Not the End, But the Beginning
Posted on July 5, 2008
"My heartiest congratulations Jane, and Mr. Bingley," beamed Mrs. Long, "I am sure you shall both be very happy, and comfortable."
Jane glowed as much at the twentieth salutation she received that night as she had at the first. It was wonderful to be reminded so constantly of her own happiness, although she hardly needed reminding.
Added to her own overwhelming joy was the great pleasure she found whenever she encountered her sister's eye and they shared a smile at their delightful secret. Being her sister's dearest and only confidante, it was natural that Lizzy should have told her of her engagement to Mr. Darcy before anyone else. In fact, Jane was the only soul but for Mr. Bennet who knew of the engagement. Mr. Bennet had given his consent---dubiously, at first---but had left it to his daughter to choose the time at which she would pass the information to her mother, and by extension, society.
And so as the Hertfordshire society gathered at Netherfield to celebrate the occasion of Jane and Bingley's engagement, only four in the ballroom were aware that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were not dancing merely for the sake of politeness. However, as she glanced across at the room Jane wondered that someone had not already guessed; they scarce had eyes for anyone but each other, despite no doubt valiant attempts.
The evening passed with much merriment, and it was full one o'clock in the morning before the Bennets, Darcy, Georgiana and Bingley were all that remained.
"Oh dear," sighed Mrs. Bennet, her cheeks quite red from heat and wine, "what a splendid evening."
"I am delighted it has been to your enjoyment, Mrs. Bennet," Bingley beamed at his future mother-in-law, casting an equally affable smile around the friends assembled.
"Indeed, a most enjoyable party, Bingley," Mr. Bennet agreed, "And now I shall call for our carriage."
As Mr. Bennet glanced around for a steward to instruct, Bingley interrupted, with a brief glance at Jane. "Oh, it would be a trouble for you sir, to travel home at so late an hour, and I'm quite sure it shall rain. No, I won't hear of it. You are all most welcome to spend the evening here at Netherfield. There are rooms for you all I'm sure."
"What a kind offer," Mrs. Bennet beamed, "We would be delighted to accept. Kitty and Mary shall share a room, as shall Lizzy and Jane, of course."
"Of course," nodded Bingley, blushing a little at the lady's less-than-subtle implication to his fiancé's sleeping arrangements, as though such a thought could have crossed his mind. Elizabeth and Darcy shared an amused and rather exasperated smile; one which did not go unnoticed to Jane, who blushed herself.
"Well," Bingley continued, "shall we all adjourn to the drawing room for a cup of tea before bed?"
There was a general murmur of approval, but Lizzy lagged behind, taking Kitty's arm as she was the closest sister at reach, and murmuring, "Kitty, I am quite tired all of a sudden...I may retire immediately. Bid the others goodnight for me."
The girl nodded and followed the retreating group, passing Mr. Darcy as he paused upon overhearing Elizabeth's declaration. They shared a glance, before Mr. Darcy continued after the party. After pouring himself a cup of tea, the gentleman excused himself to retire to bed, and was not very surprised to find Elizabeth waiting in the hallway.
"Miss Bennet," he murmured, raising an eyebrow in feigned surprise, although his tone betrayed his amusement, "Have you lost your way in search of your chambers?"
Turning, Lizzy's countenance brightened as her lips curved into a vivacious smile.
"Indeed, the size and grandeur of Netherfield overwhelms me."
"Indeed? Then you shall no doubt require my assistance navigating Pemberley, should you ever have reason to be there..."
They shared a smile, Elizabeth revelling in the way his eyes sparkled with amusement at their banter. Her smile deepened as he guided her down the hallway with a warm hand on the small of back.
"A jolly party, was it not?" she smiled, enjoying the greater intimacy that such seclusion afforded. It had been harder than she expected to conceal the feelings coursing through her at each glance throughout the evening.
"Very successful, and thoroughly enjoyed by all, especially the fiancés."
"Yes, Jane glowed all evening. It delights me to see her so happy."
Darcy nodded, smiling in approval at the sisterly love Elizabeth expressed whenever she spoke of Jane. "Naturally. I am sure they shall make the very example of marital felicity to which anyone else could aspire."
She was about to reply, when the man came to halt outside a large and polished door.
"I believe this will be your chambers for the evening, Miss Bennet."
"Thank you for your kind assistance, sir. Good evening."
"Goodnight, Elizabeth," Darcy smiled, reaching for her hand and raising it to his lips. Feeling a light flutter in her stomach at the intense gaze that accompanied this gesture, Lizzy smiled, before turning her own gaze to the hand that clasped hers.
"You know, it is terribly unfair," she mused, examining his slender fingers, "it is considered quite acceptable for you to kiss my hand and place your own on my back, but even when our engagement is made public it would be quite against propriety for me to touch you."
She did not notice that Darcy swallowed hard, fighting certain mental images. His rather pained expression increased when Lizzy raised his own hand clasped in hers, and returned the kiss. As she continued to press her lips to each of his knuckles, Darcy managed to murmur, "Elizabeth. Your sister will soon be following us to your chambers, and...We are quite alone, and you are very...at any rate, I think it would be wise for me to leave you now."
"Yes, you are probably right," Lizzy agreed; touched, amused, and just a little proud of the effect she obviously had on her fiancé. "Goodnight, Mr. Darcy."
He had half turned to go, but then paused and turned back to face her, his expression somewhat awkward. "Er...may I?"
Lizzy waited and watched him with pleased surprise as he placed a hand gently to her neck, leaning in to touch his lips ever so lightly to her cheek. He had clearly meant it to be a brief indulgence, but Elizabeth could not check a smile as one kiss became two, and three, until Darcy pulled back just enough to encounter her eye. They gazed at each other for what seemed like an eternity, until Lizzy released the breath she had been holding, her warm sweet breath rushing against his lips provoking Darcy to steal the kiss he had long been contemplating. Lizzy's eyelids fluttered closed.
When he pulled away, his voice was low. "And now I must leave you, while I still have the will." Their faces were still close, and his gaze fell longingly on the soft, full lips at so convenient a proximity. "Oh, I fear I have already lost it..." But he steeled himself and pulled away. "Goodnight, Miss Bennet. I hope you shall sleep well."
"I cannot be certain of that," she replied archly, "but I do not doubt that my dreams will be pleasant."
Once his fiancé had disappeared into her chambers, Darcy sighed, rubbing his forehead with one hand as he retreated down the hallway. Pausing for a moment to gaze back at Elizabeth's door, the man cursed under his breath.
Our engagement is not yet public, and already you push the boundaries of propriety! Not that propriety should know or care of stolen kisses, but you should not be so hasty to take liberties when you have an entire period of engagement ahead of you.
Even as he scolded himself internally, Darcy could still feel the warmth of Elizabeth's lips against his, and was furious at himself; for just that morning he had promised himself that he would remain a gentleman to Elizabeth, especially so early in their engagement. Of course, any such promise loses weight with her fine eyes blazing into his.
Sighing again, Darcy strolled back down the hall, intending to retire to his chambers immediately. He was so distracted that he nearly collided with Bingley.
"Oh, good evening Darcy. I say, you look rather in need of a nightcap; will you join me?"
"No thank you, Bingley. I believe I have had quite enough for one evening. I shall see you at breakfast. Good evening."
Bingley nodded with a knowing smile, clapping his friend on the shoulder. "Of course. And might I remind you that your room is in that direction?" He gestured to the opposite end of the house to the ladies' room. Darcy was not offended by his friend's teasing. "I might remind you of that yourself. Goodnight."
"An excellent suggestion, Mr. Bingley," smiled Mrs. Gardiner as they made their way down the sunny lane, "I haven't had a picnic in much too long."
Darcy observed his fiancé from a safe distance, separated by the bouncing Gardiner children. Her pleasure in being outdoors was obvious, and the exertion of walking brought a most becoming glow to her complexion. Her gaze turned quite suddenly to him, and he was caught in staring at her. Elizabeth's eyes sparkled in amusement, and she raised an eyebrow teasingly.
A suitable picnic-spot was decided upon, and the group enjoyed a delicious luncheon. The Gardiner children frolicked, chasing each other and picking wildflowers which they gave to their beloved young aunts (although they were much more eager to earn smiles from Jane and Lizzy than the other sisters). When the luncheon was over, the group departed and returned to Netherfield, from which Bingley would offer his carriage to return the Bennets and Gardiners to Longbourn just as soon as they wished.
However, Mrs. Bennet was in no hurry to return home---much to the delight and relief of the fiancés. While Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner sat together on the divan, Darcy engaged in conversation with Mr. Bennet, whom he was coming to respect and even like a little more with each conversation. He could see where Elizabeth got her liveliness of spirit. As his future father-in-law departed to speak with Mr. Gardiner, Darcy's attention was drawn by faint music from a distant room. Wandering slowly towards it, he came to a halt in the doorway of the music room as he witnessed a scene he would not disturb for the world.
Elizabeth sat at the pianoforte, surrounded by her young nieces and nephews, who all smiled and giggled as she played a simple tune rather indelicately and sang along.
"Three blind mice, three blind mice,See how they run, see how they run.
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a thing in your life
As three blind mice?"
Lizzy laughed at her own childishness as she finished the tune. "I hope when you are grown you shall all play your instruments much better than I."
"Play us something else, please, Aunt Lizzy!"
Elizabeth smiled, shifting on the piano stool so that the eldest Gardiner girl may sit next to her.
"Alright, but only if you help me. We shall play a duet. Do you think you could press this key for me, just like this?"
Soon the girl had mastered the simple task, and Lizzy played her own more complicated part, resulting in a less-than-harmonious sound, but a terribly endearing scene. Hidden in the doorway, Darcy watched, his mouth curving into an involuntary smile as warmth filled him to the core. Elizabeth simply glowed, with amusement at her own musical incompetence and pleasure at the company of the children.
He had lost track of just how long he had been spying on them, when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder."If I may detain you, Mr. Darcy," smiled Mr. Gardiner knowingly, "the gentlemen would like to engage in a game of billiards, and we hoped you might join us."
"Of course," murmured Darcy, feeling as though he had been caught red-handed, although admiring a young lady playing with children was really nothing to be ashamed of. It was with great reluctance that he left his position outside the music room.
After losing the game to Bingley, Darcy escaped as soon as he could and returned to the music room doorway, where a different scene awaited him. The Gardiner children were laughing and skipping around a chair in which his fiancé sat, her hands tied together with the girl's hair ribbon. Georgiana sat at the pianoforte, playing a Scottish jig with a very amused expression. Elizabeth was laughing."What merciless pirates you be, capturing a helpless maiden."
"We are indeed terrible pirates, you would do well to fear us. I, Captain Robert the Horrid, have captured many a maid and looted many a ship," declared her nephew, from behind the black ribbon that served as a makeshift eye patch. "I have never been defeated."
"Is that so? Then I must challenge you to a duel."
The entire room looked up and were surprised to see Mr. Darcy had entered, and was grinning down at the boy.
"You challenge me, sir?"
"Well, I see that you have captured this fair maiden and I feel honour-bound to fight for her freedom, if you will not release her willingly."
"Certainly not. A fight to the death?"
Elizabeth was gaping in amused astonishment. She enjoyed Darcy's warmth to Georgiana, but she would not have thought him to be of such a playful nature with younger children.
"If you insist," Darcy's eyes twinkled as he gazed around for a suitable weapon, eventually settling for the housekeeper's feather duster. The boy's weapon of choice was a knitting needle.
"On guard, you dastardly villain!"
A highly animated swordfight ensued, Darcy only just avoiding blows from the pirate's knitting needle. The object of their argument attempted to restrain her laughter, but she was too delighted and astonished to play the part of a frightened victim. Eventually Darcy was overpowered by the terrible pirate, falling to his knees."Is there nothing I can do to convince you to set the lady free?"
The pirate thought for a moment, his weapon poised at the chest of the defeated hero.
"Perhaps...what would you be willing to trade for her?"
"Well," Darcy mused, "I do have a hat out in the hallway that would become a pirate captain very well. If I may be permitted to fetch it..."
He returned a moment later, bearing a fine black hat that he placed before Captain Robert the Horrid.
"Yes, this will do very well. Release the maid," he instructed his First Mate, placing the rather oversized hat on his head. Untied from her ribbon bonds, Lizzy crossed the room to greet her valiant hero.
"Good sir, how brave you are. I am forever in your debt. How may I repay you?"
Darcy smiled. "A walk in the garden, perhaps?"
From her seat at the pianoforte, Georgiana smiled. She had her suspicions as to what---or more specifically, who--- had caused this change in her brother.
Darcy offered his arm, and Elizabeth took it as they entered the garden."And you are not ashamed to be defeated in battle by an eight year old?"
"I am not ashamed to be defeated by the great Captain Robert. Besides, I still won my prize."
"That you did," she smiled. "And did you sleep well last night?"
The gentle reproach in Darcy's gaze could not hide his amusement. "Not long enough, I'm afraid."
"Yes, the ball did run quite late, didn't it?"
"Quite," Darcy nodded, amused by her wilful misunderstanding. "But my dreams were pleasant."
Lizzy chuckled, marvelling to herself that months ago she would never have believed herself to be having such a conversation with Mr. Darcy. She sighed contentedly.
"Oh, I do love you, Fitzwilliam."
Darcy stopped in his tracks, causing her to as well by their linked arms. She watched with surprise as he stared at her. He seemed speechless, eventually lifting her hand to his lips and kissing it fervently. "I...Thank you, Elizabeth."
"You seem surprised," she wondered, "Did you not know?"
"Well, I...I suppose you did consent to marry me, but...to hear you say it..."
Elizabeth gazed up at him, feeling close to bursting with love for him. That such a man could so depend on her love!
"I shall say it every day, to have you look at me like this."
"And you had never called me by my Christian name before, either."
"I love you, Fitzwilliam."
"And I love you, Elizabeth, as you are well aware."
Darcy cast a gaze around the garden ascertaining that they were alone. "May I?""You need not ask," his fiancé smiled as he closed the distance between them. After a moment, she placed her one hand over his as it caressed her neck, and when they finally drew back she was left breathless and flushed. Then Elizabeth closed her eyes with a rather pained expression.
"Nine weeks, at least!"Realising the cause of his fiancé's frustration, Darcy could not suppress a hearty laugh.
"Believe me, my dear, I feel it just as keenly---I imagine more keenly---than yourself. Perhaps then we might announce our engagement to the public, thereby hastening our marriage in the long term."
"Yes, we should. I should not have wanted to detract any attention from Jane and Mr. Bingley, but I believe that now the time is right."
"And just think, once we are publicly engaged I may rescue you from dastardly pirates as affectionately as I choose."
"And I may be more open in expressing my gratitude."
The smile that they shared as they strolled the garden was observed only by Georgiana, from her place at the window. Yes, it certainly looked hopeful.
Elizabeth Bennet hummed to herself as she let her hair down, examining her reflection in the looking glass. She could see Jane reflected too, sitting on the bed behind her.
"You are happy, Lizzy. I cannot tell you how that pleases me."
"And I cannot tell you what pleasure seeing your happiness gives me, dearest Jane," Lizzy smiled, coming to join her on the bed.
"To think how things used to be, and how they shall be...I remember once you joked that you would end an old maid and teach my ten children to play their instruments!"
"Play their instruments very ill," Lizzy corrected, laughing. "And I do not see that it was such an improbable prediction, for I'm sure you shall have many children and that anything they learn from me would be highly defective."
Jane laughed too, taking her sister's hands. "Perhaps not an entirely improbable prediction, except for your ending an old maid."
"Well, I cannot be right all the time, can I?"
Lizzy could not contain the joy bubbling from inside her in the form of laughter as she snuggled down under the covers. "No, I shall be very glad of a husband. Of the man who is to be my husband. For I must have someone to protect me from marauding pirates."
"If Mr. Darcy is the valiant hero you say, then you deserve nothing less, dear Lizzy."
"Do you remember, dear Jane, when you would read to me, from our book of fairy tales?""Of course, there was nothing I liked as much. And we were always terribly fond of a happy ending."
"Exactly what I was thinking. Of course, now we shall be able to see what comes after ‘happily ever after'. I don't imagine it shall all be blissful."
"No," Jane agreed, "but I look forward to it all the same."
"So do I, dear sister. So do I."