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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 29 - 31

August 19, 2022 05:53AM
AN: Apologies for the wait! I'm almost there I hope...

CHAPTER 29

Wickham paced the darkened alley beside one of the back entrances of the Woodyard Brewery in Seven Dials. He had met and seduced one of the tap room girls who had fallen for his “down on his luck gentlemanly charms”, which had secured him free food, lodgings and comforting nights, but he feared he may have pushed his luck by asking her to steal an advance on her pay from the evening’s takings. He had used the last of his coin to win her affections two nights earlier, and he had no expectation of a favourable response from his letter to Annabelle Younge. He had to lay low and was unable to approach his usual confederates and bedfellows, having burned all his bridges prior to landing a position with the Warwickshire Militia which took him to Meryton. He cursed that decision, the day Darcy was born, his ill luck at the tables, his weak and dissipated mother, his scrupulous father, the stars that took his gullible benefactor away, and any and all circumstances and situations that served to further erode his ability to live as he pleased with no consequences.

That all of these events had not led him to a deeper understanding of his own nature would not have surprised anyone who knew him. Wickham lived to please himself and was incapable of self-reflection, lacking both the wisdom and the depth of character that would assist him in making use of the blessings he had been given since his fortunate birth alongside and within the Darcy largesse. It may have been possible for him to strive towards goodness, his ability to imitate goodness, kindness, compassion and every other virtue necessary for the attainment of his one true goal, led many to hope and believe that real goodness was, indeed, deeply buried within him. It gave him fresh victims at every turn, for it was almost impossible to know the depth of his narcissistic depravity until it was too late to be extricated from his tangled web of deceit.

She was taking too long. He shrank back in the shadows when he heard a scuffle from inside the door. Two moments later he heard a frightened plea for mercy which he knew would herald a confession from Tilly that would not end well for him. He melted away and sprinted south-west towards Mayfair in a split-second decision to throw himself on the mercy of the only gentleman in whose weakness and honour he could always depend. Unbeknownst to Wickham, he was being watched by Lieutenant James, who was following up one of many vague tips from known associates given by Darcy’s information. As he watched a man answering to Wickham’s description from the shadows, he noticed his agitation just prior to hearing Tilly’s plea for mercy and the confession of her accomplice’s name before she was unceremoniously thrown into the alley sobbing. He had the presence of mind to give her the directions to Darcy House, knowing his superior would wish to speak to her, and likely assist her, given what he had heard about Betsy, before marking Wickham’s flight and giving chase. Tilly was dumbfounded but noting her precarious and vulnerable position having just lost her employment and likely her lover in one regrettable moment, chose to attend to the promise of justice and the directions she had been given and made her cautious way towards the servant’s entrance at Darcy House, praying all the way to a God she had not spoken to since she was a child.

Lieutenant James easily caught up with Wickham but was surprised to note his passage appeared to be taking him towards Mayfair so he paced himself to keep him close enough that he could intercept if he took an unexpected detour, but which avoided an altercation if in fact his destination was to be anywhere near Darcy House. He had noted Wickham’s nervous disposition and was amazed to see him relax as he entered the environs of Mayfair, adjusting his dress and attempting to make himself more presentable as he approached Grosvenor Street. His posture straightened and even his gait and demeanour became more confident as he put on the persona of a fashionable gentleman returning from an evening out. His chameleon ability to alter every aspect of his person to fit into his surrounds was a lesson to Lieutenant James in the dangers of accepting appearances at face value.

Darcy House was situated just off the Square, no less impressive but far more private for the inhabitants. James struggled to maintain an adequate distance in the residential streets which were less populated with traffic in the late hour of night. He was uncertain about Wickham’s intent, concerned about adequate security as no one had entertained the possibility of Wickham surrendering himself at this juncture. He must have known Darcy to be in town, or possibly assumed he could ingratiate himself on the housekeeper or whatever skeleton staff remained when the master and mistress were not in residence. Although grateful that Darcy had instructed his sister and her companion to make Chilton House their temporary home, James knew that Darcy would have ensured adequate protection of the family home remained in place had his sister been present.

Wickham did not break stride as he entered the private lane behind Darcy House and disappeared behind the long hedge. Fearing exposure, James waited and watched, hoping something would occur that would make his next actions clearer. He could see the back entrance had not been breached and wondered if his quarry had intended to hide away until morning. He understood the wisdom of Wickham’s flight now, as he knew none of his associates would seek him here immediately, but then was gripped with the sudden realisation that he had sent young Tilly to the very same door. Having no idea when she would arrive, if at all this night, he knew the time to act was now and he took the long way around to avoid notice, knocking quietly at the front entrance, hoping Wickham had not given him the slip and did intend to make his presence known, for whatever purpose, at Darcy House sometime in the next few hours.

Darcy had been unable to sleep, so rose and made his way to his study where he was fairly certain there would be dying embers in the fire he could easily restore to warming flames. As the warmth and light brightened the space, Darcy could not shake the cold sense of unease that had kept him awake. He knew they were drawing nearer to Wickham, hoped that he would be able to hold the line if given the opportunity and prayed for a resolution that would not stain his soul. You are not responsible for Wickham, Darce. These words had yet to make their home in his mind; his responsibilities to his father inextricably linked with the love and hope he had held for his godson until his dying day. He had never tested his father’s love against the truth of Wickham’s proclivities and so he was now left with a gnawing sense of failure as he contemplated setting Wickham adrift into the inexorable tide of consequences, habitually forestalled and circumvented by Darcy’s need to protect his father and then the family name.

A soft knock at the door brought him sharply out of his reverie. Lieutenant James stepped in, relieved the Master was awake and gave his brief summation of events. He was immediately sent to fetch the Colonel and apprise the footmen with as little ceremony as possible as Darcy wondered how to confirm Wickham’s location on the property without alerting him of their awareness. Darcy could hardly believe Wickham’s audacity, but then considered that perhaps the alternatives available to him at this point were likely worse than anything he had received at the hands of Darcy, which helped to ease his conscience a little.

“Can this be true, Fitz? He has come directly to Darcy House?” The Colonel’s urgent whisper at the door was followed by the man himself, still tucking in his shirt, clearly just awakened but bristling with the tightly coiled energy of a battle-hardened soldier. Darcy could see his footmen and officers assembled outside the door, quietly waiting instructions. He nodded to his cousin, who continued to confer with James, then directed him to return to his position outside via the circuitous route to keep an eye out for Tilly and also ensure Wickham could not change his mind, if indeed he was still there. He asked the remaining footmen whether there was any vantage point within Darcy House that could be used to inconspicuously confirm the presence of an intruder in any particular location near the servant’s entrance. Two were sent to verify. The two remaining officers were given instructions to alert the butler and housekeeper and to check all entrances were secure on the ground floor.

“Is this all really necessary? He has apparently come here alone, Richard. He is likely planning to throw himself upon the mercy of my father’s legacy or threaten me with potential scandal in the hopes I will continue to pay for his misdeeds and cover his debts. He has tested my resolve for the last time. It will be Marshalsea or transportation or he can take his chances with his creditors in whatever gambling hells he has been frequenting.”

“I am not willing to take any chances, Fitz and I do not want to lose this opportunity. We need to be able to secure him until we can alert the Runners and ensure we are squared away legally. I do not want him to escape justice on some absurd technicality, especially if he threatens exposure. Georgie is just now regaining her equanimity and is actually looking forward to coming out now that you have secured her a delightful big sister to guide and protect her through the shark-infested ton.”

Darcy bowed his head in acquiescence and poured his cousin a brandy. They waited in silence, Darcy pacing and frequently rifling through the papers on his desk, as though to assure himself all was in order for whatever was to come. The footmen confirmed that there was an unknown person barely visible in the shadow of the tall hedge near the servant’s entrance. It would be another 4 hours until the break of daylight rendered his position obvious to anyone using that entrance.

As it appeared he would be easily apprehended, Richard persuaded Darcy to wait and see what unfolded in the next hour. Richard had taken a seat and after swallowing the whole of his glass, settled back into the high-backed chair and closed his eyes. Darcy envied him his peace and eventually settled into his own chair and retrieved Elizabeth’s letter just to have something of her in his hands. He tried not to think beyond the moment to anticipate a future without his personal Sword of Damocles swinging over him. Just the thought that this may all be resolved before seeing Elizabeth again was too much hope clouding his judgment and his purpose.

Within 20 minutes James had returned from his post having managed to intercept Tilly and bring her stealthily to the front entrance. Her large eyes were full of fear and unshed tears, but the gentlemen could not fault Wickham’s ability to turn the head of the prettiest girl wherever he happened to find himself. She was overawed and speechless at all the gentlemen’s questions and it was not until Mrs Harrison had been summoned and taken her below stairs to feed and console her that she opened up about her brief, and ultimately life-changing, relationship with George Wickham.

They learned nothing new about Wickham’s plans, simply adding another pitiable mark to Wickham’s tally of victims and dupes. She did make it clear that his profligate ways were catching up to him, however, and Darcy understood that his connection with Wickham may be the only thing standing between him and an unpleasant, violent death. As much as he desired an irrevocable severance between them, he was not sure he could bear the weight of Wickham’s blood on his hands. Handing him over to the law by pursuing justice through debtor’s prison or other means may provide a similar outcome, but it tore at his conscience less than allowing Wickham to suffer the natural consequences of his poor choice of bedfellows. He unconsciously caressed the letter he still had in his hands, his conscience at war with his deepest desire to protect those dearest to him. Wickham’s worthless life could not compare with them.

Richard had little sympathy for Wickham but having spent time leading men from all stations in life to war, he knew the misery of poor choices, had seen the desecration of men for the happenstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and knew the unseen stain upon one’s soul when another life was taken by your own hand. He would not wish that upon Darcy and would protect him from it at all costs. He saw the moment Darcy’s resolve hardened and prayed it was justice and mercy that drove him, and not vengeance. Darcy glanced down at the letter and his eyes softened briefly. He pocketed it in his breast pocket and looked to Richard expectantly. He would let Richard take the lead.

“Thank you for coaxing this information out of Tilly, Mrs Harrison. Please assure her that we will assist her in recovering her employment or if she wishes to relocate, perhaps find a new position for her elsewhere, if you believe she has an adequate character for such? I doubt she would be suitable for domestic work in our circles, but I know Darcy would want to know she is not left destitute because of Wickham. It is also imperative she understand that any assistance provided is contingent upon her good behaviour and her discretion. I will not allow Mr Darcy’s generosity to be used against him. By anyone.” Darcy nodded his agreement, trusting all to Mrs Harrison’s compassion, good sense and discernment. She left to give Tilly the best news she had heard in her difficult young life, and he hoped that another soul would be given an opportunity to rise to a better situation than the one life had handed her.

“So, what now, Richard? The blackguard stands outside my door. Is it best to confront him immediately or let him stew out there as long as he can bear it and have him approach me? Are any of my staff at risk? It appears his circumstances are desperate and that he is indeed friendless, since he was forced to take flight from Meryton.”

“I think it best if we wait, as difficult as that is. While he is being watched, he cannot escape, and I would prefer to have him come to us on his own terms. I am still not sure he has come here for you – does he even know you are in town? Mayhap, he is lying in wait for confederates to accompany him for some other nefarious purpose. Perhaps I am crediting him with too much forethought, but I would prefer to know that we are eliminating one enemy, rather than creating more. He was located in Seven Dials, Darce. If he has been reckless enough to make enemies there or in any of the rookeries and has advertised his connection to your family, inadvertently or otherwise, then we need to know it all. He has fallen hard if his situation has led him to the Dials. I only hope his residence there has been recent – borne of necessity – as it means he may not have had time to make serious enemies. Tilly seems harmless, and at least it appears she is not from a house of ill repute. James does not believe he was followed here by any other than he, but if someone was watching Tilly, or if he let slip enough to suggest he has power or influence over you - that you will continue to protect him or pay his debts...” Richard shrugged. “Your sense of honour and duty to your father’s misguided preference for his godson could easily be interpreted as weakness in this situation, Darcy. A weakness that men without honour would be happy to exploit.”



CHAPTER 30

Darcy took his turmoil to his desk, cleared his workspace and began writing a letter to his beloved. She was uppermost in his mind, he craved her presence like no other and even in the face of an unpleasant confrontation, he wished to have her beside him. He would never have allowed her anywhere near this scene even if it would have been possible, but the knowledge that she could be as close as the mistresses’ chamber, or even his own, waiting to receive him, give him comfort, share her wisdom or her impressions, within a few months, or that he would have to convince her she needed his protection and prevent her from attending this interview herself, were problems he dearly wished to have.

Darcy House, London

I wish you were here, Lillybeth. I need your wisdom, your courage, your humour. Your letter lifted my spirits but made me long for your presence even more. My thoughts are a chaotic storm. It appears things are fast approaching their conclusion, and sooner than I ever dared to expect.

He is here, just outside the door.

He has come to me, he lies in wait for I know not what purpose, but I believe he has played his last hand and the consequences I have protected him from are now hanging over him, instead of me.

I am prepared for this final confrontation, though I am not sure if my resolution will hold if he chooses to throw himself upon my mercy. It is not in my nature to use another man’s weakness against him and given what we understand of his movements since leaving Hertfordshire, he may well be at his most vulnerable. And yet, Richard warns me, this may be Wickham at his most dangerous, aware of my weakness, my apparent inability to allow him to suffer, but when I see you and Georgiana before me, when I remember his willingness to use both of you against me, I confess I would be very willing to put this wounded horse out of its misery. Is it merciful, what I seek to do for Wickham, to Wickham? Is it a mercy to him, as well as to me?

I know not whether my words are abhorrent or disgusting to you. To compare a man to a dying animal, as though he were incapable of rational thought and reason. But the evidence of his behaviour would tend to suggest he is beyond the reach of moral instruction. He is a creature appearing to act with mindless self-preservation. Even since he left Meryton he has managed to victimise at least one other vulnerable young woman, for convenience, lust and to line his pockets. I have lost count of the lives I have tried to put back together since our youth. Indeed, I have aided and abetted his miscreant ways! This can no longer be, not for the sake of my father, or my sister’s reputation, or my family name. The name I wish you to bear, the name I hope to give to my sons and daughters, if we are so blessed. The name I hope will continue to embody the gift, and the weight, of honour, true nobility and virtue. The name you will strengthen, with your fierce loyalty, integrity, compassion and kindness.

I promised you I would protect our family, our future, but there can be no secrets between us, and I hope and pray that the decision I make today will be one we can both live with. When I see you in two days’ time, perhaps even when this reaches you, all will be resolved.

FD


The letter was sanded and sealed, addressed and left waiting on his desk to be sent express at first light. His desk was cleared of all extraneous personal items, and the relevant incriminating and legal documents were tidied and set aside, waiting to see their outcome. It was not quite dawn when the butler attended to a knock at the back door, accompanied by two footmen. If Wickham was surprised not to see the undercook or the scullery maid attending to the door, he hid it well.

His first purpose had been to gain admittance by charm or subterfuge, hoping that his face would be familiar enough to win him favour. He had assumed Darcy would continue to keep his exploits concealed from his own staff, due to his embarrassment and the Darcy code of honour. He had not reckoned on Darcy’s realisation that keeping his sister and all his staff in the dark about Wickham had made them all uniquely vulnerable. Once he was completely honest with all his senior staff, they were given leave to be completely honest with him about Wickham’s activities below stairs. The loyalty he had always been accorded by his staff was set in stone by his benevolence to yet others, hitherto unknown to Darcy, who had fallen foul of Wickham’s proclivities.

He greeted Mr Harrison with a winning smile, faltering only slightly when the two footmen accompanying him came into focus. After asking after Mrs Harrison, he began a sorrowful tale of being hounded out of the militia by unfair accusations impugning his honour and leaving him without any resources or even lodgings. He gestured to his care worn garments, hastily brushed off but still less than laundered, and tendered a hopeful request for admittance to revive himself, perhaps take a simple meal and possibly see Miss Darcy, if she were in.

The stony visage of Mr Harrison, capable of refusing admittance to Earls, Countesses and even Lady Catherine, was unmoved by this recitation but granted admission, under the watchful gaze of both footmen, who directed his steps to the formal parlour at the front of the house and then remained within. Wickham began to suspect he was no longer the master of his circumstances and looked around casually to assess his potential for escape. The two footmen were situated between the only two egress points in the room.

It was over two hours before he saw anyone else. He had at first cajoled his jailers, requested refreshments, shouted for Georgiana, threatened then attempted to leave violently, offered bargains and bribes and was finally forcibly restrained before he recognised one of the footmen and realised he was in serious danger. Sam took great pleasure in exacting some retribution for the injuries inflicted upon his sister, though she was now well-cared for in a situation arranged by Mr Darcy as soon as he had been made aware of her condition. Sam doted on his nephew, named William, one of a number of similarly named children sired negligently by Wickham but protected and assisted by the Master of Pemberley throughout the kingdom.

It was, therefore, a slightly battered and bruised George Wickham who witnessed the entrance of Colonel Fitzwilliam, dressed formally in his regimentals, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, attired impeccably as the Master of Pemberley and associated estates. They were accompanied by two men-at-arms who took up positions behind them. Wickham could not help the laugh that escaped him at the hostile formality on display. He winced as the expression stretched his split lip and caused it to bleed again.

“So, is it to be sabres or pistols at dusk, then?” Wickham sneered at Darcy, wincing again at the pain, which took a little of the bite out of the expression. Darcy and Richard both sat impassively silent. Wickham laughed lopsidedly again, “I am here at your leisure, gentlemen. These fine footmen and officers are clearly not here to give me safe passage without, and I have been here for nearly 3 hours. It is apparent you have detained me for a purpose, though I am not sure asking for meagre assistance at the servant’s entrance is an actionable offence.” He shrugged, slouched in his seat and looked unconcernedly towards the parlour drapes, closed still though the dawn light was illuminating their edges.

The gentlemen were content to wait in silence until the light streaming from behind the drawn curtains was equivalent to the steadily dwindling candles. The colonel and his officers had not so much as glanced elsewhere, watching Wickham for any signs that he was expecting rescue, or accomplices or any kind of plan. At length, Richard rose, whispered to Lieutenant James, who nodded and left the room briefly. He returned momentarily, offered a curt shake of the head and resumed his post at the door. Richard nodded at Darcy’s raised eyebrow and Darcy visibly relaxed. It appeared there had been no unusual activity in the vicinity since Wickham had been detained so they were confident this was Wickham’s ultimate attempt to flee whatever persecution was coming his way. Entering the militia had probably been his penultimate effort.

It was another 15 minutes of silence apart from the steady click of the grandfather clock in the hall before Wickham spoke again. “Look, I know I should not have come here, begging for assistance, but in truth, I missed Georgie.” Darcy gave an involuntary twitch at the blackguard’s casual use of her name, which drew Wickham’s attention. “She still pines for me, doesn’t she, Darce? I was her one true love, and you separated us. Has she forgiven you yet, does she still cry herself to sleep longing for my caresses? It was always me they loved best, eh Darce? Even Lizzy was mine before she was-”

Richard had warned him that Wickham would use Georgie and even Elizabeth to push him over the edge. When he dangled his conquests before him in their youth, it had always served to make Darcy question his own worth and wonder what it was that was wrong with him, that these girls would choose Wickham over him. He swept all away, paid what was necessary and did what he had to do to make amends, time and again and it was not until this very moment that Darcy understood where all Wickham’s power lay.

He had handed it to him the day he had believed that his father had preferred Wickham over his own son. Wickham’s worthless lies, his empty threats and bluster had been given traction and weight because he, Fitzwilliam Darcy, had made it so. As he had allowed society to derail him, Lady Catherine to detain him and his own pride to defame him, his erroneous belief in Wickham’s superiority had given this worthless usurper all the power. And once Darcy understood that, it was Wickham’s no more.

Fitzwilliam Darcy laughed.

He interrupted Wickham’s pointless charade and laughed in his face. It was a minute of mirthless laughter pregnant with anger at his own folly mixed with the relief of understanding, and it subdued Wickham more effectively than a fist to the face ever had. He tried to laugh in response, but it was strangled as Darcy rose and stepped toward him, strangely compassionate in countenance, but resolute, nonetheless.

“Forgive me George, you have been raised above your station, encouraged in your vice and dissolution, and protected from all the natural consequences your behaviour should have allowed you to learn from. But I have suffered, and although it appears I am slow to learn, I have finally learned my lesson. I will no longer be held responsible for your actions, and I will no longer tolerate your abuse of my good name.”

“Darcy, be reasonable, remember your father! He would never have wanted me to be abandoned! He would have done all he could to ensure my well-being! I am ready for a simple life, I will take orders and retire to the living that he intended for me – you said it yourself, I am ill-suited to a life below the station I was raised to live. It is a flagrant injustice!” Wickham was restrained from approaching Darcy by the two footmen at his side, but he would have done naught but kneel during this plea for mercy.

“George, I have been reasonable, and it is in my father’s name that I give you the respect of telling you what is to come. I have bought and catalogued all of your debts since you refused the living, they have been meticulously accounted for, witnessed in triplicate and are legally binding. A bailiff has been summoned and you will be taken in and arraigned before a judge. Your debt to the Darcy family is incalculable, but what we have tallied amounts to a sum I am confident you will never be able to repay. Once you are in the hands of the law, I will wash my hands of you. Every portrait, memento and trinket of you will be wiped away from Pemberley and the memory of the currently living Darcys, and from this day forward you will cease to exist.” Darcy delved into his coat pocket and withdrew 5 pounds. He held it out to Wickham. “This may be useful in purchasing more amenable accommodations in Marshalsea. If you are given a choice, I would choose transportation. My barrister will be instructed to agree to this option, if it is offered.”

Wickham accepted the proffered bank note but then lunged toward Darcy, to no avail. The stalwart Sam had a vicelike grip and Wickham was brought short to his knees before an unyielding Darcy. His cries for mercy were pitiful to hear, but Darcy directed Sam and his fellow footman to lift him from the floor.

“You will face your future like a man, George Allen Wickham. A man who is fully responsible for the decisions he has made. This is the gift my father ought to have given you. I regret my part in delaying this part of your education.”

Darcy glanced at Richard. “I am not responsible for you, George. I never have been.”

When Darcy left the room, lighter than he had ever felt since his mother’s death, Richard was given leave to extract from Wickham whatever pertinent information he could about his associates and his criminal dealings, in order to ascertain any potential threats upon the Darcy family. When the bailiff arrived, Richard was satisfied that Wickham had not exposed the family and when furnished with copies of the requisite evidence in Darcy’s study, Wickham’s connection and leverage over Fitzwilliam and Georgiana Darcy and any of their intimate associates and descendants was irrevocably severed.



CHAPTER 31

Longbourn House, Meryton

Fitzwilliam! Never, ever doubt my love for you. Promise me!

My heart breaks for the trouble and mortification it must have cost you to bear witness to and provide succour to all the victims of Wickham’s licentious misdeeds over the years. How could I find abhorrent or disgusting the honest confessions of your heart when they but mirror the very essence of your goodness and kindness and compassion, your loyalty, pride and protection of those you love and even those you do not love.

I long to be with you and will be following this letter the day after you receive it with as much haste as I can muster without raising alarm. I am glad I habitually choose to read your letters in private, for the reading of it and the writing of this have been accompanied by some, frankly inexplicable, weeping. Do not, for a moment, believe that I shed any tears for the fate of Mr Wickham! He has made his choices and he must bear the consequences alone. Some of my tears were joyful at the thought that this chapter of your life might be closing so much sooner than you even dared hope!

You are no longer alone, my dearest One. You no longer have to bear these burdens upon shoulders that are unbolstered. I may not always know all of your burdens, but in my embrace you may take whatever strength I have to offer. I will rely on you to bear my burdens too, and together we will be stronger. We two will become one soon enough, it is a delightful picture, is it not?

I will be proud to bear your name and will lend it whatever of my virtues it sees fit to take. But I am most proud to be the wife of Fitzwilliam. Whatever good or ill I absorb because of the Darcy name will pale in comparison to the unparalleled joy of being your wife, Fitzwilliam. Never doubt that I would marry you tomorrow, if you were simply a Smith, or a Cook or a Tailor. As I have nothing material to bring to this union, and no name to speak of, I am inexpressibly content in the knowledge that your amiable heart has found its home in mine. I will relinquish it when my heart stops beating, and not one moment before.

EB

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

“Darcy. Darcy? Fitzwilliam Darcy, are you attending?”

The gentleman started and tore his unfocused gaze away from the window he had been looking at while his mind had been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow. His Aunt Gwen, Lady Chilton, rolled her eyes in exasperation. He had been distracted during church, barely mouthing the hymns, clearly had not attended the homily or most of what was said to him by friends and acquaintances and was currently the shining example of general incivility which marked the recently in love. If it wasn’t such a delight to see her dear, sweet nephew returned from wherever he had been imprisoned since the tragic death of his parents, she would properly chastise him, but she knew he was hopelessly lost in the lover’s trance of hopeful frustration, waiting for his fiancée to arrive in London tomorrow. Knowing what she knew awaited him in her morning room, she smiled indulgently when her words finally pierced the fog surrounding him.

“Forgive me, Aunt. I was wool gathering. What did I miss, I promise I will attend to whatever you wish me to.” His smile was genuine, he had always loved Aunt Gwen and truly did not wish to slight her, not just for her consequence as a Lady, but because of her genuine concern and affection for him. He was simply unable to tear his thoughts away from the woman who had written him such a letter 2 days ago and who he was impatient to see. Tomorrow could not come soon enough.

“It is of no great import, Darcy. I was hoping you would not mind fetching my shawl from the morning room.” She dismissed his questioning glance which took in the 3 footmen arrayed about the room and continued her conversation with Isabella and Georgie. He considered that he had contributed little to whatever conversation had gone on in the family parlour since returning from church and decided it at least gave him something to do. He noted Georgie’s barely containable excitement but assumed it was related to her removal back to Darcy House tomorrow. When Elizabeth would arrive at Gracechurch Street. When he would see her again. He had already determined to be there early and had received a positive reply to his request yesterday. He would not brook one moment longer without her than was absolutely necessary.

He opened the morning room door while his mind was imagining his first sight of her as she was alighting from his carriage and was startled to see his mind had transported her directly into Chilton House. He was so arrested by the vision he simply drank in the details. She was wearing a new gown, he had never conjured up new gowns in his mind before. She was always in the yellow dress she wore to the theatre, their first public engagement. She had been in the process of adjusting her hair and his entrance had surprised her such that her hair had tumbled down just the way he liked it and her smile was so radiant it took his breath away.

Except he was breathing in her scent and suddenly she was in his arms, and he would have staggered backwards but for the door. He dazedly came to his senses with his face buried in her tresses and her arms stealing beneath his jacket tightening her hold on him. He shuddered and could have wept with the strength of his surprised emotions as he held her to him. No words had been spoken as yet and he found he did not need any. She was here and he was home.

Elizabeth had known that still waters ran very deep with Darcy but as she felt and tried to reassure his trembling frame she realised she had not expected the force of his reaction. It was the solace and confirmation she did not know she needed, that their time apart had been as difficult for him, nay, more difficult for him than her, but she began to feel a little guilty for surprising him and was grateful that Lady Chilton had suggested a more private greeting for them.

Her Aunt who was chaperoning, unseen and unnoticed by Darcy, had turned toward the window once she ascertained the emotion was less passionate and more consoling in nature. Elizabeth had told her all of the background to Darcy and Wickham and though neither of them were privy to the final outcome, her compassion and empathy were greatly roused, and she knew he would need much comfort from his beloved. It was clear to her how beloved her niece was to Mr Darcy, and it was gratifying to know she would be cherished and adored.

“So, is it safe to assume surprises are not one of your favourite things?” Elizabeth whispered the words into his chest as his self-control began to waver and he began to nuzzle her cheek and caress the nape of her neck beneath the further cascading waves of her once neat coiffure. She felt his low chuckle rumble against her cheek and delighted in his kisses which threatened to deepen until a soft clearing of the throat became more insistent and he recognised he had been given as much liberty as would be allowed. He was not surprised Mrs Gardiner was there, though he had not registered her presence at first, and was grateful to have been able to take as much necessary comfort from Elizabeth as he had been given. The reality of her presence far exceeded the stuff of his daydreams. His night-time musings, however, could only be exceeded after they were married.

He stepped away, still moved beyond speech and only able to smile and shake his head in response. “Speak, Fitz! Else you will alarm Aunt Gardiner!” She had approached and warmly greeted him and her gentle touch to his proffered hand along with her quiet request about his wellbeing prompted his jaw to unclench.

“Thank you, Mrs Gardiner. I am more than well, thank you. Forgive me for taking liberties before strict propriety, madam, but I was not quite sure if I was dreaming.” He blanched at the admission that Elizabeth was the subject of his dreams and only relaxed when he noticed both were smiling. “I’m sure our being here was prompted by more than one of Lizzy’s dreams, but she had the fortune of being able to realise them, with the assistance of your Aunt and Georgiana. I did wonder at the necessity, it being only a day earlier than was otherwise planned, but her desire to arrive early enough on Saturday to see you then set the ball in motion, and once it was away, it seemed churlish to give it up for the sake of one day less.”

Elizabeth had drawn near to Darcy and tucked herself into his arm, “I declare Aunt, it was worth every second, even if the carriage arrived late and we managed to forget one of my trunks! Jane will bring it all next week. It was Papa’s idea. He said he couldn’t bear the sight of me mooning about and sighing like some lovestruck Juliet pining for her Romeo, and Mama loves surprises so I wrote to Georgie to see if we could borrow your carriage early without you knowing. As you are too fastidious a master for that to be even remotely possible, she included Lady Chilton in her scheme, and we ended up arriving in style at Gracechurch Street in the Earl’s carriage. Later than we hoped, for my anxious heart, so I had to wait until after church today.”

She effected a very Lydia-like pout, “Aunt would not allow me to call upon you at Darcy House after supper, deeming it highly improper.” He laughed, but as she watched him, she became still. Her voice almost at a whisper she said, “Given how you responded, I am very glad I did not surprise you at church today either – Lady Chilton was the one who told Georgie our first reunion should be a more private one. I am glad she allowed us to greet in this way, dearest, but I will not surprise you in such a way again if it discomposes you so. I do not think I knew what to expect, so eager was I to see you again, but I did not really consider how much you have gone through this week, my love. I am sorry.”

“Never be sorry for doing anything that brings you to me faster or keeps you with me longer, Lillybeth. I might find it overwhelming, but as I was spending my every waking moment imagining you with me, I was of little use to anyone else. Once we had dealt with Wickham, I was at liberty to do nothing but think and plan for you. I confess I did not think at all about speeding your arrival, just how I could convince you to marry me tomorrow and never leave me again.” He made these declarations with a smile, but it was clear to Elizabeth that he was not jesting. She blinked up at him with astonished affection and then asked with a smirk whether he came up with any ideas that would work. He laughed, breaking the tension and his gaze as he winked at her, glanced at Mrs Gardiner, and replied, “None that were at all appropriate, I’m afraid, but woe betide any suggestions to extend our engagement past August, else it motivate me to make use of one or other of them.”

Mrs Gardiner laughed but privately agreed with her husband’s thought that a long engagement would be a very bad idea for Mr Darcy. Although she was certain they both would have preferred to continue this mostly private conference, propriety and expectation led her to direct their path back to the parlour and the waiting family, who were no doubt eager to greet Miss Elizabeth also. There would be time in the course of the next few days to canvass all that had occurred between Wickham and Darcy and to reassure each other in the confidence of their steadfast regard and hope for the future.
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Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 29 - 31

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Re: Sufficient Encouragement: A P&P Variation Chapters 29 - 31

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