"Georgiana," said Fitzwilliam with affectionate amusement, "Are you reading a book of property law?"
"Yes," said Georgiana, for there was no use denying it. She carefully placed her bookmark and closed the book. It was large and heavy and made a soft thudding noise that vibrated through the library table. "I...I am approaching marriageable age, and so I have decided...decided that it is time that I understand how best to protect my inheritance when I marry."
"Is there some particular reason you are worrying that your inheritance might need protecting?" asked Fitzwilliam with just a hint of concern. "A particular husband you have in mind who you do not trust to have your best interests at heart?"
"Oh no!" said Georgiana, realising with pain that her lie had reminded him of Wickham. "Truly, I promise you, I have no intention of marrying any time soon, and no particular husband in mind for when I do. But am I not allowed to wish to understand my responsibilities?"
"Of course," he said. "And I would not wish to discourage you. Perhaps it is a topic I am knowledgeable enough about to offer you help with. If not I can ask the steward, should you so wish it." He opened the book back up to the marked place and looked at her with surprise. "Why the section on entails? You are not the heir, such questions should not trouble you, at least not until you have your own children whose inheritance may need defending."
"What of your children?" asked Georgiana.
"Well...as long as I have children I need not worry either. Pemberley is entailed to the eldest child, regardless of sex." He smiled briefly. "Unlike many other gentlemen, I may have as many daughters as I wish."
This was happy if not unexpected news. "If you did not have children, could you adopt?"
"Adopt?" Fitzwilliam had clearly never considered this possibility. "I suppose...no, no I could not. As I recall, the entail specifies children of the body."
Georgiana's face fell and Fitzwilliam looked at her in confusion. To him her questions must appear to be of purely academic interest. "So if something were to happen to you and you did not have any...children of the body, I would inherit Pemberley?"
"Yes," said Fitzwilliam. "Though I must warn you that I intend to live for a long time, and to provide you with many nephews and nieces. I would not celebrate your ownership just yet, unless there is something you know that I do not."
Despite herself Georgiana blushed, and Fitzwilliam gave her a penetrative look. Damnation.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Nothing!" she said.
He glared, and she felt herself quail. She was absolutely helpless in the face of one of Fitzwilliam's glares.
"I am sorry, Georgiana, but I do not believe you. And I thought we had both promised not to keep secrets from one another."
Georgiana felt a pang of guilt, and sighed. Perhaps it was better to tell him after all.
"You are right, I did promise, and I apologise for lying. But I only kept the truth from you for your own good," she said. He did not seem to find this idea credible. "Before I tell you, however, you must promise not to think of me any differently. And you must remember that I do not think any differently of you."
"Georgiana," said Fitzwilliam, alarmed by her serious tone, "What on Earth is it?"
And so she told him.
Elizabeth was beginning to suspect that Mr Darcy was not the man she'd thought he was.
His portrait stood out from those of the other Darcys, and not only because of Elizabeth's familiarity with him. They were all tall, but many of the other Darcy men had an almost hulking quality that Darcy did not. Even his sister was an imposing figure, though the shy sweetness of her smile undercut any intimidating effect her statuesque figure might otherwise have inspired. Darcy, however, was of a moderate build, despite his height. He looked more like the descendant of scholars than of the sword wielding soldiers and grizzled patriarchs lining the walls of the gallery.
Looking at Darcy's portrait, Elizabeth felt able to examine his features in a way she would never have dared with the real man. Larger than life, his painted features smiled at the world with an expression both good natured and slightly restrained, as if he felt a little self conscious in front of the painter and his intended audience. An audience which did not, one assumed, include Elizabeth, though she had seen him smile in that way at her before.
How strange to be in this house as a tourist, almost a stranger, and yet to know that she could have been mistress of it. And how unexpected the glowing account of him they had received from his housekeeper. She made him seem...almost human. Elizabeth did not know what to think. And what would Darcy think of her, if he knew that she had walked these halls, examining his personal possessions as if they were objects in a museum? Elizabeth had never felt the sting of rejected affection, nor was Netherfield grand enough to attract outside visitors, but she still felt a deep sense of unease imagining Darcy's feelings if he was made aware of her presence.
Elizabeth reminded herself that the housekeeper had said he wouldn't be back until tomorrow at the earliest, and tried to not to feel like a voyeur. After one last, conflicted glance at his portrait she rejoined her aunt and uncle and left the house, never expecting to walk it's halls again.
Elizabeth had spent much of the last few days interrogating herself about her feelings for Mr Darcy.
Could she marry him? For there was still hope from his recent behaviour that he remained willing to marry her.
He was so altered now in her eyes from the man she had rejected those few months ago. He had been so generous and forgiving, though seeing her and her family could only bring him pain. Watching Darcy in his element, welcoming visitors to his house and commanding his loyal servants, it was easy to imagine a happy life by his side as mistress of Pemberley. He would be a good husband, of this Elizabeth was sure. Seeing the kindness with which he treated his sister, the way he gently encouraged Georgiana to inhabit her role as lady of the house, Elizabeth couldn't help but compare his behaviour to the disdain with which her father treated her mother, or the thoughtlessness that Charlotte experienced at the hands of Mr Collins. Would she ever meet such a man again? If intelligence, compassion and a huge fortune were not enough to tempt her into matrimony, perhaps she should admit defeat and remain single forever.
And then there was the fact that he was in love with her. Or had been. Elizabeth had reached the advanced age of twenty one without having ever lost her heart to another, but she had certainly felt the odd romantic pang, such as her ill considered partiality towards Mr Wickham and an embarrassing girlhood infatuation with Charlotte that her friend had kindly pretended not to notice. Darcy's feelings had seemed much stronger than any such passing fancy, if they could inspire him to propose to Elizabeth despite the degradation of linking his family's name with hers. (Despite the marked improvement in Elizabeth's opinion of Mr Darcy, remembering the precise wording of his proposal still made her angry with him) What would it be like to be married to a man who held her in such high esteem?
And what if she grew to esteem him so herself? Elizabeth had always thought Darcy handsome, and had quickly learned to reverse the disdain that had prompted the finality of her rejection of his proposal. But since seeing him at Pemberley there had been an added dimension to her appreciation. It was impossible not to like a man so good natured and generous, and given their history Elizabeth found it impossible not to consider him now as a man. She found herself wondering what would have happened if she had accepted his proposal, how his already open and friendly demeanour towards her would change if there was a stronger bond between them than that of shared acquaintance. When he smiled at her she felt her heart lift and wished to inspire more such smiles. When he offered his hand to help her into a carriage Elizabeth wished to grasp it, to prolong the contact between his strong, delicate hands and her own.
Yes, Elizabeth was strongly beginning to suspect that she would have very much enjoyed being Mrs Darcy. It was a pity that this realisation had come just as the likelihood of this event ever occurring had plummeted to nothing.
She watched Darcy pace the room, his face dark and serious. He appeared to be nearly as upset by the news that Lydia had eloped with Wickham as Elizabeth was herself, though of course he had not broken into tears. And why wouldn't he be upset? Here went any hope of an alliance between their families, any chance of a match between Elizabeth and himself.
Of course this was not the first time she had broken his heart, but it was the first time he had broken hers. Elizabeth took a moment from worrying about Lydia to feel sorry for herself, and curse herself as a fool for only realising what hope for happiness she had held in her hand now that it was gone.
Such selfish meditations were overcome by thoughts of Lydia, and Elizabeth lost herself in tears. It was some minutes before she came back to herself, interrupted by Darcy's voice, speaking in kinder tones than she had once thought him capable of.
"I am afraid you have been long desiring my absence..." he began, and Elizabeth prepared herself for him to make some excuse to leave. This would probably the last time they spoke before he cut himself off from her, and her scandalous family, as quickly as decorum would allow. But then he stopped.
"Miss Bennet..." He looked very unsure of himself. "As you say, this unfortunate affair might have been prevented had I not required of you such secrecy about Mr Wickham's nature, and his history of misdeeds."
Elizabeth had not thought to blame Darcy in any way for her sister's situation, but she had to admit that what he said was true.
"It pains me to further impose upon you, but...there is one more confidence I feel I must share. I realise you already have much on your mind, but this information is relevant to your current distress."
"You can rely on my secrecy," she said. "Please, if it can be of any benefit to Lydia, I would much rather know."
"I am not sure this information can be of benefit to anyone," he said darkly. "But I should tell you nonetheless. As with your sister's...mistake, there is no keeping the truth a secret forever, and you deserve better than to find out the truth about me from gossip."
"Yes," said Mr Darcy. "You see, this not just your family's disgrace but mine as well. It has come to my attention recently that I am not the man I always thought I was. That in fact, Mr Wickham is my brother."
Elizabeth could hardly credit it. Already overwhelmed, she had to sit and let the information sink in.
"So your father, and...and Mrs Wickham..." She looked at him in horror. "Tell me that Wickham is not Georgiana's brother too."
"No!" said Darcy. "No, we are at least spared that disgrace, and that pain. And I am no bastard, Miss Bennet, though part of me wishes I were. Then I would not be so closely tied to a man I disdain, nor so utterly distant from the woman I have always thought of as my sister. I am George Wickham's full brother, the legitimate child of Mr and Mrs Wickham. Georgiana is a true Darcy, and no blood relative of his. Or mine."
"Oh," said Elizabeth, for the moment all thought of her own sisters pushed from her mind. "Poor Georgiana. Does she know?"
"It was she who discovered it," said Mr Darcy (as Elizabeth could no longer help but think of him. The name Mr Wickham had entirely different connotations, especially now) "There was a letter addressed to my mother... but the details do not matter, not at present." He frowned at a spot on the ceiling. "Since finding out the truth I have sought to prepare Georgiana to take her rightful place as heir to Pemberley. But as you have seen yourself she is still not ready." This was undeniably true. Georgiana had tried her best to act as hostess to Darcy's guests, but she was still very hesitant and clearly found her responsibilities as younger sister taxing. How would she cope as the eldest and heir? "I had hoped to keep the truth a secret a little longer, and perhaps I can..." Darcy shook his head. "I am sorry, I am being distracted by thoughts of my own problems, I have had so few people to talk of them with. What matters is your sister and my... brother. I am not the powerful man I have been raised to consider myself, but what resources I have to command are at your disposal. Your family and mine must do everything we can to force this...unfortunate situation to a more happy conclusion."
"Yes," said Elizabeth. Everything else was strange and unexpected, but that was one truth she could fully hold onto. "Yes we must."