Posted on 2009-10-31
Blurb: Elizabeth visits Pemberley with the Gardiners, as guests of the Darcys. There has been no Hunsford, and no crisis occurs while visiting the great estate, but a series of events unravels which brings about many changes in the lives of those involved.
"Good day, Miss Bennet"
Elizabeth startled at the unexpected greeting and turned to find herself face to face with Fitzwilliam Darcy. That he should appear, offered little surprise, as she currently resided at, and wandered about the exquisite grounds of, that man's estate. The appearance of his clothing, however, provided a whole different turn of mind, for he stood before her quite damp and in less than proper attire. "Good good day to you, sir." she offered with a curtsey. "You have been--"
"Bathing, yes, it would seem." He bowed in reply and then motioned toward his sodden shirt, fine lawn that it was, and shrugged. "It is a lovely morning for such activity." He seemed quite at ease in her presence, despite his more casual dress. "I did not expect to find anyone about at such an early hour. It appears that I failed to recall your habit of frequently enjoy your morning wanderings at such a time."
She knew not what to do with her eyes, for they wished to lock on the form revealed by the sudden transparency of the shirt. Allowing them such privilege would be deemed entirely unladylike; and, with a becoming blush, she forced her vision down, to gaze at her folded hands. "Yes, I do, sir, and it is, indeed, a " she lifted her head, unable to conceal an amused smile when her eyes fell upon him again, "a lovely day." She motioned to the trees and shrubbery behind her. "I have also chosen to take advantage of the beauty presented this morn."
Smiling in return, Darcy replied, "It gives me great pleasure to see you enjoying the grounds, Miss Elizabeth. Knowing your fondness for nature, I had long hoped you would approve of all which Pemberley has to offer."
She swallowed hard. He had long hoped? What did he mean by that? "In that case, I take additional pleasure in knowing that I have not disappointed your expectations."
"Not in the least." Again, he smiled, this time with slight embarrassment. "If you would excuse me, I believe I must return and prepare myself for the day. I trust I shall see you at breakfast." He offered her a crisp bow, in contrast with his limp attire, and walked toward the house.
Squinting into the sun, as she watched him sauntering away, she thought, Whatever did he mean by prancing about like that? Such immodesty! While Elizabeth had enjoyed the view of Mr. Darcy's fine physique through his skimpy and seriously saturated clothing, she took great offense at the idea of him taking such liberties, even though he did so at his own home, for, she thought, he should know better with company present. She shrugged it off as just another oddity in the man and returned to her wanderings, finding that reports of the gardens at Pemberley had been remarkably wanting, for they were far more magnificent than any telling she had heard.
After half an hour longer spent exploring the grounds, Elizabeth returned to the house and made her way to the breakfast room. There, she found her aunt and uncle in comfortable conversation over eggs and meats, as well as small soft cakes accompanied by jam and cream. Elizabeth took a seat and filled her plate, motioning to one of the footmen to bring her a cup of tea. Between bites, she joined in the conversation, until the master of the house entered the room.
"Forgive me for my tardiness." He bowed to all present, and then strode across the room to join them.
The image he presented was so far from what Elizabeth had witnessed earlier that morning that she found herself grinning at the difference. Although his hair still glistened with the sheen of wetness from his bath, he now appeared dressed as a gentleman ought, right down to a perfectly knotted neckcloth.
Lifting a forkful of ham, Darcy paused to inquiry of the Gardiners' plans for the day.
Mrs. Gardiner smiled warmly and replied, "We have formed no definite ideas concerning the manner in which we spend our time. Perhaps you have some suggestions, sir, for you know the neighborhood much more intimately than we." She smiled warmly at the man sitting across the table.
"Very well," he answered, after swallowing, "might I suggest a further tour of the grounds?" Facing Elizabeth, he added, "I know your niece is quite fond of such things and might enjoy such an excursion."
"Lizzy, would such appeal to you," asked her uncle.
"Yes, thank you, I believe it would, but "
Darcy jolted at this, nearly spilling the coffee from the cup he held. "But, Miss Bennet?"
"My aunt is not a great walker, Mr. Darcy, and I worry that she may find a tour on foot beyond her capability."
"No predicament, I assure you; I shall call for the barouche, and we may then drive further and see more. You, Miss Bennet, I think, shall particularly enjoy the wildness of some sections of the property."
Elizabeth nodded in reply, not certain what to make of Mr. Darcy's singular attention towards her.
At that moment, Miss Georgiana Darcy entered the breakfast room. The men rose to their feet, and she returned their courtesy with her own. With a shy excitement, she greeted those present. "Did I hear that Fitzwilliam intends to drive you about and show you Pemberley? Oh!" She clapped her hands together, enthusiastically. "You are in for great delight, for my brother is the best at pointing out Pemberley's greatest assets."
It took Darcy but a moment to order the carriage readied and brought around to the main entrance.
They set out under bright sunny skies, a gentle breeze ruffling the leaves of the numerous trees surrounding the drive. Mrs. Reynolds had seen to the packing of a well-outfitted basket of food for the midday meal, which they carried with them. The foursome drove along the smooth avenues and Darcy lived up to his sister's praise; he took great pains to show his guests all the best his estate had to offer. Elizabeth did, indeed, find the stretches of wilderness, raw and untouched by human hand, quite enticing. Truly, I could never weary of all before me, and fresh new paths would always await my attention. Letting out an exhilarated sigh, she relaxed back into her seat and enjoyed the scenery continue, as it came into view.
They spent much time traveling about the estate, and it was quite some time before they came upon Mr. Darcy's favorite location, a secluded pond. He encouraged all to exit the equipage and stroll along the water's edge, admiring the well-designed area. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner set upon a spot in the clearing and saw to the spreading out of the blankets. They all moved to take up a position on the woolen cover, the gentlemen assisting the women as they lowered to the ground. In return, the ladies began to lay out the plates of food and, soon, all found themselves engaged in pleasant conversation as they enjoyed their repast. Once they had completed that activity, the Gardiners announced that they would enjoy a leisurely walk. They invited their younger companions to join them, but Elizabeth declined, saying that she felt quite full and preferred to rest and allow her meal to settle. Darcy, acting the gentleman, agreed to keep her company. The Gardiners hesitated for a moment, with concern over leaving their niece unattended with the young gentleman. Feeling that she knew Elizabeth's disposition well enough that she would allow no indiscretions, Mrs. Gardiner leaned over and whispered into her husband's ear. He nodded his agreement, and the two turned, arm in arm, and headed off into the surrounding wildwood.
In the absence of her aunt and uncle, Elizabeth leaned back on her elbows and gazed up at the sky. "'Tis an exquisite day, is it not?"
She glanced at Mr. Darcy. "You, sir, are justly proud of your estate. Its beauty is beyond words."
He shifted uncomfortably. "I thank you, Miss Elizabeth, for your kind compliment. I take credit only on behalf of my ancestors, for they are the ones who laid the foundation for what you see today. I am merely the guardian."
"As you are for your sister?" She arched her eyebrow in an inquisitive manner.
Laughing easily at the image she presented, he nodded. "In a way, I suppose, but I need not attempt to guess what my property may be thinking. With my sister, as often as not, I must."
Now, Elizabeth laughed. "Having four sisters, I can easily imagine the truth of that."
An easy silence fell between them, broken after a while by Elizabeth. She motioned toward the small body of water behind Darcy. "Is this where you take your morning exercise?"
He glanced back. "Yes." Blushing, he quickly added, "I apologize again for my improper attire this morning. I do hope you can forgive me."
"Think no more of it, sir. I shall not." Except in my dreams.
"I have come here since I was a very young child." His eyes took on a dreamy aspect. "At first, my father brought me and taught me the rudiments of such bathing. He felt I would always be safer if I knew how to keep my head above the surface."
"Did he teach your sister as well?"
"I believe he did; although, she seems not to draw nearly as much pleasure from the activity as do I."
Elizabeth giggled. "I suppose it might have something to do with the requirement that she wear considerably more clothing for the sport than you are wont to do."
Darcy's complexion reddened. Again, they sat in silence, for he knew no proper response for such teasing.
Elizabeth requested more information about his bathing adventures in the pond, and he happily acceded to her wish, elaborating on his time, when younger, spent splashing in the water with Wickham and his cousin Fitzwilliam. She found his tales amusing and rewarded him with brilliant smiles and peals of delighted laughter.
Before they realized, it grew late, and the Gardiners rejoined them. They quickly repacked the remnants of their al fresco banquet. As the ladies approached the carriage, Darcy appeared at Elizabeth's side and offered his hand to assist her. Mr. Gardiner, noticing this, looked upon the couple, and Elizabeth shot him a surprised look. Darcy wrapped his fingers snugly around hers, and moved back to allow her to ascended the steps of the equipage. Easing back into her seat, the young lady released the gentleman's fingers, though he retained custody of hers for a moment more. Truly, she sighed contentedly, I could spend the whole of my life here and never tire of ought around me.
It was not many more days before their visit came to an end, much sooner than any desired. Mr. Gardiner had need to return to London, to manage some unexpected but propitious business. They bid their goodbyes, and Elizabeth and Mrs. Gardiner shared heartfelt hugs with Georgiana. Darcy and Mr. Gardiner exchanged a warm handshake, vowing that all would gather again, soon, in happy camaraderie. As they boarded the carriage, all cried out farewells, expressed thanks for the Darcys' hospitality, and voiced distress at the required parting. As they drew away from their hosts, waves fluttered from all and further adieus floated across the growing distance. Elizabeth cast one final glance back at the magnificence that was Pemberley, but, in doing so, her eyes fell and locked on the master of the manor.
The trip back to Hertfordshire began under an umbrella of sadness. To leave such an exquisite setting seemed nigh onto heartbreaking. That Miss Darcy provided such sweet and gentle companionship they could not deny. And Mr. Darcy With such a shroud of gloom descending upon them, the small party traveled in relative silence. Mrs. Gardiner quickly succumbed to the rhythm of the road and fell into slumber while Mr. Gardiner strained to focus his concentration on the pages of a book. Taking advantage of their distraction, Elizabeth turned her eyes to the verdant countryside of summertime Derbyshire. Such a wild and untamed beauty tempted her and retained her consideration for many, many miles of good road.
They arrived at Longbourn in excellent time, and great jollity greeted their appearance. The young Gardiner children rushed to the side of the carriage, jumping up and down in excitement to see their well-missed parents. Jane stood to the side, equally enthusiastic to regain her beloved sister's company. Handkerchief in hand, Mrs. Bennet, her nerves aquiver, waited inside the portico, her husband standing beside her for support. Milling about the lawn were the remaining Bennet daughters, bored at the dearth of red uniforms or religious tomes.
Elizabeth, the first to exit the conveyance, greeted her cousins by gently patting each of them on the head and leaning down to place a kiss upon their cheeks. She then rushed to the waiting arms of her elder sister. "Oh, Jane," she cried, happy tears filling her eyes, "how I have missed you."
Jane, in a similar condition, responded, "And I you, dearest Lizzy." She stepped back, keeping her hands upon her sister's shoulders to gain a good look at her, "Did you enjoy your travels?"
Elizabeth's entire face animated with pleasure. "I did, and I have so much to tell you. You shall stare at me in wonder when I impart all that I shared with my aunt and uncle." She released a teasing sigh, "Oh, that I could have changed places with you, that you may have enjoyed such delicious spectacles."
Jane swept her sister back into an embrace. "Oh, Lizzy, how I have missed your teasing."
The Gardiner's spent the night with their relatives; and, with their children in tow, they set out the next morning for their home in Cheapside.
Life at Longbourn quickly returned to normal, with Mr. Bennet enjoying the sanctity of his study; Elizabeth wandering about the countryside; Lydia and Kitty chasing after anything in britches; Mary pontificating; and Mrs. Bennet fighting flights of nerves, with Jane at her side for comfort. Weeks together passed with little out of the ordinary in the way of life.
At dinner one evening, Mrs. Bennet demanded that Elizabeth again regale the family with tales of the pleasures and grandness she experienced in the north, particularly one of life at Pemberley. The girl rolled her eyes, but complied with her mother's request, in general, and spoke of the richness of the grounds of the estates they had viewed, the excellent taste of the decorations within all the homes, and the kindness of the many people they met along the way.
"Yes, yes, but what of Mr. Darcy?"
Perplexed, Elizabeth answered her mother's question with one of her own, "What of him?"
"Oh, Lizzy, you do take it upon yourself to vex me."
"I am sorry, Mama, I did not mean do to so. Please, tell me specifically what you wish to know of Mr. Darcy."
"Did you spend much time in his company?" Her eagerness for an answer to this question was apparent for all to see.
"Some, certainly, but my uncle and he spent much time involved with sport, fishing, hunting, and such."
"That is unfortunate," she frowned.
"I do not have the pleasure of understanding you, ma'am; why do you deem it unfortunate?"
"Lizzy! Do not act as thick as a plank. You know perfectly well that if you were only able to accomplish a marriage to Mr. Darcy, we would have little need to worry about the entail and Mister Collins." The last name she spoke with utter contempt.
While not surprised at her mother's hopes, Elizabeth neither enjoyed it. "Mr. Darcy behaved quite genially, but I do not believe he holds any particular attachment to me."
Her mother waved away her protests. "Why would he invite you, as well as my brother and sister, to stay with him if he did not hope to gain further entrance into your good graces?"
Shrugging in reply, Elizabeth quickly moved to end the discussion and retired to her chamber, where she spent the remainder of the evening recalling the halcyon days at Pemberley.
The next morning began for Elizabeth as most did, with a light breakfast, a long walk, and an hour spent in her father's study reading. She then joined her sisters and mother in the sitting room to engage in a good deal of conversation and a bit of needlework. It was while so involved that there came a knock at the front door. It was not long until another knock sounded on the sitting room door, followed by Hill opening that door and announcing the arrival a gentleman caller: Mr. Bingley.
That all mouths in that room dropped upon hearing his name, goes without saying. His sudden, unannounced arrival stunned all in the room. Yet, they recovered quickly that they may receive him properly.
Mrs. Bennet warmly welcomed him and extended an invitation for him to join the ladies for tea. He was only too happy to agree and quickly approached Jane and sat on the chair beside her's.
Jane blushed profusely at such particular attention and mumbled her greetings while keeping her eyes focused upon her stitching.
Quickly put her at ease, Bingley set about discussing a selection of activities he had participated in while in London.
Clapping her hands together, Mrs. Bennet shrieked, "Oh, sir, did you truly meet Lord Hepplewaite? Oh," she clutched her chest, "you must tell us all about the man. I have heard that he is grander than grand and a highly respectable personage."
Bingley, always willing to accommodate, gladly entertained her with tales of the man, assuring her that His Lordship was all she had heard and more. "A very fine fellow, ma'am, I assure you."
The afternoon passed in happy companionship, until Mr. Bingley excused himself in order to join his sisters for dinner.
"Will you not stay, sir, and partake of your meal here?" encouraged Mrs. Bennet.
"I thank you and wish that I might, but I have promised Caroline and Louisa that I would return in good time to eat with them."
"Perhaps another time?"
From that day on, Mr. Bingley became a regular visitor at Longbourn. Jane and Elizabeth oft spent time together pursuing their favorite activities, but when the handsome Charles Bingley arrived, Jane had time and interest for no one else. Elizabeth and Kitty, alone or together, were frequently pressed into service as chaperones for the young lovers when they determined to partake of long walks. It was not unheard of for those young ladies to turn a blind eye to allow Jane and her young man a few moments of privacy.
One day, when Mr. Bingley had assured the residents of Longbourn that a few days' business would prevent him from calling, Jane and Elizabeth set out to stroll into Meryton in order to procure a few needed items. It was while there that they caught wind of the rumor that none other than Fitzwilliam Darcy had returned to Netherfield.
The surprise they experienced was extreme, especially that felt by Elizabeth. Still, after a moment's thought, she dismissed it as being anything out of the ordinary. Why should Mr. Darcy not return to visit with his most excellent friend?
Jane's understanding drove her to discuss Mr. Darcy's arrival with animation. "To think that Mr. Bingley did not mention the cause of his business. I should be quite cross with him when next I see him. He should have given you some notice and allowed you time to prepare yourself for such a meeting as we will surely have with that gentleman."
"He is nothing to me, Jane. Do not trouble yourself; and, I beg you, do not provoke Mr. Bingley by making mention of his failure. I have no doubt that Mr. Darcy's imminent arrival merely slipped his mind."
"You are too good, Lizzy. Of course, Mr. Bingley, in his excitement to see his friend, simply forgot to mention the source of his business."
"Perchance, he does not realize that that business is you." Jane cast a wicked grin in her sister's direction and skipped off in the direction of home, her sister chasing after her.
It was but two days later that Charles Bingley came to call again. This time, when Mrs. Hill opened the door to the sitting room, she announced the appearance of two gentlemen.
"Mr. Darcy!" cried out Mrs. Bennet as she rushed to greet him. "It is so good to see you again, sir! Please, please, enter and be comfortable." She shot a knowing look at her second eldest daughter. "Lizzy, ring for tea."
Unable to determine the meaning of Darcy's visit, she averted her eyes and excused herself to inform Hill of the need for refreshments. Her mother called after her to just pull the cord, but Elizabeth had already crossed from the room into the hall and closed the door behind her. She let out a relieved breath and wondered how long she could tarry in the kitchen before her mother summoned her. Whatever was Mr. Darcy about coming to call? Admittedly, her heart fluttered at the sight of him, but she could not allow herself to believe he came to seek her out. No, he must just wish to exhibit common civility to Mr. Bingley's neighbors.
Hill allowed Elizabeth to stay for only a minute before shooing her back to the sitting room. "Your mother will have my head if you do not return." She placed her hands on her hips and looked at the girl sharply, "I am no fool, missy; I know what you are about, and you will not hide in my kitchen. Off with you!"
Elizabeth walked back to the sitting room as slowly as she could. The thought of stopping in to see her father occurred to her, but would only buy her another few minutes of safety. To be in Mr. Darcy's presence? She could not vouch for her behavior with that man around." Dragging her feet, she eventually made her way, and, keeping her eyes focused on the floor, she pushed open the door.
Upon her entrance, the gentlemen rose to their feet, asking after her welfare. "I am well; I thank you. And you, Mr. Darcy, do you fare well this day?"
She could feel his eyes boring into her, following her every move. What did he want? Why did he return? "That is good, sir; I am pleased to hear it." At the idea of her pleasure, Darcy smiled. "How long do you intend to visit with Mr. Bingley and his sisters?"
"At present, my plans are unfixed."
As she nodded her understanding, Hill entered with the tea tray and all conversation vanished for the next quarter hour. At that point, Bingley suggested a walk, and Mrs. Bennet insisted that all her girls go along and enjoy the exercise. Mary groaned, but her mother would allow no complaints; she would see them walk.
They headed out onto the lane and, once they reached the road to Meryton, the three younger girls begged to be allowed to visit the shops and see what new wares were in stock. Jane gave her agreement to their scheme, and they skittered away, leaving the four senior members of the party on their own. In natural order, they paired up, Jane on Mr. Bingley's arm, Elizabeth beside Mr. Darcy. They strolled in silence, and Elizabeth began to relax amongst the autumn foliage.
Unable to allow such quietude to continue, she turned to Mr. Darcy. "Sir," she spoke, startling him, "forgive my forwardness, but is there some reason for your arrival at Netherfield?"
"Reason?" He stopped and turned to face her. "Beyond spending time with my good friend? Need there be?"
"No, of course not; I just wondered. As I said, do pardon me for such rudeness."
"Not at all, Miss Elizabeth."
She felt a shiver go down her spine as her name tripped off his tongue. They again fell into step and moved along the path, with only the sound of an occasional crushed leaf or snapped twig to accompany them. Jane and Bingley had long ago outstripped their pace and fallen from view.
"Mr. Darcy." "Miss Elizabeth." They each blurted out at once.
"Forgive me." Again, they spoke over each other.
Darcy held up one hand and, with the other, motioned Elizabeth to begin.
"How does Miss Darcy?"
"My sister is well. She specifically asked me to send her regards and hoped that she would soon have the chance to see you again."
"I should enjoy seeing her as well. I also wish to thank you, sir, for the kindness you showed to me and my relatives when we stayed with you at Pemberley."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you."
She smiled, a touch of playfulness in her features. "And, if I may be so bold, what did you find to be the most pleasurable, sir?"
Darcy reddened. "I I believe the day our paths crossed after my morning ba-bathing."
"Yes, you did present a pretty picture that morning." She grinned impishly.
He turned away, collecting himself. The power she held over him; well, it took his breath away."
"Miss Bennet, you are too kind to trifle with me." He stopped, and reached out to take her delicate hand within his own larger one. She did not deter him. "Miss Elizabeth, I have long admired you. When you visited Pemberley, I came to know and respect you and reached the conclusion that I would wish to have you as a part of my life, now and always." He dropped to one knee before her, retaining possession of her hand. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would you do me the great honor, the ultimate honor, to accept my hand in marriage and join our lives forever?"
Stunned, Elizabeth stood unmoving, feeling a heat rush through her. A wave of dizziness washed over her, but she fought it and remained on her feet. That he had just offered marriage seemed beyond her comprehension. She weakly cleared her throat. "I beg your pardon?"
Gently, he repeated his address.
Possible images of how they might spend their time together as husband and wife marched through her mind. "Yes, Mr. Darcy; yes, I shall marry you. I accept!"
He did not rise to his feet, but instead pulled her down to sit upon his knee. "In that case, Elizabeth " He leaned in and kissed her, content for the first time in years.
Upon their return to Longbourn, Darcy slipped into Mr. Bennet's study. The two men discussed the situation and some of the particulars, and the older man agreed to the proposal. "Lizzy is the best and brightest of my girls, Mr. Darcy. You will be good to her, won't you, son?"
"I shall, sir. I shall treat her just as my father treated my mother."
Mrs. Bennet shook the walls of the house with her shrieks of joy. "Oh, Lizzy, ten thousand a year, and very likely more! What pin money, what jewels, what carriages you will have. Oh, I do not know how I shall contain my nerves. Oh, my heavens, a son-in-law of such stature. Oh, my dear, dear girl!" She leaned forward, drew Elizabeth into her arms and proceeded to squeeze the young woman until she could hardly breath.
A date was set and the Banns read for the appropriate number of Sundays. The Bennet household buzzed from morn 'til night with wedding preparations. At last, the day of the nuptials arrived and all those invited to attend congregated at the nearby church bedecked in their finest attire.
The bride and groom glowed with happiness. Elizabeth, for once, outshone her elder sister who stood beside her at the pulpit. Darcy looked more at ease than anyone could ever recall. Many explained his relaxed state as the work of the devil's brew, but excused his imbibing as putting to good use a well-recognized calmative for a groom's galled nerves.
The minister stepped before the gathering and quickly joined the young man and woman as husband and wife. The newly united couple turned and smiled at the crowd as the minister introduced them for the first time as Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Jane and Bingley, throughout the ceremony, had each had problems with concentrating on the service and keeping their eyes on the couple being wed. Speechlessly they communicated, one to the other, their own longing to join that happy state. Anyone who might have been watching them would hold little doubt that another wedding of a Bennet daughter would soon take place in that very same house of worship.
Kitty and Lydia ran out to gather the garlands to hold over the heads of the just married couple while others threw appropriate grains and flowers as the young lovers ran through the crowd and climbed into the carriage.
The wedding breakfast, magnificent even by London standards, passed slowly for the freshly minted mates, but soon the time arrived for them to bid adieu to all. Darcy had prepared detailed plans for the next fortnight, for travel and other activities, and he was eager to begin them.
The marriage began with the greatest expectations of felicity, and so it was. Darcy treated Elizabeth as if she were a sacred goddess and plied her with gifts of all manner precious. Elizabeth, returned the favor, and submitted to her lord and master in as many aspects of their life as she could. Her temper had not changed with the saying of a few words; and, thus, her impertinence and beguiling boldness had not been fully repressed. Still, both enjoyed their mostly connubial bliss with great passion and fondness.
It remained thus through the birth of three children, two girls and, at last, a boy. It was at this point that Darcy's behavior toward his wife changed. All the love and tenderness he had shown to her in the first eight years of their marriage transformed into contempt. Without knowing why, Elizabeth saw him revert from everything a gentleman should be back to his former ways of pride, hauteur, and conceit. He no longer seemed to have a whit of care for her feelings; he remained in his own chambers each and every night; and, on an occasion or two, he responded to her pertness with outright rage.
And so it came to be that Elizabeth began to fear for her and her children's safety. Darcy had not, as yet, actually assaulted her physically, and he had not shown any hint of desire to do so to their children, but his flaming temper frequently sent waves of alarm coursing through her.
Summer was fast approaching, and the Darcys expected the Gardiners for a fortnight's visit. Elizabeth looked forward to their company and hoped to find a few moments in which to privately discuss her fears with them and gain their advice.
Elizabeth sat in the nursery reading from Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. The little ones sat in rapt attention as their mother acted it out, emphasizing words, changing voices, and making sweeping motions to indicate the action described within the pages of the tome. When she would say or do something funny, the children would laugh. When scary scenes appeared, they clutched onto each other or their mother's skirts. When romantic scenes emerged, they giggled and snorted, then rolled their eyes, shouting out to their dear Mama that they would act so only with her.
Halfway through the story, Darcy came to stand in the doorway, listening as his wife entertained their children. Leaning his arm up against the doorframe, he tilted his head, taking in the scene before him. He seemed as happy as his family to engage in such an innocent activity.
And then Ferdinand, in another fine long speech (for young princes speak in courtly phrases), told the innocent Miranda he was heir to the crown of Naples, and that she should be his queen.
"Ah! Sir," said she, "I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of. I will answer you in plain and holy innocence. I am your wife if you will marry me."*
The initial reaction of the children was to laugh heartily at such romantic talk, falling over backward and wriggling around on the floor as they did so. Once they had expended their amusement, the eldest stood and walked to her mother's side. "Mama, is that how you and Papa came to be married?"
Lifting her eyes to meet her husband's, Elizabeth smiled warmly at her daughter. "Not exactly, my love."
"Was Papa not a prince?"
"That is a difficult question." She smiled lovingly at her daughter. "In many ways, he was, indeed, a prince among men. He did not, however, wear a crown."
"He had a great deal of land, like a prince, did he not?
"Yes, you have walked and driven over much of the land your papa holds."
"Then why is Papa not a prince?"
Elizabeth puffed out a breath in exasperation. She called out to Darcy to come and assist her in explaining the matter, but he refused to leave his post at the door.
Again, she attempted, "Your papa has much in common with a prince." She pulled the girl onto her lap, leaning forward, just a little, to ruffle the hair of the other two. "He has land and tenants and a beautiful home. He is of the upper circles of society and related to peers, but he does not possess any royal blood. Do you understand?"
The little girl shook her head. "Did you ask Papa to marry you, like Miranda in the story?"
"No, Calliope, I did not."
From the edge of the room, Darcy boomed, "No, she did not. Of course, she did not. She was innocent," he sneered. "She was witty and beautiful."
"She still is," cried out the middle child, Janet.
"Is she? I had not noticed."
The girl jumped to her feet and ran to her father, grabbing his hand and tugging. "Oh, Papa, you are mistaken. Come, look at Mama. She's the most beautiful creature I ever seed."
"Saw," he growled.
She looked up at him in confusion.
With impatience, he instructed, "That you ever saw. Saw, child, not seed." He shook her, knocking her off balance.
As she stumbled backwards, the girl tripped over her brother, who began crying at the insult more than at any pain he might have suffered.
"Stop that!!" ordered Darcy. "You shall not cry. I shall not have a sniveling rabbit for a son."
The boy whimpered, moving to cling to his mother's leg.
Elizabeth slid her arm around her son and turned to address her husband, beseeching him, "Fitzwilliam, please, you are scaring the child."
"I shall discipline my son as I see fit. You will kindly refrain from interfering."
At this, Elizabeth lowered her eldest from her lap and stood. "He is my child as well. I beg you, do not treat him thus."
Darcy moved into the room and came to stand before his wife, making every effort to stand erect so that he towered over her, intimidatingly. "You, madam, shall not advise me on how to regulate my child."
Tilting up her chin and squaring her shoulders, Elizabeth did not retreat. "You may be master of all before you, but I gave birth to Daniel. You must share him with me in this and every instance."
"Ah, I see," his voice grew oddly calm, little more than a whisper. "And if I do not wish to do so? What then?"
"You would not do such a cruel thing."
"Would I not?"
The boy had now moved behind Elizabeth, hugging her legs as he continued to cry. Elizabeth knew that the situation at hand was not one proper for a child to experience. In the calmest voice she could muster, Elizabeth faced her daughter and asked, "Calliope, dearest, please, go fetch Nurse."
"Yes, Mama." The girl ran from the room, the bow at the back of her dress fluttering as she moved hurriedly.
"Nurse? You leave my children with such a wench?"
Elizabeth's mouth dropped open. She had no reply to such peculiar and uncalled for abuse of a faithful and trusted servant.
Darcy took a step closer to his wife. Peering over her shoulder, he glared down on his son. Severely, he demanded, "Daniel, stop that at once. Cease, I say."
The boy cried harder, heart-rendering sobs racking his small body, no longer able to control himself.
"Stop frightening the boy," cried Elizabeth, in nearly as much anguish as her son. "He's just a child, leave him be."
Darcy made to move around her, leaning down and roughly gathering the boy in his arms. "He is my son," he growled, "if he cannot keep himself under good regulation, then I will assist him."
Grasping onto the boy's legs, Elizabeth attempted to gain command of the child. "Leave him, leave him, Fitzwilliam. Children cannot "
He tore the child from her and stormed from the room, the child bawling louder and louder as they moved down the hallway.
Elizabeth crumpled to the ground, while young Janet crouched in the corner, whimpering quietly, her face contorted, her eyes tightly closed against all that had taken place. How long they sat in such a manner, they knew not. Eventually, the child's cries broke through Elizabeth's dumfounded haze and, with great effort, she forced herself to stand, crossed the room, and drew the girl into her arms, offering the child the comfort she wished for herself.
Not much later, Calliope bounded into the room, clutching the hand of her nursery maid. The woman stood frozen in place, her jaw dropping at the spectacle before her. The older girl dropped the nurse's hand and ran to join her mother and sister, beginning to weep as she did so. "Mama, Mama, whatever is the matter. Is Janet ill?" She took a quick look about the room. "Where is my brother? Oh, Mama." She broke down in earnest, clinging to her mother as if for life.
It was many hours later that Elizabeth again saw her son. The boy had become ill, several times, from the agitation he suffered, before falling into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke and his father, at last, allowed him his freedom, the lad raced through the house, finding his mother in her sitting room, and running straight into her arms, crying again, this time in relief."
Dropping to her knees, Elizabeth swept him into a warm and loving embrace. "There, there, dearest, all is well. Fear not, Mama is here." She lifted her eyes to see her husband again standing in a doorway. She shot him a look of hatred, inspired by the horror he had inflicted upon her youngest child.
The look was all it took to set off Darcy's own enmity. He stomped into the room. "Oh, yes, Mama is here. Leave it to her and you'll be no better than George Wickham." He spit out the name with venom. "Yes, indeed, dear Mama will set you to rights, young man."
Unable to take any further abuse, Elizabeth shouted, "Stop, dear Lord, stop this! Do you not care that you terrify your child? Your heir?"
"Care? Here's how much I care." He lifted his arm and swept all the trinkets his wife had long treasured onto the floor. The tinkling of glass breaking upon impact mirrored the breaking of Elizabeth's heart.
Darcy was not done. He moved to Elizabeth's side and reached down to clutch her hair, snapping back her head. Leaning in toward her, he moved his face so that it almost touched hers. His breath hot on her cheeks, he scorned, "He is my son, and you will not forget that. He may have grown inside your body, but that means as little as an apple growing on the tree. As the apple belongs to me, so does the tree; so do you; so do the children. You will never again interfere with what I say; is that understood?"
Attempting to rein in the raging fear coursing through her, Elizabeth could do little more than make a small movement with her head, wincing at the resulting pain tearing through her scalp. The affliction helped serve to calm her.
"Answer me," he jerked again on her hair; the sound of his voice seemed inhuman.
In little more than a raspy whisper, Elizabeth groaned, "Yes."
Two weeks later, after several more outbursts from Darcy, each one more violent than the last, Elizabeth met the day of the arrival of her beloved aunt and uncle with unmitigated and immeasurable joy. To know that she would enjoy time in their kind and loving presence sent warmth radiating through her for the first time in months. At breakfast that morning, Darcy had announced that he would be engaged in business matters about the estate and would not be present to meet them, causing his wife to exhale a sigh of relief. When the Gardiners' carriage finally pulled to the door, Elizabeth and the children welcomed their guests warmly, with hugs and kisses, and then escorted them to their chambers in the guest wing.
After a period of rest and some time spent in refreshing themselves, the Gardiners joined their niece in the large, airy, yellow sitting room. Elizabeth, who had been in the middle of writing a letter to Jane, informing her of the safe arrival of their relatives, rose and greeted them anew with hugs and words of welcome.
"Come, come, sit." She motioned to the richly upholstered and comfortable-looking sofa and chairs set up beneath the large, unobstructed windows. "You have had long days of travel; you must now relax and accept my hospitality. I have already taken the liberty of ordering tea."
Her aunt looked up at her niece and noticed the dark circles under the younger woman's eyes. "Yes, of course, I shall laze about all the day, if you might come and sit with me for a while."
"I would enjoy that very much, dear Aunt." She turned to look at her desk with the unfinished letter sitting upon it. "If I may excuse myself for just one moment, I wish to complete my letter to Jane. She is such a dear and so content now that her latest has come into the world; I would hate for her to worry one moment longer than necessary over your welfare."
"By all means!" She smiled and whisked her fingers toward the desk to clear away any concerns to which her niece might cling. "We are well able to amuse ourselves for a few minutes, as you well know. Please add our regards to your letter, dear, and tell Jane we look forward to seeing her in two weeks' time."
Quickly adding the final adieus to her letter, Elizabeth sealed it and called for a servant to see to its delivery to the Bingley estate, not thirty miles to the south. No sooner did that man arrive, collect the missive, and depart, then a maid appeared with refreshments.
The three sat for some time and partook of the delectables prepared for them. As they did so, they chatted about the trip from Town, the Gardiner children, the Darcy children, and life in Lambton, Mrs. Gardiner's former home. Elizabeth felt uncomfortable broaching the subject of her husband, but Mrs. Gardiner, sensing something amiss with her niece, held no such hesitation and questioned Elizabeth on her unsettling appearance.
"It is nothing; please, do not trouble yourself."
Unwilling to accept such a reply, Mr. Gardiner pushed her with questions and, after many of those queries, his effort received reward. Quickly, a tearful Elizabeth unburdened herself, sharing her worst fears and nightmares as the wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Shocked and aghast at such a report, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner requested a moment of privacy to discuss all they had heard, and Elizabeth departed to tend to some household matters. Shaken by what their niece had revealed, the two clung to each other for a moment, seeking comfort. Then, as they began to calm a bit, speech flowed easily, and they quickly arrived at a solution they could only hope their niece would accept.
Mr. Gardiner walked to the door and recalled Elizabeth to the room.
"Dearest girl," he said lovingly, "we cannot allow you to continue here under such adverse conditions. You and the children must away with us instantly, to Gracechurch Street."
Touched by their desire to rescue her family, Elizabeth rose, as she explained, "I thank you for your offer. However, I understand the danger your attempt to shield and shelter us would bring to you, and I cannot allow you to place yourself and your family in such a position. At present, I worry only for my own children and myself. If we were to accompany you and remain at Gracechurch Street, it would not take long for my husband to find us and claim his right to return us to Derbyshire. In doing so, I cannot vouch for the safety of anyone. I would not see you or my cousins harmed for my benefit."
"Surely, Lizzy," Uncle Gardiner opposed, "he has not done any bodily harm to you or the children. We would all remain securely in Cheapside. At worst, I imagine, he may call on the bailiff, but no more."
"I pray you would be correct, Uncle. But I dare not take the chance of seeing harm come to you, your children, or mine." She was now pacing in front of the fireplace. I care not for myself, for no one would be more deserving of abuse than the wife, but, no, I refuse to leave for Gracechurch Street." At this, she stomped her foot for emphasis.
Her aunt rose and wrapped an arm around Elizabeth's shoulder. "Come and have a seat. I am certain that we are capable of arriving at a better solution with a little discussion."
Darcy stayed out quite late that night, missing dinner, despite his expected arrival.
His tardiness allowed the conversation to continue until the wee hours, with several possibilities discussed. At length, the Gardiners, stifling yawns, announced their great exhaustion after such a long and wearing day and excused themselves for bed.
Elizabeth removed to her chamber and with only a modicum of surprise, discovered her husband awaiting her in her own bed. "What do you want?" she turned pained eyes upon him.
He wiggled his eyebrows, a lascivious grin upon his lips. "After all these years of marriage and three children, you still need ask me my desires when in your chamber?"
"No." She turned from him, flushed with anger. "You avoid my relatives, miss dinner, send no word of your arrival, and still you believe I would have any interest in spending time with you?"
"I care not for your interest," he spat out, "for I have interest in you, and that is all that is of any importance. Come to me and be done."
"I I shall not."
"You refuse your husband?"
"Shall I raise an unholy hullabaloo then, loud enough to draw your kin to find us in the midst?"
Having few options, Elizabeth submitted, but swore to herself that it would be for the very last time.
The next morning at breakfast, the Gardiners requested that Mr. Darcy again escort them through the grounds, as he had that lovely day years before. He threw a look at his wife and then consented. "It shall be my pleasure to share with you the glories of Pemberley. Much has changed since you last viewed the precincts of the estate." He engaged his wife's eyes and, with a smirk, added, "Perhaps Mrs. Darcy should remain in the house, for the children may require her assistance."
Mrs. Gardiner protested this vehemently. "If my niece does not accompany us, then perhaps we should all remain within doors. My purpose in taking my holiday with you is to spend time with those I love. In but two weeks we shall be off to visit with the dear Bingleys and what then if I have not had time to lark about with you both, and the children? I should be heartbroken. No, Mr. Darcy, I insist that we all go or all remain."
"Very well," he did not enjoy being reprimanded by his wife's aunt, "if you insist. Elizabeth, go and prepare yourself, and see to it that a meal is readied to leave with us in half an hour."
Elizabeth felt the urge to rebel over the short notice, but decided it would not help with the scheme she, her aunt, and her uncle had devised the night before. No, she would remain calm and focus on what was to come. Taking a deep breath, she excused herself to make the necessary arrangements.
She returned to the breakfast room not five and twenty minutes later, to find it empty, save for two footmen and a maid who were clearing away the dishes from the table and sideboard. They paused in their duties to acknowledge their mistress. "James, Thomas, have you any idea where my aunt and uncle have gone?"
Thomas, the older of the two, who had spent most of his life within the bounds of the estate, replied, "Aye, missus, your good aunt and uncle joined Mr. Darcy in the carriage, not ten minutes ago."
"Did they say if they'd be back?"
"They did, ma'am," answered James, "afore dinner, said the master."
"Not until dinner?" Elizabeth could not contain the mixture or ire and fear that surged through her. Attempting to gain control of her emotions, she breathed in and out deeply for a few moments. Once fairly confident of her ability to continue the discussion, Elizabeth solicited more information of the younger man, newer to the service of Pemberley. "Not until dinner, you say. James, did they, perchance, make mention of anything about other plans for their tour?"
"Indeed, ma'am," he smiled at her, "the master said he would enjoy returning his guests to the same spot he enjoyed with them long ago. It seemed an odd thing to say, if you'll pardon me."
She nodded her head stupidly. After a moment, she wondered aloud if either of the men knew if Mr. Darcy had remembered to take along the basket of food.
They both shook their heads and shrugged, but the young maid, who had been busily, and silently, carrying the large platters of meats back to the kitchen, walked in and, with a curtsey, offered, "If you will, miss, I believe Mr. Darcy collected that hisself. Is something amiss? Shall I call for Mrs. Reynolds?"
Not wishing to cause unease among the servants, she attempted to relieve the worry so evident on the girl's face. "No, no, Agnes, that will not be necessary. I wished only to learn whether Mr. Darcy had remembered to take it along. As you have assured me that he has, I require nothing further." She quickly spun on her heel and left the room, shaken to the bone over the idea of her aunt and uncle alone with her husband.
Darcy had insisted that the Gardiners leave with him immediately. When they protested that they would not go without Elizabeth, Darcy laughed and assured them that she would catch up on foot. "You recall how fond she is of walking, do you not? She will gain greater enjoyment from setting out afoot to meet us than from riding about dully all day in a restrictive carriage."
They could hardly object, given the veracity of his statement, and so, Darcy quickly swept them from the house and drove off without further delay.
Elizabeth hurried to gather her pelisse and bonnet. Shrugging into them, she rushed out the side door and clattered down the steps. Nearly running, she headed off toward the pond. Darcy's cryptic message to the servants gave her hope that she would find them there. She hastened along the path, bustling as fast as she dared. She felt her lungs seize at the strain she placed upon them and clutched at her side. Heaving, gasping, wheezing, she struggled for breath, as she rushed onward as fast as her limbs could carry her. No matter how much ground she covered, it never seemed enough, and she pushed harder. She continued thus for many minutes, at last forced to pause and gain her breath and ease the stitch in her side. She did not linger long, and as soon as she felt able, she again set out at the fastest pace possible.
At last, she reached the rise overlooking the clearing, and bent over, her hands locked to her knees for support, gulping for air. She lifted her head just enough to gaze at the scene laid out before her. There, near the edge of the pond, walked the three whom she sought.
Lowering herself to the ground, she sat and rested, wiping the perspiration from her face, as her attention riveted on every move her husband, uncle, and aunt made. Slowly, her breathing returned to a more normal rhythm, though her lungs continued to burn from her efforts. With her eyes, she followed the small group as it made its way around the isolated body of water. She could discern the tips of yellowing grasses poking through its mirrored surface and noted the reflection of the surrounding trees, their leaves turning bright and colorful hues. She sat until she felt recovered and then began her way down the slope.
By the time she reached her party, she had again warmed considerably and, no doubt, looked rather disheveled. She wiped at her brow with the sleeve of her pelisse, then greeted her aunt and uncle.
"Do you not acknowledge your husband, as well, Mrs. Darcy?"
Startled by his inquiry, Elizabeth wavered, "Yes yes, of course. Hallo, Mr. Darcy. I I trust you had a good ride out here to the the pond."
He fairly sneered, "We did; did we not, Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner?"
That couple nodded and murmured their agreement, their eyes set on Elizabeth, watching her with worry. Aunt Gardiner broke away from her husband and walked to her niece, slipping her arm through Elizabeth's. "And your walk to meet us, Lizzy, it was an enjoyable one?" she asked with concern.
The younger woman inhaled deeply to calm herself. "Yes, Aunt, a very good walk." She threw a defiant look at Darcy.
"This is all the civility to which you deem me entitled?"
"Sir?" Elizabeth looked at him warily.
"You say no more to me than hallo and did you have a good ride? No asking after my health, no 'it is good to see you again, husband'?"
His voice cut through her, and she bit back tears. She would not give him the satisfaction of destroying her composure. Puzzled by his questions, she stared at him, grasping for answers.
"Oh, very good, and now you stand there and gape at me. What are you about, wife?"
"Nothing, sir, I am about nothing. I do I do wish for for your good health, and, yes, of course, it is excellent to again be in your company." She blurted it out, an outright lie, but knew not what else to say.
Aunt Gardiner squeezed her arm and propelled her forward. "Let us go for a short walk, my dear, and enjoy the splendid view.
Darcy stepped before them, halting their progress. "You shall not go without me. I shall not have you whispering gossipy confidences which I may later have need to repudiate."
"Of course, good sir," said Mr. Gardiner coming to his wife's side. "We may all join in and stroll around the pond before we break bread."
And, so, they set out to cover the circuit. When they reached the far shore, Mr. Gardiner glanced at his wife. She gave her head a slight nod as she again squeezed her niece's arm. Elizabeth looked up, took notice of her uncle's expression, and she, too, nodded. Uncle Gardiner held up one finger, signaling caution.
It was at this point that Darcy, whose long strides had outstripped the others, turned to face them. Mr. Gardiner quickly dropped his hand, and all three charged at Darcy, knocking him off balance and into the water. He spluttered at the water filling his nose and thrashed about, attempting to gain purchase and recover himself.
Mr. Gardiner, the largest of the three, grabbed Darcy's shoulders and forced his head under the water.
Darcy, tall and muscular, proved a challenge to keep submersed. Edward Gardiner called for his wife and niece to assist him. Quickly, the older lady plunged into the water, reaching for some portion of Darcy's anatomy in order to restrain it as best she could. Elizabeth hesitated for the merest moment before following her aunt and grabbing ahold of her husband's leg and pressing it down.
Darcy fought like a demon possessed; he had no desire to die, especially not in such a way, and had great difficulty in believing his family would treat him thusly. He kicked, scratched, flung his arms in the hope of striking his assailants. He bucked and jerked and resisted in every manner possible. Gasping for air, he realized his error when he felt his lungs fill with water. Quickly, his strength began to ebb, but he would not surrender; he would battle.
Elizabeth moved to sit upon Darcy's legs, forcing them to the shallow bottom at the periphery of the pond. She was growing fatigued and questioning the wisdom of such an undertaking. And then, she sensed her husband weakening. His flailing seemed less intense, and he no longer appeared capable of knocking her or her relations about with his former power.
Mr. Gardiner grimaced at the strain; his arms began to ache and throb, but still, he continued to control Darcy's head, keeping it fully submerged, watching as the escaping air bubbles slowly diminished in quantity, until they no longer broke the surface of the water.
His wife, smaller and more delicate than either he or his niece, did what she could, pinning down whatever body part she could reach and contain. She felt bruised and battered, but to preserve Elizabeth's well-being, she would have done much more.
At last, Darcy stilled, and all thrashing stopped. Mrs. Gardiner motioned to her husband to release him, but he refused. He would insure, without a doubt, that the wretch, the brute, the monster who now stared open eyed, but unseeingly, was gone and unable to harm his dearest girl ever again. For many minutes they stood, forming an odd tableau under the bright afternoon sun.
How long they remained in such a stance none of them knew. Finally, Mr. Gardiner let loose, lifting his hands and flexing them, attempting to return some flow of blood to his fingers. With some success at that endeavor, he turned to assist his companions onto the shore and followed them to dry land.
He quickly saw to the comfort of the ladies, then himself collapsed against the trunk of a tree, attempting to catch his breath, feeling light-headed and dazed. He felt chilled, but knew his work not complete. After a period of rest, he struggled to his feet, motioned to his wife to remain seated, and returned to the water's edge.
Elizabeth hurried to his side, keeping her eyes averted from the floating figure before her. "What " her voice failed her. She took a moment and cleared her throat. "What may I do to assist you, Uncle?" she asked, with far greater calmness than she felt.
He stood in thought, and then replied, "We must remove some of his clothing. His coat, his waistcoat, his cravat, and boots at the least, to make it appear that he had willingly gone bathing. It is a warm day; no one would question such activity in a man known to so enjoy the sport."
Gingerly, Elizabeth lowered herself into the water, queasy at the thought of touching a corpse. She looked to her uncle, who smiled at her encouragingly. She threw off the queer, immodest feeling of her skirts floating up about her waist and unsteadily reached for the buttons of the slightly muddied red and white silk waistcoat. Her fingers clumsy, she labored to release each fastening. Once she had completed that task, she moved to untie and remove his neckcloth, the water making the cloth resist release.
Her uncle then joined her and, between them, they managed to liberate Darcy's quickly stiffening arms from the sleeves of his coat, and then freed the waistcoat in the same manner. Once done with that task, they turned their concentration to removing the high-quality boots from Darcy's legs. The wet leather hindered their initial attempts, but with Mrs. Gardiner coming to lend a hand, they eventually managed to loose them from the body.
Mr. Gardiner leaned down and pulled the tail of Darcy's shirt from his britches; the fine linen quickly set to billowing at the surface.
Her eyes widening in horror, Elizabeth suddenly realized what they had done. Her first thought was for her children; how would she explain their father's death to them? Tears instantly welled in her eyes.
Mrs. Gardiner, seeing her niece beginning to panic, leaned over and slapped her in the face, quickly drawing her back to the task at hand. The look of shock settling upon Elizabeth's features quickly faded into one of determination.
Pointing to a spot a few feet further into the water, Mr. Gardiner stepped into the pond and slid his arms around Darcy, dragging him into the deeper section of the pool. He motioned for Elizabeth to join him; between them, they managed to flip the large man into a prone position. The portly tradesman moved Darcy's limbs into what he thought an appropriate attitude for bathing, then pushed him some distance, until the body rested amongst an isolated clump of pond weed, frogbit, rushes, and reeds. Carefully, he inched closer and worked to entangle Darcy's extremities in the growth, making it appear that he had accidentally managed to become entwined and unable to free himself from the ensnarement.
With haste, they spread out the blanket on the grass and set out the plates and food, breaking off pieces of the meats, cheese, and bread, they dirtied the dishes and then relocated those uneaten morsels to the protection of a napkin. This charade would assure all that an informal meal had been consumed prior to the unfortunate accident, insuring the appearance of a genial outing gone terribly wrong. Once done, Mr. Gardiner gathered the filled cloth together and stuffed it into his coat pocket. He then commenced a short review, for his wife and niece, of the story they would tell once they returned to the house, and all moved to assemble in the carriage. A quick flick of the whip, and the horses began to pace the route back to the manor.
Some distance from the pond, Mr. Gardiner halted the vehicle, climbed down, walked into a stand of trees well out of sight from the road, and emptied the contents of the napkin. Returning, he took control of the horses and again snapped the whip, this time to make them move with swiftness.
Approaching the steps, Elizabeth began to shriek. "Help! Help! Please, help! My husband!"
Aunt Gardiner affected the appearance of weeping, as Mr. Gardiner roughly pulled the horses to a halt. Jumping down, he ran up the stairs, and pounded on the door. The footman, hearing all the commotion, rapidly allowed entrance. Gasping for breath, Mr. Gardiner shouted, "Help! Call for help! My nephew!"
The footman, sensing a problem but uncertain of how to deal with it, called for Mrs. Reynolds.
With great emotion in his voice, Mr. Gardiner cried, "Please, ma'am, my nephew."
The good lady looked puzzled.
"An accident " He paused to gasp again. " We tried we tried to assist him, but the weeds the weeds hindered I fear that he has drowned."
The housekeeper's hands flew to her breast, her jaw dropping. She began shaking dramatically, and the footman moved to help ease her into a nearby chair.
"Call all the men," Mr. Gardiner shouted to the butler and some others who had just joined them. "Darcy, your master, he has drowned in the glade pond."
The faces of all present drained of color.
Finally, Elizabeth entered, her face tear stained; her knees wobbly. Looking about at all those assembling, a sudden strength possessed her. Now," she ordered with authority, "gather together all the men within a few minutes reachand head to the north clearing."
The original footman turned to do exactly that.
"Send someone to the stables, to the fields, and call for all there to join you."
The butler turned and headed in that direction; Mr. Gardiner, flagging, following ploddingly behind him.
Elizabeth, her hands shaking, took a tentative step towards the housekeeper. "Mrs. Reynolds," her voice quavered, "dear Mrs. Reynolds, your boy -- I fear your dear boy, our dear boy " She collapsed, her head in the aged woman's lap.
The search party set out, and all the noise and clatter drew the attention of the youngest lady of the house. Miss Georgiana Darcy skipped down the stairs, hoping to discover the source of all the commotion. As she reached the bottom tread, she turned to see the scene of her disarrayed and muddied sister-in-law comforting, and being comforted, by Mrs. Reynolds. Her hand dashed to her lips and, fearfully, she demanded, "What has happened. Whatever is wrong?"
Elizabeth feebly raised her head. "Oh, Georgiana," she sobbed, attempting to gain her feet. "My lovely girl." She slid her arms around her sister and drew her into an embrace.
Georgiana stiffened, pushing her way out of the hug. "Tell me! Tell me, what has happened?"
"Sit, you must sit," said Mrs. Gardiner in a raspy voice. She rested on the other end of the hallway, on one of the chairs brought unasked by a maid.
Slipping an arm around the girl to help her, Elizabeth guided her to take the chair beside Mrs. Reynolds, who reached out and clutched at Georgiana's hand. She then, as gently and tenderly as she could, revealed the fate her brother had suffered.
"No, no, no, no!" she cried, over and over. Her shock evident, Elizabeth rubbed her back and hugged her close. She had known, when they had come up with the scheme, that this would be one of the hardest parts to execute. Elizabeth truly felt the weight of what they had done, and it did not take much for her to play to part of the sudden, inconsolable widow. The two young women wept in each others arms.
An hour later, Mr. Gardiner returned with the servants and a wagon bearing Darcy's sopping wet body. Upon hearing the subdued sound of men's voices and the rumble of cartwheels on the drive, the women shook themselves from their affliction, and each other's arms, and walked to the door. Stepping out into the gloom of eventide, they stood and watched as the procession followed the wain around to the stables. The bleak and dismal expressions on the men's faces told all the story necessary. Their master, their good, kind, loving master was dead.
Georgiana's hand slipped out in search of her sister's, seeking the comfort of the last person alive who loved her unbounded. Elizabeth squeezed the girl's hand, pulling her closer to her side. "We shall make our way through this, dearest. We shall cling to one another, as your brother would have wished."
The utter gravity of what they had done now fell upon her, and Elizabeth wept piteously.
The funeral had been in every way horrible. Missives had been sent off rapidly, spreading the news and requesting family and friends to appear for the service. By need, due to the mode of death and the uncommon warmth of the season, the burial could not be delayed. Express messages carried responses, all communicating their sorrow to learn of the loss of the eminent Mr. Darcy. In addition, they expressed their regrets over their inability to appear in Derbyshire in time for the interment, but offered their love and condolences to the family. The Matlocks, unfortunately, toured in Italy; their son, the colonel, had been deployed on assignment in Spain, and Lady Catherine and Anne, did not bother to respond to Elizabeth's notification. Neither the Bennets, nor the Bingleys who visited with them, could travel the distance between Hertfordshire and Pemberley in the allotted period before the ceremonial farewell. So only a small family party consisting of Mrs. Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner, accompanied by many long-employed servants and a few of the nearer neighbors, were present at the final rites and graveside prayers. Despite the inappropriateness of women in such attendance, Mrs. Darcy determined it only right and proper for those who had loved her husband to see him laid to his eternal rest. Their somber, jet-hued attire perfectly reflected their dispositions. Once the minister had completed all the required liturgies, the family returned to the house in great affliction, to continue their mourning in relative privacy.
The Gardiners served as representatives for all the family unable to attend and offered as much love, support, and compassion as possible to the two grieving women. They had remained at the side of their niece and niece-in-law, listening to the woe that ravaged the souls of the young women. As the afternoon wore on, they called for tea, and after partaking of a cup of the hot brew, the couple excused themselves to return to their chambers for a few hours of rest.
With their departure, Elizabeth and Georgiana found themselves alone. Elizabeth suffered overwhelming guilt. She had deprived the poor young woman, her desolate sister, of her only brother, her only close relation. Knowing this, she could not utter a word to her sister-in-law. Georgiana, however, had no difficulty in communicating the depth of her love for her bother and of how greatly she would miss him.
Elizabeth found herself able to reply with only a nod to these sentiments, as tears trailed down her cheeks, and she reached for Georgiana's hand to offer what little comfort she could.
After a period of quiet, spent sitting and staring at nothing in particular, Elizabeth gained enough strength to speak. "My darling girl," she said, gently squeezing Georgiana's fingers, "when your brother first came to court me, truly court me, he could not have been more charming. Back then, he smiled; he laughed; he conversed in the most convivial manner. It was quite out of my power to deny him anything when he behaved in such a way."
Nodding her agreement, Georgiana returned the pressure on Elizabeth's hand. "Yes, I recall; it was so until until Daniel was born, was it not?"
Mrs. Darcy agreed.
"What happened then to change things between the two of you?"
The question met with only a shrug in reply.
The room again fell silent and remained so for a long period. The stillness reigned; until, at last, Georgiana released the hand she held and leaning over, placed it on Elizabeth's arm. "Tell me; tell me, my sister, about your courtship with Fitzwilliam, that I may better understand the man who was my brother."
Drawing in a deep breath, Elizabeth thought back to those days in Hertfordshire. Slowly she began, speaking of her visit to Pemberley before the courtship had begun. She then told of their time spent at Netherfield and Longbourn, of the kindness and concern Darcy had shown for her. Eventually, the story came around to that day in Mr. Bennet's study, after Darcy had proposed. "I remember, very clearly, that Fitzwilliam told my father, no, actually promised Papa, that he would treat me as his father," she turned to Georgiana and smiled, "as your father, treated your mother. I thought that boded well for our future, for all tales of your parents' marriage had sounded positively blissful."
"And and so was yours, was it not?" the girl asked eagerly.
"For the first many years, it was, indeed. Fitzwilliam was the gentlest of souls for that time. He often told me that he desired to spoil me, and he did so with great abandon. He coddled me, cosseted me, and, yet, he allowed me to remain true to myself." Her head dropped as she fought a new onslaught of tears. Gaining some measure of control over her emotions, she continued, "He remained so, a delightful husband and companion, until the day his son was born and not one day beyond. On that very day, he changed." Another pause to master her feelings. "I I cannot comprehend it." She shook her head in dismay. "So loving a man, and then " She shook her head in dismay and sorrow.
"I, also, noticed this change in him, Lizzy. One would think that the birth of his son, his heir, would have caused him great joy. Instead " she turned away as her voice trailed off, a vivid blush overspreading her cheeks, a pang of exceeding disloyalty to her brother's memory flooding through her.
Again, the room was plunged into an overpowering hush, until a small voice came forth from Mrs. Darcy. "Instead?"
Lifting her eyes to gaze at the ceiling, blinking rapidly to banish the tears that threatened to fall, Georgiana added, "Instead, the birth of his son seemed to destroy him."
"You noticed this, also?" Elizabeth more proclaimed this, than voiced a question. She reached out and, again, grasped her sister's hand. They sat thus for some time, neither speaking, each lost in their own thoughts.
Breaking the silence, in little more than a whisper, the grieved sister said, "I believe, Lizzy, we have solved the paradox."
Elizabeth looked at her quizzically, "Paradox? I do not comprehend your meaning."
"You see, as I sit here, I now recall Fitzwilliam telling me stories he had heard from Mother about the happy marriage she and Father, for many years, shared." She drew in a breath, her vision directed through the nearby window, focusing on the rapidly dimming light. "It seems they were fervently pleased with one another until Fitzwilliam was born." She turned to face her sister.
Lifting an eyebrow, Elizabeth encouraged her sister to continue.
Her vision again retreating to the out of doors, she resumed her explanation, "From that day forward, it seems that Father barely tolerated Mother's presence. How I came into existence, I know not." She violently twisted the handkerchief she held in her hand, blushing at the thought. "I do believe, however, that it was Father's indifference, nay, disdain, that brought about Mother's untimely death."
Elizabeth reached out and collected the girl in her arms, attempting to soothe her. She was, however, not finished. Pushing away, she lifted her eyes to meet her sister's. "You see, Lizzy, Fitzwilliam did as he said; he did treat you exactly as Father treated Mother."
After another period of silence, Elizabeth faced her sister, "Why do you think " her voice trailed off, as she turned her attention to her hands, folded in her lap. "Why do you think it would have such an effect upon him?"
Georgiana sat in thought for a very long time. "I do not know, Lizzy, but, perhaps perhaps he found that the birth of his son fulfilled his imagined duty in life. Is it possible that he felt that he no longer needed to pursue it further and sought to keep his distance?"
Offering her sister the slightest of smiles, Mrs. Darcy, knowing full well that he had not kept his distance in that respect, replied, "Yes, very possible." Perhaps my sister is in some way correct, and he had meant to keep his distance in other ways, she thought.
At her words and thoughts, a shiver ran up the widow's spine, and a pall of sadness once again settled over them both.
Six months later
A glorious spring day, replete with a warm, bright sun, turned Pemberley's grounds into a riot of freshly budding vegetation and early wildflowers. Everywhere Elizabeth turned, she found her breath taken away by the vistas before her. With Georgiana as her companion and friend, she trudged to the pond, a bouquet of flowers in her hand. The two women moved to the boundary, where the water met the land. Kneeling at the edge, the ladies together reached over to lay the bouquet on the surface of the water. They remained there as they watched it begin to float away, towards middle of the pool. Each said a silent prayer that the man who had died there would find lasting peace in the next world. Slowly, they rose to their feet and circled the periphery of the shore. The two sisters spoke quietly of the man they had each once loved in their own special way. Once they had completed the loop, they turned to continue their walk and met up with the governess and the three young Darcy children, who clambered for their attention. The girls moved to join their aunt while Elizabeth took her son Daniel's hand into her own, letting out a deep, contented sigh. Despite all that had happened, remaining at Pemberley for all the days of her life would truly provide her with a great source of happiness.The End