He had been at the forefront of her mind but seeing him was the last thing she had expected, and without any preparation for such a possibility she had, with a great perturbation of mind, received his compliments with a discomfit impossible to be overcome, and knew not what answer she returned to his civil information about how he had left her family. Nor did he seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his accent had none of its usual sedateness as he repeated his inquiries as to how she'd been enjoying her travels, before turning to her aunt and uncle, to greet and welcome them to Pemberley.
Elizabeth listened in amazement as he asked after their health and then proceeded to speak with them about their children, and tell of how much he had appreciated some of their youngest child's antics, in recent visits to Longbourn.
"He certainly attacks everything with delighted enthusiasm," Mr Darcy was saying. " He alone keeps both Miss Mary and Miss Kitty Bennet on their toes, but they are doing a splendid job."
As he had introduced the topic, Mrs Gardiner took the opportunity to make a number of more specific enquiries of her children, before leaving him to a more general discussion with her husband.
Mrs Gardiner was for the moment too preoccupied with thoughts of her young ones to fall into conversation with her niece, so Elizabeth was left to listen to the men and witness for herself the changed manner she had heard spoken of in her family's letters.
After about a quarter of an hour, Darcy suddenly seemed to recollected he was in his travelling clothes and, explaining he had just at that moment arrived from Hertfordshire, took leave to change, but not before inviting them to return for refreshments after their tour of the park. Elizabeth listened nervously as her Uncle accepted on their behalf, before they followed the gardener toward one of the walkways.
They had now entered a beautiful walk by the side of the water, and every step was bringing forward a nobler fall of ground, or a finer reach of the woods to which they were approaching; but it was some time before Elizabeth was sensible of any of it; and, though she answered mechanically to the repeated appeals of her uncle and aunt, and seemed to direct her eyes to such objects as they pointed out, she distinguished no part of the scene. Her thoughts were all fixed on that one spot of Pemberley House, whichever it might be, where Mr. Darcy then was. She longed to know what at that moment was passing in his mind; in what manner he thought of her, and whether she might hope, in defiance of her rejection, she was still dear to him. Perhaps he had been civil only because he felt himself at ease; yet there had been that in his voice which was not like ease. Whether he had felt more of pain or of pleasure in seeing her, she could not tell, but he certainly had not seen her with composure.
She chided herself on her discomposure, and tried to convince herself the hopes she had indulged since that day in the Netherfield sitting room, when Bingley had finally passed on his message about the novel, were rational. She had little success though, now that he was here in glorious person, in his own magnificent home, he seemed too far from her reach. Now that she desired his affections even more she found it harder to believe they might still be hers. So much might have changed in the months they had been apart.
At length, however, the remarks of her companions on her absence of mind roused her, and she felt the necessity of appearing more like herself.
They entered the woods, and bidding adieu to the river for a while, ascended some of the higher grounds; whence, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream. They crossed it by a simple bridge, in character with the general air of the scene; it was a spot less adorned than any they had yet visited; and the valley, here contracted into a glen, allowed room only for the stream, and a narrow walk amidst the rough coppice-wood which bordered it. Elizabeth longed to explore its windings, and momentarily imagined doing so with Mr Darcy at her side; but when they had crossed the bridge, and perceived their distance from the house, Mrs. Gardiner, who was not a great walker, could go no farther, and thought only of returning to the house as quickly as possible. Her niece was, therefore, obliged to submit, and they took their way towards the house on the opposite side of the river, in the nearest direction; but their progress was slow, for Mr. Gardiner, though seldom able to indulge the taste, was very fond of fishing, and was so much engaged in watching the occasional appearance of some trout in the water, and talking to the man about them, that he advanced but little.
Whilst wandering on in this slow manner, they were again surprised by the sight of Mr Darcy approaching them, and at no great distance. The walk being here less sheltered than on the other side, allowed them to see him before they met.
Elizabeth, given time to try to suppress the unsteadiness of her breathing and the quickness of her heart, was at least more prepared for an interview than before, and resolved to appear and to speak with calmness when he met them. With a glance she saw that he had lost none of his recent civility; and, to imitate his politeness, she began, as they met, to admire the beauty of the place; but she had not got beyond the words ``delightful,'' and ``charming,'' when some unlucky recollections obtruded, and she fancied that praise of Pemberley from her might be mischievously construed. Her colour changed, and she unfortunately found herself at a loss for further words.
Thankfully her aunt and uncle were there to make up for her insufficiency. Mr Gardiner entered into a conversation with Mr Darcy which soon turned upon fishing, and she heard Mr Darcy invite him, with the greatest civility, to fish there as often as he chose offering at the same time to supply him with fishing tackle, and pointing out those parts of the stream where there was usually most sport. Mrs Gardiner, who was walking arm in arm with Elizabeth, gave her a look expressive of her pleasure on her husband's behalf, at such an invitation. Elizabeth said nothing, but hoped some of the compliment might be for herself.
After walking some time in this way, the two ladies in front, the two gentlemen behind, on resuming their places after descending to the brink of the river for the better inspection of some curious water-plant, there chanced to be a little alteration. It originated in Mrs Gardiner, who, fatigued by the exercise of the morning, found Elizabeth's arm inadequate to her support, and consequently preferred her husband's. Mr Darcy took her place by her niece, and they walked on together. After a short silence, the lady first spoke, still acutely feeling the awkwardness of this first meeting after that night at Huntsford.
"I could not have been more surprised to have seen you here Sir," Elizabeth ventured. " I thought that you would be comfortably ensconced at Netherfield for sometime yet."
He acknowledged the truth of it all; and said that unexpected business with his steward had occasioned his returning home at this time.
"The party in Hertfordshire will miss you," Elizabeth commented. "Jane mentioned in her last letter that they were also expecting a visit from the Hursts and Miss Bingley."
Darcy, unsure of whether Elizabeth might be particularly alluding to Miss Bingley in this observation, refrained from replying that it was all the more reason to leave, and letting the comment pass, forgot to answer altogether. The discomfort of the silence was increased by an intense awareness, in both Elizabeth and Darcy, of the physical presence of the person at their side. The man wished that he might take the arm of Elizabeth, as he had done in the past, and slip it through his, but he was not sure he had a right to do so, and the woman was reading his reticence with an increasing anxiety. Finally she could stand the awkward silence no more, and ventured to speak again.
"Do you intend to return to Netherfield when you finish your business?"
"I don't think it is likely I will return there this summer," Darcy replied, in his own uncertainty not noticing that Elizabeth, despite retaining her composure, visibly paled at this information before he moved on. "As many were disappointed at the party being broken up so soon, I took the measure of inviting them to stay at Pemberley in place of Netherfield. They arrive tomorrow evening."
Elizabeth, in her surprise, was trying unsuccessfully to discern what this might mean to her. Was it an indication that he had moved on from where he was in the spring, that he intended to go on in his life without reference to her? If that was the case, why had he made such an effort with her family, why was he not inside hiding from her now - he had the best excuse, having just arrived from such a long and tiring trip.
"So Jane will be here tomorrow?" was all Elizabeth could offer.
"Yes... and Georgiana, Bingley, his sisters, and Hurst. I have been hoping that yourself and the Gardiners might also join us. I mentioned the idea to your uncle, and though he seems a little reluctant at the idea that it might be imposing, I hope I have convinced him to think more favourably on the idea." He paused for a moment before adding tentatively , "I believe both Jane and Georgiana would be upset at knowing you were so close by, but not actually with us."
"That is a very generous offer Sir," Elizabeth blushed, not caring for the moment what either Jane or Georgiana might wish, but yearning instead to know what Mr Darcy himself might feel on the subject. "Do you not have enough to keep you busy with the guests you already expect?"
It was now Darcy's turn to feel more than disconcerted. Did Elizabeth not wish to stay at Pemberley? Had he been acting upon completely false hopes in this premature return to Derbyshire? Was he not to be given the chance to redeem himself, for which he had been waiting, with an uneasy patience, for so long?
"Miss Bennet," he replied, trying to keep his anxieties from his voice. "It would be my very great pleasure to have your party join ours. Be assured, it would seem somewhat empty in the house without you."
Darcy, who felt he had taken a great risk in saying so, would have been gratified if he could have known of the warmth his statement had created in the woman at his side, but feeling a little overwhelmed, Elizabeth had turned her head away so he was unable to see the blush in her cheeks.
More awkward silence ensued as they continued to walk ahead of her relatives, interrupted only by an occasional observation on the summer or the landscape. It was a great contrast to the animated conversation they were used to having on their meetings in the grounds at Rosings. Elizabeth was not comfortable; that was impossible; but she was flattered and pleased. His wish to have them stay was a compliment of the highest kind, and though she hoped it signified a continued desire to be in her company, his current silence made her question if this might really be the case. They soon outstripped the others, and when they had reached the front gardens, Mr and Mrs Gardiner were half a quarter of a mile behind.
After leaving instructions for the Gardiners to be shown in upon their return to the house, he led her into the sitting room, where refreshments had been laid out. She wanted to talk, somehow could not rest on a subject. At last she recollected that she had been travelling, and they talked of Matlock and Dove Dale with great perseverance. Yet time and her aunt moved slowly -- and though both had, at some level, been longing for this very privacy, they each felt a relief upon Mr and Mrs Gardiner's joining them.
The air seemed to lighten considerably in the company of her aunt and uncle, and the tea proceeded pleasantly, with entertaining conversation, and a return to something like ease. Elizabeth wondered at Darcy being so open to the Gardiners. Never, even in the company of his dear friends at Netherfield, or his dignified relations at Rosings, had she seen him so free from self-consequence or unbending reserve, as now. It was a very picture of all she had heard from her family in their letters.
When the time seemed polite, Mr Gardiner thanked Mr Darcy for his hospitality, and made as if to leave, before Mr Darcy again introduced the idea of their party removing from the Lambton Inn to Pemberley for the duration of their stay. Mrs Gardiner looked at her niece, desirous of knowing how she, whom the invitation - she correctly surmised - most concerned, felt disposed as to its acceptance, but Elizabeth had turned away her head. Presuming, however, that this studied avoidance spoke rather a momentary embarrassment, than any real dislike of the proposal, and seeing in her husband, who was fond of society, a willingness to accept it, she ventured to engage for their removal, and the following morning was fixed on as a time to make the transfer. The relief Darcy felt upon this arrangement was not to be underestimated, and he could only feel a little annoyed that his self manufactured business with his steward might keep him away from this company for some of the following day.
At least with the morrow to look forward to, he could watch them depart now with some equanimity, and he walked with them to their transport, handing the ladies into the carriage, with every politeness, but much to Elizabeth's disappointment, no lingering touches. As they drove off Elizabeth saw him walking slowly towards the house, and longed to know what thoughts were now going through his mind.
The afternoon was full, as they had no sooner dined before setting off again in quest of Mrs Gardiner's former acquaintance, and the evening was spent for her aunt, in the satisfactions of an intercourse renewed after many years discontinuance.
The occurrences of the day were too full of interest to leave Elizabeth much attention for any of these new friends; and she could do nothing but think, and think with wonder, of Mr Darcy's behaviour and of what it might signify. She truly hoped that this might be the new start she had wished for, but could not completely allay the underlying fear that her refusal had been just that which he needed to allow himself to move on, and that his civility might be only a demonstration of the promised friendship. Her mind returned once more to the strength of his original objections, and she wondered if, in the light of these, his feelings really could have withstood the refusal she had given him.
She had definitely noted his exertion in his manners toward her family, but this did not, of itself, prove he had desires beyond those which were platonic. It had neither gone unnoticed that he had not taken her arm when walking at her side, as had previously been his habit, and she questioned whether his eyes had followed her as much as they had in the past. Though she was glad to be going to Pemberley on the morrow, the gladness was mixed with an anxiousness, as she was not sure of how she should act, or of whether she even had the power of bringing on a renewal of his addresses.
Alone in his library at Pemberley Darcy was having similar difficulties in trying to interpret Elizabeth's manners, and in knowing how he should proceed. Somehow he had felt that it should have been much easier to discern her feelings, but he was quite at a loss. She had been so much quieter than her usual self, and though she had not been discouraging per se, neither had she been encouraging. Did this speak of an embarrassment, or was it indicative of the resolve of her feelings against him? Had he been merely deceiving himself in holding on to a conviction that, despite her objections, she truly did care for him. Had he been a fool to think he could repair this simply by attending to her reproofs at Huntsford... had the incivility of his address, and the inappropriateness of the sentiments he'd expressed, been enough to completely smother the flame of any love she had felt toward him... had he remained absent for far too long...?
He now felt a confusion as to how he should act. If he were too forward he felt the risk of driving her away, of showing he was unable to respect her wishes, but if he showed simple friendship she might believe him no longer interested. After basing his hopes on this meeting for so long, it was now hard to think past it. This was not meant to be so perplexing. Back in Hertfordshire it had seemed so logical; he would return to Derbyshire, invite the party from Netherfield as an excuse to also extend and invitation to Elizabeth and the Gardiners, and there he would be at leisure to renew his court of Elizabeth - after somehow finding an excuse for her to stay on with the others when the Gardiners had to return to London - and this time he would demonstrate sensitivity and respect . He now shook his head at such a naïve optimism.
Maybe he should have realised it was an ill-conceived plan when, for civility's sake, he had found it necessary to extend his invitation to include the Hursts and Miss Bingley whom, he suspected, had only chosen to pay Charles and Jane the courtesy of a visit upon leaning that he and Georgiana were also at Netherfield.
Miss Bingley's presence could certainly prove to be a fly in the ointment of his wishes - at the very least she might diminish Elizabeth's desire to stay longer than requisite at Pemberley and, more substantially, she barely afforded him any space.
He chided himself yet again, for his behaviour during all the time he had in Kent. If he had only 'behaved in a more gentleman-like manner' he might by now have Elizabeth beside him as his wife. Indeed, if from the beginning he had been less proud, less stubborn and less arrogant, he might have - like Bingley - been enjoying the pleasures of married life for half a year now; he might have looked forward to retiring with Elizabeth this very evening...
He let out a moan as he reigned his thoughts into line once more. It was time to act; regardless as to whether it would have been better to wait for her in Hertfordshire, he was here now - and she would be joining him in the morning. He was not going to throw away his chances this time!
As the carriage rolled in to Pemberley the next morning Mr Darcy was there to greet its occupants. Elizabeth could still feel nothing like ease, but knew in herself that it was better to be here than not. Too much was still unresolved, and it was preferable to face him than to hide.
In Elizabeth's view Mr Darcy himself seemed to be demonstrating more of ease than he had the preceding day, and hoped that in her own manner she might not appear quite as awkward as she was sure she'd seemed yesterday. Now that she could look back on their first meeting after that night of high emotion at Hunsford, she could see the inevitability of discomfort upon their reintroduction to each others company, and now felt a little less foolish over the hesitations and silences of the day before. It would have been absurd indeed to think that they could have simply acted as though that night had not occurred.
It had, rather belatedly, occurred to Elizabeth that given the circumstances, Mr Darcy was in a far more uncomfortable situation than herself. He was the one who had been rejected; the disappointment he had suffered had been at her hand, and further more, it was he who had, in writing to her, gone through the pain of exposing his feelings, of explaining himself in some areas - and even admitting fault in others. As much as she would like to protect herself from potentially looking more foolish through putting herself forward where she may be no longer wanted, she was beginning to realise that without at least some encouragement he may not feel it appropriate to go further.
The morning passed away pleasantly enough, Mr Gardiner had immediately taken up the opportunity of sport, and was fishing down at the stream with some other men. Darcy had apologised that he was not able to join him, as he would be in his office with his steward for a few hours yet. Elizabeth and her Aunt took the opening this afforded of talking to the other leisurely as they helped one another settle into the beautiful rooms they had been assigned, and of admiring the different aspects they had been afforded in their views of the grounds of the estate. Their talk was mostly light, as neither spoke on the subject of interest that was most on their minds. Still unsure of where she stood, Elizabeth took care to avoid the mention of Mr Darcy, but she had no reason to fear Mrs Gardiner's curiosity; it was not her aunt's wish to force her communication, though it was evident that there had been much more pass between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy than she had before any idea of. She saw much to interest, but nothing to justify enquiry.
Mr Darcy had finished his business in time for them all to come together for a light summer luncheon, and in consequence of her earlier deliberations Elizabeth exerted herself to join in the conversation more, and even went so far as addressing some of her comments particularly to Mr Darcy himself. Darcy responded with a restrained pleasure, taking the opportunity these occasions afforded to extend the discussion, and to hold Elizabeth's eye for as long as he could manage without seeming impolite. Though feeling acutely self-conscious she overcame the urge to avert her face, and was rewarded by discerning a growing look of cheerfulness in Darcy's countenance as the meal wore on.
Discussion eventually turned to plans for the afternoon, and Mrs Gardiner told of a pre-existing engagement with some other of her Lambton acquaintance.
"Though I doubt if Lizzy is inclined to attend," she added. "I have the impression that she feels she has been enough inside today, and would rather take the afternoon to explore more of the park hereabouts."
Elizabeth had begun to protest that she was happy to fit in with the Gardiner's arrangements, when she was interrupted by her aunt laughing at her.
"It is thoughtful of you to say so Lizzy, but don't think your disappointment at my curtailing of the tour of the park yesterday, went unnoticed."
"Neither did your forced politeness and attention during dinner last evening," Mr Gardiner added with a grin. "As a husband I can not avoid such duties as attending my wife as she and old friends speak for hours on end about people I do not know, but I would recommend, my dear, that you take this escape whilst it is offered."
Elizabeth laughed as she took in the mock look if antipathy Mrs Gardiner gave her teasing spouse and, much to the pleasure of her host, owned that she really would rather stay.
The Gardiners had not long driven off when Elizabeth found herself receiving the offer of company which she had hoped for, and made her way up stairs ostensibly to fetch her gloves and bonnet for the walk, but in reality to steady herself in preparation for this time she was to have alone with Mr Darcy.
As they walked across the lawn together, the small talk they had begun with petered out, but instead of letting the awkwardness envelop her as she had done the day previous, Elizabeth found a light laugh escape from her lips.
"Am I allowed to ask what it is that has caught your fancy?" Darcy questioned with a perplexed expression.
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth replied, a smile still pulling at the corner of her mouth. "I was beginning to fear we might be slipping again into that uncomfortable silence of yesterday, and just stopped myself from making a completely inane comment on the weather."
"Yes, I'd have to agree that it wasn't the most auspicious of reunions," Darcy admitted with a charmingly abashed smile. "Your visit managed to catch me completely off guard. I knew from Jane you were in the area, and I certainly intended to locate you, but the very last thing I expected was to walk out of my stables and see you standing in front of me. If I'd had a little more preparation I may have acquitted myself more favourably."
"You acquitted yourself beautifully," Elizabeth protested. "I think it was I who struggled to find a shred of social competence. I must admit to experiencing a crisis of self-confidence, it seemed rather impertinent to be visiting your estate without an invitation..."
Darcy laughed at her circumspection and, holding back a comment to the effect that she should know she was welcome at Pemberley at any time, contented himself with the more light-hearted reassurance that he had always admired her impertinence.
The ice somewhat broken, Elizabeth expressed a desire to explore the little glen with the narrow walk amidst the coppice-wood. Mr Darcy readily agreed, owning it was one of his favourite corners of the estate, and they wandered off, both rejoicing in a return to the ease of their conversation, though neither yet willing to allude to that night at Hunsford.
The scene at the glen held as much enchantment as it had promised, and the two took their time to enjoy the freshness and the beauty of the walk, whilst building on the restoration of friendliness which had now been established. Darcy still held to a slight wariness of how he should proceed with Elizabeth, and had to remind himself more than once that it was better to move slowly than to rush again where he, as yet, might have no right to go.
The afternoon moved on more quickly than either could have imagined, and after resting for a while on a small log bench, both expressed surprise upon examining their watches, that it was time to be returning to await the arrival of the Netherfield party. Darcy stood reluctantly, not really wishing this shared time to end, and put his hand out to help Elizabeth to her feet. He noted she accepted it with an almost tentative smile, but his concern that she might be experiencing a return of her reserve toward him, was quickly overcome upon her only taking back her hand to slip it into the crook of his arm.
They strolled back at a rather leisurely pace, not talking as much as before, and hardly even noting their surroundings, but each was experiencing an acute awareness of the sensations created by the touch of the other, and an increasing assurance that everything might turn out well after all.
As distracted as they were by their own feelings and meditations, they were actually quite close to the house before either of them noticed the two carriages on the drive, a sure signal that Mr Darcy's other guests had already arrived. As they drew nearer Darcy was relieved of the apprehension that he had left them unattended, upon seeing that they were only just then alighting from their transport.
Miss Bingley was handed down first, but the satisfied smile which overspread her face as she again regarded the magnificence of Pemberley, was short lived upon discerning Elizabeth on Darcy's arm as they walked across the lawn: though, as her host drew near, a more forced smile returned to her visage and she warmly greeted the man, whist acknowledging the woman with only the barest civility; for jealousy had not yet made her desperate, and her attentions to Mr Darcy were by no means over.
The meeting became more pleasurable for Elizabeth though, as she saw Jane alight from the second carriage and, releasing Darcy, she moved to embraced her beloved sister. She had hardly been gone a moment when Caroline took the opportunity of claiming his now disengaged arm in a short lived victory, for Darcy soon required his freedom in order welcome his sister home with an affectionate brotherly hug.
Convinced as Elizabeth now was that Miss Bingley's dislike of her had originated in jealousy, she could not help feeling how very unwelcome her appearance at Pemberley must be to her, and was curious as to how uncomfortable things might become with Caroline one of the company.
Soon the whole party had disembarked, and were led through the hall into the saloon, whose northern aspect rendered it delightful for summer. Its windows, opening to the ground, admitted a most refreshing view of the high woody hills behind the house, and of the beautiful oaks and Spanish chestnuts which were scattered over the intermediate lawn.
Caroline, who had straight away reattached herself to Darcy's arm upon his stepping back from Georgiana, did not move from his immediate vicinity for almost the whole period of afternoon refreshments, but Elizabeth did nothing to compete for his attention. She could see in his countenance enough exasperation at Caroline's constant deference, and continual calling of his attention away from her brother to herself, to concern herself with competing in such an overt manner, and contented herself with the thought that he would rather be speaking with her. She sat instead with Jane and Georgiana, and tried to focus on their information and conversation but found only half her mind was with them, and though she was able to stop her eyes from moving constantly to his side of the room, her thoughts were very much with Mr Darcy.
Darcy however, was not quite so circumspect and, quickly tiring of Caroline's prattle found his eyes often turned to where Lizzy sat, apparently happy in conversation with his sister and her own, and wondered at such composure after the hours they had just shared together. Could she really be so indifferent as to have not been affected? His equanimity was restored though, when Elizabeth, being unable to contain the impulse to do so any longer, looked across, and catching his gaze returned it with a smile so unaffected that his concerns substantially melted.
Miss Bingley saw this likewise; and, in the imprudence of anger, took the first opportunity of approaching Elizabeth and saying, with sneering civility.
``Pray, Miss Eliza, it was such a surprise to see you here today. It must be nice for you to be spending the afternoon in superior company. I believed you to be travelling with your aunt and uncle."
"I am," Elizabeth replied politely, choosing not to lower herself to answer the implied insult to her relations, "but it was an added joy to find I would also have the pleasure of other company whilst in Derbyshire."
"I dare say it was," Caroline replied, not yet noticing that Mr Darcy and her brother had moved to within hearing. "And when do you expect your relations to collect you?"
"I believe you are under a misapprehension," Darcy answered calmly. "The Gardiners and Miss Bennet are also staying at Pemberley."
"Indeed!" Caroline replied, barely managing to conceal the disdain in her voice. "It would not occur to many to expect such condescension Mr Darcy."
"I suspect that such an opinion might show an incomplete understanding of Mr Darcy's character," Elizabeth answered in a tolerably calm tone, though inside she was feeling an acute embarrassment in having expressed the very same sentiment at Hunsford, and hoping that her answer might at least convey that she had given due credit to his explaination in the letter.
While she spoke, an involuntary glance showed her Darcy with an heightened complexion, earnestly looking at her. In fact, his own mind had likewise returned to Elizabeth's accusation, and to the acknowledgement of a truth in it which had tormented him for months. Had Miss Bingley known what pain she was then giving her beloved host, she undoubtedly would have refrained from the hint; but she had merely intended to discompose Elizabeth, by bringing forward the idea of the inferiority of her relations, and perhaps to remind Darcy of the same.
Elizabeth's defence of him, however, soon quieted his emotion; and Miss Bingley, vexed and disappointed, dared not be more open in her opinion of the Gardiners whilst her brother and Jane were close by. She would have been more irritated still, had she known the very circumstance which had been designed to turn his thoughts from Elizabeth, seemed to have fixed them on her more, and more cheerfully.
Their afternoon refreshments did not continue long after the question and answer above-mentioned; and Elizabeth took the opportunity of accompanying Jane to her room whilst Mr Darcy went with Mr Bingley to check on the stable's progress with the horses, and to introduce him to the new head groom. Whist they were gone Miss Bingley was venting her feelings in criticisms on Elizabeth's person, behaviour, and dress. But Georgiana would not join her - the time she had spent with Elizabeth and Jane was enough to ensure her favour and indeed, ever before their introduction, her brother had spoken in such terms of Elizabeth as to leave Georgiana without the power of thinking her otherwise than lovely and amiable. When Darcy returned to the saloon, Miss Bingley could not help repeating to him some part of what she had been saying to his sister.
``How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy,'' she cried; ``I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.''
However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned -- no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.
``For my own part,'' she rejoined, ``I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable.''
Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,
``I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, "She a beauty! -- I should as soon call her mother a wit." But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.''
``Yes,'' replied Darcy, who immediately averted his face from the censure he read in Georgiana's eyes, and for a second time that afternoon felt the sting of justification in Elizabeth's rejection of him, ``but that was an ignorant comment, made only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.''
Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself, as Darcy left to recoup himself in the solitude of his study.
The day had offered more than he had allowed himself to hope for, but as the events of the afternoon had confirmed to him the forgiveness of Elizabeth, he had also begun to question his worthiness to receive it. Miss Bingley's comments had cut close to the bone, and he could only again be ashamed of his earlier ideas and behaviour. They were unpardonable: he could not think of them without abhorrence. Still, as undeserved as Elizabeth's current favour seemed to be, he was not at all inclined to argue with it. She was of course too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he resolved once more to be steady and persistent in the pursuit of her acceptance, and a smile returned to his face as he meditated on what the days ahead might promise.
The days that followed unfortunately did not turn out to be as satisfying as Darcy had hoped they might. Though Elizabeth had forgone visiting with her aunt and uncle on the first afternoon of her stay at Pemberley, she was not to make a habit of neglecting either the Gardiners, or the arrangements they had made prior to Mr Darcy's invitation to stay at his home whilst in the area. Though he understood and respected her constancy to her travelling companions, he could not help but wish that he might have more time in her company himself.
It should not be imagined that Mr and Mrs Gardiner were in any way inflexible with their plans, and Darcy did appreciate that much of their itinerary had been bent to allow more time with their companions at Pemberley, indeed some entertainments had been forgone, and a number of their activities had been adapted to encompass the whole party. Darcy however, was undecided as to whether he found these general concerns more frustrating than not. The pleasure he received from Elizabeth's company was inevitably tainted by an exasperation at never finding a moment to have her to himself. There seemed altogether too many people in their party.
Neither had the tenacity of another female of their group waned. If Darcy had harboured hopes that his 'words' with Miss Bingley might make her less assertive whilst in his company, he was destined to suffer disappointment. It hardly seemed possible, but Caroline had become even more attentive to Mr Darcy and any of his concerns, on top of which this lady was obviously was finding it increasingly difficult to hide her pique with Elizabeth and the Gardiners for the 'intrusion' of their company upon that which, she believed, should be a more intimate party.
There was also the question of whether he had acted too precipitately in his impatience to see her again; of whether it would have been preferable had he waited in Hertfordshire. Darcy was becoming ever more aware that the duration of the Gardiners' and Elizabeth's stay was fast drawing to an end. They planned to travel a little further North for ten days, but had agreed to stop at Pemberley for at least overnight on their way back through the area. He had spent a great deal of time watching for the right the opportunity to broach the possibility of Elizabeth remaining in Derbyshire rather than immediately returning home at the end of her tour, but with Caroline's constant hovering no time appeared right.
Darcy's state of suspense was made even more uncomfortable by a partial return of his insecurity over how a renewal of his address might be received by Elizabeth. Elizabeth's necessary circumspection whist in company may have presented a picture of propriety, but it did little to feed the hopes which had been so revived in the hours they had spent together prior to the arrival of the party from Netherfield.
As for Elizabeth, she did not mean for her behaviour to be discouraging, but it was difficult to act in an easy and openly inviting manner whilst possessed of an uncomfortable feeling of being ever watched. It was not only Caroline's overt attention and interference which made her feel uneasy, but an intuition that the suspicions of many of the party had been awakened against herself and Darcy. It seemed she could hardly speak to him without attracting the, albeit generally discreet, interest of those most of those in the room.
Elizabeth's state though, was less to be pitied than Darcy's, as the last few days had at least given her an assurance of his continued affection. She noted his eyes were turned to her as often as they ever had been, and could sense in them a longing. With this new confidence she could initially view Caroline's interference as moderately amusing, but as an entertainment it had quickly worn thin. It was only on the eve of her last full day at Pemberley before continuing on north, that Elizabeth began to discern how effective Caroline's hindrance might have been. She began to note a return in unease in Darcy's behaviour toward herself, and an examination of her own behaviour brought about a sudden fear as to how her circumspection might be interpreted by Darcy. Might he possibly read it as a signal that though she was happy with friendship, she would not encourage any more?
She felt a little chastened at the idea that, in response to her own self-consciousness, she might have been thoughtless of Darcy's feelings, and only fell asleep that night upon determining that she would forgo the next morning's planned visit with her aunt and uncle, and seek his company, not allowing herself to be intimidated by Caroline's, or anyone else's, presence.
Darcy awoke after a restless night's sleep, not feeling in the best of temper. With the knowledge that the Gardiners were to make some final calls that morning, and with every expectation that Elizabeth would accompany them, he felt as though at least half the day would be a loss. In his current mood the idea of spending hours in the company of Caroline was too much to cope with, so with no more than a few short words with his steward he left the house early to attend to certain estate business in Lambton.
It was not an auspicious beginning to the day.
Elizabeth and Caroline were both disappointed, and found the company of the other more of an irritation than usual, and it was in a desperate attempt to dispel some obvious tension that Georgiana suggested a shopping excursion to Lambton.
"I can't really imagine that a town such as Lambton would have anything of interest to most of us," Caroline had snapped in her ill-temper, not careful of the offence she might cause Georgiana until the words were out of her mouth.
"I, for one, would love to go," Jane answered calmly, lest Caroline's rude comment lay in the air. Elizabeth also welcomed the distraction, and if Caroline felt ill-inclined to go, it was all the better.
"I too believe I might enjoy such an outing," Louisa added, shooting her sister a silencing look before any more ill-conceived comments could come from her mouth, and taking the advantage of some conversation between Elizabeth, Georgiana and Jane, quietly passed on to her sister the conciliatory information that she believed Mr Darcy was conducting some business in Lambton.
"Georgiana, you are absolutely correct," Caroline offered at the next opportunity. "With thought I can see a morning in Lambton would be a simply wonderful excursion."
With only a little more discussion the women moved off to their respective rooms to prepare for the outing, whist Bingley left to make arrangements for the carriage.
It was only upon their meeting together in the entryway that it became clear that Caroline was very unsatisfied with her brother's choice of transport, lamenting how her dress would be crushed, and the heat that would be generated in such a confined space.
Given that Elizabeth could foresee little pleasure in the company of Caroline, it did not take more than a few pointed remarks before Elizabeth did as Miss Bingley obviously wished, and offered to stay Pemberley on the excuse of waiting for the Gardiners' return. After seeing the carriage off she set about finding distraction in the largely empty house.
Darcy arrived home and at least found some relief upon being informed that the women were not currently within, having gone into Lambton. A slight hope that Gardiners might return with Elizabeth before the other party arrived back, crossed his mind, but he still despaired of finding any time alone with her. This though brought with it a restoration of his earlier exasperation, and it was whilst in this state of mind he sought the solace of time alone in his library.
As Elizabeth's mind was firmly elsewhere she did not notice as he entered the room, but he saw her immediately, and though it was a moment such as this for which he had spent the last days waiting, he found himself now struck with an immobility as he considered how he should now proceed. His eyes did not move from her as he took in the picture she presented.
She was as beautiful as ever, but something about her spoke of a distraction of thoughts. It was as though she were looking at the page in front of her, but not really attending. His mind immediately went back to that afternoon when they found themselves together in the Netherfield library, and he could not repress a smile at how much her mere proximity had managed to so completely unsettle him that day.
He was startled from his revere as Elizabeth closed her book with a spiritless sigh. For some reason he still did not call his presence to her attention, but simply watched her with appreciation as she stood and moved with a light grace toward, he noted, his favourite corner of his library. He took in her figure as she walked along the shelves - running her hand languidly across the books as she did so. A wave of desire washed over him and he deliberately withdrew his eyes to her face. He could now easily read some discomposure of mind in her expression, and he longed to know of what she was thinking... if he might be in the forefront of her thoughts... if she felt as unfulfilled as he - but a pricking of fear that she might simply be uneasy with his continued attentions, arose to taint his hopes.
He hated his hesitancy, he had been unused to doubt and indecision... but then he'd met Elizabeth Bennet. It seemed that almost since his earliest introduction to her, she had unsettled him with her undoubted attractiveness, playful intelligence and slightly impertinent ways.
He had prayed for this opportunity to be alone with her, but now found it difficult to move past the insecurities which had never really left him since that night at Hunsford - since he had so badly misjudged how matters stood, and arrogantly pushed himself forward to where he had not yet earned the right to go. He had since confronted his wrongs, and believed that he had obtained her forgiveness, but did he also have her favour? Should he be direct - and again tell her of his wishes - or would it be better to simply extend the invitation for her to stay longer at Pemberley come the end of her northern tour?
If he only had an indication of how she was feeling... if he could just have some way of reading her thoughts...
A return of focus made him aware that she had chosen a volume from the shelf, and was examining it now with an air which, though speaking less of distraction, could still not exactly be called easy. She ran the tips of her fingers over the book in a manner so close to a caress that Darcy had to repress a pang of jealousy before catching a glimpse of the gold embossing on the rich leather, and realising that she was holding the very volume which he had lent her all those months ago, the one she had kept with her all the while he was in London.
"Elizabeth..." he said softly, causing her to start before recovering slightly to throw an arch smile in his direction.
"Do you take pleasure Mr Darcy, in sneaking up upon, and scaring the wits out of, the unprepared and unsuspecting?"
The challenge in her voice, the setting, and indeed her whole manner, was so reminiscent of the exchange they had shared in the Netherfield library that a sense of déjà vu shot though him, and he returned her smile with a renewed sense of purpose as he moved toward her with a now deliberate step.
Elizabeth, still recovering from the surprise of his unanticipated company, found any attempt to recover her composure was in vain. She felt completely overcome by his unexpected and close physical presence, and simply worked to present a façade of calmness, but he was now so close that all her senses seemed too overwhelmed for control, and she allowed him to take the book from her hand without question.
"Would you like some assistance in returning this?" he asked in lowered tones, and without waiting for a reply he put out one hand to steady himself against the bookcase, and reached up above Elizabeth to completely misplace the book upon a higher shelf, seemly unconcerned or oblivious to the fact that he knocked several books out of alignment in the process.
Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word and, with the intensity of her emotions, she found herself unable to hold his gaze, which had had not left her face since speaking her name, and she lowered her eyes to the floor. Darcy did not withdraw though, and after a short pause she felt his hand on her chin as he tilted her face up toward his once more.
``You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.''
Elizabeth, though feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, still could not find her voice, and maybe it was due to this momentary incapacity, or perhaps it was just the natural conclusion of too many a month's day dreams, but in an act that surprised Elizabeth almost as much as it did Darcy, she simply answered by standing on her toes and brushing his lips with the lightest of kisses.
The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before, and it took a moment for him to steady himself enough to speak.
"You don't mind Elizabeth, if I take this as a positive indication you may be weakening toward me?" he asked in lowered tones, and was elated as he heard a hint of Elizabeth's light laugh in her reply.
"Mr Darcy... you can take it as an indication that I would wish to spend the rest of my life with you... I desire nothing more than to be your wife."
A charge of passion and heartfelt delight diffused through his whole being as he finally savoured this answer to all his longings, and he drew even closer to the object of his desire, bridging the fine gap which had separated him from Elizabeth. She gasped at the sensation created by his fingers running up her bare arm, before he slipped them behind her neck to draw her lips once again to his. His kiss, though tender, was not at all tentative like Elizabeth's, and she felt herself melting as the embrace deepened, overwhelming her with a fusion of emotions and agitations which she had never before experienced, nor even imagined possible.
A passing abashment caused Elizabeth to finally break the kiss, and withdraw slightly until her back was solidly against the bookcase. Darcy was momentarily taken aback, but as a quick study of her face reassured him her the action spoke only of embarrassment, he did not move away, but instead moved his hand up to caress her face, running his fingers lightly along her jaw line before tracing her lips with his thumb.
The intensity of sensation which ran though Elizabeth made her feel weak, and she was very glad of the support of the bookcase as he deliberately leaned in to claim her lips once more, softly at first, but with an increasing passion as he moved his hand down to caress the warm exposed skin of her neck and shoulder...
It was only upon the discerning of servant's voices just outside the library, that Darcy pulled back with a slight curse at the interruption. The new lovers stood slightly apart from each other, in an almost guilty silence, and they listened to the chatter move away down the hallway, before Darcy again leaned forward with the whispered suggestion that they might take a walk together in the grounds.
Elizabeth readily agreed, thinking that some fresh air and activity might be a wise choice for them both at that moment, and she allowed him to take her hand to lead her out to one of the gardens, as her mind struggled to come to terms with the delightful, but still bewildering, mélange of sensations and emotions that continued to hold her, and render her seemingly incapable of fully coherent thought. She glanced up at his profile as they moved away from the building, and marvelled at his outward composure - he seemed almost too calm too assured, and she discerned a stab of feeling akin to annoyance, at his incredible self-sufficiency. They rounded a corner though, where the walk was sheltered of the view from the house, and any such feeling completely dissipated as he shot her an uncharacteristic and boyish grin, before taking her completely unawares by lifting her from her feet and spinning her round in a motion that spoke of unrestrained joy.
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," he said as he set her again on her feet, enjoying that she had to hold to him tighter to retain her balance, "I'm finding it difficult to fully believe my good fortune. You have made me the happiest of men."
"Mr Darcy..." she began.
"William... please call me William. Mr Darcy seems so distant."
"William...?" she tried tentatively.
"Yes my love," he answered in soft tones, as he moved his face closer to hers.
"I've forgotten what I was going to say..." was all she could manage.
"It's of no mind," he answered in almost a whisper. "I can think of a better use for your lips at the moment."
Elizabeth could just vaguely wonder, as once more Darcy's lips took her own, if she would ever again be able to string together a coherent sentence... before realising she didn't even care.
Darcy continued in his 'better use' of Elizabeth's lips for quite some minutes more, his fingers also finding 'better' occupation in the silkiness of her hair and the smoothness of her skin, leaving both himself and his fiancée more affected than even previous. When he finally withdrew his lips from hers he was further moved as, rather than pull back herself, Elizabeth instead leaned into him, resting her head against his shoulder and accepting his arms as they came around her to bring her even closer in a firm embrace. They remained standing thus for some time, savouring not only the physical pleasure of the position, but also the feeling of belonging... of how right it was for them to be together... before Darcy moved back slightly in order to tilt her face to him for another tender kiss, then take her hand to lead her further along the walk.
" It's hard to believe now," Darcy smiled, "that less that a hour ago I was still very uncertain of whether such happiness could ever be mine."
Elizabeth coloured a little as she replied, "My manners must have been in fault, but not intentionally, I assure you. I never meant to discourage you, it's just with so many people attending to our every conversation, I found it almost impossible to act with anything like ease."
"I tried to assure myself that this might be the case," Darcy answered, "but since I misjudged matters so thoroughly in Kent, it has been harder to maintain true confidence in regard to my reading of your thoughts."
Elizabeth, feeling even more embarrassed at this first mention of all which had passed at Hunsford, replied after a thoughtful pause, "We should not quarrel for the greater share of misunderstanding annexed to that evening, The discernment of neither, if strictly examined, would receive credit; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in understanding.''
``But Elizabeth, what did you say of me that I did not deserve? For, though some of your reproofs were formed on mistaken premises, my behaviour to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence.''
"Oh William, ought not the pain of that night now be forgotten? You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.''
``I cannot be so easily reconciled to the past myself. The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: "had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner." Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me."
``Oh! do not repeat what I then said. These recollections will not do at all. I assure you that I have long felt the regret of that evening.''
"Elizabeth my love, you have nothing to repent in you refusal," Darcy replied. "I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.''
"Oh William, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, to refuse the man I loved... and I have often wondered if it were the most foolish... a simple yes might have spared such pain... we would have come through eventually, we'd have worked things out, would not have we?"
"Only if my arrogance and thoughtlessness did not smother your love first, if it did not mortally damage your regard before I were able to learn that which I needed to," Darcy replied with a surprising seriousness. "You were right in believing that love cannot survive without respect... and it frightens me to think of what a union between us might have become had you accepted me that night."
"I now refuse to believe it would have been insurmountable," Elizabeth protested, not surprisingly reluctant to credit such a view of things whilst experiencing such happiness. "Your letter showed how mistaken I had been in many of my assumptions..."
Darcy smiled at the mention of his letter. ``Did it,'' said he, ``did it soon make you think better of me? Did you, on reading it, give any credit to its contents?''
She explained what its effect on her had been, and how much greater her loss had appeared after reading its explanations and professions.
``When I wrote that letter,'' replied Darcy, ``I believed myself perfectly calm and rational, persuading myself that I only wished to clear my motives before you, but I am since convinced that it was written in desperate hope that you might repent of your refusal. If I am honest too, I'll admit to having softened the representation of many of my actions in the hope that you might think better of me.''
"Oh William, you are without a doubt too hard upon yourself," Elizabeth laughed up at him as she led him to a seat in the garden. "Let us accept then, that we both had lessons to learn from that evening, and agree therefore, for neither of us to look back on it with self reproach."
``That is easy for you to suggest Elizabeth," he replied as he seated himself at her side. "Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that any comfort in looking back is of innocence. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude which cannot, which ought not, be repelled."
"You underestimate yourself so," Elizabeth gently chided. "Look at the pains you have taken, the efforts you have undergone, to change for me. I knew it must be true love..." she grinned, "...when even my mother began writing to me of your excellent qualities. It takes a very brave man to court the good opinion of my mother."
Darcy could not help but laugh. "Remember though Elizabeth, that all my reform might be put down to very selfish motives. Your acceptance was a prize worth working for."
"Well, I will immediately add persistence to my list of all the things I admire in you Mr Darcy."
"You have a list?" he asked, "And what happened to William?"
"A figurative one," she smiled. "And I'm sorry for my lapse into formality. This is all so new."
"Yes it is new," Darcy replied as he slipped his arm about her shoulder and drew her closer to himself, "but undeniably delightful. So what else might you have on this figurative list of yours?"
"Apart from your ten thousand pounds a year, and these beautiful grounds at Pemberley...?" Elizabeth questioned with a cheeky smile.
"Yes... apart from those," Darcy laughed, not voicing that her refusal at Hunsford also proved beyond doubt that she was no fortune seeker.
"If I did not think it might make you vain," Elizabeth replied, "I might tell you of my feelings regarding your intelligence, your humour, your knowledge, your principles, your gallantry..."
She found herself unable to continue as she was suddenly silenced by another of his kisses, which began slowly, but deepened as he pulled her closer and parted her lips with his own...
"You know Elizabeth, " Darcy lamented as he eventually pulled back from his embrace. "I'm beginning to doubt that you'll be able to add patience to this list of yours. I believe the period of our engagement may test me sorely."
"Well, there's always Scotland," Elizabeth answered, trying to keep her voice light, but actually feeling a real sympathy with his sentiment.
"Oh do not tempt me," he replied, shaking the thought from his head as he stood and again offered her his hand. "Come, I think we should walk."
They walked on, without knowing in what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects. Immersed in the joy and security of loving, and knowing one's self loved in return, they were able to speak of feelings and thoughts that they had never previously been given voice to, or would have even thought possible to express out loud.
It was inevitable though, that the realities of life would eventually intrude upon their thoughts, and it was Elizabeth who introduced them to the conversation.
"How I am ever going to summon any enthusiasm for the remainder of our tour, I do not know. The thought of parting from you tomorrow is not at all a pleasant one. Do you think my Aunt and Uncle might be persuaded to stay on at Pemberley after all?"
"I'm afraid such an action would not secure you of my company Elizabeth, as I believe tomorrow I must leave Pemberley myself. It appears I now have some urgent business in Hertfordshire which I would not delay for the world."
"You plan to go to my father?"
"Without a doubt," he answered with a smile. "I have waited for this time for so long, that I will not now hesitate or delay. I hope to speak to your father straight away, then move on to London to have my solicitor deal with the necessary legalities of the matter. It is a dreadful thing to be so practical at a time like this, I know, but it will mean I can be back at Pemberley before your return, and then we can decide how then to move on without any unnecessary impairment."
Elizabeth could only flash a grin at his businessman like strategy. "A very efficient approach might I say sir. How long have you had this all planned out?"
"It has been formulating in the back of my mind this last half hour," Darcy replied with a grin of his own. " I'm beginning to believe I was wrong when I told you the flaw in my disposition was an unforgiving temper. I think it might be impatience after all."
"I can find no fault in your eagerness," Elizabeth replied, a becoming blush rising in her cheeks as she realised the implication of these words, and she allowed to self to be once again pulled into his arms.
It was rather past the customary hour for luncheon when Darcy and Elizabeth finally returned to the house, but both were too happy to allow the remarks of a very piqued Caroline or the curiosity of the others to unsettle them, simply explaining that they had lost track of time in enjoying the pleasures such a lovely day had to offer.
Surprisingly the rest of the day was passed in a relatively mundane fashion. The practicalities of the Gardiners and Elizabeth packing up, meant that no scheme for any general excursion could be entered into, and despite Caroline's suggestion that the remainder of the party find some more interesting employment, she could find no ally in the idea aside from Mrs Hurst, and she was fortunate to have even her support.
Caroline's feelings of animosity toward Elizabeth had increased upon arriving back at Pemberley to learn that their host had returned early, and was assumed to be somewhere in the grounds with Miss Elizabeth. It had risen to an even higher degree still, as time had moved on with no return of the couple to the house, and in her temper she had sought to lay the blame of the situation upon Louisa.
" I should have known better than to have listened to you regarding Mr Darcy being in Lambton today."
"I only repeated the information given to me," Louisa replied defensively, "and I believe it was correct. It was your own choice to come, and I can hardly be held accountable if he returned earlier than expected."
"Returned to that scheming upstart!" Caroline threw accusingly at her sister, but this was too much for Louisa.
"May I remind you that 'scheming upstart', as you chose to call her, would not have been here Caroline, had it not been for the scene you created over the close confinement of the carriage, and your rather more obvious hints that she should be waiting here for the Gardiners."
Caroline could have no rational reply, but she still chose to leave the blame with Louisa, who suffered the brunt of her sister's ill-temper for much of the afternoon.
If it had not been for the prospect of Elizabeth's early departure on the morrow, Caroline would have found it even difficult to maintain any thing approaching an air of good humour in her continued attentions to Mr Darcy upon his return. At the first opportunity after luncheon she had attached herself again to the object of desire, and would not be dislodged by either his inattention, or even his overt suggestions of how she might otherwise occupy herself.
Still, the underlying fulfilment which resulted from that morning's understanding, could not be dampened simply by such an inconvenience as Caroline's possessiveness, and the two lovers contented themselves in the security of the knowledge of the other's affections, and through the more subtle communication of their feelings through many a shared look or a glance. There were moments when Elizabeth found it difficult to contain her laughter at certain expressions of exasperation, or occasionally even disbelief, in her fiancé's eyes, but the joy he'd feel upon the conspiratorial and cheeky grin she'd send him in response, made the vexation almost worth while.
With any attempt for time alone again with Elizabeth foiled by Caroline, Darcy finally accepted the unlikelyhood of achieving this aim, and instead escaped Caroline through inviting Charles to ride with him, the two men returning just in time to prepare to dine, feeling vigorous and refreshed.
The evening's entertainment however, suited both Elizabeth and Darcy as they sat down to cards at the same table, happy to be seated beside each other after Miss Bingley ,who upon hearing Darcy invite Elizabeth to play, had without a hesitation, come forward to claim the seat across from him as his partner.
Mr Hurst joined the group across from Elizabeth, and found a her capable player early in the game, but became frustrated as her attention to the cards seemed to wander after a time. Mr Darcy appeared to notice it as well, addressing her with a look of pure innocence, as a flush seemed to rise on her face.
"Are you well Miss Bennet, you look somewhat discomposed?" he stated, knowing full well that it was the placement, under the table, of his leg against her own which must be the cause of her distraction. "Is there anything I might get you for relief? -- A glass of wine perhaps?"
``No, I thank you;'' she replied, endeavouring to recover herself. ``There is nothing the matter with me. I am quite well."
"I am very glad to hear that," he replied with a gracious smile, deflecting promise of revenge she managed to send him through the look in her eyes.
He played very well through the next few hands, but Elizabeth seeing a kind of smug satisfaction in his face at how easily he'd be able unsettle her, managed to return some in kind, with the very forward movement of sliding her hand onto his knee.
The game did lot continue long after this, as it was ended by Mr Hurst throwing in his hand in horror, exclaiming that if no-one wished to attend he saw no point in continuing. Elizabeth excused herself, explaining she was rather tired and really should retire for the evening, before slipping away to speak in lowered tones with Jane, inviting her to come to her room that night, if she could, for a sisterly talk.
As she cast her eye around the parlour before she left, she was surprised to see Mr Darcy was no longer present, but was therefore almost anticipating it when he appeared to draw her aside into a small alcove in the Hall way, on the way to her room.
"However did you manage to effect your escape William?" she asked, with a smile at being able to feel his arms around her once more after the restraint of the afternoon.
"I said I was seeing about supper," he answered as he moved up his fingers to caress the smoothness of her face. "I'll have to return in a moment, but I could not let you retire without saying a proper goodnight."
"And what is entailed in a proper goodnight?" Elizabeth asked with a whisper as he moved his lips to hers in demonstration, and allowed his fingers to continue their tantalising exploration of her softness, sliding them down her neck to the contours of her throat and shoulders, whilst his other arm pulled her closer to him still.
As occupied as they were, they did not hear the approaching footsteps until it was too late, and they quickly came apart upon hearing Jane's surprised intake of breath.
Recovering swiftly, Elizabeth simply shot her sister an embarrassed grin, then stood on her toes to give Darcy another quick kiss, before grabbing her sister's hand to drag her into her room, where half the night was lost in conversation.
Elizabeth made her way to the breakfast parlour rather earlier than had been her wont whilst at Pemberley, but she had woken at first light and, despite the lateness of the hour in which she had finally gained sleep, found her thoughts and feelings still too joyful and too busy to contemplate even trying to lay in a while longer, particularly given the idea which played in the back of her mind that Darcy also might rise early this morning.
She stood for a moment experiencing a quiet disappointment upon entering an apparently deserted parlour, and therefore could not tell if she was more startled or pleased when an arm slipped around her from behind, and a light breath tickled her ear as it carried a whispered "sleep well my love?".
"Well, but not long," she managed to reply, surprising herself as she instinctively relaxed back against his chest. "Jane and I spoke rather late into the night... and you sir?"
"I was up rather late too, arranging matters to allow me to leave early today," Darcy offered, before succumbing to the temptation of placing some light kisses upon the enticingly exposed neck not far from his lips, and smiling as he felt Elizabeth shiver in response.
He loosened his hold momentarily, giving Elizabeth the freedom to turn in his arms.
"You know sir," Elizabeth said, regarding him with an air of composure despite the inner chaos his touch always seemed to create. "I begin to think it is a good thing that we will be apart these ten days. You unsettle me so thoroughly."
Darcy simply returned a smile which held not even a hint of repentance, before leaning in to unsettle her even further with a kiss that spoke rather eloquently of both of his satisfaction and his longing.
Elizabeth finally drew back, completely unable to give her fiancé the look of reproach he no doubt deserved for disturbing her senses with such obvious calculation, as the truth was, she enjoyed it too much.
Darcy, knowing they would not be alone for long, was about to take advantage of Elizabeth's lips yet again when the sudden entry of Georgiana into the parlour caused them to quickly, and guiltily, pull apart. She had not missed the intimacy of the couples previous situation and in an acute embarrassment was about to leave the room when she heard her brother laugh.
"There must be something about sisters Elizabeth, which gives them ill-timing," he remarked. "Last night it was Jane, and this morning Georgiana."
Georgiana just stood there, her eyes affixed on her brother with a stupefaction that he seemed in such a good humour after being interrupted in such a position.
"Georgiana," her brother continued, "I would like to introduce my fiancée, Elizabeth has agreed to be my wife."
The joy with which the normally shy young lady received this news is not to be underestimated, and she reacted with such spontaneous affection as to take both Darcy and Elizabeth by surprise. The happiness she showed in accepting Elizabeth as a sister was both candid and sincere, adding even more to the pleasure of the newly engaged couple. The joy was to be shared further upon the entry of Bingley and Jane - Bingley's heartfelt congratulations immediately confirming his good information on the matter as he welcomed Darcy as a future brother with a manner that was everything happy and genuine.
They made a merry group as they settled down to break their fast, talking over their satisfaction at the engagement and asking more of any plans regarding the specifics of when the wedding might be. Darcy only replied that he sincerely hoped the engagement would not be too long, silencing Elizabeth for a moment as a warmth rose to her cheeks. He then went on to detail his intent leave them to travel to Hertfordshire that day, and was pleased to see that the furthering of his purpose was seen as very adequate compensation for loss of his company for a time. His sister did not seem at all dismayed that she would be left with the full responsibility of hostess whilst he saw to such matters.
"I think though," Darcy said at one point, "that it might be best for the news of our engagement be kept to ourselves until permission from Mr Bennet be obtained and an announcement made in the papers."
"I do not believe I will be able to keep this from my aunt and uncle," Elizabeth ventured. "I cannot imagine being able to hold in such information until I am much past the gate, let alone for ten days."
William directed an appreciative smile at Elizabeth as she spoke, inwardly pleased that she desired to share the news with others. "I should never wish to exclude he Gardiners," he qualified. "I would have no doubt of their discretion. I only meant that it would not be right for the report to go generally abroad before the engagement is properly sanctioned. Elizabeth... you do not think your father will have any difficulties with the attachment?"
"No," replied Elizabeth, Jane and Bingley all at once, giving Darcy all the assurance he wished for.
"I think he may be a little saddened at the distance which will separate us," Elizabeth admitted, "but he will not refuse... I'm sure he will rejoice at my happiness and good fortune... I have a letter upstairs which I hope you will deliver to him."
"Certainly my love," Darcy replied, his casual endearment being enough to send shivers up her spine. "Anything to expedite this all to its most right and proper conclusion."
The group appreciated a leisurely breakfast with only a late addition of the Gardiners to their party, before the business involved in getting away pulled them in different directions. Much to Darcy's great frustration he was unable to snatch any time alone with Elizabeth prior to her departure, so he had to content himself with the intimacy that might be shared with a look, and with the simple touch of her hand as he assisted her into the carriage. It is perhaps not surprising that at the last moment he chose to disregarded the public nature of their farewell, to place a soft kiss upon her hand before reluctantly letting go and watching the carriage until it was out of sight.
It was only upon the disappearance of the carriage that Caroline saw fit to join the remainder of the company. The smug pleasure she felt at the departure of Miss Bennet was by no means insubstantial, and she was truly looking forward to asserting her presence as the only single female who could be of interest to Darcy. Sidling up to him on the steps she determinedly took his arm.
"I can not say how refreshing it is to have the intimacy of our group again restored Mr Darcy," she purred with a self-satisfied smile. "I dare say we will do quite well by ourselves."
"I hope you will," Darcy replied, still a little distracted as his thoughts followed Elizabeth. "I have every faith that Georgiana is quite grown up enough to perform the duties of a hostess."
Caroline could not quite fathom why Darcy was suddenly speaking of his sister's hostessing abilities, but was in too good a mood to question the vagrancy of his mind, and agreed with Darcy's assessment of Georgiana's abilities whole-heartedly.
"It is good to know I'm leaving you in capable hands," Darcy said quite cheerfully, not even noticing he look of horrified realisation that appeared on the face of the woman at his side.
It was too much for Caroline to take in as the second carriage rolled up the drive to the steps of Pemberley, and she could do nothing but stare as Darcy detached himself from her and made his farewells to the rest of the group gathered at the entryway. She was only able to regain her equanimity upon Charles saying something about Darcy's business in London, giving her the consolation that he'd be at least travelling in the direction opposite to Elizabeth Bennet. Plastering a smile on her face she joined in with the wishes of the others that he might have a safe and pleasant journey, before retiring to her room with a headache that would take quite some time to dissipate, though it was nothing compared to the headache that would come upon her only a few days hence after reading the announcement's section of the London papers.
The days that separated the lovers moved more quickly for Darcy than Elizabeth, he at least had occupation and purpose in his business in both Hertfordshire and London, were as Elizabeth was finding it difficult to muster the appropriate interest and enthusiasm for the sights and landmarks she was to take in during the rest of their tour. Her only consolation was in the Gardiners satisfaction in learning of the engagement, and of them taking many opportunities to talk with her about the worthiness of Darcy, and joining in the happiness of listening to Elizabeth speak of him in return.
The nervous anticipation Elizabeth felt upon returning to Pemberley was acute. The reassurances Darcy had given that he would be home before her arrival were not enough to overcome a slight sense disbelief that everything might go so smoothly for him as to allow it.
Her hopes though, were more than answered as they were welcomed at the door by the master himself, who had been in expectation of their coming for the past hour and a half. Greetings were exchanged and as refreshments were served, Elizabeth even received warmly insincere best wishes from Bingley's sisters on her engagement.
Darcy had taken his place at Elizabeth's side, and was finding it hard to be attentive to anyone, or anything else, but he was trying as best he could. After going through the social motions for upwards of forty minutes however, it became too much for him, and he begged that he and Elizabeth might be excused for a while as he had some matters on which he needed to speak with her.
Both felt a tangible sense of relief as they walked toward the conservatory, but they were also aware that, due to their engagement, propriety would allow them less time alone together rather than more, and of the need to appreciate each opportunity together they could find. Darcy was not slow to make use of this opportunity, and immediately upon obtaining privacy from prying eyes he pulled her to him to claim her with a kiss that left no doubt as to how much he had missed her during their time apart. He had matters which he needed to address with her, but her physical presence... her mouth... her eyes... her body... drove such practicalities from his mind as took her hand and drew her further into the conservatory where he made known to her, yet again, the strength of his feelings, leaving Elizabeth more than breathless and overwhelmed.
It took every ounce of his self discipline to eventually release her. Elizabeth's response to his ardour was everything he could have hoped for, making it more difficult still to pull back and speak of the matters at hand, but possibly more imperative.
"Elizabeth..." he began, before quickly finding himself at a loss on how to proceed. It was not only the distraction created by the proximity of Elizabeth, but a real awareness that he may have been too presumptuous in his planning with Mr Bennet whilst in Hertfordshire, which gave him pause.
"Yes William...?" Elizabeth's eyes regarded him with a slight amusement at his sudden loss of composure, pleased that he too could be as affected as she was.
Well, presumptuous or not, it had been done and it was time to speak to her now.
"Do you recall Elizabeth, joking about going to Scotland...?"
Elizabeth nodded... surprisingly not at all alarmed at where this conversation might go.
"Was there any seriousness in that comment at all?" he queried, before adding "I am not suggesting we run away, but I am asking if you might be open to a wedding earlier than might normally be expected."
"William... the last ten days I have felt a continual longing to be with you once more," she admitted with a slightly self-conscious smile. "I believe was a rather uninspired companion for my poor aunt and uncle... What I am trying to say is... I believe I might find the period of our engagement one of frustration... where there'll be nothing I might care to do, but count down the days until we are wed."
"Can you count to three?" Darcy questioned.
"What are you saying?" Elizabeth replied, giving him a look that contained a significant disbelief.
"Your family is to arrive tomorrow," Darcy went on, "along with some members of my own. Lady Catherine has declined the invitation, but my Uncle Fitzwilliam and his family is expected."
Elizabeth just looked at him as she tried to take in the import and implication of his words.
"I obtained a special licence whilst in London, and have arranged with the local Reverend for use of our own chapel for the Wedding on Sunday... that is Elizabeth, only if you are happy with such an arrangement... I told you impatience was my greatest fault," he finished with an abashed smile, "I obviously had too much time to scheme whilst on my journey to Longbourn."
"People will conjecture on our wish to hurry," Elizabeth felt the need to remind him, knowing the value of family pride to Darcy.
"Time will prove all officious conjecture wrong Elizabeth," Darcy countered. "The opinions of others on this match are of no concern to me... but if they worry you dearest..."
"No... no..." Elizabeth interrupted. "I simply need to know that you've thought this through..."
"I have thought on, and planned for nothing else these past months. I only wish to know how you feel on the matter Elizabeth. Would you rather wait and be married from your home? Just say the word and it will be done."
"So you are offering me a choice here," Elizabeth stated, "between being joined to you at Pemberley in a few days time, in the presence of all who are most dear to me... or of suffering weeks of suspense, on the most part separated from you, whilst being subjected to my mother's planning and nerves regarding a wedding from home?"
Darcy laughed at her succinct estimation of the alternatives before her, whist being unable to resist the urge to run his fingers along the smoothness of her jaw line, before allowing them to wander to caress the exposed skin of her neck and shoulders.
"I would say you have the sum of it my love. I believe it was your father's considerations on your mother's 'nerves', which made him so receptive to my suggestion in the first place, but only after demanding reassurance that I had not compromised you in any way."
Elizabeth felt warmth rising in her, whether it was more in response to the embarrassment of her father's questioning, or the sensations created by Darcy's touch, she did not know.
"I think I have decided William, to actually add impatience to my list of your good qualities," she answered with a becoming blush. "I too am beginning to think we cannot be married soon enough."
Not much more was said after this exchange... but much more was communicated before they responded to the necessity of rejoining the others.
Given that the passage of a few short days would answer months of longing, Darcy's feelings of fulfilment and happy anticipation could not be doubted. He felt favourably toward the world as a whole, and though he could not be quite relaxed upon the influx of so many people to his home, he dealt with the situation with an admirable calmness. He even bore with the inanities and deference of Mrs Bennet with a cheerful forbearance and if he did shrug his shoulders, it was not till she was out of sight.
Elizabeth herself was truly happy at the arrival of her family, wishing to share her joy with those whom she did, despite their imperfections, really love. Her happiness increased further upon seeing that the improvement of her younger sisters had indeed continued, with both Mary and Kitty having apparently grown in both confidence and responsibility over the weeks in which they had charge of the Gardiner children. It was in Mary that Elizabeth was able to see the greatest change, and this improvement was even reflected in her countenance, making her look sometimes quite pretty. Though her old manner often made an appearance, there where long periods in which she seemed to forget the need to prove herself, and Elizabeth received real pleasure from watching her relax with the children, smile far more, and present a less severe facade in so many ways.
Lydia's behaviour was still cause for some concern, but even she was more restrained in a way, not primarily through any great improvement in self discipline as in the case of her sisters, Elizabeth surmised, but she was doing better because of direct discipline from her father. It didn't escape Elizabeth that both the men most important to her, had made deliberate and definite changes in their behaviour and lives for her benefit, and she felt incredibly fortunate and humbled by such knowledge.
The awareness of how truly blessed she was did not stop there. It soon became obvious that her fiancé's machinations regarding the wedding had not simply stopped with overcoming any legal impediment to the expedition of the service, but had extended to a thoughtfulness of those things more personal that she, and even her family, might require. Upon returning her room after all the of the Bennet's luggage had been unloaded, she found not only had a great many of her own belongings and clothing been brought from Longbourn, but that an unfamiliar trunk was sitting there, apparently complete with some new gowns and an embarrassingly expensive looking collection of opulent nightwear.
The arrival of the trunk was soon explained upon her mother following her into her room in order to gush upon Mr Darcy's generosity and watch her daughter's reaction to the fine gift.
"Oh! my sweetest Lizzy, what a generous man you have captured. How rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! What beautiful gowns, this grand estate, a house in town! Every thing that is charming! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! I am quite distracted. Did you see the gowns he charged me with purchasing for you... did you see the trousseau... not a word about cost... not a word on restraint... and he only spoke of these as something to tide you by until you could go to town yourself."
Elizabeth, embarrassed by her mothers words and overwhelmed at the gesture, could not immediately think of how to respond, leaving a space for her mother to immediately continue.
"Then for him to insist on also buying new gowns for myself and your sisters was too much! I could have strangled your father when he protested, but thankfully Mr Darcy was very obstinate and your father was forced to yield. Mr Darcy maintained that we were not to miss out simply because of the speed of the wedding. Oh! the five days we stayed at his townhouse to allow us to shop in London were wonderful."
This was almost becoming too much for Elizabeth to take in, but thankfully the entry of Jane soon diluted the situation, and a surprisingly moving time was shared by all three as Mrs Bennet showed what she had purchased on her daughter's behalf, the most emotional point being Mrs Bennet's production of a wedding gown.
"Oh Mother," Elizabeth gasped, "How did you know?"
"How could she not know?" Jane asked with a laugh. "I lost count of how many times you returned to that pattern when we chose for my own wedding."
"I recalled how much you were taken by it," Mrs Bennet replied, now even more pleased with her choice upon witnessing Elizabeth's obvious delight in the dress, "and this was made up on special order. Thankfully they had kept all your measurements after Jane's wedding. I'm afraid there was no time for others gowns to be particularly made up, but these have all been adjusted to your requirements. Madame is very clever that way..."
Mrs Bennet actually found herself silenced as her daughter rose to show her thanks with a tight embrace.
"You do not think it too daring?" Elizabeth enquired as she pulled herself away, "...too French?"
"I think it will suit you admirably," Mrs Bennet blushingly reassured her daughter, "and I doubt you'll hear any complaints from Mr Darcy. Are you sure you do not want more lace and ribbons? I bought more to be added, but Kitty insisted you would like it as it is."
"No mother. It is perfect in its simplicity."
Mrs Bennet left a short time later in order to supervise the unpacking of her own trucks, leaving a still somewhat overcome Elizabeth to the ministrations of her sister.
"Mother may have her flaws," Jane offered with a smile, but no one will call her deficient when it comes to fashion.
Elizabeth felt a release of some tension, and laughed at the comment.
"She certainly seems to have an eye as to what might give pleasure to gentlemen," Elizabeth coloured as she lifted and fingered the light, and almost translucent material of one of the many night-gowns. "I do not know if I shall ever have the courage to wear these."
"Oh Lizzy, you will," answered Jane, colouring a little herself. "I thought the same when mother took me shopping before my wedding but now..."
"Is it really like it is said Jane? I must admit to some nervousness. This has all happened so suddenly... but when I am close by him I feel like I have never felt before, and do not think I can be his wife soon enough."
"Lizzy, I envy you being able to marry so quickly. The period of our engagement seemed to drag indeterminately, it was as though we were in a no-mans land, just waiting for that time when our life together would truly begin... and yes, the marriage relationship can be as exciting and fulfilling as they say..." she added in an almost embarrassed tone, "...and it grows even better."
The crowded state of Pemberley when coupled with all the required preparation for the wedding, left little room for Darcy and Elizabeth to find time alone, but despite being in company, they did manage to be beside each other at every convenient opportunity, and also the occasional inconvenient one. If Darcy's uncle and aunt had been in any doubt as to the feelings and compatibility of these two, their fears were more than quieted upon observing them together. They may have hoped that their nephew might make a more advantageous alliance when he chose to marry, but they could not argue with his obvious affection, nor could they find any thing lacking in the person or essentials of Elizabeth, therefore they chose to be happy with him.
Another welcome addition to the party was that of Colonel Fitzwilliam and his older brother, who were able to join them the day before the wedding. Elizabeth found some amusement in the Colonel's initial embarrassment after obviously having put two and two together over whom Darcy had been so taken with prior to their visit to Kent. That his faux pas during their last conversation at Rosings was at the forefront of his mind, became apparent to Elizabeth upon finding herself in his company whilst out of the hearing of the others in the room.
"I must apologise Miss Bennet, for speaking out of turn at last April. Most of what was said was purely my own conjecture, and if it caused any difficulty between yourself and my cousin I am very sorry."
"Do not worry," Elizabeth answered, smilingly. "We had some matters to work through, but have dealt with them very satisfactorily."
"I am glad to hear it," the Colonel answered, happy to know his error was not to be held against him. "Does Darcy know of our conversation that day?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Not at all. I cannot imagine any purpose would be served by such a revelation... and you need not worry, our slowness in resolving our relationship was due to matters other than your words."
"Thank you, and may I say," he offered seriously, "if he'd not realised the prize that you are, far and above his objections, he'd have been a fool indeed."
Elizabeth simply laughed and pointed out that her fiancé's removal from the list of the eligible, might leave more "less objectionable" women for him."
"Yes... I suppose it might," the Colonel replied with a grin.
The morning of the wedding finally arrived and incredibly the bustle in the house appeared to increase even more. The party of guests may have only been small for a wedding, but as they were all - including the four young Gardiner children - staying at the one house, the number seemed huge. About an hour and a half before the service, an unusual quiet then seemed to descend upon Pemberley as everyone retired to prepare themselves. The priority given to the bride, and the exclusive assistance of the highly recommended personal maid whom Darcy had already employed, meant she was all but ready when an unexpected knock came on the door.
Elizabeth ran her finger across the seal of the note she had just been handed, before opening it. A smile came to her face as she read the message and she immediately excused herself to move through the almost deserted hallways to seek out Darcy's study.
"You wished to see me sir?" she questioned softly upon entering the room without knocking.
Darcy looked up from his position at the window, and for a moment said nothing.
"Oh my..." was all he could initially manage. "Do you have any idea of how wonderfully enticing you look?" he finally added, as he slowly walked toward her.
"You approve of the gown then?" she asked giving a playful little curtsy, which possibly gave a better glimpse of her décolletage than Elizabeth would have intended.
"I can not imagine any future husband who would not approve," Darcy answered, appreciation heavy in his voice, "but I can think of at least one aunt of mine who might be scandalised."
"Somehow the idea of scandalising your Aunt Catherine can not really concern me today," she replied with a cheeky smile, unintentionally discomposing him even further.
"There was something you wanted to tell me?" she prompted after quite some seconds ticked by without him saying a word.
"Ah, yes..." he said, pulling his mind back from where it had wandered. "I wished to give you this before the wedding."
Elizabeth hesitated to take the small case he had produced from his pocket, protesting that he had already been too generous, but Darcy lightly brushed aside her concerns, smilingly urging her to open it.
It was then Elizabeth's turn to be silent as she knew not the words to thank him for the gift before her.
"You do like it?" Darcy queried. "I had it made up particularly whist in London. The main stone had been set in a piece of jewellery which belonged to my mother, but somehow the setting seemed too elaborate to sit well with your taste."
"Oh William, it is simply beautiful," was all she could say.
"Then it suits you perfectly," he whispered to her as he lifted the fine chain and moved behind her to fasten it around her neck, his fingers lingering upon her skin as he did so.
His hand remained playing with her hair as Elizabeth turned toward him intending to voice her thanks, but with him standing so near she instead found her thoughts more easily expressed in actions, and she moved her lips to his. Darcy was by no means unreceptive, and quite some minutes passed before he was able to withdraw himself a little.
"I'll take that as a sign of approval," Darcy stated. He tried to speak lightly in an attempt diffuse the intensity of passion which he felt, but failed dismally as his fingers moved, almost of their own accord, to trace along the chain to the delicate filigree work from which a single exquisite stone was suspended.
"I wanted a token which spoke more personally of my thoughts of you," he told her as he fingered the stone, causing her skin to burn despite the lightness of his touch. "You, like this diamond, have no need for - or even want of - elaborate ornamentation or finery... but are of a value far surpassing that which can be commonly found."
"Oh... you pay me too great a compliment," she whispered. "It is I who has found that which is of worth beyond words."
Not surprisingly a silence returned to the room as Elizabeth found herself again pulled into a fiery embrace which eventually ended with a reluctant withdrawal of Darcy's lips.
"If we do not attend to our preparations..." Darcy stated, a huskiness evident in his voice, "...we will never make it to the altar. Now go," he added with a smile. "I will see you at the church."
In Elizabeth's mind the service had a sense of unreality surrounding it, which paradoxically came from the very substance and weight of the ceremony. It was as though the very depth of the promises, and the admonishments on the holiness and sanctity of marriage, transcended all that which was worldly.
Darcy would have not at all disagreed with her feelings as he repeated the vows without a hesitation or a doubt; they were true, they were right, they confirmed a profundity of reality and a commitment already begun.
The wedding celebrations following the service though, moved as a blur, and looking back at it Elizabeth had more a collection of impressions rather than memories. The idea she was loved, accepted, and that so many dear ones could share whole-heartedly in her happiness, moved her more than she could say. They made a lively party, and even Caroline seemed to be in tolerably good spirits - the transference of all her best attention to Darcy's elder cousin proving that her broken heart was not beyond mending and that, in her mind at least, Darcy was by no means irreplaceable.
Finally the social demands of the day drew to and end, allowing the couple to take leave of their well-wishers. Relaxing back in seats opposite they said nothing as the carriage rolled out of the drive, Darcy only releasing a huge sigh which spoke of relief, before moving next to his wife as soon as they were out of sight of Pemberley.
"We have survived my love," he breathed as he placed his arm around her and pulled her closer.
"It seems so quiet suddenly... I almost feel it would break a spell to speak above a whisper," she answered, nestling against his side. "Would you believe that it has just occurred to me that in all the activity of the last few days I have completely forgotten to ask where we are to spend the next weeks.?"
"I would certainly believe it." Darcy laughed. "I had noticed your singular lack of curiosity in that area. I thought we might go to the lakes to assuage you disappointment at not being able to go so far with the Gardiners."
"Oh, that is no disappointment to me," Elizabeth replied with a smile. "I will always be more than grateful to them for not being able to go to the lakes. Derbyshire did for me quite well."
"As much as I love Derbyshire," Darcy countered. "I refuse to share my first weeks of marriage with such a melee of friends and relatives as are currently at Pemberley."
"So where do we stay tonight?" Elizabeth asked, hoping he did not notice the small blush which rose to her cheeks as she alluded to the first night they would spend as husband and wife.
"A guest house not quite an hour from here," her husband replied, but the practicalities of the night, and of the weeks ahead, were quickly forgotten as the conversation moved on to matters of more intimacy, giving them opportunity to share, and to begin to demonstrate, the strength of thoughts and feelings each held for the other.
With all impediment to the freedom of their expression removed, their arrival at the guest house was immediately more frustrating than welcome, and both felt rather more an increase in tension than any relief, as they had to postpone the exploration of their new status until after introductions were made, belongings unpacked and supper given at least a cursory attention.
There was a definite unease in the air after Darcy upon entering the dining room, had immediately requested Elizabeth's setting be moved from the opposite end of the long table to beside his. There was nothing obvious in the housekeepers demeanour which expressed disapproval, but both Elizabeth and Darcy could see she was a little put out. After the privacy which had been afforded by the carriage ride, the constant presence in the dining room of the housekeeper and the serving girl seemed, despite their discretion of movement, almost intrusive, and it was as Elizabeth played with her second course, that she leaned toward her husband to speak in a tone that she hoped would not be audible across the room.
"William, I know it is nonsensical when compared to the noise and bustle of Pemberley these last few days, but I actually feel a little crowded... a little too much like we are of interest. Is there any way you could dismiss the servants for the rest of the night?"
"All of them?" he queried with a raised brow. "Will you not be needing the assistance of your ladies maid tonight?"
Elizabeth laughed at this. "I have just come from a home with six women sharing two ladies maids. Believe me, I am not only capable of looking after myself, but quite practised in it."
"I never doubted your capability Elizabeth," Darcy smiled in response. "It is just that I have always thought that women's attire had an abundance of awkwardly placed hooks and ties."
"If I find any difficulty in undressing William," she whispered, her lips to his ear, "I hope I can rely on you to help me out."
Darcy may have been surprised at her boldness, but the certainty that he was by no means dissatisfied was demonstrated not only in the look she received in response, but in his immediate dismissal of all staff until the morning.
Hours later Elizabeth lay in their bed relishing the comfort as her body curled into his, and security of his arms holding her close. She should have been exhausted, yet she refused to yield to sleep, wanting to stay awake still longer to appreciate more the warmth of his body, the weight of his touch, and her overwhelming sense of belonging. A slight movement as her husband adjusted his hold made her question her belief that he had found sleep.
"Are you still awake William?" she whispered, only to receive some ticklish kisses down her neck by way of an answer.
"I don't want to fall asleep," she confided in him. "This is all too much and I wish to take it all in, to get the last out of every single moment of the day."
Her heart lifted as she heard his low laugh. "I understand very well my love, but remember we have tomorrow too... and years to come."
"It's almost too wonderful to accept. It's been quite some day."
"And it's been quite some night," Darcy added, a smile evident in his tone.
"Would you believe," Elizabeth questioned with an incredulity in her voice, as she turned to nuzzle his neck, "that Jane told me it gets even better."
"I would be willing to invest a great deal of time and energy..." he paused for a moment in order to place a light kiss on her lips, "...to test the veracity of such a claim," the next moments proving to Elizabeth that he was true to his word.
Though a number of eyebrows had been raised over the speed of the Darcy wedding, as the years moved on even the most cynical had to acknowledge theirs as a model of a healthy and happy marriage. No-one who knew them well could ever doubt their compatibility or the strength of their affection. This is not to say they never disagreed, but the early foundation of their relationship which insisted that respect must exist along side love, gave them a solid base on which to stand upon at any time of trial.
They learned quicker than most, that a small amount of grace earlier on in a argument could counteract the need for a much greater amount at a later stage, and that holding tight to injured pride was not conducive to the fulfilment or happiness of either. They also discovered that differences in approach and opinion, instead of being a thing to fear, provided a dynamic substance in their relationship which encouraged each to extend themselves and grow, both individually, and as a couple.
When in their later years they looked back over their life together, it was never without a sense of having been greatly blessed. Not only were they given the joy of each other's love, company and even passion, into old age, but they had all the happiness of seeing their three children grow into adults of both intelligence and substance, able to make their own matches of equal sense, love and promise, leaving nothing wanting.