JA quotes and intro

"I should infinitely prefer a book." -- Chapter 39, Pride and Prejudice
"...I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit..." -- Chapter 8, Pride and Prejudice
"I shall be glad to have the library to myself as soon as may be." -- Chapter 20, Pride and Prejudice

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Note: Some stories include direct quotes from Austen's works, and there is the occasional nod to one or other of the adaptations.

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A Great Coxcomb, Parts 1 - 5 (May-July 2017)
A Little Alteration: Mrs. Forster's Friend (October 2016)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Old and New Attachments (Expanded Version)


(2010)
Sense and Sensibility
“May Is for Merriment”
Mrs. Smith offers Willoughby a choice.



“John.” Mrs. Smith nodded to Willoughby. “Sit down. I have received a letter from Mrs. Rutledge.”

Willoughby had no idea who the lady was. “I hope she is well.”

“She is tolerable. Her news, however, is scandalous.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

“You ought to be, as it principally involves you.”

“In what way?” He could not fathom how that could be, considering that he and the lady were not even acquainted.

“What were you thinking, dallying with the daughter of a gentleman, the ward of a gentleman?”

Genuinely confused, he made no answer. He hoped that Sophia was not playing some trick. Daughter of a gentleman! Fresh from the taint of trade she was, having been foisted upon the Ellisons at the death of her father. She had gone so far as to hint of marriage when last they met. They had shared a few kisses, but no more than that. He owed her nothing and would not be drawn in by her schemes. He had found something better, after all, just when he had begun to doubt he ever would.

“Does the name Eliza Williams mean nothing to you?”

“Eliza!” He had not thought of her for an age. “A gentleman’s daughter? Miss Williams is the natural daughter of someone. I believe she never knew her father.”

“It appears her child may suffer the same fate.”

“Her child?” He had last seen her eight months ago, perhaps nine. Impossible—or just possible! The memory of holding her, touching her, brought guilt and a flush of pleasure, followed by distaste and more guilt because of the pleasure. The thought that those few frivolous assignations would forever connect him to that girl stupefied him, and he let a word or two slip from his mouth that he would not have uttered in his cousin’s company under any less dreadful a circumstance.

“I would reprimand you for your language,” Mrs. Smith said, her scowl deepening, “but we have more important matters to discuss.”

“I...” He had been too unguarded to deny everything now. “I am very sorry.”

I need none of your apologies! That poor girl!”

“But why has Eliza said nothing before now?”

“A misguided attempt to protect you, I imagine. Fancies herself in love, I dare say, like that Dashwood girl that you paraded all over this house. My servants keep me well informed.”

Willoughby just barely heard the rest of Mrs. Smith’s speech: Eliza’s confession; Colonel Brandon’s—Brandon’s!—anger; gossiping servants; Mrs. Rutledge’s hurry to inform her friend.

He did not hear her question until she repeated it. “Well, which one will it be?”

“Which...what?”

“I said you must marry either Miss Williams or Miss Dashwood! Even the latter’s reputation is bound to suffer if she is not your choice, thanks to your imprudent behaviour. You have not compromised her as well, have you?”

“No! No.” He had contemplated it not long ago, and his subsequent uneasiness had made him realise the nature of his feelings towards Marianne. Those feelings had grown to the point where he had become convinced he should offer for her. A more loving family than the Dashwoods he could not imagine marrying into; a more adoring and adorable wife than the middle daughter he could not hope to find. He considered what Mrs. Smith had just said and began to feel a release from the anxiety that had gripped him. “You will be satisfied if I marry Marianne Dashwood?”

“I will not be satisfied unless you preserve, or restore, the respectability of one or the other of these women.”

“I will see to it this very day,” he assured her. Had he not been still reeling from the shock, he would have grinned for all the world to witness, such was his elation. When the idea of marriage had first occurred to him, he had merely hoped Mrs. Smith would not be too displeased with his choice—with the smallness of Marianne’s dowry, that is, for to Marianne herself she could have no objection. Never would he have dared to dream that he would be ordered to wed the woman of his choosing.

“Good.” Mrs. Smith sniffed. “Had you refused, you would have been dismissed from my house.”

His cousin then dismissed him from the room. In the hall he leant against the wall and exhaled. Their conversation had concluded much more favourably than he could have imagined after such a wretched beginning.

~*~


Mrs. Dashwood and her eldest and youngest daughters returned from their visit to Barton Park to be presented with news of the happiest kind. Marianne ran to them with tears of joy flowing down her face, answering their questioning looks with enthusiastic affirmatives and glancing every other moment at her betrothed.

“Oh! Oh!” Mrs. Dashwood lifted her hands to her eyes to brush away the beginnings of her own happy tears. “Dearest Marianne! Dear, dear Willoughby! I could not ask for a better son.” She hugged her daughter and kissed Willoughby’s cheek. Marianne pulled her sisters into their embrace.

Margaret looked at Elinor with wide eyes and moved to whisper in her ear. “If only Edward would come!”

Elinor’s smile faltered at her sister’s words. She was by no means certain Edward’s arrival would lead to the sort of celebration now occurring in Barton Cottage.

~*~


Not many days later, a very different sort of scene, with very different emotions, unfolded in London.

Mrs. Jennings, upon learning of Marianne’s engagement, had offered to escort her to town to assist with her wedding clothes. Elinor had accompanied them. Willoughby, too, had departed Devonshire and had been their earliest visitor in Berkeley Street.

Before long, a disturbing rumour reached the ears of the new arrivals: someone had accused Willoughby of serious misconduct. They wondered, they exclaimed, they protested, but none knew what to make of it; and as Willoughby himself did not immediately appear to clarify or contradict the report, they could do naught but continue to speculate.

The next morning, Mrs. Jennings returned from her errands with the startling intelligence that their friend’s name had been connected to some poor, ruined girl very near her delivery.

“Was it truly our Willoughby,” Elinor inquired, “who was named as the culprit?”

“Oh, yes,” answered Mrs. Jennings.

“Might the lady have meant that rake, Mr. Wickham, or some other disreputable person? Surely that was it,” said Marianne.

“No,” Mrs. Jennings insisted, “for I had it directly from Sarah, who had it from Miss Donovan. She is Mr. Donovan’s sister, you know, and so she hears much that goes on. You may trust her not to get the names confused, I dare say. It is most certainly Mr. Willoughby.”

When Willoughby called in the evening, Elinor expected him to either confirm or deny the report, but he did neither. His assurances to Marianne that all would be well, that there was only the matter of an unfortunate misunderstanding that would soon be resolved, provided no relief while his smiles appeared forced and his manner far from easy.

Marianne would not hear of the slightest possibility of guilt on his part. “How could anyone believe it of you, dear Willoughby?” and “Who would dare to tell such horrid lies?” were wondered aloud over and over by her, with only slight variations in wording and tone. All her blame was focussed upon the nameless villain who had brought this dark cloud over all of their heads.

Mrs. Jennings was the intrepid soul who introduced the subject the other two ladies had assiduously avoided out of fear or delicacy by asking Willoughby directly, “Well, is there to be a duel after all, and will you be in it?” Willoughby went pale and gave no reply. The conversation abruptly ceased. Mrs. Jennings then decided to retire early, accepting the fact that she would gain no new information from their guest.

The other three sat and looked at one another, eyes barely meeting before shying away again, until Marianne stood with such rapidity that her chair rocked and almost toppled backwards. “I shall never forgive him,” she hissed, “whoever he is!” She pressed her fists on the table and opened her mouth as if to say more, but tears overcame her, and at last she ran crying from the room. Elinor could only stare after her and marvel at how quickly—in the space of a week—her sister’s spirits had plummeted from perfect happiness to perfect misery.

Although not prone to excuse the often-vulgar behaviour of their hostess, neither could Elinor bring herself to censure Mrs. Jennings too harshly for posing the question that had occupied their minds for the majority of the day. Moreover, Willoughby’s refusal to speak convinced Elinor that Mrs. Jennings’s question had been as relevant as it had been inappropriate. She lamented the fancied necessity of such a barbarous practice, and as his future sister she felt the right to intervene if she could. “You have made Marianne miserable by your silence. Will you truly risk your life? Would you destroy her peace forever?” She had no desire to see him dead or injured. She recoiled at the idea that something might threaten his engagement to Marianne; how would her sister ever recover from the heartbreak? “If the rumours are false, declare them so. If there is some truth to them, can you not tell us that as well? We are to be family, Willoughby! Surely you can do that much.”

“No!”

He looked up, and Elinor saw the fear in his eyes. She refused to look away, however. The matter was too important.

“Very well,” he conceded. “I will tell you, Elinor, if you promise not to tell Marianne.”

“I cannot promise that.”

“Please!”

“No.”

He sighed. “I trust your judgement, but I beg you, do not burden her unnecessarily.”

“As you have done?”

“Elinor, I...” He swore. “No more delays. I have not much time.”

Elinor listened to all he had to say. When he had done, she considered he might have very little time left, indeed.

~*~


Neither Willoughby’s death nor Colonel Brandon’s was announced at breakfast. Elinor did not doubt that Mrs. Jennings would have contrived a means of availing herself of the latest gossip and took the lack of tidings from that lady as a hopeful sign. Soon afterwards, the ladies’ anxiety was relieved by the appearance in Berkeley Street of Willoughby himself, hale and happy as ever. After the first raptures were over and he had assured them no one had suffered injury, he imparted some news he had heard that morning.

“Mrs. Ferrars took ill yesterday and lies near death. She is your brother’s mother-in-law, is she not?”

“Oh, Elinor! If she should—” Marianne had wisdom enough to check herself, and she blushed and said no more.

Elinor understood what had remained unspoken. With his mother dead, Edward would be free to make his own choice. Elinor’s sense of decency, however, prevented hope from taking root, and her affection for Edward forbade her wishing any of his family ill.

Thereafter, Willoughby called each morning and took Marianne on walks or escorted her to the shops. His presence in town unharmed and in the company of a pretty young lady eventually quelled the gossip.

Elinor, while delighted for the couple, marvelled at how quickly and how thoroughly they had put the matter of the duel behind them. They behaved no differently than they had in Devonshire. No hint of soberness clouded their countenances; no increase of caution tempered their joy. They were light-hearted and gay and disregarded anything that could detract from their happiness.

For her part, Elinor was anxious for news of Edward but could do little more than wait. She considered calling on John and Fanny, assuming they would have been summoned to town, but she could not imagine that the latter would be pleased to see her or would credit her interest in Mrs. Ferrars’s welfare to anything but pure ambition. Affection was surely a foreign concept to one such as her sister-in-law.

Colonel Brandon eventually called in Berkeley Street to offer congratulations. “Miss Marianne,” said he, “I wish you all imaginable happiness. Mr. Willoughby, may you endeavour to deserve her.” Elinor gathered that his real aim was twofold: first, to dispel any notion of resentment between the gentlemen, by the gesture if not by the words themselves; second, to warn Willoughby against future missteps as the husband of a woman the colonel himself admired and possibly even loved.

Marianne, who knew nothing of his involvement in Willoughby’s recent troubles, laughingly dismissed the colonel’s coldness to her betrothed. “I pity him,” she told Elinor afterwards. “He is of an age beyond the reach of romantic sensibilities.”

~*~

One day while Willoughby and Marianne were out, Elinor and her hostess stopped in a milliner’s in Holborn after calling on one of the latter’s friends in that part of town. Mrs. Jennings’s attention had been drawn to a bonnet with bright-coloured satin trim on display in the window, and she and Elinor entered the shop just as two other ladies were completing their purchases. Elinor’s eyes met those of the gentleman accompanying them, and she gasped.

“Edward! Mr. Ferrars, what a pleasure it is to see you again.”

“Miss Dashwood! How fortunate to meet you here.” Edward appeared tired and pale, and his words held no warmth.

“Oho, Elinor! Mr. Ferrars with an F. You see, I have not forgotten.” Mrs. Jennings had whispered, but her significant looks were easily interpreted by all assembled.

As Edward neither introduced his friends nor made to leave, Elinor performed the civilities as far as she could, and soon Mrs. Jennings was animatedly conversing with the ladies. Edward continued silent and dull.

“May I ask how your family are?” Elinor ventured. “Is your mother well?”

“Not at all. She had a seizure and has been very ill since. The doctor believes the end is imminent.”

“I am very sorry. If there is anything I can do...”

“There is nothing. I am sorry.” He spoke to her but looked at the pretty girl by Mrs. Jennings’s side. The girl looked back at them. “I am sorry,” Edward repeated, though Elinor knew not why he felt any apology necessary.

“Miss Dashwood, Mr. Ferrars, you will never guess: Miss Steele and Miss Lucy are my cousins!” Mrs. Jennings recounted the details of their discovery and insisted on walking with the party before they returned to Bartlett's buildings, where the Misses Steele were staying. “We shall visit the shops to-morrow, Elinor.”

Elinor gladly would have taken Edward’s arm had he offered it, but he did not offer it. Furthermore, Miss Lucy took every opportunity to place herself between Elinor and Edward. Finally, Elinor turned to Miss Steele and talked to her with great perseverance, an effort that afforded her little pleasure.

~*~


“Girls,” said Mrs. Jennings, rushing into the room one afternoon, “you will never believe this! Old Mrs. Ferrars is dead, but that was not unexpected. Here is the surprise: Lucy has been secretly engaged these four years to Mr. Edward Ferrars! And to think, Elinor, I teased you about him because he shares the initial of your Mr. Forster, or Mr. Finch, or whoever the elusive Mr. F is! Lucy was bemoaning the delay, now Edward is in mourning, but I told her, ‘You have waited four years. What is one more?’ At least she is able to make her engagement public now. They had feared his mother’s disapproval. Mrs. Ferrars would have disinherited Edward and settled her estate on his brother, who, by Lucy’s account, is a great coxcomb.”

Marianne started and stared and seemed robbed of her powers of speech.

Elinor suffered from no such malady. “I hope…” Her voice trembled only a little. “I hope they will be very happy.” More than that she could not manage. She rose from her seat and walked out of the room, not hesitating even when she heard Marianne’s voice return, full of disbelief and indignation. Elinor did not pause until she reached her chamber. She locked herself in and leant her head against the door, staring at nothing and seeing the hollow look in Edward’s eyes when he had last spoken to her. His apology echoed in her mind.

The tears would not even come at first, but when they finally did come, it felt as if they would never stop.

~*~


On the day that Marianne Dashwood transformed from beautiful Miss into beautiful bride, Elinor stood with her sister, almost completely happy. Marianne glowed with joy. Willoughby, cutting quite the figure in his new coat, looked conscious of the treasure he was acquiring in his wife. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret wore continual smiles.

Elinor felt only a moment of agony when the vows were exchanged. The vicar’s eyes were the colour of Edward’s, and when he glanced at her during that part of the ceremony, she nearly started. She tried to banish the image of another couple that would be standing before another altar in a matter of months.

She reminded herself that Edward Ferrars had never been free to choose her. Whether his mother or his betrothed had presented the obstacle to her happiness mattered not; that the obstacle had been insurmountable was the material point.

Those present needed and merited her attention, she decided, not others of whom she would rarely hear and whom she might never see again. She closed her eyes for an instant, and when she opened them, she found she could return the vicar’s occasional glances with equanimity.

~*~


Not long after Marianne’s wedding, Elinor sat in Barton Cottage with Colonel Brandon, who once again was staying a few weeks with the Middletons. Margaret had fallen ill that day with a trifling cold, and after a comfortable chat, Mrs. Dashwood had excused herself to attend her youngest daughter upstairs. The moment Elinor had their guest’s company all to herself, she determined to use the circumstance to advantage. “There is something I have been longing to ask you, although I should not.” She took a deep breath before proceeding. “How fares Miss Williams?”

“You know of her? Mrs. Jennings told you.”

“Most of what I know I heard from my brother Willoughby.”

The colonel appeared incredulous. “Does Mrs. Willoughby know?”

“He never told her. I believe he never will.”

“Perhaps that is for the best.” He looked at her a long time before continuing. “Eliza is not my daughter, as some believe, but the daughter of my cousin.” Then the whole story poured forth: his love, his loss, and the tragedies that had followed.

“What of you, Miss Dashwood?” the colonel asked when he had related his account. “You have an air of melancholy about you of late. Do you miss your sister so very much?”

Something in his tone of voice made Elinor suspicious; he seemed to imply that she longed for the company of one who was definitely not Marianne. She would not allow him to think she had tender feelings for Willoughby. He was too much of a gentleman to suggest it openly, but she could imagine that he might wonder at Willoughby’s having taken her into his confidence.

Thus, she repaid Colonel Brandon’s openness with her own. She told him everything. She talked to him as she had not talked to her own mother or even to Marianne, who would only exclaim at Edward’s having harboured such a great secret and Elinor’s being so apparently unmoved by it before she again became distracted by her own concerns and pleasures in anticipation of the wedding. Colonel Brandon listened as if there were nothing he would rather do. He seemed to take in her words, and as she spoke, she saw her own emotions subtly reflected back on his face.

Their talk ended when Mrs. Dashwood called them both to dinner. Her mother interrupted their tête-à-tête at such a perfect moment that Elinor suspected she had for some time been waiting for a convenient pause in their conversation.

Upon taking his seat, the colonel remarked on a drawing affixed to the dining room wall. “That landscape...the sense of perspective, the balance of light and dark...remarkably well done.”

“Elinor’s handiwork,” Mrs. Dashwood informed him, smiling.

“Truly?” He smiled in turn at Miss Dashwood. “You are quite talented.”

Elinor thanked him and tried not to blush, though she admitted to herself the very great pleasure of having her work not only admired but also understood by a man of sense and education.

~*~


Colonel Brandon had walked to Barton Cottage that day with no other aim than to be near those who were dear to the woman he had recently begun to love.

She was too young for him, he knew; she cared nothing for him, he knew; she loved another (unworthy as he was), he knew.

Now she was married, and there was an end to it.

If only his endings were not so unhappy, perhaps he would truly be able to commit them to the past.

He was well aware of the similarities between Miss Marianne, or Mrs. Willoughby, as he ought to think of her now, and the elder Eliza. Over the years, other women had piqued his interest but none as quickly or as thoroughly. None was as reminiscent of his first love as she. The same warmth of heart, the same eagerness of fancy and spirits characterised both. Just a glimpse of Marianne’s eyes stirred fond memories of the very same features in Eliza.

It was the expression in those eyes when they turned to him that broke the spell again and again, for not once had Mrs. Willoughby looked upon him with anything like affection. And despite his low opinion of her husband, he hoped she would have a fate as far removed from that of the former Mrs. Brandon as possible.

As the mere second son, Brandon had had no means by which to stay the destructive force that had laid to waste nearly everything and everyone connected with Delaford. Even Willoughby’s thoughtless treatment of young Eliza seemed but a faint echo of the elder Brandons’ behaviour towards that branch of the family. Brandon himself had only been able to worry and wait at a distance, arriving only in time to sort the broken pieces left behind by everybody else.

It was too late now for restoration or restitution. Perhaps it was too late for self-recrimination as well, he considered. After all, what good had it done him? It had changed absolutely nothing.

He stood before Barton Cottage and knew, in those moments before the door was opened, that he would have to let her go. As he crossed the threshold and this truth lingered in his mind, he hardly knew which her he meant. Marianne? Eliza? Young Eliza and her child, or at least his hopes for them?

He was met in the passage by Mrs. Dashwood, a bit preoccupied with Miss Margaret’s illness but pleasant as ever. Miss Dashwood sat in the parlour and greeted him, as she always did, with a sincerity of manner that made him feel he was not merely not an inconvenience to be borne but instead a welcome addition to their party. After Mrs. Dashwood left them alone, he spoke of his ward with Miss Dashwood at her particular request. As she began to tell her own story, he felt a kinship he had not anticipated but most certainly appreciated.

Much later that evening, Colonel Brandon took leave of his hostesses. Mrs. Dashwood made her farewells and disappeared upstairs again to see to Miss Margaret. Miss Dashwood accompanied him outside, and they lingered on the lawn.

“I value your friendship,” he told her. Even as he said the word, he realised the term ‘friendship’ did not encompass all that he wanted to express, but he could think of nothing better. “If you should wish to revisit the subject of our earlier conversation, know that I will always be ready to listen.”

“Thank you, Colonel, but I hope our discussion at dinner proved that I shall be able to talk to you of something other than that sad business! Not that I would not do the same for you. Please feel free to raise the subject whenever you like. It is just that I try not to dwell on what will only depress my spirits. I prefer to exert myself. And I do feel so much better now for having told you. I would have you know that.”

He wondered if it might do him good to adopt her method of dealing with disappointment.

Not much more was said before the colonel started for Barton Park. He turned back at the hillside and looked towards the cottage, where he could just make out Miss Dashwood’s silhouette at the door. He waved and continued his solitary moonlit walk.

As he reflected on the unexpected pleasures of this day spent with friends, Colonel Brandon realised that for the first time in a long time, he was more than simply content.

He was happy.

~*~


After their intimate revelations, Elinor and Colonel Brandon saw each other nearly every day. They talked; they rambled across the countryside; they danced whenever Sir John felt obliged to entertain his young neighbours. They visited Whitwell once with a large party and once with only Margaret to chaperone them. They withstood the good-natured, vulgar teasing of Mrs. Jennings and Sir John and the gentle pressure of Mrs. Dashwood, until one day they admitted the possibility that they had been designed for each other.

Brandon and Elinor surprised no one with their engagement, except, perhaps, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby. —The wedding occurred within a twelvemonth of Marianne’s, and Mrs. Dashwood was consoled for every past affliction by the sincere attachments her daughters had inspired in their husbands.


~The End~

Monday, July 5, 2010

Such an Inclination


(2010)
Emma
Specific request for Emma fanfic
Mr John Knightley's remarks cause Emma to reconsider her opinion on Mr Elton's matrimonial interests—and to discover where her own interests lie as well.



‘Mr Elton in love with me! What an idea!’

‘I do not say it is so; but you will do well to consider whether it is so or not, and to regulate your behaviour accordingly. I think your manners to him encouraging. I speak as a friend, Emma. You had better look about you, and ascertain what you do, and what you mean to do.’

‘I thank you; but I assure you, you are quite mistaken. Mr Elton and I are very good friends, and nothing more;’ and she walked on, amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgement are for ever falling into; and not very well pleased with her brother for imagining her blind, and ignorant, and in want of counsel.

—Chapter 13, Emma




A minute passed before Mr John Knightley continued the subject. “Had I known the possibility had never even occurred to you, I might not have offered Mr Elton a seat in my carriage. Under the circumstances, it would be best if he were not to have everything made easy for him.”

Emma, rather offended that her brother persisted in speaking of the matter, looked coldly at him. “What can you mean?”

“Do you think I did not see his look of pleasure, of exultation, I dare say, when he accepted my offer and turned to you? It was not simply because he thought I understood his intentions and approved of them. Yes,” he insisted as she stared at him in disbelief, “I am sure he thought exactly that. And it was certainly not because I shall spare him a very cold walk.” He turned a fond eye towards his boys, who had run ahead, well out of hearing of their father and aunt’s quiet conversation. “I cannot say whether his feelings are deep or shallow at present, but I know the meaning of that look. I am a man, Emma, who has not been so long married as to have forgotten the beginnings of romance or how quickly admiration can turn to love.”

“If you must you continue to entertain this fanciful notion,” she said, not bothering to hide her exasperation, “I only ask that you not seek to persuade me to take it up as well. I have never had such an idea, and I cannot adopt it now.”

“You may protest all you like, but I am convinced that it is hardly my company he anticipates, or that of the Westons.” He said no more.

Emma was too angry to respond, and her only satisfaction stemmed from having shown enough of her displeasure to keep John quiet. Eager to be at Hartfield again, she hurried on to keep pace with her nephews. Her brother’s words would not leave her mind, however, and the more she endeavoured to put them out of her head, the less secure she became in her ability to refute his conjectures. He had a man’s view, something in any other situation she believed she would be disposed at least to value for its own sake, whether she agreed with that view or not. Moreover, John rarely offered an unsolicited opinion on a matter so unconnected with himself. ‘I speak as a friend,’ he had said.

His brother had already declared that Mr Elton would not choose Harriet Smith, that the vicar would never marry so imprudently. Emma would be forced to examine Mr Elton’s actions in a very different light if she accepted these two pieces of intelligence as the impartial observations of two intelligent men. And she ought to do so, for what could the brothers truly gain or lose if she, and not Harriet, were Mr Elton’s choice? Especially as she would never consider marrying the man! It would be madness and presumption for Mr Elton to think himself worthy of her.

Yet what pain and humiliation lay ahead if he really preferred her to Harriet! What an idea, indeed. How would Harriet bear it? How would Emma herself bear with the awkwardness of being in company with her or Mr Elton again?

Her brow creased as she made polite conversation with her family. Sigh followed sigh as she dressed for dinner. By the time the carriages were brought round to convey them all to Randalls, her head positively throbbed. Isabella noticed something was amiss and fretted, but Emma assured her that she was well enough to go, more for her sister’s sake and her father’s than honesty’s, and declared that in any case she should be miserable at home, which was true enough.

To her surprise, her brother approached her and remarked in a low voice, “You have been unusually quiet since our walk. Are you concerned about that matter we discussed earlier? You need not worry. George and I shall be ready to intervene if the need arises.”

“I thank you for your concern, but I do not expect any difficulties.”

“You are not very good at dissembling, Emma.”

His rueful smile made her feel even worse. If she had drawn the attention of both Isabella and John, how was she to appear tolerably cheerful at Randalls? Mrs Weston would immediately take note. “I am well,” she determined, “if not perfectly so. Let us talk no more of this. I am anxious to see Mrs Weston.”

“Now, that I can easily believe.” He smiled and they walked together to the carriage.

The evening turned out to be just as dreadful as she had feared. Mr Elton clung to her side, inserted himself into nearly every conversation she attempted with others, raised a few eyebrows with his overly solicitous behaviour, and generally cast a pall over the otherwise cheerful holiday atmosphere. John and his brother did what they could to draw Mr Elton’s attention away without being uncivil, but the vicar proved a tenacious suitor. Emma could only be grateful Harriet had been spared those mortifying scenes.

Either John somehow knew when she had reached the limits of her endurance, or for once their separate, selfish concerns coincided in a joint wish for an early end to the evening. Soon after the gentlemen rejoined the ladies in the drawing-room, he took the opportunity to glance outside. One well-aimed remark about the amount of snow covering the ground, and Mr Woodhouse rapidly grew anxious to depart; moments later, Mr Knightley rang the bell and the party broke up.

Mr Elton escorted Emma outside, to her great consternation, and for an instant she feared the two would have a tête-à-tête drive. Fortunately she caught her brother’s eye just as he, having forgotten their previous arrangement, very naturally prepared to enter the first carriage with his wife and father-in-law. He came to her aid immediately.

“Go with Isabella and your father,” he whispered. “I shall see Mr Elton home.”

Emma thanked him, surprised to discover her throat was too thick with emotion to say any more, and she did what he advised without looking back.

At Hartfield, gruel was sent round for some and the usual sort of refreshments for others. Mr Knightley had joined them instead of continuing on to Donwell, and at the first opportunity he drew Emma aside. “Now tell me, Emma, what brought on this crisis of courtship that I witnessed tonight. Elton could not have demonstrated his preference for your company more plainly had he stood atop the Westons’ dining table and shouted it to us all. Either he did not notice your manner had cooled towards him, or he did not care.”

“Foolish man! How could he imagine for a moment I would be pleased?” She immediately blushed as she recalled several instances when her words, manner, or both might have given more than enough encouragement to a man so self-deceived. “Must have been the wine,” she said half-heartedly.

Mr Knightley smiled and took a sip from his own glass. “Did you not take it upon yourself to find him a bride? I heard you say, in this very parlour, that such was your intention.”

“I never meant to include myself among the possibilities!”

“I know that, but it is only because I know you so well that I have never believed the preference you have lately shown him was meant to bring on his addresses.”

“I am just glad the evening is over and he is away from us all.”

“Do not be so hard on him.”

“That is easy for you to say. He did not follow you about all evening. ‘Miss Woodhouse, may I get you some more cake?’ ‘Miss Woodhouse, I fear you are too warm. Might I suggest a seat farther from the fire? Or perhaps you are too cold, Miss Woodhouse.’ ‘Miss Woodhouse, Miss Woodhouse, Miss Woodhouse!’ I was growing weary of my own name.”

“You must admit that so many smiles and compliments as he has received in the last several weeks might turn a man’s head, especially coming from a young lady as beautiful and witty as she is charming.”

“Mr Knightley, you flatter me.”

“I only speak the truth.”

“There are several beautiful faces in Highbury, some of which I had hoped he would notice.” There was one, at least. Poor Harriet!

“Confess, Emma, that you did want him to marry Miss Smith.”

She looked down. There was no use in denying it. “Yes, I did. I can only be thankful that he did not say something so pointed as to force a confession from me tonight as well.”

His smile made her almost comfortable again, and his next words soothed her even further. “Tell me, Emma,” Mr Knightley entreated, clasping her hand. “Are you truly well?”

“While I am still shocked by Mr Elton’s boldness, I sincerely hope I have not injured him. Yet I cannot believe he is really in love with me, for anyone who knows me at all must know we should not suit.” She sighed. “I am well.”

“John will be glad to hear it.”

“Your brother’s assistance was invaluable. I have thanked him, but it seems so little. I hope he understands how much I appreciate his efforts. And I appreciate yours as well.”

He squeezed her hand and held it. “I am certain John knows, and I am always glad to be of assistance to you. Now, the material question is this: are you convinced that you ought to have done with match-making?” He looked into her eyes and would not allow her to avoid his gaze.

“But what about Har—”

“Emma?”

What about Harriet, she had been about to say. She no longer cared if Mr Elton ever found a companion to share the vicarage.

“If you are worried about your friend,” Mr Knightley said, “I know of one deserving young man who still pines for her. Perhaps—but we need not revive that subject.”

She quite agreed; she was not so chagrined as to have reconsidered her opinion of Robert Martin. “A thousand things may arise in the next weeks and months.”

“Highbury may be inundated with eligible young men, for instance.”

“At least one eligible young man is long overdue.”

He stopped smiling. “You speak of Frank Churchill.”

“Of course.”

“You have never even met him! You cannot intend him for Harriet Smith, can you?”

“No. I had no thought of it.”

“For yourself, then?” This time he looked down, but she could not fathom why.

“I own that if I were inclined to marry, Mr Frank Churchill would seem the perfect choice.” Even with Mr Knightley’s face turned away, she could see him grimace. “Yet tonight, I found myself quite out of charity with him.”

“Oh?” He raised his head.

“I resented his absence, and you will not think better of me when you hear why. Oh, of course I felt the slight to dear Mrs Weston, but my anger also had selfish roots. I know it is ridiculous, but I cannot help but think that had he done as he ought and visited his father’s new bride, I might have had an easier time tonight.”

“He would have taken Elton’s place as your suitor.”

“He would have been the focus of the evening! All attention would have been on him! Mr Elton would not have found it so easy to vex me, that is all.” She laughed at his forlorn look and wondered at it. “The more I think on it, the more I am convinced Mr Churchill and I would not suit, either. He really should have come to pay his respects to my friend. How can he neglect his father so?” She glanced at her own father. “His continued absence savours of disrespect or disapprobation, and I have not made up my mind as to which is worse.”

“Truly?”

Mr Knightley’s face took on a more familiar look now, and to prevent his lecturing her, Emma said, “I know I should not speak ill of Mr Weston’s son. I am sure he is a worthy young gentleman, despite the influence of Mrs Churchill.”

“You may be right. And we have spent far too much time on the subject of matrimony, I think.”

“Yes. It is pointless for me to talk of marriage, at least for myself. I could not leave my father.”

“No. I suppose not.”

“Therefore it does not matter whether Mr Churchill is disrespectful or disapproving.”

“True.” He looked as if nothing mattered very much at the moment.

“Do you smile because you agree, or because I have continued to talk of marriage despite your claim that we have talked of it long enough?”

His smile widened into a playful grin, making him appear for an instant to be the younger of the two Knightley men. “You may speak of whatever you like. You are mistress of this house.”

“Yes, I am. The topic was marriage, I believe. You never speak of it in regard to yourself. But then who is good enough for you?”

“Who, indeed?”

He seemed to be staring hard at her, almost staring into her, studying her. There was no anger, no anxiety; it seemed a look to signify a great deal of curiosity and interest, but what was there about her that he did not already know and had not known these many years?

“May I tell you something in confidence?” he asked her.

“Certainly.”

“It has been a long time since I thought seriously of marriage. We live in a rather confined, unvarying society.”

“True. Highbury has no more been inundated with eligible young women than with young men.”

“Precisely.” His smile was brief. “Recently, however—very recently, in fact—I have found myself considering the possibility again.”

“But little Henry would be supplanted!” She felt instantly stupid for having voiced her thoughts, but for some reason the very idea disturbed her and she had been unable to check herself.

Thankfully, his chastisement was gentle. “I said possibility, Emma, although John would rather see me married than gain the estate for his son. He speaks highly of the institution himself, as well you know.”

She smiled. For all his faults of temper, John truly did love Isabella.

Caught up in her thoughts, she was unaware of how close Mr Knightley had leant towards her until she felt his breath warm her cheek. She shivered. “I have a proposition for you,” he whispered.

“Do you?” she breathed, hardly knowing where to look.

“If you must make matches, perhaps you had better limit your efforts to finding me a wife. I shall not mind sacrificing myself to your scheming if it will spare our neighbours.”

The suggestion, the intimate nature of it, was wholly unexpected. “Mr Knightley, you surprise me.”

“Will you consider it?”

“Are you certain you wish to commit such an important matter to my care?”

He looked at her a moment before replying, “I would be quite happy to commit myself to you.”

She stared at him, bewildered. “Oh.”

“In fact, Emma, I—”

“The snow is still falling, George.” John strode over, interrupting them. “If you do not want to stay the night here, well…”

“Trying to be rid of me?”

“Certainly not! You look quite cosy in this corner.” His light-hearted chuckle belied the depth of his penetrating gaze, and he said slyly as he walked off, “Tucked away like lovers rather than brother and sister.”

Mr Knightley laughed warmly at the remark and glanced at Emma.

She made no reply. Her mind was busy, and once open to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth. Why had the mere mention of a future Mrs Knightley discomfited her? Why had Mr Knightley’s warm breath made her quiver, while his daring request, so coolly delivered, had made her flush with heat?

Moreover, why had John’s impertinent comment seemed anything but preposterous?

The answer darted through her with the speed of an arrow.

How she would tell him all that her heart had begun to discover, how she would enlighten Harriet and avoid Mr Elton, how she would accomplish that most monumental of tasks: convincing her father to let her go—all these problems were safely left to the next day’s contemplation. Tonight, she needed to do only one thing, and after all the blunders of the past weeks, she determined to do this one thing well.

“Mr Knightley, you are most welcome to stay.”

“Thank you. I may do just that.” His look told her he would have said more had this been the time or place for such disclosures, but they had already been interrupted once.

“It has been quite an eventful day. I believe I am ready to retire, but before I do, I wish to assure you…” She had never been as forward as she was about to be with him now. She had never in her life felt such an inclination as this. The fact that he had put himself in her hands gave her the courage to complete what she had begun. “I assure you that I will be content,” she said. “No,” she corrected herself, smiling. “I shall be extraordinarily pleased to devote…myself…to your happiness.”

Mr Knightley’s eyes lit up, and she knew that he had understood her. He escorted her from the room, and if Emma entertained hopes for a very particular goodnight gesture once they were truly alone (and if Mr Knightley satisfied those hopes), this authoress surely would not tell.


~The End~

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Colonel at Ramsgate


(2010)
Pride and Prejudice
What if Colonel Fitzwilliam, not Fitzwilliam Darcy, had visited Georgiana at Ramsgate a day or two before the intended elopement?



“She was then but fifteen, which must be her excuse; and after stating her imprudence, I am happy to add that I owed the knowledge of it to herself and to Colonel Fitzwilliam, who joined them unexpectedly a day or two before the intended elopement and discovered the whole. You may imagine what he felt and how he acted.”




“Good day, Holmes. Is Miss Darcy in?”

“Colonel—”

The colonel raised a finger to his lips.

“Good day, Sir.”

The colonel spoke in a low voice, “I should like to surprise her, if I may.”

“Certainly. She is in her sitting room, I believe. A right at the top of the stairs, third door on the right.” He frowned. “Her companion is…out.”

“You make it sound as if she is off entertaining gentlemen instead of tending to her duties.” The butler’s frown deepened. “Perhaps she is merely spending a few coins in the local shops, or walking along the shore? It is a lovely day.”

A noise sounded overhead, as of something heavy being moved. “Tell Mrs. Holmes I shall stay for tea.” He bounded up the stairs, a huge smile on his face, curiosity alight as to his cousin’s reasons for moving her furniture about.

Fitzwilliam knocked on the door and it swung open a little against his fist. He peered round to see clothing, books, music, and heaven knew what else spread on every available surface. His cousin was nowhere in sight. “Georgiana?”

“Is that you, Wickham? What will Mrs. Younge say if she finds you up here?” The tone of her voice conveyed excitement rather than anxiety. “Oh! Is she with you?”

Images and thoughts flashed through Fitzwilliam’s mind. He watched with a sense of unreality as a bright shape on the other side of the room moved back and forth, revealing itself to be Georgiana’s gown with Georgiana in it. She was bent over, removing items from a large trunk and draping them over her arm.

He parted his lips, and his tongue felt thick in his mouth. “Mrs. Younge,” he said, recalling the butler’s words, “is out.”

“You sound like my cousin.” She straightened and turned, smiling, until their eyes met. The gowns she had been holding fell to the floor. The silk pooled at her feet.

“Stay here. Do not make a sound.” He did not trust himself to say anything more, not yet.

He closed the door, bounded back down the stairs, and found Holmes, instructing him to tell no one else of his presence. “Especially not Mrs. Younge. In fact, tell her Georgiana has a headache and has asked not to be disturbed.” He arranged for tea to be brought up and then returned to his charge.

He heard her weeping as soon as he opened the door. At least it was too quiet to be heard outside the room. “Georgiana,” he said, struggling to keep his temper in check, “why had you expected Wickham to come to your room?”

“I did not expect it! I receive him in the sitting room downstairs—well, only in the last day or two. He would never come into the house until very recently. We generally meet at the beach.”

“This is George Wickham, the son of your father’s steward, is it not?”

“Yes, the same George that my father loved as his own son.”

Fitzwilliam closed his eyes. “Georgiana, tell me you are not as intimate with him as you seem to be.”

“No one was to know until it was over,” she whispered.

“Know what?”

Georgiana’s eyes filled with tears again, and she said something unintelligible through her quiet sobs.

“I cannot be very effective as your guardian if you will not tell me what is happening.”

“You will not need to be my guardian in a few days. I am to be married.”

“At fifteen?” He clenched his fists and just barely stopped himself from standing over her and yelling it in her face.

“Fifteen is old enough.”

“You cannot convince me you have Darcy’s permission to marry that—that—” Dog, he almost called him. “Man,” he said, trying not to offend Georgiana before obtaining the intelligence he needed.

“We go to Scotland in two days.”

“So that profligate can get his hands on your money? I think not.”

“Profligate? Wickham is a gentleman! He loves me! He does not care about my money!”

George Wickham loves no one but himself, he thought. “He does not love you enough to obtain the consent of your guardians. He does not love you enough to allow your own brother to be present at your wedding.”

“I…. I did wonder at that at first, but Wickham assured me it was best to go to Gretna Green. He is so violently in love! He tells me so every day.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam locked the door and sat, his legs suddenly too weary for standing. “Georgiana,” he said gently but firmly, “do you think it is best?”

“I…”

“Do you? Are you so violently in love, too, that nothing else matters?”

“I am in love, I think. I have never been in love with anyone before, so I cannot be certain. I…I would like Fitzwilliam to be at my wedding. I shall be sorry not to have him there.”

“What did Wickham say to that?”

“He said Fitzwilliam would never understand. He feels unworthy of me, you see. He hopes that he,” she bowed her head, “that we shall soon be forgiven.”

“And you think Darcy will suddenly understand when he learns his fifteen-year-old sister has run off with a man who has caused him nothing but grief for the last several years?”

“Grief? Wickham mentioned jealousy, but I thought Fitzwilliam would not hold Father’s preference for him against him.”

“Georgiana,” he laughed mirthlessly, “you do not have the least idea. George Wickham was never preferred over your brother in any regard. He was a great favourite, undoubtedly, and even after Uncle Darcy’s death, your brother continued to honour your father’s wishes for Wickham as far as he could.”

“Not all of Father’s wishes. Fitzwilliam would not give him the living at Kympton.”

“Did Wickham tell you that he first refused it and was handsomely compensated?”

“No,” Georgiana whispered. “He never said that.”

“It is true. As I recall, he resigned all claim to assistance in the church, should he ever be in a position to receive it, in exchange for a tidy sum. Your brother has the documents to prove it. Ask Darcy to show them to you if you do not believe me.”

“I do not need to see any documents,” she said, her voice faltering. “I trust my brother. I believe you, but I do not know why Wickham never told me.”

“Do you not?”

Georgiana remained silent and fretful for some moments and finally looked up at him with confusion, and a little fear, in her eyes. “You will not let me go, will you?”

“Do you think I ought to?”

“Tell me why you called him a profligate. Tell me why you said he has caused Fitzwilliam grief.”

“First tell me why you were willing to disregard all propriety and elope.”

Georgiana inhaled sharply and pressed her arms close to her body as tears streamed down her face. “I did not think…”

“No. You did not think. What if I had arrived three days hence? I would have been frantic with worry. What if Darcy had come to Ramsgate to find you gone?”

“I never meant any harm! I would not hurt my brother for the world!” For many minutes there was no sound save sobs and laboured breathing. At last, she dried her tears and calmed herself. “Tell me why you do not like Wickham.”

“Is it not enough that he has convinced my very proper cousin to take part in his foolish scheme?” He wondered how much to tell her. “Wickham leaves debts wherever he goes. He is always in need of more money. Uncle Darcy left him one thousand pounds, but that was not enough. When Wickham declared he had no use for the living at Kympton, your brother gave him three thousand pounds more. Somehow he managed to spend it all in three years and have nothing to show for it, for when the living became vacant, Wickham tried to claim it.”

“What?!”

“He wrote to your brother. Of course Darcy refused his request. What else was he to do?”

“Indeed.”

“And now here he is in Ramsgate, seeking his highest prize yet: thirty thousand pounds.”

“You truly believe that is all he wants with me?”

“Georgiana, I swear to you that if you were penniless, he would not have looked at you twice. At least not with marriage in mind.”

She gasped.

“You may as well know. You were about to throw yourself into his power. You ought to know the sort of man he is. I doubt he would have been an ideal husband.”

Footsteps sounded in the corridor. The colonel quickly moved to conceal himself and gestured for Georgiana to go to the door.

“But I am not fit to be seen!” she whispered.

“Tell that to him, or her, whoever it is,” he whispered back.

They heard Holmes’s voice, and Georgiana visibly relaxed. She opened the door. Fitzwilliam motioned the butler inside.

“I hope you will pardon the presumption, Miss Darcy, but in light of Colonel Fitzwilliam’s instructions, I took the liberty of bringing this myself.” He set the tray down on the one available horizontal space. “Mrs. Younge has not yet entered the house, but she and Mr. Wickham have been seen approaching.”

“Very good,” the colonel answered. “Miss Darcy is still indisposed.”

“I understand, Sir.”

“I appreciate your discretion, Holmes.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Alone again, the cousins looked at each other. Fitzwilliam secured the lock once more. “You will not have to open the door again just yet, but you will have to answer Mrs. Younge, at least. I expect she will seek you out despite what Holmes tells her.”

“I think you are right.”

Several minutes passed, but eventually they heard a knock and a voice. “My dear Miss Darcy! Holmes said you are unwell.” Mrs. Younge knocked again. “Miss Darcy?”

Georgiana stood frozen in place. She did not move or speak, despite Fitzwilliam’s expressive looks. In the next moment he had reason to be grateful for her silence, for when Mrs. Younge spoke again, it was not to her charge.

“George! What are you doing here? You know better than to follow me upstairs! What if someone had seen you?”

“No one did. Where is Georgiana?”

“In there, sleeping off her headache, I suppose. I have knocked loudly enough to wake the dead, but she does not answer.”

“Poor thing. What shall I do now I have come all this way for nothing?”

“What indeed?” Mrs. Younge giggled like someone half her age. The sound stopped abruptly and resumed after a moment. “But here, in this house?”

“Why not? I shall soon be family after all.”

Their laughs mingled, and they whispered back and forth. More quiet laughter followed, but laughter and conversation were not the only sounds that could be distinguished by the colonel’s ears. Soon another door opened and closed, and their voices could no longer be heard at all.

Fitzwilliam turned to Georgiana, and his anger immediately gave way to compassion. She stood there shaking, no doubt in grief and mortification as well as shock at the alarming things that had been said and the even more alarming things that, presumably, were this moment being done by her ‘betrothed’ and the woman she had trusted to serve as her companion.

He took her hand and led her as far as possible from the door.

She looked so miserable that he engulfed her in an embrace. He was thankful he had stopped at the inn and got most of the dust from the road off his face and clothes before having a drink and confirming the direction to the house. As she allowed her weight to rest fully against him, he noticed several things: she had grown taller; her hair was done up in a more mature style than when he had last seen her; her figure was very much that of a woman.

“But he…” Georgiana said, “and Mrs. Younge…how…? How could they?” She shivered. “She called him ‘George’ and they were flirting and…and he must have kissed her, and now they are in her room together! They certainly did not go back downstairs!”

He stroked her hair. “I knew nothing of their relationship. I would not be surprised to find he was acquainted with her before we engaged her as your companion. It seems they were both complicit in this scheme to get your fortune.”

“She knew all about Wickham. She was going to come with us. She encouraged me to let my affections guide me and not to worry about disappointing anyone. She said that such a pure love could not be wrong.”

Fitzwilliam cradled her head and pressed a kiss on the top of it.

“He said he would not dare to kiss me until we were man and wife. He only kissed my hand!”

“Be glad of it.”

They stood silent for what seemed like many minutes, but it could not have been very long.

“It sounds silly,” said Georgiana, her voice muffled by his coat, “and unimportant in light of everything, but I did so want to know what it is like to be kissed. I know I should be angry with Mrs. Younge, but, I am embarrassed to say, I feel more jealous of her than anything else.”

He leant back and looked in her eyes. “You still want Wickham’s attentions after what you have heard?”

“Oh, no!” Her eyes opened wide like a child’s and reminded him how innocent she still was in many ways. “No. I could never, never trust that man again. That would be impossible. I do not want him near me.” She turned her face from his. “I am only jealous that she is experiencing the very thing that I wished to.”

She is experiencing far more than that, thought the colonel. “You were not so very much in love then, I think.”

Georgiana reddened. “I have said too much. You will not mock me for it, will you? I do not think I could bear that, much as I deserve it.”

He shook his head. He had not even considered doing so.

“Are you angry that I should say such a thing?”

He heard her, but he did not answer.

“You are certain you are not angry? Why do you look at me so?”

He blinked and then stared into a very pretty pair of eyes, despite their being red from her tears. “Georgiana, do you see me as a second brother?” He was not certain why he had asked her that question.

She laughed, being careful to keep quiet. “You are nothing like my brother.” She blushed. “I could never tell Fitzwilliam what I have just told you.”

“Do you truly want to know what it is to be kissed?”

She frowned. “You are mocking me now.”

“No, I am not.” He lifted her chin so that she would look at him again.

She nodded.

He kissed her cheek and then let his face linger against hers. “Someday you will know,” he whispered. “I have no doubt of it.”

At that moment he could almost feel the woman she would become as he wrapped his arms more tightly around the girl she was now. “Georgiana,” he said, slowly moving until he could look at her directly, “you must promise me something.”

“Yes?”

“Promise you will not allow anyone to involve you in such a reprehensible scheme again. Promise me you will wait for someone worthy of you.”

“I…I will.” She looked at his mouth, not his eyes, as she spoke.

Fitzwilliam could easily imagine someone worthier than Wickham being drawn to her sweet face—not that it was difficult to think of a man superior to that scoundrel, who, after his display with Mrs. Younge, could not even claim affection as the smallest excuse for his perfidy. Fitzwilliam could even see himself developing such an attachment to Georgiana, if he were a little younger, or, even better, if she were a little older.

If he had not already seen so much of the world.

If Uncle Darcy had not made him her guardian.

If.

He released her and stepped away. “I think we had better have something to eat.”

“The tea will be cold.”

He watched as she went about clearing a place for them, taking care to keep the cups and saucers from rattling. Her voice had sounded delicate but not brittle, not bitter. Not despairing. She would recover. She was recovering already.

“It is a warm day. It will hardly matter.” Nothing would matter. He smiled as he watched her pour the tea, and his smile could not be suppressed, for he was suddenly incredibly happy that he had come.


~The End~

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Little More Practice (7 of 7)

Part 19


“Sister!” The voice of Mrs. Philips rang out through the corridors of Longbourn. “Sister, where are you? Are you busy?”

Mrs. Bennet stood, barely catching her sewing as it slid from her lap. “Busy?” She rolled her eyes. “With but two days until the wedding, what else can I be?”

Elizabeth and Jane looked at each other and smiled. Mary glanced up. Kitty and Lydia, easily distracted and eager for any excuse to rest their weary fingers, shoved their work aside as Mrs. Philips charged through the door ahead of the servant.

“There you are!” She proceeded to impart her news, which could not be delayed: Mr. Collins had come to Hertfordshire to fetch his wife. “Maria Lucas told me just this morning. I saw her on the way to the butcher’s shop. Mr. Collins arrived last night at Lucas Lodge at sunset. Had I not been in my kitchen at exactly that time, I would have seen his gig from my parlour window. I try to keep watch and note who is coming and going, but I had so much to do yesterday that it simply was not possible to observe the main road at every moment.”

“Well, well, and so Mr. Collins is come, Sister.” Mrs. Bennet frowned and shook her head by turns. “Not that I care anything about it, though. He is nothing to us, you know, and I am sure I never want to see him again. But, however, he is very welcome to go to Lucas Lodge, if he likes it. His presence there will keep Charlotte from calling on us at all hours.”

“Mama!” Elizabeth protested. Her friend could hardly be accused of calling ‘at all hours.’ In fact, Elizabeth had seen very little of her since their return from London. “Charlotte has always been welcome here.”

“But her husband!

“Mama, If Mr. Collins does not convince Charlotte to go away with him before the wedding, he may attend with her. If he does, we all shall have to do our best to be civil and welcoming to him.” The last thing Elizabeth needed was for her mother and Mr. Collins to have words at her wedding breakfast.

“I do not need my own daughter to tell me how to behave to guests! Of course I will be civil, but no more than civil. I welcomed that man into my house last year, and it ended in nothing. Had you not had the good fortune to catch Mr. Darcy’s eye, I would be furious with you still for refusing Mr. Collins. Even now I do not know how I shall bear giving up Longbourn when your father is dead.”

“My dear sister, do not despair!” Mrs. Philips sat up straight, her smile at odds with the gravity of the topic. “You may be the mother of five girls grown up, but you still have your looks. Should you have the misfortune to lose poor Mr. Bennet, it is possible that you might remarry. There are many gentlemen, respectable widows of our age, or a little older, who find themselves in need of companionship. Keep your eyes open, and do not despair.”

No one dared respond, though Lydia giggled. Elizabeth stared at her aunt in shock and disgust, resolving within herself to draw no limits in future to the vulgarity of a vulgar woman. Her father’s joining them immediately after did nothing to dispel her uneasiness.

“Mrs. Philips, I thought I had heard your voice.”

“Oh! Mr. Bennet, how d’ye do, my dear brother?”

“I am glad to know I am still dear to you. Just a moment ago, I had feared otherwise.”

“Nonsense, I…” It appeared even Mrs. Philips possessed some delicacy, though belatedly applied. Either that or the edge in Mr. Bennet’s voice had shaken her.

Mrs. Bennet certainly was not unaffected and rose from her chair with alacrity. “Mr. Bennet, are you at leisure?” Her voice was tremulous and low, and she latched onto her husband’s arm with a sort of tender desperation. “Sister,” she said, turning to Mrs. Philips, “I would love to stay and talk, but I have far too many things to attend to. I shall see you tomorrow. Girls, keep to your work; the time is short.”

Elizabeth watched her parents and aunt leave the room amidst the disappointed groans of her two youngest sisters. “Jane,” she said, “promise me we shall never behave in such an unfeeling manner to each other.”

“I cannot imagine it, Lizzy.” Jane’s smile wavered. The two of them glanced at Lydia, who was already laughing again at whatever it was she and Kitty were discussing. Mary’s quiet remonstrance, as usual, had no discernible effect on Lydia’s behaviour.

“I love this house, I really do,” Elizabeth confided to Jane in a low voice, “but there are some aspects of living here that I shall not miss at all.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


“My dear cousin, I congratulate you. I hope you and Mr. Darcy will be very happy together.”

For the second time that day, Elizabeth felt adrift in her own drawing room. She stared unblinking at the man in front of her, thinking surely she must have misheard him. The combination of awkward silence and Mr. Collins’s anxious but sincere expression—all the more convincing because she had never seen it on his face before—roused her to civility. “Thank you, Mr. Collins, for your good wishes. I believe we shall be quite happy.”

“Is your father at leisure? I wish to speak with him.”

“Certainly. You will find him in the library.”

“No, no; stay, please,” he said as she began to rise from the sofa. “No need to escort me. I am quite familiar with the rooms of my future…er, your lovely home.”

Elizabeth nodded and forced herself to remain in her seat, not at all certain she should not run ahead of her cousin after all to warn her father of the alteration in his kinsman, lest he faint from the shock.

“Charlotte!” Elizabeth hissed the moment Mr. Collins had left the room. “Charlotte, what did you do to him?” Luckily, she and her friend were alone, her sisters being engaged elsewhere in the house and her mother having declined to greet the visitors.

“I wrote him a letter.”

“That is all?”

“I told him the truth.”

“The truth,” Elizabeth repeated in awe, having no idea what Charlotte meant. “My cousin is quite changed from when I last saw him.” ‘I only hope it will last,’ she thought. She was desperate to know more. Her expressive look to Charlotte finally achieved her desire. With a sigh, her friend began to tell her about the letter she had penned to her husband.

“I thought it wise to put an end to any pretence that Mr. Collins and I had been impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination to marry. He knows I cannot but be aware of his previous interest in you. I am certain his decision to pay his addresses to me was due as much to his hurt pride as to his determination to follow Lady Catherine’s orders. And though my dowry was small, my being the daughter of a knight did not injure my chances with him.”

Charlotte looked down and folded her hands in her lap. “As for me, his prospects were compelling to a lady with no prospects of her own.”

“You broached all this in a letter?”

“I did.”

“Was my cousin not offended?”

“I cannot say what his initial reaction was. He has not mentioned it. But he is here, and he has begun to make amends. Is that not proof enough?”

“It is more than enough.” Elizabeth shook her head, marvelling at Charlotte’s initiative as much as the effects of it.

“I also told him there was no need to struggle for what he already had obtained. I have since come to understand that his father was a miserly, tight-fisted man, always giving a treat or a privilege only to take it back again, without warning or explanation. It is no wonder the son has never been completely secure in what he possesses.”

Elizabeth tried to picture a younger, less confident Mr. Collins suffering the whims of a tyrannical parent. She did not doubt Charlotte’s information; Mr. Bennet had never had a good word to say about the elder Mr. Collins. “I can imagine my cousin’s former experiences made your absence even more troubling.”

“You are right, Eliza. He allowed Lady Catherine’s version of events to stand uncontested—she told our neighbours that he had sent me away on some cause of disapprobation—but all the while he was terrified I would not come back. I had not written him at all, you see, not one word before last week. He tells me my father did write to him, however, and that only heightened his fears. He will not say what was in the letter, and my father refuses to speak of it. Fortunately, the two of them have been on cordial terms since my husband’s arrival last night.”

“That must ease your mind considerably.” Elizabeth thought on all Charlotte had said. “You were very bold, but I believe boldness was required. I do not know that I could have done what you did, had I been in your place.” Even with an infinitely more amiable husband than Charlotte possessed, would she be daring—and gracious—enough to make the first move towards reconciliation in a similar circumstance?

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Eliza! You, who scrupled not to argue with Mr. Darcy? You would have said that and more, only in person rather than by letter.”

Elizabeth laughed and could not deny it. “You make me quite ashamed of myself, Charlotte.”

“You should rather be proud of yourself. I have come around to your way of thinking. There is much to be said for frankness. As for letters, some of us find written communication more to our taste when faced with difficult explanations. But where is your Mr. Darcy today?” Charlotte enquired, signalling that she had said all she intended on the topic of her marriage. “And Mr. Bingley? Have your busybody neighbours frightened away your and Jane’s lovers?”

“No.” Elizabeth smiled at Charlotte’s teasing. “They are keeping themselves occupied at Netherfield as a favour to us. Mama has been at wit’s end, trying to finish all this work. I have entertained a doubt or two myself as to our ability to accomplish everything we would wish.”

“You have come far, from what I have seen. Some things can safely be left until after the ceremony.”

“Yes; we have not been negligent. All that is truly important has been done. Yet, as much as I miss Fitzwilliam, I am happy to have one full day dedicated to women’s business.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


The next day, Elizabeth awoke and lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking on all she needed to accomplish before nightfall. Charlotte’s words about letter-writing had given her an idea, but she had not yet found time to implement it. Fitzwilliam was to dine at Longbourn in the evening, so Elizabeth resolved to make the most of what remained of the morning hours before the tasks at hand swallowed up her good intentions.

After breakfast, she returned to her room with Kitty and Lydia. She had asked her mother for some time to allow the younger girls to sort through those of her belongings that had not been packed away or given to her maid, who had got most of Jane’s cast-offs already. Both mother and sisters agreed heartily with the plan. Elizabeth marvelled at how quickly her tidy assortment of clothing was reduced to a chaotic jumble on her bed.

“Oh, Lizzy! This gown is gorgeous! You have barely worn it.”

“You may have it, Kitty. The colour suits you better than it does me.”

“I want it!” Lydia dropped the dress and bonnet she had been admiring and reached for the garment in Kitty’s hands.

“Lydia, you are too tall for it. It really would look better on Kitty. Here,” Elizabeth offered, “take this one. It is a little longer, and the shade complements your eyes.”

“Lizzy is right, Lydia,” Kitty agreed, holding her own find behind her back.

Elizabeth sighed. She would never be able to think with the girls bickering beside her. “Why don’t you take these things to your own room, where you may fight over them as much as you like?”

“Do you mean we may have all of it?” Kitty’s eyes shined in excitement and gratitude.

“I promise I shall join you later and take back anything I absolutely cannot bear to leave behind,” she answered with an affected solemnity that faded quickly when her sister’s shoulders drooped in disappointment. “Do not fret, Kitty. I am certain most if not all of these clothes will remain safe at Longbourn with you and Lydia.”

Once alone, Elizabeth sat down, armed with paper, pen, ink and Fitzwilliam’s letters. Not one to dally over a task, she began immediately to write, stopping from time to time to glean inspiration from one of the other missives.

My dear Fitzwilliam,

I have been remiss in not writing to you before now and am grieved to find myself already several letters in your debt. However, as only one of your letters to me was written within the bounds of propriety—and then barely so—I have hopes that you will find it in your heart to forgive me and consider yourself amply recompensed by the receipt of this note.

I miss you terribly. You call me ‘dearest’ often enough; let me assure you that you are most dear to me. I feel your absence acutely and can only rejoice that after tomorrow I shall be assured of your presence on a more permanent basis.

All this missing and Missish behaviour turns me melancholy, so now I must tease you and require you to account for having ever fallen in love with me. I can comprehend your going on charmingly when once you had made a beginning, but what could have set you off in the first place? My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners, my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil. Is it possible you admired me for my impertinence?

Mama has called for me once already, so I must go. I have loved my name, ordinary as it is, for as long as I can remember, yet how anxious I am to give it up for another! Tomorrow cannot come soon enough.

Yours most sincerely,

Elizabeth Darcy Bennet

No sooner had Elizabeth given her letter to a servant with instructions to deliver it to Netherfield immediately than she was waylaid by Lydia, who had been sent by her mother to fetch her. She went directly to the dining room to discuss the evening’s dinner plans with Mrs. Bennet. Her mother found a few more items requiring her daughter’s attention before their conference was declared at an end, and above an hour had passed before Elizabeth was at leisure to go upstairs again. Returning to her room, she opened her door and, to her horror, heard her betrothed’s written words spoken in her father’s voice.

“‘Having flouted propriety once in this manner…’”

“Papa! No!” Elizabeth rushed forward and grabbed at the letter in Mr. Bennet’s hand.

“You will tear it in your haste.” Mr. Bennet held it out of reach.

“Please, Papa!” She thrust out her hand, and he placed the paper in her trembling palm.

“What is the matter, Lizzy?” Jane’s voice sounded from the doorway.

“Your sister apparently received more than one letter from Mr. Darcy before her engagement.”

Jane showed no surprise on hearing this announcement.

Mr. Bennet huffed, visibly annoyed. “You knew of this, Jane? You approve of such impropriety?”

Elizabeth watched her sister’s expression harden as her father stared in indignant impatience.

“What is done cannot be undone,” Jane said. “They have harmed no one.” As she retreated, Elizabeth heard her continue, “Your time would have been better spent attending to your own correspondence.” Jane gasped and muttered, “Forgive me,” before fleeing down the hall.

Elizabeth, incredulous, turned her head just in time to see the effects Jane’s bitter words had wrought on her father’s countenance.

Mr. Bennet shuddered and turned his face away. “I had suspected she was still upset over that letter from Bingley. Now I have proof.”

“I do not know when I have seen her so affected.”

“If Jane is angry with me, it has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”

“But, Papa, I believe she already regrets her outburst.”

“No, Lizzy. Let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.” He made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “Your mother would have known better what to do with that letter than I! Bingley should have addressed his scribbles to her instead. She has patience aplenty where her daughters’ marriage prospects are concerned.”

“Papa, please! How can you make a joke of this?”

“Do not worry. I shall find Jane and set things to rights.” Mr. Bennet stopped in front of the door. “I suppose you are wondering what brought me to your room and, more to the point, how I came in possession of your private correspondence.”

Elizabeth, still discomposed by her sister’s words and very much mortified by her father’s discovery of Fitzwilliam’s letters, struggled for the appearance of composure and did not wish to open her mouth until she believed she had attained it.

Her father did not give her the opportunity. “I will not make you ask. I had come to see your room, to say farewell, in a way, to the little Lizzy I once knew. The letter fell from atop that stack there,” he said, pointing to her table. “I picked it up, and it opened in my hand. I did not read the whole, only enough to know it was not from any of your sisters. The wording struck me as suspicious. You know the rest.” He offered no apology, but there was penitence in all his looks. “I shall not question you about any of the others. Jane was quite right. After tomorrow, you no longer will be under my roof.” He sighed, and his smile was bittersweet. “Despite the occasional lapse, your Mr. Darcy is an admirable gentleman.” He took a last look about him and left the room.

Elizabeth gathered Fitzwilliam’s letters to her bosom and waited until her breathing had returned to its normal, steady rhythm.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Before day’s end, all seemed well again within the Bennet household.

The Gardiners’ arrival that afternoon proved something of a curative. Jane was considerably cheered, and her sisters diverted, by the presence of their young cousins. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner unknowingly eased the lingering awkwardness between the Bennets and Mrs. Philips, who had stopped by to meet her brother and sister from town. When the time came to dress for dinner, Aunt Philips took the children off to dine in Meryton with her and her husband and left the parents to enjoy their meal at Longbourn.

Elizabeth was relieved to note that Jane and her father were as easy in each other’s company as they had ever been. Her sister loved her family very much and loathed being at odds with any member of it. Apparently these sentiments extended to her new family as well, for when the dinner guests arrived, Jane welcomed not just Mr. Bingley, but also Mr. Bingley’s sisters and Mr. Hurst, with genuine enthusiasm.

Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst both appeared humbled by Jane’s amicable greeting, in striking contrast to Miss Bingley’s deplorable behaviour during her previous visit to Longbourn. When the Bennets were lately in town, there had been little contact between the Darcy residence (and none at all between Gracechurch Street) and Grosvenor Street, to which Miss Bingley and the Hursts had fled only days after acknowledging their brother’s engagement. Perhaps with time and distance had come resignation, Elizabeth reasoned. Whatever the truth of the matter, neither Caroline nor Louisa showed outward signs of disapprobation or discontent, and Jane was positively beaming.

Dinner passed off uncommonly well. The gentlemen rejoined the ladies after a brief separation, for they had agreed to make an early night of it to allow the brides ample rest.

Mr. Darcy asked Elizabeth to entertain the company with some music.

“I shall, if Mary will play for me.”

“Of course,” Mary acceded. The sisters made their selection and performed it delightfully, if the response of their audience was any indication.

“More, please!” Mr. Bingley begged them. “That was splendid!”

Elizabeth looked at Jane sitting serenely by Charles’s side and grinned. “If you can convince my eldest sister to join us, I shall oblige you.”

“Jane, do you also sing? Why have I never heard you?”

“I rarely ever do, and never in public.”

Jane continued to demur, but Elizabeth gently coaxed her from her chair. “We are amongst family now. Just this once and I shall not ask you again. Well, not for several weeks, at least.” She assumed a most plaintive air. “Please, Jane? You cannot disappoint dear Mr. Bingley.” Mrs. Bennet and even Mrs. Hurst joined in her plea, and Jane had no choice but to consent.

Mary started to rise from her seat, but Elizabeth spoke quietly to her, and she nodded and stayed where she was. When Elizabeth repeated the words to Jane, the latter chortled and quickly covered her mouth, but she did not protest. The girls took a minute to consult with one another and ascertained that they all recalled enough of the song to do it credit. They decided that Mary, whose voice was not so weak in the lower register as it tended to be when she aimed for high notes, would sing contralto. Elizabeth would take the soprano, and Jane would strike a harmony between the two.

The three ladies barely maintained their composure as they began a whimsical piece about a girl who, after a long and arduous search, met her Prince Charming, kissed him, and cried as he transformed into a toad and hopped away. Elizabeth turned aside from Mary and Jane in order to keep from chuckling as the tale unravelled. She refused to meet her father’s eye or her uncle’s. She noticed her mother and aunt talking quietly in the corner, or, rather, her mother talked while her aunt listened. Mr. Darcy’s puzzled brow suddenly relaxed; Elizabeth wondered if he had just recognised the melody from their playing several weeks before. Mr. Bingley sat in delighted astonishment. Mr. Hurst looked decidedly amused, and his wife ceased fiddling with her bracelets and curiously observed her husband. A sour-faced Miss Bingley stared at Mr. Darcy’s back for much of the performance.

Kitty appeared a trifle pale at one point; then she giggled and whispered something to Lydia. Lydia, who could never be quiet for long, especially when she ought to be, almost spoiled everything with her impromptu yet fitting descant of “Warty Wickham.” Fortunately for the performers, the song concluded soon after this unexpected addition, and the party, save a few, burst into laughter and applause. Even Miss Bingley could not wholly suppress a smile.

Mr. Bingley approached the trio at the pianoforte and offered his compliments. “Jane, you should sing more often! The three of you sound very well together.”

“I have heard that members of the same family often do.” Jane looked pleased at his approbation.

“Next time, my dears,” suggested Mrs. Bennet, “I hope you will sing of something more appealing than toads.”

“Princes and toads,” laughed Mr. Bennet, “and warts!” he added, glancing at Lydia and Kitty. “Truly, I must have five of the silliest girls in the country.”

“Not for long, Papa,” Elizabeth cheerfully reminded him.

“No indeed, my dear Mrs. Darcy,” sounded a familiar voice close to Elizabeth’s ear. The touch of Fitzwilliam’s hand on the small of her back made her shiver despite the heat in the room. “Not for very long at all.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


Part 20


“Does not she look lovely, Mrs. Long?”

“Oh, yes, quite.”

“Just as handsome as Mrs. Bingley, I dare say.”

“Mr. Goulding, Mrs. Goulding, how d’ye do?”

“Jane is a vision!”

“Mama, she is so very pretty.”

“Those Bennet women are a handsome lot, I grant you.”

“I cannot wait until I get married. I shall have bolts and bolts of satin.”

“La! Who would want to marry you?

“Look at the lace on that gown!”

“Mrs. Darcy, are you well?”

That last voice caught Elizabeth’s attention immediately. “Very well,” she answered her husband. She had sensed, for a brief moment, his hand slipping away, and she had slowed in her walk. “Only please do not let go, Fitzwilliam.” She hoped she had whispered her request, or at least not been heard over the murmuring of the crowd. She was relieved when his strong fingers stroked hers, and she felt a sudden burst of loathing for gloves of all sorts.

Fitzwilliam looked down into her eyes. “Have no fear, dearest. I am not going anywhere without you today, of all days.”

Elizabeth could not explain to herself why she felt anxious. Her dress fit perfectly. Her hair had stayed exactly where her maid had put it that morning. Jane appeared every inch the angel she was, and her other sisters, even Mary, looked quite pretty in their finery. Her father, who was in uncommonly good humour, had refrained from teasing her and Jane before the ceremony. Even Mrs. Bennet’s nerves had resulted in nothing worse than the excessive waving of her handkerchief.

The wedding had gone by in a whirl of colour and sound. Elizabeth knew she had not missed the details, but at the moment she recalled little of what she had said and done. The one thing she remembered with perfect clarity was the tone of Fitzwilliam’s voice as he had repeated after the parson. When he had spoken the words “wedded wife,” he had looked directly into her eyes with an intensity that had stopped her breath. She had heard her heart beating loudly in her ears and could only wonder, for she did not precisely know, how she had managed to say her own vows in her turn.

They proceeded to Longbourn for the wedding breakfast. Just as they were about to reach the entrance, Elizabeth asked her husband to stop the carriage.

“Why?”

“I simply wish to walk a little before going inside.”

Fitzwilliam chuckled. “Even on your wedding day, you insist on demonstrating that you are an excellent walker.” They got out, and Elizabeth led him towards a stand of trees. “Thankfully there is no mud to spoil your gown. Your mother would be furious with you otherwise.”

Elizabeth tried to laugh but could not make herself do so. She moved quickly to her destination with Fitzwilliam hard on her heels. Finally, she reached a point beyond the view of prying eyes and took a deep breath. “Oh, the comfort of being sometimes alone!”

“What, should I leave as well so that you can be perfectly comfortable?”

“No!” Elizabeth grabbed his arm before realising the he had not moved an inch. His look told her he had never intended to abandon her. “How have you become so teasing?” She turned away.

“How have you become so taciturn?” Fitzwilliam gently pulled her to himself until her back was pressed against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her hair. “You have not acted like yourself since we left the church.”

“I do not feel like myself at all.”

“You seem almost nervous. Are you?”

“I feel…exposed. From the moment you said your vows to me, I felt as though everyone in the room knew what I was thinking. I could not look at the married women without blushing. They all knew.

“And what were you thinking that shamed you so?” He punctuated his question with a few kisses on her cheek and neck.

“You are not helping me at all, Fitzwilliam.”

“Then I shall simply help myself. I can, you know. You are mine now; even your name is mine.” He caressed her face. “Your neck is mine,” he whispered, kissing that particular place again.

“Is that how things are now?”

“Oh, I will make no objection if you wish to stake a similar claim. My neck shall be at your disposal in a moment. Just allow me to finish this.”

“Fitzwilliam! Stop it… No, do not.” She sighed and relaxed in his embrace. She wanted nothing more than to be his, and for him to be hers. She had thought of little else all morning.

But self, though it would intrude, could not engross her, not even on this momentous occasion. The voices of their family and friends reached their miniature paradise, reminding Elizabeth of another instance when she had stood not far from this very spot, concealed by greenery as she was now, listening to other voices. Though wishing she did not have to attend the wedding guests quite so soon, she could not help but appreciate the sound of their happy chatter—such a pleasant contrast to her memories of Lady Catherine’s loud, shrill disapproval reverberating throughout Longbourn’s pleasure grounds.

With a laugh, Elizabeth turned and kissed Fitzwilliam lightly on the lips. “Come. Are you not hungry?”

“Hungry? I suppose you could say I feel a certain hunger.”

“Well, I would not wish you to starve…” The words “on my account” were swallowed as he prevented their escape from her lips in a manner which could not but delight her and make her just as ravenous as he. Still, there was the wedding breakfast, and surely the chances of someone discovering them increased with every moment they lingered!

Elizabeth resolutely disentangled herself. “My love, let us go.” The rising din of the well-wishers, amongst which the voice of Sir William could be clearly distinguished, made their situation more urgent, but it had no effect on Fitzwilliam. “Husband!” She pulled him towards the celebration, as much as a light-figured girl of twenty could force-march a man nearly twice her size.

Fitzwilliam’s reluctance shone in his eyes, but he followed her without hesitation, holding tightly to her hand.

~☆☽♭♮♯


“Lydia!” Elizabeth clenched her teeth as Jane let out a sigh. “Will that girl ever learn to behave?” Much to the sisters’ chagrin, Lydia was displaying little more decorum than she had shown at the Netherfield Ball many months previous. That Kitty refused to join her in her antics was little comfort to Elizabeth. “Fitzwilliam had the right of it. We should have stayed in the copse.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” Her cheeks flushed with heat. She could tell by Jane’s look and smile that no explanation was necessary. “I do not regret being here now. I am grateful for the kind wishes of our friends. One more hour, however, and I must go. We wish to get to London before dark.” She winced as Lydia’s boisterous laughter reached their ears. “Do you think we can convince Papa to keep her under lock and key?”

“Papa is as unlikely to change as Lydia; less likely, for he is more set in his ways. Besides, I doubt our sister will be at Longbourn much longer. Lydia is a girl who will marry somebody or other. When the right man catches her eye…”

“When does Lydia not have her eye on a man?”

“Oh, well, then, when she catches the right man’s eye. Is that better?”

“Much better.” Elizabeth felt herself smiling and realised not even Lydia’s wild behaviour could spoil this day.

The hour came and went, and Elizabeth prepared to say goodbye to Hertfordshire for many months and to her former life forever. She said her farewells to neighbours, visitors and new family alike, smiling most warmly as she spoke to the Gardiners and to Charlotte.

Finally, she embraced her sisters. “Goodbye, Lydia. Try to behave yourself. Goodbye, Mary. I shall see you next in town.”

“But surely, Lizzy,” Kitty interjected, giving Elizabeth a hug and glancing at Fitzwilliam, “you will stop at Longbourn on your way to Pemberley?”

“I think you are right,” she said, and Fitzwilliam nodded his agreement. “I suppose I shall see you all very soon, then.” Elizabeth approached Jane next. Having shed tears and shared dreams the night before, there was nothing left but to revel in their joint happiness. They grasped each other’s hands and stood wreathed in smiles. “Write me soon and tell me how my new brother treats you.”

Jane laughed. “You know there is no need to worry on that score.”

“I do know it. We are so very fortunate, Jane.”

“That we are. Now go, for your husband seems a bit restless.”

Elizabeth gave a nervous laugh and walked with Fitzwilliam to where her father and mother stood. “Mama, Papa,” she began but found her words cut short as her mother swept her into her arms.

“Oh, my dearest child! You will be living so far away! It seems you have just come back from Hunsford, and now you are to go away again.”

“I shall see you before I travel to Pemberley, Mama. And until then, I shall only be in London.”

“Yes, that is true. You must write to me when you are settled.”

Elizabeth could not recall the last time her mother had requested a letter from her. She almost lost her composure as she looked into the familiar pair of eyes that were so much like her own. “I shall write to you soon, and to you as well, Papa.” She turned to her father, whose own eyes were glistening.

“You know that I shall always be glad of a letter from you.” He enclosed her in a light embrace and held out his hand to her husband. “Take care of my daughter, Darcy. Take good care.”

“I shall, Mr. Bennet.”

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy left Longbourn and rapidly settled into their equipage. Very soon Elizabeth felt the jolt that signalled the beginning of their journey to London.

Several minutes later, Fitzwilliam broke the silence. “I am shocked. Utterly shocked.”

“Why is that?”

“My wife has not said ten words to me since entering this carriage.”

“We have travelled only a few miles.”

“Elizabeth, is something the matter?”

“No.”

“Are you well?”

She nodded.

“Mrs. Darcy, please talk to me.”

“Fitzwilliam, what do you wish me to say?” She was mortified that her voice trembled.

He visibly relaxed. “Oh, love, are you afraid? Of me?

“Not of you, not really.”

“But?”

“But I am terrified,” she whispered. “And loath to admit it. It is only a small terror, however. You need not be concerned by it.” Rarely was she intimidated by anything or anyone; yet, the enormity of what she had done, the irreversible change she had wrought, struck her forcefully at that moment and stretched before her in a way that strained her customary courage to its limits.

“Oh, Elizabeth!” To her surprise, her husband laughed and held her close.

She began to pout but could not help relaxing at the delightful sound. “I am glad you can take your amusement at my expense. I should be laughing myself. I suppose you are not afraid of…of anything today.”

“No, indeed! Certainly not of you! My fears were at their worst when I discovered at Rosings how much you had detested me. I can feel naught but satisfaction now that you are mine. Satisfaction and a great deal of happiness.”

“I am happy, too.”

“I want you to be happy.” He pulled her closer. “Does this frighten you?” He brought his lips to hers. “Or this?” He kissed her for a long time, more deeply than he ever had before.

Catching her breath, she shook her head.

“Good.” He cupped her face in his hands and looked directly, and warmly, into her eyes. “Elizabeth, darling, do not be anxious.”

His reassurance had not elevated her spirits to playfulness, but suddenly she felt a great deal more at ease.

They reached the house before dark, as they had hoped. After refreshing themselves, Fitzwilliam escorted Elizabeth to the dining room.

“Are you hungry?” His mouth turned up at the corners.

She bit her lip, unable to repress her own smile.

Dinner passed off as well as it had the night before, though there were not so many at table. The room felt full enough, however, and Elizabeth was happy to leave it in favour the music room.

“Will you play to me?”

“You must not require anything too complicated tonight. It is a special occasion and I wish I were better prepared, but as you know, I have never been inclined to practise much.” She thought over the unusual amount of time she had spent doing just that during her visit to Kent.

“Play whatever you like. I am certain I will enjoy it.”

She chose a short, simple piece and remained seated as the last note lingered in the air. She heard Fitzwilliam come closer.

“Shall we retire?”

She stiffened. So much was contained in those three little words he had spoken. “Yes.” There was nothing for it but to go. Laughing off the vestiges of her nervousness, she reached for her husband’s hand.

In less than an hour, they sat in her room on the bed, facing each other.

“You look entirely too comfortable,” she teased, noticing with pleasure how well his ready smile became him. “It is not fair.” This was her chamber, and he seemed more at home in it than she felt.

“You will be comfortable soon enough.” He caressed her cheek. “With a little more practice. We are only just beginning, dearest.” He reached for the buttons of her gown. “But as you said earlier, you have never cared much for practising.”

She stroked his helpful fingers. “I do believe you mean to change my opinion.”

Much later that night, wrapped in her sleeping husband’s arms, she smiled and hummed to herself, thoroughly persuaded that some kinds of practice were no trouble at all.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Epilogue


The sounds emanating from the pianoforte in Mrs. Jenkinson’s parlour kept poor rhythm with the percussive clicking of a certain young boy’s boots.

“Quiet, Andrew! I am trying to concentrate!”

The owner of the boots sniffed the air, his facial expression a curious mixture of his father’s imperious stare and his maternal grandfather’s dismissive smirk. “It is so tedious listening to you playing those tedious exercises.”

“Tedious or not, you would do well to emulate your sister’s dedication to practice.” Mrs. Darcy smiled on young Sarah. “Though to be fair, I must admit to having teased my sister Mary a time or two as a child when I had heard more than enough scales for my liking.”

“But Aunt Harrison plays so well!”

Elizabeth and Mrs. Jenkinson exchanged a knowing smile. Elizabeth recalled a time when that had not been the case, and how it all had changed during Mary’s first season in town with the Darcys. Mary had enjoyed her early lessons with Mrs. Jenkinson so much that she had begged to remain in London with the Gardiners in order to continue them when Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam removed to Pemberley. She had come back a second year and a third, so that by the age of two and twenty, she truly had earned the title of ‘the most accomplished young lady in Hertfordshire society,’ musically speaking, of course.

“Your aunt does play well, Jane. And so do you, I might add.”

“Not so well as Sarah, but thank you, Mother.”

Elizabeth did not deny her eldest daughter’s claim. Sarah was the only one of the Darcy brood who seemed to have inherited Georgiana’s superior musical abilities.

“I do not see why I have to have lessons. Father never had any.”

It was always ‘Father’ this and ‘Father’ that with Mr. Darcy’s heir these days. Elizabeth was learning much about what it might have been like to have had a brother at Longbourn.

Although Jane calmly bore Andrew’s grumbling, Sarah had little patience for his frequent complaints. “Someday you will be gone, and we shall have peace at home until your holidays come.”

“I wish I were going into the navy.”

“You are too young, and besides, you would have to convince Papa to allow it, which I doubt you could do,” Jane told him. “I am glad, for this way we shall be sure to see you throughout the year.”

“I would not care if you went to sea, as long as you stayed away until you were too old to click your boots during my lessons.”

“Do not be so quick to be rid of your brother, Sarah.” Elizabeth did not want to think of how much she would miss her son once he was away at school. “And take care what you say, my dear.” She wished her youngest daughter would remember where she was and not run on in the wild manner that she was suffered to do at home. Thankfully, Mrs. Jenkinson was never perturbed by the children’s banter. She knew them all well and forgave them their shortcomings.

“I am sorry, Mama.”

“Miss Sarah, shall we get back to your lesson?” Mrs. Jenkinson kindly prodded her young student. “And, please, no metronome this time, young man.”

Andrew coloured and ran off, no doubt to the kitchen in search of cake.

~☆☽♭♮♯


“What are you thinking of that has you so out of sorts?”

“Am I so obvious?”

“Yes, my love, you are.” Darcy rubbed her shoulders.

“I was thinking of home.” She meant Longbourn, not Pemberley; they had returned from a week’s visit to Hertfordshire just a few days before. By Fitzwilliam’s soft touch upon her shoulders, she assumed he had understood her.

By his next words, she was certain of it. “Mrs. Collins seems a little happier every time we see her.” Charlotte, well and truly settled at Longbourn as its mistress, had appeared more content with her lot than she ever had with her poultry and her parish at Hunsford. “Your father was so generous with Mr. Collins. I could not imagine doing what he did, although I admit it seemed a sensible solution at the time.”

“Our situation is different.” They had a son, a natural successor in the eyes of the law, and, furthermore, no entail to prevent a daughter's son from inheriting the Darcy estate. Elizabeth closed her eyes. She did not like to think of death; she had done enough of that in the past year. She still missed her father sorely.

Mr. Bennet had declined slowly enough for his family to become used to the idea that he would not last forever. Still, the end, when it came, had been a blow. Almost as shocking had been the news several months earlier that he had sent an express to Hunsford, requesting that the Collinses take up residence while there was still time for him to acquaint his cousin with the particulars of running the estate. At first Mrs. Bennet had protested the idea, but Mr. Bennet had been firm. In the end, Charlotte’s assistance had proved invaluable to a woman whose own daughters, save one, no longer resided in the neighbourhood, and the presence of children in the house had been a balm during that dark period.

Mrs. Bennet’s heart had broken as the companion of her youth and middle years slowly slipped away. Mr. Bennet’s affections had revived, coaxed back to life through his wife’s tender care, and Elizabeth and her sisters, along with the sorrow of losing their father, had borne the additional pangs of regret that it had taken tragedy to reanimate the love their parents had shared.

With the assistance of her sons, Mrs. Bennet had removed to a spacious dwelling on the far side of Netherfield Park, close enough to all her friends but not so close that the view of Longbourn’s environs would be a constant reminder of her loss. With time, Mrs. Bennet’s good humour began to appear more frequently and her nerves less so, a circumstance helped along by her genuine joy in being a grandmother and her pleasure in the company of her family.

“It was good to see Mary.” Kitty and Lydia were to go to their mother within the month, and Jane and Bingley had departed for the north. At least Mr. Bennet had lived to see all his daughters marry and take the sting out of the eventual loss of Longbourn. Even Lydia, the last to wed despite being the most willing, had added joy to her father’s waning years by not only presenting him with a tolerable son-in-law, but also bringing into the world two lively children, a girl and a boy, who were openly fond of their maternal grandpapa.

Elizabeth directed her thoughts down a less personal, and therefore less painful, route. “Being in company with Charlotte’s husband was not the trial I had anticipated,” she admitted. “He has changed considerably from the Mr. Collins of Hunsford parish. He no longer seems so...”

“Pompous.”

“I was going to say silly.”

“Mr. Collins is invariably silly.”

“I suppose, but he is no longer irritatingly so. Nor is he the resentful man he once was.”

“He is your cousin. I should not speak of him in that way.” Darcy’s smile belied his true opinion; he did not in the least appear ready to take back his words describing the somewhat improved Mr. Collins.

“He is your cousin, too,” she grinned in return. “You are allowed your share in the conversation.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


As Elizabeth allowed the notes to fade and her fingers to rest upon the pianoforte, she felt a fleeting touch on the nape of her neck, followed by a familiar caress.

“Have you any idea,” Darcy murmured between kisses, “why that song never seems to make me the least bit sleepy?”

Elizabeth laughed: a low, satisfied rumble. “I can guess.”

“I am grateful that it has the proper effect on our children, though.” The nurse had just carried their youngest child to his bed for the night.

“I should be surprised if a man of forty years could be felled by a simple song.” She leaned into Fitzwilliam’s touch as he continued to stroke her hair.

“It was not the song that conquered me, but the singer, as well you know.”

All was quiet for some minutes. Eventually they slipped through the door and up the stairs, the conqueror and the conquered. Which one of them truly fit which role might have been a matter for debate, Elizabeth mused, smiling as Fitzwilliam eagerly drew her into her room. Then the door closed, and all thought of debate and conquest vanished, her head being full of something else entirely.

~☆☽♭♮♯


The End