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Happier in Her Friends Than Relations

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        It was not long before Elizabeth found herself preparing for another dinner at Rosings, after three enjoyable days of simple pleasures – solitary walks through the beautiful grounds of Rosings Park, morning calls with Jane and Emily to some of the local ladies, and even charitable visits on the poorer families of the parish. The latter had made her feel rather proud of her sister, even if Jane had been perhaps a little too aware of her own goodness.  

     The return to Rosings would surely bring back the other Jane. Around Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and even Emily, Jane was artificial, determined to present herself as the image of perfection. There had been unguarded moments in the last three days when just a trace of the old Jane would surface, and Elizabeth had done everything she could do make the most of these occasions in an effort to draw her sister out.  

     Though the two had spoken amicably, there was still something wanting; Elizabeth considered, as she dressed for dinner, just what exactly that was. Perhaps it was that it all felt so rehearsed. Jane was performing to Elizabeth; her every speech conveyed tranquility in her new life, but without any depth of feeling. Elizabeth could not believe it. 

     Jane had used words like “contentment” and “satisfaction” to describe her situation, and had spoken of her esteem for Mr. Collins, who made her feel valued by frequently expressing his good fortune in winning her hand. Jane had even asked her sister to be happy for her, and Elizabeth truly wanted to, but Jane had not said the one thing Elizabeth had most wished for. She has never said she loves him. “Hmph,” she said aloud, tucking the last few pins in her hair. 

     Elizabeth took in her reflection. In one respect Jane was right; Elizabeth could not ignore the pressure upon her to now look to her own future.  

*** 

     Her new perspective had leant Elizabeth a modicum of poise as she entered the drawing room at Rosings, where Lady Catherine was already holding court. All eyes shifted to the new arrivals. Mr. Samuel Sutton’s gaze fixed upon Emily, and his face brightened with a broad smile. Lady Catherine, seated upon an ornate, throne-like chair and surrounded by distinguished guests, was the last to acknowledge them; she gave a condescending nod before inviting them to be seated. 

     Cecily Sutton, who had called twice at the parsonage since their first meeting, happily made her way toward them. Her elder brother was close on her heels, stumbling through the perfunctory introductions to Mr. and Mrs. Collins, before focusing his attention on Emily. His hunting party was a small one, consisting of Mr. Henry Audley and Miss Cynthia Sutton, who declared herself to be an avid huntress, though Elizabeth had some particular thoughts on what that lady’s particular prey might be.  

     There was but one other amongst them, a gentleman of about thirty, neither handsome nor plain, who was introduced as Mr. Jasper Middleton. A second son, he had just come into possession of a modest estate inherited from a distant relative in Devonshire. He was seated near Miss Cecily at dinner, and as the friend of her elder brother, seemed to be regarded by the young lady as her particular property.  

     Elizabeth was seated farther down the table, between Mr. Seymour Sutton and Mr. Henry Audley, who sat at Lady Catherine’s left hand and seemed eager to work his considerable charm on the dowager. Jane, seated across from him, listened with alacrity to his amusing anecdotes from London, and though he addressed himself chiefly to Lady Catherine, Elizabeth perceived his pleasure at Mrs. Collins’ attention.  

     Determined not to repeat her previous impertinence, Elizabeth spoke only when called upon to do so, which was not often; she remained largely at liberty to observe. Across the table, Mr. Sutton and Emily were engaged in lively conversation, almost to the exclusion of all others. Mr. Collins, seated too far from his noble patroness to pay her homage, partook of an infamously stupid conversation with Mr. Seymour Sutton, perhaps the only person at the table dull enough to take the parson seriously. Sir Gerald was once again fixated on the food and the wine. 

     Once Elizabeth had studied her companions long enough, she was drawn back in to the conversation led by Mr. Audley, whom Jane had prompted to give an account of the Twelfth Night Ball. Elizabeth’s color rose as he spoke of opening the dance with the loveliest lady at the ball, and she felt her sister’s curious gaze alight upon her. He continued on, savoring the delight of arousing such curiosity, and very prettily expressed a hope that there might be some dancing that night, if Lady Catherine would indulge them. His flattery went a long way in procuring the great lady’s approbation, and another significant look passed between the sisters. 

     The separation of the sexes after the meal was brief, and when the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room, smelling of brandy and cigars, dancing was the first order of business. The spacious room would accommodate four couples without any rearranging of furniture; the greatest difficulty was in deciding which lady would oblige them at the pianoforte first. Jane demurred, for she did not play and wished to dance, with her husband’s permission. He was happy merely to watch her, though he preferred to sit himself with Lady Catherine. Elizabeth’s hand was solicited by Mr. Audley. Emily and Miss Cecily were engaged by Mr. Sutton and Mr. Middleton respectively, leaving Jane to Mr. Seymour Sutton and the unhappy Miss Sutton to be the first to exhibit. Lady Catherine observed her with shrewd interest, proclaiming that if she herself had ever learnt to play the instrument, she would have been a great proficient. 

     Her spirits high after the flirtatious reel with Mr. Audley, Elizabeth happily exchanged places with Miss Sutton, earning her a look of gratitude from the lady, who quickly attached herself to Mr. Audley. Largely ignoring Mr. Collins’ chatter and Sir Gerald’s indolent agreement, Lady Catherine addressed herself to Elizabeth, informing her that she would never play really well unless she practiced more. She offered up the use of the pianoforte in her housekeeper’s room, for Elizabeth would be in nobody’s way in that part of the house. Mr. Collins thanked her profusely on his cousin’s behalf, even as Elizabeth silently congratulated herself on holding her tongue.  

     Miss Cecily took Elizabeth’s place at the instrument next, and gave the best performance yet. With nothing to critique in the music, Lady Catherine turned her attention to the dancers, offering praise to Miss Sutton and Mrs. Collins, and suggestions for improvement to Elizabeth. Mr. Collins was ready to congratulate them all on their superior dancing, his own dear Jane in particular, and Elizabeth did her best not to hear any of it. 

     Partnered with Mr. Middleton, Elizabeth found much to enjoy in his pleasant conversation. He was an intelligent man, well informed and elegant in his address, and seemed to share her general sense of diversion at all that was passing around them. They had both noticed that Emily and Mr. Sutton were partnered again, and carried on their own private conversation about the matter, in the form of sideward glances and subtle smirks. 

     Mr. Middleton was a pleasant surprise after Sunday night’s tedious company. Though not so handsome as Mr. Bingley, he was well worth looking at, and listening to as well. He commended her performance on the pianoforte, asked what composers she favored, and even inquired if she enjoyed reading. He seemed disappointed to learn she was not an avid horsewoman, and hoped she would come riding at Cranbrook. All this was expressed with perfect civility, lacking the overt flirtatiousness of Mr. Audley’s conversation, and Elizabeth was quite satisfied. She ventured a glance at Jane, whose look, though affectionate, was also rather smug, as if this was all going exactly according to her own plan.  

     As they were going through the final turn of the dance, a commotion was heard suddenly in the hallway, and a moment later the dancing was brought to an abrupt halt by the arrival of two unexpected visitors. The whole party was stunned into silence at the sight of them, for the two men were clad all in black, dusty from the road, and had an air about them that was almost frightening.  

     Having just gone down the dance, Elizabeth and her partner were positioned nearest the door, and after overcoming her initial alarm, she recognized Lord Hartley, who was not expected for another fortnight. He was accompanied by the same gentleman who had stared at her the night of the opera. Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth addressed herself to the viscount, who appeared less astonished to discover her presence than his companion. She dipped into a curtsy, feeling herself to be flushed from the dance and the suddenness of their entrance. “My lord, it is a pleasure to see you.” 

     He responded with a bow, and a smile that did not reach his eyes. “I apologize if we gave you a fright, we must look positively wild.” 

     Beside him, Mr. Darcy looked utterly bewildered by the scene into which he had stumbled, but he managed to bow as well. “Miss Bennet.” 

     By now the other dancers had moved apart, apparently preparing to be introduced to the newcomers, and Lady Catherine had risen from her chair at the end of the room to discover who had intruded so dramatically into her domain. “Is that my nephews? This is all very untoward. Come and explain yourselves.” 

     Despite their aunt’s displeasure, the gentlemen did not move. Lord Hartley shifted uncomfortably, and Elizabeth began to wonder if aught was amiss. That they were dressed in all black was rather foreboding, and as she glanced over at her sister, it was evident that Jane and the others were now also engaging in such private speculation.  

     Lady Catherine ignored them, advancing on her nephews as if they were delinquent children. “Richard, Fitzwilliam, you will account for yourselves at once. Have you some news of my daughter? My grandchild?” All eyes were fixed on Lord Hartley and Mr. Darcy, and the tension in the room was palpable. 

     At length Mr. Darcy responded, “We have. Perhaps there is some place more private we might speak, Aunt?” 

     Lady Catherine sniffed with displeasure. Mr. Darcy’s expression was so thunderous, Elizabeth could scarcely imagine even one so formidable as Lady Catherine opposing him. Lord Hartley grimaced, and placed a hand on his aunt’s shoulder. “We shall not be long, but do come with us. The blue parlor, I think, just down the hall.” He put his arm around her, and guided her out of the room behind Mr. Darcy.  

     Once they had gone, the viscount turned back, casting a nervous glance around the room before approaching Elizabeth and addressing himself quietly to her. “I was obliged just now to mislead my aunt, Miss Bennet, for we shall be some time in our conversation, unfortunately. Events have transpired… but she ought to be the first to hear of it. Please make our apologies to your party, which I think had better be off. Rebecca will join us tomorrow, and I am sure she will come to you.” With a hasty bow and not so much as a glance for the others, he was soon gone from the room. 

     Elizabeth watched him go, a sense of dread causing her to hug herself as though the air had become chilled. There was a moment of heavy silence before suddenly everyone was talking at once. The Suttons had clustered at one side of the room, whispering amongst themselves. Mr. Collins seemed to be about to follow his patroness, when Jane placed a hand on his arm and shook her head. They made their way toward Elizabeth, with Emily quickly following.  

     Mr. Middleton drew protectively close to her. “You are shivering – do you require a shawl, or a seat by the fireplace? Truly, you should sit down.” 

     Elizabeth had no time to answer his queries before her sister and cousins were upon them. They began speaking all at once; Jane cast the others a quelling look before addressing her sister directly. “Lizzy, was that the Viscount? His manner seemed rather familiar. Whatever did he say? Who was the other man? What are they telling Lady Catherine?” 

     Elizabeth began to tremble, and Mr. Middleton placed a hand on her shoulder, steering her toward a chair. She sank into it, her mind reeling. “Jane, I think something dreadful has happened.”  

     Mr. Collins let out an audible moan. “Oh, good Heavens!” 

     “What was Mr. Darcy doing here,” asked Emily. “Did he speak to you, Lizzy?” 

     “No, he did not. We were never introduced.” 

     Emily gave her a strange look. “Lizzy, don’t be daft. You danced with him at the ball.” 

     “What?” Elizabeth wished to refute this, but caught herself. She had been rather intoxicated at the ball, and then he had looked so familiar at the opera. And he had used her name, just now. It must be true. That was why he had stared at her at the opera. Though she could scarcely account for her feelings, she could not like the idea that she had very likely embarrassed herself in front of him at that ball, in such a state as she was. 

     Mr. Collins spoke next. “That was Mr. Darcy? Son-in-law to Lady Catherine? Yes, I should have guessed it at once. Such a noble bearing! Oh my, he must bring news of her grandchild.” 

     Jane looked panicked. “I cannot hope you are right, my dear, for I think they come bearing bad news.” 

     “I cannot think why her illustrious nephew would address himself to our Elizabeth at such a time.” Mr. Collins rounded on her. “You must tell us what he said. If my noble patroness is receiving distressing news, it is incumbent upon me, as her clergymen, to offer her immediate counsel and relief.” 

     Mr. Middleton cleared his throat, and the others fell silent. “You must give the lady some space, she is clearly most upset by what is happening, and you are not helping, sir.” 

     Mr. Collins squared his shoulders back as if to deliver some retort, but Elizabeth rose shakily to her feet and addressed the room. “Please,” she said, commanding the attention of their entire party. “We must go. It is wrong to linger here. Our hostess has urgent business with her nephews, and our presence is no longer appropriate.”  

      Cutting off another of Mr. Collins’ attempts to argue the matter, Mr. Middleton echoed his agreement. “Miss Bennet is absolutely right. This has been a delightful evening, but we must respect the family’s wishes.” 

     There was more commotion as the Suttons called for their carriages. The family from the parsonage had walked, but Mr. Collins had fully expected the usual offer of a more comfortable means of return, and he was now quite at a loss. He asked his wife if it would be too much to presume the offer would have been granted, and Jane seemed too weary of his arguments to discourage the presumption.  

     Emily was comforting Elizabeth, who was still overcome with ominous presentiment, when they were approached by Mr. Sutton and Miss Cecily. “Miss Carmichael, I hope I am not too forward….” She bit her lip, glancing timidly up at her brother, who nodded his approval. “I dare say something very bad has happened. Your cousins are sure to be very busy with their duty to Lady Catherine, but I wonder if you might be spared – if you should like to return with us to Cranbrook for a few days.” 

     Emily looked at Elizabeth, a mixture of excitement and guilt. Mr. Sutton perceived her apprehension, and said, “I would not have you think us rude, Miss Bennet. We would not wish to deprive your sister of all her company at once.” 

     Elizabeth could scarcely form a reply. She cast a dubious glance at Jane, who forced a smile. “Of course, sir. I think it a fine idea. Lizzy will be happy to remain at the parsonage and assist me with whatever is necessary, though we do not know if it is all as bad as we fear.” There was a heavy, sinking feeling in the pit of Elizabeth’s stomach, but she nodded in silent agreement. 

*** 

     Elizabeth woke later than usual, for her sleep had been fitful, and the odd feeling of nightmares she could not quite remember hung about her. With great effort, she dragged herself from the bed, determined to shake her somber feelings and begin her day. It had been a strange night, to go from such surprisingly enjoyable company, to such a shocking scene, and then to lose the company of her dear cousin. Remembering that a visit from Lady Rebecca had been predicted, she felt some consolation, and prepared to dress herself, certain she had already missed breakfast.  

     Opening the wardrobe, she found it empty, and her trunk was likewise, save for one dress. It was one she had brought from home, her oldest, dullest day dress, brown and very drab. She put it on, wondering why the maid would think to wash all of her frocks at once, including the newer ones that Elizabeth had not yet worn since her arrival. Still, there must be some explanation, and, twisting her hair up into a simple knot, Elizabeth set out to discover it. 

     Downstairs, the house was quiet. Elizabeth peered out a window to find the sun was already high in the sky – it was likely past noon. And then she noticed something strange, a great black fluttering at the back of the garden. Half a dozen dresses, ostensibly the ones she was missing, hung out to dry on the clothes line, having been dyed black. Though quite alone, Elizabeth felt the need to check her temper, as she let out a sigh that was very nearly a snarl. 

        She hastened toward the back door, and once outside discovered Jane in the small yard there, hanging up more freshly dyed garments from a basket at her feet. “Jane,” Elizabeth cried, marching toward her. “What are you doing?” 

     Jane finishing clipping up one of her husband’s shirts and turned to Elizabeth, wiping her hands dry in her apron. “Oh Lizzy, I sent the maids over to Rosings, to see if they might be of use to Lady Catherine, so I am left to handle the work here myself, but it is of no matter.” 

     Elizabeth fumed at her sister’s deflection. “That is not what I meant!” She gestured at her gowns.  

     Jane wrung her hands, her bottom lip curling up as it did just before she began to cry. “Oh Lizzy, we have had the most awful news! It is just as I feared last night. Lady Catherine’s daughter has died!” 

     With a heavy sigh, Elizabeth tried to curb her frustration. She reminded herself that she had never cared much for fine dresses, anyway – she had actively protested the purchase of many of the frocks that now hung on the line. But to see them ruined before her felt like an act of vandalism, and she could not help but wonder if her Jane took some little satisfaction in destroying her new wardrobe. Elizabeth closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. “I am sorry to hear it.” 

     Jane nodded sadly and returned to her work. “My husband said she was always of a rather delicate constitution – I never met her, for she was wed in the summer, before I came. But I have heard much of her – poor Lady Catherine was so devoted to her. And she was to have a child! Oh Lizzy, can you think of anything more tragic?” 

     Elizabeth felt that the sight of her new gowns ruined was already more tragedy than she could bear. And it hardly seemed necessary – Lady Catherine wasn’t even family. “I am very sorry,” Elizabeth said, giving her sister a skeptical look. “I am sure Lady Catherine will be depending upon you at a time like this. I wonder, though, if perhaps our wearing mourning colors might seem a bit presumptuous? After all, we are not relations.” 

     Jane wiped at the tears streaming down her face. “Mr. Collins believes it best. He says she will expect it.” 

     “Upon my word, that is a very expensive expectation, Jane. Our aunt and uncle must have spent seven pounds on those new dresses!” Elizabeth looked back at the clothes line. Some of the gowns had not quite taken the black, and simply appeared very dark. The shimmering red silver gown was now a dull maroon, the cornflower blue turned charcoal gray, and the jonquil silk looked utterly putrid. Surely just one gown would have satisfied Lady Catherine – what on earth was she going to do with a full mourning wardrobe?  

     Jane rolled her eyes. “Good Heavens, Lizzy, I did not do all of them. Between what you brought from home and what our aunt and uncle purchased for you in London, you have a dozen frocks here. I merely dyed half of them, just as I did my own.” 

     Elizabeth crossed her arms, clenching her fingers around her elbows to restrain herself. “With your own gowns, Jane, you may do as you like. With mine, you ought to have asked me.” 

     Jane fixed her sister with a superior scowl. “I hardly need ask your permission to do anything, in my own home. And as to the expense, I daresay our aunt and uncle could afford it. Surely they must have known when they purchased you these gowns that you would not have many occasions to wear them, and goodness knows the gowns you do wear frequently get rather abused.”  

     “That is not the point,” Elizabeth said, her fingers curling into fists. 

     “No indeed,” Jane said with a false smile. “The material point is that I am obliged to obey my husband’s commands.” 

     Elizabeth felt her brow twitching defiantly. “I had thought you rather adept at managing him.” 

     For a moment Jane seemed poised to deliver another scathing set-down, when she stopped, abruptly returning her attention to the laundry. “How clever you must think yourself, passing judgement on what you have never experienced. But I am sure you will find a much better marriage partner yourself. Tell me, how did that go for you in London?” 

     Elizabeth felt her mouth go dry, and she was unable to make any reply. For a moment Jane was silent, focused on clipping up another garment on the clothesline. Finally she looked at Elizabeth, her serene expression betraying just the slightest bit of triumph at having discomposed her younger sister. “Come now, Lizzy. I have no desire to quarrel with you. Olive branch?” 

     With one last glance at the ruins of her wardrobe, Elizabeth took a deep breath and looked back at her sister. There was something in Jane’s eyes that made her keenly aware of the uncertainty of her circumstances, and Elizabeth felt herself unequal to the unspoken challenge. The threats Jane made before her marriage, Bingley’s abandonment, and Elizabeth’s every failure seemed to hang in the air between them – it was all too much. “Olive branch,” she sighed. 

*** 

     Soon after the two sisters returned to the house, there was a knock at the door, and with the servants all gone, Jane was left to answer it. At the sound of a familiar voice, Elizabeth hurried into the entry-way, where Lady Rebecca, not standing upon ceremony, was introducing herself to Mrs. Collins. “Well now, this is a very snug little home you have. I understand it has been my aunt’s favorite little project to get you settled in, and I will say you both have acquitted yourselves quite well. I am Lady Rebecca Fitzwilliam. It is such a pleasure to meet you at last, for I have heard much of you. And where is my Lizzy?” 

     Smirking, Elizabeth stepped forward. With Lady Rebecca she had been more open about what had passed between herself and Jane, and she could not deny that she enjoyed seeing her friend needling Jane just a little.  

     Lady Rebecca was clad all in black, ostensibly mourning clothes left over from the passing of her brother the previous year. Her dress was of very fine fabric, elegantly trimmed and immensely flattering. Yes, her commanding presence certainly rivaled that of Lady Catherine. She held Jane’s nervous gaze for a moment longer, clearly relishing the response she received, before turning to embrace Elizabeth. “Oh, Lizzy, it is good to see your beautiful countenance, for there is nothing but long faces at the manor. It feels ages since last we met, though I suppose it has been but a week. Come, let us all sit and take some tea, for I have much to tell you, and I long to hear how your visit has been.” 

     She led them into Jane’s small parlor, and Elizabeth was sure her eccentric friend was rather enjoying her little display of dominance over Jane, who was entirely discomposed by being shown to a seat and offered tea like a guest in her own home. 

     Jane hesitated as she approached her usual chair, remembering that there was no one to serve them. “My apologies, Lady Rebecca, but I had quite forgot – I sent my two girls over to Rosings to help your aunt. I shall bring the tea things presently.” She gave a quick bob of her head and hastened from the room. 

     Lady Rebecca gave Elizabeth an arch look, and bubbled with mischievous laughter. “My, but that felt good!” 

     It certainly did. Elizabeth swatted her friend’s arm, but smiled nonetheless “You really are a terrible influence on me, Rebecca. I shall have to choose my friends more carefully in the future, I think.” 

     “I believe you should, with such a sister. Oh, I do hope you are not angry with me, but I could not help myself. After all you have told me, I daresay it will do your sister good to be reminded that you are not without friends. Powerful friends. You must always remember that, Elizabeth. I would not see you bullied by a parson’s wife puffed up by her own importance, even if she is your sister. By the by, how is that going? Tell me the truth, while we are alone.” 

     Elizabeth fidgeted a little. “I hardly know what I expected, but I hope it will get better. I think she disdains her choice, but is too proud to admit it, and now she seeks to make an even more vile match for me. I am sure you will have every opportunity to see for yourself. Oh, and I should warn you, Mr. Collins is not best pleased that we are friends. He thinks I am putting myself forward too much, and has asked me not to mention our friendship to your aunt. I have been reminded of my place.” 

     Lady Rebecca laughed. “I look forward to meeting your cousin. Now tell me, what in God’s name are you wearing, and when can we set it on fire?” 

     Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. It was just what she would expect of Lady Rebecca, who was clearly averse to sentimental displays, to mask her heartfelt sentiment under so much saucy repartee. Still, she felt all the kindness of her friend’s solicitude. Whispering lest Jane return too quickly, she relayed the fate of her London wardrobe.  

     Lady Rebecca’s eyes flashed wide with anger. “Good God, even the yellow one? That is an outrage!” 

     “Yes, I suppose it is,” Elizabeth agreed, though her friend’s dramatic response somewhat diminished her own sense of indignation. After all, she had lost half a dozen gowns, but Rebecca had lost her cousin. 

     The clattering of dishes alerted them of Jane’s return, and the two friends schooled their countenances accordingly. “Tea sounds lovely just now. It was such a tiresome journey here, and even more tiresome at the manor. My father brought his new wife, though he knows my aunt dislikes her. My younger brother, Robert, has come with us as well.” 

     Jane began serving the tea, and listened to Lady Rebecca attentively, displaying all the deference she showed Lady Catherine. Sensing what she was about, Lady Rebecca thanked her for the refreshments, adding, “Mrs. Collins – may I call you Jane? My dear Jane, I am not my aunt, and I have no intention of delivering you a monologue. You are welcome to interject with questions whenever you like. I can see it in your eyes that you are already thinking of one.”  

     Taken aback, Jane blushed, and stirred her tea to avoid eye contact. “I understand Mr. Robert Fitzwilliam has recently taken orders, and was lately seeking Lady Catherine’s assistance in finding a position….” 

     “And you wish to know what that means for your husband. But of course you needn’t worry. Your husband’s position is secure – the new master of Rosings cannot remove him, even should he wish to.” Lady Rebecca sipped at her tea. 

     Elizabeth began to take pity on Jane. “Rosings has a new master? Has that something to do with… your cousin?” 

     “Quite right, dearest. Rosings passed to Anne upon her twenty-fifth birthday. At the time, it seemed not to matter. She was in poor health, and content to allow her mother to run the estate. Rosings belonged to Mrs. Darcy in name only, but that is what counts the most.” 

     Elizabeth’s interest was piqued. She recalled her brother-in-law saying something the night before, but in all the commotion it had not really stuck with her. Handsome Mr. Darcy was married – this much she had been told at the opera – but, to Anne de Bourgh! And now, well, she supposed, he was not. 

     “So Rosings now belongs to Mr. Darcy,” Jane asked, as Elizabeth tried not to lose her composure. Why did this man seem to upset her so? Was it because he had stared at her so strangely at the opera? And Emily says I danced with him at the ball. I must ask her more about it. 

     “The terms of Sir Lewis’ will stipulate that Rosings belonged to Anne out right, and shall pass directly to her eldest child. Mr. Darcy retains control of the estate only until the child comes of age.” 

     Jane leaned forward, engrossed in what she was hearing. “So the babe lives? Oh, thank God!” 

     “Yes, quite. Little Julia Darcy remains comfortably ensconced at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate in Derbyshire, and my aunt Catherine is not best pleased about that.” Lady Rebecca seemed amused by her aunt’s vexation. 

     “I should imagine not,” Jane said defensively. “What comfort her grandchild would give her at such a time.” 

     “I cannot imagine the journey would be practical for the babe,” Elizabeth said.  

     “No indeed. I understand she was born some weeks early. It is really a miracle the child survived. But I trust Darcy has arranged for her to have the utmost care. Aunt Catherine, however, is beside herself about it, for she wishes the child to be brought up here, with her.” 

     Elizabeth gasped. “Poor Mr. Darcy! To lose his wife, and now to fear losing his child as well!” 

     “Yes, he is not keen on the idea. Perhaps, Jane, since I understand you have Lady Catherine’s ear, you might suggest the absolute unsuitability of such a plan. It may do her some good to hear it from one so wholly unconnected with the family, who can have no ulterior motives.” 

     Jane looked as though she had no intention of ever doing anything other than receiving advice from the great lady, and merely replied, “But what is to happen to Lady Catherine?” 

     “You mean, will Darcy be very cruel? You needn't fear a tyrannical new master taking over Rosings, and turning your life upside down.” 

     “I had not meant….” 

     “I am very curious,” Elizabeth interjected, “How Mr. Darcy will manage two estates, being so very far apart. And while going through such an ordeal!” 

     “I believe he will have very little to do with Rosings, for the foreseeable future,” Lady Rebecca replied, to Jane’s evident relief. “He is fond of Pemberley, and I will own it is the superior estate.” 

     “So Lady Catherine will remain at Rosings?” 

     “She will remove to the Dower House – she only wants a little more convincing. She has taken it all very badly, which is only natural, and Darcy is not heartless. My brother Robert will run Rosings for the time being, on little Julia’s behalf, and under Darcy’s guidance. It seems the estate has not been profitable in recent years, and they wish to rectify that. Darcy has been very kind to Robert, allowing him to keep a portion of whatever increases he can yield, which will allow him to settle very comfortably some day, rather than having to earn his living making sermons in some remote little parish God knows where.” 

     Jane nodded, perceiving the subtle slight. “So Mr. Fitzwilliam will be running Rosings. I think it will be very nice for Mr. Collins to have the society of another clergyman in the neighborhood, for as long as we remain.” With a glance at Elizabeth, she added, “We are, of course, content to stay here for what I hope will be quite some time.” 

     “Yes,” Lady Rebecca replied drily. “I am sure Lady Catherine will continue to rejoice in your presence in the neighborhood.” 

     No longer enjoying the tension, Elizabeth steered the conversation back to the late Mrs. Darcy. “I am very sorry for Lady Catherine. To outlive one’s own child must be a terrible thing. And poor Mr. Darcy! I understand they were only recently married. How tragic.” 

     “Oh yes,” Jane agreed. “Lady Catherine was so pleased by their marriage – I understand it was much talked of, even before it took place. What a pity that they waited so long to wed. Please do convey my condolences to all your family. I am sure Lizzy and I will pay a call very soon, when it is convenient for everyone.” 

     Elizabeth agreed, offering her own sentiments, and gently inquired as to how Lady Rebecca was holding up. 

     “Anne and I were never close,” she confessed. “Lady Catherine did not care for my late mother, and so we were not often together as children. And she was always so very ill, from the time she was a girl. I suppose we always knew she would not live very long, indeed no one ever expected her to live as long as she did, much less to marry and have a child. In a way, it is comforting to know that she had more full a life than we would have anticipated. I am sorry she is gone, but I believe my role in this ordeal is more to assist those that are grieving, than to grieve myself.” 

     Jane and Elizabeth hardly knew how to respond to such a statement, but offered what comfort they could. Lady Rebecca did not stay much longer, but expressed a hope that they would all meet again soon. She indicated that the gentlemen would be much occupied with the business of the estate, and therefore female company would be greatly appreciated. When she had gone, Jane seemed utterly deflated. She pleaded a sudden headache and retired to her room, leaving Elizabeth to her own devices for the rest of the afternoon.