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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 11-14

June 16, 2022 04:58PM
CHAPTER 11
“..though some people may call him proud, I have seen nothing of it.”


Elizabeth’s final days were spent enjoying the fine weather out of doors. Her early morning walks were invariably accompanied by Mr Darcy and after hearing of her childhood trauma, were later followed by an afternoon trip to the stables to acclimate herself with the gentle mare that had been purchased for Anne’s use but was often only ridden by the grooms as Anne much preferred her phaeton. Darcy had had many fond daydreams of touring Pemberley on horseback beside his future wife and he was loath to give them up without a serious attempt to help Elizabeth get past her disinclination. It was also the perfect opportunity to spend more time alone with her in her final week at Rosings. It was perhaps precipitate, but Darcy had already written to his steward to begin searching for an appropriate mount for Elizabeth to use at Pemberley. He was so hopeful as to be almost sure of her improving regard for him.

Elizabeth had confided in him on her first day at the stables, that her stubbornness at age 11 had only increased with age as it stemmed from her unwavering belief that riding side saddle was a ridiculous imposition to place upon grown women. “Men and women have the same essential physical structure, Mr Darcy. It is simply unreasonable and to be completely honest, unjust, to require a woman to sit on her side, as though she is in a drawing room taking tea, while she is 10 feet in the air controlling a moving beast.” She had gestured as far above her head as she could and then reached out and shook his forearm to express her consternation, “And it is no argument to tell me that many gentlewomen have managed to achieve this amazing feat! The fact that it is even required of us points to a manifest injustice. You cannot tell me that Boudicca or Joan of Arc rode side saddle into battle. For the simple expedient involving a pair of breeches we can do away with the indignity of redesigning a saddle and retraining a horse so a woman can ride it. Simple logic is enough to tell you that there is more afoot here than what is considered seemly.”

She arched a brow but was smiling widely so he leaned toward her, clasping the hand that had been squeezing his forearm in concert with her inflections, and bringing it to his lips. “Miss Elizabeth, I agree wholeheartedly with your logic, but I could not bring myself to teach you to ride astride while you are still a maiden. My wife, on the other hand could persuade me to take that step. It would be the easiest way to give you confidence on a more spirited mount. But that is not a step to take, while here at Rosings.” She peered up at him quizzically, unsure whether he was serious and then laughingly deciding, incorrectly, that he must not be, because the mistress of Pemberley must surely be beyond reproach in her every endeavour, and riding astride was definitely not something beyond reproach. Darcy’s mind had wandered elsewhere briefly. He cleared his throat. “Here, I hope to get you comfortable being around a gentle mare, maybe even get you used to a horse like Pegasus, maybe introduce the idea of being on a horse? We will discuss the best seating arrangement for you later.”

He led her beyond the stables to the paddock behind where one of the oldest and most gentle mares, Angel, had been brought to cool down after her gallop with the groom. A small horse is still a horse, thought Elizabeth, who was small and slight, though usually indomitable in spirit. The ostler led her to the fence when they appeared, and Elizabeth could not help but shrink back towards Darcy. He tucked her into his side and reached around to the side of the mare to caress its flank. Elizabeth cleared her throat and stiffened her spine to offer the mare an apple with an open palm in the manner the ostler mimed to her, smiling encouragingly. She asked him his name and made small talk while eyeing Angel guardedly and continuing the conversation with Tom, she began stroking the mare, visibly relaxing while Darcy remained close to her.

In time, she asked if she could climb the fence and perch upon it next to Angel to view her from above. Enclosed within the safety of Darcy’s arms she climbed and sat next to the mare who nudged her hands for more treats. Deciding being eye to eye with the mare was more confronting given her precarious seat, Darcy lifted her down, exulting in the intimate feel of her small frame within his hands and holding her just a fraction longer than was necessary for safety.

“Would you like to brush her down, miss? You can lead her into her stall with me and get used to the feel of her. I know she seems fearful large, but if you know what you’re about, horses bring such a feeling of calm and peace. Given they are mighty useful in battle and for speed, I’ve always found it a miracle how everything in the world feels a little bit more right after seeing to the horses. Might help you to see the other horses too, she’s the smallest in our stable, exceptin’ for Miss Anne’s ponies, so maybe Angel won’t feel so big to you, when you see the others?”

Darcy stepped back and let Elizabeth meet Tom and Angel at the gate. She turned to look for him and he waved her in ahead of him, wanting her to find her confidence without him there. She looked nervous again, but understanding his unspoken intent, she took the lead and chattered away, either to Tom or to Angel. He smiled and followed.

He fed and stroked Pegasus, while she worked, exclaiming at the silky feel of her mane and tail as she brushed. He introduced her to Pegasus who was several hands taller than Angel, and jet black to her dappled grey. He told her of his stables, the work of several generations of breeding, his favourite hunter, Flight, and Georgie’s horse, Siren, from the same broodmare as Angel, both from the line Pegasus belonged to, from his great-grandfather’s stallion Perseus. Pemberley breeders were sought after, ostlers and grooms sent from estates all over Derbyshire to be trained at Pemberley and this was just one part of the working of Pemberley’s estate.

“Good heavens, my family line can barely meet the standard of ancestry accredited to your horseflesh! I am no longer surprised you stalk about assembly rooms looking almighty and put upon. What is a Miss Bennet from Hertfordshire whose family can boast little else except 2 carthorses and a nag named Nelly, who is only pressed into service in inclement weather? This will never do!” Elizabeth began with a laugh in her voice, her natural inclination for levity making sport of Darcy’s equine ancestry, but she could not maintain it. She whispered her words to Pegasus as she ran her hand beneath his mane, “I cannot even ride a horse, Pegasus, or drive a phaeton, the Bennet name will disappear from Longbourn after 6 generations, upon the death of my father, and all I have are the upstart pretensions of a country miss, without family, connection or fortune. But he asked me, Pegasus! He must be out of his wits. It is not sensible, it is not practical, it really does go against every sense of honour, prudence and decorum! I am equal to many things, but am I equal to this? What am I to Arabians and legacies, Pegasus? How does love overcome such obstacles?”

Elizabeth turned to face Darcy who had come along side Pegasus to stand behind her as she spoke. “Is the arrogance all mine in thinking I am equal to all this, to all of, well, you?” He took her hands in his, and said in all solemnity, “I am completely out of my wits, Elizabeth. It is the only explanation.” She laughed, which was his intent, and then continued talking to Pegasus. “What shall I say to this Pegs? Is this to be suitability test number 1? Learn to ride a horse, be mistress of Pemberley! I fear I am quaking in my boots, and this may be the easiest of tests. I do not like to fail, my vanity will not allow it, and up to now it has been easy to avoid. I can walk to Longbourn’s boundaries in a morning, so to ride or not to ride has always been the academic question. I do not need to succeed and therefore can avoid the risk of failure. I can hazard that even Pegs here cannot range Pemberley’s boundaries in a morning, aye? So, Pegasus, if I am to have a hope of succeeding, I will need to learn to ride. And I am determined to ride you. Astride, if you please.”

Darcy could not be delighted at the pet name she had given his animal, but he was glad she had not allowed her obvious fears to overcome her. He could see there was some truth behind her jesting, and he knew she was struggling against genuine fears and difficult memories. Her ability to laugh in the face of her own struggles was a fascinating joy to him. “Elizabeth, I have every faith in you. Are you not the woman who told me that her courage rises with every attempt to intimidate her?” Elizabeth chortled at the memory and brushed off the compliment.

“Oh, that is easily said in a drawing room when the object of intimidation is merely staring at you while you play the pianoforte. How valorous of me, indeed! Especially when it was clear to almost everyone but me that you actually did come in all that state to admire me and not to censure.” She tucked her arm in his and they strolled out of the stable, waving goodbye to Tom. “I know my strengths, and I did manage to stare down the Dragon already – how do you think she ranks amongst the future enemies of the mistress of Pemberley? Even if it isn’t me, I’m sure whoever you choose, being the soft-hearted romantic that you are, will not be any more acceptable than I am. Mr Darcy, are you sure you really thought this through?”

-------------------------------

By Thursday, Elizabeth was seated on Angel, side saddle, and walking slowly around the paddock guided by Tom. She had been able to borrow an old riding habit that had been left here by Georgiana several years ago. A more current habit would certainly never have fit Elizabeth, but this one was adequate to the purpose. Her days had been filled with morning walks, tenant visits and afternoon rides, almost all were accompanied by Darcy. They had both joined Charlotte while she was visiting parishioners as the Parson’s wife, combining the similar aims in ascertaining the welfare of the tenants and families and forwarding good relationships amongst the workers.

Although Lady Catherine had exacting ideas about the acceptable behaviour and situation of the lower classes, she employed a steward who was appointed and guided by Darcy’s more liberal principles. So, while officious and sometimes invasive in her attentions to the tenants and their relationships via Mr Collins, Rosings was otherwise well managed, the tenants’ independence maintained as much as possible and any serious disputes tended to be kept beneath the notice of the lady herself, for the benefit of all concerned. The estate’s continued prosperity was a testament to this shared management and ensured Darcy’s continued attention, which suited Lady Catherine perfectly.

Visiting the tenants at Longbourn had always been a source of joy for Elizabeth. She truly loved the people who worked their land, admired their dedication, their pragmatism and their fortitude. She learnt much from them and understood innately that it was their toil that contributed directly to her ease and comfort, taking pains to express her gratitude in whatever ways she was able. There was nobility in their connection to the land, and an inherent dignity in the idea of working to earn your wages. She was the daughter of a gentleman, but she appreciated that the food on her table was there by the sweat of another man’s brow, and she could not disdain his work any more than she could disdain the gracious provision of God. She was pleasantly surprised to see how comfortably Darcy related to them. He was obviously known to many of them from his annual visits, solicitous of their care and conversant with their needs. Having seen that he had an ability to please where he chose, she could not help but be pleased that he chose to employ it in such a way. It was clear that he considered their patronage as part of his responsibilities as a landed gentleman, in the most benevolent sense, but his ease and diffidence amongst this class of people was remarkable in comparison to the gravity and hauteur he displayed in Meryton.

Charlotte was well aware of Mr Collins’ propensity to involve Lady Catherine in every trivial affair that reached his ears, so was slowly cultivating stable and discreet relationships with many of the tenant’s families with a view to curtailing even further any potential breaches in trust between the Parson and his parishioners. Mr Darcy was impressed at her ability to build rapport with her parishioners and saw how well Elizabeth supported her and helped her build the respect of the Collins’ name in the parish. The strength of their friendship and mutual regard was clear and he had marvelled yet again at the providence that handed Charlotte Lucas to William Collins in Elizabeth’s place.

Elizabeth had managed to keep her seat on Angel well and have even begun to almost enjoy the view when Darcy joined her on Pegasus. Tom had guided her out of the paddock until the two horses were side by side. “You know Tom, I think you’re right,” Elizabeth quipped, “Angel doesn’t feel nearly as tall now that Pegasus is next to me.” She looked up at Darcy. “You know you are already tall, don’t you? Why do you need to have the tallest horse as well? Is it just because you like looking down on everyone else? Is Pegasus trained to take a side saddle? I insist on swapping if so, I think we might be the same height in our seats if you take Angel instead!” He called her bluff, and she immediately retracted her position.

Tom approached and began explaining how Elizabeth could direct and control the horse herself when she became comfortable holding the reins and using a switch. The rest of the afternoon was spent in Elizabeth giving Angel her head while she meandered around the paddock ignoring Elizabeth’s gentle suggestions on direction. After half an hour of not really taking control, Tom called Angel to the mounting block where Darcy was waiting to assist in her dismount. She was not yet able to do it unaided and he was loath to give anyone else the pleasure. They always ended her lessons with a long walk ending at the stream as Elizabeth had to work out the stiffness in her frame from the unfamiliar positions she had to hold. She delighted in this final afternoon with him, sensing that things would change significantly upon removing to Town. The idyllic time that Rosings had afforded them, away from the challenges of both of their families and connections was almost at an end and she was not anticipating the change. They both spoke of pleasant nothings, enjoying the unhurried pace, neither wishing to broach the future.



CHAPTER 12

Friday dawned bright and clear, the carriages were brought around to the Parsonage after an early breakfast, packed with the day’s provisions and they set off with no delay. Elizabeth found herself seated opposite Darcy, with Maria, while Anne joined the Colonel and Charlotte in Lady Catherine’s barouche box. Anne had contemplated taking her Phaeton, but it was not large enough for three, so she made do with the top down while the weather was so fine. She was happiest riding through nature with the wind in her face and enjoyed describing the flora and fauna to Charlotte. Colonel Fitzwilliam related items of interest and historical significance during their short journey.

Maria was wholly occupied in contemplating the scenery and occasionally exclaiming over specific views and vistas as they passed. She required little more than an agreeable assent every now and then, which left Darcy and Elizabeth to contemplate each other, the view and the future largely in companionable silence. Darcy had decided that he and Richard would return to London on the morrow also and had convinced Elizabeth to accept his offer to arrange their travel. It had all taken place courtesy of Lady Catherine’s desire to make sure they were attended to appropriately, her distrust in the manservant to be sent by Elizabeth’s Uncle Gardiner notwithstanding. Lady Catherine could hardly object to Darcy’s offer, as the gentlemen had stayed much longer than their usual 4 days, and as it directly answered all of Lady Catherine’s objections concerning the appropriate propriety for two young ladies travelling unaccompanied. Surely two gentlemen of note were worth more than two menservants.

Elizabeth laughed to Charlotte later that Lady Catherine had been of infinite use, which ought to make her happy, for she loves to be of use! Her thoughts drifted to her practical best friend, reflecting on the relative happiness she had found in defying all romantic sensibility and reason to marry her cousin, Mr Collins. Jane had been right, in her goodness, to speak so well of him. Ridiculous though he is, he is not malicious, and his situation and consequence had been materially improved already by his excellent choice of wife. She was truly his better half, working assiduously to improve his mind, his temper and his pursuits by gentleness, compassion and tender encouragement. Though she may roll her eyes from time to time, she did so only when he left the room.

Elizabeth had learned something of real tolerance, and the power a good woman can hold even in a marriage of unequal affections and abilities. She could see it was possible for Charlotte to make the most of the life she had chosen, with full awareness of the promises she had made before God. Elizabeth had seen it as purely mercenary to marry for financial security alone and had felt betrayed at her choice, but is it not equally mercenary to consider marriage only possible in the consummation of romantic love? Given how little she understood the storm of feeling that assailed her whenever she thought of the man opposite her, how much could she trust of her sensibilities in directing her towards her life partner? Was she naïve to think she could secure future felicity with such a mercurial guide alone?

Darcy wondered at the play of emotions that ran across Elizabeth’s face as she mused. He was looking forward to a day spent in her company, secure in his affections, if not hers, and not troubling himself overmuch to question his motivations. He had made his decision to follow his heart, and as it seemed to concur with his mind, his flesh and his spirit, he could hardly argue. Thus contented, his thoughts ranged further afield, planning his schedule upon his return to London, his first port of call being Bingley, from whom he had received a favourable response to his letter at the start of the week, and with whom he was engaged to dine on Sunday after church. Monday would see him meeting with his solicitor and his man of business to begin drafting the settlement papers and be apprised on the status of his investments. Beyond that, he was desirous of returning to Pemberley, looking forward to seeing Georgiana, and desperate to make Elizabeth his wife. He leaned forward and tugged from her hand the unopened volume she had brought with her for the short journey. It was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. She smiled at his playful manner and watched him take up reading from her marked page. She had been reading The Wife of Bath’s Tale and he began to read aloud.

“But at the last, with muche care and woe
We fell accorded by ourselves two:
He gave me all the bridle in mine hand
To have the governance of house and land,
And of his tongue, and of his hand also.
I made him burn his book anon right tho.
And when that I had gotten unto me
By mast’ry all the sovereignety,
And that he said, “Mine owen true wife,
Do “as thee list,” the term of all thy life,
Keep thine honour, and eke keep mine estate;
After that day we never had debate.”


Smiling, Elizabeth lifted the volume from his hands, and continued.

“God help me so, I was to him as kind
As any wife from Denmark unto Ind,
And also true, and so was he to me:
I pray to God that sits in majesty
So bless his soule, for his mercy dear.”


“I do hope we can manage to come to something like this connubial felicity, if that is our future, without the violence, or the multiple marriages, Mr Darcy.” She paused as his wide grin momentarily arrested her thoughts. “My father agreed with Wordsworth that Chaucer is easy to read in Middle English, and insisted I include him in my studies as much as the classical Greek poets. He reflects the human condition, does he not, regardless of which century he lived, and much more so because his language and culture directly prefaced ours. Anyway, my first visit to Kent could not be undertaken without Chaucer in my reticule, even if I cannot follow the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury.”

He was looking at her that way again, and she arched a delicate eyebrow before glancing to her right at Maria. He smiled and dropped his voice to whisper low and steady, “Perhaps one day you will get the opportunity to return to Kent and travel as far afield as Canterbury then.” He held her gaze, then clearing his countenance, he began to ask her about the nature of her education at her father’s hands, where their tastes coincided and where they did not, and comparing their favourite poets and plays. They were halfway through an impromptu game of one-upmanship, involving guessing the provenance of favourite memorised verses, when the carriage began to slow heralding their arrival into Knole Park. Elizabeth’s attention was diverted to the carriage windows through which she could see the turreted medieval gatehouse tower looming beside them before they rounded the bend and entered the stable court beyond it. They were greeted by the footmen and groomsmen who assisted with the horses and ushered them through to the inner courtyard. As it was a short journey, even Anne did not require refreshment, so Darcy immediately applied to the butler for a tour of the public rooms.

It was several hours later before they could tear Maria away from the magnificent portraits, landscapes and sculptures that had been collected by the late Duke of Dorset, while the others had exhausted their interest in the furnishings from the Stuart royal line that had once graced rooms in the palaces of Hampton Court, Whitehall and Kensington. They lured her outside with the promise of a picnic luncheon and the glories of nature in the deer park surrounding Knole.

Elizabeth wandered under the shade of a glorious oak tree, at some distance from the others who were still enjoying the fine picnic repast from the kitchen at Rosings. She had been discomposed again by the grandeur of the place, being reminded constantly by Anne’s frequent references to Pemberley and its similarity in size, if not consequence. She was grateful that Pemberley did not come with a title, though having heard from Anne about the behaviour of the scandalous late Duke of Dorset, her opinion on the fundamental equality of depravity across classes was confirmed. She was more bothered by her own inability to maintain her equanimity when confronted with a potential future as the wife of the master of Pemberley. She felt she was Darcy’s equal in intelligence, virtue, propriety, bearing and dignity, although perhaps she was much more willing to forego dignity in favour of levity, but she rather liked the idea of bringing a cheerful levity to the dignified gravity of his natural demeanour.

The oak under which she had been sheltering was possessed of roots and branches in enough proximity to allow her to clamber into its lower reaches, as her mind traversed its convoluted pathways to the depths of her being. As she sat against the trunk, perched on a branch, knees gathered beneath her skirts and encircled by her arms, she looked up into the pinpoints of sunlight that filtered down between the foliage and breathed his name into the air. The Darcy legacy surrounded her like the spreading oak. A tree is a common enough metaphor for any family, but sitting amongst the branches, clambering over the visible roots that delved deep into the ground to provide the foundation for an oak that had stood for possibly hundreds of years, she felt dwarfed and completely inconsequential in a way she had not felt before.

He was more than just the man, Fitzwilliam Darcy. He was captivating and enticing enough on his own, but he came with a consequence which she was only just beginning to understand, and she was surprised how much it affected her normally sanguine temper. It made her nervous, especially as she was still processing her own failings, revealed in their courtship - the first part of which he had conducted entirely in his mind, and which she had entirely denied and repressed in her own. She had accepted her position in life, gently born, with a vulgar mother, an intelligent and indulgent father, beloved aunt and uncle, in trade though as genteel as it was possible to be, numerous sisters, some more beloved than others, and a collection of silly relations no worse than everyone else’s silly relations. She had felt herself the equal of the Miss Bingleys and Lady Catherines of the world, but now she wasn’t sure.

When he had proposed to her, when he so humbly and yet so arrogantly declared his ardent love, the world had tilted. As it slowly righted itself, she was no longer confident of her place. All her suppositions about him, and about herself, were wrong, or at least, they weren’t quite right. She had been vain and prideful about her abilities and that had given her the confidence to move through the world unaffected and bold. No longer undergirded by this confidence, she was more liable to doubt herself, question her judgment. Darcy had not asked her to change, seemed to love her for who she was, but what if his love changed her? It had, in fact, already changed her, had it not?

She would necessarily change if she said yes and became his wife. She could not be the same Lizzy Bennet and be mistress of Pemberley! How much of his love would she gain or lose in the process? She could not predict the future, and even though she had yet to declare to herself or anyone else the depth of her feelings for this man, she was already so dependent on his love for her, that she feared its loss deeply. She wanted to be what he needed, and she desperately hoped that all that she was, and all that she was capable of being, would be enough. She closed her eyes and whispered his name to the sky again, filling it with her unspoken hopes and fears.



CHAPTER 13


He was watching her as she drifted away from the assembled group, obviously deep in thought, and content in her own company. They had been much together of late, sharing private conversation almost daily since his proposal, and he knew if she wanted his presence, she would have found a way to let him know. He would give her some space today. Colonel Fitzwilliam had stopped mid-sentence when he realised Darcy was no longer paying attention. They both watched as she wandered into a grove, amused as she circled a large oak, leaning against its trunk as she clambered over the roots. The shafts of sunlight gave them glimpses of her movement until she was no longer in view.

Darcy had a small smile on his face when the Colonel cleared his throat noisily and drew him back to their conversation. They had been discussing how best to introduce Elizabeth to the Fitzwilliam family. Darcy had few family members left of note, two aunts and an uncle, the Earl and their 3 adult children. His eldest cousin had been unable to produce an heir since his marriage 6 years ago. Richard, as the younger brother, was disconcerted to now be under heavy pressure to settle and marry lest the earldom be lost forever. Darcy, who privately agreed it was time for his favourite cousin to retire from battle, knew he would not be persuaded against his own inclinations and so took any and every opportunity to support him in his chosen profession, finding ways he could assist in his advancement, while quietly praying he would eventually feel the longing to settle that had taken hold of Darcy the moment he had realised he had lost his heart.

If there was such another woman for Richard. He was less fastidious than Darcy, but his comparatively cold and formal upbringing, his experience of war, the unique camaraderie he shared with his men and his dogged pursuit of his own liberty, gave him a hardness of character and bluntness of temperament that was ill-suited to the pursuit of a wife. He was jovial and easy in company so had no difficulty securing the attentions of many kinds of ladies but had no desire, it seemed, to secure himself a companion for life. Darcy knew he respected and liked Elizabeth, enjoyed flirting with her and securing her attention, mainly to annoy Darcy, but he would never have seriously courted her. She had too many sharp edges which would have pierced and reopened wounds Richard didn’t even know existed. Richard favoured softness in temperament and in person, but his wife would need to also have an inner strength to manage his darker moods.

Darcy was not worried about Elizabeth’s reception by his extended family, he knew she could not be intimidated by them, if she remained confident in her own abilities. Her occasional and unexpected inquietude at what being a Darcy represented, though she invariably laughed herself out of it, gave him pause. He could not be surprised at this, it had been confronting for him to step into his father’s shoes, bearing the weight of the Darcy legacy on shoulders barely past their majority, and he had been preparing all his life for just such a moment.

He wondered if this was part of what she was ruminating on in her private stroll through the woods. He could face any opposition from the world at large, but he did not know what to do if she lost faith in herself. If she stopped being his indomitable Lizzy, he was not sure how to get her back. Could her fears lead her to walk away from him, persuade her to say no to her growing affection for him? He knew he had awakened her desires, he knew she was affected by his presence, interested in his mind, his experiences. He could see it in her regard, in her preference for his company, the gentle squeezes of her hand when they were walking, but it was not yet declared. Would his love be enough to keep her with him? The Colonel had given up trying to distract him and instead had joined Anne and Mrs Collins when they declared their intention to walk toward Maria and take in her interpretation of the views. Darcy nodded sheepishly at him and decided it was time to seek out his lady.

He came upon her after doubling back to the oak she had twice taken a turn around. He would have missed her again that time but for his eye catching the trailing ribbon that dangled below a lower branch. Her head was resting upon the trunk, tilted up to the leaves, eyes closed, knees drawn close to her chest beneath her skirts. She was a picture of beautiful serenity and as he drew closer, he heard her whisper his name. His heart thudded to see and hear her say it so intimately with a shy smile on her lips, as though his name was an invocation.

The branch was low enough, or he was tall enough, that they were at eye level, and she somehow had not heard him approach. He had never wanted to kiss her more. He reached out to steady himself on the trunk when she opened her eyes. She blinked twice in surprise, but her smile merely grew wider, and she murmured, “I appear to have whispered you into being, my love.” Her eyes widened when he caressed her cheek, unable to stop himself lowering his lips to hers softly. He felt her gasp against his parted lips as he deepened the kiss before releasing her face and embracing her curled frame against his broad chest. He rested his head beside hers enjoying the feel of her cheek against his, while she collected herself, her hands playing with the buttons of his waistcoat. She smiled to herself, contemplating the strangeness of sharing kisses and thinking that she finally understood the promise she had seen in his eyes and how long he had been anticipating and hoping. She hoped it was as pleasant to him as it was to her.

“You have surprised me into admitting more than I was ready to, sir,” she admonished quietly. She was embarrassed at the admission and was trying to work out why. “I think perhaps I am not ready to step into your world and admitting what I think I feel…”. She shook her head and finally looked up at him, “What I know I feel, makes it all much more real. I am not sure who I am going to be, who I should be, who I want to be, who you want me to be – I never used to have all these questions, and the only thing I am certain of is that I cannot do without you, and I have not had to rely on someone else for my happiness since I was a child.” Her hands had been buttoning and unbuttoning his waist coat while she was speaking, making it very hard for Darcy to concentrate, especially as he knew she was completely unaware of the intimacy of her gestures. He steadied himself on a breath and brought his hands to hers to still their movement. She flushed when she recognised what she had been doing and watched him refasten the top buttons. She began to giggle when she saw how discomposed he was, but somehow managed to look sweetly contrite at the same time.

“Elizabeth, I am certain that I cannot do without you either. I don’t know the answer to any of your questions, I just know we can face them, and anything else that comes along, if we are together.” She burrowed her face into his chest, seeking comfort like a child as she voiced her deepest concern. “What if you can no longer respect me because I am not like the women of your circle? What if my relations cause you to repine your decision, or make you forget why you love me? What if I turn into my mother?” She whispered the last and although it made him want to laugh, he could tell she genuinely feared it, and was moved by what her own parents’ relationship had made her fear.

She loved and respected her father, probably idolised him while demonising her mother in order to make sense of their unequal relationship growing up. It could not have been easy when she realised that she would be in the place of her mother in any relationship she had with a husband, and he recognised her abiding need for respect came from the fact that her own mother was accorded so little and was in fact often mocked by her own father in front of his daughters and the world at large. Theirs may not be an unhappy marriage, possibly her mother may not have the wit to notice she is being mocked daily, but it made for a very poor example for a lively and intelligent daughter as she grew into adulthood and began considering her future. It was no surprise to Darcy that she was determined to only marry where there was real affection or that her greatest fear was not just that he would no longer love her, but that he would not treat her with the respect she deserved. He could not imagine a situation where she would ever come to resemble her mother, but he did not know how to assuage her fears when all he could offer were promises and not guarantees. They would both have to trust each other with their hearts and their futures.

“I was blessed to be born to parents who loved each other passionately and treated each other with respect, compassion and honesty. But even then, I know it could not always have been champagne and roses. I do know my father suffered cruelly when my mother passed, he never got over her loss and never considered remarriage, though he would have been young enough. I know what it looks like to love and respect your wife, Elizabeth, I have not even come close to considering marriage until I met you. There has never been another woman who has come close to what I have always wanted in a wife.

I was a fool to have let you go in Hertfordshire, to risk losing you. I was a fool to have come to you in the way I did, and you know not how I have tortured myself with the thought I might have lost you that day – that you may have chosen to refuse me outright! I wanted to storm out in outrage when you mentioned Wickham and had you been less forgiving, less open to my addresses, I may have ended it then, and ended all my hopes for future felicity in marriage!” His voice shook with emotion and his hold tightened painfully around her. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head and murmured his next words.

“Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, I pray we will have a long life together, but I cannot promise a life without trouble, vexation, fear or suffering. We will be cruel to one another at times – we will both know best how to wound the other, is it not always the case with those we are closest to? We will argue, passionately, I suspect, but with certainty I know we will love passionately too. If you have truly given me your heart, Elizabeth, I will safeguard it to the best of my ability and I will try to give you the space to be whoever you need to be. We will change in many ways, that is the nature of being alive, but we should not fear it, if we are together.”

He drew her face up to his and smiled widely, “And if you should turn into your mother, I shall buy a red coat, and somehow find delight in shrillness of voice, vapid conversation and hysterical fits. I promise to love you all my days, Elizabeth. Just as you are.”



CHAPTER 14

The journey to London was uneventful, the unacknowledged lovers too full of their fresh understanding to be anything but silent in company. Both were anticipating the changes to come, anxious for an announcement and yet fearful of the exposure. Darcy was mentally preparing for his meeting with Bingley, Lizzy wondering how on earth she was going to break the news to Jane and then her father. She knew she would also have to seek permission from Uncle Gardiner in order for Mr Darcy to call at Gracechurch Street to see her. She knew once he met her aunt and uncle, he would love them as she did, but that did not change the fact that Gracechurch Street was not the salubrious address a Darcy of Pemberley would ordinarily repair to, and she worried he would retreat into his reserved and haughty demeanour by default. She hoped, with only some doubts, that she could tease him out of it, that she would not become defensive by default if presented with behaviours like those at their first meeting.

Darcy had wanted everything to be done properly, a formal courtship to be public and open, at least to her London relations until he could apply for her hand in person to her father. He even suggested going to Hertfordshire himself on Monday, but Elizabeth, still unsure of herself and Darcy’s understanding, wished for a more informal courtship while in London, an opportunity to meet his Fitzwilliam cousins as an independent entity before he presented her as his fiancée. For her own peace of mind, she wanted to know how she would be received as Miss Elizabeth Bennet, not as the future Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy. She wanted to know who she could really trust of his family and his social circle and thought this the best way to begin.

She already knew she had the Colonel’s approval, and she knew she had the respect of Mr Bingley, along with the disapprobation of his sisters. Perhaps it was too late to meet the rest of his family on independent terms, his preference would be obvious when she walked into their parlours on his arm or sat beside him at the theatre in the Darcy box, but he was willing to compromise only on delaying the formal announcement until after his planned entertainments. She would not be allowed to meet his family or his friends with any less deference from him. He had arranged it all with the Colonel, boxes were booked and a family dinner at Darcy House to meet the Earl already settled. He was showing her in every way he could that he would not turn away from her, that his decision had been made and nothing would change it. At least Jane would be included in all the entertainments, and the Gardiners would be invited to the box at the Theatre Royal too.

Greeting Jane on the steps of the house, for she had been waiting by the window and could not wait for her to even descend the carriage before flying out the door, was all that Elizabeth could wish for. She laughed in delight and was heartened to see Jane looking a little more like herself than when she left her for Kent 6 weeks ago. She had great hopes for more in the days and weeks to come. Darcy had alighted before Elizabeth and was handing down Maria before he turned to greet “Miss Bennet” with a formal bow, as stiff as before, but noticing Elizabeth’s gaze, his lips lifted in a smile. He looked about him to see a neat row of houses, well maintained, and noticed a portly man, still youthful in countenance and vigour, and his rather younger wife leading the way down, warmth and welcome shining in their eyes for their niece. He stood up straighter and waited while the family noisily embraced. The footmen were unloading luggage and band boxes, Maria exclaiming she had left her sketchbooks and art folio in the carriage before leaping back in to retrieve them after the Colonel had stepped out. Elizabeth turned to the gentlemen, eyes sparkling with familial joy, while Mrs Gardiner suggested they all come in for refreshments and introductions in the parlour. She waited expectantly for Darcy, who offered his arm, the gentleman noting Jane’s curious glance before she turned ahead of them to enter the house. Three small faces could be seen at an upstairs window, waving to the new arrivals. Elizabeth smiled widely and blew a kiss to them, her infectious happiness causing the children to shriek, “Lizzy!” before disappearing from the window.

Introductions were made, refreshments offered, and the guests seated in an informal but tastefully appointed family parlour. Mrs Gardiner spoke briefly to Colonel Fitzwilliam before asking Lizzy to help with the tea. Mr Gardiner had joined Mr Darcy on the settee with Jane, who helped further conversation between the two gentlemen. She began to have suspicions when she noticed Lizzy’s attention being constantly diverted from her own conversation to that of Mr Darcy’s. Jane was far too genteel to be obviously surprised by Mr Darcy’s solicitous and friendly manner and she knew she would know all by the end of the day. Elizabeth relaxed in stages and attended to her aunt’s questions with enthusiasm, until the Colonel and Mr Darcy nodded to one another that the time to leave was upon them.

Rising, Mr Darcy thanked the Gardiners and requested the opportunity to call on the Misses Bennet sometime early in the coming week and then issued a formal invitation for the family to join them in his family box at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden to see King Richard III on Wednesday. Elizabeth had not expected Darcy to be so forthright in his request or so marked in his attentions and blushed, but the Gardiner’s were too genteel to show obvious concern or surprise, and instead expressed appropriate delight and gratitude for the invitation, without the fawning obsequiousness and false humility she had become inured to in Kent. Mr Gardiner gave his permission for any social calls to be made to all the ladies at Gracechurch Street, and for Mr Darcy’s carriage to collect the ladies for the theatre also, while Mr Gardiner would join them later direct from his warehouses. Elizabeth walked the gentlemen out, suddenly feeling all the weight of their separation, but unable to express anything above an earnest smile and a quick squeeze of his fingers when he bowed over her hand and kissed it.

She brought her fingers to her smiling lips and drew a calming breath, startled into movement at Jane’s gentle, “Lizzy, dear, are you well?” She had time for a brief smile and “I am exceedingly well, dear Jane”, before thunderous sounds from the stairs heralded the arrival of her young cousins, impatient to greet her. She promised Jane with her eyes that all would be revealed in due course while she bent to greet her cousins and lifted, from the tiring arms of the eldest, an 18-month-old toddler, the very youngest Gardiner, sharing Elizabeth’s auburn hair, impish smile and hazel eyes, as well as her name. “My darling Lillybet! How you have grown in the 6 weeks we have been apart!”

The next hour was spent in reacquainting herself with her 4 young cousins, handing out the small gifts she had purchased in the village and, with Maria, recounting the sights and events they enjoyed in their sojourn in Kent. Many amusing anecdotes were shared while detailing the splendour of Rosings, while Maria’s sketchbook came out to give impressions of the many interior views and exterior scenes of the park and grove. Elizabeth exclaimed as Maria attempted to skip the many pages of surreptitious portraits she had drawn while in the parlour at Rosings.

Maria demurred, embarrassedly declaring she was practicing drawing figures and faces to improve her portraits and they were not worth looking at, while looking expressively at Elizabeth in an attempt to warn her. Elizabeth mistook the expression for youthful embarrassment and not delicacy and so insisted on viewing the pages, and all the ladies marvelled at Maria’s lightning sketches, capturing features and expressions that demonstrated her gift and keen eye for detail. Both Mrs Gardiner and Jane glanced at each other to see the number of sketches of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, at first separately or in conversation with others, but then more frequently together, in conversation, laughing and debating; he turning pages for her at the pianoforte, she handing him a cup of tea while he was in conversation with the Colonel. There were sketches of the Collins’ and the de Bourghs drawn equally skilfully and expressively but it was the familiar features of Elizabeth that drew her sister’s and her aunt’s attention. Elizabeth immediately realised what Maria’s innocent sketches had unwittingly revealed but was so impressed at the artistry and perception revealed by the little vignettes she could not be embarrassed. She was going to own the truth to both her aunt and Jane sometime today, and she began to be delighted to be able to point to this independent evidence of her growing esteem for the man she had so publicly disdained and maligned months ago.

She looked at their surprised faces and began to laugh. Mr Gardiner had returned to his study to carry on with the business of the day and the children were returned to their nursery. Maria and Elizabeth had yet to change and refresh themselves from their journey, so Elizabeth begged off enlightening her relations until she had done so. Although it was clear Maria had divined some intimate truths in her sketches, she was not aware of the whole, and unwilling to divulge the particulars to any outside her family before she spoke of it to Jane and Aunt Margaret, she nevertheless exacted a promise from Maria that no one else was to see these sketches until Elizabeth gave her leave to do so. Inferring some potential injury to the elevated personages she had sketched without their permission or knowledge, Maria was more than willing to submit the book into Elizabeth’s safekeeping for the time being. She was due to return to Lucas Lodge in the morning and she knew she could trust to its safe return soon.

When Jane attended her in her bedchamber with her aunt a half hour later, Elizabeth began to explain how her feelings for Mr Darcy had undergone so material a change in the past six weeks that she was now delighted to admit they had an understanding and had planned for Mr Darcy to apply for her uncle’s permission to conduct a private courtship from Gracechurch Street while in London, and if all proceeded well, apply for her father’s permission to marry in Hertfordshire, sometime this summer.

“No, Lizzy, I would not have believed it, could not have believed it, for you hated him two months ago! But for Maria’s sketches…”

“It would have been a bad beginning, I know!” She produced Maria’s sketch book and leafed through the pages as she spoke. “I spent half the journey from Kent trying to think how best to explain my complete reversal of feelings. I thought at least you might have a hope of understanding as you never really thought him so bad as all that even at the height of Wickham’s popularity with all the ladies. I feigned to think less of your diffidence and goodness, Jane, can you believe my betrayal? Although the world tilted in Mr Darcy’s favour, against all my vain suppositions, I should have felt the rightness of it because it tilted the world back in your favour also!” She pointed to a scene at a card table where Darcy was leaning forward, listening intently, all attention on the half-drawn countenance of a figure opposite, which she explained was herself sharing a childhood remembrance. Maria had captured a half smile playing about his lips, his hands steepled beneath his chin and Elizabeth was lost in the memory of that moment.

Jane smiled at her sister’s obvious happiness and looked to her aunt. Mrs Gardiner had been impressed at Elizabeth’s note revealing her travel plans with a man she knew of, much like the rest of society, only by name and reputation, but had assumed that as the family had been known for their liberality and affability since the time of her girlhood in Lambton, that it was merely a happenstance of convenience that had prompted the shared journey to London from Kent. To find that her niece was on the brink of marriage with one of the most illustrious personages in London, the wealthiest landowner in Derbyshire and one the most sought-after bachelors in society had rendered her momentarily speechless. She wanted to give some salutary advice or sensible piece of wisdom, but she drew a blank. It seemed a bit late to fear that his attentions might be less than honourable, especially as it was clear it was Elizabeth who had desired a more private courtship in London.

This one thought cleared the fog of her mind as she looked at another sketch of her niece, captured with her trademark impish grin as she gestured toward her interlocutor, an incomplete gentleman, likely the Colonel to her eye, reclined beside her holding a crystal goblet about to spill its contents as his head is thrown back against the settee, clearly guffawing at whatever Elizabeth had said. She voiced her question as she tapped at the image, smiling at the scene it portrayed. “Elizabeth, what is your purpose in this private courtship you wish to conduct with Mr Darcy? Is it just to ensure your father is the first to hear of it? Surely a letter could accomplish the same, and you could vouchsafe your entrance into society, your introduction to his family as his affianced bride and be the talk of the ton in this, what will be, your first season in London!”

Elizabeth sighed heavily. In truth, she had begun to have doubts about her reluctance to go public immediately. Haltingly, she tried to explain her reasoning. It was not that she did not trust Darcy, nor that she had doubts about her own convictions. She just would have much preferred to have met his family and his circle in the same way she had met the Bingleys, the de Bourghs, and the Colonel. As a disinterested person, with no connection or protection, so she would not have as much trouble trying to discern their motivation. She did not fear their disapprobation or censure, they would be as Lady Catherine was to her if unable to accept her. She merely wanted to know who her real friends could be, from the many false friends who would come forward upon the announcement. She did not want to be isolated amongst a much larger and more varied society than she was used to, unable to trust anyone. She knew she would be maligned, but not openly, if she was under Darcy’s protection. Her unspoken fear was the loss of her independence, even as she knew how much her happiness already depended on this one gentleman. Her audience sympathised with her fears, but both Jane and her aunt expressed complete confidence in her courage and discernment, notwithstanding her Darcy/Wickham misstep.

“Lizzy, I think it is safe for you to conclude that it was indeed an aberration, not evidence of a lack of judgment or fundamental flaw in your discernment. Your said it yourself – your vanity was wounded, and you held on to the wound because, despite your best efforts, you were attracted to Mr Darcy, you were challenged by his intellect, and you enjoyed sparring with him. You knew he was your equal and it hurt you to believe he felt you were inferior. You were not thinking entirely dispassionately, Lizzy, you were in fact fuelled by your passionate nature. You hated him passionately precisely because you were not indifferent to him.”

“I see now that my sister is not only kinder, gentler and more beautiful than I, she is also wiser. So, my one attribute which I thought to give me some precedence and worth over you is dashed!” Elizabeth leant against her sister and drew peace from the warmth and succour from her sister’s presence as much as her wisdom.

Mrs Gardiner added, “Now that you are no longer fighting against an inclination, but working towards a mutual dependence and regard, your confidence will naturally grow and your ability to discern friend from foe, sympathy from antipathy will also grow. Do not forget that Mr Darcy must have some idea who he can rely on for support within his own family and wider circle.”

“Aunt, I have ever relied upon you for guidance, wisdom and comfort. I am glad you will be with me for some of these first steps. But how am I going to tell Papa?” This rhetorical question went unanswered as Elizabeth was embraced by both her sister and her aunt, who then rose from the bed and enjoined them to meet her for supper. She placed a kiss on their heads and went to greet her children who had been woefully neglected after the excitement of the day.

Supper was a merry affair, with the eldest two cousins given leave to join the table to celebrate Elizabeth’s arrival. No further discussion was had regarding Elizabeth and Darcy’s understanding, and Mrs Gardiner was left to apprise her husband of some of the details, so he was not completely surprised when Mr Darcy came to seek his permission to call on Elizabeth. He had had some concerns, and noted the marked preference shown by Lizzy during their brief visit but trusted to the excellent relationship his nieces shared with his wife to reveal and moderate all. He would exercise his duty towards his nieces with as much concern and care as for his own children and indeed considered it useful practice for when his own daughters came of age and began entertaining thoughts of suitors. He was thankful he had some years yet before that task befell him.

Elizabeth retired early, exhausted from the travel and the emotion of the day, but then stayed up late into the night with Jane beside her, talking over everything again, relating almost everything that had occurred between herself and Darcy. They had avoided discussing Mr Bingley, though he was at the forefront of both their minds. As Jane’s breathing slowed to a steady rhythm, Elizabeth said a prayer that tomorrow’s meeting between Bingley and Darcy would bring her sister the sweetest dreams of all.

© Janine van der Kooy 2022
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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 11-14

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