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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 15-18

June 24, 2022 07:16PM
A/N: Thanks so much for your kind comments. I hope you enjoy the next instalment smiling smiley

CHAPTER 15

Bingley greeted Darcy in the hall of his London home with almost as much effusiveness as was his wont, before he met, and then left, Jane Bennet. They clasped hands like brothers, and he followed him into the family dining room where a small buffet table had been laden with cold meats, pastries and food for their repast.

Darcy filled a plate with food he hoped he may feel like eating after he had made his confession. He thought he would allow Bingley to eat first, hoping not to raise his ire on an empty stomach on top of everything else. He inquired after his sisters, heard the tension in Bingley’s response and spoke a little of his time in Kent. Having caught up on the news in town and made a show of pushing food around his plate, he sipped a mouthful of wine and commenced his confession.

“Charles, I believe I have made a significant error in judgment, I have exposed a wilful propensity to interfere in your affairs and I have colluded with your sisters against my better nature, in what I thought was in your best interests, but have now been convinced was not.”

Bingley laughed incredulously until he saw the expression of earnest contrition and self-recrimination on Darcy’s face. “Good God, man, what the devil are you talking about?!” He stuttered as his mind processed Darcy’s precise, and yet vague, declaration. “Are you talking about Miss Bennet? Do you think you misjudged her sentiments?”

“Bingley, I have it on good authority that Miss Bennet’s interest, and heart, was as much engaged as yours appears to have been, and still is?” Darcy asked the last somewhat hesitantly as Bingley sat back in his seat, eyes unfocused but still staring at Darcy. “You have not been yourself since we left Netherfield, Charles, and neither has Miss Bennet.”

“How do you know this - you have been in Kent – did you hear it from the Collins’? Are you certain – but it has been months! I left with no word, I was to return, Caroline wrote a letter and received none in return. She was content to cut the acquaintance, so it seemed. I did not expect it of her, but Caroline insists she did not…” Bingley’s voice trailed off from these fragments of jumbled thoughts as the look on Darcy’s face betrayed the truth. “She lied to me! Miss Bennet did write back. You know the truth, tell me all Fitz, I want to know it all.”

“Miss Bingley did receive a letter from Miss Bennet, several I believe, and wished to depress any expectations so did not respond in good time, especially since the letters indicated she had moved to town to stay with family in Cheapside. Miss Bennet came to call on your sisters in Grosvenor Street, and they did not return the call for three weeks, again, hoping to depress any expectations. I would not have wished to disguise the truth, Charles, but I had my own motives for wishing to avoid the company of the Bennet family.”

Charles’ anger found a target in Darcy. “Yes, we all know your complete disdain for that family and those charming daughters, you could not look at any of them but to find fault, although Caroline emptied her spleen most particularly at Miss Elizabeth! I was not remotely disturbed by their want of propriety or their excess of spirits and liveliness in company! What convinced me was your conviction that Miss Bennet had no regard for me, that she was being directed by her mother to receive my addresses and her heart was not touched. I did not want to believe you, and in my heart I did not – she was angelic perfection itself - she still is! Sweetness, serenity, gentleness, she is goodness embodied, Darcy. I have not met her equal and I do not believe I ever will. And you succeeded in separating us! I should never have listened, my own fault, too easily directed by a friend – heh – you remember that conversation at Netherfield. Miss Elizabeth thought to compliment my biddable temper! Darcy, I cannot believe - but what is your proof this time? You have not seen her, have you? You have just returned to London yourself, is she still here?” Bingley was torn between outrage at his sisters, disgust at his own want of courage and desperate hope that it might not be too late. All of which led him to pound the table, leap from his seat and pace about the room.

Darcy completed his confession, trying to moderate the actions of his sisters and yet be unflinching in his honesty about his own failings. He was circumspect also when it came to his understanding with Elizabeth. Bingley was too focused on the tumult of his own heart to notice the complete sea change in Darcy’s attitude towards the entire Bennet family and did not question it when he explained his coincidental reacquaintance with the lady in Kent, which led to his confession. “I am sorry Bingley, I should not have hidden her being in town before I left. That was beneath me, and it was simply wrong. I am ashamed that I stooped so low.”

“She was in town all January! Here I was thinking Caroline insisted I stay with you in Mayfair at that time simply because she wanted more of an excuse to call at Darcy House. I would not have believed it of them, Darcy. How will I ever trust them again? At least you have confessed to it all and, devil take it, if I don’t believe you really were thinking of my best interests. Heart of gold underneath that forbidding countenance, Fitz.” He smiled, and then scowled, “I’ll not forgive you, not until I see her again and see if I can salvage anything. I will need to speak to my agent, get things ready to return to Netherfield and call on Miss Bennet at the first opportunity I can.”

“Bingley, do you recall that I told you Miss Elizabeth and I travelled from Kent to London, with Colonel Fitzwilliam and Miss Maria Lucas? We dropped them with their relations, the Gardiners in Cheapside yesterday. Miss Bennet is still residing with them, Charles. I am intending to call on them tomorrow morning, with Richard. Do you think, would you like to accompany us, or would you prefer me to arrange another meeting? We are taking them all to the Theatre Royal on Wednesday evening, you are welcome to meet us there or indeed be one of our party, in my box?”

“She is still here? She has been here all this time?!” Bingley stilled as the import of this revelation sank in. “Tomorrow, Fitz, I will join you tomorrow. I will not think of anything beyond tomorrow morning.” Bingley strode from the room and out of Darcy House without so much as a backward glance at his bemused friend, clearly happier, and purposeful, but also deeply agitated at his sisters’ mercenary betrayal. Darcy knew Bingley’s desire to avoid conflict would be at war with his need to confront his sisters. He knew not which would win out, but the victor would set the tone for his future felicity or lack thereof, with Miss Bennet, or his sisters.

The next morning, Bingley arrived, with luggage that was taken up to his usual room, while Darcy was still at breakfast and the Colonel barely out of bed. “Knew you’d be up early and couldn’t stand being in the same house with Caroline and Louisa for another minute. Supper was horrible. I had to confront them, couldn’t eat a thing for the nauseating lies they told to my face. I could tell Hurst was a trifle embarrassed at the subterfuge, but he just continued drinking. I used to wonder at it but given he must live with both of my sisters for most of the year, I am no longer surprised.

You are most assuredly no longer Bachelor numero uno at Grosvenor Street, my friend. I take it you will patch things up with Caroline at some point – I assume things have advanced apace between you since you’ve taken to colluding with her against me?” Bingley had helped himself to a muffin, eggs and bacon as his appetite had clearly returned, while Darcy was staring at him open-mouthed as his poached egg dripped silently from his raised fork onto his breeches.

Bingley’s half smile broke into a wide guffaw when he turned back to the table to see the effect his words had made. Darcy breathed again, noted the yolk congealing on his leg and muttered an oath under his breath. He was not smiling, though Bingley did not care a whit in his mirth. “It is good to see you again, Charles, I had not noticed how much of you had disappeared these last few months.” Bingley sobered momentarily, but the sheer joy he felt at the chance for happiness he now had, that he had believed lost for ever, bubbled up to the surface, unable to be contained.

This was Bingley’s gift to Darcy, unbridled joy and optimism. His buoyant and effervescent nature helped to lift Darcy’s spirits, cajoling him from the doldrums of life. Bingley was instrumental in helping Darcy find his way back to hope when he lost his father, and though he often grumbled at his boundless energy and regularly upbraided him for forcing him to be in company, he knew Bingley was the main reason he had no longer felt alone in the world. He hoped he would always remember and repent of the part he played in almost erasing that part of his best friend, and he prayed that he would soon be able to add to his memories the part he was about to play in its permanent reversal.

The carriage rumbled almost as much from Bingley’s jittering legs as it did from its passage over London’s cobbled streets. Colonel Fitzwilliam kept up a steady chatter almost singlehandedly while the other two kept their own counsel in much the same fashion as not casting up their accounts. Both looked a little green by the time the carriage pulled up in front of Gracechurch Street, with Darcy as invested in Bingley’s good reception as Bingley himself. The Colonel was excessively diverted by their discomposure and scolded them good naturedly to buck up and stop letting the side down.

It was the work of a chaotic moment, and they were together in the Gardiner’s gracious parlour. Jane’s serenity was fractured, but only to her sister’s keen eye. She appeared as diffident and calm as normal, and if her hands were gripped tighter around the teapot as she poured, it was only when Bingley addressed her that they shook almost imperceptibly. Elizabeth could see that Bingley was as enamoured of her as ever, but Jane’s refusal to look at him directly for longer than a glance was evidence that she would take her time before she gave herself permission to return his affections more openly. Jane’s untroubled serenity was just as Darcy remembered, and he began to fear he had brought Bingley on a fool’s errand. He relaxed when he saw that Charles was not perturbed in the slightest, seeming prepared to win her all over again if he had to. Darcy turned his attentions to his betrothed with whom Richard had been flirting shamelessly in an effort to draw her attention away from Jane and Charles. She smothered a laugh at something Richard had said, which Darcy surmised was about him, by her apologetic glance and his gleeful one.

He turned to Mr Gardiner, apologised for his distraction and began asking him pointed questions about his business dealings. On the pretext of needing advice about an investment, which was less of a pretext now that Darcy could see Mr Gardiner’s experience and knowledge was indeed useful in the matter he had raised, he expressed a desire for a private conversation during the morning. Mr Gardiner, having expected the request, and assuming it was just a pretext, invited Darcy to join him immediately in his study. He was mildly surprised when the discussion continued at length for some time, but he gave the advice and asked the relevant questions he would otherwise have. Darcy even requested the use of pen and ink to take down some pertinent information and the direction of several of Mr Gardiner’s business associates before he recollected his true purpose.

“I thank you for your time, Mr Gardiner and really appreciate your advice on this matter, but I have another purpose for requesting a private interview at this time. Your niece, Miss Elizabeth and I, have lately come to an understanding, and I would like to formally request your permission to call upon her while she is staying with you. I believe she has made your wife and her sister aware of our circumstances, and you do not appear to be overly surprised by this news, but I wished to assure you, as her guardian and most immediate protector while she resides with you in London, that I have nothing but the most honourable intentions, and but for Elizab- Miss Elizabeth’s desire to maintain a strictly private courtship during her stay in London, I would have ridden to Longbourn today to seek her father’s permission and set the date for our wedding.” Darcy gave his first rueful smile at this point and pocketed the paper he had been wringing throughout his brief speech.

Edward Gardiner smiled his approbation and assured Darcy that he had no doubt of his honour, and that it would be a pleasure to welcome him into the family and get to know him better before Lizzy returned to Longbourn. “My wife is also hoping to be able to share some fond reminiscences with you as she spent the better part of her girlhood in Lambton and has not been able to return for many years as my business has not allowed me time to travel further afield than Hertfordshire and she insists she desires my company too much to travel without me. We had hoped to invite Lizzy to join us on a tour of the Lake District this summer, and though it may have to be curtailed for reasons other than your nuptials, I hope to be able to take Madeline as far as Lambton at least.”

“I, or hopefully, we, would be delighted to welcome you to Pemberley at any time. Miss Elizabeth and I have discussed plans for a wedding trip. I do know she desires to visit Pemberley before she becomes its mistress. I believe she is teasing me but is most insistent that she cannot agree to marry me until she meets the jewel in my crown.”

“That sounds exactly like Lizzy,” Mr Gardiner chortled.

“If, however, she is serious, I cannot think of a better arrangement than if she travels with you and Mrs Gardiner early in the summer. I would dearly love to marry her in the chapel at Pemberley, but that has been ruled out, and in truth, I cannot fault her reasoning. We will marry in August, from Longbourn, take a leisurely route North as our wedding trip and be in Pemberley towards the beginning of October and before the snows really set in. I confess I have never looked forward to winter at Pemberley more.”

Mr Gardiner raised his eyebrows at this, and Mr Darcy’s countenance went from wistful longing to embarrassed schoolboy caught with his fingers in the biscuit barrel. He cleared his throat, rose, bowed and thanked Mr Gardiner, accepting that gentleman’s brief wave and quiet chuckle in response. He was going to have to watch those two, and perhaps suggest a much shorter engagement than they were planning. He did not think Mr Darcy would need much convincing.

On his way back to the parlour, Edward Gardiner stopped to admire the miniatures he had arranged on his bookshelf. His eldest nieces had been born before his marriage, later in life than he had intended, but cherished all the more for its superior felicity, and he had developed as strong an attachment to them as was possible for a single young man who had travelled widely in pursuit of his profession and experience. He had kept all their letters, had insisted on paying for their portraits which he carried with him everywhere, and even insisted that Madeline meet them to gain their approval before he married her. He knew they would adore each other. He was delighted to see that Elizabeth had managed to find a gentleman worthy of her spirit, her wit and her devotion. She was destined for greatness, Lizzy, but she needed a strong man who could withstand her sharp edges, and maybe smooth them a little. He would take a very good look at Mr Bingley in the coming days to see if he merited Jane’s attentions. He appeared much more the skittish colt to Elizabeth’s refined thoroughbred stallion, but he was younger and perhaps time was all that was needed.



CHAPTER 16

The Earl and Lady Chilton stood in the saloon to the private boxes of the Theatre Royal, greeting acquaintances with a nod and a smile and talking quietly to Colonel Fitzwilliam and their eldest son, Viscount Harley. The Viscountess was indisposed and unable to attend but there was an air of restrained hopefulness in Harley and his mother that gave Richard cause to hope and pray. As far as he knew, this would be the fourth such opportunity, and his sister-in-law was under the strictest of regimens from the surgeon, who had trained under the auspices of Dr Henry Halford, physician to the King, and was therefore not to be gainsaid.

It was one of many subjects difficult to broach with Harley and so Richard never did. As brothers, they had never been close, in fact Richard probably had more meaningful conversations with Isabelle than with her husband. Perhaps that had been part of the problem. Richard had carried on a mild flirtation with the older woman, before Harley had claimed her. Neither were heartbroken, but theirs was a sincere friendship, and it was not just for his own sake that he prayed for a child for Isabella. A son would take some pressure off his own matrimonial expectations, but he knew Isabella longed for children. It had been a trying six years.

He nodded at a fellow officer, glancing frequently at the stairs, in expectation of the Darcy party’s arrival at any moment. Per Miss Elizabeth’s wishes, and against his and Darcy’s better judgment, he had not prepared his family for the arrival of the Bennet & Gardiner family in any way, except as new acquaintances from Darcy’s trip to Hertfordshire with Bingley. He trusted to the better understanding his family had of Darcy for the correct leaps to be made. Darcy had never raised a single, eligible female or her family to the notice of his Fitzwilliam relations in the last seven seasons, so this was a marked attention indeed, regardless of how she was described to them. Inclusion in a family dinner in two days’ time could not be misconstrued either. Darcy’s affability was well-known in Pemberley but very well-hidden in London. Lady Chilton was not a gossip, but Elizabeth was going to be the talk of the ton before this night was through.

“Oh, Thomas, that cannot be Lady Marguerite, can it? I cannot understand a word she says since Richard convinced her that I was the one who taught him Spanish!” Richard laughed while his mother glared at him over her fan. “It is not Fair Marguerite, Mother, that woman is far too tall. I think it is the Earl of Jersey’s new paramour, they all said she was a raven-haired beauty!” Lady Chilton managed to look relieved and disapproving at the same time before she flicked the earl lightly on the arm with her fan for looking a little too closely at the tall, dark temptress.

Harley had begun quietly regaling his brother with the chatter he had picked up from Brooks and was half-way through a sordid tale involving the Earl of Devon and an art collector when the Darcy party emerged at the top of the staircase. Darcy was actually smiling as he spoke to the diminutive beauty on his arm, resplendent in a gown of pale yellow, tastefully embroidered with darker yellow trim and cut to fully enhance her figure. She made as magnificent an entry as Richard could have hoped, for her sake, and the tall, blonde angel in a sparkling blue creation beside Bingley, ensured that many heads were turned to mark their approach. Richard could hear the wave of silence followed by hushed whispers, rippling in their wake as they advanced towards them.

Elizabeth’s eyes sparkled with mirth and nervous energy, Darcy was as close as he could be to a lovesick mooncalf and Richard knew there was no chance Elizabeth could be perceived as anything other than the woman who had stolen the heart of one of the most recalcitrant and sought-after bachelors in England. The Gardiners followed, not troubled by the society surrounding them and noting with equanimity the attentions that their beautiful nieces were receiving. They had every confidence in the grace and dignity of their charges and were satisfied they would acquit themselves well next to their suitors.

Appropriately deferential curtseys and bows were made before the rather less formal introductions were performed by Colonel Fitzwilliam who liked to add amusing anecdotes about his family whenever they were introduced. Elizabeth was immediately put at ease, while Jane looked mildly alarmed. They made all the right speeches in the usual introductory greetings before the conversation devolved into more intimate groupings. Lady Chilton claimed Elizabeth and began a very cordial but nonetheless intrusive interview determining in a very short space of time all the relevant particulars about her wealth, family and consequence. Elizabeth feeling all the heightened tension of the moment was yet able to express herself well, with intelligence, adding the little details of her life that make the simple facts about a person come alive.

She had steered the conversation away from herself in bringing up her recent visit to Kent and with her inimical wit had managed to unite truth with civility in her descriptions of the parsonage and her cousin. Imbuing her words with the warmth naturally evoked by her friendship with Charlotte she was able to speak of Rosings and Hunsford with delicacy and tact. Her developing regard for Miss de Bourgh was received with surprise by the Countess and her ability to parlay an opportunity to disparage Lady Catherine’s conduct into a graceful exposition on her obvious care for her daughter did not go unnoticed. They had begun to speak of art and the works she had viewed at Knole House, when it became time to enter the boxes. The party divided and made their way into their adjacent boxes and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief that the first gauntlet was run, and she was not yet wounded.

Mr Gardiner had spoken briefly to the Earl, who had not warmed to the genteel tradesman, but the conversation was forwarded by Darcy and the Colonel, and both could see that the Earl was not unaffected by the dignity and intelligence betrayed by the accomplished businessman, even if his grudging respect may be buried under generations of misplaced superiority. It mattered little to either Gardiner or Darcy, as both were known to each other now, and they enjoyed the opportunity to further their relationship. That Darcy was aware how well Mr Gardiner expressed himself in front of the Earl, with deference, but no false humility or cringing obeisance, certainly did not make the conversation any less enjoyable. The Colonel drifted between Bingley, Mrs Gardiner and Jane, incidental players on this stage.

Elizabeth delighted in her first experience of the theatre in a private box. She enjoyed the spectacle from the stalls and had loved to watch the preening and display in the boxes above, never once thinking she would have her turn to be on show. She realised that perhaps her prejudice against those above, while not marked, had limited her perception of these people as simply, people. She valued equality as an academic idea, but her prejudices against people of wealth, ostensibly within her sphere but, in reality, far above her, had reduced them to stereotypes. She realised that part of how she would survive in this world would be to recognise and empathise with the people she formerly despised and degraded. She knew she was being attended to in much the same way by her fellow creatures in the stalls, and that she had not materially changed, though her last admittance to the Theatre Royal had seen her seated below. She stepped to the edge of the box and made no attempt to disguise her delight as she took in the views of the stage, the boxes and seating around her. She loved everything about coming to the theatre and was pleased her position of prominence had not diminished this. She turned an expression of heartfelt delight upon Darcy who was conversing with the other two gentlemen in the back of the box while the ladies looked around and made themselves comfortable.

He could not resist coming to her, and taking her hand, he placed a quick kiss on it before helping her to her seat. There was an audible gasp from the boxes within view, which both ignored, though it did take the edge off Elizabeth’s enjoyment of the moment. She glanced toward the Fitzwilliam box to see the Earl’s stony countenance and the Colonel’s suppressed mirth behind him. Lady Chilton was not in view though Elizabeth could see her fan waving agitatedly. Turning an embarrassed smile to Darcy she whispered, “I am sorry. I am still an unrefined country miss, even if I am wearing my newest and finest gown (thank you Aunt) and bedecked in her borrowed jewels! I know it is unseemly to register happiness or even mild approbation in these elevated circumstances! But I cannot help myself, I have always loved the theatre, the people, the excitement, the drama, and then the entertainment begins! You are smiling,” she almost reached a hand up to caress his cheek, “so I think it is safe to assume I have not embarrassed you, at least. Though I can’t be blamed for having a hand kissed by a handsome gentleman, I do apologise for embarrassing your relations. I will try to behave more sedately now that the first flush of excitement has passed. I think we may have undone all the gains I won with my first, rather excellent - if I do say so myself – conversation with the Countess. What do you think, Mr Darcy?”

“I think we can be happy with the progress made so far, Miss Elizabeth, if we assume we took two steps forward, and perhaps only one step back, then we are still ahead?”

She reached for his hand, beneath the general view of the public, and laughed, “In all honesty, Mr Darcy, the little girl inside my heart that is squealing ‘I had a conversation with a COUNTESS!’ believes we are so far ahead that the point is moot!”

“Lizzy!” came the laughing admonishment from Jane, while her aunt was blissfully unaware in the seat beyond.

“Do you think she heard me in the other box, Jane? I’m sure she didn’t, even Aunt Gardiner does not seem to have heard.”

Bingley and Mr Gardiner had joined them by this time, arranging their seats to be able to view the stage best. Darcy, contriving another excuse to lean close to Elizabeth, handed her the playbill for her perusal. King Richard the Third was not one of her favourite Shakespeare plays, so she was therefore less familiar with it and found the dramatic synopsis helpful. Looking around her, Elizabeth noted the descent into degeneracy that was occurring in the darker reaches of the public and private boxes and below in the stalls. Having attended the theatre with her aunt and uncle in previous visits, though appropriately chaperoned and chivvied away from the worst of the excesses, she was nevertheless struck at the upright propriety of Mr Darcy. She knew gentlemen of his age and station had endless opportunity to engage in every vice and indulgence they wished, immune from the consequences precisely because of their wealth and consequence, especially if they were able to regulate their activities stealthily. There were plenty of examples of those who had fallen from grace, not merely because they had dabbled in these debauches, but because their lack of control had caused them to lose their wealth or consequence, invariably both.

Genteel poverty could be dignified, but not impoverished dissipation. The rank hypocrisy of it all irritated Elizabeth, but it brought her back to Darcy and her first impressions. She felt renewed chagrin at her flagrant abuses against his character for overhearing his slight of her, and hot shame as she recalled her tender sentiments for the reprobate Wickham. His vehement disgust at the proclivities of Mr Wickham had not been purely because of the proximity and risk to his sister, his sensibilities were genuinely offended by such ungentlemanly behaviour. From the revelations he had shared of his childhood, Elizabeth had surmised a sweet naivete in the young Fitzwilliam, encouraged by his closeness to his mother, and protected deep within him at her early death. The part of him that revered her had never moved on from this hopeful innocence. He had protected it with a natural pride, which perhaps had not been as well regulated as it could have been, but his prideful and haughty demeanour had not extinguished it. His attraction to Elizabeth, to her impertinence and her modest country charm, extolling a love of the natural world, integrity and sincere connection, spoke to this innocent naivete in him. He was a successful man of the world, completely accustomed to his position and authority, but she had awoken that which had lain dormant, the cynosure of his life and the driving force behind all his decisions. She felt again the compliment of his affection and could naught but be grateful.

As she had been musing on these things, her eyes had fallen, unseeing, on the action on the stage and she realised she had missed most of the opening scenes. Mr Darcy stretched his long limbs to the side of her chair, and she let her arm fall, ever so casually, to allow her fingertips to rest just below his knee. She blinked at her own boldness, blamed the heat and her wayward thoughts, further scandalised herself by giving him a parting squeeze and withdrew her hand to brush a non-existent crumb from her skirt. He did not move his leg until the end of the act.

They stayed for the five acts, partook of refreshments ordered by Darcy and were visited by several Darcy and Fitzwilliam acquaintances, which also prompted a generous invitation for the Bennet sisters and the Gardiners to attend a ball, that Darcy had originally planned to decline, next week. They took a turn about the saloon and ventured no further than the private boxes below them as the activities below took a decidedly more lascivious turn after the second-price tickets were sold. Elizabeth was invited to join Lady Chilton in her box for the fourth act and enjoyed a quiet conversation, recognising the attentions were effectively a set scene in the play that was being performed and watched for the benefit of the ton. The Earl was aloof but not discourteous, itself a part of the drama identifying Elizabeth as a person of interest, yes, but not necessarily given the full stamp of approval. She was grateful for the circumspect attention – it had the appearance of integrity, if not in essence.
She was a nobody from nowhere, it would be the height of disingenuousness for the Earl and Lady Chilton to fawn over her at their first public meeting. Her conversations in the box gave her the opportunity to learn much about the notable persons she had met and catch a glimpse of how to begin navigating life amongst these people. She was exhausted by the end of the act, trying to be her usual artless and open self, yet without giving too much away, and not being overcome by the artifice of it all.

She almost sagged with relief when Darcy appeared at the box door within seconds of the lowering curtains to claim her for a promised walk. It was the most public moment of privacy they would have that night and she enjoyed his closeness, leaning into his strength and noting the baleful looks they received from every second woman they passed. No warm-blooded woman could fail to exult a little with each glance, so she stood a little taller, lifted her head just a fraction higher and smiled a little more imperiously until she caught Darcy’s wry smile. Her soft laughter broke his smile into a wide grin, and she began primping at his side affecting Lydia’s dulcet tones as she sashayed through the corridors commenting on the lack of red coats in the vicinity before clinging to his arm and exclaiming how tired she was.

The Gardiners had refused the kind offer to return to Darcy House for supper that evening, both needing to be awake for their daily business of raising children and earning an income, so carriages were ordered, and the crush descended through, after the final act. Elizabeth could barely remember the action on stage, which was vaguely disappointing to her as the carriage wound its way through packed city streets. She hoped that in some distant future with Darcy she might be able to simply enjoy the entertainment, either without needing to be concerned about the social implications of her every conversation, or just being so comfortable with it all it had become second nature.



CHAPTER 17

“Miss Bennet! Miss Eliza! How charming to run into you here at Gunter’s. Why, I had no idea you were both in town still.” Caroline Bingley, purveyor and procurer of all the latest gossip in London was considerate in her attentions to the Bennet sisters, being all that was affectionate and insincere. They turned in surprise to look at the woman behind them. They were seated at a table for four, with Mrs Gardiner and her eldest daughter Phoebe seated on a table adjacent. Their gentlemen were both selecting ices for them, having accompanied them for an outing to the British Museum that morning.

The Misses Bennet looked at one another and while the younger was on the point of issuing the cut direct, she nodded imperceptibly to the elder’s discreet entreaty (a slight widening of the eyes which hardly anyone else would have noticed) and they rose as one with the utmost dignity, nodded and replied, “Miss Bingley”. As she was the one to approach them, the responsibility for forwarding the civilities belonged to her. There was a brief pause, where Elizabeth’s mouth thinned slightly and Jane’s generous heart offered a slight smile, and then Miss Bingley spoke again.

“I have just been to my modiste for the finishing touches on my new ball gown for the Matlock Ball next week. You would not know them, they move in different circles to those in Gracechurch Street. It is a shame Miss Darcy is not out yet, I believe she is to return to town shortly and Charles would have loved to dance with her there. They have been much in company since we left Netherfield, and I believe I mentioned my dearest wish in one of my letters to you, Jane? It would be a desirable match for both families, I assure you.” Caroline’s smile faltered as she saw that Jane’s countenance barely registered her speech, while Elizabeth’s smile grew inordinately wider with every word she uttered.

“Indeed, Miss Bingley. As you are so familiar with the vagaries of your brother’s heart, is it your opinion that he is willing to wait for Miss Darcy’s coming out in 2 years’ time? He must be head over heels in love to demonstrate such constancy of affection, think you not, Jane?” Jane, although desirous of not being the cause of a breach in the Bingley family, nevertheless proved herself as disagreeable as she was capable of being, by not attempting to censure her sister for her merciless response. She merely inclined her head to her sister and then mildly raised an eyebrow to Miss Bingley.

“Oh well, I don’t pretend to know the exact parameters of my brother’s heart, Miss Eliza, but surely a Darcy of Pemberley is worth waiting for?”

“I suspect you would be best placed to answer that question, Miss Bingley. I have heard it said that a woman’s love can survive much longer and against much greater odds than a man’s. Sometimes even surviving when existence or when all hope is gone. As I have not had the pleasure of meeting Miss Darcy yet, I will defer my opinion of whether she is worth waiting for, but I can certainly attest to one Darcy of Pemberley being eminently worth the wait, and even worth brooking much opposition for. What say you, Mr Darcy?” She had the grace to look a little sheepish at her unladylike triumph, but not until after Miss Bingley turned and took in the two gentlemen behind her, one fuming, the other utterly diverted by Elizabeth’s unabashed praise of him.

“Caroline.” Charles Bingley bit the greeting out as he had caught the last part of Elizabeth’s speech, which he knew she had intended for him to hear, and instantly surmised the nature of Miss Bingley’s malicious dissembling to his angel. His fists clenched and flexed as he debated how to not assault his sister as he had been wont to do as a child when she had interfered with his possessions, or casually lied about her own misbehaviour to get him in to trouble. He had always been amiable, never instigating grief, and as such was an easy target for the playground antics of his spoiled little sister.

“Charles! How delightful to see you, I have just stumbled across Miss Bennet and her sister. I did not know they were both in town.” Caroline transitioned so smoothly from malicious harpy to dutiful sister it was almost a wonder to behold. Her ability to speak falsehoods with such sincerity and charm could have fooled anyone, apart from the four people currently bearing witness to it. “And Mr Darcy, how delightful to see you. I’m sure you remember the eldest Bennet sisters of Longbourn? I am hoping to call on Miss Darcy upon her return to town, I thought I heard from Lady Matlock that she is on her way as we speak. Will she be attending the ball?”

“Miss Bingley. My sister is returning this week and will be much engaged during her stay in London. She will not be in a position to accept callers, and as she is not out yet, will not be attending any balls or public functions of that kind.” Darcy was only mildly irritated at Caroline’s unparalleled misuse of the Darcy name. “My sister is also far too young to be considering gentleman callers, and none of our friends would ever dare to associate her name in company with any eligible men of our acquaintance or spread false reports about her attachments.”

Caroline visibly swallowed but held her head high and continued to smile. Elizabeth, noting Bingley’s rising colour and struggle to master his emotion, added, not entirely helpfully, “Yes, Mr Darcy, we are so looking forward to meeting Miss Darcy at a family dinner on Friday at Darcy House, thank you again for including our London family. And Miss Bingley, I should also add that Lady Matlock graciously extended an invitation for both of us Bennet sisters to attend her Ball next Tuesday as Lady Chilton’s guests, when we met her at the Theatre Royal with the Countess last week. We are also to attend Madame Rosalind’s today for our final dress fittings – another gift from my aunt and uncle Gardiner.” She paused and gestured to her aunt and cousin, who were following the conversation with interest. “We have all just spent a delightful morning at the British Museum, where Mr Darcy has taken us through a series of antiquities that were recently gifted from the Fitzwilliam Gallery in Cambridge. We do feel thoroughly spoiled by our family and friends here in London and only hope we can comport ourselves with appropriate gravitas, despite being simple country folk.” Elizabeth felt quite proud of herself for not appearing to enjoy that moment overmuch.

Bingley had by this time mastered his fury and stepped closer to his sister, offering her his arm and leading her away from the table. Jane watched his path with such compassion and warmth that Elizabeth almost felt she was intruding on an intimate moment. From a distance, it appeared as though the siblings were having a regular conversation, but Jane could see from the stiffness of his posture that Bingley was in the throes of a very emotional exchange. Caroline’s smile became brittle but to the last she refused to be cowed, and sparing one last desperate glance at Darcy, gave her brother a perfunctory curtsey and walked out of the tearooms. He continued to watch her from the window. She cut a lonely figure, attended by a footman, who was carrying a number of parcels, and was clearly heading to the Hurst family home which was on the other side of the square.

Shaken, but wishing to appear resolute, Bingley took a moment to gather himself before he returned to his friends. They had all watched the entire scene, unmoving until Caroline had left, before taking their seats. Elizabeth had been disposed to be amused at the interaction but recognising her resolution to navigate this new elevated circle with some empathy and spurred by the obvious compassion she saw in Jane, she realised how vulnerable Caroline had allowed herself to become to the vicissitudes of life in the ton. There was an element of laying in the bed of one’s own making, but if Jane was to become her sister, Caroline’s happiness, or inability to find it, in marriage or simply in life, would materially damage Jane and Bingley’s felicity. Neither demonstrated an ability or desire to live well in constant conflict with their closest relations, so it was in their interest to forward her happiness too. She firmly believed what she had declared in jest to Caroline. One Darcy would provide such extraordinary sources of happiness to the woman necessarily attached to his situation that she could have no cause, on the whole, to repine almost any heavy misfortune. But she knew she was different to Jane, not that she was stronger, but that, having grown up understanding that she could, at the same time, rarely please one parent, while rarely displeasing the other, she had learned early that the ability to please had more to do with the person being pleased than the person doing the pleasing. She had instead decided to be one of those people who were satisfied enough in themselves that they were able to find pleasure in the follies and nonsense of others without being overly concerned by those who found displeasure in her own whims and inconsistencies.

It was impossible not to canvas the disturbance while waiting for their refreshments to arrive. Bingley had not seen or communicated with either of his sisters since he removed to Darcy House. He had not confided in them his intentions, his movements or the presence in London of the Bennet sisters. If Caroline had been speaking to Lady Matlock since their appearance at the Theatre Royal, or more likely her daughter Constance, she would have heard the whispers of the two unknown country gentlewomen from Hertfordshire currently gracing the arms of Darcy and Bingley. He would not be shaken from his purpose yet again, but he did not wish to live in enmity with his own sisters if he did not have to. He just did not know how to reconcile his peaceable desires with their mercenary ambitions for him. He just wanted them to be happy, why could they not want the same for him?

He had voiced this thought aloud at the close of his recitation, then shook his head, annoyed at his own naivete. Jane reached out and squeezed his forearm reassuringly. “Mr Bingley, it does you credit to desire to be on good terms with your family, just take care not to take on the responsibility for their behaviour also.” Here she glanced at Elizabeth who had opened her mouth to speak, “I know, Lizzy, it is advice I must take to my own heart too! I have always trusted you to safeguard my boundaries, dearest, and you protected my heart and my honour with dedicated ferocity, but that does not mean I did not see that I needed to shore up my defences too. Sometimes it is easier to protect someone else’s heart, rather than your own, hmm?” At this, she turned to her suitor, whose arm she was still squeezing, and added softly, “I believe we will get along very well, you and I, if we remember whose hearts we need to protect first.”

Darcy and Elizabeth became very interested in the ceiling roses above their heads and the ornate sconces in the adjacent walls, while Charles had time to gather his emotions, albeit from a very different direction this time. All were relieved when the ordered ices and marzipan arrived at the tables and the very unemotional business of devouring sweet nothings was undertaken. If the occasional masculine leg was brushed by the occasional feminine hand under the table, it was not remarked upon. The conversation turned to the delights they had viewed at the Museum and continued in like manner until the gentlemen accompanied all the ladies to their own modiste for their final ball gown fittings, and adieus until the next visit were made.

Phoebe was enchanted by Madame Rosalind’s establishment, this being her first visit, and many minutes were spent in her exclamations over the fabrics, the designs, the finery, and the gowns themselves. Elizabeth and Jane could not have asked for a more appreciative audience and Mrs Gardiner shrewdly appraised her eldest daughter’s gift for fabric selection and design in some of her suggestions. She resolved to include her more often in the selection of new gowns for herself, and maybe involve her in that part of her father’s business interests. Edward was frequently asking her advice on predicting trends in fabric patterns, colours and materials and she was hopeful that perhaps Phoebe could be of some assistance. She did always pore over the fabric and design patterns and swatches at home but seeing her come alive at the modiste was a revelation, especially given her age. At length, the fittings were completed, and the dresses promised to be ready for collection in time for the Matlock Ball early next week.



CHAPTER 18

Elizabeth had settled it that Mr Darcy would bring his sister to visit her, the very day after her reaching London; and was consequently resolved not to be out of sight of the house the whole of that morning. But her conclusion was false; for on the very day of her arrival, these visitors would come to Gracechurch Street.

Georgiana had barely greeted her brother, in her accustomed way since she had been a child; by leaping into his arms at a run and peppering sweet kisses on his cheeks, before she declared, “I must meet Miss Bennet today, Swizz, I must! I have been unable to sit still and driven poor Mrs Annesley to distraction for the entire journey and I declare I will burst if I cannot see her today!”

Darcy’s heart swelled to almost bursting point to see the unaffected joy in his sister’s countenance and was unable to do otherwise than grant her wish. She had responded on paper to his regular missives about his progress with Elizabeth with great warmth and alacrity, but it was an extra boon to see it reflected in her person. She had almost returned to what she was before Wickham destroyed her innocence, and it made Darcy’s joy complete. He hoped and believed that the two women he held dearest in his heart would come to love one another also. They were both predisposed to it, and he hoped and prayed that it would be so.

The hopeful siblings were on their way in 2 hours, Mrs Annesley insisting that her charge take a proper meal and refresh herself before going calling, so it was not until well after the usual calling hours that they presented themselves at the entrance to Gracechurch Street. The Misses Bennet had been spending the afternoon with their cousins and Jane was the most easily extracted as it was Lizzy who was tucked up in bed with her namesake and the next oldest, Edward Junior, who insisted on having the tale of Little Red Riding Hood read through to the end before he would relinquish his cousin. He took the part of the wolf very seriously. Little Lillybet was already fast asleep.

Jane and Mrs Gardiner greeted their visitors warmly, rang for refreshments and began the task of peeling back the layers of the shy and diffident young woman sitting with her brother. She was tall, and well-formed, but still a little uncomfortable in her person, having grown into the physical shape of a woman before she was ready to take on the full mantle of womanhood. She was obviously nervous and desperate to please, disappointed not to have met Elizabeth yet and like her brother, frequently glancing towards the parlour door. Mrs Gardiner took pity and offered to go up and hurry Lizzy along as they had spent nearly 10 minutes waiting already. Mr Darcy stood, hoping to join Mrs Gardiner. It would not be the first time he had entered the children’s rooms. Darcy often found Elizabeth in the nursery and school room and had been welcomed so assiduously into their family that he accompanied her to gather toys and possessions for their regular outings to the park, which were usually only chaperoned by the children. There can be no better chaperone to a courting couple than 1, or even 4, demanding children. If he spent most of the hour carrying a child, it was at least the one Elizabeth upon whom he could shower affection and kisses in public.

Mrs Gardiner nodded him out, leaving him to find his own way, while she stayed to serve the refreshments. All was quiet in the nursery when he opened the door and found Elizabeth in a quandary of attempting to rise without disturbing the two sleeping children beside and upon her. He swiftly came in and gently eased EJ to one side and then lifted the snoring Lillybet into his arms while Elizabeth extracted herself from beneath the bedclothes and attempted to rearrange herself. He deposited little Lizzy and tucked her in with a quick peck on her cheek and looked up to find his Lizzy repinning her hair. He captured an escaping lock and pretended to assist her when all he wanted to do was wind her curls around his fingers. She tugged them away and made the mistake of looking up in mock exasperation. He was unable to resist capturing her lips and she was lost for a moment, connected by a breath and transported to a hazy picture of shared dreams, a family, a life, together. He broke the kiss, but not the connection and she blinked to bring him into focus.

“Do you know, it is awfully hard to pick an eye to focus on when we are nose to nose. In fact, pretty much all I see is your nose up this close. Lucky for you it is a fine regal nose, but I suspect I am now cross-eyed, am I not? Is that why kissing couples usually close their eyes?” He kissed her pert nose. “Can you please come down now and relieve my poor sister’s agitation, which according to Mrs Annesley, began the minute I asked her to come to town and will not desist until she has met you?” She finished fixing her hair, adjusted her gown, glanced at Darcy for approval and led him out of the nursery. He stopped to tuck EJ in and gave them both a soft kiss on their heads, as though this was an everyday occurrence. As they made their way down the hall Elizabeth noted, “It really should be mandatory to conduct all aspects of a courtship around children, if at all possible. It is quite the only way to ascertain a gentleman’s true amiableness. I mean one must truly be generous of heart, with the patience and kindness of a saint to even feign to love another man’s child. It is not something for the faint of heart – especially for a prolonged courtship or engagement.”

“Indeed, but how shall you contrive to have a James, a Phoebe, an Edward and a Lillybet on hand for just such a courtship, if one does not also have an aunt and uncle Gardiner to stay with and call upon? Should we seek out children in parks and foist them on our unsuspecting suitors?"

“No, this bears some consideration though. I believe I shall write a book, Mr Darcy. The Elizabeth Bennet Guide to Happily Ever After, or some such title. I will detail exactly how one should be in order to attract the right sort of gentleman, as well as some rules of courtship and good ways to determine if he is the right kind of man, that sort of thing. I should think it will be more useful and practical than anything Fordyce has written on the subject, though it would be as well to canvas his work. I shall discuss it at length with Mary, that will save me the trouble of reading it. It would be just the kind of book that would be also useful for those proud, disagreeable types who can’t be introduced in a ballroom and won’t condescend to practice small talk so as to carry on a conversation with a stranger.”

They had by now entered the parlour so Darcy’s response had to be whispered so as not to be heard by all, “Miss Bennet, had I the benefit of such a book as you suggest, a few months ago, even now your title would have to be updated to reflect a new name, and you would perhaps not have time to begin such a project, being so constantly engaged in your new duties as Mistress of-”. He broke off grinning with waggled eyebrows as she sputtered with a combination of a gasp and giggle and swatted at his arm in chastisement. He turned to Georgiana and finally answered the dearest wish of her heart, which was to meet the lady who had captured his.

The meeting was everything everyone had hoped for. It could have hardly failed to be such, as the desire to be pleased and to be pleasing was evident in both to such a degree that there could be no chance of either being disappointed. Elizabeth’s empathy, already engaged by her intimate knowledge of her recent heartbreak was instantly excited by the younger woman’s almost painfully shy demeanour. Georgiana had been momentarily shocked by Darcy’s casual and jesting manner, so much more like himself at home, but so different than it had been every other time he was in company with eligible females, that it delighted her to see. Although she could not yet express that level of affability, she could see herself becoming more comfortable by degrees and with such an easy temper and constancy of affection in her companions it would surely make such levity more possible for her too.

Elizabeth engaged her on all the usual topics, before dwelling more deeply on her favourite, music, and her second favourite, animal husbandry. Music was a topic that could be comfortably canvassed in any parlour, so Elizabeth, sensing a desire to talk more deeply about her love for animals, drew her out on the subject. With frequent glances at her brother to make sure she wasn’t going to embarrass him, she began to speak at length about her childhood fascination with animals after she had been accidentally present for the birth of the next generation of Pemberley pointers when she was 9 years old. Far from being horrified, the little girl had been fascinated by the process, and although she had been admonished by her father for it, her interest had not waned.

Georgie had always taken a great interest in farm life and had been present for all the calving, foaling and lambing at the home farm since she had turned 12 and Darcy could no longer reasonably prevent her from attending. In all other matters she was quite tractable, but she insisted she would not faint, had been well-instructed by the Pemberley steward and the farm hands, who loved to indulge her interest, as well as her own extensive reading on the subject, and that she was past the age of just wanting to see “cute baby animals”. She had actually stamped her foot, with hands balled into fists at her waist, and rolled her eyes at her brother, who of course, relented and accompanied her. It had been barely 8 months after the loss of her father and Darcy could not continue with his father’s commands that she be kept away from such unladylike situations. In all other respects she was able to comport herself quite like the little lady, so he could not see the harm in allowing her interest in this area, especially as she was still so young.

She had been present the full seven hours it took for Siren to be birthed, asked intelligent questions, offered useful suggestions and did not complain once. She fell in love with the foal, which she named and was now hers, and had been welcomed to attend all other such arrivals at Pemberley when she could. She was already as conversant with most of Pemberley’s breeding programs as the steward, and more so than Darcy himself. Georgie had never spoken about such things to anyone in polite company, as she had always been assured of a horrified response in the saloons and drawing rooms of her previous acquaintances. Even Mrs Annesley had suggested avoiding the subject as much as possible. Darcy marvelled yet again at Elizabeth’s ability to put anyone at ease and to give everyone the space to be themselves. He was proud of Georgie’s gifts, her hard work and her determination, and he was more than glad that he had found a woman who would support his little sister as much as he did. Elizabeth would be able to find Georgie her happily ever after even if she never wrote that book.

That he had fought so hard against his attachment to her spoke so much of his misplaced pride and the cynicism and bitterness he had developed after the loss of his parents. He was still fighting it, truth be told, when he considered his fears around the upcoming social events where he was to introduce his bride. He trusted her to perform beyond expectations, to charm him and everyone else she met with her usual aplomb and grace, but he mistrusted himself, his inclinations and his ingrained deference to society’s expectations. He could not wait until the season was over, when they were married, and they could stay at Pemberley for as much as possible. It was one hope he had not yet shared with her; he feared it would count against him, so he was working up to that one.

© Janine van der Kooy 2022
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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 15-18

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