The drawing room was quiet. It was always quiet. Icy rain pattered against the window panes, and the occasional gust of wind rattled the glass. Every so often, the wood burning in the fireplace would crackle, or Anne would let out a little sigh as she shifted her position on the chaise lounge, where she was absorbed in a volume of poetry Darcy had brought her back from London. They had spoken very little in the weeks since Darcy’s return from London. There was no animosity between them, but they were each of a taciturn and unsociable disposition by nature, and six months of marriage had been insufficient time for them to grow completely comfortable in one another’s sole company.
It grieved Darcy to realize that in the fortnight he had been away, they had each missed one another very little, perhaps not at all. He had believed his return pleased her, for the first day or two – she had smiled more, spent a few hours in his company each day, but the silence still loomed over them. Perhaps his return was naught but a break in the monotony for her.
She had grown paler since he went away, and though some color had returned to her face since he’d come home, she still looked weaker than he could ever recall seeing her. From his favorite chair beside the window, Darcy set down his book and observed his wife. Her cheeks were sallow, and there were dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep. Her diminutive stature made her seem to disappear under the multitude of shawls she had wrapped about herself. She suddenly set her book aside and began to cough, the force of it wracking through her frail body. Bracing herself with one hand on her stomach and the other clinging to the side of the chaise, she turned her face away as if to hide from him.
Darcy rose from his chair and knelt at her side, taking her small, cold hand in his. “Anne, can I get you anything for your present relief? A glass of water, perhaps, or some wine?”
As her coughing fit died away, she shook her head and waved him away. “I am well enough, William. You need not be alarmed.”
He wished to protest, for she did not seem well at all, but they were interrupted by the entrance of a servant, bringing the day’s post. Darcy hesitantly rose and crossed the room to examine the letters that had arrived, knowing there was little he could for Anne if she did not wish for his help or concern. The stack of mail was a thick one, containing several letters of business from town, a couple of dinner invitations from nearby neighbors, and a few items of personal correspondence.
“Anything of interest?”
Darcy glanced back at Anne, who seemed determined to carry on as if nothing was amiss. “Your mother writes.”
Anne rolled her eyes. “Is that all?”
“No indeed. Invitations from the Breretons and the Culberts, but we needn’t accept if you are not up for visiting. Bingley writes, and there’s another one for you, from Georgiana.” Darcy frowned at the letters he handed his wife. While Lady Catherine could have little to say that would either interest or vex him now, it was Georgiana’s letter that distressed him. In the three months she had been away, she had written Anne faithfully every week, but never once to him. Darcy would always ask his wife to share her letters with him; often she would, though there had been several times she had suggested it would be better if she did not. He wondered which it was to be on this occasion. “Will you read it to me?”
“Perhaps I shall, but you know I read rather slowly. I shall read it once to myself before reading it aloud to you. In the meantime, you have your letter from Charles, if you can decipher it, unless perhaps you would care to see what my mother has to say?”
Darcy had once enjoyed the rare occasions when Anne would tease him, but of late her jests felt hollow – feeble attempts to pretend that all was well. He smiled weakly. “I believe I will forego that delight. I am curious what Charles has to say, for I saw him just before I left Town, and it is not like him to write so soon.”
He returned to his chair, bracing himself for the cheerfully insensible shambles he had come to expect from any letter Bingley sent. Instead, he was surprised at its unprecedented clarity.
Darcy, old boy,
What a fine joke departing so suddenly from London, but it is just what I would have expected of you. Old married men quite despise Town, and never wish to be away from their wives for long, I daresay. Perhaps I shall know more of the matter myself before long. You may recall meeting my beautiful, radiant goddess – Miss Elizabeth Bennet, with whom you danced at the Banfields’ ball. She has captured my heart as no other woman could, and I hope to be leading her to the altar ere long!
I know I shall be congratulating you one day soon as well, and I hope to visit Pemberley over the summer with my beautiful bride and find you bouncing a robust baby boy on your knee! (And I think Charles a very fine name, for what it’s worth.) Of course, I should very much like for you to stand up with me at the wedding, if you can get away. I hear Hertfordshire is very fine country, and I am of a mind to look there for a suitable property. I have not yet mustered the courage to beg Miss Elizabeth to end my suffering and make me the happiest of men, but I think it shall be soon . Caroline says it is too soon, and though I often find that she is quite right whenever we disagree, in this matter I think she will c ome round to my way of thinking, for I am certain it will add greatly to my happiness.
It will please you to know I have the approval of your Fitzwilliam relations, for they too have grown rather fond of Elizabeth in recent weeks. She is quite a favorite with Lady Rebecca – you may imagine how greatly this has vexed my sister ! Even your cousin the Viscount is charmed by Miss Elizabeth, which caused me great consternation when he first met her, for I should certainly not wish to compete with him for the affections of a beautiful woman!
I jest, of course, yet I think it a fine thing to have won the heart of a lady worthy of such approbation, and hope that the residents of Pemberley will come to love her as much as I do, when next we all meet. When that may be, my dear friend, I leave to your superior discretion. All the best to dear Anne and Georgiana.
Your soon-to-be-leg-shackled friend,
PS – Do you not think my writing much improved? I daresay you expected this missive to contain such nonsense as I have often put to paper, but I think it a very fine letter, very few ink blots, and vastly legible. Elizabeth is a great reader, and I have lately taken to reading the books in my library, in the hopes of reciting a poem or saying something very clever for her. Have a care, for if she has any degree of influence over me, I shall soon advance to match ing wits with you !
Darcy stared down at the letter until the words began to swim before his eyes. His first inclination was to tear it to shreds, or hurl it into the fire. Instead, he calmly refolded it and tucked into his pocket, much as he wished he could tuck away this new knowledge and ignore the tumult of emotions it brought on. I shall conquer this. He knew he must inure himself to the idea, though it was a bitter pill to swallow. How often had Charles flitted from one lady-love to another, his head perpetually turned by the newest pretty face? And yet he was determined to have her, a woman of inferior fortune and vastly superior personal charms, whose wit and vibrancy would be totally wasted on Charles, for all his attempts at self-improvement.
He wanted to be happy for Charles, truly, but he had not mastered his bitterness yet. He knew not what stung worse, that Charles was free to marry as he chose, or that he had chosen the exact sort of woman as Darcy would have, had he been at equal liberty in taking a wife. By what cruel twist of fate had handed this son of a tradesman such a fine jewel, that even the master of Pemberley could not reach for?
Darcy glared into the crackling fireplace. Wishing his circumstances had been different had gotten him nowhere – it was time to overcome the constant lamentation that his life had not gone differently. He knew he must be a better husband to Anne. She deserved it, not only because of the years of suffering she had silently borne at Rosings, but because it was the right thing to do. She had shown much fortitude since their wedding, in her treatment of Darcy, Georgiana, and even the servants. Though not the exceptionally gifted paragon he had hoped for as mistress of Pemberley, she was patient, kind, and just – far beyond what any man might expect after witnessing Lady Catherine’s style of dominion. And while her mother would often discuss the limitations of her health at length, Anne was determined not to appear sickly or weak, and to understate any symptoms she could not hide entirely. She deserved better than a husband who would sit sullenly in her company, thinking of another. I am truly disgusting.
Despite the awkwardness between them, Anne had often expressed her gratitude that he had provided her a means of escaping her mother. In truth, Darcy had needed to wed, too, and Anne had been the best of limited options. Still, perhaps, with some effort, their marriage of convenience may grow into something more in time. After all, if her health were to improve, they might live many years more together – better they do so happily, instead of regretting the circumstances that brought them together. And, if her health were to take a turn for the worse, Darcy knew that he could not live with himself if her final months were tainted by him wishing she were another.
He turned to regard his wife again, hoping to find a trace of something that might give him hope. As he watched her, Anne idly stroked the bulge at her midsection, an artifice of padding created to give the illusion of being in a delicate condition. It was a secret shared only amongst a handful of Fitzwilliam cousins; they would not be astonished at the baby’s arriving a full six weeks earlier than expected.
Though Darcy despised the deception, and the unthinkably horrible reasons for it, Anne had taken to Richard’s plan with astonishing relish. Darcy might have been appalled at her cavalier response to his living nightmare, had it not been such a refreshing and endearing surprise to witness her showing such enthusiasm at being included in the scheme.
Of course, as with many of the misguided endeavors Darcy had come to regret to varying degrees over the years, it had started with Richard.
They had still been in mourning for Richard’s older brother when Darcy had intercepted Georgiana from her intended elopement in Ramsgate. But he had been too late, and the loss of his sister’s virtue, the apparent loss of her esteem for him as a brother, and the weight of the likely repercussions had crushed him so thoroughly that the loss of his reprobate elder cousin had barely affected him. As Georgiana’s other guardian, Richard had been just as distraught, and had waited in unspoken vigil with Darcy at Pemberley for many weeks for the truth to be confirmed. Her monthly courses did not come when expected, and after waiting another two weeks they still had not. Then one morning, about a month after her recovery, the first morning she had dared to face them across the breakfast table, the proof of her condition became suddenly and mortifyingly evident when her morning repast made a shocking reappearance. The staff was told the bacon was rancid, and Georgiana’s morning meal was relegated to her rooms from thence forward.
For several days Darcy and his cousin had argued over what was to be done. Possibilities had been bandied about between them, but none that they could agree upon. Georgiana had hurled vicious aspersions upon her brother when he removed her from Ramsgate; she would not see reason, or the truth of Wickham’s character. She believed he loved her, and despised her brother for separating them and returning her to a life of miserable solitude. Darcy had trusted that time and distance would heal the wounds on both sides, and that after her confinement, when they had found a suitable, distant home for her bastard, a reconciliation may be attempted.
Richard disagreed vigorously, insisting that though her actions had been wrong, she was too young, and had been left to her own company for too long to bear the burden of blame. Further, he argued, a separation of such duration would only deepen the rift between siblings, perhaps rendering it irreparable.
After nearly a week of stalemate, an unforeseen solution presented itself in the form of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who arrived unexpectedly with her daughter. Darcy had been livid when he discovered their intrusion had come at Georgiana’s behest, and she owned her motive in inviting them was to vex her brother, retribution for his lack of regard for her feelings.
Though Darcy and Richard had managed to conceal Georgiana’s condition with furious threats of how badly it would go for her were she to reveal it to the fearsome dowager in their midst, they had taken little precaution in concealing the truth from their cousin, whose presence at Pemberley was almost immediately forgotten.
Until, in a strange twist of fate Darcy still could scarcely credit, she had wandered into his study one evening. Darcy and Richard, mentally exhausted by the rest of their family, were well into their cups. Darcy had feared it was some scheme of Lady Catherine’s to attempt a compromise, and was immediately on his guard; Richard was first bemused, and then suddenly inspired. Several drinks later, a plan had been laid out by the most timid and unlikely of masterminds, and the three cousins were in agreement. Though Darcy was inclined to question the wisdom of their scheme the next day, Anne was quite adamant there was no other way. It would suit everyone – everyone but Darcy.
Unaware that the entire situation had been engineered by her own family, Lady Catherine happened upon Darcy alone in his study the very next day, and without thinking it odd that he should be foxed out of his mind in the middle of the afternoon, she made an extremely predictable calculation. Anne put up a convincing amount of protest before acceding to her mother’s command that she don her most alluring evening gown, and close the door after entering the study. Thankfully Lady Catherine had a rather heavy step, for all her attempt at stealth, and so Anne was in Darcy’s arms, perfecting the illusion of a drunken compromise, when Lady Catherine intruded in all her glory.
Richard had offered to sacrifice himself, but Darcy would not hear of it. He, more than Richard, had failed Georgiana and caused this scandal that threatened their family. And so must he be the remedy. Anne had heartily agreed, having no wish to become a Viscountess and reside in London, a place she had long avoided due to her health. And so Darcy had accepted Lady Catherine’s gleeful accusations and demands, and borne her smug satisfaction at believing she had bested him at last. Though she would have to settle for a quick and simple ceremony, rather than the grand event she had always envisioned, Lady Catherine was every bit the cat that had caught the canary at long last. Resigned to his fate and aware that time was of the essence for their deception to work, Darcy had wed Anne within the week.
Darcy regarded his wife for some time, ruminating in his own recollections as a familiar silence settled over them. It was precisely for this reason that he had long dreamed of a different kind of marriage. The kind Charles would soon make. A marriage of love to a woman full of life, a woman who would bear him true children and fill his home with laughter and light. Instead, he had this. An unconsummated sham, to a woman who would likely not live long enough to hear his sister’s child call her Mother.
Again Anne stroked her padded belly in silence. A pang of guilt pierced Darcy’s heart as he wondered if perhaps she had adopted the gesture from an unconscious desire to truly bear a child, though this would never be possible. As sorry as he was prone to feeling for himself of late, it was truly Anne who was to be pitied. At the very least he owed her better than this hostile, oppressive silence.
Exerting himself to infuse his words with a greater degree of tenderness than he felt, Darcy asked, “What does Georgiana write, my dear?”
Anne looked up at him, tears brimming in her eyes. “I think we must go to her, Fitzwilliam.” He lips trembled, and she looked away. “It breaks my heart to think of her alone for so long, and in her condition.”
Darcy grimaced. Georgiana had left Pemberley in October – ostensibly to travel with friends while her brother settled in to married life. In reality, Georgiana’s small frame had made it difficult to conceal her condition any longer, and she had been sent to spend the rest of her confinement with her new companion, Mrs. Annesley, in a remote seaside village near Frodsham in Cheshire.
Things had been fraught between brother and sister since Ramsgate, and though Anne’s presence at Pemberley had brought some improvement to the situation, they had not parted on the best of terms. Darcy knew his sister had never intended to force her family to go to such great lengths to conceal her mistakes, and that the reality of it pained her. And yet, despite her professions of remorse, there had been no real contrition; her condition, and perhaps the years of isolation, had rendered her contentious and overly emotional. Much as it pained him, it had simply been easier for Darcy to simply send her away.
Anne cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her. “How soon will you be ready to travel?”
Darcy looked at her aghast. “Surely you are not serious?” Anne did not respond, but held his gaze with a determined squint. Darcy scowled. He had wanted to make Anne happier, and was willing to exert himself to do so, but this was too much. “She has but six weeks left in her confinement, Anne. She has already been gone twice that time. She’s very near the end now, and soon she will return to us.”
A derisive snort was all the reply he received. Anne crossed her arms and glowered at him.
“Anne, you must be reasonable.”
As eager as he was to put the matter to bed entirely, Darcy was not prepared for his wife’s explosive response. Despite her frailty and the cumbersome bundle at her belly, Anne leapt to her feet and crossed the room to him in an instant. “I begin to think I am the only reasonable person in this family! Oh, I know you think mighty well of yourself, the great Fitzwilliam Darcy, brooding away in a corner all day long because life is not fair. But have you not considered you sister’s feelings at all? Or mine?”
For a moment all Darcy could do was gape up at the formidable woman his wife had transformed into. And then he could contain his rage no longer and rose to his feet, towering above her as he squared his shoulders and fixed her with his most withering glare. “You would have me consult my sister’s wishes,” he spat. “After what she has done? What she has put us all through?”
A wild look passed through Anne’s eyes as she stepped closer to him, undaunted by his intimidating person. “I would, sir. You are a grown man, and yet you hide from this like a child... More a child than Georgiana, indeed, for she cannot hide from this as you do. She cannot run off to London, amuse herself with her friends and call it ‘business.’ She has been alone but for a paid companion, away from the only home she has ever known, for three months, and yet you say another six weeks is nothing. I assure you, sir, it is not nothing to her. Georgiana is alone day after her day, consumed by such dark thoughts as I dare not repeat. Your sister is frightened and lonely, and she believes you hate her. I cannot convince her otherwise, though I know it is not so. No, you do not despise her, you are merely a coward. You have failed her, and cannot face her. You know nothing of what she suffers. Women die in child birth, and even those that survive must surrender their fate into the hands of unfeeling men like you.”
Darcy felt as if she had physically stuck him. “So, this is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! Thank you for explaining it so fully.” He stalked across the room and meant to leave, when another fit of coughing overtook his wife. He hesitated and heaved a great sigh, knowing he was being unreasonable, and turned back to his wife.
Still roiling with rage, Anne tried to push him away, even as her knees buckled and she collapsed into his arms. Darcy ignored her protestations and carried her over to the sofa nearest the fire. He pulled her shawls up around her shoulders and cupped her cheek in his hand, tilting her face towards him, though she would not meet his eye. There was a little spattering of blood at the corner of her mouth. Dabbing it away with his handkerchief, Darcy felt his anger melt away into guilt and shame. What had she said that was not the truth? He deserved it all, and more besides.
Kneeling beside her, Darcy clutched Anne’s hands in his. “You are right. I have behaved abominably, and I am ashamed of myself. I have faults enough, but I hope I do not lack feeling. I shall ride to Frodsham tomorrow and speak with her. I will make this right, Anne.”
Unable to rail at him anymore, Anne merely looked beseechingly at Darcy. “Will you not take me with you, as I have asked?”
“Anne, I have no wish to argue with you any more today.”
“Then say that you will do as I ask. It is Georgiana’s wish, and mine. Unless, perhaps, you would prefer to be away from me, again.”
“I fear the journey will be too difficult for you. It is nearly fifty miles to Frodsham.”
“And what is fifty miles of good road? I call it a very easy distance. Perhaps the coastal clime will agree with me.”
“Perhaps it will not. Perhaps the travelling will weaken you. I will not take the risk.”
Anne laughed a soft, bitter laugh. “You took the risk when you married me. You knew I was unwell. You know I shall be lucky to live long enough to lend the baby the appearance of legitimacy. That is all that matters to me now, for at least I may die happy, knowing I have done some real good in this world. I will go to Georgiana, and I shall not let anything stop me from accomplishing what I set out to.”
Darcy regarded his wife with a pained expression. It was what they had planned, but to hear it all reduced to such simple terms, to hear his wife discuss her own death own death so casually, it tore at his heart. He should not have accepted her offer and put her in this position, feeling as though the only value her life held was in salvaging the disaster that Georgiana, through Darcy’s failings as a guardian, had wrought upon their family.
As if reading his thoughts, Anne gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “I do not say such things to cause you pain, Fitzwilliam. I have no desire to wound you, or affect the kind of guilt my mother loves to sow. I merely want you to know that I have accepted my fate, and I am not afraid. It pleases me that I am doing something that matters with the time I have left. It is my own small way of leaving my mark on the world.”
Darcy smiled ruefully at her. “So you are determined to have you way in this matter? You would forego the comforts of Pemberley, and put yourself in danger, for Georgiana’s sake?”
Anne grinned at him. “I believe I must.”