Beginning, Section II
"Ah, Georgiana!" Fitzwilliam called. "What is this I hear? Has your brother deserted you yet again?"
Georgiana laughed a little uneasily. "I have not been deserted but in the other you are correct; Fitzwilliam is not here."
"Where has he gone this time? Surely not back to London!" The Colonel frowned, disapproval evident in his tone as well as expression. "What is he thinking to leave you with no-one but Mrs. Annesley? Your other guests have departed, I understand."
"Oh, yes," she replied. "They have moved on to Scarborough this past week or more."
Fitzwilliam shook his head. "I do not like it. Where is Darcy?"
Georgiana blinked nervously. She had never been able to withstand her cousin's severe manner when he employed it. "He has joined Mr. Bingley on a hunting party."
Fitzwilliam's eyes widened. "In Hertfordshire." The words were spoken with distaste. "I should have known!" he spat out. "He has been very sly. I really did believe he had rid himself of this unhealthy obsession." His gaze locked with Georgiana's. "What has he gone to do? You must know something of his plans."
"I know only that he and Mr. Bingley have gone hunting," she lied. For the first time in her life, Georgiana Darcy deliberately lied to her cousin about a matter of significance. Her history rewarded her well, however. Fitzwilliam studied her for several seconds before he slapped a hand against his thigh in frustration.
"Well, there is only one thing for it, then. You must give me the direction you use for your letters to Darcy and I shall go there immediately."
Georgiana started. She had not given any thought to her cousin asking her for an address. "But he left only two days ago! I have had no letters from him as yet."
"Come now, Georgiana. You must have some from last year when he stayed with Bingley. Young ladies never throw away letters!" He smiled indulgently.
Georgiana could think of nothing to say. It was true; she had kept every bit of correspondence between her brother and herself while they were apart. At the time she had believed him angry and disappointed with her although his letters had contained nothing to encourage such a notion. Darcy was everything one could want in a brother. Despite Georgiana's belief in his disapproval, she continued to derive comfort from the words he had written. Sentiment had, of course, demanded that the letters be put away safely and she was grateful for that since a review of their contents after Darcy's return from Kent subsequently revealed things her less informed mind had failed to detect the previous year. She wondered how she could have missed the numerous references to Miss Elizabeth Bennet he had made.
The sharpness in his voice brought her back to the present. "I – I was just trying to recall where I had put them. I may have left them in London." Two lies, now. She wondered at herself and the ease with which these falsehoods suddenly came to her lips.
"That is inconvenient to say the least." Fitzwilliam considered his alternatives. "I suppose his steward must know. He'd have to be in contact with Darcy at all times."
"Mr. Braithwaite is in London visiting his brother at the moment." Biting her lip, Georgiana timidly peered up at her cousin.
"Well, there's Mrs. Reynolds," he began but stopped, uttering an oath that was usually reserved for dealing with insubordinate stragglers. I can hardly go about quizzing the servants as to Darcy's whereabouts! "Very well. I shall have to make my own enquiries. I'm sure I can find out in London."
Putting out an arm to halt the Colonel as he turned to leave, Georgiana looked at him with anxious concern. "Please don't do anything that will hurt him... or make him very angry," she quickly added.
He stopped and took her hands in his own while his tone became one of reassurance. "I think it is obvious by now that Darcy's mind is made up. Nothing I say can possibly make any difference to him at this point, not that he listened in the beginning, either. No, he is determined to make Miss Bennet his wife. I think you know that, too. I only hope that she will not disgrace him utterly nor make him sorely regret his impulsive decision."
"If she accepts him." Georgiana let out a long sigh. "When Miss Bennet was here I was sure that I could see she no longer hates him like she did."
Hates him? Like she did? What is this? Fitzwilliam's mind was quickly processing this information. "Come now, that is a rather strong term to use just because she refused his proposal. I will agree that she was very angry with him at the time, having learned of his interference in her sister's plans for Bingley, but hate him? No, Georgiana. Miss Bennet is too clever to allow her momentary lapse in Kent to influence her decision when Darcy demonstrates his persistence and approaches her once more."
Georgiana's control was becoming too fragile to keep back her tears. "But she had no idea what he is like. She actually detested him! She said so! George Wickham had told her lies about my brother and ......" Her voice trailed off as she realised what she had said. One glance at her cousin revealed that his interest had been renewed.
"Wickham, you say? Yes, things are becoming much clearer now." He turned from her to walk a few steps away, deep in thought. "I did wonder how Wickham managed to work his way into all of this." Mind made up, Fitzwilliam once again faced Georgiana. "So, Miss Bennet's mind had already been poisoned against Darcy before I mentioned his interference with Bingley. Her refusal had nothing to do with my information." He chuckled wryly. "Darcy let me think I had succeeded when it was Wickham who had foiled his plans. I wonder...."
His young cousin waited anxiously for him to continue but he showed no sign of elaborating. "What do you wonder?" she finally dared to ask.
Fitzwilliam regarded her steadily. "Did Darcy tell you anything of his recent business in London?"
Shaking her head, Georgiana replied, "I did not ask him, either."
"He was saving the reputation of a young lady by arranging her marriage to George Wickham, the man with whom she had run off to London." Georgiana's gasp caused the Colonel to nod his head in confirmation. "Yes, he had managed to persuade another young lady to run away with him. The difference was that this girl had no fortune and nothing to entice him into marriage. She was also the sister to Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
"Oh, no!" Confusion welled up in Georgiana's heart. She experienced a variety of emotions surge through her, from anger and outrage to humiliation and pain.
"You may now understand why your brother felt compelled to step in and put this situation to rights. I did not agree with his reasons and I still do not. He was not responsible in any way for Wickham's actions. What you have just told me, though, is that one piece of the puzzle that eluded me." Fitzwilliam studied her for a moment, considering how to phrase the rest of what he had to say. "I don't know how you feel about this, Georgiana, but knowing that Wickham would end up as Darcy's brother by marriage should Elizabeth Bennet accept his offer is not something I would like to see happen. I would also prefer not to see you exposed to Wickham again and that would be inevitable under such circumstances."
Eyes downcast, Georgiana struggled for an answer. Try as she might, she could not find in herself enough courage to be able to face George Wickham again. The thought of his presence being a regular occurrence at Pemberley twisted her stomach into knots of panic. At a touch on her shoulder she looked up to see her cousin observing her in concern.
"I marvel that your brother does not seem to have considered all of the people involved in his decision. It just shows how obsessed his thoughts have become. Now that he has rescued her sister from disgrace you must see how she must accept him, regardless of how she feels about him. Is that what you would like to see happen? Do you think Darcy would ultimately be happy when the novelty wears off and he is faced with the reality of what he has chosen?" Seeing the uncertainty in her expression he added, "And the addition of George Wickham into his family after everything he has done."
Georgiana bit her lip while the tears began to flow.
Fortune often favours the foolish, or so it is said. Whether Colonel Fitzwilliam suited the designation of 'foolish' or not, good fortune was with him when he arrived in London and found his cousin in residence at the Darcy townhouse. This was a pleasant surprise for more than one reason. It saved him a tremendous effort in tracking down his cousin and allowed him the luxury of presenting a well rehearsed argument before the heat of composition was cooled by contemplation. He had used his time well while en route, all of his points clear in his mind when the carriage drew up to Darcy's front door. Intent on his purpose, Fitzwilliam's lengthy strides brought him to Darcy's study door before the footman had it opened. The Colonel paused only long enough for the door to begin swinging inward and then pushed it wide with one hand as he entered the room.
"What a surprise to find you here," he said, stripping off his gloves and slapping them on the table beside Darcy's elbow. "Am I just in time to offer you congratulations or must I wait my turn?"
Darcy put aside the letter he had been reading and narrowed his eyes to look at his sudden visitor. "To what do I owe the honour of your presence?"
"I thought you would have asked her by now. Have you?"
Fitzwilliam was surprised. "No? Was she not grateful? Did you not present yourself as the man to whom she and the entire Bennet family should be thankful for the salvation of the youngest of her sisters?"
"No, I did not," Darcy snapped, abruptly rising from his chair and walking to the other side of the room. Turning to face his cousin, he sighed. "I have no desire to repeat our previous arguments, Fitzwilliam. You have said far more than I care to hear and none of it your concern."
"There is nothing I would like better than to put all of this to rest," the Colonel agreed. "However, I do not understand you. One minute you seem reconciled to abandoning your sentimental schemes and the next I think you've raced off to propose to Miss Bennet. Tell me honestly, Darcy. What are you doing?"
"I wish I knew." There was a lengthy silence during which Fitzwilliam patiently waited. Finally Darcy's words came, quietly wondering. "I have never wanted for anything in my life. Everything and everyone was there for the asking. Have you ever known what it is to really want something? To desire it beyond your ability to control, beyond rational thought? It is not so simple a thing to ignore. You can't leave it behind no matter how far you travel. The desire stays with you. It's part of you. It becomes you."
"How very poetic," Fitzwilliam drily interjected.
Smiling sympathetically, Darcy merely shook his head. "You have answered my question. We've lived the same privileged lives, you and I. What has ever been denied us?"
"Nothing," the Colonel answered, plainly unaffected.
"Wrong. We are denied choice." Darcy nodded at his cousin's obvious confusion. "We belong to almost the highest class of our society. Neither of us holds a title although you are more closely associated with one than I. Where are we told we may look for our wives? Up or across, not down. Never look down. Fitzwilliam, there are thousands of people below us than are equal or above us. Hundreds of thousands! And they are all looking up! Look at the choice they have!"
"I'm not sure I understand," Fitzwilliam slowly said. "Surely you don't want to be poor!"
Darcy laughed heartily. "If that were the case then I would agree should you believe me in need of locking away in an asylum. No, I do not wish to be poor. I want choice. I want to be able to look down, to see the valuables that exist there and to be allowed to choose from amongst them without risk of being ostracised. Open your eyes. Open your mind to the opportunities!"
"The opportunities would be entirely one-sided, Darcy."
"Your mind isn't open yet." Darcy thought for a moment. "Consider Miss Bennet and Miss Bingley. Which is the better choice?"
"No question about it. Miss Bingley."
Darcy's eyebrows rose. "Is that so? I congratulate you, then, although I doubt your life will be one of peace nor happiness."
Fitzwilliam's expression was smug. "If you expected me to say Miss Bennet then it is clear that you have forgotten everything about what is required in a wife."
"It is not I who have forgotten," Darcy responded. "On the contrary, I have been quite recently reminded of what is required of a wife and of a husband. It is not society which sanctifies a union between a man and a woman. It is not our peers who sit in ultimate judgement on the performance of our duties as husband or wife. Nothing in the marriage ceremony speaks of pedigree, name or lineage. Fortune is described as richer or poorer. A marriage is not a merger of moneys and assets. It is about two people. Honour, commitment, respect and loyalty. Forsaking all others in favour of one's spouse is what is required." His steady gaze met his cousin's. "Now can you honestly say that Miss Bingley would make the better choice?"
Fitzwilliam was left alone to consider his answer.
Darcy once again read the letter beside his hand before putting the finishing touches on his reply. As the ink dried he leaned back in his chair and digested the information he'd received. The unmistakable hand of Bingley, barely decipherable writing on the direction, had brought a smile to Darcy's face as he opened the letter, knowing what it must contain. The confirmation of his friend's happiness and that of Miss Jane Bennet was detailed in the first three words: I am engaged! Darcy could almost picture Bingley as he sat at his table scribbling away, suddenly recalling that he had written no greeting but shrugging his shoulders and setting to once again. His joy was spelled out in five very short sentences, punctuated by the usual blotting, and concluded with an assurance that he would like to see his friend return to Netherfield as quickly as he could finish up his business. As disappointed as he was that there was no mention of Elizabeth, Darcy was perfectly aware of the ridiculousness of any notion that her name should appear in such a communication. Darcy's reply was equally short, conveying his own delight with the news and wishing the joyful couple all the happiness they deserved. He concluded with a promise to return but did not name a date. He needed more time to reach a determination where Elizabeth was concerned. His own feelings were intimately well known to him but as for hers.....
Fitzwilliam's words from the previous evening came back to him. He had summed up Darcy's mind rather well. One minute you seem reconciled to abandoning your sentimental schemes and the next I think you've raced off to propose to Miss Bennet. "If only it were that simple," he mumbled. He had to admit that proposing to her had more often than not spurred him on; to Lambton, to London, to Netherfield. Uncertainty of her true feelings had kept him from following it through. Even after this latest visit to Netherfield, seeing Elizabeth at Longbourn, had not enlightened him in the least. What did she think? How did she feel? She was most definitely not the bright, lively personality that he had known in previous encounters. She had been subdued, uncommunicative and he wasn't sure if she held him responsible for the downfall of her younger sister. The solution there had not been the best of outcomes but it was the best that could be salvaged from the situation.
Darcy's thoughts came back to his cousin's presence in town at this time. That he had come to London expressly to stop Darcy from doing that of which he so disapproved was unsettling to say the least. He wondered if Fitzwilliam planned to continue making these appearances at inopportune times and repeating his unpleasant opinions and accusations. In his current confusion with regard to Elizabeth's opinions it did not bode well for Darcy's desire to remain optimistic. In an attempt to shake off these disturbing reflections he picked up Bingley's letter once more and read the brief contents. The happiness of his friend was clearly evident despite the brevity of its conveyance. Darcy felt all the satisfaction attached to Bingley's happy conclusion.
"Judging by the smile on your face I can guess the direction of your thoughts." Fitzwilliam stood in the open doorway as if awaiting permission to enter. "May I?" he asked, gesturing toward the inside of the room.
"Of course," Darcy replied with more patience than he felt.
Fitzwilliam settled himself comfortably into a chair behind Darcy, thereby forcing his cousin to turn his own to face him. "I've given some thought to your words of last night. Based upon the criteria you presented I must accede to you regarding the suitability of Miss Bingley as a wife."
Darcy said nothing, perfectly aware that Fitzwilliam had not yet finished.
"Undeniably, Miss Bennet is the better choice." The Colonel waited for the other man to speak and was vaguely disappointed when Darcy remained silent. Frowning, he continued. "In reality, though, your choices are not so limited as you would like to believe. You have your pick of virtually every woman of the ton. You cannot in all honesty say that not one of them could meet the terms you laid down last night; honour, respect and loyalty. In addition, they meet the requirements set down by your own place in society. They come well endowed, well bred and know their place and responsibilities. More than one would be able and willing to honour those vows of which you spoke. No, your argument did not speak more favourably of Miss Bennet inasmuch as it spoke of your sentimental attachment to her. What of her feelings for you?"
This gained Darcy's full attention. "Why would you ask that? Your own arguments have never placed any importance on the feelings of the 'more suitable' ladies."
Raising his eyebrows Fitzwilliam countered in smug voice, "Did not Miss Bennet refuse your offer once already?" His eyes widened when Darcy uncomfortably looked away. "I hope you did not repeat that mistake with the same result! Darcy? You have not reduced yourself to begging!"
"Do not insult me with such suggestions," his cousin tersely replied. "If I am to repeat my offer to Miss Bennet it would not be done without a complete faith in the reciprocation of my feelings for her. Anything less would not serve either of us reputably."
"You have had a hand in securing the future of not one but two of her sisters," Fitzwilliam continued. "Do not deny that Bingley's purpose in returning to Netherfield was anything other than renewing his attentions to the eldest Miss Bennet."
"Bingley's intentions are not dictated by myself."
"If, as you say, your Miss Bennet knows nothing of your role in her younger sister's marriage you cannot be so blind as to think she will not realise the part you play here!" He paused, an idea forming. "You left Bingley in Hertfordshire to pursue her unimpeded."
"I left Bingley to do as he wished."
"Knowing perfectly well that his wish was to propose to his Miss Bennet. In effect, you have been instrumental in securing the marital arrangements of two Bennet sisters." Fitzwilliam shook his head.
"A third as well if I have any indication that she will have me," Darcy proudly stated.
"I have not a doubt of her acceptance once a guarantee of Bingley is acquired. All of her objections will have been addressed." Fitzwilliam studied his cousin's countenance but saw no trace of any emotion. "There is one more thing that I believe you should consider, though. How do you think Georgiana will react to you marrying the sister of George Wickham?"
"That is not a certainty and I will address that issue when and if it becomes necessary."
"That may be sooner than you think," the Colonel said. "I left her in tears at the prospect."
Darcy's expression changed to one of incredulous anger. "I cannot believe even you could be so heartless!"
"Me?" Fitzwilliam appeared surprised at the accusation. "I am not the one hiding the truth from her. I did not harbour an obsessive desire to marry a woman whose sister I arranged to wed to Wickham."
"And so," Darcy growled, "you chose to overstep your bounds and tell her that which you promised to keep to yourself! By what right -?"
"By my right as her guardian!" interrupted his cousin. "If you would not take the trouble to consider her feelings in this matter then I had to."
"Consider her feelings! You left her in tears and you tell me that I did not take her feelings into account!" Darcy's colour rose with each word. He could but imagine the pain his sister was feeling and to know that their cousin had left her in such a state, without the comfort of family, only exacerbated the offense. "The reason you don't understand me, Fitzwilliam, is because you have no proper feelings of your own. You have never experienced love and cannot fathom its depths."
"Considering the lengths it has driven you I'm not so sure I want to know!"
Darcy's reply was sharply interrupted by the sound of a raised voice in the hallway outside the study door. The two men looked toward the closed door and then at each other. Darcy's glare was accusing but the Colonel shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he had no idea why their aunt had chosen this moment to visit. The door was suddenly flung open and the imposing figure of Lady Catherine de Bourgh appeared.
"It is not to be borne!" she declared in her strident tones. "Darcy, you must put an end to this at once."
Drawing deeply on his patience, her nephew asked the inevitable. "Good day, Aunt Catherine. To what am I to put an end?"
"I am surprised you know nothing about it! The topic seems to be bandied about the countryside like so much wind. Well, I shall enlighten you." Lady Catherine seated herself in a most regal fashion and observed the men still standing before her. "A report of a most alarming nature reached me not two days ago. I suppose you are aware of your friend Bingley's very recent engagement?"
"I am aware of this, yes," Darcy drily replied. He motioned to the letter which still rested on the surface of his desk. "I received news of it only yesterday."
"Are you also aware of the report in circulation that will have you also engaged and to his fiancé's sister no less!"
Fitzwilliam's gaze slid over to observe his cousin. So, Bingley and his Miss Bennet have reached their understanding. It is no wonder Darcy was grinning like a cat when I came in. This pairing virtually guarantees he will see Elizabeth Bennet frequently and in intimate settings.
Darcy's expression betrayed nothing of his feelings. His steady mask had slipped into place. "I have not heard that, no."
"I thought as much," his aunt huffed, putting aside her reticule and parasol as if settling in for a long stay. "Let me assure you that I put no credence in it whatsoever. I was, however, greatly put out that such a story was being repeated and the effect it could have on your good name and reputation. As you know I am excessively attentive to such things and thinking that you were at Pemberley I took it upon myself to seek out Miss Bennet and have this report universally contradicted."
Darcy's jaw tightened but he remained silent. Fitzwilliam had no such compunction, however. "Surely you did not believe Miss Bennet to be the source of this?"
"Of course she was! Either she or her family," Lady Catherine sniffed disdainfully. "You must take care, Darcy. Such a woman will be able to cause you great harm if you do not take precautions."
"You say you spoke with Miss Bennet?" the Colonel persisted. "What did she have to say on this matter?"
"She denied it, of course. She actually denied knowing anything about it. The cheek of the girl!" The colour had risen in her face at the memory of her encounter with Miss Bennet. "Impertinence! She refused to answer my questions."
"Indeed?" The one word from Darcy caused both of his relations to look at him.
"Yes, refused me, she did." Lady Catherine focussed her attention on Darcy. "Each one of my questions was countered with her impertinent, evasive replies. I presented to her the facts of what any alliance between you would produce; that the disgrace and dishonour she would bring to the Darcy name would alienate both you and herself from family, friends and that society which she aspires to enter. Her reply was quite in keeping with her insolent manners."
Puffing herself up in indignation, she said with her usual frankness, "Right from the start of our conversation Miss Bennet demonstrated her unwillingness to cooperate. When I demanded answers to my questions she responded with 'You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer'. I suggested that her motive had been to draw you in with her arts and allurements to which she replied 'If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it'. Furthermore she very rudely stated that despite my entitlement to knowing your intentions and concerns that I have no right to enquire of hers! Can such a woman possibly be successful in her quest once her true motives have been so clearly revealed?"
"I am not entirely convinced, yet," Darcy countered. "Have you any more evidence to offer?"
Lady Catherine was visibly offended by his question but had not yet exhausted her testimony. "Yes, indeed! Upon reminding her of your tacit engagement to Anne her response was that if there is no other objection to her marrying my nephew, she shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing of such a promise. Not only did she display a complete lack of respect for the wishes of your family and friends but stated with conviction that the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine on the loss of affiliation with your family. Obstinate and headstrong but also foolishly misled! 'He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal', she said. Equal! Can you imagine such a thing?"
Darcy's face betrayed nothing. "I can honestly say that I had not known Miss Bennet to be of this mind."
"You understand, then, that this woman is not to be trusted. Her own words to me, that I had widely mistaken her character, if I thought that she could be worked on by such persuasions as honour, decorum and respectability."
Fitzwilliam began to see the danger that lay ahead if this conversation continued. "Surely you misunderstood her meaning, Aunt," he ventured but was instantly quelled when Lady Catherine's cold gaze turned to him.
"Let me assure you that I understand her perfectly," she said in a tone sounding remarkably like his sixth form algebra professor. "Miss Bennet cannot be made to see reason. No promise would she give to not enter into an engagement with you, Darcy, should you forget yourself and sink to such depths. 'I will make no promise of the kind', she said!"
"She may have merely been reacting contrarily." The Colonel attempted once again to turn the phrase from something that Darcy would interpret in an encouraging light. "Perhaps she just wanted to irritate you by denying your requests and nothing more."
"No, such a selfish, unfeeling girl! She is interested only in herself. 'I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me' was what she said. Mark my words, Darcy," his aunt said, raising and pointing her finger directly at him. "Such a woman would be your downfall. You would rue the day you set eyes on her if you were foolish enough to make an offer."
The grim set of Darcy's lips did not fool his cousin. Fitzwilliam was aware that Darcy's displeasure was with their aunt and not with the words of the young woman from Hertfordshire. He closed his eyes, resigned, as Lady Catherine's voice concluded her narrative with the most damning evidence of all.
"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude, she said, would have any possible claim on her. Can you believe such impudence! 'No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy' were her exact words, as if it was all decided!" Their elder relative was thoroughly roused in her anger now. "My attesting to the resentment of the family by your marrying her would not give her one moment's concern. Can there be any doubt as to her intentions? She has made her feelings perfectly clear, I say."
For a moment Darcy said nothing, his mind furiously working over the information he had just received. At last he drew his dignity about him and said, "I agree. Her feelings appear perfectly clear."
Lady Catherine gave a relieved sigh. "I knew your judgement could be trusted once I apprised you of the facts, Darcy." She gathered up her gloves. "I shall not stay any longer. Now that we have spoken I will leave it to you to take the necessary action."
Fitzwilliam groaned inwardly. He had no doubt as to the action Darcy would take. He mused on the great perversity of Lady Catherine's efforts being rewarded with exactly the opposite effect while his cousin escorted their aunt to her waiting carriage. When Darcy rejoined him, the Colonel could see the hopeful spark in his eyes. "I have no need to ask what you intend to do."
"I believe you can guess."
"Despite her manner of address, Lady Catherine raised some valid concerns," Fitzwilliam said in a quiet voice.
"Lady Catherine might be better served to concern herself with her manner of address and not with my personal affairs." Darcy seated himself at his desk and drew a paper toward him. Quickly writing out a note, he added almost dismissively, "I shall be leaving for Netherfield in the morning, Fitzwilliam."
"Yes, of course."
The paper folded and addressed, Darcy turned to face his cousin once more. "I will say only this in our aunt's favour; her ill-expressed remarks could not have been better timed."
Indeed! Fitzwilliam ruefully agreed.
Charles Bingley warmly greeted his friend upon his return to Netherfield. Not a hint of bitterness was in evidence despite the suffering he'd experienced at Darcy's instigation. Charles Bingley was not a man to hold a grudge, particularly at this moment in time when all of his hopes had finally come to fruition.
"Darcy, at last!"
"What do you mean, at last? I wrote you only yesterday that I would be here today." Darcy laughed at the sheepish look on the other man's face. "Never mind, Bingley. I imagine that you have far more important matters on your mind. Let me offer you my sincere congratulations personally, now."
The two gentlemen entered the house and as they passed a table in the hall Bingley gestured to a small assortment of letters on its surface. "Those came for you while you were in London. I didn't forward them on as I hoped you would be returning soon enough. None of them looked pressing, at least."
Darcy picked up the papers and followed Bingley to the library. Giving the letters a cursory glance he noted there was one from his sister and felt a sudden apprehension as to its contents. Nothing was more important now than to get to the privacy of his own room and open this letter but he could not do that without being excessively rude to his host.
"I was wondering," Bingley said as soon as they were seated with drinks in their hands, "if you happened to have spoken to my sisters since they received my news?"
Darcy blinked. "I'm sorry, Bingley. I had only just read your letter myself when Fitzwilliam arrived on my doorstep and did not have an opportunity to visit Miss Bingley. I do not think you need worry about their reactions."
"Oh, I'm not worried!" Bingley exclaimed. "I just wondered how long I have before they come storming down here to try and stop me." There was a gleam in his eyes that contradicted his normally easy manner.
"If I am not mistaken, you actually want them to come so that you can put them in their place!" Darcy stared at his friend incredulously and then laughed aloud. "I am happy to see this change, Bingley. Lord knows, if you had seen fit to put us all in our places last year things would have turned out quite differently."
Bingley grinned. "Somehow I cannot imagine me putting you in your place!"
"You are, perhaps, right in that." The smile fading, serious thoughts enveloped Darcy once more. "Bingley, I don't wish to be rude but I see that a letter from Georgiana arrived in this collection and I am eager to read its contents. My cousin informed me that she was not in the best of spirits when he left her at Pemberley."
"But of course," Bingley said, waving him away. "You must understandably be concerned about her. I will leave you to your letter."
"That will not be necessary. I will take these to my room and tend to them there." Darcy scooped up the correspondence in one hand while putting his empty glass down with the other. "I shall join you before dinner."
Upon reaching his room, Darcy cast aside all of the letters but the one from his sister, chose a chair next to the window and sat down. He fingered the paper, carefully scrutinising the handwriting for any indication of the state of mind of the author. At last, admitting that he knew no more nor less from such an examination, the seal was broken and he began to read.
I hope that this letter reaches you before our cousin. If so, please do not be alarmed by my opening remark. If it has not, and Richard has confronted you, then let me assure you that I am in no way distressed by the information he conveyed to me regarding George's marriage to Miss Bennet's sister.
What does cause me distress is the thought that you may forsake your own happiness and that of Miss Bennet due to a misapprehension of my feelings. It was this fear, and this alone, that brought me to tears in Richard's presence. I am perfectly aware of the depth of your feelings for Miss Bennet. From what my own limited experience could discern, I believe that she cares for you, too. I could not sit idly at Pemberley while Richard spun his web of deceit in order to persuade you to give up your heart's dearest wish.
Promise me, if you cannot promise yourself, that you will not give up!
I hope and pray that I receive a reply from you soon with news that will lift both of our hearts.
Your loving sister,
The effect of her words was twofold. Darcy was immediately struck with the realisation that he had never, in fact, doubted his sister's reception of Elizabeth regardless of Wickham's connection to her family. Not only did his pride in Georgiana's maturity and selflessness swell in his chest but he knew without a doubt what he must now do.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was unaccustomed to pacing. It was not something in which he was used to indulging since he could not recall any time when pacing would have served him. Truth be told, pacing did not serve him now, either. This did not deter him from continuing his pursuit.
"Must you do that? I am getting tired just watching you."
He looked up, not pausing in his steps. "Are you not as concerned as myself?"
"Of course," she replied, waving a languid hand across her brow. "My concern will not alter anything, however. Neither will yours."
Fitzwilliam frowned. "That is what troubles me. Every one of my concerns was brushed aside. Darcy used to share these concerns! We were of the same mind."
"Not quite the same," she countered, flashing him an inviting smile.
"In this particular regard we shared the same opinions. Or so I thought." Sighing, Fitzwilliam at last stopped his movements and came to stand before her. "It is true. Our differences were not in beliefs but in practice. Darcy's inexperience may have cost him and there is nothing I can do about that."
"Love will oft make a man behave contrary to his best interests."
A short laugh prefaced his reply. "Tis a good thing, then, that I do not suffer from that affliction." Seeing the pout forming on her lips he added, "Do not despair, my dear. You are much better off this way." Fitzwilliam, with one finger under her chin, tilted her head up to face him. "If I laboured under the same misgivings as my cousin just imagine what a dour and miserable picture I should make."
Her eyes narrowed as the corners of her mouth turned slowly upward. "And what delightful trinkets I would not see."
"Exactly," the Colonel responded, making a mental note to stop at the shops early in the morning and select something to soothe her bruised vanity. He could not help contemplating on the resources that would allow his cousin to purchase more flattering gifts for the soon-to-become Mrs. Darcy. Not that Fitzwilliam had any interest in flattering beyond what was required, of course. Whatever Darcy's requirements were, they could be easily achieved with the trinkets he could afford to buy. The thought was tainted with a bitter taste.
Reaching out a hand to touch his arm and bring his attention back toward herself, his companion said, "They are only getting married. It is not so bad as you seem to think. Trust me."
The Colonel's mouth rose in a smile. "I shall have to. After all, I have no experience of the office." Darcy, however, will never allow his wife the freedom that some have. I certainly hope she realises that he must not be put to the test. He settled himself beside the young lady who moved closer into his arms. "I prefer to keep it that way, too."
This comment might have incensed the average young woman being treated to the attentions of such an attractive prospect. This particular lady, however, was preoccupied with her own thoughts of Fitzwilliam Darcy and the very fortunate Miss Elizabeth Bennet; a woman who had achieved what was heretofore unheard of. She had managed to arouse the deep but well regulated passions of a man who had been proof against the efforts of scores of other women for many years. Imagination is a wonderful thing and, coupled with her intimate knowledge of that gentleman's close relation, she felt more than a bit envious that Elizabeth Bennet was to be the recipient of Fitzwilliam Darcy's attentions.
Georgiana leaned forward in her eagerness to catch sight of her brother as the carriage approached Netherfield. At no point in this journey had she attempted to curtail her excitement. She simply did not care what her cousin's thoughts were. He'd stated them all before and her brother had made his choice despite them. Georgiana could not be happier and allowed it to show. She was vaguely surprised that Fitzwilliam had not made any protests, at least in her hearing, about Darcy's upcoming nuptials. Perhaps he had accepted the situation although she was more inclined to think he was resigned to it. It was of no import, however. Elizabeth Bennet would become her sister and Georgiana was thrilled.
The carriage came to a halt, the door was opened and the passengers stepped out onto the gravelled drive. Darcy drew his sister to him in a warm embrace, thankful for her encouragement and her unparalleled acceptance of his engagement to Elizabeth. For his cousin he reserved a brief handshake and a curt nod, wary of the relaxed manner he exhibited. They went into the house where Bingley greeted his newly arrived guests, warmly welcomed them to his home and immediately launched into a panegyric about Jane Bennet. Georgiana was politely attentive although she longed to speak privately with her brother. Fitzwilliam appeared patient and even prompted their host with a question or two but Darcy was quite content to leave the conversation to his friend as he could think of little he would like to say to his cousin at this point in time. There occurred an unfortunate break in the proceedings, however, as Netherfield's housekeeper appeared with some questions for the Master about the evening's dinner. With the Bennets invited to dine Bingley was eager to have everything perfect, thus he disappeared with his servant to answer her queries and set everything right. This left the three cousins in an uneasy silence for several minutes until the Colonel broke the stalemate.
"I have not yet offered you my congratulations, Darcy."
Staring challengingly at the other man, Darcy replied with his own question. "Have you any intention of doing so?"
Georgiana shifted uncomfortably in her chair but said nothing.
"Of course I do," the Colonel replied, briefly glancing toward his young cousin. "I would be a fool indeed to ignore the situation merely because I disagreed with you."
"I presume you still disagree," grumbled Darcy.
"I am hardly going to lie to you." Fitzwilliam rose from his seat and walked the distance between them, offering his hand when he reached the other man. "I truly wish you all the best, Darcy. Whatever our past differences, it is now irrelevant. I am as hopeful as you, and as every other member of our family, that you have no cause to regret your choice."
As awkwardly as it was phrased Darcy was relieved with this speech while simultaneously reminded of his own shortcomings with his proposal to Elizabeth at Hunsford. Had I really sounded so cold and indifferent to her feelings? Nevertheless he grasped his cousin's hand gratefully, pleased with this peaceful resolution to the months of discord between them. "I have every confidence that regret will be the farthest from my mind."
Fitzwilliam nodded. Yes, but what of her mind?
Georgiana chose that moment to speak up. "I think that if we are to be dining in company this evening I must retire to my rooms and rest for a bit. I should not like to make a poor impression upon Miss Bennet's family and put you to shame, Willim." She smiled at him and made to leave the gentlemen.
Her brother was quick to his feet, though. "Let me show you to your rooms," he offered, extending an arm in invitation. "Richard, you may follow us. I'm sure your chambers are ready, too."
After directing Fitzwilliam to his door, Darcy accompanied his sister to her own and paused outside of it. "I would like an opportunity to speak with you alone sometime this evening. Above all I'd like to thank you for the encouragement you have given me, Georgiana."
Taking his hand in hers, Georgiana softly replied, "You do not have to thank me for anything. I could offer you nothing less than my full support. You have given me so much more."
Darcy squeezed her hand and released it, watching her disappear behind her door before going to his own room to dress for dinner.
Colonel Fitzwilliam was the first downstairs. Well, not quite the first. Bingley was pacing the length of the parlour trying to appear casual and failing miserably. He looked up immediately upon the other man's entrance and his hopeful expression promptly disappeared, to be replaced with a blank stare and a murmured "Hello, Fitzwilliam."
"I am sorry to disappoint you, old man. Shall I go out and come in again, announcing myself this time? Or perhaps I should put on a frock."
Bingley's grin was sheepish. "Don't be absurd. Come in!" He gestured expansively. "As you can see I am awaiting the rest of my guests. I'm sure you understand my eagerness to see Jane. I don't doubt your cousin anticipates Elizabeth's arrival just as much. I say, it did come as a surprise to me when he told me of his interest in her. Hadn't seen it coming at all!"
"Didn't you?" Fitzwilliam fiddled with one of his cuffs. "Of course, the perception of ladies in these situations is always more acute."
"Oh no, I cannot agree. Jane had no idea, either. I mentioned it to her and she gave me to understand that it was not possible."
"I wonder what happened to change her mind?" the Colonel muttered, almost to himself.
Bingley's attention was distracted by some movement through the window and his smile flashed upon recognising his own carriage which he had sent on to Longbourn to collect Jane and her family. Hurriedly excusing himself from the room, he rushed off to meet them at the door. Fitzwilliam was left to marvel at the transition from independence to lapdog that love seemed to inspire. What was it she said? "Love will oft make a man behave contrary to his best interests." He shuddered in contemplation of being witness to Darcy's equally embarrassing displays of domestic servitude. That the Bennets had arrived before Darcy appeared downstairs was surprising in itself. Of course, there was always the possibility that he preferred to wait outside of the parlour to greet his lady more privately. Fitzwilliam grimaced again. All of this was so unlike the Darcy he knew.
It wasn't many moments before the guests were announced and Bingley ushered them into the parlour. Fitzwilliam was at first struck by the glowing countenances of Elizabeth and the woman he presumed to be Jane Bennet, judging by the attention paid her by Bingley. Both of the ladies were undoubtedly basking in the pleasure of their situations. They were accompanied by a couple who were obviously their parents and two more young ladies who bore enough resemblance to the others to conclude that they were sisters of the Misses Bennet. As expected, Darcy was stationed at Elizabeth's elbow while Georgiana was on her other side. An almost shrill voice drew his attention, however.
"And who is this handsome gentleman, Mr. Bingley?" The woman whom Fitzwilliam assumed to be Mrs. Bennet was looking at directly at him.
"May I introduce my cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam," Darcy quickly interjected. He completed the introductions of the remainder of the party as they took their seats around the room. He could not completely stifle a small smile as he watched Kitty Bennet move to take a seat close to his cousin. Fitzwilliam appeared a bit surprised but cheerfully nodded at the young lady before sitting next to her. Upon taking another look at the others Darcy saw Mr. Bennet frowning in Fitzwilliam's direction. Already acquainted with that gentleman's current lack of fondness for men in uniform, Darcy was quite content to wait and see what would transpire. There was no cause for concern with the young Miss Bennet's reputation as Fitzwilliam was not completely devoid of scruples. This was not, however, as evident to Mr. Bennet, nor to Elizabeth. Darcy was resolved to reassure her on that point but her father had every right to look out for his daughters as he saw fit. It would be highly presumptuous of him to offer advice to a man who had been a father to five young ladies of age. Just the thought caused Darcy to smile to himself.
Fitzwilliam was indulging the curiosity of Miss Catherine Bennet although her many questions seemed to be rooted in youthful ignorance rather than a desire to learn about military life. Long since accustomed to the kind of admiration his red coat attracted, the Colonel patiently tolerated her queries until the presence of someone at his elbow drew his attention. Looking up, he saw the stern countenance of Mr. Bennet peering down at him. Hastily rising to his feet, Fitzwilliam smiled one of his most engaging expressions but was disappointed to witness no change in the man's demeanor. Fortunately for the Colonel, Mrs. Bennet chose that moment to distract her husband with an excited shriek.
"Oh, Mr. Bennet!" she cried. "Have you heard? Mr. Darcy has offered to provide his fine carriages and liveried attendants for our girls to convey them to the church!"
This came as no surprise to the father of the brides, however. In fact, he would have been surprised had Darcy not provided such transportation. There seemed to be nothing too elaborate for him to offer Elizabeth on their wedding day. This thought softened his temper a moment as Mr. Bennet considered how much he had underestimated that young man and how much he now respected him. Darcy's cousin, though, was another matter. He frowned once more as a movement from that quarter drew his attention again.
Mrs. Bennet, of course, had not waited for a reply from her husband since none was required. She was perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation alone. When the Colonel rose from his seat, however, that movement was also enough to attract her attention and her commentary was thusly influenced.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam," she purred. "Will we have the pleasure of seeing you in full uniform at the wedding?"
Fitzwilliam turned his charming smile upon his new audience. "Yes, Madam. I would do my cousin the honour of appearing only at my best. A full dress uniform it will be." He was amused to see her excitement build at this prospect.
"Oh, did you hear that girls! A full dress uniform, too!"
The giggle from behind him gave the Colonel a momentary regret for his hasty words. Another glance at the frowning countenance of Mr. Bennet, now almost glaring at him with narrowed eyes, was yet another cause for concern. Fitzwilliam had no problem navigating the familiar waters of feminine flattery but placating a protective paternal figure was not within the realm of his accomplishments. He wished for an opportunity to engage Elizabeth Bennet in rational conversation as he at least knew her capable of that. As for the others, they were an unknown quantity and if their father was to be circumnavigated in order to discover their potential then he feared for his success. "Mr. Bennet," he began in a benign tone before that man interrupted him.
"Colonel Fitzwilliam." The voice was low and stern. "My recent experience with military men has not enamoured me of their ilk."
Recalling Wickham's escapade with the youngest Miss Bennet, Fitzwilliam nodded solemnly. "I perfectly understand, sir. I also assure you that you will find no cause for concern with myself."
A wry smile appeared on the older gentleman's face. "That remains to be seen, Colonel."
There had to be some way to contrive to get a moment alone with her. It did not seem possible, however, for Darcy adamantly refused to leave Elizabeth's side. The evening wore on and with it waned Fitzwilliam's patience. When at last an opportunity presented itself he came dangerously close to alienating Elizabeth through his impetuousness.
As Darcy was engaged in conversation with Mr. Bennet, Elizabeth excused herself to move to the piano, poring over the selection of music before making her choice and taking a seat at the instrument. Fitzwilliam wasted no time in joining her, brandishing his most charming smile as he gestured toward the seat.
"Of course, Colonel," she replied easily. "I shall warn you, though. That seat does not come without a price. You must be prepared to turn the pages for me."
Dipping his head in acknowledgment he sat beside her on the bench. For some moments he merely listened as she played, turning the pages as required until a rest in the score gave him an opening to speak. "I believe I complimented you on your playing at Rosings, Miss Bennet. I am pleased to see that my memory has not betrayed me."
She arched an eyebrow and laughed lightly. "You flatter me, sir, for I know the limits of my talent." She leaned a little closer to whisper "Lady Catherine was kind enough to forgive them." Sitting straight once again, Elizabeth tackled the next few intricate bars.
Fitzwilliam admired her fingerwork for a moment. "I imagine that you and Georgiana will find many hours to practice together. Darcy recently purchased a fine instrument for her."
"Yes," Elizabeth replied without missing a note. "I did see it while at Pemberley this summer. It is the finest instrument I have ever seen."
"True enough. Darcy does enjoy possessing only the finest things." As he moved to turn the page with one hand, his other arm slipped around behind Elizabeth so that his hand came to rest on the bench beside her hip. Startled, she almost faltered on the keys. "I must confess," the Colonel said, his voice soft beside her ear, "that although I do not share his passion for possession I find it has made me more appreciative of value than some are."
Although her hands continued to play a merry tune, Elizabeth's voice was cold. "What exactly are you telling me, Colonel Fitzwilliam?"
"Only this," he replied in all seriousness. "For some, appreciation is in the possessing alone."
She was puzzled rather than enlightened. Did he mean to suggest that Darcy was marrying her simply to gain another possession? He must not know his cousin at all if he suspected that. If not Darcy then he must mean her! Surely I have given him no reason to believe I am so mercenary? Yet no sooner did the question occur to her than he spoke again, further confusing her.
"As I recall from our discussions in Kent you are a truly appreciative woman."
"I place a higher value on respecting one's marriage partner, it is true." Elizabeth's eyes narrowed as she drew more from her memories of the weeks at Hunsford. Her eyes regained the sparkle of mischief as she added, "I would not have thought you to share my views, sir, based upon my recollection of our discussions."
"Ah," he smoothly countered, "you have forced me to make yet another confession. At that time, of course, we were discussing hypothetical situations and it is very true that from a practical point of view I cannot ignore the more mercenary details of any permanent arrangement. T'would be foolish to do so, I'm sure you'll agree." The Colonel's voice softened to an almost intimate level. "This does not lessen the appreciation I place on true value, though."
In spite of the discomfort she felt at his nearness, Elizabeth arched a disbelieving eyebrow. "Am I then given to understand that you would not necessarily marry what you value more highly? A somewhat backward way of going about it, if you don't mind my saying."
"Backwards, perhaps," conceded Fitzwilliam. "I have not had the opportunity to put it to the test."
Both of her eyebrows now rose in genuine surprise. "You astonish me, Colonel! Have you never been in love?"
He smiled somewhat condescendingly. "Love, my dear, young Miss Bennet, I have experienced many a time."
Elizabeth returned his smile and nodded, more to herself. "Forgive me for sounding presumptuous but I fear you mistake my meaning. I was not referring to the love that comes fleetingly with attraction and inspires poetry in the dullest of souls, but to that genuine emotion which arises upon learning, discovering and appreciating another person for who he or she truly is." A frown creased his forehead with her words. His silence, however, only confirmed his lack of experience in Elizabeth's eyes. "I am sorry. I should not tease you so about such a personal matter."
The smile returned, Fitzwilliam gently shaking his head. "No need to apologise, Miss Bennet. I see in you all the innocence of a romantic spirit. I myself long ago gave up those romantic dreams of youth when I realised they are merely fantasies."
"Now I truly am sorry for you!" cried Elizabeth. "To have given up on love so easily in life. You are still a young man."
Fitzwilliam laughed. "I have done no such thing. Love, as you describe it, may last a day, a month, a year; but a lifetime? No, Miss Bennet. That it does not. The foundation for marriage lies in security and that is achieved through fortune and station, either maintaining or improving what one begins with. These are what special care must be taken to ensure. Even you must admit that you would not wish to lower your own place or fortune by marrying indiscriminately based upon emotional attachment alone."
Elizabeth could not deny it. She had said as much to her aunt with respect to Mr. Wickham. "But what of respect? What of the other comforts that love brings? Do you not believe in their value, either?"
"Respect naturally follows with such a union of which I spoke and as for other comforts," he shrugged, meeting her eyes with a look that made her feel quite unnerved. "Such comforts may be obtained without benefit of a clergyman's blessing."
Elizabeth felt her face burn with embarrassment. She knew not how to reply. Indeed, forming words seemed to elude her at the moment. That he should make such a comment to her, blatantly alluding to the intimacies that were heretofore not even shyly hinted at between herself and Darcy! How dare he speak to me in this way! She was in danger of losing her temper and thus control of her tongue. Before she could offend her future husband's cousin with a well deserved slap, Elizabeth prematurely concluded her song and with it their conversation. As she made to rise from the bench she felt a hand upon her arm.
"Miss Bennet." The Colonel's eyes were full upon her. "As you are no doubt aware there are many who envy the place you are about to take. You must be equally aware that there are some who envy Darcy's position, as well."
Seating herself once again, Elizabeth clenched her jaw tightly while she formulated a reply. Does he mean himself? Surely I have nothing which could tempt him! He requires fortune and I have none. I require affection and respect and he offers neither. Certainly not respect! What could he mean? "Your cousin commands great respect, Colonel. I am not at all surprised that some would envy him that position." A deep chuckle in response to this only served to anger her more. Elizabeth's eyes flashed dangerously.
"Discretion is not only an admirable quality, Miss Bennet," Fitzwilliam murmured, "but it is essential at our level of society." He watched with fascination as the sparks ignited in the depths of her eyes. "Gossip can do irreparable harm."
"I would suggest, Colonel, that if discretion is required then the harm is already irreparable." Elizabeth left him abruptly, suddenly needing the comfort of being by Darcy's side. Schooling her expression into one she hoped would not alarm him, she put on a brave smile and left the Colonel and his words behind.
Elizabeth may have been able to leave Fitzwilliam's words behind her but the thoughts those words had engendered were not so easily forgotten. She watched with suspicion as the Colonel left the piano to take up a seat next to Mary and engage her in conversation. His cleverness would be no match for her solemn views. Elizabeth worried that her father may not see the danger since Mary had never been one to swoon over a redcoat like her younger sisters. She longed to have a private moment with Darcy, to speak of her concerns, but at the same time did not know how to broach the subject. She could see no way to speak of it without questioning the honour of his cousin. That honour was highly questionable in her own eyes but to suggest it to Darcy was another matter entirely. Their newfound honesty with one another was still tempered with caution; Elizabeth found it too early to tease him openly. Such a serious matter as her sisters' reputations and Colonel Fitzwilliam's designs was as fraught with danger as it was imperative to address. She would have been very surprised to discover that Darcy's mind was occupied in the same manner.
Curiosity had finally gotten the better of him when Darcy had seen his cousin join Elizabeth at the piano. His eyes had been continually focussed on the pair despite the efforts of Mr. Bennet to draw his attention to their own conversation. He was at last forced to admit his concerns to that gentleman.
"Mr. Darcy, you seem a trifle preoccupied. Can my daughter not leave your side to pursue solitary activities?" Mr. Bennet's expression was more amused than disapproving.
"On the contrary, sir," Darcy replied with a smile. "I very much enjoy hearing her play even if it does mean being deprived of her lively discussions."
The other gentleman followed Darcy's gaze to study the couple at the instrument. He pursed his lips. "Jealousy is not a welcome companion, Mr. Darcy."
"It is not jealousy which prompts my attention, sir."
"Really?" Mr. Bennet's own attention was now fully engaged. "I would be pleased to consider that it is my daughter's charms which you are unable to resist even from this distance but it seems to me that there is something else on your mind."
Briefly considering his words, Darcy decided to keep a close counsel. "I could not help but notice your own disapproval of my cousin's interactions with Miss Catherine, sir. Although I would not presume to advise you where your daughters are concerned I can at least reassure you that they are safe from harm in this case. Of course, vigilance will never be a wasted effort."
A sardonic smile materialised on Mr. Bennet's face. "Would you think my efforts better applied in my wife's direction, then?"
"I believe we understand each other, sir." Darcy continued to fix his gaze on Fitzwilliam. "My cousin and I share many similar views, or at least we used to share them. This was never one of those." It was at this moment that Elizabeth's face flushed a deep red. Darcy barely restrained himself from reacting but a word from his future father-in-law held him in place.
"As you said, jealousy is not prompting your attention. I would suggest that you not let it appear that way, either. Lizzy is perfectly capable of deflecting the odd barb, you know." He was successful in distracting Darcy long enough that the young man did not see more of the scene unfolding between Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam.
"Of that I am perfectly aware, I assure you." Darcy chuckled. He now looked up to see Elizabeth rejoin him, her expression pensive but not as flustered as he had feared it would be after an encounter with his cousin. He risked some breech of propriety by immediately taking her hand in his and bringing it to his lips. Her father politely looked away while Elizabeth herself appeared to relax, settling against the back of the sofa and resting her head slightly on Darcy's shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a vaguely disgruntled Fitzwilliam cross the room to stake out new territory with Miss Mary. Mr. Bennet did not fail to note this movement and quickly excused himself to find a better vantage point.
Now that she had received her wish for a private moment with Darcy, Elizabeth did not know how to begin. Tentatively she said, "I'm afraid that my sisters will end up trying the patience of your cousin with their silly questions."
"Do not concern yourself, Elizabeth," Darcy said, then added in a quiet voice, "nor fear for your sisters, either. They are quite safe. I give you my word." She was surprised by his frankness. Were her concerns that transparent? "I have spoken with your father and assured him as well. I believe that he is now amusing himself at Fitzwilliam's expense."
Elizabeth's gaze moved to where her father was hovering just on the edge of the Colonel's field of vision. Recognising this as his usual manner of deriving entertainment, she was simultaneously relieved that some of what worried her had been addressed and still disturbed to consider what Fitzwilliam had meant by their conversation at the piano. This was something very difficult to address while sitting in the parlour with all of her family present.
"Is there another matter troubling you, Elizabeth?" Darcy was looking earnestly into her eyes.
Finally, she shook her head. "No, it is nothing. I think perhaps Mama's nerves are disturbing my own." His smile brought forth one of hers and Elizabeth was quite content to spend the rest of their time with details of the wedding.
The Bennet family had departed, Bingley had settled himself into a chair, staring into the fire as he no doubt was reliving his moments in Jane's company, second by second. Darcy was mute, probably engrossed in similar mindless drivel. Fitzwilliam felt the tedious nature of it all. Georgiana had retired shortly after the guests had left. It was not surprising since they had only arrived earlier in the day and she'd had little time to rest after the travelling. The gentlemen remained, therefore, but it was hardly a companionable silence as far as the Colonel was concerned. To be flanked by two men with their heads in the clouds had its entertainment value at times but this not one of them.
"When do your sisters arrive?" Darcy suddenly spoke.
Bingley blinked. "Tomorrow, actually. They arrive tomorrow. That reminds me. I must check with the housekeeper that all will be ready. You know what Caroline is like."
Darcy nodded and watched his friend depart, leaving him alone with his cousin. He turned his gaze on Fitzwilliam and studied him closely. For many years the two of them had been very close. As boys their families were often visiting one another and thus they had shared many interests and enjoyed the same games. Years had passed and with it the boys had matured, their interests reflecting those changes. Fitzwilliam, the older of them, had naturally experienced these alterations first. His attitude became one of superiority with not a little impatience for the lesser experienced of his playmates; Darcy. This had rankled the younger boy but he had refused to let it show. When Fitzwilliam had joined the army and Darcy had gone on to college there was little contact between the two of them for many years. During that time Darcy had discovered George Wickham's less savoury habits, causing him to retreat even further behind a solid wall of reserve which offered him a feeling of security despite the loneliness that accompanied it. Shortly before the death of Old Mr Darcy, Fitzwilliam had returned to Pemberley to visit and renew their old camaraderie. Both men were surprised to discover the further changes to the other's character. Neither was pleased although Fitzwilliam was more prone to laugh at his cousin's opinions while Darcy was inclined to turn up his nose in distaste. Despite this disparate view the two became quite close again, a fortunate event for it wasn't long before Darcy became the Master of Pemberley and he and his cousin were left guardians to his young sister.
Guardianship of a young girl opened Fitzwilliam's eyes a bit more. He ceased teasing Darcy and became more subdued in his own behaviour. Discretion took a higher priority; Darcy no longer heard tales from nor about him. This did not fool him into believing that there were no occurrences to which he might object but at least there was no danger of Georgiana hearing of them. However, in the matter of this evening's events it was time to address his cousin and Darcy did not believe in playing games.
"Well, you have now made the acquaintance of all of Elizabeth's sisters, save one; Mrs. Wickham. I would hazard that you know them better than I, though."
Fitzwilliam snorted. "An interesting selection in one family. You are in error, however. I did not have an opportunity to further my acquaintance with the eldest Miss Bennet. Bingley monopolised her all evening." He made a face at his cousin's chuckle. "Well you may laugh. You very nearly accomplished the same with Elizabeth. Miss Elizabeth," he added when Darcy fixed him with a baleful stare.
"Yes, with good reason, too. What did you say to make her distrust you?"
"Distrust me!" Fitzwilliam was taken aback. "I thought I was as open and honest as possible while remaining discreet under the circumstances."
"It is your honesty which concerns me. Elizabeth is not one of the ladies of the ton with whom you are accustomed to dealing. You may believe in the clarity of your remarks but bear in mind that she has spent next to no time in London society. Your words may alarm more than inform." Darcy paused. A frown appeared across his brow. "What did you say, Fitzwilliam?"
"What are you afraid of, Darcy? I thought you were the one convinced of her regard. Should it not be unshakeable if that be the foundation of your marriage?"
Darcy observed the man opposite him for a moment. When he spoke, it was with a voice devoid of any humour. "I trust Elizabeth explicitly. I cannot say the same of you, however. I will not have her put in an untenable position merely for the sake of your game playing. We have had our disagreements in the past, Fitzwilliam, but they have never peculiarly injured the nature of our friendship. This is not an area in which I will tolerate your interference."
"That is as I presumed." Fitzwilliam adopted the same serious tone. "Do you believe her to be completely aware of your position in this regard? I don't necessarily mean my interference but any man's interference, with or without her consent?" Darcy half rose from his chair before his cousin could forestall him. "Don't be a fool. It is not I who requires convincing of your view on that subject. I have been reminded of it quite constantly over the years! If you have not taken care to inform your future wife of the unacceptability of ... outside interests, then don't you think you should do so? Now rather than later."
"Now who is the fool?" Darcy retorted. "As if, on the eve of one's wedding, a man would dare to tell his lady she'd best not be unfaithful! Does it come as a complete surprise to you that this very issue is of primary importance in the wedding vows?"
"Yes, yes," the Colonel waved off the comment. "Since when has that made any difference? You know as well as I how many men and women of our circle marry for convenience and dabble in affairs of the heart on the side."
"This is not a marriage of convenience!" Darcy's countenance darkened.
"Well, of course it isn't to you."
"Let me enlighten you, Fitzwilliam." Darcy paused to take a deep breath and sift his thoughts from his anger. "When I first proposed to Elizabeth in Kent she refused me. It is true that she hated me at the time for my interference in Bingley's relationship with her sister and for some mythical damages I had caused Wickham. Perhaps what you have not realised is that she also refused me because I was an arrogant and selfish excuse for a gentleman, much like you. You see, although my principles are much more acceptable it seems that your manners endear you to others more easily. How ironic that manners such as yours and Wickham's soften the hearts of the ladies and predispose them in your favour only to expose them to scandal and disgrace shortly thereafter. I will give you credit only so far as your discretion has allowed you and your companions to escape censure, unlike Wickham.
"Elizabeth, I am sure you have surmised by now, is an intelligent young woman. Dispelling her false belief in Wickham's stories was a painful enough and necessary task but it was not as easy to address her other accusations against myself. You mistakenly assumed that her refusal had plunged me into a despair when it was the strength of her charges that caused me to examine my own beliefs and practices with regard to them. In examining my own behaviour I was obliged to consider others such as yourself and, regrettably, Wickham. Is there anything more demeaning than comparing oneself to a rake and coming up wanting?"
Fitzwilliam began to laugh but stopped abruptly when he saw that his cousin was earnest. "Darcy, you cannot be serious. There is no comparison between you and Wickham and you certainly are not wanting where he is concerned!"
"Am I not? I most surely lack the ease he demonstrates in company. I lack the ability to 'charm' ladies and most importantly, I lacked the manners to gain Elizabeth's respect, at least until recently." Darcy shook his head solemnly. "I fear you will never understand until you experience both the euphoria and the grief of being in love."
With a snort Fitzwilliam responded, "I will never understand it, then. After seeing what it had done to you and Bingley it is an affliction I will be sure to avoid. Seriously though, I cannot believe you grieve any lack of Wickham's attributes."
"It is not his attributes of which I am envious but his success in touching Elizabeth's heart when I could not." Darcy's expression appeared remote as he relived the rejection at Hunsford and Elizabeth's accusations.
Puzzled, the Colonel put his hand on his cousin's arm. "Surely that is irrelevant now?"
"Of course it is irrelevant... from a rational point of view." One corner of Darcy's mouth curled up in a wry smile. "I think I've heard you recently say once or twice, however, that I have not been thinking in a rational manner."
"Pathetic, actually. Both you and Bingley." Fitzwilliam shook his head, closing his eyes and thinking on the amazing transformation from calm, composed, clear-headed Darcy to this besotted creature before him. "God help us all if it's a permanent condition. Is there any chance my old friend will re-emerge?"
"Not a one. You'll just have to come around to our way of thinking, Fitzwilliam." Darcy's smile was wide.
The following day witnessed the arrival of Bingley's sisters in all their self importance. They politely, though stiffly, received Jane and congratulated both her and their brother.
Darcy had chosen to remove himself from Netherfield for this meeting, spending the afternoon at Longbourn in the company of Elizabeth and both his and her younger sister. This also afforded Darcy another opportunity to further a closer acquaintance with the man who was soon to become his father-in-law.
Colonel Fitzwilliam wisely decided to stay behind. His conversation with Darcy the previous evening had left him without a doubt of how warmly he would be received at the Bennet household. He had also experienced enough of certain members of the Bennet family the night before that he was not eager to throw himself into their paths again so soon.. perhaps not ever.
Jane was grateful for another friendly face for she was nervous of meeting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, knowing that they had conspired to keep her from their brother. Although not one to express strong dislike of anyone or anything, even Jane found it difficult to completely exonerate them of their actions. Bingley was secure enough in the return of his feelings that he was unmoved by any comments his sisters could make. In his eyes Jane was perfect and nothing would change that.
Fitzwilliam observed all of this with a detached air. Whatever Bingley chose to do with his life was Bingley's business. Unlike Darcy, there was no family history with name, reputation and fortune to protect. As far as a match was concerned, Jane Bennet presented no objection at all in the Colonel's eyes.
When Miss Bennet had returned home, naturally accompanied by Bingley, his sisters wasted no time in voicing their objections.
"It cannot be too late to stop this," Mrs. Hurst declared.
"I fail to see how you imagine your brother to be convinced of it, let alone accomplish it," her husband mumbled behind a jam laden scone.
She frowned at him. "You have not been the least bit of help."
"I do not object to Miss Bennet. She seems a pretty enough young woman." Hurst directed his attention to another scone.
"Pretty perhaps," scoffed Miss Bingley. "Of what importance is that? We are talking about a marriage. Fortune, connections... she has neither of those."
"I am sure that Bingley," countered Hurst with a mouth full of crumbs, "will be well satisfied with his choice, eh Colonel?" He winked in the other man's direction.
Fitzwilliam was mildly annoyed. "And what would I know of choosing a wife, Hurst? I should think you better qualified to make that judgement."
"One need not be married to know how to choose one. You must be quite particular if you haven't yet found a wife of your own."
"I had always believed Mr. Darcy to be rather particular," Miss Bingley interjected. "However, look at his choice."
"Yes," Hurst quickly replied. "There is another man who shall be quite satisfied." The accompanying leer caused the colour to rise in the faces of the two ladies.
Fitzwilliam scowled. In a low voice he cautioned, "There are ladies present, Hurst."
"Tut, tut. Ever the discreet one you are, Colonel." He glanced over at his wife and her sister. "I'm sure it comes as no surprise to either. They have lived in London long enough to have seen the carryings on there. Not all husbands find pleasure in their choices."
"Surely that is not necessarily the fault of the lady," Fitzwilliam said with a barely perceptible smirk. "As I understand it, husbands have some sort of obligation as well. Regardless, if he did not choose well to begin with he has no-one but himself to blame." He added with a slight bow of his head, "As I indicated a moment ago, though, I am hardly qualified to judge how satisfied a man may be with his choice of wife."
"That may depend upon whose wife you are choosing," Hurst sneered.
His back stiffening, the Colonel gave a deliberately obtuse reply. "Matchmaking I leave to the ladies."
"And well you should," came the hurried and unsteady voice of Mrs. Hurst. "Men are hopelessly inept at it."
"Yes, I agree," her sister added, unaware of the rising tension in the room. "They make enough mistakes with their own matches it would be ridiculous if they began matchmaking for their friends and relations. Of course, this does not apply to offering sound advice on the unsuitability of a prospective partner." Miss Bingley examined her fingernails thoughtfully. "It seems you have more sense than your cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam. You refrain from matchmaking and have not fallen into one of the traps I am sure Mrs. Bennet has been laying for you." She looked up into his impassive gaze. "Do you not fancy one of her remaining daughters? Miss Mary, perhaps," she said with a giggle.
Smiling, Fitzwilliam nodded. "Even Mary Bennet has her charms which are preferable to some, Miss Bingley." The ladies were silenced by this remark while the Colonel turned to address Mr. Hurst. "Satisfaction appears in many forms." With that he excused himself and left the room.
The last few remaining days before the weddings went by in a hurry. Netherfield was a hive of activity with preparations for the wedding breakfast. No other local house could support the number of guests that would be attending the nuptials of the two eldest Bennet daughters. Fitzwilliam observed all of the labour with an interest that surprised himself. He'd had no idea there was so much involved in what to him had seemed a simple enough event. Darcy was involved at every level. There was no detail that he overlooked. His cousin shook his head in wonder; how did the man know what needed to be done? One thing was certain; he was glad that Darcy was rehearsed in this wedding nonsense. It would make things a darned sight easier when Georgiana's turn came.
The bridegrooms were fidgety. Georgiana whispered some encouraging words to her brother who gave her a smile while she fussed with his neckcloth. It dawned on Fitzwilliam that he had never noticed the transformation from little girl to woman, the change had been so gradual with his young cousin. Where had she come by this self assurance? When did she learn to be so independent of mind? It all seemed so sudden. Georgiana was becoming more like her brother every day. This could present a problem if another event similar to Ramsgate were to arise. He considered it fortunate that she would be spending the next few weeks at Matlock under the supervision of his parents and himself while Darcy and his new wife made the transition to married life.
Although he truly wished his cousin every happiness and sincerely hoped it would be found in this union, Fitzwilliam had seen quite enough of Meryton and the rest of the Bennets.
This day was going to be long.
Georgiana wiped away a tear before she faced her cousin. The joy she felt at finally witnessing her brother happily married to Elizabeth could not be described. With the couple now departed, their carriage disappearing in the distance, it was time to think about her own impending trip to Matlock with Fitzwilliam. This was not something she was looking forward to, travelling such a distance with him. With a brave face she turned toward him. "I will see that my maid has my things packed in time for tomorrow. When have you ordered the carriage to be readied?"
"Nine o'clock. We shall have breakfast first and then join my parents to set out together. A solid day's worth of travelling will take us very close to Matlock." Fitzwilliam studied the expression on her face. "Is this not to your liking?"
Quickly shaking her head, Georgiana said, "Oh, no! No, it is fine. I am just missing my brother already. Silly of me, I know."
Fitzwilliam patted her hand. "It will be only a few weeks before you return to Pemberley. There will be plenty of changes there for you to accustom yourself. I hope you are prepared for it."
"Prepared? I look forward to the changes!" Georgiana laughed. "Elizabeth is welcome to take over the duties of Mistress of the House. It is too large a task for me. I will be quite content to leave it to her and Mrs. Reynolds for, as you know, she is an excellent tutor for even the dullest pupil." One hand flew to her mouth. "Oh! I did not mean that Elizabeth is a dullard!"
"No, not at all," her cousin also laughed. "She may very well be the most clever young lady I have ever met. She will keep your brother on his toes, no doubt."
"Does this mean you no longer object to her?" she shyly asked.
"It was never Elizabeth herself to which I objected." He shook his head wearily. "I am aware that you share Darcy's view on these matters. I did do everything in my power to get him to realise that such a match was unequal and risky. I was unable to discourage him. What is done is done, however. They are now man and wife and I respect her as such. Like everyone else, I wish them every happiness."
"I am glad to hear it, Richard. If you and Willim had continued at odds with one another I'm not sure how I could have withstood it."
"You know I wanted only what was best for him."
Georgiana sighed ever so softly. "Sometimes you just have to accept that someone knows better what is best for him."
Fitzwilliam raised an eyebrow as she gave him a sweet smile before hurrying up the stairs to her room.
"You look pleased with yourself."
Darcy flicked some ashes on the hearth with the toe of his boot. "I am pleased." He looked up with a grin. "My life could not be any more satisfying than at this moment."
"What is so special about this moment?" Fitzwilliam rolled his eyes impatiently. "Please do not go on about your lovely wife. I'm not sure I can stand to hear anymore of that after last evening's oratory."
Laughing, Darcy stabbed the fire with the poker, sending the flames roaring up the chimney. "After subjecting me to your lectures last year I think it only fitting that you be required to hear my bragging."
"Bragging is right! You are insufferably smug, you know." Fitzwilliam reached for the poker, gently prying it from his cousin's grip before the blaze grew too hot for them to remain in the room. "Please stop playing with the fire or we'll all end up out on the lawn while the house burns down around us."
"Don't be ridiculous."
Placing the poker back in the rack, the Colonel asked the inevitable. "Alright, I've asked you once so tell me. What has made you happier than a pig in muck?"
"Have I mentioned what a delightful wife I have?" Darcy plopped himself into a chair.
"Yes, repeatedly and if you don't stop I shall suspect you of having spent the afternoon in the wine cellar!"
"That will come soon enough."
Fitzwilliam was growing frustrated. He disliked this type of game playing. "Fine. You have piqued my interest. Isn't that what you intended? What are you on about?"
Assuming an innocent air Darcy replied "I, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley and husband of Elizabeth Darcy will soon add to that list of accomplishments the title of Father." He grinned.
His cousin's head dropped to his chest as he shook it slowly. "Such a performance! Could you not have simply said it like any other person? Pompous of you, isn't it?"
"Pompous? I suppose you might think so. Someday, Fitzwilliam, you'll know what it means to be able to make such an announcement. Until that time you will just have to allow me my little oddities and bear it with equanimity." Darcy rubbed his hands together with glee. "Georgiana was quite excited to hear the news."
"I'm not surprised," Fitzwilliam said with a smile. "I must admit that I am pleased with her progress, too. I was concerned for a time about her independent nature becoming a problem."
"Another coup for Elizabeth," Darcy pointed out with a smug expression. "Is there no end to her accomplishments?"
"Please! I cannot take anymore of this." His cousin made a face. "I admit it! I was wrong. I take it all back. Are you happy now?"
"Perfectly. I told you that a few minutes ago, though. Your admittance of error is of no consequence to me."
"I've had enough," Fitzwilliam snorted. "I'm off to bed. At least there I can sleep and escape your lovesick ravings."
"Goodnight, then," Darcy said and then called after his cousin's retreating back, "Sweet dreams!"
Colonel Fitzwilliam climbed the stairs to his bed chamber, his usual room when he visited Pemberley. The echo of Darcy's laughter rang in his head. It hardly seemed a year since their visit to Kent and this had all begun. What a change had been wrought in his cousin! Fitzwilliam could not deny it was for the better. He was left to ponder the relative merits of Darcy's marriage, of the woman who had become Mrs. Darcy and to rejoice in his cousin's success.
Yes.. before you ask, I have a sequel in the works where The Colonel's Comeuppance is addressed. ;)