"What is it, Love? You look upset." Charles and Jane were taking advantage of a rare ray of sun in the garden at Longbourn. They had wandered on the far side of the lawn and he hoped to be safe from the prying eyes of Jane's younger sisters. He brought her hand to his lips to make her look at him. "And don't tell me you're just worried about Elizabeth. I know you are; I know you have been since Darcy left; and I also know there's more than that." Charles, himself, had been shocked by Miss Elizabeth's unexpected fit of nerves when learning of Darcy's reluctant and hasty departure to Pemberley; and although he could not but think that it might be a good omen for Darcy's quest, the fact that, after five days, he still had not seen his future sister with her usual cheerful smile had made him truly concerned. He had even thought of relaying the news to his far-away friend but had resolved against the scheme. Darcy had obviously painfully accomplished his duty, there was no use furthering his misery. But worry was not Jane's current feeling, of this he was quite sure. His beloved was upset, for a reason unknown to him, even though he knew a reason why she could be. He had taken hold of her second hand, and, at last, she raised her eyes to him. "Please, do tell me what happened..."
Jane swallowed. Charles seemed truly concerned and she didn't want to make him worry for naught. Yet, she was really upset and she could not begin to imagine how to explain to him why. She tried to smile; his frown told her she wasn't duping him. His eyes were begging her to open up to him; she could see that. It was one of the things that had attracted her to him, his ability to convey as powerful messages with his eyes as with his mouth. She had recently discovered that she had underestimated the skill of his lips, though, and, blushing lightly yet unable to refrain, she stood on tiptoe and brushed his mouth with hers. Unfortunately, they had not been able to repeat the sort of delightful private moments they had shared in the potato cellar yet. Their last visit at Netherfield had almost been a little disaster - mainly because, Caroline had outdone herself once again. True they had, then, and again at Longbourn, been able to enjoy a little bit of solitude; but there had been neither time nor privacy enough for them to partake in what could easily become a favourite activity of hers. Her thoughts thus pleasantly engaged and him being quite to her taste, she carried on with nibbling then licking his slightly ajar lips. After long seconds of stillness, she felt his mouth react. His lips opened further and his tongue darted and met hers.
Charles' thoughts had been much less agreeably engaged and she had taken him by surprise, hence his lack of motion at first. Now that he had regained his senses, he enfolded her in his arms, his mouth taking possession of hers. After a most delightful battle with his lips, he felt hers surrender to his assaults and part. His tongue invaded the now opened field and, pleasurably, went on fighting with hers. Every notion of where they were had left him; he just knew, from the pounding of his heart to the softness of her hair on his fingers, that she was Jane, his long-searched-after soulmate, the one who could make his blood thicken like no one ever before.
John Carter was cold. He was cold and hungry. And his donkey seemed determined to go as slow as he could. Yet the load he carried was not that heavy; John happily reflected that he had managed to sell enough of his apples for his Harriet to go shopping to Meryton the next day. So why, oh why, would not this stupid beast go faster? His annoyance grew louder with time. And, since the weather was so cold, he was sure no lady of Longbourn would be out, he didn't refrain on coming closer to the Master's property. "C'm'on you b____dy donkey!" John yelled at the disobedient animal. He couldn't witness it because of the wall between him and the Bennets' lawn, but his shouts had an effect, indeed. Not the one he expected, since it took him several others to have his donkey go forward; but it did make Jane realise where they were and, stepping back, she brutally ended the blissful moment she and Charles had been sharing.
Her abruptly leaving his embrace caused Charles to painfully remember what they were discussing when she had tried - and succeeded - in distracting him. His senses not yet totally recovered, he misconstrued her reason for ending their kiss and heartily jumped to wrong conclusions. "Indeed, I knew it! You're upset because of Caroline! You heard her when she scolded your mother for not being a proper chaperone, did you not? I had hoped that you had not... Please, My Love, don't let her upset you. When she acts like that, she doesn't deserve the attention you bestow on her. Had Louisa been in the room, or had she thought we could hear her, she would never have dared; she knows she's no longer allowed to berate you and your family. I swear I scolded her after you left." Unable to find words to apologise further, he once again let his eyes beg for her forgiveness; Charles was not so unaware of his powers, after all.
Jane smiled at him, a real smile, the one she had not been able to produce earlier but that had been made possible by his kiss. "Charles, indeed I am upset; but it has nothing to do with your sister's words. I heard her, but truthfully, it made me smile. She's right, you know, my mother is not the best of chaperones. My aunt did a far better job of it, did she not?"
He smiled back, remembering that, in London, he had not been able to kiss Jane once after his proposal, while, since arriving in Hertfordshire, he had enjoyed this pleasure regularly. He held out his hand and she slipped hers in it, "So tell me what upset you so. Has Elizabeth grown worse? I saw her this morning, she looked a little bit better to me, but who am I to judge?"
Jane started walking again. Somehow it felt easier to tell Charles what she had learnt the evening before while looking at the ground for a safe footing. She took a deep breath in and began her tale. She told him of what had happened in the library after their engagement dinner. She told him of Mr. Darcy's confessions about Mr. Wickham, of his dissolute habits at Cambridge - not that it was news to Charles who had rapidly become one of Darcy's intimates after their 'brutal' encounter, of his reprehensible claim of the Kympton parsonage, and - trying to conceal the particulars - of his shameful involvement with a very young lady. The old Jane would have probably not thought possible that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual; she would have laboured to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear Mr. Wickham without involving Mr. Darcy. But the new Jane - the one who had learned at her own expense that meanness indeed existed, and more often hidden behind enticing falseness - was shocked and angry to have been deceived so. "And I suspect that there is more to this than I can comprehend. Lizzy looked better, as if sharing her secret relieved her a little; but I feel she's still hiding things from me. She told me she was so taken aback by Mr. Darcy's words that she had just asked him to leave once he had ended his story. I guess I can understand her sudden illness by her inability to do justice to Mr. Darcy, but somehow it does not seem to be enough. Lizzy's stronger than that..."
Charles' optimism made him see another reason why Jane's sister's spirits could have sunk so low following his friend's departure; he didn't share it with his beloved, though. Confessing Darcy's intentions would only place Jane in an awkward position at that point. But one of the few things that could even further his happiness was his friend's finding equal bliss, and he resolved on acting on this. "I think you're right, My Love. Unfortunately, I suspected that Wickham was a very unsavoury person; Darcy, without ever telling me so much, had hinted at some very nasty actions of his, even if I never saw for myself what kind of people he was consorting with at Cambridge. But I had felt that Elizabeth's preference for that man had seriously decreased; I didn't hear her utter his name once when we were in London. Surely she's not mourning his appealing manners?"
"She is not, of this I am certain. No, it's more as if she cannot forgive herself her ill judgement of Mr. Darcy and the harsh words she's often thrown at him. I know part of her disliking him was due to what Mr. Wickham had told her of his godfather's son, to the lies he had told her. But why she would make herself ill with this self-rebuke, I cannot understand. She knows she will see him soon - at the latest for our wedding; it's not like her to behave this way."
Charles was hesitating, should he reveal Darcy's feelings for her sister? Jane was his obvious ally in his matchmaking intentions, yet he knew not what her feelings were about such a match. Did she understand that Elizabeth would complement Darcy and he would complement her in a perfect way? He knew he wouldn't have to make up his mind as Jane carried on, "Or maybe it is that the thought of waiting for more than three weeks is more than she can bear; maybe she's also grieving the basic fact that he left..." Her speech slowed as the puzzle she had been contemplated since the previous evening fell into place. Curiously, the last time she had felt this light coming through the darkness was when she had fathomed that Mr. Darcy had tender feelings for her sister. "Could it be that she feels more than friendship for Mr. Darcy?"
Charles raised his eyebrows, "Well, they seemed to enjoy each other presence in London - that is, after the Umberight ball!" He chuckled at the memory.
They were almost back to the house. Jane stopped and smiled up at her betrothed. "In London, I came to suspect that Mr. Darcy had developed an attachment for Lizzy; do you think 'tis possible?"
Charles saw the mischievous light in his beloved's eyes and he knew she would make him confess whatever secret he still had. He surrendered very willingly, "I know he has, My Love. I'm afraid fate has been against him since he resolved on courting her, but it is his intent. And I'd be happy if I could help him. Do you think you could help him too?"
Jane's countenance turned serious. "I will try and understand if she really cares for him or not. If she does not, I will not talk her into loving him. 'Tis not possible, Lizzy's too stubborn."
"But if she does?" prompted her once again begging-eyed betrothed.
She smiled confidently, "If she does, we will make them make a match of it before soon!"
He beamed at her, then chuckled when she said, "and you should not over-use this power you have on me with those handsome eyes of yours. Just use it when I'm not already convinced!"
"Charles, may I tell you I'm very impressed?"
Charles' gaze moved swiftly from the blazing hearth to his sister. Louisa had joined him in the drawing-room to wait for the Bennets a short while ago, but words had been unusually scarce between them. He had inquired after Caroline, she had told him of their sister's obvious unwillingness to be civil to Charles' future in-laws, and silence had settled upon the cosy room, he thinking and she observing him; watching her brother's expressive face show his inner thoughts was very entertaining. She suspected he had been planning something - a quite atypical thing for him - and the pros and cons of each scheme had been apparently strongly argued. Once his features revealed he had reached a conclusion, she had startled him with this confusing question.
"Of course, you may," Charles replied expectantly. "May I ask why?"
"You may, "Louisa answered, trying to maintain a serious countenance. "I'm very impressed for you're not pacing by the front windows. Since I entered, you've been sitting - and thinking - quietly without showing any sign of impatience; and I find it very impressive!"
Charles chuckled at his sister's words. He acknowledged that he had changed during the last weeks and hoped that it was for the better. "And you have too, Louisa. I never told you how grateful I am for the efforts you made since that evening in Hurst's library. It means so much to me."
She blushed and waved away his thankfulness. "I'd rather we not speak about it. It will be years of happiness for Jane and you before I can forgive myself for the misery I caused you both." After returning her brother's silent and caring gaze with a sweet smile, she said, "and I offer you my heartfelt congratulations on your wedding. You two will be the happiest couple."
While she let her thoughts wander on how she could use her younger brother's example to keep on improving her own marriage, he lost himself back into his plans to try and steal some more private moments with his betrothed.
"What dreadful weather we have!" said Mrs. Bennet, while Louisa was pouring the last cup of tea for her brother.
"Indeed, Mama, but I care not about the weather when there are so many things to do inside. In fact, too much light or noisy birds distract me from my study of Fordyce's sermons. And there is no better thing than the beating of the rain against the window to pace my playing the pianoforte... Though it's true Lydia and Kitty are giggling outside with the officers when it's dry, not sighing and arguing in the drawing-room..." Mary paused thoughtfully, "Now that I think about it, I wonder what is best?"
"And Miss Elizabeth is still too low to go out? She was at church this morning," enquired Louisa, as much out of concern for the lady's welfare, as since she had seen Mrs. Bennet's eyes rolling at listening to her daughter. "And Miss Lydia and Miss Kitty could not come either?"
"Well, Kitty wanted to come but Lydia could not go unchaperoned to Meryton, now, could she?"
Louisa choked on her tea on hearing Mrs. Bennet's answer. Did she really think that Kitty, who was unmarried and certainly not more than eighteen, could chaperone her sister? Fortunately, Mrs. Bennet had not finished her answer.
"As for Lizzy, well, she's certainly better, but not yet fit to go out on company. I must say I'm worried about her; she's never been as lively as Lydia, to be sure, but she's rarely out of spirits either. She's not really ill, you know. No fever, no cough, she doesn't even complain about headache... She just sits, idle, silent, and then suddenly she flees to her room and doesn't want to see anyone but Jane. It reminds me of how I was when Colonel Millar's regiment went away; but there's no talk of the regiment leaving, so it really makes no sense..."
"Is Elizabeth still that low?" Charles discreetly asked Jane.
"Not that low, Mother exaggerates. But it's true she seemed not well enough for me to insist on her coming here."
"And were you able to talk to her?" he asked eagerly.
Jane smiled. It had been three days since she had agreed on assessing her sister's feelings for Mr. Darcy and Charles had been asking her the same question everyday since. She raised her eyebrows, "I was."
"And?" almost shouted an enthusiastic Bingley.
"Hush..." whispered Jane in the suddenly silent drawing-room. She smiled sweetly at the three ladies gathered around the grate and waited for them to resume their conversation. "I cannot tell you here; I don't want Mother to eavesdrop..."
A still flushed Charles agreed on her last comment. Escaping for a while with Jane had been his sole concern for a few hours; he now had two reasons to wish to do so. He stood up and, steadily announced, "I feel like checking on my potato seedlings, would anyone wish to accompany me?"
Mrs. Bennet and Mary exclaimed on-tune a horrified, "Oh, no!" while Jane remained rosy and silent and Louisa expressed her opinion on the silliness of the scheme.
"You're joking, Charles, are you not? It's cold and about to rain. And you have some guests. You cannot expect anyone - and much less everyone - to be as interested as you in those seeds of yours!"
Jane could not but react. True, she had some delightful memories of her last visit in the potato cellar, but even before this, she had been interested in seeing those potato seedlings. "I beg to differ, Louisa. I am interested in Charles' project."
"And that's very good of you, Jane; but, surely you do not wish to go to outside when it's so cold!" Mrs. Bennet would favour any private time for her daughter and her betrothed, but the weather was so hostile that nothing good would possibly happen in such a setting. She went on, as lightly as she could, "But now that you mention it, there is this book I talked to you about... the one you said could be found in Mr. Bingley's library... maybe you could go and retrieve it for me? And Mr. Bingley could accompany you?"
Jane's cheeks took a crimson shade; Charles nodded eagerly his agreement. "If I can be of any help," he said, holding his hand out to Jane. She took it and stood up.
"I dearly wish to see if you have any Sermon books, too," interrupted Mary, jumping on her feet at the same moment.
"I'm sure he has not," replied her mother, catching her wrist and yanking her back on the sofa.
An embarrassed Louisa proposed some more tea to a very satisfied Mrs. Bennet and her mortified daughter, while Charles was leading his betrothed to a quiet - and empty - library.
Although he was very interested in what Jane had to relate, as soon as the library door was closed, he drew her into his arms and his mouth crashed on hers. Her arms instinctively reached for his neck and she let her passion match his. "I missed this so much..." he mumbled, when he drew back to breathe.
"I missed it too," she replied breathlessly. "Such a pity the weather is so dreadful!"
Charles understood her meaning; he had, too, enjoyed their last outing. "And such a pity my sister is so meddlesome..." He paused, distracted by the feeling of her lips tracing the line of his jaw.
"Your sister?" Jane eventually asked.
"Yes... Louisa..." He replied, loosening his embrace so that his hands could move to her sides. He saw confusion in her eyes. "The potato cellar..."
Jane flushed, her memories melding in the feeling of his hands lightly brushing her sides ]. A shiver ran through her body.
"Are you cold?" Charles enquired caringly, stopping his gestures.
"Cold?" she giggled, "Cold? No I'm not cold... I'm sure I'll never be cold again with your arms around me." After a slightly embarrassed pause, she went on, "I... When you kiss me... It's..."
He loosened his hold immediately. "Do I go too fast?" he interrupted her, "I'm sorry if I did; I don't want to force you... I may have idealised what happened in the cellar... Did I upset you?"
"No Charles, no!" Jane framed his face with her hands. "How can you think so?" She pecked a kiss on his lips, then took his hand and led him to the sofa. Once he was seated, she kneeled in front of him. "I thought I had been clear enough then," she said, "I know not what you remember; but the truth is that I enjoyed every instant of it, and that I can't think of Netherfield without wanting to go there again with you..." She saw relief in his eyes, yet he didn't appear wholly convinced. "Did you not hear me contradicting your sister, just now?" He nodded. "Charles," she stood up and sat on his lap, "When you kiss me, it feels good." One of his arms became her backrest; she had taken his other hand and placed it in hers. "It's the strangest experience in the world; it gives pleasure, yet it makes me yearn for more. The mere thought of it is enough to annihilate all other thought." She blushed and went on boldly, "I think about it at night... I dream about it... about you..." His hold on her back strengthened, bringing her closer to him. "Dearest," said she earnestly, "the only thing I fear is you thinking less of me because of my...brazenness."
Her calling him 'Dearest' brought him back to life, and at once, everything fell in place. "And this could never happen, My Love," he replied. "I just cannot think less of you." He raised his lips to hers and softly kissed her. "Will you tell me if I..."
"You can't Charles, but, yes I shall if it makes you feel better." She hunched her back to put her head on his shoulder; he enfolded her further in his arms.
After a contented pause, he said, "Have I told lately you how much I love you?"
She smiled and placed a resounding kiss on his neck. "No you haven't, but I'll forgive you since I have been quite silent on the subject as well."
He grinned and was about to renew his love vows when a noise in the hall reminded him that they had come here with two purposes. The unavowed one had been reached - if only partially, the avowed one still had to be. He kissed her brow and said teasingly, "Miss Bennet, you do have a great power of distraction, yet I will not forget what made us seek solitude. I insist, you shall tell me what Elizabeth told you."
Jane giggled, "I do have a great power of distraction, don't I? Sir, my sole intent in coming here was revealing Lizzy's feelings for Mr. Darcy; you have distracted me..."
"Your sole intent, really?" His lips started to wander from her forehead to her nose, but he stopped there. "Tell me Love, or I fear I'll get distracted again and we'll be interrupted and nothing will have been said."
She sighed and nuzzled the crook of his neck. "Yesterday evening, after you were gone and we had retired, I was surprised to hear a knock at my door. Since Mr. Darcy left, Lizzy had never come to talk with me; it was I who came to her."
"So it was a good sign."
"Indeed it was, although she seemed embarrassed at first. Obviously, she wanted something but wouldn't say what it was. For some time, I was the only one to speak..."
"Were you speaking of me?" Charles interrupted eagerly.
"Charles..." Jane admonished smilingly. "And she suddenly burst with an enquiry about whether you had received any letters from Mr. Darcy."
"Well, I have, just this morning!"
She sat upright at the news, "You have? What did he say?"
"Love, you first. I'll tell you once you've finished," he replied, pulling her back against him.
She sighed but went on nonetheless. "I told her you had not informed me of any letter, and she appeared very disappointed. My soothing words about the state of the roads and the probable difficult business he had to resolve relieved her a little; my promise to have you tell me as soon as you receive one was even more convincing. It was the perfect opening; I asked her if she expected any message from Mr. Darcy. She blushed profusely and eventually replied that she did not, but couldn't refrain from hoping to learn that he had forgiven her her apparent absence of trust. I pointed out that she shouldn't care if he had forgiven her, she softly replied 'But I do'.
"I said nothing, merely looked expectantly at her; she remained silent for a while. Then she started speaking her heart and words flowed. She confessed that she cares very much about what he thinks of her; she told me she's realised how foolishness and prejudice have prevented her from seeing his goodness; she whispered that she's been dreaming his behaviour towards her these past few weeks was not merely out of goodness; she choked that she loves him; she sobbed that she wouldn't be able to live without seeing him for a month."
Charles released a great sigh of astonishment, "I can't imagine Elizabeth behaving so..."
Jane nodded, "I must say, I was very surprised. I suspect she's been so unlike herself because she felt unlike herself. Being so helpless cannot suit someone so determined..." Jane felt silent.
Charles stroked her cheek softly, "I'm sorry I entrapped you in this situation."
She took his hand and kissed his palm. "I'm glad I was there; I'm glad she's been able to utter those words; I fear she's been mulling over her feelings and misconceptions since Mr. Darcy went away."
"Did you tell her about his feelings for her?"
"No, it was not my secret to tell. But I did tell her his behaviour was one of someone who cares; I had come to this conclusion by myself, hadn't I?" She felt him nod against her hair. "She was better when I left, and she was even better this morning. I was not sure she was quite ready for a new confrontation between Mother and Caroline, though, so I didn't insist when she declined to come here. Had I known that Caroline was unwell and that you had received a letter from Derbyshire, I would have!"
"Well, 'twas not an easy guess!" at least, the letter was not an easy guess! thought ruefully Charles.
"So, what did Mr. Darcy write?"
"He wrote about his business, it is even more painful to address than he had thought. Apparently, one of his tenants has been stealing from the Estate and his fellow labourers for years. He confirms he shan't be back before the wedding and asks if Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley could arrive a few days earlier. He also inquires after everyone's health; yours and Elizabeth's seem of the utmost import to him - I wonder if I should be jealous," he ended in a smile.
"Shouldn't you prepare your reply?" giggled Jane.
"And what should I say?" he answered absentmindedly, since her teeth had discovered a sensitive spot on his ear.
"We shall ask this of Lizzy when you come on the morrow, shall we?" she managed to say while he was straightening her and before his mouth rediscovered hers. She took this for an agreement and carried on her comparison between the taste of his lips and that of his ear.
A loud and piercing shriek suddenly shattered their haze; Mary stood there, by the library door, her wide eyes expressing her shock, her hands blocking any other sound from her mouth. When Mrs. Hurst and Mrs. Bennet appeared on the threshold, Jane and Mr. Bingley were three feet apart. Her hair arrangement had lost some of its tidiness and his neckcloth was slightly askew, but there was nothing remaining of the scandalous sight Mary had beheld.
"Mary! Will you stop shrieking for nothing? You have no compassion for my nerves!" Mrs. Bennet admonished her daughter. "You silly girl! You should have known better than entering the library unannounced!"
Mrs. Hurst fled back to the drawing-room as swiftly as she could; Jane's and Charles' embarrassments were probably strong enough as it was, without having her around. And if Mrs. Bennet agreed...
"Did I tell you I received a letter from Darcy yesterday?" Mr. Bingley asked, while all the ladies of Longbourn were assembled in the drawing-room.
Jane had told her sister the night before about the arrival of his letter, revealing that Mr. Darcy wouldn't be able to come back to Herfordshire before the wedding. Elizabeth had shown some distress at the news, distress only partly relieved by her sister's soothing assurances that it had nothing to do with her. She had also stated that, being his future sister, Lizzy was entitled to suggest to Mr. Bingley some subjects for his reply. Lizzy had seemed doubtful at the time, and Jane truly hoped her sister had changed her mind. The fair lady smiled at her sister's blush on hearing Mr. Bingley's news My oh my, isn't Lizzy truly caught?. Since nobody enquired about the content of the letter, she did and witnessed her sister's wince on the bad news of Mr. Darcy's delay. The more she thought about the scheme Charles and she had imagined, the better it appeared. She was determined to make Lizzy part of it, and prompted her, replying to Charles, "Oh, that's sad news."
The subject was so uninteresting to Mrs. Bennet and her three younger daughters that they had started a conversation of their own. Elizabeth noticed it and dared reply. "Indeed, it is," she confirmed shyly. "Pray tell Mr. Darcy we shall miss him until then." She looked at Jane, silently recognizing the smartness of the plan. "Does he speak about his sister?"
While Mr. Bingley was replying, she sought a way to tell Mr. Darcy she believed him over Mr. Wickham. "Would you please also tell him that I hope to see her? I'm afraid I was prejudiced against her when I first saw her, but the truthfulness of her words, the goodness of her behaviour made me realise how blind I was. I dearly hope she will not hold a grudge against me."
Jane patted her sister's hand over the table. She was proud and thrilled to see that Lizzy's usual fighting spirits were back. She exchanged a loving and meaningful smile with her betrothed, her happiness at hearing his next words widening her grin.
"Miss Elizabeth, my writing skills have improved tremendously of late, and I swear I will faithfully send your messages to my friend. I know he will be delighted to hear from you."
Lizzy blushed at Charles' and Jane's knowing smile. "Do you, now?"
Mr. Bingley looked around to make sure the other Bennet ladies save Jane were still occupying themselves elsewhere. "Indeed I do, Madam; and we shall have a proof of it as soon as his answer arrives. If the weather worsens not, we shall have it a week hence." His warm and caring gaze enveloped her, "It makes me very happy to see you better, Miss Elizabeth; and I strongly believe I shall only be the bearer of good news, from now on."
Embarrassed by so much kindness and understanding the extent of the knowledge her sister had given him, she downcast her eyes, "Thank you. Mr. Bingley." She felt Jane's finger playing with hers and looked up at her sister, "And, thank you, Jane."
"Mrs. Bennet, Miss Bennet, Miss Eliza, it has been a long time," Caroline said, her tone making plain that she had not missed them at all.
Louisa looked at her sister and marvelled at her having found a way of being polite without lying. She welcomed her brother's guests and asked Caroline to ring for tea.
"Indeed, Miss Bingley, you have been ill for long. I'm happy to see you better," replied Mrs. Bennet. Caroline had missed every gathering this last week, and Jane's mother had only caught a quick glimpse at her the day before, at church. She had feared for the lady's life; were his sister to die, Mr. Bingley would have to wait for a year before marrying... surely this could not happen now, not after so much angst, not when bliss was so close! No indeed, it shall not happen. She seems fine to me, but I'll take extra care of her - no matter how rude she has been to me! benevolently thought the eldest lady.
As soon as he thought it would not appear too rushed, Mr. Bingley said, "I received a letter from Derbyshire, this morning."
"And how is Mr. Darcy? Will he be coming back soon?" asked Louisa.
Mrs. Bennet did not care about Mr. Darcy's health; she did not care about his return; she did not care about his business; but she did care about Miss Bingley, and therefore she decided to concentrate her efforts around that lady.
"My dear Miss Bingley," started the eldest lady to Caroline's horror, "Are you not too cold? 'Tis cold as ice outside, no wonder you caught a chill."
Having tea with the Bennets had been strongly recommended to Caroline; behaving civilly if not cordially had been demanded of her; but not even her virtuous brother and her sister, the traitor, could expect her to remain poised when facing her! Keep your mouth closed, Caroline! Don't waste your voice...
"I suggest you put on another shawl. One never knows," went on her companion, affably, "I always take a special care at having my daughters warm enough..."
Indeed, you do, Madam! Caroline thought ironically, I remember a rainy and cold day last autumn when your precious Jane came here on horseback! This is taking a very special care, isn't it?
"But in case one catches a chill nonetheless, I know the best remedies to heal them. Let me enlighten you!"
The more Mrs. Bennet talked, the more Caroline suffered. Why should she have to put up with her, when the others seemed to be having such a lively conversation? On the other hand, the talk was of Mr. Darcy and the less she heard about the gentleman, the better... Why did she have to choose between being the subject of Mrs. Bennet's solicitude and hearing how Mr. Darcy missed Miss Eliza's fine eyes? Life was so unfair! She should be in London! At least, she had friends there... True friends... Ones with whom 'twas always possible to go shopping and to gossip... Hertfordshire was so boring!
At last, Mrs. Bennet noticed that Caroline was indeed, in dire need of her motherly advice; the young lady was flushed! She started fussing around her, making her actually ill, until Miss Caroline got up and went to fetch a book.
Meanwhile, Louisa's enquiries had been answered. Mr. Darcy was well but confirmed that he would not be coming back before the wedding. "And he says he regrets it. Let me fetch the letter, you shall hear for yourself," said Mr. Bingley.
In an instant he was back, holding in his hand a sheet of paper with a neat and dense writing on it. "Let me see, where is it? Ah, here it comes."
"How I wish I were with you, Bingley! Hertfordshire holds many beauties and the company there is so lively. Although I'm quite partial to the wilds of Derbyshire, there are times when I long to be elsewhere. The country is asleep beneath the snow; Pemberley is empty... There's no one but me and my diligent staff, hardly the soft company I would wish to keep. I confess I feel quite alone; the probable consequence of having so enjoyed the time I spent in London and at Netherfield. I'm sure I told you how happy I am to have renewed Miss Bennet's and Miss Elizabeth's acquaintances there; but did I tell you also how I enjoyed Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner's company? I've resolved on inviting them both next time you come to Pemberley. Since Miss Bennet will then be Mrs. Bingley, I shall apply to her to help me convince them. Perhaps she could also try and persuade Miss Elizabeth to come as well?
Would you please tell Miss Elizabeth that I'm sure Georgiana also longs to see her? My sister has only praise for her, every time she speaks about her - for Miss Elizabeth is a frequent subject in her letters. Georgiana shall be delighted by your earlier invitation. I can also safely assure Miss Elizabeth that she holds no grudge what so ever against her. Indeed, who could when the source of deceit was so falsely enticing? In cases such as this, what matters is that, once light breaks through darkness, one agrees to consider it. I struggled to apply this wisdom to my own understanding, and have found that my life has taken a new meaning. I'm still unsure whether I shall reach my goal, but I pray I shall. And, I shan't hesitate to enrol you to help me, Bingley.
Duty calls me, I must take my leave. Will I be unkind enough to beg for a quick reply? I think I will; your letter has been my deepest source of comfort this last week.
Your's very sincerely, Fitzwilliam Darcy"
He looked up from the letter to see Elizabeth's reaction to his words. Her eyes were wide open, searching in her sister's the confidence that her ears were not deceiving her. Jane raised her eyebrows, and commented on the interest of his letter.
"Poor Mr. Darcy," exclaimed Louisa. "You should answer him immediately, to alleviate his loneliness."
"You're right, Louisa; his enjoyment seems to depend on our company, even though 'tis a remote one," replied her brother. He moved to the small writing desk and suggested to the ladies to come around him.
Elizabeth could not but recall one of the evenings she had spent at Netherfield when Jane was ill. Mr. Darcy had been sitting at the table, trying to write a letter in spite of Miss Bingley; then they had had one of their 'real conversations' - as he had named then to his sister. How wrong she had been then! How ashamed she was for her behaviour towards him! She felt an acute ache around her heart, and although she was quite used to this sort of feeling - having lived with it for a while - she realised it was not exactly the same. How could it be, when she had been the recipient of such an expression of forgiveness? When Mr. Bingley had read about the pleasure he had had in London and at Netherfield - in her company, that is - she had felt her heart pound louder in her chest. Then he had distinctly pointed at her, openly distinguished her in his invitation to Pemberley, and she had forgotten to breathe. She could misunderstand him no longer; it would be silly of her to do so. What had appeared as a potential but farfetched answer to his unusual behaviour in London was the truth; what Jane had guessed some weeks ago was the reality; Mr. Darcy was interested in her. Everything that had happened since the Umberight ball, and most of all his confidence about Mr. Wickham, started to make sense. Under this new light, she could even understand some of his past behaviour. Relief and unbelieving happiness had washed over her when she heard that he had forgiven her; and a powerful urge to relieve his doubts about her feelings for him had seized her with his last words. Before she realised it, she was standing by Mr. Bingley's side, checking that he had everything he needed. She refrained from speaking first, though, afraid that her mother would be aware of any unexpected eagerness.
While she was proposing several topics for the letter with Louisa's help, Jane observed her sister. Elizabeth was looking at Charles' putting down every suggestion; she had regained her senses; her countenance had obviously brightened since he had read the letter; she seemed deeply relieved by what she had heard. Jane suspected that she was also preparing her answer. Complying with Charles' wish in helping Mr. Darcy had been easy indeed! An honest confession of how she had understood his behaviour in London had seemed enough to make Lizzy overcome her shame and fears and act on her tender feelings for him. She delighted that she seemed to be on the verge of seizing the opportunity, relishing in advance her sister's wit. Charles had been right in his expectation that his friend would be as willing to play this game of hidden message, and being a witness of their game was very enjoyable, even if slightly indiscreet. She wondered if Mr. Darcy would dare enclose a letter for Lizzy in his next mail, and eventually declared it impossible: he would never behave in such an ungentleman-like manner!
"Miss Elizabeth, don't you have anything to say? Mr. Darcy has always seemed to enjoy your company, you should not disappoint him!" asked Louisa.
Whether on purpose or not, this was the perfect opening. If, by chance, her mother was listening to their conversation, she would not believe she had been eager to partake in the writing of the letter. She smiled at Louisa, "What a challenge! I dearly hope I shall not disappoint him, though." Turning to Charles, she mentioned that they had not enquired about Georgiana. "Tell him that we all look forward to her coming. She and I had lovely conversations in London; we have so many common points of interest. Indeed, I had a most fascinating time there; making new acquaintances, or deepening old ones is always enjoyable and sometimes quite surprising. And there was this happy business of Jane's, too," she ended with a caring smile.
"True! A lot of good has come from the time we spent in Town," replied happily Jane.
"Well, this makes a nice letter..." Charles said, perusing his - quite neat - writing. "Shall I put that you, Ladies, enjoyed writing it?"
"Oh, we did!" answered Jane.
"But you should also add that we hope he will be here soon, so that we don't have to help you doing it too often! You write so slowly now that you've resolved on being a readable and faithful correspondent," Elizabeth teased Mr. Bingley.
"Well, I am readable and faithful only when the matter is of import; and I somehow figured that this is the case!" he replied in kind.
Elizabeth smilingly acknowledged his point. He had understood Mr. Darcy's and her little game and was a very willing participant; she was also beginning to suspect that Mr. Bingley had known about Mr. Darcy's feelings for her for a while. Dare I give him a short note to enclose in the letter? Would he think less of me? Would Mr. Darcy think less of me? She went back to her chair, absentmindedly looking at her sister and her suitor who were having a private exchange. No, I dare not. I cannot risk it. And what would I say? She realised Mrs. Hurst was expecting an answer and, blushing, asked her to repeat her question.
"Ladies," interrupted Mr. Bingley, "would you not wish to take advantage of the first rays of sun we've seen for weeks?"
"But the grounds are so wet! I wouldn't of dream going out before the mud has dried!" exclaimed a disgusted Caroline. She had had more than enough of Mrs. Bennet; her only solace was hiding in her room. "And I feel this headache coming back. Would you please excuse me?"
"Oh! Poor Miss Bingley!" said Mrs. Bennet, while the lady was already climbing the stairs. "Thank you Mr. Bingley; but I quite agree with your sister."
"And I shall stay with Mamma," a much wiser Elizabeth replied. She smiled at the barely contained smirk of satisfaction that flourished on her mother's face.
"Do you wish to check on your potato seedlings again, Charles?" asked his sister suspiciously. "If this be the case, you shall go without me... I have no interest in those potatoes of yours, Dear Brother!"
"Well, if Miss Bennet is still interested, I shall be very happy," he replied very steadily, looking expectantly at his betrothed.
Jane distinctly blushed, "I am still interested."
"Well, off you go, then!" loudly urged Mrs. Bennet. At least, outside, no one would disturb them!
Neither checked on the potatoes when they entered the cellar. They knew they had the same reason to come here, and this knowledge only enflamed them further. As soon as he put the lamp on the mossy table, his freed hand discarded her bonnet and drew her head to him while he placed her hand in his on the small of her back. She was entrapped in his embrace, and he could tell by her hand nestling on his curls and her body leaning against his, she was a willing captive. They were eager to quench the thirst they had for each other; and their mouths played until they had to draw breath. His hand had released hers and was now discovering all the subtleties of her back over her coat and dress. Those tinny buttons he could feel running along her spine were burning his fingers; but he resolutely ignored them, dwelling, instead, on her lowest curves.
Jane's hand had left his hair and gone onto Charles' other shoulder. His grip on her hair was rather loose and her lips started a path along his jawline. He shifted his head to allow her better access and she went on, tasting a small part of his neck with the tip of her tongue. If she could tell by the powerful strokes on her backside, Charles enjoyed the attention; yet she couldn't go much farther down, refrained by his neckcloth. By their own volition, her hands moved to the knot and started undoing it. She absentmindedly noted that, fortunately, his valet had not outdone himself as she easily untied the long white piece of linen. Its path at last clear, her mouth followed the line of his neck, her tongue licking his Adam's apple on the way, while she revelled in his scent, soap and sandalwood blended on his skin.
Jane's initiatives induced first in Charles a selfish wish to enjoy, and thus, he stilled his hands, his eyes closed, his head tilted backwards, his mouth breathing moans of pleasure. The feeling of her hands roaming over his naked throat and clothed - too clothed - torso eventually put him into action. He was willing to take as much advantage of her boldness as he could, yet he still had concerns at going too far for her. Helping her in her attentions seemed safe, though; he therefore acted accordingly. He discarded his coat and greatcoat, both of them crumpling on the floor, and, managing to slide his hands between their bodies, he unbuttoned his waistcoat. Then he placed his hands on her hips, left them free to wander in whatever direction they may choose, and went on relishing every liberty Jane would take.
As pleasurable as discovering his upper body was, Jane missed the feeling of his mouth on her. Her lips went back up and she found his mouth ready to indulge her. Her hands had remained on her new field of discovery and they continued their amorous dance. She felt both brazen and blessed, and feeling blessed made her totally unashamed of her brazenness. She loved a very suitable gentleman who loved her back, she would be soon married to him, he was able to create and satisfy needs in her body - some of them still to be discovered, for sure - and her eyes still had to see something or someone that would move her more than him. How could anything she would do with him be wrong? She took advantage of him, until they both felt it had to stop. After some soothing moments, she was snuggling against him, held closely his embrace, his back now against the wall.
Charles kissed her brow, "Indeed, your mother is very bad at chaperoning."
She giggled, "I shall not complain, though."
"Neither shall I, Love. It seems I cannot get enough of you!"
"Can you not?" she replied coquettishly.
They shivered, suddenly aware of the winter chill permeating through the old stones. "We shall be missed," Charles said.
"I love you, Dearest," she said, helping him, in a wifely manner, to remove the wrinkles from the front of his clothes.
"I love you too, Jane."
"You studied in Cambridge, did you not?" Mr. Bennet asked his future son in law while they were having their post-dinner port in the dining-room at Longbourn.
"Indeed, I have, Sir," replied Mr. Bingley, slightly surprised by the turn in their so-far very familiar conversation.
"Was it where you met Mr. Darcy?" continued the elder gentleman.
"Indeed, Sir. Though he was several years ahead of me," the fair young man answered, now curious of where this discussion was leading.
"Were you acquainted with Mr. Wickham too?"
"No Sir," he replied curtly.
"And how so? Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham were childhood friends attending the same school. Why is it you befriended one and not the other?"
"Darcy no longer frequented Wickham in Cambridge. I happened to be rescued by Darcy and, out of goodness, he took me under his wing. But I never met Wickham before last autumn, here, in Meryton."
"And how do you explain this?"
"I have no explanation, nor do I feel the need to make one," Mr. Bingley said, resolutely putting back his glass on the table.
Mr. Bennet's eyebrows rose. He now had daily confirmations that what he had fathomed almost a month ago was true: there was more in Bingley than the nice and easygoing facade. He was growing fonder by the day of the man who would wed his eldest daughter five days hence.
"I was told recently that, in the neighbourhood, Mr. Wickham's character was highly overrated and Mr. Darcy's highly undervalued. Would you agree with this?" he asked, revealing some of his intent.
"I would, Sir. Although I know not Mr. Wickham, I've heard from the very best source that he is a very deceitful character, while Darcy is the very best of men, and he is not seen as such."
"He showed not his goodness, last autumn. He even openly slighted my Lizzy, at the first Assembly you all attended," Mr. Bennet chuckled.
Mr. Bingley couldn't but smile widely at the memory, "Indeed, he did! Had he known..." he stopped short, aware of his deplorable slip of tongue. Chastising himself, he waited for Mr. Bennet's sharp mind to draw this thought to its consistent conclusion.
Mr. Bennet looked expectantly at his young companion. He waited for a moment then he suggested, "He wouldn't have snubbed the wittiest tongue of the area?"
Mr. Bingley released a relieved, "Exactly!" disclosing thus that there was more.
A quizzical glance stared back to him. "He wouldn't have snubbed the only lady that afterwards drew his attentions?" shot again Mr. Bennet.
Mr. Bingley flushed but didn't utter a sound. He stood, startling Mr. Hurst who had been sleepily nursing his almost empty glass for the whole conversation - without filling it once, to Mr. Bennet's amazement. "Should we not go back to the ladies?" he asked conversationally.
Jane looked up at the entrance of the drawing-room when the male voices sounded in the hall. She smiled her love to Charles as he entered the room, still speaking with her father, yet already searching her out. Her smile stiffened slightly when she heard their topic.
"If his estate is as grand as I have been told, and if he's as dedicated to it as you paint him, it's no wonder he feels it is his duty to remain as long as he can. I doubt I would feel such devotion; but I understand and admire it." Once they were close to the sofa where she was sitting with Lizzy, her father turned to her, "Jane," he said, "I give you back your betrothed. He was telling me that some of his guests would be arriving tomorrow, including Miss Darcy and her companion. She will no doubt regret her brother's late arrival."
Although surprised at her father's interest in such a matter, Jane acquiesced nonetheless. She glanced at her sister and saw her looking questioningly at their father. Her gaze slid to the eldest gentleman; she saw him wink at Lizzy, then he excused himself and went by his wife's side, no doubt to tease her, once again about the numerous things that still needed to be done before the marriage.
Elizabeth's blush at her father's hint not yet receding, she inquired after any news from Mr. Darcy.
"I did receive a new letter today. 'Tis probably the last he will write before he comes back. If I write to him tomorrow, though, it should reach him before he leaves."
Jane shot a scolding smile to her fiancÚ. "And what does he say?" she asked.
Charles beamed. "Aside from lamenting that he won't be at Netherfield before the wedding day, he flatters me, actually! He says he's very happy I became such a reliable correspondent. He also says that my writing has vastly improved - was I not telling you this weeks ago?" His beam became even wider, with Jane's indulgent and tender grin. "But he doesn't trust me completely yet; he expresses a fear he misread me. I shall have to repeat my assurance that he has not, I think."
"Indeed, tell him he has not misread you at all," burst out Elizabeth. "I'm convinced you do make perfect sense. I've seen the improvement in your writing for myself, I can vouch for this!"
Jane's giggling and Charles' chuckling made her realise how impulsive her reaction had been. A dark hue once again spread over her face, she smiled sheepishly. "Will you tell him?" she asked nonetheless, glancing discreetly around to make sure her outburst had remained private. Charles nodded his agreement while Jane patted her hand.
The first chords of a new Beethoven piece invaded the room. Louisa's playing was far superior and far more agreeable than Mary's, thus everybody became quieter and the evening went on peacefully.
"Come in, Lizzy," said Jane even before her sister knocked on her door.
Elizabeth entered the bedchamber, giggling. "I won't even ask how you knew it was me."
"I shall reply nonetheless that since I know the sound of all the floorboards from your room to mine, it was quite an easy guess!"
Lizzy smiled, a trace of regret lingering in her eyes. "I know the sound of all the boards from yours to mine, as well. This will be of no use from now on..."
Jane beckoned Elizabeth to come and sit with her, on her bed. She took her sister's hand, a veil of sadness clouding her otherwise luminous features. "'Tis the only regret I have in marrying Charles tomorrow; you and I will no longer be able to have our nightly chats." She blushed distinctly at the thought of what sort of activities she would from then engage in, after retiring for the night.
Surmising the reason of her sister's sudden silence, Elizabeth blushed as well but couldn't repress a smile. She dearly wished to know what Jane's feelings about her wedding night were. She hadn't been blind to her sister's mien after some private interludes she had had with her betrothed; she had noticed that her hair was always less tidy, her cheeks pinker and her eyes hazier. Yet to ask Jane what they had been doing, she had not dared. She suspected that they had done some kissing, since Jane had confessed, as early as in London, that Charles and she had experienced this sort of private intercourse; but she had never asked for a confirmation. The cold weather being an impediment in the pursuit of any outdoors activity, she also wondered where they had fled, each time they had gone and 'checked on his potato seedlings'. Her smile widened at the thought; Louisa, as she now called her, and she had had the best of times laughing at their alacrity for this activity. She dearly hoped she'd soon be able to tease her sister on this topic; but until she had a better idea of what 'checking on potato seedlings' consisted of, she dared not. She came back to their present conversation - or lack of, for that matter - and her smile faded.
"I shall miss you, Jane," she said, her hand's grasp tightening around her sister's.
"I shall miss you too, Lizzy." Smiling yet shaking her head at her sister's raised eyebrow, she insisted, "I shall, Lizzy. Charles, as dearly as I love him, will never replace you in my heart. I'll never be able to confide in him as utterly as in you."
Elizabeth's grin grew tender, "I hope he will not! Yet I'm sure you'll have many new duties as Mr. Bingley's wife and I doubt you'll have idle time enough to miss me..."
Jane's blush came back forcefully at the comment. Of all the 'duties' she was soon to discover, not many would be attended to at this time of night. She wondered if her sister knew their mother had come for the 'little chat'. She didn't wonder for long.
"I heard Mamma on her way from your bedchamber to hers; she was happily humming the hymn the choir will be singing tomorrow," Elizabeth said, her tone faking disinterest. "You wouldn't agree to share what she told you, would you?" she ended with an impish smile.
Jane giggled but evaded the question, "Oh, you know how she is; she came to rejoice in my good fortune, to lament on my leaving home and to advise me on how to behave as Mr. Bingley's wife."
A stern look tried to interrupt her sister's interested "Ha ha," but Jane's sort of stern proved to be not impressive enough. "And you wouldn't agree to share the advice she gave you, would you? You know, on how to behave as Mr. Bingley's wife?"
"And why would you want to know? Tell me, Charles hasn't proposed to you, has he?" Jane asked, in a mock horrified tone.
Elizabeth did her best not to roar out with laughter. If their mother was to hear them, Lizzy knew she was in for a long and tedious scolding on her preventing Jane from sleeping, and all the horrifying consequences of this unforgivable and cruel action. But hushing her giggles was not that easy and she remained wth her head in her hands for a while, Jane as unable to resume the conversation as she was.
As soon as she could voice once again her thoughts, Elizabeth started anew to cajole her sister in divulging the extent of their mother's confidence. Patience was one of Jane's main qualities, yet Lizzy's power of persuasion could sometime overcome it; and soon enough, the bride-of-the-morrow enlightened - partially - her eager sister.
"Lizzy, I shall just tell you that what Mother revealed about the marital duty shows that it doesn't have to be a chore. I'd rather not give you more details; it would spoil some of your surprise when you are to hear it, and it would be immodest of me to speak about matters I know not."
Jane realised at her sister's doubtful look that Charles and her little escapades hadn't been as unnoticed as the lack of comments had led them to believe. While a rosy tone invaded her cheeks, a shy yet impish smile spread on her lips. Casting her eyes downward, she acknowledged, "I have reasons to believe she's told nothing but the truth, and I look forward to being sure she has."
Elizabeth's wonder at Jane's words rendered her speechless; what was she confessing? Once and for all, what consisted of 'checking on the potato seedlings'? Where had her sister and her betrothed been able to have some experiments akin to marital duty? Was it only kissing - the light-headed sort of kiss, the one Jane had been so articulate about all those weeks ago in London - that made her sister appear almost... wicked?
These questions, although unasked, were obvious on her face; and, as attuned as Jane was to her sister's thoughts, miss them she could not. The sheer memory of the moments she had shared with Charles in the cellar exhilarated her enough to want to share how not-surprisingly the physical urges she had discovered in London had grown, and how amazingly they had been satisfied. A fear of disappointing her sister made her hesitate, nonetheless. "Lizzy, I hope I didn't shock you..."
Elizabeth shook her head, "I believe we already talked about it, didn't we? Who am I to condemn what Mother obviously encouraged?"
Jane giggled, "Mother! Charles and I agreed that she makes a very bad chaperone, yet we are deeply grateful she is. I will try my best to be as bad as she is when I have this duty to accomplish. I'm sure you'll enjoy it!"
Elizabeth blushed slightly, the occasions being potentially so close, yet so... potential still. Her sister's speech was nonetheless far too interesting to start and daydream about the tall and dark gentleman of her thoughts. "But what is there to enjoy? And where did you manage to enjoy anything?" she asked briskly; then her cheeks took a purple tone on realising what she had said.
When her shocked fit of giggles had receded, and after a mock scolding, Jane tried to answer her sister's questions. In as few words as she could, she told her that she had discovered and barely entered a wholly unexpected world to be shared between man and wife; she told her that Charles had been able to increase tenfold the knot she had felt in her insides in London; she told her that she had experienced a bliss she had never imagined before, satisfying both heart and body. "And that is why Mother's speech didn't take me by surprise. Her saying that the marital bed can be a place where duty matches pleasure makes me look forward to it even more than before."
Elizabeth's eyes were wide opened and showed her amazement. "How you made all these discoveries with your surroundings is beyond me... Or I misunderstand the ways these delights are shared... Surely you could not... do this outside, could you?"
"Why! In the potato cellar! Weren't we supposed to check on the potato seedlings?"
"In the potato cellar?" Elizabeth shook her head doubtfully. "I do not comprehend what it is you're talking about."
"You probably do not, and how could you when you're not engaged? But I assure you, Dear Lizzy, that the Netherfield potato cellar is highly suitable for delightful activities!"
The conversation paused for a moment, both sisters being engrossed in their own thoughts. Elizabeth was trying to fathom what her elder had been hinting at. The slim knowledge she had of the physical relationships between a man and a woman didn't allow her to really grasp the extent of Jane's revelations. The setting itself furthered her confusion. For once, she was almost regretting her sister's reserve that made her speak so little.
Jane was back in the potato cellar. She blushed at the memory of what had happened this very afternoon; she blushed further at her impatience at discovering what still was ahead of her and Charles' intimacy. What Mrs. Bennet had told her, even if scarcely described, had given her full confidence that the best was yet to come. Elizabeth's frustrated smile made her realise that she had to check her thoughts and resume their - last - nightly chat. To brush off this unhappy thought, she chose to come back, once again, on what she knew was a sure way to tease her sister.
"Anyway! Mother, before leaving me for a restful sleep, did remind me of one last thing." Jane waited to have her sister's full attention before continuing, "I happen to have now a heavy responsibility on your future happiness!" she ended, one eyebrow raised.
"Oh, I see, Jane! You now have to throw me in the way of other rich men!" she smirked, her mother's words at the Netherfield ball and the ensuing humiliation forever engraved in her mind.
Jane's eyes turned mischievous. "The one in whose way I threw you suits you not?"
Lizzy's complexion took the same scarlet hue her sister's had harboured some moments before. "Oh yes, he suits me perfectly," she replied, a dreamy smile nonetheless on her lips. She remained silent, then, realising the expectation in her sister's look, she went on, "I shall see him tomorrow!"
Expectation became tender understanding, "Indeed you shall, Dearest! You shall, at last!"
"Jane," Lizzy said almost hesitantly, "I dread as much as I look forward to our meeting."
"You do?" Jane's tone was genuinely surprised. "But why, Lizzy? You cannot fear to have misread him, can you?"
"No, no. Even if I thoroughly misunderstood his character for most of our acquaintance, I'd be a simpleton to read anything more than a cheerful banter between two friends in his letters," Lizzy said laughingly
"My dearest sister, now be serious. Why would you be afraid of meeting him? I know how much you've missed him; you should be anxious by a potential delay of his, not by his arrival!"
"Indeed you're right, Jane," she replied wistfully, "yet you must understand how awkward it will be to speak to him when so much has been implied, or how difficult it will be to speak to him when so many people are around. Had our relationship been smoother, I would not fear this meeting so much; but considering our past dealings, there are reasons enough to dread it."
Jane pondered her sister's words. She understood this need for privacy; in London; she had gone as far as asking her aunt and sister for such a moment. On the morrow, most of the attention would be on Charles and her; yet she knew people would also pay attention to Lizzy - for she was a favourite amongst the community - and to Mr. Darcy - since he was thoroughly disliked by most of the same community. Well, if it was privacy Lizzy wished for, she knew where it could be found in Netherfield!
With a laughing tone, she asked, "Have you ever wished to visit Netherfield's potato cellar?"
"Jane?" asked Elizabeth cautiously.
"I'm not ready for Bedlam yet, Lizzy," Jane reassured her, a smile in her voice. "Of course you need to talk to Mr. Darcy, and of course those words have to be spoken in privacy. Since meeting him before the ceremony is not to be thought about, there will be no opportunity before the wedding breakfast. It being served at Netherfield, the safer place to go to, as long as privacy is concerned, is the potato cellar."
"As you've given us frequent proof in the past few weeks!" Lizzie couldn't but tease her sister. "But Jane, do be serious. How could I lure Mr. Darcy into a cellar at Netherfield during your wedding breakfast?" She paused for a while at the thought, slightly out of breath. "I know not even where it is situated!"
"This can be easily remedied. And 'tis the only possible means for you to find the intimacy you will both crave."
Elizabeth went on objecting - less and less efficiently - and Jane went on convincing - with more and more results, until the former begged for mercy and the latter complained laughingly about the minutes of sleep she would be missing on the morrow because of her sister's strong-mindedness.
"You'll see Lizzy, this cellar is magic. It seems quite ordinary, but some astounding things have happened there, and I'm sure some even more amazing are still to come. Now go to bed, my very dearest sister; you shall need as much strength as I, tomorrow."
After a tender embrace, Elizabeth left her sister's room. Her eyes shone more than usual and no word managed to come from her constricted throat. Thus ended a period of her sister's life, even if the official date would be the next day; and in some sense, thus ended a period of her life as well. Yet, if Jane had something thrilling to look forward to, she had not; becoming the eldest remaining amongst the Bennet sisters had never been a dream of hers, and Jane's wedding day would also be the day when she was to learn how, precisely, her future lay in front her.
Like every night for a month, once her candle was blown out, she tried to imagine her reunion with Mr. Darcy. The last days had been tortured for her; everything, from the incessant twirling around the wedding to the arrival of his sister had kept reminding her of him. In spite of knowing better, she had expected him to arrive every time she had heard a horse or a carriage. Yet, here she was, in her bed, images of their meeting after so long a parting still a figment of her imagination. Almost asleep, some new images interfered in her ordinary routine; and, setting the scene in a dark and humid basement, she dreamed of Jane's plan. Despite her sister's certainty, her barely conscious mind was still doubtful that Mr. Darcy would be willing to 'check on the potato seedlings'; now, if he was, the most daring part of her could not but hope that this activity would prove as agreeable to her as it had been to Jane...
When Jane saw her bedchamber door closing, she felt a tear going down her cheek. There was always a price to happiness she realised. She had suffered enough before finding bliss with Charles to value it to its true extent; yet, as she had told Lizzy, she would regret losing the intimacy she had shared with her sister. She blew out her candle and tried to lure herself to sleep. But how was a lass supposed to find Morpheus' arms on the night before her wedding? So many images kept popping up behind her closed eyes; images of what she would leave at Longbourn, her bedchamber, her sisters, the flowers drying in the stillroom; images of Charles, as he entered the assembly rooms, as he fussed over her when she was ill at Netherfield, as they were dancing at his ball, as she saw him in her uncle's warehouse, as he proposed, as he kept himself in check to prevent them from going farther than he deemed acceptable - despite her own mute suggestions; images of her childhood, images of Netherfield; images of her past, images of her future. She suddenly realised what was the most important; her past had been happy, mainly because her circumstances in life - though not the brightest - had not been bleak either. The only real sorrow she had experienced had vanished in the best possible outcome, and her circumstances in life had brightened further. Her future happiness now lay in her hands, and she was confident she would make the most of it. Before yielding to slumber, she addressed God with her last prayer as a maid. Instead of asking Him to give her strength or to make of her marital life a smooth path, she thanked Him, heartfully and without further request, for the events to happen on the morrow.
The night before his wedding happened to be nothing like Charles Bingley had expected. On the one hand, his best friend and best man arrived as dusk was darkening the skies, tired from a long journey he had done mainly on horseback to alleviate his raging thoughts and more nervous than Bingley had ever seen him. And on the other hand, he felt no anxiety at all... Impatience and enthusiasm were his usual companions but he had always thought that these qualities of his - as he liked to see them - would yield before the cold feet every groom was supposed to experience. Even Hurst's proverbial sedateness had been overpowered by a deep fretfulness, which had only been quietened by brandy - a decanter of brandy, not a glass. Yet here he was, in his library, with Darcy, late enough so that the ladies - and Hurst - would have retired, trying this ancient trick on his tense friend, and frankly not quite succeeding.
"I tell you, Darcy, that Miss Elizabeth was the one who said all those words; I merely put them down. What will it take to convince you her opinion of you has drastically changed?" Bingley asked, his tone softer than his words.
"I just cannot believe it... We parted with no tender words - not quite the opposite either, to be true - but certainly nothing that could induce me to believe she meant what I read."
Pointing to the decanter and sighing at his friend's refusal, Bingley tried, once again, to convince Darcy that indeed, Miss Elizabeth had meant exactly what he had understood, indeed, she had changed her mind - and he would have to ask her why - and indeed, he had never been as close to utter bliss as he was now. It cannot be said that he met with total success, but, after a while, Darcy acknowledged that, being the writer of the letters and Miss Elizabeth's sister's betrothed, Bingley was a more than valid witness; his testimony was therefore legitimated.
Silence settled upon the room, the crackling from the fireplace the only sound to break it. Bingley was comparing Darcy's situation with his own, during the past months. He had never been in this position, having all the hints that his suit would be accepted without having heard the confirmation from the lady herself, he understood his friend's disbelief, though; despite all the ongoing preparations, despite Jane's frequent tenders words for him, despite their encounters in the potato cellar, he had had moments of doubt during the last weeks. Surely this was silly, yet it was true! He sighed softly and looked up at his friend. He wondered whether he should suggest a private meeting with Miss Elizabeth on the morrow; then he resolved against it. Darcy had been remarkably open in regard of the 'help' his younger friend had provided him with, but this younger friend thought he had finished playing his part - and quite successfully if he could say so himself.
Darcy was weighing his uncertainties with Bingley's guarantees; the whispers of his doubts were more and more drowned out by the loud and cheerful voice of his friend's assurances. Yet, he had been so painfully disappointed by the outcome of his last conversation with Elizabeth that he wouldn't believe it until he had spoken with her, frankly and openly. With a sigh, he realised that it would not be possible the next day; Bingley had warned him that Miss Bennet's and his wedding would be the event of the year in Hertfordshire, and that a large attendance was expected. So tomorrow would not be the day, and then he would be out of the shire - staying at Netherfield when the Master of the manor was on his wedding trip being unthinkable. But dash it all! Whatever may be the number of trips from London to Longbourn it would take to acquire Elizabeth's consent, he would do them. At least he had managed to settle the matters around the thievery before leaving for Netherfield two days before; the guilty tenant's family had been relocated to a smaller cottage and he had found employment for the matron and her eldest son. 'Twas painful for him to make a young lad the head of one family - he had suffered too much of it to do this to someone else without second thoughts, but there had been no other way, and he had done it nonetheless. He absentmindedly sipped his glass and tried to keep his thoughts away from their usual - since many months now - object.
"It was so nice of you to welcome Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley here..." he said.
"It was no trouble at all. It seemed to soften somewhat Caroline and Miss Darcy has been very kind to her. I hope she enjoyed the time she spent with the Miss Bennets, as well. At first she seemed uneasy around Miss Mary, Miss Kitty and Miss Lydia and she favoured Jane and Miss Elizabeth; but then she had several conversations with Miss Kitty and I think they go along pretty well, now. Truthfully, she still favours Miss Elizabeth every time she can, and I suspect that Miss Elizabeth is more than pleased in your sister's favourite topic of conversation."
"Yes, you Darcy!" explained his friend, a sly smile on his lips.
The taller gentleman hid his unease behind his glass. Bingley's grin widened when he saw the dark hue around Darcy's cheekbones.
"I wish I'd been here earlier," he eventually replied. "I wish I could have spoken more with her before she retired. She made me speak about Pemberley for so long; she hardly told me how she had enjoyed staying with you."
It was Bingley's turn to hide his emotion behind his glass. Methinks 'twas not the only matter you wanted to discuss with her. A young lady with bright eyes could also have been one topic of interest to you. I wonder if you'd have more faith after speaking with your sister than after hearing my opinion on the subject. Ah, Darcy! How I do condole with your present situation. Wait till you see her tomorrow and your suffering will be relieved... Now, Bing, this might require more than a look, he needs to speak to her privately... We shall contrive to give you the privacy your circumstances require, Darcy; we shall...
Silence had once again settled upon the room. Bingley observed his friend rubbing his eyes. "You should retire now, Darcy. You've had a long day behind you and tomorrow will hardly be restful."
A startled look was shot back. "But surely you need me tonight; you've not spoken a word about your fears of not doing the right thing, of not being good enough for Miss Bennet, of how you'll have to behave... as a husband... Indeed, I would be a poor best man if I were to leave you alone on the night before your wedding!"
Bingley laughed outright at this reply. "Indeed you would be!" he managed to utter. "Oh, Darcy, I suggest you retire because I feel you're now comforted enough to envision tomorrow peacefully. I have been comforting you tonight, not the contrary!"
"Have I been that useless?" Darcy asked.
"You needn't worry, Darcy. I have no fear, no hesitation. Jane and I will be the happiest couple; that is settled." And I have proofs that behaving as a husband will be delightful, indeed! "Go to bed, Darcy. And look forward to tomorrow as much as I do!"
On these wise words, the gentlemen left the library together and, after they had reached the upper floor, darkness settled upon the lower level of the house.
When he entered his bedchamber, Darcy's valet was finishing the preparation of his clothes for the wedding. He quickly prepared for the night then dismissed him. Before going to bed, he went to the window and, parting the heavy draperies, he gazed into the darkness, trying to find a light far away in the night. But three miles were too large a distance, even if his window faced East, the direction in which Longbourn lay.
Is Bingley right, Elizabeth? Have you really forgiven me? Have you really missed me? Indeed you must have... How difficult it will be to behave as common acquaintances, tomorrow! How shall I bear being at the altar without you being the bride and I the groom? I really wished I had arrived earlier; you were there, Georgiana told me. She didn't speak much tonight, but she did say you were even more beautiful than in London. He smiled, she is a sly thing, my sister! Why would she tell me this? I'm so happy she's so taken by you, Dearest Elizabeth; you will be the best elder sister to her...
Exhaustion becoming too high to bear, he went to his bed and lay down under the warm counterpane. As soon as he had blown out the candle, he fell asleep, his night a peaceful heaven of dreams of a loving Miss Elizabeth.
At the same time, lying on his bed, Charles found that, at least, one part of the night before his wedding was as he had expected it; he couldn't sleep. He had told nothing but the truth to Darcy; there was no apprehension in his heart, he felt very confident about the next day and the years to follow, yet sleep eluded him. Thoughts of Jane were twirling in his head. She was very probably in her bed, a piece of furniture he had never laid his eyes on, in her bedchamber, a room he couldn't even locate at Longbourn, wearing one of her nightgowns - a piece of cloth he had never set eyes upon. It was exactly as it had been every night since they had come back to Hertfordshire; but it was the last night it would be so. Tomorrow Jane would be there, in his room, in his bed, with him; and at last he would know what sort of nightclothes she favoured. Or maybe she would have something less... something more... wifely... than her habit. He shifted on his bed, physically uncomfortable by the reactions these thoughts were provoking in his body, emotionally uncomfortable by the impurity of them. Yet after their last encounter in the potato cellar, this very day, dwelling on his undying love for Jane and their future happiness without any "impure" thought was not an easy fate. Indeed, they had again had proof that their joining would not be of the soul only.
"What is it, my Love?"
She leaned on him; they were still going down the dark staircase to the cellar. "How silly of me! I missed a stair and I almost sprained my ankle in an attempt not to fall. But 'tis nothing, the pain fades already."
"I'll carry you, we'll check on your ankle in the cellar."
She laughed, "'Tis nothing, really!"
"You wouldn't want to be limping on your wedding day, would you?" he replied teasingly, lifting her easily.
"You'll hurt yourself! You wouldn't want to be unable to stand on your wedding day, would you?" she answered in kind.
"Do you have so little faith in your future husband's strength?" he said while she took the opportunity to kiss his jaw and start untying his neckcloth. They had arrived in the cellar, and he set her on the old mossy table - which had been cleaned by young Ben since their last visit.
She didn't release him and her lips continued their path to his mouth, pecking his cheek until she grazed the soft skin of his lips. Her hands were blindly carrying on their daring task. She had so much enjoyed their last private meeting, and his cravat being discarded had been essential in their intercourse.
The ongoing loss of restraint she showed each time there were only the two of them was overpowering his self-control. Her soft moans were enchanting music that made him lose his mind. His mouth ravished hers; his hands first cradled her head then began their descent towards the small of her back. His frustration made him think; his mind getting clearer, he realised how far and fast they had been carried away. Breathing loudly, he ended their kiss and gently stopped her hands.
"Dearest," he panted, "We were supposed to check on your ankle." He chuckled, "And check on the potato seedlings as well."
She giggled back, as breathless as he was. "Why, Mr. Bingley, you're right! But I assure you my ankle is fine."
"I shall begin with it nonetheless, if you mind not." He kneeled in front of her; the hem of her petticoat covered the upper part of her boots. He looked up in her playful eyes. "Which one is it?" he asked, as he realised the position he was in, his voice sounding hoarse to his own ears.
"The left one."
Charles untied the left boot and softly released her foot. Her stockings were white. Her ankle looked perfectly normal. He asked her to move her foot; she did it without even wincing. She was right; she was fine. He had to go back on his feet. She moved, reclining against the wall. Her petticoat went slightly higher, revealing only more of her white stocking; nothing more.
Charles' eyes snapped open. These were not the sort of thoughts he wished to entertain the eve before his union with the angel God had sent to him. He sat up abruptly in his bed. This would not do. He rang and an almost asleep footman appeared on his doorstep. He apologised for waking him up - to which the astounded servant mumbled an "yes Sir," thinking that him being the Master and this being the night before his wedding, he was entitled to some whim - and asked for a cup of chocolate.
Once he had drunk his hot and sweet beverage, he reclined upon his pillows and, at last, fatigue overcame him. His mind wandered once again towards the potato cellar.
"As much as I am fond of this cellar, I must say I'm glad we won't have to seek privacy here any longer," he said, when they were exiting the small room.
"I shall always be grateful to those potatoes anyway. I've resolved on having some potatoes at every meal. What do you say?"
He chuckled, "It is brilliant, my Love," and kissed her tenderly.
He had fallen into a dreamlike state and a smile appeared on his lips. Sleep took him away for his last night as an unmarried man on this summary of his relationship with Jane: laughter, admiration and more corporal activities.
The Reverend Mr. Ingram surveyed the crowd waiting in the church. It was a good thing he was not one to be intimidated by a numerous attendance, since, as it was expected, Miss Bennet's and Mr. Bingley's wedding was a crush! Before going down the aisle, he had welcomed every guest at the entrance, and what a long line they made! Now standing by the altar, he smiled at Mrs. Bennet who was on her feet in the front pew of the left side of the aisle. She smiled back a smile wider than her face, her nose crumpled and her eyebrow raised; had he been near her, he was sure he would have heard a shrieking sigh of ecstasy. He internally shrugged at the thought and switched to the front pew of the right wing to see that the groom's sister and their brother in law were already installed. Mr. Hurst seemed somewhat more alert than usual - but the minister wryly thought that he probably wouldn't manage to keep the gentleman awake anymore than for the previous services - and Miss Bingley seemed as despondent as ever, as shown by her dark brown severe outfit. He smiled to Mrs. Hurst who was coming from the vestry where the groom and his best man were waiting. His welcome to the lady was sincere; she had changed surprisingly since their first visit to Hertfordshire, the improvement of the goodness of her mind showing in her appearance, and he felt she was truly glad of the union. She nodded her opinion that her brother and his friend were ready and only awaited his call to come and take their place by the altar. Miss Catherine's taking place in the left front pew told him that the bride, her sister and her father were also all set; the ceremony could begin. He was about to go and fetch them when he was stopped by Mrs. Bennet's loud voice.
"Why, why, why! My dear Lady Lucas," she was saying to the lady behind her, her high-pitched tone overpowering every conversation around, "have you seen how many people are here? I do believe the attendance is bigger than for dear Charlotte's wedding; not that it was not a very nice wedding, or that Reverend Ingram didn't deliver a good sermon... And you should see my dear Jane! She's the handsomest thing I have ever beheld, not that dear Charlotte was not very nicely dressed; but you should see Jane's gown!" She sighed dreamily. "Although they didn't put as much lace as I had wished, and there could have been more ribbon as well... There is never enough lace or ribbon in my opinion... But the fabric is the softest silk I have ever touched and Mrs. Banders worked admirably... I would rather have agreed to Mrs. Hurst's proposal and ordered the gowns from Madame Danielle in London but, then, Jane insisted that Mrs. Banders had dressed her so many times that it was only fair to order her last dress as a maid from her! Anyway, I must say the result is quite pleasing and, were it not for the fact that it doesn't come from London, it would be, indeed, the most beautiful gown that ever was made!"
Hiding his amazement with a neutral smile to the three younger Miss Bennets, he retreated to the vestry to tell the not-so-anxious groom and his not-so-soothing friend that it was time to come. They were still as he had left them; the smiling fair gentleman dressed in a strangely-wrinkle-free fine light blue coat and matching waistcoat pacing to and fro in the small room; while the tall and dark gentleman, whose leaf-green form-fitted coat emphasised further the brightness of his friend's, stood motionless turned toward the stained glass window.
"Ha, here you are!" said Mr. Bingley eagerly, walking to him. "We were waiting for you. Everything is ready?"
"Yes, Sir. Would you please accompany me?"
"Of course, Reverend!" Looking at his friend, he asked, "Ready, Darcy?"
Darcy emerged from his wool-gathering and, after a bland moment, he started to chuckle, "I am really being the best best-man, am I not? See how well I'm dragging you to the altar? See how well I've dealt with your cold feet? Really, Bingley, I'm sure you're happy with your choice!"
To Mr. Reverend Ingram's astonishment, Bingley started to laugh back. Soon, both of them were clasping each other's shoulders, in a fraternal - and mirthful - embrace. "I wish you the best of life with Miss Bennet, Charles," eventually gasped Darcy, his tone sincere despite the tear he was wiping away from his eye.
Bingley released his friend, and, drying the proof of his near-hysterical laughter, he thanked him in kind.
On the Minister's reminder that they were awaited, the gentlemen proceeded to the Church and positioned themselves where they were expected. Bingley stood proudly at the altar; he checked immediately that there was still no commotion at the door and then allowed his eyes to wander to his family. Louisa was the first by the aisle, her already watery smile in exact tune with the supportive behaviour she had chosen in her town-house library, all those weeks back in London. He smiled back at her a warm and thankful smile; having some of his family agreeing with his choice meant much to him, she had stood by him without wavering despite Caroline's attitude, and he would always feel grateful for this. Then came Hurst, who stood closer to his wife than he was supposed to - or, at least, than he used to - and Caroline, dressed in very much the same way she had, immediately following their father's untimely death. He had forgiven her her mean interference in his - and Jane's - life only because Jane had forgiven her. He sadly shook his head; why, oh why was she so set against this union? She had acknowledged, after their first encounter, that Jane was a sweet girl, she had even admired her. He hoped it was not on Darcy's behalf; with him, she had never stood any chance. Miss Elizabeth becoming his sister in law wouldn't damage her more in Darcy's opinion than she had already done herself... His frown faded away when he perceived some kind of excitement at the door. Here she came...
Darcy, who had first checked that his beloved was still out of sight when he had stood on the right of the altar, abruptly stopped throwing caring yet nervous smiles at his sister when he heard the choir start singing the first hymn. He was about to behold the desire of his heart, for the first time since his fateful confession in her father's library. The villagers' voices vanished in his ears; his own heartbeat replacing them. He straightened his spine, preparing himself for the shock he knew was to come. And then she was on the doorstep. His lips parted to allow more air to fill his lungs, his breathing had become that shallow. He watched her as she came slowly down the aisle, her peach-silk clad figure, her smiling lips and her eyes... They had lost nothing of their brightness but they also revealed how happy and moved she was to be in Longbourn Church to celebrate her dearest sister's nuptials. She had reached the middle of the aisle when her look settled on Bingley; her smile grew wider, and then her lips parted as her joy couldn't remain in the confines of her mind. Bingley had probably smiled back to her, he couldn't tell, his eyes had not even blinked since she had entered not to lose a second of this enchanting scene. And then her look slid to him.
Elizabeth had woken up with a nagging feeling that her dreams, although starring, as usual, Mr. Darcy, had been of a peculiar nature. Her first conscious thought had been that this was the day she had been waiting for a month. Then she had heard her mother's cries about the maid, who was nowhere to be found when she was most needed, Jane's hair, which was nowhere near dressed although it was almost time to depart, Mr. Bennet, who shouldn't be hiding in the library on this particular day, Cook, for preparing such a heavy morning repast when everyone needed to be light and aware, ... and she had sighed loudly and shut her ears with her hands. A quick peak at the daylight out of the window had confirmed that her mother had slightly exaggerated the hour, and, after bracing herself for the worst - more of her mother's voice - she had unclamped her head and sighed in relief as only the usual sounds of the house had welcomed her. What had followed had been mainly focused on Jane; and when, following the first notes of the hymn, she had stepped into the church, she had realised that she had barely thought of him since her awakening. For the main part of her march, she had managed not to look at him; she knew he was here - she hadn't seen him yet but without him the wedding would have been delayed - and she wanted not to awaken anyone's suspicion. She had almost forgotten him when she had engaged eyes with Mr. Bingley and seen the eager and blissful light in them; but only almost. And now, she was standing no more than two feet from the altar, and she dared to look at him.
Their eyes met and locked. They were supposed to look at the bride who had entered the church and was walking towards her impatient and ecstatic future spouse; they were supposed to see the emotion in her father's countenance; they were supposed to feel the radiance and hope of the bride; Elizabeth was supposed to hear her mother's loud sniffles; Darcy was supposed to smile at Georgiana's sigh of delight at watching such an angelic creature; but they did not. They only looked at each other; they only saw the other's burning eyes staring back into theirs; they only felt the other's emotions - joy, incredulity, happiness, eagerness... love? - mirroring their owns; they only heard their own heart and the endearments it was murmuring to the other. The high-pitched voices' sudden stop threw them back into the real world. They smiled shyly and tenderly at the other while the Minister started.
"Dearly Beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony..."
As the words of the Reverend Mr. Ingram echoed in the church, Jane looked up at Charles and smiled a glowing and private smile to him. No tear had escaped her eyes on her way to the altar, but only by sheer luck. Her father's mute kiss on her brow once Lizzy had gone beyond the doorstep, the resonance of the alto counter-point supporting the soprano song, the sight of her handsome future husband and his adoring eyes, everything had concurred to make her eyes watery. She saw in his look his amazement at seeing his dearest wish fulfilled and his overpowering love for her; these were feelings she shared, and she knew he read them in hers as well.
As the words flowed, their gazes parted regretfully. There were pledges in every sentence the Minister spoke, and they'd have wished to make those vows to each other, soul to soul. Why they were expected to be more respectful of their word because their eyes were on God's representative, they knew not; yet they were, therefore, so they did. But while their faces remained smilingly turned towards the Reverend, their hearts were swelling as one with the mention of children, mutual society and comfort.
"Charles Isaac Bingley, Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife..."
Charles let the words of the Reverend's question sink into his heart. He had already pledged himself to this woman so many times that he hadn't thought hearing them in this formal and holy setting would move him exceedingly; yet, on hearing those words, he felt all the solemnity of his vows fall on him. Aye, he would love her; aye, he would keep her in sickness; aye, he would keep himself only unto her... "I will," he declared earnestly to the Minister, his words loud and clear enough to convince every member of the audience that he, the impetuous and sometimes whimsical Charles Isaac Bingley, would never falter from them.
"Jane Susanna Bennet, Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband..."
Jane's still somewhat erratic heartbeat had suddenly quietened when Charles had so unambiguously proclaimed his 'I will'. Hers would be a life of obedience, of service, of love for this man who meant more than life itself to her. This was what she had wanted for so long, she had forgotten how it was not to want it. Her smile had become one of understanding when she replied to the Reverend, "I will."
After Mr. Bennet had stepped from the front pew at the Minister's request, Charles gave his troth to Jane with the conviction of his earlier words in his voice, and Jane gave her troth to Charles, her eyes deep into his, her right hand in his, her soul speaking to his.
As they knelt, the fourth finger of her left hand at last adorned with the symbol of their union, Jane repeated the prayer she had addressed God with the evening before, and she received His blessing.
"I pronounce that they be Man and Wife together, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."
Charles heard not Louisa's sniffy sigh, Jane heard not Mrs. Bennet's shriek of ecstasy. Hand in hand, kept together by the Minister's hands as well as by their forceful unwillingness to be parted, they revelled in the almost physical feeling of love surrounding them. His wife, forever; her husband, eternally.
Mr. Darcy hadn't been able to pay real attention to the union of his friend to his soul mate. He had been too caught in his observation of Elizabeth. Her happiness at witnessing her dearest sister's only wish come true was so endearing to him that he lived the ceremony through the changes of the light shining in her eyes. From time to time, she had looked at him, and he had not shielded his love for her. She had blushed and smiled back to him, her eyes as unguarded as his, but she had always focused back quickly onto the ongoing ritual. Yet it had been enough to convince him that her feelings had, indeed, changed for the best since their last meeting.
"Miss Bennet, May I have the honour of escorting you down the aisle?" he said, bowing to her. Only Mr. Bingley and Jane were still in the upper part of the church with them; the last members of the audience were exiting, to join the throng of well-wishers waiting outside the building.
What had happened during the ceremony had been enough to give her the confidence that she had been absolutely right in her reading of his letters; and she was, for a short while, spared the worry of too many eyes on them. Her spirits, already high with the bliss of her sister's wedding, rose even higher. "Why, Mr. Darcy, I believe it is above all your duty!" Elizabeth replied playfully, placing her hand in the crook of his arm.
Mr. Darcy lost his breath on hearing her tone and feeling her hand tighten her hold. There was no mistaking it; the bewitching Elizabeth he had reluctantly come to love in the autumn was back. "Never was a duty more pleasurable, I assure you," he answered, as they walked together towards the door.
Elizabeth blushed, surprised - but not disagreeably so - by his forwardness. "Sir, I believe you are flattering me."
"You know me better than that, Madam, I do not flatter, never. I merely stated the absolute truth; as it is the absolute truth that it is most delightful to see you." He stopped abruptly his speech, since they had reached the door of the church, and the potentially prying eyes both feared were intent upon them.
But this unusually free Darcy was impossible to resist - not that she wanted to, anyway - and she couldn't help but reply, for his ears only, "I've missed you exceedingly as well."
Then the cheering of the crowd became a barrier to any sort of conversation. Mr. Bingley and Jane were standing on the threshold, their happiness almost blinding by its blatancy, and neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Darcy would have forgiven themselves if they had not been the first ones to congratulate the newlyweds.
Jane smiled softly, her head half inclined, at her Aunt Philips' last remark. Charles was by her side, his grin as wide as his face while Mr. Philips was nodding vigorously.
"Don't you think so, Lizzy?" he asked her.
"Forgive me, Uncle; I didn't hear you," she said, quite ingenuously in her opinion.
"Why, I wasn't saying anything, Lizzy!" he explained, surprised by her inattention. "Your Aunt was stating how delightful it is to be settled so close to one's aunt when one is just married, not I!"
Jane's giggle and Charles' outright laugh made her blush bright crimson. Not only had they just caught her completely mindless of her surroundings, but also her sister and new brother knew why. Mr. Darcy was discreetly and slowly making his way towards their little group; and watching his careful but determined approach was quite enough to distract her usually attentive self. Families, greetings and duties had pulled them apart before their leaving for Netherfield, and their only short conversation since then had been abruptly cut by her mother. Mr. Darcy, although watching her from afar - an old habit of his - had been standing with his sister when Louisa had joined them; Elizabeth had come to their small company, and the discussion had taken a more than promising turn.
"I hope you eventually managed to solve the matter that kept you so far away in Derbyshire, Mr. Darcy."
"I did, Miss Bennet. And I'm sorry it prevented me from coming back earlier to Hertfordshire. I cannot tell you how deeply I regretted being forced to leave Netherfield at such a short notice, but it could not be avoided. There was a painful matter concerning one of my tenants, and my being there was mandatory."
"Pemberley is such a grand estate; that must be a great responsibility for you," she said earnestly, realising for the first time the weight that rested on his shoulders.
"Well, some may have described it grander than it really is, but indeed, having the pride of calling Pemberley one's home comes with some duties. Yet, I have high hopes that soon I won't have to bear with them alone."
Elizabeth remembered his brown eyes firmly settled in hers, removing any trace of doubt that could remain about whom would share them with him; she remembered the hopeful and unbelieving gasp that had escaped Miss Darcy's lips and the further turmoil it had created in her already fretful heart. His next words had made her lose her breath.
"And I must say the letters I received from Bingley were a great comfort to me. I read them with utmost pleasure. It was very good of you to help him compose them and I'm more than grateful for the messages you sent. I only hope I made this clear in my replies."
She knew she hadn't dreamt the uncertain light in his eyes as he was saying those words, she hoped her smile hadn't been as weak as her legs had felt and that he had found all the reassurances he still needed about her. She had wanted to reply in kind, but her voice had failed her, and she had barely managed a hoarse "Mr. Darcy" when her mother had sailed across the room and told her that Lady Lucas had news from Charlotte she would not reveal without her. Immediately she was to follow her mother, and later she was to feel the warmth of Mr. Darcy's words. At last, Elizabeth had purposely come to speak with the newlyweds, hoping that he would read her and come to join them. Now that her scheme was about to succeed, she so anticipated his arrival that Aunt Philips' conversation was incapable of holding her interest.
"Well, My aunt, I will take you on your word and ask for your partridge with apricot recipe," Jane said, her tone obviously closing the conversation, her smile making up for this slight incivility.
Mr. and Mrs. Philips picked up on their cue and willingly left the threesome, which soon numbered four as the tall, dark and much awaited gentleman joined them.
"Well Darcy, we're glad to have you with us," said Mr. Bingley. "Are we not, Miss Elizabeth?" he asked playfully.
Jane's amused, "Charles!" was cut by her sister's flippant tone. "It's Miss Bennet, actually, Mr. Bingley. Now, if you consent to my calling you Charles, I may consider having you calling me Lizzy."
"Well, then, Lizzy, aren't we glad Darcy is with us?" Charles insisted, playfulness obvious in his voice.
"Bingley!" interrupted his friend. Being the object of his teasing, he was growing used to; having his lady being teased as well was entirely another matter.
"Oh no Mr. Darcy, I'd like to answer, if you don't mind," she smiled to him. "I am very glad you are with us to celebrate the wedding of my most beloved sister with the choice of her heart. Since she's the wisest, I suppose he's someone good enough for her," she teased back, mirth twinkling in her eyes. "And Charles proved his superior understanding; first he chose Jane for his wife, then he chose you to stand for him today. I could not imagine standing with anyone else at the altar," she continued, amazed by her own brazenness as the words were coming from her mouth, Jane's widened eyes and Charles's choking on his wine proving that her astonishment was shared.
Only Mr. Darcy heard her words with apparent calm, his emotion only showing in the hoarseness of his voice. "The feeling is mutual, Miss Bennet," he replied, his eyes deep into hers.
"Charles," Jane said, trying to alleviate some of the passion that was going between the two, "Was there not a request you had for Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Bingley looked confused, "A request?" he asked, while the other couple hadn't yet come down to Earth.
"Yes Charles," Jane hesitated, she had forgotten to tell him of her idea to provide privacy to her sister and her beau. She licked her lips, "The last time we went on checking on your seedlings..."
This last part caught the unacknowledged lovers' attention, although their reactions were drastically different. While Elizabeth rejoiced on Jane's hint and prayed that Charles would comprehend, Mr. Darcy wondered about the kind of courting methods Bingley had chosen.
Lizzy's prayers were granted. "Yes!" Mr. Bingley exclaimed to his wife, admiration for her obvious in his eyes. "Darcy, I do have a favour to ask," he asked earnestly to his friend, "I fear I won't have time enough to check on my potato seedlings today, and I'd like to be sure there's nothing amiss. Would you do that for me?"
"Well, of course, Bingley, if you wish so!" a dumbfounded Darcy replied.
"No, I meant, right this moment!" insisted the younger gentleman.
"Why, yes, now would be a good moment," interfered Jane.
"If it's your pleasure, Mrs. Bingley", he agreed, clearly at a loss to understand what was happening, yet unwilling to offend the bride on her wedding day. Turning to his friend, he went on. "Is there someone who could direct me?" he asked, hoping that he would soon wake up from the insane dream he was now living.
"I might accompany you, Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth stepped in.
"You might accompany me, Miss Bennet?" he asked, absolute disbelief in his voice.
"Yes, Lizzy knows the way," assured Jane to her husband's surprise, "and I'm sure you'd like to escape this stuffy air, wouldn't you, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth nodded her eagerness.
"It would be my very best pleasure, Miss Bennet," agreed Mr. Darcy, bowing to her then following her lead as she made her way to the hall of the mansion.
Mr. Darcy had followed Elizabeth's unerring step while they had been outside; in the small and servant-like entryway, she had looked less certain, but she had found a lamp easily enough, which he had lit and held; he had realised during their descent in the dark staircase that she was not as knowledgeable of her whereabouts as she had claimed to be in the dining-room; and now, he was behind her, she was standing in front of an old wooden door, with no apparent intent of opening it, her breathing hard and laboured. The first word still had to be said, and, while she looked unable to say it, he wondered if he was not, unfortunately, about to wake up from this - at times idiotic but overall more than heavenly - dream. He was not even concerned with what was about to occur, or so it appeared. Indeed, although the hope that he might be finally able to have the private interview their situation required had erupted when she had proposed herself as his guide, the conversation with Bingley and Mrs. Bingley had been so bizarre that it had let him too baffled to fear anything. He asked her if it was, indeed, the potato cellar that was hidden behind this door, his tone showing the remnants of his surprise.
Elizabeth's attention snapped back. "It must be," she replied breathlessly. They were where she had not been able to imagine them in truth. Contrary to her expectations, Mr. Darcy had agreed to check on the potato seedlings; she had followed Jane's directions and taken him to the most remote corner of Netherfield; they were about to taste the magic of this dimly lit, humid, low-ceilinged and extraordinary room. Adding to her - sudden, unexpected and silly - apprehension of the outcomes of this interview, her ignorance of what could happen on a more physical level had overcome her confidence and rendered her speechless and motionless.
Mr. Darcy mistook the cause of her behaviour and chose to deal with what he thought was a childish fear of cellars with tender teasing. "Miss Bennet, I'd be honoured to be your knight in shining armour and slay the dragon that is hiding behind this door, if you let me."
Elizabeth's look slowly turned to his face, love for this understanding and mindful gentleman wiping away all the gibberish that had been going through her mind. An amused smile flourished on her lips, "And I'd be honoured to be your damsel in distress, were I, indeed, in need of such a brave and reckless champion. I..." She tried to put the causes of her previous behaviour into words and immediately discarded the thought. She shook her head and opened the door, "Shall we?"
Elizabeth went first to peak a look in one of the boxes against the wall, she heard Mr. Darcy set the lamp somewhere and his steps come close to her.
"Those are indeed potato seedlings," he said bluntly, somewhere behind her.
She turned around; he was standing less than a foot away, his figure casting a shadow over her. Far from frightening her, his tall figure was even more enticing. "You're a bit dark for a knight in shining armour," she teased.
"I just put it away... We knights don't do our farmer duties fully apparelled."
She giggled. "Is this quick look to strange-looking potatoes 'checking on the potato seedlings'?" She saw him nodding. "We do have a dilemma, then," she continued, her voice playful yet more throaty, her arms crossed in front of her.
"Do we now?" Hearing the sound of this 'we' in her voice caused some urgency to enter his own voice. He took the step that brought them toe-to-toe and taking her apparent hand, he disentangled her arms to take hold of her other hand. He brought one hand then the other to his lips.
She gulped and looked up at him. "Oh we do! Every time Jane and Charles came here to check on the potato seedlings, it took them much more time and they came out of it not quite as neatly attired as they had left us. We have to find a way to make them believe we paid as much attention to the plants as they did," she ended coyly, the scarlet hue of her cheeks fortunately barely discernible.
"Indeed, we do," he almost groaned, his lips plunging towards hers, "and I think I know how," he breathed against her mouth. He had not planned on snatching a kiss before she had consented to marry him; to be true, he had not planned any kiss at all, even if he had hoped, dreamed that this miraculous moment would come. Yet this seemed so right, her consent had been so obvious since he had seen her again in the church, that he took the opportunity and swore to himself he would propose as soon as their lips had parted. But his undying love and respect for her was in the reverence with which he released her hands, cupped her face, and, at last, unleashed all the passion he felt for her. All his self-control vanished when his lips touched hers. There was no gentleness, no hesitation in his mouth; he devoured her upper lip, sucked in her lower one, his hands holding her always closer to him, his body stiffening against her, revelling in her unmistaken response.
As soon as he had freed her hands, they had discovered their ideal place, behind his neck, and her fingers had begun their blind examination of his skull and his hair. But as agreeable as this may be, it compared not to the waves of pleasure created by his mouth on hers. Ignorant of what was expected of her, she followed his lead, letting him greedily enjoy her lips and enjoying his in kind. She shivered when she felt his tongue find its way between her lips but didn't push him away. She gave him the leave to discover her mouth, at first finding the sensation somewhat odd, then feeling some unusual stirrings inside - reminding her of what Jane had described; then, when he sought out her tongue and she started to play with him, she lost all rational thought as warmth spread in her whole body.
She strengthened her hold on his neck and instinctively his arms encircled her body, one hand resting on her waist, while the other cupped her nape. Some of his sense came back with his movement; he held her in his arms, at last, after all those weeks, when he had long ago decided she could not suit. He held her in his arms and she fitted perfectly, like no one else ever had, like no one else ever would. The memory of their first embrace in the Umberights' winter garden came back forcefully. Although she had then been barely conscious, it had made him understand his heart; now that she was participating beyond his most foolish hopes, he felt his heart explode, and a strangled cry came from his throat. He had to tell her he loved her, he had to tell her his life meant nothing without her. He released her mouth but she moaned and pulled him back to her. His body stiffened further and he knew he could not get enough of her. But he, a man of few words, could not remain silent in this occasion; some of the most important words of his life had to be said and he could not keep them inside any longer. He cupped her face once again, and, slowly and tenderly, he broke their kiss. Her hands slid slowly down his back to encircle his waist.
"Elizabeth, " he half panted, half whispered, " Dearest, Loveliest Elizabeth, I love you and I want you to be my wife." For a moment he was back in the greenhouse; everything, from their position to the scarce light reminded him of it. He replayed in truth what he had replayed in dream so many nights. He tenderly brushed his lips on her forehead; then he let them err along her nose and they ended, like they had ended five weeks and four days earlier, placing a more lingering kiss on her lips. "Marry me, Elizabeth. Please."
She opened her eyes, pure bliss obvious in the way she looked back at him. "I will, Sir. Nothing can make me happier than having you for my husband," she replied, her breathing still slightly erratic, her endearing smile on her swollen lips. "I love you." She tiptoed to shorten the distance between their mouths and he closed it, once again rediscovering the taste of her.
Now that their hearts had spoken, now that promises had been exchanged, the apologies, explanations, and forgiving that remained to be given could wait. He eagerly sought the same level of response she had given moments before, and he was gratified with the quick rising of her passion. His lips were as nibbled as hers were and the feeling of her hand sneaking between them and starting to play with his neckcloth very quickly and efficiently dissipated any remaining control he had. But he suddenly felt deprived as the so promising hand was now pushing him away - even if his clouded mind still detected that her other hand was all but releasing the grip she had on his waist.
"Sir," she managed to breathe before her mouth was taken again. "Please Mr. Darcy," she tried again while his lips started to wander on the side of her face. She took his mumble for an agreement, and, gathering her scrambled thoughts, she continued, "Please, let me tell you how ashamed I am for having distrusted you." Now, she had his attention; his mouth had stopped its lovemaking and he was looking earnestly at her. She hushed his reply with her index finger he immediately kissed. "I've been stupid enough to believe Mr. Wickham over you, and, I'll never have words enough to express the regret I feel for all the unhappiness I may have caused you. When I realised how wrong I had been, I could not wait to express my apologies, as awkward as this would be; and your leaving so suddenly distressed me greatly."
"Were I able to choose, I'd rather your distress came from your missing me..." he said, tender teasing obvious in his tone and in his smile.
"I wouldn't allow myself to miss you when I didn't deserve you."
"O, My Love, I was the one who didn't deserve the other." His hand traced the line of her jaw, "I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. 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 (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), 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, Miss Elizabeth Bennet! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled."
Elizabeth coloured, shame for her words in the Umberights' winter garden tightening her throat. "I abused you so abominably; will you ever forgive me?"
Mr. Darcy's surprise at hearing such a request only matched his own sense of unworthiness. "What did you say of me, that I did not deserve? For, though your accusations were ill-founded, 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."
"Mr. Darcy, we ought not to quarrel for the greater share of blame annexed to that evening," Elizabeth said, moved by the truthfulness in his voice. "The conduct of neither, if strictly examined, will be irreproachable; but since then, we have both, I hope, improved in civility." The irony of their situation was slowly making its way in Elizabeth's mind.
An almost unwilling smile came to his lips. "I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself. The recollection of my conduct, my manners, my expressions since we met at the assembly in Meryton, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me."
"You must learn some of my philosophy," she replied, playfulness back in her tone. "Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure. For instance, I will always look back fondly on the moments we spent here."
He raised his eyebrows, "'Fondly'? Shouldn't it be rather 'breathtakingly'? Or 'heavenly'?" He lowered his head and caught her giggle on her lips. "I will always remember this cellar as one of the most magical places," he whispered before once again creating extraordinary feelings in her.
When their mouths parted to breathe, she coyly remarked on his knowing other magical places. At first, he tried to ignore her remark by delicately tracing the lines of her mouth with his tongue. He thought for a moment he had succeeded, since she eagerly welcomed his attentions. But when he left her lips to wander in her neck, she insisted.
"You would not tell me what can compare to Netherfield's potato cellar?" she sighed more than uttered, her whole body shivering to the warmth of his breath bellow her ear.
He had never been able to feel guilt for the kisses he had stolen in the darkened winter-garden, but he was ashamed of his lack of remorse. Since, of course, he could not hide the truth to Elizabeth, replying made him somewhat ill-at-ease. He took hold of her face and replayed for the second time the dance of his mouth on her visage. Before she was able to protest, he asked her if this reminded her of something.
"Mr. Darcy, I don't understand."
"This!" he said as he kissed her once again, first on her forehead, then on the tip of her nose, and last on her lips.
She frowned as his words started to make sense. Then her eyes opened wide as unbelieving understanding dawned on her. "Did you really do it?"
He noticed first her using the word 'really' as if it were something she had had thoughts about, without calling it 'memory'; then he realised that her tone was not overly reproachful. Choosing carefully his words, he spent the next minutes in explaining how these stolen kisses had changed his life for the best and what role Bingley had played in this change.
That her new brother had played a crucial part in Mr. Darcy's and her reunion, she already knew; that he was so deeply involved in it, she discovered with no real astonishment. Charles was indeed deserving of Jane, their characters being so equally selfless.
After some moments of blissful recollections of what had led them to this point in the conversation, he pursuing the activity she had rudely interrupted - discovering the softness of her throat -, they heard some whistling coming their way. They had barely had time to take care of his rumpled cravat and her untidy hair than a candle light appeared in the doorway. The young lad who was holding it flushed immediately on seeing them and painfully mumbled some apologies.
"Beg your pardon, M'am. Being the wedding and all that, methinks not anyone'd be there..." he said, nervously manhandling his cap.
The poor boy's fright softened Elizabeth's embarrassment. "Don't worry..."
"Who are you, Lad?" asked Mr. Darcy in his Master of Pemberley's voice.
"Y...Young Ben, S... Sir" he stuttered.
She threw her newly betrothed a mildly reproachful look. "Well, Young Ben, since Mr. Bingley already sent us to check on his potato seedlings, it was not worth your coming! But I'm sure he'll be happy to know his seedlings will be under good care when he is away. You can go, now."
After an awkward bow, the boy disappeared in the corridor. Mr. Darcy took on a frightened air and begged her not to scold him too mercilessly. She replied that he would have to earn her forgiveness, to which order he willingly, efficiently and successfully complied. But both knew that they had to go back to the crowded dining-room, and they still had some details to take care of. It was decided that he would come and ask for her father's consent this very afternoon, that she would announce the news to her mother in privacy, that he would remain at the inn in Meryton for a few days until their wedding date was settled (in no more than a month time, in any case, but after Jane's and Mr. Bingley's return) and that they were the happiest couple in the world.
"Well, Sir, shall I tell Jane that she was right and that Netherfield's potato cellar is magic."
He chuckled, "I believe you can, she will have strong suspicions in any case. But Elizabeth," he said, stopping her just before they were about to leave the small entryway and go outside, "why are you being so formal with me? I wish you would not call me 'Mr. Darcy' or 'Sir'."
She smiled and swiftly tiptoed to place a peck his lips. "I've never heard anyone call you 'Fitzwilliam', but I shall if you wish. Or I could use 'My Love' if you consent to share the name with me."
The feeling of sheer ecstasy he felt on hearing her words made him throw all cautiousness to the wind and he kissed her hard, in view of anybody who'd care to look. After an undefined period of time, both regained enough sense of propriety to stop, and, eventually, to rejoin the wedding breakfast.
Later that night, Jane was lying on her new bed, with her new husband. "Oh Charles," she panted, "I never imagined that this could be so beautiful."
"My Love, I knew it not either," he replied, kissing her brow, trying to catch his breath as well. "You made it beautiful. I hope I caused you not too much pain."
She blushed and smiled. "We made it beautiful, and you made it possible with the never-ending patience you showed in the potato cellar. I'm sure it was very difficult for you to repress your instincts and I love you even more for it."
"I told you once that for our becoming man and wife, you deserved the softest sheets and the warmest fire, the most comfortable bed and the handsomest room, did I not? Well, I just held to this thought and took care to never be alone with you in a room that contained these elements."
She giggled, "Well, Mr. Bingley, since they are still there and we're still alone, may I fear some renewed attentions from you?"
"I've suspected for some weeks that you wouldn't be a very biddable wife, Mrs. Bingley, I see I'm sadly proven right!" he said in a mockingly disappointed tone while his whole body told her how delighted he was with her.
Now, now, where is she? A man cannot seek some privacy for a moment without immediately being abandoned by his wife. If only she had left me to fetch some more of this ale Bingley has been serving! But no, she's probably chatting and babbling with any available female...
Oh no! They're having a fat tummy meeting... Soon they will compare the size of their bellies. Maybe I could enter the competition as well... There's no chance I would win against Mrs. Collins, though; to be true, all of them could beat me easily... Mrs. Collins is an easy winner, I wonder why Collins let her make the fifty-mile trip. If she does not give birth on the way back, he may consider himself lucky! My Louisa is not so far behind, but I know why I let her make the trip from London. Had I not consented, I would not have had one moment of peace in the next three months at least... Amazing how a normally tiresome woman becomes barely bearable when she's expecting. As for Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy, 'tis hard to tell who is ahead but they're sure well into it as well. Now... Darcy got leg-shackled about a month after Bingley, didn't he? Eh, eh, eh! Either Mrs. Darcy has a very healthy appetite, or...
Ah! I see some commotion at the door; would they be starting to serve the food at last? I cannot expect a ragout, though... Why Bingley did have to invite all his tenants? Why did he have to invite us with his tenants? A potato harvest feast, I ask you! As if he didn't eat enough potatoes every day! I pity Netherfield's cook...
"Here come the potatoes," said Kitty in a fake disgusted tone. "I wonder what Cook invented this time. For that matter, I wonder how she manages to still invent dishes; Jane has had potatoes served at every meal since she got married..."
Georgiana giggled. "I know for sure Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Nicholls are frequent correspondents on this matter. I suppose our French cook would not agree to send his secrets to Netherfield's cook."
"Poor Georgia, I had forgotten you were subjected to this tubercle addiction far more frequently than I!"
"It's true that Pemberley's table is regularly adorned with potato-based dishes!" she replied impishly. "But Lizzy takes care to consult me on the menu, so I cannot complain. And I'm sure she shall also take your opinion into account when you're staying with us."
"I'm so happy I was invited! I cannot wait to discover Pemberley and the new vicar in Kyptom..." she wiggled her eyebrows.
Georgiana pinched her lips to prevent a very unladylike burst of laughter. "I'm so happy to have you with us too. I have so many things - and I said things - to show you. Pemberley at the end of the summer is so beautiful! Lizzy has not changed a room since she arrived; in fact, the only real change she's made so far is the renewal of the greenhouse. There are now so many palm trees in there that a Bedouin would probably feel at home!"
Kitty laughed, slightly amazed at her own ability to understand her friend's words; miraculous how following Georgiana's hints and venturing in her father's library had improved her mind... "Well, I bet she will soon renew the nursery as well. Are the Darcy babies usually fat or does she eat too much?"
"I was the last Darcy baby, Kitty, I cannot tell."
"I'm sorry Georgia, that was a very unfeeling question."
"It's alright, Kitty, don't make yourself uneasy," she said earnestly, patting her friend's arm.
"Do you know where Mr. Darcy is? He's not with Lizzy..."
"And that is most surprising news!" Georgiana replied, realising with her words how her sister's behaviour had changed her.
After they had been served, had tasted and enjoyed the Hachis Parmentier (a recipe condescendingly given by Monsieur Brisson to Mrs. Simmons), Kitty turned towards her friend and whispered to her, "Tell me more about the new vicar, is he handsome? Can he compare with an officer?"
Well, I cannot say I didn't like it, but will Jane ever stop serving potatoes? I don't know what happened in this potato cellar, but it must be unforgettable... Hopefully Mrs. Bennet will not start this habit! I shall have to have a word with Cook so that she pretends some oven difficulties in case it should happen.
Darcy should have done this with his French cook, but from what Kitty told us, 'tis too late! Unless he enjoys it... Maybe they also... No! When could have they been there? Bingley and Jane left the day after their wedding and he was staying at the Inn... Even though, I should have been more inquisitive when he asked for my consent. Not that I did not have a good time as it is! Eh, eh, eh! I shall never forget his frightful expression when I asked him when he'd rather have Mrs. Bennet with them at Pemberley. But he caught me unaware with his formal apology for his former conduct and his vows of love towards Lizzy. That he loved her, I already suspected; that he would humble himself in front of me and express his regrets for his objectionable behaviour, I wouldn't have thought possible. And I owe him an even more powerful shout from my dear wife... I would really have liked to be there when Lizzy told her of her conquest!
Oh, oh! Bingley is back and stands in front of us all. Here comes the most expected speech about how happy he is to have us all with him.
I like these sons in law I have. And to know that a year ago, nobody in Hertfordshire knew they existed! 'Veni, Vidi, Vicci' could be their motto. They fell quick and hard for these daughters of mine; look at the adoring light in their eyes when they look at my daughters, and how these ladies who so willingly abandoned their father look back to them in kind. I don't think I ever looked at Francine this way; for that matter, I don't think she ever looked at me this way either... But how can I regret marrying her when she gave me such wonderful girls? And when those girls are about to make a grandfather of old and selfish me?
Yes Bingley, we are very happy to be here too and I'm sure some of my daughters are ready for a dance! Now, if you could tell us where we can taste some more of this ale. This August day is dreadfully warm... Come on, Man... Thank G-d! A toast for the potatoes!!! "Long live the potatoes!"
© 2002, 2003 Copyright held by the author.