Fitzwilliam Darcy stood by the window in the blue drawing room at Pemberley, staring out at the rain. It had been raining for nigh on a week, ever since the day of his father's funeral. It seemed fitting in a way that the sky was weeping, for he could not. He had thought he would, sometimes even wished that he could, but he felt as though he had been frozen inside, that all his tears were in an icy lump behind his eyes, lodged there making his head hurt. And his heart.
At least all the relatives were finally gone. Some had hovered solicitously around him, some had watched him furtively for any signs of an impending emotional outburst, some had been overly cheerful, some too dour. He knew that they had meant well, most of them anyway, but he had desired nothing more than to be left alone. What a feeling of relief when he watched the last carriage drive away!
Almost the last carriage. Georgiana was to leave today, to return to boarding school. Their father had sent her away to school when he realized that he was dying. He hadn't wanted her exposed to the trauma of any deathbed scenes. Fitzwilliam had disagreed with his father's decision, though he had voiced it very little. Georgiana was so shy with anyone outside their family circle. It seemed to him that being sent away from home to the unkindness of a school environment where she knew no one was likely to cause her worse misery than being in the same house with her dying father. As it happened, their father underestimated the swiftness with which death would take him. Georgiana had been at school for just two weeks when Fitzwilliam had to send for her. Their father was dead.
He turned to see Georgiana in the doorway, dressed from head to toe in black, her eyes too large in her small face and her hands gripped tightly together.
She took a steadying breath. "I am ready to leave now." Despite her efforts her voice quavered, and his chest hurt. What was he doing, sending her away again? If he had not thought it best for her to be sent to school less than a month earlier, why was now any better?
"Georgie, come sit with me for a moment." His mind was working rapidly. Everyone in the family expected her to return to school today, but he cared little for their opinions. His only concern was what Lieutenant-Colonel Fitzwilliam, the cousin with whom he shared her guardianship, would think--but certainly he would agree that Georgiana's well-being was more important than anything else. And truthfully, he didn't want her to leave. It was too soon. She might be a mere child, but she was all he had left.
She approached him so reluctantly that for a moment he wondered if he was wrong and she did want to leave.
"Tell me, what do you think of your school?" God forgive him, he had not paid enough attention to her upon her return, but there had been so much to attend to with the funeral and the solicitors and so many other things, and she had been surrounded by their aunts and female cousins. He should have spent more time with her.
She stared at her tightly clasped hands and shrugged.
"Do you like it there?"
"Answer me please, Georgiana."
"I know that I must go there. I suppose it is no worse than any other school. It is just that all the girls there already know each other and I don't know anyone. I would much rather be at home." She looked up at him suddenly. "I am not complaining! I know that I must go, that it is my duty to go, and I do want you to be happy. I hope you will be very happy."
"Georgie, I don't understand you. Why do you think it your duty to go away and why should it make me happy?"
"I told Lady Catherine I did not want to go back to school and she said that it is my duty to go there and not complain to you. She said that you are to marry Cousin Anne soon and you will not want to have me underfoot; that I must let your wife settle in in peace. She said that she would have me at Rosings for my holidays, but please can I come home to Pemberley, Fitzwilliam? I promise I will be no bother. Or perhaps I could go somewhere else?" She looked down at her hands. "I...I really do not wish to go stay with her."
He insanely wished that Lady Catherine had not already left so he could have the pleasure of throwing her from his house. "First of all," he bit out, "I am not marrying Anne, not now, not ever. Second, you are never a bother and Pemberley is your home---you are always welcome here regardless of my marital status. Finally," his voice was rising, "never listen to anything that woman says. You are to smile and nod, not actually listen to her, do you understand?"
His sister nodded, wide-eyed, then asked timidly, "Are you angry at me?"
"I am very angry, yes, but not with you." He paused, forcibly calming himself. "Listen, Georgie, you don't have to go back to school now if you do not wish to. There's no law that says a ten year old girl must go to school."
"I'm almost eleven!" She eyed him indignantly.
"There's no law that says an eleven year old must either!" he retorted, amused. "You must go eventually, but it will keep for a year or two. I don't think we need to be adding more unhappy things to our lives right now, do you?" He stared at his sister in alarm as she slumped back on the sofa, huge tears sliding down her face. "What? What is it?"
"I'm just, I'm so happy," she sobbed. "I thought you didn't want me here anymore, and I would miss it so, and I miss Papa and I would miss you!" She surprised him by throwing her arms around him.
He patted her back a little awkwardly, then drew back and kissed her forehead. "Georgie, what do you say to taking a little trip somewhere?" he asked suddenly. The idea had just come to him, but the more he thought about it, the more he liked it. As much as they loved Pemberley, it would do them good to be away for a time.
She stared at him in silence for a moment, then asked timidly, "To where?"
"Where would you like to go? You may choose."
"Really?" she breathed. "Above all things, I would like to go to London."
"London! But why? Would you not like to go somewhere new?"
"It is new to me---I have not been there since Mamma died, and I was so little then that I was not able to do anything, or see anything. I would love to see the menagerie at the Tower and the palaces and, oh, everything!"
She looked so enthusiastic that he bit back his wish that she would choose somewhere else---he was weary of London---and said, "Very well, then. I will send word for the London house to be opened and that we will arrive in a week's time. I will need several days here before we can leave. In the meantime, I am certain there is a London guidebook in the library---look through it and make a list of the places you would especially like to see and we shall endeavor to view them all."
Georgiana's list was a lengthy one indeed. A fortnight's residence in London had not been sufficient to accomplish it. Today's outing was to Hyde Park, where she wished to walk by the Serpentine. As they descended from their carriage, Fitzwilliam was loudly greeted and detained in conversation by several acquaintances. She edged away a little since their boisterousness made her nervous, then edged away further when one of them seemed to obliquely congratulate Fitzwilliam on their father's death and his inheritance. When the muscle in her brother's jaw began twitching in a way that told her he was sorely running out of patience, she began to look about rather desperately for something else to look at. She spied the sweetest little rabbit not five feet away, which stared back at her with its big eyes for a moment. She dimly heard Fitzwilliam, icily civil, verbally dismembering his opponent as she began to follow the rabbit into the brush.
Georgiana followed the rabbit for some time and quite enjoyed herself until she realized that she could no longer hear her brother's voice, or anyone else's voice. She soon found that she could not remember which way she had come, and her attempts to find her way back failed. Truly frightened, she began to run.
Blinded as she was by her tears, it was perhaps not surprising that she should run into something, or someone. Still, the impact took her by surprise and she fell backwards onto the ground. She sat, stunned, and flinched when the person she ran into began to laugh.
"Goodness! Well, that was a surprise! No, don't cry---are you hurt? Here, let me help you up." The young lady helped Georgiana to her feet. "Whatever is the matter? Are you sure you are not injured? Where are your companions?"
Georgiana stammered an explanation.
"Well, I am certain your brother is looking for you, so the best thing for you to do is stay put. The two of you may follow each other around in circles otherwise. As that is the case, would you care to meet the sweetest baby that ever lived?" She laughed at Georgiana's bewildered expression. "My sister Jane and I are in London to assist our aunt---she presented my uncle with his first son just six weeks ago, and we are here with the baby, the nursemaid, our two other young cousins, a maid and an astonishing amount of supplies. One would think we were going to take up permanent residence in the park rather than pass a mere two hours here! We are stationed on two benches a very short distance away, and quite in the open---your brother should have no difficulty finding us there. So, would you care to meet my young cousin?" She leaned forward conspiratorially, her eyes dancing. "He truly is a very sweet baby."
"But what if Fitzwilliam doesn't find me?"
"Then we shall leave you with some of our plentiful provisions and you can settle in here. No, no, I am teasing you! We would never dream of abandoning you. If your brother does not find you, then we will return you to your home." The young lady laid a hand on Georgiana's shoulder and said kindly, "Everything will be all right. You'll see."
"Well, I would like to see the baby---I've never really been around one, all my cousins are older than I, as is Fitzwilliam, of course."
"I am relieved to hear that the brother in search of you is not your younger brother."
Georgiana giggled. "No, he is older, much older, actually, but he is so good and kind to me. I cannot imagine a better brother."
"You will make me envious---I have no brothers, only four sisters."
"I always thought it would be lovely to have a sister."
"It can be---dear Jane certainly is a better sister to me than I deserve," she laughed.
"Oh, surely not!"
"Well, you shall see shortly when you meet her---my sweet sister, and the world's sweetest baby, then when your brother arrives the world's best brother as well! How shall we bear it, being near such perfection?"
Georgiana laughed out loud, then stopped walking and said anxiously, "I am very sorry to have run into you, but I am not sorry to have met you---is that wrong of me?"
"Certainly not! I did not mind you running into me in the slightest, and I am happy to have met you as well, Miss..."
"Oh! I'm sorry! I am Georgiana Darcy."
The young lady curtsied. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Darcy. I am Elizabeth Bennet."
Meanwhile, in a different part of the park...
Fitzwilliam had not been overly concerned when, after returning to his normally composed state, he realized that Georgiana was not with him. He had been so angry, no wonder she had moved away. He knew how deeply she feared confrontations; he should not have indulged in unleashing his temper, no matter how much the cad deserved it. Surely she was just beyond the trees...
But she wasn't. He tramped around for some time looking for any trace of her, and finding none, his concern giving way to a rising swell of fear that was beginning to border on terror. He knew full well the dangers that existed in this city for an unaccompanied well-dressed child, or for any pretty young girl that was unprotected. He swallowed the gorge that rose into his throat and tried to push the thoughts away. He had to find her!
He was not even sure where he was, or if he was going around in circles. Finally, he saw several trees with twigs snapped off, and, trying not to think about what could have caused it, he followed the trail of damage. He could hear laughter. People! Maybe they had seen something!
He burst out from among the trees and skidded to a halt, shocked to see Georgiana sitting on a bench between two unknown young ladies, and with, of all things, a baby in her arms.
One of the ladies hastily took the baby as Georgiana jumped up and ran to him. He caught her up in his arms and buried his face in her hair.
"Georgie, thank God you are safe," he breathed.
Thinking of his terror made him angry. He set her down and placed his hands on her shoulders, realizing that he was trembling. He fought the urge to shake her.
"What exactly were you thinking, Georgiana? And don't you shrug at me!"
She stopped herself mid-shrug. "I didn't mean to get lost, Fitzwilliam, but I followed the rabbit and then I didn't know where I was. I looked and looked but I couldn't find you. Then Miss Elizabeth found me and offered to wait with me, and, oh! You have to meet the baby! "
He stared at her in astonishment as she grabbed his hand and dragged him across the pathway to the bench.
"This is Edward." She took him from the older of the two young ladies, settling him carefully into her arms. The baby stared unblinkingly up at her. "Is he not perfect? Is he not the most beautiful baby you have ever seen? Miss Elizabeth says he is the sweetest baby that ever lived; do you not agree?"
He cleared his throat, wondering where in the woods his sister had left her timidity. "I am sure that you and, uh, Miss Elizabeth, are correct." He waited for her to remember her manners, but gave up when she began talking nonsense to the baby. "And Miss Elizabeth is..."
"Oh!" Georgiana blushed furiously. "Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, this is my brother, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Fitzwilliam, this is Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
He bowed to their curtsies, frowning slightly as he wondered to which of the Miss Bennets the baby belonged and how quickly he could get his sister away. He rose from his bow and blinked as he looked into the laughing eyes of Miss Elizabeth.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Darcy. Your sister has been so anxious about you, but has been such a good company for us and our young cousins." Her face and words were blandly polite, but her eyes danced, and for the first time he noticed the two small girls playing on the grass behind the bench with two women who were obviously servants.
He flushed, irritated that she knew what he had been thinking. "I, uh..." Georgiana had gone to sit on the other bench after making the introductions, apparently so she could coo at the baby without interruption, and he sent a glare her way. "Judging by her present behavior, I am surprised to hear that she was good company for anyone besides young Master Edward."
Miss Elizabeth laughed, but Miss Bennet apparently thought he was upset, saying soothingly, "Truly, Miss Darcy has been very good company for us. She is a sweet girl, and very well-behaved."
He felt himself relax a little. "I am glad to hear it. She is a good girl." He stopped, not knowing what else to say, and was relieved when Miss Elizabeth began speaking of something else. She carried the burden of the conversation for a time, although she was careful to include everyone in it, even occasionally the servants. He watched in amusement as she teased Georgiana off the bench and into their company, and found himself taking greater part in the conversation than he could ever remember doing amongst strangers. He was actually sorry when Miss Bennet quietly informed her sister of the time and that they were expected back.
In the ensuing hubbub of packing, while the little girls fussed that they didn't want to leave and Georgiana made her farewells to the infant, Miss Elizabeth approached him.
"Mr. Darcy." She paused, looking almost apprehensive, and he unconsciously leaned towards her. "I cannot let you leave without issuing our condolences."
He knew not what expression was on his face, but it must have been forbidding for she looked away and hurried on, "Your sister informed us of your father's death, and we have of course made our condolences to her, but we wanted to make them to you as well."
He said quietly, "Thank you, Miss Elizabeth. You and your sister are very kind."
She gave a short laugh. "No, not really. Well, Jane is, of course. But I think about my own father and, well, I am truly very sorry."
She looked at him then, and there were tears in her eyes. He was surprised to feel his own sting, and looked away.
She laughed again, but there was no humor in it, and said with false brightness, "As I said, I am not kind. And now I see that we are ready to depart! I am sorry to..."
Fitzwilliam could not allow her to go on. "Miss Elizabeth! I thank you, mostly sincerely, for your kindness and compassion."
"I have been selfish, not kind; I was thinking only of myself, and then I imposed upon you." She looked at him in exasperation.
"There is no selfishness in empathy, Miss Elizabeth," he said firmly. "You have not imposed upon me."
She silently studied him for several moments, until he began to feel uncomfortable, then said quietly, "Very well, sir. You are the kind one, I think. I shall make my farewells to your sister."
He watched her speaking affectionately to Georgiana. He had never met anyone so.... He shook off his thoughts and went to say goodbye to Miss Bennet, then told his sister it was high time they went on their walk.
"Oh, but Fitzwilliam, I was wondering..." She trailed off and he looked at her encouragingly. "Might I correspond with Miss Elizabeth?"
That young lady cast an uncomfortable glance at him and began to demur, but he interrupted her. "That would be fine, Georgiana, as long as Miss Elizabeth has no objection." He looked calmly into her uncertain gaze, and finally she smiled and turned her attention to his sister.
Georgiana was so delighted with her new friend's acquiescence that he had difficulty in drawing her away. Only after reminding her that the Misses Bennets' party was expected home did she finally leave with him, though she was still fairly quivering with excitement. He observed her with some amusement.
"Oh! They were so kind, and Miss Elizabeth is so charming!"
Indeed she is, he thought.
"She was so kind to me when I ran into her, and so amusing, I quite forgot how upset I was."
Intelligent and witty, yet her wit was so refreshingly free of artifice or malice.
"I have never met anyone like her!"
"I am so pleased that she agreed to correspond with me!"
"Too young," he muttered.
"Fitzwilliam?" Georgiana was eyeing him oddly. "Do you really think I am too young to correspond with Miss Elizabeth?"
"Uh, no, of course not, Georgie." He cleared his throat, and then squeezed her shoulder affectionately. "Especially since you keep insisting on getting older."
She wrinkled her nose at him while taking his offered arm. After a few moments she said thoughtfully, "You know, even if she does not write, I will not be sorry for having met her. I do not think I will ever forget her."
Nor I, he thought.
As it happened, Fitzwilliam would have been unable to forget her even if he had wished to. Miss Elizabeth proved to be a faithful correspondent, and many was the time that Fitzwilliam followed the sound of Georgie's laughter only to find her reading a letter from her. The two girls were soon on a first name basis, and every letter would start a new round of "Elizabeth says..." "Elizabeth thinks..." "I wonder what Elizabeth would say about...." It was evident that Georgie's new friend had a tremendous influence over her, and he was relieved to find that what Miss Elizabeth said and thought confirmed his impression of her character. He need not regret allowing the correspondence.
Over the years it became clear that far from regretting it, he should be extremely thankful for it. He watched with pleasure as Georgiana matured into a composed, self-confident young lady, dealing calmly with everyone from Lady Catherine to the lowliest tenant. He was certain that were she so unfortunate as to meet with the Prince Regent himself, she would speak to him with that same quiet calmness. While she would never be out-going, she had lost a great deal of her shyness. He knew that he could not be solely credited with her metamorphosis, but that much of it was due to the advice and guidance she received in her letters from Miss Elizabeth.
He had never been more grateful for allowing the correspondence than the July day he received a letter from his sister, who had been staying in Ramsgate, detailing her encounters there with George Wickham. She had prefaced her explanation with the statement that Elizabeth had told her that she must write to him and tell him all. She concluded by telling him that Elizabeth had assured her that an honorable man would approach her brother for permission regardless of the circumstances, and that she should take care for neither Mr. Wickham nor Mrs. Younge were to be trusted.
Fitzwilliam thought very highly of Miss Elizabeth, indeed.
In October he was still thinking of her. He thought that it would be pleasant to see her again, so he could tell her how much he appreciated her advice to his sister. Perhaps Georgie could invite her to Pemberley for a visit. He wondered why they had never invited her before.
He was pondering the idea as he followed Bingley into the Meryton assembly, trying to tune out Miss Bingley's incessant droning. Really, how could a chap like Bingley have such a sister? A pity she had not had an Elizabeth to correspond with while she grew up.
Fitzwilliam hid a smirk at the idea, and looked up straight into the surprised eyes of Elizabeth Bennet. Stunned, he just stared at her, then realized that they were being introduced. He dimly heard Mrs. Bennet speaking. By the time Bingley had finished asking the young ladies to dance he had gathered his wits.
"Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, it is a very great pleasure to see you again." While the ladies curtsied and murmured politely, he realized he was smiling. Then he realized he could not stop. He decided not to care. "Miss Elizabeth, if you are not otherwise engaged, would you dance the next with me?"
She smiled brilliantly at him and ignored her sister's poorly-veiled amusement, Bingley's confusion and her mother's slack-jawed stare. "Mr. Darcy, I would be delighted."