Author's Note: Despite the recent laws of equality, there are some titles which were created in the past that could pass down through both female and male lines or through marriage. It all depended on the wording of the letters patent, and the blessing of who bestowed the title. For example Barbara Villiers, Mistress of Charles II was created Baroness of Nonsuch in 1670, then Duchess of Cleveland in her own right, with a special remainder that allowed the title to be passed to their illegitimate son, Charles Fitzroy. Another of Charles mistress's Lousie Renée de Penancoet de Kérouaille was created Duchess of Portsmouth in her own right.
Marry In Haste, Repent At;
"Marry in haste, repent at leisure."
Proverb 16th Century.
"SHARPER: 'thus grief still treads upon the heels of pleasure.
Marry in haste, we may repent at leisure.
SETTER: 'Some by experience find those words misplaced: At leisure
married, they repent in haste.'"
Old Bachelor, 1693, Act 5, Scene 1.
William Congreve, 1670-1729, English Dramatist.
hatred is by far the longest pleasure; Men love in haste, but
they detest at leisure."
Lord Byron, 1788-1824.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a well-known person marries, all those who know him- and the ones who do not -produce an almost insatiable curiosity about their new partner in life. How ever little is known of the newlyweds' feelings upon the subject, it is fixed in the minds of people in general that this bride will instantly be introduced to them after the announcement of the event.
This was the case with the Earl of Saffron Walden. Having inherited his title at the unexpected age of nine and twenty, along with several nice country estates, at least two houses in town, and no disadvantaged dependant relatives, all of Society in general had held high hopes concerning his marital prospects- that is to say that they wished for him to set an eye upon their daughters. All wanted him to marry soon and well, and when he did neither of those things, all were naturally disgusted with him.
His choice instead was a young lady who was the second daughter of a gentleman who resided at Longbourn in Hertfordshire, close to one of his own estates, Stoke House. They met just by chance when he condescended to attend the Meryton Winter Assembly, a month before he inherited his title. Naturally the entire village and its occupants were all a chatter at a Viscount attending their assembly and when he chose to honour the second daughter of one of the richest gentlemen in the neighbourhood with his hand, this gossip increased.
The future Earl himself spent but three weeks in Meryton, before returning to town upon the death of his father. Everyone but the lady in question expected his return, but all were surprised when it was announced that he had offered his hand to the lady and she had accepted him.
This was two years ago. Such a passage of time alone might not be considered astonishing, if it were not for the fact that after the couple had returned to town, the new Countess of Saffron Walden was only seen in Society once; when she was presented at Court. Society was in astonishment. Many stared, some coloured, a few doubted and most were silent. All wondered why she was never seen again.
They wondered even more when, again quite unexpectedly, the Earl was found dead in the spring of 1811. The nature of his death proved to be a delicious scandal; he had been thrown from a carriage while riding down a very poor road, as was a tradition of his club, the Four-Horse.1
Society now awaited impatiently for the Countess to make an appearance. Since the Earldom of Saffron Walden was a title that passed through both male and female lines, it was presumed by all that she would enter Society as soon as possible. All anxiously hoped that she would grace one of their beloved single sons with her hand.
However, this was not the case. Instead the Countess disappeared from town and was never heard of, nor seen again.
Must that woman be quite so loud? was the first thought that entered Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy's head when he reluctantly arrived in the assembly of Meryton, Hertfordshire, that fateful night.
The woman in question was still commenting, or rather complaining, when Sir William Lucas, after having accosted both Darcy and his friend the moment they arrived, dragged him- not Bingley, for he was quite willing -over to her and the two younger ladies standing beside her.
"I really must protest as to you living there comfortably, Lizzy. The Great House at Stoke it may be, but the Drawing Rooms should really be larger."
Fortunately, it was at this moment that Sir William chose to interrupt. "Mrs Bennet, may I introduce you to Mr Bingley? He has expressed a wish of becoming acquainted with you and your daughters."
Whether Bingley had actually avowed aloud this intention or not, Darcy- nor indeed his friend- knew not. All Darcy could remember was that Bingley had fixed his gaze upon the woman who, in his opinion, smiled too much, and then lost the ability to be aware of anyone else.
Mrs Bennet, now presented with the new and eligible tenant of Netherfield, forgot the unsuitability in size of the Drawing Rooms of Stoke's Great House and began to fawn. "Mr Bingley. How lovely to see you. This is Jane, my eldest. And Mary sits over there. And Kitty and Lydia my two youngest you see there dancing. And of course, my second daughter, the Countess of Saffron Walden."
While Mr Bingley had gone past the stage of listening to Mrs Bennet and back to gazing at the woman he now knew to be Jane, his friend's interest had suddenly renewed itself.
Mr Darcy's reputation as the richest man in Derbyshire had granted him the acquaintance of the late Earl, and he, like everyone else of Society, had wondered over the identity of the Countess. Now he was the first of them to set eyes on her.
And to be struck. The Countess was a beauty. Darcy found himself mesmerised by her enchanting eyes which complemented her hair perfectly. However, there was one element more that when combined with the other two induced his attraction; that she was hiding her true self from the intrusion of her present society, donning a facade that presented all the emotions of enjoyment in the evening, but in reality concealing her real feelings upon the subject.
Darcy had seen that look before, and in his own opinion, far too recently. It had been the same look his sister had produced the first time she had been in company with anyone but him after Ramsgate. Darcy had sworn to himself upon being witness to this look that he would do everything within his power to restore Georgiana to the happiness she had previously always felt and displayed, and now, as he gazed at the Countess of Saffron Walden, a woman he had never met until this moment, he found himself making the same vow.
"And you, sir. Are you as fond of dancing as your friend is?"
Darcy glanced reluctantly at Mrs Bennet, her question bringing him out of his enchantment. A single look at his friend was all he needed to conclude that Bingley had just achieved his first wish of tonight, to dance with the angel named Jane. Usually he would not be inclined to acquiesce to this less than subtle hint from a matchmaking mama, but this was different. "Not quite as fond, Mrs Bennet, but I usually indulge in the custom. Countess, if you are not engaged, may I request the honour of your hand for the next?"
She looked surprised, Darcy thought, upon receiving the request, and her acceptance, he was sure, bordered on a wish more to be away from her mother for a brief time, rather than a real desire to dance. Taking her proffered hand, Darcy gently led her to the floor behind his friend and her sister. Then, at the last moment, he turned to her and remarked, "Would you mind if we took advantage of the balcony over there for some fresh air? This room is a bit stifling."
After escorting her outside, Darcy stepped away and leaned on the railing. Seeing her shoulders relax in relief, he waited silently until she found the courage to join him. "Thank you, sir," she began once she had.
"It was nothing, I assure you," Darcy replied. "You looked as though you might need it."
"I confess that I did," the Countess remarked. "You are very astute."
"Not terribly," Darcy admitted. "My sister often displays that look when in large groups. She is rather shy, and I, being her only constant companion, always try to bring her comfort. Indeed I am often prone to the same defence myself." He paused briefly to turn and face her. "My expression, however, my sister is convinced, presents quite the opposite, often offensive attitude." He displayed it.
She chuckled. "Indeed, you do look fearful."
"Well, one has to frighten away the matchmakers."
"Surely not all the time?"
He smiled. "You'd be surprised." He turned to resume his previous stance. "We can stay out here as long as you wish."
"Unfortunately not," she replied. "My mother will notice that I have disappeared, as much as I would have liked Jane to have been the centre of attention this evening." She sighed. "I wish I had never come."
"Only a part of you wishes that, I hope?"
"Only a part." She smiled at him. It was a real smile and Darcy felt all the honour she had accorded him.
"I must confess," he began honestly, "to possessing the same feeling, until I met you."
She blushed. Through the curtains the orchestra struck up a series of notes and she offered him her hand. "I believe I promised you this dance, sir."
Darcy took her hand, and was lost.
It was a mixed and indifferent party that returned to Netherfield later that night.
"Dear God, what a ghastly evening," Miss Caroline Bingley was heard to voice as soon as they had entered the hall.
Darcy merely rolled his eyes and then returned the eager hug his sister gave him upon the moment of his arrival.
"Was it really so very awful?" She asked him.
"No, Georgie, at least as far as Bingley and I are concerned. Although, I doubt he even noticed it was a ball."
"She is an angel!" declared Bingley at that moment, confirming his friend's opinion. "Was she not an angel, Darcy?"
"By she I presume you mean Miss Bennet?" his friend calmly queried.
"Miss Jane Bennet?" Bingley mused. "Is that not the most perfect name?"
He waltzed into the Drawing Room, followed by Georgiana and Darcy, who commented, much to her amusement; "You may be surprised to learn that he drank nothing tonight."
"So, Mr Darcy," Caroline rudely interrupted as soon as they had seated themselves in the Drawing Room, "who was that woman whom you graced with your company all evening?"
"The Countess of Saffron Walden," Darcy replied, before returning to his sister. "Who would like very much to meet you."
"Will she like me?" Georgiana asked shyly.
"Of course she will, dearest."
"I do not see why people hovered around her," Caroline continued to the whole room. "She should be at home mourning her late husband."
"Caroline, mourning is hardly fashionable," her sister Mrs Hurst reminded her, knowing that Caroline was only complaining because Darcy had danced three dances with the Countess and no one else.
Darcy merely rolled his eyes, while his sister smiled at the thought of a future sibling.
1. The Four-Horse Club was a very popular club in Regency times and its members indulged frequently in the tradition of riding carriages down very poor roads. Source is the Regency Collection which can be accessed on Austen.com's online Regency links page.
It was only when she had become a widow, that the former Elizabeth Bennet had been able to use her good fortune to help her family. Her late husband's inheritance possessed a peculiar advantage. It could pass to any member of the family, whether they were male or female, and since none had been left, the Earldom, lands and wealth had automatically become hers to do with as she wished.
With this in mind, she had secured her father's estate and raised its income to three thousand per annum, and settled the sum of thirty thousand pounds each upon her sisters, which would be held in trust until their marriage or till they reached the age of five and twenty. This had still left her with considerable funds, and land to live on comfortably for the rest of her life.
Which she was quite determined to live alone. Nothing in the world at present could ever give her the inclination to marry again. She had tried love, failed, settled for security, and the experience had forever changed her.
At least, she had believed that it was love. The only kind of love which she had sworn she would marry for, having witnessed daily what marrying for only slight affection could do. Barely a day in wedlock had passed before the illusion she now knew it to be had shattered before her eyes. The reality it had left behind had chilled her to the bone, and she could not bear to dwell upon it.
But, as she was reflecting the morning after the Meryton assembly, the event had brought some blessings to her life. Not only the inheritance, but also time to improve her talents. At the pianoforte she was now a true proficient and the excellent libraries she had been left deepened her knowledge of the world's literature. From being no horsewoman she had become a master at both side and normal saddle.
She also had a house- or rather several houses -that were not too far, yet far enough from Longbourn that the distance brought her welcome peace and solitude. To her mind Stoke Edith1 was perfect, including the size of the Drawing Rooms, which her mother had lamented much over last night.
It had been built around 1698 for a Paul Foley, Speaker of the House of Commons and had thus been acquired by the Cavendishes of Saffron Walden by marriage. Considered one of the finest Restoration Houses, it represented the skills of James Wyatt, Issac Bayly, and James Thornhill.
A hipped roof housed the servants' quarters, and windows covered most of the walls. Its grounds while extensive had both formal and informal design. Only two things was Elizabeth planning to change: the Hall walls and the Green Velvet Bedroom, which were in her opinion far too opulent and ornate.
The Wyatt Drawing Room in which she presently stood, was her favourite room. Its position in the house gave her an advantage to observe any who were coming to visit or leave, while the furniture was simple, yet elegant Georgian and the walls were detailed but sparsely carved with Grecian arts.
Now she sat upon one of the sofas, planning in her mind when it would be best to ask her sister over to stay without being forced to invite the rest of her family as well. Peaceful solitude was the way she had spent most of her marriage, and she had no desire to enter the chaos that was Meryton Society and her family just yet.
Soon however, her mind drifted on to the recollections of the events that occurred last night at the Assembly Rooms. Elizabeth had not expected to enjoy the evening, refusing to attend until the last moment and even then, only at Jane's persuasion.
The first fifteen minutes had confirmed her expectations. Her mother had monopolised her company, presenting her with great fawning to Lady Lucas and Mrs Long and her nieces, before complaining to her about the size of the Drawing Rooms at Stoke Edith.
The Netherfield party's arrival had brought a welcome relief. In particular she was grateful for the presence of Mr Darcy. Astutely attuned to her feelings, he had cleverly won her company by escorting her to the balcony, where she could gain a brief moment of peace before asking her to dance.
She had rewarded him with three dances, which she felt were the most agreeable of her life, and then spent the rest of the evening in his company, with the occasional additions of Jane, Charlotte Lucas and Mr Bingley.
In both gentlemen Elizabeth found much to like. Mr Bingley exuded happiness and liveliness and, having spent almost all the evening by her sister's side, could not do more to raise himself in her estimation as one of the best gentlemen of her acquaintance. His friend Mr Darcy was to her mind equally deserving of such a title, if not more so.
His conversation had been intelligent, flowing and witty. They had talked of books, music and travelling with if not exactly the same opinions, then well-informed enough to arrive at new perspectives upon which to consider. To everyone else he had been a little reserved, but she had spent enough time in his company to put this down to shyness rather than haughty indifference. In short, she wished to know more of him.
This was a wish that came to be obtained within only a few days of that thought. By the request of her great friend Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth had been obliged to attend a soiree at the Lodge, in the company of her family, the officers of the militia which had lately arrived in the neighbourhood, and the Netherfield party.
After seeing Jane happily settled in Mr Bingley's company, Elizabeth had received her taciturn friend. Mr Darcy was really pleased to see her, having been forced to attend four dinners at which she had not been present. After spending some time in conversation, he led her to a sofa, where there was seated a young woman of about sixteen. As the party was an informal affair- the Lucas children were also present -Darcy had brought his sister, and he now introduced her to Elizabeth.
Lizzy found Miss Georgiana Darcy to be even more shy than her brother, and it was partly his presence and Elizabeth's talent for drawing people out that made Miss Darcy exert herself to utter more than just monosyllables. Of fair complexion and Grecian elegance, she presented an intriguing contrast to her brother, who Elizabeth noted, was content to further their acquaintance rather his own with her.
The trio kept to themselves until they were joined by Miss Lucas, who had come to ask her friend's opinion of the relationship between her sister and Mr Bingley.
"I can answer well enough for Bingley," his friend replied, as they discreetly observed the couple, "he is in raptures."
"And what of Jane's opinion, Lizzy?"
"That if he continues to be all that he has been so far, she will soon be in a fair way to be falling in love with him."
"And Mr Bingley? Do you think he is in love?" Charlotte asked.
"My friend has a propensity for falling frequently in and out of love," Darcy answered her, "but on this occasion I think it is different. Before he has never established himself within the immediate neighbourhood. Now he has settled himself here with a view to staying.... Yes, he professes the same emotion."
"Then Jane should leave him in no doubt of her heart. She should show more affection, even than she feels, not less if she is to secure him."
Elizabeth laughed, surprising her companions who had not realised that Miss Lucas was joking. "Secure him! Charlotte! That is not sound, you know it is not. You would never act like that yourself."
"What is your advice then, Lizzy? As one who has been married?"
Elizabeth gazed wistfully at her sister and Mr Bingley. "That they should take their time and be sure of each other. Neither is going anywhere. They should not feel obliged to conform to the wishes of anyone who might hold an influence over them."
The remark struck Darcy as having a certain relevance to her own marriage, and he found himself dwelling upon her words long after she had changed the subject of their discourse. It caused him to wonder whether she had been influenced into marrying the Earl, and the more and more he thought about it, considering what he knew of Lord Saffron-Walden's character, he was certain.
The evening continued on, admitting some dancing into its passing, an activity eagerly taken up by the Lucas children and Elizabeth's youngest sisters. She stayed in the company of the Darcys and her friend for the rest of the night, before paying farewell to everyone, inviting her sister over to Stoke Edith on the morrow.
"He is just what a young man ought to be, Lizzy."
It was the next day, and Elizabeth and Jane were walking in the grounds of Stoke Edith, discussing the gentlemen who recently arrived in the neighbourhood.
"Sensible, lively, and I never saw such happy manners."
"Handsome too," Elizabeth added to her sister's praise, "which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. And that he likes you excessively, shows good judgement."
Jane blushed. "Lizzy....."
"Indeed, Jane, he does. His friend told me as much last night. Do you doubt such an authority?"
"No, not at all. But we have had so short an acquaintance."
"Do not concern yourself with that. Time nor opportunity do not determine intimacy, only disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other and seven days are more than enough for others." Elizabeth came to a halt and took her sister's hands in her own. "Believe me, Jane. No one who has seen you and Bingley together can doubt the start of his affections. Now, what do you think of his sisters?"
As they continued to walk together, Elizabeth, listening to Jane's opinion of Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley, privately disagreeing with the notion that they were as kind as their brother, thought back to her own brief courtship, wondering if anyone had thought the same of her and the Earl.
She could remember her mother's enthusiasm for the match, her father's doubts, and her sister's wish for her to enjoy every happiness. But had any one thought her to be love with him and he with her?
"Jane," she quietly asked, and in such a tone as to make her sister halt both her walk and her conversation, "did you think the Earl was in love?" Seeing her sister's hesitation, she added, "Please answer me honestly."
"I thought him fascinated by you," Jane replied, "but as for love... he kept his feelings hidden a lot of the time while in our family's company." She took her sister's hands. "Lizzy, did you have a happy marriage? Please tell me honestly."
"No Jane," Elizabeth answered with tears in her eyes, "I confess that I did not."
1. Stoke Edith is- or rather was -an actual place, though it resided in Herefordshire. Everything I have stated is true to the house, except for the bit concerning James Wyatt. The decoration in question is in his style, but has also been attributed to Robert Adam.
Tragically, on the 16th December 1927, a fire struck the building, completely ruining all the fine architecture and interiors. Only the ruinous wings survive. My source for the place is a lovely book by the late Giles Worsley titled 'England's Lost Houses' from the archive of the magazine Country Life. Pictures of the interior and exterior are contained in the book. They are also online, providing you search for them.
"Why did you not tell me of this before?" Jane asked her sister, after hearing about all the events of the past two years which Elizabeth had kept secret.
"I did not wish to alarm or upset you," Elizabeth replied. She refrained from adding that the Earl had a tendency to read her correspondence, nor other details which only a married woman would understand. She did not want to frighten her sister. "There was also very little that you, or anyone else could do about it."
"I am your older sister, I should be able to protect you."
"That is exactly why I kept it silent. I have no desire for anybody to blame themselves regarding a state which I entered into with my eyes open. Rest assured though, it will not happen again."
"Indeed it won't, I am determined to make sure of that."
"It will not, Jane, because I will not marry again."
"You will not marry again? Lizzy, why ever not?"
Her sister gestured around her. "I have no real need, Jane. I have enough comfort and security with on which to live alone for the rest of my life. And I do not think that I could ever let myself trust someone enough to enter into a state of matrimony with them once more. Nor am I ready to lay my emotions open to it."
"But Lizzy, what of Mr Darcy?"
"Mr Darcy? What does he have to do with any of this?"
"He looks at you a great deal, Lizzy. And he spent most of last evening in your company, as well as the assembly."
"I consider him to be just a friend, nothing more. No, Jane, I shall end an old maid, and teach your ten children to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill."
Jane would have protested to this, had not the sound of hoof beats suddenly accosted them. They rose from the stone bench where they had been sitting and tried to discern the identity of the rider who was coming to meet them.
It was Miss Darcy. Bringing her horse to a halt with the easy confidence of one who had spent her life around the animals, she descended from her side saddle and greeted them. "I hope I am not intruding by coming without warning?"
"Not at all, Georgiana," Elizabeth replied, "You are welcome any time."
"Thank you." Georgie's acquaintance with the Countess at Lucas Lodge last night had been enough to secure her confidence of enjoying a firm friendship with her. "My journey also has another motive. Caroline and Louisa have invited you, Miss Bennet, to dine with them, when the gentlemen dine with the officers on the 12th. I also have persuaded them to invite you, Elizabeth. I know what they are like when they invite their brother's friends over to dine." She leaned forward in confidence. "Inquisition is an understatement."
"I sure that they shall be fine, Miss Darcy," Jane replied, "they have been so nice to me so far."
Miss Darcy choose not to respond to that judgement, leaving Elizabeth to conclude that the lady's opinion of the sisters was exactly like her own. "Will you come, Lizzy?"
"I am afraid I cannot," Elizabeth replied, "I have promised my father that he can dine with me that evening." She felt sad about disappointing the young woman, but it could not be helped. It was the only evening that her father was free from any engagements he was required to attend by her mother. "But I shall let Jane have my carriage," she added, knowing that if given the chance, Mrs Bennet would make her ride to Netherfield, in the hope that it would rain and Jane would have to stay the night.
Those thoughts were soon to turn into a prediction, for as the days passed, Jane felt herself obliged to decline the offer her kind sister had made, as her mother had made the suggestion of a journey to Netherfield by horseback impossible to refuse.
"I am afraid I could not persuade her otherwise, Lizzy," her father commented that evening as they sat down to dine. Around them glowed candles and the sound of crackling from the fire in the hearth, while from outside, the sound of rain pouring down the window panes, could clearly be discerned.
"Is there any chance that Jane missed the downpour?"
"None at all." Mr Bennet himself had felt the drops as he entered his daughter's carriage for his own journey that evening. "This speculation however, is useless. We will know nothing of whether it has affected her until tomorrow."
"True," Elizabeth noted reluctantly as the servants entered with the first course. She changed the subject, to avoid worrying, asking her father instead for his view on the events that she had missed. She could always rely on him to brighten her mood whatever its stance, being a studier of characters like herself.
Mr Bennet, it was no secret, regarded her as his favourite daughter, and as result looked forward immensely to their dinners alone. He was prone to displays of wit and irony, possessing such an odd mixture of caprice, sarcastic humour and reserve, that few of his immediate family understood him. Only Elizabeth, who had spent so much time with him during her youth and unmarried years, had the ability to read him as well as he could read himself.
She had only disappointed him once, on the occasion of her marriage. Mr Bennet did not know that his daughter held this opinion, he only remembered a talk with his daughter after granting consent to the Earl, whom he felt was a person from whom he was incapable of refusing such a request.
After expressing his doubts to her, he had been forced to relent when she assured him that she loved the man who had asked for her hand, and was not marrying in the hope that it would secure her family for the rest of their lives. He did not know that in reality it had destroyed the former affection but accomplished the latter.
Elizabeth did not wish to hear his guilt or disappointment at the truth of her two year marriage, and so refrained from confiding in him what she had only just confided in her sister eight days ago.
The dinner passed at a pace suitable for both consumers, after which Elizabeth reluctantly bade her father farewell before retiring for the night.
Matters unfortunately did go Mrs Bennet's way that next morning, as Elizabeth discovered when she sat down to breakfast. Upon her plate lay a note from her sister, with the news that she was unwell, and that her 'kind friends' had insisted she stay at Netherfield until she felt better.
Jane's only concern had been to assure her sister that she was fine, and that the physician had only been sent due to the concern of her friends, nothing more. Elizabeth however, after reading the note, could not settle. Scarcely an hour had passed and she found herself quitting the house, travelling on a horse to Netherfield.
Three miles away from Longbourn and nearly five times as much from the great house at Stoke, a rider and horse came to a halt in surprise upon seeing another occupied like themselves. Despite the distance the rider could discern by saddle alone that the figure was female, leaving him to entertain a brief prayer which he never in all the world thought to be answered to his liking.
Yet indeed it was so. The horse came closer, and closer still, until he had to firmly grip the reins of his own stallion in order to restrain it from backing away, as the stranger halted beside him and remained a stranger no longer.
"Countess," he uttered in greeting.
"Mr Darcy," she returned. "I have come to inquire after my sister."
"On horseback?" He could not help seeking to confirm, noting the effects which such an exertion had brought to her appearance; the joyful exhilaration about her face, her hair barely restrained by riding bonnet and pins.
"What else do you call this steed?" She replied smilingly.
"Not an animal certainly," he answered. "He is magnificent."
"As is your own." She looked over it in comparison. "Would you be so kind as to take me to her?"
"Who?" He was still staring at her.
Embarrassed by his own inattention regarding her gently spoken words, Darcy could only gesture as he flicked the reins and set off, leaving her to follow and eventually catch up with him.
They entered Netherfield's breakfast parlour together, where her appearance caused a great deal of surprise. That she had ridden all the way from Stoke Edith so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley, who could barely keep their countenances.
Their brother however was all politeness, kindness and good humour. Instantly did he deliver a faithful and detailed report of her sister's health since her arrival, before escorting Elizabeth to the room himself.
Jane, her worry at the inconvenience or possible alarm preventing her from expressing such a desire in her note, was very glad to see her. She felt her headache acutely and her feverish symptoms increased after the apothecary had made his diagnosis and prescribed draughts for the cure.
Elizabeth silently attended her for most of the day, and by the time the illness had lessened just a little, it was too late to return to Stoke Edith by day light, nor could her sister contemplate even the thought of being parted from her.
Miss Bingley, her dislike of Elizabeth tempered by her title, invited the Countess to stay until her sister had recovered. Elizabeth consented willingly, and a servant was dispatched to collect a supply of clothes, travelling via Longbourn on the way to inform the family of the situation.
At five o'clock the ladies retired to dress, and one hour and a half later Elizabeth was met by Georgiana who came to call her to dinner. Once all the party were assembled she received such an onslaught of enquiries as to be almost overwhelmed.
At her answer Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley announced that they were grieved, shocked and disgusted by colds, then thought no more of the matter. Miss Darcy and Mr Bingley- for his sister had engrossed his friend, much to that friend's annoyance -were the only ones who replied with real sincerity.
When the meal was over Elizabeth returned to Jane, whereupon Miss Bingley began abusing her as soon as she was out of the room.
"She has nothing," Louisa Hurst commented, "in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent rider. Her appearance this morning, she really looked almost wild."
"Indeed dear sister, I am caused to wonder why the Earl ever married her."
Perhaps because it is not her sole object in life to copy the behaviour of women such as yourself, Darcy could not help but utter silently to himself.
"It shows affection for her sister," Georgiana pointed out, blushing at announcing her judgement to the whole room, and heartily grateful for her brother's nodding agreement.
"You are perfectly right, Georgie," he remarked. "And we must not forget that as a Countess she can set the fashion, not follow it."
Caroline merely snorted in reply.
"Her fine eyes," Darcy added for sheer joie de vivre in witnessing Miss Bingley's next expression, "were also brightened by the exercise."
Miss Bingley was thus rendered speechless.
Some time later, when Jane was asleep, Elizabeth rejoined her hosts, to find Miss Bingley at cards with her sister, brother and brother in law, Miss Darcy at the pianoforte and Mr Darcy engrossed in a book nearby her. The latter two looked up upon her entrance and immediately requested her to join them, to which she consented, looking over the music scores that lay in a pile by the instrument.
"Do you have a favourite, Lizzy?" Georgiana asked. "I shall be happy to play it."
Elizabeth examined each piece, her memory and talent imagining the sound of the compositions, then drew one out and placed the sheet music upon the stand. She sat at the other end of the sofa occupied by Mr Darcy, and listened silently as his sister played. Her execution lacked neither taste, nor refinement, nor skill, nor emotion. She played as if she had composed the tune herself, seeming to know instinctively how the author of the piece desired the music to be performed. When she was done, Elizabeth could not praise her enough.
"It is the one piece that I cannot play myself," she remarked, "I have always requested for it to be played by others, but I can never quite manage to perform it with the skill and emotion required, as you have done."
"You see, Georgie," her brother said, having laid aside his book sometime ago, "you are an excellent pianist. I thank you, Milady, for praising her; she never quite believes it coming from me."
"You are my brother and therefore too impartial to offer just judgement."
"Come, Georgie, you know I abhor disguise of any kind."
Elizabeth observed the interaction between brother and sister, wishing, not for the first time, for a brother so that she could have experienced participating in such a pastime. Without volition, her mind drifted back to another time, to another scene that had occurred at the same type of instrument, and she instantly paled at the thought of what had followed.
Darcy noted the alteration. "Countess, are you all right?"
She seemed to take a long time in coming to notice his inquiry, which had been delivered quietly so as to draw no attention from the rest of the room. "There is no need for concern, I am perfectly well. I was just distracted by a memory which this brought to my mind."
More than distracted, Darcy thought, but knew he could not comment. Instead he changed the subject.
The words continued to occupy his mind though, long after Elizabeth, along with the rest of Netherfield's occupants, had retired for the night. Habitually prone himself, by memories of his own recent past, he imagined steadily more and more scenes of a grave and worrisome nature, until his anger had risen so much against the late Earl, that he contemplated bringing him back from the grave in order to call him out so he could have the satisfaction of killing the man himself.
At this point however, he was forced to discount the notion, the realities of death and the illegality of duelling aside. He knew himself to be a master fencer, trained by his military cousin and his London tutor, but that was not the reason. Truth be known, he disliked the idea of killing in such a fashion, and to his present frame of mind, the late Earl did not deserve such an easy death.
This revelation however caused him to realise just how much the lady had occupied his mind since his first acquaintance with her. To his knowledge she was the first to break through his barriers which he had built up long ago, founded upon the arts and allurements that all of Society's female quota displayed.
How easily she had accomplished this had quite escaped his notice until now. Not that he ever supposed her to have intentionally done so, oh no. She was too secure in her situation to be seeking him for his wealth. The same with himself, and this revelation caused him to sit up in surprise.
Since when had he entertained the idea of pursuing her? The only vow he could ever remember taking was to restore to her some liveliness of character. Yet, without knowing it, this had become another motive. Silently he shook his head, trying to think rationally.
She was a Countess in her own right, the situation of the Earldom being public knowledge to all of the Ton. He meanwhile, was only nephew to one. He knew her to be by inheritance the richest woman in Essex, while he was the richest man in Derbyshire. She was a gentleman's daughter, he a gentlemen, ergo they were equals in all but title.
At the same time however, he rebuked his presumption. The Earl had passed away less than a year ago, and judging by her expressions when she referenced him so far, she did not yet possess the confidence to attempt a second union. Nor, if he counted himself as her friend, should he even be contemplating such a notion.
The water was so hot that steam rose off his back and shoulders. Darcy closed his eyes, letting the water trickle down from his curls to the edge of his face, then drop down into the water that already filled the bath. Leaning back in the tub, he relaxed in the comfort. His valet stood discreetly by the dressing room door, giving him a relative privacy.
Relative. That word made him instantly reflect on the events of the day. He could see why the Countess had married at only eighteen. Mrs Bennet was truly a woman who could only be tolerated in small doses. In less than five minutes of his return from dining with the officers Darcy had already determined whose bright idea it had been for Miss Bennet to arrive on horseback for dinner with his friend's sisters.
Satisfied that her daughter's illness was not serious, Mrs Bennet was quite content to let her remain at Netherfield forever. No sooner than she had finished with visiting her daughter, did the woman proceed to survey the house with all the obvious manners of a prospective mother in law.
Bingley, less experienced in the forms of scheming matchmaking Mamas than himself, noticed nothing, even when Mrs Bennet had inquired, with all the subtlety of a falling chandelier, how long he planned to remain in the neighbourhood.
The Countess then had tried to change the subject, commenting upon the character of his friend, which Darcy observed she had caught excellently. He himself had tried to add to the conversation, remarking upon the lack of people to study in the country, to which she had replied that people 'alter themselves so much that there was something new to be observed in them forever.'
But Mrs Bennet had taken his comment in the wrong way, repeating what she judged to be his two most damning insults; 'confined' and 'unvarying' and responding that they had dined with as many as four and twenty families. To which, Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst had not been able to refrain from chuckling.
Lady Saffron Walden had then asked after Miss Lucas, which still did not prevent Mrs Bennet from casting aspersions on the good breeding of certain persons present. Darcy had heard all of this from his stance at the window, a habitual position of retreat for him, feeling strongly all the while for the Countess.
Mrs Bennet then drifted on to singing the praises of her eldest daughter, commenting on some poetry which Miss Bennet had received from a past amour. In reply the Countess had uttered, “And so ended his affection. There has been many a one I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love."
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," Darcy had replied.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it only be a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."
To this he had merely smiled, and a general pause ensued, breaking only when she prompted her mother to thank Mr Bingley for his generosity. His friend had been his usual civil self, causing his sister to be civil also, until Mrs Bennet had ordered the carriage.
Upon this signal, the youngest daughter, who had attended with her mother and her next oldest sister to Netherfield, stepped forward and blatantly asked if Mr Bingley was going to give a ball, which he had promised.
It had caused a gasp from all the women in the room except the Bennets, even his sister, who was shocked at how a girl scarcely a year younger than herself could be so brazen.
Bingley had honoured his promise, whereupon the visit, to the relief of all concerned, ended. The Countess quit the room a minute later, retreating to Miss Bennet, leaving Miss Bingley and Mrs Hurst at liberty to abuse her and her family for the rest of the morning.
Now it was the afternoon, and he had shut himself away in his suite of rooms from everyone after finishing the sport with his friend and Mr Hurst. Divesting himself of clothes he had ordered the bath, and relished the temporary peace needed to reflect upon all that had passed since the commencement of the day.
By the conclusion of his musings over the events of the morning, the water was dangerously close to cold. Darcy opened his eyes and sat up, signalling his valet to come over. Standing up he availed himself of his robe from the hands of his servant. He then grabbed a towel for his hair and walked to the window. Drying his unruly curls he surveyed the prospect below.
A beautiful sight met his eyes. In the grass at the foot of the house stood his dog, a stick in his mouth, whose whims the Countess was indulging with a gentle tease to prise it from him. Darcy was instantly entranced. The hound, his toy taken, barked gleefully at the Countess to repeat the game, to which she obliged, laughing as she threw it for him to run and catch.
Above and unseen, his master could do nothing but smile.
She was still there a quarter of an hour later when he emerged from the house. The hound, noticing his master's arrival, darted towards him, tail wagging. After deigning to have his head and ears ruffled in greeting, the dog darted back to the lady, eager to show his master his new friend.
"He is yours then?" Elizabeth confirmed, the laughter still in her eyes. She was seated on a bench by the wall of the house, the hound at her feet.
"Yes. He's almost seven, though you can't tell by his manners, can you, Ilyich," Darcy replied, with another ruffle of the dog's ears. In response Ilyich merely barked and wagged his tail even more.
"Do you have any others?"
"A few of his siblings, his mother, and a couple of greyhounds. They're at my home in Derbyshire, Pemberley."
"My estate. No doubt you have heard Miss Bingley sing its praises."
"Yes, it is hard not to," Elizabeth answered with a smile. "Has she always been like that?"
"Since we first met, I believe," Darcy commented. "Sometimes it is useful in keeping everyone else away, other times it is something to be tolerated. She will not desist, no matter how little my reactions are."
Elizabeth chuckled at that, causing him to enquire for a cause. "When your sister invited us over, she referred to Miss Bingley as the Spanish Inquisition."
"My sister is never wrong," Darcy answered, causing them both to erupt into laughter. He marvelled at the beauty it added to her complexion, feeling humbled that he was responsible for such a circumstance.
Elizabeth, noticing his silence, ceased her laughter and turned to glance at him. His look caused her fingers to stop caressing the dog's head, as a tingling sensation ran through her, the result of the close proximity of his hand to hers and his form beside her on the bench.
His eyes seemed to reveal his every emotion; staring at her with deep and powerful feeling. Lost in the moment, she quietly stared into their depths, noticing for the first time how handsome and finely figured he was.
How long they sat staring at each other neither knew. Ilyich was also quiet, wrapped up in watching the progress of his master with his new friend, eagerly hoping that he would see more of her.
Through devoted eyes he watched their faces move closer and closer to each other until they were almost touching. He utter a joyful woof in appreciation, and the moment was lost, the spell broken.
Embarrassed Elizabeth moved away, rising from the bench. "Excuse me, I must return to my sister," she uttered, curtsying. Then she turned, walked round the corner and back into the house, leaving Darcy alone with his hound.
Darcy watched the corner where he had lost sight of her with a mournful expression of what might have been. Anxious to be forgiven for his clumsiness, Ilyich pushed at the hand which was still upon his head. His master sighed and returned to the present.
"Not your fault, boy," he assured him, ruffling his ears. "Neither of us are ready for such a revelation," he added, to which the dog howled and put a paw up. "Oh, it will come," Darcy added, "we just have to wait for her to want it as much as myself."
Ilyich barked in agreement. His master rose from the bench, glancing around to see if anyone had witnessed him talking to his hound. A wicked wish rose to his mind: Caroline seeing the event, declaring to herself that he was mad and going off to find another wealthy man to console herself with.
It brought a smile and a laugh, restoring his good humour. "Come on, boy," he addressed the hound, "let's go and scare Miss Bingley."
The dog barked eagerly in reply.
As Elizabeth descended the stairs for dinner that evening, she heard what sounded like a muffled scream. A minute later the door to the Dining room opened; out ran an orange figure, too quickly for her to identify, followed by a messy and muddy Ilyich.
"Mr Darcy," the figure, which Elizabeth now determined to be Caroline, cried mournfully, "save me from this wretched creature!"
Elizabeth turned to see Ilyich's master standing in the doorway of the Dining room, a barely restrained grin upon his face. "Mr Darcy, you are a wicked man."
"I am sorry, Milady," he replied, "but as you know I have little control over the animal."
She blushed at his allusion to their previous time with the hound. In the distance there was another bark, then a howl as Caroline, still clean, though flushed from the exercise, with her hairstyle a mess of feathers and ribbons, hounded the dog to a servant and returned to the hallway.
Darcy held out his arm. "Countess, would you care to accept my escort into dinner?" He paused to smile at her teasingly. "I promise to be good."
"With pleasure." She accepted his arm, leaving Caroline to snort and try to enter behind them with dignity despite her appearance, causing all at the table to smile in amusement.
Caroline Bingley did not like being pushed aside in favour of someone else. In fact she heartily despised it. She also despised the woman who made her be put aside. After all, it was not the gentlemen's fault, and they could hardly be blamed for being led astray by another supposedly more pretty than her. And whenever such an occasion arose, Caroline set instantly about her revenge.
She always succeeded. No matter who the woman, no matter who the man, she always emerged the victor. She knew the characters of both so well as not to fail to do otherwise. And this present situation would be no different from the others. Even if the other gentlemen in question had married long ago.
This time however, that would not be the case. She would win not only the battle, but also the war. After all she deserved to. She had been hunting- no, pursuing, the gentleman longer than her rival, thus she was rightfully due all the rewards that said gentleman possessed. This rival had no need of such.... assets, she already had them, and had already enjoyed the.... er... advantages which married life afforded.
But to resume. Caroline could stand matters as they stood at present, no longer. Events had gone on for long enough. The time to act, was now. That incident with the dog- horrible hound! -had decided matters. She was sure that it was all her conniving. After all, he would never be so cruel to her. Yes, it was time to begin her revenge. To stoop to conquer. And conquer she would, dog or no dog. In fact, if things went her way, that horrid animal would soon cease to exist.
So, her mission was as follows: Firstly, to enact revenge on the Countess of Saffron Walden. It mattered not that she was a Countess. Indeed, that was precisely why she should not be allowed to succeed over her. She had no need to marry rich, she already was. Caroline would succeed, and her revenge would be sweet. She would make sure said gentleman rued the day he had ever met the Countess.
Secondly, she would then present herself as a willing comforter of Mr Darcy's woe. Naturally he would not be allowed to grieve for long.... no more than a day, perhaps two, Caroline thought generously. Then he would rejoice in his escape. He would see her, Caroline Bingley, as the woman of his dreams, the only woman in world to suit Pemberley as its mistress. Then they would marry, and she would be able to gloat.... er, speak of her good luck- read cunning victory -for the rest of their long, happy lives.
Having once established a mission, Caroline did not back down. Instead she walked straight into action. This action took place immediately after the night of that incident with the hound, the moment the Countess came down from attending to Jane.
Discovering in advance that Mr Darcy had no desire for cards, a game which she had tried unsuccessfully to involve him in two nights previously, Caroline persuaded her brother in law to challenge Charles to a game of piquet, then persuaded Louisa to watch. Miss Darcy, she knew, would be happy to oblige them all with some music, which left Mr Darcy and the Countess. Cunningly Caroline placed some volumes that she knew the Countess liked to peruse, around the sofas, then waited for events to unfold.
The others came into the room. Mr Hurst followed her plans to the letter, challenging Charles, and requesting his dear wife to observe. Miss Darcy happily answered her eager entreaty that she play for them, and the Countess spied a particular volume that immediately caught her interest, leaving Mr Darcy to his own devices.
He seated himself at the bureau, and began to lay out materials needed for replies to correspondence. Caroline watched him intently. She waited for him to begin the letter, waited a few moments more for the address to be finished, then pounced.
"Pray sir," she remarked, seating herself in the chair beside the bureau, placed at such an angle as to perfectly observe him, "what do you do, so secretly?"
"It is no secret," he replied after a moment, "I am writing to my Aunt Catherine." In order to put off another request to visit her and 'dear cousin Anne'.
"Oh, dear Lady Catherine!" Caroline cried, "oh how I long to see her again." Truth be known, she had only met the woman once, but she had liked her very much indeed. In fact, she was exactly the sort of woman whom she saw herself being in later life, though perhaps with more good looks, and higher title. This elevation she would manage to procure for Darcy after they had married, for she was not above conniving withthose who dispensed ranks of the peerage out to deserving gentry. "Has she altered much since the spring?"
Darcy determinedly finished the sentence he was writing before replying. "As her last letter to me was more about my cousin Anne than herself, I presume not."
Caroline let him carry on for another sentence or two before speaking again. "How delighted Lady Catherine will be to receive such a letter."
Annoyingly, Mr Darcy made no answer to this. Caroline sat astonished for a few minutes, then recovered herself. "You write uncommonly fast."
Yes, I wish to get this over and done with, so I can leave you and go to the Coun.... er my sister. "You are mistaken. I write rather slowly."
Though distressed by his contradiction, Caroline remained still determined to occupy his attention. "How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business too! How odious I should think them!"
"It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of to yours."
Caroline was struck dumb for a moment upon the implication that she gathered from this, she believed, rather provokingly intimate reply. Then, realising that the time for blushing prettily in response to it had come and gone, she continued to bother..... er, talk. "Pray tell your Aunt that I long to see her."
"I have already told her so once, by your desire." Darcy, in fact, had done no such thing, but he was not about to tell Caroline that, even if disguise of every sort was his abhorrence. Nor was he about to admit that his Aunt detested Miss Bingley, thinking her to be scheming away 'dear Anne's' future suitor. And while this was true, Darcy was determined to be ensnared by neither.
Caroline almost swooned over the honour that she had just been accorded. "I am afraid you do not like your pen," she began after letting him write another two sentences, "let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."
"Thank you, but I always mend my own."
Caroline was once more struck dumb. She absolutely hated to be struck dumb twice in one evening. She knew she must not continue to be so however. "How can you contrive to write so even?"
He was silent.
Caroline was most annoyed that he was silent. He should never tire of her conversation and voice. He should always long to hear it. "Tell your Aunt that I shall be delighted to see her whenever she wishes, and that I am already in raptures at the thought of such an occasion."
"Will you give me leave to defer your raptures till I write again? At present I have not room to do them justice."
"Oh it is of no consequence, I am sure to have the honour of seeing her soon. But do you always write such charming long letters to her, Mr Darcy?"
Darcy had a good mind then to tell Miss Bingley exactly what his Aunt Catherine thought of her, but knew it would make him the evil and not her. "They are generally long," he replied, though this one, like the rest of them, was short, at least by Lady Catherine's standards, "but whether always charming it is not for me determine." She certainly never writes to me charmingly.
"It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill," Caroline announced to the whole room.
"That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline," cried her brother, entering into the conversation, much to his sister's annoyance, "because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?"
"My style," Darcy replied, grateful that someone else was finally involved in the discussion, "of writing is very different from yours."
"Oh!" cried Caroline, "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest."
"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them- by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
It was then that the most annoying thing in the world happened. At least in Caroline's opinion. In Darcy's opinion it was the most welcome of all events that had occurred that evening. But this was not about what he thought. No, it was about Caroline, and Caroline was determined that he thought like that no more.
Nevertheless however, there was no way she could ignore this incident. Like the dog, it simply had to be endured, until there was opportunity to hound it away.
Perhaps at this juncture it would be prudent to say what exactly had occurred to award Miss Bingley's title of 'most annoying thing in the world.' Well it was this; the Countess of Saffron Walden spoke. Not only did she speak, in fact, she did much worse. She entered into the conversation which Caroline had hoped to remain between herself and Darcy all evening. Angrily did she note the words, and the long response which followed, causing a whole discussion to open between them.
When the discussion turned into a debate, Caroline was even more annoyed, for she knew all too well how much Darcy liked debates. With a barely restrained temper did she listen to each party's speeches, her face turning more and orange to match her dress at every new sentence. By the time her brother entered into it once more, and with the most disgraceful slander upon Mr Darcy's character, Caroline had had enough. Instantly she began an expostulation upon her brother, annoyed that he dared speak such nonsense.
Mr Darcy however, as Caroline always saw him to be, was gracious enough to not show that he was insulted. "I see your design, Bingley. You dislike an argument and want to silence this."
Caroline paid no attention to what her brother replied, and therefore was surprised when she witnessed the Countess returning to her book, and Mr Darcy to his letter. Anxious not to have a repetition of what she had just observed, Caroline refrained from pursuing his attention, and moved to join her sister.
Later, when she retired for the night, Caroline reflected back upon the incident with much more generous conclusions. The Countess may have bested her on this occasion, but only because, she, Caroline, had let her. The next time, it would be very different.
At the commencement of the next evening, Elizabeth found herself witness to a wonder that she would never have dreamed possible.
Upon removing with the ladies after dinner, she had run up to her sister, and, seeing her well guarded from cold, attended her into the Drawing Room, where, much to Elizabeth's surprise, she was welcomed by Mrs Hurst and Miss Bingley with many professions of pleasure.
Elizabeth had never seen them so agreeable as they were during the hour which passed before the gentlemen appeared. Their powers of observation were considerable. They could describe an entertainment with accuracy, relate an anecdote with humour, and laugh at their acquaintance with spirit.
Miss Darcy, her confidence raised by their good humour, also contributed to the discussion, proving to have a talent for mimicry, conveying to the audience the precise character of tone for each amusing acquaintance described.
But when the gentlemen entered, Jane was no longer the preferred of Miss Bingley or Mrs Hurst. The latter turned to her husband, the former to Mr Darcy, prevailing upon him just as he arrived in the room, giving him a chance to say only a polite congratulation to Jane's recovery, before being forced to submit to his hostess's enquiries. Mr Hurst too, only made a slight bow.
Bingley therefore was the one by whom diffuseness and warmth, joy and attention, were displayed. He spent the first half hour in piling up the fire, lest Miss Bennet should suffer from the change of room; and Jane removed herself at his desire to the other side of the fireplace, so that she might be farther from the draft of the door. Then he sat by her and talked scarcely to anyone else. Elizabeth, in a position opposite, saw it all with great delight.
After tea had been cleared, there emerged a chance for Mr Darcy to escape his hostess, and join his sister, who had remained by the Countess' side since he had entered. The two received his company with pleasure, his sister describing the event that had passed before his arrival, which he laughed at with good humour, revealing to the Countess another facet of his character.
She had never denied to herself that he was a handsome man, and now she could not deny that he was rendered even more handsome when he smiled and laughed. The effect brought a sparkle to his dark eyes, softened his mouth, and the attention which he bestowed on his sister, made him all the more agreeable in Elizabeth's eyes.
Their conversation soon drifted to the conclusions they could draw from their observation on her older sister and his host. To Elizabeth's great delight, both approved of the match.
"I have never seen Bingley so attentive," his friend declared to the ladies, in a voice audible only to them.
"I do think your sister right for him," Georgiana agreed timidly, anxious to not be overheard, "but I do not think others approve."
"Yes, I can see that," Elizabeth remarked. "I hope Mr Bingley is not a gentleman to be so easily swayed by their biased opinions."
"He will only be swayed if he is unsure of reciprocation," Darcy replied, partly in warning, partly in defence of his friend. “Once he is certain however, no one will dissuade him from asking. He knows that he has my approval; not that he needs it, but that will help to reconcile others."
Elizabeth uttered a quiet gasp at his words. "Do you believe that he will, then?"
Darcy glanced only at her in reply. "I know that if I were in such a position of happiness, I would not hesitate to secure it." It was the first time he had ever been so direct in his implications, so he watched her reaction with the greatest of attention.
Elizabeth was surprised. Indeed, who could not be, in such a situation? There was no way that she could mistake his meaning, for he continued glancing at her long after he had spoken. At first she did not know what she thought of the speech. Even the Earl had never uttered such an implication as direct as that.
She knew instantly that she did not fear it, a result which furthered surprised her, but did she welcome it? It had been so long since anyone had made such a speech to her, that Elizabeth did not know. Her impulsive emotions however, had paid no attention to the uncertainty in her mind, causing her after a little delay, to blush, flattered.
Darcy could do naught but rejoice in response. He smiled at her, a small smile, one not obvious to any but her. The effect served to soften his brooding expression directed at her, and instantly diffused a part of Elizabeth's fear, though Darcy had no idea that she had ever possessed any in the first place. The silence that arose between them was not at all unwelcome, for they were quite content to remain as they were forever.
Georgiana saw this all, and smiled as well. She liked the Countess very much, and could tell that her brother now possessed the same opinion. She had never seen her brother in love before, and the sight pleased her no end, for, like any good sister, she wished him to be happy and prosper.
She had always wanted a sister, and the Countess seemed far more ideal than any other woman who had tried to capture her brother's eye. She knew him to be every thing that was amiable and good, honourable, and kind. She also knew that the Countess would not pursue him for mercenary purposes, like so many others.
Her only worry though, was the possibility that the Countess would not reciprocate.
On the dawning of the next morn, Jane announced to her sister that she thought it best, and believed herself well enough, to return home. Elizabeth accordingly wrote a note after breakfast to their mother, asking for the carriage. It was a request which neither of them needed fulfilling, nor did Elizabeth expect it to be fulfilled, but she also knew that they had to awaken the idea of Jane's return in her mother's head, and gauge the response.
It was as she expected. Mrs Bennet declared that she had not thought of Jane returning until her stay had reached two weeks, adding in the postscript that the carriage could not be spared until then, and that she could also spare Jane very well, if the Bingleys pressed them to stay longer.
Elizabeth relayed this news to her sister, and was given the expected reply. Jane was quite determined that they should leave, for she felt that they could not intrude any longer on Mr Bingley's kindness without creating talk in the surrounding neighbourhood. Elizabeth then sent a note to her steward at Stoke Edith for one of her own carriages, and was pleased to tell Jane that all of hers were in perfect working order, and would be sent as soon as they requested them.
While they were having luncheon with the others, Jane quietly announced their intentions. Mr Bingley heard this with great sorrow, and repeatedly tried to persuade her from exerting herself too soon after her recovery. Jane was eventually convinced to stay until Sunday, but remained firm to anything beyond.
Darcy also viewed their future absence with an emotion akin to sorrow. In his opinion Elizabeth had not been at Netherfield long enough either. No other woman had ever attracted him like she did before, and never had such a woman remained insensible of it. Darcy had no wish to inform her directly just yet though.
He could detect that she was unready for such clear attentions, and so kept to only hints throughout the remainder of their days spent there. Whether she received these with pleasure he could not be certain, but that she did not fear them, nor withdraw from him, was considered progress enough.
On Sunday, after morning service, the separation, so agreeable to only two, took place. Miss Bingley's civility to them until the moment, increased rapidly, as she assured them both of the pleasure it would be to see them either at Netherfield, Longbourn or Stoke Edith. Mrs Hurst expressed the same sentiments, as did Miss Darcy, but in such a way as to assure the sisters of her sincerity in comparison to the former.
Elizabeth then conveyed her sister to Longbourn, where they were not welcomed very cordially at all by their mother. Mrs Bennet wondered at their coming so soon, and thought them very wrong to cause so much fuss upon a Sunday, and was sure that Jane had caught cold again for exerting herself so suddenly.
But their father, though laconic in his expression of pleasure, was really very glad to see them, declaring that their arrival had brought back sense and animation to the family circle. He pressed Elizabeth to stay the night, not desisting until she had said yes.
The Countess was glad to accept. She had no desire to quit the company of her sisters so soon, and her father obliged her wish of a game of chess after dinner. Retiring with Jane at a later hour, the two spent some more minutes talking as they had done in their youth, before Elizabeth returned to a room that she had not used since her marriage.
To her surprise, everything had remained unchanged. Upon stepping into the room, she felt as though she had travelled back in time, to the days when she had nothing but thoughts of a happy romance before her. Now she had only the regretful memories which she wished to forget forever. It was a distressing contrast. Before tears could come to her eyes, however, she blinked the nightmares away, and focused upon preparing herself for bed.
Lying in the warm sheets, she distracted her mind, and thought of all that happened at Netherfield, and was astonished and also pleased, when Mr Darcy came to be foremost of those reflections.
To Mr George Wickham,
Sir, you do not know me, nor I you, but I have heard of your connection with a certain gentleman of our mutual acquaintance, and the circumstances which ended your friendship with him.
If you wish, such as I, to exact revenge, then I suggest that you take a commission in the regiment which has stationed itself four miles from here, in Meryton, under the command of Colonel Forster.
I shall contact you further when you have arrived in the neighbourhood.
Caroline had heard of Mr Wickham quite by chance, she happened to see him calling at Mr Darcy's townhouse one day, and assuming by his handsome and well-dressed appearance that he was an aquaintance of her brother's friend, took care to inform Mr Darcy of the circumstance when she saw him next. Upon being informed by Mr Darcy that the man in question was only son of a steward at Pemberley who had parted the county after a quarrel to seek his own fortune, Caroline took care never to mention her enduring curiosity concerning this glancing acquaintance when she was in Mr Darcy's presence. This impediment did not stop her from finding out what she could of the man when she a guest at Mr Darcy's houses. Once his whereabouts were discovered by her, she took care to keep a note of them, so she could use the man to her advantage, if the need arose.
And now such need had.
With immense satisfaction did Miss Bingley survey this note. "Yes, Countess," she mused to the empty room, "you may have won the battle, but I intend to win the war. And this," she held up the letter, "shall be my means of accomplishing that victory."
And with that, she sealed the letter, and sent it off to the post.
A few days later, the Countess Saffron Walden happened to be walking out and about Meryton, when she encountered her sisters, and a strange man, whom, judging from the accuracy of her father's description - tall, heavy looking man of five and twenty, with a grave and stately air, formal manners, and absurd in the extreme - she determined to be her priestly cousin, Mr Collins.
With pompous nothings did he greet her, fawning over her until she felt to look upon the noisy intervention of her sister with relief, as Lydia set about persuading her to agree to a purchase of lace and bonnet which her pin money, having been spent the day before, could not cover. Gratefully did Elizabeth enter into lecturing her sister about the proper management of her finances before buying just the lace, by which time Mr Collins had run out of breath to speak.
Her desire satisfied, Lydia then pointed out another fascination: a man whom they had never seen before, walking on the other side of the way with Mr Denny. The question of the latter's return from town had been the real object of her desire to walk out, and as they passed, she was very much caught by the stranger with him. "Denny!" she immediately called out.
Jane met and matched Elizabeth's despair at their youngest sibling's lack of propriety, and then she introduced Mr Collins, as they discovered the identity of the stranger. His name was Mr Wickham.
Whether it was from her less than pleasant recollection of her late husband, or something in his manner, Elizabeth could feel from the first that this new acquaintance did not appear to be all that he seemed. He had too much in his favour. All the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address, along with a readiness for conversation. In short, Elizabeth thought him entirely too good to be true.
Just then, the sound of horses drew all their notice. Upon distinguishing their identities the riders drew nearer, and began civilities. It was Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy. The former was the principal speaker, and Miss Bennet the principal object, as he informed them all of his wish to inquire after her well-being as his and his friend's primary reason for being in Meryton that morning.
While they were engrossed in conversation, Elizabeth encountered the eyes of his friend, and therefore was the first and the only to witness the effect upon his countenance that the notice of the new gentleman in town had. Instantly his features paled and his eyes narrowed in emotion, as all of his faculties attempted to rein in the anger that he felt at meeting Mr Wickham once again.
The latter turned red, suddenly at a loss for words. Then he touched his hat, a salutation which Mr Darcy just deigned to return, before clicking his heels to his horse's flanks and resuming his way out of the village.
"I say Darce....... Darcy? What ever is the matter?"
The gentleman addressed slowly came out of his trance and raised his face to meet that of his friend. Mr Bingley gasped at the state of his expression. Never before had he seen him so distraught. The man he saw before him was a mere shadow of the strong, usually so outwardly self-assured friend whom he was proud to have.
Now, Darcy, dismounted and with his back braced against the tree for support, attempted to recover himself. He had no wish for the encounter which he had just endured to affect him so deeply, but the suddenness of the man's appearance had occasioned an unusually strong recollection of the events during his last meeting with him, producing the result which Bingley saw before him. "It is nothing," he tried to deflect.
Ordinarily, Bingley would have let him remain concealed. But this was no ordinary situation. Bingley dismounted from his horse, and stood in front of his friend. His face expressed a silent demand for him to confide the nature of the sorrow that had so suddenly conflicted him. For a moment Darcy hesitated. But only for a moment. Standing up, he remarked, almost in passing. "I never did tell you the reason for my sudden departure last summer, did I?"
"No you did not."
"Well, it was to do with Georgiana, and Mr Wickham."
By the time they had returned to Netherfield, Bingley was just as annoyed as his friend. As they separated in the hall, he bound for his sisters, Darcy for Georgiana, Charles vowed solemnly,"He will never get within a mile of her, not if I have anything to do with it."
"Thank you, my friend." Darcy replied just as solemnly, and with such a look and shake of proffered hand, as to have no doubt of the certainty of that loyal vow.
Georgiana was in the music room, her tall form seated at the pianoforte, her mind focused upon the piece she was presently learning. Darcy hesitated at the door, reluctant to disturb her current happiness. Yet he could not ignore Wickham's presence in the neighbourhood longer than a moment. They had to leave now.
"William?" Georgiana had halted her music, and was now staring at him. "Was there something you wanted to speak to me about?"
"Pack up your things, Georgie," he replied, "we are leaving at once."
"At once?" she queried, coming forward towards him. "Why," she asked, and then added in a very quiet voice, "have I done something wrong?"
Darcy rebuked himself instantly at his choice of manner and words. She was still so sensitive, so fragile, to any change in his emotions. "No, dearest, you have done nothing wrong, never fear that. It is only that I have just learnt of an acquaintance of ours who has just arrived. A man whom you and I wished never to meet with again."
"Oh," she uttered, understanding at once. She turned away from him, walking over to a window, which, her brother mused, seemed to a familial habitual place of retreat. For some minutes did she there stand, uttering several deeply measured breaths in an attempt to regain her composure.
Her brother watched her with ever increasing apprehension. Since his rescue of her last summer, Darcy had doubled his time with her, watching over every manner of her establishment, which he overhauled the moment that they returned from Ramsgate, taking care to fish out any of those who had favoured Mrs Younge.
Even now, months later, he was still reluctant to part from her, still reluctant to place her with a new companion, even though he had taken the liberty of lately choosing such a person to preside over her establishment, on the recommendation of his cousin Colonel Fitzwillam. He still held himself responsible for all that had occurred on that fateful vacation.
"There is no need for concern," his sister remarked suddenly, her face turned from the window towards him. "I shall be fine."
Darcy gazed at her slowly, then walked up to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. "I fear you are copying too much of my habits, Georgie. If you cannot confide in me, be yourself around me, then who else have you to turn to? We have always been honest with each other."
"Thank you," Georgiana smiled up at him, a part of her mask coming away, revealing the great struggle it had taken to say that she would be fine in the presence of Mr Wickham. "It will be hard," she confessed, "but I want to stay, William. There is something here that I would like to see remain unaltered, and continue to grow. I would not want it disrupted on my or...... his account."
"And what is that?"
"Your attachment to a lady who recently stayed here." She paused to look at his reflection in the window for signs that she was right in her suspicions. "I like her very much. And I would like that attachment to continue and increase."
"They have both been deceived, I dare say, in some way or other, of which we can form no idea. Interested people have perhaps misrepresented each to the other. It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side."
"Very true, indeed; and now, my dear Jane," replied her sister, "what have you got to say on behalf of the interested people who have probably been concerned in the business? Do clear them too, or we shall be obliged to think ill of somebody!"
It was the day after an evening spent at the Philipses, where Elizabeth had occupied herself in listening to the supposed sad tales of Mr Wickham, who had chosen to inform her of his history with the Darcy family almost upon the instant of his arrival. She had not believed one word of it, seeing much of her late husband in him, and thus had spent the rest of her time there trying to keep Mr Collins away from herself and her elder sister.
"Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion. My dearest Lizzy, do but consider in what disgraceful light it places Mr Darcy, to be treating his father's favourite in such a manner, one whom his father had promised to provide for."
"My dear Jane, I did not mean for you to believe that I was taken in by him!" Elizabeth quickly assured her sister. "Quite the contrary. I believe every word he says to be a falsehood."
"Good," Jane declared on that. "For it is a slight against Cha... I mean, Mr Bingley, if you believe him so easily imposed upon."
"And by no means," said Elizabeth with a teasing smile upon her features, "would I speak against Mr Bingley's character."
They were interrupted at that moment, and then promptly disturbed from their solitude in the shrubbery at Longbourn, as Mr and Miss Bingley, along with Mr Darcy, had arrived at Longbourn, in order to invite them to a Ball at Netherfield, in six days time.
Elizabeth secured a place opposite the latter gentleman, who had attended with his friend in the hope that the Countess would be there. Quietly, as soon as she could be sure that they were not overheard, she began to him, "I hope the unfortunate encounter two days ago did not make you plan to leave Hertfordshire."
"No it did not," Darcy assured her, touched by her astuteness. "I gather he spoke to you then?"
"Yes, he was invited to my Aunt Philips, and I had the occasion to listen to his conversation, as well as to avoid Mr Collins.”Instinctively she glanced around, happy to see that the priest was with her younger sister, engaged upon a discussion of Fordyce. "He believes himself to be very hard done by due to you."
"Without any foundation," Darcy replied. "If anything, it is I and my sister who were hard done by." He paused, to gaze at her earnestly. "Did you believe him?"
"No," she replied in the same emotion. "He reminded me too much of the Earl. Too good to be true."
He watched her carefully as she slightly flinched after speaking of her late husband. "I know I presume too much, but will you tell me what happened to you one day?"
"Why do you wish to know?" Elizabeth asked.
"So I can ensure that it never happens again,” he vowed.
To such a noble oath, Elizabeth could do naught but blush in reply. Across the room, Mr Bennet happened to look up, and take note of this. With an evaluating raised eyebrow, he surveyed the gentleman. Since the death of the first husband for his favourite daughter, Mr Bennet had made his own vow: to make sure that if she ever wished for a second, that he would make her happy.
For clearly, even if she would not tell him, the first had not. This Mr Darcy, while on an equal scale in terms of fortune and situation to her, may not be in terms of his character. Mr Bennet decided he would find out as much as he could about the gentleman. Only if any of it was good, would he proceed to give his blessing.
Darcy departed from Longbourn in much better spirits than he had been upon arriving there. He was very much relieved that the Countess had not been deceived by his once childhood friend, and the knowledge of this gave him confidence that if Mr Wickham had the presumption to spread the tale around the neighbourhood, it would not be as well received as he had feared it might.
He walked back into Netherfield and sought out his sister, informing her of his success in accomplishing the task of securing the Countess for the first two dances of the evening of the ball. He then left her to her music practice, seating himself before a bureau in the room. Taking out a piece of paper, he wrote to his cousin the following;
Mr Wickham has decided that the army shall be his profession, namely the regiment that has currently settled itself in the vicinity of this place.
Georgiana has not yet encountered him, but there shall be a ball here soon, and as Bingley has issued a general invitation to the officers, I would like it if it is within your power to ensure that Mr Wickham does not have a chance to encounter her.
If you can arrange for him to be transferred to another regiment, or sent to Horseguards, or something else in town on the 26th, I would be very grateful.
His cousin, while having the honour to hold of the rank of Colonel, was widely connected to certain influential people within the army and militia, and could be assured of finding ways to make Wickham's life in the militia extremely difficult. He finished the letter with a summary of events that had happened since their arrival at Netherfield, mentioning his acquaintance with the Countess, but only in brief terms, so as not to incur his cousin's teasing, and then sealed the paper.
As afternoon drifted into evening Elizabeth returned to Stoke Edith, relieved that fate and fortune had conspired to rid her of being Mr Collins's partner for the first two dances of the Netherfield ball. Barely a minute after the Bingleys and Mr Darcy had departed from Longbourn did he wait before asking her.
Not for the first time now, did Elizabeth wonder about his presumption. He seemed to be paying particular interest to her, despite all her attempts to discourage him, both from herself and from Jane. She did not mean to judge him by consequence of her situation in life, but she knew well what other people would think of him.
Nothing could induce her to marry him, for he was by far too ambitious and obsequious for her taste. Could her mother be encouraging him in the matter? Elizabeth did not believe that to be wholly unlikely. She knew her mother's enthusiasm for matchmaking extended to the desire that one of her daughters inherited Longbourn, even if it was only by marriage. And with Jane destined for Mr Bingley, she was the next likely candidate.
When she had married the Earl, her mother boasted of the match far and wide, believing that the family's future was secure, that her other daughters would be thrown into the paths of other rich men by her sister's good fortune, only to despair when the Earl died, leaving Elizabeth a widow, with no children to depend on. Her mother still feared that a distant relative of the Earl's family would suddenly appear to take away all the wealth that her daughter had gained, or that her least favourite daughter would be honoured with all the attentions of available gentlemen, at the expense of her other children, because of the fortune that came with her.
Whereas if she married Mr Collins, her mother believed that the Earl's fortune would remain in the family, and Mr Collins would not trouble himself with throwing her mother out of Longbourn, for he would have other estates at which he and Elizabeth could live, and house her sisters too, so they could be thrown into the paths of rich men. Her mother took care to make sure that Elizabeth would not fail her sisters a second time, by frequently reminding her whenever she visited Longbourn.
For the first time, as she entered the drive of her home, Elizabeth was grateful to have gained something from her late husband. That was the connection, via godson, to her cousin's esteemed patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Such a relationship, she was sure, would secure that Lady's objection to Mr Collins seeking her for his wife. How Mr Collins had remained ignorant of this connection was a mystery, but that Elizabeth intended to enlighten him as soon as possible was a certainty.
When Elizabeth entered the Entrance Hall at Netherfield, all her senses were immediately overwhelmed by a rush of distant memories. Memories that she rather had kept their distance.
The occasion which this present scene before her bore more than a passing similarity to, had been the first and last ball of her marriage, when she had been presented at Court, as the wife of the Earl of Saffron Walden. Even then, she had not known happiness in her marriage. She particularly remembered being grateful to wear long evening gloves, else she would not have been able to hide the red bruise that had encircled her wrist. He had always been careful to make sure no one else noticed the injury, save herself.
Startled so suddenly, Elizabeth could not refrain from flinching, and when she had returned to the present, was sorry for the protective measure. "Forgive me, sir, I had not realised it was you."
"No, no," he replied, as if it did not matter, "I should have spoken more first. But, I see that I am disturbing you, so I shall go."
The hand that had so gently taken hold of her own, now just as gently withdrew, prompting Elizabeth to quickly reassure him. "Mr Darcy, please stay. Your interruption was by no means unwelcome."
He gracefully stepped back to her side. "Then may I be of service to you?" He held out his hand. "May I have the honour of escorting you into the ballroom?"
"You may, indeed, there is nothing that I would like better than to get out of this hallway," she confessed, placing her hand over his arm in the proper fashion.
They followed his friend into the room, for Mr Bingley, upon first sight of his angel, Miss Bennet, could do nothing else but abandon the receiving line and devote himself entirely to her. Darcy's eyes remained upon his companion as they entered, their dark pupils tinged with concern as to the possible nature of her fear at this evening.
He wished more than ever that he was of a position to her as to be a confidant, but sadly he was not. Reluctantly turning his eyes from her, he searched the room, and spied someone who would perhaps suffice.
Elizabeth's features brightened immediately; she had not seen Charlotte for a week. "Charlotte, I have so much to acquaint you with."
Darcy reluctantly released her arm, and then bowed. "I shall leave you to your friend, Countess." He gallantly kissed her hand. "Till the first dance then."
Elizabeth merely nodded, watching him go. Her friend, as soon as he was out of earshot, turned to her with surprise. "I see many things have happened since I saw you last, Elizabeth!"
Her companion blushed. "It is not what you suppose, Charlotte."
"Is it not? Then I wager it soon will be."
Across the room, in attendance upon his sister, Darcy could do naught but rejoice at the sight of the return of the Countess' happy manners once more. Her look of intense preoccupation which he had encountered upon first seeing her, had well-nigh torn his heart. He had wanted to wipe those painful recollections away, and in their place put new, more joyful, ones. But he could not. He was not at liberty to do so. Not yet.
At least Wickham was not at this ball. His timely note to his cousin had done the trick, sending the man away to town, and enabling him to let Georgiana attend her first proper ball, even though she was not yet out. Darcy smiled as he watched her quietly answer a question from one of their companions. He had not the heart to refuse her anything, and she looked so beautiful in her new gown. So grown up. The two words frightened him. He had not thought the years to go by so fast.
The orchestra halted in their playing, and struck up a different tune. Darcy bade his sister and companions farewell, and went back to the Countess.
His choice of dance partner caused many a glance from many a person in the room. All eyes turned as he took up a place in the dancing line and bowed to begin the dance. Three in particular kept their gazes upon the pair throughout the two dances.
The first was Mr Collins. He was not in a good humour this night. Having written to his kind, gracious and most esteemed patroness of his choice for a partner in life some days ago, today he had received the reply. Her ladyship had been most displeased. Unused to incurring her ladyship's wrath, Mr Collins was at quite a loss as to how he should resolve the situation. He was also most ashamed at himself for presuming in the first place.
His most esteemed patroness had been very correct in reprimanding him. He had forgotten his station, the gratitude that he owed to his most gracious patroness. He had thought himself above those things he held most dear. Oh, how grateful he was to her ladyship! Her kindness knew no bounds. In guiding him back on the true course, she had shown that he was still preferred by her as a parson of the Hunsford parish to any other.
Now it was up to him to show that he had paid heed to her advice. The fault had been his and his alone, to think himself worthy of obtaining the Countess of Saffron Walden. She may be his cousin, but she was also, as his dear patroness had pointed out, far above him in terms of her station and rank. Lady Catherine was very particular in her opinion that the distinction of rank must be preserved for the good of the natural order of society.
No, he must choose another. But with this decision came a heavy sacrifice. It meant that he could not fulfil his promise to his late father and secure the olive branch by marrying a Bennet. For all, by relationship to the Countess, were also above him. No, he must look elsewhere.
It was then that Fate intervened once more. A young lady walked passed him, and Mr Collins could not help but be struck by the realisation of her fine looks. Would she fulfil the requirements that his most excellent patroness had instructed him to follow? True she was the daughter of a Knight of the Realm, but she was also the younger daughter, and in no way stood to inherit a fortune. Yes, he believed Miss Maria Lucas would suit his patroness' requirements excellently.
"I believe we must have some conversation, Mr Darcy. A very little will suffice."
"You talk by rule then, while you are dancing?"
"Sometimes. It would look odd to remain entirely silent throughout."
"True," he conceded, and then fell into silence once more until the next turn had brought him opposite her again. "What shall we talk of then?"
"You do not wish to begin the subject yourself?"
"No, whatever you wish me to say should be said."
"Sir, that will not do for a reply, not without doing a great disservice to your character."
"Does it not display a desire to please one's companion?"
"Yes, but it does not follow that the companion would be pleased by such a reply. It would not do for a gentleman to be so always anxious to please a lady. Especially if they had a different opinion than the one professed."
"That still does not argue for the conclusion that I should begin the subject, Madam. Propriety commands that a gentleman always accedes to a lady."
Elizabeth chuckled. "I see that we are at an impasse then, sir. Very well, it is my wish that you would chose a subject."
"I...." Darcy smiled. "You have caught me well, madam."
"Yes," she replied with a laugh, "I believe I did."
It was at this moment that the pair passed the second person who would observe their actions throughout the entirety of the two dances. Mr Bennet had the adept hearing to catch the entirety of his daughter's conversation, as well as the laugh, and the effect that they created within his mind was one of profound curiosity.
This, when taken in conjunction with the other occasion that he had had the opportunity to observe their conversation, could only lead to one conclusion. And it was a conclusion, which, at the moment, concerned him greatly.
He watched them carefully as they continued up the line of dancers, and then back down. His eyes stayed on them as the first finished and the second commenced, even though he could no longer listen to their conversation.
As the dance reached signs of its imminent end, he moved away from his previous position by Mrs Bennet, and into the path of his daughter and Mr Darcy.
"Papa," the former began. "Are you enjoying this evening?"
"Ask me when I have found the way to Mr Bingley's library," Mr Bennet replied to the amusement of all.
"I warn you now, sir," Mr Darcy remarked, "that the place does not have much in the way of books."
"Indeed? I see that we have found another adherent to our cause, Lizzy. The neglect of family libraries is a severe testament against any establishment."
"Though it does not necessarily follow sir, that if one adds to a library that it is to the enjoyment of the said person."
"Too true, too true," Mr Bennet replied. "Are you of that class, Mr Darcy?"
"No, the volumes that I add are those that I like, rather than those society would have me like."
"Such as?" Mr Bennet asked, his estimation of Mr Darcy rising. The gentlemen named those volumes that he had lately added, causing Mr Bennet to raise his eyebrow at the varied nature, quantity and expense. Clearly, the upkeep of a library was very important to this gentleman.
Choosing one from among the many, he asked for his view on the author's latest work. Mr Darcy replied with a succinct but sound judgement, and they continued on the same vein until his daughter parted from them to talk Jane. This event evoked a change in his companion.
"Sir," began Mr Darcy, when he had answered the last question, "I believe you have now successfully sought out all my opinions on the latest authors, those of ages past, and those whose works are considered timeless. May I ask as to where these questions tend?"
"Very good, Mr Darcy," Mr Bennet replied with a smile, "you have seen through my disguise. In short, they tend in a quest to establish your character."
"You believe one's character can be defined by one's library?"
"Without fail. One will not read books where there is no character that one cannot identify with at some point. They define so very well the reader's sense of morals, values and character."
"And have you achieved success?"
"I believe I have only one more question to ask. What are your intentions to my daughter Elizabeth?"
Despite having expected such a inquiry, Darcy was nonetheless surprised by its occurrence at this time. Mr Bennet was obviously a very astute man, to have figured him out so early on. Solemnly he faced his companion, and replied in tones of the greatest gravity. "Only those of the most honourable nature, sir."
Mr Bennet revealed nothing of a reaction in his features. "You'll do, you'll do," was all he remarked.
"I need not ask how you are enjoying this evening so far, dear Jane; it is clearly answered by the sweet complacency and happy glow that I see within your expression. Dare I presume to determine the source?"
Jane blushed as she saw her sister's gaze turn in the direction of Mr Bingley. "Indeed," she confessed, "he has been very attentive all evening."
"And why would he be otherwise," Elizabeth remarked, determined to raise her sister's modest hopes a little higher. "Perhaps he is imagining how his next ball might be, and who might be beside him?"
"No indeed, Jane, you may believe me. I have said it before, and I shall say it again. No one who has seen you and Bingley together can doubt his affections."
"Miss Bennet, Countess," cried a different voice at that moment, as the orange figure of Miss Bingley swept into the place where they were standing. "I have not spoken to you at all this evening. I must rectify such neglect immediately."
"I'm sure your brother has already done that, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth replied while her sister blushed again.
"Humph," was all that Miss Bingley muttered to that. "Charles has been so generous with his invitations. Did you know that he gave an open one for all of the officers in Colonel Forster's militia?"
"No, I did not," Elizabeth replied. "But then I have not been much in their company since their arrival."
"Oh," Miss Bingley answered, most displeased with that reply. She had been hoping for a quite a different response. "Do excuse me," she added, "I must check that enough white soup has been laid out."
Caroline walked away, with disgust barely held in check from her features. She was the third person who had watched Mr Darcy dance with the Countess, a move which had caused her afterwards more than a little ill humour. She had thought everything to be going according to plan.
The groundwork of her attack had been so carefully mapped out, so meticulously timed. How it had gone so completely wrong she knew not. She was sure that Mr Wickham, with his background in Darcy family history, would be successful in parting the Countess from him, leaving Caroline free to continue her quest of becoming the next mistress of Pemberley.
Instead, however, as she had just learnt, not only had the Countess not become Mr Wickham's staunch defender, but the man had not even attended the ball! Caroline could not account as to how this could be. She had insured that her brother would leave an open invitation to the officers. What was the man's excuse?
Well, there was only one way to find out, even though she loathed to sink to such a level. Quickly, she sought out Captain Denny.
Five minutes of conversation later, and she had ascertained her answer. Mr Wickham had been obliged to pay a call on a Colonel in town, and carry a message back to Meryton for his commanding officer. And the name of that Colonel was Richard Fitzwilliam.
Caroline Bingley was no fool. She knew perfectly well now who had initiated Mr Wickham's absence from the ball. And his identity annoyed her no end! How dare Mr Darcy choose to foil her plans so excellently! He was supposed to be of the same mind as her about the Countess!
She stood in a corner of the room and fumed. It was something she was most talented in, and therefore her fuming lasted a very long time. Eventually, she was obliged to sit down and return to the supper. Still fuming, she ate the white soup in chilling silence. The footmen who came to move the empty bowls away, shied rapidly from her thunderous glare, which did nothing to compliment the shade of her gown.
At the end of the second course however, Caroline realised that all was not lost. She still had two methods of attack which had yet to be attempted. And now was the perfect occasion to put them into action. Raising her glass to her lips, she murmured, "Shall we not have some music?"
As if on cue Mr Bingley rose from his chair and announced to the room at large; "shall we not have some music? Caroline, can we persuade you?"
Miss Bingley lingered in her chair. Normally she would have been most happy to accede to her brother's request, but at this moment, she wished for someone else to play. And that someone was seating herself at the piano right now. A minute later, and Caroline smiled. Miss Mary Bennet was exactly who she had wished for. Dramatically, she swept out of her chair and walked to the end of the room.
Halfway down, she stopped, alighting upon her other prey. "Miss Lydia," she began in tones of the most saccharine, "your wine glass is empty. Let me get you another."
"Caroline, what on earth did you mean in plying Miss Lydia with so much wine all evening? Did you intend for the ball to be ruined so?"
Miss Bingley made no form whatsoever of a reply to her sister. Truth be known she was now as dissatisfied as Louisa about how the ball had turned out. She had meant for Lydia's move to grab a sword and be chased around by an officer to be noticed by only two people, not the entire invited population of the ball! What was more, and what was far worse, the very two people she had intended the incident to be noticed by, did not notice it at all! Instead, they had gazed at each other all night.
A knock sounded, breaking the temporary silence of the room. Mrs Hurst bade whoever it was to come in. "The Countess of Saffron Walden and Miss Bennet are here to see you all, ma'am," spoke a footman.
Miss Bingley snorted and sent a look of disapproval to the servant. "Fosset, how many times have I told you not to call me Ma'am. I am Miss Bingley, not a spinster!"
"Yes, Miss Bingley. Sorry Miss Bingley," Fosset replied, before backing out to let the visitors in, so he could return to the peace of the kitchens, and the kind company of the housekeeper.
As Mrs Hurst greeted the visitors, Caroline resumed her seat with the look of annoyance still displayed upon her features. After all that she had attempted in vain yesterday, the arrival of the very two people she wanted never to see again was naturally most distressing. So focused upon brooding as she was, she almost missed her sister's first words of conversation.
"I am afraid it is only we ladies who are in the house today," Louisa began, "for Charles and Mr Darcy have gone to London on business."
Miss Bingley concealed a smug smile. She had nearly forgotten that piece of news. Partly because Charles had chosen to announce to all the nature of said business just before he had left. Said nature had also left her in a fuming state. Still, Miss Bennet did not yet know the nature, and if Miss Bingley had her way, as she was determined to do so, Miss Bennet would never find out.
"Yes, we know," the Countess replied with a small smile. "Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy informed us of their short absence last night."
"Short?" Miss Bingley repeated in perfect wide eyed innocence. "I never heard anything from Charles as towards the length of his stay. Did you Louisa?"
"No," Louisa answered with perfect understanding of her sister's intent. "I do not believe I did either, Caroline."
"That is most strange," a voice suddenly commented, her innocence from a source of perfect truthfulness, "for I am sure that I was in the room with you all at the time, and I heard your brother say that he would be back within a day or two."
Caroline put her cup of tea rather noisily back down on the tray nearby and almost glared at the speaker. She had forgotten Miss Darcy was with them. Her last minute attempt at rescuing the damage of last night would have to be ditched.
At least for now.
Georgiana did not return to the Drawing room after the departure of the Countess and her sister. Instead she slowed down her walk, and watched Miss Bingley make her way to the room that she used for her correspondence.
Catching the door before it could be locked, Georgiana pressed the small, almost unnoticeable dent in the wood. Carefully she slipped inside the little passageway that lay in between the room and the hallway. She and Darcy had discovered these passages when Bingley had showed them the estate plans.
The house had once been owned by Catholic sympathisers in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and the passages for accessing the priest holes had remained unchanged by time. She pressed forward, watching the movements of Miss Bingley's hand, which could be clearly seen from the small hole in the wall in front of her.
Some minutes passed before Miss Bingley exited the room, leaving Georgiana able to slip out of the second exit for the priest hole. The remains of the letter that had been written were quite detectable upon the blotter. Miss Darcy only had to read a few words before the import of it became clear to her.
Instantly she left the room and went to her own upon the first floor. By the window lay her very own Davenport, her last birthday gift from her brother. She seated herself in the chair, laying out the necessary materials for a letter of her own.
Miss Bingley was not going to stop Mr Bingley from obtaining happiness. Miss Darcy would see to that.
"Sir, there is an express waiting for you."
"Thank you Guildford." Darcy took the paper from the footman and watched him depart. Then he turned over the letter to see if he could discern the identity of the author. A second was all that he needed to do so. The name of the sender shocked him to the core. He remembered the last time he had been sent an express from Georgiana; Ramsgate, last summer. Hardly caring for the presence of his friend, Darcy ripped apart the seal and read the information contained within.
His first act afterwards was to sink into a chair and breathe a loud sigh of absolute utter relief. His second was to read the express again. Then, without a word of explanation, he handed the paper over to his friend.
Mr Bingley needed to read the letter three times before he could take any of it in. "How could she do this?" He cried aloud. "My own sister would wish me to sacrifice all my hopes of happiness in favour of a wealthy marriage?"
Darcy merely glanced sympathetically at his friend. They had only just returned to his house in town, having been out most of the morning they had arrived. Bingley had wanted his second and impartial opinion on something, and upon hearing what that something was, Darcy had been only too happy to comply. Now he steepled his fingers together and calmly remarked, "Who is to say that Miss Bennet is not a good match?"
"Certainly not me, Darcy!" Bingley cried, still astonished by the scheming of his sister. "And I did not mean to imply that I believe the opposite."
"Neither did I, Charles," his friend replied, dropping formality to assure him of the seriousness of his point. "I merely wished to point out that your sister does not possess the full facts concerning the nature of Miss Bennet's connections and fortune."
"No, she doesn't," Mr Bingley agreed, "but I still do not see how such knowledge would make her not want me to marry dear Jane!" He sat down opposite his friend. "I understand from Jane herself that she will only inherit a share of five thousand pounds upon the demise of her father and her mother."
"That is not entirely true," Darcy continued. "After the Countess' husband passed away, he left everything to her. She in turn helped to raise a further three thousand per annum on her father's estate, and promised each of her sisters thirty thousand either when they married or when they had reached the age of five and twenty."
"How do you know of this?" Mr Bingley asked, mystified.
"Mr Bennet told me so last night." After the man had announced his judgement upon him, they had talked further while the Countess had been with her sister. During this conversation Darcy had learned many things about the woman he was fast supposing himself to be in love with, and he had fallen even more deeply for her as a result.
"Mr Bennet told you...." Bingley trailed off in incomprehension. "You find the oddest things to talk about with everyone, Darcy!"
His friend merely shrugged his shoulders before getting up and moving to gaze out the window. Charles observed him with the slow dawning of realisation. "And just why did Mr Bennet seek to discuss his second daughter with you?"
His friend did not move from the window. "No reason."
"Really?" Bingley uttered in a tone that implied he knew exactly what the reason could be, and did not need to voice the notion, for his friend would understand that he knew what he knew. Laying the express from Miss Darcy on the desk, Charles leaned back in the armchair, and returned to their original topic. "We shall return to Netherfield tomorrow. Where I intend to give Caroline a lecture that she will not forget!"
Elizabeth laid aside her book and raised her eyes to the window. Gazing out at the prospect of Stoke Edith's grounds, she silently reflected on all that had happened since she had left the house the night before, for the Netherfield Ball. She blushed as the nature of her first recollection came foremost to her mind; that of her dances with Mr Darcy.
Indeed, apart from that time he had spent with her father, and she with her sister, he had scarcely left her side the entire evening. Other than the dances however, they had rarely been alone. After he had escorted her into the supper, they had been joined by his sister, then eventually Jane and Mr Bingley.
Dividing her time between observing the actions of the latter duo and coaxing Miss Darcy into greater confidence to talk, Elizabeth had only heard of her younger sister's incident with a sword afterwards, when she had travelled with her father- who had wished for the silence of her carriage over the noise of his -to Longbourn.
Thanks to his keen observation, Elizabeth had learnt the cause of her sister's antics as well, which was why she had stayed at Longbourn overnight once more, and accompanied her sister to Netherfield the next morning. Unlike herself Jane was too good a person to suspect anyone of guile, and if she had not been with her, Elizabeth had feared her returning with the belief that Mr Bingley would never return to Netherfield, despite his professing the contrary to both of them the night before.
Elizabeth sighed. She wished her sister much happiness in what she knew with almost complete certainty was to come, but she also knew what Jane would wish for her in return. And Elizabeth, as much as she would like to please her sister, did not believe she was ready for any thing of that nature. Furthermore, she doubted that she would be ready for quite some time.
"No, Caroline, I have had quite enough. You will leave this house at once."
"I still do not see why. What have I done wrong my dear brother?"
Bingley stared at her in astonishment. "'Dear brother,'" he repeated, pacing the room, "if you really thought that of me you would not choose to separate me from the woman whom I love. What is it about Miss Bennet that you do not like? She has beauty, both in looks and character, and she has better prospects than we were aware of. What fault did you find that caused you to ruin the ball and forge my handwriting in order to make Miss Bennet believe I was never returning to the neighbourhood ever again?"
Caroline made no answer. She could not. She was still feeling bitter about the way everything had gone this morning. All had been planned, all worked out, for her and the rest of the occupants at Netherfield to be in London by the afternoon. The only difficulty she had foreseen was in persuading Miss Darcy to join herself and the Hursts.
Never for a moment had she expected her brother to return so early! The sight of him catching her in the Entrance Hall, with all her bags behind her, and in her travelling clothes was one that she was not liable to forget very soon.
What was worse, what was far worse, was that Mr Darcy was standing directly behind him when they had returned, with a completely unrestricted view. Scarcely had she been able to collect her composure to formulate a greeting and explanation, when, without any warning, her brother had taken her arm and almost dragged her into the drawing room.
From that moment on, things had gone from bad to worse. Not only was he already aware of her schemes, but he had also discovered her forged letter in his handwriting to the attorney who managed Netherfield for its owners; Mr Philips, with the instructions to let the place once more.
Caroline had no idea as to how he had found out about that. She had been utterly alone when she had written the letter, and was to send it off the moment the carriage left via Meryton's main road. Her brother's discovery in combination with his early return from town now prevented this letter from ever going out. And left Caroline pleading to remain in the neighbourhood, a circumstance which she most detested.
But Charles had not yet finished speaking. "And, not only do you have the presumption to write to Netherfield's attorney, but you also write to Miss Bennet, giving her the impression that I will never return here, and that I will soon attach myself to Miss Darcy!"
"Oh," Caroline spoke, feeling that she could not stay silent any longer, "you found out about that?"
"Yes, I did." Her brother paused, coming to a decision. "I now ask that you leave this house at once. I can no longer bear your company with the ease of a proper brother. You will go with the Hursts to town, and stay at their house. And you will not return to my company until you can conduct yourself in a rational manner."
And with that Charles Bingley walked out of the room, slamming the door. Within minutes he was astride a horse and on his way to Longbourn.
Three miles away, another house was also in uproar. And the wife of its owner was the origin of it all.
Mrs Bennet, thinking nothing of the impropriety of reading another person's correspondence, and knowing the identity of the sender, had opened the now infamous letter from Miss Caroline Bingley to Miss Bennet, and was thus the first person to react to the false - though unbeknownst to her - news that Netherfield was deserted once more. The state of her emotions, of one who had planned so much for her daughter, were naturally in turmoil. Instantly could her voice be heard all over the house, as she cried aloud her distress at their departure.
By the time Jane had emerged for breakfast, the entirety of the news was already known to her, and, with all that was good in her character, to think well of any and all she knew, she now began to doubt Mr Bingley's word that he would be back from town as soon as he was able.
So she remained silent while her mother declared her now firm belief that they were all doomed to be turned out of the house and into the hedgerows by Mr Collins, with only the kindness of her dear daughter Lizzy to depend upon for comfort.
It was perhaps just as well then that while Mr Bingley galloped across the countryside to the place, that the person he was in search of would meet him along the way. All the time it had taken to conclude the morning repast was all the time that Jane had needed to realise that she could not survive the rest of the day unaffected without seeking the solitude and tranquillity of the surrounding countryside.
She and Elizabeth- who had just arrived at the estate -had set out from the house the moment her meal was over, in the midst of wailing from their mother, as she continued to believe in the ruin of her dear girls now that Mr Bingley was gone from the neighbourhood.
Neither Elizabeth nor Jane had spoken a word since their exit from the house, both content to merely enjoy the calming influence of the grounds as they made their way out of Longbourn and into the fields that bordered their father's estate, separating it from Netherfield and others.
Indeed, as they had just passed over a mile in this manner, there was no longer any need to fret or doubt themselves or others with the news they had received that morning. For a horse carrying the object of them came into their sights.
As he was by no means deficient in any way to his friend, Mr Bingley had noticed the identity of the two young ladies in his path almost immediately, and had at once brought his horse to a halt and dismounted with all the showmanship of an excellent rider. "Countess, Miss Bennet," he cried aloud in greeting.
Jane blushed prettily in surprise, leaving her sister to make up for a reply. "Mr Bingley," Elizabeth began, "we did not expect to see you. Your sister informed Jane that you had all left for London."
The gentleman seemed to pale slightly then, his appearance losing some of its joviality. "Yes, I assure you, it as much as a surprise to myself as I am sure it was a surprise to you. But merely a misunderstanding on my sister's side, which I have now remedied. Lady Saffron Walden," he suddenly began in a entirely different tone, "would you be so kind as to bestow me a few minutes alone with your sister?"
Elizabeth smiled, now possessing a fair idea as to what was going to happen next. "Of course," she replied, moving away, back down the path, until only their outlines could be seen.
Mr Bingley turned to his remaining companion. "Miss Bennet," he began, in a voice etched in nervousness and hope, "though loathe I was to leave this place, I had realised that there was something I needed to fetch from town, which, if you did me the honour of accepting it, would make this stay in Hertfordshire the happiest moment of my life."
He reached into his pocket and brought the object out. Dropping to one knee, he opened his fist so it rested upon his flat palm for her to see. "I have been in love before, but never have I felt it so powerfully, so deeply, with the expectation for it to be permanent, until I laid eyes on you. From the moment that we parted at the ball, I knew that I never wanted us to part from each other ever again. Miss Bennet, Jane, will you marry me?"
Jane had quietly gasped when he had opened his hand to reveal the gold band, graced by a single large specimen of her favourite gemstone, of which she knew not how he had obtained such intelligence. Now she was smiling as he finished speaking, her answer already long known to herself, and only had to be made known to him. "Yes, I believe I will."
Mr Bingley felt himself truly smile for the first time that day. He rose from his knee, placed the ring upon her finger, then clasped her hands in his own in pure joy. "Dearest Jane," he uttered aloud, the two words managing to convey all his sentiments. "You have no idea how happy you have made me."
"Oh I think I do," she replied softly, "for you have made me feel the same."
The moment Elizabeth had descried the figure of the gentleman moving to kneel down, she had turned away, feeling her sister needed this moment to be private, as did every man and woman when confronted with such a happy conclusion of a courting, particularly one that had never defined itself as such aloud to anyone.
All her sisterly generosity had awakened; she could not be happier for Jane. She had no desire to draw any comparison to her own proposal of marriage, not wanting to sour the moment of joy. All her emotions of that nature, were felt with such a sincerity, warmth, a delight, which words could but poorly express. Every goodly sentiment possessed too much of an inadequacy to properly suffice as a fitting description of the occasion.
She also knew instantly that Jane would be happy. With such a disposition that her sister held, it was impossible to be otherwise. Her good nature so well complemented that merriment of her suitor, giving every impression that their future would be filled with perfect contentment and tranquillity.
Elizabeth smiled as she imagined it all, knowing her dreams for her sister could never quite match the reality, but certainly would not be a contradiction of it. Everything that she had hoped for herself upon such an occasion, Elizabeth now hoped for her sister.
And by far her most fervent prayer, was that all the unhappiness she had experienced in her marriage, would never exist in Jane's.
It is a truth sometimes universally acknowledged that in a small village, news travels fast. That, due to size and population, those who live there are in such a way as to be almost intimately acquainted and connected to each other's needs, wants, problems, and all other forms of everyday life. Nearly inevitably there often arises competition between persons that are of, or are in the same situation in life; with little consequence to the difference of their monetary worth in general.
Meryton was no exception to this rule. Its population contained rather a surplus of small, middle-aged, married, gentlemen, landowners perhaps, which is why it often had a tendency to make a fool of itself over any young, single, handsome, rich gentlemen who came to stay in the neighbourhood for a time.
Following that other universal truth, all the wives of said small gentlemen landowners assumed that the new arrival- or indeed, if they were lucky, arrivals -must be in a want of a wife, and tried with their daughters to answer that need accordingly. And when one mother succeeded, she felt to be rightly justified in the frequent talk and display of that news, wherever she happened to go.
In this case the latter task fell upon Mrs Bennet, a woman who, once acquainted with the news, felt that there was no other who deserved such reward. She had always believed her eldest was destined for great things, and now she had been proved correct, in the form of her future son in law, Mr Bingley.
She had accomplished what no one else had in this village, by gaining an Earl and a man of five thousand pounds a year for a son! Mrs Long could no longer gloat about her dear Emily's hopes of marriage. Nor could Lady Lucas about her husband's not so recent ennoblement. Mrs Bennet had outdone them all by far with Mr Bingley. She had another daughter engaged! And at just three and twenty!
This news had set her into quite a flutter. Gone was the despair of the early morning, completely forgotten by this happiness that had now beset her this midday. Now was the time for a walk about the neighbourhood, to visit her great friends: her sister Philips, Lady Lucas and Mrs Long. To then persuade Mr Bennet that a trip to London for wedding clothes was entirely necessary. But above all to talk as often as she could of her daughter's good fortune.
Evening came to what was to everyone else but Mrs Bennet already a long day, and with it an evening at Lucas Lodge, to which the gentlemen and remaining lady from Netherfield would also be invited. Mrs Bennet entered the room with one of the latter, her future son in law, along with her dear Jane, and dear Elizabeth not far behind. She had now two great ladies of society for daughters, something that no one else in the village had ever achieved, and, if she had her way with the other three, never would.
What Jane and Elizabeth felt about all this, would not be too difficult to imagine. Both had witnessed it all before nearly three years ago, when the latter's engagement had been announced to Longbourn, another item that Mrs Bennet was also determined to bring up as often as she could this evening, along with the vast fortune that Elizabeth was in sole possession of.
They dealt with the matter in their normal way. As soon as they had arrived, they sat with Mrs Bennet and Lady Lucas for a few minutes, while their mother delivered the news in full. Then, as soon as she was quite engaged, they would move quietly away to another part of the room, where they could be assured of passing the time in a peaceful and more agreeable fashion.
It was here, in the quiet corner of the drawing room, that Miss Darcy, and soon afterwards her brother, joined the trio of Elizabeth, Jane and Mr Bingley. So happy was she that her plan had gone so well, Georgiana's usual shyness disappeared, and she eagerly related to all how she had discovered Miss Bingley's scheme, and what measures she had taken to put the matter to rights for the happiness of all concerned. It was the most animated that her brother had ever seen her, and he observed her interaction with the greatest of sibling pride.
Elizabeth observed the look, a tumult of emotions passing through her mind as she did so. Maybe it was the situation, maybe it was the room, maybe it was length of the day, maybe it was the news of her sister's happy event. Whatever it was, she suddenly felt unable to deny to herself that he was having an effect on her any longer.
She could not argue that he was not a handsome man. Nor could she ignore his other qualities, and how much they appealed to her, in a way no other gentleman had before. His manner, though reserved, was friendly and engaging. His intelligence befitted his situation in life, as widely experienced and informed, displayed by every opinion that he expressed, and every cause he argued for in gentle debate.
His loyalty to his friends and sibling was second to none. In short, Elizabeth could not recollect any other who was his equal, her late husband being far down that sort of list. He only had to, as her father would say, produce an excellent library, and he would answer her needs to be a companion for life.
It seemed most sudden to think these thoughts, and indeed Elizabeth felt that, had it not been for one thing, they would never have occurred to her during the course of this evening. And that was her realisation of his interest in her. It had only taken one look, one sudden meeting of eyes, and there it was. The interest lay bare before her.
Unforced, unsought, yet deeply held, and showing no sign of fading away. Instantly, she knew her mind about it. She did not fear it, as she had expected to fear any man taking an interest in her since the death of her husband. Nor did she find it unwelcome.
To her surprise, she felt able to return it, if not as deeply, and not of the same foundation, but able to return it nonetheless. Never before had she entertained the possibility of ever marrying again, too fearful of it turning out like her first, until now. Before her previous fears could override control of her actions again, she looked up again, met his eyes once more, and tentatively returned the expression he had sent her.
Darcy saw the response, and his heart rejoiced inside.
Mrs Bennet was now on a mission. Having secured one of her girls for the new tenant of Netherfield Hall, she felt that her next task would be to secure the passing of Longbourn. As disgusting as it was to her, the idea of Mr Collins soon inheriting the property when her dear husband had gone, Mrs Bennet felt that her nerves would cope better if one of her daughters was left to look after the place as well.
Jane was already taken, Elizabeth too much a grand lady of the land to be tied to a country parson, especially after being the wife of an Earl. Lydia, while being her favourite child, was too young, and Kitty, not set for a quiet country life. So it was Mary whom she felt would best suit Mr Collins, having a preference for religion already built into her reading tastes.
Believing herself to be a messenger of the best advice for Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet informed the man of her 'wisdom' the next morning, after the occupants of the house had broken up from breakfast. She conducted the conversation in her usual style, underlying the wishes that he had stated in his original letter to her husband, about establishing a proper olive branch. She then exited the room, and went to locate the daughter in question.
Mr Collins received her words with mixed feelings. He felt obligated to his most kind hostess, and therefore would ask the question she proposed, but he did not want the answer in any way to be a positive one. He felt that cousin Mary, while indeed excellently informed on all matter of religion and its way of life, did not complement him.
Nor did she answer to all his most esteemed patroness' advice about who and what his wife should be. He felt terribly torn concerning the matter, but also unable to disobey her Ladyship, whose bounteous generosity had done too much for him to be able to ignore her most recent words of advice.
Fortunately for Mr Collins and perhaps fortunately for the young woman as well, Mary did not want to marry him either. It was nothing to do with any dislike for Mr Collins, or his situation, or even his esteemed patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. No, her reasons were far more personal.
Sometime ago, she had decided that a life in the world was not to her liking, and therefore had chosen to prepare herself for one that never permitted the outside world to influence it. In other words, she was to take the veil, as soon as she had sufficient funds with which to travel to her chosen nunnery. She was unaware that Elizabeth had settled a sizeable dowry upon all her sisters, for Elizabeth and Mr Bennet had agreed that her sisters would remain ignorant of their good fortune until they came of age, or accepted an offer of marriage. Both were in agreement that if her sisters were informed of their considerable dowries, Mrs Bennet would learn of them and boast of their eligibility far and wide, exposing them to fortune hunters and other scoundrels, whilst the behaviour of Kitty and Lydia would become so far unchecked as to reach beyond the point of amendment.
Mr Collins, infinitely happy that his lack of enthusiasm and words of affection had not injured his dear cousin in any way, parted from her with the best of terms. He quite admired her for choosing such a way of life, one that, had he not familial responsibilities to fulfil, he might have chosen himself.
So highly did he hold her choice, that he felt no fear about informing her mother of it, when he met her outside the room, and answered to her enquiries about how the proposal had gone.
Mrs Bennet, upon receiving such a piece of unexpected news, might be justified in failing to notice Mr Collins' next actions. Her dreams she felt had been shattered by a selfish daughter, who needed telling so, before she fell back on another plan, which was to offer Kitty or even Lydia to him instead.
So too busy was she in the task of lecturing her daughter, to witness Mr Collins leaving the house soon after their encounter, and returning just before the evening meal.
When Elizabeth came to the house the next day, she found it in a worse state than when they had being mistakenly informed of Mr Bingley's departure. Stalling at the front door, she turned to see her father, framed in the window of his study, put down his book, and motion her with his hand to see him first. Five minutes later, and Elizabeth was acquainted with the full facts of the latest matter to trouble her mother's nerves.
"I cannot say I am surprised either," Mr Bennet remarked after he had listened to his favourite's reaction. "I always felt that Mary's interest in religion would make any other form of life feel unnatural to her, but I did believe that out of all my daughters, she would be the one most able to handle Mr Collins, though I would have preferred you or Jane to inherit the house after me. Oh, only if I could take away the entailment, otherwise I would never have to imagine forcing either of you on to the man."
"So, who do you think Mr Collins will now choose?" Elizabeth asked.
"Do you not mean who Mrs Bennet will now choose for him?" Mr Bennet countered with a chuckle. "No, Lizzy, I agree. Mr Collins is too concerned with the advice of his patroness to obey Mrs Bennet and ask another of my children instead, not that any will say yes though. No, I think she will have to face the very real possibility of nobody once connected to the name of Bennet inheriting Longbourn."
Indeed, it was as if he had spoken prophecy, for not long after making this remark, Mr Bennet admitted another arrival to his study, for his daughter within. It was Charlotte Lucas, and her reason for coming, was soon very clear.
Mr Collins apparently, when leaving Longbourn after the proposal to Mary the day before, had gone to Lucas Lodge, and with what reason for visiting, no one but himself had known, save expected. He intended, as he announced to all present upon his arrival, to ask Miss Maria to be his wife.
After first laughing at the very idea, the young lady in question had been shocked beyond words to discover that he was actually serious. Fortunately for Mr Collins, Lady Lucas and Sir William had taken him at his first attempt. Never had it occurred to them that their daughter might not be so willing.
A a vigorous debate followed, with the intended lady on one side, her parents and intended on the other, and Charlotte wisely choosing to keep silent in between.
It had remained unresolved when Mr Collins, with the greatest reluctance, had returned to Longbourn for dinner, but was now, as Charlotte informed Elizabeth and Mr Bennet, happily concluded in Mr Collins' favour.
"As you may imagine, Lizzy," Charlotte began after she had informed the prospective groom, and she and the Countess had escaped the house, "the conclusion was not reached with any show of willingness on Maria's side."
"Yes," Elizabeth replied, "I can well imagine that. But why were Lady Lucas and Sir William so eager for her to agree, if you will forgive me for inquiring?"
"I forgive you," Charlotte assured. "Indeed, I am glad to be able to confide in someone. It was not due to a desire for Longbourn. No, it was more to do with their belief that she best accept this proposal, rather than wait for the hope of one to come later in her life. Maria had wanted to refuse from the onset, and it was only after a great deal of..... persuasion shall I say, that she actually....."
"Became resigned to the match?" Elizabeth finished.
"Yes, I am afraid so. I would have happily taken her place, but Mr Collins was insistent about her, and so it was decided this morning. And it is not as if there is anything intolerable about his situation in life. He is not vicious, and I am sure there many things to enjoy in Hunsford."
Elizabeth, knowing that her opinion differed entirely from Miss Lucas', chose to refrain from remarking anything further upon the subject with her.
She parted from Charlotte awhile later, and returned to her father's house, where she found Jane just returned from Netherfield, where she had been to talk with the housekeeper upon the future joint management of the household.
Securing her arm before she stepped inside, Elizabeth led her away to walk among the grounds and told her the whole. Jane was surprised by the match, and just as astonished to listen to Elizabeth's view on the meaning behind Charlotte's restrained words on the subject.
Marriages where one or either party was unwilling to enter for any other reason than familial duty, were not uncommon in their world, but nor were they a thing that Elizabeth or Jane had encountered frequently.
Neither had thought it possible for Sir William and Lady Lucas to force one of their children into marrying, yet there was no denying that it had now occurred, as the nerves of their mother could clearly be heard expressing themselves through the closed windows and walls of the house.
She did not want to accept the reality of it yet.
When the news of the union between Maria Lucas and Mr Collins was entered into the local broadsheet and the national papers, its future reality could no longer be ignored by those who most wished it a dream, putting an end to all doubts upon the subject.
Mrs Bennet was by far- save perhaps the future Mrs Collins -the worst mourner upon this, and thus in a most pitiable state. The very mention of anything concerning the match threw her into an agony of ill-humour, and wherever she went she was sure of hearing it much talked of.
The sight of Miss Maria Lucas was odious to her. As her successor in that house, she regarded her with jealous abhorrence. Whenever Lady Lucas and her second daughter came to see them, she concluded her to be anticipating the hour of her possession.
Whenever the former spoke in a low voice to Mr Collins, Mrs Bennet was convinced that they were talking of the Longbourn estate - which was somewhat larger than Lucas Lodge -and resolving to turn herand her daughters out of the house, as soon as Mr Bennet was dead.
After a fortnight spent complaining bitterly about the match to any who would listen, Mrs Bennet resolved to hope for better things. After all, Mr Collins was not an enviable prize when compared to Mr Bingley and his five thousand a year.
His position in her mind was lowered even further when she considered the vast estate her dear daughter Lizzy had to call home, and who would surely provide a house suitable for her sisters and mother when Mr Bennet was dead to spend the rest of their lives within.
Stoke Edith might do, if the drawing rooms were larger. Or the house in Kent, from where she would not be so subjected to the sight of Mr Collins owning Longbourn. One of the houses in town would also suit, though not the one with the dreadful attics.
Thus, by the time the winter festivities drew near, Mrs Bennet was returned to her usual self. Whenever Lady Lucas mentioned Mr Collins, she would counter with Mr Bingley and the Countess of Saffron Walden, and there would be an end to the matter. She was therefore able to greet her brother Gardiner with tolerable equanimity.
Mr and Mrs Edward Gardiner had come to spend the winter festival with the rest of their family, and arrived at Stoke Edith on the twenty-third of that twelfth month. Mrs Gardiner, being several years younger than both her sisters in law, was a great favourite with her eldest nieces, who had frequently stayed with them at Gracechurch Street.
A perceptive, intelligent woman, she was perhaps the first and only one to notice Elizabeth's dissatisfaction with her marriage, and was gratified to see the girl much happier now that it was safely behind her. So after a long satisfying talk between the two ladies, she, along with her husband and children, stowed their belongings at Stoke, and, with the latter abed, left for Longbourn with Elizabeth to greet the rest of the Bennets.
After distributing the presents, describing the latest fashions, then listening to Mrs Bennet's woes over Mary, Mr Collins, Miss Maria Lucas and Lady Lucas, as well as her joy over Mr Bingley and Jane, Mrs Gardiner was at last able to meet this infamous gentleman and his friends, who were once again spending the evening at Longbourn.
They were in the conversation and company of Jane and Elizabeth, a scene which, upon first encountering it, intrigued Mrs Gardiner greatly. Between Mr Bingley and Jane she saw much to be glad over, so easily detectable was their mutual happiness to her.
Then her keen eyes settled upon his friend. She who had once been a native of Derbyshire, had heard much of the illustrious family which lived not five miles from her birthplace, though she had never met them, having not originated from the same circle.
Of the young Mr Darcy, she had not heard much, having been in London by the time he became master of all the family's estates, but she could confidently recall him being mentioned as a fine boy, a proud example of the name, and his sister equally a sweet natured girl.
Now, as she observed them for the first time, she was able to perceive what only perhaps Mr Bennet had seen; a mutual affection between the gentleman and her niece Elizabeth. Without consulting either one of them, she could easily observe that Mr Darcy held a deep devotion for her niece, and, quite unexpectedly, Elizabeth was beginning to return it.
Mrs Gardiner made her way over to them, noticing the manners of the gentlemen as they respectfully stood, and watched her second niece carefully as she made the introductions. The conversation had no time to acquire stilted tones, for as soon as she had sat down, Elizabeth explained her Aunt's connection to the town of Lambton, a piece of information not lost upon anyone.
The Darcys immediately became alive, the gentleman first responding, the lady following, and soon Mrs Gardiner found herself in delightful recollection with them over the life and persons who had lived or still continued to do so in the village which bordered Pemberley.
With happy acknowledgement she confirmed the fine chestnut tree that stood outside the smithy, which Mr Darcy confessed running down to each day when he was a young boy. Soon she felt able to admit that nothing but the best compliments had been used to describe his late father and the estate, and Darcy was able to detect the wistfulness in her voice which conveyed that she had yet to see the house.
Within the next moment he was offering admittance to them both, at any time they happened to be in the county, promising to write a note to his housekeeper to confirm such a gift.
Thus the first night of the Gardiner's visit was passed, and the trio returned to the great house at Stoke in the best of spirits. Mrs Gardiner had garnered enough from her conversations with her former Derbyshire neighbours to be able to smile at her niece teasingly whenever she happened to mention them.
"Aunt," Elizabeth was forced to speak after the fifth or so time, "please, do not suppose anything to be certain. I do not know myself if matters are as you perceive them. He only looks, he does not talk."
"True," Mrs Gardiner conceded, "he has not said the words, Lizzy, but I think his intentions are clear enough. Edward mentioned that your father has spoken something upon the subject to him."
"Well, this is news to me! When?"
"On the night of the Netherfield ball. When you went to Jane, your father kept Mr Darcy occupied for over an hour."
All Elizabeth could say to this was nothing. No words came out, only a blush. Her Aunt and Uncle smiled at each other.
The Gardiners stayed in Hertfordshire but a week, and its conclusion saw them returning to London with the addition of Jane, who had been charged by her mother with the task of filling her trousseau. Before they parted from Stoke Edith however, they made an offer to Elizabeth which she could not help welcoming with anything but acceptance.
They would take her to the lakes in the summer. Elizabeth delighted in travelling with her Aunt and Uncle, a pleasure which her early marriage had put an end to until now. With joy did she promise them to be a most effusive traveller, muddling the lakes, rivers, rocks, and mountains together until they had to quarrel over which was which when they recalled the journey.
She saw them and Jane off from her house, then made her way to Longbourn, where the Lucases, much to the vexation of her mother, were visiting once more. Charlotte, who had rarely a chance to talk with her friend during the winter social engagements that had often included the Netherfield party, was most glad to see her, and wasted no time in securing two chairs together so that they might converse.
Elizabeth found that after Maria had been married and settled at Hunsford Parsonage a three month, Sir William and his eldest daughter were to visit Mrs and Mr Collins, and Charlotte was to spend until the end of April with them. A request followed this delivery of information. Would Elizabeth join them?
The Countess was surprised, but felt she could not refuse her friend. The vacation would present an opportunity to her which she had long avoided; visiting her late husband's estate that resided in the county, a house which she had not even seen before, it having spent many years shut up.
The recollection of this place brought another memory to her mind, that of the Earl's connection to her cousin's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. This venerable lady, due to some distant offshoot of Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family, was related by marriage to the Cavendishes of Saffron Walden, and had the honour of being godmother to the last Earl.
"It is a connection," remarked her nephew Mr Darcy, who had called with his sister on Stoke Edith the next day, "that my Aunt is hardly likely to forget. Be sure to refrain from mentioning that you are staying at the Parsonage, else she is liable to offer you a room at Rosings."
"And an offer from Lady Catherine one can never refuse, correct?" Elizabeth replied.
"Most correct, Lady Saffron Walden," Darcy affirmed, his mouth lingering slightly over her name, privately wishing that he could drop the formality of the title. But he had not the courage to ask her that particular question yet.
She may given him a tentative indication of her regard, but it was only a tentative look, and he did not wish to scare her away by rushing things.
No he would wait until he encountered a look that burned with as much fire, as much passion, as much devotion as his own.
The new year dawned, and along with it came the two days that Mrs Bennet would have the greatest of woes to suffer on one, and the greatest profusions of joy on the other. January brought first the wedding of Mr William Collins to Miss Maria Lucas, an event which the mistress of Longbourn had at last resigned herself to believing inevitable and was at times moved to say, in an ill-natured tone, that she 'wished they might be happy,' though she often added to the sentence when she was among her daughters 'that they might both plague each other's hearts out.'
The wedding took place on the Thursday; the reluctant bride and willing bridegroom set off for Lucas Lodge from the church door, and everybody had as much to say, or hear, on the subject as usual. Lady Lucas and Sir William were everything that one would expect the mother and father of the bride to be; gracious in accepting the repeated praise for their new son in law, and their daughter, as anxious to talk about it as the groom himself.
Mrs Bennet bore it with her usual manner, countering much of the proud mother's talk with her own hopes and expectations for the morrow, which had prevented the Collinses from departing to Kent from the church door.
Friday brought the event that the aforementioned lady would have the greatest profusions of joy upon: the marriage of Mr Charles Bingley to her eldest daughter Miss Jane Bennet. Not for them the crowded breakfast at Lucas Lodge. No, they had that event after the ceremony at Netherfield, where Mrs Bennet had the pleasure of residing as mother of the new mistress, intent on talking about the match long after it had took place.
Indeed it was a day from which no distressing comparisons to the one that had gone before it could be drawn. Mrs Charles Bingley was all smiles and happiness; nothing about the day could make her lose the expression of bliss upon her face, from the moment she recited her vows, to the moment she said her farewells to her family. As for the groom, his sincerity concerning the event was likewise just as heartfelt; he was observed never once leaving his wife's side throughout the day.
Elizabeth watched the events with an equally happy eye, thankful that, as determined as her mother was to have them all married, Jane would at least be very happy with her prosperous match, which would not have taken place unless she had been willing. The comparison to the wedding the day before had brought back to her mind her own ceremony, and its many conflicting memories. She had felt herself to be happy that day, some two years ago, but the emotion had soon faded; first into indifference, then into fear. Not until this moment had she ever thought herself capable of observing the marital event with the degree of happiness that she felt now.
Mr Darcy, as groomsman, stood up to deliver a toast upon the couple, surprising those guests who had previously thought him proud, by offering words that few could not agree with or find wit within. After that the breakfast began to break up, friends making their farewells, Meryton spectators leaving, until only close friends and family remained.
The Countess then bestowed upon her sister her surprise; she offered for their honeymoon one of her estates, to be let by them as long as they wished, or, if they so preferred, to be their home indefinitely. Her new brother in law had often mentioned his desire to find a suitable estate near his Derbyshire friend, and Elizabeth believed that Pearlcoombe, as it was called, would suit all his dreams excellently, though it would put a distance between two very close sisters.
The couple were overjoyed with the place, finding it perfectly situated in the county it presided over; it was within thirty miles of Pemberley, and seeing distance of two other equally fine but older landowners1. Elizabeth had the pleasure of hearing from her sister within a week of their arrival there, and was comforted by the knowledge that Jane could not be happier with the place. Her only regret, as Mrs Bingley communicated in her letter, would be that she had to cope with only Elizabeth's words and not her presence to make her laugh at herself.
The departure of Netherfield's tenant brought with it the departure of Meryton's hopes and dreams concerning its other eligible bachelor occupant, as the Darcys left for London the day after the wedding. The journey, although a reluctant one, was necessary, at least on the gentleman's part, who had long felt the need to address the accounts of his estates directly rather than by post.
Darcy however found it difficult to complete this task with his usual focus. It was the first time that he had been assured of not seeing the Countess of Saffron Walden since Michaelmas. It was an absence that his mind and emotions felt greatly, to the extent which made returning to matters of business and Society in town a most disagreeable prospect.
For the first time in his existence as master of Pemberley, he found the task of tackling the accounts almost intolerable, especially when he thought of the company that he had to sacrifice in order to attend them. Often his sister or his steward, upon entering his Study, would find him not scratching away with his pen, but gazing into an abyss, which, by his expression alone, they could safely judge as a pleasurable alternative to the more real task of papers and sums before him.
He soon discovered within only a week of his stay in town, that his mind was extremely liable to wonder back to Hertfordshire on a daily basis, and usually without any warning whatsoever. More often than not, as he examined his accounts for Pemberley and other estates which he had inherited, he would find himself picking up those concerned with his situation in the event that he married, a set of accounts which he would never normally remove from his bureau before now.
By the end of the second week Darcy had at last determined that it would best for the sanity of his mind that he take a look at these particular accounts, and prepare for the event that his subconscious was now contemplating daily as almost a certainty. Thus it was not surprising to his thoughts that he attacked the task with an unusual relish, and finished all within an hour before he had reasonably expected to complete it.
After this he discovered the return to his previous accounts an easier business, and was at last able to attend to them in a manner with which he found satisfaction. One thing he concluded when he was at leisure to think upon the subject again; that he would soon be able to see once more the woman whom his thoughts were now frequently occupied with, when he departed for Kent in March.
For Elizabeth, the rest of January and then February diversified with little beyond walks to Meryton, Longbourn and Lucas Lodge, sometimes dirty and sometimes cold. Often she found herself as a chaperone to her sisters, especially when Kitty's coughing proved too much for their mother's nerves.
March was to take her to Hunsford, a circumstance which frequently brought complaints from Mrs Bennet whenever it was remarked upon within her hearing, the lady being determined in the thought that Mr and Mrs Collins would talk of their plans for Longbourn constantly.
For Elizabeth herself it was something that she now viewed with greater pleasure than she had done before. Absence had weakened her disgust of Mr Collins and the circumstances of the marriage, and there was novelty in the scheme. Her only pain in the matter, was in leaving her father, who so much abhorred the idea of her going away, that he told her to write to him, and almost promised to reply to her letter.
It certainly could not be said that she thought of a particular gentleman with no greater frequency than he did of her. Mr Darcy was often foremost in her mind. It was an occurrence of a most unexpected nature to Elizabeth, who had not imagined herself able to think of any gentleman in the manner she was presently thinking about Mr Darcy ever again. Her mind could rarely be separated from the thoughts or recollection of him, and the occurrences of such would invariably happen at the oddest of times.
At first she put it down to the fact that she did not know when she would see him next, and therefore had very little chance of receiving information about him, until a letter from his sister arrived at Stoke Edith a fortnight after their departure. It was a correspondence which at times Elizabeth found herself unable to read in company; for Georgiana, while reticent with people, was the contrary in her writing. Much would contain snippets of information about her brother's activities, and how distracted he appeared sometimes, and what his sister speculated was the cause of this condition.
Another regular correspondent to Elizabeth was her Aunt Gardiner, and her letters also contained parts that had a tendency to make her niece blush. Perceptive as she had been during the week they spent with her in the winter, and the brief days for the wedding of Jane and Charles Bingley, Mrs Gardiner had cultivated enough from both to understand perfectly the nature of the situation between her niece and Mr Darcy.
And, upon her return to London, she had obviously opened her correspondence with her friends from Derbyshire, whom she used to discover more about the gentleman she believed had lost his heart to her niece. Many times would Elizabeth deny this supposition to be true when she responded to her Aunt and his sister, but neither would interpret the words the way she wished them to.
But then, as the weeks continued, and the thoughts of him persisted in holding favour in her mind, Elizabeth soon felt unable to contradict their speculation, let alone attempt to stop their teasing.
1. Pearlcoombe: Sutton Scarsdale, Derbyshire. Built in 1724 by Francis Smith of Warwick, the 5,093 acre estate can be seen if you drive down the M1 in England, with Bolsover Castle opposite. Owned by the Arkwright family, and the Earls of Scarsdale in reality, it was saved from demolition by the writer Sir Osbert Sitwell, who handed it over to the Environment Department when he realised that he could not afford to restore it, his action meaning that the care of the shell is maintained by English Heritage. Hardwick Hall is also in sight of it. Some of the rooms are in Philadelphia's Museum of Art, America. There are also pictures of them at the site, and in the archives of the Country Life magazine. Source was again England's Lost Houses, by Giles Worsley.
From Longbourn to Hunsford via London, the first part of it was a journey of only four and twenty miles, and Elizabeth, Charlotte and Sir William began it so early as to be in Gracechurch Street by noon. After greeting her younger cousins and involving herself in their pleasures to their satisfaction, Elizabeth contrived to sit by her Aunt, who made their plans of how she and the Lucases were to be amused on this one night in town.
A trip to the theatre was proposed, then aired, and agreed to with a willingness from all, as they had heard much of the acclaimed 'Macbeth' production which had been feeding the masses of Society this late winter.
At first their presence went unnoticed, until one of the Ton observed that for the first time in the two years since her presentation at court, the Countess of Saffron Walden had come into Society. This rumour soon spread quickly to the rest of those attending the theatrical production. As her late husband had been declared the most eligible bachelor in London and the kingdom, so was she, by the peculiarity of the inheritance terms, now given the same honour in eligibility circles.
A unentailed title, with two houses in town, plus estates in Derbyshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent, all with incomes well above five thousand per annum, all these attributes were rapidly realised and discussed by the matchmaking Mamas and scheming rakes among the crowd that attended the theatre that night.
Elizabeth let all of the conversation about her pass without any attention paid towards it. Her intention was to enjoy this night with her Aunt and Uncle, and her friend and Sir William, and if she paid any notice to the speculation it would increase the value of it unnecessarily. She remained in close talk with Charlotte and Mrs Gardiner, refusing to meet the eye of any Society mother who tried her hardest to catch it.
What was soon also taken into discussion as well was the sight of two other most eligible personages, who chose to attend the evening's performance as well. Their arrival was most unexpected and completely unannounced, for they came to their box after the commencement of the first act, and thus their presence was not noticed and therefore not remarked upon until intermission.
With the audience's full attention once again returning to those around them, a general gasp was declared and the whispers increased, exclaiming at the honour of having not only the Countess of Saffron Walden, but also Mr Fitzwilliam and Miss Georgiana Darcy in attendance upon Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' this night. Their box was situated directly across from the Countess', resulting in the rest of Society displaying the fashion more commonly observed at tennis matches.
With such an extravagant display, it can hardly be wondered that the objects of such staring would escape noticing each other's arrival. Indeed, Darcy was sensible of Lady Elizabeth's presence almost from the moment he had sat down.
He felt a smile forming upon his face immediately and the first few lines of act one, scene one, passed him by completely. Then, seeing her own fine eyes fixed unceasingly on the play, he reluctantly pulled his away from her form and attempted to concentrate on it also.
It would not be to the credit of either the actors performing the Scottish play or our hero and heroine if it could be said that the latter could not keep their eyes from observing each other during the course of the play. Elizabeth descried his presence at intermission, when their eyes happened to meet from across the room.
Like him, her first reaction to the knowledge of his attendance was surprise, followed by a becoming blush as his eyes came to rest on her. For a few moments, as the crowds moved obliviously below, the entire room and people were lost to them, as they felt unable to turn away. Then, a light touch upon the shoulder from their companions served to bring them both back to the present, encouraging them to follow into the foyer.
With a protective eye and arm over and around his young sister, whose first night it was out in public, as a prelude to her coming out in two years time, Darcy led the way out of their box and across the foyer, dodging the matchmaking rakes and mamas with all the practice of a gentleman who had been cast as the object in the same pursuit since his majority. He reached their exit from their seats just as Elizabeth and her party were coming out.
Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with a slight blush. As they had been forewarned of each other's presence, there was no natural embarrassment or surprise to prevent conversation, awkwardness was done away. He greeted all of the party with ease, introduced them into gentle conversation with Georgiana, then fell into a review of the first half of the play with the Countess.
It was a sight that many could not avoid noticing, and Society there gathered itself around the most experienced and most informed of personages to debate and speculate what their obvious prior acquaintance of each other could mean, invariably getting part, if not all, of their conjectures wrong. Elizabeth and the Darcys again noticed none of it, as they remained in close conversation with each other until intermission was over.
The inhabitants of Gracechurch Street returned to that house from the play, their faces glowing from the effects of the company and the performance. Mrs Gardiner smiled knowingly at her niece, causing Elizabeth another blush, as she recollected the new knowledge which she had gained from seeing him this night; that he would soon be joining her in Kent, to visit his Aunt. Elizabeth did not know how to regard this new piece of information. She had hoped that her time in Kent, where there would be no parts of buildings or countryside that she had occupied in his company, would give her a chance to rationally reconcile her thoughts and emotions concerning him. To consider if she could truly be happy accepting the attentions of another gentleman so soon after losing her hated first husband.
But now he was to be in Kent as well, which meant Elizabeth would have to spend the night before her departure there, along with short time that she would be in that county without him, in thought about it all.
"Look Charlotte, all that land to the left of us is Rosings Park. Has not your sister made a most fortunate alliance?"
This speech of Sir William's, the next morning, was the first to bring Elizabeth out of her reverie that she had fallen into the night before. The novelty of the countryside that the carriage was passing soon caught her full attention, and she dealt it all the observance that it was worth, pushing the thoughts that had so previously consumed her so much that they stood to exclude all others, to the back of her mind.
At length they came upon the crossroad that divided Rosings Park, the Parsonage, and Elizabeth's own inherited estate. Sir William offered immediately to drop her off there, but was firmly declined. Elizabeth did not feel ready to visit Blisstham Place,1 an estate which had been shut up long before her acquaintance with her late husband and subsequent owner had even begun, let alone a stay at the place. No, she would accept her cousin's humble hospitality, and visit the place when her courage was high.
The Parsonage was soon discernible. Mr Collins and Maria appeared at the door, and the carriage came to a halt in the small drive which separated it from the lane that led to Rosings Park. Maria welcomed her sister and the Countess with the liveliest of pleasure, and her husband's frequent inquiries as to their journey and their health showed that so far marriage had done little to alter the character of either. He welcomed them twice, once in the garden, the other inside the house, apologised to his cousin for it being much smaller than he presumed she was used to, and repeated all of Maria's offers of refreshment.
Elizabeth saw much to take note of; observing her hostess carefully, to see if any sign of her previous reluctance concerning the match still remained. She knew well that Maria was not like her sister Charlotte, who at seven and twenty was much more concerned about a good establishment rather than love, which the younger Lucas had given a higher priority to before her marriage. She watched her countenance throughout Mr Collins' almost unceasing conversation, in which he unseldom uttered anything that could not make his wife reasonably ashamed. When it was time for them to view their host's gardens, Elizabeth had observed enough to conclude that while Maria might not be satisfied with her husband, she had settled for merely being content.
Lady Catherine's presence at her estate was inevitably talked of, as Mr Collins observed during dinner; "You, Countess, will have the honour of seeing Lady Catherine de Bourgh at Church and I need not say that you will be delighted with her. Indeed, I have already taken the liberty of informing her of your stay with us, and she hopes to have our presence at the Park for dinner as soon as she is available. She marked you, Cousin, with peculiar condescension, and instructed me to inform you that any one of her guest bedrooms would be available for you to take possession of whenever you wanted to."
Though Elizabeth did not feel pleasure at this, as Mr Collins had expected her to, she felt nonetheless obliged to explain her connection to Lady Catherine, which thus explained away the peculiarity of his patroness' hospitality towards her. Mr Collins, who had thought himself well informed on all of her ladyship's relatives, blood relation or no, was now further enamoured with the honour that he believed should be felt and frequently expressed, of having the goddaughter in law of his patroness staying at his humble abode.
As for the Countess, she tried to prepare herself for the encounter, by making her character remain true to the phrase she had often used to describe herself once; as possessing courage which always rises at every attempt to intimidate her.
1. Blisstham Place: Normanton Park. Built between 1735 and 1740, by Henry Joynes, retaining the unfashionable H-plan of the Elizabethan House, but with the correct Palladian dress. In 1793 the interiors and Bow were remodelled/added to the building. In 1813 Britton's Beauties of Britain described the house as 'a rich scene of modern elegance throughout.' Originally in Rutland and owned by the Heathcotes, of whom in 1827 Sir Gilbert, 5th Baronet, married Clementina, daughter and heiress of the 21st Lord Willoughby d'Eresby.
They eventually acquired the estates of her grandmother; Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, and Gwydyr Castle in Caernarvonshire, and her mothers;' Drummond Castle in Perthshire. They also owned Bulby Hall in Lincolnshire. The vast wealth of Saffron Walden is somewhat based on this family example, showing how much wealth can be obtained through marriage and luck.
The house remained with the family until 1925, when the state of the family wealth and the current political situation required that they sell off a number of their land assets. Gwydyr Castle was sold to a cousin, then Normanton's 6,000 acre estate, plus the villages of Empingham and Edith Weston, were put up for auction.
The house did not sell, and a fire left it demolished. Its site now lies under 900 million gallons of Rutland Water. Only the stables and farming building remain, 200 yards North-east, and the tower of Normanton Church, left on an island in the lake. Source is again Giles Worsley's 'England's Lost Houses' from the archive of the magazine Country Life. Pictures of the interior and exterior are contained in the book.
With the knowledge that the wife of her late and much lamented godson was in the neighbourhood, Lady Catherine wasted no time in making a request- and let it be noted her use of that word is in its loosest terms, and only as a means of tactful phrasing -to Mr and Mrs Collins and their guest to attend upon her at Rosings for dinner only two days after Elizabeth's and the Lucases' arrival.
Mr Collins, being who he was, made no refusal and the Countess soon found herself walking up the drive of the great estate to meet the woman whom her late husband had, as she recalled, mentioned only once in their brief married life. And not in very generous terms.
In spite of having been at St James, Sir William was so completely overawed by the grandeur surrounding him, that he had just enough courage to make a low bow and take his seat without saying a word. Charlotte meanwhile, remained perfectly calm, a stark contrast, it must be said, to her father and her sister, the latter of whom, despite having spent over two months in the twice weekly company of her husband's patroness, still lacked the courage to speak to her.
Lady Catherine herself was a tall, large woman, with strongly marked features, which might once have been handsome. Instantly could her most important manners be made out; she spoke authoritatively, and with an air that was most definitely not conciliating.
Her late godson's wife, being a lady she had never met in her life before, naturally became Lady Catherine's first, last, and all-encompassing, port of call and attention. After performing the role of hostess at dinner, during which she believed it her duty to induct Mrs Collins further in the duties of a vicar's wife, Lady Catherine turned to the Countess with the intent of satisfying her extreme curiosity.
How many sisters did she have? What sort of person was her father? What was his situation? What sort of person was her mother? Did she have any other senior relatives? Were any of her sisters married? Were they handsome? Were they educated, and if so, where? What carriage did her father keep? What was her mother's maiden name?
All these and more did Lady Catherine ask, and persisted in asking until she was satisfied with the answers that she received. She then turned to the matter of her godson.
"When did you meet him, Elizabeth?" asked Lady Catherine, seeing no point in calling her with the title as befitted her rank, though it was superior to her own, because of their connection to each other.
"In the autumn of nine," Elizabeth replied, feeling all the impertinence of the questions, but striving to answer them composedly.
"And where was this meeting?"
"At the Assembly Rooms in my home village of Meryton."
"So he must have being staying at his estate in Stoke at the time then? It is a good sized home I suppose, but the second drawing room must be most inhospitable during winter. Why, the windows are full west! Was it a long courtship?"
"Long and short are relative terms, upon which circumstances count, I believe your ladyship," Elizabeth replied. "It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy: it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others. As for myself and your godson, nearly four months before our marriage spent in courtship was not enough, upon reflection, to determine either."
Lady Catherine was astonished at receiving such a reply. "Upon my word," she began, "you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person. Pray, what is your age?"
"With three younger sisters grown up, your Ladyship can hardly expect me to own it."
"You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not conceal your age."
"I am not one and twenty."
"And my Lucius to decide upon an eighteen year old woman, at nine and twenty, without family connections or fortune! I find myself surprised at how he bore such a match! He, I hope, put to rights your lack of education and appearance in his circles?"
"If, you mean, your ladyship," Elizabeth, though extremely insulted, answered, "that after my marriage to your godson I had time to improve myself at the pianoforte, horse riding, and other subjects which his godmother deemed me to be lacking in, then I would have to answer, yes, he did. But with regards to 'appearances in his circles,' I am afraid you will be disappointed in him, for beyond my presentation at Court, he rarely let me out of the house."
"Indeed?" Lady Catherine uttered. "Well, we must excuse that to his lateness in entering the marriage state, I suppose. Then his tragic accident with his carriage and four two years later. Oh how saddened I was to hear of it! Has he left you in full control of all his inheritance?"
"No, he stipulated that I must let his steward manage it for me, a matter which I managed to have remedied and I am now in full control."
"Remedied? What gave you to think that the steward would be inferior to yourself?"
"When he came close to embezzlement, your ladyship."
"Well," was all that Lady Catherine could say in reply, and the matter was subsequently dropped, as she returned to Mrs Collins for the remainder of the evening.
"Was it really that bad, Lizzy?"
It was the next day, and Elizabeth was out walking the woods and groves of Rosings Park with her friend, both of them having chosen to escape the company of the others soon after breakfast.
"I spoke the truth when I professed that over three months had not given us enough time to know each other properly, Charlotte," Elizabeth now replied to her friend's question. "It is not something I like admitting, indeed, aside from Lady Catherine, you are the second person who I have, voluntarily, confessed it to.
"I believed myself to be in love, and then was rapidly proved wrong when I married him. The match has had one benefit however. Since my widowhood I have been able to provide for my family enough to make sure that they do not have to marry without some consideration to money.
"Stoke Edith also is a saving grace; as a haven for any of my sisters whenever they wish to escape the confines of Longbourn." And then with that sentence Elizabeth changed the subject.
The entertainment of dining at Rosings was repeated twice a week; and, allowing for the eventual loss of Sir William- who left after a week, a length long enough to assure him of his daughter being finally convinced as to the blessings of her match -and there being only one card table in the evening, every such entertainment was the counterpart of the first.
Other engagements were few and far between, the rest of the neighbourhood being beyond the Collinses' reach. This was, however, no evil to Elizabeth. She spent her time in conversation with Charlotte, or in solitary enjoyment of the woods and groves of the park, the weather being so particularly fine as to allow a daily ramble in them.
Elizabeth used this time alone wisely, and it was well that she did, for the time before the expected and actual arrival of Mr Darcy and his cousin passed with greater speed than she had anticipated. Eleven days was all she had to determine whether or not she welcomed his attentions, and if she wished for them to continue, and, perhaps increase, during her stay in Kent.
His absence had been felt by her, though if it was with a mark of the keenest emotion, she was unable to tell. That she felt a desire for his company, was certain. That she felt a concern for his well-being, was equally so. But was this enough? Did not she need more to be in love? Elizabeth did not know, and her first marriage experience presented as neither a helpful, nor unhelpful, incident with which to make her decision.
Most thoroughly did she question herself in order to discover where her feelings lay. Did she care for his opinion or his concern? Did he truly meet with all her beliefs as to what must be an amiable and ideal partner in life? Could she see herself happy with him? Finally, and most importantly of all, was there any hint from his behaviour which might indicate a hidden disposition which bore a likeness to that of her late husband's?
This question made Elizabeth pause in her wanderings, and seat herself upon a old tree trunk by the country path which she had been rambling on, in order to answer it with careful consideration and no partial conviction. Like Mr Darcy the Earl had been prone to reticence in company.
But, where the latter had chose frequently to excuse himself to town, the former had remained, and improved his familiarity with those in her acquaintance. Elizabeth could even remember at one time hearing that the Earl was regarded as the proudest, the most disagreeable man, by the entire population of Meryton, until her marriage was proclaimed, whereupon the approval of him rose dramatically.
Mr Darcy, however, had made no attempt to change the entire village's opinion of him outright. No, he had gone for the more subtle approach; by being a good customer for the tradesmen, remaining a steadfast proponent of his friend's marriage, and mustering himself to talk more with those he knew beyond a week of daily acquaintance.
Added to this was her Aunt Gardiner's testimony of his situation with his tenants and neighbours in Derbyshire, which she had gained from her old friends in the county. With the Earl, Elizabeth had no one to rely upon for knowledge of how he was regarded in the place of his birth.
But with Darcy, it was a different matter. He had been described as the best landlord and the best master by all of her Aunt's Derbyshire correspondents. From the age of three and twenty had he been in possession of his inheritance, as well as the added responsibility of guardianship over a much younger sister.
The Earl however, had not inherited until he was nine and twenty, and therefore had been more fixed in the manners and conduct of a youth of little responsibility, a fact which had been proven by his behaviour when she had returned to London with him as his wife.
Upon his death it had fallen to her to fix most of his mistakes in the management of his vast estate, a position which, thanks to her being her father's favourite, had not been a stranger to her. With Mr Darcy, Elizabeth could detect not even a hint of the same mismanagement.
During her stay at Netherfield, she had observed his weekly retreat to the study to deal with correspondence from his estate, and he had refused to take up his friend's offer of an continuation of his residency in the area in order to attend to his inheritance after Bingley's departure from Hertfordshire.
Finally, Elizabeth also knew that Mr Darcy was not a member of the Four Horse Club, having been in a position to overhear his conversation with Mr Hurst and her brother in law about the gentlemen's clubs of London during her care of Jane.
While the Four Horse was famed for its scandalous reputation, Alfred's1 was more highly regarded by those of the intellectual set for precisely the opposite reasons. As for Watier's,2 which was founded by the Prince Regent, a gentleman whom Elizabeth, like most of her sex, disliked, she was relieved to hear him protest to attending it out of no more than family tradition.
Thus, after all this reflection, was her final concern was done away with.
1. Alfred Club: Established in 1808, and described by the Earl of Dudley as "the dullest place in existence," as it attracted mostly gentlemen scholars. Lord Byron was a member, and he found it literary, pleasant and sober. Despite all this it achieved so much success that by 1811 it had three hundred and fifty-four on its waiting list to join. In 1855 it joined with the Oriental, established in 1824.
2. Watier's: Established on the corner of Bolton Street, at number 81 Piccadilly in 1807. The Prince Regent- whom Jane Austen hated herself, for his dissolute ways -had suggested the club using his new chef, Jean-Baptiste Watier, for the food of White's and Brook's was not to his satisfaction.
The club's main entertainment was gambling, its usual game being Macao, a form of twenty-one. It was nicknamed the Dandies Club by Byron, as Brummell was a member. Having become a haven for blackguards and acquiring a reputation of fortunes being lost and won in the gambling, it died out in 1819.
Source for both of these notes was the Regency Collection website, which can be accessed by the following link; http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~awoodley/regency/club.html
The gentlemen performed all that was expected of them as holders of that particular title, by choosing to pay their respects to the Parsonage upon the same day of their arrival in Kent, meeting the eager owner of that abode on the way.
Richard Fitzwilliam, younger son of the Earl of Matlock, and currently a holder of the rank of Colonel in the Second Life Guards,1 entered the room first. He was about thirty, and compared to his younger cousin, not handsome, in Elizabeth's partial eyes.
He entered into conversation with all the ease of a well-bred man, and one used to many an officers' ball or mess in service abroad. His cousin meanwhile, after paying stilted returns of introduction to Mr and Mrs Collins, had only eyes and words for the Countess. She happened to look around, happened to smile, and it was decided. He seated himself by her.
"I hope, Milady," Darcy began after the necessities of formal greeting were over, "that you have had an agreeable time in Kent so far?"
"I have, thank you sir," Elizabeth replied. "May I ask the same of you with regards to London?"
"The town was its usual self," he answered, "full of society with invitations galore. I ignored most of them, for the sake of keeping my sister company. But there was one night at the theatre which I managed to attend with Georgiana, and I confess to having enjoyed the company I found there immensely."
He said this with a sort of expression directed at her which conveyed to Elizabeth that he could only mean one evening: the same evening that she had attended, with the Gardiners, Charlotte, and Sir William. With a blush, she found her courage high enough to reply, "I must confess to possessing the same feeling when I attended, sir."
Darcy smiled at that, then changed the subject. "Have you heard from your sister Mrs Bingley, or your family at Longbourn since our last meeting? And if so, are they well?"
"I have had a letter from Jane, and one from my father. She seems to be very content with her married life. My father also reports all at Longbourn to be in good health. Have you heard from my brother in law?"
"I received a letter just before I left, which I have yet time to properly read. I know his technique too well to expect to read it quickly. But from what I could see from just a glance, he seems vastly contented."
"And how is your sister?"
"Georgiana is very well, and, I gather, in frequent correspondence with you. I often witness or hear her chuckling over your witty letters to her."
"And how, may I ask, do you know them to be witty, sir?" Elizabeth teased. "Have you read them yourself?"
"What would you say if I had?" Darcy countered in same manner.
"That you should be ashamed of yourself for betraying the confidence of letters between intimate friends. And you have not answered my question."
"I am afraid, my lady, all I can confess to is the occasional knowledge of some lines which Georgiana chooses to read aloud to me. Is that acceptable?"
"I suppose it must be," Elizabeth replied, in a voice that sounded extremely like that of his Aunt's. Darcy looked at her in surprise, until she laughed, whereupon he realised she was joking, causing him to chuckle also.
The sound of their laughing caught the attention of his cousin. Colonel Fitzwilliam sought the opportunity to observe them. A brief look was all that it took to establish a conclusion; he returned to the company around him, his focus drifting inward as he considered what he had just seen.
Darcy had been unusually reticent during the journey from his house in Grosvenor Square to Rosings Park, choosing to speak only when Richard's conversation had required him to do so. His correspondence as well, had been unusually different. Due to their long standing relationship, being closer in age than with his brother Jolian, Darcy had regularly written to Richard whenever he felt a need.
Usually, they were letters of detail, but recently Darcy had taken to summarising, refraining from mentioning his time in Hertfordshire apart from only a brief sentence, when he had been used to giving vacations the same length of paper space as his time at Pemberley. At first, Richard had been unable to account for this sudden change.
Various theories had suggested themselves, but all were eventually discarded when he found them wanting. Now however, he had found a reason that suited the difference perfectly. His cousin, for the first time- at least as far as Richard knew, and that was almost all -was in love.
Nothing to the contrary could be determined from the expression he had seen Darce to possess just now. He was in love, and, Richard believed he could judge, almost from the first moment he was in Hertfordshire.
Well, it was about time, the Colonel believed. Although he was almost an advocate of the bachelor state, he had always held the opinion that his cousin and friend often had a tendency to loneliness, and therefore, was in need of a wife to wipe away that sadness which the early passing of his mother, and the recent passing of his father had produced on both him and Georgiana.
The Countess of Saffron Walden seemed just the woman to suit the needs of his cousin perfectly, if their recent mutual amusement was anything to go by. Richard could almost fancy himself jealous. His cousin had found a beautiful, intelligent, witty woman to fall in love with. And a rich one at that. He knew the wealth of that Earldom as well as the rest of Society. Not that his cousin needed fortune in a wife, he had enough of his own.
"Is not that right Colonel?"
Richard looked about him, startled at the sudden interruption in his thoughts. Locating the source of the voice, he responded contritely, "forgive me, Miss Lucas, I was not paying attention. Could you possibly repeat what you just said?"
"I merely asked whether or not you agree with me that the sight of a certain two people over by the window is a most fascinating one to study," Charlotte remarked.
Richard did not need to look where she had directed him to, for it was in the same direction as he had been looking before. "Yes, Miss Lucas," he answered, "I do agree." He paused before continuing. "My cousin and I are glad to find that Mr Collins has guests. I hope you will come over to Rosings as often as he does. We are fond of lively conversation."
"And this you do not find at Rosings Park?" Charlotte asked.
"Oh, our Aunt talks a great deal, but it seldom requires a response," Richard replied. "My friend usually speaks but half a word when he is in Kent. Only elsewhere have I ever seen him so lively." He glanced at the couple by the window once more before turning his attention solely on the woman before him. "How have you found Rosings and Hunsford so far, Miss Lucas?"
"I am content with all I have observed," Charlotte answered. "My sister seems happy with her choice of husband. And in a prudential light, it is a good match for her."
"Mr Collins does appear very fortunate," Richard agreed. "And it must be agreeable to her to be settled within so easy a distance of her family."
"I would not call fifty miles an easy distance!" Charlotte countered.
"What is fifty miles of good road? Little more than half a days journey," he pointed out. "Yes, I call it a very easy distance."
"The near and far must be relative, and depend on varying circumstances," Charlotte argued. "Where there is fortune to make the expense of travelling unimportant, distance becomes no evil. But that is not the case here. My sister and her husband have a comfortable income, but not one as will allow of frequent journeys. I am persuaded Maria would not call herself near her family under less than half the present distance."
"Forgive me, I was thinking of my own travails abroad which make such differences in friendly country easy by comparison." He answered with a certain look that spoke of an authority to his rank which lay not just in money to afford commissions, but the steadfastness and courage to earn them through merit instead.
Charlotte smiled to show that she was not offended. "I can believe that. There must a self-denial and dependence in those conditions which younger sons of Earls know little of."
"Perhaps I cannot say that I have experienced many hardships at home," he allowed. "Except perhaps in one matter of weight. Younger sons cannot marry where they like."
"Unless where they like women of fortune, which I think they very often do," Charlotte remarked.
"Our habits of expense make us too dependent and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money," he added, but with a look which suggested he was speaking generally as opposed to personally.
"And pray, what is the usual price of an Earl's younger son? Unless the elder brother is sickly, I suppose you would not ask above fifty thousand pounds."
He answered her in the same style and the subject stopped, giving way to a silence which required instant interruption else one might fancy the other was affected with what had passed. In truth both were possessed of the same feeling and had much to think about.
1. 2nd Life Guards: Together with the 1st Life Guards they sent two squadrons to Portugal at the end of October 1812, where, with the Royal Horse Guards, they formed Household Cavalry Brigade, under the command of Major-General Rebow, who was also of their regiment. They were inspected by their Commander in Chief, the future Duke of Wellington- this title was only bestowed on him in 1814 -on May 23rd 1813, and on June 21st they took part in the battle of Vitoria.
They entered the entanglement late afternoon, just as Joseph Bonaparte's army collapsed, the 2nd Life Guards driving off the enemy infantry. After spending the winter of 1813-1814 in Logrono, they followed the army into France. More squadrons of the Life Guards joined them and they were present at the battle of Toulouse, on April 10th, though they took no part in the battle itself.
On July 22nd both regiments disembarked Boulogne for England. On the 27th April 1815 two squadrons from each of the two regiments of both the Life Guards joined Wellington for the battle of Waterloo.
They took part in the Earl of Uxbridge's charge against D'Erlon's corps, at a cost of 17 killed and 41 wounded. They marched into Paris on July 7th 1815, and remained in France until January 17th 1816 when they returned to England.
Source is Ian Fletcher's Wellington's Regiments; The Men And Their Battles 1808-1815.
It was not until Easter Day, almost a week after the gentlemen's arrival, that Mr and Mrs Collins, Charlotte and Elizabeth were invited to Rosings again. Though Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mr Darcy had called frequently at the Parsonage, they only saw Lady Catherine and her daughter at Church.
The invitation was accepted of course, and at a proper hour they joined the party in Lady Catherine's drawing-room. Her ladyship received them civilly, but it was plain that some of their company were by no means so acceptable as when she could get nobody else; and she was in fact, almost engrossed by her nephews, speaking to them, especially to Darcy, much more than to any other person in the room.
Colonel Fitzwilliam seemed really glad to see them; anything was a welcome relief to him at Rosings; and Mrs Collins's sister had moreover caught his fancy very much. He now seated himself by her, and talked so agreeably of Kent and Hertfordshire, of new books and music, that Charlotte had never been half so well entertained in that room before; and they conversed with so much spirit and flow, as to draw the attention of Lady Catherine herself, as well as that of the Countess and Mr Darcy. Their eyes had been soon and repeatedly turned towards them with a look of curiosity; and that her ladyship after a while shared the feeling, was more openly acknowledged, for she did not scruple to call out, "What is it that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Lucas? Let me hear what it is."
"We are speaking of music, Madam," said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.
"Of music! then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne, if her health had allowed her to apply. I am confident she would have performed delightfully. How does Georgiana get on, Darcy?"
Mr Darcy spoke with affectionate praise of his sister's proficiency.
"I am very glad to hear such a good account of her," said Lady Catherine; "and pray tell her from me, that she cannot expect to excel, if she does not practise a great deal."
"I assure you, Madam," he replied, "that she does not need such advice. She practises very constantly."
"So much the better. It cannot be done too much; and when I next write to her, I shall charge her not to neglect it on any account. I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice. I tell you, Elizabeth, that you are welcome to take up residence here, in the guest apartment which was always reserved for my late godson and his future wife, whoever that came to be. Mrs Collins has no instrument and once you are residing here, you can choose which ever of mine, for I have several, to play on every day."
"Your Ladyship is very kind," Elizabeth replied, "but I am perfectly content to stay at the Parsonage."
"And there is not just Rosings. Why Blisstham Place, one of my late godson's estates, is but a short walk from here. You could have opened up the house and spent your time in Kent there, for the furnishings are very fine, the instruments especially so."
"I thank you for your thoughtfulness, your Ladyship," Elizabeth answered, "and I must confess, I did consider such an event, but the house has been shut up since well before my husband's passing. I would not dream of inconveniencing the servants so."
"Well," was all Lady Catherine could say in receiving such an decided opinion from one so young.
"I believe, Countess, that you promised to play for me when we were next in company," Darcy remarked. "Would you be so kind as to favour me with a performance this evening?"
"I shall be delighted, Mr Darcy," Elizabeth replied, eager to seize upon an excuse for some time spent with him away from their hostess's immediate presence. "If you will permit me some time as to familiarise myself with the music to hand and the instrument?"
"Of course," he replied, and she rose from her place to sit down directly to the pianoforte. Lady Catherine listened for half a song, and then talked as before, to her nephew, till the latter walked away from her, and moving with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte, stationed himself beside her in such a way as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance.
"I am glad to see that nothing about this instrument discomforts you today,” he said.
She turned to him in some surprise, for she had not realised that his interest in her had caused him to theorise as to the source behind her discomfort that night when she asked his sister to play, during her and Jane's stay at Netherfield. "A memory intruded then, of an evening spent with the Earl. It did not end well."
He gently laid a caressing finger upon her own, the movement so light as to not affect her playing, but so tender, as to be savoured by her thoughts and emotions. "You do not have to tell me anything you do not wish me to know."
"Someday you might need to," she remarked, causing within him a quiet gasp, for it was the first time she had alluded as to her feelings regarding his earnest interest in her. "I was sitting down at the instrument after dinner one evening. It was of those rare occasions where we had invited guests and a gentleman paid particular attention to me. His attentions were charming, his manners gentlemanlike, his conversation full of spirit and flow. I forgot my situation in his presence. Afterwards, when the guests were gone and I was at the instrument, the Earl decided to remind me of the reality which I had attempted to forget."
Darcy breathed deeply, attempting to calm within himself the emotions and thoughts which had risen in his mind in consideration of her confession. Her words revealed nothing of the horror which she might have endured that night, but the very lack of it alluded to a greater suffering than he could imagine. "I admire your courage, milady. I hope such memories did not prevent you from staying at Blisstham during your time in Kent?"
"Yes and no," she answered. "The house has been shut up for some time. I never saw the place when the Earl was alive, for we spent our time wholly in Hanover Square. But although I am curious to see the place, I fear what memories it might invite upon myself."
"Would you better bear the expedition with company?" He asked her.
"Are you volunteering your services, sir?" She countered.
"I believe I am, milady," Darcy affirmed.
"I shall be delighted to accept," she assented.
Here they were interrupted by Lady Catherine who called out to know what they were talking of, having observed their intimacy by the instrument with increasing concern as to the fate of her wishes for her nephew and her daughter. It was a favourite wish of hers that Anne and Darcy would someday unite their two estates, and her primary reason for inviting him and the Colonel over at this time every year, to involve them with the running of her household, for if one was found wanting, the other would supply the deficit.
She approached Darcy and the Countess now, who immediately began playing again and after listening for a few minutes, said to Darcy, "Elizabeth would not play at all amiss, if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. I am surprised my late godson failed to supply one. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn."
Lady Catherine continued her remarks on the Countess's performance, mixing with them many instructions on execution and taste. Elizabeth received them with all the forbearance of civility and at the request of the company remained at the instrument till her ladyship's carriage was ready to take them all home.
"There," the Countess suddenly announced, bringing her steed to a halt, just beyond the clearing of the woodland that separated Rosings Park from its neighbouring estates in the county of Kent.
Darcy halted his stallion as well, keeping a tight a grip on the reins of his horse, as he was of a somewhat wild heritage, which was what his master preferred, and followed the Countess's direction, to gaze at the estate before them.
During their conversation of the previous evening, he had persuaded her to visit the place for the first time the very next morning. Reflecting back, Darcy was rather glad now that she had agreed to his proposal. For, though she had never visited the place before, the mere fact of knowing the identity of the late owner, would likely bring memories to the fore, that as she admitted herself, she did not perhaps wish to recollect.
Observing her expression now, he realised that his original suspicions had been, unfortunately, perfectly right. With all the skill of an expert horseman, he deftly moved his horse closer to hers, and gently took one of her nervous fiddling hands into his own calm ones. Cradling it as if her hand was the most precious object in all the world to him, his eyes locked on hers in a solemn gaze, and he raised it to his lips, laying the most gentle of kisses upon her wrist and palm.
Elizabeth could not help but blush at the gesture. His meaning could in no way be misconstrued. There was something deeper here, far deeper than just a simple display of support between long acquaintances. He was not accompanying her just as a friend, but as one who hoped one day to become something more to her.
It was as if in that moment he had all but declared his intentions to her, and in such a way that she felt none of the fear which she had expected to feel if such a situation came upon her once more. His meaning was absolutely clear. The feelings were entirely unconditional. He was offering her all that he was and all that he possessed, without any expectation or need that she would ever return the emotion.
What a contrast to the suitor before him. She felt almost guilty that she had ever allowed any one other than him to come first. She was tempted, oh, so tempted! to have him declare himself now, but knew that would be delaying the inevitable that lay in front of them.
She had to face this house, and all the demons it might awaken for her. From the outside Blisstham did not appear to be as grand as the town house where she had experienced such misery. Blinking, she changed the look in her eyes, and silently thanked him for the gesture which he had just bestowed. "Shall we continue on to the house?" she then asked.
Darcy nodded, and reluctantly released her hand. They allowed their steeds free rein, and continued in their journey. When they were upon the pebbled drive before the house itself, they carefully halted their horses and made to dismount.
Darcy was the first upon the ground, and, as they had brought no groom, moved to assist the Countess. She placed her hands upon his broad shoulders, and gracefully dropped down into his willing arms. He longed to be able to clasp her closer to him, and shower her glowing face with kisses, but knew that he had not yet been granted liberty to do so.
Reluctantly he made his hands rest loosely at either side of her waist until she was safely dismounted, then respectfully moved away to attend to their horses.
Once their steeds were stabled in the fields beside the drive to the estate, Darcy followed her closely as they mounted the steps to the front door. Elizabeth drew out the key from a pocket in her skirts, fitted it into the lock, and turned it until it clicked. The door opened and they stepped inside.
The Entrance Hall was a complete contrast to the grand equivalent of its neighbour. Whereas Rosings Park wished to show off all its wealth with every room, Blisstham Place opted for a simple, more refined style.
Its walls were a pale cream, with elegant, but not overly ornate flourishes, while its floor showed a pale marble that had been rarely used, covered only where it made the stairs, which had gold rods to keep the light pale pink staircase runner in place.
Its visitors could not help but gasp in mutual surprise of how well it suited their tastes. Elizabeth had not expected this. Her late husband had obviously never visited Blisstham, for all his other houses tended to resemble the style of his godmother.
Despite all its excellence in wealth and taste however, there were also obvious signs of neglect. The estate had been shut up for a long time, that much was evident by the cobwebs in the corners, on the stairs, and about the chandelier. Elizabeth caught sight of them all, and was thus reminded of her task in viewing the estate.
That was to see what, if any, repairs were needed, and how many servants would be required to form a household staff in her absence from the place. All her fears were forgotten. The difference in style from the other houses that were in the earldom of Saffron Walden made the memories that usually preyed upon her whenever she was in a house of his disappear. She resumed her walking.
The next room was the drawing room. Again the style was refined, simple and elegant, with walls of dark blue, mahogany furniture, and silhouette profiles as its only ornaments. Dust sheets covered the sofas, as well as a large pianoforte in one corner of the room, but nothing else was protected from the elements of neglect.
Elizabeth ran one of her fingers up a Sheraton table, barely making an impact in the layers of dust which covered the full glory of the wood from them. She turned to Darcy. "What do you think? Is there much to be done so far?"
"I do not believe so," he replied, lifting one of the dust sheets to examine a sofa before continuing. "There does not seem to be anything more than a general cleaning required to restore the place to its usual standards. What are your plans for the estate?"
"I am not yet certain." Elizabeth led the way into the next room, which proved to be a breakfast parlour. "I could let it, but I really do not have need to do so. The Earl gambled away a lot of his wealth, but not enough to break the bank." She looked up, just in time to catch his expression of surprise.
"Oh," she began with a laugh, "the earldom I possess is still as wealthy as Society claims it to be. All he gambled away was his own inheritance from his mother, which was kept entirely separate. In my opinion I have already far too much money to have any need to increase it."
"I envy you," Darcy remarked. "My father installed the need within me to always try to enhance the wealth of our family."
"Perhaps if I had been born into it," Elizabeth allowed, "I might feel differently, and wish to increase the fortune as much as I can. But I only married into it. I had no notion until his death that it would ever become mine alone."
"He never told you of the peculiarities of the title?"
"He never told me anything. He left it all to be managed by his steward, and chose to while his time away at his clubs, or," Elizabeth trailed off, reluctant to finish the sentence. But her expression conveyed its conclusion however. Darcy understood all too well what she could not find the strength to say. His admiration of her rose once more. To have suffered so much, yet to still be all the things that he knew her to be, was truly remarkable.
They examined the rest of the house, and found much the same degree of dust in every principal room, and nothing worse. The house had obviously been gifted with only the service of the careful Earl before her husband, and did not require much beyond a general sweep of the dust and airing of the furniture and beds.
After forming this conclusion, Elizabeth led the way out of the house, and into the formal gardens at the back, which separated the estate from the fields of its environs. Here too, in the overgrown topiary hedges and trees, dried fountains and a surplus of wildflowers, there was evidence of the neglect it had endured under just two years of the Earl's reign.
Darcy stepped forward, and with the practised eye of one who had been trained to take a close interest in everything upon one's country estates, examined one of the topiary trees. "Nothing beyond a day or two's work by a half a dozen or so experienced gardeners needed," he pronounced to her.
Elizabeth, her gaze fixed upon the fields which stretched beyond the grounds, acknowledged his judgement and sighed in apparent relief. "I cannot believe how scared I was in coming here," she uttered softly. "It is so different from all the others I have stayed in. It truly does justice to its name." She turned to face him. "What is Pemberley like?" She asked with sudden interest.
Darcy smiled, happy that she was happy. "I do not believe I could do it justice with any description," he answered her. "One can list the architects involved, the stone it was built out of, the furniture and rooms it possesses, but you cannot describe the feeling that comes over you when you are there. There is a certain magic about the place, which comes over you to such a degree, that every word feels inadequate."
He paused to reflect upon it. "It is a place where I have always felt at home, a sanctuary from the world, yet I feel both of those phrases have something wanting." He stepped closer to her. "I would dearly like to show it to you, someday."
It was as close as he yet dared come to making his feelings known to her. Even now it was perhaps presumptuous of him, considering their short acquaintance, and her past history, of which he could still only guess at the nature. Yet this day had bewitched him somehow, made him bold.
Their time together today seemed different from all the other days that they had passed in each other's company. Here, in the grounds of her estate, they seemed to be closer than they were anywhere else. The surroundings felt almost intimate to him, as though the place was a world where nothing could interfere between them.
Perhaps it was all this which had affected her too, and made her reply with words that, from this moment, would be forever dear to him. "I would like that."
The days passed. Rosings found itself often lacking the occupancy of the gentlemen which it presently provided board and meals for, as the two cousins were more at the Parsonage or out about the grounds than they were at the court of their Aunt. Rosings only had the Billiard Room or the Library, both of which soon lost their appeal in favour of Mr Collins's guests.
Darcy's reticence upon the subject of his feelings concerning the Countess continued, though the Colonel rarely pressed his insistence to know all home, as he once might have done. For his mind too was far more agreeably engaged. Previously he had looked upon his annual stay in Kent as one would look upon the prospect of taking part in a war.
Now however, that feeling had been done entirely away, and replaced by ones of pleasure. He who was used to scorning at all who played the role of suitor to the woman they professed to love, would now seem to echo an agreement in all their sentiments.
He was contemplating this trail of thought during his usual tour of the park, which he made every year, when he encountered the Countess, and to his surprise, alone. She had been reading something in her hands, which, upon first sight of him she had folded away, and now looked up to say, "I did not know before that you ever walked this way."
Richard explained his reasons for choosing to walk it, adding his intent to finish with a call at the Parsonage. "Are you going much further?" he then asked.
"No, I should have turned in a moment."
Turn she did, and they walked towards the Parsonage together.
"Do you intend to leave Kent on Saturday?" she asked after a few moments, for the length of their stay was frequently speculated upon by her cousin. .
"Probably not," he replied. "I am not needed by my regiment, and therefore entirely at Darcy's disposal. Kent has had some additions this year which make the inducement to stay more preferable than that of going."
"The combination of Lady Catherine, her daughter, Mrs Jenkinson and Mr Collins is not usually a inducement to visit Rosings then?"
"My Aunt tends to talk a great deal when we are here, but she seldom requires any response," Richard answered with a smile. "And my cousin hardly speaks a word here, though he's lively enough in other places. This time however, he seems to have discarded that character trait of his."
The Countess coloured, indicating to Richard that she had caught his meaning, which was just what he had intended, for her intimacy with his cousin had caught his interest, awakening a possibility in his mind. Then, her countenance suddenly transformed, and she smiled as she remarked, "According to him, you seemed to have abandoned a character trait as well, that of obstinate bachelorhood."
Richard smiled, and replied, "Perhaps I have, Lady Saffron Walden, perhaps I have."
Arriving at the Parsonage, upon hearing that Miss Lucas and Mrs Collins were at leisure, the Colonel stepped inside. Seeing that the weather continued to be fine, Elizabeth remained outside, engaging herself upon another ramble within the surrounding countryside.
She had discovered during her stay a walk along the open grove which edged the side of the park, that no one seemed to value but herself, and where she felt beyond the reach of Lady Catherine's curiosity. It was a frequent haunt of hers, in which she was often joined by Mr Darcy, for he ascertained her certain preference within the course of one promenade there.
Today however, the walk was solitary, and she found herself keenly preoccupied by his absence. They had spent so much time which each other over the course of their stay, that she felt the loss of his company whenever she happened to be deprived of it.
Eager for some comfort, she reached into a pocket within her skirts and withdrew the folded letter which she had put away earlier upon perceiving an encounter with the Colonel. In a careful, artistic hand which was a seeming contradiction in belonging to a man who professed to loath all correspondence, she found much to treasure, so rare were the pieces of such examples that she possessed.
Whilst the hand failed to resemble the whim and mannerisms of the sender, the content contained therein did not, delivering a flow of wit so spirited as to bring humour to all who were granted the privilege of reading it. For some moments she dwelt upon the passages which she had covered before the approach of the Colonel, until her curiosity drove her to examine those which were yet to be perused.
Here, in the unfamiliar sentences her comfort was lessened, for her father had decided to relate to her the current expectation of their friends and acquaintances concerning his favourite daughter and a young man of ten thousand a year from the north of England. Her marked preference for him and his singular attention paid to her at the Netherfield ball and other social gatherings where their intimacy hinted at more than mere acquaintance, was now at the forefront of debate amongst the four and twenty families whom her mother and sisters consented to dine with.
This notoriety had not come by chance. A evening party hosted by Colonel Forster, attended by his wife and his officers, Sir William and Lady Lucas, Mrs Long and her nieces, the Gouldings, Mr and Mrs Philips, and her mother and her sisters, was the source of this expectation, during a conversation between her younger sisters and a particular officer. Lieutenant Wickham, the officer in question, had occasion to relate a tale of misfortune which he had suffered at the hands of this gentleman from Derbyshire. This claim, once it reached Mrs Bennet's hearing, was seized upon and pronounced as a most arrant falsehood, for whoever paid court to her daughter the Countess could not be such a scoundrel as Mr Wickham ascribed.
Within a few days of this party, doubts concerning the officer's claims soon found weight, as it emerged that he had debts with numerous merchants of Meryton and Longbourn, ones which his funds could not repay. From that moment on, everyone began to declare that he was the wickedest young man in the world, and everyone began to find out that they had always distrusted his appearance of goodness. He was declared to be in debt to every tradesman in the place, and his intrigues, all honoured with the title of seduction, had been extended into every tradesman's family.
And all the while the tale of his misfortune at the hands of the gentleman from Derbyshire continued to spread, as the basis for the means of discovery concerning Mr Wickham's guilt. Her father treated the matter with his usual humour, considering it a most worthy example of human folly, but as Elizabeth read the account she found she could not summon the same feeling of amusement. She knew the truth behind this misfortune, for Mr Darcy had recently recounted to her the matter, in one of their many rambles about the very grove in which she now trod. That Mr Wickham had treated his former childhood friend in an infamous manner was true, but she did not think it right that something which caused much suffering to one family should be bandied about a neighbourhood so salaciously.
Returning to the parsonage, she resolved to amend the gossip as best she could. Mr Darcy had not authorised her to make his communication public, and certainly she would not dream of sinking to the same level that the rest of her acquaintance and family seemed to have, but she would endeavour to make sure that tale did not take preference over what was to happen to the man who had so viciously striven to blacken Mr Darcy's name in the first place.
While Elizabeth was engaged in this somewhat mortifying task, Darcy was facing an equally disagreeable prospect, that of an interview with his Aunt. He had resolved during his last parting from the Countess, to broach the matter regarding the extent of his involvement and cooperation in her favourite wish, and to disappoint her accordingly.
He had spent too many years in keeping silent upon the matter, a silence which he had long since realised served to create as much suffering as failing to disabuse her of the notion from the moment when she had first voiced the wish aloud to him. While he had often looked upon the union as something of a prevention against the matchmaking whims of society regarding his eligibility, his Aunt had treated his silence as certain assent, and sheltered his cousin from rivals accordingly, in detriment to her health and to his.
His cousin was a contrast to her mother, being so thin and small, with little resemblance to the tall, large and strongly marked features which were borne by his Aunt. Anne was pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant, her appetite often meagre and her view of the world rarely extended beyond daily short rides in her phaeton. Even if his heart was not engaged elsewhere, none of his cousin's qualities stood her in good stead to be the next mistress of Pemberley and Rosings.
Lady Catherine reigned over her household with a firm, almost domineering hand, depending upon her steward to report to her every accounting, no matter how insignificant. While she was content to observe the proper forms of estate management, her trust would only extend so far. However, her concern for her daughter's health prevented her from taking her in hand and preparing her to succeed, causing his Aunt to rely on her nephew's experience, hence his annual obligation to visit.
It had not taken many visits for Darcy to determine the motive behind his Aunt's request for assistance, and for some time now he and his cousins had taken pains to help her daughter become acquainted with the instruction which their Aunt had failed to supply. Anne possessed a fine intellect, which only the want of education had neglected, and once that need was stimulated, flowered accordingly. But while her talents flourished, her health remained worrisome.
Last summer, after a certain godson had painfully obtruded upon his notice, Darcy had travelled to Rosings with a desperate resolution formed out of guilt that in striving to raise his young sister, he had neglected to supply her with a companion in whom they could both trust. Where a stranger whose character served to unhappily deceive them failed, a family member might succeed. It was the closest he had come in submitting to his Aunt's wishes, and had she known the full extent of his thoughts her triumph would have been complete.
But she had not anticipated his arrival, nor did he seek to warn her ahead of his visit, two instances which served to disappoint both her wish and his desperate resolution utterly. For when he entered the house, he discovered that his Aunt was out to dinner with Lady Metcalfe, and her daughter had used this absence to her advantage, by requesting a physician from town to pay her a consultation, for the one established in Hunsford was too enamoured with her mother's patronage to be capable of delivering an unbiased diagnosis.
At Anne's request, Darcy was permitted to witness the physician's verdict, and the result was enough to render his motive for visiting Rosings pointless. While her intellect and humour were sound, her physical anatomy was not. Procreation was considered too dangerous an endeavour to be attempted, for it was declared doubtful that she could conceive, let alone bring an heir to term. As long as such a possibility was never entertained, her longevity was certain.
Lady Catherine's ignorance regarding this consultation was equally established, for neither Anne nor Darcy had desired to inform her of the diagnosis unless certain events required them to do so. He and the physician, after ascertaining Anne's sagacity regarding such grave prospects, returned to London before his Aunt returned from her dinner engagement. Upon his return to town he was informed by Colonel Fitzwilliam of a woman whose references were of the highest recommendation, and after meeting her, employed her to preside over the household of his sister. Then Bingley came to him with a request for his assistance in estate management, whereupon the matter was left in the hands of his cousin.
During his continued correspondence with his Aunt and his cousin whilst staying in Hertfordshire, it soon became apparent to Darcy that Lady Catherine's ignorance remained unabated. Her desire for himself and her daughter to unite their great estates was forever alluded too, and in terms which spoke of the prospect as certain. Whilst he continued to remain un-enamoured by the daughters of society, such nonnescient was preferable, but when he began to realise that his heart was engaged, the means to disabuse her of this wish became a troublesome prospect.
Hence his journey into Kent upon this particular occasion, although the task of securing an interview alone with Lady Catherine had proved to be more difficult than he anticipated. Aside from the daily visits of Mr Collins, her desire to engross himself and his cousin's company proceeded from a surfeit of talking to them, rather than allowing them to talk to her. For a time he endured such conversation in the slight hope that she would soon be exhausted in her wealth of news, but this soon proved to be a fruitless aspiration.
So, whilst the woman who engaged his heart proceeded to inform her father of her desire for salvaging his reputation, he set about to ruin himself completely in the eyes of his Aunt, for he knew that no matter how delicately the nature of Anne's health was relayed, her reaction would be far from sanguine.
When Elizabeth emerged from her room to rejoin the company of Mrs Collins and her friend, she found that the Colonel was still sitting with them. His preference for remaining in the parlour of the parsonage rather than the drawing room of his Aunt's was clear, but the reason for his delay in returning to Rosings was less so, as he would have pleasure of their company at that estate this evening, and the hour upon when they were expected to attend, was fast approaching.
Nevertheless, it would not do for her to remind him of this social duty, nor did there arise a suitable opportunity to do so, as his conversation lacked none of his usual flow of spirited wit and agreeableness. Indeed, his talk soon served to make her forget the passage of time, and it was not until the opening of the door which served as the entrance to the parlour, incurring a significant pause in the conversation, that she was caused to remember.
Mr Collins was the person to whom this role of interruption was rendered, and unusually for him, he appeared to be at a loss of those sentiments deemed pleasing and acceptable to the elegant company which awaited his arrival. For some moments did he stand before him, encountering their curious looks with one of increasing confusion, until the prompting of his wife served to jar him out of his insensibility.
"Her Ladyship regrets that she must withdraw her kind solicitude of allowing us the honour to keep her company this evening," he said in response to his wife's searching salutation.
Colonel Fitzwilliam immediately inquired as to the health of his Aunt, and upon receiving only a vague accounting in reply, began to make his farewells. However he had not advanced beyond a general promise of conveying his regrets at being unable to enjoy the pleasure of their company that evening, when he was obliged to pause, in favour of welcoming his cousin into the room.
In Mr Darcy they were more reasonably assured of receiving a fair explanation of the source of Lady Catherine's indisposition. Without giving too much information, he led them to understand that his Aunt had received some distressing news about a close companion and as a result, felt unequal to fulfilling her usual social obligations.
With a further eloquent look directed at his cousin, who upon receiving it immediately resumed his previous occupation, Mr Darcy turned to the Countess, whose curious gaze had not left his handsome features from the moment he entered the room. Once he had ascertained that his cousin had successfully secured the attention of everyone else within the parlour, in a lowered tone he spoke to her the following;
"Might I have the pleasure of a private conversation with you, milady?"
Elizabeth could not refuse him, and quietly guided Mr Darcy into the dining parlour, which being a better size and possessing a pleasanter prospect, was more lively than the drawing room, and would have drawn Mr Collins from his book room far more often than the latter, which did not share in providing an excellent view of the road, should Lady Catherine's carriage, or her daughter's phaeton happen to drive by.
After availing themselves of comfortable seats, Darcy began. "Forgive me, for requesting such an intimacy, but I have a particular wish that what I am about to say shall go no further unless it is at your behest." He paused, allowing Elizabeth a moment to speculate as to his meaning. But before she could begin to form an answer as to what he might intend, he spoke again. "What I said in view of my Aunt's indisposition regards not a companion but is in fact her daughter."
On that note, Elizabeth's confusion increased, for she failed to comprehend how the state of his cousin's health could occasion her secrecy. Her initial thought was that he had requested this intimacy in order to declare himself, which given his solicitude during their time spent with each other was not altogether surprising or unexpected. As to what reply he might receive had he done so, she had yet to form a satisfying one.
He was a worthy man, who deserved nothing less than equal love and devotion to whoever he avowed such feelings. And there was the stumbling point. Elizabeth was not quite sure that she held an equal love for him. In his company her thoughts were distracted; she found it impossible to think of anything but the contrast between his manners and those she had endured at the hands of the Earl. Yet there were moments, such as the conversation during her musical performance, or the visit to Blisstham, when she found herself confiding her secrets in him. That she had placed her trust in him, felt nothing to fear from his company was certain. But she did not feel worthy of him.
There perhaps lay the true heart of her concerns regarding his attentions. Her own belief in the worth of herself. He deserved far better than her. In terms of wealth and social standing, she was perhaps his superior but money and title aside, she had been married before. For her to seek a match in order to obtain an heir to the title she held possession of was not something usually frowned upon, but that she would choose a gentleman who had not suffered a similar bereavement might appear unseemly.
Ignoring the concerns of Society, she would be placing a burden on him which was of greater weight than the ones he was presently custodian of. His experience in managing estates notwithstanding, there were the horrors which she had suffered at the hands of the Earl to contend with. He would forever be worried that a move from him might incur the memory of his predecessor in her. In particular there would be those which not even time could serve to assuage. She had no desire to subject him to that concern every year. He deserved someone who had not already been taken by another.
"Last summer, after Ramsgate, I travelled here to pay a call on my Aunt and cousin, with the desperate motive of granting a particular wish," Darcy continued. "For as long as I can recollect, my Aunt has declared a desire for myself and my cousin to unite our two estates. She has spoken of it as a favourite wish belonging to herself and to my mother, though I have yet to recall an occasion when my mother mentioned such a hope in my hearing.
"As far as Anne and I have been concerned, such an event has not provided either of us with the same feelings as my Aunt professes to hold. That it would be a good match has not escaped our intelligence, but a prudential marriage is a fate which neither my cousin or myself have ever entertained."
Within a look in his countenance almost akin to heartfelt delight, he continued. "My parents were blessed in that their marriage was both an eligible and loving one, a union which I have always hoped would be inherited as well those other bounties which they left me. However Society frequently seemed to desire in disabusing me of such hopes. My sister's near elopement served to deepen that impression, which served to send me into Kent.
"When I arrived, my Aunt was absent, and a physician was with my cousin. At her request I witnessed the diagnosis delivered by him which rendered my desperate resolution an impossibility." He paused a moment here, his countenance betraying the true extent of the turmoil which he and his cousin must have endured during that unpleasant interview. "To this day I am not sure of Anne's true feelings regarding the matter, for she has continued to remain sanguine whenever it is discussed.
"For a time I was uncertain as to what I should do. When I returned to London I discovered Colonel Fitzwilliam had found a suitable companion to replace Mrs Younge, and Bingley was impatient to have my opinion regarding an estate he had found in Hertfordshire." Darcy directed a smile at her. "From that moment my mind and my heart were more agreeably engaged."
Elizabeth blushed for his meaning was inescapable. As he continued to gaze at her, she was reminded of her resolve regarding his allusions, but just as she was about to broach them with him, Darcy secured her hand and raised it to his lips. For a moment all she could think about was the softness of his touch, the tenderness contained therein, and the look so eloquently conveyed through his earnest gaze, revealing the depth of affection in this gesture.
Darcy lowered her hand to small patch of space which lay between their seats, but his hand refused to relinquish it as he continued to speak. "Until now, I have not been able to tear myself away in order to inform my Aunt of the fate which will befall her. Such news could not be delivered in correspondence, nor did I desire to sadden her unnecessarily until I could be reasonably assured of my own fate. Relaying such news to her now is perhaps presumptuous of me, but I could not bear to have her continue to live under the illusion any longer."
Without releasing her hand, he rose from his chair and dropped to his knees before her, the posture leaving her in no doubt of his intentions. "Elizabeth, I ardently admire and love you. I cannot fix upon the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words which laid the foundation of my feelings. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun. Your beauty I had early been unable to withstand, and within that lay a sorrow which roused and interested me. It was a state which I had endeavoured to raise Georgiana out of and once I realised the extent of that suffering, my heart demanded of me to procure a remedy."
Laying his free hand upon their clasped ones, which in light of his movements now rested upon her lap, he continued to speak of his feelings, which in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable. "In declaring myself thus, I know full well, that you are not yet ready to return all which I have avowed. Nor do I have any desire to hasten you into another marriage unless you gave me assurances of your desire to be so. But neither can I torment you or others by trifling with the hope of receiving affections which have long been engaged elsewhere. So, I humbly beg you to answer as to whether I have any hope of succeeding."
Elizabeth could no longer bear to look into his eyes. His steadfast earnest gaze, together with his eloquent words and tender touches, conveyed the very sort of feeling that she felt so unworthy of, and therefore she had to look away, to look down at her gown, as she replied, "I do not deserve you."
Darcy said nothing. Instead, he placed a hand under her chin, and lifted it up until she was able to meet his expression once more. Then he leaned forward and caught her lips in his own.
It was a kiss to evoke surprise, and to take one's breath away. How could she not respond to such tenderness, mixed with such passion, such affection, that she felt afterwards to never have received a kiss before? It was impossible not to return, and when she did, these emotions roused an even greater response from his.
Abruptly he broke from her before the joy of receiving her response rose to such a degree as to evoke a depth of love that neither were yet prepared to explore this evening. "We shall not quarrel for the greater share of unworthiness annexed as to position and wealth, or character and feelings. It is a matter which if strictly examined, will be deemed irreproachable on either side. I only wish to learn if you have begun to feel for me as I feel for you."
"I do care for you, sir," Elizabeth admitted quietly, securing the searching strength of her fine eyes in his own, "but as to how deep my feelings are, I am uncertain. I confess that I find it difficult to think in your presence, to focus on any object but that of your nearness. Yet when I am without you, I cannot help but mourn your absence. I feel safe when I am beside you, that I can confide in you my sorrows. But I do not wish to burden you with my suffering, which at times seems inescapable."
"Though you may not realise it, those feelings which you have just spoken of are what I frequently experience whenever I am in or out of company with you," Darcy replied softly. "It is a foundation and one which only time will build upon. But only if you desire such a courtship to do so."
Elizabeth continued her searching gaze upon him, as she considered all that he had declared. She could not deny the sincerity of his feelings, nor the desire which they had sourced within her. There was an intimacy between them which she could no longer ignore, nor did it seem, that her heart desired to do so. Tentatively, she voiced what her heart desired, by returning the gesture which had first awoke those feelings. His hand trembled underneath her kiss, but his gaze never wavered.
The mantle clock chimed out the late hour, and he, with great reluctance, rose in order to go. She rose with him, his hands not releasing hers until he reached the door, whereupon he turned to face her, and pressed his lips to her own once more in a final farewell.
"Until tomorrow, my love," he uttered huskily, before quitting the room. Elizabeth watched him go with a heavy heart, wishing tomorrow already come.
Darcy made his way slowly back to Rosings Park that night. He wished for solitude most, being not one of those whose happiness overflows in mirth, and knew that the sooner he returned to his Aunt's, the less likely he would be able to procure it. Absently he allowed a sigh to escape from him, as he made his way along the short lane that divided Rosings from Hunsford.
A part of him was still in disbelief at all which had occurred this evening. When he had left his Aunt's- much to that formidable woman's annoyance, though he was one of the few who could stand up to Lady Catherine - Darcy had not entertained any hope of the kind that he would be accepted.
Feelings aside, when it came down to practicalities, he was only the son of an ancient if still respectable and influential, landed gentry family, with no title, and, officially at least,- for privately it was a great deal more -ten thousand a year. Proposing to the most eligible Countess in the kingdom was a presumption in itself, let alone adding to it the thought that one might be accepted.
He knew full well what Society would think of the union, even without their jealousy at not being able to catch either of them first. But he did not care what Society thought. He knew his own heart well enough to discount any possibility to himself that he was asking purely out of mercenary means. And by now, he hoped he knew hers well enough as well.
Darcy made his way up the steps that led to the chequered Entrance Hall. He opened the front door carefully, making sure to close it without any undue noise. He had crossed the short space from the doors to the main staircase, when he heard the footfalls of someone coming his way.
Sighing in annoyance at having been so close and yet so far in achieving his goal, Darcy quickened his pace, the need for avoiding detection now negated. When he had reached the first landing, the footfalls increasing their nearness all the while, and acquiring a certain familiarity, he was brought to a halt by the voice of his cousin, who had returned to Rosings somewhat sooner than he..
"Darcy," Richard began, coming to a halt in the middle of the Hall, "we quite despaired of you!"
"Is that my nephew?" called an authoritative tone from the room which the Colonel had just quitted. "Let him come in and explain himself."
"No, forgive me," Darcy spoke quickly, and the last thing he wanted now was for Lady Catherine to hear, when none of Elizabeth's- he could call her Elizabeth now, in both mind and speech, without any restraint -family even knew about it yet. Already he half expected what her response would be.
"If you will excuse me I have a pressing matter of business." He made a move to cover the remaining set of steps. "Make my apologies to Lady Catherine, Fitzwilliam," he added, before disappearing out of sight, leaving his military minded cousin to ponder at the sudden strategy for retreat, and the reason for his absence this evening.
Inside the privacy of his room, Darcy went to his window, leaning an arm upon the frame to support himself as he gazed out upon the prospect before him. His mind was far from Rosings's formal gardens however. Already it had returned to Hunsford, and the rooms which the lady to whom he had long given his heart might be occupied in.
He wondered what she was thinking. If he had managed to dissuade her of the idea that she could ever be unworthy of him, when the opposite was quite clearly the case. She deserved the best, and he was determined that from this moment on, she was going to get it. In his mind's eye, he recalled vividly her expression when she had finally accepted him.
With delight he noted the beauty of her fine eyes as she mulled over their kiss, and her hesitation as she returned the gesture which he had first bestowed upon her. He was pleased that she had consented to a courtship, knowing that she was still not ready for another marriage, even though in his heart he was more than ready to marry her. But his affairs, despite the ground work having been laid out during his separation from her in London, were in no state to welcome the new mistress of Pemberley.
Pemberley's State rooms had been shut up since the death of his mother, his father having never been able to bear sleeping in them after losing his wife, and Darcy himself had seen no need to move from his rooms when he had become master of the estate five years ago.
The rooms of the town house were a little better, but still untouched for over ten years. There were also the preparations to be made for the transferring of those duties usually reserved for the mistress of the house, which he had taken over so much of since his majority.
He also wished for Elizabeth to be happy, to choose her own time, rather than he or any others dictating it for her. An image suddenly appeared before his mind's eye; of his days now fulfilled with complete contentment, spent forever by her side at their home in Derbyshire. Pemberley had been calling out for a new mistress ever since the loss of Lady Anne.
Before Elizabeth, Darcy had only pictured Georgiana as the woman to fulfil that role, never expecting to meet anyone whom he could love. Now, he could not imagine anyone else who would perform the role better than the woman who held his heart.
Reluctantly, Darcy now forced his mind away from these musings. He had spoken the truth to his cousin when he had said that he had a 'pressing matter of business' to attend to, though it was not exactly business. One as close to a sister as he, could never call writing to her a matter of business. He withdrew from the window to his writing table, took out a number of crested papers from a drawer, dipped his pen into the ink pot and began;
My dear Georgie,
Your brother writes to you with the happiest of tidings. Indeed, he is so content at this moment, that he can barely give thought to forming his usual coherent sentences.
You will deplore the structure of this letter, but I hope soon forget its mistakes, when I inform you of the reason why this is so.
A few hours ago, upon this very evening, I asked the Countess of Saffron Walden to be my wife.
As a result of the discussion which I had with my Aunt concerning her wish for myself and Anne to unite our great estates, I made my way over to the Parsonage and made the Countess the offer of my hand.
You can have no doubt of the answer being to my liking; I can now call her Elizabeth in both mind and speech without any restraint.
She had some difficulty in believing herself worthy of me, which to my mind is still an absurd notion, but one that I hope I have managed to dissuade her of.
I am not worthy of her, that is the truth. You will protest to that I know, but it is so. Your brother is not perfect, no matter how hard he tries to be for his sister's sake.
I hope you find me much happier from now on, Georgie. Indeed, perhaps the both of us have needed an addition to our small family for some time. I have no doubt of you and Elizabeth becoming the closest of sisters and best of friends.
I sit in my room at Rosings, avoiding our Aunt and cousins, even Richard, far too happy at the moment to inform any one else of my news, save you.
I hope you will not brush this compliment modestly away, but I have been so proud of you my dear Georgie, ever since we returned from Ramsgate.
You have been a wonderful balm to my heart and thoughts whenever I had despaired of ever having a hope of succeeding. Every day I see you happy and unaffected makes me thus also.
You have become so much more confident, and yet remained the sweet girl I have always adored ever since I had the honour to first call you sister.
There are times when I cross the open door of the music room, look up to see you in your private concert, and almost see the image of our mother before my eyes.
You look so much like her. She would be very proud of you if she could see you now. And I am sure she does in spirit.
Forgive me, I did not mean to get so nostalgic. I hope you are still enjoying your time in London. I promise to rejoin you soon, and I think you know now what has kept me here, and it was not the delightful company of our Aunt.
Apart from Elizabeth, I delay departure for another, though he will deny all knowledge of what I sure he is feeling. He is rapidly falling victim I believe to the same spell that I am under, and the fair maiden is Elizabeth's friend, Miss Lucas.
Do not tease him and let on that what I suspect when you next write to him, though I expect the matter to be brought to a successful conclusion soon.
With regards to the wedding, there will be some time passed before that most joyful day. Elizabeth wishes for a long courtship in order to become accustomed to being married again, and I am happy to wait until she is as willing as I.
Preparations need to be made, though my accounts have long been ready for a wife- I happened upon them before I left for Kent, as you can well testify, catching me as you did musing over how well her name looked entwined with mine when you called me to dinner -everything else is not.
My present hope is for it to be in the summer, and, if I can persuade her and everyone else, at Pemberley's chapel. I have no desire for the wedding of the century, Society will have to be content with their imaginations about the event.
I hope you will include your congratulations and joy not only to myself but to your new sister in your next letter to her. Until then, I must bid you farewell.
I remain your loving brother
The next morning, Lady Catherine was informed of the match. Her heart and mind were still saddened by the news which he and her daughter had relayed to her the night before, and she quite despaired of her nephew for allowing himself to be drawn in by the upstart pretensions of a woman who had little to recommend her, save for having once been the wife of her late godson, and who, in thanks to the perverseness of his earldom, had no need to attach herself to one so as eligible as her nephew in order to ensure the continuation of that title.
However, she soon came to realise of the advantages that the title and wealth in estates which the earldom brought with it, would benefit both herself and her family. After all, as her nephew had pointed out, he would need an heir, which her daughter could not supply. She comforted herself also with the possibility of her daughter outliving the Countess, whereupon Darcy might be driven to seeking another wife, an office which Anne could then supply.
Had Darcy known the truth of his Aunt's less than graceful reconciliation to his forthcoming union, he would have been far more unwilling to forgive her, for such a prospect could not be further from his mind. However, he was also anxious that no discord served to sour the remainder of his and the Countess' stay in the country, for their presence would prove a useful distraction in engaging Lady Catherine's curiosity away from another possible courtship.
In the afternoon, Colonel Fitzwilliam was informed of the match. Not surprisingly, Richard was very happy for his cousin. Having been a close friend to Darcy for much of their lives, he had become a witness to many of his cousin's sorrows, such as the loss of a beloved mother, of a once close childhood friend, of a beloved father, and the near elopement of his sister. To hear him exult in happiness once again, was music to the Colonel's ears.
The Countess was just the sort of woman whom Richard believed Darcy needed: sensible, witty, lively and clever, the perfect complement to his cousin's almost habitual reticence. There were times, as Richard observed over the days, when there was only the talk of his Aunt to capture his attention, when his cousin could barely hold back a smile, or make greater moves to resist the persuasions of a match between himself and the heiress of Rosings.
As for Richard himself, he was far from disapproving of the marriage state in general, as he once may have been disposed to do so. For quite some time now, he had ceased to consider himself the perpetual bachelor. He did not look upon the disadvantages of the state first, as he had used to when previously debating it within his mind.
Instead he considered all the advantages it could afford him, and the real affection of a lifelong partner whom he was not considering to take out of mercenary reasons. He realised now how much influence he had access to in order to further his military career, which before now only a consideration of pride in his profession had prevented him from taking advantage of. And how much his father would be willing to assist him, if he presented before him a bride whom he truly cared for.
All these objections now being entirely swept away, Richard prepared his battle plan, informed the troops of his mind of his wishes for the outcome of the engagement, and, nine days after his cousin's attempt, set out to win the war.
He walked with Darcy to the Parsonage as usual, made the appropriate greetings to its owner, Mrs Collins and the Countess. Then, after he had seen his cousin happily installed in the company of his future bride, requested the honour of a walk with the woman he hoped to soon become his own.
They set out in the direction of Rosings, taking the path that led the way through a certain favourite grove, which Richard made sure to reach the assured solitude of, before coming to halt.
"Miss Lucas," he then began, gently taking her hands in his, "in my life I have faced many dangers, but none so treacherous, I believe, as this path." He dropped gracefully, as a credit to his profession, to one knee. "Dearest Charlotte, for that you will always be, would you do me the great honour of letting me become your husband? I know I do not have much in the way of comfort or security to offer you, but I can freely offer you my heart, which will, always, remain yours."
Charlotte smiled at him, making herself in his eyes even more beautiful, as soon as he had uttered the words which she had wished to hear. Until she had met him, she had never expected to find love, so late in her life.
While seven and twenty was considered a good age for gentlemen, for women it had the tendency to leave them on the shelf, resigning them forever to the title of old maid. Happily now, that fate was no longer to be hers. She would no longer need to feel obliged to accept any offer that came her way. Instead she could happily accept the man that she loved.
"Yes, Colonel Fitzwilliam," she now replied, still smiling down at him, "I will marry you. Indeed, there is nothing that I would like more."
He rose up from his knees to take her into his arms. "Richard, my love," he gently corrected, before kissing her.
From then onwards, events seemed to move rather quickly to Richard's eyes. He and his beloved Charlotte spent almost all the remaining daylight hours secluded in that grove, until the weather became too cold for them to remain outside any longer.
They made their way back to Rosings Park for the planned evening with his Aunt, wrapped up quite happily in each other's company, and often arms, as they told each other of their feelings, how long they had had them, when they had first noticed their attraction for each other, and their hopes for the future.
Charlotte proved to be no stranger to the life of a Colonel on active duty, displaying a knowledge that made Richard fall even more in love with her for.
So happy they were, that, as they mounted the steps to Rosings's entrance to the Drawing Room where its owner usually held court, that they forgot to anticipate that lady's reaction to the event.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh happened to turn her eyes briefly to the glass doors, in a quest for the sight of her absent nephew, and catch sight of him holding hands with Miss Lucas, and in a way that she was incapable of misunderstanding.
"Richard Arundel Fitzwilliam!" She instantly bellowed, the sound carrying perfectly through the closed doors to the man of that name previously standing, now slightly airborne, in surprise, outside.
Colonel Fitzwilliam regained his faculties rapidly. Letting go of one of Charlotte's hands, but keeping the other a happy captive, he opened the door, entered the room, and prepared himself for another war. "Yes, Aunt?" he replied, his tone laced with dangerous calm.
Lady Catherine had never encountered his temper before, and thus continued with her attack. "I ask you to explain yourself immediately!"
"Very well," Richard replied, bringing his and Charlotte's joined hands into a view accessible to all. "This afternoon, Miss Lucas made me one of the happiest men on earth, by accepting my hand in marriage."
"You have made her an offer?" Lady Catherine sought to confirm in a strident tone.
"I hope then that you will have the good sense to immediately retract it!"
"What good sense would exist in living without the woman whom I love?"
"Because honour, decorum, prudence- nay, interest, forbid it. As son of my brother, the Earl of Matlock, you can do much better than attaching yourself to the sister in law of my priest."
"In matters of future happiness, I do not believe I could do better. And that is all that matters to me, Aunt."
"Miss Lucas," Lady Catherine began, diverting her strike on her nephew for a while, "will you listen to reason? Do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends if you wilfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised by every one connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never be mentioned by any of us."
"These are heavy misfortunes," Charlotte replied, with more sarcasm than seriousness. "But as the wife of Colonel Fitzwilliam, I will have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to my situation, that I would, on the whole, have no cause to repine."
"Oh, such a girl to be my nephew's wife! Richard, can you not see what she is about? Her arts and her allurements have made you forget what you owe to yourself and your family! You are descended from ancient, respectable and noble Earldoms. Do not put them to ruin because of the upstart pretensions of a young woman without family connections or fortune! Richard, do not forget the sphere in which you were brought up!"
"On the contrary, Lady Catherine," Richard replied, his voice tempered with anger at her insults and presumption, "in marrying Charlotte I would not consider myself as quitting that sphere. I am a gentleman, she is a daughter of a knight of the realm. So far we are equal."
"But who is her mother? Who are her Uncles and Aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."
"Whatever my connections may be," Charlotte said, "if Richard does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."
"You can have nothing further to say to either of us." Richard uttered. "You have insulted us in every possible method. We are both resolved to act in a manner which constitutes our happiness, without reference to you, or to anyone else who finds a fault with this match."
"And these are your final resolves?"
"Yes," Richard and Charlotte declared in unison.
"Very well," Lady Catherine replied. "I shall know how to act." With that she swept out of the room, intent on informing her brother by express at once.
Richard lifted Charlotte's hand to his lips and bestowed a loving kiss upon it, in silent gratitude for resisting his Aunt, then turned to his cousin. "Well, Darcy," he began, "do you intend to cast me aside like our dear Aunt?"
"Quite the contrary," Darcy replied, stepping forward to take his hand, and clap him on the back. "My congratulations, Fitzwilliam. I wish you every happiness."
"As do I, cousin," Anne de Bourgh softly replied, before a sudden shout from her mother called her and Mrs Jenkinson out of the room as well.
"I am very happy for you, Charlotte," Elizabeth remarked then, advancing to embrace her friend. Maria followed suit a moment later.
"My dear!?!" Mr Collins uttered at the sight, quite at a loss as to how to act. "I really do not think that upsetting her ladyship by voicing your support to this match, is the right thing to do at this moment."
Maria paid him no mind, and Richard turned to his cousin. "How long do you think we can remain here?"
"Not very long," Darcy replied. "My town house is always at your disposal."
"May I suggest," said Elizabeth, happening to overhear the conversation, "that we return to Hertfordshire first? Stoke Edith is not too far from Bromley, and you are all welcome to stay for as long as you wish, while we acquaint Charlotte's and my family with our news?"
"That seems a better solution, thank you, dearest," Darcy replied, taking her hand, a sight that caused Mr Collins to run out of the room in search of his patroness. "I think we had best leave now, in fact, else another battle will unfold."
The day after they had returned to Hertfordshire, Charlotte and Colonel Fitzwilliam travelled to Lucas Lodge to inform her parents of the match. Delighted in having their eldest married at last, Sir William and Lady Lucas presented no objection, leaving the Colonel free to journey to town to inform his parents and his commanding officer, and procure the license. At the end of the month, the couple were married at the Barracks of the 2nd Life Guards.
The celebrations following the ceremony were held at the Matlock town house, where Society was able to meet the bride, and gossip over the sight of Mr Darcy and the Countess of Saffron Walden dancing almost every dance, and hardly ever leaving each other's side.
As for Elizabeth and Darcy themselves, the news of their courtship was kept relatively quiet. Darcy sought and obtained Mr Bennet's consent as soon as they had arrived back in Hertfordshire, but the future event had been kept from the rest of the family, and the residents of Meryton.
This was because Elizabeth knew that speculation as to why there was a long wait for the wedding would run wild, in both her family and Meryton. Mrs Bennet in particular would not understand, nor agree to a long courtship.
So they retained the previous public image of their acquaintance, frequently indulging in long walks as much as they could, seeking only Mr Bennet's company when they could not be in the private company of each other.
Elizabeth, though now able to admit to herself how much she loved her suitor, was still glad of the delay. She remembered all too well the rush to her last engagement at the altar, her mother anxious to have her made a Countess, and the Earl wanting it over before Society learned of his recent inheritance.
She and the Earl had enjoyed very little time alone before the marriage, yet another mistake that needed remedying. Secure as she was in the knowledge that Darcy would never harm her, Elizabeth still wanted a moment to face her fears and memories, as well as any other deficiencies, and gain the courage to conquer them, freeing her intended of some burdens which their union would naturally shift into his care.
She soon discovered that she could not have a better, kinder, or more worthy suitor. Within hours of being granted consent by Mr Bennet, Darcy had taken up the tenancy of Netherfield Hall, bringing his sister from town, so they had the pleasure and luxury of being within easy distance of each other, during the preparations for the Fitzwilliam Lucas alliance.
Every day they came to Stoke Edith, or Longbourn, or Lucas Lodge, depending on whether they were meant to suffer the company of others, or the privilege of themselves alone. In company they talked of trivial matters, those affairs which could be overheard without concern, reserving the intimacy of their private encounters for the gradual confession of the suffering which Elizabeth had endured.
Darcy was a patient confessor, allowing her the privilege of as much pause as she needed in her confidences, reining in his temper against the Earl when the occasion required, venting those impulses which were some times roused in fencing matches with his cousin. He comforted her when he could, tentatively continuing the improvement of her character by extensive displays of affection and compassion.
The more he heard, the more he found cause to admire her endurance, her willingness to allow herself to be vulnerable, to give her heart into another's keeping, and trust that this charger would not so cruelly damage the gift. In return for the bestowal of this favour, he took his turn at the joust, mending what scars he could, quietly biding his time with others, which only the altar and his morals prevented him from curing immediately.
When those inhabitants of Meryton who had been invited to the wedding were required to go to town, the Darcys left Netherfield for Grosvenor Square, and Elizabeth opened up her town house in Hanover for her family and Charlotte's.
This proved an arduous chore at first, for the main part of her marriage had been endured within the rooms of the town house, and for a time, not even the presence of family and friends could prevent her from remembering some facet or other of the suffering which she bore within those walls. For this difficulty however her suitor soon proposed a solution, a scheme of improvements was to be made, which would brush away the last visual reminders of such previous events.
In comparison to the celebrations afterwards, the ceremony for Richard and Charlotte was actually a quiet affair. Apart from the Lucases and the Fitzwilliams, the Darcys and Elizabeth were all who attended the event, leaving everyone else having to be content with admiring the decorations to the Matlock Ballroom at their town house. Throughout the ceremony Elizabeth feared a sudden and unlooked for encounter with memories of her own, now tainted by all that had come and gone after it. Instead however, to her great surprise, it was similar to that of Jane and Bingley's, and she found herself picturing the future, and not the past. Imagining herself and Mr Darcy at the altar, instead of remembering herself and the Earl there.
Fantasising over the loving look that he might display- rather like the one that was upon his face at this moment, as she happened to glance at him, and see him meet her gaze with one of his own -as he recited his vows, and slipped a wedding band on to her finger. Already she was forgetting her past, she realised to her joy. Her mind was looking forward willingly to another marriage.
Darcy caught the expression on his betrothed's face all through the ceremony, and inwardly smiled, sending her one of his own, containing as much of the love that he held for her as he could declare to their present company. He too, was imagining how their own would go, and the life that lay ahead of them.
As much as he was enjoying the company of his love, and the privilege of being within five miles of her home, Darcy soon found that he could no longer ignore the responsibilities that came with being master of a great estate such as Pemberley. Duty and the latter called him to Derbyshire, and he would not be the man that he was if he did not answer their call. Reluctantly, he informed his sister, his beloved, and her father of the forthcoming departure.
Elizabeth's reaction this time to their separation was not that of inwardly held relief. Unlike when he had left for town after Bingley and Jane's wedding some months ago, she did not find herself looking upon the departure as a welcome chance to sort out her conflicted feelings. For her feelings were no longer in such a state.
Instead, they had straightened themselves out, and had come to form one satisfying conclusion. Put simply, she was in love. She loved him. He had proved himself to be a kind and generous man, with the frequently declared- either in vocal solemn vows, or silent earnestness -intention of being devoted to her for the rest of his life. She had no reason to doubt his behaviour to her changing upon the moment they were married, save perhaps her own insecurity concerning herself, which was lessening with every day spent in his company.
He truly was the best man she had ever known. He had not once pushed his advances upon her, nor pressured her in any way. Instead, he had waited patiently, until she felt ready to declare her feelings for him of her own accord. Nor had he turned away once he was aware of her desire to delay the marriage for a while, or insisted that it be as soon as possible and announced to all who knew them, but he had proposed such a decision and stood by it. It was the first time Elizabeth had felt such a freedom like that, and its result had increased her trust of him, and raised her self-esteem even more.
On the penultimate day before his departure, Darcy met her walking the fields between Netherfield and Stoke Edith, by prearranged agreement. He had desired his last full day in Hertfordshire to be spent in her company alone, and she had willingly consented to desiring the same thing.
Taking her hand to his lips, he bestowed his usual greeting kiss upon its soft skin, before gently pulling her closer to him. Gazing tenderly into her fine eyes, he sought and received, permission to greet her more lovingly, and bent his head to let his lips catch her own.
Keeping the kissed hand captive, he let his other one come up to cup her face, caressing her cheek and the edge of her jawbone, tangling with the dark locks of her hair which were arranged around her face. He tried to keep it chaste, but her willing participation in it, along with his own knowledge that he would be leaving tomorrow, was putting up a formidable resistance. His hands got as far as caressing her shoulders, when he realised restraint was needed. Reluctantly, he gently pulled away.
Taking her hand in his own once more, Darcy gestured at the path with his other, and Elizabeth nodded in silent consent. They walked on, in the direction of Oakham Mount. He begun the conversation, allowing her time to gather her emotions from the kiss, deliberately refraining from referring to his departure on the morrow; partly out of a desire to control his own desires, and partly out of a wish for her to continue to feel safe in his company.
It was a general introduction to a discussion, featuring nothing more exciting than the events of a work he had recently read, recommended by her. As guessed by her, he had enjoyed it very much, suspecting that he would, knowing how well-matched their tastes were in that pastime.
As they discussed their views of the book, Elizabeth tried not to let her thoughts dwell on his upcoming departure. The kiss that they had just shared was nothing like she had ever experienced before. They had kissed prior to today, but he had always been careful to keep it tender but chaste, anxious not to pressure her by his passion for her, as he had once explained to her.
Today's had been the first time when he had let his control collapse for a while. And the difference was instantly noticeable. She had felt his passion first with surprise then with excitement, and then, an ability to return it with a passion of her own. Before, she had always felt threatened by any sort of affection like that, when the Earl was alive, his will bruising any love she might have had for him away, as he forced her to submit to his wants.
Yet with Darcy, her feelings were entirely different. She felt an attraction to him. A need to return the kiss with the same degree of emotion as he displayed to her. She even wanted to increase the emotion wrapped up in it, and perhaps see if more delights lay beyond the kiss. She was in love. There was no other explanation for it.
The walk to Oakham Mount was not long. When they had reached its summit, Darcy brought them both to a stop, and turned to face her. "I shall be leaving tomorrow," he stated sadly, "early in the morning. I will write to you every day, if you will allow me such a privilege."
"Very much," Elizabeth felt herself replying before she was fully aware of it, blushing as a result. "I might reply as well, if you wish me to."
"Indeed I do," he assured her, his tone almost resembling a wedding vow, though her promise to reply to him was more than he had hoped for, not wishing to pressure her.
"How long do you think you will be?" Elizabeth asked.
"All matters will be dealt with, I hope, by early to mid-August. I wish it could be shorter, but it cannot be so. I ought to observe the preparations for the start of the harvest, and there are accounts that I must catch up on with my steward, along with the settlements to arrange on you, my love."
He placed a finger on her lips, forestalling any objections. "And no word about whether you deserve or need a settlement. In my opinion, it is no less than you deserve. I wish us to be equal partners in this marriage, Elizabeth. In everything."
She could do naught but blush and smile at that sentiment. His fingers seemed in no hurry to leave her face, exploring it as one would a fine object of art; gently, tenderly, and with almost worshipful devotion. Unable to move, and not wanting to even if she could, Elizabeth watched him, seeing his expression gradually change, as he explored a new facet, and her willingness to let him continue.
She soon became locked in his eyes, as their dark brown tones gazed into hers, conveying all the love he felt for her. Willingly, she returned it, showing him all her feelings for him, knowing that he would need them during the separation they would soon have to bear.
Darcy received and understood her feelings, his eyes gazing into hers. He felt an overwhelming joy at having earned her trust and built up her confidence enough for him to receive this wonderful gift. She loved him, he could see that now, as much as he did her.
He had always hoped, had been content to have her close friendship, but had not been able to help rejoicing at every sign that she possessed a hint of the depth of love he felt for her. And now she returned his emotion just as deeply. He wanted to kiss her again, but knew already that it would cause him to lose his control and they would go further than he wished before their marriage.
So he settled instead, for stroking her face, fingering its smooth skin. Exploring her pink lips. Marvelling over how far they had come in such a short time. At how much she felt for him, and the confidence she now possessed to willingly display it to him.
Imagining what the future held for them, after they had tied the knot. Picturing their life at Pemberley, and how happy he felt it would be. Most of all, he carefully recorded every facet of her expression, so he would have a perfect memory of how he had last seen her, to keep him alive during the months to come.
Trying, above all else, to not think of when he would have to part from her company, and leave on a carriage bound for Derbyshire. It was the first time that he had not wanted to see Pemberley. Unless of course, he arrived with her in his arms.
The first week of Darcy's absence was soon gone. The second began. It also held the dubious title of being the last week of the Regiment's stay, for Colonel Forster had received orders to take up camp in Brighton, a location which, once the news had reached the ears of Longbourn, Kitty, Lydia and Mrs Bennet had all expressed an almost violent enthusiasm to see. All its delights were aired, all its benefits as to health attested. Mrs Bennet even declared at one point that it would be just the thing to settle her nerves.
But Mr Bennet would not grant such an endeavour, causing his family to suffer along with the rest of the ladies who were similarly affected. The dejection was almost universal, and all the young ladies in the neighbourhood were drooping apace. Mary Bennet and Countess alone were still able to eat, drink, and sleep, and pursue the usual course of their employments. Very frequently were they reproached for this insensibility by Kitty and Lydia, whose own misery was extreme, and who could not comprehend such hard heartedness in any of the family.
"Good Heaven! What is to become of us! What are we to do!" would they often exclaim in the bitterness of woe. "How can you be smiling so, Lizzy?"
Their affectionate mother shared all their grief; she remembered what she had herself endured on a similar occasion, five and twenty years ago.
"I am sure," said she, "I cried for two days together when Colonel Millar's regiment went away. I thought I should have broke my heart."
"I am sure I shall break mine," said Lydia.
"If one could but go to Brighton!" observed Mrs Bennet.
"Oh yes! - if one could but go to Brighton! But papa is so disagreeable."
"A little sea bathing would set me up forever."
"And my aunt Philips is sure it would do me a great deal of good," added Kitty.
Such were the kind lamentations resounding perpetually through Longbourn House. But the gloom of Lydia's prospect was shortly cleared away; for she received an invitation from Mrs Forster, to accompany her to Brighton. This invaluable friend was a very young woman, and very lately married. A resemblance in good humour and good spirits had recommended her and Lydia to each other, and out of their three months' acquaintance they had been intimate two.
The rapture of Lydia on this occasion, her adoration of Mrs Forster, the delight of Mrs Bennet and the mortification of Kitty, are scarcely to be described. Wholly inattentive to her sister's feelings, Lydia flew about the house in restless ecstasy, calling for everyone's congratulations and laughing and talking with more violence than ever, whilst the luckless Kitty continued in the parlour, repining at her fate in terms as unreasonable as her accent was peevish.
"I cannot see why Mrs Forster should not ask me as well as Lydia," said she, "though I am not her particular friend. I have just as much right to be asked as she has, and more too, for I am two years older."
In vain did Elizabeth attempt to make her reasonable and resigned. For herself, this invitation was so far from exciting in her the same feelings as in her mother and Lydia, that she considered it as the death warrant of all possibility of common sense for the latter; and detestable as such a step must make her were it known, she could not help secretly advising her father not to let her go. She represented to him all the improprieties of Lydia's general behaviour, the little advantage she could derive from the friendship of such a woman as Mrs Forster, and the probability of her being yet more imprudent with such a companion at Brighton, where the temptations must be greater than at home.
He heard her attentively, and though expressing the opinion that Lydia would never be easy till she had exposed herself in some public place or other, and that they could never expect her to do it with so little expense or inconvenience to her family as under the present circumstances, he agreed with her desire to forbid his youngest daughter that privilege. One battalion of soldiers had been quite enough in his opinion, and he had no wishes to force an entire camp-full to endure any member of his family.
Lydia then promptly threw a fit when her father calmly announced that she had neither his blessing nor his permission to accept the invitation.
"I would not trust you as far as Eastbourne," he said. "Not for fifty pounds."
Lydia ranted and raved, Mrs Bennet ranted and raved, but he stood firm.
After the first fortnight or three weeks of the regiment's absence, health, good humour and cheerfulness began to reappear at Longbourn and everything wore a happier aspect. By the middle of June Kitty, was so much recovered to be able to enter Meryton without tears; an event of such happy promise as to make Elizabeth hope that by the following Christmas, she might be so tolerably reasonable as not to mention an officer above once a day, unless by some cruel and malicious arrangement at the War office, another regiment should be quartered at Meryton.
For Lydia however, there was little respite. In her imagination a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.
To be denied such a privilege was a most grievous sorrow and her indignation could hardly find expression in her violent volubility. In her mother she might have found a similar melancholy conviction, but Mrs Bennet was no longer concerned with anything that might have to do with a scarlet coat. Bingley and Jane had sent news from Pearlcoombe of a forthcoming addition to their family, which had taken up all her interest.
As for Elizabeth, distraction came for her as well, for the time fixed for the beginning of her and the Gardiners' Northern tour was now fast approaching; and a fortnight only was wanting of it, when a letter arrived from Mrs Gardiner, which at once delayed its commencement and curtailed its extent.
Mr Gardiner would be prevented by business from setting out till a fortnight later in July, and must be in London again within a month; and as that left too short a period for them to go so far, and see so much as they had proposed, or at least to see it with the leisure and comfort they had built on, they were obliged to give up the Lakes, and substitute a more contracted tour; and, according to the present plan, were to go no farther northward than Derbyshire.
In that county, there was enough to be seen, to occupy the chief of their three weeks; and to Mrs Gardiner it had a peculiarly strong attraction. The town where she had formerly passed some years of her life, and where they were now to spend a few days, was probably as great an object of her curiosity, as all the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Dovedale, or the Peaks.
This new destination was aired to their niece, and Elizabeth could not look upon it with more joy. Derbyshire. To Derbyshire they were to go. Even more propitious, they were to reside for a time in the town of Lambton, where her Aunt had passed some years of her life. And Lambton was but five miles from Pemberley.
It was with delight that Elizabeth informed Georgiana and her brother of this news, and their replies were filled with equal amounts of that same emotion. Darcy went even further, including an invitation to Pemberley for herself and the Gardiners, and a request that they stay there the entire time they had chosen to spend in Lambton. Elizabeth wrote to her Aunt, and the invitation was eagerly accepted.
She also wrote of another piece of significant news in her final letter to Darcy from Stoke Edith. Not only did she feel confident enough now to declare her feelings of love for him, but she also wished to inform her family of their courtship. Darcy heartily consented to the news, and voiced his wishes for the wedding to be at Pemberley, which Elizabeth promised to consider.
She spoke to her father as soon as she had his reply, and Mr Bennet announced the match the night of the Gardiner's arrival at Longbourn. Mrs Bennet was all a flutter. One daughter expecting, and now her second was to marry again, and to a gentleman of wealth almost equal to her last suitor, with only the title lacking. Lydia's misery was now wholly ignored by her, as Mrs Bennet continued to talk over her excitement concerning both future events, and commenting how well 'Elizabeth Darcy, Countess of Saffron Walden' sounded.
The Gardiners stayed but one night at Longbourn and then the trio departed the next day for Derbyshire. All the beauties along the way did they take time to view; Warwick, Kenilworth, Matlock, Dovedale, the Peaks and Chatsworth. To the little town of Kympton, a few miles from Lambton and from Pemberley, was to where they bent their steps, for it was as far as they could reach in order to ensure arriving at Pemberley early the next day. The part of the journey that was spent in the carriage, was much taken up by Elizabeth explaining to her Aunt and Uncle all that they had missed concerning herself and Darcy, since their last acquaintance with him, that evening at the theatre in town, the night before she had left for Hunsford.
Elizabeth was happy to relate to them almost every detail, her sensibilities in need of a distraction from the nervous anticipation presently inside her mind, as her heart counted the hours until it would be reunited with its other half, which had left when a certain person had quitted Netherfield almost three months ago. She could still not quite believe it had been that long since she had last seen her betrothed.
Elizabeth wondered how he was faring, if he was experiencing the same suffering as herself, and the same anticipation for her arrival. She was very grateful that he had invited, without any prompting, the Gardiners to stay with herself at his estate.
This was again a contrast to the Earl, who had forbidden Elizabeth permission to have any of her relatives to stay while they were married. Elizabeth could still remember the time she had tried with all her will to persuade him to let her visit Gracechurch street. She had submitted to every ghastly whim of his, every injury to her body, yet still achieved nothing in return, save for further misery and disappointment.
But that was the past, Elizabeth reminded herself as she went to bed in Kympton that night. The present was very different. She had the most excellent man, who loved her like no other. And whom she loved just as powerfully in return.
She fell asleep dreaming of their last meeting, and how his kiss had felt upon her lips.
"Sir? the Countess of Saffron Walden and Mr and Mrs Gardiner have arrived."
Darcy was out of his chair the moment he heard her name. Paying only a quick 'thank you' to his butler, he ran out of his Study, along the corridor, down the flight of stairs, and landed deftly on the floor of the Entrance Hall. Moving to one of the ornamental mirrors, he straightened his waistcoat and jacket, and adjusted his cravat. Running a hand through his hair, he resumed a more dignified pace to the doors, and opened them.
"Lady Saffron Walden," he began, taking her hand and raising it to his lips for a loving kiss, the only such gesture he could do in public. "Mr and Mrs Gardiner," he greeted the both of them by shaking their hands. "Welcome to Pemberley. If you will follow me, I have arranged for tea in the Drawing Room."
Leading the way, Darcy dropped back to his beloved's side once they had entered the room, taking the hand that he had previously kissed captive in his own. "Have you any idea how much I have missed you?" He whispered in her ear, the tone of his voice displaying quite clearly how glad he was to see her.
"If it is anything like how much I have missed you, then my absence must have been terrible," Elizabeth replied in the same lowered tone.
"Torturing," he assured her solemnly.
At that moment they were forced to separate a little, as Georgiana entered from the Music Room. Happily she greeted Elizabeth and the Gardiners, as conversation turned to the normal discussions one has whenever one arrives at a new place; such as was your journey dreadful or pleasant? Did you find the place without any difficulty? How have you enjoyed your time sightseeing and travelling so far? All these questions and more were aired, while the guests enjoyed the delights of a Pemberley tea.
When they had partaken of enough refreshment, Darcy offered to give them a tour of the house and grounds, a suggestion which was eagerly consented to. Indeed, Elizabeth was already pleased with what she had seen so far. In fact, she had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
Already she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something! All the estates she had inherited from the Earl seemed to pale in comparison. True, their grounds were extensive, their mansions ancient and well-established, but, save perhaps Blisstham and Stoke Edith, most were gaudy, uselessly fine, and with more splendour than elegance, resembling Rosings, rather than Pemberley.
They left the Drawing Room, and entered the Music Room next door. There Elizabeth saw how much musical talent was loved by the family. A large Broadwood Grand pianoforte stood in the corner by the window. A short distance away, set as if someone had just ceased playing it, stood a handsome harp. Large elegant sofas flanked the fireplace, to allow others to listen to the performance, while other instruments lay in display cases placed by the walls.
Georgiana took great delight in showing Elizabeth the pianoforte, informing her that it had just come down, a present from her generous brother, who was also proficient upon the instrument as well. Elizabeth looked up to see the truth of it in his blushing face. Lingering behind her Aunt and Uncle, who had wandered into the next room, Elizabeth held her place by the stool beside the instrument, until Darcy came up to her.
"I don't suppose you would care to furnish me with a demonstration?" she asked, gesturing at the sheets of music before them. "I'm sure the Gardiners will not mind if we rejoined the tour later. And your sister is a proficient guide, I am sure." She was concerned he would refuse her, but there was no hesitation as he sat down.
"If Georgie does require assistance, I know she will call for Mrs Reynolds," he replied by way of acceptance. Elizabeth reached around his shoulders to sort out a piece of music, but he forestalled her arms. "No, if you please, I have something in mind, that I know well enough to play without prompt." He gestured to the chair nearby.
Elizabeth sat down, and nodded to show that she was ready. Darcy began. After the first few notes, she recognised the piece, but then forgot whatever reference it might have to her, him, or their relationship, for she was entirely caught up in his playing. She had seen his sister perform with taste, love and artistry, but not with such genius or emotion as he.
It was almost as if he had been there when Beethoven was composing it. He seemed to have a connection with the piece, an almost intimate understanding of its notes and sound. Never had she been so completely caught up, so utterly bewitched by a performance, even from the best concerts she had heard in London. She did not want it to end.
When Darcy had played the final note, he looked up and across to his beloved, wonderment coming over his features, as he saw the expression on her face. It was as if all her love for him was written upon her, spelled out in her fine eyes, in a language that all could see, but at the moment only he was privy to. Since the death of his mother, he had rarely bestowed a demonstration of his proficiency at the pianoforte to anyone.
Before Elizabeth, only his sister had known that he still practised the talent. Playing to anyone else had, until now, felt like too much of an intimacy. Like displaying a part of himself that he would rather keep from the rest of the world. Yet it was easy playing to Elizabeth. He did not mind revealing the whole of his character to her. In fact, he revelled in the knowledge that he could, for the rest of his life.
"That was beautiful," Elizabeth finally remarked, before naming the piece.
"I am glad you were able to recognise it," Darcy replied. "I know my playing of it will never match the composer."
"I think I would be inclined to disagree," Elizabeth said, smiling, "for your performance was masterful. I had no idea you could play, until Georgiana informed me. Even then, I never thought you would be so accomplished in such artistry and genius as you have displayed."
"My mother taught me when I was young," he explained. "When a tutor was hired for Georgiana, she asked if I could take his instruction as well. I kept it up throughout my youth and education. Only Georgiana knows however, that I can play. I have never admitted so to anyone else."
Elizabeth understood immediately, from the emotions cascading across his face, that he had no wish to do so in the future either. "Will you play for me again sometime?"
"Whenever you wish," he vowed earnestly.
When Darcy and Elizabeth caught up with the Gardiners and his sister, the tour of the house was almost over, leaving only the ten mile round grounds to view. Darcy showed them the quickest way out of the house, then proceeded to give them a tour of the gardens, starting with the sunken Dutch quarter that stood next to the house.
He had been an excellent guide inside the house, now he proved to display just as thorough a knowledge outside as well. He laid out the history, naming which of his ancestors had made which additions, and where each plant that caught any of his listeners' interest had come from.
Elizabeth stayed by his side all the while, enjoying every moment of the tour. Since her arrival Pemberley had risen even higher in her admiration. Every step showed to her a more nobler fall of ground than the last, and the fine woods which surrounded the estate, ones which she had longed to explore the moment she had first set eyes on them, were not only coming within her grasp, but were also proving as much of a temptation to see as the rest of the estate.
They had reached those woods, bidding adieu to the river for awhile, ascending some of the higher grounds; when, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, with the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream, when Mr Gardiner expressed a desire of going round the whole park.
Mrs Gardiner however, was not a great walker, and requested for a delay of such a venture. Their host voiced the suggestion of arranging a carriage to cater for such a trip on the morrow, which was happily consented to before all turned to walk back to the house.
Once there, Elizabeth was able to procure some time alone with the Darcys for a while, as she finished changing for dinner at a faster pace than her Aunt and Uncle. As they talked together in the Library, she began to get a feel as to how her married life would turn out, in this quiet and peaceful estate, with a wonderful sister in law, and an excellent husband.
Very rarely had she known such harmony. Even when she had been alone in the town house of her late husband, while he was away at his clubs, she had not once felt this sort of peaceful calm. It was almost as if Pemberley held an enchantment over people that other estates or houses could not.
That, by mere virtue of its location in a valley, it was hidden from the rest of the world. Nothing bad seemed to touch it, and Elizabeth doubted that anything could. It had a call as powerful as any siren's, yet with none of the deadly affects.
She felt herself slip into its allurement, and willingly consented to being swept away. Already, her heart wanted to stay forever.
Note: Moonlight Sonata otherwise known as Sonata No. 14 in C# minor (1801) is the piece which Darcy plays. Beethoven dedicated the piece to a Countess with whom he was in love, however, as I have recently discovered, it gained that name long after this story was set, around the 1830s.
It was perhaps fortunate that Mr and Mrs Gardiner belonged to those kind of people who were quite capable of amusing themselves when the occasion called for it, for an outsider could easily observe over the days they spent upon the estate of Pemberley, that they were rarely in the company of their niece or their host.
The house and grounds had a certain quality to them which made one instantly feel at home, and their owner minded not that his guests were not of the kind who wished for his daily company. He was quite content in being left to his own devices, and as those always included their niece, the Gardiners saw no reason to object at all.
Indeed, Darcy made sure that he was rarely without Elizabeth. He had missed her exceedingly these endless months- had it really been only just three, it had seemed like so much more -and now that she was here, he was determined to be with her as much as possible.
He also hoped that her evident love of Pemberley- something else that he was most pleased about -would encourage her consent to his dream of their marriage taking place in the chapel on the estate before the end of the month. While he would never rush her, and only wished for her happiness above his own, he wanted the rest of their lives together to begin as soon as possible.
But that would not happen until she granted permission, and so he made himself settle for spending what hours he could spend in her company without overstepping the boundaries of their courtship.
The settling was not too arduous a trial however. Its blessings were many. He could sit with her, near enough to be able to claim her hand in order to bestow a loving kiss whenever he felt the inclination, which was more than often. He was able to look upon her with open admiration as much as he wanted, he could kiss her, caress her face, linger with his fingers upon her bare arms as far as the confines of her dress would allow him, and there was where his pleasures ended. Compared to before though, when he had only been able to look and not touch, the pleasure this present luxury afforded him was beyond expression.
Even if the temptation to go further put a strain upon his usually formidable control. Added to this, they were at Pemberley, an estate he had known to call his own ever since his majority, where he had always dreamed her to be, as his wife, from the moment he had fallen in love with her.
A place he knew perhaps too intimately, and one that perhaps he had entirely too much free rein over; for he could be alone with her there, in any room or any part of the grounds, and no one would know where they were. Which was probably why his parents and tutors had seen fit to install within his character a strong reliance on morals, and a thorough knowledge of right and wrong.
If Elizabeth knew of the constant struggle for control over his emotions within her suitor's head, she showed nothing of it. To her ever constant ardent suitor, she always appeared content and beautiful. Darcy was also pleased to see what he had been told by her father, and what somehow he had intuitively known himself, which was the emergence of her true self from the mask which her first marriage had forced upon her.
While he knew that he also wore a mask, he also knew that it always came off around those whom he held most dear; a distinction which for a time his most dearly held had lacked, and one, which now, he was most glad to see slipping day by day.
During the idyllic days of their courtship upon his lands, he, if it were possible, became even more fascinated by her. Her laughter became more frequent and more bewitching to him, her talent for wit became more evident and more confidently displayed, helped by his truly displayed taste and appreciation for it.
As for Elizabeth herself, she too grew to wish the days spent in his company and on his estate would last forever. She soon established that all he was waiting for to make it so was her consent, which as her pleasure in the days spent thus continued, was appearing all the more easier and all the more tempting for her to give.
Her desire for a more perfect courtship than her last seemed now almost silly, as she found herself wishing at the end of her time with him, that it was not the end for another day. Her fear it seemed had gone, and in its place was the sometimes undeniable temptation to push beyond those boundaries that society and custom dictated to be in place for those not yet wed. Especially as she could, confidently, now surmise what would come when they were, her previous experience having at least given her that much. Each time he kissed her, she never wanted it to end.
One day they were outside, enjoying the glorious summer that the estate had seemed to have attracted. By themselves, situated in one of the many secret little nooks that Pemberley's ten mile round estate contained, and one which only he seemed to have knowledge of, for nothing disturbed them except the condition of the sunlight.
Beneath them was a blanket to protect their clothes from any telltale grassy marks, and beside a small picnic basket, which the kitchen staff kindly provided them with. The book they had brought as a prop for their excuse, had long been closed and laid aside, in favour of their present, and far more pleasing occupation.
Together they lay, side by side, their lips and tongues engaged in a loving duel. His hands were entangled in her hair, which had long since come part down from the simple style it had been in, while her own traced his face and his equally unruly curls. They remained thus until the need to breathe awoke within them, whereupon he would move to adorn the rest of her face or neck with tender kisses.
"I love you," he repeated, three words she could not seem to get enough of, nor did he seem to tire of saying, and they would be followed by the passing of an intense, passionate look, carried back and forth between their eyes. Such display of emotion would inevitably bring about another kiss to their lips, and the whole loving cycle would begin again, until their mouths were swollen from the emotion exchanged.
"Fitzwilliam," Elizabeth began, upon one of those occasions when he was engaged in kissing and drawing circles upon her bare arms.
"Mhm," was all she received in reply, as he found his present task too delightful to end for a moment.
"How long, do you think, it would take to prepare for a wedding?"
For minute he did not seem to catch her meaning, continuing to kiss and caress her. Then he abruptly stilled, staring down at the arm which he had just ceased worshipping, replaying her words in his mind, until he realised that it was not his imagination. Wordlessly at first did he look up, gazing at her in awe.
"As long," he said, "as it would take for me to travel down to Longbourn, procure the consent of your father, gain the license, and assemble our families here. The end of the month, perhaps sooner." He cupped her face and gazed earnestly into her eyes. "Do you truly desire it, my love?"
"I do," she answered him, "I feel now that it cannot come soon enough."
He kissed her adoringly, his quest for control slipping in view of the knowledge which he had just gained, and the happiness which it had brought. When, at last he had to withdraw, she was lying beneath him, and his stretched arms were all that separated them from the full contact of their clothed forms.
She did not mind the position it seemed, for her eyes had still not left his own, and were displaying a happiness that neither of them had probably ever felt before.
"If only," said he, "there were no need for licences, and our relatives could be here within the day. Then we could wed now. I am not looking forward to parting from your side for another week, even though it will bring us the rest of our lives together."
"If all our future days are too spent so wonderfully, I heartily agree," she replied.
"Oh, I am determined to make sure that they will be so," he assured her, lowering his arms to a half bend at his elbows so he could be nearer her fine eyes. "I want nothing of the sadness that you had before to ever become between us. Our lives will be idyllic. Of that I am certain. You shall have nothing to fear ever again."
"I know it," she replied solemnly, "somehow how I know it for sure."
He kissed her one final time in that position, and then they wisely reverted themselves to how they were lying before. Quietly they sketched out their future, planning the days after the ceremony which they would spend by themselves here, and the children they wanted to continue their lines.
Darcy carefully positioned himself so his body would not give away his presently vivid imagination, as he pictured their future. Their long honeymoon, and how they would spend it. How she would look when she told him she was quickening. How she would dazzle Society and himself arrayed in the family jewels which he planned to shower upon her from the moment they walked out of the chapel together, never to part again.
Not once had he thought of the fact that he would be gaining more wealth than he had publicly previously possessed- for he had always made sure to never let Society know that he actually earned considerably more than ten thousand pound per annum -or the title that, due to the peculiarity of the Earldom she held, he would gain along with it.
Such material things had long since become insignificant, in favour of the woman who held them. He would have married her if she had nothing, of that he was certain. Quite simply, she was the other half of his soul, and without her in the rest of his life, he would be incomplete.
But all of that was yet to come. Tomorrow he would need to part from her in order to arrange it all, so these last few hours of the daylight should not be wasted by such imagining that which reality would undoubtedly prove even better than what their creative eyes could supply. So he kissed her again, and let the world fade away.
About eight days later, Fitzwilliam Darcy stood before one of the ornamental mirrors which adorned the corridor leading to Pemberley's Chapel, adjusting his cravat. The fingering was a nervous movement, brought on entirely by his constant desire to make sure that this day was actually occurring, and was not a part of the endless dreams which he had been having ever since he first laid eyes on the woman he was now to spend the rest of his life with.
Now he turned from the mirror to the window opposite, commanding his mind to recall the events of the previous days. After Elizabeth had given her consent to the wedding, he and his household had been much occupied in the preparations that such an event required.
He had not left Pemberley until the next morning, reluctant to part from his betrothed, and sensible of the pointlessness in departing from his home only hours before the night came upon the county. However, even that morning departure had brought with it considerable loathing, and only the reminder of what would result from it, made it worth enduring.
He had taken a great deal on good faith by travelling down to Longbourn via London, where he procured the license, and informed the Matlocks. Still did he hold his breath upon arriving in Hertfordshire, and sequestering himself in his future father in law's study, paced the floor repeatedly until Mr Bennet had entered.
Being an intelligent man, Mr Bennet determined immediately what had brought the taciturn suitor of his favourite down from Derbyshire and away from her side, and did not hesitate in delivering his consent to the ceremony being conducted at Pemberley. Seeing also his future son in law's evident desire to be on their way, he immediately informed his dear lady wife, and remaining children of the happy event. Remarkably, the entire party was able to depart from Longbourn within the hour.
The return journey was, to the great relief of all concerned, mercifully short. No mishaps of overturned carriages, or any other sudden unforeseen events of that kind occurred, enabling Darcy and the Bennets to arrive at Pemberley well before they had been expected by both daughters awaiting them.
The Bingleys had by now also arrived for the ceremony from Pearlcoombe, a circumstance which allowed the future bride and groom the opportunity to greet each other in private after their brief separation. The Matlocks arrived a day later, followed by the Collinses, who had left Kent in somewhat of a rush, as their patroness had reacted as would be expected to the blessed event.
All that had occurred over the course of eight days, and now Darcy was counting down the minutes to what would surely be the happiest moment of his life. In another part of the house, his bride was engaged with her sisters, Georgiana, Mrs Richard Fitzwilliam and Mrs Collins.
Thus it left Darcy with nothing to do but pace or stand nervously in wait, until his groomsmen came to inform him that all was ready for the ceremony to begin. He could not understand why he was so nervous. He had been waiting and imagining this moment from the day she had accepted his proposal. The only difference now was, that it was actually happening.
Perhaps his anxiousness was due to the nightmare he had in the early hours of this day. About the ceremony progressing perfectly until the Earl had walked into the chapel to claim back his wife. His sense of reality had been so disturbed by that dream that he had resorted to writing a short note to his intended the minute he woke up, requesting an instant reply.
Fortunately, Elizabeth had seen nothing but romance in the gesture, and he now had an example of her fine penmanship locked away in the bureau in his bedchamber. His memory of this comfort would have to console him for now, as there was no time to go and fetch it from its drawer before the ceremony started.
A click sounded, unnaturally loud in the silent corridor, and Darcy turned from the window to encounter the face of his cousin. Colonel Fitzwilliam smiled knowingly at the mask of control the master of Pemberley instantly produced for display. Having been in the same position as his friend only a few months ago, he knew exactly what Darcy was experiencing right now. "The moment has come, Darcy. It is time for you to greet your blushing bride."
His cousin allowed his mask to drop for a brief moment, as a smile graced his features. Then he stepped away from the window, and joined Fitzwilliam by the door. With a careful stride, Darcy followed the Colonel to the door which led to the Chapel, then down the short flight of stairs to the altar.
He acknowledged the priest of Lambton parish with a nod, then turned his head to the entrance as the music began. His eyes captured those which, since the evening at Lucas Lodge, had always fascinated him, holding them within his own until their owner had come to join him before the altar. Mr Bennet released his daughter to him, Darcy met her eyes one final time, then turned to face the reverend.
The hour was at last upon them.
Elizabeth lifted her face to meet his own, inwardly smiling as his lips entwined her own in mutual celebration of their union. Unlike her first time at the altar, the ceremony had seemed to last forever, making her notion of time entirely at odds when the end came. Since their lips had joined, the world had faded away for her, and she could hear nothing, feel nothing but the form of her husband next to her.
His hands drifted from their original position about her face to her hair, then reluctantly withdrew, as the priest politely coughed to remind them where they were. With a long look to each other, Darcy took her hand and led her out into the summer sunshine which was currently enhancing Pemberley's natural beauty.
Around them, guests threw flower petals, but Elizabeth only had eyes for her Fitzwilliam. His mask had been entirely done away with, in favour of the smile upon his face. He looked very pleased with himself, and she could not deny feeling the same way.
This time but a year ago, she had been despairing of ever finding happiness after the passing of the Earl. Little had she known that she was but a few months away from achieving that emotion, for the rest of her life. She let her free hand seek out his, blushing when she discovered that his own had been bent on the same notion.
The joining of their hands led to another look being exchanged between them, and once more did Elizabeth feel the power of their elation increasing. Her mind recalled the doubts she had once entertained, regarding their existence now with disbelief.
The man beside her now was a complete contrast to the one that had gone before him. She smiled as her thoughts recalled the latest example of his goodness; sending the dressmakers from town to the estate, who had made the wedding gown she was now attired in. That gesture had been followed by another: the arrival of a mysterious parcel to her room one morning, which turned out to be the jewels his mother had worn upon her wedding day; a beautiful sapphire necklace, and separate sapphires to adorn her hair.
Then had followed the arrival of himself, along with her family. Lastly, had been his note of this morning, sent to reassure his anxiousness. It had also done the same for herself. She had been pleased to discover that her night was not the only night to be plagued by doubts and fears. She had also dreamt of the Earl coming back to life and putting a end to all her hopes. The scene had been so real that she had awakened calling for Darcy, only to receive her sister Jane instead.
Mrs Bingley had still been present when the note had arrived and had the relief of seeing her sister's face light up as soon as she had read it. The note had been everything she had could have hoped for, calming her mind immediately with its loving terms. Like the letters he penned during their brief separation when he had been required at his estate, it had spoken to her heart, and answered with his own.
They entered the house, where they had to part briefly, in order for them to comb the petals from their clothes, for her to adjust the veil so it would not get in the way for the dancing that was to come. Elizabeth made her way to her new chambers, the rooms of the mistress of the house, where she took the opportunity to take out the note again, and peruse its contents once more.
My dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,
I write this in the hope that I have not dreamt the past year, and that you will join me in a few hours in Pemberley's chapel, and become my wife.
Last night my mind dreamt our ceremony already here, but overturned, as the late Earl came back from the dead to destroy you and our happiness.
I awoke calling your name, only to confront the emptiness of my chambers. Anxiously, I sat up and with my eyes sought, and found, the evidence of my wedding suit, waiting for me to don.
My mind however, would not be satisfied by such material considerations, causing me to rise and write you this note.
After such a nightmare, I could not risk the fates by visiting you in person, so the form of written words will have to suffice for the both of us.
Upon this day, I love more than words can say, it seems, a love which has grown with each passing minute, with every passing hour.
Your fine eyes begin my every dream. I long to caress your wondrous hair, your smooth skin. To cradle you in my arms forever.
I am counting hours down, my love. My heart, along with every breath in my body, hopes that you are doing the same.
Elizabeth found herself blushing again as she finished reading the note, just as Sarah announced that she was ready to return to the celebrations once more. She entered the corridor to find the author of the recently read note waiting for her. She smiled as he did, and took the hand that had reached out for hers.
"Have I told you how beautiful you look, Elizabeth?" he asked in a soft, husky tone, which somehow conveyed all the love he felt for her. Their intimacy was emphasised and lingered upon, and he seemed very glad to utter it, just as she was glad to hear it.
"For you look very, very, beautiful. So much so, that I could not wait for you to come down. I had to come to you." He stepped closer to her, leading her into his arms. "Right now, I wish all the guests were gone, and we could return to your room."
Elizabeth blushed, but for once, felt no fear accompanying that redness to her cheeks. He would be the husband she had always wished for, of that she could be certain.