Rosemary had, it seemed, left no mark on Pemberley. There were a few changes to be sure, but nothing she had done — only what had been done for her. It was six months since her death, and, almost, Darcy could believe that she had never been there at all, no time had elapsed since that day in September, it was all a bizarre, not wholly unpleasant, dream.
Except this. He smiled as Anne toddled over to him as fast as her short, plump legs would take her, and held up her arms with a peremptory expression. Yet, even though Rosemary had without a doubt borne their daughter, in this as in everything else, she had left no mark of her own. The only characteristics Anne shared with Rosemary were those that he himself did; in neither disposition nor appearance did she appear to have inherited anything from the woman who had been her mother. He lifted her up into his arms.
‘Talk,’ Anne demanded, and Darcy chuckled. She did not seem to care what he said, as long as he said something — as long as she could hear his voice. He slept when she did, where she did, for at those times that she woke up, alone in the dark, she began screaming for her father, utterly terrified — of what, no-one knew, but he could guess well enough.
He knew that most of his relations thought him far too indulgent of her eccentricities, but the idea of simply leaving her to her fear seemed horrible beyond measure. He could dimly remember loathing the dark as a child. Georgiana used to crawl into his bed and shake violently — she, unlike Anne, would never have dared raise her voice — while he held her, until she was sufficiently comforted to fall asleep. It was she who on her frequent visits to Pemberley (‘you oughtn’t spend so much time alone, Fitzwilliam’) assured him that he was not being unreasonable. As if she herself were still a child, confiding a dark secret, she stood on tiptoe and whispered in his ear, ‘I do the same with Stephen.’
Since Rosemary’s death, he had been more careful than ever to set time aside for Anne. No matter how deep his involvement in the management of the Pemberley estates and the Fitzwilliams’ political ambitions, he made certain to spend several hours a day with his daughter. He had become mother and father to Georgiana early on, and in a way this was very much the same thing. Although, if he were strictly honest with himself, it was rather easier.
Aincourt and Pemberley were so close together that Georgiana could travel to and from each in a day, if she had cared to make the attempt. She did not; she stayed for weeks on end with her son, a clever and well-behaved, if erratic, boy, who found Pemberley in general and his cousin in particular utterly fascinating.
The first time Darcy’s schedule grew too hectic to allow him to spend his customary evening time with Anne, he made his first impulsive decision in the last three years and brought her along with him. The quarrelling lawyers clearly thought he was mad, but as long as he kept his end of the conversation going, Anne remained quiet and well-behaved. Soon it became simpler altogether to bring her on his safer errands, and his associates become accustomed to the sight of pretty little Miss Darcy shadowing her father’s footsteps wherever he went. The tenants were as delighted with her as were the neighbours who insisted on pinching her cheeks and cooing over her, although the former were rather more sensible about it.
All in all, father and daughter had settled into a comfortable routine. He visited Houghton in winter, carefully avoiding Mrs Fitzwilliam, and ignored Lady Catherine’s dictates on child-rearing. As little time as possible was spent in town. The first time was the September after Rosemary’s death, for he had realised (to his shame) that he had neither invited the Gardiners to the funeral, nor informed them of its existence — or even its reasons for existing — and determined to remedy the situation. After making certain that all relations and possible guests were away from town, he took Anne and called on them.
* * * * *
It did not matter that he stood at least six inches over Mr Gardiner, nor that both Gardiners were less than a decade his senior, nor that their youngest child, three-year-old Sarah, had yet to realise he was not actually her uncle. Somehow he always felt about fifteen when he walked into their house, a young awkward relation rather than a friend of the family. Even the presence of his own daughter, not seven months Sarah’s junior, did nothing to help; he only felt an inept, incompetent parent before the highly capable Gardiners.
Not that he would have presumed to speak of it; he would have been surprised to know that the Gardiners perfectly understood his reaction to them, and accordingly accepted his unacknowledged deference. Amelia adopted him first, then the rest of the children, and by the time of Sarah’s first birthday, all of them treated him as Mrs Gardiner’s surrogate younger brother.
She had never had one to lose; but their shared background, despite the great very social gap, along with the children’s easy adoption of ‘Uncle Darcy,’ made it very easy to accept his peculiar role in their family. Even the distance of the last year — Darcy had not left Pemberley in that time, and Mr Gardiner’s business had kept them settled in town — could not stop them from receiving him as if he were a lost family member come back to the fold.
‘Fitzwilliam Darcy!’ Mrs Gardiner scolded. ‘Ten months with nary a line! And now, you show up on our doorstep, without a by-your-leave or warning or . . . or . . .’ She glared fiercely at him, hands on her hips, before sniffling and embracing him. Anne blinked in startled fascination.
‘I am very sorry,’ Darcy said penitently. ‘It has been a difficult year.’
‘I was so sorry to hear about Rosemary. Come in, sit dow — what have we here?’ Her face softened as she knelt down, and Anne returned her smile shyly.
‘This is my daughter, Anne,’ he said, gently brushing Anne’s dark hair out of her eyes. ‘Anne, this is Mrs Gardiner.’
‘Miz Gard-ner?’ Anne tried, with a prim curtsey. Mrs Gardiner returned it as soberly as she could manage.
‘Would it be easier to say ‘Aunt Margaret,’ Miss Darcy?’
‘Aunt Marg’ret,’ Anne said promptly, and beamed. ‘Easy. Like Aunt Nana.’
‘Then that is what you shall call me,’ declared Mrs Gardiner, and it was so. She quickly remembered an urgent reminder to the cook, and raced away, but not before insisting, ‘You must take Anne into the parlour, and I will send for Edward, he is doing nothing that cannot be interrupted — ’
‘I would not wish to incon — ’ Darcy began, but a sharp look from Mrs Gardiner had him picking his daughter up and following her with an almost meek, ‘Yes, ma’am.’
He was not in the least surprised that as soon as Mrs Gardiner vanished, Amelia Gardiner ran into the parlour, her face covered in smiles, and flung herself into his arms with a joyful squeal. ‘Uncle Darcy — Edward, Edward, Uncle Darcy is here, you have to come and see!’
With that the two boys ran in, John holding back a little shyly, but before long all had gathered about him. He could scarcely keep from laughing as Amelia severely told him he had been very bad to not visit for so long.
‘I was not in town, you see,’ he explained, as the three children congregated about him, one on his lap, another at his side, and the third at his feet. ‘You are dirty, Miss Amelia. Have you been playing with the stable-boys again?’
She folded her arms and stuck her lower lip out. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
Darcy had only to raise an eyebrow before she lowered her eyes guiltily. ‘Papa says I cannot read any of his books for a week. I meant, I don’t want to talk about it more.’ Then she lifted her head and smiled winningly. ‘Did you bring anything for m — us, Uncle Darcy?’
He frowned sternly. ‘What if I have not?’
She considered, then graced him with a superior look. ‘I shall forgive you, this time. But only if you never stay away so long again.’
‘You are very kind,’ he said gravely. ‘I shall not, I promise.’
‘That’s good, because if you promise, then you won’t ever do it, and we missed you.’
‘Sometimes, people break their promises,’ he said softly, and Amelia looked at him pityingly from where she perched on his lap.
‘I wasn’t talking about people, I was talking about you.’ With a reproachful look, she said, ‘We missed you,’ and was fervently echoed by her two brothers.
He could not refrain from briefly brushing her round cheek at this pronouncement, and said quietly, ‘I missed you too, very much. And, perhaps, I might have something, if you have all been very good.’
* * * * *
Mr and Mrs Gardiner entered the parlour only to find their three middle children sprawled across Mr Darcy, all deeply asleep.
‘You are too indulgent, Fitzwilliam,’ said Mrs Gardiner. He was not entirely certain when they had progressed to Christian names. He would certainly not have been so forward himself.
‘So I am told,’ he said easily. ‘Georgiana assures me that it is everyone else who does not properly understand, however.’
They laughed, and after the Gardiner children went to bed, sat down, exchanged civilities, admired Anne, and commenced with the inquisition. ‘Speaking of Lady Aldborough, how is your sister?’
Darcy smiled. ‘Very well. She spends a great deal of time at Pemberley.’
‘It is difficult enough to leave when one is only a dinner guest,’ Mr Gardiner said wryly. ‘For your sister, who belongs, I cannot imagine how she manages it.’
‘She doesn’t, really. Part of Aldborough’s attraction may very well have been the proximity of his estate to mine,’ he admitted. ‘She spends almost as much time at Pemberley with me as she does with him at Aincourt. Of course, she had far greater freedom as Miss Darcy than she does now; my cousin’s family tends to be very . . . correct. I was, no doubt, too indulgent with her, as well.’
‘Nonsense. Lady Aldborough is a lovely young lady,’ Mrs Gardiner said. ‘You could not have done better with her.’
‘My great-aunt thinks I could have,’ he said wryly. ‘She finds Georgiana too little amenable to persuasion. If so, I did well enough, I suppose.’
‘Goodness, I had no idea the dowager was still alive. It must have been very difficult for her.’
‘Indeed,’ Darcy said sombrely. ‘That is how Georgiana keeps her patience, by reminding herself of what my aunt has suffered. To see her children die, and then her granddaughter! No-one should be made to endure that. She is very old, almost ninety, but her mind — and tongue — are as sharp as ever.’
‘It must be difficult to live with such an autocratic personality, although your sister is uniquely suited for it,’ remarked Mrs Gardiner.
Darcy thought of his cousin Anne, dead three months now. ‘Yes,’ he said gravely. ‘Very difficult. Georgiana is accustomed to it, however.’
‘I did not think she spent very much time with Lady Catherine,’ Mr Gardiner said, looking faintly puzzled. Darcy laughed outright.
‘I was speaking of myself, sir, not my aunt.’
‘Nonsense,’ Mrs Gardiner said stoutly. ‘You are not autocratic, my dear, you are . . . assertive.’
‘Thank you, madam, that reassurance is a great comfort, but I have certainly had my moments. Too much authority too early, I suspect.’ He shook his head. ‘Enough introspection for company, however. How is your family, Edward?’
‘My brother is still in very poor health. Lydia and her husband, you doubtless already have knowledge of — ’ They never spoke Wickham’s name if they could avoid it; Darcy flushed slightly and dipped his head. He had not been able to persuade the poor, stupid girl out of marriage with that scoundrel, but he did what he could — discreetly, naturally — to make certain she was not being too greatly mistreated. ‘Kitty spends most of her time with Jane, much to her benefit, while Mary takes care of their mother and has been a little drawn out of her pursuit of accomplishments.’
‘A very little,’ interjected Mrs Gardiner. Darcy did not dare smile and waited patiently. There was no point in displaying or hiding his eagerness, not to the Gardiners who were already perfectly aware of it.
‘Lizzy has become a little more withdrawn since Mr Bennet’s illness. Most of her time is spent nursing him, although she has visited Baildon several times. But you are there often enough, surely you have seen her yourself?’
‘No,’ said Darcy softly, ‘we have not met since the Bingleys’ wedding.’
He had gone to considerable effort to ensure that. He still remained uncertain whether it was worse to be disloyal to Elizabeth, marrying another woman rather than pursue the one he loved, or unfaithful to Rosemary, loving a woman other than his wife. He could only comfort himself with the knowledge that he had done his utmost to minimise the amount of pain suffered by all concerned, and he had not been what he abhorred above all else, deceitful or dishonest.
Rosemary thought that Elizabeth had loved him — he could not see it, himself; she had certainly not behaved like a woman in love, had shown even less partiality for him than the reserved and reticent Jane. Even if she had, it had been nearly four years. He did not expect any woman, particularly a woman in Elizabeth’s circumstances, to wait four years for a lover so inconstant and erratic as himself, when there was less than no understanding between them. Meeting with her again would only be awkward and painful for them both; and Anne always had to be considered first.
‘Really?’ Mrs Gardiner inquired. ‘And you both godparents to the same children. How remarkable. Well, perhaps you shall meet at Baildon.’
Not if I can help it.
‘Lizzy could use a friend,’ Mrs Gardiner said gently, and not at all subtly. ‘Her only really equal friendship was with Charlotte Lucas, but it was never quite the same after she became Mrs Collins.’
‘I imagine not.’ He remembered his graceless horror when his cousin announced that Miss Mary Crawford had accepted his hand in marriage. Mary Crawford, of all people — an immoral, callous, indiscriminately flirtatious young woman who, to add to these charms, was sister to Henry Crawford. Their friendship had never recovered from that blow, and Mrs Fitzwilliam’s behaviour hardly helped matters. ‘Is there no-one else?’
‘None,’ said Mr Gardiner, and there was a moment of awkward silence before he cleared his throat. ‘Come, I have just found the most marvellous book, you must come and tell me what you think.’ He shepherded him into the study, and Darcy put the matter out of his mind.