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.
The Darcys, father and daughter, returned to Pemberley several weeks later. Darcy, though he would not admit it, could not help feeling disturbed at the picture the Gardiners had painted of their niece.
Four years — a great deal could happen in four years. He smiled gently at Anne, who eagerly pressed her face against the window as they climbed the incline that hid their home from them. Her eyes flashed with pleasure as the beauty of it appeared beneath them, highlighted by the last rays of the setting sun, and she laughed in a moment of perfect contentment.
His life had been utterly changed, transformed beyond recognition, long before Rosemary’s death; there was no doubting that Anne was his daughter, naturally, but often he could only observe her in wonder, uncertain as to how she had come to be, lost in that peculiar rapt adoration he had only felt twice before in his life. Sometimes, he thought he could feel the echo of their names reverbating through his blood: Georgiana. Elizabeth. Anne. It was almost beyond words, like lightning out of a clear sky. He knew that others’ experience of parenthood had been wildly different; even those who loved their children, Bingley, Georgiana, Henry, seemed to do so — moderately, as he had expected he himself would. Yet nothing in his life ever turned out quite like he expected.
As they walked in, he allowed Mary to divest him of his greatcoat, and Anne of her coverings. Halfway through her part of the procedure, Anne stopped and shrieked, ‘Nana!’ and flung herself at her aunt, her coat still dangling from one arm. Georgiana smiled and held out her arms to her niece.
‘Give your aunt a moment,’ Darcy chided, as Anne showed no signs of stopping her chatter, and she giggled and came to a halt halfway through her latest sentence. Georgiana shifted her to the other arm and looked at him gravely, her eyes as wide and dark as those of the little girl crouched beneath his covers, hiding from monsters under her bed. His instincts alerted him to her distress, and he was quickly at her side, his long strides easily making nothing of the distance.
‘Georgiana?’ he said quietly, gesturing for the housekeeper and other servants to go with a sharp jerk of his head. ‘What is it?’
She drew in a deep, steady breath, and summoned forth a serene smile. ‘We should put Anne and Stephen to bed first, then we can talk.’
He was not certain why, at that moment, he was overwhelmed by admiration for the beautiful young lady who was his sister; he was almost more proud of her than he could say — her presence of mind, her composure, the capable, quietly indomitable, lady she had become. Not that he would say. For her part, Georgiana’s childhood belief in her brother’s flawless consistency of word and deed, her immense gratitude coupled with great affection, remained almost unabated with the passage of time. She did not speak of it either; but they understand each other well enough, and had only grown closer and more like since the day she was first exposed to the fallacies and cruelties of the world, so ably represented in the form of George Wickham.
‘Aunt Nana, Papa,’ Anne said sleepily, ‘stay with me —’
‘We shan’t go until you are safe and asleep,’ Georgiana assured her.
‘I am here,’ Darcy added. Anne smiled blissfully as they spoke in low voices; in the room across the hall, Stephen slept peacefully. Both, unable to rid themselves of a deep-seated expectation of loss, vacillated between the children’s rooms, simply watching as they slept.
‘She is so like you, Fitzwilliam,’ Georgiana said, smiling at her brother tremulously. Her hand trembled slightly, and without thinking, he reached out and stilled the irregular motion by clasping his own around it. This time she caught a shallow, quavering breath, and in the dark he heard a suspicious sniffle.
She gasped suddenly, and turned, clinging tightly to him with her head against his shoulder, the slightly cold tip of her nose against his neck startling him into jumping a little. ‘I’m sorry —’
‘No, dearest, I was only surprised; now tell me what is wrong.’ He winced slightly at his tone, which could not be called anything but autocratic; but as if she were a child again, Georgiana replied with instant and unwavering obedience.
He was not entirely certain what to say to this. He and Rosemary had not really ever quarrelled, as such; even when they disagreed, they discussed the matter civilly, or stayed out of each other’s way until their emotions had simmered down again. Of course, an attachment such as Aldborough and Georgiana’s must be rather different in nature, even after nearly four years of marriage.
‘Is that unusual?’ He had always respected his sister’s privacy in personal matters; but he was beginning to feel privacy rather overrated in certain circumstances.
‘No — yes — I don’t know.’ She caught a sob in her throat. ‘Fitzwilliam, I — we — were going to have — I conceived again.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Georgiana had spoken, in passing, of her regret at her inability to so much as conceive another child; Stephen was all the more precious because of that particular trial. Yet it had never seemed to give her what could properly be called grief; her rocky relationship with her grandmother-in-law, and the difficult transition from Miss Darcy, free to do whatever she liked, answering only to him, to the constrained Lady Aldborough, occupied far more of her time and attention.
‘I thought you did. Her ladyship finds it terrible irksome of you to be so observant about such things.’ She laughed lightly. ‘Of course, anything that irks her is praiseworthy in my eyes.’
‘Georgiana . . .’
‘I lost the baby, Fitzwilliam. And he didn’t care!’
Darcy flinched. He adored his sister, naturally, but it felt terribly awkward to be privy to another couple’s personal concerns. He had interfered once and once only, and sworn off it after that; human relationships were not rational, not like chess or even the riddles he took a slightly surreptitious pleasure in. Those could be won, with strategy and reason and logic; not so human beings. He wondered if Georgiana had made the same mistake; or perhaps it had been Aldborough.
‘Are you certain he did not?’ he inquired gently.
‘Perhaps he did; but he only said it would be all right — and then that he had urgent business in town.’ She sighed, the painful grip of her fingers on his shoulders relaxing a bit. ‘And you know how she is.’
He knew it was a bad sign when she started referring to people only by pronouns. ‘Yes, dear,’ he agreed cautiously.
‘I couldn’t bear it, we quarrelled and he went away and she insisted upon dictating everything down to when I slept; she insisted that I walk more steadily.’
His eyes widened. ‘Is she that dreadful?’ he asked sympathetically. Georgiana knew better than to take offence at the implied disbelief, and only nodded, pressing her face more tightly against his neck, her fingernails digging into his shoulders once more. He sighed.
‘She says I cannot keep running away from my responsibilities.’ Georgiana stepped back and grimaced.
‘You are not running away,’ he protested immediately. ‘We are re neighbours and I am your brother. What else am I here for?’
The slightly sharp look which had entered her eyes as she spoke of her grandmother-in-law vanished. With a soft smile, she reached out and pressed her hand against his cheek, shaking her head. ‘Fitzwilliam, you oughtn’t say things like that.’
Darcy looked at her blankly. ‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Papa!’ Anne sat up in bed, sobbing brokenly, and both father and aunt raced to her side.
‘Anne, Anne,’ Georgiana said soothingly; Anne quieted a very little.
‘Papa, please — please — Papa!’ she cried incoherently, and he picked her up, rocking her back and forth.
‘Stay,’ she said insistently, ‘stay — Papa — ’
‘I am right here,’ he said, interrupting her fearful rambling, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I promise.’
She rubbed her eyes with her fists and looked up at her father and aunt plaintively. ‘Papa stay?’
‘Yes, Papa is staying,’ Darcy said, pressing a kiss on her forehead. She put her arms around his neck and climbed into his lap, then turned around.
‘Aunt Nana stay?’
‘As long as I can,’ Georgiana promised. ‘And I shall always come back.’
Anne sniffled. ‘Mama not stay.’
‘Mama was sick,’ Darcy said quietly, ‘but she would have stayed if she could.’
‘You sick? Aunt Nana sick?’
Georgiana took a step closer, and pushed the child’s dark hair out of her eyes. ‘No, darling,’ she said softly, ‘Papa and Aunt Nana are not sick, and we are not going anywhere, do you understand?’
Anne smiled, then laid her head on her father’s shoulder, letting her eyelids drop. ‘Tired,’ she confessed. ‘Bad sleep.’
‘Very bad,’ Darcy agreed, settling her back in her bed with a final kiss. After several minutes, her breathing calmed and slowed. He sighed, raking a hand through his hair.
‘You don’t mind if I stay longer this time?’ Georgiana asked abruptly. ‘Lord Aldborough said he would not be back until after Christmas, and I would like to spend it with my family.’
‘Of course not,’ he said, silencing the uneasiness that welled in his breast. Something niggled at his consciousness, and both fidgeted for an awkward moment as they tried to pinpoint the latest internal disturbance.
‘Stephen!’ gasped Georgiana.
‘It’s been over two hours.’ In a burst of parental paranoia, they raced across the hall to find the young Lord Courtland sleeping in perfect contentment, and could not keep from smiling at one another ruefully.
‘They think I am very foolish,’ Georgiana said distantly.
‘They do not understand,’ Darcy replied, briefly brushing his finger along his nephew’s round cheek. Stephen was so like Georgiana at that age, it was positively uncanny. For a moment the brother and sister looked at one another, remembering those long, cold, grey days after their father’s last illness struck, when they had clung to one another, all that was left of the family that had been. It had not, perhaps, been a very good family, but it was theirs, and until Mr Darcy and Lady Anne joined the nine lost brothers and sisters, they themselves could not understand, what it was to be left alone, with only one another to anchor themselves.
Georgiana sighed. ‘Thank you, Fitzwilliam. Not just for this — everything. You know.’
He did not pretend to misunderstand; they were far beyond that. ‘You are welcome, my dear.’
Anne and Stephen painstakingly built a tower of blocks, which Darcy thought a remarkable facsimile of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. With an effort of concentration, he looked away from his daughter and nephew, and back to the exceedingly dull (and illiterate) letter he was reading. Georgiana sat at the pianoforte, softly singing to her own accompaniment. She looked more peaceful than he had seen her for a great many months, and he sighed, returning to the letter.
Once his business was completed, he watched the wildly careening tower and the two children carefully. Georgiana had come over to stand behind him, and smiled serenely. ‘They seem very fond of each other, do they not?’ she asked.
Darcy winced as the tower fell with a crash. Anne stared, then with a stormy, resolute expression, began building it up again. ‘Yes,’ he replied. It was a moment before the faintly speculative tone in his sister’s voice caught up with him, and he straightened. ‘Georgiana,’ he said warningly.
‘Oh, I wasn’t really thinking of that,’ she said. He had only to raise an eyebrow before she blushed and laughed. ‘I can see the temptation, though! I always thought Lady Catherine was nonsensical before.’
Perhaps if she had been the one planned for, she still would. He tactfully kept this thought to himself. ‘They are three years old, Georgiana,’ he said sternly. ‘Any man who lays a finger on my Anne before she is twenty is — ’
Georgiana laughed gaily. ‘Fitzwilliam, you shall be the most terrifying father imaginable — at least to the hapless young men who will flock after this Miss Darcy.’
Darcy’s shrug said more eloquently than words that such pusillanimous men were not worthy of his own time, let alone Anne’s. ‘That is a long while away,’ he said mildly, determined not to think of such horrors until there was no other choice.
‘It will come more quickly than you think,’ Georgiana threatened, and walked over to the window.
This was her room — she had loved it even as a child, as her father before her, and even once she left home, Darcy could not convince himself that it would ever belong to anyone but her. Rosemary had never liked it — the bright sunlight hurt her eyes, she said — and so it was saved for Georgiana. He had walked into it a few times when she was not present, and it only seemed dull and dark and empty without her, despite the fact that it had the finest view of probably any room in the house.
‘I wish I could stay forever,’ she said, leaning her forehead against the window. ‘I shall not impose much longer, however.’
‘You know, you are always welcome. Pemberley is your home,’ he objected instantly, and she smiled.
‘Yes, I know. I do not like to think of Lady Aldborough all alone, though — you know, Fitzwilliam, everything is clearer here. It’s almost like we live in another world, is it not?’
‘Yes.’ He hesitated, then decided that mere advice did not precisely constitute interference — at least not with his own sister — and went on, ‘Georgiana, I agree, you should go back to Aincourt. And I think, when Aldborough returns, that you ought to — talk.’
Georgiana turned away and stared at him. Anne carefully placed another block on their steadily building tower; this one was rather straighter than the last. Stephen mischievously reached out to knock it down; she slapped his hand away with a fierce scowl.
‘Talk,’ Georgiana repeated blankly. ‘What do you mean? Of course we talk.’
‘You talk, but not about the child you lost — nor about your difficulties with my aunt — nor your concerns for Stephen — not anything of consequence, I daresay. Georgiana, even Rosemary and I talked more than you two — you, who love each other! I hope you still do?’
‘Yes, yes,’ she said hastily, looking down. He walked over and wiped the tears off her cheeks.
‘Did he even know about the child, Georgiana?’ he asked softly. Her dark eyes darted up and met his.
‘I — I thought he did,’ she stammered.
‘Did you tell him?’
‘No, of course not.’ She frowned. ‘He ought to have known. You would have known!’
Darcy felt the beginnings of a headache, and briefly pressed the tips of his fingers against his right temple. ‘You did not marry me, Georgiana. Perhaps you should sit down.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I think I need to impart some brotherly words of wisdom before you return to Aincourt. Sit.’ Georgiana obeyed instantly. Possibly another reason the dowager dislikes me, he thought wryly.
‘Aldborough is not me, Georgiana, and you cannot expect him to be. It is completely unfair to both him and yourself.’
As the tower wobbled, Stephen began taking the top blocks off, pointing at one part of it. Anne, who had opened her mouth to scream, stopped and looked at it pensively before assisting him.
‘Aldborough is not an especially . . . sensitive man, Georgiana. You knew what he was like before you married him.’
He gave her a sharp look, but her expression was perfectly serious.
‘Perhaps our closeness has made this more difficult. Neither you nor I are especially communicative people, because we expect to be understood without taking much trouble to see that it comes about. For whatever reasons, you and I have often been able to understand each other without very many words. You cannot expect that from Aldborough. In some ways he is greatly my superior — he will never embarrass you in a ballroom, for instance — ’
‘Neither did you,’ Georgiana protested. Darcy smiled.
‘You were only out a few months before you became engaged to Aldborough. With adequate time I am certain I would have achieved it. As I was saying, there are some ways, such as his social abilities, in which Aldborough is my superior.’ He paused, then added, ‘And yours.’ Georgiana’s brows knit together. ‘You shall have to explain yourself to him — preferably in small words — or he simply will not understand. Men are in some ways very unlike women, but even women cannot know for certain if they are not told, especially if there have been misunderstandings between you before, as I suspect there have been.’
There were several minutes while she considered this. ‘Even you?’
He smiled. ‘Even I. I have made this same error, more times than I can say.’ His expression turned very grave, almost sombre, and his eyes settled on the small curving bridge that led into the woods. Georgiana’s breath caught — she could not have said why — and she pressed her fingers against her brother’s.
‘I think, I think you are right.’
A smile lit up for his face for a bare moment. ‘Am I not always?’ She slapped his wrist lightly, and they laughed together before turning to their children.
Three weeks after Georgiana departed, leaving Pemberley very large and quiet and empty, a servant entered the study and announced, ‘Lord Aldborough, sir.’
Darcy sighed and set his pen down. ‘Bring him in, please.’
‘Darcy,’ Lord Aldborough said curtly.
Darcy inclined his head in response and gestured for him to sit down. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’ he enquired with a faint tilt of his eyebrow.
‘I should hope so,’ the other man replied harshly. ‘Where is my wife?’
Darcy shrugged. After a very long and rather melancholy day, he was in no mood to coddle his wayward brother-in-law.
‘Could you possibly be more explicit?’
Darcy sighed and pushed letter, pen, and inkpot away in a sudden violent motion. ‘She left nearly three weeks ago, Aldborough. At least according to the letter I received last Wednesday, she arrived there safely over a fortnight past. Doubtless if you had gone directly home rather than coming here first, you would have found her.’
‘She did not write to me,’ Aldborough remarked. It was odd, Darcy reflected; the petulant expression would have better suited a child of seven than a man of seven and thirty.
‘Georgiana and I have corresponded regularly since she could hold a pen. Perhaps if you had written to her, she would have replied. Or — ’ he lifted a shoulder — ‘perhaps not.’
‘My grandmother said she stayed here for three months. I hope you are not encouraging her in her negligence.’
‘You correspond with your grandmother and not your wife?’ Darcy, in regard for his nerves, ignored the second half of Aldborough’s statement. The other man’s lips thinned.
‘That is not relevant to the point, Darcy, the point is — ’
‘The point, Aldborough, is that my sister’s life is so miserable that she would rather be here, with me, than at Aincourt, with you and yours. Now, while I perfectly understand her preference for Pemberley, the other raises some interesting questions, does it not? My sister is hardly flighty. Fond as she is of us both — the plural refers to my daughter and myself, incidentally — she would not neglect her responsibilities, if indeed she has, without considerable incentive.’
Aldborough’s eyes narrowed. ‘I fail to see what this has to do with my grandmother.’
Darcy sincerely hoped age would not so degrade his own mind. ‘My aunt has, quite deliberately, undermined and challenged Georgiana’s position at every turn.’
‘Those are women’s issues. They must resolve it between themselves. It does not concern me.’
Darcy felt his patience nearing its demise. ‘Very well, then. It does not concern you. Georgiana will continue to spend weeks on end at Pemberley, your grandmother will rule Aincourt as she always has, and you may return to London and enjoy your life there. You do understand that this is not a prospect either my sister or I find particularly distressing. Indeed, it is so personally convenient I am almost inclined to encourage her.’
He met his brother’s gaze unwaveringly, until Aldborough groaned and dropped his forehead onto his hands, his elbows resting on the desk. Darcy prudently moved the inkpot to the left and waited.
Aldborough, his voice muffled, said, ‘I have been a fool.’
‘Yes, I know,’ Darcy replied kindly.
‘I knew that my grandmother was — unkind — to Georgiana. It is just — she has lost so much. All her children — her granddaughter — I have tried to talk to her but she — I do not know. Somehow I end up agreeing with her.’
‘Perhaps you only need proper incentives to keep your priorities firmly in mind.’
Aldborough raised his swollen eyes to stare at him again. ‘What sort of incentives?’
‘If you do not convince my aunt of the error of her ways, Georgiana will take up permanent residence here. I would be only to glad to have them, you know. I am very fond of Stephen.’
‘Eurgh,’ mumbled Aldborough. ‘Oh God, Stephen. Does he even know me?’
‘He will probably recognise you. The artist you commissioned for your portrait was very talented. By the way, you probably ought to mind your tongue a little more carefully around him. Children are very impressionable.’
‘Very well.’ Aldborough pressed his fingers against his eyes. ‘I am more sorry than I can say. Georgiana must think me an utter cad.’
‘Not quite,’ said Darcy neutrally, biting his lip. ‘You should apologise to her, however. You are not married to me.’
‘Of course not.’ Lord Aldborough lifted his head up and sat back. ‘Darcy . . . that is not really why she left, is it?’
He hesitated, then shook his head. ‘No.’
‘I just stood there like a fool — Good God, I had no idea!’ Darcy coughed. ‘I beg your pardon. I did not know she had even conceived. Frankly, the chances seemed rather against it.’
Darcy winced, scarlet creeping up his cheeks. ‘She thought you knew.’
‘How on earth was I supposed to know?’ Aldborough stopped. ‘She truly thought I had known?’
‘Then she — when she told me she had lost it, she must have thought —’ He groaned again. ‘Why did she think I knew?’
Darcy sighed. ‘I did.’
‘She told you and not me?’
‘No, she did not need to tell me. I guessed.’
‘Oh.’ Aldborough considered this. ‘Darcy, I am not you. Surely she does not expect me to be?’
Darcy looked away. ‘Aldborough, I would bear in mind that her upbringing was very sheltered. All the men in her life have been either Fitzwilliams or — ’
‘George Wickham,’ suppied Aldborough, his expression darkening. Darcy raised his eyebrows.
‘She told you about that?’
‘Before we were married. She talked more then.’
‘She was sixteen years old.’ He added pointedly, ‘She is only twenty now. You might have some consideration for her on that score, at least. She was a girl raised by a young man. I was perhaps too lenient — whatever she wished was done for her in an instant. As Miss Darcy, she had the means and the freedom to do anything she liked. You know what it is, to go from child one day to adult the next, with almost no warning. I should think you could extend at least a little compassion and understanding to her.’
‘It is easy to forget how young she was — she is. She is so capable; and she does not look it.’ He frowned. ‘It’s late. You would not mind my imposition on your hospitality?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Darcy. ‘Incidentally, it might be easier for you to settle your issues with my sister and your grandmother by yourself.’
Aldborough glanced at him quizzically. Darcy sighed and elaborated.
‘Stephen is here. I asked Georgiana to let him stay for awhile. He should not be at Aincourt, when there is so much — ill-will — about.’
‘You think of everything, don’t you?’
‘Very well. Georgiana and I will come for Stephen in — March?’
‘March would be very convenient,’ Darcy agreed. ‘Thank you. He and Anne are very fond of each other, and it’s good for her to have a companion of her own age.’
A distinctly thoughtful expression crossed Lord Aldborough’s face. ‘Do you suppose an arr — ’
Despite his long friendship with Aldborough and great affection for his sister, Darcy was glad to have Pemberley back to himself, fully restored to its customary serenity. The children, vocal as they were in expressing displeasure or entertainment, lacked the sophistication for serious discord. Darcy failed to suppress his pleased feelings as he watched his brother-in-law depart.
At first, he had assumed that there would be other children, until those first awkward encounters which had ultimately produced Anne. As soon as Rosemary conceived, his gratitude at the respite was such that he had known he could never put himself through that experience again. Perhaps it was selfish, but his tormented conscience finally insisted upon being heard, and obeyed. The intense remorse coupled with considerable bewilderment (he could not even decide which woman he was actually being unfaithful to — Elizabeth for being with Rosemary, or Rosemary for wishing she was Elizabeth) had made that time positively hellish. It was only six weeks before he realised Rosemary had conceived, but even now it seemed an interminable length of time.
Naturally, he had been fond of his nephew simply for that reason — his sister’s child could not but be dear to him. Then, as Georgiana spent more and more time at Pemberley, he fond himself increasingly drawn to the little dark-haired boy. Darcy had no intentions of usurping Aldborough’s paternal prerogatives, but it seemed his brother-in-law had little interest in so young a child, and left his education almost wholly up to Georgiana. So, in effect there was nothing to usurp. Georgiana’s son tugged at his heart almost as much as Anne did.
The first time Stephen called him ‘Papa,’ it took an almost painful effort of will to correct him. While his better impulses were still in command, he took his nephew’s hand, and marched him over to the miniatures, where a portrait of Aldborough was included. ‘That man is your papa, Stephen,’ he said gently.
Stephen considered it. ‘Not like me,’ he pronounced. ‘You like me.’
Darcy hoped he was correctly interpreting when he said, ‘That is because your mama is my sister. Do you know what a sister is?’
‘No, not exactly. It means that my parents were your mama’s parents.’
‘Yes,’ Stephen said, ‘you is Papa, and Mama is Anne’s mama, so Anne is my sister.’
‘No,’ said Darcy, then sighed. ‘I can explain more when you are a little older, but I am not your papa, and your mama is not Anne’s mama, and Anne is not your sister. I cannot be your papa because your mama is my sister. That means that you and Anne are cousins.’
Stephen frowned, looking at the miniatures. Aldborough, and Georgiana, and Darcy himself, and George Wickham, and Rosemary, and Lady Anne, and Colonel Fitzwilliam. ‘Mama says Kurnitz is my cousin. Like that?’
‘Just like that,’ said Darcy, smiling. ‘Kurnitz’s papa was your grandmama’s brother.’
‘You is Mama’s brother?’ Stephen enquired, his solemn dark eyes brightening.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Oh,’ Stephen said. ‘Comcated.’
‘Very complicated,’ agreed Darcy.
‘Wish you was Papa,’ he said mournfully. Darcy’s hand tightened on his nephew’s shoulder, his throat tightening; he was rescued by a harried Mrs Reynolds, if indeed rescuing it could be called, given the circumstance.
‘Oh, Mr Darcy,’ she wailed, ‘she’s here!’
He spared a moment to wish the people around him would stop using so many pronouns, and kindly replied, ‘Mrs Reynolds, I do not understand. Who is here? Why is it so very terrible?’
Mrs Reynolds gasped for breath and he gently sat her down. ‘It’s . . . it’s her ladyship, sir,’ she said, ‘I came as fast as I could.’
‘You should not exhaust yourself just for Lady Aldborough,’ Darcy said with a frown. I should have expected this. How could the season be complete without a visit from every member of the family? ‘You must take better care of yourself, Mrs Reynolds.’
She sighed. ‘It’s not Lady Aldborough, sir. It’s Lady Catherine.’
Lady Catherine de Bourgh marched into her nephew’s study with an expression so resolute that several centuries’ worth of wind and water could not have altered it. A handsome young woman followed in her wake.
The young lady appeared to be striving for a meek look; if so, it was a failure. Her dark eyes were stony as she followed Darcy’s every movement.
‘Cecily,’ he said in surprise, ‘I did not know you were here.’
Lady Catherine sniffed. ‘If you were not so lax with your servants — ’
‘We can discuss that some other time,’ Darcy said tersely, briefly rubbing his temple. A headache was brewing, and extended proximity to his aunt would not help matters. ‘What brings you to Pemberley, madam?’
‘It was a very difficult journey,’ declared Lady Catherine. ‘One driver — quite, quite reckless; if he were in my employ — ’
Both cousins sighed.
‘— very nearly overturned another carriage. Why, the occupants could have been killed!’ She paused for dramatic effect.
A pity, thought Darcy, that such a fine education went to waste.
‘As could the driver,’ remarked Cecily. Lady Catherine scowled down her aquiline nose at her niece.
‘And well might he deserve it. However, I know my duty.’
Darcy cringed, feeling about sixteen. ‘Lady Catherine, I fear you have the advantage of me — what do you mean by duty?’
‘You might offer me refreshment. I had expected better manners of my sister’s son.’
Clearly she was in one of her moods. Usually he could do no wrong in her eyes. Darcy sighed and sent for the requested food. ‘Please, Lady Catherine, would you mind explaining this matter to me, before I expire of impatience?’
‘Sarcasm does not befit you, Darcy,’ declared her ladyship.
Cecily raised her eyes to the ceiling, and smiled mischievously. Darcy bit his lip in response.
‘But since you are so insistent upon hearing it, I shall tell you. You must act!’
‘Lady Catherine,’ said Darcy, slowly and deliberately, ‘what is happening?’
‘Your cousin — my niece — the most ungrateful, impertinent — ’
‘Fitzwilliam,’ Cecily said sweetly, ‘what my aunt means to say, is that she has abducted me, in order to prevent my marriage. I suppose I should not have threatened to elope.’
‘Abdu — to elo — ’ He stared at her in horror, then sat down, pressing the heel of one hand against his brow.
‘You see, I — I have fallen in love,’ she said, the trace of hesitation collaborating her assertion more convincingly than the most violent declarations of undying affection could have. Lady Catherine sniffed once more.
‘Would you like a handkerchief, aunt?’ Darcy snapped.
‘Don’t be crude, young man.’
‘Then, since you clearly have no intentions of doing so yourself, perhaps you could allow my cousin to explain — without commentary.’
‘Well, I never!’
‘Cecilia,’ Darcy said wearily, ‘pray continue.’
‘Thank you, cousin.’ Cecily clasped her hands. ‘As I was saying, I have fallen in love. You needn’t look so sceptical.’
Clearly it was going to be one of those weeks. Darcy struggled for his customary composure. Cecily, easily the most friendly and charismatic of the Fitzwilliam clan, had never shown more than a passing interest in men outside the family. There had been no lack of suitors — their uncle had dowered her well, if not splendidly — but she was too fastidious to accept any of the several who had requested her hand. At least, fastidious was what her cousins called it; flighty was the elder generation’s word of choice.
‘Who is the fortunate gentleman?’ he asked politely. Clearly the fellow had failed to meet with Lady Catherine’s approval; although that was hardly a daunting task.
‘Gentleman!’ interjected Lady Catherine disdainfully. ‘You impudent chit, how dare you disgrace the family in such a fashion? Your union will be a disgrace — your name will never be spoken by any of us — ’
Darcy’s dark blue eyes flashed. ‘I must ask, Lady Catherine, that you do not presume to speak for me, at least, until I have made my own judgment. Cecily, does this man have a name?’
‘James Hammond,’ Cecily said softly. ‘He is the curate of the Hunsford parish.’
‘A curate?’ Darcy repeated dazedly, briefly covering his eyes. ‘You are — you intended to elope with a curate? What sort of man is your Mr Hammond, Cecily?’
‘He refused, Fitzwilliam,’ she said eagerly, ‘he said he would not dishonour me or allow me to dishonour myself in such a fashion.’
‘Thank heavens one of you had some sense!’ Darcy forced his breathing back to normal. ‘How did you meet?’
They ignored Lady Catherine’s ravings (such goings-on under my own roof!) as Cecily began the tale. Well over a year before, they had met for the first time. The Collinses had left to attend the marriage of one of their cousins (Darcy turned cold, then hot, then cold again, but did not dare ask in Lady Catherine’s presence), and in his place Mr Hammond, a young curate, had delivered several weeks’ worth of sermons. Lady Catherine had sent Cecily to deliver certain valued pieces of advice, apparently oblivious to what was happening under her nose.
‘Very well. And then, I presume something else happened?’
‘I caught them in flagrante delicto!’ shrieked Lady Catherine.
‘Do you even know what that means?’ returned Cecily contemptuously.
‘I should have expected it,’ yet another autocratic female voice declared, ‘of a Fitzwilliam.’
Standing in the doorway, posing like a bizarre caricature of Nemesis, stood the dowager Lady Aldborough. Several distinctly irreligious thoughts passed through Darcy’s mind. He scarcely heard the servants abjectly apologising for their failure to restrain the lady, and simply nodded and dismissed them. A sneaking sympathy for Mr Bennet leapt into his mind as he looked around at the three imperious women scowling at him.
Good God, he thought in sheer frustration, why am I thinking of them, now?
After a brief struggle, Darcy’s good breeding reasserted itself. ‘Lady Aldborough,’ he began, ‘to what do we owe this pleasure?’
She drew herself up to her full five feet of height (including the towering wig) and pronounced, ‘You can be at no loss, Mr Darcy, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come.’
Lady Catherine looked at the other woman incredulously. ‘I have never seen such a lamentable display of ill-breeding in all my life!’ declared she. ‘To come to my nephew’s home and speak to him in such a manner — your impudence, madam, is quite beyond the pale!’ She was flushed with righteous fury, and Darcy sighed. Lady Catherine had many faults, but disloyalty was not among them.
‘My impudence?’ exclaimed the other lady. ‘You speak to me, Catherine Fitzwilliam, of impudence? You, whose nearest relation ruined my son’s life?’
‘My cousin did nothing of the sort,’ returned Lady Catherine indignantly. ‘Really, your conduct today is nothing short of abhorrent, Lady Aldborough. I should think you an imposter — no true lady would ever behave in such a fashion — ’
‘As your precious Helen behaved to my dear boy — ’
‘— if I were not familiar enough with such depraved behaviour, since that dreadful day when my sister married that vile nephew of yours — ’
‘Aunt Catherine, you are speaking of my father!’ Darcy protested.
‘ — to know that such a way of carrying on is nothing extraordinary, for your sort,’ she finished triumphantly, utterly ignoring him.
Cecily, looking slightly alarmed, slipped over to Darcy’s side. ‘Do you suppose we should just give them a pair of foils and leave them to it?’
‘No — this way there is no blood,’ he replied philosophically, still rather annoyed about the slight to his father. Lady Aldborough briefly paused, rage evidently silencing her for a few blessed seconds, before she returned to the fray.
‘How dare you speak of my nephew in such a way?’ she cried. ‘And under his own roof, no less! I told him, when he informed us he intended to marry your sister — I said, “mark my words, George Alexander, marry a Fitzwilliam and you shall live to regret it.” I am no stranger to the particulars of your brother’s conception. I know it all — that your father brought his mistress into his house, that the year abroad was a patched-up business to cover your mother’s barrenness and your brother’s true parentage — ’
‘Why, you — you —’ Lady Catherine said furiously, ‘you presume to insinuate — my brother is the most respectable, honourable — and my sister — ’
‘Your sister was the daughter of a libertine and a trollop,’ Lady Aldborough pronounced, clearly enunciating each word. ‘The shades of Pemberley were forever polluted by her presence.’
‘I beg your pardon.’ Darcy stepped forward, face white and eyes blazing. ‘Lady Aldborough, you can now have nothing farther to say. You have insulted me and mine by every possible method. If you cannot keep a civil tongue in your head, you will leave this instant.’
Lady Aldborough sniffed disdainfully, then re-evaluated her great-nephew’s implacable expression and took several steps backward. ‘Do not deceive yourself into a belief that I will ever recede,’ she threatened.
‘Do you doubt that I can have you sent from Pemberley in an instant? That when I give it as my firmest opinion that you should be sent from Aincourt as well, that that is precisely what shall happen? My brother and sister place the firmest reliance on my advice — I assure you, Lady Aldborough, that if you ever speak of my mother and grandmother in such a manner again, I shall do all this and anything else that occurs to me between now and then.’
‘You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of your nephew? Unfeeling, selfish young man!’
‘Madam,’ Darcy said icily, ‘I have nothing further to say — to you. Roberts! Please escort her ladyship back to her carriage and inform the other servants that she is not to set foot on my property again.’
Roberts, a tall, heavily-built man of about Darcy’s own age, complied with rather more enthusiasm and less finesse than usual.
‘I shall know how to act!’ Lady Aldborough shrieked, as Roberts half-pulled, half-dragged her out of the room. Darcy sighed, anger and energy draining out of him together. Nothing would keep the servants from gossiping about this. Thank heavens she is no blood of mine. If she were, I doubt I could ever hold my head up again.
He spared a brief sympathetic thought for his brother-in-law as Lady Catherine tossed her head and snapped, ‘Good riddance!’
‘What was she here for?’ Cecily wondered aloud.
‘I hardly care,’ Darcy said curtly. Lady Catherine gave a sharp nod of agreement. ‘Now, what were you saying about that curate?’
Lady Catherine opened her mouth, apparently fuelled by endless reserves of energy. He cut her off.
‘Cecily. Please finish what you were saying, before Lady Aldborough graced us with her presence.’
‘I knew he would never dare ask me himself,’ Cecily confessed, lowering her eyes slightly, ‘so I kissed him. After — a bit — he pushed me away and said that we had to be married. I agreed — I’d been trying to get a proposal out of him for weeks.’ She looked at his implacable face, and sighed. ‘Fitzwilliam, I don’t expect you to understand — I would not suppose that you have ever felt anything like that — ’
‘You would be wrong, then,’ he replied thoughtlessly, and instantly felt Lady Catherine’s piercing eyes settle on him.
‘Really?’ Cecily enquired curiously. ‘How did — when — you were in love, cousin? Really? How did it happen? Do I know her? Is she — ’
Darcy, a thundering headache pounding away at both temples, hesitated, then took the coward’s way out. ‘I am a widower, Cecilia,’ he said tetchily. ‘Did you think we found Anne underneath Mama’s roses?’
She wilted a little, and he promised himself that he would give her a more straightforward hint once the other Lady was disposed of.
‘Then you walked in, aunt?’ he asked, turning to Lady Catherine. As she drew herself up, clearly fully prepared to deliver a scathing rebuke, he quickly added, ‘Yes, then. Well, frankly, I fail to see what the difficulty is.’
Lady Catherine deflated slightly, unconsciously mimicking her niece’s reaction of a few seconds before. ‘Darcy,’ she said in horror, ‘this — this person is a curate! Cecily may not have a splendid fortune, but her connections are good enough to win her a fine place in society! And instead — Mr Collins’ curate? Heaven and earth — of what are you thinking?’
The cousins looked at one another. Then Cecily clasped her hands and stepped towards him. ‘Fitzwilliam, please.’
Darcy felt a distinct foreboding. ‘I fail to see what I have to do with the matter,’ said he. ‘I am not the head of this family, my un — oh. Cecily — ’
Near tears, she said, ‘He will not give his consent.’ Then, fiercely, she cried, ‘If I am neither by honour nor inclination confined to one of my aunt’s imaginary gentlemen, why am I not to make another choice? And if he is that choice, why may I not accept him?’
Lady Catherine scowled at her niece. ‘Because honour, decorum, prudence — nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Cecilia, interest; for do not expect him to be noticed by your family or friends if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised by every one connected with you. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.’
‘You have said so before,’ Darcy interjected coolly, ‘and I must ask, yet again, that you do not speak for me without leave. May I make a suggestion?’
‘Of course,’ Lady Catherine said approvingly. Cecily simply looked, her dark eyes intense on his face.
‘Cecily may stay here, with me — now that Georgiana is gone, Pemberley tends to be rather too large for me. I would be glad of her company. You, aunt, return to Rosings after you have rested; I will take care of this matter as I see fit.’ His own voice echoed in his ears: Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence.
After a moment of silence, each woman considering from her own unique perspective, Lady Catherine nodded agreement. ‘I am no longer as young as I was,’ she conceded. ‘I trust you to judge as rightly as you always have, nephew.’
‘Thank you, aunt.’ She offered her cheek up, and he bent down to kiss it, his conscience eating at him.
Thank heavens she is no blood of mine: This may be slightly confusing, as the dowager is frequently referred to as Darcy's great-aunt as well as Aldborough's (and Rosemary's) grandmother. In fact, she is an aunt by marriage, not blood: her husband was the elder brother of Lady Alexandra Darcy, née Lady Alexandra Willoughby, Darcy and Georgiana's paternal grandmother. Little Anne and little Stephen are first, second, third, and fourth cousins, a half-dozen different ways.
‘You are not actually going to lock me into my chambers until I concede the error of my ways?’ Cecily asked sceptically, their aunt’s strongly vocalised advice ringing in both cousins’ ears. Darcy rubbed his forehead.
‘Do not be ridiculous,’ he replied shortly. ‘Some of Lady Catherine’s delusions are more -- delusional -- than others.’
‘Eloquent as ever, Fitzwilliam.’ She smiled warmly at him. ‘What are we to do?’
‘We are going to talk.’ He paused. ‘Do you know if the Collinses have returned to Hunsford?’
‘They meant to return by yesterday,’ said Cecily. ‘I daresay Mr Collins was devastated to have missed my aunt.’
‘His devotion is certainly unparalleled.’ Then, striving for subtlety, he asked, ‘This marriage, did you hear if it was one of Bingley’s sisters?’
‘Oh, Mr Collins is Mrs Bingley’s cousin, isn’t he?’ She laughed lightly. ‘I had completely forgotten. I hope for Mr Bingley’s sake there isn’t much likeness between them. He seemed a nice man, although we never had much to do with one another.’
‘Yes,’ he said patiently. ‘No doubt you frightened him, along with every other eligible man of our acquaintance . . . so, it was one of his sisters?’
‘Yes. A Miss Mary Bennet. Apparently she married a clerk of her uncle’s. Did you know that Mrs Bennet’s family is all in trade?’
‘Mr Bingley’s sisters would scarcely let anyone forget it,’ he replied levelly, exhaling slowly. A certain tightness in his chest relaxed. You are a fool, Darcy, he scolded himself; after everything that has occurred, you cannot possibly expect her to cherish any tender sentiments for you - for that matter, to have ever had tender sentiments in the first place! This newest variation on a very old theme failed, as had everything else, to restore him to his senses. For a brief moment, he was giddy enough to laugh.
‘Mr Bingley’s sisters? But their father - even their brother has only just acquired an estate for himself - I always knew I disliked them.’
‘Yes, I know,’ he returned, his headache receding a little. ‘Rosemary used to call them the harpies. That pretty well summarises it. Now, Cecily - ’ He forced his mind down proper paths, and gestured for her to follow him to the library - ‘I need to know whatever you can tell me about this love affair of yours.’
He allowed the halting, hesitant, un-Cecily-like words to wash over and through him. James Hammond. What was this man like, who inspired such passion and devotion in his vivacious, beautiful cousin? Darcy dredged up the fleeting image of a nondescript young man, brown-haired and blue-eyed, with quiet, assuming manners, who had treated him with such admiring deference, and yet no trace of Mr Collins’s nonsensical obsequiousness, that he was never quite certain what to do or say to him.
‘I told him that I didn’t care that he was poor, that he had no connections to speak of, that my family would probably cast me off when we married.’ She looked at him guilelessly.
‘Well, my doubts as to whether you are a true Fitzwilliam have been eternally put to rest,’ he said with a faint smile. ‘Cecily, did you actually say that?’
She smiled radiantly. ‘Of course. Fitzwilliam, I wanted him to know how much I love him - not to ever wonder and doubt - that no matter how much I love my family, that I am willing to face scorn and ridicule and being lost to all of you - for him. I could have any man I like, and I chose him.’ She added, ‘Of course, I didn’t say it quite like that - I was more tactful.’
‘How tactful can you be, when saying such a thing?’ he asked curiously.
‘Not very,’ she confessed, with an impish, conspiratorial smile. ‘He didn’t mind. In fact, he looked at me very soulfully and intensely and said that he adored me. Just like that - “Cecilia, I adore you. I want you to know that.” And then he kissed me.’ She sighed rapturously. (Darcy wondered what it was that made women confide the details of their private lives in him.) ‘It was the first time - that he kissed me on his own, I mean. He didn’t say so, but I know he doesn’t really care that I’ll make a dreadful curate’s wife. I have a great many very bad habits, you know.’
Darcy stared at her for a moment, then looked away. ‘I think you will make a very good curate’s wife,’ he said after a moment.
‘Do you really think so?’ she asked earnestly. ‘I mean to try very hard.’ Then she stopped, her dark eyes widening. ‘Oh Fitzwilliam! You’re not going to try and persuade me out of it?’
He smiled again, rather tiredly. ‘My dear Cecily - no, I never had any intentions of that.’
‘But you told Aunt Cat - ’
‘I did not tell her I intended to persuade you out of it; but if I had not implied it, she would never have left you here and doubtless would have done precisely as she advised me - locked you in a room and lectured you for hours on end.’
Cecily wrinkled her nose. ‘Lady Catherine is a - ’
‘Do not say it,’ he said softly. ‘Remember that you are a lady, and that she is your aunt. She has given you all that she has to offer; it is not a great deal, to be sure, if one insists upon quantifying affection, but she is sincere and she is only trying to make you happy.’
‘Sympathy for Lady Catherine? I would never have expected it, from you.’
‘I have been thinking a great deal about my mother, as of late,’ he replied quietly, resting his chin in his hands and gazing off into the distance. ‘In some ways, she was very like my aunt. Mama had a sweetness about her that prevented her from giving offence in the manner that Lady Catherine does, but her advice was very much the same - liberally bestowed, unwelcome, and sincere.’
Cecily, looking at him intently, said, ‘You miss her.’
With an uncharacteristically violent motion, he stood up and whirled away, facing a little away from her, his arms crossed. ‘For heavens’ sake, Cecily, she was my mother! Off course I miss her.’ His temper gone as quickly as it had come, he glanced into his cousin’s surprised face, and said, ‘I am sorry, I should not have - I am very sorry. I do not know what has come over me lately.’ He raised one trembling hand to his brow, and let it drop again. ‘I have wished - the most ridiculous things, lately. I would like to talk to her.’
He would never dream of telling her, or anyone, that not long ago, as he carefully watched the two children under his care, the strangest desire had washed over him, to be four or five again, able to crawl into his mother’s lap and sob into her neck. A peculiar gripping unhappiness seemed to have come over him. Perhaps it was the imminence of losing Stephen; he could not say, all he knew for certain was that bizarre longing for a mother’s comfort.
‘A unique choice,’ Cecily said, taking her usual path and speaking lightly of serious matters. ‘Most men would choose their father.’
‘No doubt he found women as bewildering as I do. I am afraid he, or any man, would be of limited assistance.’
‘Women?’ She stared. ‘Why should you care about women? Don’t you dare tell me Anne. She couldn’t be more like you if she was a little boy.’
He bit his lip and looked down. ‘I was not completely honest with you earlier - when I alluded to love, and Rosemary.’
She brightened instantly. ‘It wasn’t Rosemary, was it?’
‘She is not Rosemary, no.’
‘I thought it strange,’ she said eagerly, ‘because I knew it wasn’t a love match and so I couldn’t imagine what made you bring Rosemary into it, although of course you loved her in a way and then you lost her.’
‘You always make me feel so blessed, Cecily; I am not certain how I shall bear it.’
‘Don’t be sarcastic, Fitzwilliam. Do I know her?’
Darcy hesitated, then slowly shook his head. ‘No. You would not have met.’
‘Someone terribly unsuitable, then?’ she inquired, not without sympathy. ‘She must not have moved in our eminently respectable circles. Part of a dreadfully fast set?’
He could not but laugh at the idea. ‘No, not at all - she, her family - she is a connection of my friends, the Gardiners.’
She turned white. ‘Oh, no. I’m sure they are very nice people,’ she hastened to add, ‘but - oh, goodness. Fitzwilliam. Come here.’
He approached her cautiously and stood in bemusement as she stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms around him for no apparent reason.
‘There,’ she said, stepping back and gazing at him serenely. ‘Don’t you feel better now?’
Oddly enough, her unconventional offering rather improved his spirits, little as he usually cared for tactile affection. ‘Yes, a little. Thank you.’
‘You looked like you needed a hug,’ she said. ‘Of course, you usually do - but you really looked like it that time. Now, tell me, why were you upset with me, really?’
‘I envy you, Cecilia,’ he said quietly. ‘Your Mr Hammond loves you a great deal; but even more, he loves you - as you are, without change. That is very rare, I think.’
She blinked, then sniffled a little. He handed her a handkerchief. ‘You shouldn’t say things like that, I hate crying,’ she mumbled. ‘He’s wonderful, Fitzwilliam. The most perfect man - ’ She sniffled again.
‘Not perfect, perhaps, but undoubtedly perfect for you.’ He hesitated, then gently clasped her free hand. ‘Wipe your eyes, dear; we have a wedding to arrange, and not very much time. I must go to town for a few days, and you need to go with the children to Aincourt.’
‘Aincourt?’ she repeated blankly. ‘Whatever for?’
He smiled patiently. ‘Trust me, please. Do you wish to be married or not?’
‘I do.’ She flung her arms around him again. After a moment of hesitation, he returned the favour and pressed his lips against her forehead affectionately.
James Hammond and Cecilia Fitzwilliam were married at Aincourt on a glorious morning in February. Cecily, brilliantly happy, hugged and kissed all of her cousins, saving her last for Darcy.
‘It should not be very long,’ Darcy said softly to his new cousin. Mr Hammond’s disconcerting admiration did not seem to have abated in the slightest, unsurprisingly. He shook Darcy’s hand enthusiastically.
‘Thank you, sir, more than I can say. God bless you, Mr Darcy.’ His clear voice was distinctly rough as he slipped an arm around his new wife’s waist.
‘When shall we come, Fitzwilliam?’ inquired Cecily, striving for a staid sort of decorum. Yet again, she failed miserably, and beamed at him, like a child given a spectacular treat.
‘A fortnight, I think. The vicarage should be prepared by then.’
‘You’re going to be a vicar, darling,’ Cecily said excitedly. ‘Is it not wonderful?’
Mr Hammond still looked faintly dazed. ‘This quickly? I never dreamed - ‘
‘You have connections now, my love,’ she told him airily, then smiled conspiratorially at her cousin. ‘Well, one at least.’
‘Your dowry is in the five percents, Cecily,’ Darcy said. ‘It should be more than sufficient for your needs, taken with Hammond’s income.’
‘That’s a thousand a-year,’ she said blissfully. ‘Just from me. And with the living, that’s at least twelve hundred a-year. We shall be rich, dearest.’
‘I thought you only had fifteen thousand pounds,’ Mr Hammond said, frowning. Cecily caught her cousin’s eye for a bare moment before saying,
‘Oh no, I have twenty. It’s amazing the difference two hundred fifty a-year can make, isn’t it?’
Darcy blushed at this. ‘Evade Lady Catherine as best you can.’
After they bid farewell, Georgiana and Lord Aldborough, accompanied by their son, followed him inside. Darcy noticed their surreptitiously clasped hands, Aldborough’s solicitous care and Georgiana’s expressive dark eyes shining as she gazed on her husband, and smiled faintly. After some pleasant conversation, he left them to their own pursuits, and went to watch over Stephen and Anne as they slept.
He brushed his nephew’s dark hair wistfully, a lump rising in his throat. He did not begrudge Georgiana and Aldborough their son, naturally; but - he would certainly miss him. He recoiled at the idea of spending the rest of the year at Pemberley, which had never seemed so large before, and reconsidered Bingley’s invitation. It would be good to see them again.
The Darcys set out from Pemberley the day after Darcy posted his acceptance of Bingley’s invitation. Anne, who had missed her cousin a great deal in the weeks after his departure, was almost trembling with excitement.
‘I like Charles and Jenny,’ she informed her father, ‘But Bennet is just a baby.’
‘You were a baby not so long ago, Anne,’ he replied, smiling. She bounced on her seat experimentally.
‘Not like Bennet, I wasn’t,’ she insisted. ‘He has no hair.’
Darcy was forced to concede that this was so.
‘I don’t like when Charles pulls my hair. He says it’s because he wants to see it up close, but I don’t believe him, because boys are nasty except Stephen. He says that he hasn’t seen that colour on anybody before, and that it’s like mud, all slimy and dark. My hair isn’t slimy, is it, Papa?’
He reached out and touched it, putting two loose strands behind her ears. Her bright eyes were anxious as she gazed at him, and he laughed. ‘Vanity, thy name is woman! No, darling; or if it is, mine is too.’
She pulled out the tail end of one of her plaits, and examined it gravely before leaning up to look at his. ‘It is just the same!’ she exclaimed delightedly. ‘Well, your hair isn’t slimy at all, Papa.’
‘That is a great burden off my mind.’
‘So that means mine isn’t. It’s just shiny. Shiny is pretty, isn’t it? Like Aunt’s pianoforte.’ Her thoughts were briefly distracted. ‘Papa, Aunt sings the pianoforte very nicely, but she never sings the old one, the dark one.’
‘She plays, she does not sing,’ Darcy corrected. ‘You are right, she does not play the old pianoforte now, although she did when she was a girl.’
Predictably, Anne demanded, ‘Why not?’
‘I gave her the new one when she turned sixteen, almost five years ago now, and she prefers it.’
Anne considered this. ‘Shall you give me a nice pianoforte like that when I turn sixteen?’
‘If you want one, yes.’
Satisfied, she turned to peer out the window. ‘Look, Papa, it is so pretty outside! Pemberley is so much prettier than everywhere else, don’t you think? Aunt Catherine says that it is too wild, but she thinks I’m wild too, and I’m not wild, am I, Papa?’
‘No, you are not wild.’
‘Well, if Rosings is not wild and Pemberley is, I would rather be wild, wouldn’t you?’
‘Oh, yes,’ he said, smiling.
‘You don’t like Rosings very much, do you, Papa?’ Darcy glanced up sharply to see his daughter’s clear blue eyes set on him mildly. ‘It is all right,’ she added comfortingly, ‘I do not like Rosings either. Nothing is the way it should be there.’
Darcy flinched, slightly. ‘I quite agree,’ he said, glancing out of the window. ‘It is a nice day, isn’t it?’
‘Why else don’t you like Rosings? I think you don’t like Rosings much more than I don’t like Rosings, although Lady Catherine is so fond of you.’
He hesitated, then — unable to do anything else — replied honestly, ‘Unpleasant things often seem to happen, when I am there.’
‘Oh.’ He vainly hoped her insistent questioning would end there, but she frowned and said, ‘But Papa, what happened to you?’
Fortunately, his answer had been strictly literal. ‘Many things. My baby sister died, and something terrible almost happened to your aunt while I was staying there, and my cousin was unhappy all her life, and a — a great many things.’
‘What almost happened to Aunt?’ Anne demanded.
‘She was - hurt,’ Darcy said carefully.
‘Oh, that’s awful. I don’t like it, because it takes so long to wash off the dirt. Do you think I shall be happy to-day, Papa?’
‘I think you cannot be happy, unless you try very hard at it,’ Darcy said ruefully, brushing her dark hair out of her eyes. ‘But we shall be in Baildon in a few hours, so circumstances are on your side.’
She beamed. ‘Oh, good. I do want to see Jenny again. And Mr and Mrs Bingley, they are so nice — much more nice than Lady Elliot.’ She wrinkled her nose and Darcy suppressed an inclination to do the same.
‘Lady Elliot means well, Anne.’
‘She is dreadful,’ Anne declared.
‘Anne . . .’
‘Not as dreadful as Caroline. I don’t care if her father’s a baronet, I don’t see why she must always always talk of it. Why, look, Papa!’
Darcy glanced out the window. Not far ahead, a curricle lay, turned over, while a man stood to the side, glaring down. By his expression, Darcy suspected the young fellow was at odds with the Almighty. He ordered his carriage stopped, and stepped out, Anne hiding behind his trousers at the prospect of meeting a stranger.
‘Hancock!’ he called, and Anne peered out.
‘Mr Hancock!’ she cried, coming forward as she the familiar face. ‘You don’t have to worry anymore, we are here.’
A true Darcy, he thought wryly, and swung Anne up in his arms, making little of the distance. ‘Hancock, what seems to have happened?’
‘I haven’t the slightest idea,’ the clergyman confessed frankly. ‘I was fortunate to get out with a few scratches. I suppose I’ll have to write to Grandmother — might you take me to the parsonage, Mr Darcy? I hate to be a burden, but it isn’t far out of your way, and I can’t think —’
‘You are visiting your grandmother? Does she live with your family in Yorkshire?’ he replied, a plan instantly forming in his mind. Darcy was very fond of Hancock. His people were genteel, though fallen on difficult times, and the senior Mr Hancock had been tutor to the Fitzwilliam children, including Darcy himself. When the Kympton living fell vacant, young Hancock was the obvious choice, and Darcy had never regretted taking the path of least resistance for quite possibly the only time in his life.
‘She lives in Yorkshire, but not with my father’s people — she is my mother’s mother, and her home is in the northwest. Fifty miles if it’s an inch,’ he added glumly, with a vengeful kick at one piece of what had been his curricle. Darcy smiled.
‘Excellent! Kympton is actually considerably out of my way, as I am heading to Yorkshire myself;—a friend of mine invited me to stay at his estate for a — a while. We can take you as far as Baildon, and arrange for transport from there.’
Hancock blinked. ‘Your friend won’t mind an extra guest?’
‘Bingley?’ Darcy laughed. ‘No, of course not. I shall have, er, this taken away, and a new one ordered — ’
‘The money — ’
Darcy waved such trivial objections aside. ‘You may repay me when you have it. Is this scheme convenient for you, sir?’
‘Convenient?’ Hancock blinked at him. ‘Well — yes, of course, but — you are certain you don’t mind, Mr Darcy?’
‘I would not have offered if I did. Come, and — Roberts! Could you possibly . . .’ He gestured at the former curricle as a bemused Hancock climbed in the carriage. He had the utmost faith, fully reciprocated, in Roberts’ capabilities; with the exception of a certain long-standing aesthetic disagreement relating to Darcy’s clothing (which he was more inclined to blame on the man’s previous employer, godfather or not) — the relationship between master and servant was ideal. Darcy allowed Roberts free rein, in all matters not relating to his apparel, while Roberts achieved whatever Darcy wished, often before he had even got around to asking for it.
‘Papa doesn’t mind,’ Anne interjected, beaming at the parson. ‘He never does.’ She peered down at the ground. ‘It’s darker, Papa.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘My hair, Papa, it’s darker than the mud.’ She stuck her straight little nose in the air, and declared, ‘Mud’s dirty and smelly and my hair is nothing like that, and can I get back in the carriage because it’s icky.’
He laughed and accompanied her into the carriage. Within an half-hour, they were en route to Baildon.
‘There you are!’ Bingley said enthusiastically. His eyes, were it possible, lit up even more at the sight of Hancock. ‘You brought company? Excellent!’
Darcy gave his friend a severe look, and said repressively, ‘Bingley, Mrs Bingley.’ He bowed. ‘Thank you for the invitation. Hancock needed a place to stay on his way to his grandmother’s, and I offered your hospitality. I hope you do not mind?’
He could scarcely keep from smiling at Bingley’s immediate cheerful response, ‘Of course not! Any friend of yours is welcome here, you know that.’
‘Hancock, this is my dear friend, Charles Bingley, and his wife, Jane. Bingley, Mrs Bingley, this is John Hancock, the parson of the Kympton parish. He had some transportation -- difficulties -- and I offered to take him this far myself.’
‘Mr Hancock,’ Mrs Bingley was saying in her sweet voice, ‘It is a pleasure. We are always glad of company.’
Hancock only nodded, seeming rather dazzled. Darcy looked expressively at Bingley and receive a smile verging on the smug in return. The years had been kind to both Bingleys, but there was no doubt but that hers was the greater beauty. With her tall, womanly figure and striking features, she had always reminded him rather of Georgiana. Mrs Bingley, however, was not a girl; there had always been a quality of constancy and serenity about her, whether as Miss Bennet of Longbourn or Mrs Bingley of Baildon. Even while fearing for Bingley’s happiness, he had always admired her; and as they had come to know one another better, the admiration had grown to a sort of brotherly affection.
It was rather singular that so many of that family treated him as if he were one of them.
As Hancock mumbled something, Darcy caught sight of a tall, slim figure, and for a moment, the jumbled images -- glossy chestnut hair, wide dark eyes, clear brown skin -- assembled into an terribly, wonderfully familiar picture. It was wrong -- he knew it, she was too tall, Elizabeth was just a slight little thing, and her hair was not so dark, nor so curly -- but nevertheless his heart thudded in his chest as he turned to face her.
‘Oh! Mr Darcy!’ One hand flew to her cheek. He wasn’t sure whether to be dismayed or amused. She dropped the hand, and stared at him blankly. He was not certain what she saw that still bewildered her, as she briefly glanced at Anne and then commenced staring. ‘Why, you aren’t frightening at all,’ she pronounced, and Darcy could not keep from smiling.
‘Thank you, ma’am,’ he said dryly, and kept a firm grip on Anne, who was trying to dart behind his trousers.
She blushed fiercely, her eyes fixed on his right cheek. Darcy wondered if some mud had gotten on it, and was about to rectify the situation, when Mrs Bingley’s voice trilled out, ‘Kitty! Kitty, we have another guest, for a few days.’
Miss Catherine flushed and turned to her sister. ‘Jane, I don’t -- oh.’ She blushed more deeply. Hancock blinked. Bingley raised his eyebrows; Jane and Darcy smiled.
‘Hancock,’ said Darcy, ‘this is Mrs Bingley’s sister, Miss Catherine Bennet. Miss Catherine, my friend, John Hancock, parson of the Kympton parish.’
For a moment, there was a brief furrow between her straight dark brows, and Darcy was painfully hit by her very striking physical resemblance to another, despite the great dissimilarity of character. Then she smiled brightly. ‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr Hancock.’
Hancock looked even more dazed than ever. ‘Ah -- Miss Catherine,’ he stammered. ‘I -- I am very happy -- to see you -- that is, to meet you.’
‘I hope you will stay with us a time,’ she said, giving him a meaningful look which could not possibly be misinterpreted. Hancock coloured deeply.
‘I -- er -- I do not know -- I think -- that I shall stay -- a, a time, yes. Awhile.’
Bingley and Darcy glanced at one another, and decided to leave them to it. Mrs Bingley, with a fond look for both, ushered them out half-absently, her eyes intently fixed on the pair.
Bingley exhaled deeply. ‘Well! I am so glad you accepted the invitation. About time! Would you care to examine the library or the children first?’
‘How are they?’ Darcy inquired. ‘The children, I mean. Bennet was just an infant when I saw him last.’ He handed a sleepy Anne over to Mrs Burrows, a bustling, agreeable woman, and focussed on his friend.
‘Older,’ Bingley said, with a laugh. ‘Anne has certainly grown up. You’re going to have your hands full with her.’
‘I already do,’ Darcy said ruefully. ‘I daresay I shall have a crisis of nerves to rival your mother-in-law’s when she comes out.’
‘Keep matters simple. Marry her off to someone in the family -- isn’t that nephew of yours the same age?’
Darcy briefly lifted his eyes up and prayed for patience.
‘Actually, there was a matter --’ Bingley hesitated slightly, then hurried on, ‘I was wondering if you might have some opinions . . .?’
Darcy laughed. ‘Bingley, I always have opinions.’
‘Excellent. That’s the wonderful thing about you, you never change. It’s vastly unfair, you know; you don’t look a day older. Ah well, I daresay you have enough trials to make up for it. Come, you must see the children.’ He slapped his friend on the shoulder, and Darcy smiled; Bingley’s good humour was as infectious as ever. He could not help but feel nearly cheerful himself.
The Bingley twins screamed with joy as they caught sight of their godfather, who had long ago won their affections by his peculiar manner of speaking directly to them, as if they were adults; morever, he had a pleasant, soothing voice, and was invariably accompanied by gifts and a play-mate. Anne and Jenny, giggling madly, almost immediately asked permission to go look at some of the latter’s latest acquisitions, and ran off almost before it was granted. Charles, who found his sister’s new doll spectacularly uninteresting, shadowed Darcy’s footsteps Anne-style and attempted to contort his amiable features into a severe expression. Failing this, he took to discreetly following his aunt Catherine and the stranger, at a particularly inopportune moment leaping down from the nearby tree with a blood-curdling scream. Shortly thereafter he was confined to his bedchamers; the girls offered sympathy and looked smug.
Bingley’s ‘matter,’ it transpired, was not the troublesome business affair Darcy had expected, nor even a recalcitrant tenant, but — as far as Darcy was concerned — far, far worse.
‘It’s Caroline,’ he confided, with a weary look. Darcy sympathised, all the while wishing himself very far away. Say, Padua. He had briefly attended university in Padua*, and it had been pleasant. Pleasant was not exactly the first word that sprang to mind when contemplating Caroline Elliot née Bingley.
‘She just — arrived,’ Bingley was saying helplessly. ‘I know she’s my sister, and —’
Some things, Darcy decided, were inevitable. Apparently he was a magnet for dissatisfied female relations.
‘— not behaved well. Now, admittedly her husband is not the most scintillating company —’ a scathing denunciation coming from Bingley — ‘and perhaps getting on in years, but running to me every time she quarrels with her stepdaughters, or their husbands, is starting to get tiresome — just a little, you understand.’
‘Of course,’ said Darcy, not daring to smile. He must be furious. ‘What has she done?’ he inquired. Bingley flushed.
‘She — I do not know for certain, and I know you and Jane do not condone listening to gossip — but it is being said — she has been seen, in the company of a — a fellow known for — dallying with certain — with ladies in Caroline’s circumstances.’
The disparate pieces slid together. ‘You mean, handsome married women, wealthy and bored? This charming gentleman, has he a name?’
‘Crawford,’ said Bingley off-handedly, clearly forgetting the lamentable connection; Darcy sighed and mentally calculated the distance to Houghton. ‘Her letters are full of him. Good God, Darcy,’ he said plaintively, ‘she has children.’
It was on the tip of his tongue to mention that this was hardly a hindrance to most women’s, or indeed men’s, pursuit of pleasure; he restrained himself out of regard for whatever fraternal fondness Bingley still possessed. Clearly, I was not properly grateful for Georgiana, he thought wryly. ‘I very much doubt she is the first mother to have been seduced by that man,’ he said grimly.
‘Oh, do you know him?’ Bingley asked, cheering slightly.
‘His sister is married to my cousin.’
‘Oh, dear,’ said Bingley sympathetically. ‘I had no idea.’
‘I try to avoid thinking on it. If Fitzwilliam and his wife are at my uncle’s estate, I may be able to do . . . something.’ He suppressed a shudder at the thought of Mrs Fitzwilliam, but undoubtedly something must be done, if only for the Bingleys’ sake. There were duties in friendship as well as privileges; and this was clearly one of them. Otherwise he would have no qualms whatsoever about leaving the erstwhile Lady Elliot to her fate.
‘Is Mrs Fitzwilliam much like her brother?’
‘No. Yes. I do not know.’ Bingley laughed and Darcy flushed. ‘I mean, in some ways she is very like him, and in some, not at all.’ Mary was at least more circumspect, and, despite her ways, seemed sincerely fond of her husband. Morever, she was as ambitious as any Fitzwilliam and in that respect made a perfect wife, daughter, and cousin to them all. She looked well on Richard’s arm, always saying and doing the right thing; and so, her apparently irresistible attraction to severe, respectable men was overlooked in favour of the benefits she brought to the family. That she was driven by prudence rather than any sense of honour or principles was, apparently, seen only by the trio of cousins she relentlessly pursued. Darcy rather hoped that James and Edward would be at home as well, if only to divert her attention.
‘I wouldn’t concern myself,’ Bingley was saying, looking uncharacteristically grave; ‘I care for her, naturally, but she is long past the point where I could imagine that I had any say over her actions.’ Darcy flinched. ‘Frankly, I was at first inclined to let her, er, make her own bed — but — ’ he sighed — ‘then I thought of Jenny. Caroline’s her aunt, and if she continues on in the way she has, it might reflect on Jenny. The others too, but boys are — different. And what of Jane? What of the children?—Caroline’s children, that is.’
‘They must be considered,’ Darcy agreed cautiously, although he had no great fondness for the latest Elliot offspring, relations or not. The connection was not one he took pleasure in acknowledging, barring the Wentworths.
‘So,’ Bingley heaved a great sigh, ‘here we are. Caroline and her children are here, and I daresay one of her husband’s people will show up at some point, and it is all very trying. Have you any advice?’
‘A pity you cannot turn her over your knee,’ Darcy said dryly; ‘I very much doubt she is interested in reforming her ways at present. Mrs Fitzwilliam might be able to convince her brother to redirect his attentions, but Caroline will only find someone else. You might be able to do something for the children, as I do not recall Sir Walter being very much interested in such things; it would be more convenient if she could simply be disposed of.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I meant,’ Darcy hastened to add, ‘rendered — sent abroad, or some such thing, where she could do nothing to reflect upon your family.’
There was a brief pause, as the two men mulled over possibilities. Darcy prepared to pen an awkward letter to his cousins; Bingley thought of his (usually) sweet-tempered daughter and beloved Jane, and determined that Something Must Be Done. Both cherished distinctly uncharitable thoughts towards Crawford.
‘Charles, really I — ’
It was only to be expected, really, that the former Miss Caroline Bingley should choose that moment to march into the study. Her hazel eyes went round as she caught sight of Darcy, and she instantly reverted to the woman he had found so contemptible in earlier years.
‘Oh! Mr Darcy! What a delightful surprise. Why, Charles — how sly of you, brother, not to tell me that such a dear friend had arrived. I am but recently arrived myself, Mr Darcy.’
‘So I understand,’ he replied dryly, vaguely wondering what the attraction was. Presumably Crawford was charismatic enough to be a little fastidious; Lady Elliot was a handsome woman, to be certain, with good enough taste to make the most of nature’s gifts, but she could not hold a candle to any of the women in his family. Including his grandmother. And it hardly compensated for her less appealing personality quirks.
He could not keep himself from wickedly inquiring as to his cousin’s health. ‘I know he is about my father’s age, I should think - if Father were still alive, of course.’
Lady Elliot flushed. ‘Fortunately, he enjoys tolerably good health, Mr Darcy. I shall tell him, when next we meet, that you asked after him, however. I was not aware you were particularly close to that part of your family?’
‘It is a distant connection, to be sure,’ Darcy said dismissively. ‘I do not think we should have met as such, were it not for my mother’s friendship with the former Lady Elliot; she was my godmother, you know.’
Lady Elliot, who did not care to be reminded of her sainted predecessor, frowned and denied any knowledge of the sort. Sir Walter bore his age well, making it easy to ‘forget,’ but the gap between her husband and Mr Darcy evidently struck her forcibly at that moment, and her face expressed her thoughts well enough. Darcy was not a particularly vain man — pride, rather than vanity, tended to be his weakness — but he was not so oblivious that he could not divine what her appraising look at him meant.
‘You must know my daughters-in-law well, then,’ she said. The faint grimace accompanying this spoke volumes.
‘Oh, yes. I see Mrs Wentworth occasionally.’
‘She is very well-bred.’
‘Certainly;—and her husband as well.’
Lady Elliot’s features tightened, although she retained enough deference for his opinions that she did not dare directly contradict him. ‘He is very agreeable, when the mood takes him.’
This struck Darcy as a more accurate description of Lady Elliot herself than Frederick Wentworth, who whatever his other flaws, did not lack a consistent charm of manner. Ah — he guessed at what might have occurred there, that might explain her hostility towards the man but not his wife. He sighed, and after several minutes of mind-numbingly dull conversation, chiefly consisting of inquiries after mutual acquaintances, took leave of brother and sister. A letter was written and posted; Darcy gladly retreated to his own chambers, accompanied by several books. He spent the rest of the evening lost in a pleasurable intellectual fog.
Darcy had retained a vague idea that he disliked the Elliot children. They were a girl and boy of four and two. Both were handsome - unsurprising, given their indisputably attractive progenitors; unfortunately, they also seemed to have inherited their parents’ less desirable traits. Walter, the younger, was a loud, ungovernable fellow, while Caroline was spoilt, petulant, and haughty, very like her half-sister Elizabeth. Their mother ignored them, their uncle and aunt indulged them, and Darcy fell half-unconsciously into the role of disciplinarian. For some reason - he himself was not entirely certain of it - the children responded to him as they did not the other adults, although they made no pretence of liking him.
Charles and Jenny had no fondness for their Elliot relations, and Darcy and Mrs Bingley were chiefly occupied in breaking up quarrels between the cousins. Walter, thankfully, spent most of his time away from the others; but Caroline more than made up for it. Lady Elliot, after several weeks, eventually noticed enough to complain to Darcy.
‘Why do you not speak to your brother?’ Darcy asked exasperatedly. ‘They are his children.’
Lady Elliot sniffed. ‘I am not speaking about Charles and Jane. They are perfectly normal.’
Darcy raised an eyebrow. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said icily, ‘I do not have the pleasure of understanding you, Lady Elliot.’
She rolled her eyes, and he could not keep from reflecting that, despite her pretensions, there had always been that bit of vulgarity about her. It was not simply the impertinence - occasionally even ill-bred impertinence - of Lady Catherine, but a crassness more akin to - to - he tried to think of a comparison, but only Mrs Bennet and her three younger daughters sprang to mind. ‘Surely you have noticed that Anne is a trifle strange.’
Darcy said nothing, and she mistakenly construed this as encouragement. She had never been a really clever woman.
‘She does not play properly, and she does not talk. It was not really Caroline’s fault.’
Darcy did not feel it worth his time to explain that Anne not only talked but talked astonishingly well when she considered the company worth it. Nor could he fault his daughter’s taste. ‘Anne is perfectly - ’
‘It is only that we have no money,’ she confided. Darcy tried to think of a polite way to say that he could not be less interested. ‘It is so difficult to make her understand that we cannot afford what a baronet’s daughter ought to have; and why Anne has so much more than she does.’
Clearly Lady Elliot felt the loss of a few dresses and feathers as greater deprivation than Kellynch. Aldborough had once said that those who were not born to an estate could not understand its loss, and apparently he had been right; Bingley had only looked blank when Darcy admitted to a grudging sympathy for the family’s straits. It was Mrs Bingley who immediately comprehended his meaning.
‘You might explain that my family has had more money, for longer, than Sir Walter’s,’ he offered acerbically. ‘Or that my lifestyle is less extravagant than - his.’
‘I could hardly say that,’ Lady Elliot objected. ‘She is so sensitive.’
‘Indeed? I had quite failed to notice.’
She forged on. ‘I am sure you did not need to frighten her.’
‘Lady Elliot,’ he leant forward, eyes flashing - ‘if your daughter strikes mine again, I will do more than frighten her. I suggest that if this causes either of you distress, you convince her of the unsuitability of her actions. Incidentally, my daughter is both healthy and sane and I do not appreciate any suggestion to the contrary.’ He picked up a letter and left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
As expected, Henry Crawford happened to arrange a lengthy visit to a neighbouring estate some three weeks into Lady Elliot’s stay. Only a man as impudent as Crawford would attempt to seduce a woman - even one so willing as Lady Elliot - under her brother’s roof. When he paid a visit to the Bingleys, he fooled no-one, but little could be done, and his charm slowly won the family over. The arrival of the Fitzwilliams, the colonel and his wife, was more than timely.
The brother and sister were, despite their manifold flaws, sincerely fond of one another. Crawford paused in his attendance upon Lady Elliot and Mrs Bingley, his eyes lifting up with a glad cry of ‘Mary!’
After kissing one another, introductions to those still unacquainted were made, and Mrs Fitzwilliam gravitated to Darcy’s side. Overcome by the instinct to flee, Darcy remembered Bingley’s steady friendship, Mrs Bingley’s upstanding character, and most of all his sweet goddaughter, and steadied his resolve.
‘I understand from my husband that you would like to speak to me, Mr Darcy,’ she said softly. One of the most difficult things about Mrs Fitzwilliam was that she was never overt, and had only grown more subtle with time. Nevertheless her intense dark stare made the hairs on his neck prickle. He had very much hoped that it was only because there was something about him terribly objectionable, but a conference with his two similarly-affected cousins had relieved him of that delusion long ago.
‘I would like - to ask - a favour,’ he said haltingly. Mrs Fitzwilliam smiled winningly and waited. He fidgeted - of course he was being perfectly straightforward and - but still - it was not - Darcy sighed. It was one of those moments wherein he wished for a more extensive repertoire of expletives.
‘A favour? Of me? I am flattered, Mr Darcy,’ she said, as charming as ever. The attentions of such a woman were nearly enough to drive a man into marriage - any marriage, so long as it rendered him inaccessible. Unfortunately, Mrs Fitzwilliam’s morals were such that she disregarded such trivialities, as Edward could attest. She had already gained respectability and status through her marriage; it was apparently more personal qualities that attracted her. Darcy bit his lip and briefly wished he were five foot five with warts. Not really, of course, but it was all - so awkward. Why could she not just find a charming rake like her brother? Of course, people would talk if she were seen with someone like that. Really, there was no escape.
‘You shan’t be when I am finished,’ he said bluntly. Mrs Fitzwilliam’s eyebrows rose slightly. ‘Lady Elliot, Bingley’s sister, is apparently quite delighted with your brother.’
‘Henry has great natural charm,’ Mrs Fitzwilliam said mildly, although her eyes were trained on her brother, her expression intense. ‘Women always fall a little infatuated with him; he can’t help it, really.’ It was true enough that every woman Crawford spoke to seemed to moon after him. He was peculiar in that he was simultaneously attractive and replusive; women loved him and most men longed to kick him. Darcy himself felt a certain twitching in his boot even as he began speaking to the man’s sister.
‘You know, of course, that Sir Walter, Lady Elliot’s husband, and my father were cousins?’
Her lips pursed. ‘No, I did not.’ Her dark eyes went to Bingley’s sister, and hardened slightly.
‘Scandal, naturally, would be very unpleasant for the entire family. We are all a very respectable lot. The former Lady Elliot, my godmother, would never have dreamed - ’
‘Yes, I see.’ Her expression had turned positively stormy. ‘Well, surely Henry can direct his attentions elsewhere. There are so many - ’ She glanced up at him meaningfully, and he looked away, flushing.
‘He has no reason to do so. But even if he does, Lady Elliot seems not to realise the, er, obligations incumbent upon her situation. It would be dreadful for - all of the family, really - if there was any hint of scandal. You understand, Mrs Fitzwilliam, how one may pursue one’s - ’ Darcy raised his eyes and smiled rather unpleasantly - ‘entertainments, without indiscretion or impropriety. Lady Elliot appears to be rather less enlightened.’
The only expression that crossed her face was faint surprise, soon gone; she returned his gaze consideringly, then smiled. ‘You wish for me to - enlighten her, then?’
‘Yes.’ He weighed his chances, then continued levelly, ‘It would be dreadful, cousin, were the family name to be sullied in any way. Public opinion is so fickle. Of course, people are generally fickle - not only women. Their ideas change so rapidly; character is the only constant. Do people ever really change, do you think? Can they?’
Mrs Fitzwilliam’s gaze did not waver, and she laughed lightly. ‘I am not well-versed in matters of philosophy, sir; but I think not. Still, ideas and - paradigms - may shift. You have been married, Mr Darcy; sometimes people truly are happier ignorant. Do you not believe so?’
‘I would not wish it for myself;’ - he glanced at the colonel, who was talking animatedly to Lady Elliot and Mrs Bingley - ‘but perhaps, for some. I am not certain; I would have to give the matter more thought.’
‘I see.’ She looked from her brother, to the Bingley siblings, to her husband. ‘When I have spoken with Lady Elliot, perhaps you shall have come to a conclusion on the matter?’
‘Perhaps. My ideas are never set in stone, however.’
Mrs Fitzwilliam glanced up at him through her lowered lashes, and smiled demurely. ‘Ah. Let us hope your friend’s sister is as accommodating in her thinking as you.’
‘And, cousin - we have been family these two years. Surely such formality in unnecessary?’
‘Very well, Mary.’ He bowed, and left without making any reciprocal request. Crawford instantly joined him, his brows furrowed.
‘That was a charming tête-à-tête I just observed, sir,’ he began. Darcy looked at him disdainfully and crossed his right foot behind his left, where it could cause no trouble. What a contemptible little man, he thought, as glad of his height as he had disliked it awhile before. He had not the slightest idea how Crawford could have fooled any woman, let alone the vast numbers rumoured.
‘Oh, was it?’ he replied, falling into his native languid drawl, as he invariably did when annoyed. ‘I rather thought you preoccupied with Sir Walter’s wife.’
‘She is very beautiful, but I’m afraid the present company has me rather inured to such charms.’
‘Astonishing,’ said Darcy.
‘I had not thought you particularly friendly with my sister,’ the man prodded. Insufferable creature.
‘I am not.’ With a scathing look, Darcy said icily, ‘It was a family matter. I’m afraid I do not have leave to discuss it. Good day.’ He bowed and left the room with Bingley. They were well on their way to the study when it occurred to him that he was running away from the intolerable pair, and he laughed.
Bingley, his expression still faintly trapped, glanced over at him in surprise. ‘What is it?’ He looked around them, then over his shoulder.
‘I have an entirely new perspective on hunting,’ said Darcy.
Peace reigned at Baildon for several weeks. The less desirable guests departed, Lady Elliot and Mrs Fitzwilliam promising to write to one another.
They seemed to have struck up a friendship of sorts. Darcy tiredly wondered what on earth he’d created; but at least they were gone, and as long as Lady Elliot learnt discretion in her dalliances, his design had been accomplished. He sighed, feeling rather -- dirty, really. It was only a very conscious effort that kept him from retreating into his customary detachment, distancing himself from all around him.
They enjoyed the last few weeks of the visit. Darcy spoke with Mrs Bingley about matters other than their children. As subtly as he could -- for he was quite certain that she knew -- he enquired after her family. She said that all but her father were in excellent health, and all but her mother in excellent spirits. Little elaboration was needed on that subject. He smiled and asked no more, instead dwelling on the Gardiners’ manifold charms.
‘When they were here, my cousin called you her uncle. And then the children could not stop talking.’ She smiled at him, affectionately.
‘Children usually like me,’ he replied, rather nervously.
‘I understand.’ She sewed steadily, her dark head bent over her work, then glanced up. ‘Bingley has missed your advice a great deal.’
Darcy raised his eyebrows, his expression sardonic. ‘My advice? I should think he would be glad enough to be free of it.’
‘Oh, no.’ She tilted her head to the side, considering her stitching. ‘He is very fond of you, and grateful for all that you have done. We are none of us perfect, Mr Darcy,’ she added softly. ‘Although my sister used to say that some of us are less so than others.’
He laughed. There was no need to ask which sister she spoke of. ‘Hancock should return here tomorrow. He -- Miss Catherine -- ’ Darcy coughed. ‘Perhaps, when it is convenient, your family should like to come to Pemberley. Your sister, too, of course.’
Mrs Bingley smiled. ‘Your home is delightful, sir. I believe I may speak for Bingley, when I say that we would be honoured. And Kitty has never seen Pemberley.’
‘She shall probably see it often enough in the future,’ he said thoughtlessly. Mrs Bingley looked at him expressively, and he blushed.
‘I am beyond redemption, I fear.’
‘It must be difficult,’ she said, searching for thread in her basket, ‘to have so many dependent upon your judgment. And then to be right so much of the time. I daresay it makes it all the worse when you are not.’
Darcy decided that he had never given Jane Bingley her due -- even when he had given her more than almost anyone else. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘yes, it is.’
‘My husband thinks the world of you. He has so few close friends, you know.’
‘Yes, I know. It is his way -- to gather a great many “friends” who are little more than acquaintances, and -- well, you know. You are married to him.’
She smiled mistily. ‘Yes, I am. I knew what he was like then, and I know him better now. I am very grateful for the care you take of him. He might have been led very far astray, if you had not been there. Thank you.’
He started. His scrupulous guidance of Bingley was hardly deserving of thanks; simply the obligation he owed his young, impressionable friend. ‘It was nothing,’ he said sincerely. ‘I am honoured to call him my friend.’ With a faint smile, he added, ‘It is not anyone who will put up with me and my moods, after all.’
‘You are very even-tempered, I have always thought.’ Then she looked down, and flushed.
‘Except when I am not,’ he agreed gravely. ‘Ah, I believe I hear Anne calling. Thank you for your unexampled kindness, Mrs Bingley.’ He shook her hand and left.
By late spring, they were settled at Pemberley again, and their days fell into an easy pattern. He arranged all business affairs by correspondence, and spent as much time with Anne as he could. After such a long holiday, she did not take well to a structured schedule and the dictates of her nurse-governess, but he was immovable and she eventually became acclimated once more to life at Pemberley.
He was at once content and sorrowful. Pemberley was, somehow, a balm for him. He felt cleansed, and threw himself wholeheartedly into the management of the estate, paying only the obligatory social calls to his neighbours. His time was so thoroughly occupied, he ought not to have time for anything else. And yet -- there was, it seemed, a pervading sadness about everything. It was weeks before he even noticed, one day in which he was on business for hours, and separated from Anne until evening. He knew where she was -- knew she was perfectly well -- did not, in fact, greatly fear for her -- no more than usual, in any case -- and yet, without her incessant questions, her ebullient effervescence, her unconditional adoration, he was -- lost. It was an almost physical pain and he could not understand it.
He soon realised, it was not precisely a new sensation. Grief -- yes, that was it -- and yet, he had grown accustomed over time; and his joy in Anne had gone a long way towards dulling it. Still, it was always with him; when he was parted from her, it flooded over him in great dark waves, and he could not understand. Perhaps, it had been so long -- he had been so preoccupied with what was happening, that he had quite forgotten what simply was. He had been so oblivious to his own thoughts and feelings that when they came back -- or when he became aware of their existence -- they did so with a vengeance, he scarcely knew what to do with them.
Anne was his lifeline. He did not know what he would have done without her; he did not dare think on it. She was in some ways astonishingly like him -- from his experience with his Bingley and Fitzwilliam godchildren, and the Gardiners, he gathered that her speech was highly articulate. Morever she was learning her letters and had become fascinated with words. Only yesterday she had insisted that he translate her nightly fairy-story into French. He had been very much the same at that age. He still remembered his aunt saying perplexedly, ‘You are such an odd little boy, Fitzwilliam.’
That, naturally, reminded him of Miss Bingley -- Lady Elliot -- and he vindictively hoped something truly unpleasant happened to her. His best hopes on that front lay, peculiarly enough, with Mrs Fitzwilliam; he very much doubted that her protestations of friendship were sincere. Slightly cheered at the thought of Lady Elliot at Mary Fitzwilliam’s mercy, he bit his lip and considered. The Kirkby living had finally fallen vacant, and so the Hammonds would be here -- there -- in a few days. Cecily should be well. The Willoughbys were happy, or so it seemed from Georgiana’s latest letter. There were no more rumours about Lady Elliot. All of his far-flung relations seemed to be doing perfectly well. Darcy breathed a rather melancholy sigh of relief. There was only one thing left.
He was not certain whether to be outraged or amused. At first, it was only his determination to remain where he was that allowed him to keep his temper; then, the sheer hilarity of it all struck him, and he laughed. Lady Catherine, no doubt, would not have been remotely pleased at his reaction to her diatribe. He felt no inclination to explain himself or his actions to her. She was neither the head of his family nor his mother, despite her pretensions to both titles. His reply said as much, in an almost offensively light and cheerful style. His innate perversity satisfied, he spent the next weeks in comparative peace and quiet.
The following months were pleasant, if bittersweet. Anne grew rapidly, and demonstrated that she had inherited a full share of the family wilfulness. Darcy, implacable when he knew himself to be right, was the only one who could influence her in the slightest once she had set her mind on something. The others in charge of her usually gave in out of sheer exhaustion. One such time was when the governess insisted that Anne’s hair needed cut. Mrs Jones was not one to brook opposition -- a necessary quality for anyone put in charge of Darcy children -- but Anne’s vociferous protests brought a bewildered Darcy from his study. Mrs Jones had a pair of scissors in her hands, Anne was protectively holding her dark hair away from her face, and several maids watched on in fascination. Although he usually tried not to interfere in Anne’s education, on this occasion he put his foot down. His fatherly soul was horrified at the prospect and he caustically informed Mrs Jones that Anne’s hair was not her concern.
‘It gets in the inkpot,’ Mrs Jones said primly. ‘She must accept reason -- ’
‘She is a child, Mrs Jones.’ People! He compromised, and promised that Anne’s hair would be plaited henceforth. Circumstances being what they were, Darcy inevitably learnt to plait a little girl’s hair. He pursued this accomplishment with the same single-minded attention he had done everything else; but he could not help thinking that certain aspects of fatherhood were rather more peculiar than others.
His penchant for solitude grew rather more pronounced over that time, broken only by the Bingleys’ visit. He had never been social, but the energy that had driven him throughout his twenties seemed to have vanished. Georgiana, he knew, worried over him, over them both, writing at least weekly, and visiting no less than every six weeks. She was encouraged that he planned to go to Houghton in September, and even more that he actually did so when the time came.
He dreaded it -- not so much his family and their demands on him, which he found rather bizarrely gratifying, but venturing forth from the haven of Pemberley, and worse, Mrs Fitzwilliam was there.
‘Mr Darcy, Miss Darcy, what a pleasure to see you here,’ she said graciously, her kiss burning his cheek. She was a depraved, immoral, wicked woman -- she disgusted him as few woman ever had -- and yet why should he care? Why should he bother loathing her? That was the best word for his feelings, and yet she was utterly unworthy of such attention. Why did he respond so intensely, in a dislike that was nearly bordering on hatred? Why could he not shrug her off as he had shrugged off so many others?
It was only when he started awake, gasping for air, memories pouring through his mind, as alive and vivid as if they had happened yesterday, that he understood. Mary’s vibrancy and wit and charisma were misapplied, to be sure -- behind her pretty face and charming ways, there was no deeper, richer core, no thoughtful intellect or fine character -- but on the surface, they were very alike. He had met her and not cared before Elizabeth; it was afterwards. Somehow, for some reason -- although it eluded him -- loathing Mary was part and parcel of loving Elizabeth.
Even more than Catherine, she brought Elizabeth to mind. Not, perhaps, as she was -- he had not seen her since the wedding, and then they had scarcely spoken -- but as she had been, as he remembered her. The flashing dark eyes, the intelligence that had first drawn him to her, before he found any great pleasure in looking at her -- the splatters of mud on her skirt, emblematic, somehow, of affection for a beloved sister. Then -- her quieter, somehow softer, ways at Pemberley; somehow, he had felt, he no longer need fear being cut on her sharp edges -- unreasonable, given their history, but the impression remained with him. What had they spoken of? He hardly recalled. Veiled barbs and cold reserve were so much easier -- he had never dreamt that making conversation with the woman he loved could be such a trial. Of course, the company had not been particularly helpful; even Georgiana, dear Georgiana, hardly spoke two words together. And Miss Bingley!
Introducing her to Sir Walter, he decided, had been ample revenge.
Yet they had got past it, eventually. He absently rubbed his icy hands together, unable to stop the flood, even were he inclined -- and he was not. He remembered that first awkward conversation after he had returned from town. She had been so mortified by Mr Collins -- understandably -- and, quite overwhelmed by his feelings in that moment (the clergyman notwithstanding), he smiled warmly at her. It was with equal parts astonishment and pleasure that he watched her pour tea with trembling hands.
After that, the pair could not keep from talking. He was always quiet in company, but she drew him out easily enough as they walked through the park with no company but Jane and Bingley. Their mutual dislike was so well-established that no one considered how much thrown together they were.
‘I am terribly sorry about Mr Collins.’
‘It is quite all right.’
‘No, he is really a dreadful man.’
‘He is certainly a very enthusiastic person.’
‘He is rather more enthusiastic about his patroness than his parishioners,’ she said, sharply.
‘There is no doubting his gratitude,’ said Darcy, then sighed. ‘Bingley!’
Their charges separated with penitent expressions and Elizabeth shook her head. ‘I would never have thought it of Jane, she is so saintly.’
‘Bingley is not exactly discouraging her,’ he remarked, as the man in question briefly pressed his lips against his intented’s cheek. Darcy opened his mouth, then shut it again with a faint smile. When each slipped an arm around the other’s waist, however, both chaperones exclaimed,
And so they talked, speech broken only by rebukes to the engaged couple. At first, Mr Collins’s oddities supplied most of the conversation, followed by reflections on Mrs Collins’s situation, among various other civilities. With conversation came ease, and with ease a sort of friendship, but their peculiar relationship, if indeed relationship it could be called, did not ripen any further. Both veered away from the topic of their own feelings, she for her own reasons -- at the time, and even later, he supposed her reticence sprang from her relative indifference. And he -- he was too cautious -- no, frightened -- to risk their delicate accord at so early a juncture. With time -- he had fully intended to pursue her, if he had to hover around the fringes of Bingley family gatherings for the next ten years -- with time, courage would come. Except there had been no time.
He had not thought of it, of her, for so long -- it seemed so long -- why had he not? Once it had overshadowed his every thought. Of course, love changed; and his love, it had been such a part of him, for so long, that it required no thinking about. It simply was. And yet -- Elizabeth. He could think of her now, and, curling beneath the covers, did so. Where was she? How was she? Mrs Gardiner had said that she was chiefly occupied with her father’s health -- had Mr Bennet been ill, before? He did not think so; but often, it was difficult to tell. Perhaps he was an invalid of sorts. She could use a friend, the Gardiners had said, and he had known that they meant more than they said; but for the life of him, he could not, even now, imagine what it was. And Mrs Bingley had said that all but Mrs Bennet were in excellent spirits.
Houghton was so cold. Darcy shivered underneath the covers and fell into an uneasy slumber.
‘Stephen is so tall,’ declared the proud mama; ‘and the governess can hardly keep up with him. He is reading, and learning to write --’
Anne and Stephen were overflowing with excitement from the moment they caught sight of one another, and had run madly through the halls for apparently hours. Darcy looked around Aincourt curiously; it was quite different from what he recalled, even during his last visit. Much of the more ornate ornamentation was gone, and many of the rooms were lighter and more cheerful. Only so much could be done -- family legend had it that the original proprietor had been determined that all the world should know of his affluence, and Aincourt had always been more splendid than elegant. Nevertheless it was a fine old place, and Georgiana had done a great deal for it.
She looked well; less like a beautiful marble statue and more like the lovely châtelaine of a large estate. Aldborough appeared prodigiously proud of wife and son, and all but Stephen seemed perfectly contented with their lives. Once the children’s energy exhausted itself, Anne retreating to the nursery to play with the toys left expressly for her, Stephen attached himself to his uncle, clinging to rather than imitating him. Neither of his parents knew what was the matter; Georgiana acknowledged that he had been rather sulky as of late, and Aldborough said that he tended to be moody.
‘He has been a great deal better since you came,’ Georgiana confessed. ‘I worry about him, a little. He says he misses home.’
Darcy thought of his nephew’s delight in every nook and cranny of Pemberley, and sighed. ‘He shall adjust, in time,’ he said. ‘Visits, of course, are always welcome; he is as much Darcy as Willoughby.’
‘More so,’ Aldborough said ruefully, ‘going by his looks and behaviour.’
‘We are not temperamental,’ said Georgiana pointedly, with an arch smile for her husband. ‘The Darcys have always been the very picture of sweet-tempered respectability; have we not, Fitzwilliam?’
‘We have always been respectable, in any case.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Speaking of respectability, I have not yet seen your grandmother, Aldborough.’
The other man laughed. ‘Ah, Grandmama has been in a foul temper the last half-year at least. I never met a more resentful woman, or man, for that matter. I cannot imagine what you must have said to her.’
‘My aunt, Lady Catherine, did most of the talking,’ said Darcy. ‘We did exchange a few words, however.’
‘Whatever you said, life has been much more pleasant here ever since,’ said Georgiana, with a fond look at him.
‘I daresay it owes more to you two than me,’ he said, smiling.
‘I doubt it,’ said Georgiana, and pressed a kiss against his cheek.
Darcy woke to a pounding on his door. Somewhat groggily, he opened it, and peered down at an anxious-looking servant. ‘Mr Darcy, sir,’ she gasped, ‘his lordship sent me -- ’
‘What is it, Sally?’ he inquired tiredly. She flushing, appearing to have gone briefly mute as she nervously eyed him, and Darcy self-consciously tightened his robe. ‘Sally?’
She burst into tears. ‘It’s Miss Darcy, sir. She’s gone.’
Georgiana was awake and pale, pacing back and forth. There was no sign of Aldborough.
‘Where is your husband?’ Darcy demanded curtly.
‘He’s looking for them, with the servants,’ she said meekly, pushing her dark hair out of her eyes.
She raised her swollen, tear-filled eyes. ‘Stephen and Anne and Lady Aldborough.’
Darcy caught his breath, staring at her. Distinctly unsteady, he briefly clung to the doorjamb before straightening himself. ‘She took them,’ he said tonelessly. ‘Both of them.’
Georgiana nodded. ‘If I had not woken up and decided to look in on him — everyone says I am too overprotective, but if I had not — it would have been far, far too late. Oh Fitzwilliam!’ She bent her head and began sobbing brokenly. ‘They are so small, and she has no head for details. Stephen doesn’t — ’ she struggled for breath — ‘have his coat.’ At this she began crying anew. Darcy briefly put her arms around her, allowing her to cling to him, before both separated and stood separate and upright.
‘I shall join Aldborough and the others. As soon as there is any - anything to be heard, I shall send information of it to you. Goodbye, my dear.’
He found his brother-in-law and tersely asked for news, of which there was none. Although a part of his brain was clamouring for his attention, the larger portion was clear, lucid, and dispassionate. He joined the search for the two children and their erstwhile great-grandmother, eyes darting back and forth as they searched through the snow falling thickly about them. Any tracks that might have been made were quickly washed away, and it was only luck that sent Darcy underneath a thick grove of trees, an edge of desperation aiding his efforts.
‘Papa — ’ He could hear the low, gasping whisper, and at first thought it only his imagination. The voice grew more insistent, although not louder. ‘Papa, Papa — ’
It was joined by another, ‘Uncle Darcy — please, help, please — ’
Darcy looked up, and to his amazement met the white faces of two shivering children. A hard tightness about his heart relaxed slightly, and he called up, ‘Stephen, Anne, you must come down. Your mother and I will take care of you now.’ His conscience jabbed, And you did so well before, did you not? He ignored it and waited for the children.
‘I — I’m afraid, Papa,’ said Anne. ‘I can’t! I’ll slip and break my neck, Grandmama said so!’ Stephen nodded shivering agreement. Darcy only hesitated a fraction of a moment before springing up into the tree, taking both daughter and nephew up into his arms, and leaping back down. He wrapped the two slightly-built children in his own coat, and returned to the others.
They were congregated around a prone figure, and Darcy immediately turned the children away before they caught a glimpse of whatever it was. He himself could make out the blue-tinged cheeks, and knew beyond a doubt that she was dead. As the assembled searchers caught sight of him, general relief was voiced through the crowd, and several approached Stephen and Anne, including Aldborough. Both flinched back, staring with wide, frightened eyes. Darcy sighed, and accepted the offer of a horse, riding back to Aincourt as fast as he was able. He could feel how cold both were, particularly Anne, who had inherited the Fitzwilliam delicacy; even nestled closely against him did not seem to grow appreciably warmer.
Georgiana was directing the efforts of the house capably and efficiently. There was a man of about fifty next to her. ‘This is Mr Davis, from Lambton,’ she said quietly, eyes fixed on the children. They raised their own, and whispered,
The children were quickly stripped of their sodden clothes, cleaned, and put in bed. The anxious parents turned to Mr Davis, who vaguely reminded Darcy of Mrs Gardiner. ‘You must keep them warm,’ he instructed, ‘and well-fed. They will need all the strength they can get.’ Correctly interpreting their suddenly frozen expressions, he smiled kindly. ‘They are young, and strong. It could have been a great deal worse.’
The next days were spent at the children’s sides. Darcy and Georgiana scarcely left the room, and never together. For several hours, their conditions worsened. Neither seemed to recognise anyone, including both parents, but still cringed back from unfamiliar contact. Anne’s situation was the most precarious, and she tossed and turned for days in a high fever. Darcy lived in a grey haze, where one day was hardly distinguishable from the next, catching odd hours of sleep that did little good. The only constant was Anne’s small, clammy hand resting against his own, the pulse fluttering against his fingers. It was late one evening that her fever turned, her lifeless fingers tightening weakly in recognition.
‘Papa,’ she whispered through parched lips, and Darcy stared blankly for a moment, before crying for the doctor. After several minutes of checking who knew what, Mr Davis smilingly assured him that her recovery was now assured, and went to the other patient. Darcy wearily leaned his forehead against his daughter’s hand, oblivious to the tears running down his cheeks.
‘Don’t cry, Papa,’ Anne said peremptorily.
After she drifted back to sleep, Darcy carefully released her hand, and turned to his sister. ‘He’s going to be fine,’ she said, smiling through her own tears. ‘They both are.’
‘Thank God,’ said Darcy fervently, glancing out of the window. The stars, which had seemed to him dim and hardly worth looking at, sparkled radiantly overhead. Georgiana expelled a little breath and leaned her head against his shoulder.
‘Before you came, you said something about a wedding,’ whispered Aldborough, staring at his sleeping son and niece. He only dared enter when they were fast asleep, unwilling to alarm the pair. Darcy sat upright, rubbing his eyes.
‘Oh, that,’ he said wearily. ‘Would you mind writing to Bingley and explaining that I shan’t be able to attend?’
‘I, write to Bingley?’ Aldborough repeated, blinking a little.
‘Yes, please,’ Darcy returned distractedly, almost fully occupied with the slow rise and fall of the children’s respective chests. Regardless of Mr Davis, he could not rid himself of the fear that either or both might die at any moment, irrevocably lost to both himself and Georgiana. He remained with them until the day that he collapsed onto the floor, terrifying Georgiana, who after days of unfalteringly constant attention, was often at the edge of hysteria. Darcy did not wake for three days.
‘Anne?’ he said groggily. Firm hands pushed him back down, and he blinked in confusion.
‘Fitzwilliam James Alexander Darcy,’ Georgiana said fiercely, ‘if you ever think of doing such a thing again, I swear — I shall — I shall — oh, I don’t know what I shall do! But it will be very unpleasant.’
‘Oh?’ He struggled to make sense of this, and failed. ‘I don’t recall exactly . . .’
‘Do not worry,’ came Mr Davis’ jovial tones, ‘you only fainted, Mr Darcy.’
‘I . . . fainted?’ Darcy shook his head, and with a wary look at his sister — who would have been an excellent model for an avenging Fury as she stood there glaring down at him — sat up once more. ‘My daughter, my nephew, are they —’
Mr Davis chuckled. ‘They are recovering nicely, sir. But you should take better care.’
‘If only out of concern for my nerves,’ Georgiana interjected acerbically. Darcy, rather unnervingly reminded of Mrs Bennet, smiled. ‘Not to mention Anne. If this is how you normally go on, I am of half a mind to keep you here!’
‘Georgiana, really —’
‘Lady Aldborough,’ Mr Davis said softly, lowering his voice discreetly, ‘your brother should sleep until he has recovered his strength.’ Darcy threw the doctor a grateful look.
‘Take care of yourself,’ she said fondly, leaning down to press a kiss against his brow. ‘I shall watch over the children.’
Darcy did not doubt it, and his fingers, which did not appear wholly under his command, weakly curled around hers. ‘Georgiana — ’ he said faintly, before falling asleep once more.
The shock of having lost command of his own body to such a degree -- fainting indeed! -- was not one easily forgotten. Darcy, although more for his family’s sake than his own, was careful not to drive himself to such a state again, regardless of the temptation. As soon as possible, both Darcys returned to Pemberley. Anne, while never gregarious away from those she knew and liked, had grown positively shy. She flinched from sudden sounds, and often it seemed that only pride kept her from bolting when a stranger entered the room. Darcy worried for her, but little enough could be done. Mrs Reynolds assured him that it would pass in time.
‘After all, sir,’ she said consolingly, ‘she is no worse than you were after your dear mama died.’
Considering that his state of mind had been so disturbed upon that event that he’d been shipped off to Lady Catherine for several years, this was not a great comfort. Darcy nevertheless understood the spirit of the offering and thanked his housekeeper.
In time, Anne did indeed recover. She regained her old vitality, and if she was a little more firmly attached to her father, it was no cause for complaint. Stephen, however, was quite a different story, and Darcy easily read between the lines of his sister’s letters. Stephen had never learnt to regard Aincourt as home, and the recent tragedy hardly helped matters. It was no surprise that he did not feel safe there -- regrettable, but inevitable. Darcy offered to have him at Pemberley until he was somewhat recovered. Stephen’s precarious health, in his opinion, took higher priority over the question of loyalty to Aincourt, and he said as much to his sister, who fervently agreed. He was astonished that she, herself, stayed only a few days.
‘I do not wish to live my husband alone,’ she explained simply. Darcy nodded. He had known from almost the first that their attachment would ultimately be a passionate one, particularly given Georgiana’s intense temperament, and he was glad of their happiness; but he pitied his nephew. Stephen’s nervous, inexpressive disposition rather precluded inclusion within the self-contained family. He could not help that he was so alien to both parents -- nor could Georgiana and Aldborough, although Darcy did not approve. It was no surprise that Stephen preferred Pemberley, then.
Nevertheless, even there he was in far worse state than Anne had ever been. He had not her pride;--at anything unexpected, he fled to his uncle. Darcy supposed -- although he elected not to speak of it, and so could not know for certain -- that he had not been quick enough to shield Stephen from the macabre sight of his grandmother’s corpse. He suffered more nightmares than Anne ever had, but less insistent and wilful than his cousin, simply endured for days before Darcy found out.
Slowly, however, the little boy regained something of his old equanimity. Not so resilient as Anne, nevertheless he was very young, and his demeanour within weeks altered from frightened to generally contented, and on occasion even petulant. Darcy was pleased to see Stephen behaving like a four-year-old -- although he brooked no disobedience from daughter or nephew -- and enjoyed his company, as ever dreading the day when he would be returned to his parents.
For Stephen’s sake primarily Darcy exerted himself to be somewhat sociable, at least within his circle of acquaintance. He frequently called on his cousin Mrs Hammond, who had changed not at all in consequence of her marriage, except to acquire a certain serenity. She, like Darcy himself, was fond of children, and particularly knew the ways of little boys; Stephen was soon as attached to her as his uncle and cousin had ever been, and often seemed content to simply watch her, his dark grey eyes wide and fascinated.
Closer to home was Kympton, which parish Pemberley House belonged to. Darcy saw the Hancocks at least weekly on Sundays, and usually more as he and Hancock were long-time friends. His wife, although much more sensible than Darcy would ever have expected, was more of a trial; Stephen seemed to find her something of an oddity, and her resemblance to her sister kept Elizabeth at the front of Darcy’s mind. He tried to forget her, and failed as he had always done. He knew perfectly well that she had believed his attachment mere infatuation, perhaps even imaginary. He himself wished it were so. And yet not -- he was a better person, for having loved her. The manner in which he had loved her, still did, was quite different from how he loved Georgiana and Anne and Stephen. If, somehow, time or distance could have eroded his feelings, he might very well have been able to pursue another woman, to seek something beyond mere contentment; but it seemed that he could not be inconstant even when he wished it.
Darcy sighed. At once, he wished to be left alone -- to never hear of her, to never even think of her, again. For better or worse, that part of his life was ever. And yet -- always there was an and yet. He was thirsty for every detail of her he could discover, and was careful to discreetly and regularly enquire after her, via the Hancocks, Bingleys, and Gardiners. Mrs Hancock mentioned, in passing, that her father was ‘worse.’
‘It will be a blessing when it ends,’ she said philosophically. ‘Not that I wish to see Longbourn in the hands of the Collinses, but Papa has suffered for so long, and Lizzy with him. She deserves better.’
Darcy heartily agreed.
In May, he was forced to go to town. It was a brief enough errand that he brought the children with him. Stephen, who had never before left Derbyshire, was astounded, constantly turning his head this way and that. Although Darcy corresponded regularly with the Gardiners, it had been many months since he had seen them, and he looked forward to it.
They were so perfectly themselves that he laughed, really laughed, for the first time in what seemed a year at least. He was rather saddened, however, by how much older the children were. Twelve-year-old Amelia no longer ran into his arms as she always had before, while Margaret flushed when he smiled at her. Sarah, but five years old, had no such compunctions; but he started when he realised that she had only just been conceived when he met her cousin at Pemberley. Had it been so long? Of course -- yes, it had -- Anne was four and Sarah six months her senior. April. She had been born a full year after that dreadful day at Hunsford. Rather odd, that. Six years, thought Darcy, and sighed.
The little boys -- still young enough to deserve the title -- were delighted to see him, and quite interested in Stephen, who was in awe of their superior years and expertise. At first, he nearly leapt into Darcy’s arms when they rushed into the room, but Mr Gardiner’s easy ways and Mrs Gardiner’s kindness soon set him at his ease.
‘That poor lad, what has ever happened?’ Mrs Gardiner exclaimed as soon as the children were out of the room. Darcy gladly accepted the offered cup of tea, and explained. They stared.
‘Everything does happen to you, doesn’t it?’ Mr Gardiner said. ‘Are you quite certain he saw . . .’
‘Not certain, of course,’ Darcy said, shrugging. ‘But I think so, yes. He is still young. I hope he will not remember.’
‘That is quite possible. But still . . .’ Mr Gardiner shook his head. ‘I pity him.’
‘He has never been very happy,’ said Darcy, sighing. ‘Oh, my brother and sister are perfectly dutiful parents, even affectionate, but a child wants something more. And he is so unlike them, they do not know what do with him. Georgiana particularly worries over him. He cares nothing for Aincourt.’
‘At four?’ Mrs Gardiner laughed. ‘That is no surprise, my dear.’
‘He does care about Pemberley. He never wants to leave, when he is there; and only wants to return, when he is not. I wish --’ Darcy laughed sharply. ‘I wish he were mine. I can do little more than advise as it is.’
‘You seem to be doing more,’ said Mrs Gardiner softly.
‘I ought not. Aldborough would be well within his rights to be infuriated at my interference. When he -- Stephen -- was very small, he wanted to call me “Papa.” I very nearly allowed it. I should have liked -- but he is Georgiana’s son, not mine.’
‘Fitzwilliam -- ’ Mrs Gardiner reached out, and laid one hand over his. ‘No doubt you have heard it before; or perhaps, not enough. But you are a fine man.’ She smiled suddenly. ‘I wish you were my brother; although no doubt I would poke my nose into every corner of your life if you were.’
‘You do that already, dear,’ Mr Gardiner remarked, and Darcy laughed.
‘Thank you, Margaret. I am -- honoured.’ His lashes dropped against his cheeks, briefly, as he struggled to regain his composure. ‘Your family’s friendship has meant a great deal.’
‘It has been a pleasure,’ said Mrs Gardiner, with a sweet smile.
He was at the parsonage, talking over certain finer points of doctrine with Hancock, when Anne dashed into the room. ‘Papa, Mrs Hancock is -- she is not -- I think she’s sick,’ she said. Hancock turned white and he instantly went to find his wife. Darcy hesitated a moment, then, both children at his heels, followed him. Mrs Hancock sat in a chair by the fire, a letter flung on the table, sobbing into her hands. Hancock was kneeling before her.
‘Catherine,’ he said pleadingly, ‘Catherine, please -- what is it?’
She only sobbed harder, and Hancock glanced at Darcy, then gestured at the letter before attempting to comfort his wife. Distinctly uncomfortable, Darcy picked up the letter, which was composed of a single sheet of paper, covered by a fine, feminine hand -- albeit a rather careless one. He glanced at the bottom, and dropped it as if burnt. Your loving sister, Elizabeth Bennet it said, and with a painful clarity Darcy guessed at what the letter might contain. He could not read it, but Mrs Hancock gasped out,
‘It’s Papa -- Lizzy writes to -- to say that -- that he is dead.’ She recommenced sobbing, and Darcy quietly took his leave of them both.
Darcy stared down at several crumpled sheets of paper, scribbled over, and sighed. What was to be done? He bit his lip, and commenced writing the most particularly prosaic and dull of his attempts --
I hope that Mrs Bingley and her sisters are well, despite the recent tragedy, and that Mrs Collins has managed to restrain her husband thus far. You will have your mother-in-law at Baildon? For your sake, I hope she brings Miss Elizabeth with her. She would no doubt be glad of the company. Please give Mrs Bingley and the children my best wishes --
The letter was posted, and Darcy returned to the other pressing issue at hand. During the entirety of his epistolary struggles, Stephen had perched on one of the chairs, simply watching with wide solemn eyes. Darcy would not presume to speak of it, but the ramifications of his nephew’s strong attachment to him had kept him awake more hours than not. Were it not for Anne, he doubted if Stephen would ever willing leave his side, and while flattering, it was also worrying. He betrayed no such behaviour with even Georgiana, let alone Aldborough. Not even Anne -- while she spent a great deal of time with him -- more than any other daughters of his acquaintance -- she was always doing something. Not simply sitting there, a small melancholy statue.
‘Stephen,’ Darcy said gently, ‘it is June today, and your mother’s birthday is in a fortnight.’
The child bit his lip. ‘I must go back to Aincourt?’ he said timidly. Darcy hesitated, then nodded.
‘You cannot be at Pemberley always, you know. Aincourt is your home.’
‘No, it isn’t!’ Stephen said passionately. ‘No, no! I miss Mama, but I can’t -- I don’t -- ’ he flushed and looked down, whispering plaintively, ‘Please don’t send me away.’
Good Lord. The experience of five godchildren, four surrogate nephews and nieces, one sister, and one daughter, were all of them insufficient to prepare him for this. Darcy rubbed his forehead tiredly. ‘I am not -- I shall not -- ’ he sighed, and started again. ‘Stephen, do you understand that you belong with your mother and father?’
Stephen hesitated, then nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’ He added wistfully, ‘I miss Mama. But it’s better to be at Pemberley with you and Anne.’
Darcy hesitated a moment. ‘Stephen,’ he said carefully, ‘Aincourt is only a place.’
His nephew blinked owlishly at this. ‘I -- I don’t understand,’ he said, biting his lip.
‘Even if very bad things happen in a particular place, it does not mean anything about the place. It is just a house, wood, stones, mortar, land. People are what make it more. I do not love Pemberley because it is beautiful, although it is, but because I know my father, and his father, and all my grandfathers back through hundreds and hundreds of years, have walked here; it is ours, the Darcys’, and I belong because I am of their blood, a Darcy of Pemberley. You see?’
Stephen’s small brow furrowed, then he said stubbornly, ‘I’m a Darcy too. Mama -- ’
‘You are a Willoughby,’ Darcy said firmly. ‘More Willoughby than Darcy, because you’re not just Willoughby from your father, but your mother’s grandmother -- my grandmother -- was one also. Do you see?’
‘I should like to see Mama again,’ Stephen conceded. ‘But I love Pemberley ’cause of you and Anne, mostly.’
‘Yes, I know. But you must love your mother, and father, too.’ Darcy crouched down, and pushed some of Stephen’s wayward dark hair out of his eyes, cupping his cheek gently. ‘Stephen, some people -- like your cousins Anne and Cecily -- are happy a great deal of the time, wherever they are -- it’s something they carry with them. It’s a special gift.’
‘I am not happy mostly,’ Stephen confessed, fixing his eyes on the floor.
Overwhelmed by compassion and pity for this lonely, melancholy child, Darcy nodded. ‘I know.’ He tilted his nephew’s chin up slightly, forcing him to meet his eyes. ‘You see, there are other people who aren’t like that. People like your mother, and like me, and like you. We cannot be happy unless we try very hard at it. Do you understand?’
Stephen chewed his lip thoughtfully. ‘Anne makes me happy.’
‘Anne is like that. You cannot help but be happy when you’re with her -- isn’t it so?’
‘Yes, exactly.’ Stephen smiled brightly, then said sternly, ‘Just so.’ Darcy chuckled.
‘It is easier to be happy when you are with happy people, sometimes. So, when you go home to Aincourt, what you might want to do, is to spend time with your father. He is usually a happy person too, you see.’
‘I don’t know Papa,’ Stephen said simply.
‘You ought to. He’s your father,’ Darcy said immediately, and flinched, only realising the hypocrisy of such a statement after it had left his mouth. Stephen nodded soberly, and sighed deeply.
‘I should like to get Mama something very nice for her birthday, Uncle Darcy.’
‘I shall take you and Anne -- ’ Darcy glanced sharply at the curtains, which had just twitched slightly -- ‘to Lambton, and you both can find something for her.’
Stephen impulsively flung his arms around his neck, as cheerful as he had been morose just a moment before. ‘I want it to be the best present in the world, because Mama is the best mother in all the world,’ he explained. There was a muffled sound from behind the curtain, and Darcy sighed. I must really speak to her about eavesdropping.
In the middle of June, they returned to Pemberley. As he looked back, he could see Lord and Lady Aldborough, waving happily at them, Georgiana wearing Lady Anne’s sapphires, which Darcy had had re-set for her. Stephen stood a little apart, gazing forlornly. After a moment, Aldborough hesitantly moved towards his son, placing on a hand on his shoulder. Stephen jerked in surprise, but accepted the touch, and Darcy was somewhat comforted, despite the feelings that overwhelmed him as he left his nephew behind.
There were three letters waiting for him there, all from Bingley. Darcy kissed Anne good-night and went to his study to open them. The first was simply idle chatter. The second was much the same, but interspersed within the nonsense were some requests for advice, ranging from the trivial to the interesting. After reading the third, he turned three different shades of grey and reached out to grip the table, the room spinning before he fumbled to a chair and sat down.
Bingley being Bingley, he was quite rationally afraid that the information he sought would not even be included in the incoherent missive. But it was. Jane is very worried about Lizzy -- she was in the house the longest -- they are in London with the Gardiners -- should be here on the third of July -- doctor says that town is detrimental to their health -- please, I am completely at sea --
Darcy, who for longer than he cared to think about had felt stretched and thin and simply too tired to bother with very much, felt something uncoil inside him. His thoughts raced, and he paced rapidly across the rug as he struggled to make sense of them. He looked at the clock -- ten o’clock. It was too late, Anne -- yes, they would leave in the morning. He stayed awake all through the night, taking care of all business he could manage.
‘Mr Darcy?’ said Mrs Reynolds, squinting at him.
‘Good morning,’ he said, in a tone that brooked no opposition. She blinked at this, and cautiously replied,
‘Good, er, morning, sir. You should not be up.’
‘I had some business that needed taking care of.’
‘But sir, couldn’t you wait until dawn?’ She stifled a mighty yawn.
‘No, I must leave in the morning.’
‘But Mr Darcy, you just -- ’
‘Yes, I know. Bingley needs my assistance however -- an urgent family matter -- Anne and I shall leave tomorrow.’
Mrs Reynolds looked at her master’s face, animated with -- not happiness, nothing remotely like it, but -- purpose -- certainly more than she had seen in years -- and sighed. ‘Yes, sir. Shall I tell Mr Higgins he is to manage the -- ’
‘No, please tell him to forward everything to me.’
Anne was rather confused by the entire event, and after much questioning, Darcy relented. ‘You know that Mrs Bingley’s papa died?’
‘Yes,’ she said, rubbing her eyes.
‘And his house belongs to Aunt Catherine’s clergyman now?’
‘Yes, Papa. You said something about tails but that I can have Pemberley because you don’t have one.’
Darcy said, ‘Yes, dear. Well, a few weeks after Mr and Mrs Collins and their children came to stay at Longbourn -- Mrs Bingley’s papa’s house -- the house burnt down.’
Anne sat up, fixing her dark blue eyes on him. ‘Burnt down!’ Then she bit her lip. ‘Is Mrs Bingley’s family all right?’
Darcy stared out the window blankly. ‘Her mother is perfectly well, although somewhat . . . distressed. One of Mrs Bingley’s sisters went back into her room, and breathed in a great deal of smoke before she was saved, and is coughing quite a lot, but they think she shall be well. But Mr and Mrs Bingley have so much to do now that he needs my help for business. His steward is not trustworthy.’
‘What’s trustworthy, papa?’
‘Someone you can trust,’ he said. ‘Like Mr Higgins.’
‘But you don’t let Mr Higgins do things, Papa, you do them all yourself,’ she said ingenuously.
Darcy laughed shortly. ‘I am not like Mr Bingley, Anne.’
‘No,’ she agreed, ‘you have black hair, and his is brown.’
He had not the slightest idea what he would find when he arrived at Baildon. His heart was pounding, and several times the world, as he perceived it, seemed to shift slightly to the left or right, then jerk back into place. Anne was unnerved enough at the prospect of strangers that she clung to his hand tightly, not realising that she was anchoring him as much as he was her.
‘Papa, shall I have to talk?’
‘No, not if you do not like,’ he said softly, only a very small part of his mind on the conversation. The instant he set foot inside the door, Bingley was there at his side, looking pleased beyond measure to see him.
‘Darcy,’ he said, in a sort of half-gasp, ‘you’re here.’
Darcy bit his lip. It was no time for smiling. ‘Yes, I am. What would you like me to do?’
Bingley scrubbed one hand across his brow, and Darcy noted, a little sadly, that there were a few strands of white in his friend’s hair.
‘Oh! Mr Darcy!’ Mrs Bingley exclaimed, a smile lighting up her face. She was very much the same as ever, except for the tired expression about her eyes. ‘We are so glad to see you, sir. And Anne.’
Anne smiled widely at Mrs Bingley. ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Bingley!’ she said brightly. ‘I hope your mama and sisters and cousins and aunt and uncle and -- ’
‘Anne,’ said Darcy sternly.
‘-- everyone else are well.’
Mrs Bingley seemed caught between a tired sigh and melancholy smile. ‘Thank you, Anne. The Gardiners are here, they came last night.’
Thank heavens, thought Darcy.
‘Thank heavens,’ said Bingley.
‘Oh, good,’ chirped Anne. ‘Is Sarah here, Mrs Bingley? May I go play, Papa, please?’
‘If you like. I will be with Mr Bingley, in his study, if you need me.’ She scampered off, as an anxious servant darted into the hallway. ‘Mr Bingley, Lady Elliot says -- ’
‘I will mind Caroline, dear,’ Mrs Bingley said, but her husband shook his head.
‘No, Jane, you know that she will not -- that is -- ’ he glanced at Darcy, and shook his head. ‘I had better go.’
‘Then I will take Mr Darcy to the library, I know where the papers you’ve been talking about are, and he can look them over.’ Bingley nodded distractedly and left. ‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Mr Darcy -- you haven’t sat down or rested or anything.’ She pressed one hand against her forehead. ‘We are all at such odds and ends. Which would you like first?’
He hazarded a guess at her meaning and said, ‘If I could look over the matter of Smith’s mill, I think we could have it resolved very quickly.’
The study was not unoccupied. Rifling through Bingley’s papers was his mother-in-law, and at the sight of a letter, still folded although charred about the edges and straight through in some places, his heart clenched. His had been burnt -- it surely had been burnt -- what earthly reason would she have to keep it? -- it was someone else’s, a proper lover’s -- what was it doing here, anyway? But just as the prying Mrs Bennet reached out for it, Darcy acted without reflection, without even conscious thought.
‘This is your sister’s, I believe,’ he said to Mrs Bingley, startled to find the slightly yellowed letter firmly within his own grasp. ‘It should probably be returned to her.’
‘Well, really!’ expostulated Mrs Bennet.
‘Mama,’ said Mrs Bingley softly, then turned to him. ‘I will take it to Lizzy.’ Darcy handed it to her, certain that she could feel his hand trembling against hers. She gave him a thoughtful look, then her eyes widened and she flushed. ‘Perhaps you should come with me, sir,’ she said. ‘Lizzy is just in the library.’
‘But I -- ’ he looked down at the letter. She kept it. She had walked into a smoke-filled room to retrieve it -- he knew, although no one had said so, that this was what she had returned for. In that moment, everything he had known, and believed, seemed to shift a little. He had seen, and yet he had not --we see through a glass, darkly --
Clearly visible from where he stood was her name, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, written in his own close hand. Darcy straightened a little and lifted his chin.
‘Thank you, Mrs Bingley,’ he said graciously, sparing only a slight dismissive glance for the furious Mrs Bennet, who had marched away and was blathering about what a hateful man he was and how she had always disliked him, with a judicious comment for her poor dear Wickham thrown in. I never thought I should be grateful for Lady Catherine. She is a model of propriety and good-breeding next to that woman. Darcy smiled at Mrs Bingley. ‘I should like to see her again.’
Elizabeth was asleep.
Darcy gave a little sigh that was composed of equal parts disappointment and relief. At least this way he could look at her without being observed -- well, Mrs Bingley could see him, but she must understand his feelings well enough if she knew of the letter. Six years -- he had not thought that six years would work any change on her, even six years spent waiting on a dying father.
I am a fool, he thought, and pressed his lips together, striving for composure as he took the step that would enable him to clearly see her. It was Elizabeth, sprawled across the sofa, her fingertips dangling over the side. He felt a rather guilty, drinking in the sight of her, while she lay all unawares. It would be worse, however, if she woke to find him staring at her like -- like -- like a very foolish person.
Elizabeth Bennet was one of those late-blooming women, whose youthful prettiness at twenty or one-and-twenty inevitably gives way to a fuller beauty at seven or eight and twenty. If he were completely impartial, he might acknowledge that she still was not Mrs Bingley’s equal, but Darcy claimed no such neutrality, and still considered her the loveliest woman he had ever set eyes on. And all this with her eyes still closed!
The sensation of sliding into starry-eyed infatuation ought to be familiar by now, but it was as overwhelming as ever. I have no claim on her affections -- she owes me nothing at all, he told himself, but somehow it was more halfhearted than usual. He turned slightly -- and saw only the letter sitting on a small table. Mrs Bingley was nowhere to be seen. Darcy felt a bewildered, happy smile curling his lips before he quite realised it was happening, and reached out one hand to touch it tentatively. She had returned for his letter. Why? As a reminder of her mortal frailty? To keep her antipathy fresh?
No. She was not hostile at Pemberley, and she had already kept it by then. She would not risk her life for so mean a cause.
Curiously, he opened the letter -- there was nothing wrong with that, surely, as he had written it and knew perfectly well what it contained? -- and stared. The first paragraph was almost completely indecipherable. Only two words, freedom and justice, could even be hinted at. Much of what followed was the same. He had supposed it would be burnt, that Elizabeth would burnt it, from what he had said -- and worse, how he had said it! -- here. And it had been burnt, but but not at all as he had expected. But nothing ever was, was it? He smiled at the irony of one clear line -- I must have been in error. The effect of smoke and fire grew considerably less on the following pages, for whatever reason. Only near the end did the circumstances of its retrieval seem to have had any effect -- one line of the last paragraph had been completely and neatly burnt through, as if it had been excised out by some divine hand, and so read,
For the truth of everything here related, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam, who from our near relationship and constant intimacy, and still more as one of the executors of my father’s will, has been unavoidably acquainted with every particular of these transactions . . . that there may be the possibility of consulting him, I shall endeavour to find some opportunity of putting this letter into your hands in the course of the morning. I will only add, God bless you.
His signature, however, had been altered beyond any recognition but that of the author, and, perhaps, the recipient. Mrs Bennet would never have guessed at her daughter’s mysterious admirer -- for that was undoubtedly the suspicion she had entertained. My chivalry was unnecessary after all, he thought with a smile, and carefully replaced the letter. He had a great deal to think about.
Early that morning, he woke to a pounding on the door. Darcy, who had lain awake most of the night, pondering, analysing, and re-evaluating even the most ambiguous of remarks, opened the door in a decidedly ill temper.
‘What is it now?’ he demanded. The maid cast a lingering eye over him, before quailing at his expression. Servants these days, he thought, and primly closed his robe, feeling a distinct sense that this had all happened before. ‘Anne -- my daughter, she is well?’
‘Oh yes, sir, it’s only that an express just arrived for you, from Pem -- ’
He muttered to himself and shut the door, dressing quickly before finding Bingley with a sealed letter in his hand. ‘I do hope nothing is wrong,’ the latter said, abominably cheerful.
‘So do I.’ He broke the seal and read it, his brow furrowing.
Darcy simply stared, then went back and re-read it. ‘It’s from Mrs Reynolds. She says that -- that a strange woman has arrived at Pemberley and refuses to leave until she has spoken with me, and they aren’t certain what to do with her.’
Bingley stared, then smiled a little roguishly. ‘You, Darcy?’
‘No, most certainly not I,’ he returned sharply. ‘I have not even looked at a woman since -- ’ he shut his lips firmly.
‘Oh, I beg your pardon. I quite forgot about Lady Rosemary.’
Darcy started. ‘Oh -- yes.’
Bingley gave him a strange look. ‘Well, are we to have the pleasure of your company much longer?’
Darcy vacillated a moment. He could go to Pemberley, resolve the matter of The Woman, and return -- but something might happen -- not that something wouldn’t happen even if he was there, but what if --
‘Yes, actually,’ he said, clenching his hand as if to relive the sensation of rough paper against smooth skin. ‘I think I shall stay. Surely a full staff of servants can manage one wayward female for a few weeks?’
Darcy knew that he had made the right decision when he woke once more, at a slightly less ungodly hour. After dressing and avoiding the erstwhile Polly, he went to Bingley’s study to continue work on the matter of the mill, and was quickly so caught up in thought that all else faded. Bingley entered at perhaps eight o’clock, looking strained and nervous. He repeated himself three times before Darcy noticed him.
‘Oh, Bingley. Good evening.’ He smiled absently, then came back to earth with a jolt, recalling all that had passed -- or not passed -- the day before.
‘Darcy, didn’t you hear?’
Bingley shook his head with a weak laugh. ‘You never change.’
Darcy blinked a little, then, finally, noticed the furor. Mrs Bennet’s shrill voice was unmistakable, and Lady Elliot’s insistent tones could also be heard. A low sobbing he recognised, after a moment of consideration, as Mrs Bingley. Dear God, no. ‘Bingley, what is it? What has happened? Is it . . .’
‘Lizzy has taken a turn for the worse,’ he said heavily. ‘The doctor doesn’t know what to do -- he says he hasn’t enough experience with these things. And it would take time to find another, and convince him to come here on such short notice, and -- ’
Although his heart was pounding in his ears, and the room again tilting a little, Darcy pulled on his inner reserves and divorced himself from everything but what could be useful. ‘A physician, from London, that is what he thinks is best? Someone with experience? Very well -- it is done. I will send an express to my own this very moment.’
And it was done, as easily as that, while a slightly bemused Bingley looked on. ‘I -- I had better return to Jane. She is very upset.’
‘Yes, I daresay she is.’ Darcy could almost feel his ability to keep himself separate strained to its utmost. ‘Incidentally, what is the difficulty with Miss Bennet?’
‘Apparently she was weakened by her state after the fire and caught some lung ailment -- I am not certain, to be perfectly honest. Anatomy was never my forte. But as long as she is well again, that is all that matters.’
‘Yes, yes, you are quite right.’
He only presumed to approach the general vicinity of her room once. He could hear dry, seemingly endless, coughs, and Jane’s low, soothing voice. But neither could he force himself to leave until he knew she would be well, no matter what was transpiring at Pemberley. He nearly drove himself mad with inaction until Mrs Bingley kindly advised that he occupy himself with business matters until he could be of greater assistance.
In the next fortnight, Bingley continually made peace between the clashing personalities of his various houseguests, Mrs Bingley attended upon her sister, and Darcy ran the estate. He was horrified at what Bingley had allowed to occur; the steward was embezzling money intended to go to the poor, while at least three tradesmen were cheating him. Darcy sighed. He is going to turn my hair white.
It was then, as Elizabeth began to improve, that Darcy considered the effect that his presence might have upon her. He had guessed -- correctly, as it turned out -- that Mrs Bingley had kept it secret from her ailing sister, and agreed with her. Whether Elizabeth felt more of pain or pleasure in seeing him, neither would be conducive to her health. He sighed deeply, reading another hysterical letter from Mrs Reynolds. It would be better to stay away until Elizabeth was completely recovered, however long that took.
So, after frankly discussing certain matters with Mrs Bingley -- and taking her advice, particularly as it accorded completely with his own analysis of the situation -- he retrieved Anne and returned to Pemberley to deal with The Woman.
‘Oh, Mr Darcy,’ said Mrs Reynolds tearfully, ‘I am so glad to see you.’
He felt a jab of conscience and impulsively leaned over to kiss her cheek. ‘I am so very sorry, there were some urgent matters of business. Bingley’s steward had embezzled over three hundred pounds.’
‘Terrible,’ she said absently, and led him to the yellow parlour. Although the servants kept it fresh, Rosemary was the only one who had ever spent much time there, as he and Georgiana both preferred the blue. It spoke volumes of the servants’ estimation of the “lady” that she had been relegated to a room so nearly forgotten.
Although the time at Pemberley had clearly improved her health, and certainly her apparel, somewhat, there was something distinctly bedraggled about her. She was tall, and once must have been plump, but was now grown so thin that it seemed as if the skin had been stretched across her bones. There were faint bruises across one cheek -- Darcy flinched. Although her face was young, her dark eyes were tired and her light brown curls touched with grey at the temples.
‘Might you possibly tell us your true name now, Miss Lydia?’ Mrs Reynolds asked acerbically, although her eyes were softer than what might be usual. The true reason for her vacillation was clear.
‘Miss Lyd -- ’ Darcy exclaimed, and looked more closely at her. Good God, it was! -- he nearly recoiled in horror. She was the same age as Georgiana, down to the very week, and yet it was clear that life could not have treated the two women more differently -- greying hair at two-and-twenty! He drew one hand over his eyes briefly. For nearly three years he had kept a close watch on Wickham, but in the last had slowly relaxed it, as Wickham’s laziness rather seemed to preclude such behaviour.
‘Mrs Wickham,’ he said, ‘to what do I owe the honour of this visit?’
Mrs Wickham threw a resentful look at Mrs Reynolds, who tactfully departed. ‘I could not stay another minute,’ she declared. ‘I knew you disliked him, even though you were at the wedding, and so you would help me.’
‘Excuse me,’ he said politely, ‘I am afraid I do not quite follow you . . .’
‘Wickham will probably be quite angry to find me gone, and with George and Betsey and Jack too. And since you dislike him so, you’ll probably agree to anything that upsets him.’ She looked at him directly. Darcy was not sure whether he was more astonished at the dramatic change in her, or the utter lack of it.
‘Mrs Wickham, I do not know what you have seen of the world -- ’ Although, he could guess well enough, and fully intended to castigate himself once he got a better opportunity -- ‘but I am afraid your understanding of my character is rather lacking. Unlike your husband, I do not go out of my way to afford him pain.’ He could not but feel compassion for her state, however, and sighed. ‘You say you have brought your children?’
‘Yes, one of the servants did something with them,’ she said carelessly. ‘I imagined you might be more likely to assist if I brought them with me, since Wickham rather likes Betsey. She and George cannot be separated, and I thought I may as well bring John as not.’
Darcy could only stare, not certain whether she was repulsive or simply pitiable. ‘What do you wish of me, Mrs Wickham?’ he enquired.
‘Oh, I don’t know. But I daresay you’re clever and I don’t think you’re likely to hurt any of us, you’re not that sort, are you?’ At his astonished expression, she added kindly, ‘A few of you aren’t, you know.’
This afterthought had him turning his head away until he had regained his composure. ‘Thank you, Mrs Wickham,’ he said dryly. ‘I would write to your father -- ’
‘Oh, would you?’
‘-- but as he is dead, that is quite impossible.’
‘Oh, the Collinses must have taken Longbourn then. Where is Mama? With Aunt Phillips and Mary, I suppose.’
‘At Baildon, with the Bingleys and your sister Elizabeth.’
‘Oh, Jane and Lizzy! They were always so uppity -- they don’t care sixpence about me, I’m certain of it.’
Darcy decided on pity. ‘Regardless, you certainly may not remain here, with me, and none el -- Anne, return to your bedroom.’
‘Do as I say.’
With a startled look -- for he only used such a tone very rarely -- Anne obeyed.
‘Oh, is that your daughter? I’d heard you were married. She is very pretty, prettier than any of us ever were. You shan’t have any trouble finding a husband for her, even if she weren’t rich. It would be a great load off my mind if Betsey looked like that, but I suppose she’s handsome enough.’
‘Longbourn burnt down,’ he said desperately, and she glanced at him vacantly.
‘Oh? Mama must be happy, now the Collinses will have to spend all Papa’s money on rebuilding it.’
Darcy sighed, and sent for a servant. ‘Please prepare some rooms for Mrs Wickham and her children; they will be staying with us awhile. And for the Aldboroughs -- they will be coming, as well.’ He had no intentions of being alone in the house with Mrs Wickham and her brood, for quite possibly months on end until Elizabeth mended; if only for propriety’s sake, they would come.