Posted on Friday, 1 October 2004
Riding home, Fitzwilliam Darcy was the happiest and most frustrated of men. After having given up all hope of ever changing Elizabeth’s opinion of him, he had spent this past glorious and unnerving week unsure of her feelings for him, only to be blessed with her affection and her hand within the span of a single day!. He wanted to shout his happiness from the rooftops!
But, of course, he had promised to keep their engagement secret! Engaged for only ten minutes and hen-pecked already! he mused. How did she get me to agree to this ridiculous scheme so quickly and easily? He chuckled, shaking his head and smiling to himself. In truth, he knew he would always wish to do anything and everything to please her, but hopefully, this would be one of the most difficult requests she would ever make of him. He sat back, parted the curtains that had been so carefully closed to ensure their privacy and opened the small window to allow the cool morning air to revive him. He felt slightly light-headed and warm, and knew his color must be high. Breathe deeply, man! These are going to be three very long months!
But at least he could confide in the one person to whom this news would matter most – Georgiana! How happy she would be for him – and for herself, as well. He knew that she had taken an instant liking to Elizabeth and had soon come to hope that she would become a member of their family. He would surprise Georgie with the good news at breakfast and … Wait, no. That would be impossible! There would be footman and other servants about. He would have to order his breakfast served in the library and ask her to join him there.
Wishing to avoid any gossip among his staff, he had James drop him off at the side door of the east wing, which was always quiet at this time of the morning. Perhaps he could sneak upstairs with only his valet being aware that he had already been out of the house. He would then change into more casual clothes and order breakfast, before seeking out his sister.
“See to it that the carriage is cleaned out before bringing it into the coach house, James, and please dispose of the flowers where no one will recognize you. I want no evidence of this discovered,” he said, as he left the carriage. He carefully and quietly inserted the key in the lock and let himself into the house.
James tied up the team and hurried off to the stables to find some old feed sacks in which to put the flowers before carting them away. But as luck would have it, one of the young stable hands passed by on his way back from an errand and seeing his master’s coach parked in such an unusual place, peered inside the open window. His mouth gaped open and in a moment he was in the kitchen, whispering the astonishing and delicious news to his sweetheart. The two of them flew out the door so quickly that several of the cook’s assistants followed them to see what all the excitement was all about. Before long, the entire Darcy household was laughing, sighing and speculating over the flowered coach. Chambermaids were elbowing one another in order to get a better look, while footmen and stable hands chuckled knowingly and poked each other in the ribs. There were gasps and whispers and envious sighs!
James returned to find the coach overrun by exuberant servants, who immediately pounced on him to divulge all he knew of the romantic encounter. They were already sure of the lady’s identity! It must be Martha’s protégé from the market! But where was the rendezvous, and what was she wearing, and how did she look, but most importantly, DID SHE ACCEPT HIM? !!!
James was horrified! This display could cost him his post! – a post he had held and truly loved for the past twelve years! He venerated and adored his master.
“Get off this coach and get back to work, all of you!” he shouted. “There is nothing more to see here, and I will tell you absolutely nothing, as well you know!” His face was red and swollen with his fury! “And should any of you consider me a friend, I’ll thank you to think of what will happen to me if the master finds out about this! Now get back to the house and hold your tongues!”
Georgiana Darcy had come down to breakfast later than usual, and not finding any evidence of her brother having already eaten, assumed that he was sleeping in. I suppose you are happily dreaming of Elizabeth, Fitzwilliam.” she thought happily as she went to the sideboard and prepared her plate. She found it odd that Spenser was not around to pour her coffee, but she just shrugged and got up to get it herself. When she felt that the pot was cold, she rang for a fresh one, and noticed that none of the footmen where at their posts. No one answered the bell. She swung open the door that led to the butler’s pantry and called out his name. Again, all was quiet.
She began to wander from room to room, calling for one servant or another and to her amazement the house was virtually empty. She walked more quickly now, a sudden panic gripping her, searching the entire lower floor – pantries, closets and hallways, until passing a window in the east wing, she saw her entire household huddled around the carriage. Her first thought was that someone had gotten hurt in an accident, Dear G-d, Fitzwilliam! and she raced out to see what was the matter.
Everyone was talking at once, but the sounds coming from the group were not somber or fretful. Indeed, people were laughing and joking, and now James was shouting at them to get back to work. She saw his furious glare and watched as everyone suddenly turned back toward the house. That was when they saw her and froze.
“Is everything all right, James?” she asked hesitantly, keenly aware that there were things that servants could not share with a master or mistress.
“Yes, Milady, I was just about to put the carriage away,” he said, looking rather terrified.
The small sea of servants parted as she moved closer, and she nodded to them as they slowly passed her with their eyes cast down. A tiny voice inside her told her not to look, to leave well enough alone, but her curiosity got the better of her and she approached the open carriage. Her eyes widened as the spectacular display of blooms came into view. She gasped and stood mesmerized at the enchanting sight. Her eyes fell on the white cushions on the seat and she saw that they had already been sat on. Her heart leaped at the thought.
“Have you brought my brother home, James? Is he in the house?” she asked anxiously.
“Yes, Miss Darcy,” said James, in a soft and somber tone, not at all certain that he had been right to divulge that information.
She struggled to school her features, nodded to him and ran into the house to find Fitzwilliam. Surely Elizabeth could not have refused him? But then why had he not come to tell her the happy news directly instead of sneaking into the house and cloistering himself in his rooms? Had Elizabeth accepted him, would he not have accompanied her home to the Gardiners’ to take pleasure in all the excitement and accept their congratulations? He heart sank. Gripped with fear and compassion she mounted the stairs to share in her brother’s pain.
She knocked on the library door and hearing no reply, gently turned the knob to peek inside. There at his desk sat Fitzwilliam, eagerly bringing a corner of toast dipped in soft-boiled egg to his mouth. He looked up at her, and suddenly grinning broadly, rose from the chair. As he did so, a bit of yolk dripped on his chin and he chuckled softly as he reached for his napkin to wipe it away.
“Forgive me for not breakfasting with you this morning, Georgie. I … I have had an eventful morning and was starving when I came home. Have you eaten? Would you like another cup of coffee?” he asked in a bright and easy manner. He pulled out a chair for her and bade her sit.
“Yes, I’d love a cup, thank you,” she said with a smile, trying to hide her confusion. “So you were out very early?”
“Yes,” he said taking her hand and looking meaningfully into her eyes, his face aglow, his eyes sparkling.
“I have truly wonderful news, Georgie. Elizabeth has accepted me! She is to be your sister and miraculously….my wife!”
He watched her countenance change as the meaning his words took hold of her. She flew into his arms, weeping for joy and hugging him so tightly that he had to laugh and marvel at her strength.
“Oh Fitzwilliam, I’m so happy! When I saw the carriage and heard that you had….”
“Saw the carriage?” he repeated, before she could finish. “You saw the carriage? How did you even know where it was? I asked James to take it away and clean it out before….” He stopped and looked at her apprehensively. “Georgie, have any of the servants seen it?”
Georgiana nodded and lowered her eyes. “All of them,” she whispered.
“All of them? What was James doing, selling tickets?” he shouted. “I told him to take that carriage to a secluded spot and instead he…”
“No, no! He was desperately trying to keep them away and sent them back to work immediately. But I’m afraid it was too late. They were all so pleased for you, Fitzwilliam – you know how much they care about your happiness. Please don’t be angry! You’ll spoil this happy day for yourself and for them. All they want is to wish you joy.”
“Well, I’m afraid they will have to be disappointed,” said Darcy pacing the room in agitation. “Dear G-d, the rumors will be all over London!”
“Why would they be disappointed with such wonderful news?
“Georgiana, we must keep this engagement secret for the next three months! I have promised Elizabeth. The servants will have to believe that she rejected me until then. There is nothing else to be done.”
“But why on earth would she wish to keep it secret, Fitzwilliam? I don’t understand!”
“It is a long story, Sweetness, and it has to do with my selfishness, Charles and Elizabeth’s sister Jane………”
He had made a luncheon appointment with Bingley a few days earlier that he now wished to cancel, but Charles had sounded so eager to get together and had even asked him to keep the entire afternoon open for some mysterious outing. He could not disappoint him, but longed to be with Elizabeth, of course – even if it meant sitting in the Gardiner parlor making polite conversation.
He now leaned back in his chair to allow the wait-staff to clear away the fish course and said, “Charles, in the name of heaven, are you ever going to tell me what all this is about? Why are you prolonging the mystery? … I assume it has nothing to do with Jane Bennet, or you would not be able to contain yourself!”
“No, no. Unfortunately, Jane does not figure into any of this – not yet, anyway. And I’m not being deliberately mysterious! I just want us to have a bit of privacy,” he said, nodding his head toward the servers bustling about as they brought the main course to the table. When they had finally gone, Charles drew himself up in his seat and began.
“I have done something quite out of character, Darcy. I have made a momentous decision and have acted upon it. And I’ve asked you here today to tell you about it and to ask you to help me with the final plans.”
“Well….? What is it, man? Don’t leave me hanging!”
“I’ll get to the particulars in just a moment, but first, I believe a little background information is in order. Darcy, as you might well imagine, Jane’s rejection and reproofs have forced me to do some serious thinking about my life. And when I reflect on what I have done with myself these past few years – with my time and my wealth, I am truly appalled. I have done nothing more than chase an illusive dream of becoming a “gentleman”, of being accepted by members of a society that, well, … let’s be honest, consider me “new money”, naïve, and perhaps even a little ridiculous.”
“Bingley you are wrong,” Darcy began, but his friend cut him short.
“No, I am right and you know it, but are too good a friend to admit it. Darcy, you and Georgiana are the only members of the ton that have truly accepted me – no matter how many invitations you have managed to procure for me. I have no life within the ton … and no matter how much my sisters would like to believe that they enjoy a place in that society, I know that I do not. Nor do I desire it. Besides you, all my friends and acquaintances are part of another class. It is there that I am accepted for who I really am.”
“But what does all this signify, Charles? One doesn’t simply decide to be part of one class or another – one simply is,” said Darcy.
“Yes, but what one does has a great deal to do with the way one is perceived in the world. And I am done with playing at being a “gentleman.” It doesn’t suit me, Darcy. It doesn’t fit who I am.”
“Charles, whatever are you talking about? You haven’t played at being anything; you are a gentleman!” said Darcy.
“Perhaps in one sense, but not in the true sense of the word. I was not born to a noble landed or aristocratic family. I have no large estate with tenants and servants dependant on me for their well-being.”
“Darcy, you have enormous responsibilities and an equal amount of work with Pemberley - and even much of Lambton relies on you for its livelihood. You may fish and hunt, come to London for amusement and such, but you always have more serious things pressing on you. I have only my investments to look after, and most of that work is done by my solicitor. Like any man, I enjoy some sport now and then, but Darcy, it simply isn’t enough! A man has to have a reason to get up in the morning.”
Here he sighed and contemplated his untouched plate before looking up again and saying, “I am not making excuses for myself, Darcy, but it has occurred to me that perhaps I was so inept at making that crucial decision because I have had so little practice in making important decisions of any kind. The biggest decisions I make in the course of a day are what color coat to wear, what to do for my amusement and what to have for dinner! It will not do, Darcy! I must make a more meaningful life for myself ….whether it includes Jane or not,” he added sadly. “I must change, and I have made a start,” he now said rather proudly. “I am going into business with a number of metalwork artisans and I am opening a shop – a warehouse, actually. The deal has been struck and the papers signed. And for what its worth, Mr. Gardiner has overseen everything and thinks it is an excellent investment.”
Darcy sat back dumfounded.
“Those furrows in your brow tell me you don’t approve, Darcy. I’m sorry. I had hoped …”
“Not at all, Charles. I wholeheartedly approve! I am just astounded by everything that I have just heard! Especially all that you have already accomplished in just a week’s time!”
“Well, I suppose this idea has been brewing in my mind for some time now, but I never dared to act on it for fear of upsetting my sisters and loosing my place in society,” said Bingley, his face brightening at his friend’s genuine interest.
“You see, some three years ago, I made a small investment in an artist from Birmingham who needed the capital to open a showroom here in London. His business has been an enormous success and he is now in desperate need of a larger space. I approached him with the idea of opening a shop that would be a showcase for several artisans – men who work in the same medium but who would not really compete with one another. Mr. Corning fashions beautifully ornate, Rococo style gates, balconies and the like, while each of my other tenants work in a completely different style.”
“I have four metal craftsmen as tenants so far, and I will receive a monthly rent and percentage of their profits. Since my initial investment is quite large, my percentage will be fifty percent for the first two years and then will gradually decrease until it reaches twenty percent. Mr. Gardiner insisted on that, but in truth, I care little about the money. But I am terribly excited about giving these people a place to display their talents and thereby providing more work for them, their assistants, apprentices and a host of support people. It will give me a sense of usefulness within my society. I’ll be managing the showroom, dealing with customers, organizing deliveries and installations. It should keep me very, very busy!” he laughed.
“Indeed,” said Darcy, “you’ll have precious little leisure time, Charles.”
“To be sure, for the first year or two, but by then I hope to have trained some trusted people so well that I would not be required to be at the shop each and every day, and could take a nice holiday now and then,” said Bingley.
“Forgive me for asking this, Charles. But have you considered the possibility that Jane may not approve of your new identity.”
“Believe me, I have thought long and hard on it. But the truth is that I have no guarantee that Jane will ever forgive me and consent to be my wife. And if I am to trust my own instincts, I must say that I believe Jane would be as happy to be married to a man in trade as to a gentleman. I don’t think my station in life is very important to her and I can only pray that my instincts will be proved right one day.”
“Let’s drink to that Charles,” said Darcy, lifting his glass. “A toast to your new venture and to Miss Bennet’s admiration of your courage and determination!”
“Thank you, old friend! I knew I could count on your support. To Miss Bennet then! Cheers!”
“Now what have you got to show me this afternoon,” asked Darcy, returning to his meal.
“I wish you to see the two warehouses I am considering. Given that I need a very large space, I have only been able to find available warehouses in less elegant neighborhoods. The rents on such spaces in the heart of town would be exorbitant – besides, there are none available. As a full-fledged member of the ton, I wish your opinion on which neighborhood is less objectionable. My clientele, by the every nature of the product, will be a wealthy group, and I know that location will be an important factor.”
“Well, then I suppose we should finish and get to it,” said Darcy, raising his glass to his friend again. He smiled. Whether she marries you or not, my friend, she will be the making of you! he thought.
It was a little passed seven when he finally arrived home and his immediate thoughts were of his neglect of Elizabeth that afternoon. What must she be thinking? Not to have paid a visit on such a momentous day was insupportable! He debated getting back into the carriage and heading for the Gardiners’ even now, but he knew it would be suspect. As an engaged man, he would be welcomed at almost any time. But as a mere friend and admirer, he had to follow proper social etiquette.
They were all probably involved in feeding the children now and getting Constance ready bed. He pictured Elizabeth reading to John or helping him with his schoolwork. It was not a time to visit.
Perhaps he should send her a message explaining the situation? Georgiana could address the letter and ….. No, in such a full and active household it would be only too easy for something to go wrong. Connie might pull the letter out of her hand or…. No, he should not risk it! He would explain tomorrow and Elizabeth would understand. She was too generous and sensible to be angry.
He closed his eyes and massaged his temples. What a day it had been! What a marvelous and miraculous day! Elizabeth was his and Charles was transforming himself before his very eyes. And he, still had some twenty pieces of business correspondence to attend to. Well, not tonight! He would have a light supper with Georgie and tell her all about Bingley’s new enterprise. At least that, could be discussed openly in front of the servants.
They knew it was a bit early to call, but they could restrain themselves no longer. Georgiana knocked, as Fitzwilliam’s hands were full of gifts for the family.
Mrs. Gardiner opened the door and eagerly invited them in. There was a smile on her lips, but her eyes hinted at some uneasiness. Darcy immediately sensed her anxiety and stiffened.
“I hope we have not arrived too early, Mrs. Gardiner, but we were wondering if your nieces would like to join us in stroll through Monument Park. It’s a mild and lovely morning,” said Georgiana when her brother remained mute.
“Oh, do come and sit down and allow me to tell you again how much we enjoyed your company the other night,” said Mrs. Gardiner, wishing to delay her unpleasant task. She led them into the parlor and when they were seated, looked up at Darcy compassionately.
“I’m afraid my nieces are no longer here, Miss Darcy, Mr. Darcy. Their father came to fetch them yesterday afternoon and they have left for home early this morning. They were both very distressed at not having had the opportunity to say good-bye to you.”
Brother and sister simply stared at her.
Georgiana recovered first. “Oh, I am sure that he missed them very much. I can well understand that he wanted to have them home again.” She looked down at the gloves on her lap, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes, he had written a few days ago to hurry their return, but then decided to come and accompany them home himself.”
“Yes, I think that was very wise,” said Darcy, finally having found his voice. “ I am glad to hear that they will not be traveling alone. One never knows who one might meet traveling by post,” he said both in jest and with all seriousness. “Well, we shall not take up any more of your time, Mrs. Gardiner. I am sure we have interrupted your morning routine. Please accept these gifts for the children and the….um …flowers. And give my regards to your husband, if you will.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Darcy, and …oh, wait,” she said, retrieving a letter from the credenza, “my niece Elizabeth left this note for you, Miss Darcy. She was most anxious for you get it.” She smiled at them both and saw them to the door.
They walked as calmly as possible down the stairs and entered the carriage. Even before they were seated, Georgiana handed the unopened letter to her brother. He took it appreciatively and ripped it open, reading only the salutation before allowing his head to fall back on the seat cushion and closing his eyes.
“My Darling Fitzwilliam,” was all he had needed to see.
“One would think that I was inflicting the greatest punishment by bringing you girls home,” said Mr. Bennet, eyeing his two eldest daughters with concern. They had been on the road for almost two hours, and despite his best efforts, he had not been able to engage either one of them in a meaningful conversation. They would respond to his questions with one or two word answers before turning their attention, once again, to the passing scenery. He knew them well enough to know that he had interrupted something of great significance.
“Oh of course not, Papa,” said Elizabeth, reaching for his hand. “We are both still very tired, that is all. We were out very late on Wednesday night, as you know. We were at the Darcy’s for several hours after the opera.”
He nodded and smiled at her, not believing a word she was saying, but knowing enough to have her believe that he did.
“That must have been a tediously long ride for you to endure in the company of Mr. Darcy, Lizzy. How irritated you must have been to be subjected to his haughty demeanor all the way to London. I’m surprised you then introduced him to the Gardiner’s and prolonged the acquaintance.”
“He was actually quite civil and entertaining, Papa. He was very much the gentleman and rather solicitous and protective of me. I found myself grateful to be his company,” said Elizabeth with as unaffected an air as she could manage.
“Indeed,” replied her father, his eyebrows raised. “So the infamous Mr. Darcy has managed to worm his way into your heart, has he? Well, will wonders never cease!”
“Please do not tease me, Papa,” said Elizabeth, “But yes, I will admit that as I got to know him better I began to see aspects of his personality that I had not seen before. He is a very good man, Papa. I was very wrong to judge him so harshly.”
This was far more serious a declaration than Mr. Bennet had ever expected to hear - nor did the color of his daughter’s cheeks escape his notice. He had a sinking feeling that he was no longer the principle man in his dear Lizzy’s life. Was this what all the brooding was about?
He turned to look his eldest daughter who seemed even more quiet and pensive than usual. Where there is a Mr. Darcy, there is usually a Mr. Bingley not far behind, he realized, and decided to take the direct approach. “And I assume that you were then thrown into the company of his friend, Mr. Bingley, my dear,” he said in the most tender of tones. “I hope he did nothing to further hurt you, Jane.”
“No, Papa,” she responded hastily. “Like Mr. Darcy, he was very kind and solicitous. But I saw very little of him anyway.”
“Ah…,” said Mr. Bennet, understanding far more from this simple remark then his daughter would have imagined.
“Well I suppose it would be best to tell your mama as little as possible of your dealings with these two gentlemen. Am I right?”
“Oh yes, Papa,” said Jane, gratefully. “It is not that I wish to keep secrets from her, but ….. I’m afraid she may read more into the these casual meetings than is really there and…..”
“There is no need to justify your feelings my dear. I believe the three of us understand each other,” said her father, patting her hand.
“Yes,” nodded Elizabeth, “sometimes secrecy is for the best. She then turned and stared out her window.
Jane squeezed her father’s hand and turned her head away as well. She was enveloped in misery. Her heart had been slowly and painfully inching its way back to Charles and she was sure that if he continued to persevere in his attentions to her she would not be able to resist him. She did, after all, love him so very much! There had never been any question of that. But now, with this distance between them, would he continue to try? Would he have the courage to pursue her all the way back to Hertfordshire? Or had she ruined her own chances of ever being truly happy?
Posted on Thursday, 7 October 2004
“Sister, sister! Have you heard the news? Mr. Bingley is in town and everyone is talking of it!” cried Mrs. Phillips as she bustled into the drawing room where the ladies were all assembled and occupied with their needlework.
Jane startled, then froze, while her sister shook her head and asked, “Are you sure, aunt Phillips? For I was walking about the Netherfield grounds just this morning, and there wasn’t a soul stirring about that great estate.”
“I saw him in Meryton myself! He was just coming out of the solicitor’s office and his friend – you know, that tall gentleman who was once so rude to you, Lizzy – was with him.”
Elizabeth’s lips quivered as she tried to maintain some semblance of composure before her mother and her aunt. She and Jane had been home for four days and although she had been sure that her beloved Fitzwilliam would figure out a way to visit her before long, she had never dreamt that he would manage it so quickly! She bit her lower lip to keep from smiling and reached across the table to squeeze her sister’s hand.
“Well, Jane, perhaps he has come back for you after all,” said her mother, now fluttering about the room in great excitement. “We shall know for sure if he calls on us before the day is out! Go up and change into your blue gown,” she ordered, and for once, Jane was only too happy to oblige her. She rose from her chair, her eyes pleading with Elizabeth to join her.
“I think it would be best for me to change as well,” said Elizabeth, putting her embroidery on the table. She had taken only a few steps toward her sister when her mother stopped her, saying, “Stay where you are, Lizzy! There is no need for you to change. No one is coming to see you. You’ll do perfectly well as you are. In fact your untidy appearance will help to put your sister in a better light.”
“But Mama, I became overheated on my walk to Netherfield this morning and was splattered with mud as well. Please let me go! It will not do for me to be seen like this, even if none of the gentleman has come to see me. It brings little credit to our family to have me looking disheveled before guests,” she said in the hope of persuading her.
“You’ve never let that bother you before Elizabeth Bennet – traipsing about the countryside with your windblown hair and you muddied skirts – completely unfit to be seen by anyone!” Her mother continued on in this vain for some time, and before she could finish her tirade, Mrs. Hill came in to announce the arrival of said gentlemen. The ladies rose and nervously waited for them to enter.
“Mr. Bingley! How very good of you to come and see us. We just heard of your arrival in town and were so happy to learn that you had finally returned to Netherfield. Please do come and sit down,” said Mrs. Bennet. “I believe you met my sister, Mrs. Phillips, in town earlier today?”
“Mr. Bingley appeared confused as he stared at the lady presented to him, but decided that it was best to be agreeable. “Yes, of course, Mrs. Phillips, how do you do. And you must remember my friend, Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet. He has been so good as to accompany me here on this trip.”
Mr. Darcy stepped forward and bowed to all the ladies, making certain that his gaze did not remain on Elizabeth for too long. He smiled respectfully at Mrs. Bennet, but saved his warmest smile for Jane.
Mrs. Bennet raised her chin and gave him a curt, “You are welcome too, Mr. Darcy,” to Elizabeth’s mortification. Her eyes darted to his apologetically, but he reassured her with his tender smile.
“Mrs. Bennet,” said Bingley, “I’ve come here directly from Meryton because I wanted your family to hear this news from me rather than from gossiping neighbors. You have always been exceedingly kind to me and I felt it only right that I tell you myself.” He looked anxiously at Jane.
“I have given up my lease on Netherfield and will be returning to London in the morning. It saddens me to leave such a warm and welcoming neighborhood where I’ve made so many friends, but there are complex reasons why I must do so.” He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “But I truly hope this will not be good-bye,” he said, casting another longing glance her way, “for I hope you will allow me to visit whenever I happen to be in the neighborhood.”
The room fell silent and all the ladies stared.
“Mr. Bingley!” cried Mrs. Bennet, “Surely you are jesting! You cannot possibly mean to abandon your home here with us. I know first hand how much you love the country – the shooting, the riding, the country dances!”
“You are quite right, Mrs. Bennet, I do love all those things, but I now find that I must spend more time in London, and Hertfordshire is simply too far away to be convenient. Believe me, it pains me deeply when I think of the happy times I’ve spent here, … but the change is necessary, I’m afraid.” He now unashamedly looked toward Jane, hoping to catch her eye. But she had bent her head and was keeping her eyes on her lap.
“So you have not opened Netherfield at all this trip?” asked Elizabeth, grasping for something to say.
“No, Miss Bennet, we are staying at the Red Lyon for the night and will get an early start back in the morning. The furnishings will be packed up and brought to London over the next month or so, but Darcy and I will stop at the house shortly to pick up a few of my personal things. I was hoping that you ladies might honor us with your company for a walk before we go. It is a little chilly, but not too bad, and the sun is out.”
Elizabeth suddenly sat up straighter and eagerly looked to Jane for her approval of the plan. But Mrs. Bennet, who saw this as her last opportunity to advance her daughter’s relationship with Mr. Bingley, had more than a little walk in mind.
“You will remember Mr. Bingley, that you promised to come to dinner just before you left for London, and I believe tonight would be a perfect time for you to fulfill your obligation. I cannot imagine that you are already engaged for dinner, and having your last meal in Hertfordshire alone at the Inn will never do! Come and dine with us this evening. Mr. Bennet will be most honored and happy to have you.”
Bingley smiled uneasily and glanced towards Jane to determine her feelings, and thankfully, this time, she looked up and gave him the little smile he was hoping for.
“I’d be most happy to accept for myself and my friend Mrs. Bennet, thank you.” He grinned at Darcy, who nodded approvingly, but then added, “But I hope that would not prevent us from walking out a bit just now while the sun is still high. I’m sure it will get much colder as the afternoon wears on.” Elizabeth recognized the panicked look in his eyes and smiled to herself.
“No, no, Mr. Darcy, now that we are expecting such fine guests for dinner, my daughters will be needed at home to get ready for the occasion. They do not enter the kitchen, of course, but there is always so much to do in planning a little dinner party, you know.” She giggled and twittered in delight.
Elizabeth closed her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh. Darcy stiffened.
Charles Bingley turned to his friend and murmured, “Well, I suppose we should be on our way then. But please don’t go to any extra trouble on our account,” he said, looking back at the ladies. “We will be very pleased just to be in your company.”
That kind remark received an even warmer smile from Jane, who now suggested to her sister that they see the gentleman out. This time, at least, Mrs. Bennet was wise enough to let them go.
“Elizabeth,” muttered Darcy, as he pretended to tighten the straps of his saddle while she stood beside him, “ It will be a miracle if I do not strangle your mother before we are married – not for her treatment of me, but for the way she treats you and your sisters! It curls the hairs on the back of my neck.”
“I’ve noticed,” laughed Elizabeth. “But you are so good to put up with her disrespect, Fitzwilliam – you must know how it pains me to hear it,” she now said more seriously.
“And I will not have you distressed for one moment because of it. I assure you, Elizabeth, it rolls off my back like water. I am sensible of the fact that I deserve her anger. I insulted her daughter, after all, and I’ve done nothing to endear myself to anyone here.”
“Save one,” said Elizabeth with a teasing grin.
“Yes, thank G-d, save one,” said Darcy tenderly. His eyes suddenly darted to Bingley and Jane speaking softly just a few feet away, and then to the lower and upper windows of the house. And without any warning bent down to kiss her brow, just above the bridge of her nose. He lingered there for a moment and when he drew back, Elizabeth, who couldn't bear to be separated from him, leaned forward. She stumbled, falling against his chest. He caught her and they both looked up anxiously to see if they had been caught.
But Bingley and Jane only had eyes for one another.
“It was very thoughtful of you to tell us of your plans to quit Netherfield yourself, Mr. Bingley. There will be many in the neighborhood who will be saddened to hear the news.”
He looked at her longingly. There was so much that he wanted to say, but she had just given him the first sign of hope and he was momentarily content to bask in the glow of her eyes. How good it felt to have her looking at him again! He would not destroy his chances by assuming too much, too soon – but there were things that he needed to tell her.
“You must know, Miss Bennet, that I care only about one person’s feelings on the subject. I didn’t want you to see my leaving Netherfield as a resolve to end our friendship. Quite the opposite, … I have taken your words to heart and I am trying to make some positive changes.” Jane blushed and looked away. He now continued in a more animated fashion in an effort to capture her eyes again. “And thank you for making it so comfortable for us to accept your mother’s dinner invitation. I am so pleased to be in your company and I know Mr. Darcy is very anxious to spend some time with your sister. It is good to see how they have resolved their differences and strengthened their friendship, is it not?”
“Yes,” she murmured, as they both turned to look them. Darcy had just mounted his horse and was reining him in as he continued his conversation with Elizabeth, when she suddenly, and quite unconsciously, took his free hand and pressed it. The gesture took less than a second, but its intimacy was undeniable. Bingley now looked more carefully at his friend’s face and saw an expression there he had rarely seen – genuine contentment.
“Miss Bennet, has your sister told you anything concerning her relationship with my friend?” asked Bingley as he continued to stare at the happy couple. But then realizing his impertinence, he added quickly, “Please forgive me, Miss Bennet. That was indeed a rude question for me to ask. I would not have you betray a confidence and it is simply none of my business.”
“It is quite all right, Mr. Bingley. I would certainly not betray my sister’s confidence, … but no, I have no knowledge of any change in their relationship,” said Jane. But the image of the intimacy she had seen between them in Darcy’s foyer came to mind and now that she was witnessing this tender scene, she knew that Bingley’s instincts were correct. It was clear to anyone who cared to look, that Elizabeth and Darcy had come to an understanding.
They both blushed, turned away and said nothing.
“Well, I look forward to seeing you later at dinner, Miss Bennet. Good-bye,” said Bingley, fumbling with the reins as he mounted his steed. She nodded and returned his smile.
“Are you ready, Darcy?” he called, and the two gentlemen tipped their hats and rode away.
Once the gentlemen had gone, Mrs. Bennet kept her daughters busy choosing the proper table linens, arranging flowers and even polishing silver, as Mrs. Hill and the other maids had plenty to do in preparing the elaborate feast she now demanded of them. Jane seemed sullen and lost in her own thoughts as she worked, and Elizabeth attributed this to her mixed emotions concerning Mr. Bingley. But when Elizabeth discovered a yellow stain on one of the tablecloths and returned to the linen closet to fetch another, her sister followed her in and shut the door behind them. Despite the rather dim light in the small space, Elizabeth could clearly see her sister’s angry glare.
“Lizzy Bennet!” she said accusingly, and waited for her sister’s response.
Elizabeth pursed her lips and looked nervously down at the floor for a moment. She then looked up at her sister’s face again to confirm her suspicions and whispered, “So you saw the kiss then.”
“The kiss? I saw no such thing! But I am not blind!” said Jane, tears now welling in her eyes.
“Jane,” began Elizabeth, trying to embrace her sister, “Please don’t be angry.”
Jane backed away, folded her arms and asked with restrained emotion. “And when, pray tell, were you going to inform me of the happy news? …. When you thought I was strong enough to hear it?” Her tears now flowed freely down her cheeks.
“I did think it was best to wait a little, Jane. I love you so dearly and I…”
“And you didn’t think that I would be happy for you – my most beloved sister? You didn’t think I could put aside my own feelings to rejoice with you? Oh, Lizzy! That is what hurts most of all. The thought that I appeared so fragile that you would deny yourself and Darcy the joy of telling aunt and uncle Gardiner of your engagement is appalling. And now poor Mr. Darcy has to come back to Longbourn under some pretense just to see you! Oh Lizzy, what must he think of me? What a pitiful creature he is inheriting for a sister!”
“Jane, you cannot be more mistaken! Mr. Darcy echoed your very words when he tried to persuade me to tell you…” She suddenly realized that what she had just admitted was the last thing that Jane needed to hear, and threw her arms around her sister’s neck and pleaded, “Forgive me, Jane. I was wrong not to tell you, not to trust in your strength – for there was never any doubt of your being happy for me! Please forgive me!”
Jane hugged her sister tightly to her and kissed her. “I am absolutely overjoyed for you, Lizzy….when I am not too busy being furious with you!” They both laughed and took great comfort in each other’s embrace.
“And of course, you haven’t allowed Mr. Darcy to speak to father yet, have you?” scolded Jane. “Well we shall have to remedy that immediately,” she declared at her sister’s guilty look. “Early in the evening you must get word to your Mr. Darcy that he is at liberty to ask for your hand. We can’t have him going back to London empty handed, now can we?” she giggled.
“Oh Jane, it will make him so happy! But I think you should be the one to tell him. Will you?”
“Do you think that will put me back in his good graces?” teased Jane.
“It will definitely make you his favorite sister in law!” laughed Elizabeth, and they hugged each other once more.
When the gentlemen arrived, Longbourn shone and sparkled as never before. The silver and crystal caught the candlelight and reflected the soft glow about the rooms. Wonderful smells permeated the house, and all the Longbourn ladies looked exceedingly well. More importantly, there was a gleam in Elizabeth’s fine eyes that was startling. Something had changed and Darcy knew it. All his senses were alive with anticipation.
Mr. Bennet greeted the young men with a measured smile and a quizzical eye. So these were the gentlemen who would one day deprive him of his precious daughters. The thought of losing them was too painful to ponder, but he nevertheless invited these young thieves to sit and offered them a glass of wine.
The evening began with light and pleasant conversation concerning the mild weather, the newest comings and goings of mutual acquaintances and the recent amusements that had been enjoyed in London. Both gentlemen made a great effort to be affable, so that even Kitty and Mary were swept into the conversation, despite their reticence. Jane did her best to be responsive to Mr. Bingley without appearing too eager. She tried to encourage him, but in her own quiet way.
Elizabeth had the most difficult time of all keeping her emotions in check. Her father was making it impossible for Jane to take Darcy aside, monopolizing the gentlemen’s attention with constant questions and anecdotes. Why did he have to pick tonight to become suddenly so gregarious! Well, she supposed she should be glad that he was making such an effort to be talkative and agreeable. She knew only too well what the alternative could be!
As they began the soup course, Mr. Bennet studied Mr. Darcy’s demeanor. Although his wife’s only thoughts were to secure a future for their eldest daughter with Mr. Bingley, he sensed that this evening’s entertainments had an equal significance for Elizabeth.
“I understand from my brother Edward Gardiner that Pemberley is a truly grand estate, Mr. Darcy,” said Mr. Bennet, raising his eyebrows and waiting for a response.
Darcy didn’t know if Mr. Bennet had just made a statement or was asking a question, but sensed that the manner and content of his reply would be of some importance.
“Pemberley is rather large, Sir, but as it is my home I’ve never really thought of it as grand. It is wonderfully comfortable and spacious and I’ve been blessed to have grown up there and inherited it. And yes, I am very proud of it,” he said simply.
“And what are your primary crops, Mr. Darcy, if I may be so inquisitive,” continued Mr. Bennet.
“Certainly, Sir. During the summer my tenants grow a variety of vegetables, of course, along with summer wheat, rye and oats. Two of my tenants grow flowers for the market during the summer and plant winter wheat in the fall. We have pear and apple orchards and an expanse of raspberry bushes that is really something to see. The ladies make jam at the end of the summer and what we don’t use ourselves we sell to the sweetshops in London. My tenants tend sheep, of course, and we’ve recently imported a heartier species with very fine wool that is giving us a very fine yield.” Here he paused and inclined his head as if to ask if he had answered the question to Mr. Bennet’s satisfaction, but when he saw the elder gentleman’s genuine interest and admiration, he felt a little ashamed at having been so defensive.
“How do you manage to keep up with it all and spend as much time as you do in London and Hertfordshire, Mr. Darcy,” asked Mr. Bennet, with a teasing grin.
“I am also blessed with a very fine steward and an exceptional staff, Sir. They make it possible for me to be away from Pemberley for extended periods of time. But I do spend at least half the year there. I intend to return next week with my sister, Georgiana.”
“I see,” said Mr. Bennet, and now turned his attention to Mr. Bingley who had not taken his eyes off his eldest daughter and therefore had hardly touched his soup.
“And what about you, Mr. Bingley, what keeps you so busy in London these days that you’ve decided to give up Netherfield? – going to your club and playing cards and billiards, I suppose?”
Bingley didn’t know whether Mr. Bennet was teasing him or not. There were certainly many who thought those pursuits perfectly respectable for a gentleman of means. But like Darcy, he sensed that this was some sort of interrogation and summoned up his courage to jump into the fire.
“Actually, I’ve just started a new business, Mr. Bennet. I’m opening a warehouse of decorative ironworks – gates, railings, balconies – those sorts of things. I will represent several artisans and give them a place to display their work. My warehouse is being renovated and painted as we speak and that is why I must return to London so quickly.” He smiled and waited for the sky to fall.
And fall it did.
“A warehouse!” cried Mrs. Bennet. “ You’re opening a warehouse? Why in the world would you do such a thing, Mr. Bingley? A fine gentleman like yourself has no need of that! What will your friends think when they hear you have gone into trade?”
“Mama!” whispered Jane, mortified at her mother’s words. Her eyes, now filled with anguish, widened as she glared at her in the hope of discouraging any further comment. But Jane’s meaning was obvious to everyone but the lady herself.
“Well why do you look at me like that?” she spat back at her daughter. “Opening a shop will certainly not help his standing in society or win him friends in the right places! Surely you do not approve of this scheme, Mr. Darcy?” It was the first time Mrs. Bennet had addressed Mr. Darcy directly all evening.
“On the contrary, Madam, I think Mr. Bingley’s choice suits him very well, and I expect that he will be enormously successful at it. He has such an open, amiable way with people and an excellent business sense, besides. And as for his friends finding fault with going into trade, I for one, admire him for this bold decision. My only regret is that he will have less time for me in the next few months.”
“My family’s wealth was made in trade, Mrs. Bennet,” Bingley persisted, “and it is only my father’s foresight and my good fortune that has enabled me to live off that wealth. I am not starting this venture because I am in need of money, I assure you. I am simply tired of being idle and wish to contribute to society in my own small way. Indeed, I really see little difference between what I will be doing and what Darcy does at Pemberley. He owns the land and his tenants work it and pay him a percentage. I own the warehouse and my artisans will create their products and pay me my share. And I shall manage my warehouse for the benefit of all concerned, just Darcy manages Pemberley.”
He started to laugh as he turned to his friend. “I don’t presume to compare Pemberley to a warehouse, Darcy, but you understand what I’m saying, I am sure. You have a responsibility to your tenants and I will have a responsibility to mine.”
“I should say not!” cried Mrs. Bennet. “Comparing a warehouse to a fine, large estate! What a preposterous notion! And I dare say that going into trade will very materially lessen your chances of marrying into a family of any consideration in the world!” she said disdainfully. Clearly Mrs. Bennet had crossed Mr. Bingley off her list of eligible and worthy suitors for her most beautiful daughter’s hand!
While Mr. Bingley sat stunned and mute, Elizabeth’s eyes darted in horror from her mother, to Darcy, to Jane – who now seemed to be having trouble breathing. Her color was such that Elizabeth feared she would faint, and she picked up her water glass to urge her to drink. But Jane rose unsteadily, and barely being able to force the words from her throat, mumbled something about having become overheated. She glanced tearfully at Mr. Bingley and ran from the room.
Mr. Bingley recovered instantly, moving anxiously after her. “Is she not well, do you think? Should we not go after her?”
“I’ll see to her, Mr. Bingley,” said, Elizabeth, “and please, please excuse us!” Her plea was an obvious an apology for her mother’s outrageous behavior and she looked to Darcy to support his friend while she consoled her sister.
But Darcy was momentarily reeling from hearing his own words echoed back to him, from, of all people, Mrs. Bennet! To think that they had this in common made him truly ill!
Having sat idly by while his wife disgraced and humiliated his family, Mr. Bennet finally decided to assert some influence over the situation. “I believe Mrs. Hill is in need of your assistance in the kitchen, Mrs. Bennet,” he said forcefully, throwing his napkin onto the table.
“I don’t think I heard …”
”Indeed, Mrs. Bennet, please go to her now! And gentlemen,” he said more softly, “if you would be so good as to join me in my library…”
“I think it would be best if we go, Mr. Bennet,” muttered Bingley. “Miss Bennet isn’t well and … Darcy and I have an early morning ahead of us.”
“I daresay none of us have an appetite for dinner any longer, but please do me the honor of giving me a few moments in the library. I won’t keep you long; I can well understand your desire to be off.”
Darcy took his friend by the elbow and steered him after Mr. Bennet. He imagined that the elder gentleman wished to soften the effect of his wife’s harsh words, if not give an outright apology, and would not deny him the opportunity. It would not do to leave Longbourn with things as they were just now, and he prayed that Mr. Bennet would not disappoint him.
When they were seated, Mr. Bennet offered them a glass of port, which they both refused. He, however, poured himself a full goblet and took a swallow before commencing.
“Mr. Bingley,” he said, looking uncomfortably at the young man before him, “Mrs. Bennet is a very conscientious and caring sort of mother who unfortunately is not blessed with much sense or discretion. She was rather over exuberant in her disapproval of your new venture, but I wish to assure you that not everyone in this house shares her opinion. I am personally intrigued with your choice and will be sure to visit your new establishment the next time I am in London.” Here he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and said softly, “My wife was indeed very rude to you, Sir, and I hope you will accept my apology on her behalf. I am truly sorry that this evening has ended this way.” He extended his hand to Bingley who accepted it and managed a weak smile.
“Mr. Bennet, please relay my regrets to your family and, if you would, tell Miss Bennet that I am very sorry to have been the cause of such distress. I hope I have not made her ill.”
They nodded at one another and Mr. Bennet saw them out.
They ate their breakfast in silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. Bingley had never dreamt that Mrs. Bennet would become an obstacle to his marrying Jane; on the contrary, she had always been most encouraging. Darcy had the nagging feeling that something had been left unsaid, undone and he longed to see Elizabeth. He had not traveled all this way just to have three or four minutes of conversation with her! He stared unhappily out the window at the couch being readied and suddenly saw a familiar face rushing towards the Inn.
Mrs. Hill entered and looked about the dining room. When she spotted them, she hurried over to their table and curtsied respectfully, “Good morning gentlemen! I’m so glad to have caught you in time,” she huffed, a bit out of breath from her exertions. “Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth noticed that you left your gloves at Longbourn last night and asked me to return them to you.” She handed him the unfamiliar gloves and he took them, gratefully nodded to her for her part in the ruse.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hill. “Please thank your mistress for her thoughtfulness. I probably would not have missed them until we were half way to London.”
The lady curtsied and hurried off and Darcy resumed his seat. “Are you ready to go, Charles? I believe the driver has secured the last of our things.”
“Not before you tell me why you’ve accepted those gloves as your own, Darcy.” Charles Bingley knew perfectly well that the gloves probably contained a message from Elizabeth.
“Let us discuss this further in the privacy of the carriage, Charles – after I discover what they contain,” he said softly, grinning at his friend.
They paid for their meal and walked quickly toward the coach. Once seated, Darcy felt inside the lining of the gloves and pulled out a single, folded sheet of paper. The hand was unfamiliar however, and his eyes immediately traveled down to the signature at the bottom of the page.
Bingley noticed his perplexed look. “Is everything all right? What does Miss Elizabeth say?”
“It is not from Elizabeth,” said Darcy, his eyes moving rapidly from one paragraph to another. “It is from Jane – and you have always been right, Charles …She is an angel!”
“From Jane? Is she all right? What is it, man – don’t keep me hanging!”
“Charles, there is something that I have been keeping from you – but only because I was sworn to,” he began.
“I know, I know, you and Elizabeth are engaged …but what has it to do with Jane?” cried Bingley, impatient to know what was happening.
“You know? How do you come to know of it?”
“I’m not blind, man!”
“So you saw the kiss, then?”
“I saw no such thing! But I did have a good look at that besotted face of yours and …”
“And you said nothing?”
“I knew you would tell me in time….perhaps sooner than you seem to be willing to tell me what is in that note!”
“Here, read it yourself,” said Darcy, handing him the letter and leaning back in his seat, so relieved and grateful for its contents.
Bingley looked up and beamed. “She is wonderful, isn’t she? Congratulations, man. I am very pleased for you both.” He took Darcy’s hand and shook it vigorously, genuinely happy for his friend.
“Won’t you return to Longbourn with me for just a few hours, Charles? We can be on the road again by noon. Besides, it will make you feel so much better to see Jane again before you go. I am sure there is much she would like to say to you.”
“No Darcy, I cannot face her – not now.”
“Charles, surely you know that the only reason she ran out was because she was humiliated. I am certain that her feelings are nothing like her mother’s! Her father even said so!”
“Mr. Bennet was conveniently vague, Darcy. Believe me, his words are engraved in my memory. But whatever Jane’s feelings are on the subject, she would not go against her mother’s wishes. She is too good and respectful a daughter to do that…and I will not put her in that position.”
“I thought you truly loved her?” said Darcy incredulously.
“Of course, I do! You know I do!”
“But you would stand by and allow her to be miserable just so that she could continue to be a dutiful daughter?” His eyes flashed angrily. “It makes no sense, Charles.”
“Perhaps,…perhaps you are right, Darcy. I shall have to give it more thought – but not here, and not now. I did not close my eyes at all last night for worry and am not thinking clearly this morning. Besides, this is your long-awaited time to be joyful. I would not wish to mar your happiness with my sullen mood. Go to her, man, and give her my heartiest congratulations! I shall see you back in town.”
Darcy nodded, and pressed his friend’s hand in appreciation. “Promise to luncheon with me at the club tomorrow. I shall fill you in then on the news from Longbourn.”
Posted on Sunday, 17 October 2004
Despite the chill in the air, the four of them walked out. Jane very wisely walked in front of the newly engaged couple, pulling Mary along and urging her to keep her eyes in the direction they were walking.
“But we are in no position to chaperon,” she protested.
“Precisely, Mary. And when you become engaged, we shall do the same for you.”
The blissfully happy couple laughed at the comic display before them.
“Poor Jane,” said Elizabeth, “ I believe she’s been charged with an impossible task.”
“Yes, but I believe she is up to it! I must admit, Elizabeth, I never credited Jane with such spirit and nettle. I once even accused her of smiling too much.”
“Smiling too much? Fitzwilliam, whatever did you mean?”
“I thought that she was one of those young ladies whose only desire was to please, and would therefore smile and agree to anything being said. I could not have been more wrong.”
“We all improve on better acquaintance,” said Elizabeth, archly.
“Indeed, my love, you continue to improve in my regard with each passing day. Now how is that possible when you are already the finest woman I have ever known?” he said, bringing her hand to his lips.
“What I would give for a few moments of true privacy,” he whispered into the palm of her hand. And then looking up into her beautiful eyes, he leaned in to kiss her. He approached her tentatively at first, but as he allowed himself to savor the sweetness of her mouth, his kiss became more ardent – full of the all the pent up longing of many months. It seemed as if he were laying claim to her soul, while relinquishing his own in return. She was momentarily startled, but soon found herself responding so eagerly – so fervently, that when they finally parted, she was too embarrassed to look at him.
He laughed at the expression on her face and bent to rest his forehead on hers, whispering, “My sweet, darling Elizabeth, how blessed I am to have won your loving and responsive heart! Have you any idea what it means to a man to know that he can ignite that flame in his beloved? Never, ever be embarrassed by your passionate nature. It will be my greatest joy!”
At these adoring words she clasped her hands about his neck and brought her lips to his once more, delighting in another deliciously gratifying kiss, until prudence, and the need for air, separated them.
Darcy grinned delightedly, softly cleared his throat and took the initiative to link their arms and continue their walk. Jane and Mary were now quite far ahead of them and so they could speak more freely.
“Do you think your mother will ever recover from the harsh way I spoke to her this morning? After all those years of training, where was my restraint when I needed it? I am ashamed to say I lost control of both my senses and my mouth. Thank you for not being angry with me, Elizabeth – I simply could not allow her to continue berating Charles.”
“Of course, you could not! And Jane and I were tickled to hear you correct her. I still cannot believe she had the gall to imply that Bingley was no longer a proper friend for you! Hadn’t she heard anything you said last night? Or what my father said to her afterwards? She never ceases to amaze me! But now that she is not only in awe of you, but fearful of losing what little is left of your esteem for her, I believe she will behave a little better – for a short while, at least.”
He pressed her hand and smiled.
“How was Mr. Bingley when you left him?” she now asked with earnest concern.
“Very low, I’m afraid. I don’t think he’s at all convinced that Jane doesn’t share at least some of your mother’s feelings, and what is more, he believes that she would never go against your mother’s wishes.”
“Well, I think she will be able to relieve his anxiety somewhat with the letter she has written him. I have never seen Jane as distraught and humiliated as she was last night, Fitzwilliam. I could not console her! But when I went in to see her this morning she said she had managed to write a letter apologizing for Mama’s behavior and congratulating him on his new venture. She asked that I write to Georgiana and include her letter in mine so that you could take it with you. I know it is not altogether proper, but under the circumstances…”
“Elizabeth, I greatly admire her for writing to Charles! He will be so grateful to hear from her, and when you come to London next week, we shall see to it that they are in each other’s company as often as possible.”
“Fitzwilliam, are you sure that five days at Pemberley will be enough to accomplish all you need to do? You’ve told me yourself how many people need your time and attention there?”
“I will simply do what I can – see to the most urgent things first, and put off the rest until we are home again.” He smiled. “Home again – how wonderful that sounds! Were we but able to marry today and journey home immediately.”
“My mother is still reeling from having only a month to prepare, Fitzwilliam,” laughed Elizabeth, “and even I would appreciate enough time to have a wedding gown made.”
“One always seems to manage to get a task completed in the time allotted,” he said in a teasing tone, “and you yourself have bragged to me about your wonderfully efficient seamstress.”
“Yes, she is wonderful, but this is a rather special gown, don’t you think? We mustn’t rush her. She deserves a little more than four days time to complete this one!” she laughed.
He bent to kiss her brow. “By all means, give her the luxury of a full week if you must.”
She laughed again and shot him a cheeky grin.
“And what about Georgiana, Fitzwilliam? Won’t it be too strenuous for her to travel to and from Pemberley in such a short period of time?”
“When I get back tonight I shall discuss it with her, and if she wishes to stay in London and await your arrival, I shall travel alone. I cannot tell you how excited she will be to accompany you on your shopping expedition for wedding clothes, Elizabeth! She rarely has the opportunity to enjoy such activities in the company of anyone other than her aunt or Mrs. Annesley, and it will mean the world to her. You are very thoughtful to include her.”
“You needn’t thank me, Fitzwilliam, I want her company and her opinion – for surely you know how very fond I have become of her.” She squeezed his arm contentedly as they strolled and closed her eyes, tilting her face towards the sun. “How good it feels, Fitzwilliam! The sun is so… Oh, dear! The sun is so high! We must go back! You must be off or you’ll be traveling after dark.”
“I can’t bear to leave you,” he said, kissing her fingers again.
“Nor do I want you to go – but you must!” She called to Jane to return, then swung them both around and quickened her step.
“I see I have no choice but to follow my captain,” teased Darcy. “It shall take some getting used to … this having someone worrying about me.”
“Surely Georgiana worries about you!” said Elizabeth, not allowing their conversation to shorten her stride.
“Yes of course she does, but it is not the same somehow.”
She turned to smile at him and stopped for another loving kiss, for they were almost at the house and their time together would soon be over.
Mary gaped at the sight, but kept her mouth shut at her sister’s warning look.
They all waved good-bye as he rode off, but Jane and Elizabeth lingered outside and gazed at the empty rode for some time after the dust had settled. Jane put her arm about her sister’s shoulders and whispered, “He’ll be fine, Lizzy. He’s been traveling from county to county all his adult life, and his becoming engaged does not make him suddenly more vulnerable, you know. Besides, he promised to send an express as soon as he arrives, so you shall hear from him in the morning.”
‘I know. It is just that I can’t believe how precious he has become to me. I see him riding off, and feel suddenly lost. Thank goodness we’ll be returning to London next week. A week in this house with Mama and without Fitzwilliam will be difficult indeed!”
“I must admit that I’m frightened of being alone with her, Lizzy. I’m afraid of what she’ll say to me! How can I bear to listen to her without becoming disrespectful? I know I should let her prattle on and keep my own council, but….”
“No, Jane, I don’t agree. You must tell her how you feel about Bingley and how embarrassed you were yesterday. We must all try and make her understand that she humiliates us with her thoughtless remarks!”
We will not change her Lizzy,” sighed Jane, “and forgive me for saying so, but you have never stood up to her all the times she slighted Mr. Darcy. You simply closed your eyes and bore it. It is all very well to expect me to defy our mother when you will not.”
“You are right Jane, but the situation was quite different, I believe. She had every reason to dislike Fitzwilliam and he was as cold to her, as she was to him. But her admiration for Mr. Bingley has always been obvious to everyone, and he has treated her with the utmost kindness and respect.”
“Perhaps the situations cannot be compared, but I do not feel up to dealing with her arguments just now. I still recoil at the thought of Charles’s stunned face, and the fact that I said nothing to defend him.”
“Truly, Jane, there would have been nothing you could have said or done at the time. You know that she would not be stopped by you, or Papa or anyone. You musn’t be so hard on yourself. I shall try to stick close to you and not give Mama the opportunity to upset you.”
Jane managed to steer clear of her mother for most of the day, but in the late afternoon, when Elizabeth had gone to her room for a warmer shawl, Mrs. Bennet grabbed her eldest daughter’s hand and led her into the sitting room, closing the door behind them.
“Jane, my dear, I have been waiting to speak to you all day!” she said excitedly. “I am so happy that things have turned out so well after all! Now that Lizzy has secured Mr. Darcy, it is fortunate that Mr. Bingley has removed himself from our consideration – for surely, we can do so much better!”
“Mama,” cried Jane, trembling at her words, “Please don’t…”
“I know your father thought me unduly harsh last evening. But now that you will have the opportunity to meet the finest of gentlemen, you cannot but agree that Mr. Bingley is no longer worthy of your notice. Just think, Jane, Elizabeth will invite you to London for the winter Season and you shall have your pick of all the eligible young men! With your grace and beauty, they will be falling over one another to meet you.”
“But Mama, … that is not what I want. I …”
“Not what you want? Do you not wish to make the most advantageous marriage possible for yourself? I, who had far fewer advantages than you, managed to pull myself up in the world, and you have me to thank for being able to call yourself a gentleman’s daughter! I will not have you going backwards in society when I worked so hard to secure your respected place in it! Not with the opportunities that now await you! Oh, Jane, do you not see that who you marry will determine your children’s position in life? You have an obligation to leave them a rich and honored legacy.”
“Mr. Bingley will be an excellent father, Mama. He will be kind and attentive and loving …”
“To be sure!” her mother scoffed. “And what shall they inherit from him when he passes – a warehouse? Don’t be ridiculous, Jane! Besides, you have your sisters to consider. With both you and Lizzy introducing them to the best sort of people, even Mary should do very well for herself! Lizzy has paved the way for you and you must do the same for your sisters. You have more than yourself to think about!”
“But Mama, I do so want to marry for love …”
“For love? Well then you had better look further, Missy! What do you imagine your dear Mr. Bingley has been doing this past year together? Sitting around pining for you? Not likely! Chances are he’s been rejected by some elegant lady of the ton, and now he’s come back to see if you’ll still have him!”
These cruel words were simply too much to bear, and she ran from the room and out of the house. Elizabeth, who was just coming down the stairs, ran after her.
“Jane, dearest! What has happened? Wait!”
Jane dashed into the potting shed, and leaning against the worktable, covered her face with her hands and wept.
“I have only myself to blame for my misery,” she cried. “If only I had accepted Charles in London we would be engaged by now and Mama could not come between us. She will never let me marry him, Lizzy! Never!”
Elizabeth drew her sister into her arms to soothe her. “But you can be assured that Papa will give you his consent, Jane, and once the engagement is set, she will quickly come round. You know her too well! She would not wish our neighbors to know that you went against her wishes, and will likely take the credit for bringing the match about!
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes, I am sure of it!” said Elizabeth, stroking her sister’s hair.
“But there is something more. Mama says that I owe it to Kitty, Mary and Lydia to marry into better society and that I owe it to… my own children – that I have no right to deny them a more privileged legacy…”
“Jane, we once all looked to you to improve our fortunes because we thought you had the best chance of marrying well. But now both you and I will be in a position to help our sisters in society and support our mother. Don’t you see that our family will want for nothing? Mama is making you feel responsible for a problem that no longer exits. But as for your own children … that, of course, is for you to decide. In that, I will not advise you.”
“Oh Lizzy! Any child would be blessed to have Charles Bingley for a father – except that he may tend to be a little too indulgent, of course,” she said, suddenly breaking into laughter despite her tears. “And I know that he will see to it that they are well provided for and sent to the best schools and…. loved and cherished, always. No title or great estate can guarantee me that.”
Elizabeth beamed at her sister. “Then what is the question, Mrs. Bingley?”
“Oh, Lizzy, don’t tease me. There is no question of my loving Charles, or wishing wanting to marry him, but I have never defied either of our parents before and it pains me to think of it – especially in something as important as marriage. It truly saddens me, Lizzy, to go against Mama in this.”
“I know, Jane. Your goodness and sweetness is more than Mama deserves at the moment. It will not be easy for you, but I promise that you shall survive it. We shall survive it together, you and I, for I shall stick by you in every way possible.”
“Oh. Lizzy, how I do love you!”
They had just dropped Greta Brenner off at her home with the exquisite fabric and lace they had purchased at Mr. Finkelstein’s establishment and were on their way back to Cheapside, when Jane caught sight of the large, gold-leaf lettered sign being hoisted up above the awning of the shop window. Her heart leapt as she turned to get a better look. Four burly looking fellows were manning the ropes while Charles directed them, obviously trying to help them get the sign level. He looked intently focused on his task and utterly exuberant!
She turned back and schooled her features. None of the others had seemed to notice! Elizabeth and Aunt Gardiner had their eyes on Georgiana, who was still bubbling over with excitement at all they had accomplished on their first shopping expedition.
“And the number of choices in white voile alone! I could scarcely believe it! How were you able to decide so quickly, Elizabeth?” she asked.
“I must now admit that this fabric caught my eye the first time we visited the shop, and once I stopped to touch it, I knew I had to have it for my wedding gown. But it was Mr. Finklestein’s superb taste that matched this particular lace with it. I would never have thought that these subtle shades of white would have such a dramatic effect. He has a wonderful eye, does he not?” she said, holding the two small swatches of fabric up to the sunlight.
“Most certainly, Lizzy!” replied Aunt Gardiner. I believe the gentleman has earned himself a new customer today! For I shall certainly consult him when I next shop for a new garment.”
Jane tried to look as if she were attending to the conversation, but with every turn of the wheel that took them further from Bingley’s shop, she became more and more agitated. She knew they were to meet at the Darcy’s that evening for dinner, but having now seen him there, she could no longer restrain her heart.
“Stop the coach! Please stop the coach!” she suddenly cried out.
Georgiana immediately tapped for James to bring the carriage to a halt, and asked anxiously, “Is something wrong, Jane? Are you feeling ill?”
Jane was now a deep shade of red. “No, Georgiana, I am well, but …” Here she turned to her aunt with an embarrassed little smile and said, “Aunt Gardiner, I noticed Charles Bingley’s new shop on the street we just passed and I thought … that is… I was wondering if we could stop and pay a short visit – to congratulate him and wish him well.”
“Really? Mr. Bingley’s new ironworks shop?” said Madeline Gardiner, straining to look back down the street, as she spoke. “I hadn’t noticed it, my dear! Naturally we should stop to pay our respects and give him our encouragement. Would you mind if we stopped there for a short while, Miss Darcy?”
“Oh no, not at all, Mrs. Gardiner. I would love to see it myself! Fitzwilliam has told me so much about it. I shall have James bring us around.”
“Look there,” said, Mrs. Gardiner, pointing to a shop with a pretty, red and white striped awning, “I believe that is a Patisserie on the corner. Shall we first stop to buy some lovely pastries to bring as an offering?” She looked to Jane, who gave her aunt a most appreciative smile.
He had removed his waistcoat, and was bent over a crate when they entered. His initial expression was one of disbelief, but then, a glowing smile spread across his face and he mouthed unconsciously, “She’s come to me!” Rising quickly, he grabbed for his waistcoat and strode towards them, his arms outstretched.
“Ladies! What an honor to have you come and visit me here! How glad I am to see you – although I know I shall be enjoying your company again this evening. Come in, come in!” He bowed to Mrs. Gardiner and then to the young ladies, giving Jane his most particular attention.
“We were driving by, Mr. Bingley, when my niece noticed your new sign, and we agreed that we had to come and congratulate you on this ambitious undertaking,” said Mrs. Gardiner.
“Well, you’ve certainly delighted me with that decision,” replied Bingley, now stepping forward to take Elizabeth’s hand. “I have not had the opportunity to tell you how very happy I was to hear the news of your engagement to my friend, Miss Bennet. Congratulations! I must say that I am as pleased for myself as I am for him! For now you and your family’s continued friendship is assured me.”
Elizabeth smiled warmly and she thanked him.
“I thought I understood from Darcy that you ladies were on the happy hunt for wedding clothes today. I hope you have met with some success.”
“Oh yes!” replied, Georgiana, excitedly. “Miss Bennet knew just what she wanted and chose her fabrics almost immediately.”
“Well, it is always good to know what one wants,” said Bingley, smiling warmly at Jane.
She averted her eyes for a moment, the blush of her cheek rendering her more beautiful than ever, but then turned her gaze to meet his most decidedly and smiled sweetly at him. His heart swelled with joy!
“Please allow me to show you around, ladies,” said Bingley offering one arm to Mrs. Gardiner and the other to Jane, while nodding to the others to join them. The touch of her hand on his arm made him happier than he had been in many, many months.
“Now, as you may already know, I have four gentlemen whose work will be represented here and as you can see, we are just installing some of the sample pieces. We will also be showing the variations on the motifs in smaller sections here. Each artist is creating his own exhibit so as to best show off his work, and I am having a large circular table built for the middle of the floor where I can sit with customers and look over their architectural plans and designs.”
He stopped by a rather oversized easel where one artist’s sketches of his designs were displayed, with settings drawn in, to bring the pieces to life.
“We will also have beautiful drawings such as these to help people visualize the effect of each design. What do you think of this one, Miss Bennet,” he asked, pointing to a drawing of a gate with vines, flowers and animals all worked into the intricate design.
“It is absolutely exquisite!” was her reply, “although I imagine the charming cottage and the beautiful gardens that it encloses have something to do with my admiration of it.”
“Yes, it is beautiful,” he murmured. “I do agree with you, Miss Bennet. It is one of my favorites,” he replied, happily.
“And here we have a wall of smaller, decorative elements: sconces, window grates, fireplace hardware, knockers – that sort of thing. I think we’ve made good progress in the short time we’ve had to get the shop ready. I am proud to say that although we are not yet officially open, I have already transacted six large orders. People have just come in out of curiosity, and have been favorably impressed.”
“I am very happy for you, Mr. Bingley,” said Jane, rather softly. “I can see that it gives you great satisfaction.”
“Indeed it does, Miss Bennet, and I thank you for saying so,” he said, placing his hand on hers and giving her fingers an affectionate squeeze.
“Well, there you have it! The grand tour! It is only the beginning of course, and I expect that we shall be changing and improving things all the time. But wait! I just remembered! Colonel Fitzwilliam sent me this very fine bottle of Cognac and I’d be honored if you’d allow me to open it and drink a little toast with me. I know it is a bit early in the day, but I believe we have much to celebrate.”
They all turned to Mrs. Gardiner for her approval and when she laughed and nodded her consent, Bingley excused himself to fetch the glasses.
“Shall we drink to new beginnings?” he proposed, first nodding to Elizabeth and then allowing himself to beam unashamedly at Jane.
“To new beginnings!” everyone sang in unison. It had indeed been a successful morning!
The dinner at Darcy’s was a lively and joyous affair, with everyone at ease and enjoying the laughter and anecdotes of everyone else. Polite and quiet dinner conversation had been set aside in preference of a more open and spontaneous exchange, which included everyone at the table in everything being said. Well, almost.
The happy mood was also enhanced by the sparkling eyes and attentive looks of all those serving them. Not one could keep a blank, disinterested countenance and ears were perked for every tidbit that could later be reported on and savored below stairs.
Upon his return from a short business engagement a little more than a week ago, the housekeeper had been asked to summon all the staff for the master’s inspection. Many had thought that they would now have to suffer the consequences for the liberties taken in the famous “flowered coach,” and even James, at the time, still feared for his position in the household.
As everyone gathered, the master paced about anxiously, his hands behind his back, his expression almost grim.
But when he saw them all standing stiffly and nervously before him, he could not help but allow a wide and mischievous smile to break out upon his face.
“I’ve gathered you together to share some happy news,” he said and watched as downcast eyes suddenly shot up to meet his. “I have been blessed with the acceptance of my marriage proposal to Miss Elizabeth Bennet and you have been blessed with a new, an exceptionally kind mistress! She hails from Hertfordshire, from where I have just returned, and has been brought up in a somewhat smaller setting there, with fewer servants than this house employs. She shall need your respectful and attentive assistance until she is acclimated to her new home, and above all, I wish it understood that each and every one of you is responsible for her comfort, happiness and protection.”
Here he paused for a moment, his eyes twinkling and a playful grin forming about his lips. “And yes, she did accept me that morning in the coach, but it was not to be spoken of until I had secured her father’s blessing. This piece of privileged information, however, is to stay within the confines of this family – of which you are a part. Is that understood?” he asked, moving his intense gaze from one person to the next. They all nodded.
“Good!” he said, looking satisfied. “Miss Bennet shall be in town next week and while I am away at Pemberley I want this house prepared for her arrival. Miss Georgiana will discuss the menus with cook, James will be sent to Hertfordshire to bring Miss Bennet and her sister to town, and the rest of you are encouraged to do your utmost to catch up with any incomplete work. There is but a month before the wedding and there will be a great deal to do in preparation.” He nodded and smiled. “That will be all.”
But no one moved. They simply stood and beamed at him for what seemed like the longest time, until finally, Mrs. H, the housekeeper, stepped forward to say, “We would all like to wish you much joy, Mr. Darcy!” and everyone applauded wildly.
Darcy was embarrassed, but undoubtedly touched. He thanked them with a little smile and nod of his head, and quickly left the room. From that moment on, the entire household bubbled with anticipation!
Now, as they served their most honored guests, their happiness and excitement was difficult to hide. This elegant residence had been quiet and almost lifeless for far too long!
Charles had been amusing everyone with tales of bumbling workmen and the chaos they could create in the blink of an eye, when he suddenly paused, reflected, and then said, “Now there’s a splendid thought! I have to travel to Farmingdale* tomorrow to inspect the installation of that lovely gate you so admired, Miss Bennet. It is but an hour and a half’s drive from here, and if weather permits, what do you say to all of us making an outing of it? The property there is vacant as the owner has not yet taken possession, and we can include the children and enjoy an afternoon in the country. Well, it is not quite country, perhaps, but it is a lot greener and quieter than London!”
“But we still have so much shopping to do,” said Georgiana, having taken the purchase Elizabeth’s wedding clothes as her personal mission.
Her brother pressed her hand. “Georgie, I believe the wedding clothes will keep for another day, and unless the Gardiners or Elizabeth have some objection, I think it a very good idea, indeed. You could do with a ramble down some winding country lane, could you not, Elizabeth,” he said turning to her, the gleam in his eyes hinting at more intimate pleasures.
“Well, I … I always enjoy seeing new places,” was her reply, “and you did say that the property was very lovely, did you not, Mr. Bingley?”
“Yes, exceptionally lovely, to my mind. Nothing will be blooming now of course, but there is a pond that is attached to the property and we can let the children fish and feed the ducks. I’ll have my cook pack us a picnic and we can make a relaxing afternoon of it.”
“I fear it is a bit chilly for a picnic Mr. Bingley,” chuckled Mr. Gardiner, “but the drive and a short walk in the fresh air should do us all good.”
“Oh, I was thinking more in terms of an indoor picnic in front of a roaring fire,” said Bingley. Everyone stared.
Jane finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “Mr. Bingley,” she said, in a hushed tone, “I don’t think it would be proper for us to enter the gentleman’s home uninvited.”
“Oh,” said Bingley, understanding finally dawning on him, “forgive me for not explaining more fully. My client, gave me the keys to the cottage before he .. er . left for the continent, because we needed access to the master bedroom to install a balcony, as well. As it is a fairly large job my workmen are sleeping at a nearby Inn until the installation is completed, but they have been having some of their cold, simple meals in the house. I don’t imagine that Mr. Burgess would make a distinction between our enjoying a picnic there and the workmen eating there. The house is virtually empty – not a stick of furniture in sight, so there isn’t anything we can spoil or damage. Besides,” he said, now quickly glancing at Darcy with amusement, “I know this fellow rather well and I am sure he would not mind.”
“Well then,” said Mrs. Gardiner, having seen the subtle exchange and having put two and two together, “I think it should work out very nicely.”
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.