Beginning, Section XIII
Posted on October 4, 2008
Jane woke to find the room still dark. The purple light of daybreak and the first stirrings of the dawn chorus crept between the hinges of the window shutters. Becoming more conscious of her surroundings, she smiled as she sensed the comforting weight of her husband's arm draped over her and the warmth of his breath on her neck.
A succession of knocks made her jump and she lifted her head from the bed. Realising a sound at the door must have roused her, she looked down to see Charles, still sleeping peacefully. Having been married for two months, Jane now believed him capable of sleeping through most things in the morning.
She grabbed her dressing gown, wrapping the silk around her and pushing her feet into her slippers before moving to the door. She found Pemberley's housekeeper in the hallway, similarly attired. "Mrs Reynolds! Is something wrong?"
The housekeeper's expression did not console her. "I hope not, Ma'am. The under house maid woke me this morning. She'd been carrying the coals upstairs, ready to light the fires, when she heard crying from Miss Bennet's room. It worried her enough she thought someone ought to be told. I've been to see her myself and I'm sorry to say she is very distressed. I know not the reason for it. She would not speak of her troubles to me. I thought you would want to be informed, Ma'am."
"Oh! Yes ... yes! I will come." Jane looked down at her attire, wondering if she should dress first. Walking around the hallways in your night clothes might be acceptable behaviour at Longbourn, but she could not imagine acting in such a way at Pemberley.
Mrs Reynolds seemed to sense her thoughts. "I think your sister would appreciate your presence sooner rather than later, Mrs Bingley. I will arrange for your maid to bring your things to Miss Bennet's room."
The woman's comment only served to concern Jane all the more, but she begged a moment to speak to her husband. Closing the door, she sat on their bed and grasped Charles's shoulder, giving him a shake. "Charles ... Charles! I have to go to Lizzy."
"Lizzy is unwell. I must go to her."
Charles woke, concentrating as he brought his sleepy eyes into focus. He shook his head as his confusion made way for indignation. "You are leaving this room dressed like that?"
She unconsciously tightened the belt of her dressing gown. Of all the garments her mother had helped her choose prior to her marriage, the embroidered linen had been one of her more modest choices. "Mrs Reynolds thinks it imperative I go to Lizzy. I did not want you to worry where I was. I will dress in Lizzy's room, but I must go now."
Her serious tone finally penetrated his understanding and he sat up in bed, the covers collecting around his waist as he stroked her shoulder. "Give Lizzy a hug from me, my Angel."
Jane whispered her promise to do as he asked, before slipping into the silent corridor. Mrs Reynolds did not hide her relief when the door opened and wasted no time in directing Mrs Bingley down the hall and around a corner.
There, they were forced to stop. In front of Elizabeth's bedroom door, a young girl---a housemaid, Jane guessed from her dress---barred the passage of the Master of the house. She flashed a grateful smile when Mrs Reynolds arrived, glad to be spared any responsibility for the situation she found herself in.
Ignoring Mr. Darcy's desperate request for information, the housekeeper swept Jane along in her wake and ushered her into the room before turning to face him. The door closed behind Jane as Mrs Reynolds' voice rose in question to her master. However, all other considerations were soon banished from her mind as she surveyed the state of her sister's room.
She found the bed covers in disarray and the pillows strewn across the floor. Elizabeth had curled up on the end of the bed, her head in her hands as she sobbed miserably. Running across the room, Jane fell to her knees, cradling her sister.
The warmth of her comfort made Elizabeth cry harder, but Jane knew it would only be a matter of time before her tears would subside. She stroked her hair and murmured comforting words until she heard no more than an occasional sniffle from the woman in her arms.
Sometime later, Jane realised Elizabeth had fallen asleep leaning against her shoulder. Fortunately, the door of the dressing room opened soon after and Mrs Reynolds peered in the room, followed by Jane's own maid. Between them, the chamber was set to rights and new sheets placed on the mattress. They managed to put Elizabeth back into her bed before Jane dressed in a plain yellow morning gown, while the housekeeper arranged a vase of fresh cut roses on the windowsill to brighten the room.
After assuring her Miss Bennet would sleep for some time, Mrs Reynolds left a maid with Elizabeth while Jane returned to her own room. She found her husband sitting on the end of the bed, paring his nails in an unhurried manner.
"Is everything well now, my love?"
"Oh, Charles, Lizzy fell asleep before I had the chance to discover what had upset her. I must not delay here; I would like to return to her side before she wakes."
He stood. "Will you join me for breakfast?" She shook her head. "Then I shall order you a tray, for you will be of no help to Lizzy if you should faint with hunger." Pulling Jane closer, he dropped his head to press a leisurely kiss on her lips.
"You can do one little thing for me," Jane said when he released her. "Encourage Mr. Darcy to take a ride this morning."
"You wish him out of his own house?"
"Only until I discover what has upset my sister."
"I will try my best, although I doubt he will be interested."
As she retraced her steps to the upper floor, Jane was not wholly surprised to find Mr. Darcy pacing up and down outside Elizabeth's room. His shirt and waistcoat had not been changed from the previous night and his dark curls were disordered, as though he had run his fingers through them more than once. He appeared not to have slept. As she walked closer, he checked his movement and favoured her with a bow. "Good morning, Mrs Bingley."
Jane curtsied. "My husband is downstairs in the breakfast room if you are looking for him."
"No. I ... I hoped you might tell me how Miss Bennet does this morning? I understand she is taken ill."
"I do not yet know what is wrong, Mr. Darcy. I am waiting to speak to her."
He stared at Elizabeth's door, and Jane thought she heard him sigh. "If Miss Bennet needs anything ... if I can help in any way ... inform Mrs Reynolds and it will be done."
"Thank you. I will be sure to ask." She tried to reassure him with a smile. His anguish showed in the dark shadows under his eyes and she sympathised with him, but until she had spoken to Lizzy and discovered the cause of her strange outburst in the night, her worry equalled his.
Jane let herself into Elizabeth's room, closing the door firmly behind her. The maid who had been set to watch over her sister remained by the end of the bed, working through a pile of darning. Jane remembered a time when she had done something similar at Longbourn, when Lydia had the quinsy. She thanked the woman and watched her leave through the dressing room, before sitting next to the bed and holding her sister's hand. She sat silently for a further half an hour before Lizzy became restless in her sleep and started murmuring to herself. Jane stroked her hand, hoping to calm her, but after a few minutes she grew anxious, her head rolling from side to side as though she suffered a fever.
One moment she was quiet, the next Lizzy's eyes snapped open as she cried out an impassioned, "No!" The tears rolled down her pale cheeks as she turned to look at Jane. For a brief moment there was no hint of recognition in her eyes, then they softened slightly and she sighed.
"Shhh, Lizzy. It is me ... Jane. Nothing here will hurt you."
She mumbled what sounded like "... a dream." Jane held her closer, relived her sister suffered nothing worse than a nightmare. However, when Elizabeth spoke again her words were clearer and more definite. "It was no dream, Jane! I remember."
"What do you remember?"
Elizabeth looked up, her eyes red from her tears. "Everything."
Jane listened as her sister spoke; haltingly at first, but growing stronger with the telling. Initially, the experience she described did seem more like a dream than a memory, particularly when she related the chief of the scene that had taken place between Mr. Darcy and herself. Jane understood the power of wishful thinking and presumed Elizabeth had been captured in its toils. Her disbelief was lessened only by the strong sisterly partiality which made any admiration of Elizabeth appear perfectly natural and all surprise that their host might have made an offer for Lizzy all those months ago was soon lost in other feelings.
If it were true---and she still could not be sure either way---Jane was sorry Mr. Darcy had delivered his sentiments in a manner so little suited to recommend them, but equally she grieved for the unhappiness her sister's refusal must have given him.
At least this began to explain why Mr. Darcy had appeared to be so in love and yet been so reticent about making her sister an offer.
Jane dipped a cloth in water before wringing the excess out and reapplying the pad to Elizabeth's forehead, easing the pain. "It is almost past belief! And poor Mr. Darcy! Dearest Lizzy, only consider what he must have suffered. Such a disappointment, and with the knowledge of your ill opinion, too! Such a distressing circumstance; I am sure you must feel it so."
"Indeed, I am heartily sorry for his suffering," Elizabeth replied, with more than a hint of insincerity, "but there are other things to reveal, which will soon drive away your regard for him. When I remember how proud he was of separating you from Charles." She pursed her lips and shook her head, dislodging the cloth.
Jane sympathised with her sister, but could not stand by and allow her to malign a man she knew to be a loyal friend to her husband. "He did not separate Charles and me, as you are well aware. Mr. Darcy encouraged Charles to return to Netherfield, and even told him I was in London."
Elizabeth's fingers clutched at the counterpane. "But do you not see? Mr. Darcy prompted his flight from Netherfield in the first place! He told me so! Everything in his power to separate his friend from my sister, those were his exact words."
Despite her concern that Lizzy's thoughts were focussed too firmly in the past, Jane felt obliged to point out the obvious flaw in her sister's logic. "And yet Charles and I are married, and Mr. Darcy stood beside us," she reminded her gently. "He found out I was in London and went out of his way to make Charles aware of it. Perhaps your conversation at Rosings had some bearing on his decision? Whatever opinions he once possessed do seem to have changed over recent months."
Elizabeth yawned, exhausted from her disturbed sleep. "You do not blame me, though, for refusing him?"
"Blame you! Oh, no. Not if he proposed in the way you described."
"But you blame me for having spoken so warmly of Wickham."
Wrapping her arm around Elizabeth's shoulder, she tried to reassure her. "When those words were spoken, you had heard nothing to the discredit of the Lieutenant. It was not until Mr. Darcy told papa---"
"After I had challenged him!"
Jane smiled, knowing the full implication of her sentence had yet to imprint itself on her sister's mind. "Perhaps Mr. Darcy wanted you in possession of the facts about Mr. Wickham so you could make an informed decision? What had you accused him of?"
Elizabeth buried her face in her hands. "Reducing Mr. Wickham to his state of poverty and withholding advantages designed for him. Oh, Jane! However can I face Mr. Darcy again? What must he think of me?"
"According to your opinion he thinks very little of you ... or at least of our family, but if that were the case why would he invite you here or encourage your friendship with his sister?"
"Why indeed?" Elizabeth clutched at her aching head. "Oh, I do not know what to believe! His words ... the manner of his proposal ... my cursed memories ... they repeat in my head over and over, until I can hardly comprehend where I am. I wish they had never returned. Even if Mr. Darcy's has changed his opinions, what of the things I said to him?"
"Yes, it was unfortunate you should have used such very strong expressions in speaking of Wickham to Mr. Darcy, for now they do appear wholly undeserved. But perhaps Mr. Darcy does not remember what you said?"
"How could he not, when I recall it in every detail?"
Jane privately thought the shock of her memory returning had overwhelmed her sister to the point where Elizabeth had forgotten the strength of Mr. Darcy's attachment. Either that or the event had never truly taken place, except in her sister's mind. Her description of the proposal seemed at odds with the behaviour she had herself witnessed between the two at Pemberley. Mr. Darcy had shown no signs of despising the Bennet family, nor did he seem the sort of man who would make such a poorly worded offer of marriage. In fact, there was very little of the story she could credit beyond doubt, and she remained inclined to believe it part of a very bad dream.
Her sister sighed as she lay back against the pillows. "It is now clear what made him so unwilling to come to the point. A man who has once been refused! How could I ever be foolish enough to expect him to repeat words that have already been spoken? Is there one among his sex who would not protest against such a weakness as a second proposal to the same woman?" Elizabeth dashed away a treacherous tear. "There is no indignity so abhorrent to their feelings. The idea of seeing him ... talking to him; I cannot do it."
"But Mr. Darcy is our host. You can hardly avoid him."
Elizabeth grabbed Jane's arm as she swung her legs from the bed. "Can you and Charles not take me home? Today?"
She stared at her miserable sister, begging to be returned to Longbourn. Even a day earlier Jane could not imagine Lizzy asking to go back to Hertfordshire. In fact, only two days ago she had spoken of a desire to remain at Pemberley for the rest of her life. "You would leave without speaking to Mr. Darcy? Is that truly what you want? He will still be Charles' friend. You cannot avoid his acquaintance forever. And what of Miss Darcy? Would you shun her over this?"
Upon hearing this, Elizabeth seemed to calm. "No ... no, you are right, I cannot. Regardless of what has happened between me and Mr. Darcy, I could never eschew Georgiana's friendship."
"Then perhaps you should consider what pain she might suffer if you choose to leave so abruptly."
Elizabeth rubbed at her forehead. "If only the pain would go. This ache in my head makes it so difficult to concentrate. I am so confused. What should I do, Jane? Advise me."
Jane looked at the timepiece on the mantel. Despite having been woken hours ago, it still wanted a few minutes to nine o'clock. "Well, first of all, I think you should try to sleep a little more. You are still very tired and that may be the reason your mind remains unsettled." Elizabeth sank back onto the bed and Jane pulled the sheet up, tucking her in like a child. "While you are sleeping I will consider what you have told me and will return later to discuss what should be done."
Nodding, Elizabeth relaxed as her eyes fluttered closed.
Charles lifted another slice of beef from the platter. "Come now, Darcy. You are looking pale. A ride in the park, with all that fresh air ... it will do you good."
"No, not today."
"Not even for half an hour? Well, this is a fine thing. I thought a good host always saw to his guest's entertainment?"
Darcy sipped his coffee, unable to explain to his friend what kept him at home. "I fear I will be poor company this morning. Besides, there is a task that requires my attention."
Charles eyed him suspiciously, but made no further attempt to solicit his company. Darcy had only spoken the truth. He would not leave the house until he had found the opportunity to speak to Mrs Bingley, or better still to Elizabeth herself.
Georgiana had chosen to breakfast in her room, so she could not yet know of Elizabeth's indisposition. Darcy doubted he would have heard about it so quickly had he not already been awake and overheard a conversation between two of the maids. Bingley had dismissed the news with a wave of his hand, mumbling something incoherent about ladies' problems and reassuring him that Jane would deal with it.
After a few moments of silence, Darcy stood, excusing himself as he left the dining room and retired to his study. However, rather than taking the seat behind his desk, he moved to stand by the window, looking down upon the rose garden his mother had planted. He often visited it when he needed comfort or guidance. At those times it almost felt as though he were surrounded by the loving embrace of the mother he remembered from his childhood. He wondered what advice she might have had for him, had she been alive; what would she think of Elizabeth.
There was no need to speculate on the latter question. His mother would have loved Elizabeth ... because he loved Elizabeth.
If only he could be sure that she was only ill and not suffering from the return of her memories. Should he write to Spencer? After all, his uncle's estate was less than half a day's travel away; he could be at Pemberley by dinner. No, Mrs Reynolds had assured him Elizabeth's indisposition did not require a doctor and Spencer was needed more at Matlock.
His gaze wandered aimlessly across the flower beds, until one cluster of blooms of the palest pink caught his attention. They reminded him of the windblown colour in Elizabeth's cheeks when they had been on one of their early morning walks. He had gathered red roses rather than pink that morning, to send to Elizabeth's room. It was an act of desperation on his part. He had heard they were a symbol of love and hoped she had understood the message he wanted to convey.
A knock sounded on the door and he absently called his assent. However, it was not a servant, as he had thought, but Mrs Bingley. "Have you news?" She nodded. Desperate to know the worst, he said, "Is your sister ill?"
"No, not ill exactly. Lizzy has been disturbed by a nightmare. That might sound silly to you, but it has upset her so greatly she cannot reconcile herself to it. She sincerely believes it was not a simple dream at all, but a memory; one that was lost to her following her accident in Kent."
An icy shiver crawled down his spine. It was as he had feared. Darcy had known this day might come, yet nothing could have prepared him for it. He wondered whether Elizabeth had told all to her sister. "Pray, do not trifle with me. Did Miss Bennet relate to you the substance of her dream?"
"Yes, she did, although ..." At this point, the colour that sprang onto her cheek told its own story. "It is so fantastical, I cannot believe there is any reality in it ... but Lizzy believes it."
"May I ask what she has remembered?"
Mrs Bingley lowered her eyes, indecision and embarrassment evident on her features. "Under the circumstances, I do not think telling you would help my sister's distress."
"I understand why you might think so, but I still must know." He paused, wondering how he could encourage Elizabeth's sister to divulge the information. "Might I be allowed to venture a guess?"
She nodded dumbly, her expression showing her doubts.
Darcy waved to one of the chairs, and paused while she sat down. He, however, could not sit still and instead walked to the fireplace, resting his hand on the intricately carved marble. The chill he felt through the cold stone mirrored the feeling in his stomach. Over and over he had had countless opportunities to tell Elizabeth the truth about those missing hours at Rosings---at least the part he had been witness to---but, like a craven fellow, he had put it off, finding all manner of reasons to avoid it. He would now pay the price for his delay.
He looked down. Mrs Bingley still waited for his explanation. Her concern for her sister was clear, but Darcy now found he did not even know where to start, or what form of words to use to describe the event that had haunted not only his sleep, but too many of his waking hours.
Seeing his hesitancy, she took pity on him. "Was it a dream?"
He silently blessed her. "No, it was not."
Although his earlier words must have given her fair warning, she still seemed stunned by his declaration. She looked up at him; her faint smile at odds with the confusion he saw in her eyes. "But ... but Lizzy's accident was in April."
"Yes. It is a circumstance I am unlikely to forget."
Her confusion turned briefly to anger. "Do you mean you knew how my sister was hurt? You were with her during the period of time she lost, and yet you never said anything?"
He held up his hands. "I promise you, on my honour, I have no idea how Miss Bennet was injured. She was well when I last saw her that day and I was more worried than anyone when I discovered she was missing. However, it is true to say that, for a short time during the period she was unable to remember, we met and held a ... a private conversation."
Mrs Bingley's face was a mask. For a long time she did not seem to know what to say. Darcy expected many things: anger; censure; condemnation. He did not expect the smile that slowly grew until it lit up her countenance. "You have admired my sister all this time?" she asked, her voice suffused with wonder.
Darcy could make no reply. The lump in his throat at seeing her easy acceptance of him turned him mute. However, his silence seemed to be everything Elizabeth's sister wanted. Looking down at the logs smouldering in the grate, Darcy realised it was not enough. He still had a mountain to climb, but he felt compelled to explain himself.
At least Bingley was not present to add to his misery.
He sat down in the chair next to Mrs Bingley. She exuded an air of willingness, giving Darcy the sense that she was prepared to hear him without judgement. It made him all the more determined to be completely open about the circumstances of his ill-fated proposal.
"I must explain the events of that day, although they do me no credit. Your sister did refuse my suit, most vehemently, but I deserved nothing less. I was arrogant and rude. I assumed that Miss Bennet was aware of my ... my admiration for her and I believed it was reciprocated. I thought that I had but to ask; that the honour was mine to bestow and, at the time, I felt assured my suit would be welcomed unreservedly." Darcy paused a moment. He knew that there was still more to Elizabeth's rejection than he had told.
"I always prided myself on my frankness and I assumed your sister would appreciate my honesty when I laid before her in meticulous detail how I had struggled to reconcile your family's position with that of my own."
"Oh dear," Mrs Bingley whispered.
Darcy braced himself, expecting Elizabeth's sister to express her disappointment. Her reply surprised him.
"I suspect your conversation was doomed to fail from the beginning, for I well recall Lizzy's opinion of you at that time. I do not think you could have worded your offer in any terms that would have been acceptable to her then."
Darcy smiled ruefully, remembering Elizabeth's own words. Mrs Bingley did not realise just how close she came to the truth. She obviously knew her sister well.
"I cannot say you were right to be so certain of success, Mr. Darcy, but I imagine you must have felt some disappointment."
While Darcy had long come to appreciate Mrs Bingley's better qualities, he could only admire her understanding and empathy. "Indeed, although my wounded pride would not allow it at first. I was angry, and determined to satisfy your sister's desire for solitude. Although the storm showed no signs of abating, I left Miss Bennet alone in the shelter of my aunt's folly, thinking her safe enough there, while I rode on to Rosings. Had I behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner and made sure your sister was first returned to the safety of the parsonage, she may not have suffered whatever evil befell her."
"Lizzy would never have accepted your solicitude under those circumstances. If it was the accident it appears, then you could not hold yourself to blame for what followed your ... conversation."
"Perhaps not, but I do consider myself in some measure responsible for Miss Bennet's accident, as surely as though I had struck the blow myself."
He recollected the scene like it were yesterday; riding over the park with Richard, searching for any sign of her; hearing Mr. Goodwin signalling the alarm; lifting Elizabeth's head from the ground and brushing the hair from her face; the guilt, a sharp pain stabbing at his heart as he saw the ultimate result of his overblown pride and anger. If his anguish had returned so strongly just thinking about that day, how much more might Elizabeth be suffering as she remembered his words for the first time in four months?
Mrs Bingley cleared her throat, recalling Darcy to the present. "Thank you for telling me the truth. Now I know it was not just a terrible nightmare I will better be able to help my sister."
"Mrs Bingley, you must allow me to be of service. I ... I need an occupation."
"When I reveal what Lizzy wished for, I doubt you would offer your assistance so readily." She paused a moment, her sympathy clear as her eyes met his. "She has begged me to take her home."
Darcy stiffened. "Did you agree?"
"As she is my sister, my natural reaction should be to do as she asks, but my conscience forbids such action. Regardless of the strong opinions Lizzy formerly held, when I arrived in Derbyshire I knew she had fallen in love with you, and I believe you are not indifferent to Lizzy, despite her earlier rejection. She just needs to be reminded of that fact." She blushed then, as though she had said more than she had intended. "I should seek out my husband and let him know we might be returning home sooner than planned." Reassuring him with a gentle smile, Mrs Bingley left the room, abandoning Darcy to his thoughts.
How could I have been such a fool? Elizabeth must hate me. He paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, thinking about Jane Bingley's calm acceptance of his tale. At least she did not condemn him for his actions. But what did Elizabeth think of him? Will she even want to speak to me again? And if she will not, how can I ever live without her?
He recalled Mrs Bingley's words. She loves you ... She just needs to be reminded of that fact.
Was the solution that simple? If he reminded Elizabeth of the feelings that had grown between them, might she change her mind?
Abandoning his study, Darcy climbed the stairs, determined to do all in his power to keep Elizabeth at Pemberley
Posted on October 11, 2008
Elizabeth lay in bed, staring at the canopy above her. She was no longer crying; that would be impossible. She wondered if she would ever be able to cry again, or whether her store of tears had been exhausted. Her eyes were red and swollen from every drop shed, while the pain in her head still pulsed somewhere behind her ears.
Her memories, missing since that fateful day in April, were now painfully restored, as fresh as if they had happened only yesterday. She remembered everything: reading Jane's letters; the rain catching her unawares; sheltering under the old stone temple; Mr. Darcy's proposal. Elizabeth caught a dry sob in her chest and breathed deeply to quell it. She could not yet accept the enormity of his declaration; it was impossible to think of anything else. The dream ... no, the memory remained as clear to her now as when she had first woken in the darkness.
"My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything."
The pain in her head might grow less, but the anguish in her heart never seemed to diminish. How could he have spoken to her in that way if he loved her?
That Elizabeth had already received an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy was not as surprising to her now as she remembered it being in April. However, the manner of his proposal shocked her more. During her visit to the Parsonage at Easter, she still considered Mr. Darcy almost a stranger; she knew so little of him. Now his remembered words cut through her like a shard of broken glass. His pride ... his abominable pride! His shameless avowal of everything he had done with respect to Jane; his unpardonable assurance in acknowledging his actions, though unable to justify them.
Was this truly the heart of the man she had fallen in love with?
If Mr. Darcy had spoken of marriage on the morning he left for Matlock---as she believed he wanted to---she would have welcomed his avowals with pleasure. Elizabeth pushed the thought away. It did no good to dwell on the man she had known at Pemberley, for now she realised she did not comprehend him at all. Did this overweening pride still lurk like a snarling beast within him? Had he masked his true and honest feelings over the last two months, showing her a face that was not his?
As often as she tried to dwell on other, more recent events, the scenes playing out in her head were impossible to ignore. She might have reasonably expected to watch such a spectacle at the theatre, except the only actors in this tragedy were herself and Mr. Darcy.
"From the very beginning---from the first moment, I may almost say---of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike. I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry."
"You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness."
It had been a performance worthy of Mrs. Jordan, or indeed any of the Kembles.
She recalled the boiling resentment she felt at his sense of superiority. He had dwelt on the family obstacles that had opposed his inclinations with a single-mindedness at odds with everything she had since learned about him. His proposal was offered in the same way another man might confer a great gift. Mr. Darcy had expected her to be grateful for the overwhelming favour he intended to bestow on her, but she had found no reason at all for gratitude ... and harboured no desire to be the wife of such a proud, insufferable man.
And yet the previous night's revelation could not completely mask her memories of the last fortnight and a few brief moments broke into her thoughts "... I would approach, but dare not move: tell me, my heart, if this be love?"
Elizabeth closed her eyes, as though by simply lowering her eyelids she might block the visions swimming before her. It seemed to her that Mr. Darcy was, in reality, two separate men. The first was cruel, haughty and above being pleased. Simple conversation with neighbours fell beneath his notice; country entertainment beyond his contempt. He had discovered her sheltering beneath the folly at Rosings, lowering himself to offer his hand in the most callous way imaginable. He had spoken of his apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance had betrayed the security he felt; confident of a favourable answer on that day.
The other Mr. Darcy---the man she had first met at Jane's wedding---had been revealed over time to be kind and loving, with humility, diffidence and a smile that stole her breath away.
The second man held a place in her heart, but only the first had ever asked for her hand.
She wanted to hate him. It took little effort to dredge up those slights and offenses he had committed during his stay at Netherfield, but then later, happier memories would once again intrude, spoiling her efforts and only serving to remind her of the man she had fallen in love with. The caring brother; the stalwart friend to her father and cousin; the man whose smile alone would make her heart leap with joy.
Elizabeth drew in a deep breath as the ache in her head throbbed, before fading away again. Memories flashed across her mind, to be replaced almost immediately by another, and another. She wanted to scream; wanted them all to go away. The pain and confusion overwhelmed her senses.
A knock on the door diverted her attention. Expecting Jane, she pushed back the bed covers and sat up, but froze when a deeper voice---one wholly unlike her sister's---sounded in the hallway beyond.
"Miss Bennet? May I speak with you?"
Mr. Darcy's muffled enquiry rooted her to the spot; unwilling to move forward ... unable to retreat. Only the day before she would have run to him, and gladly, but now she could not. Now she knew in what light he truly regarded her and her family, although recalling it had almost torn her heart in two.
"Miss Bennet! ... Elizabeth! I beg you to open the door."
Her heart beat a little faster as he addressed her by her Christian name. If only it had been spoken with love, but that idea---once so dear to her---must now be impossible. The handle rattled as he attempted to enter, and Elizabeth had never been more grateful of her foresight, turning the key in the lock after Jane left. Mr. Darcy was the one person she dare not meet; not now, not after all she remembered.
She needed to get away from Pemberley ... away from him. She needed time to think about the implications and to process the memories that had been unlocked.
Elizabeth lifted her dressing gown from the chair by her bed, wrapping the silk around her like an impenetrable wall, before moving closer to the door, her footsteps muffled by the thick carpet. She put her ear against the wood. His voice returned, closer than she expected, as though his head rested against the door on the other side. "Elizabeth, you must allow me to explain."
She recognised the note of frustration, but uncharitably refused to accept she should allow him any opportunity to excuse his behaviour. Surely, he had said more than enough in Kent, making his feelings perfectly clear. Elizabeth bit her lip, hoping Jane would return soon. He dare not remain outside her door all day.
The corridor beyond was now still. Elizabeth stood against the door, wondering if he remained without, but no sound marked his passage; no creaking floorboards or heavy footfall came to her ears, leaving her with a sense of loss.
Despite everything her confused and aching head told her, her heart---that treacherous organ---was still in love with him.
She let out a sigh and turned, walking towards the window before a different sound made her pause; a familiar creak she could not quite place. Elizabeth raised her head, only to find Mr. Darcy, framed by the open dressing room door, his hand resting upon the handle.
Neither of them moved. The shock of his presence turned Elizabeth to stone. He stood silently, watching ... waiting.
"Mr. Darcy!" His name escaped Elizabeth's lips in an agitated whisper ... part panic, part hope. While he remained a distant, shadowy figure, she had tried so hard to despise him. Now, the sight of him---wary but determined, his eyes alternating between hope and despair---brought back too many other memories of happier times, which only confused her all the more.
But looks alone were deceiving---a lesson learned through her association with Mr. Wickham---and she wondered which Mr. Darcy now stood before her. The cold, dispassionate landowner who believed her family's consequence to be so far beneath his? Or the man who had read her poetry and walked in the gardens, delighting in her company and making her fall so foolishly in love with him?
Two such disparate men could not possibly inhabit one body.
Elizabeth's heart fluttered, reaching out almost against her will to the man whose face bore such a strong resemblance to her love. Its pulse throbbed inside her skull as the pressure increased. She brought her hands up to cover her eyes, rubbing at her temples to ease the crushing weight and hide the mortification in her face.
Her voice sounded strange and unsteady as she said, "I did not realise being in your house gave you the right to enter my room without permission, sir."
She sensed him move a step closer, but did not look up. "Had I knocked on this door and sought your permission, would you have given it?" He gave her a moment to reply, but she made no comment. "No, I thought not." His words bore a hint of regret, but she heard no censure in his tone.
Elizabeth lowered her hands, looking into his darkened eyes for the first time since he had left for Matlock. The sight shocked her.
His attire appeared far from his usual immaculate standard. His crumpled neck cloth hung loose against his throat and the shadows beneath his eyes hinted at a lack of sleep. When he spoke again, his voice seemed pained by some fathomless emotion. "Yet you intended to leave Pemberley without first giving me the opportunity to speak ... to defend myself."
Elizabeth turned away, escaping to the window seat as her wretched memory wounded her afresh with newfound barbs. "I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance." As she collapsed onto the soft cushions, Elizabeth sniffed as her tears returned. She raised her damp handkerchief to dab at the dewy trails, but found it incapable of fulfilling its office.
Mr. Darcy's hand appeared in front of her, offering his own in replacement before withdrawing a short distance away.
She made use of the soft lawn; the faint scent of him comforting her, reminding her of their last, all too brief meeting. The only sound Elizabeth could hear was her own heart, beating in counterpoint to his shuddering breaths.
"Will you grant me the opportunity to explain?"
Elizabeth's eyes fell to the roses in a vase nearby. Despite all her misgivings she still had an overwhelming desire to hear what he had to say. Rubbing one of the velvet petals between her finger and thumb, she addressed her words to the flower. "As you are already here, and this is your house, I doubt I could stop you."
He made no comment, instead going straight to the heart of the matter. "You remember our meeting in Kent."
"Then you do not deny it?"
"Why would I? We both know it to be the truth."
Elizabeth let out a sigh, relieved he would not insist on perpetuating the fallacy of it being a nightmare. Jane harboured doubts whether the scenes she described were accurately recalled, although her elder sister would not express those doubts openly. Mr. Darcy's statement confirmed everything she needed to know. "If that is the case, then I must wonder why you would want me here at all."
"I should think that was obvious. You are here because I love you."
Elizabeth's heart jumped into her throat, leaving her struggling for breath. She wanted so desperately to believe him. "How can such a thing be possible, when you consider my family to be so beneath your notice?"
His reflection came into view over her shoulder. She watched the distorted image in the glass as he ran his fingers through his hair. "That was not me."
Stung by his ridiculous excuse, Elizabeth stood, turning to face him, her anger flaring white hot as she raised her hand, unfurling her fingers. "How dare you---"
Mr. Darcy caught her wrist before the blow landed, drawing her to his chest and pinning her there. She struggled against him for a moment but soon understood the futility of putting up a fight. Lifting her eyes to his, she saw frustration, anger, even passion, but no hint that he thought her inferior.
"I meant I was a different man then." His voice, low and urgent, pleaded with her to believe him. "You made me a different man. I stood before you without a doubt of my reception, secure in the knowledge no woman would refuse what I chose to offer. Do you not realise how much your censure changed me? You had no compunction in criticising my actions. No one has dared to chastise me the way you did; not for many years."
His hand rose to caress her cheek. "I must be an ungrateful wretch, my love, for I never thanked you."
His vehement words made Elizabeth's head spin. This man was nothing like the one whose proposal had been so insulting. That Mr. Darcy had appeared unmoved by her refusal---despite the provocation offered---but the feelings of the man in front of her were discernable at first glance, as clear as spring water. Pain shone in his eyes, like sparks of flame in the darkness. His hand clasped her wrist with an implacable sense of permanence, as though he never again wished to let her go.
Confusion spun around in Elizabeth's mind as memories tumbled over themselves, vying for prominence; each recollection like the page of a book fluttering in the wind. She did not understand why he would want to thank her for abusing him so abominably. "I beg your pardon?"
"My sentiments were reprehensible, as was the manner of expressing myself." His fingers absently stroked along her jaw and down her throat. "I have been a selfish being all my life. As a child, I was taught what was right, but not taught to correct my temper. My parents gave me good principles, but allowed me to follow them in pride and conceit. As an only son---and for many years an only child---I was spoilt by my family, who, though good themselves, encouraged me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of the rest of the world and of their sense and worth compared with my own." He tucked a stray curl behind her ear. "Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still be if not for you. You taught me a lesson; hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. You made me the man I am today."
His face dropped closer, until his forehead rested on hers. "I can only beg your forgiveness for who I was before."
Held so close to his body, Elizabeth found the sensations almost enough to drive all her memories back into their confinement, while his touch on her skin seemed designed to melt her from the inside out. It was too much. She tried to pull away from him. He resisted for a moment before opening his hands and letting her go.
"But you ... you separated Jane from Bingley." Even as the words left her mouth, she knew the utter folly of speaking them. Although they had been forced apart by Mr. Darcy's actions, they had also been reunited by his hand, as Jane had already reminded her.
"I did, and it was wrong of me, as you quite rightly pointed out. Once you and I parted that day, I spent a long time considering everything you had revealed and, accepting your superior knowledge of your sister, realised I had likely misunderstood the situation when I believed your sister's heart untouched. I sent a note to Bingley informing him of your sister's presence in town. I believe you are familiar with subsequent events."
He smiled then, in a way he had never done in Kent. "It is understandable your mind should dwell on the facts newly revealed to you, but you are focusing too much on the events of the past; allowing your memories to overshadow the truth of the present. Regardless of how poorly I expressed myself in April, my admiration for you has never diminished. It has only grown."
She twisted away to face the window, shivering as his now familiar words intruded into her consciousness. "My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
As though he could see right into her soul, she sensed Mr. Darcy behind her moments before he enclosed her in his arms. "You must know that, Elizabeth," he whispered. "You cannot be ignorant of my regard. Surely you have not forgotten the precious moments we spent together, in town and here at Pemberley." His voice, hot against her ear, was low and intimate. "Can you still doubt that I love you with everything I have?"
Elizabeth shook her head. This was her Mr. Darcy; the man she had fallen in love with; the man whose very presence gave her pleasure like no other. Tentatively, she turned in his arms, sliding her hands beneath his coat. His muscles were firm and taut beneath the embroidered silk of his waistcoat, the warmth of his body like a roaring fire on a cold day, soothing her pain.
Unbidden, her own words returned to haunt her: "I had not known you a month before I felt you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry." She squeezed her eyes tight, shutting out the unwanted echoes of a day best forgotten. "You must have hated me after the things I said."
"Hate you? Oh no. Even in the depths of my despair, I could never hate you. Besides, what did you say of me that I did not deserve? While some of your accusations were ill-founded and formed on mistaken premises, my behaviour to you at the time merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable." He brushed his lips against her forehead. "I cannot deny I was angry at first, but as soon as I heard you were missing my only thought was to find you. Once I did---as soon as I saw you lying on the grass---you cannot imagine the pain I endured. In my heart, I believed I had ruined, perhaps forever, my only chance at happiness. I was so sure I had lost you. I would not rest until I reassured myself you were alive." He stepped back, taking her face in his hands he urged her to meet his gaze. "At that point, my path in life was set---even if I did not appreciate it at the time."
Elizabeth recalled the details Charlotte had divulged when she awoke. Her face warming with embarrassment, she tried to pull away from him but he held her firm. "You carried me back to Rosings," she whispered, mortified afresh by the one event she would never remember.
"It was a severe test of my fortitude, for once I had you in my arms it was agony to let you go." As though the memory pained him, he released her face as those same arms wrapped themselves possessively around her shoulders. "That evening, as I waited impatiently for news of your recovery, I recalled every painful word uttered between us. I lay awake examining my conduct, my manners, and my expressions during the whole of it. Even now, those memories remain inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner. Those were your words; do you remember them now? You know not ... you can scarcely conceive how they tortured me."
The agony in his voice brought home to Elizabeth how much he had also suffered, living with the knowledge of these events since April, during which time she had remained blissfully ignorant. "I never expected them to make so strong an impression. At the time I said those things, I had not the smallest idea of their being ever felt in such a way."
"I can well believe it. You thought me devoid of every proper feeling, I am sure you did. The turn of your countenance I shall never forget, as you said I could not have addressed you in any possible way that would induce you to accept me."
She looked up at him. "Had you persuaded yourself that I would?"
"Indeed I had. What will you think of my vanity? I believed you to be wishing, even expecting my addresses."
Elizabeth drew in a deep breath. His explanation seemed sincere and the concern in his eyes spoke of his genuine apprehension, but while she discerned his regret for the manner of his proposal, his decision to withhold information from her was something she could neither ignore nor excuse. Pulling herself away from him, she did not mask the accusation in her tone. "Georgiana once told me how you prize honesty above everything, but I do not see anything honest in keeping something of this magnitude from me. You knew what happened just before my accident, and yet you allowed me to remain ignorant of it."
He held her gaze for a moment before looking away. "I imagined my silence might give you pain, were you to remember everything, but I waited only for the right time. Despite how our friendship developed, I wanted to be sure our love was strong enough to withstand the revelation, for I did not wish to lose you again. I formed an intention ... no, a determination to speak to you yesterday morning, only to be called away to Matlock---"
"But you had four months in which to tell me."
Sighing, he plucked one of the red roses from the vase and lifted it to his face, inhaling the fading scent. "If you think back to the limited time we have spent in each other's company since April, when might I have unburdened myself? At Bingley's wedding? What should I have said? 'Oh incidentally, Miss Bennet, I must tell you I proposed to you in a most ungentlemanlike manner, and you very rightly refused me'? How would you have reacted to such a confession?"
She tried to imagine such an unlikely scene and smiled, before admitting the truth of his words. "I would have thought you insane."
He held the rose out to her. Not just as a peace offering, but a mute declaration. "I have slowly been going insane, waiting for the right time to tell you ... but that time never came. The fear you would remember everything---and be justifiably angry with me---stayed my hand, preventing me from saying and doing all the things I dreamed of. I assumed you might hate me; that you would never wish to be in my presence again. I thought if I only showed you how your reproofs had been attended to, you might fall in love with me ... as I love you."
Elizabeth's smile was wistful as she accepted the flower. She could not deny her feelings, any more than she could stop the sun from rising. "I ..." Yawning, she put her hand over her mouth.
His face dropped. "Oh, God! I am a thoughtless idiot. You must be exhausted, after such a disturbed night." He looked helplessly around the room. "I know I should not be here---if Bingley hears of this, he will kill me---but I could not let you leave me ... leave Pemberley without giving me the opportunity to tell you everything." He took her hand, raising it to his lips. "I accept you will need time to reflect on everything we have spoken of. While my affections and wishes are unchanged, I do not want to pressure you further until you are rested. If, after all I have said, you still wish to return to Longbourn, I ... I understand. Sleep well, Elizabeth."
Turning away, he walked towards the door, leaving Elizabeth standing alone. Anxiety rose within her, beating on her chest like a wild animal caught in a trap. Despite all his avowals, he loved her enough to let her go, if it was what she wanted, but now she had no desire to return home. Pemberley felt more like home to her than Longbourn ever had, because Mr. Darcy ... Fitzwilliam would be there with her.
Even Pemberley, with all its servants and despite the presence of her friends and family, had been an empty shell without him.
She watched his hand stretch implacably towards the door handle. He was leaving and yet he had no idea how much she loved him.
"Fitzwilliam!" The distance between them seemed indeterminable, but she soon found his hands locked about her waist as her momentum spun them around. Elizabeth, her hands circling his neck, held on as though he might disappear if she let go. "There is something else I have remembered; something I should never have forgotten. I ... I love you. Do not leave me."
Setting her back on the floor, he tipped her chin up and looked down into her eyes, holding her gaze steadily as Elizabeth's knees almost gave way. Satisfied with what he saw, Fitzwilliam leaned closer and kissed her, his lips claiming hers with a steady pressure. After a few satisfying minutes, he pulled away, giving her chance to catch her breath.
"Elizabeth?" he whispered. "I love you with every beat of my heart, every breath in my body. I am not strong enough to let you go and too impatient to wait. Put me out of my misery ... say you will marry me."
Although distracted by the gentleness of his lips as he kissed the corner of her mouth, Elizabeth's heart screamed out its answer. She was determined he would never again doubt her feelings. "Oh yes, " she replied, still somewhat breathless. "Yes, I will marry you."
Letting out a sigh, he lowered his forehead to rest against hers. "I swear you will not know a moment's regret."
She smiled. "I could never regret loving you." Raising her hand to her mouth, she failed to stifle another yawn. "But I am rather tired." Moments later, Elizabeth gasped as he swept her off her feet and into his arms before carrying her across the room.
Laughing, she squirmed against him. "Is this how you bore me back to Rosings?"
"No, you were far less conscious. Oh, and wet, of course. Cold and soaking wet."
"I must have looked a sight!"
"If you did, it was by far the most beautiful sight I had ever seen." Laying her on the bed, her head cradled by the goose feather pillow, Fitzwilliam sat on the edge of the mattress stroking the soft skin of her cheek. "Just like a peach," he whispered. "Soft and sweet. Go to sleep, my peach, and when you wake it will be the beginning of the rest of our lives. I am determined you shall enjoy every moment of it." Leaning closer, he kissed her again, lingering over her lips as though he were loathed to part from them.
Elizabeth sighed. "I am far too happy to think about sleeping." She grasped his hand. "Will you not stay and talk with me?"
"I cannot. If someone comes---"
A sound at the door caught them both by surprise. The knocks were quiet at first, before growing more insistent. "Lizzy? Are you in there?"
Elizabeth was about to shout out to Jane when Fitzwilliam silenced her by covering her mouth with his own. She opened her eyes wide, with every intention of chastising him, but the sight of his soft brown eyes, dancing with humour, kept her silent.
"Lizzy? It is me ... Jane." The handle rattled.
Her eyes darting to the door, Elizabeth remembered it was locked from the inside and the key remained where she had left it. Then she turned fearfully to the dressing room door.
"Also locked," he whispered into her ear. "If we remain quiet, Mrs Bingley might believe you have gone out.
She shook her head. "On another day, perhaps, but not today."
Another knock, much louder this time, came from the heavy wooden door. When the voice rang out in the silence it was not Jane but Charles who called Elizabeth's name.
"This is ridiculous," Fitzwilliam muttered as he removed himself from her bed, straightening the covers as he did so. "How do they expect you to sleep with all this noise?"
Holding out her hand to him, she whispered, "If you leave through the dressing room, could you get away without them seeing you?"
"Yes, of course, but why would I want to?" He smiled fondly at her as he kissed her fingers. "I have waited too long for this day. You are mine now, Elizabeth, and I have no desire to hide the fact.
Posted on October 18, 2008
Darcy turned the key in the lock and opened Elizabeth's door, finding himself the focus of concerned speculation. He had known Charles and his wife would be waiting outside, but he had not expected to see Nathan Bennet prowling like an angry lion, his fury ill concealed.
He knew he should feel some shame in emerging from Elizabeth's bedchamber to face her waiting family, but he could not. Closing the door behind him, he held up his hands. "I would appreciate if you would lower your voices. Elizabeth is tired and would benefit from some sleep."
It took less time than he would have imagined for the unfortunate circumstances to sink into Bingley's brain. "Tired? What the...?" He glanced to his wife in half-alarm, before returning his full attention to Darcy. "What were you doing in Elizabeth's room?"
As Bingley stepped forward, Nathan grabbed his arm to pull him back, asserting what he saw as his authority. "I think I am more entitled to ask that question."
With a brief bow, Bingley ceded the point. "By all means, Nathan. Ask away."
The young man drew himself up to his full height. "Mr. Darcy, on behalf of my uncle, may I ask your intentions in respect of my cousin Elizabeth?"
Darcy was quick to smooth his ruffled feathers. The last thing he wanted was Nathan calling him out, even if he had deserved it. "Nothing but the most honourable, I assure you, but before I say any more ..." He turned to Mrs Bingley, unable to completely hide his relief. "I am pleased to say that your sister no longer desires to leave Pemberley."
"That is excellent news, Mr. Darcy. Dare I hope the misunderstandings between you have been resolved to your satisfaction?"
"Yes, I believe they have." Darcy was not of a disposition in which happiness over-flowed in mirth, but having won a positive response to a proposal he had dreaded making for so long, he could not help but smile at the thought that he had finally succeeded in winning Elizabeth's hand. "If you would like to speak to her yourself, I am sure she will be pleased to reassure you." He turned back to face the two gentlemen behind him. "And if you would both care to follow me, I am sure we will be more comfortable conducting our conversation in the library."
Walking down the stairs in silence, Darcy led the way through the house until they reached the library. He dropped, exhausted, into his favourite chair, leaving Nathan and Charles to choose their own seats.
Charles, however, preferred to stand, gripping the back of the nearest armchair. "I hardly need say that I did not expect this sort of behaviour from you, Darcy."
Shrugging his shoulders, Darcy looked helplessly at the two men opposite who represented Elizabeth's family. He knew he had been wrong to force himself into Elizabeth's company, but he had been unable to let her go without a fight. "I must beg your forgiveness and plead a very temporary insanity. Only desperation would have caused me to forget myself in such a fashion."
"I was never so shocked when I saw you leaving Elizabeth's chamber. You!"
The sight of Bingley, suffused with righteous indignation, almost made him laugh. He schooled his features into what he hoped was an expression of penitence. "I apologise most humbly, Charles."
"But the door was locked ... and from the inside!" Elizabeth's cousin did not hesitate to point out.
"That was of Elizabeth's doing, not mine."
"My God!" Nathan spluttered. "She locked you in?"
"No, she tried to keep me out."
"Have you gone mad?" the younger man demanded.
"Not to my knowledge ... unless love can be called a madness, in which case I have been a candidate for bedlam these past four months."
Charles, no doubt seeing the same martial light in Nathan's eyes that Darcy had noted, attempted to calm the situation. "I hope you intend to ask my ..."---he glanced again toward his young companion---"ah ... our permission to marry Elizabeth."
"Actually, Bingley, I have little doubt of Mr. Bennet's acquiescence. He knew my intention and made it clear he would not be averse to my suit ... if I was able to secure Elizabeth's agreement."
Nathan nodded reluctantly. "He said as much to me before he left town."
"But she has agreed to marry you ... of her own free will?"
"Yes, Charles, and if you doubt me I am sure your wife will confirm the truth."
"But that does not excuse the fact you were in Elizabeth's room. I am surprised you would take advantage of your position in that way."
"Advantage?" Darcy's laugh came out as a short, sharp bark. "The only advantage I held was the knowledge of how to enter the dressing room from the servant's stairs. I can thank the hours I spent playing hide and seek with George Wickham for that. I never thought any time with him would prove so useful." Darcy paused, recalling the sight of Elizabeth as she turned to discover him on the threshold of her room. "Mrs Bingley told me her sister had expressed a determination to return home and I could not convince her otherwise through a locked door. What would you have done?"
This time it was Charles who was rendered speechless, a fact Nathan appeared to find great humour in. "God help me, should I ever find myself in such a predicament! My cousin is nothing if not forthright in her opinions and she has never been backward in making herself understood. Faced with you appearing so unexpectedly, I would not be surprised if she had ejected you forcibly, regardless of whether it is your house or not."
Darcy was relieved that the young man had begun to see the humour in the situation. He had no wish to be on bad terms with Elizabeth's cousin. "You can be assured she made her feelings on the matter very plain indeed, but, fortunately for me, there were no handy ornaments nearby she could throw at me. If it makes you feel any better, she did try to slap my face."
"Good. You deserved nothing less."
"I said she tried. Perhaps I should have let her hit me after all. Would it have been sufficient punishment for you?"
"If she is to be your wife, then that circumstance alone will be punishment enough, I suppose," Nathan said, under his breath.
Bingley laughed. "There speaks the ignorance of youth. Give it ten years and you will be singing the same tune as Darcy here."
Nathan raised his eyebrows. "I may be young, but I need no experience to understand I will never make such a fool of myself over a female."
Both men were silent, until Darcy caught Bingley's eye and they burst out laughing.
Leaving their company a short while later, Nathan presented himself to Mr. Johnson, who charged him with the task of ensuring sufficient bricks had been delivered for the new cottages. Borrowing one of Darcy's hacks, he cantered out to the building site.
His shock and disappointment at seeing Darcy emerging from Elizabeth's room had diminished, once he had satisfied himself that his host would soon be his cousin. In town, Darcy had impressed him with his cool command and intelligence. It had seemed impossible that he might ever make an idiot of himself---as his Uncle Henry had---and Nathan strove to emulate Darcy's bearing and behaviour.
For such a man to act so foolishly in the name of love was worrying indeed. As much as he admired his cousin Elizabeth, he had never imagined she would twist a man into such knots he could forget himself so completely.
As he rode, Nathan wondered whether he would ever be caught in the toils of love. He knew he had his whole life ahead of him. There would be time enough for marriage and children when he was older, but for now his intention was to use his forthcoming years at Cambridge to develop the friendships and connections that would pave his way in the world.
His Uncle Bennet might have been content to rusticate at Longbourn, but he had a mind to be a man of the town, to socialise, to be known and respected among his peers. To be more like Darcy had been before he decided to get a wife.
What had that old tutor of his once said? 'Love makes a fool of even the wisest men.'
Well, he might not yet be wise---there was still much about life he had yet to learn and experience---but he knew he would never be a fool.
Completing his task, Nathan turned his horse back towards Pemberley. As he reached the track leading to the stables, he caught sight of Miss Darcy---the bane of his existence---her hand shading her eyes from the sun as she peered up into the branches of a tree. As she stood some distance from his path, he hoped to pass by unheeded, but before his horse took more than a few steps, he glanced again at Miss Darcy in time to watch her raising her arms to catch the branch above her head.
His first reaction was to laugh. She clearly knew nothing about climbing trees. She was going about it all wrong.
Irritated, he rode on to the stables, dismounted hurriedly and ran back, finding Miss Darcy scrambling to her feet and dusting down her dress. She turned with a hopeful expression, which died when she saw who had come to her aid. "Oh. 'Tis you. Well, if you intend to be horrid, you will have to excuse me. I must go for help."
"You want someone to help you climb a tree?"
"No." She looked up into the branches and released a frustrated sigh. "I do not expect you to understand, but there is a kitten up there and the poor thing cannot climb down by himself. He needs to be rescued."
Nathan looked where she pointed and spotted a small tabby cat perched in the fork of one of the branches. The limb was not too high, but certainly high enough that it could not jump down in one go. Seeing it was the object of speculation, it let out a pitiful mew before turning to look for another way down. "A cat?"
"Yes. Mrs Brambles had a litter of six in the stables a few weeks ago, but this one seems to have found his way here. Poor thing! Who knows how long it has been stuck there."
Smothering a laugh, he said, "You called its mother Mrs Brambles?"
Miss Darcy raised her eyebrows and favoured him with a haughty glare, somewhat spoiled by the blush that coloured her cheeks. "And why should I not?"
He shrugged. Why not indeed? Lifting his arms to the first branch, Nathan hung from it with all his weight.
"What are you doing?" she asked after a moment.
He slid his coat from his shoulders before folding it neatly and placing it by his hat. It was typical of a girl to ask such stupid questions. "What does it look like I am doing? I am rescuing the kitten as you demanded."
"I asked no such thing! I thought you would fetch one of the men."
Nathan sighed. Miss Darcy thought so little of him she did not even consider him capable of rescuing the animal. "According to your estimation, I am one of the men." Pulling himself up onto the lowest branch, Nathan reached upwards towards the cat, which shrank back from him and meowed plaintively.
"You are frightening the poor thing."
"How can I rescue it if it will not come near me?"
"You cannot reach from down there. You must climb higher."
Nathan looked for the next suitable branch, and tested its strength. Satisfied that it would take his weight, he lifted one boot up and then the second, climbing a further three feet from the ground. From his position near the trunk he was no longer able to see the kitten. "Where is it now?"
Miss Darcy stood beneath him. "A little to your left. No ... further."
Shuffling further out along the branch, Nathan stretched forth his hand and felt above him until he touched something soft and warm. "I have him!" At that moment, a loud crack sounded from below and the branch upon which he stood gave way, tossing him down onto the grass. He lay flat on his back, stunned and winded, his head spinning from where he had banged his skull on the hard ground.
"Mr. Bennet? Mr. Bennet! Are you hurt?" Miss Darcy fluttered around him like a particularly irritating canary. "Do say something."
He took in a breath to speak, but a pain in his ribs robbed him temporarily of speech. He closed his eyes as he mentally surveyed each ache and twinge.
"Oh! No, do not faint! Please wake up." She patted his cheek gingerly. "This is all my fault," she whispered.
Nathan, listening to this with his eyes closed, smiled inwardly. It would not hurt to lie still for a little longer. For good measure, he groaned theatrically.
"Please, Mr. Bennet? Are you well? Should I fetch someone to help you?"
Opening his eyes he found a pair of Miss Darcys leaning over him. "God help me! There are two of you." He shook his head to clear the aberration, but instantly regretted it.
"Two? Oh dear. I should fetch Mrs Reynolds."
"You will do no such thing," Nathan said, leaning up on one elbow. "I only need a moment, and I will be well."
"You do not look well. In fact, you appear a little the worse for wear."
"And whose fault is that? You sent me up there on purpose, hoping I would fall."
"I did not!" Miss Darcy looked down at her hands. "I had no idea the branch would break. It took my weight with no difficulty."
"And I suppose it did not occur to you that I was heavier."
She shook her head. "I am sorry," she said again.
Before that morning Nathan would have been elated to have received an apology of any sort from Mr. Darcy's sister, but now he had it, he did not feel the slightest bit triumphant. Her face had grown pale, while her eyes held a little fear. "No. It was an accident. I was wrong to blame you for something that was not your fault." He stopped and looked around him. "Is that kitten still in the tree?"
Miss Darcy started, looking around guiltily, the cat having been long forgotten. "No. It must have jumped down by itself after all." She had the grace to look embarrassed. "You are being very kind."
"No, I am being honest. Now if I can stand up." Nathan staggered a little as he got to his feet. Rubbing the back of his head, he winced when he found a sore spot. "I am well, as you see, but I thank you for your concern. Considering the events of this morning, I suppose it is just as well."
"What do you mean? What events?"
"The betrothal of your brother and my cousin, of course."
"Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam?" She smiled. "Are you sure?"
Recalling the sight of Mr. Darcy leaving Lizzy's bedroom, he certainly hoped it was a settled thing. "Yes, so you see, we too will be cousins of sorts." Nathan heard a purring noise and looked down to see the striped kitten rubbing up against his boots. He picked the cat up and stroked behind its ears before passing it to Miss Darcy. "Perhaps you could now see your way to considering my accident of today as just punishment of my previous poor behaviour?"
Miss Darcy hugged the kitten. "Well, I suppose I can, but only on one condition."
Nathan sighed. He dreaded to think what further tricks she would have him doing to atone for his error. He would be like one of those poor horses at Astleys. "And what might that be?"
"You should come with me now and let Mrs Reynolds put some ice on your head."
Relieved it was nothing worse, he agreed. "Very well. That is one hoop I cannot object to jumping through."
The young woman looked sceptical. "Hoop?"
Wary of their fragile truce, Nathan shied away from explaining his meaning. "It is of no importance." Running his fingers through his hair, he gently prodded the lump on the back of his head.
He was determined this was the last time he would fall at the feet of any female.
Upstairs, despite the disturbed night she had passed, Elizabeth remained wide awake. How could anyone sleep after the scene so recently enacted in her chamber?
She was going to be Mrs Darcy.
As soon as Fitzwilliam had left the room she had heard voices in the corridor beyond, and strained her ears to hear them, but because her bed was so far from the door she only caught an odd word here and there. Everything had fallen silent before Jane slipped through the door to reassure her that Charles and Nathan were not extracting retribution from Mr. Darcy's skin for his shocking behaviour. "But what were you thinking, allowing him into your room?" she asked as she sank into the chair by the bed.
"I did not allow him, Jane! The door was locked and the idea of unlocking it never crossed my mind. He was the last person I wished to speak to."
Elizabeth glanced towards the second, unobtrusive door set into the side wall. "He came in through the dressing room."
Jane gasped. "He did not!"
"He did, for he knew I would not otherwise admit him, and he did not wish me to leave without having the chance to speak to me. Did you tell him of my intention to leave Pemberley?"
"I did. Can you forgive me, Lizzy? While I know he did wrong in keeping such a terrible secret, I could not allow you to go back to Longbourn without giving him the chance to put things right. He could not be blamed for withholding the truth to begin with, for your opinion of him was not particularly high when you were in Kent. You must remember that."
"It is a circumstance not so easily forgot. Clearly I did not love him as well as I do now, but that was a different man." Elizabeth picked at a loose thread on the counterpane, unable to keep the smile from her face. "I worried they were the same, but I was wrong. The man whose offer of marriage offended me in April no longer exists. He has become a different man, a kinder man, for me."
"As long as you are happy."
"It is settled between us already, that we are to be the happiest couple in the world. But are you pleased, Jane? Shall you like to have such a brother?"
"Very much. Nothing could give either Bingley or myself more delight. We considered it even in Scarborough, without any knowledge of what had happened between you." She paused, looking down at her hands, tightly clasped in her lap.
"What is it? What are you thinking of? Do you think father will not approve?"
Catching her sister's eye, Jane blushed. "Oh no, nothing like that. But I will confess something does still bother me. Mr. Darcy told me this morning that he had no idea what happened to cause your injury. Can you remember the circumstances of the accident?"
Elizabeth touched the spot on her temple where her injury had been. "Surely you do not believe Mr. Darcy to be the cause of my misfortune?"
"Of course I do not, but do you recall what happened?"
"Yes, of course. The fault was entirely my own. I could not bear the thought of staying in the grounds of Rosings one more moment and even though the rain slashed across my face I was determined to reach the parsonage without greater loss of time. Had I waited until the rain subsided, I would have been able to watch where I was going, but I did not. I saw a shadow, raised my head and crashed directly into a low branch growing across my path. I remember nothing more until I woke in Mrs Jenkinson's room."
"And you are sure that is all?"
"Of course! Do you think I was set upon by bandits? Or perhaps Lady Catherine, perceiving her nephew's admiration for me, lay in wait before beating me senseless with the handle of her umbrella?"
Jane laughed, but her expression turned serious as Elizabeth yawned. "Mr. Darcy was right, you are tired. It is not surprising when you slept so poorly. Do you think you could rest a little now, my dear?"
"No, but I think I must," Elizabeth said as she lay back against the pillow. "You will not allow Charles and Nathan to be too angry with Mr. Darcy, will you?"
Jane assured her they would not, and it was not long before Elizabeth drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Later that afternoon Elizabeth, gowned in a most becoming pale green morning dress, joined the rest of the party for a light luncheon. As she paused by the door, the conversation withered as, one by one, they all turned in her direction. Although Elizabeth found it strange to be the object of such intense interest, she accepted it was something she might have to get used to as Mrs Darcy.
Georgiana, who had been in the midst of an eager conversation with her brother, skipped across the room to greet her. "I was so pleased to hear your news. It is what I hoped for, more than anything. We will be sisters!" The young girl's face dropped. "You do not mind having another sister?"
"Of course not. You will be as dear to me as any of my sisters."
"And we can go shopping together and paint and ... oh, all sorts of things. My brother will not object, will you?" she asked as he joined them.
Seeing rebellion in her betrothed's eyes, Elizabeth answered for him. "Why should he object? You and I were friends first." She paused, recalling the way he had introduced Georgiana to her notice at Longbourn. Had he encouraged their friendship for his own benefit? The idea he might have been working towards regaining her affections, even as far back as June, humbled Elizabeth. She raised her eyes towards him, feeling the heat rising on her cheeks as their gazes locked, before he turned away to speak to Jane.
The party gathered around the table shared commonplace conversation, no one wishing, for the moment, to openly discuss the events of that morning. Georgiana caught Elizabeth's eye once or twice and smiled, while Bingley and Nathan kept their friend under close observation.
When Fitzwilliam invited Elizabeth for a stroll in the gardens, she knew they would not be alone, but she did not expect to be joined by Jane, Charles and Nathan. However, as they all sauntered across the north lawn towards the rising ground that gave the best views across the valley, they were allowed to fall behind the group, offering them an opportunity for a brief conversation.
Quick to take advantage of their solitude, he asked whether she was feeling better.
Elizabeth acknowledged she was much improved. "I did not have the opportunity this morning to apologise for my words last Easter. I am embarrassed to remember what I said. To support Mr. Wickham, after all he had done to your family..."
He reached out, grasping her hand and pulling her closer. "Please, do not tax yourself on that score. You were ignorant of his history at that time, a matter I was determined to put right. When I returned to Rosings, I began a letter to you, thinking to put you in possession of the facts." Elizabeth gasped at the thought that the honourable Mr. Darcy might have been prompted to such impropriety. "Yes, shocking was it not? But during our conversation I was not master enough of myself to know what I should say. It was only once I returned to the house that I determined you must be informed of the whole."
"I know my memory was faulty then, but I am sure I would have remembered receiving a letter from you."
"I was in the middle of writing it when Colonel Fitzwilliam came to say you were lost. When I later discovered you had no memory of our conversation, there appeared to be little point in excusing my behaviour, so I threw it in the fire."
"So instead you told my father about Mr. Wickham."
"Yes, and I am glad I did. If you believed Wickham's sorry tale so easily, I knew others might do likewise. I wanted to remove the power he seemed to have over you and the residents of Meryton. The best way to do that was to tell someone the truth. As I could no longer tell you, your father arrived just at the right time."
"Did you know he would tell me everything?"
"I certainly hoped he would. My only thought at the time was, by informing Mr. Bennet, you might be safe from Wickham's dishonesty. I resolved to put any other desires out of my mind, thinking them hopeless. It was only when we met again in June, for Bingley's wedding, and I explained Georgiana's past association with Mr. Wickham, that I began to hope your ill opinion of me might have lessened. How soon any other wishes introduced themselves I can hardly tell, but returning home I could think of nothing else."
Elizabeth was spared from replying as they caught up to the others and duly admired the view. As they returned to the house, she asked how Anne was getting on. "I assume, as you were only away for a day, you did not have to chase them to Gretna after all."
"I did not have to chase them anywhere. They returned to my aunt and uncle, having been married in Derbyshire, in Spencer's own parish." He explained the circumstances of Lady Catherine's arrival at Matlock Hall, going into more detail about how Spencer had stood up for Anne against her mother, and Lady Catherine's sudden illness.
"Poor Anne! I cannot imagine what she suffered, seeing her mother struck down like that."
"Dr. Hall has her ladyship's condition well in hand. Under the circumstances, she could not be more fortunate having him for her son-in-law, although I doubt she will see it in those terms."
"And what will Lady Matlock say when she hears your news?"
"I have no doubt she will say it is about time."
"She will not object? I was not sure whether she thought me good enough for her nephew."
"On the contrary. She hopes the news of our betrothal will divert society's attention away from Anne and Spencer's unexpected union."
Elizabeth smiled. "In that case, I am happy to oblige her."
They walked on for a minute in silence, before Darcy cleared his throat nervously. "I have a present for you."
Plunging his hand into his pocket he withdrew it. Balanced on his palm was a small box. "Yes, for you. I had it made in town in the hopes that one day I would be able to give it to you as a betrothal gift. Would you wear it at dinner tonight?"
Elizabeth lifted the lid of the box and pulled away the tissue paper beneath. Sunlight glinted off the large golden oval, traced with an intricate design. "What a pretty locket!"
Lifting it from the box, she opened the two halves, spreading them wide. One side was empty, but the other contained the head of a delicate bluebell, pressed behind the glass, its colours as vivid as if it had been picked only last week. But that was impossible; the bluebell was a spring flower, their season long past. "Where did you get this?"
"Do you not remember? You carried it on the day of your accident. When we spoke in the folly, you twirled it between your fingers. I later found it discarded there as I searched for you."
"The very same."
"And you kept it?"
"How could I not when it reminded me of you? I pressed it between the pages of my book, so it would never fade. Like my love, it will be everlasting."
"And what of the other half? It is empty."
Fitzwilliam smiled as he lifted the locket from her hands. Moving behind Elizabeth, he fastened the clasp, making her shiver as his fingers brushed against her neck. "Its content is for you to choose."
"In that case I choose you."
She heard the smile in his voice. "I am a little too big for a locket."
"No, silly! A likeness of you. A miniature."
"If that is what you wish, I will arrange it."
Elizabeth turned to face him. "I do wish it. I want you with me always."
He lifted her hand, pressing her fingers to his lips as his eyes darkened with desire. "That is fortunate, for I have no intention of going anywhere."
"Darcy?" Bingley waited for them, his foot tapping on the grass like a mother duck waiting for her errant ducklings. As they caught up with the others, Nathan asked a question of Fitzwilliam, while Jane motioned Elizabeth to her side, thereby separating them on the return journey.
Later that evening, when Elizabeth declared herself ready to retire, Charles---warming to his rôle of chaperone---permitted his friend to escort her as far as the bottom of the stairs, but no further.
They stood hand in hand in the great marble hall, two silent footmen the only witnesses to their chaste goodnight kiss. Elizabeth, unused to the liveried statues, was made self-conscious by their presence, but Fitzwilliam only smiled.
"Do not ask me to give up this precious moment, Elizabeth. You must accustom yourself to a household full of servants, just as they will have to adjust to the presence of a new mistress."
"It is strange to think of me as mistress here, or even to think of myself as your wife when we are not yet officially betrothed."
He brushed away a loose strand of hair from her face before cupping her cheek with his hand. "In my heart we are as one, but I am eager to solicit your father's blessing. This morning you were determined to leave for Longbourn as soon as you could. Now, I am eager to be gone. If I give the order tonight, that journey can still begin in the morning. I am in no mood to wait any longer, my love. Will you come with me?"
"If you think it can be achieved, I am willing to make the attempt."
To Longbourn, therefore, they were to go.
Posted on November 8, 2008
Elizabeth caught Charles' longing glance across the carriage and smiled to herself.
Her brother Bingley, mindful of his friend's shocking behaviour at Pemberley, had appointed himself and Jane as chaperones for their journey into Hertfordshire and he seemed determined to carry out the task to the highest of standards. Although he had, at first, allowed Fitzwilliam to sit by her side, it seemed Charles was too newly married himself to trust the look in his friend's eye and soon separated them by the simple expedient of asking Jane to take the seat next to her sister. In reality, all he succeeded in doing was to separate himself from his wife, leaving Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam free to share smiles across the carriage.
They accomplished the journey into Hertfordshire without incident and drove through the gates of Netherfield Park around noon on the third day, surprising the staff with their unexpected arrival.
Jane invited Elizabeth to refresh herself before travelling on to Longbourn and whisked her upstairs to her own chamber, waving away the maid's assistance. "Let me tidy your hair, Lizzy."
Elizabeth stared aghast at her sister. "You cannot!"
"I cannot brush your hair as I used to do, just because I am married? No, indeed. It will be like old times, will it not?"
Taking the stool before the toilette table, Elizabeth toyed absently with the pots and trinkets in the drawers as Jane brushed her hair before re-pinning her curls, recalling the hours of their youth when they would often experiment with brushes and combs, pretending to be ladies' maids.
Standing back to admire her handiwork, Jane smiled at Elizabeth through the mirror. "I have always admired your hair, Lizzy."
Elizabeth jumped from her seat, inviting her sister to take her place. "Now you must let me do yours, although I doubt mama would criticise your appearance. She will be so pleased to see you."
"I am not accompanying you to Longbourn."
Jane caught Elizabeth's hands between her own, pressing them together. "Because you have some truly wonderful news to impart, and I would not wish ..." She patted her sister's hand before releasing her. "I do not want to detract from it with my own homecoming. As much as I love our mother, I know how she can be. This is your time, Lizzy, not mine. She will be so pleased you will be marrying Mr. Darcy and you deserve to be the centre of attention for once. If Mama asks, you are to tell her we are following behind and I will visit them tomorrow. Today is for you to shine."
The two sisters hugged and Elizabeth began to giggle. "Is that why you did not inform Mrs Nicholls of your imminent return?"
"Of course. She is an excellent housekeeper ... but a terrible gossip."
Returning downstairs, Jane pressed Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy to take some tea before they left, but they declined. Elizabeth felt a little sorry for Mrs Nicholls, who had to please her employers with no notice, but she could not deny she was also impatient to acquaint her parents with her own good fortune.
During their journey from Pemberley, Elizabeth had imagined her family's reaction when Mr. Darcy's impressive travelling coach once again came down the sweep to stop outside their door. She recalled Jane's return from London in the spring, escorted by Mr. Bingley, and how delighted her mother had been to have her eldest daughter home.
She hoped, for once, her mother might be as pleased to see her second daughter returning in the company of a man like Mr. Darcy.
As they drove down the sweep, Elizabeth's excitement grew. She let down the window and craned her neck to see if anyone in the house had noticed their arrival. It was then she glimpsed a post chaise with four horses waiting in front of the house, the postillion slumped inelegantly against the wall as he waited.
They pulled up alongside and a groom let down the steps. The main door stood open, and as they walked into the dimly lit hallway, Elizabeth was surprised to find Kitty and Lydia outside their father's book room, while Mrs Bennet bent her ear to the keyhole.
"Mama!" she cried, realising with some embarrassment they had caught her mother in the process of eavesdropping.
Mrs Bennet jumped up, turning and straightening her skirts in a practiced movement. Elizabeth was mortified that Fitzwilliam had seen such behaviour, until she heard him stifle a chuckle behind her. He, at least, found some diversion in the situation.
"Lizzy! What are you doing here?" her mother cried. "I thought you were in Derbyshire. Well, never mind that now. What do you think has happened?"
Elizabeth could not begin to guess, but the question was merely rhetorical for Mrs Bennet did not pause long enough to allow her to speak.
"I have foiled an abduction! From under my very nose!" Mrs Bennet brought her handkerchief from her sleeve, fanning herself briskly.
"I would hardly call it abduction," Mary muttered as she wandered into the hall, her attention partially on the book in her hand. "Kitty quite sensibly escaped, after all."
"Kitty?" Elizabeth stared at her younger sister, who had the grace to blush.
"I would not have refused," Lydia complained. "Had he asked me, I would have rushed back here and packed a bag before you could snap your fingers."
Mrs Bennet appeared ready to faint. "Oh! Heartless girl! You would do no such thing!"
"Yes, I would. Anything to get away from here. But why Kitty? That's what I want to know. I thought he liked me the best."
Elizabeth glanced towards Fitzwilliam, who shrugged his shoulders, having no more idea what had occurred than she. "Of whom are you speak---?"
"Why, Captain Ardern of course," her mother interrupted, looking wistfully at the keyhole. "He is with your father at this moment."
"Henry?" Fitzwilliam's surprised outburst only served to draw Mrs Bennet's attention to his presence.
"Mr. Darcy! I do beg your pardon. I did not notice you there. How embarrassing for you to hear our disgraceful news."
"If there is anything I can do to help, Mrs Bennet."
She waved her handkerchief towards the door. "Mr. Bennet is speaking to him. I suppose he will demand the Captain should now do the honourable thing, but Kitty---foolish girl---swears she will not have him."
"Then Miss Catherine is very wise, for I fear they would not suit at all."
Kitty flashed him a grateful smile. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Darcy! Mama is convinced he should marry me, but I cannot wish it."
Confused, Elizabeth turned to her mother. "But I thought you said you foiled an abduction? Why should you want Kitty to agree?"
"Not to the abduction, of course," her mother explained, "but certainly I can have nothing against the match."
"I would counsel Mr. Bennet against such a decision, but he is already well aware of my views on the subject."
The door to Mr. Bennet's study opened and Elizabeth's father stuck his head out into the hall. "Darcy? I thought I recognised your voice. I think you had better join me."
Mr. Darcy stepped through the door, leaving Elizabeth in the hallway with the rest of her family. As Mrs Bennet did not seem to know what to do, Elizabeth called for Mrs Hill to serve tea in the parlour and herded her mother and sisters from the hall.
"Kitty, why would the Captain wish to take you away?" she asked when they were seated.
"He did not ... exactly. He only wanted to talk to me."
"He was trying to steal away my daughter. Pulling her into a closed carriage, with no chaperone! How would you describe it? Had I not seen the event from the window, they might have been half way across the country by now."
Ignoring her mother's interruption, Elizabeth turned back to Kitty. "And did he drive away with you?"
"No, we sat in the carriage while he talked to me. Then I decided to get out, just as Mama came running up with John."
"He allowed you to leave of your own free will?"
Elizabeth looked at Lydia, who was sulking in the corner. "But why did he want to speak with Kitty? I thought---"
"Aye, so did I," her mother said. "I was sure Lydia had caught his eye in London. I cannot understand why he should now try and lure Kitty away."
"He was not tr---" Kitty began, but a cry from Lydia drowned everything else out.
Standing up, the youngest Bennet stamped her foot. "He said I was sweet and fun! He thought me far more entertaining than any other lady in London. He did not want Kitty. He wanted me! The only reason he talked to Kitty today was because she happened to be walking home at the time, and passed near the gates. He thought she was me." Her chest rose and fell as she tried to stifle a sob. "Tell them! It was me he wanted, was it not?"
Kitty glanced between her mother and her sister. "I wish he had asked for Lydia, I really do, but he knew who I was. He addressed me as Miss Catherine."
Lydia screamed and stamped out of the room, tears glistening in her eyes. Elizabeth shook her head. "What did he wish to speak to you about?"
Blushing, Kitty dropped her gaze to her lap. "I do not think I should say."
Mrs Bennet gasped. "Not say? Of course you must say! Oh, this is worse than I thought! Was he making improper suggestions to you? My poor, sweet, innocent girl!"
"Oh no, Mama. He was the perfect gentleman. He only asked me to ... to marry him." The last came out as no more than a whisper.
For a moment, Mrs Bennet was speechless. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally, her brows creased and she said, "Well, what a way to go about it! Why did he not do the decent thing and come into the house? I wish you had told me he was one of your admirers, Kitty, for I would not have had John threaten him with that stick."
"But ... but he was no admirer of mine. I thought he was Lydia's. I liked him well enough in Town, but he paid me no special interest. I never believed for a moment he might---"
"'Tis true, he is only a second son," Mrs Bennet interrupted again, "but a second son of a Viscount for all that, and the Life Guards are a superior regiment, are they not?"
"I do not care. Lydia is welcome to him if she wants him."
"The Lord preserve me from another wilful daughter!" Mrs Bennet turned to Elizabeth. "Look what example you set for your sisters."
Kitty frowned. "This is none of Lizzy's doing. You said with our seven thousand pounds we might have our pick of gentlemen. Well, I do not want Captain Ardern, not when there is ..."
Elizabeth thought her sister had been about to say Nathan's name before she fell silent, but fortunately her mother was only half listening to the conversation, an observation borne out when Mrs Bennet looked at the clock.
"I do wish your father would hurry up. I need to tell Hill how many will be stopping for dinner."
As Darcy stepped into the study, he found Henry Ardern standing stiffly to attention in front of Mr. Bennet's desk, bringing back a few less than fond memories of the times they spent together at Eton.
Henry's frown deepened when he recognised his former friend. "Darcy? What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question."
Mr. Bennet cleared his throat. "Captain Ardern was about to give me his sworn promise that he will make no further attempts to speak to any of my daughters, regardless of whether he wishes to marry them or merely comment on the weather."
"You asked Miss Catherine to marry you?" The captain's shoulders slumped slightly, as he replied in the affirmative. "But why?"
Henry cast a glance at Mr. Bennet, who said, "I have no objection to you sharing your reasoning again, Captain. It may make more sense to both of us upon retelling."
Henry Ardern stood a little straighter, puffing out his chest. "I have reached the age where I feel a wife will be an asset."
"An asset?" Darcy frowned. "In what way?"
Running a finger around his neck cloth, the Captain coughed. "Um ... to bear me company---"
"I have rarely known you wanting for companionship, Henry."
"Damn it, Fitz! Let me finish. At my time of life a man wants someone he can come home to, talk to, someone who will make him laugh."
Mr. Bennet raised his eyebrows. "And you thought marriage would provide all these wonders? It seems you have a sadly distorted view about the state of holy matrimony."
Henry rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm getting too old to play games. All my friends are now leg shackled. Even Cresswell found himself caught in the snare. Their wives all hold dinner parties and other more genteel entertainments, to which a single gentleman with my particular reputation is not always welcome. A wife appears to be necessary for my social standing and respectability."
"That may be the case," Mr. Bennet said, "but can you afford to keep one? They can be rather expensive, you know."
"Oh, I'm not quite as plump in the pocket as Darcy here, and my Army pay is a mere pittance, but I have other sources of funds at my disposal. No wife of mine would go short, and Miss Kitty ... well, it's not as though she is used to the high life, is she? I thought she would adapt more easily to my situation than some of the young ladies of the ton; those who are more familiar with the finer things in life."
Darcy smiled. "You paint an intriguing picture, my friend, but in this case it seems the lady you have chosen to favour is not willing."
The captain's bottom lip dropped to a childlike pout. "Can't understand why! Thought I asked very prettily."
"Perhaps she refused because she believed you to be enamoured of her sister?"
"Good Lord! Lydia?" He glanced at Mr. Bennet in alarm, holding up his hands. "Not that there is anything wrong with Miss Lydia at all, sir," he added hastily. "She is certainly pretty enough, and a very fine dancer, but perhaps a touch on the ... wild side? You never quite know what she's going to say next! I thought Miss Kitty would make a more ... um, comfortable wife. Sorry, sir, but that is the truth."
Mr. Bennet struggled to maintain his forbidding aspect in the face of such provocation. "Do not distress yourself unduly, Captain. I am quite aware of my youngest daughter's foibles. However, that only brings us back to where we were before Mr. Darcy's arrival. If Kitty has seen fit to refuse your most generous offer, then I do not understand what I can do to persuade her otherwise."
Henry Ardern sighed, his shoulders drooping. "I suppose not." He turned to his friend, as though seeing him for the first time. "Why are you here, Darcy?"
"I came to return Miss Bennet to her family."
Mr. Bennet laughed. "A temporary situation, I hope?"
"That all depends on you, sir."
"Oh." The captain paused for a moment as the import of Darcy's words sank in. "Oh! It appears I am a trifle de trop. In that case, I'd better be off." He picked up his hat and cane from the chair. "Accept my felicitations, Darcy. Mr. Bennet, your servant, sir. No, don't get up, I will show myself out."
As the door closed behind him, Mr. Bennet began to chuckle. "It seems I owe you my gratitude, for I have been attempting to rid myself of that cockscomb for above half an hour. You managed it in half the time."
"Perhaps he cherished hopes of talking you around to his thinking. Henry knows me too well to believe he would succeed."
"And you brought Lizzy with you. Is she well?"
"She is, and desirous of being reacquainted with her family."
"Somehow I doubt that." Moving to a side table, Mr. Bennet poured them both a drink. "Have you asked her to marry you yet?"
Once, Mr. Bennet's abrupt question might have shocked Darcy, but he knew him too well now. "I have, and she has accepted. Do I have your blessing?"
"Of course. You have always had it, ever since you were brave enough to sit down to dinner with us. Another man of sense in the family is something we sorely need." Setting the glass down by his side, Mr. Bennet shook Darcy's hand warmly. "Fell in love with you as soon as she saw those beautiful grounds of yours, did she?" He chuckled.
Darcy accepted Mr. Bennet's teasing with good grace before Elizabeth's father declared he was free to return to his betrothed. "For I was soundly chastised when I kept Bingley talking past what the ladies thought acceptable," he explained.
"Do you not wish to know what I intend to settle on your daughter?"
Mr. Bennet waved his hand. "Oh, there is time enough for that. I trust you to do what is right by Elizabeth. After the excitement of the day I need a nap before dinner to marshal my reserves. You will eat with us, I hope?"
"If that is an invitation, then yes."
"Good. Well, get on with you. Lizzy will no doubt be wondering where you are."
After a brief search, Darcy found Elizabeth sitting alone in the parlour, reading a book by the window. She looked up at the sound of his footsteps, and the smile that bloomed on her face warmed something deep inside him. Although he had known on some level that she was beautiful, it was as though he were now seeing her features illuminated by some inner light.
And she was his.
...or at least would be, once the proper preliminaries had been observed.
"I did not expect to find you alone. Where are your mother and your sisters?"
Dropping her book on the table, Elizabeth sprang out of the chair to grasp his hands. "Lydia has gone off somewhere to sulk and I believe mama is trying to convince Kitty that Captain Ardern would not have been such a bad match after all."
"It would be a disaster. Henry does not understand the meaning of fidelity except that owed to his King. I do not doubt he would lay down his life for his Sovereign if necessary, but I do doubt he could remain faithful to a wife for more than a month ... not even that. A woman who loved him might be able to overlook his faults, but it seemed to me Kitty had no such affection."
"She is still young," Elizabeth agreed, "and her inclinations do not yet appear to be firmly fixed."
"It is good, then, that your father has sent Henry on his way. He returns directly to Town."
"Did you ... have you spoken to my father?"
"Yes, it was as I thought. He would have been more surprised had you returned home alone. My intentions came as no surprise to him and he gives his permission gladly." Taking advantage of their momentary privacy, Darcy gathered her into his arms, caressing her lips with his. When the sound of footsteps in the hallway beyond forced them apart, he looked into Elizabeth's face. She did not strike him as being as happy as she should on such an occasion. He brushed the pad of his thumb along her jaw. "Is something wrong?"
"Oh, no. It is just ..." Elizabeth sighed. "I suppose I expected my homecoming to be different this time. I imagined by mother being so happy when she saw us together. I know when she left Town she hoped for something between us, but everyone was in such a turmoil when we arrived, I do not think she really registered your presence. As it has always been my mother's business in life to see her daughters wed, I thought this time I had done something she would finally be proud of."
Elizabeth's disappointment struck him forcibly. He had also expected a certain level of exuberance from Mrs Bennet, although he had not been upset when it had failed to materialise. However, knowing that Elizabeth saw her mother's enthusiasm as a twisted sort of pride in her daughter's achievements, Darcy was determined Mrs Bennet would provide it, regardless of any discomfort he might suffer. "She will be. Never doubt that. We timed our arrival ill, that is true. Had I known what events were taking place here, I would have delayed our journey and kept you another day at Pemberley, but I needed to speak to your father; his approval was important to me."
"You like him."
"Yes, I do." Darcy lifted Elizabeth's hand, laying it flat on his chest. "When I first met him at Rosings I found in him something to admire, although that fact should not have surprised me considering how much I admired his daughter.
"I was born the heir to Pemberley and at no time did my father allow me to forget it. Even at seven or eight years old, while I was busy being a child, it was always in the back of my mind that the land I roamed across, playing Knights and Dragons, would one day be mine. I sat in our steward's office and watched him work. I asked Mr. Wickham questions and I loved drawing maps and plans of the estate, showing him what I would do with it when I was grown. He laughed when I designed a stable big enough for one hundred horses, but then he also explained how many stable boys and grooms we would need for such an undertaking, and asked where they would sleep, forcing me to change my plan to accommodate the practicalities. Mr. Wickham never dismissed my dreams and visions as childish fancy, for he knew I would one day be in a position where I had the power to put my ideas into practice if I so chose.
"Your father did not have the upbringing of an heir. Like many second sons, he had the responsibilities of his estate thrust upon him unexpectedly. I have known many younger brothers in my time who have inherited when least expected. It is not easy for them. Your father would have struggled in the beginning. I admire how he has managed to succeed." Elizabeth's face still reflected her disappointment, and he wondered how much she had heard. "You are still thinking of your mother."
She nodded her head. "Mama must be told, I suppose."
"In that case, we will go and tell her together."
"We? Oh no, I do not think---"
"Trust me, Elizabeth. This will be for the best." As they walked through the house looking for Mrs Bennet, Darcy hoped he was right.
They came across Elizabeth's mother in the garden, entreating Kitty to return to the house and speak to the Captain. "For you might like him well enough when you get to know him better."
"I do not wish to know him, Mama."
"Oh, Mr. Darcy. Is Captain Ardern staying for dinner?"
"No, ma'am, he has returned to Town." He smiled at Kitty. "You are safe to go back to the house now." She thanked him between bashful giggles before leaving them.
Darcy then returned his attention towards Mrs Bennet, who said, "Will you be joining us for dinner, sir?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Mr. Bennet was kind enough to extend an invitation. Perhaps we can take the opportunity to give thanks for the safe return of your daughter?"
Mrs Bennet looked dubious. "We can?"
"Yes, or we could even make dinner an impromptu celebration, as your husband has been so kind to allow me the honour of Miss Bennet's hand."
The effect of his pronouncement was most extraordinary, for on first hearing the news, Mrs. Bennet stood quite still, unable to utter a syllable. She looked between the two of them until a smile grew on her face. "Lizzy? Is this true?"
She looked up at him and smiled. "Yes, Mama. I hope you do not mind."
"Mind? My dear, sweetest Lizzy, of course I do not mind. I always thought you and Mr. Darcy would make an excellent match of it." Turning to Darcy she favoured him with a simpering smile. "You must tell me what dish you are particularly fond of, that I may have it for you tomorrow. You will be returning tomorrow, will you not? Where do you stay? Not at the inn, I hope?"
Darcy assured her he had adequate accommodation, while failing to mention he would be staying at Netherfield. Mrs Bennet had taken her daughter by the arm, asking what sounded like a hundred questions as they strolled back to the house. For once, Elizabeth held the status of favourite daughter and he was not about to spoil it by making Mrs Bennet aware of her eldest daughter's return. The news of the Bingley's arrival would spread soon enough.
He listened with half an ear to the conversation between mother and daughter. "I am so pleased ... so happy for you," he heard Mrs Bennet say. "He is such a charming man! So handsome! So tall!"
Darcy straightened his spine as he followed them towards the house, not completely immune to the flattery.
Elizabeth's mother continued her raptures unabated. "Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town and every thing that is charming! I shall go distracted!"
And I thought she had suffered that fate already. At the same moment Elizabeth turned to smile at him, which made him forget all of Mrs Bennet's ramblings. Elizabeth would be his, and he was content.
"I must let cook know we have one more for dinner. I am sure you will keep Mr. Darcy amused while I am gone, Lizzy." Mrs Bennet looked up at him with something akin to worship in her eyes---a sight that made him suddenly wary---before she bustled off into the house.
Elizabeth's eyes twinkled with mischief. "It appears you have made a conquest."
"Yes. I believe she would do anything you asked of her right now. You have my mother twisted around your little finger."
Darcy shrugged. "Well, I suppose that is preferable to having her eating out of my hand."
Posted on November 15, 2008
The day after Darcy's engagement with Elizabeth had been formed, he and the females of the Bennet family were sitting in the dining-room at Longbourn. The sound of a carriage drew their attention to the window and they perceived a shabby hack chaise trundling down the drive. It was too early for morning calls and the equipage did not answer to that of any of their neighbours.
As it was certain, however, that somebody was coming, Darcy prevailed on Elizabeth to avoid the confinement of such an intrusion and take a walk into the shrubbery. From there, hidden from sight behind a flowering broom, they watched a young gentleman descend from the carriage and pull the doorbell.
Noting the quality of the visitor's dress, he turned a questioning look towards Elizabeth. "A solicitor's clerk, perhaps?"
Elizabeth studied the figure in the black coat. "He reminds me a little of ... yes! It is Mr. Newman."
The heartfelt delight in Elizabeth's tone left Darcy wary. "I do not believe I have had the pleasure."
"He is ... well, I hope he calls to see Mary. Lady Augusta introduced them in town and I know Mary was quite taken with him."
Darcy, feeling a measure of relief at her explanation, captured her hand in his. "He is a gentleman of scholarly pursuits, I take it?"
"He is, but how did you know if you have never met him?"
"Intuition, based on my meagre understanding of your sister's disposition. Mary has neither your wit nor vivacity but seems to be of sober reflection and would no doubt attract a gentleman of like mind."
Elizabeth turned from her observation of the house to smile at him. "And are we also of like mind?"
Raising her hand to his lips, he kissed her fingers. "I would say we were complementary, rather than alike, but that makes you no less perfect to be my wife."
She sighed. "Wife. I cannot quite believe we are to be married. I hope I am not still dreaming. I would be so disappointed were I to wake up and find it were not true."
"Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth. Must I ask you again? I will, if you desire it."
"Would you speak the same words you used at Easter?"
As she looked up at him through her lashes, her eyes sparkled. "Not even if I wished you to?"
Darcy remembered Elizabeth's words to him as though it was yesterday, but after four months he had only vague memories of the phrases he himself had uttered. "Tell me what words you wish me to say and I will say them."
"I wish to hear only how much you admire and love me. I want to hear them from your own lips, not those in a dream."
"Elizabeth, I will do anything to make you happy, but you know I love you."
"Then say it, if you please."
Wrapping his arms around her, he pulled her towards him. "I admire you ardently and love you passionately. You are my sun, moon and stars. Your happiness makes me complete. You are my world, and everything in it." He bent his head to kiss her, showing her in his actions what he lacked the words for. "I am impatient to make you my wife," he added, his voice husky.
Elizabeth leaned into his shoulder. "That will do very well."
"Ah, but now you must return the favour. I know what your opinion of me was in Kent, but at what point did your sentiments change?"
Her fingers toyed with the button of his morning coat. "It has been coming on so gradually, I hardly know when it began."
Recalling Mr. Bennet's teasing comment the previous day, he could not resist asking, "Perhaps it dated from your first sight of Pemberley?"
Elizabeth gasped at the thought he might consider her so mercenary and tapped him playfully on the arm. "Oh, I was in love with you before we even left Town."
Darcy stepped back to look into her eyes. "Had I believed that to be the case, I can assure you we would be married already." He threaded her arm through his as they resumed their walk through the shrubbery. "Tell me your mother would be happy with a small ceremony in the local church."
"I would love to tell you such a story, but I fear my mother's plans tend towards the opposite. Last night, after you left us, she spoke of St. George's Chapel and wondered whether you would consider holding the wedding breakfast at Grosvenor Square."
Knowing the kind of wedding Mrs Bennet imagined, Darcy looked down at his betrothed with a wary caution. "And is this your desire as well?"
Elizabeth's eyes widened. "Of course not! The waiting is intolerable, I agree, but mama needed six weeks or more to make herself ready for Jane's wedding, and as she considers you to have twice the consequence I do not doubt she believes her plans require twice the preparation."
"Impossible," Darcy said, flatly. "I have waited too long already."
"Am I not worth waiting for?"
He paused a moment before replying. "How should I answer such a question? If I say yes, you will think my impatience insincere. If I say no, well ... I would never be so foolish. Your worth is incalculable, but I am only a man. Have I not proven my devotion in the last four months?"
"Of course, my love, and I am as eager to wed as you, but there are other arrangements to make. Even if my mother wished it, we could not marry in less than three weeks."
"There is no need to wait for banns. I will purchase a licence."
"Mama says the three weeks are required for the sewing of all the additional clothes I will need as a married woman and planning the wedding breakfast."
"You may have all the dresses you desire once we are married." They walked on in silence for a time as Darcy tried to imagine how he could spend one day away from Elizabeth's company. After spending the last two weeks together at Pemberley, he had grown used to her being within easy reach. "You know I must travel to Town tomorrow."
Elizabeth's eyes remained on the gravel path, but her hand squeezing his arm signalled how little she liked the idea of him leaving. "Yes, I know and I will miss you."
It was strange how those four small words filled him with such contentment, and he could not resist kissing her again while they were alone. "While I am away, perhaps you can speak with Mrs Bingley about assisting your mother with the wedding preparations? When I return we will be married, whether your mother is ready or not."
By now they had made their way back, by a circuitous route, to the front of the house. "You will not be away long?" Elizabeth asked hopefully.
"You are all the inducement to return I could ever desire. I will be back before you know it."
Upon their entrance to the parlour, Mrs Bennet lost no time in introducing Mr. Newman to Darcy, explaining how, as he was visiting friends in the area, he had been kind enough to carry correspondence from the Gardiners in Town.
Darcy shook the young man's hand. "I hope you left Mr. and Mrs Gardiner in good health?"
His question recalled Mr. Newman's wavering attention from the other side of the room, where Mary Bennet, sitting on the settee between her youngest sisters, maintained a fierce concentration on her clasped hands. "Yes ... yes, they were in excellent health."
Darcy smiled as he recognised the telltale distraction of a man in love. "It was fortunate, then, that your friends live so close to Longbourn."
The younger man studied Darcy. "Yes, very fortunate."
Elizabeth, saving Darcy from the onus of further conversation, said, "It has been a while since we last met, Mr. Newman."
"Yes, far too long. It is over four weeks, in fact. We last met on the 20th of July."
The Bennets were clearly pleased to find his memory so exact, none more so than Miss Mary, whom Darcy saw casting surreptitious glances at the visitor whenever she thought he was not looking. Mrs Bennet invited Mr. Newman to take tea with them but he declined, citing the engagement that had so fortuitously brought him into the area, although he was pleased to return the following day.
Later that evening, when Mr. Bennet and Darcy remained at the table following dinner, his host brought up the subject of their unexpected visitor. "What did you think of Mr. Newman?"
Darcy had formed a favourable impression of the young man during his visit, thinking him a good match for the most serious Bennet daughter. "He told me he is considering going into politics, and I suspect he has a promising future, once he comes into his inheritance."
Mr. Bennet nodded slowly. "He has asked my permission to court Mary, although he is still some way from being in a position to marry."
"I do not know Mary well, but it appears she is not indifferent to him."
"He has taken a room at the Black Swan in Meryton so I told him to come again tomorrow, when I will have a decision for him."
"And what will that be?"
"I see no reason to refuse him. If Mary is happy to wait, as my wife assures me she is, then they can do as they wish."
"Your daughter has more patience than I." Given the opportunity Darcy would be married the following day, and he told Mr. Bennet as much. When he explained how little he or Elizabeth wished for a ceremony in town, his future father-in-law asked what arrangement they would prefer.
It was almost three-quarters of an hour before Darcy and Mr. Bennet rejoined the ladies that evening, but in Darcy's mind the delay in returning to Elizabeth's side had been well worth it.
Two days later, Darcy climbed the steps at White's and entered the reception hall. He had concluded all the necessary business with his solicitor, and it wanted only an hour and a half before they expected him at the Doctors' Commons.
He found the coffee room almost empty at that time of the afternoon, which meant Darcy had an unimpeded view across to the window, where Lord Cresswell lounged in an armchair, glass in hand. His lordship stared ahead, oblivious to his surroundings and looking barely less dejected than their last meeting, when they had cleared the air with swords as well as words.
Sitting in the chair next to Cresswell, Darcy waved a hand in front of his face to draw his attention.
The Viscount flicked his eyes to Darcy, giving him a smile of recognition. "What are you doing here? Should you not be with Miss Bennet? She is still Miss Bennet, I assume? I have not heard otherwise."
"Yes, although she will not remain so for much longer. You may wish me joy, for I am in town only long enough to obtain a licence."
"I congratulate you." Cresswell lifted his glass. "She will make you the second happiest man in England, I am sure of it."
"The second? And who is the first? You?"
Cresswell's eyebrow rose at his sceptical tone. "Can you doubt it?"
"When I walked into the room you did not appear to me the picture of a happy man, and after our last conversation I assumed---"
"So did I, dear boy, so did I. What a fool I was! Had I realised my good fortune sooner I would not have fought so fervently against the arrangement." The Viscount's eyes brightened. "Lady Cresswell has the sweetest disposition you could wish for, hidden away beneath an emotionless facade erected purely to please her aunt. Despite our somewhat hastily arranged union, I am happier than I ever hoped to be."
Darcy felt a measure of relief at his friend's unexpected good fortune. It appeared that things had not turned out quite as bad as they had expected. "Then I wonder why you should look so miserable?"
Cresswell shared a sheepish grin. "Well, as to that, my wife is visiting her sick mother. It is only to be a short trip ... two or three days at the most. I had things to do here in town, so I thought she would be well enough going on her own. However, I am now finding that the house does not seem quite the same without her. It feels ... well, empty. Do you know what I mean?"
"Yes, I think I do." He recalled that morning, when he had woken in his chamber at Darcy House, only to realise it would be more than a day before he would see Elizabeth again. He had suffered a pang of longing as painful as it had been surprising. "It appears I am not the only one who has it bad. Love really is the devil, and he is tormenting us both."
"But we would not have it any other way, would we?"
Smiling, Darcy shook his head. "Not for the world."
Cresswell signalled a servant for drinks. "But at least we are more fortunate than some. Take Henry, for example. Would you ever imagine that he could be equally wounded by Cupid's arrow?"
"Henry? No, never."
"It seems we were both greatly deceived then. I expected our dear Regent to take Holy orders before Henry Ardern fell in love, but so it is."
Recalling the last time he had seen the captain, at Longbourn, Darcy wondered whether their interview had any bearing on his current condition. "And who is the object of his affection?"
Cresswell shook his head. "I understand she is a young lady he met in town during the season." Mistaking Darcy's stare for surprise, he added, "I know, I thought he was talking about that blonde actress he took up with, but I only received a raking over the coals for my trouble. Who would have ever expected him to fall so hard for a virtuous girl?"
Somewhat concerned for Kitty's reputation, Darcy asked, "Did he give the young lady's name?"
"No, and he refused to be pressed on it; an action which alone shows the seriousness of his thoughts."
Grateful that Henry at least had enough sense to respect Kitty's honour, Darcy let out a sigh of relief. "It is hard to imagine he would ever fall so hard. I cannot picture him as a married man."
"I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I almost feel sorry for him. This is the first time he shows the slightest interest a decent young woman. It is a shame his affections are not reciprocated."
"Are you sure they are not?"
"Not only did the young lady refuse his kind offer---proving herself a female of superior sense---but her mother even set one of her servants on him! It must have been a lowering experience for Henry. Now nothing will do but to sell his commission with the Life Guards and buy something in a frontline regiment. Probably the Light Dragoons."
Darcy frowned, unable to hide his surprise. "He wishes to go to the Peninsula?"
"Yes, and a clearer indication of a broken heart you will not see. As far as Henry is concerned, there really is nothing left to live for."
It appeared that Darcy had mistaken both his former friend's intentions and the strength of his attachment. When he encountered the Captain at Longbourn, he presumed Henry had made his proposal to Kitty Bennet from a sense of convenience rather than any sincere feelings for her. However, now it seemed that Kitty had affected Henry more than he had been prepared to admit. Although it would not have made an appreciable difference to the outcome of his proposal, for the first time in many years, Darcy felt sincerely sorry for him.
If Henry experienced even a part of the love Darcy bore for Elizabeth, he would have found Kitty's rejection to be painful indeed.
"What are you doing in here?"
Thomas Bennet looked around the parlour before returning his attention to his wife. "I rather thought I lived here."
"But you always keep to your room at this time of day."
He shrugged, knowing it for the truth. "I wondered whether you might like to go for a stroll, my dear."
Mrs Bennet stared at him for a moment, nonplussed. "A walk? At this time of day?"
"I understand a gentle perambulation can be beneficial to one's health. I intend to speak to Mr. Thompson about re-carving the memorial to my brother. The least we can do is to ensure it shows the correct date of John's death. I thought you might like to join me."
He watched as his wife glanced at the windows. The heat of the day had gone, and it looked to be turning into a pleasant evening.
"I will have to change," she said, almost by way of a warning.
He smiled and waved a hand nonchalantly. "Take all the time you need."
Thomas Bennet was only slightly surprised to find himself---no more than half an hour later---leaving the gates of Longbourn to walk to the church. St. Leonard's stood an easy distance from the house. They walked there every Sunday, unless the weather was particularly inclement, at which time the carriage was usually called for.
As they came upon the ancient wall protecting the sacred ground, he turned to his wife. "Mr. Thompson should be inside the church, waiting for us." He waved Mrs Bennet through the carved portal, and they entered the nave. It took a few seconds before his eyes adjusted to the dim light, after the sunlight outside.
"Jane? Lizzy? What are you doing here?" Mrs Bennet asked as she walked down the aisle towards them.
Mr. and Mrs Bingley stood close to the pulpit with Elizabeth. Other than that, the church appeared empty. Then Mr. Darcy came through the vestry door in the company of the curate. Hearing her question, he said, "With your leave, Mrs Bennet, we are getting married."
"Married? At four o'clock in the afternoon?"
The curate reassured her. "Mr. Darcy has supplied the necessary documentation, Mrs Bennet. Everything is as it should be."
For a moment she was shocked into speechlessness, but recovered sufficiently to say, "A special licence? Why, ‘tis as good as a Lord! But you cannot marry today. What of the wedding breakfast?"
Jane smiled. "Do not worry, Mama. All is in hand. Mrs Hill and Mrs Nicholls should be at Netherfield as we speak. Everything has been provided for."
Leaving his shocked spouse in the hands of his daughters, Mr. Bennet went to shake the hand of the friend he would soon be calling son-in-law. "Well, that went off better than I expected."
Darcy agreed. "It was a risk."
"Yes, but a calculated one. I knew my spouse well enough to be reasonably sure her curiosity alone would bring her hither."
"But what would you have done if it had not?"
"I am sure something would have occurred to me." For the first time in their acquaintance Mr. Bennet saw signs of nervousness in Darcy. "Come, come. It is a painless procedure, even if it does have a lifetime of consequences."
"The consequences do not worry me. I will, however, be happier when the matter is satisfactorily concluded."
Bingley turned a mischievous smile upon his friend. "Nervous, Darcy? You? And I thought you would cope with this so much better than I!"
Mr. Bennet chuckled. "No man is immune when it comes to his own bridal. But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, do they not, Bingley?"
"They certainly do, sir," his friend replied with a knowing look towards the groom.
Mr. Bennet looked around the interior of the old stone church. It had changed little in the many years since he first attended as a child. Generations of Bennets were entombed under the worn stone slabs of the nave, or buried in the churchyard outside. It gave him an immense feeling of satisfaction to think that his family would, through Nathan, continue the line of patronage first begun by his many times great-grandfather.
"I believe we are still waiting on my youngest daughters. In order that they would not spoil the surprise, I chose to keep them in the dark about this day's activity, and they walked out towards Meryton. I have sent Nathan to escort them back."
They did not have long to wait before Kitty and Mary entered the church, followed closely by Nathan, Lydia hanging from his arm. She had not spent a moment away from his side since the young man had returned from Derbyshire. Mr. Bennet wondered for a moment whether his nephew and youngest daughter might eventually make a match of it, but he quickly shook his head, disgusted by the path his thoughts had taken.
Matchmaking was a task best undertaken by those who had a taste for it, like his wife. Although, admittedly, he could look with some pride on the one union he had encouraged.
Darcy waited with poorly concealed apprehension before the delicately carved chancel screen. Then Elizabeth moved to join him and the pair stood together, bathed in the beams of sunlight streaming through the chancel window as though God himself---rather than Mr. Thompson, the vicar---was blessing their union.
And Thomas Bennet could not imagine a more satisfying sight.
Easter 1813 ~ Rosings Park, Kent
"She must be Aphrodite, the goddess of love."
"No, Lady Catherine's tastes always ran to the more sensible choices, such as Physis, the personification of nature, or Iris, the messenger goddess."
Elizabeth gazed at her husband with a newfound respect. "I had no idea there were so many goddesses."
"Naturally. You did not have the benefit of a classical education."
"Then who do you think she is?"
"I do not think, my love, I know. She is Alethia, the goddess of truth."
She studied the small female statue, proud on her pedestal within the chamber of the folly. "How can you tell?"
"Because she weaved her spell over us both the last time we stood beneath her temple, and we spoke nothing but the truth that day. If we had not, would we be here now?" Fitzwilliam swept her into his arms, his lips capturing hers with the ease of familiarity.
Elizabeth had many reasons to be grateful for that day, just over a year ago. Had she remained at the parsonage, or if the weather had not turned so dreadful during her walk, her life might have been very different.
Leaving the chamber, Elizabeth's eyes followed the lines of trees across the park. She could see Rosings in the distance, but it was no longer the grim prospect that had haunted her dreams. Those surreal visions had often been shrouded in rain, but today the sun glinted from the windows, seeming to warm the very stones themselves, and the grand edifice appeared far less daunting than it had once been.
Of course, a house was only an extension of the people who lived in it, and while Lady Catherine de Bourgh might still be a resident, she was no longer its mistress. The current mistress was, at that moment, lying upon a picnic blanket under an apple tree, her eyes closed as her husband read to her from a book of poetry.
The transformation of the former Anne de Bourgh, from sickly and shy to healthy and completely at ease with her new status, was complete.
With the responsibility of a household to manage, and a mother who needed almost constant care, Mrs Spencer Hall had altered beyond recognition from the creature Elizabeth had pitied during her first visit to Rosings. With Spencer by her side Anne was clearly happier than she had ever been.
Without the constant advice and authority wielded by Lady Catherine, some might have expected the estate to fall into ruin, or the servants turn insolent, but happily none of those events had occurred.
Instead, all the tenants and dependants had warmly welcomed Spencer and Anne's less authoritarian approach. Indeed, less than a month after his arrival at Rosings, the new master had ridden to the aid of one farmer's wife who had suffered complications during the birth of her fifth child. The midwife later admitted she had feared for the lives of both mother and babe until Dr. Hall arrived and saved them both. Although those living nearby understood that the Master of Rosings should not be bothered for trifling illnesses, in more serious cases he could be relied upon to call upon the patient at least once. In this way, Dr. Spencer Hall soon earned the respect of the neighbourhood.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thanks to the prompt and continued treatment of her son-in-law, continued to live in her old apartments at Rosings, and everyone generally expected her to outlive them all. Dawson, her lady's maid, certainly believed so, and her thoughts often turned towards retirement.
Although Lady Catherine had not been so fortunate as to recover her speech, and movement on one side of her body was feeble at best, she managed to scrawl her many thoughts and opinions using pen and paper. Being familiar with her handwriting, Dawson could decipher most of her notes, and knew a high proportion were rambling invectives directed towards the new master.
If she chose to consign most of the abusive missives to the fire, Dawson at least had the sense to wait until she had left her mistress's room.
Mr. Collins had, at first, been staunch in his support of Lady Catherine and quick to sympathise with her plight. However, it had not taken long for the servile clergyman to transfer his admiration and ingratiating praise upon the new master of Rosings, often pushing Spencer to the very edge of his amenable nature.
Soon after Elizabeth had arrived in Kent, she had plucked up the courage to pay a visit to the parsonage. Charlotte had naturally been disappointed when Elizabeth had not informed her personally of Nathan's arrival in England---with the subsequent diminution of her husband's expectations---and for the last few months they had suspended their correspondence.
Stepping through the door of the Collins' modest home, Elizabeth had expected some symptoms of resentment from her former friend, but her worries were unfounded. Although they all sensed some awkwardness during the first moments of their arrival, all reticence evaporated in the presence of the rosy cheeked Miss Catherine Collins; a two-month-old infant who combined all the placidity of her mother with the less than fortunate looks of her father.
Elizabeth was delighted with the child and even her husband smiled when he saw young Catherine cradled in his wife's arms. She would not have long to wait until her first niece or nephew arrived in the world, for her eldest sister was expecting to be confined in the next two months. It was likely to be their only child born at Netherfield.
Despite his easy temper and her affectionate heart, Bingley and Jane had found the near vicinity of Netherfield to Longbourn held some definite disadvantages. Not only was it uncomfortably close to Mrs Bennet and Mrs Phillips, it was only half a day's travel from Town, which meant they also received regular visits from Caroline, whenever she grew tired of the Hursts. As much as Jane liked her sister-in-law, she could wish Caroline might find herself a husband, but there seemed no likelihood of her abandoning her spinster status in the near, or even distant, future.
For this reason as much as any other, Elizabeth did not think many more months would pass before Charles and Jane purchased another estate, and in some county other than Hertfordshire. Mrs Bennet would be comforted, however, with the fact that at least one of her daughters would remain close to Longbourn for many years to come.
During Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam's wedding breakfast, Aunt Phillips revealed that she had taken a direct hand in one of her niece's fates when she arranged riding lessons for Kitty. One of Mrs Phillips' oldest friends was Mrs Pickard, whose elderly husband had been rearing and training horses for many years, and whose son had been happy to assist the daughter of a neighbour with her desire to ride.
Due in no small part to the lax chaperonage of Mrs Phillips and Mrs Pickard, Kitty was able to present Mr. Robert Pickard as her betrothed at Meryton's autumn assembly ball, forcing Mrs Bennet to abandon her dreams of Kitty becoming the next mistress of Longbourn. However, when Mrs Bennet had the felicity of seeing her daughter wed, she was as satisfied as any mother could wish to be.
After Kitty's wedding, Mary had left Hertfordshire for Gracechurch Street, at the invitation of their aunt and uncle. The benefit of such a visit was mutually satisfying to all parties. Mr. and Mrs Gardiner enjoyed the company of a niece who would love and instruct their children, while Mary resided within visiting distance Mr. Newman, to whom she was now betrothed. He often spent more time at the Gardiner's house than he did at his own, and neither seemed to chafe at the restrictions that would remain in place until his twenty-fifth birthday.
Captain Ardern's opinions about Lydia forced Mr. Bennet to reconsider his youngest daughter's access to society. However, as the only daughter remaining at Longbourn, Lydia was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of a husband by Mrs. Bennet finding herself quite unable to sit alone.
Georgiana, whose delight in welcoming Elizabeth as a sister exceeded everything she could have imagined, looked forward to her entrée into society during the coming season. Her presence in Kent, along with Nathan---travelling from Cambridge at the end of the Lent term---ensured that the Rosings party did not suffer from lack of company.
Nathan had, by all accounts, enjoyed his first two terms at Cambridge; finding himself with a generous circle of acquaintance and the approbation of his peers in all matters sporting and social.
Now, Elizabeth watched Georgiana and Nathan as they walked in the garden, at some distance from the temple. After a few moments she felt her husband's arms around her waist as he moved to stand behind her.
"I believe I can guess your thoughts, Mrs Darcy."
"I would not be at all surprised, my dear. We think alike on any number of subjects."
He remained quiet, waiting for her to speak.
"Do you not think---?"
"How can you answer so decisively when you cannot know what I was going to say?"
"I have already told you, I have already guessed the direction of your thoughts. They are too young."
"Who are?" Elizabeth asked innocently.
"Nathan and Georgiana." He nodded towards the two young people who had taken the path towards the house. "Besides, it was not very long ago that they hated the very sight of each other." Fitzwilliam brushed his lips against the top of her head. "Once Georgiana makes her curtsey, she will be courted by many eligible gentlemen."
"Nathan is as eligible as any other young man."
"Yes, my love, but his age alone precludes him marrying. Were he six or seven and twenty it would be a different matter, but at twenty years of age a man has not yet lived."
"But they are friends."
At that moment they both heard a shriek. Nathan, grinning like a madman, was making a show of running away, while Georgiana chased him across the lawn, swatting at him like a fly.
Fitzwilliam laughed. "I would say they were more like brother and sister." He watched the two young people until they moved out of sight, behind the trees. "One day, Lizzy, our children will play together, just as Nathan and Georgie are doing now."
They had been married for eight months and Elizabeth knew her husband was as keen to populate Pemberley's nursery as she was. "Perhaps that day will come sooner than you think."
"Do you believe so?"
Taking his wrist, Elizabeth moved his hand until it rested on her stomach. "I know it."
"You are sure?"
"I spoke with Spencer this morning while you were out riding, and he confirmed it."
"Spencer knows already?"
Elizabeth smiled at the hurt tone in his voice. "He is a doctor. I assumed you would not object to me making certain."
Fitzwilliam wrapped both arms protectively around her as he surveyed the parkland surrounding them. "Are you sure you should not be in bed, my love? Gardens can be dangerous places. I would not want you to slip and bump your head again. Not in your condition."
"Do not worry. I will be fine."
"Perhaps I can escort you back to the safety of the house."
"If you wish to escort me anywhere, we can walk across to Spencer and Anne, and he will tell you there is no need for you to be quite so protective."
"Not necessary, I assure you." Somewhere above them, in the trees, the raucous caw of a crow caused Fitzwilliam to tighten his hold on his wife. "Well, perhaps I do have a few questions."
As Elizabeth accompanied her husband across to where Spencer and Anne sat, she marvelled again at her good fortune. Not only had she married the best of all men, but he would also make an excellent, if slightly overprotective, father.