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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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



Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Little More Practice (6 of 7)

Part 16


More letters came to Longbourn after the last from Mr. Collins, including another from Hunsford Parsonage. Charlotte wrote Elizabeth to congratulate her friend on her conquest. “I know that you are too much of a romantic to have accepted him merely for his wealth and consequence,” Charlotte’s letter said, “but that does not change the fact that you have made a most enviable match.”

Mrs. Gardiner’s communication to her niece conveyed her approbation and pleasure with every line. She teased Elizabeth for her behaviour on the last day of her visit to Gracechurch Street and pressed her to share at least a few details of her surprising courtship. Mr. Gardiner added to his wife’s raptures his own good wishes and expressed a hope that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, as a married couple, would continue their acquisition of noteworthy additions to Pemberley’s library.

Other letters regarding the business fell to Mr. Darcy’s lot. His uncle, the earl, sent a cold acknowledgement of the betrothal along with a few impertinent questions and one or two insinuations about Elizabeth. The viscount’s note was brief in comparison to that of his father, with surprise being the prevalent sentiment expressed. Lady Catherine sent a rather thick missive, which her nephew had refused to open. It was not completely wasted, however; Mr. Darcy claimed to have put it to immediate use by repeatedly tossing it into the shrubbery around Netherfield and ordering one of the dogs to fetch it out. “Never before has one of my aunt’s letters given me such pleasure,” he told Elizabeth when relating the incident.

His father’s cousin, the son of his great uncle the judge, responded to the news with barely concealed resentment. Whether his disapproval had more to do with not being informed of the engagement prior to reading of it in the London papers or with his relation’s choice of wife, Elizabeth could not tell. As she read the letter again—for Mr. Darcy had shared it with her as he had the others with the exception of Lady Catherine’s—she wondered if it were not the choice itself, but rather the ability to choose that nettled his cousin. Fitzwilliam was, after all, the heir to Pemberley; his cousin was not. As the child of a younger son, this Mr. Darcy might not have been at liberty to marry where he liked.

Elizabeth handed the letter back to Fitzwilliam. “Was your cousin very jealous of your father?”

“I have heard that he was. My mother certainly hinted at it. He visited us but rarely, usually in town. I have not seen him at Pemberley since the time of my father’s funeral.”

“There do not seem to be many of your family who approve of me. Papa did warn me this would happen.”

“You know Georgiana approves of you. As a sister, she will adore you.”

“What does the colonel think?”

“Now that we are engaged, he is possibly as jealous of me as this Mr. Darcy,” he indicated the letter, “was of my father. He thinks highly of you.” His smile quickly disappeared. “Elizabeth, do you…did you ever…admire my cousin?”

“I do admire him. He is a very gentlemanly, amiable man, with a great deal of lively conversation.” Elizabeth watched the emotions flicker across Fitzwilliam’s face. “But I never thought of him as anything more than a welcome acquaintance. There was no time for that in Hunsford. I was far too busy contemplating the actions of two other, far more troublesome men.”

“Two?”

“The first, my own cousin, expended an inordinate amount of effort attempting to make me sorry for…well, envious of Charlotte in her role as Mrs. Collins.” She saw Fitzwilliam’s eyebrow rise at this. “That is, when he was not accusing me of seeking to garner the attentions of one or the other of Lady Catherine’s nephews. The second gentleman’s attack on my peace was subtler. He seemed content to confound me with smiles and compliments where I had grown to expect only cool civility.” She levelled a steady gaze at Fitzwilliam. “You know not how shocked I was to find an admirer in him instead of a critic.”

“Oh.”

“Being privy to his earliest impression of me, you understand, I had no reason to suspect that I would ever become an object of his admiration.”

Mr. Darcy sat up straight in his chair and spoke slowly and distinctly. “I shall not even ask what you heard, or how, or when, or where,” Elizabeth was almost laughing now, “curious as I am on all four points.”

“Bravo! I applaud your restraint.”

“I see you will not take pity on me and tell me what I will not ask,” he said, pouting. “Very well, then.” Elizabeth laughed openly, drawing a slow smile from Fitzwilliam as he continued. “I hope, dearest, that you have lately heard more gratifying opinions expressed by the gentleman.”

“I have indeed. As for those early remarks, and I shall let the ‘how’ and ‘when’ and ‘where’ remain a mystery, now that I have had my fill of diversion and amusement from them, they shall be forgotten. I shall think only of the past as its remembrance gives me pleasure.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


Changes continued to flow through the Bennet household at a rapid pace. Colonel Forster’s regiment departed Meryton, and Kitty was allowed once again to leave the confines of Longbourn House. At each meal, Mrs. Bennet discussed some new item that she deemed essential to the wedding preparations, and Jane and Elizabeth daily received the congratulations of their acquaintance on their upcoming marriages.

Miss Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam arrived at Netherfield and called at Longbourn that very same day while the Bennets were entertaining some of their neighbours. Miss Darcy was pleased to find Maria Lucas among those who greeted her, and she spent much of the visit in conversation with Miss Lucas, Kitty and Lydia. The colonel, after some initial embarrassment, struck up a conversation with Elizabeth and was almost as attentive to her as he had been in Kent, despite being under the watchful eye of his cousin.

One evening while there was still daylight left, Longbourn welcomed an unexpected visitor.

“Mrs. Collins!” Mrs. Bennet blurted as the lady stepped into the room.

“Good evening,” Charlotte calmly replied, looking around the room. “I am happy to see you are all well.”

“Well, indeed, especially now that you are here!” Elizabeth rose and stretched out her arms towards her friend. “Come! Tell me what has brought you to Hertfordshire. I thought to receive a mere paper reply to my last letter, but this is much better.” She smiled broadly at her friend, although she could not help but notice that something was not right.

Charlotte’s expression and tone of voice gave nothing away. “I have come to stay a few weeks with my family.”

“And Mr. Collins is at Lucas Lodge?” Elizabeth asked out of obligation rather than interest.

“No, he remains in Hunsford.”

“I assume you will require the use of the carriage later this evening?” Mr. Bennet inquired, to which Charlotte nodded and offered her thanks.

Mrs. Bennet mumbled something and Elizabeth was grateful that neither she nor Charlotte could hear what it was. Mrs. Bennet had not completely forgiven Charlotte for stealing Mr. Collins, and thus Longbourn, away from her daughters and was unlikely to be kind or even civil in her remarks. “Mama,” Elizabeth said, “shall I show Charlotte the new lace we purchased yesterday? It is very fine.”

“Yes, do! It is finer than any I have seen a bride wear in Meryton. You and Jane will look very well in it. Take Mrs. Collins up to your room and show her.” She shooed them away and languidly took up her stitching.

Elizabeth slowed her steps as they climbed the stairs. “Charlotte,” she whispered, “are you well?” She glanced at the place where the youngest Collins was hidden from view.

“I am better than I was when you saw me last, but I have much to tell you, Eliza.”

“Why did not Mr. Collins accompany you?” was the first question out of Elizabeth’s mouth when they had reached her room and shut the door.

“He refuses to set foot in Hertfordshire, for reasons you must know. ‘Lucas Lodge is too near for comfort,’ he said. He would not even send a servant with me. My father was not pleased that I arrived alone, and it was some time before I could quiet his solicitude and set out to see you.”

“Yet Mr. Collins did not forbid you to come?”

“I told him I needed my mother’s counsel.”

“So he knows he is to be a father.”

“No. I merely hinted at it. I was never explicit. He is only convinced that a female matter is behind my sudden desire to be in Meryton, and he shies away from such things.”

This of course inspired Elizabeth to imagine Fitzwilliam’s reaction to the news of a Darcy heir, and that thought led to the contemplation of how heirs come about; the little Elizabeth knew of the process brought the deepest blush to her cheeks.

“I believe in the end,” Charlotte continued, “he allowed me to leave because he thought I might be of use in convincing you to call off the wedding.”

At this notion Elizabeth could only laugh.

“I know, I know. Silly of him to think so, but convenient for me.”

“You assure me that you are well?”

“Eliza, stop! I am only with child; I am not an invalid.”

“It is just that you were so pale when I left Hunsford. Obviously you are better now. I can see that. Your colour is much improved.” She smiled, feeling more at ease. “I was only five when Lydia was born. I remember little of my mother’s experience.”

“I remember enough of such things, but another’s experience only goes so far.”

“You said you had much to tell.”

Charlotte took a deep breath. “Lady Catherine became quite angry with me when I refused to join in censuring you and Mr. Darcy.”

“I assume Mr. Collins was less than pleased?”

“At first, yes. Later I mollified him by suggesting that I would rather not be heard speaking ill of her ladyship’s nephew or that nephew’s chosen bride while there is the smallest hope that reconciliation might be achieved in future. He lauded my intentions, and I in turn refrained from further expressing my true opinion.”

Elizabeth’s own temptation to anger was great, but she knew that her cousin was not a reasonable man. Charlotte had taken considerable risks and while she appreciated her friend’s loyalty, she was not happy that it should be tested, especially at this delicate time, and by her very own relation.

“Lady Catherine is not the only one who disapproves of me,” Elizabeth informed her friend. “Mr. Collins may flatter himself that he is in excellent company.”

“Has it been difficult?”

“Not terribly so. Just words, really.”

“Words can injure.”

“True.” Elizabeth recalled some of the things that had been said and written since Mr. Darcy’s interest in her had been made public. “Is that all?” she asked eventually. “So you have fled the wrath of Lady Catherine?”

“I am not the only person who lately has left Hunsford. At least I left by choice.”

“Who else has gone?”

“Miss de Bourgh is now without a companion. Lady Catherine accused Mrs. Jenkinson of insubordination. Specifically, she blamed her for aiding your courtship. She questioned all the servants and discovered that one of them had seen Mr. Darcy’s valet carry a parcel in the direction of Mrs. Jenkinson’s room and return empty-handed.” Charlotte paused at Elizabeth’s sharp intake of breath. “Mrs. Jenkinson admitted there was a package belonging to you that had remained in her room for almost a week before you retrieved it, though she claimed ignorance of Mr. Darcy’s involvement. Lady Catherine has dismissed Mrs. Jenkinson and the other servant.”

“Poor creatures! I feel sorry for them both. They are not at fault. I doubt Mrs. Jenkinson knew anything of what passed between Mr. Darcy and me. What is to become of them? Do you know?”

“The maid, Marsden, I think, has a new position with the Fieldings. Mrs. Jenkinson is to stay with a sister in London, a Mrs. Whitfield, until she procures a new post. Miss de Bourgh has been surprisingly open about the affair. I suppose that without a companion she feels very much alone. Her mother, she says, has not been the best company of late.”

“Oh, Charlotte! I feel awful.” Although she was not answerable for Lady Catherine’s actions, she hated the thought that her own could in any way result in innocent people suffering the loss of employment. She shook her head. “Oh, I know I am not to blame, and I have long forgiven Mr. Darcy his method of delivering the collection of music to me. Lady Catherine has authored the greater part of her own misery by insisting that her daughter and nephew should marry. Had there been no parcel, her ladyship would have invented some other reason to lash out at her staff. She did not succeed with Mr. Darcy or with me, and her displeasure must have an object.” Elizabeth then revealed to Charlotte the particulars of her ladyship’s visit to Longbourn.

Charlotte proved to be unsurprised by the recital and declared it of a piece with Lady Catherine’s recent behaviour. More details of the upheaval at Rosings followed, and by the time the carriage was wanted, Elizabeth knew, among other things, the area of town where Miss de Bourgh’s former companion resided and the fact that Miss de Bourgh had been far less distressed than her mother by the news of Mr. Darcy’s betrothal.

“This last is the most difficult.” Charlotte swallowed. “My husband is very angry, Eliza. I am glad you are all in health and that you and Jane, at least, will have Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley to care for you. I fear Mr. Collins will not be kind when…” She bent over and gave way to muffled sobs.

“Charlotte, do not worry for us. Neither Mr. Bingley nor Mr. Darcy will allow my mother or younger sisters to suffer when Longbourn is no longer ours.”

“I hope your father lives for a great many more years!” Charlotte tried to laugh her tears away. “Mr. Collins does not deserve his inheritance. I can only pray that he will by the time it devolves to him.”

Elizabeth held Charlotte’s hand, wondering exactly what her cousin had said and done to drive his wife away. “When do you return to Kent?”

“Never!” Charlotte whispered. “I do not know!” Visibly embarrassed, she pulled out a handkerchief and exerted herself to regain her composure. “What I truly do not know is what has come over me. I feel so out of sorts. I am too old for this display of silly emotion.”

For once, Elizabeth could think of nothing to say to her usually imperturbable friend.

Luckily, Charlotte did not require a response. “It is my ‘condition,’ I suppose.” She looked away. “Let us talk no more of Kent. I do not wish to think of hi—” she hesitated, “of Hunsford.”

Elizabeth obliged her until the servant came to fetch them. Sir William had arrived to collect his daughter and was waiting in the drawing room. Elizabeth observed with relief as the cheerful, courteous manners of the father restored to the daughter much of her former good humour. As she watched her friends go, she had never in her life been so grateful to Sir William Lucas for simply being the man he was.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Mr. Bingley soon had the pleasure of announcing the return of his sisters and Mr. Hurst to the country. “They arrived yesterday afternoon. I urged them to come with me today, but they say they are fatigued from their journey and beg leave to call another time.” His expression was one of disappointment, and Elizabeth could see that he felt the insult to Jane.

“It is of no import, Charles,” Jane reassured him with her customary aplomb. “Do not worry yourself. We shall meet again before long and all will be well.” Mr. Bingley gave her a half-hearted smile, kissed her hand and walked across the room to join the other gentlemen in conversation.

“Charles’s concern is for naught,” Jane said to her sister when there was no danger of Mr. Bingley overhearing. “At this moment, it matters little to me how soon I see Caroline again! But how shall I face her after knowing of her duplicity?”

“As you face everyone and everything else,” Elizabeth answered. “I know exactly what you will do, Jane. You will blush on Miss Bingley’s behalf, for I doubt her own cheeks will suffer any variation of colour at the recollection of her dishonesty, and then you will proceed to treat her and her sister with more kindness than they deserve.”

“I do not intend to be uncivil, certainly, but neither do I wish them to believe that we can ever be what we once were to one another.”

“I hope in time you will be better than what you once were to each other, at least on Miss Bingley’s part, and Mrs. Hurst’s. I have always found something lacking in their treatment of you.”

Jane made no protest; she merely sighed.

“All will be well, Jane, just as you said.”

“And we must begin this…renewal of our acquaintance, perhaps as early as tomorrow.”

“You stood with me through Lady Catherine’s assault on my character. I will stand with you, or rather sit while you pour the tea and entertain your two very undeserving future sisters. I will not even mind should you choose to add salt, and not sugar, to their teacups. Nor will Mr. Bingley, I think.” This brought a smile to Jane’s face at last. “And do remember that no matter how displeased they are that their brother has not chosen a bride with a dowry of fifty thousand pounds, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are unlikely to complain about it in loud voices while standing just outside the door of Longbourn.”

“No,” Jane said, eyes wide. “I shall keep that in mind.”

Mr. and Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley called the following day along with Mr. Bingley and his other guests, and Elizabeth was happy to find she had been correct in her predictions. Jane behaved with elegance and grace, and no one besides Elizabeth, with the possible exceptions of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, could detect any difference in her manner. Jane did not put salt in the sisters’ tea, although to those who were observant enough to see it, she appeared to take less pleasure in serving them than she had done on previous occasions.

Mr. Bingley alternated between smiling at his betrothed and glaring at his sisters, particularly the younger one, for although Jane conducted herself admirably, the same could not be said of Miss Bingley. The latter sulked her way through the entire hour, and when she did speak, she more often than not directed her conversation to Mr. Darcy or Miss Darcy. Mrs. Hurst had the sense to look ashamed at her sister’s ill breeding. By the end of the visit, Mrs. Hurst had compensated for what was lacking in her sister’s behaviour by smoothing over the worst of Miss Bingley’s remarks, and with that Mr. Bingley was forced to be satisfied.

“Caroline has been in a foul mood all day,” Mr. Bingley said to Jane and Elizabeth before leaving. “Darcy said very little to her at breakfast, which she ought to recall is hardly unusual, and he refused to answer any questions on how his engagement came about. Her being vexed with him may explain her behaviour, but it cannot excuse it. I am sorry.”

“You need offer no apologies, Charles.”

“Your sister might not agree with you,” he said, looking at Elizabeth.

“If Jane is satisfied, so must I be.”

Jane looked at Elizabeth with scepticism but said nothing.

“Very well, then; I shall accept your gracious words and take my sisters back to Netherfield where I hope at least one of them will come to a right way of thinking before long. I believe you can trust Louisa’s efforts today to be sincere.”

Both Jane and Elizabeth could agree with Mr. Bingley’s statements regarding each of the ladies in question, and the matter was closed.

“The Bennet brides are a hardy lot, would you not agree, Jane?” Elizabeth said after bidding Mr. Darcy farewell.

“I hope we are.” She waved to Mr. Bingley, who had mounted his horse. “Had I known how much there was to bear…”

“You would not have fallen in love with Mr. Bingley?”

“I could not help that, any more than you could help falling for your Mr. Darcy.”

“If you speak the truth, which I suspect you do,” Elizabeth responded with a smile, “what hope have we, helpless creatures that we are? We have no choice but to prepare ourselves as best we can for whatever unpleasant scenes may arise between now and the wedding.” She thought suddenly of Charlotte and added to herself, “And may marriage be kind to us long after the wedding is over.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


Elizabeth watched the movement of the billowing curtains one morning as she sang to Mary’s able accompaniment. She was in a fair way of knowing the song by heart, only occasionally finding the need to look over her sister’s shoulder to read the next word or phrase. She and Mary completed the piece to unexpected applause.

“Lovely.” Mr. Darcy leaned forward from his position at the doorway. “Lovely. Thank you, ladies.”

“You are welcome, Mr. Darcy.” Mary smiled and then, with a quizzical glance at each of the others, she left the room.

“You are early,” said Elizabeth, delighted to see him. “I had not expected you before noon.”

Mr. Darcy moved to stand next to her. “I have often desired to hear you perform again.”

“Why did not you ask?”

He blinked as if he either had not heard or had not understood her. “We are so rarely alone.” His eyes strayed to the door.

“‘We’ are so new that I cannot yet say what is rare and what is not. We have been engaged for what, a fortnight? Three weeks?”

“Eighteen days.”

“You are frightfully exact.” She took in his appearance; he always was impeccably attired, and today was no exception. “But returning to the subject, are you suggesting that a private performance is preferable to a public one? I might not disagree with you, although I do not believe we can recreate the circumstances in the servants’ wing at Rosings. Here, one of my many sisters is likely to—” Feeling his arms encircle her, she shifted her gaze upward. “I thought we were talking of music,” she teased, for he had begun to whisper words that had nothing whatsoever to do with notes and melodies.

Mr. Darcy placed Elizabeth’s hands on his shoulders. “We were.” He lowered his face to hers.

Elizabeth indulged him as long as she dared, which was not long at all. “I was serious in saying that one of my sisters may interrupt at any time. Or, worse, one of my parents.”

“I know.” Resigned, he sat down while Elizabeth took Mary’s former place at the instrument. “Is it too early in the day for a lullaby?”

“No,” she smiled. “Never.”

It was thus engaged, Elizabeth singing and Mr. Darcy reclining in the chair with his eyelids lowered, that Mrs. Bennet came upon them. “Lizzy, how came you to be playing that child’s tune?” Her mother bustled into the room. “Can you think of nothing more suitable?”

Before Elizabeth could explain that she was performing at another’s request, her mother drew her attention to Mr. Darcy, who remained still but for his breathing, and to all appearances was fast asleep.

“Oh! I never…” Mrs. Bennet pressed her pink cheeks. “Well, if Mr. Darcy does not mind it, then I suppose…” Flustered and momentarily silent, she hurried out and shut the door behind her.

“See to it that Mr. Darcy is not disturbed,” Elizabeth heard her mother charge one of the servants. “He…” She heard only a few more muffled words as she resumed her playing. “…important man…business…needs his rest.” Elizabeth kept her fingers steady, though her voice wavered when she started to sing again, for she had caught Mr. Darcy attempting to stifle a smile. At the gentle sound of her ill-repressed laughter, Mr. Darcy opened one eye. Elizabeth quickly covered her mouth to keep more laughter from bursting forth.

“Had I but known,” said Mr. Darcy, opening the other eye, “that time alone with you would be so simple to achieve I would have attempted it days ago.” He moved to sit next to her. “Play to me again. I promise to stay awake.”

“You were not sleeping before.”

“No. I find your company too stimulating.” He grinned at her. “I suppose it was unfair of me to fool your mother like that.”

“Badly done, sir!”

Later, when she had retired for the evening, Elizabeth would reflect upon her tête-à-tête with Fitzwilliam and conclude it was inevitable that they should inch closer with every softly spoken phrase, and equally inevitable that they should cling to each other when their words ceased and privacy afforded the opportunity for their lips to become more agreeably engaged. At the time, however, she had suffered much of the nervousness and suspense one might experience at the prospect of a first embrace, though Fitzwilliam had kissed her only minutes before.

The difference was on her part, not his; this was the first instance where she moved towards him and reciprocated his ardour, knowing full well what she was about. As they touched, she was fascinated by his softened expression, his attractiveness, how at peace he seemed to be in her arms. She noticed his long lashes, upper and lower ones pressed close together, and wondered that the beauty of his eyes could affect her so profoundly without their being focused on her. So captivated was she that when Fitzwilliam eventually returned her gaze, she gasped and tightened her hold on him, feeling right then as if the ground beneath her had fallen away and she were floating on air.

Elizabeth was the first to pull away at hearing her father’s voice in the hall. She was not sorry for it; during these few moments, she and Fitzwilliam had forgotten themselves, had quite forgotten where they were.

“Papa is determined to save me from my own imprudence.”

The door creaked open.

“He is determined to save you from me, I am sure of it,” Darcy hissed across the now proper distance between them.

“Ah, Mr. Darcy!” Mr. Bennet stepped into view. “I see the reports of your falling asleep during my daughter’s performance are merely rumours. Yet I understand how you could be tempted to it.” He paused and glanced everywhere but at the two persons in the room. “The air in here is a little warm. Why not come and join the others? Elizabeth?”

The couple rose without looking at one another and followed Mr. Bennet out until the latter motioned to a part of the room where a looking glass was affixed to the wall between two portraits. Elizabeth caught sight of her reflection and flinched. Mr. Darcy was beside her in a moment, slipping his arms around her waist. “Is not this a pretty picture?” he asked her, bending to kiss her neck.

“Aye, if a bit untidy.” Fitzwilliam was less vain than she, despite his handsome features. There was a glow to their faces that had not always been there, a natural ease in the way they stood together; that must be the prettiness to which he referred. “We must be quick.” She smoothed the wrinkles out of her gown and tucked her wayward locks into place. Mr. Darcy effected similar adjustments to his appearance, and in a few moments all was set to rights.

“My dear,” said Mr. Bennet to his wife when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy walked into the drawing room, “I do believe it is high time we selected a wedding date.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


Part 17


“I hope she stays in Meryton indefinitely.”

“But Fitzwilliam!” During a walk on Longbourn’s grounds, Elizabeth had found the opportunity to reveal to Mr. Darcy what lately had occurred at Hunsford. They had talked briefly of the changes at Rosings before discussing Charlotte’s plight. She had known he would be concerned, but she had not expected this reaction.

“I do not know how anyone can live at peace with Mr. Collins.”

Elizabeth had no answer for that, never having come to terms with Charlotte’s marriage herself.

“She has not suffered more than…He has not…”

“Oh, no!” Elizabeth startled when she realised what he was suggesting. “She expressed no concern on that score. My cousin is many things, but I cannot accuse him of being a violent man.”

“Sir William cannot be pleased with Collins’s treatment of his daughter.” His tone was less agitated, Elizabeth was pleased to note. He glanced back at Mary, who was chaperoning them. “Had a man treated Georgiana so,” he began but was unable to finish the thought aloud.

Elizabeth felt his arm stiffen. “We must hope for the best.”

“Exactly. It would be for the best if she were to remain in Meryton.”

“You must understand, Fitzwilliam, that Charlotte accepted Mr. Collins in order to avoid the very situation to which you would condemn her. She would never agree to sever all ties with her husband and become dependent again upon Lucas Lodge, no matter how distressed she is right now.”

“Then invite her to Pemberley to stay as long as she likes. Collins is not likely to follow her there.”

Had they been talking of anyone else, Elizabeth might have found it disconcerting that Fitzwilliam, almost a husband himself, could speak so coldly of another man’s claims on his wife. Yet this was her cousin of whom they spoke, hardly the most deserving person, and Fitzwilliam’s generosity and compassion for Charlotte’s sake affected her deeply. “I do not think Charlotte will want to travel so far from her family,” she told him in a quiet voice, “especially now.”

“At least ask her to accompany you to London.”

“London?”

“To purchase your wedding clothes.”

“The shops in Meryton are sufficient for my needs.”

“You know full well your mother will not be satisfied if you do not purchase at least a part of your trousseau at the shops in town. Invite your friend to come with you. She may find that she likes it there.”

“But Jane and I have just come from my uncle’s house. I would not wish to burden them.”

“We have a house there as well, though you have never seen it. We need not trouble your uncle and aunt too greatly.”

We have a house in town.’ The idea was utterly foreign to her. She tried to picture receiving her uncle and aunt at her very own residence and retiring afterwards to her own rooms instead of those she occupied in Gracechurch Street. Unable to form a clear image of it all in her mind, she resolved to put the notion aside until she was more at leisure to dwell on it. “I shall ask Charlotte,” she consented, “but that will not solve her dilemma. She must return to Kent before the winter.” ‘Unless she wishes to stay in Meryton for her confinement,’ she mumbled, caught up in her thoughts.

“Ah. There is a child, then.”

“Did I say that aloud? Yes, there may be a new heir to Longbourn and dissolution of the entail in the foreseeable future.” Elizabeth smiled in Mr. Darcy’s direction. “Perhaps Charlotte and I shall plan an alliance between our families. After all, a young Mr. Collins of Longbourn will have a gentleman,” she rolled her eyes, “for a father and the daughter of a knight for a mother. Is that not a fair prospect for a Miss Darcy? Especially if the young man is lucky enough not to have five sisters—and thus five dowries—to diminish his inheritance?”

“Daughter-in-law to Mr. Collins! You would consign your own child to such a fate?”

“Daughter-in-law to my dear friend!” she said with mock indignation.

“My love, I shall not argue with you, as we are merely talking possibilities. Suffice it to say that you are well acquainted with one Darcy whom it pleased to disregard his family’s opinions on the subject of marriage. And another,” he said, his voice tinged with bitterness, “whose former choice, though lamentable, revealed her disinterest in wealth and position. Any child bearing the name of Darcy may turn out to be just as wilful.”

“Wilful, you say? You make the pair of you sound quite fearsome. Though you will not argue, I find your argument has some merit. Perhaps I should be anxious. After all, I have not many weeks before I must abandon my compliant, accommodating ways and throw myself into the power of the ‘wilful’ Darcys of Pemberley.”

He was absolutely silent, not even turning to glance at her.

“Mr. Darcy,” she prodded, “will you not smile?” They had stopped walking. “You cannot think me serious. It was only a bit of silliness about the betrothal. Charlotte and I will make no promise of the kind. I would not dare! Any daughter of yours will be free to choose her own husband, pending your approval, of course.”

When he still would not look at her, she moved to stand in front of him. “Fitzwilliam,” she said, reviewing her recent speech for anything that might have caused offence. “Oh!” She remembered the sound of his voice when he had alluded to his sister. It had been his solemn tone that had inspired her teasing; she merely wished to cheer him, but she should have known it would not be so easy, or rather that it would be so easy to make everything worse. “Truly, I am eager to join your family and to bear your name. I could not wish for a more wonderful sister than Georgiana.” She stroked his arm as if to stir life back into it, for it had gone so still just then, along with the rest of him. “And I cannot imagine ever finding a better husband than you.”

He glanced down at her at last, relief apparent on his face. “I wish we were already husband and wife.”

“Less than two months, my dear, and you will have your wish.”

As Mary came near, they turned to walk back to the house.

“Why do not you invite all your family to London?” Mr. Darcy asked Elizabeth as he held out his disengaged arm to her sister. “Our house has rooms enough to spare.”

“An offer like that would make you my mother’s favourite son.” ‘How Mama will crow over the invitation,’ she thought, trying to keep her own head from spinning at this second mention of their house.

“Miss Mary, do you fancy a trip to town?” Mr. Darcy waited patiently for an answer.

“I…I suppose I am not…disinclined…” Mary’s cheeks flushed pink. Elizabeth observed her sister’s embarrassment with mild amusement.

“Ask Mrs. Collins,” Darcy reiterated while Mary was adjusting her ideas, “and her sister as well. Georgiana would be happy to see Miss Lucas again.”

“Are you certain you wish for all of us to descend upon your home at once?” She smiled at him; the poor man could not know what he was in for.

“Do you think that I wish to be separated from you, or Bingley from your sister, over the matter of a few gowns and dancing slippers? He and I practically live at Longbourn as it is; we certainly eat most of our meals here. Allow me—and Georgiana, of course—to return your family’s hospitality for a few days. You are right to be considerate of the Gardiners.”

Elizabeth was still contemplating the offer, which she dearly wanted to accept, when Darcy interrupted her thoughts.

“You do realise,” he said, “you have been denied the same privilege your elder sister has enjoyed: that of viewing your future home and having the opportunity to suggest improvements. How can you accomplish this in a timely manner if you do not stir from Hertfordshire until after the wedding? I am certain your mother will support me in my wish to rectify this inequality as soon as is practicable.

“Mrs. Bennet,” he said in a booming voice as he entered the drawing room with the two ladies on his arms. The matron of Longbourn turned her full attention to him; indeed, all the room turned to hear what urgent message Mr. Darcy had to impart. The man himself smiled at Elizabeth’s open-mouthed stare and said, “I have a proposition.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


“Charlotte, how lovely! You must have a gown made from that very fabric.”

Charlotte’s fingers slowly caressed the material as she returned it to its place. “I am afraid my income is not as plentiful as yours will be, Eliza.”

“Who said anything of your money? Between Jane and me, we can afford a little indulgence. You are not leaving this establishment without ordering at least three gowns. I insist!”

“Eliza, really, that is not necessary…”

“Lizzy is right, Charlotte. We can well afford the cost.” Jane gently pleaded with her. “You have been so kind, bearing with us all day long without complaint. It is only fair that you get something for your trouble.”

“And do not tell me you have no need of new gowns,” Elizabeth said with a significant look towards Charlotte’s middle. “The matter is settled in any case. My father has been quite generous. He gave us leave to buy whatever we like, for he shall soon have not only Jane and me, but all of his girls off his hands. Or so he says, for he has threatened to punish Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley for ‘depriving Longbourn of two of its most sensible residents’ by sending our sisters to stay very often at Netherfield and Pemberley, or here in town. Papa will feel like a rich man with only Mama frequenting the Meryton shops and no Lydia or Kitty begging him for new bonnets every week.”

The girls giggled as Mrs. Gardiner, who had accompanied them and advised them as to which were the best warehouses, admonished Elizabeth to be serious.

“I shall try, Aunt. Charlotte, you have no choice but to receive these meagre additions to your wardrobe as graciously as you can, for we will not relent.”

Charlotte only wanted a little pressing to accept, which Jane readily provided, and a delightful hour passed before the ladies returned to the carriage.

“Where shall we go next?” Mrs. Gardiner asked her nieces and their friend.

“I do not know if there is room in here for any more packages.” Jane pushed a bandbox aside to accommodate their latest purchases.

“Unless one of us sits with the driver,” Elizabeth concurred as she cleared a space for herself. “If we all agree that our shopping for the day is complete, I propose we call on Mrs. Whitfield.”

Charlotte’s gasp was quickly followed by a smile. “Truly?”

“I have a message for her sister from Mr. Darcy, and I promised him I would deliver it today if I could.”

“Then, I suppose you had better do just that.” Mrs. Gardiner procured from her the direction and, after instructing the driver, she leaned back in her seat.

“I should like to know how Mrs. Jenkinson gets on.”

“I just hope she will see me, Charlotte. She might refuse, and if she does, I could not blame her.”

~☆☽♭♮♯


“Thank you for seeing me.” Unsure of her reception, Elizabeth had asked Jane, Charlotte and Aunt Gardiner to remain in the carriage. Upon being informed that the mistress of the house was not in, she requested to see Mrs. Jenkinson and waited for her in the front room. The lady appeared after a minute or two and responded to her greeting with a wary nod. “There is something I wish to discuss with you,” Elizabeth forged ahead, “but first, does your sister happen to have a pianoforte?” To her dismay, the expression on Mrs. Jenkinson’s face grew grim.

“That is the one thing Lady Catherine gave me before I was forced to leave Rosings. She wanted ‘that confounded instrument’ out of her house, she said. Luckily, my sister had ample room for it in the other parlour.”

“May we go there now?”

Mrs. Jenkinson mumbled to herself as she led Elizabeth to the back of the house, and Elizabeth did not ask her to repeat the words aloud.

“Here it is.” Mrs. Jenkinson stopped just inside the room. “Why do you wish to see it, if I may ask?”

“You certainly may.” Elizabeth tried to smile. “I do not wish to see it so much as to hear you play it.”

“Whatever for?”

“Will you not sit down?” Elizabeth asked, gesturing to the seat in front of the instrument. “I will be happy to tell you what you wish to know, but I must hear you play.”

Once Mrs. Jenkinson acquiesced, Elizabeth felt calmer, though far from easy. She took a seat herself and listened with rapt attention. It struck her that for all Lady Catherine’s professions of superior musical knowledge and taste, her ladyship had proved herself either a liar or a fool by failing to take advantage of this woman’s obvious talent while she had the chance. She wondered whether Fitzwilliam, while roaming the servants’ halls of Rosings, had ever stumbled across Mrs. Jenkinson practising instead of herself. Or, perhaps he had heard her play years ago during a previous visit to his aunt’s home.

“That was beautiful,” Elizabeth said when the room grew quiet. “Thank you. You make me quite ashamed of the quality of my own performance.” She ignored Mrs. Jenkinson’s demurral. “My training was rather limited. It is obvious that you had no such deficiency in your education.”

“All my sisters were taught by capable music masters. My aunt saw to it. We took lessons along with our cousins.”

With a fleeting sense of gratitude towards Mrs. Jenkinson’s aunt, Elizabeth decided to dispense with the least pleasant part of her errand now that it appeared all would turn out well. There was another aunt whose actions must be acknowledged, loath as she was to bring any reference to her into the conversation. “You must understand how distressed Mr. Darcy and I were to hear of your treatment at Rosings. Neither of us had any idea that you would share in the blame for what occurred. I suppose you know by now that the music I ‘left’ in your room was actually purchased by Mr. Darcy?”

Mrs. Jenkinson nodded.

“I had no more idea than you at the time. I knew only that I had not left anything behind, and I was appalled when I perceived what Mr. Darcy had done. You must understand that I had no expectation that he would make a gift to me of any sort. He and I were not on the best of terms then. It was not until later that…his…affections were reciprocated.” Elizabeth stopped, not having intended to reveal something so personal to one wholly unconnected with her.

“Lady Catherine was very angry,” said Mrs. Jenkinson, breaking the silence. Her face contorted as if a particular memory pained her.

“I am well aware of that, Mrs. Jenkinson. Her ladyship visited my home and expressed her anger to my face. Actually, she abused me to my face and to all my relations, at least to all those who were within her hearing.” Her words and awkward smile were answered by Mrs. Jenkinson’s compassionate glance.

“That must have been horrible for you.”

“I shall not deny that it was. However, my purpose for calling, I hope, is a happier subject. Am I being presumptuous in assuming that you are desirous of employment?”

“My sister has been very kind, but I cannot impose upon her indefinitely.”

Elizabeth was pleased and relieved by Mrs. Jenkinson’s reply. “You do play marvelously, if I may say so. Would you be averse to taking on a few pupils?”

“Pupils? Do you mean for lessons on the pianoforte?”

“Of course.”

“Why…no, not at all. I had not thought…that I would ever…Miss de Bourgh, you see, was never allowed to…” Mrs. Jenkinson took a moment to regain her composure. “I should like it very much.” Her slight frown did not remove the hopefulness from her expression. “It has been a long time since I have practised with any regularity.”

“Your lack of practice does not appear to have injured your performance.”

“I must beg to disagree with you.”

“As you are the expert as regards your own abilities, I shall take that not as false modesty, but as your sincere opinion. It gives me great pleasure to present this offer to you on Mr. Darcy’s behalf.” She handed the letter to Mrs. Jenkinson and watched her read it.

The lady’s brow rose in disbelief. “’Tis too much!” she said at length. “To teach you? But you already play. How can he give so much for so little work?”

“Mr. Darcy is surprisingly generous. And you are too quick to assume that only a little work is necessary.”

“He says here that he is acquainted with two or three more families who may require my services. I cannot think each of them will offer as much as Mr. Darcy, but if they pay half such a sum, I shall do very well indeed.” She looked up from the letter. “But why does Mr. Darcy feel obliged to hire me when there are these others? He owes me nothing.”

“He is pleased to do so.” Elizabeth waited as Mrs. Jenkinson considered the proposal. She did not have to wait long.

“I suppose I would have had to leave Lady Catherine’s employ at some time or other. Had Miss de Bourgh married by now, I would be in a similar predicament.”

“Her ladyship would not have made any provision for you?”

“I have always understood Lady Catherine’s intention to be to relieve me of my duties upon her daughter’s marriage. Lately, her ladyship has mentioned a family in the north with several children and no governess. I believe she hoped to persuade them to take me into their household.” She looked as though being a governess, at least to this particular family, was the last thing she wished to do. “Oh! I have not offered you any refreshment,” she said, suddenly recalling her role as hostess. “How rude of me. Would you care for some tea?”

“I would like that very much. May I have permission to ask my friends to join us? My sister and aunt are with me, and so is Mrs. Collins.”

“Mrs. Collins is here? Please, do have them shown in! I am so sorry; I had not realised you had anyone waiting.”

“You could not have known.”

The others were glad to escape the confines of the carriage, and soon the room was abuzz with animated conversation. Jane and Mrs. Gardiner took pleasure in forming a new acquaintance. Mrs. Collins agreed to call on Mrs. Jenkinson again before returning to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth, bubbling over with good cheer and eager to apprise Fitzwilliam of the success of her mission, suppressed her impatience to be gone and instead settled in to enjoy a slice of cake and the abundance of good company.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Part 18


Mr. Darcy’s London residence had been fashioned on too grand a scale to suffer the semblance of overcrowding merely due to its accommodation of more than half a dozen guests in addition to its master and mistress. Moreover, Mrs. Bennet and her two youngest daughters sought the pleasures of the shops very often, and, predictably, the level of noise and activity within the household diminished noticeably in their absence. On the whole, the gentlemen and ladies housed within the spacious dwelling were well pleased with the arrangements.

The two brides had contrived to complete all necessary errands within their first few days in town so that the remainder of the visit might be spent at leisure. Elizabeth quickly grew accustomed to the quiet elegance of her surroundings. She relished this chance to acquaint herself with the house and, more importantly, with Miss Darcy. Furthermore, she detected in Mr. Darcy a softening of his stately air, which she attributed to his being in his own home. While she did not regret the separation from Longbourn that her marriage would entail, she did feel it, and each delight culled from time spent with her future family helped counter the odd bout of melancholy brought on by thoughts of leaving behind the familiar and dear.

One afternoon while her mother, Lydia and Kitty were preparing for yet another outing, Elizabeth joined the remaining ladies in exploring the ballroom. It was a tastefully decorated space, and she found herself humming as she imagined it fitted up in full splendour for a grand event. Charlotte ventured out onto one of the balconies, and the others followed suit. Elizabeth wandered away before the rest. She continued out of the room, walking with no particular destination in mind until she saw Mr. Darcy step into the hall ahead of her. He apparently had not seen her.

“Fitzwilliam?”

He stopped and turned back when he heard her call his name.

She knew not exactly what she wanted to tell him, for what she desired to impart was more feeling than thought. Standing there observing him, she had an inkling of what it might be like to do so as the mistress of his home, and suddenly she wished that their wedding were already accomplished.

“Yes, Elizabeth?”

His obvious pleasure in seeing her, combined with the content of her musings, halted her speech. “I…I do not know…if there is anything, really.” She stepped closer and lifted her face to his, hoping her expression would convey what her words had not.

“Are you well?” He manoeuvred her into a convenient corner.

“Oh, yes,” she sighed, wrapping her arms around his waist. She felt embarrassed and shameless in turns, neither able to articulate her longing nor inclined to regret her forwardness. Embarrassment won, and her hands dropped to her sides. She imagined her face to be the most unbecoming shade of red. “I am sure you think me quite silly.”

“Not at all,” he replied. He pressed a quick kiss upon her lips and backed away, to her chagrin. “I dare not do more,” he whispered, “lest we be seen, in which case your father would want to have another word with me. The lecture at Longbourn was sufficient to last until our own daughter is old enough to have a suitor.”

“I see.” His words did nothing to restore her composure. She lowered her head only to feel him raise it the next instant.

“Elizabeth, you cannot know how happy I am that you,” he relented and kissed her once more, unhurriedly this time, “that you desire this. But now I must leave you. Your father awaits me.”

“Off with you, then.” She smiled, relieved that he had understood her but unable to calm the fierce beating of her heart as she watched him go.

~☆☽♭♮♯


More than an hour later, Elizabeth shivered in her chair, recalling the texture of Fitzwilliam’s waistcoat against her bare arms. She could still sense the warmth of his fingers on her face, just below her ear. The words on the page before her floated indistinctly until she had lost her place again. Shaking her head, she began to read the same chapter of her book from the beginning for the fourth time. Or was it the fifth?

“A letter for you, Miss.”

She looked up in confusion and reached for the envelope, wondering who might have written to her, considering that her closest companions were all here in town. Her bemusement lasted only until she read the direction. This missive had not needed to come through the post. One moment and one fortifying deep breath later, she tore the letter open right where she sat. Immediately she thought better of it and ran off to seek the greater privacy of the guest chamber reserved for her use, almost colliding with the servant as he was leaving the room.

My dearest Elizabeth,

I believe I comprehend your search earlier this afternoon for the proper words. I hardly know what to write, after you so sweetly accosted me and reminded me how unbearably long the time between this moment and our wedding is proving to be.

I have just left your father after discussing with him the finer details of your settlement. He remarked more than once on my distracted air and has had much amusement at my expense, which I do not begrudge him. He is presently in the library, and I have shut myself up in my study.

I meant what I said to you today. Mr. Bennet has given me his trust, and I do not intend to violate it. I would come to you this moment and talk, or not talk, as we did before, but I am afraid a brief embrace and two stolen kisses will have to suffice for now. Were you to offer me more, I could not vouch for my ability to refrain from sweeping you up to our chambers in full view of the servants and any passers-by.

Ever since you arrived in my home, I have been presented daily with the promise of such domestic happiness as I had not believed I ever would attain. Put any other woman in your place, and I cannot imagine smiling as genuinely as I do now at the prospect of taking a wife. There is more I could write, but I intend to have this letter put in your hands before tea. I will add that loving you has given me great satisfaction already, and I pray you are as satisfied with your choice. God bless you, Elizabeth.

Yours entirely,

Fitzwilliam

It was only fitting that the first proper letter she received from Fitzwilliam should contain improper allusions. She reassured herself that he had every right to correspond with her now, and if the content of that correspondence was somewhat overpowering, it was no more than what she deserved after provoking him to it by her brazen conduct.

She was tempted to remain on the bed and read the letter over and over, but she could not sit still. She left the room to find Mary regarding one of the many portraits in the hall.

“Oh; it is you, Lizzy.” Mary turned back to the painting.

“Only I.”

“Do you think Mama will allow us a visit to a museum while we are here? It seems all she wants to do is shop, and Papa hardly stirs out of doors.”

“I doubt we will interest Mama in anything beyond the finest silks and lace, but it will do no harm to ask her.”

“Perhaps Miss Darcy will agree to accompany us.”

As Mary continued to admire the artwork and Elizabeth attempted to determine which of the myriad faces on the walls bore a resemblance to the visage she loved best, the sisters each put forth suggestions as to how they ought to spend their last few days in town. Eventually they made their way downstairs to await the others. They did not have to wait long. Mrs. Bennet’s shopping expedition had been efficient and successful; she and her youngest daughters arrived just before tea, bursting with news of their purchases.

By the time Fitzwilliam joined the gathering, Elizabeth was surrounded by ladies in so close a confederacy that there was not a single vacancy near her. She followed him with her eyes, envying everyone to whom he spoke, had scarcely patience enough to attend to the conversation around her, and then admonished herself for being so silly. She was a little revived, however, by his look and his smile, both of which often were directed at her, too often, she surmised, to escape the notice of anyone in the room.

On reflection, Elizabeth concluded it was for the best that they met in company so soon after the writing and receipt of his last letter. She was willing to allow that her father’s tendency to interfere in their courtship might be seen in a prudential light. If Fitzwilliam were to make good on his threat, she might…oh, what she might do! It was most shocking indeed that her sense of decency and virtue in such a point should admit of a doubt, and, really, she knew not what to say in her defence. Nevertheless, the way things were now, if Fitzwilliam Darcy were to sweep her up into his arms to take her anywhere at all for any purpose, she sincerely questioned her ability (she had no illusions as to her desire) to offer a hint of protest, even for propriety’s sake.

~☆☽♭♮♯


“Well, girls, have you had your fill of London’s delights? I, for one, am eager to return to the country, the unstinting and gracious hospitality of our host and hostess notwithstanding.” Mr. Bennet bowed to Mr. Darcy first, and then to Miss Darcy.

“Oh, Mr. Bennet! You know we always meant to go home tomorrow.” Mrs. Bennet sighed visibly and audibly, her falling shoulders rustling the fabric of her dress. “How I should love to have a house in town.” She looked at Elizabeth, who turned her eyes away, amusing herself with whether to construe her mother’s envy as an indirect compliment or an indirect request.

“Thank you, Mr. Bennet.” was Georgiana’s timid reply. “Your words are very kind, but I am certain Miss Elizabeth will do a much better job than I.”

“Now, Miss Darcy, you must learn to accept such compliments as are given. Growing up in a house full of sisters has taught my daughters that, has it not, Lizzy? I cannot imagine Lydia or Kitty eschewing their share of whatever pretty words happen to be spoken to their advantage and in their hearing.”

“True, Papa.” Elizabeth drew Georgiana aside. “My dear Georgiana,” she said playfully, “I assure you my father will not mind if you call me Eliza, or even Lizzy, as my other sisters do.”

Georgiana smiled. “If you wish, but I believe I shall always think of you as Elizabeth. My brother rarely calls you anything else.”

“Very well. Elizabeth it shall be, but do drop the Miss, if you please.” The uncharacteristic look in Georgiana’s eyes made her ask, “What else does your brother call me, if you are willing to reveal it?”

“It is nothing extraordinary, certainly not very imaginative. I fear you may be disappointed.”

Elizabeth had the odd feeling that she was being teased. “Out with it, Georgiana! You have my full attention now.”

Georgiana stifled a giggle. “I have heard him say it only a few times. He even wrote your name this way in a letter once but blotted the latter part, though I could still make it out, of course. He calls you Elizabeth Darcy on occasion.” Her eyes flashed with a mischievous sparkle. “I suppose he prefers not to shorten your name. Although, Darcy does have fewer letters than Bennet...”

Elizabeth stared at Georgiana, whose laughter no longer could be contained, and began laughing herself. Fitzwilliam looked at both of them in amusement as he approached. They could hardly acknowledge him for laughing.

“What has the two of you in such straits?”

Georgiana caught her breath first. “I was just telling Elizabeth Darcy—I mean Elizabeth Bennet—something amusing.”

Fitzwilliam’s confused expression only increased their levity.

“Just imagine, Fitzwilliam, if I had referred to Elizabeth as Elizabeth Darcy in the presence of Miss Bingley. Before the wedding, I mean, or even before you were engaged. In December, for example.”

Fitzwilliam chuckled at the thought. Then, abruptly, his face reddened. “Oh.” He slowly blinked. “Did I do that?” Georgiana nodded. “Did she hear me?”

“Certainly she heard you. Everyone in the room did.” With a smirk, Georgiana walked away to speak with Kitty and Maria.

Fitzwilliam groaned.

Elizabeth looked up at him, amazed. “So, as early as December, when you had not known me three months, you claimed me as your own in the company of our mutual acquaintances, at a time when I…well, let us just say, when I was unlikely to have appreciated the gesture. But even then, when I did not value you as I ought, I had credited you with being a clever sort of man. What, sir, induced you to say such a thing in Miss Bingley’s hearing?” She was careful not to speak loudly enough for the others to take notice, especially Mr. Bingley or Jane. “How she must have hated you! No, she could never hate the Master of Pemberley. How she must have hated me!

“Miss Bingley’s feelings on that occasion hardly merit our speculation,” he lowered his voice to match hers, “but had I set out to declare my feelings to our friends, I agree that would not have been the ideal manner in which to do so. You may well think me foolish for my carelessness. I had meditated on your merits constantly, becoming wholly engrossed by thoughts of you and quite inattentive to certain other ladies, almost to the point of incivility. Your name fell thus from my lips before I was aware of it.”

She grinned while turning this delicious intelligence over in her mind. “Are you suggesting that I would condescend to marry a careless fool? May it never be!”

“You would not condescend to marry anyone, fool or otherwise. I cannot see it.”

“Unlike you, who will have stepped down from your exalted plane to marry me? Is that what you are implying?”

His look softened. “I mean nothing of the sort.”

“Miss Bingley certainly will deem our marriage an act of your condescension, considering my descent.

“That is enough talk of Miss Bingley.” He sidled close enough to whisper to her.

“Then what shall we talk of?”

“Elizabeth Darcy.”

Her breath caught. From the look in his eyes, he had much to say on the subject, and she was not certain any of it was meant to be made public.

The sound of footsteps broke the spell as her father chose that moment to interrupt their discourse. The pair separated sufficiently to allow him to stand between them, which evidently had been his intent when he approached. Mr. Bennet’s efforts to draw them into light-hearted banter blinded neither of them to his actual purpose. Nor could her father, Elizabeth realised, be blind to the genuineness of affection between Fitzwilliam and herself. The latter thought gave her comfort.

~☆☽♭♮♯


Mr. Bennet continued his vigilance throughout the afternoon and evening without any objection from Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy. Even the arrangements for their journey home the following day reflected his watchful care. Mr. Bingley travelled with Jane, but Maria and Georgiana accompanied them. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet rode with their two youngest daughters, and Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy found themselves in the company of Charlotte and Mary.

When two of the carriages stopped at Lucas Lodge, Charlotte urged Elizabeth to come inside. “Only for a few moments, Eliza.” She offered an apologetic smile to Mr. Darcy. “I know you are anxious to unpack and settle in at home, but my parents will be happy to see you.”

“Certainly.” Elizabeth wondered at Charlotte’s insistence. The tone of her voice had seemed a little too bright.

She squeezed Fitzwilliam’s hand as he helped her from the carriage and smiled when she saw he did not begrudge her half an hour with her friend. Not many weeks ago, she would have hesitated to leave him to the company of her family, except Jane. Today he would have Bingley’s company as well, but she no longer needed to be overly concerned for his comfort; he had insinuated himself into the lives and, she suspected, even the affections of all her family.

“How soon shall I send the carriage back for you?” Fitzwilliam asked her.

“There is no need.” How had he managed to make a simple request sound romantic? Was it something in his voice, or was she simply losing all her good sense? She laughed at herself. “I doubt this will take long. I shall walk home.”

“Then I shall await you at the crossing.”

Sir William and Lady Lucas welcomed the party warmly and ushered the three ladies into the house. Before Elizabeth had seated herself, she heard Charlotte informing her parents and Maria of the child to come.

“Oh, Charlotte! How wonderful!” Lady Lucas, all aflutter, alternately repeated inquiries as to the expected date of the child’s birth and pressed her daughter to rest. Sir William was silent but for a few half-spoken phrases, although he looked as if he could not have been more proud. Maria simply stared at her sister in awe.

“Let me see you, Charlotte. Up, now,” commanded the matron, grabbing her daughter’s hands and pulling her to her feet again. “No,” she said thoughtfully, “you do not yet show. Your face is not full. Perhaps it is even thinner than usual; else I might have been able to guess something from that. Have you been ill? I have seen no sign of it.”

“I was ill some weeks ago, but I felt much better by the time I arrived in Meryton.”

“I cannot believe you kept the news from us all this time! You have been out making calls, even going to town, when you should have been here, allowing me to look after you!” Lady Lucas pouted, making her appearance ridiculously childlike. “What of Mr. Collins? Is he not pleased to be a father?”

“He does not yet know.”

“How sweet of you to inform your mother first. Dearest daughter! I forgive you, then, for not telling me when you first arrived. I suppose you wanted to be certain before speaking of it to anyone. But that always is the way with you, such a loyal, dutiful girl.”

Elizabeth considered it unlucky that she had not thought to feign surprise at the announcement, but her genuine enthusiasm and happiness for her friend were sufficient to keep Lady Lucas from suspecting that Charlotte’s loyalty had not extended quite as far as her mother supposed.

“Oh, but you must inform my son-in-law immediately! You can send an express today.”

Sir William frowned. “Mr. Collins will want you to return to Hunsford, of course.”

“Sir William, surely he will allow our dear girl a few months with her own mother! There are so many things to talk of; we may as well take the time now. Maria must go to Hunsford for your confinement, Charlotte. Your father and I will bring her with us to the Parsonage, and she can remain behind as she did in March. We will return in time for the birth.” Lady Lucas went on and on, elaborating on her plans, until her husband bade her sit and rest herself.

As Sir William fussed over his wife, Maria expressed her pleasure at the prospect of becoming an aunt and hurried to spread the word among her siblings. Charlotte took Elizabeth by the arm and accompanied her outside. “Thank you for obliging me. It was shameful to impose upon you in that way, but I felt it would be easier if you were there when I told Mother.”

“Lady Lucas is very pleased,” Elizabeth said to cover her discomfort. She suspected her usefulness to Charlotte consisted of checking Lady Lucas’s impulse to heap excessive praise upon her son-in-law for this latest accomplishment, an impulse she might have followed without restraint had her audience been limited to her own family party.

“Yes, Mother is pleased. Her pleasure in my marriage has not diminished in any regard.” Charlotte’s words confirmed Elizabeth’s suspicions. “She still takes delight in boasting of it to the Gouldings and Mrs. Long, from what I hear. This is one more reason for her to throw my husband’s name and situation in their faces.”

“She cannot do worse than my own mother.” Elizabeth grimaced in sympathy with Charlotte. She could imagine the unguarded things her mother would say of Fitzwilliam and the mortification such vulgarity would engender in her listeners. Mrs. Bennet exercised little if any restraint over her tongue at the best of times, and the superiority of both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley to the local gentlemen virtually guaranteed that people for miles around would hear the praises of those two men for some time to come. “Perhaps I should beg Papa to take Mama and the girls on holiday directly after the ceremony to give the neighbours peace.”

“Kitty would be in raptures.”

“Lydia would, too, now that the officers are gone.” But would her mother choose travelling over remaining in the neighbourhood to boast of her good fortune to the four and twenty families with which they dined? “Mama may not agree to the scheme, but my sisters would love a change of scene. Did you notice how reluctant they were to remove from town? Since we are all to be old married women,” she was heartened to see Charlotte smile at her turn of phrase, “our younger sisters need not remain at home more than six months out of the year if they do not wish it. There is London or Derbyshire, or perhaps even the seaside—anywhere but Brighton will do.”

“Maria did seem to enjoy herself in Hunsford.”

“Yes, she did. It was all she could talk of as the carriage pulled away from your door. She had hoped to receive another invitation this year and will be glad to be of use to you.” She frowned, thinking of Charlotte going away. “How long will you stay at Lucas Lodge?”

Charlotte looked down. “I shall have to go back soon after the wedding, no matter what Mother thinks.”

“Are you ready to go back?”

“I am now. I shall write my husband today. It will save my parents the fuss and bother of an express. He shall have a few weeks to prepare for my return.” Charlotte smiled a tentative smile.

“Will he not be eager to see you after so long an absence?”

“As to his eagerness, I cannot say. But he will be ready.” Charlotte looked determinedly in the direction of Longbourn; the boundary was just visible from where they stood on the road near Lucas Lodge. “He most definitely will be.”

Despite Charlotte’s chilling tone, Elizabeth imagined Mr. Collins would be willing to forgive his wife anything once he knew that he might be the father of an heir. Surely Lady Catherine would not be able to demand all of his attention and deference in the face of that circumstance. While Elizabeth had no fear of Charlotte turning into another Mrs. Bennet, she nevertheless desired that the Collinses would be blessed with a son. Perhaps Mr. Collins would feel less beholden to Lady Catherine if his family’s prospects were secured to the next generation. He likely would always remain petty and pompous, but she hoped her cousin might become less grasping and resentful in view of his increasing good fortune.

The ladies walked together until they spied Mr. Darcy ahead of them.

“Thank you again, for everything. I had a marvellous time in London.” Charlotte grasped Elizabeth’s hands and smiled before turning towards home.

Elizabeth resumed walking until she reached the tree beneath which Fitzwilliam stood.

“What did you and Mary discuss on the way to Longbourn? Something practical, or at least edifying?”

“We did.”

“Just as I anticipated.”

“But you will be surprised, I think, at the topic of our conversation.”

“Surprised? I do not know. Did she petition you again for the use of the library at Pemberley? Or did you request a particular song to be performed during the wedding breakfast?” ‘One that does not require Mary to sing,’ she added silently.

“No, but your prescience amazes me, my love, for we did speak of music. I broached the subject of her joining us in town next winter, and I may have mentioned the opportunity to study with Mrs. Jenkinson.”

Fitzwilliam smiled and Elizabeth smiled back, warmed by his thoughtfulness. Mary could only benefit from such a guide as Mrs. Jenkinson and would be grateful to Fitzwilliam for investing in her talent. Kitty, while not exhibiting any new accomplishments as a result of her elder sister’s engagement, had already grown less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid under Fitzwilliam’s influence. She wondered whether her betrothed would stumble upon some key to Lydia’s improvement as well. ‘Perhaps not,’ she gleefully thought. ‘After all, he must leave something for Bingley to do.’

Linking arms, the lovers proceeded slowly towards the house. They took advantage of their close proximity to one another to indulge in the lingering touches and whispered endearments expected of an engaged couple. These small but satisfying liberties rendered them proof against the temptation to veer onto the path leading to a prettyish, and rather private, little wilderness that was part of Longbourn’s grounds.

~☆☽♭♮♯




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