Posted on Saturday, 27 October 2007
"Elizabeth, must you go?" asked the lady's husband, giving her the bound bunch of writing paper for which she held out her hand to place in her carrying case.
Taking pity on him (for she had not been married so long as to find his disappointed scowl anything but endearing), Elizabeth smiled sympathetically and replied, "I shall be away no more than a fortnight, dearest, and will join you and Georgiana in town sooner than that if I can help it . . . Would you search in that middle drawer for my ink well?"
As he stooped to examine the recesses of her writing desk, Darcy mumbled discontentedly, "married seven short weeks, and already you're leaving me. My love, I'd been under the impression that you had spared yourself the trouble of being present at the birth of Mr. Collins' children by refusing to marry him."
In spite of her determination to be unswayed by his protestations, Elizabeth could not help but be greatly amused by the comical turn his discontent had taken. She laughingly set down the items she had been preparing for her departure and took his arm with affectionate good humor.
"William, how droll you are when you are cross! You know perfectly well I shouldn't care a bit for Mr. Collins' children (though they are to inherit Longbourn) were they not poor Charlotte's too. Would you have me abandon my old friend when she has asked me most particularly to be present?"
Drawing her closer and resting his chin in her hair he replied unwillingly, "No. I daresay, as usual, you are right. I do hate to think how my confounded aunt will respond, however, when she learns you are staying at Hunsford. If she makes a nuisance of herself, Elizabeth . . ."
"I intend to stay well out of her way, my dear, I assure you. Despite her great love of prying into everybody else's business, I doubt her ladyship will have much desire to be nearby at the birth of her clergyman's firstborn, at least until any evidence of the actual event has been well erased. By that time I intend to be happily settled in G_______ Square with you and Georgiana."
"I am glad to hear it," he replied decidedly. He had taken her hand, and in a habit of distracted affection he had recently formed, began twisting the wedding band on her finger, as he often twisted his own signet ring. "I will miss you, my Lizzy," he said quietly at last.
She smiled and tilted her chin upward to kiss him. "And I you."
It had been a great many months since Elizabeth had last seen the Kentish countryside. Now, returning as she was in all the pomp and circumstance of the Darcy name, the Darcy carriage, and the Darcy consequence, it seemed almost incredible to her that Elizabeth Bennet had once traveled this road at all. And yet it was not even a year ago that she had left the place, agitated and self-chastising, suffering countless agonies on account of the man whose liberal means now conveyed her in such comfort and elegance to the very place where she had once insisted she wanted nothing to do with him. The reversal of situation was striking to say the least.
Elizabeth had known upon her receipt of Charlotte's request that a return to Hunsford would necessitate a wash of memories from the spring before, and not all of them pleasant. Though all was forgiven between herself and Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth did not care to recall how spitefully she had once behaved toward one who was now so dear. She hoped that being of constant use to Charlotte would give her ample occupation to drive away any nagging recollection of past offenses committed under the roof of Hunsford parsonage.
With a smile, Elizabeth thought of her last journey into Hunsford -- Sir William's awkward attempts at admiring his daughter's situation without offending the friend who might have had it first, and young Maria's inability to remain still once they left the outskirts of Meryton.
Elizabeth herself had been anxious enough to reach their destination, praying to find that Charlotte's choice of husband had not made her utterly miserable, knowing that it could not make her entirely happy. There was the guilt too, of having been so quick to think meanly of her friend's decision, to dismiss the very real offer of security that the (admittedly) odious Mr. Collins had offered Charlotte, already feeling keenly the dangers of her twenty-seventh year.
These reflections had moved Elizabeth to such a state of forgetfulness for her surroundings that it came as quite a surprise to her when she began to recognize the sites of Hunsford village and the little road that led from it to the parsonage. Within a very few minutes the carriage had arrived at its door, and with a promptness unexpected in a lady of comparable health, Charlotte came from the house to welcome her friend.
Hardly waiting for the footman to open the door and hand her down, Elizabeth leapt from the carriage and hurried to clasp the hands of her friend. "My very dear Charlotte," she said before planting a firm and affectionate kiss on her cheek. "I hope this manner of greeting means you are in good health?"
Charlotte smiled and squeezed her hands. "As good as Mr. Carter the apothecary says I ought to be, and all the better for seeing you. I am so happy you are come, Elizabeth, and I know that as a newly married woman there was some sacrifice on your part to honor my request . . ."
"Nonsense, Charlotte. I am only too happy to have this excuse of seeing you, and if you can bear to hear it all, I have a great deal to acquaint you with. As for Mr. Darcy, he may fend for himself. Now, it won't do to have you standing here in the drive any longer, you must come inside."
Charlotte graciously allowed herself to be shepherded back into the house by her friend, who called instructions to her coachman over her shoulder and directed that her trucks be set down where Charlotte's housekeeper might see to them. Charlotte was struck momentarily with this evidence of her friend's new consequence, but was soon reminded of all Elizabeth's familiar and beloved qualities as she helped her into a favorite chair in the front parlor, and insisted on gathering anything Charlotte might require while still wearing her bonnet and gloves.
"I assure you, Lizzy, I am entirely well and require nothing at this moment but the pleasure of your company. Come, give your things to Mrs. Hodges, and sit by me."
Elizabeth paused in her efforts to arrange a shawl around Charlotte's shoulders, and smiling, rose to loosen her own bonnet strings. "Very well, if you insist on it."
Divested of her traveling garb, she settled into an armchair near Charlotte and favored her with an unrestrained smile. "I am even happier to see you than I anticipated, Charlotte. After having devoted the last few weeks to committing new places and new people to memory, it is very pleasant to see a face so well-known and well-loved as yours."
Charlotte returned her smile. "But you are content with your new situation, Lizzy."
The color rose slightly in Elizabeth's cheeks, and with a warm look she replied earnestly, "very, Charlotte."
"You have done very well for yourself," Charlotte continued, sounding every bit as practical as she always had on the subject of marriage. "Did I not tell you all those months ago in Hertfordshire that it would behoove you to take note of Mr. Darcy's apparent interest?"
Elizabeth laughed. "Yes, only I was too stupid then to listen."
Looking fondly into Charlotte's face, it suddenly occurred to Elizabeth that the treasured confidant of her girlhood had been absent during most of the upheaval of feeling and situation that had characterized the last few months. Charlotte had been tucked away in Kent throughout, and seen nothing of the trials Elizabeth had encountered before achieving what in the former's eyes must have seemed merely a highly advantageous match.
"What is it?" Charlotte asked, seeing her friend's expression become contemplative.
"Oh! Nothing really, only that, as I said before, I have a great deal to tell you. However, it may all wait until I am assured that I do not try your health or your patience with the recital. Where is Mr. Collins?"
"Ah." Charlotte looked a little embarrassed. "An urgent matter requiring his immediate attention has arisen at Rosings. Her ladyship was quite insistent. But I expect him to return before dinner. He will be very pleased to see you have arrived in safety."
"I see," said Elizabeth softly. She wondered privately if the "urgent matter" had been concocted by Lady Catherine as a means of slighting the visitor she surely knew was expected at the parsonage that afternoon. But she chose not to vex Charlotte with suspicions her perceptive friend probably shared already.
"Well," Elizabeth continued presently, "it affords me all the more time to have you to myself. Have you taken tea yet this afternoon?"
"No, and I must confess to being rather hungry. However, in all the excitement of your coming, I'm afraid I forgot to speak to Mrs. Hodges about. . . "
"Say no more," interrupted Elizabeth, rising, "and don't you dare get up. I shall go and speak to the good lady myself, and when I return, I expect to find you completely at your ease, and not exerting yourself in any way." She bent to kiss Charlotte's forehead, then added strictly, "I shall be very upset if I discover otherwise."
Mr. Collins did indeed return for dinner. He paid his compliments to Mrs. Darcy and made the appropriate inquiries, but in so subdued a manner and with so few references to his noble patroness, that Elizabeth began to suspect that the poor man (whose powers of reasoning were not good) was greatly confused as to where his loyalties ought to lie in the present situation.
On the one hand, it was a matter of no small consequence to be on such intimate terms with the newest member of the Darcy family, that she might be summoned to assist his dear Charlotte's ordeal, but on the other, there was the displeasure of Lady Catherine to think about.
Upon first hearing that his Cousin Eliza was indeed to marry the formidable Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins' initial response was to feel some injury had been done to himself. After all, he had once made a very promising offer to the lady in question, and despite his good will and (he flattered himself) very pleasing attentions, his suit had been rejected out of hand. It appeared that his high-spirited and forthright cousin had been scheming for greater things all along.
But the perception of having been slighted soon gave way to other, more pleasant considerations, namely that such an alliance provided a direct familial link to the right honorable Lady Catherine de Bourgh herself. Mr. Collins even sat down one evening, family tree spread before him, to map out the exact relationship which would be formed between himself and her ladyship as a result of her nephew marrying his cousin, but soon found the task too wearisome even for his enthusiasm.
But Lady Catherine had taken pains to let her clergyman know in no uncertain terms that she was greatly offended by this course of events. She considered it an intentional insult to her daughter Anne, and the direct result of devious machinations by a conniving nobody of inferior birth, little fortune, and extremely bad character. She would not forbid her man of the cloth to associate with his Hertfordshire connections, but she would be most seriously displeased if he maintained his former intimacy with them.
So it had been with considerable trepidation that Mr. Collins had agreed to honor his wife's desire for Elizabeth Darcy to attend her in the last days of her confinement. Some allowances (as even her ladyship could not deny) must be made for a woman in such a delicate state of health, and Mr. Collins, for all his faults, had not the heart to refuse his wife this particular measure of comfort. He only hoped her ladyship would not give him reason to regret his generosity.
Elizabeth, sensing the nature of her cousin's reflections if not their exact content, was careful to steer conversation away from topics that might prove difficult to navigate. "I admired your excellent gardens earlier from the window of Charlotte's sitting room, Mr. Collins. It is very difficult to keep them in such superior condition during the winter and I congratulate you."
"Thank you --" he replied, trailing off in an obvious attempt to decide what he now ought to call his cousin. "Mrs. Darcy" was surely an insult to her ladyship (who Mr. Collins was convinced heard every word of his discourse despite her absence) and "Cousin Elizabeth" was too familiar for a lady exalted to such prestige, wealth, and elegance.
He at last settled on a rather lamely spoken, "madam," but then continued with considerably more enthusiasm, "The preservation of my winter gardens are due largely to the kind condescension of Lady Cath--- to a superior expert on all matters botanical, who advised me on what plants and shrubberies were heartiest and most likely to weather the elements. I have put a considerable amount of thought into arranging my garden so that the more robust specimen provide shelter to the weaker and so on. Indeed, madam, it put me greatly in mind of a sermon topic suggested to me by . . . the same person, whose bounty and beneficence provides the essential foundation for many of the basic functions of the village . . ."
Elizabeth, at first pleased to hear that something like logic had occurred in Mr. Collins' mind, listened to him continue his poorly concealed compliments to her ladyship with a mixture of dismay and amusement. She glanced at Charlotte, who seemed to be pursuing her own train of thought with the unstudied air of an expert. Poor Charlotte was in all probability extremely used to these speeches of her husband's, and found this one sufficiently like the rest in order to pay it absolutely no mind.
". . . indeed it behooves us all to remember with solemn gratitude what is owed to our betters, who --"
"Thank you, Mr. Collins. Your theological perspective is, as always, so very . . . unique. But I would not tax you with repeating a sermon for me that I will doubtless have the pleasure of hearing on Sunday with the rest of your parish."
"Well, madam, I . . ."
"Charlotte! When does Lady Lucas arrive?"
Looking up at hearing herself addressed, and with evident relief that her husband had been silenced, Charlotte replied, "My mother is expected tomorrow. In fact, she is very anxious to see you, Elizabeth."
"Me? I am flattered, I'm sure, but your mother has never taken great notice of me before."
"I believe my mother is curious to see how you find your new situation," answered Charlotte, discreetly eyeing her husband, who fidgeted nervously at the mention of the reason for all her ladyship's displeasure. "Mrs. Bennet has apparently been very eloquent on the subject."
In spite of herself, Elizabeth had to laugh at her mother's behavior, which really was unpreventable. "Of that I have no doubt. I see, however, that I will have a great many inflations of the truth to correct. If she has had her information from my mother, Lady Lucas will certainly find me rather disappointing in the flesh."
"Well, I do not," said Charlotte determinedly, setting down her water glass and covering Elizabeth's hand affectionately with her own. "And it is a very good thing that you are come to stay with us in my hour of need." Her gaze returned pointedly to her husband. "Is it not, my dear?"
Mr. Collins, who had been hoping all evening to avoid this very question, floundered a minute, searching for a diplomatic response, and finding it impossible at last replied (with surprising wisdom), "Yes, my dear."
As Charlotte was easily fatigued these days, she soon grew tired after dinner, and asked Elizabeth to help her prepare for bed. Both ladies bid Mr. Collins goodnight, who retired with no small amount of relief to his study, intent upon applying himself to a project her ladyship had suggested that afternoon.
Insisting that Charlotte take her arm, though the latter assured her it was not necessary, Elizabeth led her friend from the dining room to the base of the stairs. While doing so, they passed the door to Charlotte's sitting room at the back of the house, which stood open. The remains of a fire was burning itself out in the grate and cast dim, flickering beams of light across the floor. Elizabeth had not entered the room since that fateful evening of the April before, when it had been the scene of a confrontation she was not likely to soon forget. Even in the dim light, she sensed that everything was exactly as it had been that last evening. Elizabeth felt an unexpected twinge, and involuntarily, she caught her breath.
"Lizzy, what is it?"
Charlotte's question startled her, and recalling her to the present made her feel a little ashamed of her inattention. "Oh, a passing thought, Charlotte, better forgotten than repeated. Shall you manage the stairs alright?"
Having ensured that Charlotte lacked nothing for her comfort, Elizabeth retired to her own room, the same she had occupied on her first visit to Hunsford. Closing the door behind her, she felt at liberty to release the sigh she had held back in Charlotte's presence, and passed a hand over her brow. She was glad to be alone and have some opportunity of composing the many thoughts the day had inspired.
She was relieved to have found Charlotte, for the most part, in such good health and spirits. With any luck, Mr. Collins' awkwardness over Lady Catherine's displeasure would keep him well out of the way through the remainder of his wife's confinement, therefore increasing the likelihood of Charlotte's continued well being. It was not pleasant to think of the situation in such terms, but it was the truth, and Charlotte had chosen her partner in life with eyes fully open.
Elizabeth's solitude also gave her an opportunity to think of her own husband, and to miss him. She realized with an indulgent smile for her girlhood that it would be the first evening since the night before her wedding that she would be sleeping -- yes sleeping -- alone. Nor would there be the presence of the trusted listener with whom she might share her reflections on the day's events with total candor, as had become their practice.
These thoughts occupied her as she undressed and put on her nightgown. She had purposefully chosen to leave her lady's maid behind, fearing that such an obvious indication of rank and privilege would distance her from her old friend, but now she missed the company such a luxury provided. Feeling suddenly very lonely, Elizabeth resolved, despite the lateness of the hour, to begin a letter to her husband.
Retrieving pen, ink, and paper from her case, Elizabeth remembered their playful tiff as she gathered the last of her belongings and laughed softly to herself. He really was developing into a promising source of constant amusement, and was even learning, now and then, to laugh at himself.
January 10, 18__
Hunsford Parsonage, Kent
My Dear William,
Elizabeth's pen idled over the paper. It occurred to her that she had never written him a proper letter before. There had of course been little notes exchanged over the course of their engagement and the early days of their marriage, but she had never been far enough from him since they had come to an understanding to justify a real letter.
She smiled to herself. How fitting it was, to be composing her first letter to him in the very room where she had poured over, again and again, his first to her.
My Dear William,
You will be pleased to hear that I have arrived at Hunsford parsonage in safety, and so far have passed several hours under its roof without receiving an overture of war from Rosings. Mrs. Collins does very well, and it is a great pleasure to be of use to her. Mr. Collins bears my presence well enough, though it is an obvious test of both his fortitude and his conscience. His attempts to erase her ladyship from his conversation at dinner this evening were rather entertaining, largely because he quoted and referred to her as much as always, only this time under the guise of curious pseudonyms like "a great lady of my acquaintance" or "an expert in these matters," etc. I do not know if he actually considered this dissembling method effective, but Charlotte and I gave perfect performances of ignorance.
Lady Lucas is to arrive sometime tomorrow, and no doubt to bring with her, being my mother's particular friend, various messages and bits of advice from that lady. But with Jane's behavior as my model I will bear all this with saintly fortitude for Charlotte's sake. And really, Lady Lucas is not so very bad once she has gotten over the initial excitement of having news to impart. At least she will not feel it necessary to speak of my mother in terms of cryptic aliases.
I hope you bear your solitude at Pemberley without too much displeasure, and that you have forgiven me for abandoning you. I promise this fortnight of separation will be over before we know it, and in the meantime I intend to be perfectly desolated and inconsolable.
But in all seriousness, William, I find I miss you more keenly than can be rightly explained by a day's absence, and write this letter to you before retiring if only to delay the inevitability of getting into bed and finding you not there.
Yours in all expectation of rectifying this state of affairs as soon as may be,
Posted on Tuesday, 30 October 2007
Fitzwilliam Darcy emerged slowly to wakefulness, opened one eye, and deciding consciousness was not for him, closed it again and reached for his wife. Consciousness came quite unbidden, however, when his arm connected with nothing but cold sheets and a pillow unimpressed by his lady's sleeping head. Darcy forced open both eyes, and propping himself up by the elbows, took stock of his solitary situation.
"Oh," he breathed aloud as memory caught up with him. She had gone to Hunsford. With a scowl not unlike that of a disappointed child denied a treasured object, Darcy sat up in bed and ran both hands roughly through unruly curls. He struggled to remember in the grogginess of early morning why he had ever agreed to the Hunsford scheme in the first place. Surely a woman as sensible as Elizabeth might have been persuaded that exchanging his company for that of a ridiculous, fawning idiot and a woman in the throws of childbearing's eccentric humors was a bad idea.
Since there was no reason to linger in a bed where Elizabeth was not, Darcy rose and began to prepare for the day. As the barb of his initial displeasure began to ease with growing alertness, he had to admit to himself that his wife's desire to be a help and comfort to her friend was not such a misguided sentiment. And if it induced her to spend a fortnight in Kent without him, so be it. He was obliged to accept all her merits without regard to where they might lead her.
Washed and dressed, Darcy began to make his way downstairs in search of a cup of coffee before tackling the morning's business. As he dropped his watch into the pocket of his waistcoat, however, his fingers grazed a folded sheet of paper he did not remember having put there himself. Curious, he took out the paper and opened it.
If you are reading this note, I have made a lucky guess and anticipated which waistcoat would best serve as a carrier for my little message -- either that or Rivers has discovered it in the course of managing your wardrobe and handed it over for your perusal. In any case, and no matter the timeliness of discovery, you may be assured as you read that I am thinking of you (for I usually am), and counting the days until you may once more awaken beside your affectionate,
Standing in the middle of the stairs in the great hall, Darcy had no scruple in chuckling out loud while regarding this little offering. It was uncanny, at times, that she knew him so well after a mere month and a half of marriage. Grinning to himself, he folded the paper and returned it to its place in his pocket, feeling that, in spite of an unpromising beginning, the day might not turn out to be so very bad after all.
Lady Lucas arrived at Hunsford just after luncheon the day following Elizabeth. A somewhat rough journey from Hertfordshire due to inclement weather had made her rather excitable, and her predictions of doom on all possible scores were therefore liberal and energetic. Charlotte attempted to calm her mother as best she could, but finding her patience not quite equal to the task, allowed Elizabeth to mollify her instead with promises of a warm fire, hot tea, and fresh news.
After being assured that the apothecary and the midwife could be at hand within a moment's notice, and were very used to traveling across the village in all sorts of weather, Lady Lucas settled into an armchair by the fire in the front parlor, and gratefully accepted the cup of tea handed to her by Mrs. Darcy.
Lady Lucas was a woman of about fifty, whose tendency to anxiety and preference for the familiarity of her Hertfordshire circle did not make a good traveler. Despite her fondness for gossip and enthusiasm for news, she was a fairly soft-spoken lady, rendering her an ideal companion for the equally enthusiastic but more vocal Mrs. Bennet.
She was not clever, but she was kind. Real affection for her daughter had brought her the fifty miles of good road in bad weather between Meryton and Hunsford to be present and useful at the birth of her first grandchild, and if she required a little additional persuasion upon her arrival that this plan had indeed been a good one, nobody was the worse for it.
Soon feeling the benefit of the fire and the tea, Charlotte's mother was keen to hear the news. After she had made inquiries enough to insure that her Charlotte was in no immediate danger, she turned with open curiosity to Elizabeth.
"Well, Miss Eliza," she said, reverting to the name the Lucases had called her by since childhood, "you have become a very grand lady since we last said goodbye. I hope you find life with Mr. Darcy worthy of your expectations."
Elizabeth, repressing a smile, thought it best not to frighten her inquisitor by declaring passionately that it far exceeded them. Instead she replied politely, "Yes, ma'am, thank you."
Charlotte, who understood nearly every play of her friend's countenance, thought it a good point to interject. "It is very good of Eliza, mama, to come all the way from Derbyshire for my sake."
"Indeed it is," remarked the lady, still scrutinizing Elizabeth. "Mrs. Bennet tells me that Derbyshire society is very fine, and that you have already presided over several impressive gatherings at Pemberley. There seems to be no shortage of the rich and titled on your guest lists, Miss Eliza."
The latter's slightly raised eyebrows were perceptible only to Charlotte. "My mother exaggerates, Lady Lucas. In fact, Mr. Darcy and I have lived rather quietly over the past two months. Learning to be mistress of Pemberley has accounted for a great deal of my time, but we did host some rather delightful parties at Christmas. Jane and Mr. Bingley came to stay, as well as my Aunt and Uncle Gardiner from London, and at various times throughout the season, members of my husband's family were with us too. We passed a very enjoyable holiday, though perhaps not a particularly grand one."
Lady Lucas looked surprised. "You do not have a particular earl in mind, then, whom you often entertain, as a suitor for your sister Catherine?"
The hand that held Elizabeth's tea cup to her lips faltered and the hot liquid stung the tip of her tongue. "I beg your pardon?"
"There was an earl, or the son of one, I think, that your mother said had a particular admiration for Miss Kitty when the families were thrown together at your wedding. Yes, indeed it must have been, for I remember now Mrs. Bennet pointed him out to me -- an officer, I recall, and cutting a fine figure in his regimentals. She went on at great length about his charming manners and pleasing prospects."
"Ah," said Elizabeth, understanding dawning. "I expect she meant my new cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"Yes, that was the name. Your mother told me he was the younger son of the Earl of Matlock, and though only a younger son, she seemed to think he had a very great chance of inheriting in any case, due to his elder brother's appearance of general ill health."
At first speechless, Elizabeth soon had to check her laughter. The tale her mother had concocted possessed a very slight acquaintance with the truth. No doubt it had been formulated especially for Lady Lucas' benefit.
"I find I must once more disappoint you, ma'am," she said at last. "Though perhaps not as. . . vigorous as the Colonel, Viscount St. George is in perfectly good health, and has two fine sons of his own already. Only the visitation of grim disaster on the house of Matlock would leave the admittedly charming Colonel Fitzwilliam to inherit."
It was Lady Lucas' turn to raise her eyebrows. "Indeed? Well, in any case, I noticed no great preference for Miss Kitty on the Colonel's part in November. I thought he rather favored my Maria, but then," she added with a significant look, "there is no relying on the whimsical tastes of the army."
Elizabeth, feeling this comment was surely a reference to her sister Lydia's domestic trials, thought it best to close the discussion. "Well, ma'am, I can only say that should Colonel Fitzwilliam really take an interest in my sister, her great love of a red coat would no doubt remove any concern she might have for his slim chance of inheriting the peerage. I like the Colonel very much, and am sure he will make a fine husband for some woman, some day."
This remark appeared to satisfy Lady Lucas for the time being. She nodded contemplatively, and seemed to suppose that there was nothing to be discovered from Mrs. Darcy that she had not already heard (in grossly embellished form) from her mother. It was clearly time to move on to the next item on her agenda.
She turned to Charlotte. "I hope you have realized, my dear, that though our dear Mrs. Darcy is now a married woman, and though it is very generous of her to have come at your request, she is a lady with, as yet, no children of her own, and is largely unfamiliar with the complexities of your situation."
This remark, related with perfect candor, caused a flaming blush to arise in the cheeks of both young women. Charlotte starred determinedly at her hands folded in her lap, and after an awkward pause replied in a voice scarcely audible, "Mama, I had hoped for the comfort of Elizabeth's company, but did not expect to burden her with any task related to -- the event itself which she felt unequal to perform."
With great effort, Elizabeth managed to meet Lady Lucas' gaze, and said with reasonable steadiness, "You must not trouble yourself, ma'am, with worries about my. . . inexperience. I promised Charlotte my help, and I will assist her in whatever manner she requires." Her eyes dropped to the floor as she added, in a much quieter voice, "Besides, a similar event will no doubt be my good fortune in future, and I had rather face it knowing something rather than nothing at all."
The large, ostentatious grandfather clock given to Mr. Collins as a housewarming gift upon his assumption of the living at Hunsford ticked the seconds by with what seemed like deafening heaviness to Charlotte and Elizabeth. Cheeks burning and embarrassment too great to look anywhere but their feet, neither saw the little smile that began to form on Lady Lucas' lips. She was, at heart, rather old fashioned, and saw no point in guarding the virtue of a married young woman destined to learn the ways of childbirth soon enough. It was much more practical to put her to work.
"Very well, Miss Eliza," she said at last, not unkindly. "If you are determined to be useful, then useful you shall certainly be."
That afternoon, while Charlotte was receiving a lesson in motherhood from Lady Lucas, Elizabeth determined to take a solitary walk in the woods about Hunsford, which she remembered being very fine. The weather was not so very bad for a January day, and donning a warm shawl and thick boots, she set out. After the long carriage ride of yesterday and sitting indoors all morning, it was agreeable to stretch her limbs and breathe fresh air, and when certain there was no one to see, to run as well.
Elizabeth returned to the parsonage some time later feeling refreshed, but also reflective. The familiar paths through the Kentish countryside had called to mind her last walk along them with Colonel Fitzwilliam, when he spoke (however innocently) of Darcy's having separated Jane and Bingley two months before. Coming up the drive to the parsonage now, she recalled with what anger she had returned that day. The Colonel's news had upset her almost to the point of illness, and so infuriated her as to make the very recollection of her emotions then painful enough for her to feel some remnant of them even now, nine months later.
Entering the front hall and removing her bonnet, Elizabeth sighed as she straightened the hairpins pulled askew by her exertions. Thus far it had been rather more difficult than she had anticipated returning to the place that had witnessed so much of her private drama the year before. Her predisposition to good spirits and eagerness to laugh whenever possible had often spared the unpleasantness of painful reflections. Still, if there must be distasteful memories, better to face them honestly than to attempt to forget, and end in transgressing in the same manner again.
These were the thoughts that occupied Elizabeth's mind as she made her way through the house, intending to climb the stairs to her room before joining Charlotte and her mother. But as it had the night before, the sight of Charlotte's private parlor empty and with the door standing open gave her a twinge she could not ignore.
She paused at the foot of the stairs, wavering. Finally, curiosity won out, and she entered the room.
Standing in the center of the parlor, Elizabeth looked about her, taking everything in. She remembered its distinctive smell at once, a mixture of old books growing musty on their shelves, greenery brought in from Mr. Collins' gardens to sit in pots about the room, dying embers in the fireplace, and somewhere the vague aroma of ink. There was the lovely bureau by the window where she had been fond of writing her correspondence, and the clock on the mantelpiece, which had belonged to Mr. Collins' father, still unwound and unmoving as before.
Elizabeth smiled as a fanciful thought came to her. She was glad time had not really stopped when Darcy had left her standing just here all those months ago, seething with speechless anger against him and probably enraged himself.
"Oh, my love," she whispered under her breath. Lingering a moment longer, she then turned to go, and shut the door behind her.
The sound of someone knocking roused Elizabeth that night from the dreamy half-sleep that had overtaken her. "Lizzy?" came Charlotte's hushed tones from the other side of the door. "Are you asleep?"
Rising quickly from the bed, Elizabeth hurried to the door and opened it to her friend. "Charlotte, what are you doing out of bed? Are you ill?" A worrisome thought then occurred to her, "Are you. . .?"
"No, no," assured Charlotte. "That is not expected for a few days yet. I promise you, I am very well, only. . ."
"Only. . .?"
Charlotte sighed, then favored Elizabeth with a weary smile. "I cannot sleep."
Relieved, Elizabeth returned the smile and took Charlotte's hand. "I see."
"It is impossible to be comfortable," continued Charlotte, warming to her subject. "If I lie one way it only increases the ache in my back, and if I lie another it is hopelessly awkward. I thought if you came to sit with me a little while I might be easier."
Pressing her hand in sympathy, Elizabeth replied, "Then it is worth a try. Shall I get you anything for your present relief? A glass of water? Another pillow?"
Charlotte smiled meekly. "A glass of water would be most welcome."
Promising to return promptly to Charlotte's bedside, Elizabeth lit a candle from the remains of the fire burning in her room and slipped downstairs to fetch the requested glass of water. A passing thought for the horror Lady Catherine would surely experience if she knew the mistress of Pemberley was treading about the parsonage in the middle of the night performing duties usually carried out by a servant caused her brief amusement. Doubtless her ladyship had never performed anything like such a service in the whole course of her life.
Task accomplished, Elizabeth climbed the stairs and rapt softly on Charlotte's door before pushing it open. "Here you are," she said, handing the glass to Charlotte as she sat up in bed. "I know it does nothing for the ache in your back, but you must do your best to rest and not think of it. Surely we can take your mind off it somehow. Shall I read to you?"
Charlotte shook her head. "No, there is no need to fetch a book. But will you talk to me a little while, Eliza? You said yesterday when you arrived that there was a great deal to tell me."
"Oh." Elizabeth lowered herself thoughtfully into the rocking chair beside Charlotte's bed. "I'm afraid the bulk of what I have to tell is ill-suited for easing you into sweet slumbers, Charlotte," she remarked apologetically. Then with a smile she added, "I speak from the experience of having lost sleep over much of it."
"No matter," replied Charlotte, undeterred. "To own the truth, I am in no humor to sleep well, if at all, and as long as you do not object to being kept awake, I would gladly hear whatever it is you wish to impart."
Elizabeth leaned back in the rocking chair, spread her hands over its arms, and taking in a deep breath, regarded her friend with a smile. "Very well, Charlotte. You will have my tale in full. But I must warn you, you will be very dismayed at what a fool I have been, and very surprised that I have escaped with so happy an ending in spite of myself."
Charlotte's brow knit in confusion, and Elizabeth laughed. "There is nothing for it, I see, but to start from the beginning -- or rather," she amended archly, "from your own parlor."
She related in full the story of how last April's distressing events had concluded in the very happy ones of November. Though she chose to leave out the minor details she felt her husband would wish to keep private, namely Georgiana's near elopement with Wickham, the incredible nature of the story as a whole could not fail to surprise. Charlotte listened with an expression of ever increasing astonishment, and when at last Elizabeth had finished, regarded her in amazement.
"I had no idea anything like all this had occurred," she breathed at last. "My dear Eliza, such a course of events! It is quite inconceivable!"
Elizabeth laughed again. "I warned you that the story I had to tell was not a tranquil one."
"I confess," continued Charlotte, reviewing the April before in her mind, "I had expected to hear nearly every day that Mr. Darcy had made you an offer, though you could not and would not see what you were to him then. And you looked so queer, so very unlike yourself the day he and the Colonel left Rosings. Oh, Lizzy! Why did you not tell me he had proposed in April?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "I do not know. His declaration came as such a surprise, and we argued so violently. It all left me in such a state of confusion. And then I was ashamed of what my behavior had been, and afraid you might reprove me for not having known better."
"No," said Charlotte, earnestly. "I know your disposition, Eliza. For all my prodding and talk of prudent matches, I knew you could never be happy with a man who had not first earned your respect." She smiled. "And now it seems, the fortunate Mr. Darcy has. I daresay you have made him very happy, Eliza."
"No more than he deserves." Elizabeth regarded her friend warmly. "I love him, Charlotte."
A smile with a hint of melancholy crossed Mrs. Collins' face and lit her eyes. "I can see you do." She sighed, but then continued cheerfully, "Do you know, there is something different about you, Elizabeth. At first I could not put my finger on it, but after hearing all this . . . you are steadied, somehow. You will always be high-spirited, but he has steadied you." Charlotte reached for Elizabeth's hand. "I find I like my new friend very much indeed."
Elizabeth leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "And I am more fond of you than I can say." Then, having been serious long enough, she laughed softly. "I am sorry, I have taxed you with my misadventures far too long. Are you comfortable, Charlotte? Do you want for anything?"
"I am perfectly at ease, Eliza. The hour is very late. You should return to your bed."
"But I am willing to sit up with you as long as you require. It really is no trouble at all."
Charlotte shook her head decidedly. "No, no, I will do very well on my own now. You have given me a great deal to wonder at, you know, and if I cannot sleep I will be just as happy to sit up and ponder it all."
This response earned her a warm smile, and a light laugh. "Very well then." Elizabeth rose from the rocking chair and tucked the coverlets closer about her friend, then turned to leave her. She lingered in the doorframe, however, regarding her friend affectionately. "Goodnight, Charlotte."
The next two days passed with little to distinguish them from each other, and the morning of the third dawned rainy and grey. Going out of doors for reasons other than dire emergency was out of the question. Charlotte had continued to find sleeping difficult, and the night previous had only managed a light slumber some time after four in the morning. It had been agreed upon between Lady Lucas, Elizabeth, and Mrs. Hodges the housekeeper to let her sleep as long as may be, despite the oddness of the hour.
With every anticipation then of passing a dreary and uneventful morning, Elizabeth was especially pleased to find in the post a letter addressed to her in a gentleman's familiar, elegant hand. Excusing herself to Lady Lucas, with whom she had been sitting in the front room, Elizabeth hastened upstairs to enjoy his letter in private.
January 11, 18__
Pemberley House, Derbyshire
I am not in the habit of receiving correspondence in my waistcoat pocket, but given the rather pleasing nature of the epistle I found there this morning, I may learn to prefer the method. My discovery leads me to suppose that I must either congratulate you on your powers of deduction, or conclude that I have already become entirely predictable after a mere two months of living together under God's holy ordinance. Either way, I knew I had married an exceptionally clever woman.
In view of your superior mind and reputation for good sense, perhaps you would be so kind as to offer me your advice on a lately arisen matter of some concern to me. I daresay you are more likely to find an answer to my dilemma than anyone. The difficulty is this: I miss my wife. Her generous affection for her friends and selfless desire to be of use where she is needed have proven stronger than my petty, jealous claims to her attention, and she has left me to spend the fortnight in Kent amongst people I dislike (except for the long-suffering Mrs. Collins, of course). Frankly, it puts me out of humor.
I begin to find fault with everything as a result. This morning, my bed had a depressing census of one. This afternoon, my business affairs were entirely uninterrupted by spontaneous trysts between the library bookshelves, and as for this evening, I had rather not dwell on how discouraging it promises to be. I am not by nature a sanguine man, but her absence is really driving me to outright misanthropy.
My Elizabeth, I hope this letter causes you to smile, because I find myself too often scowling for lack of your presence to cheer me. I admire your compassion for your friend, I think you a saint for your kind attentions to her, but I am only human, and in love with you besides. You must allow a besotted man the pleasure of brooding over a lady much loved and much missed.
With all hope you find sleeping alone as objectionable as I,
Hardly knowing whether to be more amused or affected by this curious and endearing letter, Elizabeth let the paper fall to her lap and lay back across the bed where she had been sitting as she read. Staring at the ceiling, she willed herself not missed him. But when she turned her head, and contemplated the untouched pillow next to her, she could not help but find her absence every bit as objectionable as he.
It would be a very long two weeks.
Posted on Thursday, 8 November 2007
Though Mrs. Darcy had rejoiced at the apparent disregard with which her arrival into Kent was received at Rosings Park, she could have no idea to what extent her proximity was in fact a vexation to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She would have been even more intrigued to discover that her ladyship's uneasiness sprang not from her distaste for the woman who had dared to usurp her daughter's rightful place, but instead from an infernal sense of curiosity, which no amount of righteous indignation could abate.
Such sentiments had not been frequently encountered in the great lady's experience, and now that they plagued her almost constantly, she found them distinctly unpleasant. Despite her well-known magnanimity and willingness to impart little pearls of wisdom to less exalted members of her acquaintance (who made up of nearly all of it), she was not in the habit of feeling the sort of overwhelming interest in their affairs that now characterized her curiosity about those of her lately acquired (however unwillingly) niece.
Yes, notwithstanding her abhorrence at Mr. Darcy's blatant disregard of her wishes and his unsuitable bride's impertinent refusal to cower before her ladyship's objections, Lady Catherine could not help (though she would scarcely admit it to herself) but crave to know how Elizabeth Darcy fared in her role.
She was certain it could not be well. How was a person of inferior birth, indifferent education, and highly objectionable relations to understand how the fine traditions of the Darcy family had been running Pemberley for decades? Surely Darcy, faced with her incompetence, was already regretting his choice.
Anne was intimately familiar with the Darcy traditions -- they were those of her own family. Her breeding and upbringing were impeccable, and she had been taught to expect she would be Pemberley's next mistress. It was an unfortunate truth that her health prevented her from performing many of the tasks this calling required, but she had an attentive mother, who would always make the most of it.
Mr. Collins' information on his wife's guest had been vague and deferential to his lofty audience. He appeared to be too anxious of unintentionally offending his patroness to serve as a satisfactory informant. None of her ladyship's hints had been detected, and none of her blatant inquires answered with anything like candor.
Had Mr. Collins been perceptive enough to realize Lady Catherine's true intentions, he would doubtlessly have been most willing to endear himself to her with obliging tales of how ill his cousin generally looked, and how coarsely she generally behaved. But alas, nature had not given him the discernment necessary to do her ladyship this small but significant service.
The day after the lady's arrival at the parsonage, Mr. Collins had been summoned to tea at Rosings, ostensibly to be advised on his upcoming search for a curate, but with every hope he might been induced to say somewhat of Elizabeth Darcy.
"Mrs. Collins is well, I hope?" Lady Catherine asked when the clergyman had risen from a bow held rather too low and too long, even for her ladyship's satisfaction.
"Mrs. Collins continues in the best of health, Ma'am, due in no small part to the gracious attention your ladyship has been kind enough to render her --"
"She has a visitor, I understand," continued Lady Catherine, somewhat unnecessarily, as she and Mr. Collins both knew (though nothing had been said of the matter between them) that she had kept him from the parsonage the previous afternoon as a small but effective means of snubbing that very visitor.
Mr. Collins immediately looked uncomfortable and, if possible, more awkward than his rather lopsided figure and curiously arranged hair made him already. He stuttered a moment, nervously sweeping his forelock from his eyes, and managed to say at last, "Indeed, your ladyship, she has. My mother-in-law, Lady Lucas, arrived at our humble abode only a few hours ago. She will be a great comfort to my dear wife, who -- "
"Yes, yes," interrupted his patroness impatiently, "all young women are desirous of having their mothers present at such a time, but what of your other guest? I am sure it was not so very necessary for her to be invited upon such an occasion."
The clergyman faltered. He looked as if he felt an inescapable trap was forming about him with each word she uttered. A line of perspiration began to form on his upper lip, and he reached anxiously for the handkerchief in his breast pocket.
"Ah, I see your ladyship is good enough to refer to my young cousin. She is a great friend of my wife's from childhood, Ma'am, and my dear Charlotte was quite insistent that she come to stay with us."
"Does she make herself useful?"
This question was evidently unexpected. "I beg your ladyship's pardon?"
"Useful, Mr. Collins. I trust the lady does not think herself too high and mighty to perform the tasks your wife requires for her comfort." She finished this remark with a probing glance.
"I hardly know, Ma'am," replied her subject, obviously at a loss to determine how his inquisitor wished to be answered and therefore unable to form an opinion himself. "The ladies spend much of their time alone together, and as it is not a man's province to be involved in such affairs, I have in fact hardly seen my cousin since she entered my house yesterday afternoon."
There was a thick silence as her ladyship paused to evaluate this piece of information. Mr. Collins regarded her with all the uneasiness of a prisoner at the bar awaiting his sentence. At length, she replied, "I see. Well, I hope Mrs. Collins' friend is sensible of the fact that her coming is a matter of some delicacy, and that she ought to be careful not to offend those who may find her company objectionable."
Mr. Collins had proved a disappointment, which was hardly surprising, but Lady Catherine was a resourceful woman. She would simply have to find another way to satisfy her curiosity.
Of course it was out of the question to invite the entire Hunsford party to Rosings, as it had once been so easy to do, under any pretext. Even if her ladyship's public declaration of disapproval for her nephew's wife would not have made such an invitation a complete embarrassment, there was Mrs. Collins' confinement to render the meeting equally impossible.
Lady Catherine therefore resigned herself to wait until the Sunday service at Hunsford, when it was reasonably certain she would indeed get a glimpse of the former Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and in all the safety and anonymity of a large gathering. The family pew provided a very promising view of that belonging to the parsonage, and her ladyship was determined that such an advantage should not go wasted.
At length Sunday came, and as was her practice, Lady Catherine arrived before the service to give her final approval on Mr. Collins' rendering of the daily text. Once satisfied, she and Anne took their place with dignified piety and waited. After the space of some five minutes, once the pews had begun to steadily fill with the inhabitance of Hunsford, patience was rewarded with the sight of Mrs. Darcy walking down the center aisle.
At her side was a middle aged woman of moderately refined appearance, who Lady Catherine took for Mrs. Collins' mother. She appeared to be suffering from some kind of mild anxiety, and the gestures of her young attendant indicated she was attempting to calm and reassure her companion as she shepherded her into their place. Lady Catherine raised an eyebrow, and wondered how the very delicately situated Mrs. Collins did so near her time. She must remember to send Nicholson to her directly. Her ladyship's apothecary had tended to Mrs. Jenkinson's niece during her recent ordeal, and once recovered, both she and her aunt had been all gratitude for the kind consideration of their benefactress.
But the momentary pleasure afforded by remembrances of her own benevolence was soon dismissed in favor of making a careful observation of her nephew's wife. Paying little heed to her pet clergyman as he begun the morning's service, Lady Catherine regarded the object of her curiosity as objectively as she could.
She was looking very well, the great lady was forced to admit. Elizabeth Bennet had been an attractive girl the year before, but the greater elegance of her apparel united with the faint flush of what her ladyship perceived as triumph made her a very fine woman indeed. It appeared that her elevated situation agreed with her, thought her observer, scoffing.
But as Mr. Collins' voice droned through the lessons and she continued to regard the lady with every intention of finding fault with her, Lady Catherine was unexpectedly disappointed. She could ridicule nothing in the young woman's manner. Her once readily expressive and lively face was tempered with a softer and more reserved look, which was at once very pleasing and suitably dignified. Her attentions to Lady Lucas, who fidgeted a great deal, no doubt in the anxiety of having left her daughter in the company of only the housekeeper for the morning, were everything proper. And if at times during the sermon there was a flash of Miss Elizabeth Bennet's merry eyes and pert twist of the mouth, they were quickly moderated by Mrs. Darcy's milder expression of indulgent amusement.
All this was ample means for reflection to Lady Catherine. She wondered what her nephew's opinion was of his wife's decision to attend her friend in Kent so shortly after their marriage. He must have been considerably taken with her to have married her despite her low connections, thought her ladyship disdainfully, and would probably not look kindly on this neglect. Surely the young lady realized her responsibilities now lay in more exalted spheres than the parsonage at Hunsford. Whether qualified to meet her new duties or not, the new Mrs. Darcy had responsibilities to Pemberley and to her husband's social circle that could not be ignored indefinitely.
A thought dawned on her ladyship. Regrettable as Darcy's marriage had been, it was now an irreversible fact, and though his wife had demonstrated a shocking lack of respect for her betters and ambition in the extreme, Lady Catherine knew her to be a clever sort of girl. Fortunately, her manners were sufficiently genteel to cover a multitude other sins. Perhaps while Mrs. Darcy remained in Kent, her ladyship might overlook her faults and find the magnanimity to provide little corrections here and there for the deficiencies in the young woman's education. Besides, it would give her the pleasure of telling someone else what to do.
All these deliberations had spanned the length of the service, and when it had finished, her ladyship was hard pressed to recall whether Mr. Collins' sermon had in fact been improved by her generous suggestions or not. But the service being over, and the congregation waiting for Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter to withdraw first, she was obliged to set reflection aside. Rising with great stateliness, she made her way down the center aisle, Anne in toe, exuding all the dignity which exalted rank and abundant plumage could lend her.
As she passed the pew where Mrs. Darcy stood waiting to exit, her ladyship made a bold decision. Pointedly catching the lady's eye, and with enough cold superiority in her gaze to make the younger woman feel her place, Lady Catherine nodded ever so slightly in recognition.
Elizabeth Darcy's features were momentarily immobilized in astonishment, but then, recollecting herself, she responded in kind by dropping a very correct curtsey to her husband's aunt.
Luncheon at the parsonage that afternoon was a curious affair. Ever member of the party gathered round Charlotte's dining room table was alternatively talkative or engaged exclusively by his or her own reflections. Lady Lucas, at first full of praise for Hunsford church and Mr. Collins' admirable precedence over its affairs, was then silenced by worrisome thoughts and anxious looks in her daughter's direction. Charlotte was either inquiring pleasantly after the events of the morning or lost in musings imperceptible to her companions, and her husband appeared to be simultaneously elated over her ladyship's high praise of his sermon on humility that morning and tortured by recollections of his visit to her earlier in the week.
Elizabeth too was thinking of Lady Catherine. Thoroughly bewildered by that great lady's behavior at the end of the church service and sensible that she had been the subject of considerable scrutiny during it, she could not yet determine whether she ought to be relieved or made uneasy by such attentions. What could her ladyship propose by it?
But Charlotte's claims on her attention were too great to neglect her by dwelling on the oddities of her husband's benefactress for long. "A great many people asked after your health this morning, Charlotte," she remarked, halfway through the meal. "We are to relate more regards and kind wishes than I am able to remember."
Charlotte smiled. "How very kind. The Hunsford parishioners are all very warm and genuine people."
"Well," said Elizabeth, returning the smile, "they seem especially fond of you, which is enough to credit them for me."
Not to be long outdone, Mr. Collins added, impressively, "Her ladyship wishes me to extend most particularly her hope of your safe delivery, my dear, and promises to send Mr. Nicholson to you as soon as may be."
"Oh," Charlotte's eye quickly lit upon Elizabeth. In the midst of all her other concerns, it had evidently escaped her that attendance at church necessarily meant a meeting between her friend and Lady Catherine. "That is very good of her, my dear," she replied at last, somewhat distractedly. "I hope she and Miss de Bourgh were well this morning?"
"Indeed they were, my dear. In fact," he said, turning to monopolize the attention of his mother-in-law, who was the only person expressing anything like interest in what he had to say, "her ladyship condescended to remark that as Mr. Nicholson frequently tends to Miss de Bourgh in her (sadly) regular fits of illness, she would be extremely angry to hear that any other apothecary had tended to our dear Charlotte at so delicate a time. . . "
"I am very sorry, Eliza," said Charlotte under her breath to her friend whilst her husband was thus engaged, "that I did not think to invent some excuse to keep you behind from church with me this morning. I confess that it quite slipped my mind that such an outing would necessarily bring you into contact with the one person you must particularly wish to avoid."
Elizabeth shook her head, and covering the other's hand reassuringly with her own replied, "Do not trouble yourself on my account, Charlotte. You have far too many concerns as it is without worrying over this tiresome business between myself and Lady Catherine. I ventured out this morning with the full expectation of seeing her, and was determine not to let her disapproval intimidate me to the point of never leaving the parsonage. In the end, the exposure was not so very dreadful."
"And how did Lady Catherine behave?"
An arch smile began to form over Elizabeth's lips. "Very strangely. She actually acknowledged me."
"What?" Charlotte was all astonishment.
"Yes," said Elizabeth, laughingly. She continued on in a low, conspiratorial tone, "It is incredible, but true. I must confess, her behavior has made me extremely curious. Who can tell what she may be plotting!"
"Do take care, Eliza," cautioned Charlotte, seeing Elizabeth would prefer to view the matter humorously. "Though vain and interfering, Lady Catherine is not unintelligent or without influence. She could make things very uncomfortable. . ."
"Dear Charlotte," said Elizabeth, squeezing her hand, "you are very good to put me on my guard. I have reason to know that her ladyship can be spiteful enough when she chooses. And though she has no power now to affect my happiness, I realize she may be very adept and upsetting yours, and I promise to be prudent for your sake."
"But I didn't mean to suggest -- " began to protest Charlotte, looking anxiously in her husband's direction.
"I know. Only. . ." Elizabeth looked toward Mr. Collins too, still engaged in convincing his mother-in-law of her ladyship's many perfections. Then, in a voice scarcely above a whisper she continued, "I only meant to imply that should you ever -- find it prudent to -- seek another parish -- I hope you will come to Mr. Darcy and I for assistance."
When she had said this, Elizabeth regarded her friend anxiously for a response, hoping she had not said too much or offended her. Charlotte sat quietly a moment, considering, and then replied in the same low voice, "You are very generous, Lizzy. But let us first turn our minds to the trial ahead, and if there are trials to come of the kind you suggest, then I will come to you as I would in any other time of need -- for the comfort and advice of a valued friend."
"And that, ma'am," rang out Mr. Collins' voice in triumph, "was how I came to receive the fullness of her ladyship's bounty with the bestowal of the Hunsford living."
"What a lovely story, Mr. Collins. But you will kindly remember, you have told it to Sir William and I before -- once just after you became engaged to Charlotte, once last Christmas, and once again in the autumn when you were our guests at Lucas Lodge."
Mr. Collins was unmoved by this gentle rebuke. "Madam, the great benevolence of Lady Catherine de Bourgh merits repeated accounts of its bestowal."
Later that afternoon, when everyone was sitting together in the front parlor, an express arrived for Elizabeth. Not having expected anything of the sort, she was at first afraid something was amiss, but her momentary fears were soon eased by the sight of Darcy's handwriting, and a message which read:
Forgive me if this hasty method of contacting you has been the cause of any alarm. All I have to communicate is my decision to leave for London earlier than I previously intended, probably to arrive some time Monday evening. In a moment of wishful thinking I hoped that perhaps you might be already at liberty to join me, but feared our separation might be lengthened by your accidentally returning to Pemberley instead of G_______ Square. Given your encouraging history of appearing in places where I have arrived before expected, I thought this message might prove well worth the effort. If you are released from your obligation to Mrs. Collins, I am the happiest of men and will see her I love best again shortly in London -- if not, I will bide my time, and continue as your ever faithful, ever impatient,
"Is everything alright, Eliza?" asked Charlotte as her friend refolded the letter and put it away.
"Yes, quite alright. My husband writes merely to inform me he has gone to London earlier than he expected."
"Oh," said Charlotte, surprised that such information should be communicated so urgently if there were no extenuating circumstances to make it necessary.
"It must be very agreeable," remarked Lady Lucas, "to have the luxury of sending such relatively insignificant messages by express. With such a practice one might receive nearly every letter addressed to one almost as soon as it had left the hand of the sender."
Elizabeth smiled. "It is a luxury to be sure, ma'am, but I think Mr. Darcy's hope in doing so was to catch me on the point of rejoining him, and direct my steps to London in place of Derbyshire."
"Ah yes," said Lady Lucas, seemingly willing to make allowances for the separation anxiety of a newly married couple. "When I married Sir William, we were not apart a day for a full two years, until he was obliged to go to his dying mother while I was indisposed before Charlotte's birth. He was gone only a week, but I found it made me very uneasy."
Elizabeth, refraining from pointing out that nearly everything made the good lady very uneasy, merely smiled sympathetically. Then, when everyone had returned their attention to their various pursuits, she allowed a small sigh to escape her lips. Though her attachment to Charlotte grew every day, she could not deny that it would suit her very well to be on the point of joining her husband.
Posted on Monday, 12 November 2007
After a long day of travel, Darcy arrived in London some time after five o'clock on Monday afternoon. Knowing Georgiana to be staying with the Matlocks for the next few days and disliking the prospect of returning immediately to an empty house, he decided to first pay a call on the Bingleys.
The door of the house in W________ Street was answered by Higgins. Having been with the Bingley family a great many years, the servant was quite familiar with Darcy, and showed him in with kind and respectful inquiries after his wife and sister. He was then directed to the back of the house, where Jane Bingley sat alone, writing letters in a private sitting room.
"My dear brother!" she exclaimed with a welcoming smile when he was announced, and rose to greet him affectionately. "We had not expected to see you til next week. I trust this early arrival is due to nothing unpleasant?"
"Indeed no," Darcy assured her with an encouraging squeeze of the hand. In two months he had quickly learned that Mrs. Bingley was always anxiously attentive to the well-being of those closest to her. "I found I had business in town better handled sooner than later, and with neither Elizabeth nor Georgiana to keep me in Derbyshire, here I am."
Jane tilted her head slightly to the side and regarded him with sympathy for his forced stint of bachelorhood. "Well, I am very glad you are come. Charles will be so pleased to see you. Robert -- " she called, turning to the footman, "please inform Mr. Bingley that Mr. Darcy is here."
"You have caught me at a fortuitous moment," said Jane, when they were both seated. "I was just now answering a letter from Lizzy."
"Ah," replied the lady's husband, "I'm sure she has plenty to say of the state of affairs she finds at Hunsford -- and all of it entertaining."
Jane laughed. "You have guessed the character of her remarks exactly."
She pulled Elizabeth's letter from beneath her own half-finished reply. "She writes ‘I am arrived here at Hunsford with the good fortune to discover that I am a great deal more impressive than I ever supposed. Lady Lucas has been favoring me with lavish tales of the prestigious, exclusive gatherings I have purportedly hosted at Pemberley, and Mr. Collins does me the honor of being mostly tongue-tied and deferential in my presence. (I am sorry to say, however, that this change is no great improvement on his manners of before.) Add to all this my own delight in having proved myself both indispensable to Charlotte and self-denying at once, and it will be very difficult to persuade me to think meanly of myself for some time to come -- '"
For the benefit of her audience, Jane had omitted the next line, which read "though I daresay her ladyship, should I encounter her, will take great pains to convince me otherwise."
Her listener took in everything she read attentively, and with a small twist of the mouth that indicated his appreciation for the writer's humor. When Jane had finished, he wondered offhandedly what sort of pert remarks he himself had been subject to in letters between the sisters during Elizabeth's first visit to Hunsford. Then, with a roguish smile undetected by Mrs. Bingley, he considered how enjoyable it would be to entice this information from his wife upon her return.
To her sister he remarked, "Elizabeth certainly has a talent for making nearly everyone ridiculous." Then he added dryly, "but your cousin Mr. Collins hardly requires her assistance in that regard."
Even the saintly and sympathetic Jane could not deny the truth of this observation. She smiled weakly by way of agreement.
"I understand from a letter containing similar comments that he is greatly divided by his conflicting desires to please both my aunt and his guest -- but I'm afraid such a task is impossible even for one as determined to flatter his betters as Mr. Collins."
"Yes, poor Mr. Collins," replied Jane, quite genuinely. "It must by very trying to be so inconvenienced by other people's disputes. He certainly did nothing to earn his place between the displeasure of his patroness and his cousin's determination to take no notice of her."
"He certainly did not," agreed Darcy succinctly, whose patience for Mr. Collins was only slightly greater than his patience for his aunt.
"Has Lizzy mentioned anything to you about when she is likely to return?"
"No," answered Darcy glumly, "and she seems deaf to all my entries."
Jane smiled at him reassuringly. "She is very fond of Mrs. Collins, you know."
"Yes, to my cost. But I was under the impression she was also very fond of me."
Seeing Mrs. Bingley puzzled and concerned by this last remark, and realizing she was not quite accustomed to his manner of joking (or that he was capable of joking at all) he added, "Elizabeth is all generosity, and my bad humor only results from having married a woman too widely loved to be always monopolizing her company."
Better pleased with this response, Jane flushed happily and rewarded him with one of her angelic smiles, which he was glad to return.
"Darcy!" came Bingley's enthusiastic greeting as he barged through the door. "I thought it was your carriage I saw from my window -- Did not you intend to come next week?"
Darcy rose and grasped his friend's offered hand. "At first, but then I found there was nothing to keep me in Derbyshire and ample business to take me to town."
"You have just arrived then?"
"Yes. I have yet to even enter the house in G_________ Square."
"You must convey our regards to Miss Darcy when you do," said Jane kindly.
"That I most certainly will, when I see her. At present she remains with the Matlocks in H____ Street."
"Will she not return to her own home now you are come?"
Darcy smiled indulgently for his younger sister. "To own the truth, I rather think she will delay her departure until she is certain of meeting with Elizabeth upon her arrival. A long endured elder brother, however, is insufficient inducement to take her so soon from our cousins."
"Then you must stay and dine with us this evening," insisted Bingley at once. "You can be in no hurry to return to your own house if neither lady is there to welcome you, and Jane and I would be most glad of your company. Would we not, my dear?"
Jane nodded her assent very earnestly, and added, "We should much rather have you here with us than let you return to a cold and empty house."
Darcy, thinking of the express he'd sent his wife two days before, wondered briefly whether it was realistic to hope that the house might not be so cold and empty after all. But then he realized reluctantly that it had been barely a week since her departure, and was forced to dismiss the hope as quickly as it had come.
"In that case, I am at your disposal," he answered at last. "That is -- " a troublesome thought had just occurred to him -- "I trust Miss Bingley is staying with the Hursts?"
Having passed the pleasantest evening he'd experienced in Elizabeth's absence, Darcy left the Bingleys quite late in favor of home. But he found as he stood on his own doorstep that, despite his previous attempts to smother the faint expectation that Elizabeth might have received his message in time and readiness to join him in London, he could not help but now feel a small stirring of anticipation at the very possibility of her nearness.
Had she not promised she would depart Hunsford sooner than the expected fortnight if possible? Had she not written the very night of her arrival that she was already anxious to return to him? Surely the Collins' happy event had occurred by now. Surely a woman as sensible as Mrs. Collins would not delay her friend unduly.
Darcy entered the house and was met by Phipps, the long established butler at G _______ Square, who dutifully took his master's hat and coat and inquired after his journey from the north country.
While giving clipped, direct answers to questions he had not really heeded, Darcy scanned the front hall for signs of his wife's presence. He lingered there a little longer than necessary, half minding Phipps' update of household affairs, hoping she might hear his voice in the hall below and come down.
But when it occurred to him that it was now well past eleven and she might already be abed, he decided to conduct his discovery via a swifter method.
". . . and you will find, sir, that the newly made shelving for the study has been fitted up very nicely there by young George -- "
"Yes, very good, Phipps, thank you. Uh . . . Mrs. Darcy has not yet returned to town from Kent by any chance?"
Phipps, at first caught off guard by the sudden change of subject, then remembered he too had once been a newly married man, and understood.
Regarding his master with what might have been (had he not been impeccably trained) a sympathetic look, he replied, "No, sir, I'm afraid not. The mistress wrote to Mrs. Browning only yesterday to say she would most certainly not be at liberty to leave Kent for another week."
Faced with this news, Darcy struggled to conceal the degree of his disappointment, which was considerable given he had already schooled himself not to expect her. "Oh. I see. Very well then. That'll be all, Phipps."
The lateness of the hour and the heaviness of disappointment added to what had already been a long day of traveling, and meaning to retire, Darcy turned on his heel and began to ascend the steps. He had just determined to take comfort in plotting how he would greet his absent wife upon her delayed homecoming, when Phipps' returning footsteps on the hardwood below signaled him to pause.
"Forgive me, sir, but I've only just remembered -- an express did come from Mrs. Darcy late this afternoon. It was set aside to await your return this evening."
He stood at the foot of the steps, holding the message out to his employer. At the prospect of at least hearing from Elizabeth, Darcy's mood lightened somewhat, and retracing his steps to claim his prize, decided that this small offering was certainly better than nothing.
"Thank you, Phipps. Oh, and by the way, if you would be so good as to have all my recent business affairs and correspondence laid out in the study for me early tomorrow morning, it would be much appreciated."
"Very good, sir. Is that all, sir?"
"Yes, thank you, Phipps. Goodnight."
Climbing the stairs two at a time, Darcy set to work on loosening his cravat. By the time he reached his bed chamber, he had untied it completely and shrugged off his coat as well. All of a sudden he was extremely restless and impatient. Pacing about the room without an object, his mind was flooded all at once with thoughts of a thousand things which required his attention.
Forcibly halting his movement in order to calm his thoughts, he found that his eyes came to rest unexpectedly on the door leading to Elizabeth's room. He paused a moment and studied it intently. Then, heaving a tired sigh, and knowing she would not be there, he nevertheless gave into the impulse to go in.
They had spent only a week in the London house just after their marriage. Though only a week, however, its distinction as one of the happiest in recent memory caused the room in which he now stood to be indelibly associated with Elizabeth in Darcy's mind. He raked an impatient hand through his hair and sighed again. There was no getting around it -- he missed her sorely, and he resented the fact that others sometimes had a claim to her as great as his own.
Willing himself to temper his foul mood, Darcy sat on the bed and took her message from his waistcoat pocket, hoping to savor what little portion of his wife's presence he had available. The sight of the page covered in her handwriting was calming, and though she did not write of her imminent return, her familiar and well loved turn of phrase was a kind of consolation.
Since the express I received this afternoon indicated a certain urgency on your part, I thought it best not to torture you with waiting and have answered by way of the same method. I am afraid I must confirm what you have doubtlessly already discovered, that I am unable to join you in London as promptly as we would both prefer.
The happy event for which we are all gathered in expectation has not yet taken place. The midwife assures Charlotte this delay is no cause for alarm, but it does mean that my stay at Hunsford will most certainly outlast the coming week.
It pains me to disappoint you, and I realize it is but little comfort to be told I am scarcely less disappointed myself. Know that it is only my anxiety for Charlotte's well-being that keeps me from you, and that I promise to return to your side the moment I am assured of her safety.
You are too good, my love, to be much displeased by my little effort at unselfishness. Depend upon it that from now on, all acts of goodwill, philanthropy, or kindness will be performed with the strict understanding that they not interfere with our continued enjoyment of connubial bliss.
I love you.
Darcy read through this message twice, managed to smile at her gentle teasing with the second reading, and at last folded the paper and put it away in his pocket. Though he could not be pleased with the news her message brought, he had to admit she was powerless to influence the events which would dictate when she might leave the parsonage at Hunsford.
He would not have her break a promise to an old and valued friend, especially as it seemed Elizabeth was perhaps the only sensible person with whom poor Charlotte Collins was likely to interact for some time. No, it was right that she stay, and his claims on her would simply have to wait until she was once more at liberty to honor them. Elizabeth had asked him to wait for her, and wait (however impatiently) he would.