Posted on October 23, 2009
He handed her the letter. He looked at her one last time. He bowed. He turned and walked away.
There was so much pain in his heart that his chest and the back of his shoulders hurt. There was so much frustration in his head that screaming to release the tension was a temptation. But he was Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, so all he did was keep walking until he was sure she was out of his sight. The thoughts of her tumbled from one side of his brain to the other and then down to the pit of his stomach, and the cycle seemed ready to continue endlessly. He wanted only one thing for certain and that was to be as far away from her as possible. So he continued another few paces down the wooded path before turning and looking back. He did not see her; in fact, he could barely make out the treetops of the grove where they had met. Had he really walked this far? The relief was palpable. Somehow, it lifted his spirits a bit, just knowing he would not have to see, hear, or converse with her. Now, if he could only stop thinking about her. Seeing the pools of her dark eyes and that little lock of hair that turned just so brushing across her delicate, oh so tempting neck. Hearing her soft voice filled with determination. Conversing with her and hearing her lilting laughter. The sweet smell of her. This must stop! It has to stop! What must I do to forget her? Looking up, he voicelessly beseeched the surrounding trees.
Suddenly he was exhausted. All he wanted, right this minute, was a place to sit and lean back or a place to lie down, where nobody would bother him for any reason whatsoever. His one comfort was thinking that when he awoke a year from now, the pain and frustration would be gone and he could get on with his life and, perhaps, even find a bit of happiness. He looked around, recognized where he was in the grounds, and remembered there was a fallen tree, large enough to sit on, a couple of minutes walk to the left. That is, of course, if Aunt Catherine's groundskeeper followed his usual pattern of doing as little work as possible. Good! There it was. He sat down, propped his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, and tried to NOT think about anything. He told himself to make the inside of his head a big black empty space. Numbness. Empty, blissful, numbness. If he could do it long enough, maybe it would help and the hurt and pain would go away. If only. Little words, for such a big undertaking. If only.
"Darcy! It's surprising to see you here like that. Has Rosings gotten you that depressed?"
Richard's cheerful tone startled Darcy and he directed a glare at his smiling cousin.
Keeping his smile, though glancing intently at Darcy, Richard seated himself on the tree trunk and continued unperturbed. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Another cottage is collapsing and the tenants have to leave because all the other cottages are full of occupants from previous cottages collapsing and Aunt Catherine won't repair any of them because the tenants are already living above their place in life. Another maid has left, bringing the shortage to 5, and so more rooms will become dirty or closed off. This scoundrel of a steward is even more of a scoundrel than the steward she had last Easter. The butler has progressed from slightly inebriated all the time to being visibly drunk some of the time. The chef is leaving because even the large amounts going into his pockets from the kitchen budget cannot compensate for the trouble of working here. The housekeeper? Well, she's just incompetent. Does that cover it, or have you found out more?"
In spite of himself, Darcy had to send a small grin in his cousin's direction. "Of course there's more. What do you expect under our aunt's attentive direction? Even you must admit it's excessive, especially in not taking care of things. No matter what I do, what advice I give her, every year things are worse." (He sarcastically emphasized "attentive" and "excessive and attempted an imitation).
Richard's gaze sharpened. "Well, last night things were worse than usual. You were not there to stare out the window. Anne looked extra sad and ill, and was quieter than usual. I barely got a word or a smile from her. Mrs. Jenkinson acted as if her life depended on being a mother-hen. Mrs. Collins sat quietly smiling and said something sensible once in a while. Our aunt pontificated. And the prattling parson preened and pandered."
"Richard! Have you been reading poetry?"
"Well, I had to do something. Miss Bennet was also absent from the company, making me think perhaps my charm had failed. But then I realized that having a broken heart would divert me and help pass the time."
Darcy's stared at his cousin for a moment and then quietly said, "Richard, believe me, you would be diverted and the time would pass, but you would deeply regret having the experience."
"Leave it." Quietly, but firmly.
"Darce?" A bit louder.
"Cuz, leave it alone." A little louder and threatening.
"Was that the voice of Fitzwilliam George John Darcy, Master of Pemberley, one of the most powerful, handsome, and rich men in Derbyshire threatening his dearest cousin, who is merely the poor second son of his uncle, and who has been reduced to a post as a messenger for generals?"
"Yes." Quietly, but firmly.
"In that case, I declare that I, Richard James Theodore Fitzwilliam, Colonel in His Majesty's Army, Aide to General Cummings, give my boyhood companion and lifelong friend, Wills, until we get in the coach to return to London. Then, Cousin Wills, you have to 'fess up or be beaten to a pulp by the Courageous Colonel, the great battle-scarred hero of Portugal."
There was an amicable silence for a moment or two.
"Good. Let us drink to that agreement. I don't care how early in the morning it is" Richard unscrewed the knob top of his walking stick, poured a liquid in the knob/cup, took a swallow, poured more in and passed it to Darcy. Maybe this would help his cousin.
Darcy sniffed, swallowed, gave a small cough and said, "That tastes like a fine French cognac."
"Can't be. It's from my father's private study. Utter nonsense, what with him being in the House of Lords and all that. My father in contact with smugglers? Can't be."
"You're right. He probably got it from the private cellars in Darcy House."
The cup passed back and forth a couple of times until the walking stick was empty.
A few companionable moments passed, Richard looked at his watch, sighed, stood and said, "Time to go. We have that meeting for this coming year's plans with our aunt in 20 minutes."
They walked in silence for a few moments. Darcy's face and shoulders relaxing as the alcohol took effect. His darkened mood lightened a bit.
"I cannot think of a more complete waste of time than this meeting." Darcy was lightheaded from the combination of humiliation, pain, and anger, very little sleep, a no-food but two cups of coffee breakfast, and drinking a few swallows of premium French brandy.
"Fine. I'll skip it. She mainly wants to talk to you anyway so she can pin down the date of your marriage to Anne."
"That will be the same day as the ice skating festival in hell."
"What a perfect way to celebrate your wedding. While you two talk about the plans, I'll go down to the parsonage to see if Miss Bennet will be my partner for the first skating set. If I get lucky, I will charm her enough so she can break my heart again." This last with a sly sideways glance at Darcy to see his reaction, if any.
Darcy stopped, glared, realized he was being tormented to cause a reaction, and continued walking. "Cuz, I rely on your presence to keep me from losing my temper, shouting, and leaving."
"Since I am a battle hardened veteran, may I suggest you try that tactic. It's one you have not used so far in the marriage battle."
"Has Wellesley tried that with the French?"
"No, but that's only because I am not a member of his staff yet."
"We, or I, simply cannot do that. Although Anne's dowry is securely invested, this estate is her inheritance, and it is going to ruin. Another few years and Rosings will be too run down to recover without a massive investment from someone. I do not want that to happen to our little cousin, and will keep trying to prevent it. But I will never marry Anne. If you are at the meeting, maybe you can think of something that would be of help."
"Anne is of age now, isn't she? Shouldn't she be sitting in these meetings and making all of these decisions?"
"Yes, but she just can not bring herself to oppose her mother. You know I don't dare speak to her openly without being pounced on. I have managed to have a few private meetings with Anne after everyone has gone to bed, but she is just so frail. She does have enough spirit left to want to get away from here, but not the strength. I offered to have the de Bourgh townhouse opened up on the sly, and then come down here and kidnap her, but she refused, saying she just is not strong enough to face the upset, the ranting and raving, and the emotional battering. I may not want to marry her, but I do want to help her and protect her. I just can't think of a way to do it." Darcy's frustration was taking a new direction, but he thought it would soon wear off with the other effects of the brandy.
"Maybe my father could help."
"I suggested things to him a couple of times while you were gone. But in spite of all his assertions that HE is the head of the family, even your father doesn't want to do battle with his sister."
"Speak to my mother instead. She would delight in doing anything that would irritate Aunt Catherine." Richard paused for a moment; "I am not teasing you on this Darcy. My mother could be your best ally in a battle to help Anne. We should do something. I think back on all the fun the three of us had when we were kids."
"I never thought about asking Aunt Eleanor and I should have. I will speak to her after I return to London. You make arrangements with your general and let's talk to her together."
"Now that's a good tactic. When are you going to enlist?"
Darcy ignored the suggestion and they continued walking in silence towards the house.
"Well, all I can say is, if you can't be rude enough to yell at Aunt Catherine and stalk out of the meeting, try the opposite tactic and make her mad enough to tell you to leave. We already know how attentive to every courtesy and amiability she is." Richard took his turn at sarcasm and imitation.
"Richard, I am surprised it took you four entire years to graduate from Cambridge. And why in the world are you aiming to be on Wellesley's staff? At this rate he will end up on yours."
"Modesty, cuz. I hesitate to show off my brilliance."
They had reached the bottom step of the entrance to Rosings. They looked at each other and grinned as they had during the many childish escapades committed together over the years.
Exclaiming in unison, "Once more into the breach!" They joined arms and mounted the steps.
After giving their hats and coats to the footman, they were told Lady Catherine would be delayed and would meet them in the study in 10 or 15 minutes. Darcy frowned and stood taller as his face and posture stiffened again. His aunt rarely delayed a meeting and was notorious in her demands for punctuality. Richard decided a bit more of the relaxing medicine was needed and said "C'mon!" and led the way to the library. Darcy paced over to the window while Richard went over to the table holding the decanters and glasses. Not realizing his cousin had not eaten anything since tea the previous day, Richard poured two glasses of brandy. He walked over and handed one of the glasses to Darcy, raised the other in a small toast and said, "Cheers! You better drink this. Your muscles are so tight and solid right now that if I hit you with my sword it might bend it! I promised not to bother you until we leave, but you have not been yourself since we got here. I do have some suspicions about the reason. Then, this morning…and now…well, no more. I did promise."
Darcy grimaced, waited a moment, started to say something, hesitated, took a gulp of brandy and grimaced again as he waited for the fire in his throat to fade away. But he did feel better, or anyway the day seemed to have become more pleasant.
"That's brandy, you're supposed to sip it. Like this." Richard demonstrated a sip, and then took a swallow.
"You didn't sip."
"I'm a soldier. Soldiers don't sip. I'm not sure, but that may be listed somewhere as one of the rules of soldiery."
"Soldiery? You're getting poetic again. I don't think I can stand it." Darcy took another big swallow, emptying the glass. "Here, a little bit more, please," handing the glass back to Richard.
Richard hesitated, observing him for a moment, shrugged, gulped down the last of his brandy and went over to pour a little more for each. He knew his head for drink was very strong and was confident he could probably deflect any small problem his usually composed and unflappable, but now slightly tipsy cousin, might have. Or any problem he might even cause for that matter.
He went back and stood beside Darcy. They both stared unseeing out of the window, now sipping their drinks and thinking. That is, Richard was trying to think of what could have happened to Darcy if it wasn't what he suspected. Darcy was trying not to think about Elizabeth; though the brandy was helping ease that distress into disappointment. Now all he had to do was focus on Aunt Catherine, helping Anne, but not marrying her, and what to do about all the problems at Rosings. As his thoughts criss-crossed, he absentmindedly took the last of the brandy in a gulp.
They had just seated themselves in the uncomfortable armchairs when Lady Catherine, dressed in rustling silk, swept into the study and took the chair behind the desk. She sat facing them with a look that seemed to be even fiercer and more determined than her usual mien.
No one spoke for a moment or two. Finally Darcy said, "We should send for Anne. Since she is the Mistress of Rosings, it is only appropriate that she should be present so she could approve of the plans for the coming year."
Richard's eyes widened.
Lady Catherine's cheeks reddened a little as she replied austerely, "No. She has not yet learned enough to accept that kind of responsibility. I am her mother, and I say no! I will continue to make the decisions until I am sure she, or her husband, can live here and take charge, as is proper."
Darcy closed his eyes briefly in acquiescence (or to stop the room from slowly circling about him), then pointed to the small pile of papers on the desk and asked, "Have you read through my recommendations yet?"
"Yes, I have and I will be frank with you, nephew. You are trying to waste my money and that of your future wife. To begin with…."
Lady Catherine went through the recommendations one by one for what seemed to be forever. She gave lengthy, sometimes illogical reasons for refusing to follow any of the listed items except two minor inexpensive ones. (Filling the potholes in the drive would stop her bouncing around so much, and sweeping the chimneys might stop her nagging cough.) Darcy became tense, his face froze into an expressionless mask, and his head started to pound. He reminded himself that he was doing this for Anne. Aunt Catherine continued the monologue in the same unrelenting manner complaining of unwilling and ungrateful servants and unnecessary extravagances. Suddenly she changed the subject and demanded in an imperious tone, "Nephew, this visit you must formalize your engagement to Anne. You have put it off long enough. The family cannot wait any longer for this union to unite these two great estates." Her voice was strident and insistent as she railed on with the same litany she always used.
The more she talked, the tighter Darcy's jaws clamped to prevent him from crying out to stop her. As his teeth ground together, more white flashes danced in his vision. The flickering lights caused his head to hurt even more. The more pain his head contained, the faster the room circled around him.
Richard watched silently and became alarmed. The last time he had seen Darcy this mad was when, well, he couldn't remember ever seeing his cousin this angry. Of course, he wasn't with him at Ramsgate, but Wickham was still alive. At this rate, Aunt Catherine might not be alive for long.
The pain in his head was almost unbearable but he couldn't leave because he was too dizzy to stand without falling. He had lost his ability to think.
"Now, nephew, where do you want the wedding to take place? Here at Rosings? In London? Or at Pemberley?" Her small smile was gloating, and the room went still. Three different people thought about the question and how it would be answered.
An idea flashed into Darcy's mind and he grabbed onto it and held it. He quickly embraced it with an almost unbreakable resolve. The pain went away; the room stood still; he felt almost euphoric at this simple solution to not marrying Anne.
"That's enough." He said it very softly with a smile lighting his eyes and his dimples slightly peeking out in his cheeks.
Richard moved to the edge of his seat, very worried. He moved his feet to brace himself for a leap somewhere onto someone. He didn't know if he could stop his large and strong cousin from doing anything, but at least he could get in front of, or on top of his aunt and protect her. He shuddered, just imagining that happening. Damn it! What a mess. Portugal was almost pleasant in comparison. Why, oh why had he poured that last drink? He needed one now. He was ready to take any action but prayed it would be unnecessary. Perhaps if he prayed even harder.
"What's enough? You have decided where and when the wedding will be?" She asked.
Darcy smiled gently, sat back in his chair, relaxed with his legs crossed and one foot slowly waving up and down and said in a soft, silky voice, "Yes, I have made a decision and I will gladly tell you what it is."
Listening to Darcy say that, the hair on the back of Richard's neck rose up and his veteran battle senses yelled "Danger." He wondered if it was possible to call for an intermission so he could dash to the library, grab the decanter (or maybe two decanters), and dash back. He figured he could make it in 20 seconds at the most. Or two minutes out to the stables, saddle one of his aunt's nags, or Anne's phaeton pony, or even one of Darcy's prime carriage horses and head for someplace besides this room. On the other hand, he was curious about what Wills was going to say. He sat back in the chair, pretending to relax and listen politely while he stayed alert with his feet braced to jump up. Just in case. Maybe if things quieted down and became friendlier, the hair on his neck would lie down again, and he could suggest a glass of wine. That's it. He would wait and see. He had to admit he had become stone cold sober.
Darcy continued in that soft, silky, but now icy voice. "If I marry Anne, and I repeat, IF Anne and I marry, I will be responsible for Rosings, Pemberley, two London townhouses, some smaller estates scattered around the British Isles, plus dozens of investments in various other businesses such as mines, ships, and manufacturers in several countries. Because my parents raised me to take care of my family and all that we own, managing all of this will take a lot of travel and time. So I have decided that IF, again, IF Anne and I marry, as her husband, one of my first acts would be to sell Rosings."
"NO!" Aunt Catherine shouted as she exploded out of her chair.
Darcy stayed relaxed, smiling, and slowly jiggling his foot up and down.
Richard scooted forward again to the edge of his chair, ready to jump up and protect whoever would need protecting. Maybe that would be himself, accomplished by fleeing the room.
Darcy's voice again was soft, silky, icy, but now it was also threatening. "Sit down Aunt Catherine and be silent." A pause, then a courteous afterthought, "Please."
Lady Catherine's face paled, but she sat and stayed silent. It was easy to see she was afraid. This was a Darcy she had not seen before, and she did not recognize him. She did fear him however.
Richard's arm hair was now standing as stiff and straight as his neck hair. He had never realized how frightening Darcy could be. Because they had practiced fencing, wrestling, boxing, and shooting together all of their lives he knew how dangerous his boyhood companion could be. But frightening? Wills? When did this happen? How?
The voice came again, but without the threatening overtones, just casual and matter of fact. "We all know that in our country, when people marry, the husband takes power over all of his wife's possessions. So, IF, again IF, Anne and I marry, I will sell Rosings. The money from the sale would allow me to increase the size of Pemberley and make investments in all the new trades that are springing up. If you would like to remain in Kent, I will try to persuade the new owner to let you keep the Rosings Dower House and a few acres surrounding it. Or you can live in the de Bourgh townhouse. I will have it completely refurbished for Anne, and you can live there with her if you wish and she agrees. If not, maybe Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Henry will take you in. I will visit in London briefly a few times a year to keep up appearances, but I will live most of the time at Pemberley. Anne can probably not bear any children, but I will have my own heirs for Pemberley and the rest of my estate. This is what I have decided, Aunt." A brief pause while everyone took a needed breath. "Do you agree?"
"NEVER! I will never allow you to marry Anne. Leave this house at once and never return." Lady Catherine stood up, her face becoming red with fury, and while her voice was loud and commanding, she did not shout. It was not too difficult to see and hear the underlying fear.
"Are you sure, Aunt? I believe this is a fair and equitable offer" Quietly suggestive, hoping she would insist on their exit.
"YES! Get out. Leave at once. GET OUT! NOW!" She was shouting.
The soft and silky, but friendly voice returned and stated, as if granting a favor to someone, "We will leave first thing in the morning. We need to visit Anne and stay with her for a while to say goodbye. She is our cousin. This is her home; she owns it. I do love and appreciate her, strictly as my cousin and childhood playmate, but I will never marry her. I don't know about Richard, but do not plan on seeing me for lunch or dinner. We will undoubtedly have left before you come downstairs in the morning, so allow me to say goodbye now." He stood up, made a precise, polite bow, asked, "Are you coming with me Richard?" and turned towards the door.
Stunned and silent, Richard rose, also made a precise, polite bow, and joined Darcy as they walked out into the hall, soundlessly closing the door behind them.
Lady Catherine collapsed into the chair like a puppet with broken strings. Leaning her elbows on her desk, she put her face in her hands. She wondered if there was any brandy here in the study.
What she did for the next two hours, no one knows.
Posted on October 27, 2009
After leaving their aunt, Darcy and Richard stood in the hall for a moment looking at each other. Darcy looked relieved, although his eyes were still set with determination. As his mind replayed the conversation in the study, trying to ascertain exactly what he had and had not said, he was both puzzled and amazed by his own creativity and daring. Had he actually just told his aunt that he would sell Rosings? Yes! He had. Had he said that definitely he would marry Anne? No. "IF" he had said; "If he married Anne." He puffed out a small breath and relaxed a little.
Richard, almost giddy with relief to have escaped unscathed, stared at his cousin with awed, if puzzled, wonder. He knew that Darcy was exceptionally intelligent and steadfast, but to outflank and face down Aunt Catherine like that? Richard was an experienced veteran, and he would never have dreamt of such a maneuver. Even if the thought had occurred to him, facing and defeating their aunt required more courage than he - or most regiments - possessed. With a silent nod towards the front of the house, Richard started walking. After a few steps, Darcy faltered a bit. Richard took a grip on his arm, saying just above a whisper, "Steady now. Only a few more seconds to the library and I can shut the door."
Darcy straightened at his cousin's words, his willpower overcoming his temporary physical weakness, and walked with firm tread down the wide hallway, past the footman on duty, and into the library. He sank gratefully into a chair, and with a deep breath, leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
Richard shut the door, gave a mighty sigh of relief and headed for the decanters and glasses.
Pouring two glasses, he took one over to his cousin. "Here, Wills. Maybe this will help."
Darcy opened his eyes, but shook his head, "No, thanks. Not right now."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday afternoon, and after what you have already given me, I think it best to wait until after we dine."
"Well, that explains quite a bit about what just happened." Richard started towards the bell pull, but changed his mind and stepped out into the hallway toward a waiting footman. "I need cold meat, cheese, bread, and tea or coffee brought to the library as quickly as possible." Knowing the average speed of the service at Rosings, he reached into his pocket for a coin and gave it to the footman. "If it is quick enough, I will give you another one of these when you deliver it."
The footman immediately headed towards the back stairs and the kitchen as fast as he could without running.
Richard returned to the library where he sat, sipping his drink and watching Darcy with silent concern, as he waited for the food to arrive.
Darcy wiped the breadcrumbs from his lips, and with a small sigh of satisfaction reached for his second cup of tea. "Thank you, Cuz. I feel much better now, and I will still be able to eat later."
"You are welcome. I am glad that it helped, but now you have to pay me back." Richard looked directly at his cousin, and in his best commanding officer tone said, "I want to know what has been bothering you these past weeks, and especially yesterday and today. I am convinced that it must be the underlying cause of that scene in the study." He held up a forestalling hand. "No, I will not wait until we are in the carriage. I want to know NOW. I do not need a long explanation; the bare bones will do."
"Not now, Richard. There is too much to think about and do."
Richard sighed. "Yes, you are right about that." He paused for a moment. "I will surrender for now on the condition that you answer one quick question to satisfy my suspicions. Does what is troubling you have anything at all to do with the intelligent and lovely Miss Bennet?"
There was a long silence while Darcy intently studied the carpet design and sipped his tea. Richard relaxed back in his chair, with his legs crossed and his hands clasped over his stomach, and watched Darcy with concern. (But his foot was not wagging up and down).
Darcy's reply, when it came, was jerky. "I asked her to marry me last night." He paused while Richard eyed him in shocked confusion. "She emphatically refused me. We had a fierce argument." Darcy's eyes closed briefly as he recalled the passion with which Elizabeth had quarreled with him. "She accused me of a variety of iniquitous actions. I spent last night writing her a letter vindicating myself. I told her everything about Wickham – and, by the way, informed her that you could verify my story." He waited for Richard's nod before concluding. "I was just returning from delivering the letter this morning when you found me."
"As bare bones go, that explains a lot. I imagine you did not sleep much last night?" he asked sympathetically.
Darcy shook his head, staring at the ceiling. "Just dozed on and off a bit. I had not eaten anything since yesterday afternoon, which is likely why that brandy you offered me went straight to my head."
After a few moments, Richard gave a small chuckle and said, "And as a substitute for the wonderful and lively Miss Bennet, you entered the house only to hear Aunt Catherine demand that you marry your cousin, which you have never wanted to do."
"You have to admit, she could not have picked a worse time to make her demands. I was still agitated about Miss Bennet, I was tired and edgy and longing for solitude, and my wicked cousin had plied me with drink until I was quite foxed." He stopped for a moment, then added thoughtfully, "Actually, now that I think on it, this was a good time for it to happen. I will not have to struggle with all of the problems here at Rosings anymore." Closing his eyes, he mused idly, "It makes me wonder what I can do next to complicate my life even further?"
Darcy started to laugh a little, and an astonished Richard could not help but join him. The laughter quickly grew so uproarious that they were holding their sides while tears ran down their faces. Eventually the laughter subsided and they sat grinning at each other, relaxed now with all of the tension released.
"We need to talk to Anne and let her know about everything that happened this morning," Richard said quietly.
Darcy nodded acknowledgement. "We will have to coax her into leaving with us tomorrow. We can take her to live with your parents while I make arrangements for her at the de Bourgh townhouse, or if necessary, she can stay at Darcy House with Georgiana and Mrs. Annesley. The first people to see will be the lawyers."
Two masculine faces formed identical moues of displeasure.
"Convincing Anne is going to take some expert coaxing, Darce."
"She is getting away from here even if I have to carry her over my shoulder, kicking and screaming all the way."
"It is so nice to know that even if you refuse to marry her, you have no qualms about compromising her in front of all the servants."
"It is the least I can do for her - beside leaving tomorrow morning and never coming back."
"Darce, that has to be one of the silliest things you have ever said. Makes no sense at all."
Still grinning slightly, they left the library and mounted the stairs to Anne's suite of rooms.
When Mrs. Jenkinson admitted them into Anne's sitting room, Richard turned on the charm and cajoled her into leaving for an hour or two. He assured her that together, he and Darcy could take care of their cousin for a brief period of time, and promised her that if they found it was beyond them capabilities, one of them would summon her immediately for her indispensable services.
Anne, reclining on a chaise with her feet covered and a book in her hands, raised her brows and gave each a questioning glance with her bright blue eyes, which were so like her father's. "What has gone wrong? Why are you here?"
Richard was indignant. "We just want enjoy your company for a while by ourselves."
"Both of you? During the day? And sending Mrs. Jenkinson away? How foolish do you think I am?"
Richard grumbled, "If all you are going to do is question my word, I will let Darcy answer."
While the other two were talking, Darcy pulled a chair beside the head of the chaise, took the book from Anne, and laid it on the floor. Leaning forward, he held her small white hand between his two big tanned ones. "About an hour ago, your mother told me to leave this house immediately and never return." He said this in a caring tone with a small smile that had a touch of triumph in it.
Anne gasped in astonishment, and whispered wonderingly, "She did?"
Richard, who had pulled a chair to sit close to her feet, affirmed, "Yes, she did. I was there."
"But why?" Anne's tone indicated that she believed such a statement from her mother was impossible.
Darcy kissed the little hand in his, "I told her that If you and I ever married, one of my first actions as your husband would be to sell Rosings."
The wide blue eyes grew even rounder, and the eyebrows climbed higher. "Oh Wills! You didn't." It was difficult to tell if she said it with awe or consternation, although it could have been a combination of the two. "No marriage! This means that we can talk to each other now in plain sight! We can laugh together! Mother will not be able to rant about all the things she is planning to do to Rosings once she has your money to use. Oh, this makes me so happy!" Anne drew a deep breath and a huge grin spread across her face. After a few seconds, though the grin vanished and a frown took its place. "Wait," she said, her voice slowly rising until she was almost shouting. "If you can never come back, how am I going to ever see you or talk to you again? Can Georgiana still visit? Richard, what about you? Will you still be able to visit? Darcy, you better tell me what has happened here. Mother may be in charge, but this is my house. It belongs to me. I have never wanted to marry you, even if Mother insists on it. If you think you are going to sell Rosings, I will never marry you. Never. Ever!" Panicked, Anne swung her legs off the chaise and tried to stand, but Darcy and Richard were blocking the way with their chairs.
Darcy kept her from falling, held her for a minute in a loose hug while she quieted, kissed her cheek, then grinned, dimples flashing, as he gently lowered her until she was sitting on the edge of the chaise. "That is almost exactly what I said to your mother: 'This is Anne's house. It belongs to her.' And somewhere in my speech I also said that I would never marry you, no matter what. All we have to do is figure out what we should do next. And once we decide what to do, we still have to figure out how we are going to do it. Do you want to help us, dear Annie, or do you want to leave it in Silly Richard's and Oafish Darcy's hands? Remember that we are just two foolish boys always getting you in trouble when you do nothing wrong."
"We need you to help us, Little Princess." Richard pleaded, drawing on another one of their childhood nicknames.
"Big Mean Richard, you had better rethink that statement. You only called me Little Princess when you wanted to make me angry." Anne's voice was tart, but she was smiling a little. She leaned back in the chaise, folded her hands in her lap and said, "Please tell me what has happened."
With dancing eyes, broad gestures, horrible mimicry, and an overabundance of military euphemisms, Richard related his version of what he called "The Battle in the Study.". Darcy squeezed in beside Anne on the chaise, and put his arm around her shoulders as much to keep her steady as for the camaraderie. He rolled his eyes frequently during the story, but reveling the occasional quiver of laughter in her shoulders in response to Richard's grosser exaggerations, he remained silent. When the performance was finished, a thoughtful silence descended over the three of them.
Finally, Anne turned to look straight at Darcy and said with a big smile, "I do not for a moment believe that farce Richard just enacted for us. You could not possibly have said all of that. Did you really tell Mother that you would let me live in the de Bourgh townhouse while you and your mistress lived at Pemberley? That if the two of you had any children you would adopt them so they would be your legal heirs? Wills, you didn't!"
While Richard exploded with laughter, Darcy's face and neck flushed a bright red and he could not help looking away. "No. No, I did not say that. I would never say such a thing to anyone." He added a few seconds later, looking sideways at her with a small smile, "I did imply it, though."
Anne laughed aloud. "Fitzwilliam Darcy, the last of the gallant knights, attempting to protect me by scandalizing the entire country. What will I do without you?"
Darcy removed his arm from around her shoulders, and took both of her frail hands into a loving but firm grip. Smiling into her pale, pretty face, he said definitively, "You will not do without me at all. You and Richard and I are leaving here tomorrow morning at eight o'clock for London. You will stay at Matlock House while Uncle Henry and I arrange all of the legal niceties to have Aunt Catherine settled into the Dower House. We will find a worthy and capable steward for you, and in the meanwhile, you will see some of London's best doctors and get better. Aunt Eleanor will take you to the most fashionable modistes, and I assure you that Georgie will be glued to your side because Aunt Catherine will not be there to frighten her away."
Richard was indignant, "When did we decide to be forthright with her? On the way up the stairs we said that we were going to coax her. Gently but expertly."
"Think about it, Cuz. Have we ever successfully coaxed Anne to do anything? She is a sensible and… um… independent young woman, and I merely recognized that approaching her in that manner would be more likely to work."
"Well," Richard admitted grudgingly. "I do not remember ever managing to coax her; but I do remember attempting to force her to join us in some pranks. As I recall, the problem was that she would scream and yell and hit us, despite the fact that girls are not supposed to fight with boys. Why, I recall several times when she gave me some nasty bruises, and I think you, Darce, sported a black eye one time that resulted in all three of us being punished for fighting. That is why we should coax her. If anyone is going to hit me, I would prefer for it to be you because I can hit you back. Gallant Colonels do not ever hit women, even if they are mean Little Princesses."
Darcy grinned at Richard's mock petulance. "I sincerely hope not to resort to attempting to force her." He turned back to Anne. "Instead, I believe that it will not hurt to mention that in addition to everything else, you will have your pick of the two most charming and handsome men in England to squire you to the opera, concerts, the theatre, and the museums. Just think Anne, without any effort on your part, you will be the envy of all this year's debutantes."
"Both of you stop it; you are neither coaxing nor coercing me because I am not going to London. I simply could not bear the physical and emotional upset it would cause. At least here it is very boring and quiet. Mother seldom bothers with me, and almost the only company we ever have is mother's pet parson and Mrs. Collins. He may be stupid, but she is sensible and can be quite humorous. I enjoy talking with her, and we have become friends - even more than Mother believes or would allow. The two of you can go to London tomorrow morning, but I will stay here." Anne was firm but adamant, trying to pull her hands from Darcy's.
"No, you won't," sounded almost simultaneously from two masculine voices.
"Yes, I will. I am not going." The statement was made with finality.
She struggled harder to free her hands, and Darcy slowly let go and moved back to his own chair from the chaise. "Please go find Anne's maid, Richard, and ask her to bring us tea here, rather than our going downstairs We need to settle this as soon as possible."
Richard's face lit up. "Two fine displays of tactical genius. I will take care of both of them. How much do you want to bet that Sally will steal some biscuits for us from the kitchen?" He stood, pushed his chair back, and walked towards Anne's bedroom door. The door was slightly ajar and he went in to find a short, slightly plump woman straightening some books on a shelf.
"Sally, me darlin', since I'm sure you have been listening at the door, I have a favor to ask."
Her blue eyes may have faded along with her auburn hair, but Sally's spirit was the same as it had been 27 years previously when she had come to Rosings as Anne's wetnurse. "Of course I was listening. I have to make sure you two hellions don't hurt me wee little one." The Irish brogue was still faintly evident when she spoke.
"As if anyone could injure her with you around. Now, what is the last thing you heard, so I can tell you what we need you to do without repeating anything?"
"First, have tea for the three of you sent up here. Afterwards, pack everything and be ready to go aboard the luggage coach by seven o'clock, I imagine, so you can leave at eight. And thanks be to goodness you are finally getting her out of here before her mother makes her truly ill."
"Excellent." Richard rubbed his hands in satisfaction. "But I want you to ride with us in the travelling carriage, and just in case, bring along one small bag for each of you. The rest can go with Robinson and Sergeant Bascomb in the luggage coach." Richard stopped for a few seconds, "Do you have any ideas about how we can get her to agree to come with us willingly?"
"What about tellin' her that I'm eloping with you, and she can stay here by herself with Mrs. Jenkinson?"
Richard snorted with suppressed laughter, "Go take care of the food, you teasing Irishwoman, and if we can not talk her into it peacefully, Darcy and I will simply make plans with you to kidnap her."
"Lord bless me, that sounds fine too. Off with ye now while I get busy."
Richard leaned down a little, gave her a fast one-armed hug, and went back to Anne and Darcy.
By tacit agreement, the next hour was spent eating, reminiscing, teasing, and discussing current events. After the detritus of the repast had been cleared, Darcy noticed that Anne was growing pale and listless, and knew they must let her rest for a while. Darcy realized that he also had to lie down and sleep for a couple of hours; his head hurt and his thoughts were becoming increasingly muddled. But how were they to manage to allow Anne to rest while he also slept, and simultaneously prevent Aunt Catherine from manipulating Anne, who still had not voluntarily agreed to leave with them in the morning? He scrubbed his cheeks with his hands, hoping to rouse his exhausted brain into coherency. He believed that he was so tired that even thinking of Elizabeth would require some an effort, but grimaced to himself as a glimpse of her face suddenly flickered on the edges of his consciousness.
Richard, seeing both cousins wilting, took charge. He helped Anne into her bedroom, and went into the dressing room where Sally was standing with two open trunks. He told her to lock the bedroom doors and let no one in while Anne rested and regained some strength. Back in the sitting room, he directed Darcy to the sofa where he could fold his tall frame enough to lay on his side and sleep. Pulling the bell, he asked the arriving maid to send his batman, Sergeant Bascomb, and Darcy's valet Robinson, to Anne's sitting room. Darcy was sound asleep by the time they arrived.
Conferring quietly in a corner, Richard told the two trusted servants of the travel plans for the next day. They were sent to the stables, Robinson with messages for the coachmen and their assistants, and Bascomb to ride into the village to send an express. While Richard had no doubt that his mother always had guest rooms at the ready, he did not want to be castigated for surprising her with Anne. (All that female folderol about flowers and special pillows and favorite soaps and so forth and so on.) Satisfied that he had done all that was needed at this time, he took off his half-boots and coat, reclined on Anne's chaise, and setting his mind into that soldier ready-to-jump-at-the-first-strange-noise mode, he joined his cousins in sleep. He could see no reason for worrying when no one was fighting yet, but he knew that at this rate, there probably would be a battle before the day was out.
Anne awoke slowly, with an awareness that something momentous had happened, but not remembering what it was for a minute or so. When the memory of Richard's reenactment flooded her mind, she gasped and struggled up from the counterpane covering her. Throwing the bedclothes back and swinging her feet off the bed, she called Sally who was always nearby while she slept. Sally hurried to Anne's side, helped her into a dressing gown, and led her to one of the chairs by the fire. Within a few moments she had almost magically produced fruit, biscuits and a cup of tea. She vanished for several minutes, then reappeared and sat on a chair opposite Anne, knowing that her mistress was going to need some comfort, some reassurance, and probably some encouragement as well. "The water will be ready for your bath in half an hour. Dinner is about 90 minutes from now, so you don't have to rush."
"Where are those two devils now, and what are they doing?"
"They're both sleepin' in your sitting room, protectin' you with their very lives."
That earned an unladylike grunt, "Well, they are wasting their time. I am not going to London."
"I cannot possibly leave Rosings. Why, Mother would… She would… She…" Anne's voice slowly faded as she tried to think of what her mother would -- no, not would, could do to her if she left.
"She'd what? Talk all night at an empty space? Grumble to the air how things have changed for the worse? Eat her meals alone? Complain to the steward and the servants about their work and how much better they need to do it? Tell the parson how G-d's work should be done better if people would only use her gospel as she gives it to them?" (Sally prayed G-d would forgive her for the small heresy).
After letting the questions settle for a few moments, Sally leaned over and touched one of Anne's knees. Faded pale blue eyes lovingly looked into troubled young ones, and she asked, "Can't or won't?"
"Can't." But the voice quavered just a tiny bit in its determination.
"Oh little Annie, don't you see? You must go. It was eight or nine years ago, after your Da died, that you got sick. So many times I thought you were not going to pull through all the terrible fevers and such, but then about two years ago you started getting better. Why, you have not had a fever in months, and you stay awake for over half the day now! You can walk up and down the stairs with just a wee bit o' help. You have complained again and again to me how boring it is here; how much you would like to go away for a bit, and see other people. Here is your chance. You won't be gone forever, just two weeks; maybe a month. You can come back after that, and be bored and lonely again. Little darlin', do it so when you look in the mirror, you smile for no reason except bein' happy."
"But --" Anne protested weakly again. She paused, then said in resignation, "I will think about it."
Sally, knowing it was time to stop, left to prepare Anne's bath.
Darcy planned to have dinner in his room, read for a while, then sleep some more, hoping to wake up without any residual effects from the brandy. That is, he would sleep if Elizabeth's refusal would stop replaying incessantly in his ears. It would also be nice if he didn't constantly revisit the way her eyes flashed so brightly in her anger. 'Damn it, pull yourself together Darcy. You have always been proud of the strength of your mind!' He kept telling himself that he was better off, that he would conquer this pain, but it seemed that a rather large part of himself was not paying any attention.
While Darcy battled his own demons in his room, Richard lent Anne his arm as they went down the stairs to the dining room to face a demon of a different sort.
Anne looked at Richard admiringly. ''You look very gallant in your uniform, cousin."
"I hope so. With any luck I look heroic enough to keep your mother from attacking me," Richard said, more hopeful than certain.
"Why did you not wear any of your medals?"
"If she does attack, she would probably tear them off and use the pins to scratch my eyes out."
Anne chuckled lightly, then grew impassive as they neared the dining room doors. They went to the table and sat down to eat, saying nothing except when Lady Catherine's pontificating paused long enough to indicate that a response was required. In the silence of his mind, Richard disagreed with his aunt's groundless opinion that Napoleon was a total failure as a general; he paid no heed to her accusation that the French Army was a rabble of ne'er-do-wells; after all, they had conquered Europe. He did concur – and worried that he did so - that some members of the British Royal Family should not be in charge of the military. He mentally shook his head when she nattered on about the refusal of servants to serve properly, and the way that tradesmen and manufacturers were impudently intruding into the upper strata of society. He heard and absently tsked tsked about the scandal of those members of the peerage who were marrying tradesmens daughters just for the money. Then his ears perked up as his aunt started to talk about the ingratitude of family members who were given everything in life, but refused to do their duty and maintain the family's bloodlines, status, wealth, and property. Richard seethed at his aunt's hypocrisy as he thought about Darcy's generosity in taking the time away from his own estate to travel to Rosings for 3 or 4 weeks every year, futilely trying to correct Aunt Catherine's mismanagement of what ought to be a very fine estate. He had joined Darcy whenever possible, but except for the opportunity to see and talk to Anne – which had to be done without Aunt Catherine's notice so that she would not hound Darcy even more than she already did - they both dreaded and hated the visit. His thoughts drifted again to the 'Battle in the Study,' and without awareness, he smiled.
"What are you grinning so foolishly about nephew? I asked how many more weeks you are going to be staying here, and offered my barouche to take you back to town." Aunt Catherine was using her usual imperial tones.
Richard's smile vanished. Thinking, 'if Wills can do it, I can do it,' he said, "I am leaving with Darcy in the morning Aunt. I am merely having dinner with you tonight as a farewell."
"That is impossible. I absolutely forbid it," she declared haughtily. "You will stay here and help me straighten out this mess that Darcy is leaving behind. I simply cannot allow Anne to marry him. Rosings belongs to her, and it will not be sold. But they must marry to join the estates and keep the family bloodlines strong. After all, they were formed for each other." Logic was not his Aunt Catherine's strong suit.
Richard sat at attention and declared resolutely, "Rosings belongs to Anne, Darcy will not marry her, and I am leaving with him in the morning."
"You simply cannot leave Anne here broken hearted."
In a low-pitched, strained voice, Anne said, "They are not leaving me. I am going with them. I am of age, Rosings is mine, and I will consult with our lawyers in London to determine the best place for you to live."
Lady Catherine stood, her face white with shock and ire. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged for a few seconds. "Anne, I will not allow this. You must never talk to me, your mother, in that fashion…" And the torrent of fury engulfed the silent pair for several minutes. Finally, she quieted, but when no one else spoke, she threw her napkin to the table and stalked out of the dining room.
Richard got up and went quickly around the table to Anne, whose face was also white with shock – but more, Richard thought, at her own, unplanned daring. A tear started down her cheek and she was trembling, but Richard, astonished at Anne's bravery, knelt and held her for a few minutes until she was calm.
"That was one of the most courageous things I have ever seen or heard. You are a sweetheart Annie! But please, do not ever enlist in the French Army; we would have to surrender." The compliment earned him a grateful look and the tiniest of smiles.
"Oh Richard. I can not believe I said that! Help me to my room, please." Anne rose, swaying slightly, but managed to walk fairly steadily. As they neared the staircase, she let out the tiniest giggle, "Now I have to go with you in the morning. If I do not leave, she will run me out of my own house."
Richard laughed aloud, and with a big hug he lifted Anne off her feet and spun her around. The footmen were staring, but neither one cared.
Starting back up the stairs, Richard wondered idly if Darcy had caught some kind of disease that instilled unexpected bravery; if so, it was apparently contagious.
Posted on November 3, 2009
At last, the carriage started down the drive, leaving Rosings behind. Darcy blew out a small sigh of relief.
Anne, sitting opposite him, asked "Darce, can we stop at the parsonage for a few minutes so I can say goodbye to Mrs. Collins? I would hate to leave without letting her know. Oh, and Miss Bennet is still there. I may never see her again, and I have enjoyed her liveliness and music."
Richard looked on with a smirk while Darcy quickly decided his little cousin's courage was worth some potential pain on his part. He nodded, and when they had reached the parsonage, he rapped on the ceiling with his walking stick. The coach stopped almost instantly and he asked, "Do you wish to go in, or would you rather I ask them to come outside?"
"I will get out of the coach, but will not go inside. That way we will be sure to stay only a few minutes."
Darcy stepped down and out, going to knock on the front door, while Richard helped Anne alight.
Mr. and Mrs. Collins came out quickly, with Elizabeth Bennet a few paces behind them. When Darcy explained the purpose of the surprise visit, the trio went to Anne with exclamations of surprise and dismay. Darcy took a great interest in the number and arrangement of the parsonage windows for the next few minutes; the roof seemed to be worthy of study too.
"Mr. Darcy," he heard that soft voice he loved, but had hoped never to hear again (if he could not listen to it all the time, mostly in bed). "I need to apologize to you for the way I spoke the other night."
He turned around and bowed slightly. "No apology is necessary, Miss Bennet. You did everything that was proper, but I have no excuse for my own behaviour."
The dark eyes looked into his, smiling a little, "If I am not mistaken, sir, there were two people participating in that argument, and I was one of them. If nothing else, I must apologize for misjudging your dealings with Mr. Wickham. I am very sorry that I believed him without asking for your side of the story."
Did she have to look at him like that? He almost turned to run away, but then another idea flashed into his mind. He grabbed and held onto this one too. "Miss Bennet, tomorrow or the next day, I will be seeing Charles Bingley. Would you please give me the address of where Miss Bennet is staying in Town? Bingley and I need know where to call on her and apologize for not returning her call sooner."
"She is staying with my uncle who is in trade, and lives in Cheapside. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst did return the call." Elizabeth said this gently, but with a faint edge of sharpness.
"Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst must have forgotten to tell their brother, or I am sure he would have called by now." He added with a small grin, "As I am sure you know, Bingley's father was a tradesman, so I do not think a relative who is a mere uncle will bother either one of us."
Elizabeth stared at him for a moment, surprised, and said, "I will be right back," and went in the house. She came back out with her uncle's name and address written on a card, and handed it to him.
They both turned and rejoined the others, just in time to hear Mrs. Collins teasing Anne about the entire new wardrobe she would be getting. Darcy and Elizabeth were surprised to hear Anne tease back that they would take an entire day to sort through her purchases when she returned.
Everyone repeated their farewells – Mr. Collins managed at least a dozen himself, along with making so many bows he resembled a blackbird drinking on the rim of a birdbath. Anne, Richard and Darcy reentered the carriage and they set off again.
After watching the carriage drive down the lane a little, the trio from the parsonage stopped waving, and Mr. and Mrs. Collins returned to the house. Elizabeth stood for a minute or two, thinking and staring at the haze of dust stirred up by the horses. Darcy had proposed to her not even two whole days ago, declaring how ardently he loved her. Now he was going to London with his betrothed, Anne (the engagement frequently praised by Mr. Collins, and alluded to by Lady Catherine), to buy her trousseau. She could not understand the swiftness of the action, unless his aunt had forced the engagement. It was bewildering. She did know one thing; she felt rejected, and it hurt. Surprisingly, it hurt quite a bit. WHY?
The further the coach traveled from Rosings, the happier the occupants became. Chattering about nothing important and laughing at the trivial nature of the subjects passed the time as they slowly relaxed. Finally the chatter faded into silence for several miles.
Anne said, "I cannot believe we were able to leave without some kind of scene."
Richard added, "I imagined Darcy running down the stairs carrying you and throwing you in the carriage while I fended off Aunt Catherine with my sword. Then I would have to outrun her to reach the carriage while it was going down the drive."
Darcy opined, "She is probably trying to avoid a scandal, but I am not sure if that is possible. The servants surely know some of what happened, and they certainly do not have the type of loyalty to her that would inspire them to be silent about Anne's leaving so suddenly." Recalling he had not attended to the conversation during the first part of the meeting at the parsonage, he asked, "What reason did you give Mrs. Collins for leaving, Anne?"
"I told her I was going to stay with Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Henry long enough to buy some new clothes and see some London doctors. I also want to have a little fun, and go as many places as I can with my limited strength. Above all, and this I did not say, I want to see and talk to different people for a few weeks." A small grin broke on Anne's face. "But I am looking forward to not being bored."
"That should be safe enough. Even the parson cannot make anything out of that, unless Aunt contradicts it. I think she might even try to spread that same story. After all, she will have Mrs. Jenkinson to help her," Richard added his thoughts.
"Thank you for assuring Mrs. Jenkinson she would not be turned out, Darcy. She is a kind and well-bred lady, but she fusses over me so much. She can keep Mother company for a while, and it will give Mother someone to talk to. Richard, do you think Aunt Eleanor might know some lady who needs a companion and would love to be fussed over?"
"Mother probably knows someone. And if she does not, she will send the message out into the gossip chain and have an answer back in a day or two. I wish Whitehall had a spy system like she does with that circle of close friends she has. Without ever leaving their houses except to visit each other, they know everything happening in London, Bath, Brighton, and on most of the country estates." Richard mused that the feminine ways and means of acquiring important news was beyond his understanding – all they did was talk. (If it could be explained clearly to him, he was sure he would soon be in command of his own division).
"What about a good doctor, Richard? I do not want a fashionable dandy who will hold my hand and soothe me with how much better I am looking and how soon I will be dancing. I would like to find someone who can find out how to make me feel better, even if I cannot be cured." Anne was firm.
Darcy looked at her intently, questioning, "Has the doctor you have had since you got sick… what… nine, ten years ago… helped you at all? Or has he just treated you as your mother suggested? I know that Uncle Henry and I have both asked her several times to bring you to town to see another doctor, but each time we were refused. You had always been healthy, even if you were small and thin, when you were growing up. Then your father died, and about the time the mourning period was over, you got sick. I remember Father rushed down here to see if he could help, but he sent me on to Cambridge, and the university and home became my life for the next four years. Everyone said you were still sick and very weak, but they did not seem to be overly worried any more, just resigned. Then Father died, and between learning to run Pemberley and taking care of Georgie… Well, time just passed. Uncle Henry insisted I had to start going to Rosings to keep it from being ruined, because he fought so much with Aunt Catherine when he was there. Also, she had asked him to send me, specifically, to help her, instead of either one of Richard's brothers. The first day I walked in, she started talking about our marriage. She kept on and on, never stopping. You know I was afraid to show any attention or affection to you because it would have made her fantasy even worse. Thanks to Sally," he directed one of his smiles at her, "I could sneak in to see and talk to you at night without a scandal. Annie, sweetheart, please forgive me. I should have done something sooner. I should not have let it go on so long. I am so sorry for doing nothing."
Richard added, "Uncle Lewis died before I finished at the university, and not too long after that, I went in the Army. I did nothing to help you either, except visit here now and then when I came back to this country. Mother and both of my sisters would keep me updated in their letters, but I must honestly say the news that "Anne is still sick" or "Anne seems to be a little better" became sort of routine over the years. You will have to forgive me too, if you can."
Anne looked at their apologetic faces, and though tears were glistening in her blue eyes, she smiled and said gently, "There was nothing either of you could have done, really. I was so sick the first two or three years that I wanted to die. Sally would not let that happen, and I slowly improved from the constant fevers and sore throat. I was able to think a little bit again and notice what was happening around me. Mother had never been outwardly caring, but I knew she loved me. She had always liked to tell everyone what they should do, but without Father to stop her, she became dictatorial. With Richard gone, Robert married and Miles in the Navy, that left you, Wills. You were the only one left to take care of me if something happened to her. Thank goodness, the past two years, the fevers have almost completely gone away and my throat is not sore any more. Most important of all, I can think straight ALL of the time, and I have some energy again. I still have to rest a lot, ten to twelve hours a day, but I can walk around, be driven or even drive myself in my phaeton, and just… well, be alive like I used to be. I would like to find a doctor that would help me get completely well, and also make sure I never get that sick again."
"We will make it happen if it is at all possible. You know we will," Darcy affirmed.
"While Mother and Georgie pamper Anne, and you and Father fuss and fight with the solicitors, I will scout around the War Offices to find a good doctor. With all of the wounded officers and soldiers returning to recuperate, there have to be rumors or stories going around about the treatments being used to heal them, and who are the best doctors. See, I can be useful off the battlefield, besides being a charming extra man at dinner or a ball." Richard was glad to find something he could do to help.
Anne was curious, "Richard, you named the Battle in the Study. What is this, The Battle for Rosings?"
"Why not? At the very least, it will not be dangerous. Aunt Catherine will not be with us, so it should be more fun too." Richard was cheerful.
"You only say it will be more fun because you will be drinking and carousing with your army friends. I notice you said nothing about joining Uncle Henry and me with the solicitors." Darcy's reply was tart.
"I am cheerful and direct, besides handsome and brilliant. My tactics are to charge in a straight line, using very fast horses. Your tactics are devious, relying on threats to outwit the other side. Darce, I would not want your responsibilities, even if it meant being the Crown Prince, but I hope we have someone like you on Wellesley's staff."
"Richard. I do not know what to say. Thank you."
"You are welcome. It is just the relief of our escape that makes me admit it. And it does not help that Bascomb has my walking stick in the luggage coach." Richard could not believe he had been so careless.
The sounds of London gradually awoke Anne from her nap reclining in Darcy's luxurious carriage seat, nestled in pillows, and covered with blankets. Darcy was reading, but then he always was reading in his spare moments. Richard had his head back, dozing, but even in his sleep clutching what looked like an open book of military drawings. Sally had pulled the curtain aside a couple of inches and was looking at the sights of the city.
Darcy closed his book with a small smile, "Well, the sleeping beauty rejoins us. We are about a half hour from Matlock House. Do you feel rested enough to face the furor that will welcome you.
I am sure that between Aunt Eleanor and Georgie, the fatted calf is roasting along with the chicken, and half of the flowers sold in town today are decorating your room."
Richard, who awoke when Darcy started speaking, added, "I would not be a bit surprised to find an orchestra playing while we had dinner. Perhaps a few performers from a revue will show up to entertain us in the drawing room while we have our coffee."
Anne grinned, then managing to look haughty, answered back, "I would expect no less than all of that when I honor the house of an earl with my presence. Even with only half a day's warning."
Cheered and rested, they chatted back and forth until they pulled up to the Matlock House front door.
Richard helped Anne down, and had just made sure that Sally had both feet on the ground when two small boys hurried around the back of the coach, tried to bow while moving, and clamored, "Uncle Richard! You are home, come play ball with us in the square. You have to. Aunt Georgie tries, but she throws like a girl." They each grabbed a hand and tried to pull him away.
Richard laughed and told the boys to calm down while he attempted to return their grips and pull them away from the carriage. And just in time, as a young lady (in a very unladylike run) also came around the back of the carriage, gave Darcy a hard, but brief hug saying "Oh Brother! It is so nice to have you back." She turned quickly, "Anne. Oh Anne. I am so happy you are here!" She reached Anne so quickly and hugged her so energetically that the two of them staggered a bit.
Darcy moved fast, steadying them and protesting, "Georgiana! What has happened to the proper and well-behaved young lady I left a few weeks ago?" (He was ignored, as brothers will be when they make such a statement).
Georgiana released Anne, but seized her hand, saying, "Sophy arrived two days ago with the children. She and Aunt Eleanor are making lists of clothing and other plans right now. Oh, we are going to have so much fun!" She pulled Anne towards the steps as a young woman about Darcy's age started moving rapidly towards Anne. (Darcy realized he had become ignored and invisible).
"Anne! It has been such a long time; almost two years since we have seen each other. But you look so much better. The last time I saw you, getting from your bed to the sitting room was hard. And now look, here you are, climbing stairs. We have to hurry in so you can tell all of us at the same time every little thing that has been happening. Mama is going to scold me for coming out to meet you, but I simply could not wait." Like Richard, her brother (who would never be called very handsome), Sophy would never be called beautiful, but her sparking eyes set in a pleasant, attractive face, together with her charm and witty, intelligent conversation, drew people into her company in any drawing room of the ton.
The small crowd entered Matlock House. talking and laughing, and made their way to the sitting room habitually used for informal affairs by the family. An older lady hurried to Anne and enveloped her in yet another hug, with an older man close behind her. "Anne, you look splendid; better than you have in years. We were so surprised when the express came last night. I had one of the footmen on watch to order tea at the first sign of the carriage, so it should be here soon. Do you want to have it here with us, or do you want it sent to your room so you can rest?" Lady Matlock kissed Anne on the cheek before giving way to the earl, who took his turn at hugging and kissing.
"Tea sounds wonderful! I want to stay right here in this room to see and talk to all of you. I slept a while on the trip and feel quite rested. Besides, I am so excited to be here and see everyone, that resting is out of the question. It is almost unbelievable to me. Oh dear! I can barely make sense in what I am saying, and I am mixing it all up." Anne was almost bouncing with pleasure as she returned the hugs and gave her aunt and uncle each a kiss on the cheek.
After the tea and a substantial assortment of snacks had been consumed, and the hubbub of animated talk had subsided, Henry Fitzwilliam, Earl of Matlock, turned towards Anne, who was sitting between him and Lady Eleanor, and queried, "What brought us this great surprise and pleasure? To say Richard's express astonished us late last night is understating it."
Darcy answered in Anne's stead, "It is a fairly boring story. I am sure the children would be much more interested in playing up in the schoolroom than listening to it."
Sophy quickly agreed and directed the governess to take both boys (crowded between Richard and Darcy) and a small girl ensconced on Georgiana's lap, upstairs.
After the youngsters had exited, Anne said, "Richard and Darcy were there when the most important things happened, and Richard was with me when I made up my mind to come. Richard should tell the story."
Lady Eleanor, an elegantly dressed, attractive woman with graying sandy hair, rolled her eyes and declared with a smile, "You boys have caused trouble again. You two should never be allowed to go anywhere together without supervision. What happened?" She added sarcastically, "PLEASE do not tell me Catty ran you off and told you never to return!"
"That is exactly what happened!" Richard crowed triumphantly.
Darcy just looked gloomy.
Uncle Henry frowned and warned, "Son, you do not need to joke about everything. Darcy, you tell us, plainly and simply, how Anne came to be here without my sister. I cannot understand how she would allow that to happen," He glanced at Anne beside him and 'sotto voce' added, "but I am glad she did."
Darcy closed his eyes for a second, sighed, shook his head at his uncle, and waved a hand at Richard to proceed with the tale of their adventures.
Richard, having performed this story before, was able to add more gestures, more enthusiasm, more drama than ever. He stood and bowed deeply to Anne when he told of her moment of rebellion in the Rosings dining room. He told of their fears and apprehensions, which had happily turned to naught, about their flight that morning. He finished by bragging that he and Anne were so unconcerned about consequences that they had slept all the way to town, while Darce calmly read a book.
After the laughter died down, the room hushed as everyone waited for Lord Matlock to speak. "Darcy, that may not have been the best way to go about it, but I have been unable to think of any way at all for the past few years. I think, though I am not sure, that congratulations are in order for the breaking your non-engagement to Anne."
Relaxed chuckles filled the air as everyone started talking at once. Sophy moved to sit beside Darcy, laying a hand on his arm and daring him with a smile, "Wills, you need to tell us who the lady is that will live at Pemberley while we keep Annie company here in town."
Darcy looked at her, but noticing his sister out of the corner of his eye, was appalled. "Georgie! Why are you still here? You should have left with the other children."
Georgiana was indignant. "Brother, I am sixteen now. I think I am old enough to hear things like that. This is mild in comparison to some of the things I heard in school from the other thirteen and fourteen year-old girls."
Darcy saw the contentment shining in her eyes as she moved around, talking with Sophy, Anne, and Aunt Eleanor. The depressing fear and timidity that had burdened her since Ramsgate seemed to have disappeared. If that was the result of some slightly shocking adult talk, he would not worry about it. He walked over to Uncle Henry and let him know that some serious talk among the men would be needed later. In return, Uncle Henry gave him one of those "Tell me something I do not know" disgusted looks bestowed by the older head of the family on the younger males.
The afternoon and evening passed in familial conversation and companionship. Sophy's children rejoined them later, and Richard and Darcy took Hubert and Theodore out into the park square for some rousing games involving running, chasing, and pretend swordplay that burned up a lot of excess energy. Lady Matlock, Anne, Sophy, and Georgiana introduced 4 year-old Celia to the perennial female pastime of endless discussion on which style and what specific color was best suited to this or that particular female figure. And all that choosing led to more discussion (and sometimes bickering) on the choice of hats, reticules, and shoes. The earl decided to retreat to his library, since neither running around the square nor going through fashion magazines suited his dignity.
Lady Eleanor gazed contentedly around the noisy dinner table, reflecting on the various family members so busy talking back and forth, and even across each other. Almost thirty-five years of marriage had brought Henry Fitzwilliam and her into a close fondness for each other, and a certain amount of pride in the manner their five children had grown and matured into adulthood. Robert, Viscount Tallant, and Arabella, his wife were on his estate in Staffordshire awaiting, the birth of their fourth child. Miles, the third son, was a Lieutenant Commander presently at sea, working his way up the ranks in the Navy. Frederica and her husband were also detained by an impending childbirth at Alver in Nottinghamshire. If and when, in future years, the entire family came to Matlock for Christmas, she could not imagine what the ensuing chaos would be like as the grandchildren ran about laughing, shouting, bickering, and doing all of those things that noisy, boisterous, normal children do. She watched Sophy, Anne, Darcy, and Richard toss comments back and forth as if they had only been separated a day or two. Richard was two years older than Sophy and Darcy, who had been born only a few months apart, and Anne was only one year younger than the cousin-twins, as they were known. When they were together as children, the foursome had been known to bring governess', maids, footmen, housekeepers, parents and all other relatives to anger, tears, outrage, silence, laughter, and despair. Somehow, everyone had survived, but she wished (Oh! How she wished!) that her dear friends, Anne and George Darcy and Lewis de Bourgh, were present to share her pride and love.
Anne and Lord Henry were meanwhile discussing events since his last visit to Rosings the previous year. The earl felt chagrined about his neglect of Anne's situation the past few years, but the quarrels with his sister had become so tumultuous, he had gladly ceded the responsibility to Darcy. Like his son and nephew, he also apologized to her. He was also questioning her gently about what she would like to do with her life to please herself for a change. As the last surviving executor of Lewis de Bourgh's will, (George Darcy had been the other executor) he wanted to ensure that Anne would live in peace and happiness on a prosperous, well-run estate for the rest of her life. (With her wealth, finding a husband was a very good prospect).
Darcy, on Lady Eleanor's right, had Sophy on his right ,next to Anne, with Richard and Georgiana opposite them. Conversational topics ranged from gossip about friends, to scandals involving those who were not friends, to the latest opera, concert, poem, novel, and of course, the current news from the Continent and America.
Eventually everyone had eaten enough of the excellent dinner. While there had been no fatted calf, the chef managed to please everyone with the variety of roasts, soups, vegetables, fish, breads and other delights. Lady Matlock gave the signal and the men departed to the study for fragrant brandy or port and smelly cigars, and those weighty decisions only they could make about matters. The ladies departed for the drawing room and more talk about the fascinating details involved in dressing Anne in the latest fashions. (It can be imagined that many husbands changed their 'weighty decisions' after talking with their wives).
After a few minutes of savoring his brandy and cigar, Lord Matlock informed Darcy, "My solicitors sent a note back late this afternoon that they can see us tomorrow at eleven o'clock. Is that time all right with you, Wills?"
Wishing to avoid another crushing brandy headache, Darcy took another sip of his port before he answered "Yes. My secretary was forwarding all of the urgent business to me, but that will allow me to glance through the accumulation of routine business since I left. Did you want me to meet you there, or will you pick me up on the way?"
The earl answered, "Richard and I will pick you up at ten thirty."
Richard was surprised, and questioned his father, "You wish for me to go to a solicitor's with you? Of course, I will, I just doubt if I can be of any use there."
Lord Matlock gave him a sharp glance that softened into a proud one. "You love Anne; you are familiar with your aunt and the situation at Rosings; and you were part of what happened there yesterday. Your mother and I have both been impressed with how you conduct yourself. And we can not be the only ones, because you have risen from Lieutenant to Colonel of the Army on your own merits in eight years. You are accustomed to organizing people and responding quickly in troublesome situations. I think that you will do very well to learn some legal niceties about estates, and we will do very well to listen if you think of something that can help."
Richard nodded with his face reddened in embarrassment. He might not praise his children often, but when Lord Matlock did, it was with great sincerity and feeling. "Thank you, sir. I feel privileged to attend such a matter of importance to all of us."
Darcy added quietly, "I can only agree heartily with everything you said, Uncle Henry."
The men shortly rejoined the ladies for tea, coffee, and dessert. Georgiana entertained them on the pianoforte with a few light-hearted bagatelles and rondos.
Georgiana begged Darcy to let her stay at the Matlocks', threatening, "If not, I will get up very early, get dressed, and wake the coachman to bring me here in time for breakfast. I will not be there for you to see me or talk to me anyway. Please, Brother? I promise I will come home without grumbling tomorrow night."
Looking at her happy and excited face - his heart gladdened at the change from the past few months - he gave in to her pleading without hesitation. He hugged and kissed all the other ladies good night, starting with Aunt Eleanor, then Sophy and Anne.
Richard wondered aloud why Darcy skipped giving him a hug and kiss. The question earned him a look from Darcy and a despairing shake of the head that said, "What a stupid fool! How can he possibly be related to me?"
Lord Matlock walked with him to the door to see him out, a rare occurrence that honored Darcy.
So, here he was, alone at last; tired and headed for home to recoup and get some rest. Suddenly - there was Elizabeth – sitting beside him with that little smile and arch sideways glance that so bewitched him. He groaned, "No. Not now. Please go away." Regrettably, the smiling Elizabeth did leave, because she was replaced by the angry Elizabeth who declared he was the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed upon to marry. He knew that fact only too well; she did not have to remind him. He leaned his head back and tried to think of something else, even Aunt Catherine would be pleasant in comparison. The short ride home seemed to last for hours, but he finally arrived, after spending entirely too much time with Elizabeth.
Once inside and relieved of his hat and greatcoat, Darcy spent a few minutes with Wilson, his butler, and Mrs. Wendover, his housekeeper, outlining the plans for the next day. He ascended the stairs to his rooms, where Robinson was waiting to receive the same information and find out if there was anything else the Master needed to be done. Darcy removed his coat and waistcoat, and handing them to Robinson, dismissed him till morning. Deciding to relax for a few minutes before he went to bed, he went over to sit in a chair near the fire.
Elizabeth returned. Somehow, in some way, she was more beautiful than ever. What was even worse, she was singing a love song to him. Perhaps, if he could do something to make her angry, the visions and imaginings would be easier to bear. No, the love song was so much nicer, the combination of the low neckline of her dress and a deep breath to sing the next phrase was enchanting. Her whole being was enchanting, but her body… he had a vision of her body entwined with his over on that bed while he was… was… all of a sudden aware he should think about another subject.
BINGLEY! That is it, think about Bingley and the unhappiness that the infallible Darcy had caused between Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley, two of the most pleasant and well-meaning people in the world. If Jane Bennet was as disappointed in the separation as Bingley had appeared to be in the past months, keeping them apart was a grievous mistake he must correct as soon as he could. He had the address of the Bennet relatives, so tomorrow he would go see Charles and – no, not tomorrow, that was for the solicitors. Well, the day after tomorrow he would go see Bingley and explain what he had done. How could he do that in a way that Bingley would forgive him and they could remain friends? He mulled different ideas for a few minutes, when a new idea took fire in his brain. He grabbed onto that one and held it. (Really, this was starting to be a good habit!) Yes, that was what he would do. What a relief to have that settled in his mind.
BLAST! There was Elizabeth again, just when he thought she was gone for the night. And her appearance was even worse this time. She was walking through the park beside the lake at Pemberley wearing a pale yellow summer dress made of a thin, gossamer fabric. The sun was shining behind her in such a way that her lush figure was perfectly outlined for him to enjoy and he…
He sighed heavily. It was going to be a VERY long night.
Posted on November 10, 2009
About an hour after sunrise, Darcy awoke to find that the loving female nuzzling and kissing his neck in that exciting spot below his ear was one of his dogs, lying in the forbidden territory of the master's bed; and furthermore, to his dismay, the rounded bottom which he was holding against his body was a pillow. Disgusted, he sat up, and after shooing the dejected hound into the hall to rejoin the footman, returned to bed. The past few hours had been a nightmare of on and off dozing and dreaming about, looking at, talking to, and, arguing with Elizabeth, and worst of all, every detail of their passionate lovemaking remained vivid in his imagination. He had tossed and turned so much the sheets and blankets might not ever be untangled. He shuddered; at last the night was finally over and he could keep himself busy doing something – anything at all.
Darcy rang for Robinson to start the morning routine of bathing, shaving, and dressing. Once downstairs he ordered coffee and toast sent to the study, where he started going through the piles of routine correspondence that his young secretary, Gareth, had so efficiently begun. Here were the polite refusals (probably more tactfully worded than he would write himself) for dinners, balls, soirees and whatever other amusements the local hostesses could dream up. Here was the stack of requests for donations from organizations not already on his list of approved charities. Here were the proposals from tradesmen promising the riches of Midas if he would only invest in their (often outlandish) ventures. He read and signed most, grateful again for Gareth's efficiency and accuracy, and put a few aside to consider further. Gareth arrived at nine to tend to the morning's mail and start making new piles of paper, as well as to take care of any new tasks Darcy might have for him. A short note was sent to let Bingley know he would call tomorrow at eleven, unless Bingley replied otherwise.
Knowing his relatives' habit of arriving early, by ten o'clock Darcy was just finishing a substantial breakfast when his uncle and cousin entered. They enjoyed a companionable cup of coffee together, and as planned, the three men were seated in the hushed office of Mr. Darracott, the family's solicitor, at exactly eleven o'clock.
By attending numerous tedious-beyond-belief military briefings over the years, Richard had acquired the knack of looking attentive while thinking of interesting things, such as women; or sometimes, perhaps, on a good day, more women. Unexpectedly, on this day he found himself absorbed in listening to the animated discussion going on around him, simply because he knew as well as everyone else did that the fact that Aunt Catherine was legally required to move to the Dower House did not in any way mean that she would actually do it. After twenty minutes, the other three gentlemen had still not found a solution to that conundrum. Watching Darcy while Mr. Darracott clarified some obscure point of law, Richard saw his cousin's gaze lose focus for a few seconds. Then Darcy's eyes lit up, he smiled with his dimples peeking out, and he interrupted.
"I think I have an idea."
Startled, Richard sat up straighter and recalled that the last time Darcy wore that expression and interrupted someone was when he informed Aunt Catherine that Rosings was going to be sold if Darcy married Anne. This time, however, Richard was not afraid, and Darcy was not drunk; in fact, Richard was more than eager to find out what his devious cousin had in mind. Just let someone try to make him leave the room now: he would fight to stay in his chair and listen.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Darracott," Darcy hastily apologized, "but we all know that nothing less than a decree from the King, or a summons to appear at his court, will move Aunt Catherine out of Rosings. The family, which is the three of us who speak for Anne, will not force her out. But there may be a way to coax her out."
Mr. Darracott was doubtful of either reaching the King's ear or, since he had met Lady Catherine several times, of coaxing her to do anything she did not wish to do.
Richard, however, leaned forward, eager to hear what tactic Darcy would use this time to win a battle with Aunt Catherine. Wills could apply every last bit of the usually hidden forthrightness and teasing humor he possessed, but their aunt, unlike their cousin Anne, would not be cajoled into stepping one foot out of Rosings. Still, Darcy had pulled off a miracle once, and he believed that his reticent cousin could do it again. Glancing at his father's skeptical expression, he wondered whether he had time to place - and win - a wager with his father on the outcome. He chuckled quietly to himself and tried to keep from smirking as he directed a pitying thought toward his distant relative "Oh Aunt Catherine. I never learned how Uncle Lewis was persuaded to marry you, and I do not know what Darcy's plan is yet, but I have every confidence that you will soon be receiving your daily visits from your unctuous little parson in a new location!"
Lord Henry cast a dubious look at his suddenly mischievous-appearing nephew and sat back to listen patiently to whatever piece of nonsense Darcy thought could work. The Earl had known his sister all of his life, and was well aware that opposing her was an exercise in futility; Catherine could wear down any opponent with her obstinacy. His posture slumped a little in resignation as he waved for Darcy to say his piece; his nephew would learn soon enough.
Darcy spent a few seconds arranging his thoughts, then said, "The first task is to prepare the Dower House. In addition to a thorough cleaning and needed repairs, I think we should also consider updating the kitchen and dressing rooms. I suggest that while this is happening, we do not speak with Aunt Catherine, or send any personal letters to her. Let her wait and wonder what we are planning. If we have no contact with her, she will become angrier and will start directing numerous letters to us through her solicitor about what she plans to do, and will, no doubt, send each of us scathing personal missives. We all know the usual ways in which she prefers to dictate everyone's actions according to her wishes. Mr. Darracott, you will need to use every obscure legal precedent possible to delay disclosing anything to Lady Catherine or her solicitor. She has no right to any information, as she is not the legal owner of Rosings; Anne is. Lady Catherine will become enraged when even her own solicitor is forced to present her with that basic reality. If events proceed somewhat as I plan, in the end I think she will give in and move without any urging or trouble on our part."
Mr. Darracott was delighted. He loved to obfuscate other solicitors with lengthy letters containing overwhelming legal precedent for the support of his clients' positions.
Richard caught himself just before starting to rub his hands together in gleeful anticipation. "Come on Darce, tell us the rest! Exactly how and why will our aunt leave Rosings voluntarily?"
Leaning forward slightly and talking mainly to his uncle, with occasional glances at the others, Darcy continued. "To prepare the Dower House, we need to hire our own workers as I know only too well that the ones currently at Rosings are not competent. Another priority has to be the hiring of a steward who is able to renew and revitalize the fields, orchards, and livestock. Once the Dower House is finished and habitable, we will move Aunt's favorite furniture, and start repairing all the rooms in Rosings prior to closing them off. We can tell the repairmen that when they fix anything near her rooms, they should hammer more often and louder than they usually do. Obviously all of these repairs mean that the maids and footmen, except Aunt's personal maid, of course, will have to be transferred to the Dower House or given temporary leave. Since the kitchen, too, will be closed for renovation, the cook will have to move as well. He can send sandwiches and cold plates over to Rosings, but will be unable to prepare meals to Aunt's orders. I believe that she may linger at Rosings for a week or so, but I do not think that she would tolerate those circumstances for much longer than that. We simply have to make her so uncomfortable and frustrated that moving becomes her choice. Once the Dower House is ready to be lived in, I will travel to Kent for several weeks to make sure that everything proceeds smoothly."
Everyone sat in stunned silence, considering the novel plan for a few moments.
"I will go, Darcy, not you. This time it is my responsibility, not yours," Lord Henry stated firmly. "I must admit that your idea stands a good chance of success. I have been quarreling with Cathy for most of my life, and I happily conceded the responsibility to you several years ago. However, you are too young and too polite to really quarrel with her, so I will take up the load again. Unlike you, I can and will shout back at her. While we wait for the Dower House to be ready, I will try to find a steward and the other workmen - and tenants?" – he paused for Darcy to nod – "you think are needed, and you can start getting the townhouse ready for Anne. Darracott, I will count on you for everything to be done lawfully, and if Anne does not want to Cathy's current solicitor, perhaps you can help by recommending someone new. I suppose it will not do for both of us to retain you at this time?" He paused again to allow the attorney to answer.
"You are correct, Lord Henry. While I could, technically, represent Miss De Bourgh, appearances would be better served by having her retain a more disinterested attorney. I am certain that I can recommend someone trustworthy to you."
Lord Henry nodded his acknowledgment, and continued. "Darcy, the one problem we have is that Cathy and her pet stewards have been keeping the books, so we will have a devil of a time figuring out how to finance all of this activity. The last I knew, the income had deteriorated to the break-even point because of Cathy's mismanagement."
"You do not need to worry about that, Uncle Henry," stated Darcy. "I can either provide the funds, or loan Anne enough to accomplish all of this. I am just sorry I did not stop Aunt Catherine sooner. Once Anne and a competent steward are in place, we can try to untangle the mess that Lady Catherine has made."
"Darcy, stop castigating yourself. Richard was there with you several times, and he did nothing either, except get you foxed and then help you escape." The Earl smiled as he reassured his nephew and reproached his son, then amended the scolding, "Not that you could have done anything either, son. And if money is needed, it will come from the Fitzwilliam purse, not the Darcy coffers. It is only proper, and I will not allow otherwise."
Darcy could only bow slightly to the Earl's command; it was best not to argue when he spoke in that tone of voice.
Richard also nodded to his father, and decided to voice an idea regarding his own contribution towards solving the family's problem. "Father, Darcy, I may have some good candidates for workmen, if that would help. I can even go so far as to interview them to find the best candidates for you to make the final approval. Would you like for me to investigate the matter further?"
"Son, that would help immensely. Finding good people is very hard, at present. Between the wars, the mills, and the mines, estate owners are growing desperate," The Earl informed him. Darcy nodded his agreement.
"Indeed. On the other hand, the army has hundreds of wounded and recuperating soldiers looking for work. Many of them are still physically fit, just not enough to return to military duties, such as long arduous marches and drilling. However, they could still be excellent coachmen, stable boys, gardeners, woodsmen - all types of people needed on an estate. I know several sergeants who can also read and write, and are both capable and responsible. Some of them are married, and I know they would be willing to settle somewhere in a permanent situation to care for their families." Richard was hopeful that he could help both his family and his comrades at the same time.
With a pleased look, Darcy responded, "Richard, I like your thinking. After you find every able body we need for Rosings, your father and I can quarrel over who gets whomever remains."
Donning his most lordly look, the Earl shot back with good humour, "I am a peer of the realm and head of this family. Matlock takes precedence, and you may have any able bodied men who are left, Darcy."
The four men settled back for another thirty minutes of lively discussion concerning the best ways to accomplish the plans that had been suggested. By then it was time for the trio of gentlemen to adjourn to White's for a convivial repast, after which they passed the time pursuing those worrisome masculine matters such as billiards, chess, whist, who owned the fastest horse, and making wagers on which bachelor would be next to be ensnared by a match-making mama.
Entering the family drawing room at Matlock House late in the afternoon, the men found Sophy and Georgiana playing word games with Hubert and Theo, while Lady Matlock helped Celia read a story. The ladies' shopping adventures were off to a good start, but they had returned in good time for Anne to have an extended rest before rejoining the family for dinner. The boys successfully urged Uncle Richard and Cousin Darcy to resume their fencing lessons in the park square; they wanted to be able to protect their mother and sister if – no, when -- they were attacked by bandits. Georgiana, Sophy and Celia accompanied the men to witness the boys' lessons and offer encouragement, and to also take a short walk. Lord and Lady Matlock took advantage of the lull in activity to tend to business and household matters in their respective studies.
By dinner time, Anne, rested and with blue eyes sparkling, had rejoined the family. Across and around the table, everyone shared his or her own version of what had happened that day. Knowing that Anne would tell his wife and daughter everything had been said at the solicitor's office anyway, and that Georgiana would also soon learn the details, the Earl related what was planned for Rosings.
Concerned about her mother's well being, Anne asked, "Is this the only alternative to removing Mother, except for pistols, swords, or tying her hands and feet and carrying her out? I know I am being contrary and foolish, but I do worry about her and what she will do."
With an affectionate and understanding look, Lady Matlock pointed out, "Anne, if your Uncle Henry, or Richard of Darcy held the weapon, your mother would still refuse because she knows they would not never harm her."
With a resigned sigh and shrug, Anne said, "Do whatever you have to Uncle. I know you are correct. If you, Darce, and Richard think this is the least troublesome way, it must be. I cannot think of anything else to do except for me to return to Rosings, and that, I absolutely refuse to do.
The freedom I feel now is difficult to comprehend, but I am enjoying it."
"Bravo! Well said, little cousin!" Richard stood, slightly bowed and applauded Anne's declaration.
"In your honor, we shall designate this as 'The Rosings Strategy' and fight to retake the mansion for the exclusive domicile of the most beauteous Little Princess in all the land."
His suggestion was brought laughter, applause, and approval from the rest of the table, and soon the gentlemen left the table. The separation lasted only a short while before the rejoined the women for tea and dessert, while Sophy and Georgiana provided some musical entertainment.
After listening to his sister's rendition of a lively Hadyn sonata, Darcy asked, "Georgie, are you ready to come home with me tonight?"
"Oh Wills, I am sure that Mrs. Annesley would appreciate another day or two to visit her sister, and Aunt Eleanor, Sophy, and Anne make splendid companions in her place." With a broad smile Georgiana added, "Besides, we have to go shopping again tomorrow because Anne has hardly started ordering everything she needs."
Lady Matlock said, "We will have to make sure that Anne is all right in the morning before we set out for another day like today."
"I will be fine," Anne insisted. "There is nothing to worry about."
Seeing his mother frown slightly with concern, Richard suggested, "Mother, why not check with Sally to see how Anne is really feeling in the morning. If Sally thinks that Anne should rest another day, you, Sophy, and Georgie can all suffer severe headaches that prevent you from going out."
Anne stuck her tongue out at Richard, which drew a frown from Lady Matlock, though she was happy to see Anne so spirited. Sophy giggled, while Darcy laughed and the Earl choked a little on a bite of cake.
Georgiana asserted, "A mere headache would never keep me from shopping!"
Darcy finally agreed to Georgiana's request, thinking about how busy the next day was likely to be. He had to start on "The Rosings Strategy" and catch up on his other business matters, but most importantly, he had to visit Bingley; he could only hope that after what he had to reveal, their friendship would be intact. He realized that despite the relatively early hour, he was extremely tired. Perhaps Elizabeth would stay where she belonged and he would be able to catch up on his much-disturbed sleep. He smiled sadly as he recognized that on some level his mind seemed to have decided that she belonged with him, and there was no longer any use in trying to wish her away.
Seeing his cousin looking tired and somewhat glum, Richard decided to spend the night at Darcy House. After all, there had not been a chance yet to find out why in the world a young lady with no dowry would refuse one of the kindest, richest, and most intelligent men in the country. He was certain that Darcy needed to confide his feelings in someone, and because Richard's curiosity bump was itching furiously, he preferred to be the one chosen.
Watching Richard and her brother leave, Georgiana moved to sit beside Lady Eleanor, asking, "Aunt, does Brother seem disheartened to you? He often worries overmuch about family problems, but he appears very effected by it this time." Her concern was evident in her troubled face.
"Georgie, I noticed it also, but I think that Wills is just reacting to his own feelings. You know how he feels responsible for everything and everyone, and I am sure that he feels very, very guilty about his reaction to Catty." Lady Eleanor hastened to add when Georgiana frowned, "He was perfectly justified, Georgie. I cannot imagine another member of the family enduring the same treatment year after year as your brother has. I think Richard went home with him for precisely the same reason – he was worried about Wills also. I would wager that between brandy and talk, the two of them will have headaches in the morning. Wills' headache will probably be the worst, but he will undoubtedly feel more cheerful after talking it over with Richard. If that does not work, you and I will sit down with him and go to work. All right?"
Georgiana smiled gratefully and hugged her aunt. "That sounds more than all right to me."
An hour later, Darcy had downed two large brandies – liberally poured by his military cousin – and his determination to hold his tongue was disappearing along with his sobriety.
"So she refused you, eh?" Richard prompted.
Darcy only nodded morosely.
"Come on, tell Cousin Richard all about it. You'll feel better. Besides, you've done so much to help Anne, maybe I can help figure out a way to help you."
"I sincerely doubt it," Darcy mumbled, resting his head back against the chair. "But very well. You see…" he started, "And that is what happened." Darcy concluded, gazing morosely at the last bit of liquid in his second – or was it third - glass of brandy.
The two cousins were facing each other in Darcy's private sitting room, being warmed by a small fire. Richard rose from his chair, accepted the glass after his cousin emptied it, and refilled both empty glasses.
"Wills, I am afraid I did not help your cause. I suspected that you liked Miss Elizabeth very much, but I could see that she was not fond of you. I met her in the grove that same day, and trying to better her opinion of you, I told her how proud you were of separating one of your good friends from an unsuitable woman. It did not occur to me that it might be her sister, and I am certain now that it must have upset her and probably led to her absence from dinner. Unknowingly, you went to the parsonage and proposed to an angry bear. I am more sorry than I can say."
Darcy waved his hand in sodden forgiveness. "I do not think it made that much difference, Richard. I am sorry that I erred in detecting Miss Jane Bennet's feelings, though. Just like Bingley, she smiles serenely and is pleasant to everyone, but she showed no signs of particular feeling at all. I watched her closely and could detect no difference in her expression when she was with him. How was I to know that she felt deeply? I just do not understand how I could have been so mistaken."
Richard chortled in mirth, "Darce, you finally met someone who shows as much emotion as you do. But where you walk around taciturn and unsmiling with a rather disdainful look, Miss Bennet evidently is friendly with everyone, and treats them all pleasantly, no matter what her real feelings are. You can not deny that you conceal your own emotions. In fact, I am willing to bet that the entire time you were in Hertfordshire, you barely talked to anyone outside of the members of Bingley's party." He paused for a moment. "Wait, that was just a couple of months after Ramsgate, so your anger would not have had time to dissipate at all – not that it has yet, much. The locale was, no doubt, full of country people, even the richest of whom hold only relatively small estates, with little hint of 'Town' in their manners, and they would have been busy talking about each other's daily affairs whenever you met. I virtually guarantee that you did not dance with one local girl, except for that single time with Miss Elizabeth."
Darcy rolled his eyes and his face reddened at Richard's astuteness.
"And then, Cuz, wicked Wickham came to town spreading his lies, as Miss Elizabeth hinted to you, and you said nothing. I realize that you were protecting Georgie, but who else knew enough to protect Miss Elizabeth, her young and evidently foolish sisters, and the other girls in the district? You may have helped recoup the losses for the merchants in Lambton, but what about those in Miss Elizabeth's town? That devil has probably run up hundreds of pounds of debt, which small town merchants like that can ill afford. And on top of that, he is seducing their daughters and will soon be leaving small Wickhams behind, just as he did in Pemberley and Lambton. I know you want to keep Georgie away from any gossip or scandal, I can not fault you for that - I do too." Richard's voice was calm, but deliberate and a trifle scolding. "But really, Wills, leaving Wickham to do as he pleased was not well done on your part."
"I told Miss Elizabeth about Wickham in my letter," Darcy defended himself, "so she knows what he can do."
"Bah!" Richard was scornful. "She is a lone young woman trying to correct the lies being told by a very handsome and charming officer in the local militia. And what is more, I have no doubt that the lies Wickham spread are all about how a wealthy and proud estate owner purposely cheated said poverty stricken young officer out of a legacy and prosperous living," his voice had taken on a pathetic tone," all because of the rich and powerful estate owner's irrational jealousy over his father's favoritism of the innocent and meretricious soldier." Richard's voice snapped back to its normal decisive clip. "This story was being told to local people who had already met, and been ignored by, you - the very haughty and disdainful estate owner in Wickham's sad tale of woe, making it all the more believable. Wickham has had months unfettered by any fear of you exposing the truth about him, and bolstered by your own honorable silence. You can not possibly imagine that Miss Elizabeth will make any headway against this."
Darcy grimaced gloomily, but was peevish. "What would I gain by going back to Hertfordshire and exposing that scoundrel now? It has been made painfully clear to me that I am not wanted near the township, or the families thereof. I abdicate my position of being in charge of "Cleaning up Wickham's messes." He uttered the last sentence with inebriated stubbornness.
Richard continued, unfazed by Darcy's sharp retort. "You need to correct this situation, Darce. You have to warn those people. Other young girls could be in danger. The people of Miss Elizabeth's town love their daughters and sisters as much as you love Georgie."
Darcy's face flushed with emotion. "I do love Georgie. She is the last member of my immediate family. You know that I would do anything for her. My very being is wrapped around her happiness. You know that!" Darcy slurred words were indignant as his voice shook with the fervor of his statement.
Richard, recognizing that the conversation was not going in the direction he wanted, decided to choose a gentler approach with his emotionally drained – and inebriated - cousin. "Of course you love your only sister Darcy. That is not what is in question here. I know that you can recall the words of John Donne: You are not 'an island,' Wills. Think about what Georgie would want you to do for the other young girls in this situation. She admires you; she looks up to you. You are her 'knight in shining armor, coming to her rescue at the slightest call of distress from her lips.' Yes, you may think that you have no stake in this township, but 'You are involved in mankind.' Stop asking 'For whom the bell tolls.' You care very much what might happen in Hertfordshire. 'The bell tolls for thee,' Darce. Very loudly and very clearly."
Darcy turned his face to look out the window once again. His head was pounding from the weight of all of the decisions he had made that day, and perhaps from all of the brandy his cousin had poured for him - again. Taking care of his cousin and aunt's living arrangements had taken a toll on him. Now his dearest friend, confidante and closest relative, whose opinion he valued above all others, was asking him to rescue a distant neighbourhood. This was quite a request indeed -- one that needed careful thought and consideration. And what would he gain, except the satisfaction of stopping Wickham from hurting unknown people, and the havoc of probably seeing Elizabeth again? He watched the reflection of the candle flame flickering on the window pane as if the light was flickering in a pair of fine eyes. His mind darted from one thought to another, all leading to a dead end and then repeating the endless cycle. How many times must he save the world from Wickham? When would it end? Would there be another town full of damsels in distress in the wake of Wickham's next shenanigans? 'No,' he thought in hopelessness, 'this cannot go on forever. Richard is right, I am a small part of mankind, and I can make a difference in this.'
Darcy continued to stare out the window at the moonlit night, as Richard sat patiently in his chair sipping his brandy. He knew that whatever decision Darcy made, it would be final. Richard pondered the case that he had placed before his friend, and was sure that, given Darcy's character, he had prompted Darcy sufficiently to compel him to act.
The silence endured a long while, but at last Darcy slowly turned from the window and looked at his cousin. As he saw Richard sitting there, with his legs crossed and his eyes glued to Darcy's own, he almost felt as if he was in a stare down just as when they were younger. This time, though, the stakes were much higher. When they were children, the person who lost had to polish the other one's shoes for a week. Now – there were people's lives in the balance.
Darcy finally spoke. "Cuz, you know me better than anyone else, and always seem to give me the right words to help me make the best decisions. And, you are right, even if I do not like the decision or want to carry it out. This time my own pride and sense of privacy got in the way of protecting an entire neighborhood of young innocent girls and other good people. The best course of action has to be to go back to Meryton and correct my previous inaction. I will be visiting Bingley tomorrow, so I can make a small beginning step there. If I can convince him to see Miss Bennet, and they renew their friendship, he will probably reopen Netherfield soon. It may be a week or two before I can get everything set up for Anne here in town, but then I will go back to Hertfordshire. In the meantime, I hope that some idea regarding what to do after my arrival will occur to me. Maybe you had better get me foxed again." He made the suggestion with a small smile.
Richard smiled back. "No more tonight, Darce, because I have to report to General Cummings tomorrow. I must also start asking around about doctors for Anne, and find men willing to work on an estate in Kent. Do not berate yourself needlessly, Wills. You are one of the few men I know who apparels himself every day in garments made by the firm of tailors called Duty and Responsibility." He stood and stretched his back, then laid his hand on Darcy's shoulder for a moment and said, "Enough talk. Go to bed, Cuz. I will stay here again tomorrow night with you in bachelor splendor, and we can brainstorm together if you wish." He left, closing the door quietly.
Darcy sighed heavily and closed his eyes for a moment, before rising and making his own way toward his bedroom. Considering his forthcoming visit to Bingley, he wondered whether thinking about Caroline Bingley and Wickham would keep thoughts of Elizabeth at bay and allow him to sleep better. Though the night was long, he learned the idea had some merit and did help keep the dreams of Elizabeth away – at least some of the time.
Darcy stepped down from his carriage in front of Bingley's townhouse and mentally girded himself for the looming confrontation with the Bingley family. He had fully intended to insure Caroline's presence by sending a note yesterday arranging the hour for his call, and he did not look forward to the meeting. Her reactions to his statements to Bingley were bound to be unpleasant, and he hoped she was not wearing one of her usual turbans with tall feathers which made her look startlingly like a fearsome bird of prey. He shivered at little at the idea of a huge orange falcon flying overhead, searching with predatory eyes for hapless victims. Maybe he should have brought Richard along, dressed in his full uniform with sword and epaulets gleaming. Then he had a thought which effectively bolstered his courage; he had soundly bested his Aunt Catherine on her own ground, and Caroline was not nearly as intimidating or powerful. He knocked, was admitted, handed his hat and coat to the footman, and following the butler to the drawing room, fixed a polite smile (at least he hoped it was a smile, though it felt more like a grimace) on his face.
Caroline Bingley, looking as gratified as if his visit were a tribute to herself, rose and came forward to greet him, her eyes gleaming and intent. Her gown, while fashionable, was the same shade of yellow as the fruit on the sour lemon tree in the orangerie at Pemberley. He hoped it was not a portent. He fended off a fierce clasp of his arm by bowing before she could sink her talons – fingers – into him, and turning quickly, he greeted Louisa and Gilbert Hurst. (Hurst noted the little trick and smiled to himself. Poor, pursued Darcy was learning). Then he was met with Bingley's wide, happy smile and warm handshake, and was dealt a welcoming, but soft, blow on his upper arm. He sat in a chair beside Bingley, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Caroline frown as she sat on the loveseat, ostentatiously moving to one side to leave enough room for another person to sit. (Hurst's eyes, which always appeared sleepy and inattentive, briefly revealed his silent laughter).
Bingley cheerfully inquired, "How was your visit to Rosings this year Darcy? I hope it went well. I heard that there were some bad storms in Kent during the winter, but I hope they did not damage your aunt's estate. How is Lady Catherine? Is your cousin's health improved?"
"Richard and I had a very nice visit this Easter. Rosings suffered very little damage from the storms, except for a few downed trees that caused no serious damage. My aunt has not changed one bit from her usual self. The good news is that my cousin Anne's health is much improved. She returned to town with us, and is presently staying at Matlock House. My Aunt Eleanor – Lady Matlock – my cousin Sophy, and Georgie are making the rounds of all the fashionable shops for an entire new wardrobe for her. Anne will be reopening her townhouse soon to take up residence." Darcy was proud that every sentence he uttered was perfectly true, while successfully advancing his opening pawn.
Caroline's eyes widened in alarm as she sensed danger. She knew that Lady Catherine had claimed for years that Darcy and Anne were engaged. Was Anne shopping for a trousseau? This needed to be ascertained quickly. Caroline looked at Darcy and said hopefully, "I hope we have the opportunity to meet your cousin soon. Perhaps when we call on dear Georgiana tomorrow or the next day, your cousin will be with her. If not, Georgiana could bring your cousin along when she calls on us."
Darcy countered her pawn with his knight, "I am sorry Miss Bingley, but the knocker is still off of the door at Darcy House. Georgie is also staying with the Matlock's to spend more time getting better acquainted with Anne, now that she is well. Colonel Fitzwilliam is staying with me for the time being, so a visit between the ladies will have to wait. Bingley, you know that you are welcome at anytime; Wilson will always let you in, if I am home. I am going to be extremely busy for a week or two, planning the opening of the de Bourgh townhouse, but once that is finished and my sister returns home, I am sure that Georgie and Anne will plan a dinner for all of my family and a few intimate friends at Darcy House. I will, of course, send you an invitation, Bingley."
Seeing Caroline's mouth tighten and set in a straight line, Darcy knew that his opening tactic had been successful. He sat back and listened while the Bingley sisters told him of all the latest scandals and the prestigious parties and balls they had attended while he was in Kent, making sure to mention the names of all of the titled and notable persons present, whether they knew them or not. He noticed, though, that Bingley had lost a little weight and sometimes his facial expression momentarily settled into a fleeting look of regret, or sadness, or something – whatever it was, it was quite different from Charles's usual geniality. Happily, Darcy thought that he could revive his friend's natural cheer, and patiently waited for the gossip, and chatter, and other wasted efforts to impress him to slowly die down.
Finally both sisters paused for breath at the same time, and Darcy advanced his queen a few spaces for his next move. "Charles, do you remember the daughter of Sir William Lucas from Hertfordshire? A Miss Charlotte?"
Caroline and Louisa looked confused, but at Bingley's nod, he continued, as if talking casually,
"Perhaps you will also remember the Bennets' cousin, the Reverend William Collins? You may not know that Mr. Collins and Miss Charlotte Lucas married at Christmas time, and now reside in Hunsford, where Collins has the living as my Aunt Catherine's parson. I was astonished to find, when Richard and I arrived at Rosings, that Miss Bennet was simultaneously visiting her friend at the parsonage. Of course, I was glad to renew the acquaintance. Aunt Catherine frequently had the Collinses and Miss Bennet for tea or to dine, and Richard and I sometimes called at the parsonage."
Bingley jerked himself up straight, his hazel eyes took fire and he asked eagerly, "Miss Bennet? Jane Bennet? How is she? I hope she is well." He was unaware of his small breach of etiquette.
Caroline and Louisa each gave a start of surprise, and their looks of dismay rapidly changed to feigned looks of interest. Hurst forgot himself for a moment, and his expression betrayed his attention and eagerness to hear more.
Darcy moved his bishop baiting the trap. "I am sorry Bingley. No, it was Miss Elizabeth at Hunsford. Miss Jane Bennet is still visiting her aunt and uncle here in London. Miss Elizabeth happened to mention to me that Miss Bennet noted in a letter last January that you were not here when she called upon your sisters."
Bingley was upset and indignant. "What call? When? In January? Darcy, are you sure Miss Elizabeth was not just teasing you? She was noted for that, remember?"
The Bingley sisters tried to cover their apprehension with looks of curiosity in Darcy's tale, as if to say, 'What is this about Miss Jane Bennet calling?'
Darcy, moving his rook into place for the check, answered quickly before either Caroline or Louisa had a chance to say anything. "I am quite sure that in this instance she was sincere. In fact, Miss Elizabeth told me that Miss Bennet was sorely disappointed that you did not accompany your sisters when they returned her call some three weeks later." He tried not to look as smug as he felt.
Bingley moved to the edge of his chair, and looking at both of his sisters, demanded, "Is this true?
Did Miss Bennet call here last January? Why was I not informed? And why did you wait such a long time to return her call? I would definitely have accompanied you, had I known you were going."
Even Hurst was interested to hear what possible excuses would be offered.
Although disconcerted, Miss Bingley tried to find a believable excuse for her actions. "Charles, I must have told you about her call. You were probably so busy that you have forgotten. In January, with all of the Twelfth Night parties and dinners and balls, well, Louisa and I hardly had time to do or think of anything else. If I can remember correctly, when we found the time, we went right over to see Miss Bennet. Is that not correct, Louisa?"
Bingley was disbelieving, but contained his anger sufficiently to relieve his curiosity. "You went right over where, Caroline? Tell me, so I can make amends to Miss Bennet."
"Oh Charles, I am so sorry. It has been so long that I cannot remember. Maybe it will come to me in a day or so. Louisa, do you remember where it was we went to call on Miss Bennet, beside the fact it was located in the Cheapside area?" Caroline could not have sounded more contrite, though she was on the verge of panic.
Louisa wisely, or maybe fearfully, stayed silent and shook her head vigorously.
Darcy moved in for the kill – or checkmate rather. "There is no need to worry Bingley. I have the address right here." From his pocket, he produced the card Elizabeth, his darling Elizabeth, had given him. "Why not go to the club with me for a short while, and afterwards we will go call on Miss Bennet at the…ah… Gardiner residence on Gracechurch Street."
Bingley sprang to his feet, almost gibbering with excitement. "What a fine idea, Darcy! Hurry, man! Please do not dawdle like that."
Darcy trailed a fast moving Bingley to the entryway, where they donned their hats and coats, exited the house, and entered the carriage at top speed. Darcy privately mused that without any effort, on this day Bingley could probably outrun the horses.
Caroline and Louisa sat slumped in the drawing room, silently trying to grasp how a call from Darcy could have turned into such a disaster. Caroline considered the dimensions of her difficulty in securing Pemberley and Darcy for herself, her frustration rising as she counted. First there was Anne, Darcy's cousin and likely his betrothed; next, there was Miss Eliza, with her so-called fine eyes, uncivilized country manners, ridiculous mother and sisters, and relations in trade; and last of all, that… that… horrible Jane Bennet who just might still end up as her sister. It was all too much to bear. She rose, picked up an ornamental dish from the table, hurled it into the fireplace with a satisfying crash, before storming up to her bedroom to order a cold compress for her aching head.
Louisa remained seated on the settee on the sitting room while she toyed with the charms on her bracelet. She needed a new one. A sly looking fox with shining topaz eyes would be nice.
Hurst slipped away to the library, where he slowly savored a glass of wine before he lay down on the sofa for his morning nap. The smile remained on his face even after he fell asleep.
As Bingley and Darcy descended from the carriage in Gracechurch Street, Darcy looked around appraisingly and with not a little wonder. The Gardiners' neatly fenced home, almost the size of Bingley's townhouse, was fronted by a small but well-maintained yard, and judging from the drive, appeared to have its own stables in the rear. It sat across the street from a park which extended about two blocks in length, and he could see a number of children at play, attended by maids, nannies, or governess'. He judged that Mr. Gardiner's income must be at least three thousand or more a year, a sum many inhabitants of the second circles would envy, and the first would not dismiss. An uncle in trade indeed! Miss Elizabeth was correct in being affronted.
Darcy was still gazing at the house when he bumped into Bingley, who had suddenly halted at the foot of the steps. Following Bingley's stare, he saw Miss Jane Bennet approaching them from about thirty feet away, accompanied by two children and a maid. Upon catching sight of the two men, Miss Bennet also halted, and for a few seconds her face was filled with such surprise and joy that any remaining doubts Darcy might have about her feelings, vanished completely. He sadly wished that Elizabeth would look at him in that manner.
Her face quickly resuming its normal serene expression, Miss Bennet started forward again, to be met by Bingley, who rushed towards her to bow and doff his hat. Darcy congratulated himself on having solved the Bingley/Miss Jane Bennet problem, and wondered how long it would take for the engagement to be announced. Miss Bennet hesitantly invited them into the house for refreshments, and as he mounted the steps, Darcy pondered whether an elephant would be powerful enough to pull Bingley away from his angel this time.
Darcy watched surreptitiously as Miss Bennet and Bingley quietly conversed and traded shy glances with one other on one side of the well furnished, comfortable drawing room, while he enjoyed an informed conversation with Mrs. Gardiner on the other. To what was no longer his surprise, Mrs. Gardiner, who was a nice looking youngish woman dressed in a fashionable but understated manner, was capable of speaking intelligently on a variety of subjects. When she disclosed that she had grown up in Lambton and had visited Pemberley several times to attend the Christmas or Harvest Festivals, Darcy exclaimed. "No wonder you look familiar!" He touched the side of his forehead while peering at her questioningly, "Wait… Wait… I have it! You are Mr. Marlow's daughter! Your father was my father's solicitor for local Lambton matters!" he crowed in triumph.
Madeleine Gardiner laughed. "Exactly! I did not think you would remember, because you were only eleven or twelve years old when we moved to London. Your father continued to consult with mine even after our move, when a solicitor with knowledge of the local customs and people was needed."
The rest of the visit passed quickly, as they amiably agreed or differed in their opinions of the views, villages, customs and weather in Derbyshire.
After much more than the customary half hour call, Darcy stood to say his good-byes His warm smile was intended to leave Mrs. Gardiner in no doubt that he had enjoyed the time spent. "Mrs. Gardiner, it has been a pleasure to meet and talk with you. Regretfully, for the next few weeks I will be extremely busy, but then my business will become less pressing. Perhaps I could call again at that time, accompanied by my sister. She would be thrilled to hear your memories of my mother. Like most people, she regards the opinion of someone outside the family as true and uncolored by the love we had for her. Of course, I will send a note around to arrange a convenient time."
"Mr. Darcy, you and your sister would be very welcome here. I am only too well aware of how precious time is when business matters are pressing. I will look forward to receiving your note, and in the meantime I will start a small notebook of memories of your parents to tell your sister." She smiled with a small tease, "Perhaps I can also recall some gossip about Pemberley's future master that might entertain her."
Darcy screwed his face up in mock pain, flashed his dimples in a wide smile, and bowing again, gestured to Bingley that they must leave. Miss Bennet saw them to the door, and a besotted Bingley was so intent on looking at her that he stumbled several times and might have fallen, had Darcy not caught his elbow to steady him.
Bingley spent the ride back to his own house either rapidly extolling his angel's beauty and her many other virtues, or dreamily staring silently out the window at something only he could see. Darcy decided that he had already demonstrated a surfeit of courage that day, and declined an invitation to stay and dine with the Bingley family. Poor Charles would have to face Caroline and Louisa alone. He was going home.
Darcy entered the welcome quiet of his study, ordered tea, and started reading the stacks of paper awaiting him. The past few days had taken a toll, and not only physically. Reading the same letter for the third time, he recognized that he was not alert mentally, and emotionally he felt as if he had been drawn and quartered, and badly stitched back together. Sending a note to Matlock House, he informed his family that he would dine at home. After a tray in his sitting room, he found and read one of Georgiana's hidden novels for a while, and retired before Richard could come home to ply him with brandy again.
As expected, Elizabeth visited his dreams several times, but after a couple of passionate interludes, she was content just to cuddle while he held her softly against his exhausted body.
The dogs stayed in the hallways, wandering with the night footmen on watch.
Posted on November 17, 2009
Part I Hunsford
Elizabeth, Charlotte and Maria were busily sewing infant clothing late one afternoon, when Mr. Collins entered the back sitting room.
"Cousin Elizabeth, you have a letter from Cousin Jane again today. This is the third one in a week." He turned from Elizabeth to face his wife, "My dear, I am going to walk over to Rosings once more today to make sure that Lady Catherine is all right. Even though she must be overjoyed at her daughter's soon-to-be-announced betrothal to Mr. Darcy, I am very quite concerned about her despondency. The noble Lady remains so depressed by the departure of her beautiful offspring and highborn nephews that she still refuses to see anyone. I am positive that my wise counsel and cheerful conversation would improve her spirits, if only she would allow me to visit with her. I am confident that as soon as she allows me to counsel and condole with her, she will reconcile herself to the absence of her elegant daughter, and to focus only onto her joy in the coming nuptials." Animated by the idea of his own indispensability, he left the room with a spring in his step.
Looking at her letter with a small frown, Elizabeth asked, "Charlotte, would you excuse me while I go to my room for a few minutes?"
Charlotte smiled at her, "Lizzy, go right ahead and read your letter here. I am almost as concerned as you are; after all, I knew Jane before you were even born."
Elizabeth sliced open the seal and had skimmed only a few lines when her face broke into a wide smile and she looked up, "Charlotte! You will never guess what has happened. Mr. Bingley called on Jane at my uncle's house! It is so wonderful!" She looked back at the letter to read it slowly, relating pertinent snippets to Charlotte and Maria as she went along so that they could share in the news.
"Let me see – he came the other day with Mr. Darcy – Mr. Darcy! What was he doing there? -- and they stayed for nearly an hour. That is much longer than a mere social call, Charlotte! Mr. Bingley apologized – apparently he said that Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had forgotten to tell him about her call, and also forgot to tell him when they returned the call." Elizabeth and Charlotte rolled their eyes at each other, before she returned to the letter, "He said that Darcy had called on him that morning and happened to tell him of seeing us at Rosings -- Darcy told him about Jane's call -- said he had Uncle's address -- they came almost immediately." Elizabeth hesitated a moment, "Was that all that clear to you, Charlotte, or should I go back over everything slowly?"
"No, Lizzy, it is perfectly clear," Charlotte said with a smile. "Mr. Bingley knew nothing of where Jane was, Mr. Darcy told him, they both went to call on her, and Jane is very happy. Did I miss anything?" Charlotte and Elizabeth laughed while Maria looked on with wide eyes.
"Well, let me read on to see what happened next. Where was I? La-di-dah -- Ah, here! He asked if he could call again the next day – which would be our yesterday – and if he could call the day after that – today. Jane writes that he smiled at her when he asked, and said that he had better not go any further into the future or Aunt Gardiner would make him leave immediately. Then, when he left with Mr. Darcy, he lingered behind for a second in the entryway and touched her hand when no one was watching." Elizabeth looked up with her eyes brimming. "Oh, Charlotte! I am so relieved and happy for her! It will be such a comfort to see Jane back to her normal self when I see her in a few days." Elizabeth folded the letter and put it in her pocket, saving her sister's more personal reflections for later when she could read them in greater privacy. She closed her eyes for a few seconds to allow relief at her sister's happiness to fill her mind, picturing Jane's beautiful face regaining its usual serene mien, then smiled at Charlotte and Maria and resumed stitching the seam of an infant's gown, a chore no longer quite so tedious.
Rambling around the grounds of Rosings the next morning, Elizabeth began to reflect upon the changes in her opinion of Mr. Darcy. It all began with their argument the night he proposed; then his letter, and now Jane's letter. Her opinion had certainly improved. She raised her eyes heavenward, and in spite of being alone, her face reddened in shame and humiliation. She had overheard one – just one - churlish remark which he had made on the first night they met regarding her supposedly 'tolerable, but not handsome enough' looks, and she had disliked him forever. But, except for that first occasion, Mr. Darcy had always behaved with courtesy, even when she pointedly, and sometimes, a trifle maliciously, teased him. Of course he was proud, haughty, seldom talked to anyone in an open or friendly manner, and usually spent his time in company stalking silently around the perimeter, or staring out of windows with his back to the room, but aside from the night of the Meryton Assembly, he was unfailingly polite. Why, when she thought of the way he had disparaged her family's behavior as unsuitable! In comparison to Kitty, Lydia, and Mama, his manners were… were… exemplary. (Visions of her family at the Netherfield ball raced through her mind.) She pursed her lips and blew out a hard breath, veered two steps off the path, and stamped her foot as hard as possible on a couple of toadstools. Despicable, disgusting man to exasperate and confuse her like this! She returned to the path and marched along briskly until she had regained some equanimity.
Coming into a grove filled with a variety of fragrant wildflowers opened to the sun, she found an inviting spot beneath a large tree to sit on the ground – grinning as she recognized this was a most unladylike behaviour --, took off her bonnet, leaned her head back against the tree, and tried to make sense of her thoughts. If she thought that Mr. Darcy was so reprehensible that he was not worth thinking about, why was thinking about him occupying so much of her time? "Lizzy, for someone trying to think straight, you sound a lot like Mama!" she muttered, giggling to herself, and cheered up by thinking instead of how happy Jane must be.
Nibbling on a piece of gingerbread taken from its hiding place in her pocket, Elizabeth let her mind wander. In her imagination, she created a NEW Miss Elizabeth Bennet. That lady was extremely beautiful, fashionably dressed, heiress to a vast and wealthy estate, well educated, intelligent, related to nobility, and she was walking into a slightly shabby assembly room in a small town. She was hearing nothing but whispers from the town's covetous mothers who hoped that their insipid, countrified, simpering, and only tolerably handsome sons would immediately sweep her off her feet into marriage, so that their entire family could live in luxury forever. Her empathetic soul moved by the vividness of her own imagination, Elizabeth decided that in such a situation, this new Miss Bennet would also stalk morosely around and stare out of windows. Sobered by her reflections, Elizabeth decided that it was rather wondrous that Mr. Darcy had remained so well-mannered during his stay at Netherfield.
Shaking her head at the idea of ever being a wealthy, high society lady, Elizabeth turned her mind to considering Jane and Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth gave a Lydia-like snort of laughter as her fanciful imagination wondered what a comedy a possible pairing between Mr. Darcy and Jane might be. Why, it would be worthy of Moliere, or even Shakespeare! No matter how deeply in love with each other they might be, neither would ever betray the slightest interest in the other by word or expression, and both would slowly pine away and die of broken hearts. What a farce it would be! At least Mr. Darcy had reunited Mr. Bingley and Jane; this time, the results of the union were up to them. Suddenly somber, Elizabeth paused. She could not deny the respect she felt because Mr. Darcy had so promptly corrected his mistake when he learned about it. Elizabeth was too just a creature not to recognize that with her reflections, her dislike of Mr. Darcy was diminishing, and almost against her will, her good opinion of him was rising. Oh dear! That simply would not do.
The final item on her list of objections to Mr. Darcy had been his unkind and unjust treatment of Mr. Wickham. The dastardly Wickham. She had made that mistake. Tears filled Elizabeth's eyes as she finally fully accepted that she had made a most profound mistake indeed. A handsome, charming man had come along, flattered her, flirted with her, confided in her, and she had accepted him completely, at face value, and without a qualm. Even when Jane had remonstrated with her, she had paid no heed. After all, SHE was Lizzy Bennet, and could judge a person's character better than anyone! Mr. Darcy had cautioned her, but she paid no heed to him either, thinking worse of him for trying to blacken Mr. Wickham's character even more than he had supposedly blackened Wickham's hopes in life. Lies. All lies. In the first minutes of their acquaintance, Wickham had started to lie to her, and she had never once questioned him about any of his statements. Foolish, foolish girl! How could she have been so… stupid was the only word for it. As bad as Lydia. Well, maybe not quite that bad.
When she reached London, or Longbourn at the latest, she would have to tell Jane about Mr.
Darcy's letter, so they could decide how to inform the family and the rest of the village. Though no other young lady they knew in the neighborhood possessed a large dowry like that of Miss Darcy, she feared that lack of money would not stop Wickham from attempting a seduction. Wait - was that what his betrothal to Miss King was? If so, she would have to do something – she, who knew what he was, and heaven knew, he was charming enough – but what could she do? Ugh! Enough of that villainous debaucher! She would just have to think of something by the time she returned home.
Ruefully, Elizabeth admitted to herself that she had greatly erred in her judgment and resulting treatment of Mr. Darcy. He may have made a mistake regarding Jane's feelings, but even Charlotte had said that Jane needed to display her feelings for Bingley more openly. Regarding Mr. Darcy's horrible insults to her family, she had to be honest and confess that her own opinion of her mother's and younger sisters' manners and deportment were similar to, if not more severe, than his. Of course, in spite of all the embarrassments, they were her family and she did love and care for them. Even her dear father's penchant for mockery and teasing sarcasm was, at times, beyond explanation; she could only accept it, not excuse it. At least her relatives, unlike Lady Catherine, did not purposely give offense! Except for her father, at times. Again, Elizabeth acknowledged the truth about her family with a sigh.
There really was nothing left to hold against him. Attempting to regain her usual wit and wry humor, Elizabeth thought that at least Mr. Darcy had the good taste to love her – ardently at that, and told her so, and even asked her to marry him. Except for her family and other relatives, no one else had ever loved her, and really, she sometimes wondered, did Lydia, Kitty, or Mama truly care for her all that much? Elizabeth felt an unexpected warmth at the thought of Mr. Darcy loving her so passionately that he was willing to disregard any disapprobation to have her. She realized that she kind of loved the fact that he actually loved her, even if she could not return it. It was nice to think about being cared for by a tall, handsome, rich, intelligent man. Too bad she did not love him back. It was no matter in any case, for he had certainly redirected his attentions to his cousin quickly enough. Why or how that had happened puzzled her, but thank goodness he was gone and she did not have to face him any more. Good thing too, or she might have been tempted to say yes, if only to avoid her mother and the hedgerows.
Deciding to be happy for her sister and for Miss De Bourgh, whom she had liked quite well, Elizabeth arose, brushed the grass and leaves from her dress, retied her bonnet, and walked back to the parsonage before Charlotte started to worry.
Part II London
Glancing at the clock, Darcy realized that he should check the account figures more rapidly if he wanted to be finished by the time Bingley appeared - or at least by the time that Gareth had deciphered from Bingley's scrawls and blots in yesterday's note. (Darcy himself had quickly given up the attempt to figure out what was in the note, and could only be grateful for Gareth's talent for reading chicken-scratches. Maybe he would suggest that Bingley also hire a secretary for a few hours a day, if only to write legible letters that Bingley merely had to sign.) It was only two days ago that they had called on Miss Bennet, and Bingley had written – or so Gareth claimed – that he had called again yesterday, and that after he called again today, he would come directly to Darcy House. Darcy looked forward to learning how the courtship was proceeding. If it were not a recognized courtship yet, he was sure it soon would be.
Darcy laid his pen down and rubbed his eyes. There was one part of the day's visit to which he was not looking forward: he would have to confess his part in deceiving Bingley about Miss Bennet's presence in London. Although he had enjoyed setting Caroline up, he was just as guilty as she was, and he was grateful that, barring an improbable fight between two such peaceful people as the loving couple, he would most likely eventually be forgiven. Darcy swore to himself never to interfere with anyone's love affairs again. Now, if only visions of his beautiful and captivating – and distracting - Elizabeth would stop forming in front of the numbers, he would have been finished with this ledger fifteen minutes ago.
Darcy was checking the last total as an exuberant Bingley arrived. He stood to greet his friend, who bore a smile so wide and looked so happy that it was impossible not to grin back as he gestured for his elated guest to sit. As a dutiful host, Darcy encouraged his guest in conversation, and started with, "Have you seen Miss Bennet today? How is she?" He knew that opening would be successful.
By the time Bingley had finished describing his angel and how beautiful she had looked that morning, the color of her gown and how it set off her eyes, what they talked about during their walk in the park with the Gardiner children, the delicious tea that Mrs. Gardiner had served, and then how hard it had been to leave her, at least ten minutes had passed. Darcy was still smiling as he waited for Bingley to wind down. Really, the enthusiasm and happiness that Bingley was radiating were almost irresistible.
Once there was a lull, Darcy poured each of them a glass of port, raised his glass in a small salute, and inquired, "What happens next?"
"I am not sure about what is going to happen, but I know exactly what I want to happen," Bingley said. "Darcy, you observed her the other day. Do you still think that she does not care for me? It appears to me as if she is always delighted to see me, and when she talks to me, well, she… glows. There is no other word for it. I think that she glows whenever we are together."
"Charles, you are right. My opinion last year about her lack of affection for you was a very embarrassing error. I am ashamed to think of it. I saw the difference the other day when she first caught sight of you, before she was able to regulate her expression and display only her normal serene smile. You are perfectly right; there is no other word for it - when she saw you, she glowed. I am sorry," Darcy apologized. "I was so very wrong."
"I should have had more faith in my own intuition." Bingley admitted a little ruefully, adding, "She was looking and talking to me all of that time last year, not you."
"Charles, I have another confession to make to you, and this one was not merely an error of judgment." Darcy took a deep breath, steeling himself for what was going to be an extremely uncomfortable confession. "I purposely did not inform you last January that I knew that Miss Bennet was in London. I was firmly of the opinion, which I had expressed to you in November, that Miss Bennet did not care for you, and I was convinced that you were still quite distraught about parting from her. I wished for you to avoid the renewal of a friendship which could only hurt you more in the long term. I was wrong again, and my disgusting act of deceit compounded my original error." Darcy tried desperately to express his sorrow for hurting his friend.
Darcy's stomach twisted in guilt as he observed the look of surprised hurt in Bingley's eyes. However, when he spoke, rather than being angry, Bingley was curious. "How did you know Miss Bennet was in town?"
"My carriage was passing by as she was going up the steps to your door. Your sister remarked on Miss Bennet's call the next time we spoke, and she complained about having to return the call to Cheapside. When you never mentioned Miss Bennet to me, I knew that Miss Bingley had said nothing to you; and when she suggested that I do the same, I shamefully agreed to commit the identical sin and stay silent. Again, I can only ask for your forgiveness." Darcy shook his head, disapproving of his own actions. The entire episode was humiliating; he had always taken pride in his integrity as a man, and had disappointed not only his best friend, but himself as well.
Bingley stared thoughtfully at the carpet for a few moments, then said, "Darcy, you may have been wrong in the way you tried to protect me from what you felt was an unequal regard, but I was wrong also. I should have had more confidence in myself and remained at Netherfield instead of staying away. Your deception about Miss Bennet's presence in town may have been harmful, but again, you thought to spare my feelings and lessen my suffering. I could have returned to Hertfordshire at any time and confirmed Miss Bennet's feelings for myself, but I never made the effort. I have no problem at all in excusing you, Darcy. Forgiving myself will be more difficult." He paused, then added in a stronger voice, "Forgiving Caroline and Louisa will be almost impossible. They plotted together, agreeing to keep the knowledge from me. In addition, they ridicule the people of Meryton whenever they can, calling them names, making fun of them, and they disparage the Bennet family in particular, so I am convinced that their only intent was their own aggrandizement. I confronted them when we returned from the Gardiners' house the other day, in order find out everything that had happened, and then took them to task for their deception. Louisa now tries to make sure that I am not at home when she visits. Caroline pretends that everything is the same between us, but I have stopped her allowance for the rest of the quarter, and she is angry. Oh, and in addition," Bingley grinned proudly, "I told them that unless it is complimentary, they are not allowed to speak about Hertfordshire, Meryton, or any of the neighbors, and most particularly the Bennets." Bingley chuckled in triumph at the last remark.
Darcy laughed also. "That is a change! If they keep on like that, I may come by when I know you are at home just to listen to the conversation among the three of you. But tell me, what are your future plans? I know that Miss Elizabeth will soon be leaving Hunsford, and coming to join her sister for a short time before they return home. What are you going to do when your angel - excuse me, Miss Bennet - leaves?" Darcy was sure what the reply would be, but asked anyway, wondering at the same time how he would resist the urge to see his beautiful spitfire during her stay in London, no matter how much it hurt.
Smiling broadly, Bingley answered, "Miss Elizabeth will arrive on Saturday, and both sisters will return to Longbourn on Monday. I plan to return to Netherfield next week, probably on Wednesday or Thursday. I did not keep the entire staff when we closed the house, so I must arrange to reopen the house with those who remain, and also hire an additional number to take care of everyone. Caroline has reluctantly agreed to serve as a gracious hostess, since she will not be able to shop here in town without an allowance. Hurst is looking forward to some shooting, so he and Louisa will be there too. Whichever day I do return, the next day I will be calling on Mr. Bennet to ask for a formal courtship of Miss Bennet. Do I have your approval?"
Darcy smiled back, "You do not need my approval, but you have it anyway. She is a lovely young lady, and I am certain that, given your almost identical dispositions, the two of you will be very happy."
"Thank you, Darcy. I know we will. But I would like to know why you came the other day to tell us that Miss Bennet was still in town. I would never have found out if you had remained quiet. What convinced you that your actions had been incorrect?" Bingley was grateful, but quizzical.
"As I said the other day, Miss Elizabeth mentioned it in a conversation we had at Hunsford. She added that her sister had been sad and dispirited since the residents of Netherfield had returned to town. Miss Elizabeth implied that even though your sisters had returned the call, Miss Bennet was very disappointed that YOU did not accompany them. Miss Elizabeth is so close to her sister that I realized, almost at once, the mistake I had made, and resolved to correct it when I returned to London. And here you are, Charles Bingley, a happy man, busy calling every day on a beautiful lady who will probably soon remove him from the ranks of eligible bachelors." Darcy was glad to share some laughs with Bingley, and was somewhat surprised to again note his own adeptness in avoiding the truth, but staying truthful. "Bingley, in addition to your forgiveness, I need to beg a favor of you."
A surprised Bingley replied, "Of course! If it is at all possible, I will help you in any way I can. Just ask."
"I have to return to Meryton in a couple of weeks, and I hope you would welcome me as a guest who is able to challenge you with an excellent game of billiards, rather than exiling me to the local inn. I do not know how long my business there will take, but I should not have to intrude on your courting ritual of Miss Bennet for very long." Darcy knew why he was going to Hertfordshire; he just did not know how to accomplish the task he had set for himself once he was there. He frowned as he thought about the two separate goals: to avoid meeting Elizabeth, and to get Wickham away without a duel, or even a fight. His frown deepened, and he resolved to keep Richard away from Hertfordshire so that Wickham did not die in some mysterious manner. On the other hand…
Bingley was puzzled, "Of course you are welcome! But why the worried look, Darcy? Is something the matter? I hope that it is not Caroline. I know she is convinced that no one else would be a better mistress for Pemberley, but that has never deterred you from visiting us before. And what you win from me at billiards, I make up by taking it back when we play whist. When we play cards, your attention is always more on avoiding Caroline's 'dainty' feet, than knowing whatever suit trump is."
Darcy had to laugh at the teasing. Miss Bingley might be relentless in her ambitious plan of marriage to him, but rather than resenting Darcy for eluding her, Bingley, with some assistance from Hurst, just shook his head in resignation and helped Darcy to escape her machinations. Darcy decided to try and enlist Bingley in his efforts without arousing his curiosity at this time. "I have a task which I need to accomplish in Hertfordshire. Perhaps if you would have dinner with me next Monday night, I could explain further. Miss Bennet will be gone, and dining here will keep you from moping and sighing at home, and receiving no sympathy from Miss Bingley. More than that, you may be able to help me solve a small problem, since I am sure that you remember more about your neighbors in Meryton than I do. You are also much more able than I am to predict how people will react." Darcy doubted that Bingley would ever propose to a lady who disliked him; but then, no one disliked Bingley. Maybe if he watched his friend's interactions with people, Miss Bennet in particular, he could learn something.
Bingley laughed, "I would be surprised if you recognized any of the people from the neighborhood if you met them here in town, except for Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth, of course. But you know I will help you any way I can, so explain away!"
"Not right now, because I do not have all of the details straightened out in my mind. It can wait until next week." Darcy temporized as he rose to pour them some more port. Then he changed the subject, raising the current racing favorites, boxing matches, and fencing lessons, which were the pastimes of young men about town. In that manner they chatted agreeably, parting only when Darcy left to prepare for his evening with the Fitzwilliams.
The family sitting room at Matlock House was occupied by all of the adult Fitzwilliams, and the almost-adult Georgiana, when Darcy entered. He sat beside Georgiana, and listened as everyone tried to be the first to tell him what had been accomplished that day. The women easily out-voiced the men with their descriptions of the most important and stylish purchases that day. Lord Matlock had spent part of his day listening to boring speeches at the House – a waste of his time, but one must keep up appearances. His afternoon had been spent at his club, making inquiries about competent stewards for hire, in between hard-fought hands of whist. Richard had narrowed the list of highly recommended doctors to two, and would try to see both within a couple of days to inquire whether they would be in available to interview, and possibly treat, Anne. His list of prospective workmen was growing quickly, as the rumor-mill spread his inquiry. They would soon need to designate a meeting time and place, so that his father or Darcy could choose the best candidates. Darcy himself informed his relations that he had hired a firm to clean the de Bourgh townhouse, and he had coerced Mrs. Wendover into interviewing the applicants for the various staff positions who were sent to Darcy House by the agencies. Tomorrow he would make a list of the furniture needed for the townhouse, and then consult with Anne.
After a few seconds of silence, Anne looked at Darcy and said, "I was wondering whether opening the townhouse is really the best thing we can do, Wills."
Taken aback, Darcy only looked at her and waited. His uncle and Richard were also staring with rounded eyes.
"I had a long talk with Aunt Eleanor today, and she helped me to sort through what I want to do, now that I am better, and no longer confined to Rosings." Anne looked gratefully at her aunt, reached over and fondly touched her hand, then continued, "I know that I definitely do not want to live in lonely splendor in the townhouse with just a companion. Except for the company of my mother, the past ten years have been spent that way. I would like to stay here, at Matlock House, with the family for a while. If Aunt Eleanor and I start carrying small daggers around and looking for each other, I will just move over to Darcy House and annoy Georgie." She grinned at her aunt. "After I wear out my welcome there, I can go to Essex and bother Sophy and Charles and the children. When I wear out my welcome there, I can start pestering Robert and Arabella, and then leave to join Frederica and Vernon at Alverion. By that time, Aunt Eleanor will not be angry with me anymore, and I can come back here and start all over again. I like that prospect much better than sitting by myself in an empty room."
Everyone was quiet while they thought about Anne's wishes, then Richard quipped, "You left out one of my brothers. I think Miles will be very insulted when he finds out that you are not going to visit him at sea, especially when he goes into battle."
The resultant laughter eased the slight tension, and Anne continued, "Since Mother would never tell me, I do not know, aside from my dowry, what my financial position is. Wills, you have been over to the townhouse. Would it be better to just leave it as is, or should it be cleaned up, reopened with adequate furniture, and rented out? If I remember correctly, it is a nice size and in a good location, and would be an ideal spot for some country people visiting town for a year to launch their daughter into the ton. I do not think I should sell it, because in two or three years I might change my mind, and decide to live there. If you think it would be profitable to rent it, go ahead with your plans."
"Anne, I know very little about renting townhouses, but I will find out. Uncle Henry and I meet with your solicitors and bankers tomorrow afternoon." Darcy sent a questioning look toward his uncle and received a confirming nod. "After that, we will know more and can explain it to you."
Lord Matlock added, "Really, Anne, you do not need to worry about any of this. Your finances are for Darcy and me to take care of."
Lady Eleanor and Sophy looked at each other and rolled their eyes, but said nothing about managing budgets for country houses, houses in town, servants, children, clothing, food, furnishings, supplies, and the many other items which were taken care of by the lowly females who were supposedly incapable of such things.
The family relaxed and enjoyed casual conversation until after dinner. The men then departed to enjoy their brandy and cigars, where Richard brought them up to date on what everyone at Headquarters was saying about the progress, or lack thereof, by the Army in both America and on the Continent. They also bandied Anne's decision about for a short time, but it seemed to have merit, so they would carry forward with it for now.
In the family sitting room, armed with letters from both Frederica and Arabella, Lady Eleanor disclosed the latest news concerning their symptoms of impending motherhood, which led to the eternal debate on whether the soon to arrive infants would be boys or girls. After a lot of talk and dickering, to no one's surprise, they decided that the results would be either two boys or two girls, or possibly one of each. When the entire party was together again for tea and dessert, Georgiana and Sophy obliged with a session at the pianoforte.
"Anne, have you had a chance to learn the waltz yet?" queried Richard.
"Do you really think Mother would have allowed such a disgraceful exhibition of intimacy to take place under her roof?" Anne smiled back. "I have never had a chance to see a waltz, only to hear how it is causing our entire society to lapse into immorality. And this is in spite of the fact that Mother has never seen it danced either. I must admit, I am intrigued and would like to see it."
Richard arose, calling out, "Georgie, Sophy, play something so we can teach Anne to waltz!" and then turned to Darcy, bowed, and said, "You appear to be a most desirable partner, sir. If you would not find me so handsome and charming that my participation would steal all of the attention from you, we could show the ladies how this should be done." (He hoped to distract Wills from his glum look.)
Darcy rolled his eyes, and thoughts of a radiant Elizabeth floating in his arms as they whirled in three-quarter time vanished. He stood and faced Richard, but neither would allow the other to encircle his waist, nor would either one allow the other to lead, and the demonstration dissolved into a hilarious fiasco of waving arms and exclamations of, "No! I will do that!" Georgiana and Sophy stopped playing the duet when their laughter led to some rather unmelodious chords falling on everyone's ears.
The Earl stood, waited for quiet, then walked over to his wife, bowed formally, and said, "If you would honor me, my dear, I am sure we can show these foolish young children how much they still have to learn." Sophy quickly started playing again, and the still-attractive-looking older couple gracefully demonstrated a waltz of such dignified affection, elegance, and rapport that it caused more than one pair of eyes to glisten – not all of which were female.
After Lord and Lady Matlock had bowed and curtseyed, to acknowledging the applause, which their lovely waltz had merited, Darcy arose and signaled his sister. "Georgie, it is time for us to leave for home. Richard, are you ready to join us?"
"I am right behind you, Cuz," came the reply.
Darcy was relieved. With both his sister and his cousin there with him, Elizabeth would probably retreat into the shadows of the rooms in Darcy House - except for his bedroom, of course, and even there she might not be quite as bold. He did enjoy watching her smile, and he tried to surreptitiously eye her figure, but if she disrobed and walked toward him… well, there went his ability to sleep for a while.
Part III Hunsford
Elizabeth awoke shortly after sunrise, and decided that she needed a brisk walk. Although she was leaving for London after breakfast, a walk, no matter how short, would help her from becoming too restless and fidgety during the long ride. She quickly washed her face, dressed, put her hair up in a simple knot, and hastened down the stairs to don her spencer and bonnet before going outside.
The morning air was fresh, and the rays of the sun were burnishing the leaves of the trees with gold as they fluttered in the soft breeze. She had known that this would be a wonderful day; it had to be, if only because she would be seeing Jane again that very afternoon – a Jane who was happy, content, and basking in the renewed attentions of Mr. Bingley. In a letter received yesterday, Jane had said that Mr. Bingley was going to be taking up residence at Netherfield the following week. Elizabeth hoped that her mother received that news before Monday, so that the screeches and shrieks her mother would doubtless emit, would have died down before the sisters arrived at Longbourn. She was very glad that they would have almost two peaceful days together with her favorite relatives, the Gardiners, before they returned to the chaos of home. Sometimes she wondered how Lydia, Kitty, and her mother managed to make more noise and clutter than all four of her young Gardiner cousins.
She also must find time to ask Aunt Gardiner about the conversation, which took place when Mr. Darcy called. In one of her letters, Jane had told her of how their aunt and Mr. Darcy had conversed together for over half an hour, with Darcy affably talking on a number of subjects, but particularly about Aunt Gardiner's beloved Lambton and Derbyshire. Why, Mr. Darcy even remembered meeting their aunt before the Marlows moved to London! Somehow Elizabeth found this hard to believe. No, she believed it because Jane had told her; it was just difficult to imagine that Mr. Darcy would not only be friendly and speak for so long with someone living in Cheapside, but that he would also declare his intention to call again and bring his sister. Now, THAT was unbelievable. Though she did recall that the Colonel had said that Mr. Darcy was lively enough with his close friends or family, he had certainly remained aloof and silent at Rosings, staring out of windows with his back to the room. Mr. Bingley also appeared to find him an amiable friend and trustworthy confidante.
As Elizabeth's thoughts reviewed her visits to Rosings, she recalled a particular evening when Mr. Darcy had come in all his stateliness to watch her as she played the pianoforte. She had teased him, she remembered, and to her surprise, he had not taken offense. Instead, he had told her that he had difficulty talking with strangers and catching the tone of conversations as he saw others do. Maybe that was true, and she was also wrong in judging Mr. Darcy as vain, haughty, and disdainful? Would making mistakes about Mr. Darcy's character be a continuous habit of hers? Perhaps she should rethink his character yet again.
Oh dear! Looking at the sky, Elizabeth was startled. Where had the time gone? She had to rush back to the parsonage.
"Lizzy! I was almost ready to send a servant out looking for you," Charlotte declared in a stern voice, belied by her broad smile and twinkling eyes. "Now sit and eat a good breakfast; none of this nibbling on a muffin because you plan to beg something later from the cook. I know you too well. I will fix your plate. Let me see - eggs, bacon, toast, and some honey. That will do for a start." Charlotte suited her actions to the words.
"You are going to have me so stuffed with food that I will not even be able to climb into the coach," Elizabeth declared. "Maria's plate does not have that much food on it."
"Maria is on her second helping of everything," Charlotte said, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms, while she continued to smile at her dear friend. "Now eat up."
Mr. Collins finished his ample breakfast and joined the conversation. "Indeed, Cousin Elizabeth, this is the last time you will have the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of the table we are so fortunate to be able to offer in our humble abode, and that is because of the unparalleled generosity of Lady Catherine's most excellent beneficence. The very air here at Rosings added to the delicious fruits of our garden, and my dear wife's skill with the magnificent poultry given us by Lady Catherine herself, make this a repast that would be happily enjoyed by a prince. Why, the advice of my noble patroness has been so invaluable, and she has directed me so ably on what I should plant and how to take care of my garden, and has directed my dear Charlotte so precisely on the exact care and feeding of her chickens, that we are blessed with an overabundance of food."
"I am grateful you heeded her advice, Mr. Collins. I am enjoying the meal," Elizabeth replied with a straight face.
"It is just too bad that there have been no invitations for tea or to dine at Rosings this past week, but Lady Catherine has been so dispirited since the departure of her daughter and nephews. She is slowly regaining her usual high spirits, however. I am positive that I have helped her to recover, since being welcomed three days ago to resume our daily meetings. Yesterday I tried to emphasize just how happy she will be when the engagement is formally announced, but the poor, suffering, noble lady just sighed and said I should mention it no more. The thought of her daughter leaving, even for such a splendid marriage, must be heartbreaking to her." It was not clear whether Mr. Collins was pleased to be helping his patroness, or unhappy that he was having so little effect.
"I am sure you will soon find the best way to relieve her distress," Elizabeth soothed him in her soft voice.
After Elizabeth had eaten enough to satisfy Charlotte, the two ladies went up the stairs talking to one another in the manner of two close friends soon to be parted for a long time. Sending the maid away, Charlotte helped Lizzy to don her travelling clothes, and assisted her in pinning her long, dark hair securely. The last few items were placed in the trunk, and both inspected the room closely for any forgotten article. They then went to Maria's room, and repeated all the same actions.
Soon it was time to depart. Saying goodbye to Mr. Collins and giving Charlotte a last, fond embrace, Elizabeth and Maria boarded the coach, and watched as the parsonage, and the two figures standing in front of it, receded into the distance.
Maria marveled aloud at everything that she would have to remember once she was home.
Elizabeth, images of a handsome and distraught Mr. Darcy as she had last seen him floating before her eyes, shivered a little and wondered whether she would ever manage to forget some of the happenings at Rosings. She hoped so. She leaned back against the seat, closed her eyes, and thought about a happy Jane and returning home to see her father. Happy thoughts, indeed.Continued In Next Section