Darcy stared into the cradle at the swaddled bundle. He envied the sleeping child, who had no knowledge of what was happening around her. She did not yet know how grievously her father had failed her mother.
He should never have suggested the marriage. It had been perfect in terms of wealth, connections and convenience. He had told himself he was looking out for his sickly cousin, protecting her from an overbearing mother and allowing her space to thrive. Instead, he had been the cause of her death.
She had had a troubled pregnancy, often confined to bed; but Anne had weathered it all, determined from the very start that she would bear a healthy child. And, Darcy mused, looking at the wrinkled bundle before him, she most definitely had.
But it had cost her everything. She had poured every ounce of her strength into this child, and now she had none left. She had slipped into a sleep soon after the child had been delivered, and Dr Elmes had confessed that it was possible she would never wake.
This was his fault. If he had wished to help his cousin, he could have found a way to do so without marrying her. Had he never proposed the marriage, she would not have felt she owed him an heir. He should have swallowed his distaste of society and found himself a bride elsewhere, and not subjected his cousin to the ordeal she had suffered.
He turned at the sound of Mrs Reynolds’ voice.
“Dr Elmes wishes to see you,” she said softly.
He stalked away from the cradle, rushing through the halls towards the chambers that held his wife. He arrived, to the doctor waiting at the door.
Dr Elmes shook his head. Darcy closed his eyes, leaning against the wall heavily.
“She is awake at present?” he managed to force out.
The doctor nodded. “She is, and she has asked for you.”
Darcy took a deep breath before he opened the door. Anne lay in her bed, pale and weaker than he had ever seen her. Her mother sat on the opposite side of the bed, her face grave. She was silent as he made his way to the chair beside the bed.
“The child?” Anne asked, hoarsely. “She is well?”
Darcy nodded. “She sleeps peacefully.”
“She is healthy?”
“A fine big child,” Lady Catherine said.
Anne smiled weakly. “I apologise that it was not a son-”
“Do not apologise,” he ordered tersely. “Do not. It is I who should be apologising.”
Anne looked at him. “You blame yourself. I knew you would. Foolish man. Do you think you would have been able to convince me? It is you who always say I resemble my mother.”
Darcy almost smiled. “Anne-”
“Yes, that reminds me,” she interrupted. “Do not name the child for me. Anne Darcy is not a fortunate name, it seems.” Darcy blinked.
“Very well,” he said. “You shall name her.”
She paused. “Julia. Julia Catherine.”
There had not been a crowd of this size at a Meryton assembly in quite some time. There was no doubt as to the reason behind such an exceptional attendance: Netherfield House, vacant for some time, had been let. The gentleman now in possession was to make an appearance at the ball. Though he had made the acquaintance of some in the neighbourhood, there were many still eager to meet him.
Few were more eager to catch a glimpse of their new neighbour than Mrs Bennet, whose husband’s estate bordered Netherfield. The nearness of his house was not the principle reason that she wished to make his acquaintance, however - she had already decided that he was to marry one of her five daughters. As he had five thousand a year, she was sure he would do any one of her girls very well.
At length, the Netherfield party arrived, consisting of three gentleman and two ladies (rather smaller than had been reported). Before long, word began circulating as to the guests Mr Bingley had brought. Mrs Bennet eagerly related what she knew to her oldest daughters.
“Those ladies are Mr Bingley’s sisters. Are they not fine ladies? The lace on their gowns! That one there is married to that gentleman - Mr Hurst is his name,” she informed them. “The other lady is Miss Bingley, and she is to keep house for Mr Bingley. But the other gentleman,” she said, dropping her voice to a loud whisper, “he is one of Mr Bingley’s oldest friends. A widower from the North of England, with two grand estates in Derbyshire and Kent! Bingley’s income is nothing to his. They say he has not looked at a woman since his wife died. But you never know, dears. My darling Jane, you are so beautiful, I am sure he must fall in love with you,” she said to her oldest daughter. Jane Bennet was indeed very beautiful, and though she blushed at her mother's words, her sister Elizabeth merely smiled.
“Oh! Mr Bingley is coming this way!” Mrs Bennet cried. “Where are Lydia and Kitty? Oh, they are dancing. Well, never mind. Mary! Where has that girl got to?” she whispered, glancing around. “Run and fetch her, Lizzy. No! Do not, for he is almost here!”
Elizabeth could not but suppress a smile at her mother’s words, but hoped that she would recover enough to address Mr Bingley with something approaching sensible conversation. Indeed, Mrs Bennet did recover enough to greet Mr Bingley with all the attention that was his due as a single man of good fortune. He was raised in her esteem even further by his immediate request of Jane’s dancing the second with him - though Mrs Bennet wished he had not already promised his first to Charlotte Lucas.
Mr Bingley’s open, friendly manners earned him the approval of everyone present. All were happy for the addition of such an affable man into local society. Consensus was not so easily reached on the subject of his friend, Mr Darcy. He spoke little, and only to his own party. He declined to be introduced to any other person, and danced only one dance with Miss Bingley, and one with Mrs Hurst. No one knew whether to put his behaviour down to the fact of his widowerhood, or to declare him a proud, disagreeable man.
Not even Elizabeth Bennet could make him out, and she fancied herself a student of character. This difficulty was compounded by her hearing, quite by accident, an exchange between Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley. Gentlemen were scarce at this particular assembly, and she had been obliged to sit out two dances. Mr Darcy was standing near her, so that when addressed by his friend, she could hear their words perfectly.
“Come, Darcy, will you not dance?” Bingley entreated. “I hate to see you standing about in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
“I certainly shall not,” Darcy replied, firmly. “You know how I detest it.”
“You cannot glower in the corners at every dance.”
“Might I remind you my intention was to avoid this gathering entirely? I am here on your behalf, Bingley. I have danced with your sisters. I am not acquainted with any other lady present; I do not owe anything further.”
“But surely you can be introduced! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in all my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty.”
Elizabeth could not but feel for Mr Darcy, nor could she fault Mr Bingley for attempting to draw his friend out. She wondered at the story behind Mr Darcy’s wife - who she was, and how long ago she had died. His mourning period was surely over, for him for be attending an assembly at all. And yet, he seemed reluctant to enter society again.
Darcy suppressed a sigh. “Some are tolerable, I suppose, but none handsome enough to tempt me,” he said coldly but firmly. “I am not in humour to dance, Bingley. You had better return to your partner, and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. What an abominable statement to make! She looked around, wondering if anyone else had heard the pronouncement, but it seemed no one had. Curious, she turned her eyes back to the gentlemen, but they had separated - Mr Bingley returning to finish his dance with Jane and Mr Darcy taking another turn about the room. His expression was closed, almost haughty, and he did not so much as glance at the other guests at the assembly. She wondered if this ill-humour was typical for him, or whether he was just not disposed to enjoy himself tonight. She could not imagine Mr Bingley having a friend who behaved in this manner often, his character being so very different. Perhaps it would have been as well if Mr Darcy had remained at home rather than accompanying his friend. His behaviour would certainly not recommend himself to the neighbourhood. It was unlikely, at the very least, to reflect badly on Mr Bingley.
Elizabeth had to admit she was eagerly anticipating another opportunity to sketch his character. It would be a challenge, of course, but one she believed she would enjoy very much.
Darcy’s relief at being free of the assembly was tempered only by his being obliged to suffer the company of Miss Bingley for some time upon their return to Netherfield. Bingley was in raptures about the evening, the people, and particularly Miss Bennet. Darcy, though he did not agree with him about the agreeableness of the first subjects, did acknowledge Miss Bennet’s beauty, though he declared she smiled too much.
Once he established that he had dallied long enough to be polite, Darcy got to his feet.
“Oh, Mr Darcy, are you leaving us so soon?” Miss Bingley asked in her usual simpering tone. She had been paying him increasingly obvious attention since Anne had died. It vexed him greatly, but he had never given her any encouragement, and had made his determination not to remarry very clear. There was little else he could do but hope she would accept this fact soon.
“I am,” he said, “you will excuse me.” With a curt bow, and a warm farewell from Bingley, Darcy retired.