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Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

January 03, 2015 10:07PM
A/N: Here's a little piece of silliness for your amusement--with apologies to Lady Catherine. Merry Tenth Day of Christmas and Happy New Year to all! ~ Renée

Blurb: Too weary to continue shopping for her sister’s wedding, Elizabeth seeks respite in a nearby church, but her rest is disrupted by an outrageous occurrence.

Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

A noble old home in the north of England luxuriates in the afternoon sun, aglow with enticing luminosity. Countless visitors pass through its gates to admire the stonework, marvel over the elegant rooms and wander the extensive park in search of the best prospects. Beyond the shimmering lake with its well-trod tracks and sheltered glades rises a little-regarded prominence topped by a weathered bench. The commanding view encompasses not only the gracefully situated structure, tree-strewn lawns and rich fields spreading across and down the valley, but also the woodlands which cloak the mounting hills and draw the eye upward to the majestic peaks. In good light, those who know to look may discern the inscription on the bench’s tarnished plate. This is its story.

Prelude - October 1812, Rosings

“So Miss Bennet and Mr. Bingley are to be wed,” Lady Catherine said. She pried another bite of meat from the delicate quail. “It is a most advantageous match for her.”

Mr. Collins cleared his throat. “I could not agree more, your ladyship, and--”

“One cannot begrudge her any mercenary tactics,” she spoke over him, “considering how small her portion is.”

“No, of course not.” Collins nodded and glanced at his wife. In her presence it would not do to mention that such motives would have been unnecessary had Miss Elizabeth seen fit to accept his initial offer of marriage.

“When is the wedding to be?”

“In January, ma’am, although the precise date is not yet fixed,” Charlotte answered.

“I suppose you will consider it prudent to attend.”

“We could not possibly--” Collins started to disclaim.

“Naturally. It is only right as the heir presumptive that you should lend your support to the eldest Bennet’s nuptials. Not to mention the Bingleys will be your future neighbors. One cannot give too much forethought to these matters,” Lady Catherine pronounced.

Collins nodded with such rapidity that his vision blurred.

“I shall grant you leave to extend your trip for a fortnight so that Mrs. Collins may take advantage of your travels to enjoy a lengthier visit with family. But mind you do not miss more than one Sunday.”

“How very thoughtful. We shall be pleased to accept.” Charlotte’s voice came from Collins’ right. The conversation was proceeding too swiftly for him.

“What forbearance and understanding with which you continually grace us, madam,” Collins said, warming to his gratitude, “to allow--”

“Yes, yes,” she fluttered knobby fingers at him, her rings glinting in the candlelight, “and have you any other news from Hertfordshire?”

Though Lady Catherine had spoken to his wife, Collins felt confident he could answer. “As a matter of fact, it seems the felicitations of one wedding have ignited rumor of a second.”

Charlotte inexplicably trod on his foot and he yelped.

“Mr. Collins,” Lady Catherine said, “it is not necessary to embroider your tale with dramatics. A direct account will suffice.”

“What my husband intends to convey,” Charlotte smiled, “is that Miss Bingley is eager to find a husband now that she will no longer be keeping house for her brother.”

“That is not at all what I meant to say,” Collins countered.

“Well, I cannot imagine she shall find one in Hertfordshire,” Lady Catherine said. “Miss Bingley had better remove to London for the Season.”

“I meant--ouch!” Collins swallowed a shriek as Charlotte stomped on his sore foot.

“Mr. Collins wishes to express that Miss Bingley’s residence is in London already, on Grosvenor Street, as we have been given to understand.”

While Lady Catherine expounded on the comparative worth of various London neighborhoods, Collins leveled a look at his wife intended to halt her exceedingly odd conduct. Charlotte pressed her lips closed and contemplated the creased linen in her lap. That was better.

When Lady Catherine concluded her speech, Collins seized the opening.

“I know nothing of Miss Bingley’s marital aspirations,” he said, making his third attempt, “but my cousin, Miss Elizabeth--” The pain in his instep was so excruciating that he nearly howled. What did Charlotte mean by accosting him in this fashion and under their patroness’ table no less? He would condemn her inappropriate behavior in the sharpest terms once they returned to their own abode.

“I recommend betony syrup to ease sour belchings, Mr. Collins. You may see Parker to provision you with a dose or two,” Lady Catherine said. “Or a hot bag of caraway seed placed on the lower abdomen if the syrup is ineffectual.”

He blinked at her. He did not have a stomach ailment.

“You may be excused from the table immediately lest your outbursts likewise afflict me with indigestion.” She flicked both hands at him in dismissal.

“Please accept my most abject apologies, your ladyship,” he pleaded in an agony of contrition, rising from his seat in obedience while rushing to deliver his report. “But you must overlook Mrs. Collins’ ill-timed remarks. For I referred to rumors of an alliance between my own cousin, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and your illustrious nephew, Mr. Darcy. This spurious allusion is no doubt the product of fanciful invention and--”

“What?” Lady Catherine bellowed, exposing a mouthful of partially masticated fowl. Her generous bosoms rose and fell like the galloping haunches of a horse.

Collins’ eyes went wide at the unanticipated effect. He contemplated fleeing the room under the convenient pretense of indigestion, but decided that was beneath his dignity as a clergyman and resumed his seat.

“To be sure, everyone knows Mr. Darcy is destined for your own fair daughter,” he said, wishing to appease her, “and none could begin to rival her attractions in his eyes.”

A glance showed him the young lady in question sitting agog in witness to the spectacle and quite as pale as her mother was crimson.

“That Darcy should offer for that scheming upstart, that ungrateful country nobody with her insolent manners and alluring eyes? It is impossible.” Lady Catherine’s volume was every instant increasing alongside her color as she belabored her objections for what seemed a quarter hour.

Collins slid lower in his chair, for once wishing he were neither such a tall robust fellow nor any relation of the Bennets.

Veins bulging at her temples, Lady Catherine choked out her final decree, the words muffled through a froth of spittle. “I… for…bid… it.”

“Please, I beg you with all earnestness, madam, you must calm yourself,” Charlotte asserted at the first possible interlude. “You must not credit what is merely hearsay. Mr. Collins speaks of rumor only.”

But Lady Catherine’s face had deepened from red to violet and her great bejeweled fingers were clutching at her throat. She gasped for breath that would not come, toppled forward and expired, her aquiline nose coming to rest on a pillow of peas and potatoes and her noble brow crowned by a coronet of quail bones.

Mr. Collins had never seen a dinner plate addressed with such condescension or graciousness.

Serenade - December 1812, London

A draft snaked through the sheltering buildings and buffeted the London street. It snagged Elizabeth’s pelisse and, despite their brisk pace, made the thick fabric cling to her legs with all the persistence of a shy child. She shivered.

“You are not chilled, are you?” Jane peered at her across their linked arms.

“No more than you.” Elizabeth offered a bright smile and bumped her sister’s shoulder. “The joy of this expedition and the company of my sisters afford all the warmth I need.” They were on their final errand for Jane’s wedding clothes and, though Elizabeth would not confess aloud that she was tiring, neither would she allow a little cold to dampen her spirits. What a happy contrast to last year, when Jane’s London sojourn deflated all their expectations of Bingley.

Jane halted near the steps to an unfamiliar church and withdrew her arm. “Lizzy, I would not in any way jeopardize your health. You are only just free of the sickroom.”

“You need not be concerned. My aunt and uncle are the most agreeable and conscientious hosts, but I could not bear being shut in another day.” Had she not already spent six of the past ten in her bed, including Christmas? Ah, well, such was the price of disregarding her mother’s objections and romping with her sniffling little cousins.

Kitty and Mary had caught up to their elder sisters and were following the conversation with swiveling bonnets.

“Do you not agree it is a perfect day in Christmastide?” Elizabeth said, wishing to change the topic. “The breeze has cleared all the haze.”

If she closed her eyes to the grimy city and angled her face to the afternoon sun, she could almost imagine herself on a Hertfordshire lane. She inhaled and in the next second wished she had not. Crisp air seared down her throat and convulsed her lungs. A wracking cough stooped her body and she struggled to breathe. She felt hands on her back and her coughing abated, but a hushed dispute broke out above her bowed head. Did they think she could not hear just because she could not breathe?

Jane’s voice emerged over the others’ protests. “That clinches it. We are taking Lizzy home. I will hear no argument.”

Elizabeth cleared her throat several times, straightened and gestured behind her. “There is no need for such haste, not when we are already arrived. I might rest in this church while you finish.”

“I would be happy to keep Lizzy company,” added Mary.

Jane began to object.

“Of course you would.” Kitty rolled her eyes at Mary. “We are all aware how much you delight in shopping.”

Elizabeth stepped back and slipped her hand through Mary’s elbow. “See, it is arranged to everyone’s satisfaction.”

“Not to my satisfaction,” Jane replied.

“Please?” Kitty seized her eldest sister’s gloved fingers and tugged her toward the shops. “We should go now while the patterns are fresh in our minds. The modiste wanted the trimmings immediately if she is to complete the remaining gowns before we leave Town and return to Longbourn.”

Jane shook her head, setting her golden curls swinging against her rosy cheeks, but Elizabeth could tell she was wavering. The moment was to Elizabeth’s advantage.

“Kitty is right,” Elizabeth pressed, “you know she is. You two continue on. Mary and I shall be fine, truly, and will look forward to a detailed account of your purchases and orders.”

Mary made a strangled noise, but fell short of voicing her disagreement.

“It would be convenient to conclude today.” Jane sighed. “If you are certain?”

“Completely certain.” Elizabeth masked another cough with a laugh and the foursome arranged to reconvene at the church in two hours.

The granite steps were not especially numerous or steep, but Elizabeth was winded by the time they reached the broad double doors.

“From the manner in which you were leaning on me,” Mary said, “are you certain we should not call for the carriage and return to the Gardiners? No one would mind, least of all Jane.”

“That is good of you, but I am only fatigued from too many days of inactivity. Resting in a pew for a short while should set me to rights.”

One oaken door creaked as they opened it and stole into the cool, dim narthex.

Mary sniffed. “Can you smell that?”

Elizabeth could, which was a welcome change. “Evergreen boughs and something sweet?”

“Frankincense, I think. Perhaps it is part of the High Church revival.”

“I could not say.” In truth, she did not care. Now that relief was within sight Elizabeth desired only to sit. Sunlight streamed through the clerestory windows, bathing half the sanctuary in an inviting glow that at least gave an appearance of warmth. She slid into the first available pew and wilted against the rigid bench.

Mary stopped nearby and rotated to examine her surroundings. “You would not mind if I looked about, would you?”

Elizabeth scanned the edifice. It boasted statuary near the walls and an ornate chancel screen at the front. Indeed, a striking disparity from their plain little church in Meryton or even the Gardiners’ larger but equally plain church in Cheapside. Her sister’s initial assessment was likely correct and Mary should know, given her familiarity with Alexander Knox’ writings and her fascination with the budding resurgence in pre-Reformation worship.

“I should not mind at all,” Elizabeth said. “Please take your time.”

Mary moved away. Elizabeth slouched until she could support her neck against the upright back. No one would term it comfortable and it was certainly not designed to encourage sleep, but at least she could rest.

Her eyes traveled up to the dust particles floating on the sunlight. They swirled in a glittering dance and reminded her of the beautiful gowns, the merriment, and the gentlemen who had partnered her. Nor was it strange that her next thought should be of Mr. Darcy, whom she had not seen since his visit to Longbourn in September. He was coming, she knew, to stand up with his friend as she would stand up with Jane.

But would the awkwardness that marked their last encounter still prevail? For a time she hoped Darcy might return to Netherfield, until Lady Catherine died and he was much occupied with his aunt’s and cousin’s affairs. Or at least that was what Bingley reported in his distracted manner and Charlotte confirmed in her letters. Although Elizabeth confessed her feelings to Jane, who kept nothing from Charles, Elizabeth was obliged to conclude that either Bingley had been unusually circumspect or she had been wrong in thinking it within her power to reawaken Darcy’s affections. Otherwise he would have come.

None of that mattered now. She would meet him in a matter of weeks and finding an occasion to express her gratitude was paramount.

“I have made a discovery!”

Lizzy started at Mary’s excited voice. “Has the rector got into the wine?”

“There is a small museum adjacent to the church and dedicated to its history. This structure is the third to stand on this site.” Mary indicated an archway under which a matron in mobcap and fichu stood observing them. “The docent is kind enough to grant me a tour, but I did not wish to abandon you.”

“Take your pleasure.” Elizabeth waved an acknowledgement to the older woman. “I am glad for further respite.”

“Oh, thank you.” Mary offered her a smile with more true warmth than Elizabeth had seen in an age.

“You are most welcome.”

Elizabeth turned toward the chancel. Sunlight shone through the screen’s rich wood and dappled the altar in white, like peering through a veil into the holy of holies, as if God Himself had chosen to loiter with her. Or the reverse; this was His house after all. A soft smile tugged at her lips. Even isolated by sickness, she was not shielded from the hubbub of twelve family members under one roof. Was it not a gift, these quiet moments to reflect on the end of one year and the beginning of another?

The thought inspired her gratitude--and she had much for which to be grateful. Jane’s heartache had turned to elation when Bingley returned and professed his love. Elizabeth could thank Darcy for that. Lydia was married and settled with Wickham in his Newcastle regiment. The circumstances were far from ideal, but it could have been much worse. She could thank Darcy for that as well. She was grateful she was able to visit Pemberley in the summer and see for herself how Darcy changed and how she misunderstood him. She liked to believe she too had grown humbler and more generous in her judgments. For that also she must credit Darcy. A laugh escaped and reverberated from the vaulted ceiling. Thank the good Lord for bringing Mr. Darcy into her life, but was there nothing that did not circle back to him?

She cast about for a moment and thought of Charlotte. Her dear friend was as content as she could be in her situation and keen to welcome the consolation of baby Collins. Darcy could not claim a role in that, though it did stir recollections of his proposal at Hunsford. The offense of his opinions had long since faded in her memory and she recalled only his impassioned declaration. Was it approaching six months since she first was overwhelmed with gratitude for his affections--affections she might have returned? But this was a path she had disciplined her mind to avoid and she would not change her habit now. Nothing was to be gained in dwelling on what might have been.

Instead, she reclined again, closed her eyes and prayed for him--prayed the Lord might favor him as He had her, that Darcy would find joy and fulfillment in the coming year. That done, she forced her thoughts into a different course, giving thanks one by one for the prior year’s blessings until the gratitude swelled in her heart with palpable warmth and no words remained.

Soft footfalls stirred Elizabeth from her repose. Mary must have come to check on her since she doubted having slept long enough for Jane to complete her shopping and return. And Kitty had never measured up to the stealth of her pet name.

An impish idea flitted through her mind and she bit back a smile. Yes, she did dare. Years had passed since they played such a childish game, but the very unexpectedness could only make it more effective. Besides, Mary would benefit from a healthy bout of laughter.

The footsteps continued. One quiet heel click followed by another until, coming even with her pew, they halted.

Elizabeth waited in perfect stillness, forcing herself to feign sleep and heighten the suspense until she could delay no longer.

“The bed’s mine,” she exclaimed, opening her eyes and thrusting her hands in the air all at once.

Her observer leapt backwards and collided with the opposite pew. Black clad arms and legs wheeled like a windmill. Unable to regain his footing, the man capsized and she was regaled with his upturned soles.

“Oh, I am so sorry, sir.” Elizabeth jumped up and crossed the aisle, already framing her apologies to the rector. “Are you hurt?”

The dark eyes of none other than Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy stared up at her from his recumbent position on the pew bench. He shoved himself to his elbows. “Miss Bennet!”

She curtsied, but did not know where to look. If the heat in her cheeks were any indication, all her blood must have rushed to her face. Of every possible manner in which he might have stumbled on her, why must she succumb to a juvenile whim at such a moment?

“Forgive me for not greeting you properly,” he said, “but I find myself momentarily indisposed.”

She forced herself to look at him. His pose was so undignified, reclining with knees elevated over the pew’s end, that were she not overwhelmed by mortification, guilt and shock she might have laughed. “Er… May I assist you?”

He considered her for a moment and smiled, but did not accept her extended hand. His legs found the floor in a smooth motion and he stood. Her eyes followed his face until she was forced to angle her head back. She had forgotten precisely how tall he was. Or how handsome.

“I did not realize you were in Town, sir. Mr. Bingley said you were keeping Christmas in Kent this year.”

“Yes,” he smiled, “we did and are only recently arrived. I did not wish Anne to be alone for her first Christmas without her mother and she was not strong enough to travel here.”

“How very thoughtful,” Elizabeth said, struck by the fondness and consideration with which Darcy mentioned Miss de Bourgh. Why had it never occurred to her that more than cousinly concern might have kept him in Kent? But that was improbable. “May I extend belated condolences for your aunt’s death?”

“Thank you.” He gestured to the pew she recently vacated, clearly wishing an end to the prior subject. “I was making every effort to tread softly and not disrupt your prayers, but...”

“Oh, I was not praying. I mean, I was praying before, but just then I was--” How could she explain?

“Lying in wait for unsuspecting churchgoers?”

“No. Yes. For my sister, anyway, you see--” She laughed despite her embarrassment. “I only meant to surprise her with a silly game we devised in our girlhood.”

“That will not do at all. I require a better explanation for being compelled to such an indignity.” He shook his head, and she could not decide if he was humored or offended.

“In which case I am afraid I must disappoint you, sir, as a better explanation does not exist.”

“Come, Miss Bennet, you may at least acquaint me with the particulars of how this game is played.”

“If you wish, but it is of no consequence.”

“Your resistance has aroused my curiosity.”

“Truly, it was very silly. Once the lights were put out, Jane and I, being the eldest, would feign sleep and the younger girls would try to sneak into our beds without alerting us to their presence. If we heard them attempting a stealthy invasion, then we would call out ‘the bed’s mine.’”

“And if you did not apprehend the intruder?”

“Then I was obliged to share my bed for the night.” She shrugged. “You see, sir, it was only a simple folly among children.”

He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “An entertaining pastime to be sure, and I will even admit to playing any number of games with my cousins as a youth, but might I suggest you reserve such amusements for the privacy of your home?”

She flushed yet again. “Be assured that we have outgrown such diversions.”

“So I see.” A fleeting smirk pulled at his lips before he glanced around the sanctuary. “Perhaps we might continue this conversation elsewhere, lest the rector dismiss us from the premises for irreverence.”

“I would like that,” she said, though uncertain how to interpret his intentions, “but I am to await my sisters here.”

“The church’s garden offers a labyrinth which we might explore.” He indicated that she precede him. “That is, if you do not find the day too cool?”

How fortunate that her weariness had vanished. “It sounds perfect.”

“Lizzy, you must see this.” Mary bent over a display case, her bonnet ribbons trailing on the glass. Her fingers beckoned toward Elizabeth though she had yet to lift her gaze.

Elizabeth cast Darcy an apologetic glance as she complied.

“It is a letter scribed by Lancelot Andrewes himself.” Mary straightened. “Oh. Mr. Darcy. I did not observe you there.”

Elizabeth’s eyes traveled between them, curious as to how Darcy would respond.

“Miss Mary.” He bowed. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

Mary removed her spectacles but seemed at a loss for reply.

“Mr. Darcy happened upon me while also seeking respite from escorting his sister and her companion on a shopping expedition. We were thinking to refresh ourselves with a turn in the labyrinth.” Elizabeth indicated the garden. It was not large and from the window, she could just make out the back of a wooden bench peeking above the patterned hedge rows. “Would you care to join us?”

Mary glanced between the letter and Darcy, then back at Elizabeth. “Do you think it wise, especially since you--”

“You need not, if you prefer to stay. You may observe us from here.” Elizabeth interrupted, wishing to preclude any mention of her health. “And Jane and Kitty shall come to fetch us within the hour.”

“So soon?” Mary stroked the volumes on a nearby shelf. “But they have all the Caroline Divines.”

“Then it is settled,” Darcy said. “Should you need us, we shall be within sight.”

With one hand under Elizabeth’s elbow, Darcy directed her to the door. The docent intercepted them, disclaiming that the garden was much neglected and scheduled for renovations in the spring, but Darcy assured her it was perfectly adequate and assisted Elizabeth down several steps to the path. They strolled between the low hedges in wordless companionship, stones crunching beneath their shoes and the city racket echoing in their ears. The wind seemed frigid after the church’s comparative warmth. Elizabeth folded her arms across her chest and took shallow breaths in an effort to avoid coughing, but her throat tickled and she was obliged to produce her handkerchief.

Darcy stopped and studied her. “May I enquire if you have been ill?”

“A trifling cold, nothing to warrant concern, and I am on the mend.”

“Then we ought not expose you to the winter air. Allow me to return you inside.”

“No, please.” She rested her fingers on his sleeve. “I have been caged within doors far too long.”

“An unkempt garden is a poor substitute for a ramble in the country. Really, Miss Bennet, I insist.”

“Mr. Darcy.” She pressed his arm. “There is something about which I would speak with you, if we might tarry a few minutes.”

“Certainly whatever you have to say may be said as well within doors.”

“We have a singular opportunity for privacy and I will not take long.” If she might avail herself of this opening to express her gratitude, then that at least would not be weighing upon her during Jane’s wedding festivities.

His brow creased in deliberation, but she remained firm in her resolve.

“Very well,” he said, “but I will hold you to your brevity.”

He tucked her arm into his and navigated further into the winding route. The pattern seemed more maze than labyrinth and overgrown branches snatched at their legs, but the shrubs were no taller than her waist, the garden was narrow, and she could see they were making swift progress toward the bench on the far side.

When they finally emerged, Darcy shoved the worn frame with a finger and it responded with a creak. A discolored brass plate bore the faded inscription “Psalm 121.”

“Pardon the incivility, but permit me to test its sturdiness before I seat you,” Darcy said and lowered himself gingerly.

Elizabeth did not wait for him to complete his assessment and installed herself on the opposite side. The bench rocked sideways with a squeak. She giggled. “Is it not rustic and charming?”

“I will not deign to humor that comment with a reply,” he said, though there was nothing of arrogance and much of amusement in his voice. “Now, what is so important that you must risk your health to tell me?”

She folded her hands in her lap and swallowed, finding it strangely difficult to frame words rehearsed over many months. “What I have to say is terribly overdue. You must understand I had been hoping to speak with you when you came into Hertfordshire last autumn, but you were called away to Kent before we were afforded opportunity.”

His brows knit. “Settling Lady Catherine’s estate is certainly taking far longer than I anticipated. My aunt named me her executor because she anticipated-- Well, never mind that. But, were you expecting me to return into Hertfordshire, then?”

“Not expected exactly,” her eyes dropped to the dormant grass underfoot, “more like hoped.”

“Truly, Miss Bennet?”

She nodded and lifted her eyes. He was searching her face though she did not know to what end. But she could not allow his earnest scrutiny to distract her from her purpose. “Oh, but Mr. Darcy, this is not what I wished to say.”

“Is it not?”

“No.” Now was the moment and she determined to see her object to its conclusion. “I wish to express my appreciation to you, inadequate though words must be, for reuniting Jane and Bingley and, more importantly, for what you sacrificed in rescuing Lydia. If my family were aware of all you have done, my thanks would be multiplied fivefold, but as they are not, please accept my sincere gratitude on their behalf.”

“Ah.” He leaned back and the bench groaned in response. “This is why you hoped I would return, so that you might thank me?”

“Yes.” That and more, but she could hardly confess as much.

“My actions were never intended to come to your notice. I am sorry that they have and that it has caused you unease. Please do not distress yourself any longer.” He offered a tight smile. “You are sufficiently familiar with my history with Wickham to understand that I felt a degree of responsibility in being the means that allowed him to prey on your sister.”

“It was not your fault.”

“Do not attempt to acquit me.” He raised a hand. “I had other, stronger motivations as well.”

“I know,” she said before he could elaborate. At least she could exploit this chance to prove his virtues did not go unnoticed. “Your character and integrity, your scrupulous application of principle have long held my respect.”

“I am honored by your compliments,” he said, though his brow drew down.

“Yet those very compliments appear to trouble you.”

“It may have been the correct and moral course, but you must not credit me for any such pure motives.” His mouth opened and then closed before he spoke. “I believe I thought only of you.”

She moistened her lips and stared at him. Was it possible he still cared for her? She had thought as much at Pemberley, but then he had been so very reserved when he returned to Longbourn and now all these months had passed. Silence ensued and she felt she must speak, though she knew not what to say. “Mr. Darcy, I--I--”

“Miss Bennet, Elizabeth,” he slid closer on the bench and it grumbled under his shifting weight, “I realize that close to a year has elapsed since my confession last April, but my feelings, my wishes are unchanged.” He stretched for her hand where it was clutched tightly in her other. She gazed at him in wonderment and met his fingers with her own. He scooted closer. The bench complained. “But if you still feel--”

Splitting wood exploded in her ears and she lurched backward. Her head thudded into the earth and an impossible weight landed atop her, driving her back into something sharp and unyielding. She felt dizzy and out of breath and closed her eyes.

She could feel Darcy’s weight crushed the length of her and his hat lodged beneath her chin. The vibration against her chest told her he was speaking, but his words were muffled and his struggles forced all remaining air from her lungs. He continued to shift about until the pressure eased somewhat. She gasped and turned her head aside to cough.

“Elizabeth!” His voice was riddled with anxiety. “Are you injured?”

A peculiar lethargy made it difficult to lift her lids. When she did, she first saw a withered vine clinging to the stone wall directly in her field of vision, and she wondered for a moment how it managed to climb the impervious surface.

“Elizabeth, please.” Darcy’s voice recalled her. “Can you answer me?”

She took a shallow breath and rotated her head toward him. He had wedged one arm near her shoulder and lifted his head from her torso, but still she started at the nearness of his face, so near she could distinguish the dark points of whiskers peppering his skin and delicate vessels reddening with strain.

“Are you hurt?” he repeated.

She watched his lips move and heard the words, but their sense came slowly, like translating Italian at the opera. His eyes were-- Had she ever truly looked into his eyes?

“Miss Bennet, this is most distressing.”

“I am well,” she said at last, though omitting mention of the discomfort from the armrest beneath her back, “only a little out of breath.”

“I do apologize, but I cannot”--he struggled again--“free myself. Can you see what is pinning me against you?”

“I will try,” she said.

Her stomach contracted against him until she could raise her head enough to assess the problem. His cheek was warm and coarse against hers and she could smell the musky oils in his hair. She sank back, exhausted from the effort and dismayed by her traitorous senses. “The back of the bench collapsed forward as far as your shoulders and the opposite armrest appears to have fallen across it such that it is acting as a lock.”

“If I can gain another inch or so, perhaps you might be able to wriggle out.” He fought against the trap and though she tried to comply, in her weakened state and beneath his substantial bulk, she could not make any progress.

The exertion induced another coughing fit and when she had recovered her breath, she said, “I am sorry, but I am afraid I cannot move either.”

He was flushed with embarrassment, but he relaxed his efforts and considered her. “You must not try again, Miss Bennet. It is too much strain after your illness.”

She swallowed a teasing comment. He meant to be considerate, she knew he did, but the strain of bearing nearly his full weight was not insignificant.

He was studying her with great solemnity, in all likelihood evaluating every possible solution, but the incongruity between his serious appraisal and their improbable dilemma suddenly struck her. She pressed her lips together.

“No,” he said, “you would not dare laugh.”

Her cheeks quivered and she tried to restrain herself, but a hiccup of humor slipped out and then another. Laughter shook her body and him by proximity.

He closed his eyes and exhaled a long, slow breath before opening them again and addressing her. “Please, Miss Bennet. You must stop.”

“Surely even you must admit the absurdity of our situation.” She managed at last to quiet her giggles. “If you cannot laugh in moments like these, then what can you do?”

“I have never had a moment like this.”

That made her laugh again. “Then what do you propose?”

He did not answer, his gaze instead seeming to caress her features, his eyes pausing on her brow or her lips or her cheek, eyes as rich and warm as the coffee lingering on his breath. Perception of his nearness, of his person pressing into her, overcame all thought of escape.

“Your eyes are”--his voice rumbled against her--“I always thought your eyes very fine, but I never realized how…” His words trailed off and she wondered if he meant to kiss her. Surely such a gentleman would never take advantage of a lady in a compromised position. Her heart began to pound. His eyes flicked to hers in recognition. How extraordinary to realize he could sense her heart beating. She concentrated and likewise discerned the rhythm of his heart, drumming almost as rapidly. The arm that supported him was trembling and all at once the comic aspect of their quandary evaporated.

“Forgive me.” He sighed. “I regret the further imposition, but I think the only escape is if--” His ruddiness deepened.

“Yes, Mr. Darcy?”

“If I allow my full weight to rest on you, then the pressure on the bench will ease and I may be able to roll free.”

“Like the proverbial fist in the jar?” She attempted a light tone.

“Precisely.” He paused and when he spoke again, his voice was quiet. “It will help if you do not resist.”

Comprehension of his request broke over her. He wished her to release the tension in her muscles, to willingly receive his added weight that she might aid in diminishing their profile. As if their current intimacy were insufficient.

She sighed even as her heart began to hammer. “Very well.”

Her head lolled sideways to comply and the change in angle carried with it the sound of voices. “Wait. Do you hear that?”

He too inclined his head to listen. “I would rather not be found in such a predicament.”

“You think I would?”

“The voices are feminine. I imagine they are your sisters.”

Elizabeth listened once more, but the wind distorted the sound too much to be confident. “It could just as well be your sister.”

A horrified expression crossed his face. “Quickly, Miss Bennet.”

She turned her head aside again, exhaling and flattening herself as much as the bench arm beneath her would allow. He dropped against her and grunted with the strain of rolling free. She endeavored to ignore the alarming sensations this produced.

“Brother!” A feminine voice high and clear with dismay halted his efforts.

Darcy raised himself as much as he could. He groaned. “Georgiana. The bench collapsed and we are--”

Elizabeth tilted her head back and saw Miss Darcy upside down, her eyes round and mouth agape.

“Miss Elizabeth!” She exclaimed.

“--trapped,” concluded Darcy.

“Oh!” Miss Darcy rushed toward the bench. “Let me help.”

“The right hand arm,” directed Darcy, “it must be released.”

Elizabeth could not see what Miss Darcy was doing, but she felt the far end of the bench rise and Darcy inched forward, catching himself on elbows to either side of her neck. His movement dragged her dress along with him and cool air swirled around her exposed stockings. Could their predicament worsen any further? All at once the bench fell and Darcy was crushed atop her again.

“I am not strong enough,” cried Miss Darcy. “I will fetch help. The others must still be in the maze.”

“Wait, Georgiana,” Darcy began, but it was too late, her footsteps already disappearing around the corner.

He tried to wrest free of the contraption a third time before stopping to once more lift his head and peer down at her. “Well, Miss Bennet, it seems we are destined to expose ourselves to all our relations.”

“Hopefully only to those with discretion.” She smiled.

“Even so,” he said, resuming his serious aspect, “you do realize the most likely outcome--”

“--will be we are obliged to marry. I know.” From the moment he confessed his feelings were unchanged and the rotten wood buckled beneath them, the idea was never far from her thoughts.

“Miss Bennet, I--” he swallowed and she felt his stomach tighten, “I would not see you forced into a marriage you do not desire nor wed to a man you do not like. I cannot guarantee matrimony will not be the inevitable result, but I assure you that I will make every effort to achieve an alternative--”

“Mr. Darcy.” Her utterance was soft, imbued with all the tenderness she had secretly harbored toward him. How touching that even in this difficulty he was considering her first.

“--and if I cannot, you have my solemn promise that I will do everything in my power--”

“Mr. Darcy.” She tried to again with more insistence.

“--to ensure your happiness and--”


He ceased speaking and stared at her.

“I will marry you.” She smiled at his stunned expression. “If you had asked, I would have said yes.”

“Truly?” His heart was in his eyes. “Are you certain the circumstances have not compelled you to such an exigency?”

“Before this worthless bench collapsed, I was about to answer that my feelings are quite opposite to what they were in the spring, that I am ashamed they were ever other than what they are now, and that it has been many months since my sentiments have been in harmony with yours.” How she wished she could touch his face, to wipe away the moisture that was gathering in the corners of his eyes, but her arms were pinned to her sides. “If we must blame the bench for anything, I think it is only for hastening the inevitable.”

“Then God bless this bench.”

She gave a chuckle and went silent. If she thought he beheld her with affection and longing before, it was nothing to the way he regarded her now, and it kindled something new and warm and startling within her.

“If our circumstances were anything than what they presently are,” he said, his tone low, “I would kiss you.”

She searched his face. How rapidly the alien and unfamiliar had dissipated. Now every line and whisker, the dense brows and thick lashes, the Cupid’s bow above his lip were an invitation to be known and loved.

Heat rose in her cheeks. “I would not object.”

His pulse accelerated; she felt it. His breath was warm on her face, murmuring his love and her name. Never had those letters been united with such allure. Her every sense was poised--

“Lizzy!” A woman’s voice shouted, succeeded immediately by footsteps trampling the gravel walk.

Elizabeth’s body jerked in surprise, and she felt Darcy push away as far as he could. She twisted her head, trying to see who approached and winced at the forgotten ache in her back. Jane was flying toward them with Miss Darcy on her heels and several others following.

“Mr. Darcy!” Jane exclaimed.

Darcy muttered something unintelligible.

Elizabeth tried to call out that she was well, but the attempt was lost in series of coughs. The confusion of exclamations and movement jostled and pushed them but did nothing to bring freedom. Not until Darcy bellowed for a halt and directed their sisters in an organized approach was any progress made. The entire process seemed muddled and slow, but Elizabeth was grateful when the pressure eased. Darcy crawled out and turned to brace his shoulder against the buckled frame. He pried her from her prone position and lifted her to her feet.

Her sisters crowded around, their hands brushing at her pelisse and their voices garbled with concern. Jane’s lovely face shimmered in waves. Elizabeth pressed her palms to her eyes, and when she removed them Jane’s features blurred into a halo of light. She squinted at Mary and Kitty who were peering back at her with odd attention. A cloud of radiant pinpricks in their hair made it difficult to see. She tried to turn and find Darcy, but her neck was stiff and then her feet would not obey, her legs twisted, and she was falling, falling, her heart racing. Darkness descended over all.

“Lizzy,” she felt cool air on her face, “Lizzy, wake up. It is time to depart.”

Elizabeth opened her eyes. She still sat in the pew where she had fallen asleep on first entering the sanctuary. Jane was seated beside her, an open fan in her lap. Mary held her hand on the other side, and Kitty was kneeling in the pew ahead, her chin cushioned on fingers curled around the backrest’s lip.

Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the high windows, noticed the swirling dust motes and remembered. She was praying for Darcy and giving thanks for the previous twelvemonth when she fell asleep. It was all a figment of her slumbering imagination: the rotten bench, their indelicate situation, her assent to a proposal he never made. Even Mr. Darcy himself. She sighed and wished for her own bed that she might burrow her face in her pillow and resume where the dream left off or, barring that, indulge in a good cry. It was all so real.

She turned to Jane. “Were you able to find what you needed?”

Jane’s brows knit.

“To finish your shopping?” clarified Elizabeth.

Jane glanced at Mary and Kitty before smiling her gentle smile. “We did and it is kind of you to enquire, Lizzy, but at present I am only concerned for your welfare.”

“Whatever for?” Elizabeth forced a brightness she did not feel. “I may have been more tired than I acknowledged and rested longer than planned, but there is no cause for worry.”

Mary addressed Jane. “She must have struck her head with greater force than we realized.”

“Struck my head?” Elizabeth probed her crown, but the only pain she could feel radiated from the center of her back.

“Lizzy,” Jane said, “you fainted in the garden and Mr. Darcy carried you into the church. Do you not recall it?”

“Mr. Darcy is here?” She straightened to search for him and sparks clouded her vision. She subsided with equal rapidity. Was it possible she had not been dreaming after all?

“He has only gone to call for the carriages and will return directly.”

Kitty snickered. “You should be glad you cannot remember for we found you in the most compromising position. Your gown was nearly to your knees and Mr. Darcy was--”

“Kitty, hush.” Jane remonstrated. “Do not be distressed, Lizzy. Mr. Darcy explained everything.”

“He did?” Elizabeth wondered what precisely he explained. She pressed one hand to her cheek and could feel the heat through her glove. “Please tell me what happened.”

“He said the wood was deteriorated and the bench you were seated on gave way beneath your combined weight. Apparently you were trapped for some time, but it was clearly an accident. Of course, we all know he is too much of a gentleman to ever impose on you.”

Another gurgle of laughter erupted from Kitty. This was confirmation enough.

“Then we must marry,” Elizabeth blurted.

Her sisters exchanged a knowing look, as if she had spoken nonsense or they had information of which she was ignorant.

“No,” Jane said, addressing her with the patient tone she reserved for their little Gardiner cousins, “no, while I am certain that Mr. Darcy is prepared to do what is right, considering there was no public spectacle, I do not see that such an extremity will be necessary.”

Panic welled in Elizabeth. Though the bench did actually collapse, perhaps she had struck her head and only imagined the conversation with Darcy. “But, but--”

“Please do not fret, Lizzy. It is no surprise that you are confused for you were nearly insensible by the time we arrived.” Mary squeezed her hand. “I only hope you will forgive me for being so selfish. If I had accompanied you, this might have been avoided.”

“Of course I forgive you,” Elizabeth squeezed her hand in return, “but I do not see that your presence would have made any difference.”

Kitty giggled. “The only difference would have been Lizzy and Mary under the bench and Mr. Darcy to rescue them.”

A deep voice cleared his throat, and they all jumped.

Darcy stood in the aisle, immaculate and unruffled, with no trace of having spent a portion of his afternoon pinned with her beneath a garden bench. “Miss Elizabeth, I trust you are feeling improved?”

Such formality. How was she to respond after all that passed between them, if indeed it had occurred? “Yes, sir, and I understand I have you to thank for my rescue.”

Elizabeth thought his color might have deepened, but he only inclined his head and turned his attention to Jane, who rose from her seat.

“Miss Bennet,” he said, “your transportation awaits, though I hope you will not mind I took some liberties with the seating. If you would accompany Miss Elizabeth in my carriage, I thought she might be easier in the more commodious accommodation. My sister and her companion shall ride with Miss Mary and Miss Kitty in the Gardiner’s coach. Is that amenable?”

Jane agreed, and a brief shuffle ensued as the sisters gathered their articles and prepared to depart. No sooner did Elizabeth gain her feet, wait for her lightheadedness to pass, and achieve the aisle than she was overshadowed by Darcy, who stepped near enough that she could identify his now familiar scent.

“Miss Elizabeth, if you will allow me, may I have permission to carry you?”

“Thank you,” she said, “but that will not be necessary.”

“Please”--his intense, dark eyes entreated her--“you have already been injured twice while in my care.”

“I hardly think you can take credit for a decaying bench.”

“But it was my weight--”

“And how were you to guess I would lose consciousness?”

“I should have known better than to stand you on your feet so abruptly.”

His earnestness was moving and chiseled away at her uncertainty. “If you will lend me your arm, Mr. Darcy, I think that will be more than adequate.”

He obliged with celerity. Elizabeth’s sisters preceded them out the door and started down the granite steps with a haste unfettered by the fatigue of illness or injury. Elizabeth paused on the stoop, the wind whistling in her ears, while Darcy latched the door. His carriage stood mere yards away, though it may as well have been a mile. Without thinking, she leaned into him and before she could object found herself swept into his arms and cradled against his chest.

“Mr. Darcy!” she objected, though not in genuine protest.

She appraised his handsome features, so near once again--a regal brow above intelligent eyes and a firm mouth that communicated sincerity and kindness when he smiled. Such as he was bestowing on her now.

“I admire your resilience,” he said, “but there is no virtue in being stubborn, particularly when your strength is spent.”

He was correct, though she did not admit it aloud and only rested her cheek against his shoulder. He moved down the steps with telling caution. Bewilderment still clouded her mind and made her thoughts sluggish. Their forced intimacy that seemed so real when she first awoke had taken on increasingly dream-like properties. Did she really confess her admiration? His every look and word, the very manner in which he was holding her seemed an affirmation, but she would not be able to rest until she was certain.

“What happened with the bench,” she began.

“We need not speak of it now.”

“But what I said to you--”

“Neither need you feel bound by what was exchanged between us.” His brow furrowed. “Our sisters all agreed to the prudence of discretion.”

Jane turned aside to the Gardiner’s coach to stow her purchases, and they were nearly at Darcy’s carriage.

“Please. You must allow me to finish. Mary said I was insensible, but I remember what I said to you.” Her voice caught and she swallowed back the rising emotion. “I recall every word, but what I need to know is”--she looked up at him as he set her on her feet to hand her through the open door--“was I only dreaming?”

She thought he whispered her name as she stepped into a spacious cabin fitted up with more elegance than she had ever seen in a conveyance. The carriage dipped sideways with Darcy’s weight and he directed her to the forward facing bench. He perched on its edge beside her.

“Elizabeth,” he said, clasping her hand in his own. “If you were dreaming, then so was I.”

She watched his cravat rise and fall with his chest, felt his hand slide to her shoulder, and his other fingers beneath her chin. His lips were warm and soft, his touch gentle and brief, and the assurance of his love streamed into her very soul.

When she opened her eyes, Jane stood at the carriage door, shock evident on her face. How was it they escaped the garden episode unscathed only to be caught now? Darcy must have interpreted Elizabeth’s mirroring expression for he swiveled about.

“Please allow me, Miss Bennet,” he said and shifted to assist her onto the bench beside Elizabeth.

“Lizzy…” Jane murmured in soft reproach, her cheeks pink and eyes round.

Elizabeth felt Darcy’s attention on her and rotated to meet his gaze. A slow smiled tugged at one corner of his mouth and spread across his face, the light of his countenance so infectious that she could not help but smile in return.

“What do you find so amusing?” she said.

“If you cannot laugh in moments like these,” he said, “then what can you do?”

Finale - January 1813

Elizabeth squinted against the refracted brilliance as they exited Meryton’s church to the ovation of well-wishers and a dusting of snow. The newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Bingley preceded them toward Darcy’s carriage, which was waiting to transport the wedding party to Longbourn for a celebratory breakfast.

Just over three weeks had passed since her preposterous reunion with Darcy: a whirlwind of dressmakers, dinners, and wedding preparations. She could not spend as much time with him as she would have wished, but they enjoyed enough conversation to bespeak a glowing future, like touring a home by candlelight and glimpsing the comforts and glories morning would reveal. How could she enter into this new year with any but the highest expectations? She tilted her head to meet his eyes trained on her.

“May I ask why you are smiling at me so broadly?” He said and smiled in response.

“Are you happy?”

“To the depths of my being.” He pressed her arm within his, but then his smile dimmed. “No, that is not entirely accurate. What I feel surpasses happiness--I know joy, Elizabeth.”

She searched his face and found the truth of his words written in each contour. Any confession seemed inadequate to what she felt, such a tumult of joy and love, hope and desire, and beneath that something stronger still, riven with the force of gratitude that went beyond themselves. But she could not speak of that now and only said, “As do I.”

A few more strides brought them to the carriage, revealing Jane and Bingley already installed on the rearward bench and too captivated by one another to heed their companions. Elizabeth gathered her skirts, preparing for Darcy to hand her in, but he bent his head beside hers.

“Oh, and Mrs. Darcy”--his low voice brushed across the bare skin above her collar, causing the fine hairs at her nape to rise and sending a shiver through her--“the bed is mine.”


Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

Renee BJanuary 03, 2015 10:07PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

IrishMarch 24, 2017 07:15AM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

Lucy J.January 09, 2015 05:57AM


Renee BJanuary 06, 2015 05:11PM

Excellently done

KathyJanuary 06, 2015 04:52PM

Wow! that was fantastic! (nfm)

katesieJanuary 05, 2015 11:16PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

ShannaGJanuary 05, 2015 04:51PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

IrishJanuary 05, 2015 01:47PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

SarahC.January 05, 2015 02:38AM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

NicoletteJanuary 04, 2015 11:30PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

PeterJanuary 04, 2015 11:24PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

kberlinJanuary 04, 2015 10:03PM

Wonderful AND wonderfully funny

MariJanuary 04, 2015 08:15PM

Lovely!!! (nfm)

LisetteJanuary 04, 2015 04:33PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

FinnJanuary 04, 2015 01:59PM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

Suzanne OJanuary 04, 2015 06:01AM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

ANovickJanuary 04, 2015 04:13AM

Re: Neither Slumber Nor Sleep

KarenteaJanuary 04, 2015 03:43AM

Lovely, thank you! (nfm)

LisaJanuary 04, 2015 03:11AM


Debra McJanuary 04, 2015 01:18AM


JanisJanuary 04, 2015 12:50AM


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