here," muttered Elizabeth waspishly, though with something less than her usual verve.
Without breaking her stride, the housekeeper merely responded, "Of course, ma'am," and helped adjust the pillows behind the new mother.
Lizzy took a sip of the broth and then looked toward the older woman with an expression that wavered between defiance and mortification. "Mrs. Reynolds, I believe I may have said some things to you over the last few hours for which I should apologize..."
The housekeeper looked up from the blanket she was folding. "Don't give it another thought, dear." Taking in the little family, her face softened to a gentle smile. "I am very, very glad it all turned out so well."
When Tilly took back the empty dish and went off to see to some other duty, Mrs. Reynolds appeared to take hold of herself again. "Sir, will you be informing the staff of the happy news yourself, or would you prefer me to do it?"
Darcy was so fascinated by the baby in his arms that it required a gentle poke from his wife to gain his attention. Once Mrs. Reynolds had repeated the question, he looked to Elizabeth. "Do you mind?"
Doing her best to suppress the wave of anxiety that threatened to overwhelm her at the thought of letting little Ben out of her sight, she smiled; "Yes, of course... keep him wrapped up, though, won't you? And don't let Charles take him... Jane said something about him dropping John Thomas on his head..."
A great yawn split her face and Darcy leaned over to kiss her forehead again. "I shall carry him as if he is the most precious treasure in all the world, for that is exactly what he is, but for you."
Lizzy smiled warmly and pulled his head down for a quick kiss before breaking into another yawn.
"Sleep, dearest, and I shall bring young Master Bennet back to you before you know we have gone."
Lizzy settled deeper into the covers with a contented look on her face. When Tilly had returned to sit with her mistress, Mrs. Reynolds led the Master down to the servants' hall where most of the indoor and even some of the outdoor staff were gathered.
Observing the anticipation on their faces, Darcy could not have been prouder to share the event with those who had cared for him and his family all his life. Holding the babe aloft so that all might see him, he called, "Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to present Master Bennet George Darcy, the heir of Pemberley."
The staff cheered loudly and, though it was a joyous sound, it did of course awaken the young gentleman in question. How such a tiny being could wail so loudly was beyond Darcy's comprehension, but it pleased the servants and relieved the new father from having to make a longer speech.
By the time Darcy had introduced young Ben to his various relations in the library and was able to retreat upstairs again, his son had ceased crying and appeared to be completely occupied with trying to fit his fist into his mouth. True to his word, Will returned the babe to his mother's side before Elizabeth had woken, and, having tucked the sleepy baby on the bed between them, he lay down and watched them both until he fell asleep himself.
The subsequent weeks passed quietly for the little family; Pemberley seemed to focus inward for a time, celebrating the new life and what it meant for the continuity of the Darcys and all those who depended on that family for their livelihoods.
Not a few times, Elizabeth laughed at herself for once having proclaimed that it would be no trouble at all to schedule Georgiana's wedding for barely three months after her confinement. Though it was to be an intimate family affair and plans for a great deal of the program had been set in place earlier in the spring, now that Ben was born she found that she had very little interest in anything beyond the nursery.
Fortunately, Lady Matlock and her widowed daughter, Lady Lucy, were gratified to be of use. The pair settled into guest suites at Pemberley with a sense of purpose that their mourning for Lord Ashbourne had recently denied them. Elizabeth worried that Georgiana might be hurt by her sister's lack of attention, but it quickly became apparent that Miss Darcy was almost as giddy as her brother over little Master Bennet.
Once she had been churched, Elizabeth made an effort to spend more time working on housekeeping matters in her study or visiting with her guests in the public rooms. However, she found she liked having Ben near her rather than leaving him in the nursery, and it soon became commonplace for a gurgling baby in a basket to be observed beside the Mistress of Pemberley's desk, and on more than a few occasions the same was observed in the master's study.
One day, barely a week before Georgiana's wedding, Elizabeth was so perplexed by her correspondence that she almost forgot to hand Ben and his basket off to the nursery maid before going in search of her husband.
"Good heavens," she muttered, turning the letter over to reread a section as she walked down the hall. When a second inspection did not change its content, she shook her head and made her way to the master's study. She had only just knocked on the door, however, when the sound of an approaching carriage caught her attention.
Thus, when Mr. Darcy called "Come," she barely greeted him before turning to the window.
"Why, Jane has come!" she exclaimed.
"Were you expecting her?"
"Not at all... although," she glanced down at the page in her hand, "I believe I can guess the reason for her visit."
When Fitzwilliam raised his eyebrows, she merely handed him the letter and then went to meet Mrs. Bingley.
"Lizzy!" Jane barely took the time to hug her sister. "Well? What do you think of this news from Mama?"
Mrs. Darcy laughed and took her sister's arm. "I only just read her letter myself and was going to seek Mr. Darcy's opinion." After sending for tea, the ladies settled in the sitting room. "It is possible, I suppose."
"Oh Lizzy, do be serious. Our mother must be nearly fifty!"
"Improbable, to be sure, but for myself, I have learnt not to dismiss anything as impossible. After all, I did once say that Mr. Darcy was the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry, and look at us now!"
"Lizzy, do be serious," repeated Jane. She withdrew some papers from her reticule and held them out to her sister. "Here, read the letter Mama sent me. May I see yours? Does it say anything more?"
"Hmmm..." Elizabeth began skimming the letter. "It appears very similar, although mine did not include the news that Miss Maria Lucas is being courted." Hearing Jane make an impatient noise, she glanced up. "Oh, Fitzwilliam has my letter, Jane. He will be here in just a moment."
Before Mrs. Bingley could respond, Mr. Darcy himself appeared at the doorway. "Ladies," he bowed to Jane. "An express arrived not long after your carriage with messages from your father for both of you." He handed over the letters. "Apparently the rider stopped at Holloway first, but your butler was sensible enough to send him along here."
Darcy settled on the sofa beside his wife in order to read over her shoulder while the sisters shared a look and cracked the seals.
By now you and Jane have no doubt read your mother's letters. I fear that she sent them off without my knowledge, else I would have tried to prepare you. First, allow me to reassure you, my dear. Your mother is not expecting another child, regardless of what she may have have written. It is quite impossible.
I fear that your mother has been very affected by the recent births of so many male children among our family and close acquaintances. Sir William in particular is prodigiously proud of his new grandson, and so Mrs. Bennet's visits to Lucas Lodge no longer have quite the heartening effect as in the past. To make up for this, she spends a great deal of time with her Sister Phillips, the outcome of which is, I fear, the very great volume of correspondence that you have mentioned receiving. It appears that, bereft of married daughters to speak to but brimming with advice, your mother has become greatly enamored of the post. Perhaps you and your sisters should compile her letters in a volume and offer it to a publisher; there appears to be quite a market of silly young ladies desiring manuals of useless advice, and the royalties might repay your husband's outlay for the postage.
However, to return to the main point, your mother was feeling unwell recently and her symptoms were severe enough that I summoned the apothecary. Mr. Jones examined her and concluded that Mrs. Bennet has some sort of cancerous growth in her abdomen. According to him, there is no cure, I am afraid.
Your mother refuses to believe the diagnosis, and (as you have no doubt read by now) believes herself to be with child. As if that were not enough, she appears to have convinced herself that she carries my son. She became exceedingly angry when I attempted to argue otherwise, to the point that I was genuinely concerned for her health and had Hill administer laudanum. I have circulated the actual state of affairs to our neighbors, but your mother continues to announce her pregnancy to all and sundry.
At this point, I feel it is kinder to allow her the fantasy. She is taking a great deal of pleasure in sewing new baby clothes and I simply cannot find it within myself to spoil her diversion. Lydia is home from school now, and she and Kitty take turns sitting with their mother.
"Good heavens," exclaimed Elizabeth. "Will? Do you know if there is a doctor they might consult? Some sort of specialist?"
"I shall write to our physician immediately and ask for recommendations," responded Darcy earnestly. Disregarding their public position for a moment, he wrapped his arm around his wife's shoulders and gently kissed her forehead. "Are you well, dearest?"
She smiled weakly and rested her head against his chest. "I will be. It is just so strange... I feel horribly guilty now for neglecting Mama's letters. I gave no consideration to the possibility that any of them might hold something beyond the usual..."
Darcy rubbed her back. "You had no reason to, dearest. And she has written you a great deal over the last year."
"But what if I had not read it in time?"
"But you did, and that is the material point. I will make arrangements for an express and then write to Dr. Tolmach for a recommendation. Shall the two of you include letters for your parents? The rider can easily stop at Longbourn on his way to town."
Elizabeth took a deep breath to steady herself and nodded gratefully to her husband. "Yes--thank you, Fitzwilliam." Turning to her sister, she asked, "Jane, if you will compose a reply to Mama, I shall write to our father. I fear I have absolutely no idea what to say to her--Papa seems determined that she be allowed to maintain her delusion."
"Yes..." Jane chewed her lip as she took up her mother's letter to Elizabeth and began to read that.
Thinking quickly, Lizzy waited for her sister to finish reading. "Jane?" It took a few moments but Mrs. Bingley eventually looked up. "I cannot leave Pemberley just now--Georgiana's wedding is a week away and we have guests beginning to arrive tomorrow."
"Oh, I had forgotten about that, but Lizzy..."
Elizabeth interrupted; "Jane, I believe that you and Bingley should go to Longbourn, as soon as you can. Tomorrow, if possible, or the day after. We will follow after the wedding."
"Well, of course we shall go... but really Lizzy, I'm sure that there must be some mistake. Mr. Darcy's doctor shall take one look at Mama and tell us that this all has been some sort of misunderstanding."
Elizabeth gave her sister a long look. Throughout her girlhood, she had relied on Jane's tendency to see the best in everyone and everything around her. However, there were times when Lizzy genuinely worried about her sister's resistance to admitting even the possibility of unpleasantness. And given her father's similar tendency to ignore anything that might cause disarray in his life, she wondered how long her mother's illness had gone unacknowledged.
When she mentioned this to Mr. Darcy later that evening, he took his time considering the matter before answering. "The Gardiners visited Longbourn at Easter, did they not? They would have noticed if something was wrong with your mother... and perhaps just as importantly, they would not have kept it from you."
"Yes." Elizabeth took a deep breath and released it, feeling a little better. "Yes, you are absolutely right." Suddenly she sat up in bed. "The Gardiners... I must write to my aunt and uncle about this! And the Fitzwilliams..." she slumped back on her pillow and curled toward her husband. "Although, given my mother's antipathy toward Charlotte and Master Collin, I cannot recommend that they visit... it would only upset her," Lizzy sighed.
"If your mother is truly ill, they will appreciate being informed by a native of Longbourn, rather than having to rely solely on rumors and gossip."
"Oh stars, yes... they must be getting all sorts of bizarre reports from Lucas Lodge. Well, Papa always said that we have a responsibility to provide entertainment for our neighbors."
As a joke, it fell rather flat, but Fitzwilliam wrapped his arms around her and she was reassured that at least one person in the world understood her conflicted feelings toward her parents.
In the end, what should have been chaos proved remarkably easy to manage. The Bingleys left for Longbourn three days after Mr. Bennet's express, although Jane continued protesting that it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding even as she stepped up into the carriage. Elizabeth was relieved to see that Charles, at least, was taking the situation seriously and had carefully taken down the information for the doctor who would be coming up from London to examine Mrs. Bennet.
Elizabeth's letter to the Gardiners proved prescient, for indeed, they had heard nothing about the matter, as Edward later admitted to the Darcys. "There are times when I simply cannot fathom what your father is thinking, Lizzy. That he would put off informing me, Fanny's own brother, of her illness, until something 'more certain' was known, I cannot comprehend. I cannot even tell if he believed Mr. Jones' diagnosis or not--he did not summon a doctor for a second opinion, after all--so what sort of evidence was he waiting for to be more certain?"
With so much on her mind, Elizabeth was exceptionally glad that she had accepted Lady Matlock's offer to help organize Georgiana's wedding. Even if the guests were relatively few in number, it was not every day that one hosted a duke, not to mention a marquess, an earl, a bevy of barons and knights, and all their correspondingly titled spouses. Although the party was limited to family, both the Fitzwilliams and the Somersets were prolific, and as all of Georgiana's cousins and Jonah's siblings chose to attend, even Pemberley began to feel remarkably full.
The evening before Miss Georgiana Darcy was to wed Lord Jonah Somerset, they all gathered in Pemberley's most formal dining room. As the guests moved to take their chairs, Will looked around the table. First, he observed his wife who was guiding the Duke of Grafton and Lord Jonah to the seats beside her, her eyes sparkling and laughter bubbling up like silver bells. Not for the first time, he wondered what he had done to deserve her.
The Duke appeared to be enjoying himself tremendously and turned slightly to Lady Eleanor to include her in the conversation. Darcy was glad to see that his aunt and uncle appeared to be recovering from the death of their eldest son. The Countess still wore black, but it was now edged with white and she had seemed genuinely saddened to leave Lady Alameda and young Master Reggie behind in Essex when she and Matlock had returned to Derbyshire after Easter.
Lord Jonah caught his eye and for an instant, Darcy wondered if his future brother-in-law was winking at him. However, a soft giggle from the young lady at Fitzwilliam's right corrected his understanding. For a moment, he simply watched his sister as she glowed with happiness and chatted with the Duchess while stealing looks at her fiancé. A series of memories flashed through his mind.
George Darcy showing him how to hold the impossibly tiny baby and telling him that she would be his to protect.
The happy little girl set on her first pony, full of that heady mix of exuberance and terror.
Her huge eyes when she was brought to him for the first time in her new mourning clothes after their father died... how the black bombazine had seemed to leach all the color from her face... much as the shock over Wickham's betrayal had done.
And the resurgence of her happy giggles and ethereal music when a certain impertinent young lady from Hertfordshire had blown into their lives like a breath of fresh spring air.
Returning to the present, Darcy observed his sister and her betrothed share a longing glance, and it reminded him so much of those he had shared with Elizabeth during their engagement that his throat tightened and he was forced to struggle manfully against the tears that threatened to well up. Once his emotions had settled, however, Mr. Darcy stood tall and raised his glass, ready to make peace with his sister's choice and toast to her future.
The wedding service was solemn and, although the bride never stopped crying from the moment she stepped through the door of Pemberley's chapel on her brother's arm, the morning sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows was more than enough to show how brilliantly happy she was. The groom might have blushed rosily when his bride's hand was placed in his own, but his words were just as serious and heartfelt.
The wedding breakfast had been set out in the smaller ballroom on tables decorated with flowers from both garden and hothouse. Having completed her duty, Mrs. Annesley joined the celebration as an honored guest and found herself noticed by the Duke of Grafton himself, as well as that gentleman's eldest son, both glad to meet a relative of the late Lady Alice.
The Countess of Matlock did not stay long at the celebration, limited as she was by the obligations of mourning. However, she stood for a time in a doorway with Mrs. Reynolds, observing the happy company and thinking of the past. "This family has suffered so much grief over the years... I pray that this year marks a new era."
"'Tis a new generation, and it looks to be a lucky one, to my eye," replied the phlegmatic housekeeper. "It's been good to see the Master happy, and from the looks of it, Miss Georgiana shall be just the same."
"Lady Somerset, you mean."
"As you say, ma'am," replied Mrs. Reynolds. "But she'll always be a Miss Darcy of Pemberley."
Chapter 65. The Son She Always Wanted.
Posted on 2015-06-11
Mr. and Mrs. Darcy left for Hertfordshire on the day after Georgiana's wedding. Fitzwilliam commented only half jokingly that the trip would help distract him from thinking too much on his baby sister's activities now that she was a married woman, but he could feel Elizabeth's worry grow with every mile they progressed.
The Darcys brought a second carriage so that young Master Bennet and his nursemaid might ride with the servants when his parents desired privacy (and quiet). Although Lizzy wished for her parents to meet their grandson, she had spent enough time with the Gardiner children to know that traveling with a baby was not the easiest of enterprises. Though lacking in experience, Darcy was clever, and by the end of the first day he had come to recognize his wife's wisdom, as well as why, of their little family of three, the smallest member had the largest trunk.
The Darcys arrived at Longbourn in late afternoon of the third day. Davey Hill was there immediately and seemed to be expecting them, so moments after Elizabeth and Darcy stepped down from the carriage, it was moving again, rolling around to the back entrance to unload the trunks.
Hearing the sound of voices, Lizzy took her son from his nurse and led her husband around to the side garden. All five Gardiner children were there and little John Thomas Bingley appeared to be fascinated by their play from his place on a shaded blanket. Elizabeth was happy to see her cousins, but soon shooed them back to their hoops and balls with a promise to tell them a story later, her attention drawn by the group of very serious adults gathered in the copse.
"Darcy! Elizabeth! Thank heavens, you have come!" Bingley was the first to hail them and his words sounded ominous to the couple.
While they all exchanged greetings and the Gardiners admired young Ben for the first time, Lizzy noticed that Jane appeared particularly upset, clinging to her sister without uttering a word.
Although Lizzy dearly wished for a bath and clean set of clothes, she did not want to enter the house without knowing the state of affairs. "Well then, what has happened? Did the specialist come to see Mama? Where is my father?"
Characteristically, it was Mr. Gardiner who answered. "Yes, Dr. Grant came this morning; he seems to be an exceptionally knowledgeable and patient gentleman--thank you for seeing to that, Mr. Darcy."
Once that gentleman had accepted his appreciation, Gardiner continued, "He spent nearly an hour with my sister, and then another with Mrs. Hill, who appears to have provided an excellent summary of Fanny's symptoms despite the patient's protests." Edward shut his eyes for a moment and sighed before turning back to the new arrivals. "In short, he says that Mr. Jones was quite correct in his diagnosis and that, given the size of the tumor and the rate of growth suggested by Mrs. Hill's observations, he is surprised that Fanny is still alive. He does not believe she will last more than a fortnight."
Jane burst into uncontrolled sobs and was drawn into Bingley's embrace.
"Where is she? And where is my father?" questioned Elizabeth, leaning against her husband and feeling his arm pull her close.
"Your mother is in a great deal of pain," responded Mrs. Gardiner this time. "She is in good spirits, though, as she still believes herself to be with child." She sighed. "Your father is taking it very hard, I'm afraid. He could not speak a word for a full ten minutes, and then demanded if the doctor was quite certain of the diagnosis. Upon receiving an adamant response, he verily pushed us all out of his study and locked the door. About two hours ago, Kitty came down to say that her father had sent the two girls away while he sat with Fanny. As best we can tell, he is still with her."
"Catherine has not had an easy time of it, I fear," added Mr. Gardiner. "She and Lydia are up in their old rooms, resting." At Elizabeth's curious look, he explained, "As I understand it, one of Lydia's friends was traveling with her family to London at the end of term and were kind enough to see your sister to Longbourn. She arrived not more than a fortnight ago."
After a few moments spent digesting the information, Elizabeth gritted her teeth and forced herself to face the situation. "Well, Mr. Darcy and I need to wash up and change, and then I would like to introduce my son to his grandparents."
Jane looked as if she might follow her sister, but Bingley tightened his arms around her and whispered something until she closed her eyes again.
Elizabeth could not recall Longbourn ever being so quiet, but she still smiled to see Mrs. Hill waiting for them at the front door. "Oh, Miss Lizzy--it's good you've come. And you as well, Mr. Darcy, sir."
"Hill, this is my son, Master Bennet Darcy."
"Oh, isn't he just a dear! And just look at him watching me--he's an old soul, mark my words!"
Mrs. Hill was slightly embarrassed to show the Darcys into Elizabeth and Jane's old rooms, but as she explained, it was the last unoccupied suite in the house. "I hope this will do, Miss... Mrs. Darcy--there now, I'll get it right one of these days. I've put the Gardiners and the Bingleys in the two guest suites, and with Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty back in their rooms, there's only those two single bed chambers on either end of the hall, and I didn't think you'd be wanting those."
"This will do just fine, Mrs. Hill," Elizabeth assured her, though to herself, she wondered how she would feel sleeping with her husband in her girlhood room. "And if we could have some water to wash off the dust, it would be wonderful. It need not be hot--the weather is so warm that cool water would be lovely."
"Oh yes, I daresay old Mabberley has already brought it up for the both of you. See--your maid and valet look to have your things all set out... and the nursery's all scrubbed up--Miss Annie and young Master Bingley are there already, each with a nurse of their own, so there'll be no problem looking after young Master Darcy, here. Well then--I'll just be seeing about dinner. Don't you worry about a thing but your mother, Miss Lizzy. It's good you've come home."
Elizabeth watched the dear housekeeper bustle down the hall to the servants' stairs before turning back to her husband and sighing.
"How are you, really?" asked Darcy.
Lizzy smiled wanly. "Well enough, for now." She took a deep breath and continued, "This first time, I would like to take Ben in to see my mother alone, if you don't mind. If she is still abed, then she probably hasn't dressed or had her hair done and she would be utterly mortified to have you see her so. While I do that, will you talk to my uncle and find out if they know anything else?"
Judging that in this situation, Elizabeth knew best, Fitzwilliam agreed, and, after one last kiss, the couple went to their separate dressing rooms.
Tilly was ready and had her mistress washed and changed so quickly that it was barely half an hour later before Mrs. Darcy found herself in the hall outside her mother's apartment, holding her son and watching her husband disappear down the stairs. She was just reaching to knock when the door opened to show Mrs. Hill with a tray.
"You go right in, Miss Lizzy. Your father's sitting with her and they know you're coming. I haven't given the mistress her laudanum, so she's in a bit of pain, but she... well, you'll see. You go on in, dear."
Mrs. Bennet looked just as Elizabeth had pictured, sitting up in her bed against a pile of ruffled pillows, wearing her lace cap and a pink shawl. Her embroidery basket was on the table beside her, and a crochet hook with a half-finished baby bootie was stuck into a ball of yarn. Her expression was happy to the point of defiance, although her daughter could easily make out the signs of illness lurking behind it, and the bulge in her mother's abdomen could not be missed. In that instant, Elizabeth understood perfectly why her father had chosen to allow his wife to retain her fantasy; to do otherwise would have been a cruelty.
"Is that Mrs. Darcy? Come in, come in--and you have brought the boy! Oh--bring him here so that I can see him! Your dear husband isn't behind you, is he? I am not dressed yet. Oh, my dear, dear Lizzy--a baby boy! Oh, my nerves! Mr. Darcy must be so pleased!"
Elizabeth came to sit on the edge of the bed and held the babe where her mother might best look at him. "Hello Mama, Papa. May I introduce Master Bennet Darcy to you? We call him Ben..."
"Mr. Bennet Darcy, how well that sounds! Does it not, Thomas? Bennet Darcy... oh, what a serious expression he has, just like his father. Well, you will make sure he laughs, won't you, Lizzy?"
With a catch in her throat, Elizabeth promised to do so very earnestly, and proceeded to answer all her mother's questions with no hint of impatience.
Eventually, Mrs. Bennet paused long enough for her husband to say quietly, "Welcome home, Lizzy... we are glad to see you... both of you."
For the first time, Elizabeth turned toward the chair where her father sat, and really looked at him. She was shocked to see how he appeared to have aged a decade since last she saw him. However, all she could think to say was, "Thank you, Papa."
Fortunately, Mrs. Bennet had begun sorting through her basket, pulling out any number of beautifully embroidered baby clothes until she found what she wanted. "Here! Most of what I've been making are for newborns, of course," she smiled proudly at Lizzy, resting her hand on her own swollen belly, "but I knew I made a few that turned out larger."
Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth saw her father glance at her with alarm, but she accepted the gift from her mother with every appearance of gratitude and no comment on the implication. "Thank you, Mama. The embroidery is beautiful."
Mrs. Bennet accepted the comment breezily. "Well, I suppose you have a fine French modista making young Bennet's clothes, but I daresay a lifetime of experience counts for something."
"Oh Mama," said Lizzy, reaching out to press her mother's hand. "The gown is truly beautiful. I would save it for a special occasion, but Ben grows so fast that I fear I should put him in it today, lest he be too big for it by tomorrow!"
"Well then," said Mrs. Bennet, affecting a careless manner, though Elizabeth could tell how pleased she was.
They talked a little longer, until Elizabeth could see that her mother was tiring. After a few minutes, she used the excuse of Ben's fussing to take her leave.
"Oh, yes--you had best take him to his nurse. You did bring a nurse for him, didn't you, Lizzy?" Once her daughter had assured her that the Darcys had indeed brought a servant to look after the baby, Mrs. Bennet relaxed back into her pillows. "Well, that's alright, then. I need to rest a bit this afternoon, but I'll see you at dinner, Lizzy. Tell Hill not to bother me until I send for her."
"Yes, Mama; I'll tell Mrs. Hill. Rest well," offered Elizabeth and kissed her mother's forehead.
Bennet's nurse was waiting in the hall and Mrs. Darcy gratefully handed over the babe to be changed and put down for a nap. "I expect that we will bring all the children down to the drawing room before dinner; let's put Master Bennet in this gown--his grandmama made it."
"Oh, yes ma'am! It's beautiful, if you don't mind my saying, ma'am."
Elizabeth smiled a little sadly in agreement, for her mother had always had a fine hand with a needle.
Before she went to find her husband, she paused to tap lightly on the door to Catherine and Lydia's suite. Hearing a low murmur, she cracked the door and was glad to find the pair awake.
"Lizzy! You have come!" exclaimed Kitty, jumping up to hug her sister. Lydia held back until Elizabeth held out a hand for her and then she joined the other two, giving and receiving comfort. "Thank you so much for writing to the Gardiners, Lizzy... I had no idea what to do... Mama was saying such strange things, but Papa only said I should not worry about it..."
"Dear Kitty... I imagine it has been very hard for you."
"I wrote to Aaron, but he is so busy working on his father's estate that I did not want to worry him over much..."
"Lizzy, what is going to happen to Mama?" asked Lydia, direct as ever, even if her tone was rather more polite.
Elizabeth sighed and drew the girls over to sit on the bed. "What do you know?"
"Mama says that she is pregnant and we are to have a baby brother," answered Kitty in an uncertain tone.
"Which is totally ridiculous because she is ancient... I mean, she's a grandmother, for heaven's sake!" exclaimed Lydia. "But when I asked Jane, all she would say was that everything was fine, and that the doctor would come and tell us everything is all right. But the doctor came this morning and when I asked her again, she had that look in her eye, like when the horse kicked Mary's cat and wouldn't wake up."
Elizabeth was glad that she had come alone to talk to the girls. "Mama is very sick," she agreed. "The doctor says that there is a cancer growing in her stomach--that is why her belly is so swollen."
"But she isn't pregnant," repeated Kitty.
"No, she isn't," agreed Lizzy with equal solemnity.
"Is she going to die?" asked Lydia bluntly.
Elizabeth reached out to take both her sisters' hands. "Yes, I'm afraid so... and probably sooner rather than later. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but we must prepare ourselves."
Kitty stared at her wide-eyed for a moment before bursting into tears. The three clung to one another and Lizzy and Lydia cried a little as well. It was some time before they quieted, and then the younger girls had more questions which Elizabeth answered as best she could. When they finally fell silent, Lizzy checked her watch and noted that it was nearly time to dress for dinner. "Mama looked to be in some pain, but she assured me she would come down for dinner. Let us all put on pretty dresses and happy expressions and enjoy being together. Can you do that for her? "
Once Kitty and Lydia had both agreed, Elizabeth gave them each a last hug and then went to find her husband.
She discovered Mr. Darcy in the drawing room, sitting across a chessboard from her Uncle Gardiner. Neither appeared to be much involved in the game, however, and rose from their chairs the instant that she appeared in the doorway.
"How are you?"
"Did you see your mother? You were upstairs for a long time..."
Elizabeth smiled wanly and stepped into her husband's arms. "I took Ben to meet Mama and Papa--it went very well, I think--but as I was coming back, I stopped to see Kitty and Lydia and we talked for a time."
"Ah," said Mr. Gardiner, looking a little guilty. "Maddy and I were going to talk to the girls. We were just discussing how best to approach it with Jane and Bingley when your carriage arrived, and then I suppose we let ourselves get distracted.
Lizzy remained with her cheek pressed against her husband's chest, taking comfort from the steady thump of his heart. "I told them the truth--they are both strong girls. Kitty was very upset, but I think she was also relieved, in some ways, to finally know the facts. And Lydia certainly suspected it, probably because the change in Mama is so striking to one who has been away from Longbourn as she has."
"Mmm... yes, I am afraid that Lydia did not take well to Jane's attempts to soothe her."
"Where is Jane?" asked Elizabeth curiously.
Darcy answered, "Bingley took her up to their rooms to rest."
Elizabeth tilted her head back so that she might see his face. "She isn't taking this very well, is she?" Rather than wait for an answer she already knew, Lizzy sighed. "Well, we should probably follow their lead and go dress for dinner. Mama insisted that she would be down, and the girls and I have agreed that it shall be a cheerful, happy evening. I thought that all the children could come down to the drawing room before we go in, Uncle?"
Mr. Gardiner nodded in approval. "An very good notion, Lizzy. With any luck, their good humor shall carry us through the meal, as well."
It turned out to be an excellent idea, for the Gardiner children were a happy lot and truly glad to see their grandparents and cousins. Jane sat with John Thomas in her arms, which seemed to lesson her disquiet; it certainly pleased Mrs. Bennet to look upon such a pretty picture. Longbourn's mistress might not have been so pleased when Mrs. Darcy sat down on the rug so that her son might demonstrate his newest accomplishment of rolling over, but as the whole room turned to praise the baby and then admire his grandmother's handwork on his gown, Fanny could not bring herself to admonish her daughter more than once.
Catherine had taken charge of little Annie Gardiner while Lydia looked on doubtfully, prompting Mrs. Bennet to exclaim, "Oh! My dear Lydia--now that you are home, we must go shopping! There is an assembly at Meryton next month, and I am sure that there will be ever so many handsome young gentlemen for you to dance with! Now that Kitty is engaged, it is your turn, my dearest girl!"
After a reassuring look from Elizabeth, Lydia did her best to agree with her mother with most of her usual exuberance, and then encouraged Mrs. Bennet to tell them more about the recent happenings in the neighborhood.
Any who had known Miss Lydia Bennet before she had been sent to school would have been surprised to see her less than enthusiastic over attending a dance, but the more sensible members of her family were very pleased by the changes she exhibited. Though Lydia would never lose her native exuberance (and indeed, none of them truly wished her to do so), it was now expressed in a more proper manner, and that shade of vulgarity that had so often colored her ways in the past had been mostly eliminated. She would never be a great reader, but Lydia's mind had been broadened through exposure to girls from a wide range of backgrounds and, by hearing tales of their experiences, the youngest Miss Bennet had gained a great deal more sense herself.
The happy mood continued even after the children were herded upstairs by their maids and the adults passed into the dining room. Elizabeth kept her mother well-entertained for a time with stories of Miss Darcy's wedding, and never hesitated when Mrs. Bennet inquired if the Duke of Grafton might have any more unmarried sons, with a pointed look toward Lydia.
To her mother's great fascination, Mrs. Darcy told the story of poor Lord Granville Somerset, second son of a Duke and a wealthy gentleman in his own right. The gentleman had been engaged four years prior to a young lady with a fine dowry and excellent connections... and who, only a week before the wedding, had run away with one of her father's stablemen. "The last anyone heard, they had married in Scotland and then taken a ship to Nova Scotia," she finished with a flourish.
While Mrs. Bennet and the other ladies gushed over the poor gentleman and his broken heart, Mr. Darcy received his wife's wink with a subtle eye roll. Both Darcys had noticed Lord Granville's interest in the widowed Lady Lucy Wallace during the wedding festivities, and Elizabeth was fairly certain that Richard's sister was not at all indifferent to his admiration.
When Elizabeth had finished describing the wedding breakfast and paused to drink some wine, it was Mr. Bingley who next gained the company's attention. "Though it is a bit early to make an announcement, Jane and I wanted to tell you all... while we are all gathered together... that we expect... that is, well, we think Jane is expecting again... she has not felt the quickening yet, but we are fairly certain... it probably won't be until January or February, but we wanted all of you to know." Bingley's speech finally stumbled to a stop and he managed not to look toward his mother-in-law, but no one noticed because they were all exclaiming over Jane and calling out their congratulations to the couple.
Mrs. Bingley looked like herself for the first time since arriving at Longbourn, glowing with serene happiness and smiling shyly at her husband.
The evening ended not long after a toast had been drunk; the Darcys admitted that their trip had left them exhausted and everyone else recognized that their hostess was looking increasingly pained. Any tears that were shed while they bid one another good night were attributed to the family's happy reunion.
Having gone to the nursery to check on young Ben, the Darcys paused in the doorway to see Mrs. Bennet on her way to her apartment, leaning heavily on her husband's arm.
Elizabeth's sobs held off only as long as it took to shut the door to her bedchamber and step into Fitzwilliam's embrace.
The next morning, the Darcys rose early and left for a walk before the rest of the house had stirred, although Elizabeth was amused to catch sight of Lydia's bonnet bobbing along a distant path heading toward Oakham Mount. Although she had fallen asleep with tears on her cheeks, Lizzy found it hard not to be cheerful on such a fine morning. Glad to see her spirits rising, Darcy was careful to keep their conversation on light and happy topics.
Lydia and the Darcys did not see one another until they all arrived at the front door together. The three stood on the front steps to enjoy a few more minutes of the morning sunshine and Lizzy was just asking about her sister's walk when the door opened behind them. Turning, one look at Mrs. Hill's stricken face told the story.
"Miss Lizzy? The mistress always likes me to bring her tea about now, but she won't wake. I shook her a little, but... well, and your father's asleep in his chair by her bed, and I didn't want to wake him... Oh Miss Lizzy..."
Elizabeth hugged the old housekeeper and it was only a moment before she felt Lydia join them. Vaguely, she heard Mr. Darcy call one of their footmen and send him off to retrieve the doctor from the inn at Meryton. Not for the first time, she thanked the heavens for the steady man whom she had married.
After a time, it was decided that the ladies would go to their mother's apartment and undertake the unhappy task of waking their father, if he had not already done so by himself. Darcy agreed to stay near the front door to meet the doctor when he arrived. With a thankful look, Lizzy turned and, arm-in-arm with Lydia, started up the stairs.
Mrs. Bennet looked very peaceful, tucked under the bedclothes with her hands clasped at her breast and a small smile softening her mouth. Her pale skin was cool to the touch, however, and neither sister could detect any sign of life.
Lizzy knelt by her father and took his hand, wishing that she had something better to offer the haggard man. Though he had been deep asleep, Mr. Bennet's eyes showed his understanding almost instantly, flicking from his wife to Elizabeth and back again. He remained still for a minute, but then squeezed his daughter's hand and rose stiffly from his chair. Thomas stood at his wife's bedside for a long time, head bowed, before finally smoothing her hair and kissing her forehead. He rested his hand briefly on Lydia's shoulder before nodding jerkily at Lizzy and leaving the room, all without saying a word.
Elizabeth took her father's chair and the sisters remained where they were, keeping a silent vigil, disturbed only when Mrs. Gardiner joined them and then, later, Jane and Kitty. It was an hour before Dr. Grant arrived but his verdict was of no great surprise. "She passed in the night, around one or two o'clock in the morning, if I had to guess. By the look of her, she went peacefully, which is a blessing given the pain some have to endure toward the end."
The next few days passed in a haze for Elizabeth. She recalled holding her sisters as they cried, and later, sobbing alone in her husband's embrace. At some point, the Phillipses were sent for and, while Mrs. Gardiner did her best to soothe that woman's wild sobs over her sister's dead body, Mr. Phillips quietly sat down with Darcy and Gardiner to begin sorting through the business associated with death.
Later, Lizzy would learn that Mr. Darcy had sent Tilly in a carriage to London almost immediately after Mrs. Hill delivered her news. At the time, all she knew was that she suddenly had mourning clothes to put on, and there was a seamstress to make gowns for her sisters from the bolts of black bombazine that had appeared along with the black crepe to cover the windows and hang on the house's façade.
In death, Longbourn kept to the old ways. Mrs. Hill and the old cook washed their late mistress and sewed her shroud. Mr. Anderson, the best carpenter in Meryton, built the coffin from wood of a great elm that had blown over at Longbourn during the previous winter. When Mr. Bennet was brought by his brother-in-laws to inspect it, the very wood seemed to mock him, for he had set aside those boards with the expectation that they would remain unused until some distant time in the future, and then for himself, not his lively young wife.
The Bennet sisters had reserved the final night's vigil as their own, and, though the drawing room might have been draped in black, it was brightly lit with a dozen good candles brought up from Derwent House. Once the rest of the house had gone to bed, the young ladies gathered around their mother's casket with their sewing baskets and set to work.
When the mourners next saw Mrs. Bennet, they were amazed, for her shroud had been quite transformed with embroidery, ribbons, and lace, as if it was the finest ball gown; those who looked closely could even see the toes of pink dancing slippers peeking out from beneath her skirt. She held a bouquet of summer flowers in a rainbow of colors cut from her own garden, and a long braid of daisies and rosemary had been cunningly stitched to the white crepe ruffle around the rim of the coffin.
Mr. Bennet was so shocked by his wife's appearance that his face turned grey and he was forced to sit on the front pew for ten minutes entire before he could make a sound. When he could speak at last, he thanked his girls with an earnestness that few had ever heard from him.
The bells were rung before and after the service, and the vicar's sermon reflected a lifetime's knowledge of the deceased. Mr. Bennet stood with his daughters while his wife's coffin was born into a full church by her two brothers, Gardiner and Phillips, and her two sons-in-law, Darcy and Bingley. Determining the final pair of pall bearers had caused some consternation among her kin, but finally Mr. Bennet had decided that it was only right for the duty to go to Mr. Wright, as Fanny's future son-in-law, and Sir Richard Fitzwilliam, standing for Longbourn's young heir.
Mr. Gardiner had looked uncertain at this last nomination until Mrs. Phillips commented bluntly, "Well, the only thing my sister liked better than a juicy bit of gossip was something to fuss at, and she surely did enjoy fussing about the Collinses and Fitzwilliams."
Thanks to the servants that their neighbors sent over to help, all of Longbourn's silver was polished to a fine gleam and an abundance of food and drink was prepared in time for the mourners' return from the church. Charlotte excused herself immediately and set off for the kitchen to check on the last details; Elizabeth found herself glad to let her old friend assume the responsibility. Instead of worrying about the household, Mrs. Darcy drew her sisters upstairs to their mother's old bedchamber; the four looked like a flock of blackbirds roosting in an otherwise cheerful room.
"I still say that we should have gone to the graveyard to see the end of it," sighed Lydia as she dropped into a chair by the window with just a bit of a flounce.
"Lydia--such a thing is not done! Surely you know that by now," responded Jane tiredly.
"Lydia," interjected Elizabeth when it appeared that her youngest sister was prepared to argue the point. "Perhaps we should think of what our mother would have wanted, rather than ourselves, hmmm?"
"Mama would have been mortified," admitted her youngest sister with only a small pout. Then she brightened; "Unless there was a single man of large fortune likely to be there; then she would have coached me on how to swoon in just such a way to make him catch me... and nurse me back to health... and fall madly in love with me... and we would marry and live happily ever after!" She demonstrated her best swoon from her seat in the chair.
Lydia's comment was so very true that not even Mrs. Bingley could think of how to argue. After a long moment of silence, Elizabeth began to laugh, followed by her younger sisters and eventually even Jane.
After a time, they began to talk again, more easily now. "It seems wrong that Mary is not here," said Jane softly. "I know she could not very well fly back from Africa, and the funeral could not be delayed, but..."
"I am going to draw a picture of Mama in her coffin, with all the lace and ribbons and flowers, so that Mary can see how pretty she looked," offered Kitty earnestly. "She looked happy and... and peaceful. Not at all like those dreadful corpses you read about in novels."
Mrs. Darcy managed to hold her tongue and not laugh aloud.
"In our next letter to Mary, we must be sure to include which psalm the vicar read... and which hymns we sang," commented Jane rather absently.
"Mr. Darcy is having the hair we cut made into broaches for each of us. I shall find out if we can safely send it in a parcel to Africa, or if it would be better to save it until the Tuckers return to England," offered Lizzy.
She waved off their thanks, saying that they would do better to direct their appreciation to her husband. "He told me that he remembered Lady Catherine de Bourgh saying that every lady should have at least one good piece of mourning jewelry. Her advice proves useful at the oddest of times," she mused for a moment until the others began giggling.
"Come, then--a last hug and then, once more into the breach, dear friends," responded Lizzy, gathering her sisters around her.
"Does everyone have at least one dry handkerchief?" asked Jane worriedly.
"Has anyone seen my sketchbook?" added Kitty.
"Didn't Mr. Sanderson look handsome in his blue coat?" piped Lydia, whereupon they all began giggling again.
Once they had recovered a proper solemnity, the sisters descended to the drawing room to check the arrangements and greet the visitors. It was not long before the gentlemen returned from the internment, and with their arrival, it seemed as all the county's population had descended on Longbourn to offer their sympathy.
The gathering was so well-attended that they finally opened the doors of the drawing room so that the crowd might spill outside. Some might have considered it irreverent for a wake to be held in the deceased's garden on a beautiful sunny afternoon, but as more than one visitor commented, only a person who had not really known Fanny Bennet would think such a thing.
After a time, Elizabeth noticed that her father remained absent, although Mr. Gardener assured her that his brother-in-law had returned with them from the cemetery. Unsurprisingly, she tracked him to his study. He sat at his desk but, instead of a book, he was holding one of Kitty's drawings.
"Papa?" called Elizabeth when it became obvious that he had not noticed her knock.
He glanced up and blinked a few times as if coming out of a trance. "Of course, come in, Lizzy. Come in, but shut the door, please."
He stared at her for a minute as if searching out traces of familiar features. "Your mother was not the most educated of women, but she had so much energy about her... can you feel it? Can you feel how cold Longbourn has become? It has lost its heart."
He wiped some tears away roughly and set the paper down on the desk where Elizabeth could see that it was a simple charcoal sketch capturing her mother in the happiest of moods, her face wreathed in smiles and eyes crinkled with laughter.
"I ought to have had her portrait painted when we were first married... I meant to, but the money always seemed to be needed for something else... and I knew it would have to be a very talented artist to capture that look in her eyes." Thomas pulled out his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly. "Now, I find that all I had to do was give her daughter some paper and a little encouragement. It seems so obvious, now that I think on it. She loved you girls with all her heart, you know. Oh, my poor, dear Fanny."
Lizzy comforted her father as best she could, until finally his great racking sobs subsided. "Come, Papa..." Lizzy led him over to a window where he could see the Bennet girls and their guests gathered in the garden. "See Lydia? She already has Jane smiling again. And Kitty is looking at Mr. Wright as if he could hang the moon. That was Mama's gift to us--her joy and her zest for life. She lives on in all of her daughters, just as you live on in all of them," she said, pointing to where Collin, John Thomas, and Bennet were playing on a blanket.
Mrs. Darcy was rather proud of herself for composing such an uplifting speech until her father commented, "Lizzy, your son is eating grass."
"Well, I've always had a preference for gentleman farmers."
Mr. Bennet could not help but chuckle a little over that pert reply, and so, when she took his arm and pulled him toward the door, he did not resist. "Come Papa, my mother would not have wanted you to hide away in your book room when there are so many guests at Longbourn."
Chapter 66. Mission's End.
Posted on 2015-06-19
Mrs. Mary Tucker stepped down from the hired wagon onto a street that was so far removed from her recent experiences that it might have belonged to a different planet altogether. A pair of well-dressed ladies stalked past, peering down their noses at her travel-stained cloak and worn boots; London's fashions might have changed since she had left England a decade before, but the people had not, it appeared. An ironic smile warmed her eyes in an expression that would never have occurred to Miss Mary Bennet.
A noise from the street recalled Mrs. Tucker's attention to the present, however, and she looked to a gangly youth of nine with her own eyes but his father's sandy hair. "Matthew--you are in charge. Everyone is to stay seated in the wagon until I come back, do you understand?" She waited until all the children nodded. "I shall only be a few minutes." Turning to the driver, she added, "I have your fare here in my purse; I will pay it when I come back--do not move from this spot, do you understand?"
The old man nodded obediently, unconsciously touching his cap. To himself, he admitted not a little admiration for the lady's pluck, for there were not many females who could keep such a flock together once deposited alone on the docks, much less pack the whole lot and their luggage into a hired wagon and keep the young'uns quiet while directing a driver through London traffic.
Mrs. Tucker would have appreciated the compliment.
Resolutely, Mary climbed the steps and tapped the knocker. The door was opened so quickly that she wondered if someone had been watching out a window, though the solemn, black-clad butler did not appear remotely welcoming. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Is this still the Darcy residence?"
The man might have been astonished to receive such a question, but the only emotion he showed was in the rapid blinking of his eyes. "Indeed, ma'am."
"I need to see Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy, or if she is not at home, her husband. I am Mrs. Mary Tucker, Mrs. Darcy's sister."
The manservant remained still for just an instant before nodding once. "Do you wish to leave your card, Mrs. Tucker?"
Good humor lit an otherwise exhausted countenance. "I have been in Africa for almost eleven years; I cannot remember the last time I paid a call, much less had a card to leave."
Such directness and composure, combined with various aspects of physiognomy so reminiscent of Mrs. Darcy, prompted the servant to open the door wider. "Would you care to wait inside, then, ma'am?"
Mary looked back to the wagon and, deciding that her little flock appeared safe enough for the moment, stepped through the portal and back into a world that she had walked away from a decade prior.
The butler departed to search out his mistress and Mrs. Tucker was left in the foyer, feeling not a little out of place. Catching sight of her rather crumpled bonnet in a mirror, she felt a tremor of that insecurity which had so plagued Miss Mary Bennet, but shrugged it off an instant later. "After all, how many of these fancy London ladies can claim to have plucked their ostrich feathers right off the bird himself, alive and kicking?" she snickered to herself.
However, she forgot all about her bonnet when the sound of light footsteps tripping down the stairs came echoing from the hall. Mary turned and caught sight of her sister, a little older perhaps, but with the same bright smile she remembered from girlhood. "Lizzy!"
"Mary? Is that really you? Oh my stars--what a wonderful surprise!" Just as Elizabeth was catching her up in a hug, Mrs. Tucker caught sight of the butler, trailing along in his mistresses' wake with a bemused expression.
"Oh Lizzy, it is good to see you," said Mary, holding her sister very tightly for a minute before stepping back. "I apologize for showing up on your doorstep uninvited like this, but I was not sure where else to go. We stopped at Gracechurch Street first, but no one was home. We can find an inn, if this isn't a good time..."
"Oh pish tosh--my sister will not be staying at some inn while I am mistress of this house! And the Gardiners will not be returning from Kent for three more days, so you have no choice, you see? Ah, Mrs. Wilkins, excellent--this is Mrs. Tucker, my sister just returned from Africa. Now Mary, how many of you are there? Hutchinson mentioned a cart with children waiting outside on the street."
"Ten, all totaled." Upon seeing her sister's astonished expression, Mary laughed a little. "Not all the children are mine--it's a long story, I fear."
Mrs. Darcy took it all in stride and fortunately, as the mistress did, so did the servants. In minutes, the foyer was filled with eight children of varying ages, the older ones holding tight to the hands of the younger, but all left speechless by the grandeur of their surroundings.
Mrs. Tucker performed the introductions and was impressed by Elizabeth's ease in greeting each child and making them feel welcome. She did not even blink when Mary reached the end of the line and, taking a deep breath, introduced a cadaverously thin man with a bushy beard and a vacant expression. "And this, of course, is my husband, Mr. Avery Tucker."
The missionary showed no sign of recognition and made no response when Mrs. Darcy greeted him.
"Well, come along then, all of you," exclaimed their hostess without missing a beat. "Let's go up to my sitting room where you can all have a bit to eat and drink while Mrs. Wilkins sees to your rooms. How does that sound?"
"I fear that we have just come off the ship, Lizzy; none of us have bathed in weeks," murmured Mary apologetically.
Elizabeth nodded in understanding. "Mrs. Wilkins?"
That good woman ran a considering eye over the lot. "I'd suggest we take them down to the laundry room for a good scrubbing right off. That tub is as big as any and it's right by the kitchens, so they'll not get chilled and there'll be plenty of hot water."
Mrs. Darcy agreed, but added, "That will do very well for the children, but have the tub in the blue suite filled for Mrs. Tucker. And let us round up some clean clothes for everyone to wear until their own have been washed or we can have some new ones made up."
Mrs. Tucker watched with amusement as a small army of uniformed servants leapt to work and the children were herded off. As Elizabeth turned to lead her upstairs, Mary could almost feel the house humming with purpose. She took her husband by the hand and followed.
The sitting room that Lizzy brought them to was just what Mary would have imagined for her sister. The furniture was simple and comfortable, with full bookshelves and a basket of children's blocks in the corner.
A tray had magically appeared before they arrived, and Mary sighed a little when the hot cup of tea with just a little sugar was placed in her hand. "Oh, this is heaven."
Elizabeth smiled, but seemed to be thinking very hard about something. "Mary, Mr. Darcy will not be home for a few hours at least. Perhaps his valet might assist Mr. Tucker for now?"
Appreciating her sister's tact, Mary agreed and the manservant was sent for. When he arrived, Mrs. Tucker set down her cup and turned to help her husband stand again. Leading him over to the valet, she explained, "Mr. Tucker suffered an illness some time ago and the fever addled his brain. Treat him as you would a child of four or five; he is not violent, but he will not recognize something that may hurt him--a hot stove, for example--so he must be watched at all times."
Hawkins indicated his understanding and, after a few more questions, led the missionary away by the hand.
Mary watched them go before turning back to her sister. Observing Elizabeth's curious look, she explained quietly, "It was almost two years ago, now. We were going to visit another missionary for Christmas, but we arrived at their village to find the couple and all the natives suffering from fever and chills; the English call it marsh fever, I believe. By the time we got there, several were already dead, including Reverend Burgess. We did not have much medicine with us--just a bit of fever tree bark--but we did what we could. I promised Mrs. Burgess that I would look after her children, just before she passed on as well."
Elizabeth drew her sister over to a sofa and sat by her, holding her hand.
Mary smiled a little in thanks, but her eyes still looked into the distance. "Mr. Tucker developed a fever almost immediately." She sighed a little. "We were blessed, I suppose. I spent the first fortnight helping those who were too sick to move; by the time I fell ill, there were several survivors well enough to nurse the rest of us."
"Oh Mary--I cannot even imagine it! Thank the Lord you have been returned to us."
The younger woman nodded grimly and continued her story; "Mr. Tucker was bedridden for some months, but even when the fever subsided, he remained as you see now."
"And you, Mary?"
The other lady made a small movement with her hand. "I was in the middle of Africa with eight white children to look after. There was no time for me to be ill." When her sister continued to study her as if a tree might suddenly sprout from her forehead, Mary smiled a little. "Truly, Lizzy. I was not as ill as most, nor for so long. There was an old healer from the next village who arrived just as I was starting to run a fever; her concoctions may have tasted dreadfull, but I believe they worked very well indeed."
Although there were a dozen questions she wanted to ask, Elizabeth reminded herself that her sister had only just arrived. She rang the bell and commented only, "Well, I am very, very glad that you and your family are here. I want to hear all of your stories, but for now you must be wishing for a bath. You go ahead and I'll go find some clothes for you to change into."
"Thank you, Elizabeth," murmured Mrs. Tucker. Just as she was about to follow a maid through the door, however, she turned back with an uncertain look. "Lizzy, please, nothing too fancy..."
Elizabeth laughed, happy to see a flash of the sister that she recalled from childhood. "Nothing fancy, Mary, I promise."
The Darcys had planned to join a group of acquaintances at the theatre that night, but were glad to send their regrets so that they might spend the evening with their unexpected guests. Elizabeth began peppering her sister with questions even before the three of them had sat down to dinner, and Mary found herself telling stories that she had not thought of in years.
At some point, however, Mr. Darcy pointed out that his sister-in-law had barely touched her food. "Perhaps you might tell some of your own news, Elizabeth."
When her sister appeared uncertain, Mrs. Tucker urged, "Please do, Lizzy. I only received seven letters from England the whole time I was away, and three of those were in such wretched condition by the time they reached me that I could barely make out who they were from, much less read any of the contents."
Once Elizabeth was assured that Mrs. Tucker had received word of Mrs. Bennet's demise, she began telling of her sisters and of Longbourn. "Our father spends about half his time in Meryton, when he is not visiting one or another of his daughters."
Mary was intrigued to hear Mr. Darcy chuckle softly; the gentleman's wife rolled her eyes at him and explained, "Papa rarely bothers to warn us that he is coming; we have learned to keep a room ready for him at all times and the staff knows to let him in, whether or not we are in residence."
Even Mr. Darcy laughed aloud when Mrs. Tucker remarked that this seemed perfectly in keeping with the Mr. Bennet she recalled from childhood.
In truth, Mary was fascinated to see how much her sister's husband had changed, and yet how much he had stayed the same. Darcy remained the tall, handsome aristocrat with the noble mien and formal manners that she recalled meeting long ago in Hertfordshire, but now he had permanent laugh lines creasing his face and the soft look that had warmed his eyes when he looked upon her sister appeared to have become a nearly constant trait.
"Papa always manages to remember when Master Collin is coming to visit, though," offered Elizabeth after a moment. "Just wait until you see them together, Mary. Collin is at school now, of course, but he spends his time between terms at Longbourn and our father is very good with him. Mr. Higgins--the steward--continues to run the estate (I fear that our father has not lost his indifference toward the mundane), but since Mrs. Hill retired and Mrs. Higgins took over as housekeeper, Longbourn seems to run like a well-oiled clock."
Mrs. Darcy looked to her husband and he nodded in agreement, adding, "Indeed. The profits have increased significantly, and that is without even considering the stable."
Elizabeth smiled. "Ah yes--the horses! You will be amazed at all the activity when you visit. The bloodstock that Sir Richard Fitzwilliam brought back from the continent has proven to be exceptional. The Duke of Wellington himself purchased one of their yearling fillies last year."
After agreeing that this was a remarkable feat, Mary inquired, "And do the Fitzwilliams have any more children?"
"No, only Collin," answered Elizabeth, sharing a look with her husband. Not even to her sister would the Darcys confide the truth, that Richard's injuries from the war would forever prevent him from siring any children of his own. "They do not seem to regret it, however. He and Charlotte split their time between London and Hertfordshire, when they are not abroad."
At Mrs. Tucker's curious look, Lizzy explained, "Richard continues to work at the War Office and is often attached to various diplomatic envoys." Mrs. Darcy raised one eyebrow at her husband and added in a whisper, "From various hints that Lydia has let drop, I suspect they may be doing more espionage than diplomacy on these trips, though!" Fitzwilliam shook his head in amusement.
"Lydia!?!" exclaimed Mary. "What does she have to do with it?"
"Well, did you receive word when she married Richard's assistant?"
When Mrs. Tucker mutely shook her head, Elizabeth explained, "You may remember him as Lieutenant Sanderson--he was an officer in the militia that was stationed at Meryton for a time during the year Jane and I married?"
When the other woman nodded slowly, having a vague recollection of the gentleman, Mrs. Darcy added, "Well, apparently he has an exceptional capacity for languages; Richard recognized how useful such a talent could be and arranged his transfer."
"Ah. I will be interested to hear your opinion when you next meet our youngest sister. She has changed, and yet she is very much as she ever was. Just as lively and full of energy, but she is able to control it... channel it into more appropriate behavior."
"But how did she come to marry Lieutenant Sanderson?"
"Well, once she finished three years at school, Lydia returned to Longbourn." Elizabeth's tone became solemn. "That was the year Mama passed away and Kitty married Mr. Wright; I fear Longbourn felt very dull to Lydia. I do not mean to say that she did not grieve for her mother, for she did... indeed, I think she may have felt the loss more than any of us. It is just that she and Papa have very little in common, and I suppose that she was accustomed to always having other young ladies around her." Elizabeth sighed, recalling the many unhappy letters she had received from her youngest sister during that time.
"We asked Lydia to remain at Longbourn for her mourning because we worried about Papa being there alone; the Fitzwilliams visited as often as they could, but it was not the same as having someone else living under the same roof. They came to spend several months at Pemberley... or perhaps I should say that Lydia stayed with us while our father came to visit the library and Sir James."
Fitzwilliam chuckled a little but Mary only looked confused.
With a smile, Elizabeth explained, "Mr. Darcy's uncle, Sir James Darcy. He was a high court judge until he retired some years ago, and now he lives in the dower house at Pemberley. He is a very educated gentleman and is nearly finished with a monograph on the birds of England." She laughed a little, thinking about how the acquaintance had helped draw her father out of his melancholy. "In fact, it was Sir James who encouraged Papa to organize his own essays on the Greek philosophers into a manuscript."
At Mary's raised eyebrows, Mrs. Darcy nodded with a smile. "Indeed, our father has devoted himself to the project with an enthusiasm that I would never have predicted. Papa even went back to consult some of his colleagues at the university several times; he says that the book is to be published within the year."
"Astonishing," said Mrs. Tucker with no little wonder in her voice.
"Indeed. But you asked about Lydia," said Elizabeth, returning to her original point. "She visited us at Pemberley and then stayed with the Bingleys at Holloway for a time, but I suppose that neither Jane nor I maintain a particularly active social calendar when we are in the country."
Mrs. Darcy winked at her husband and the gentleman rolled his eyes good-naturedly in response. The Darcys generally visited London twice a year for part of the Seasons, but in general they were perfectly content to spend the majority of their time in Derbyshire; they continued the traditions of a fox hunt and harvest ball in the autumn and a large gathering of family and close friends at Christmas, but beyond that, they remained largely content with their small circle of intimates.
Turning back to her sister, Elizabeth resumed, "Apparently Mr. Sanderson had developed warm feelings for our sister while he was in Meryton with the militia and never forgot her. When he became Sir Richard's assistant, he and Lydia saw a great deal more of one another and formed an attachment very rapidly. They married from Longbourn on Lydia's eighteenth birthday and now spend most of their time in London, when they are not abroad with the Fitzwilliams."
"No, but they are so busy that I do not believe either regrets it. Right now they are in Russia--Saint Petersburg--and when they get back, you will understand; Lydia will have a dozen stories about the parties they attended and the noblemen and diplomats she danced with, and Mr. Sanderson will sit there smiling like a sphinx. Truly, Mary--I genuinely believe that they are working as spies for the government."
"Elizabeth," murmured Mr. Darcy warningly.
Mrs. Tucker studied them both and decided that her host's genuinely serious tone told her a great deal about the potential truth of the matter. She chose to turn the subject. "And how are Jane and Catherine?"
After throwing a final look of amusement toward her husband, Elizabeth answered, "Well, Kitty and her Mr. Wright spend most of their time at his family's estate in Essex. They have three children--two girls and a boy--and seem to be perfectly content tending to their bat willows and entertaining the four and twenty families in their neighborhood. Mr. Wright's father suffers from gout, but he and Mrs. Wright get along very well with Kitty, and I believe that they enjoy having their grandchildren growing up around them."
Noticing that they had all finished their meals, Mrs. Darcy suggested that the trio adjourn to the sitting room for tea and cakes. While she was serving, Mr. Darcy told Mary a little about the Gardiners. "I am sponsoring Jonathan at his levee next week, after which we will host a dinner here and then accompany him to a ball at St. James. He has grown into an exceptional young man; I expect that he will do very well."
"By which my husband means that our young cousin has been schooled in the dignified air and forbidding countenance that Fitzwilliam deems necessary for the new Master of Rosings Park to survive in the first circles of Society," said Elizabeth impertinently.
"By which I mean that he is likely to be accepted into whatever circles he chooses to frequent, due to his intelligence and good manners, not simply the size of his bank account and estate," retorted the gentleman firmly, though it was clear that he knew he was being teased.
Elizabeth's voice softened and her pride in her husband was perfectly obvious. "Yes, dear."
After a few moments, Mary observed, "You have not said much about Jane and Mr. Bingley. Are they well?"
"Oh yes," responded Lizzy, a little too quickly. "They have eight children and I just received a letter from Jane--she is increasing again."
Mrs. Tucker watched the Darcys exchange a worried look and easily understood their concern. "And they have only been married for twelve years? Or is it thirteen? How is her health?"
"Not quite twelve," agreed Elizabeth somberly. "Jane says that she is perfectly well, but when has she ever been one to complain? All I know is that she has seemed so very tired these last few years. Of course, they have a wet nurse and a governess, but... well, you know the risks as well as I." Seeing her husband's expression become increasingly grim, Mrs. Darcy changed the subject. "But Mary, you have told us very little about your family."
The other woman sipped her tea and gathered her thoughts for a moment before answering. "Matthew is my eldest--he was born while we were still in the Cape Colony--he is my strength, though he is not quite ten."
"He is well-named, then," commented Mr. Darcy.
Mary smiled in agreement before continuing; "My younger son is six--Jeremiah. He is a good boy--very quiet, but not quite as serious as his brother."
"And the others?"
Mrs. Tucker bowed her head for a moment, saying a prayer for the dead. "The others are orphans. Fred and Johnny have family near Basingstoke whom I hope to discover. The other four have no one but me; their mother died in my arms and I promised her that I would raise them as my own."
Elizabeth had tears in her eyes when she reached to squeeze her sister's hand, and Mr. Darcy offered gruffly, "We will be glad to help in whatever way we can, Mrs. Tucker."
Mary nodded her gratitude, as her throat was too tight to form any words. Fortunately, a knock at the door saved her from having to speak.
The maid who had been put in charge of the Tucker children appeared, looking slightly abashed for intruding upon the master and mistress while they were entertaining a guest. "Yes Alice?" asked Mrs. Darcy gently. "Is anything wrong?"
"No ma'am. The children are all washed and fed and ready for bed; we set up cots for them in the guest nursery, just as you said. They've all been good as gold, nary a complaint, but they're feeling a mite out of place, if you catch my meaning."
Elizabeth understood instantly. "And seeing their Mama would help them settle before the candles are put out; of course." She turned to Mary. "Shall we go up to see them together?
Mrs. Tucker agreed instantly and stood. Though she turned away slightly, she could not suppress the yawn that threatened to split her face at the thought of a bed that did not move with the rocking boat.
"Oh Mary--you are exhausted and here I am keeping you from your rest. Please forgive me." Elizabeth took her sister's arm and, once Mr. Darcy had bid their guest good night, the pair followed the maid upstairs.
The house seemed like an endless maze of hallways and doors to Mrs. Tucker; she was relieved when her hostess pointed out that Mary's bedchamber was separated from the children by only a sitting room. "During the first few months that we lived here, I was convinced that the rooms rearranged themselves while we were sleeping, or at the very least, that someone was moving the paintings around so that I could not rely on them as landmarks.
"Well, here we are. Fourth floor--just come up the front staircase until you see this portrait of the young lady with the red sleeves and the black hat, and then turn left." Elizabeth paused for an instant; "I have always thought that she has a very satirical eye--I would have liked to have met her, I believe."
With that one brief, quirky comment, Mary finally relaxed and allowed herself to feel truly safe for the first time in years, sheltered as she was in the bosom of her family. She turned and hugged her sister tightly. "Oh Lizzy--how I have missed you!"
The Tuckers remained at Derwent House for two weeks before traveling north with the Darcys. Though she did not attend any of the public festivities associated with her cousin's presentation at court, Mary was very glad to see the Gardiners again and enjoyed a long chat with her aunt about how the realities of missionary work had been nothing like what she expected. "I feel closer to God, but less concerned with the Church and its strictures, if that makes any sense," admitted Mrs. Tucker.
When Mrs. Gardiner asked her to explain, Mary was silent for a moment. "One of the most spiritual people I have ever met was an old Zulu woman who had never heard of Jesus Christ or Jehovah... she had other names for her gods, but her faith was so strong that one could feel the power in her. We talked a great deal while I was recovering from the fever, and I came to understand that it matters little what name we call Him by, or what myths we use to explain His origin or existence. It is those most fundamental tenets by which we are taught to live our lives--the virtues we aspire to and the vices we fight against--that are most critical. When we compared notes, the similarities were too great for it to be a coincidence; I could only conclude that there is a higher power, but that he cares little about what we call him or the semantics of our prayers... what matters is how we honor our faith by living an honorable and moral life."
Madeleine squeezed her niece's hand and said, "That is beautiful, Mary. I hope that, one day, you will write down these thoughts and share them."
Mrs. Tucker actually laughed aloud at that. "I may write them down, I suppose, but I dare not distribute them unless I wish to be excommunicated at best, or perhaps tried for treason at worst!"
Mrs. Gardiner was forced to admit that some in the Anglican Church would probably object to such ideas as heresy. "Well, perhaps if you merely reported the conversation as a small section within a broader account of your travels. Truly, Mary--I have heard only a few of your stories, but I believe many would find them fascinating."
Mrs. Tucker agreed to consider the prospect more out of politeness than any ambition, but within a few months she found herself jotting down various anecdotes that recalled her experiences, and it was not many years later that she asked the Gardiners and Darcys to read a manuscript. The subsequent publication proved so popular among the general public (the vast majority of whom were admittedly more interested in hearing tales from Africa than considering divinical philosophy) that the Tucker children (born and adopted) each inherited a far more significant portion than one might have expected, given their origins.
Although visiting with the Gardiners was always enjoyable, the Darcys and Tuckers were glad when they could finally leave London behind. After delivering the two Burgess lads to an aunt and uncle (a heretofore childless couple whose joy upon receiving the boys was diminished only by the news of their parents' demise), the carriages headed into Hertfordshire.
They broke their journey at Longbourn for a week, and although Mrs. Tucker was glad to see Mr. Bennet and to visit her mother's grave, the residents of Meryton (most of whom had never ventured more than fifty miles from the place where they had been born) did not know quite what to make of her. Mary found Mrs. Phillips particularly difficult to endure, for not only did her aunt have looks and mannerisms reminiscent of the late Mrs. Bennet, but she also felt it necessary to take her sister's place in advising Mary on how to be a proper mother and wife.
The younger woman had sat placidly, listening to her aunt's well-meant but ignorant counsel, right up until Mrs. Phillips saw fit to express her opinion on Mr. Tucker. "You would be better off if he had died from that fever, for what use will such a husband be? Why, it will be like having a child for whom you are doomed to care for the rest of his life! At least if he were dead, you could re-marry, and I'm sure that with your sisters' connections... Mary? Where are you going, Mary?"
Although Mrs. Tucker was tempted to tell her aunt precisely what she thought about that woman's less than Christian attitudes, Mary merely excused herself to take the air in the garden, where she walked until her temper had subsided to a manageable level.
As a result of several such conversations, Mrs. Tucker did not mourn their departure from Meryton overmuch. In truth, she found herself quite cheerful upon resuming her place in the carriage, despite the challenges that could be expected from restricting so many active children to the confines of a coach for several long days of travel. Though she had only visited Derbyshire once (and then as Miss Bennet), Mary found herself increasingly anxious to arrive, if for no other reason than to look upon a place that she might call home.
Mr. Owen Tucker (vicar of the Pemberley chapel) was very glad to see his twin again, and likewise welcomed his sister-in-law and the children with open arms. As he himself had no real wish to marry, it was the work of an instant to decide that he and his brother's family would move into the parsonage (a domicile which the vicar had previously avoided, deeming it much too large for a bachelor). The house was large enough to accommodate all the children, and Mr. Owen Tucker was very glad to turn over the housekeeping to his brother's wife.
Though barely a mile away, the parsonage was separated from Pemberley House by a small wood lot, lending it a feeling of privacy. Mary was glad to see that the little cottage had a garden that, though somewhat overgrown, was easily put to rights, as well as a shed large enough for a cow, some poultry, and perhaps even some pigs and a horse or two. The Tucker family was quickly settled into their comfortable new abode and it was not long before it felt as if they had always lived there.
Mrs. Darcy was pleased to have a sister settled so nearby, and the children from the two families rarely spent a day out of one another's company, whether in the school room or at play.
Mr. Darcy in particular was glad to see how close the children became, for it occurred to him that these boys and girls born in Africa were, in general, a self-sufficient, happy lot, accustomed to making do with very little. They did not whine or throw tantrums demanding that the newest, most expensive toy be purchased for them, but treated each gift as a treasure; indeed, it often seemed to Fitzwilliam that the youngsters were quite content to entertain themselves with games requiring nothing more than sticks, stones, and their imagination.
Mr. Darcy's heir, in particular, spent many hours listening to his cousins' stories and, in doing so, gained an excellent sense of how those born under very different circumstances from his own might live out their lives. Indeed, in later years, no one would ever accuse Mr. Bennet Darcy, Master of Pemberley, of having any improper pride.
The gentleman's two younger brothers developed an early fascination with travel in general and steam locomotives in particular, as a result of their cousins' stories, and they dreamt of a time when any Englishman might travel from London to Edinburgh in a day. By the time they graduated university, however, the environmental destruction as well as the disturbing frequency of fatal rail accidents resulting from an industry with little consideration for anything but profit left the two young men greatly disillusioned.
Much to their Uncle Matlock's joy and their father's consternation, Thomas and Henry Darcy announced their determination to enter politics; they were elected to the Commons and proceeded to campaign for greater regulation of the railroad industry, as well as the preservation of natural areas for future generations.
Like their brothers, the Darcys' two daughters exhibited a decided tendency to forge their own path. Much to her mother's amusement, Miss Anne Darcy was known to spend endless hours practicing her instruments; in later years, several of her original compositions would even receive some significant acclaim. Miss Darcy's younger sister would occasionally tease her sibling that Anne had taken all the musical talent in the family for herself and left none for her sister, for indeed, Miss Edna had neither much aptitude nor much inclination to practice. Thus, while Miss Anne Darcy spent a great deal of time with her Aunt Georgiana and Uncle Jonah Somerset (eventually becoming so dear to that childless couple as to be made heiress to all their properties), Miss Edna Darcy became well known in Society for her intelligence and wit, much as her mother had done years before.
Certainly some in Society never forgot Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy's humble origins and continued to look upon the couple with a suspicious eye, hoping to see some regret on the side of the gentleman or vulgarity from the lady. Unfortunately for them, the Darcys grew only more content as the years passed, and indeed, neither Fitzwilliam nor Elizabeth ever found anything wanting in their marriage. Those who sought an introduction, hoping to hoodwink or intimidate a naïve country girl, soon discovered that, not only did Mrs. Darcy have several powerful connections in the highest circles (not to mention a protective husband who was perfectly willing to use his power against any who threatened his wife), but the lady herself had such a quick wit that her critics often found themselves withdrawing from an encounter with the feeling that they were being laughed at, though none could ever point to anything Mrs. Darcy had said as uncivil.
Even when Mr. and Mrs. Darcy had grown old and grey and retired to the dower house at Pemberley to live out their twilight years, their children and grandchildren often observed the pair walking in the park together, laughing and teasing like a couple newly courting. Certainly they had their share of arguments and misunderstandings, but their quarrels rarely lasted long enough for the sun to set and rise again, for there was one point upon which Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam could always agree: pride and prejudice made poor bedfellows indeed.THE END