Posted on 2008-10-14
Of all the news Alexander Fitzwilliam had expected to hear after a hurriedly scrawled note from his father, the recovery of his little cousin, Elizabeth, had certainly not been on the list. He had, of course, thought of her often, and his beloved Cassandra had learned that he only reached for the brandy on the days when the pain of the loss of Elizabeth or their unborn children haunted him. To have the grown up Elizabeth on his arm at this moment he had been unable to stop the tears, so profound was his relief. She could have been prematurely aged, haggard, and warty, and still he would think her one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen in his life. He longed to tell her why Cassandra had been unable to join him tonight, but he was checked by the fear that there would be no news to give shortly. He only hoped she would not mind being a godmother in another six or seven months, should this pregnancy finally succeed. But despite the information that his father had relayed in an undertone, to be barely heard over the click and clank of silverware Wickham, his cousin Darcy's brother! and Darcy's obvious attentions, as relayed by Richard, to Elizabeth he was aware the evening's revelations had not been finished, and he reluctantly led Elizabeth towards the parlour. This time, she stayed him.
She glanced quickly around, ensuring the servants were not in ear-shot, he assumed. "Has my uncle informed you of Wickham's " she hesitated.
"Peculiar connection?" he suggested, and at her nod and slight smile, nodded in affirmation.
"I am concerned for William," she added. "I do not know what Wickham is to relay tonight, but William's patience was sorely tested by merely finding Georgiana playing the piano with him."
Alexander grimaced. "You are asking me to keep William from doing something he may regret?"
She glanced away and bit her lip, nodding. "It is not that I believe he will do anything intentionally, but this has been a particularly stressful situation."
"William has always been very temperate, very calm, despite having an implacable temper when finally goaded into anger," he replied. "My father related the events prior to dinner to me, and I can only agree that William is under an undue amount of stress. I will do what I can, Elizabeth." She gave him a brilliant smile, and he felt keenly, the injustice of having missed out on so much of her life. He smiled, trying to hide how much pain the realization of just how much time had been lost caused. "Shall we see what else is to be learnt?" She nodded, and he led her to the parlour.
"We despaired of you, Elizabeth!" Lady Catherine cried, as they rejoined the group.
"We only delayed a few moments, mθre," Elizabeth smiled. Alexander smiled to himself at the name such an elegantly simple avoidance of what could have been an issue. "Alexander wished to speak to me, and as you see, we have followed in due time."
Lady Catherine looked as if she wished to scowl and abruptly, Alexander realized his aunt was jealous that anyone else should wish for her daughter's company, as well as fearful for her welfare. "Go sit with her, Elizabeth," he whispered in her ear no particular feat of skill given the disparity of their heights. "I think she is as worried as William is." He felt, more than saw Elizabeth's fractional nod, and she moved to sit beside her mother. Mr. Bennet promptly moved to sit near Elizabeth, and Darcy looked divided between keeping himself between Georgiana and Wickham even though from what his father had told him, Alexander had few concerns there and wanting to also be close to Elizabeth. Richard, apparently, was quite correct in his estimation of William's affections. As Elizabeth had requested of him, Alexander seated himself near William. Wickham had not taken a seat, nor had the earl; they stood in close conference near the fireplace.
After a moment, the earl apparently conceded defeat to whatever Wickham was demanding. He turned and addressed the group. "I believe we are all assembled?" A murmur of agreement answered. "Wickham has offered to tell us what he knows of the night of March 15th, seventeen years ago. I have heard it once already, and I warn you it only gives as many questions as it answers." He paused, and moved towards Elizabeth, kneeling. "I ask you, most in particular, if you are sure you wish to know what little he can tell us."
Alexander felt a trace of concern his father would not be asking her a second time, if he were not concerned how the knowledge would impact her. But this Elizabeth was the Elizabeth he had known as a child he saw an echo of fear in her eyes, in the set of her shoulders, but rarely was she intimidated by such things. She nodded. "I do, my lord." She looked towards Wickham, adding, "If naught else, I do not believe he deserves to carry the weight on his own."
His father nodded, for the merest moment looking defeated. He rose and glanced at Wickham. "Proceed, George, if you will." Alexander watched as his father settled himself beside Lady Sarah, then looked back at Wickham, who was pale but determined.
"I hardly know where to start," Wickham began, "but You remember, Darcy, how Miss Elizabeth had wanted a ride on the pony your our father had bought for us?" Darcy nodded and exchanged a glance with Richard. Alexander, too, remembered. Wickham sighed, before looking at Elizabeth. "I had found you outside of your nursery, in your favourite dress, and you pleaded for me to take you on a pony ride. I did try to convince you to stay in the nursery, but, I own, I did not try overly hard. I, too, vividly remembered wishing to ride on a pony with Darcy and Richard, and being held back from it on account of being two years younger. I thought I was doing you a favour." He grimaced, and swallowed, looking back at the fire. "I honestly expected to be stopped when we left the house and went to the stables. I had you sit down in the garden near the stables, so that the groom would not see you and put a premature end to our adventure." Another grimace, at the word, and Alexander felt an echo of it. "I did not wish to be caught, and so once I made sure you were seated securely on the saddle, I directed the pony outside of the park's main gates. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated both how far we had travelled, and how close to sunset it was, and by the time I realized we were lost the sun was setting. Shortly after it became dark, we came to the road, and I frankly guessed which direction to go along it. After a while I do not know how long we heard another rider coming up in the dark, and I was fearful that it may not be a friendly encounter." Alexander while gritting his teeth at this bare-bones recital, was sharply reminding himself of Wickham's age at the time; just a boy, and his fear of a hostile rider was not unfounded. Rumours swirled about all sorts of horrors caused by the gypsies during their annual circuit through Kent in early spring. "I led the pony off the road you, Elizabeth, on its back and tried to keep the three of us quiet so we would not be discovered." Wickham paused, taking a deep breath.
The earl stirred uneasily, and Alexander gave his father a quick questioning glance, but only received a slight shake of the head in response. Wickham picked his story back up. "The horse and rider only came close enough for me to distinguish them faintly, before " he hesitated, "something startled the pony." Alexander saw a flash of relief? fly across his father's face. "The pony reared, and I was knocked to the ground. The horse startled in reaction, and the rider was thrown, but my only concern was trying to capture the pony as it fled, you still on its back." By now, Wickham was speaking almost entirely to Elizabeth; Alexander had the impression that he only vaguely realized there was anyone else in the room. Wickham seated himself nearby Elizabeth and buried his head in his hands. When he looked up, his expression was haunted. "I ran for I do not know for how long. Certainly long after I could no longer hear you calling for me. But I could not find any traces of you, in the dark. Somehow, I made my way back to Rosings, afoot I cannot recall exactly. The house was in an uproar, and I waited, for days it felt like, for someone to ask me what happened, but the questions were never asked."
"And did it never once occur to you to tell anyone, without being asked?" Alexander burst out. Wickham shook his head mutely. "Why ever not?"
Elizabeth broke in quietly Alexander abruptly realized how pale she was. "It was my father, was it not? The rider thrown when the pony startled?"
Wickham hesitated. "I know of no other riders injured that night, but I also have no idea how far we were from Rosings." The earl murmured that he, too, knew of no other riders injured in the vicinity that night.
"My fault," Alexander thought he heard her whisper; he must have heard it, for Wickham was suddenly kneeling in front of her, pleading.
"Never your fault, Elizabeth. Mine, yes; I was old enough to have known better, to have said no, to have done anything but risk your safety."
"My age was not an excuse," she replied, obviously fighting for composure, rising as if to flee so she could accuse herself in private.
Protestations from every party in the room arose, trying to convince her otherwise. Alexander was at a loss for words himself; she could not be blamed, she was far too young to have come even close to considering the ramifications of a fairly simple desire. Wickham despite being old enough to have realized the initial action was wrong could not have even begun to imagine such an outcome. But Elizabeth would not listen, and refused to even let Mr. Bennet, Jane or William comfort her. One person in the room, however, was just as stubborn, and when Elizabeth tried to pull away, Lady Catherine merely held her daughter tighter. Alexander could not hear the words his aunt whispered in his cousin's ear, but whatever it was, it broke Elizabeth's composure completely, and she sagged against her mother, crying. Anne came up hesitantly, glancing at her mother for permission, before she wrapped her arms around her little sister as well. Elizabeth's crying slowed as they cradled her.
Alexander found he could not keep watching; the pain in Elizabeth's posture tore at his heart, even as he realized Anne and her mother were convincing Elizabeth of her innocence. He met Mr. Bennet's eyes for just a moment, and felt grief for him, too. He looked as if he thought he was on the verge of losing his daughter, and Alexander moved to assure him otherwise. "You cannot think we would be so selfish a family as to keep her from you, even if she chose to move into our protection?" he asked quietly.
"I know not what to think," Bennet replied. "Her life our lives cannot go back to what it was before. I cannot help but think I am being supremely selfish by wishing to keep her at Longbourn for as long as I can."
Alexander was about to reply when he heard Darcy say uncertainly, "George?" He glanced towards his cousins voice, and discovered that Wickham was dealing as well with relaying the story, as Elizabeth had to hearing it.
Wickham looked up at Darcy he had not the Fitzwilliam advantage of height, although he was not short for a man by any means. "I had hoped she would not want to hear what happened. The relief of confession could never outweigh the grief of seeing her in so much pain pain, to whit, that ought to be my burden only."
Darcy gritted his teeth Alexander felt alarm surely he was not going to give into his temper now of all times. "I would that you had said something, anything," he replied.
"I do not know why I did not," Wickham answered. "After a few days, I almost convinced myself it was a nightmarish flight of fancy, brought on by the horror of the situation, which even without being particularly involved, was more than enough."
"You swear you tried to find her?" Darcy asked, even more quietly. Wickham nodded. Darcy closed his eyes for a moment. "And you never meant Georgiana harm?"
Wickham shuddered. "All the treasures most sacred to me The Ramsgate fiasco was another miscalculation on my part; I was in over my head before I knew what was happening."
Darcy gave him a long, measuring look. "I do not want to hear you have trifled with any more shopkeepers daughters, nor run up any outstanding debts of either money or honour brother."
Alexander felt himself take a startled breath, even as Wickham did the same. "It has been a long while since I did more than trifle with the heart of any daughter, and certainly not in Meryton; the protection of the Miss Bennets has occupied much of my spare time," he replied. "But I may need assistance to right a few debts, but I shall endeavour not to incur any more," Wickham hesitated, "brother." Darcy nodded and gripped Wickham's shoulder in acknowledgement, and then moved towards the de Bourgh ladies. Wickham watched him with a mixture of disbelief and hope in his expression, although Alexander felt almost complete disbelief. Still Elizabeth's crying had subsided, and he, too, went to her side now, as did most of those in the room.
"Elizabeth?" Jane asked, her countenance worried.
Elizabeth slowly pulled back from Anne and her mother, seemingly more herself. "I am fine, Jane," she answered. At Jane's questioning expression, she half-smiled. "Truly, I will be fine. I was not prepared for quite that information." Alexander noted again a fleeting expression of relief on his father's face, and determined to ask him about it. "I do think, however," she added, glancing around the group gathered close, "that I ought to retire for the night, if you all do not mind?"
Murmurs of "of course not, Elizabeth" echoed. Jane replied, "I shall retire with you, I think. I do not want you alone just now."
"And I," Anne added, as did Georgiana.
"Intent on protecting me from myself, are you?" Elizabeth half-laughed, and Alexander felt relief. She would be fine.
"Of course," Anne answered for the other girls, even as she drew Elizabeth towards the door. Lady Catherine elected to follow.
There was a lull as the men in the room stood, half-gathered around where Elizabeth had been standing. Richard broke the silence. "You know what startled the pony, Wickham, do you not?"
"Yes," Wickham replied quietly. "But I beg that you not ask for details. It was an accident, and could not have been prevented."
"Do you, father," Alexander asked, "know and approve of it not being spoken of?"
"I do," the earl replied. "It is as Wickham says it is neither here nor there. We have Elizabeth back. The only things that should concern us at this point are who found her, how did they find her, and why, by all the holies, they chose to keep her from us."
Alexander agreed, but saw Darcy's expression, and knew they were thinking the same thing. Elizabeth must have startled the pony somehow; not unexpected at such a young age. But she must be kept from knowing that as much as possible she already felt the weight of guilt without knowing it. His poor Elizabeth!
When Jane woke the next morning, it was to find Elizabeth in her room, simply dressed, and sitting on the window sill, staring out. Her face was pensive as she traced designs into the dampness on the inside of the windows.
"Lizzy?" she asked quietly. Elizabeth started and swung around; Jane was hard-pressed to keep from gasping. "Oh, Lizzy did you get no sleep at all?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "I confess I could not but I did not wish to wake you, either."
Jane held out her hand to her sister. Elizabeth readily came to the bed and took it, settling on the edge. Jane, however, could not be content, and drew her sister into an embrace. Elizabeth shuddered and sighed. "Is it wrong of me," she asked quietly, "to be both glad to know, and to to wish none of this had ever come to light?"
Jane shook her head. "No, Lizzy, it is not. None of this was under your control; I cannot believe Wickham would have intentionally run a risk of causing injury to you or the Darcys."
Elizabeth was silent for a moment. "I think he knows what startled the pony," she said quietly. "And I fear, greatly fear, that it was me, for whatever reason. If that is true I am responsible for my father's death."
Jane shook her head. "No, you still are not. I am sure Sir Lewis would not wish you to think that; Lady Catherine certainly does not."
"Knowing that does not ease the feelings of guilt, Jane," she replied.
"Must you always be so quick to carry the weight of the world?" Jane asked with a sigh. Elizabeth blushed and Jane shook her head at her once again. "Suppose and this is just supposition you did startle the pony. There are so many ways it could have come about, Lizzy. Did you not tell me Anne said her father was an excellent horseman? The worry he felt over your 'mysterious' disappearance from Rosings, and what I can only imagine would be frantic worry over finding you, played as much of a factor as anything you might have done. Perhaps, in his hurry to search, he neglected to tighten the cinch properly or any number of other possibilities."
"For the want of a nail," Elizabeth murmured.
"Indeed," Jane replied. "It is unfair, to be sure," she paused before stroking a fallen lock of Elizabeth's hair back from her face, "but it brought me a most-cherished sister. I do not think your father would find fault with me being grateful for that much."
Elizabeth shook her head slightly in response, but Jane did not believe she was refuting her sister's claim. After a moment, Jane said she wished to ready for the day, and the two of them rose from the bed. Elizabeth began to assist her sister with her morning preparations; granted, it would have been appropriate to call for the ladies' maid, but the sisters had long since been accustomed to assisting each other, and this morning, Jane knew Elizabeth was finding solace in a quiet habit.
"William informed me Mr. Bingley should have a letter by now, inviting him here at his earliest convenience he thought you should like to know, so as to not be caught unawares."
Jane blushed in pleased hope. "Do you really think Mr. Bingley will call?"
"I think wild horses could not keep him away, now that he knows you do not wish for him to be away," Elizabeth replied. "He has shown remarkable delicacy in refraining from beating down any door betwixt you and he, out of deference to my our situation."
Jane could not reply to that; she had only hopes and no answers. Darcy had been thus far invaluable, recounting everything he could remember of Bingley's actions and spirits these past few months. Her next meeting with Bingley was sure to be fraught with nervousness and awkwardness, no matter how much she should wish otherwise. "When did William tell you?"
"During dinner," Elizabeth replied, the faintest blush on her countenance. Jane arched an eyebrow in reply, and Elizabeth blushed more deeply. "Oh all right he stopped by my room to check on Georgiana last night, after all of you left. He said he would leave Georgiana here with the Fitzwilliams, but he himself had to return to his townhouse, as he had matters of business to attend to early this morning, ones he had left unfinished when mθre summoned him to Rosings."
"Surely Mr. Bingley and I were not all you two spoke about last night," Jane teased. Elizabeth blushed and would not answer.
"What do you think of Wickham being William's brother?" Elizabeth asked finally.
"I think it is admirable that the elder Mr. Wickham willingly took responsibility for him," Jane responded, "despite the fact that according to your uncle the late Mr. Darcy would have ensured he was raised in a gentleman's household either way."
"I hope that Wickham is aware now that there is a possibility his actions could taint Georgiana, if the family acknowledges him to be a relation."
Jane felt amused that Elizabeth already fretted over Georgiana, but she did not reply for a few minutes. "I do hope now that your cousin knows Wickham is his brother, that is that Wickham may yet be salvaged. He at least seems to be aware he has faults is that not a place to start? I should not want him to be desperate."
Elizabeth smiled at her sister in the mirror as she pulled the brush through her hair. "I remember thinking, the day you and William walked out with me, and then had this mysterious conversation you did not tell me all of, that I would be the one to hope my recovery would be enough to redeem him, and you would be the one to trust in it."Jane laughed, and Elizabeth began to set the pins to hold Janes hair up in the style for the morning. "Now, perhaps you can tell me more of the conversation you had with William he made a comment last night, before dinner, that he said something to you that you had not passed along to me."
Jane smiled slightly. "I am not sure I should tell you it is not as if he seems to be afraid of pressing his suit."
"We did have a slight argument. Or, more to the point, I accused him of something; I think more out of defensive reflex than any real belief it was true," Elizabeth admitted. "I told him I was aware he despised of our family, and that I believed I was only acceptable to him now because I am also a de Bourgh."
"What did he say?" Jane asked.
"That I would be acceptable at Pemberley, and that is all that a Darcy would care about."
Jane smiled. "Then, my love, he told you what he had already told me all he said in addition, to me, is that he had already determined that if he crossed your path again, he would offer for you." She gave her sister a sly smile, as Elizabeth blushed. "I did scold him, you know, before he confessed to that, to ensure he knew better than to trifle with you."
"Jane! You did not!" Elizabeth protested, and Jane laughed. "You did?"
"He took it quite well, I must admit," Jane grinned. She sobered slightly. "Do you trust him? I should hate for you to find out too late that you do not."
"I " Elizabeth searched for words. "I do not know. I want to and that bothers me perversely because I do not know how my feelings transmuted as they did. I disliked him so frightfully much, not even two full weeks ago." Now that Janes toilette was complete, Elizabeth sat herself on the edge of the bed again. "I worry that in the mix of all this confusion he has been something to remind me of what I have known previously, and that I am simply flattered by his attentiveness."
"Are you?" Jane asked. "Flattered, that is."
Elizabeth tilted her head as she looked at Jane. "You were flattered by Mr. Bingley asking you to dance a second time, Jane. How could I not be flattered by William all but declaring his intentions?"
"Well," her sister responded with a slow grin, "I do recall you were decidedly irritated with Mr. Collins marked attentions."
"Oh! Decidedly indeed," Elizabeth laughed. "But William Darcy and William Collins are by no means comparing apples to apples. One is one of the most ridiculous personages in the land, even if he is my mother de Bourghs parson, and the other is one of the most intelligent and prosperous personages, despite his tendency towards being taciturn."
"He has garnered your approval, has he not?" Jane marvelled. "My only advice, then, is to not let yourself agree to an engagement until perhaps after we have visited Pemberley and ---- come the summer."
Elizabeth smiled slightly. "Yes, but then how will I have my double wedding with you, my dearest Jane? I do not think Mr. Bingley will be pleased to wait nearly nine months to make you his bride."
Jane sobered and sat down beside Elizabeth. She took one of Elizabeths hands in her own. "My place, right now, is at your side, Lizzy. Until I am sure you are comfortable and secure in your immediate future as merely Elizabeth Bennet de Bourgh, or Elizabeth Darcy, or some other name my future can wait and if Mr. Bingley cannot wait that long, then he does not love me enough for it to be a marriage worth making."
Elizabeth smiled sadly before throwing her arms around her sister. "Oh, Jane. I do love you so very much. I do not wish you to be unhappy for my sake."
"Lizzy you know I speak the truth. I remember you telling me of the discussion you had that day mama visited Netherfield while I was ill. Such an easy-going temperament may be well matched for mine but if it does not come with enough resolve to wait through trying family times, then it is not enough."
"True," Elizabeth found herself agreeing again. "So if I can keep my own head on straight, you will use this time to test Mr. Bingleys resolve?"
Jane hesitated. "If he seems inclined towards me still, I think my answer will be yes. If he is not then the choice will be made for me."
Elizabeth nodded. "Then, I suppose, we shall see."
"Indeed we shall."
Posted on 2009-01-23
Although Darcy had been completely truthful when he told Elizabeth the night before he intended to finish out the business the abrupt trip to Rosings had interrupted, he found himself at his friend's home shortly after the time he knew Bingley to finally be up and readying for the day. He was, he reasoned to himself, only ensuring Elizabeth's happiness, by making sure Bingley did not have one of his infamous bouts of second guessing himself and his actions in regards to Jane. He did not let his mind consider the fact that, if he chivvied Bingley over to the Fitzwilliam townhouse this morning, he would have to go as well; it would only be politeness that he did so, after all.
As Darcy was conducted towards the morning sitting room, he and the servant both overheard Miss Bingley arguing with her brother, ostensibly to avoid going to meet acquaintances she wished him to give up. Although the Bennets were not named, precisely, Darcy felt convinced that was indeed who was under discussion. He had not spoken to anyone about how Elizabeth would be introduced to the Bingleys now and even if it put Miss Bingley at a social disadvantage, her hatred of Elizabeth would not be enough to curb her tongue when presented with an opportunity to distribute such juicy gossip. He cautioned himself to watch his own tongue until he could speak to his aunt and uncle about it, and wondered if he should encourage Bingley to come alone, to ensure that the news remained from the Ton one more precious day.
"Mr. Darcy," announced the servant as he opened the door, Miss Bingley's mouth closing shut on her words with a snap.
Darcy found himself at a loss for words beyond the polite not an uncommon occurrence, to be sure, but one he had long thought was in his past when in Bingley's company. He realized, however, that the only topic he wished to discuss Elizabeth was not the most diplomatic of subjects. Bingley saved him, as he often had in the past.
"Did your trip to Rosings go well?" Bingley asked, motioning Darcy to a seat. "I hope the situation has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties?"
Darcy smiled ruefully to himself. Bingley had only partially saved him this time. His tongue still yet may betray him. Miss Bingley did not even let him respond, however. "I thought, Mr. Darcy, you were not bound to visit your aunt for another fortnight at earliest?"
"Indeed, Miss Bingley," Darcy replied. "As I informed your brother, a situation arose at Rosings that required the attention of my cousin Fitzwilliam and me."
"I wonder Charles mentioned nothing of such a situation," Miss Bingley shot her brother a dark look.
"I asked he not speak of it, in terms of general discourse, Miss Bingley," Darcy replied with a shrug, "until such time as I could be assured of the exact nature of the situation." He paused, groping for the next words. "The situation is not yet resolved, but the main parties are no longer in Kent. The entire party has returned to London, to be better able to conduct the necessary investigations."
"I did not speak of Darcy's situation, Caroline, because I was rather more concerned with mine," Bingley answered. He glanced at Darcy. "And what of Miss Elizabeth?" Bingley asked. "I believe you mentioned meeting her at Rosings."
"She was staying at Hunsford with her cousin, Mr. Collins--" Darcy began to reply.
"Was?" Miss Bingley interjected. "Has she run off? She was always quite so wild and wilful, I should not be surprised."
"Caroline!" Bingley snapped, startling Darcy. Rarely had he heard the younger man speak in such accents. "Do I need to remind you the requirements for keeping your allowance?" Darcy was impressed instead of avoiding the issue, as he had honestly suspected he would, Bingley had apparently called Caroline out on the topic of Jane. Very impressed, indeed. A mute, paler Miss Bingley shook her head. Bingley eyed his younger sister for a moment, then turned to his friend. "Are indeed all of the unexpected visitors at Rosings returned to London, as your letter last night indicated?"
Darcy replied affirmatively. "All but myself are currently hosted by the Matlocks, and given your prior acquaintance with members of the party, I thought you ought to be invited in person sooner, rather than later."
Miss Bingley apparently could not contain herself for long. "How can that be possible? Charles was insistent that we were to visit Miss Bennet this morning her uncle resides in Gracechurch Street, and surely you would not have introduced them to an earl."
Darcy realized that everything else aside, Miss Bingley and indeed, Bingley as well deserved to know what was awaiting them at the Matlocks'. "The necessity of introduction was decided upon by the family as a whole, Miss Bingley. The Bennets " he paused, groping for words, thoroughly aware of how narrowly both Bingley and his sister were watching him. "Bingley, do you recall, once, me talking of the little cousin, the younger daughter of my aunt Catherine, who disappeared?"
Bingley frowned slightly, while he thought back. "I vaguely recall something of it, yes. You were but a child yourself, were you not?"
"Indeed, I was," Darcy agreed. "And my family had long since given up hope of her recovery." He paused, and took a steadying breath. "Imagine my surprise, upon being summoned to Rosings, to find that I have known her, under another name, for some months now." He met Bingley's eyes squarely. "Miss Elizabeth Bennet."
Darcy had not realized Miss Bingley had been holding on to anything and by the sudden crash of breaking glass, she apparently forgot herself. "That cannot be!" Miss Bingley cried. "She is nothing. She is little more than a country nobody with fine eyes."
"Caroline!" Bingley called his sister to order again. "Darcy, is this true?"
Darcy, who had gritted his teeth against calling Miss Bingley to order, found himself replying to Bingley far more calmly than he thought could. "It is indeed Wickham suspected it, almost from the moment of being introduced to her in Hertfordshire, and the resemblance to the portrait of my uncle, Sir Lewis, as well as to my cousin, Anne, cannot be coincidence. If Anne were more in health, I would have recognized her immediately; I dare say the ability to walk three miles to tend to an ill sister made me discount any suspicions I might have had. Mr. Bennet has also informed us as well as Elizabeth that she was taken in by the Bennets, a few months after her disappearance from Rosings. There can be little to doubt, except " he trailed off. Miss Bingley could not be made aware of the possibility of danger to Elizabeth.
"Except?" Bingley prompted.
"The family has not yet decided when to announce her recovery to Society," he flicked a glance at Miss Bingley. "The information is to be kept absolutely secret, until my uncle can decide how this will be handled. I do hope I can rely upon you both?" Bingley's affirmative was swiftly given, but Miss Bingley hesitated just enough to make Darcy doubt how truthful the agreement was. "It should not be necessary to say," he added with a half-smile, "but if I can expect general displeasure from my family for relating the information to you, should the information make it out into general knowledge, I cannot vouch for the earl's temper against the offending party." Miss Bingley paled at that reminder of the social clout that could be brought against her. Darcy hoped it would be enough, but it was only fair they know.
"If Miss Elizabeth did not know as you seem to indicate did Miss Bennet know?" Bingley asked.
"Only Mr. and Mrs. Bennet knew; Miss Bennet had not been very old herself, at the time, and was very ill." Darcy winced. "Our Elizabeth was recommended to the care of the Bennets, to remove her from the children's fever that was rife in London at the time the same fever that claimed both the Bennets' only son and their Elizabeth."
"How dreadful Mr. and Mrs. Bennet must feel," Bingley murmured, "to discover they might lose another child."
"They will not," Darcy replied, firmly. "The Bennets have been welcomed by the entire Fitzwilliam family with open arms, for had they not taken Elizabeth in, she likely would have succumbed to that same fever, nor are the chances great she would have been raised as a gentleman's daughter. We would never have found her, under any other circumstances. We owe them more than we can ever hope to repay." He paused, and glanced at Miss Bingley. "Mrs. Bennet and the younger daughters remain at Longbourn; Mr. Bennet returns there on the morrow." He looked back at Bingley. "I believe he would be pleased to see you, as would Miss Bennet she will stay with Elizabeth for at least a month, until it is decided what steps need to be taken next."
Bingley almost smirked as he glanced at his sister. "Well, Miss Bennet still may be the relatively 'fortuneless daughter of a country gentleman,' but she does not lack in connections now, does she, Caroline?"
"Indeed not," Miss Bingley muttered in graceless reply. She toed the broken teacup at her feet apparently it had been emptied prior to falling in distaste. "If you are determined to pursue this folly, brother, I will need to retire to dress appropriately."
"As you wish," Bingley replied tolerantly, as he made his way to the door to request a servant clear the broken glass. Miss Bingley swept from the room, and Bingley's next comment was made with wry humour once the servant was gone. "I did not think it diplomatic to point out to her that she has worn that dress to other morning visits before; nor that she knew we were to be visiting acquaintances of mine this morning, and previously considered it acceptable."
Darcy laughed before he could catch himself. "She simply may need a few moments alone to compose herself, Bingley. She has never been fond of the Bennets as we both know and it must be difficult to hear that one is now known to be my cousin."
"That is why you told us now, when you would have rather not, eh?"
Darcy had long ago come to appreciate how insightful his friend could be, and this only reminded him. "Indeed, I would have rather not nor did I think it polite to drop the information until you arrived there." He paused and admitted, "Although I likely would have enjoyed the dissemination of it at a later time such as in the carriage in front of my uncle's townhouse, or in the parlour there."
"I think I am grateful," Bingley replied, "that your well-trained politeness usually trumps your wicked sense of humour." Bingley eyed his friend. "And how are you taking the information that Miss Elizabeth is your cousin?"
"Much like the rest of the Fitzwilliam family grateful, relieved, desperately trying to keep from smothering her with overzealous caution." He shrugged. "I am not alone in being very concerned about her continued welfare, now that we have found her."
Bingley nodded. "I noticed you mentioned Wickham."
Darcy replied to the unstated question. "He has made amends. I am not yet at liberty to discuss everything perhaps I never will be. But he has been cleared of the most grievous of offenses against me and my sister."
Miss Bingley's return forbade a continuation of the subject. She had indeed changed into something more formal, and perhaps overly so, but Darcy and Bingley both had long given up on attempting to understand the complexities and finer points of women's clothing they could gauge the relative worth of the fabric and construction, but more than that was beyond their desire to understand. If Darcy was honest with himself, the only dress he truly cared to pay attention to was whichever one that Elizabeth happened to be wearing at the time. That dress no matter what colour, formality, or design never failed to please him. Miss Bingley happened to ask him his opinion of the one she wore now, and he managed to avoid telling her the only reason he liked it at all is because it meant he would be returning to Elizabeth's company sooner, rather than later.
For some reason, he thought to himself, as he entered the carriage behind Bingley, he did not think Miss Bingley would have overly appreciated that reply, anyhow.
Posted on 2009-03-13
Despite the combined efforts of Jane, Wickham, Anne, and even her mother de Bourgh, Elizabeth resisted retiring for an early morning nap. Perhaps, she replied to them all, later in the day, after luncheon. She had not slept well, this was true, but she did not feel completely unrefreshed either. She did believe that right now, despite Jane's words earlier, she was in dire need of reassurance that the father she could not remember would not have held her responsible for his fate. The father she knew and loved sought her out, in the library, where she was currently engaged in staring at the pages of a book, her mind still attempting to reconcile the information she had available. She tilted her head in greeting, but could not bring herself to speak.
"You should not brood over what you cannot change, my child," he said gently, sitting beside her.
"'Tis easier said than done, papa; you know this," she replied.
"True," he agreed. After a pause, he began again. "Jane spoke to me of your feelings of responsibility." Elizabeth's only reply was an arched eyebrow, and he smiled slightly at her refusal to respond. "What I wanted you to know is that only the most base of parents would hold their child ultimately responsible for any action that might have had disastrous consequences, even if they were of an age to understand." He paused and glanced away for a moment; Elizabeth knew he was terribly uncomfortable with being completely open. "I if I were the one, looking down on you now, I would only be grateful you had found your way back home, after all this time, that you were safe and sound, that you still had a chance at life and happiness. I cannot imagine Sir Lewis would be looking down on us now with any other thought than that."
"Do you really believe that, sir? Or are you trying to simply ease my worries?" she asked after a moment.
"I believe it. I am sure Jane has told you much the same; I doubt Lady Catherine believes anything else, either."
"I do not know what my mother de Bourgh believes," she replied softly. "We have not really spoken of it."
"I have watched Lord and Lady Matlock attempt to calm her fretfulness over you all morning, Lizzy. She does not want you to think she considers you responsible." He paused and eyed her. "Miss de Bourgh is nearly beside herself with concern, although she was not sure where you might be found."
"They worry excessively," Elizabeth said.
"Do they?" Mr. Bennet replied. "They do not know your character as I do, or even as Jane does. They only know what they would feel, in your place, and we both know this you are less inclined to brood than most. If Mr. Darcy is at all representative of the family, your resiliency is not something they are familiar with."
"I do not feel like I even know who I am any more," Elizabeth finally replied. "If the confusion there was not enough, now I have the weight of Sir Lewis' death on my shoulders, whether or not Wickham is inclined to share that burden."
"You are my most beloved daughter," Mr. Bennet replied. "And it is for your intelligence and your wit that you became my favourite; the same wit and intelligence that makes you at ease no matter where you go; that distinguishes you from the vast majority of silly girls that populate English drawing rooms. The only difference between the Elizabeth Bennet of a month ago, and the one sitting here now, is you can sketch the personalities of a much wider circle of acquaintances and family. You should never be without an easy moment of diversion, now."
Mr. Bennet had said this all with a straight face, only the twinkling in his eyes betraying his real purpose; Elizabeth, for her part, could not but laugh in reply and shake her head at him. She made to reply, but he continued. "Consider yourself fortunate in such a bounty! After all, your bounty of amusement is intent on depriving me of mine, by sending Kitty and Lydia to schools, so that they can come back prim and proper ladies."
Elizabeth laughed, and replied, "Come, papa, you know you find as much amusement in silliness as you do 'prim and proper' when taken to extremes."
Mr. Bennet grinned in response. "Indeed I do," he agreed. "Even," he added with a sly look, "when it is one of my daughters' suitors, say, perhaps, Mr. Darcy?" Elizabeth blushed, and Mr. Bennet laughed. "I am less amazed by Lady Catherine recognizing you, than I am by discovering Mr. Darcy to have been long impressed with you. I did not think him capable of looking past his own pride to notice any pretty girls long enough to take an interest!"
"Papa!" Elizabeth scolded, even as she tried to keep from laughing. "William is perfectly respectable; you know much of our dislike was founded by Wickham's tale."
"And the fact that he insulted you, eh?" Mr. Bennet replied with a raised eyebrow, and Elizabeth blushed.
"I did express myself rather more vehemently than necessary, did I not?" she replied.
"You always were rather more eloquent about rights and wrongs, than I ever was, my dear," Mr. Bennet replied. "I have long been content to be merely amused or irritated by them, but nothing more." He frowned slightly, glancing around the library, and by extension, the Fitzwilliam family. "Having met your relatives, however, I wonder if I must reconsider my belief it was merely your youth that made you so; this is a particularly vehement group, even if rather quieter than either of us are used to being around." He paused and gave her a significant look. "You may have to accustom yourself to not being the most stubborn one in the family."
"Papa!" she cried. "That is not fair!"
"No, indeed, it is not," he agreed, smilingly. "But it is an honest observation; regardless of their ties to you, you still do not know them, and I have no desire to relinquish you to them any more than I am required, even if we did know them."
A knock on the library door interrupted the conversation, and a servant was bid to enter. The servant relayed the message that Mrs. Gardiner and Mr. and Miss Bingley, as well as Mr. Darcy, had arrived, and they were summoned to the morning parlour. After thanking the servant, Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet rose to attend the newly arrived (and re-arrived) guests. At the door, however, Mr. Bennet paused Elizabeth, with a hand on her arm. His voice was completely sober, much like it had been when he entered the library. "The one thing I want you to always remember, Lizzy, is that regardless of where you go, no matter what name you take, or what relatives you find or acquire you are my daughter, and I love you prodigiously." With that, he kissed her forehead, and went ahead of her.
Elizabeth found herself discomposed; she was as unused to displaying her true emotions as Mr. Bennet, and even less used to being on the receiving end of genuine emotion, particularly from Mr. Bennet. She loved her father so dearly, and she realized how awfully afraid he was, that despite all of her insistence about the Bennets being welcomed by the Fitzwilliams, after being confronted with all the differences and changes in front of her, she would forget them, perhaps, and leave them behind like so many forgotten flowers in a now-dry vase.
As much as she wished to see her Aunt Gardiner and William and to sit beside Jane as she dealt with the conflicting emotions of seeing Mr. Bingley again she found herself lingering there at the library doorway. She took two steps back into the room and closed the door. Leaning her head against the wall to the side of it, she closed her eyes, and reached to find her composure, as she had so many times when Mrs. Bennet had pushed it to the utmost limits. Then, remembering what her father had said about 'looking down', she looked up and said aloud, "I hope you have forgiven me, father. I hope you are not displeased by being displaced by papa; I truly never knew until lately, and he has done his best in raising me. You should not be displeased with him. I do not know that I love you; how can I? But perhaps you understand that part, and will forgive me, for I intend to ensure I love mθre and Anne as much as I can. I am sure I did love you, when I knew you, and that you loved me, I do not doubt. Somehow, I suspect you would not wish me to forget the Bennets, either. I will do my best, to make you proud of me."
She felt silly, saying such things aloud, but she still felt better for it. It meant more, perhaps, to hear her voice taking the words and incoherent ideas that had been swirling inside her head since last night, and making them something akin to a vow. The thoughts lingered on her still, but their touch was not nearly so weighty. She felt herself to be calmer, and more ready to face the entire mass sitting in the drawing room now. Resolutely, she opened the door only to flush with embarrassment when she discovered William on the other side.
He flushed himself, and stammered slightly. "Mr. Bennet sent me to ensure you were not lost," he offered awkwardly. She did not reply and his blush deepened. "I if you are concerned I overheard anything, I heard only vague sounds, although I can guess."
"How?" she asked, her discomfort at the possible eavesdropping warring with curiosity. He offered his arm and she accepted it unthinkingly. He led her towards the drawing room while offering an explanation.
"When when my father died, five years ago, I blamed myself," Darcy replied, "although I certainly had no cause to do so. A fire broke out at one of the tenant houses, while I was at Cambridge. Two weeks later, I would have been home on break, to assist, but that did little to help then. My father, naturally, gathered everyone possible to help, and he himself was in the bucket line. A storm broke out, as it often does during that time of year, and while the rain should have helped, the winds simply waved the fire hotter and larger. My father inhaled some of the smoke, while trying to pull some of the tenants away from the billowing flames. The damage done to his lungs was, the doctor tells me, almost instant, and beyond medicine's reach to cure." He paused, and glanced down to meet Elizabeth's eyes. "A messenger had been sent to me as soon as my father was alerted to the fire; I, of course, informed my professors well, Richard did that, for me and left instantly." He looked away, and his throat worked. "I arrived just in time to tell him how much I loved him, and to hold Georgiana during the first few moments of grief; Georgiana had stayed with him until the end, at her request and his."
"How could you blame yourself for any of that?" Elizabeth asked. "You reacted precisely as you ought; there was nothing else you could have done."
"Logically, rationally? I cannot," he shrugged in reply. "Logic is not the only measurement by which reactions are judged. You, of all people, know that." He paused, and added, "Forgive me, that did not come out quite as I intended, perhaps." He shook his head. "What, perhaps, I truly need to say is that your guilt is as baseless as mine was. It does take time, to come to terms with that." He gave her a wry smile. "Until you do, I fear you are in for a lot of comforting from all of us, so you do not forget that we do not blame you."
"A family inclined to take responsibility?" she asked wryly.
"Perhaps too much so," he agreed. He paused in the hallway near their destination. "Your sisters told me you did not sleep well last night."
"Is it so obvious?" she asked.
He smiled. "I am not the best one to judge that," he replied. "I think you are lovely regardless." She blushed and his smile widened. "Although I will admit that I rather do enjoy watching you blush." She made an abortive move, as if to pull away, or perhaps smack him for such cheek. He held on to her arm more tightly. "But, all I really wanted to say was are you sure you are up for company now? I could easily make your excuses to the party, and inform them you have retired."
Elizabeth half-glowered at him for a moment, but then shook her head. "Nay, I am a little tired, to be sure, but not enough for retiring to be a worthwhile exercise. Perhaps, as I told my sisters and mθre earlier, after luncheon, I will retire."
Darcy nodded and gestured towards the door. "Then a room only slightly more appealing (to me) than a dungeon awaits us." Elizabeth laughed. Only William could call a parlour analogous to a dungeon, and not be entirely jesting when doing so. With this thought in mind, she entered the room on Darcy's arm.
Just at that moment, and in that room, a second person would have likened the generally pleasant and well-humoured parlour to a dungeon. Caroline Bingley was simmering to herself in dissatisfaction. She had been outmanoeuvred and outwitted. The indignity of being called to order in front of Mr. Darcy, earlier, had not subsided, nor was the indignity of being so easily discounted among his illustrious relatives likely to pass easily. She had been greeted politely enough, and Mrs. Gardiner had indeed attempted to hold a conversation with her, but such pitying grace could only make Caroline more uncomfortable and displeased.
Her mood certainly did not experience a sudden brightening upon seeing Miss Eliza enter on Mr. Darcy's arm, laughing. Caroline noted with a critical eye that Miss Eliza seemed tired, and not any better dressed than she would have been in Hertfordshire. "Elizabeth!" cried Lady Catherine. "We thought perhaps you had retired after all."
"Nay, mθre," Miss Eliza replied with a smile. "I was hopeful there would be guests this morning, bringing news." She glanced at Mrs. Gardiner, who almost imperceptibly shook her head. A flash of disappointment flickered over Miss Eliza's face, and Caroline wondered at it. What information could the mere merchant's wife have, that the Matlocks could not gather themselves? Lady Catherine beckoned Miss Eliza to her side, although the latter paused near Caroline and greeted her politely.
Caroline, for her part, barely deigned to muster a coldly polite response; had she not been within sight of both the wife and sister to an earl, she may not have bothered. That Miss Eliza should be the daughter of Lady Catherine seemed laughable, back in her own comfortable parlour. Seeing her side by side with Miss de Bourgh, however, almost made Caroline believe it; she could certainly understand now how Miss Eliza was able to convince Lady Catherine of the relationship. Indeed, she felt the stirrings of respect for Miss Eliza's connivery, for she had not just convinced Lady Catherine, but she had managed to prevail upon the entire Fitzwilliam family Mr. Darcy included based upon the most coincidental of resemblances.
If anything, this trace of respect served to fuel Caroline's dislike of Miss Eliza further, instead of ease it. If Mr. Darcy's attraction to the girl all of a year or year-and-a-half younger than Caroline herself had been boarding on problematic in Hertfordshire, now that her connections were supposedly to his very own family, Caroline was very much aware how strategic an alliance with her might seem. Undoubtedly, this had been part of Miss Eliza's plan to ingratiate herself with his family, in the hopes of usurping Caroline's previous, if unspoken, claim on the man and his name. Such schemes could do naught but fuel her ire.
However, on another front, Caroline found herself divided. She knew full well that Charles would sever her allowance or worse, if there was such a possibility if he detected any interference with Miss Bennet again, yet Miss Bennet's connections were such that she felt as if it was her duty as his sister to do so. Still, if Miss Eliza kept up her connections with Miss Bennet, even when Caroline foiled her attempts to steal Mr. Darcy away, the supposed relationship to Lady Catherine would be kept up to all appearances. Even as dubious a familial link as it would be, it still may serve the Bingleys as a whole to permit Charles' fancy with 'dear Jane' to progress as he wanted. It would, at the very least, give Caroline a slight edge in terms of Society, at least until Mr. Darcy came to his senses and married her. After all, it was highly unlikely that the younger de Bourgh daughter would have been left much, if anything, in the face of her disappearance; there, Caroline could have an absolute advantage over Miss Eliza.
She did like Miss Bennet, of course. Jane was such a considerate soul that many a more bitter spirit had failed to disapprove of her on her own merits. She could easily love her as a sister, and there certainly could be worse choices (for her own sake). Jane, after all, would never turn her out of Charles' house, to depend on Louisa's generosity or necessitate finding a husband of her own, as some spiteful women of the Ton might. While the slight increase in fortune that would occur if Lady Catherine fronted Miss Eliza's dowry versus the Bennets doing so would be nearly negligible, any increase would certainly be welcome. She could not help but notice that Jane favoured Charles with her attention far more than Colonel Fitzwilliam, who, for his connections and his own inheritance, small in comparison to the Viscount's, was not an ineligible match to someone of Jane's standing. For the first time, she wondered if perhaps it was not Mrs. Bennet's pushing that encouraged Jane towards Charles, but Jane's own inclination. The first stirrings of guilt gnawed at her not for any unhappiness she may have caused Jane, but for the happiness Charles might have had, had she not interfered. But she could not be sure; Jane Bennet was too much like Mr. Darcy, whom, try as she might, she could not entirely read nor understand.
She wished Louisa was here. The eldest of the siblings, Louisa was long used to watching over Charles, and had particularly advised Caroline to guard their brother in her place when she was sent to school. Louisa would be better able to judge Jane's readjusted suitability for Charles Caroline knew herself to lean towards excessive enthusiasm for protecting a brother she had been, due to the closeness in their ages, been nearly inseparable from until they were sent to separate schools on the same day. She truly did want the best for him, and as she would not willingly, happily leave his household unless she married or was forced into a position of no other recourse, it was best for her that she and he both be happy with his choice.
Perhaps, Caroline thought, it was indeed time to actually ask Jane her opinion of Charles, instead of assuming the eldest Bennet daughter was completely under her mother's power. But it would need to be done before Jane returned to her mother's insistence; here, it was obvious there was little in the way of expectation of Jane acting in any particular matter, except to keep an eye on Miss Eliza. Caroline could not relish the idea of being connected to Miss Eliza, for her own sake, but in deference to her supposed connections and strong affections for Jane she would learn to temper her words towards the girl. But only if she decided Jane was suitable material for Charles. This did not mean, however, she intended to let Miss Eliza win the title of Mistress of Pemberley.
Such reflections soothed Caroline's temper such to the point that, when Mrs. Gardiner once again attempted to bring her into the conversation, Caroline found herself at least willing to make an attempt at participation. The approving smile from Charles, however, made her cringe inwardly. When did it happen that she should need to be the one being rewarded such? But she was grateful to see it nonetheless; perhaps he would forgive her, after all.
Posted on 2009-04-23
While Elizabeth had been relieved when Miss Bingley responded and indeed kept up a conversation with Mrs. Gardiner, Miss Bingley's subsequent renewed civility to Jane worried her. It did not seem to be the same sort of civility Elizabeth had seen in Hertfordshire, but she did not wish for Jane to be taken in by either Bingley sister again. Indeed, Miss Bingley had to know that they were aware of some measure of duplicity in her actions, if her brother also knew. Elizabeth may not think Mr. Bingley the most steady of characters, but he seemed to prefer fairness, and given how smitten he seemed with her sister months later, she could not imagine him letting the transgression die a quiet death of pretended ignorance.
The most interesting thing about Miss Bingley's civility towards Jane was, unlike at Netherfield, where half of everything she said was directed towards Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley seemed to be actually concentrating on analyzing Jane. Perhaps, Elizabeth hoped, Miss Bingley was truly interested in her brother's happiness, and had previously believed herself to be working in his best interest while Elizabeth could not but grieve it injured Jane as it had, it was not a trait she would be able to scorn. Had she not done her best to deflect unwanted suitors from Jane, herself? Granted, it had been with Jane's quiet, oblique agreement, which did not seem to be the case here. But William had resolved that part quite efficiently, and it had not even taken any demands or prompting on Elizabeth's part for him to decide on the matter.
There was, of course, now the matter of William, and her changing opinion of his character. Miss Bingley would undoubtedly still have her cap set for him, and she had not had the benefit of seeing William's persistence in his attentiveness towards Elizabeth this past fortnight. Elizabeth had been ill-inclined to be considered a rival for William's affections in Hertfordshire, when she could only hold him in a thinly-veiled contempt, but, despite Jane's advice earlier, Elizabeth now found she was even less inclined to permit Miss Bingley to pretend an intimacy with William like she had those few months.
Thankfully, it appeared that the first skirmish in that war would not yet be fought, for Mr. and Miss Bingley had already stayed past the polite visiting time, even if William had brought them along, and they rose to excuse themselves with polite adieus.
Elizabeth could barely contain her surprise when, unprompted, Miss Bingley invited both Jane and herself to tea a few days hence. She glanced at her mother, questioningly, as did Jane. Lady Catherine hesitated, but inclined her head ever so slightly. Jane politely accepted the invitation.
As the Bingleys' carriage had followed William's, William could have returned to his own townhouse to complete the business Elizabeth was fairly sure he had barely touched, but he did not. Lady Matlock had insisted he stay for lunch, after which Mr. Bennet and Wickham were to depart for Meryton and Longbourn, not that William had spoken more than a token protest. Elizabeth and Georgiana exchanged amused glances.
However relieved Elizabeth was to see Miss Bingley depart, she could not say the same about her Aunt Gardiner. But Mrs. Gardiner politely declined the lunch invitation, citing her own guests due later in the evening, and a need to attend to the related matters. With a fond hug and kiss on each girl's cheek, and a parting comment to Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner also departed.
With the guests removed from the expanded and extended family circle, however, another topic emerged: What to do about Elizabeth.
For her own sake, Elizabeth would have preferred to stick to the plans made during the beginning of the year, with the adjustment for her summer trip to Derbyshire to view "her" estate as it was freely referred to during the difficult to follow conversation, even if it was still held in trust by Lady Catherine and the incidental visit to Pemberley and Lambton. Mrs. Gardiner had passed on the message to William that Mr. Gardiner's business could not allow him time enough away for the original idea of the Lakes, but enough to visit Derbyshire; indeed, it would be better suited, he suspected, to ensuring the entirety of his vacation could indeed be spent in leisure.
Mr. Bennet seemed inclined to agree. "Mrs. Gardiner has not yet found any information of use from the orphanage, but I am still disinclined to believe Lizzy's safety is in jeopardy at Longbourn; she has been unharmed there for the past seventeen years."
"Yet," Lady Matlock replied, "her reappearance is bound to leak out sooner, rather than later. It cannot be supposed that the servants at Rosings are deaf and blind, or that any moment as emotional as Catherine has led me to believe that one was, completely escaped detection. All it would take is a careless word, and an innocent question, and Elizabeth de Bourgh is suddenly connected to Hertfordshire in gossip."
Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet grudgingly agreed with the possibility.
"Perhaps," William interjected, "we ought to retire to Pemberley, Matlock, and Brandywine. The main house at Brandywine has been kept closed for some time now; surely Elizabeth would like a chance to determine what is necessary for redecoration and comfort, at her leisure."
"That is, perhaps, something to consider," Elizabeth replied. "But surely the sudden departure during the beginning of the Season would increase any possible gossip related to our families."
Lord Matlock agreed. "There has not yet been any indication Elizabeth might be in actual danger; perhaps those responsible for the delay previously no longer have a reason to be interested. That being said, giving a reason to be interested is certainly not within our best interests."
"I wish to acknowledge Elizabeth formally, sooner, rather than later," Lady Catherine replied with a tone of finality. Yet so little had been finalized, it seemed out of place. It did serve, however, as encouragement for Lord Matlock.
"What say you, Bennet, to bringing your wife and other daughters to London for a short visit?" he asked. Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow questioningly. "I only bring up the idea, for I am sure that Elizabeth would be uneasy at leaving her adopted sisters for so long of a time, so unexpectedly, and I believe that the best course of action is to keep Elizabeth in the country after the announcement. A few weeks remain before the opening events of the Season; by that time, your family will be able to return to Hertfordshire. It will give her time to select a few items she may wish to be forwarded from Longbourn to Brandywine, as well as select a few items that Brandywine might require Darcy, the steward there can supply us an inventory, so we can assist her in choosing items as necessary?" Darcy nodded confirmation. "The announcement of Elizabeth's recovery will be made the day after our customary ball; Elizabeth will be introduced as a de Bourgh at the ball, but I see no reason to give advance warning regarding her appearance." He glanced around the room. "The response to the announcement will have to be judged; Darcy, send word ahead to Pemberley so that they will be prepared at a moment's notice. The moment we consider Elizabeth might be in danger, we repair to the north; Brandywine will be Elizabeth's destination. It is a small enough estate that few will have heard of it; fewer still will know precisely where to begin to look for its location."
Mr. Bennet agreed. "Mrs. Bennet will be beside herself to be assured Elizabeth is well cared for, and the girls would like a chance to visit, I am sure."
"Due to my previous acquaintance with your family, Mr. Bennet, the Darcy townhouse is at your disposal," William interjected, with a glance at his uncle. "It should help decrease speculation, if there is any." Elizabeth could not help but glance at Jane; Meryton gossip would put two and two together, and end up at five for obviously William would only invite the Bennets to London at Bingley's behest. Jane had coloured slightly, undoubtedly arriving at a similar conclusion, but she had no complaints with the scheme.
Lord Matlock and Mr. Bennet agreed that seemed a fair option. Luncheon was announced, and the party settled itself around the meal. Elizabeth found herself between William and Wickham, and she asked the latter his thoughts on the scheme.
"It seems a fair one," he replied. "I cannot think of any improvements to it; that is more William's strength than mine."
She glanced towards the end of the table, where her father and Lord Matlock discussed particulars, and back at Wickham. "I know your duties to the regiment take precedence, and I do not know when the regiment is set to leave Hertfordshire, but for as long as you can will you help my father protect my sisters, if it seems they might need it?"
Wickham gave Elizabeth a half-smile. "Given my pristine record in safeguarding the interests of those important to me and mine, are you sure you want to be asking for my assistance?"
"My father would undoubtedly appreciate another pair of eyes, with Jane and me remaining in London with my precise return so doubtful," Elizabeth replied.
There was little Wickham could do but consent to be of assistance, then, so long as he was not being given the responsibility. Elizabeth hoped he understood it meant she bore him no ill will, and insofar as it might go felt she could trust him, now as he was, when her trust would have been misplaced half a week ago.
She did not wish to see her father leave, but knew that with Mary unfamiliar and new to running the household, beyond the little Elizabeth and Jane had tried to coax her into learning (and been rebuffed, in the way younger siblings do, when they suspect the endeavour is merely an excuse for the elder ones to be bossing them about), he truly had little choice in whether he stayed or returned. Jane, at least, would remain in London with her, and they would spend the day after next in the sole company of their aunt and uncle Gardiner.
The entire conglomerate of a family gathered to see Mr. Bennet and Wickham off, but they eddied about in such a way that Elizabeth was able to speak a few words to her father in relative privacy. She was grateful for the chance, even if it may have been unintended.
"Do give Mama my love, and my sisters, as well. Tell Mama I miss her and and " It was not a sentence to be finished, but Mr. Bennet understood. She pressed several letters into his hands one for each of the Bennets at Longbourn, and one for him as well.
He smiled wanly, seeing Papa written in her clear hand, on the uppermost letter. "I will even reply, Lizzy, if only to confirm our arrival in London." She nodded, and he searched her face, looking for she knew not what, and then was into the carriage, scant moments after Wickham had entered.
She stayed, then, as the carriage left, and watched after it. She had never believed, in her heart of hearts, she would ever be faced with the prospect of leaving her father's household, of leaving Longbourn, for more than perhaps a month or two at a time. She wondered, perhaps, if this feeling of loss is what her father would have faced, had none of this come to light, and she had been leaving on her wedding trip. She wondered if he felt his leaving her here, now, as acutely as she did being left. Perhaps this was the final gesture needed to convince her wholly and completely that she had not fallen into a moiety of daydreams and nightmares she could not rouse herself from. No matter how much she might half wish to have never learnt the truth, nothing now could be the same as it was.
She stayed there, some several minutes after the carriage was beyond reasonable watching distance, even if they had been in the country, with the far less obstructed views afforded by the countryside. At last, she endeavoured to shake the mood, and turned to go up the steps. She was not entirely surprised to find William had stayed to accompany her back inside. He remained silent until they found themselves standing pointlessly in the hall. "I think, perhaps, you should retire for a while, as you had intended earlier."
"You are probably correct," she replied, attempting to keep her voice sounding like her normal self. She did not believe she succeeded, after the long steady look he gave her, before offering his arm to escort her to the stairs. His last words when he released her arm showed plainly she had not but he had understood, regardless.
"Sleep well, Miss Bennet," he said. The reminder that he would not forget the family that raised her eased her heart in ways she could not explain but she hoped her grateful smile in response was sufficient.
"Thank you, Mr. Darcy. I believe I shall."
Posted on 2010-09-25
Bingley felt relieved when Caroline entered into conversation with Mrs. Gardiner even almost amiably. Once he was assured she was at least making an attempt to be polite, he returned the majority of his attention to Miss Bennet. They spoke of this and that nothing terribly important, but trifling details of her London and Rosings stays that he was eager to know but Bingley felt an edge of disquiet creep under his skin as he watched how everyone in the room, excepting himself, seemed to keep one eye on Miss Elizabeth. Darcy's attention was amusing, to say the least never had Bingley seen his friend so affected, nor so willing to be affected, by a woman. He was, as always, perfectly polite and vocal as need be, in this almost-family grouping, but he always seemed to deflate the tiniest amount when someone called Miss Elizabeth's attention away from him.
Mr. Bennet, possibly an even more indolent man than he, even if neither of them could compete with Hurst, seemed far more inclined to company and action than Bingley had seen in those weeks at Netherfield. Mr. Bennet and Lady Catherine seemed to have come to some sort of truce regarding Miss Elizabeth neither behaved as though the other was a threat, when her attention was pulled away by the other and the expressive amusement in the shared glances when Miss Elizabeth's attention was directed towards Darcy was entirely too telling.
No, Darcy's attention was amusing, and he hoped Lady Catherine would never hear him say such a thing Lady Catherine's and Mr. Bennet's was endearing. He could understand Miss de Bourgh's focus on Miss Elizabeth as well. He had met her a few years ago, not long after he met Darcy, when Lady Catherine had come up to London for the season, and she had been well enough to join her mother. Her face still showed traces of her chronic problems, but his memory told him she had more colour to her complexion than before. Fitzwilliam and his mother, of course, could also be understood, if they seemed to pay more attention to Miss Elizabeth than any of their guests. Mrs. Gardiner showed a great affection for both of her nieces, but the glances she kept throwing in Miss Elizabeth's direction were puzzled and contemplative, as if she were looking for a reminder of some stray thought, and might find it in her niece's expression.
Even as he told himself that everyone in the room had valid, understandable reasons to be so focused on Miss Elizabeth, even if they were attempting to not do so, Mr. Wickham joined the party, Miss Darcy on his arm. Miss Darcy immediately went to her brother to sit quietly by his side, and Mr. Wickham followed her to that sofa. Then Bingley noticed a curious thing even with so many valid reasons to keep an eye on Miss Elizabeth, there seemed to be a furtive desire to keep a watch on Wickham as well. Wickham, Bingley owned to himself, seemed less of the jovial officer he had known in Hertfordshire, but it was obvious the man had slept ill. He truly knew not what to make of it all.
He should not have been surprised when Caroline moved to sit beside him, and began a subtle interrogation of Miss Bennet; he did, however, wonder at the politeness of it. He was not sure if he should be dismayed that Miss Bennet although disconcerted at Caroline's politeness merely took it in stride and replied back with equal serenity but, no, Miss Bennet was usually serene and calm. There could be nothing unexpected in that, except he had been informed by Darcy that she knew of the deceit. Only Jane could be so forgiving.
At length, a chance remark was made about the remainder of Miss Bennet's stay in London, and that prompted the reminder of Netherfield. "I have been in contact with my steward at Netherfield, about the spring planting and the like," he interjected, "but perhaps I may impose upon your father for more local advice?"
Miss Bennet smiled in reply, glancing at Mr. Bennet, who was seated closer to her sister. "I am sure he would not be adverse to exchanging ideas and experience on the topic Lizzy has always been the one most involved in such matters and he will probably be missing her as a sounding board."
"What are your plans for the summer?" Caroline asked.
For the first time, Bingley saw Miss Bennet look truly uneasy but perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, for she was her happy, if serene, self again in just a blink. "Our plans are not yet fixed; I am completely at Lizzy's disposal until she has reconciled herself with the current situation, and no longer needs my support."
"What support can she possibly need?" Caroline asked, for once in earnest. "Surely Lady Catherine and the Matlocks are sufficient not that I do not commend you for your loyalty to her," Caroline added.
Miss Bennet actually smiled in wry amusement for a moment. "Even if she does not need my support, I will fret about her until I am sure she is at ease. She has had quite a few shocks these past few weeks we have all felt them, but they affect her the most profoundly. If my father had not thought to provide what witnesses and testimony he could to her, there would have been nothing that could have persuaded her to accept the de Bourghs as family." She glanced at Miss Elizabeth, and Bingley saw the concern and remembrance of pain in those eyes. "Her world has been turned upside down," she added softly, as if she had forgotten whom she was speaking, saying such things in public, "and I could not live with myself were I not here to help her straighten it out."
The words sounded faintly familiar to Bingley, but from his sister's expression, she knew where she had heard them before, and the reminder was at best uncomfortable. Her civility sharply increased between one moment and the next, and when Bingley made a comment on the time, he was surprised that Caroline without prompting or even a look for approval invited both Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth to tea in a few days' time.
Their carriage had followed them, and Bingley was set to hand Caroline in, but she bade him to wait a moment, for she suspected the other guest might be leaving as well, and she did not see the Gardiners' carriage "Surely Mrs. Gardiner should not have to travel by paid carriage, if we can take her home, Charles? You would not mind, would you?"
Bingley realized he was staring at his sister in disbelief before he stammered a reply, "Of course not, if she is willing."
Caroline gave him a smile, and when Mrs. Gardiner came down the steps from the door, she made the offer of transport to the older woman, who, with only an edge of surprise and a reflexive "I should not wish to inconvenience you any," was persuaded by both Bingleys that they did not mind at all, and would be happy to be of use.
It was Caroline and Mrs. Gardiner who held conversation in the carriage; Bingley was too stunned by, and then beginning to be suspicious of, his sister's sudden, rapid change of demeanour. Mrs. Gardiner gracefully thanked them both for the assistance, and politely offered them tea. "Oh, no, we should not wish to distract you from your scheduled guests," Caroline replied.
"Perhaps tomorrow, then?"
"I have no plans," Caroline replied agreeably, "Charles?"
"I cannot say I have any plans myself," he allowed. "Tomorrow, then." And it was decided.
He waited until they arrived at their townhouse before asking Caroline to join him in his study; the noise inside of a carriage on a London street was not precisely conducive to a heart-to-heart talk.
"How long is this going to last?" he asked without preamble. "I do not wish to see you befriend Miss Bennet again, and then use that friendship as a weapon against her and her family!"
Caroline blanched. "I I did not intend that, Charles. I just " she looked away. "Miss Bennet's words Do you remember when Grandpa Johnson passed away?"
It had been a difficult time on them all, Bingley remembered. His father had spent many hours consoling his mother, as had he and his sisters. It was, perhaps, what had let him prepare for the day he lost his own father Caroline had been overwrought, and Louisa scarcely less so. "I remember," he agreed, confused as to what this topic change meant.
"Do you remember father's friend, Mr. What was it? Davidson, perhaps?" Caroline's brow furrowed in concentration before she shook her head. "It matters not. You had been sent on some errand or another, and I was bringing tea to papa. And father's friend stood in his study, trying to convince him he should not have to tend mother in her grief father's reply was almost exactly what Miss Bennet said about Miss Eliza." Caroline looked away again. "I believe Miss Bennet believes what they have been told about Miss Eliza being a de Bourgh, and I studied her often enough in Hertfordshire to realize that she was not in good spirits by any means." Caroline finally looked him in the eye, and added quietly, "I always thought our inheritance came at a high price, Charles. I recognized the expression on her face, after a few minutes of watching her it was not unlike yours, those weeks you pretended to the world and our sister and me, that you were recovering from our father's death. Miss Eliza may not have known her father, but she has abruptly discovered he is dead, and even in our circle, there are only a few of who would be completely unaffected by such a thing. She is grieving."
"I thought you would be set on the belief she is only pretending to be related," Bingley raised an eyebrow at his sister.
She sighed. "I confess I was, until I saw that. And I I remembered how lost I felt after the carriage accident, and " It was rare for Caroline to show emotion, but Bingley suddenly had an armful of sniffling sister. He held her, and let her cry herself out. Four years had scarcely been long enough to recover, in his opinion had Darcy not reached out to the younger, grieving man, Bingley may not have recovered at all, amidst all the sly comments about his now independent fortune. Darcy had seen he would have traded everything to have his parents back; seen and understood.
Caroline finally pulled away, embarrassed at her display, and muttered about how she must look. "What are your plans for tomorrow, then?" he asked, before she could escape.
Caroline could not look at him, but she answered nonetheless. "To apologize for my behaviour previously," she replied. There was a wry amusement in her voice, when she added, "If naught else, if the Fitzwilliams do not have a problem inviting her to their townhouse, for Miss Bennet and Miss Eliza's sakes, I may as well get to know my future aunt," she paused, while Bingley blushed, adding slightly mischievously, "particularly given I have been informed that my future uncle supplies more than one of my favourite modistes, as well as at least one of the most exclusive ones I have not yet been able to patronize, but Mrs. Gardiner does. You might say that I am considering the material advantages the acquaintance may provide."
Bingley snorted in true amusement. "Just do not interfere with Miss Bennet and Miss Eliza, Caroline."
"I would prefer to interfere, actually, Charles," she replied, and held up a hand to silence him as her brother scowled and prepared to remind her of certain threats. "If Jane is to be my sister, and Miss Eliza as much as I hate to admit it is to make a match with Mr. Darcy, there are those among my acquaintance who can be ... influenced to make the situation easier on the de Bourghs; not that they truly need my assistance, but I have some amends to make, of my own."
Bingley gaped at her for a moment, then asked, "Who are you, and what did you do with Caroline?"
The question caught her off-guard, and for the first time in years in truth, since the few minutes before the constable had been admitted to their home, bearing the news of their parents' fate Bingley heard his sister laugh a true laugh of honest amusement. "I do not know, Charles. I simply do not know."
Posted on 2011-02-12
By the time Elizabeth returned downstairs from her nap dressed for dinner, actually, as it was only a couple of hours away her schedule for the next day had already been determined by her mother de Bourgh, her in-attendance-aunt, Georgiana and both of her sisters. Apparently, she was going to be shopping.
From the amused look on William's face, as well as Richard's, she had not done as good of a job suppressing the whimpering groan as she had hoped. "Are you truly sure it is necessary, mιre?"
The other women in the room gave her a look eerily reminiscent of Mrs. Bennet, and she raised her hands in defeat. "I suppose, then, that I am going shopping; but I insist on Jane purchasing items as well."
"Of course she will; for she will be in attendance at the ball," Lady Catherine replied, overriding anything Jane had been about to say. "I have already settled it with her father; while Jane remains as a part of my household, I am responsible for her purchases."
Jane and Elizabeth both began to protest, but Anne laughed. "I think, sisters, that a graceful agreement is necessary. For I also sided with Mama on the subject, and your father was wise enough to let us have our way."
Jane was taken aback by Anne calling her "sister;" she glanced askance at Elizabeth, who favoured Lady Catherine and Anne with a peculiar smile. "I see," Elizabeth said softly, "you were in earnest, that first night at Rosings."
"Did you ever doubt it, Elizabeth?" Lady Catherine asked.
Elizabeth smiled wryly. "I must confess I was not sure what to think then. There have been many things to consider of late."
"Then I suppose," Lady Catherine replied, "you will need to think more upon it; your uncle," she nodded at Lord Matlock, "will be meeting with the solicitor in the morning, for advice on how to word the announcement, as well as to settle my will such that there can be no later disputes regarding your inheritance." She glanced between Anne and Elizabeth, "Not that I expect either of you to contest what is there at the moment, but one must always be attentive to such matters long before there can be any possible issue."
Anne and Elizabeth flicked understanding glances at each other. "Indeed, Mama," Anne replied. It would be, after all, most likely her future husband who would protest Elizabeth's inheritance.
The evening passed quietly, as did dinner. Each member of Elizabeth's family settled themselves near her for a quarter hour, perhaps half an hour, as they took turns furthering their understanding and acquaintance with her. Elizabeth herself endeavoured to learn everything she could about these individuals who loved her without knowing who she was. Jane rarely strayed from her side, and offered her unwavering support in the guise of quiet, pleasant conversation when Elizabeth and her relatives faltered for a common topic. At length, Anne settled herself on the other side of Elizabeth from Jane, and between the two of them, they effectively ended the day's interviewing by not giving way to the other curious parties. William, at length, dared to interject himself into the feminine barricade surrounding Elizabeth, and mentioned it was time for him to return to his townhouse, and that Georgiana would stay with him for the night. Georgiana, predictably, protested, but subsided when both her Aunt Matlock and brother gave her matching stern looks.
"Mrs. Annesley asked me to specifically remind you of your scheduled visits for tomorrow," William added. "Elizabeth will be well taken care of in terms of company for tomorrow's adventure; Cassandra has requested to accompany the party. I believe Aunt Matlock has agreed to her inclusion."
Georgiana flushed slightly. "I had forgotten, in my excitement. I hope I have not offended anyone today."
William smiled slightly. "Mrs. Annesley said nothing to me of any appointments for today. Tomorrow, you will be busy, and of course there are always your studies."
"Cassandra is Alexander's wife?" Elizabeth asked.
"The same," William replied. "We should leave shortly, Georgiana."
The girl sighed and stood; the other girls rose in tandem. Georgiana impulsively hugged Elizabeth, surprising them both. "I will write to let you know if I will be free the day after tomorrow," Georgiana said.
Elizabeth nodded. "We have an invitation to the Bingleys', as well as my Aunt Gardiner's, in the coming few days. Coordinating everything may prove interesting," she added with a slight smile.
"Welcome to London," William replied in wry amusement.
After the Darcy siblings made their adieus and left, Elizabeth's sisters and mother insisted she retire. Despite the nap earlier, she found no reason to disagree, if only in the interests of being prepared for the morrow.
Mrs. Gardiner awaited her expected unexpected visitors. Most of a day had not rid her of the burning curiosity as to whether Miss Bingley's overtures were to be taken at face value. She was not blind to the advantages of a helpful Miss Bingley to her nieces. While Miss Bingley's place in Society hinged on her brother's friendship with Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys' own fortune, and she certainly was not part of the first circle, she still represented the circle that could cause Elizabeth the greatest grief. Elizabeth's own circle would accept her on the pure strength of the de Bourghs, Darcys, and Matlocks; the lesser landed gentry and the landless wealthy that brushed elbows with them would resent, if not despise, Elizabeth's unexpected rise to prosperity and influence, and do what they could to undercut her.
The guests were announced a few minutes after the appointed time; given the general commentary from Madeline's morning visitors on the state of the streets today, she was neither surprised nor offended. They settled down after the general pleasantries, tea cups in hand and crumpets close by.
"How have you fared since the winter?" Madeline asked Miss Bingley.
"Tolerably well," Miss Bingley replied. "I would apologize for the long delay between visits, as I did not last visit, but that would be at cross-purposes for this visit." Mr. Bingley, unusually quiet, raised an eyebrow at his sister, even as Madeline gave her a politely questioning look.
Miss Bingley did not look up from her tea cup, thus was not being prompted by Madeline's expression, but her voice and posture all showed signs of embarrassment and discomfort. "I would rather apologize for the reasons for the delay, as well as my behaviour both previous times I have been in this residence. To wit, for being unreasonably sure of my own merit."
Madeline was taken aback. Miss Bingley, being forthright, presented an unusual picture; admitting her own faults seemed utterly out of character. "I am unsure how to respond," Madeline replied. "But I thank you and accept your apology."
Miss Bingley's composure seemed to become less fragile with Madeline's reply. "Thank you; it is probably more than I deserve. But I have amends to make to your nieces, and wanted you to be aware that I take them seriously."
Madeline eyed the younger woman for a moment. "If I may be so bold, Miss Bingley, as to ask what brought about this change of heart?"
"Miss Bennet uttered a phrase in regards to Miss Eliza's reaction to certain newly discovered facts that forcibly reminded me of something I heard my father say, in regards to my mother, once." Miss Bingley gave an elegant shrug. "Such openness convinced me of the truth of the situation."
Madeline nodded slightly, and then posed another question. "Is your intent, then, to milk the acquaintance for the purpose of your own advancement? Or for the actual acquaintance?"
Miss Bingley blushed slightly. "I have reason to believe some of the acquaintance cannot be avoided in the future. And I should reconcile myself to the new reality of the situation as well so the acquaintance is important, in and of itself."
Madeline accepted her words at face value; for once, the multi-layered Miss Bingley was not talking in veiled comments, for all she was not saying all she was thinking. She shifted the conversation. "As I said during your last visit, a dinner is being planned for my nieces. The date has not been set yet; would Friday of next week be acceptable for your household?"
Both Bingleys replied it would be. "My sister Louisa and her husband will be returning from his relatives' early to mid-next week. Might they be invited as well?" Mr. Bingley asked.
Madeline smiled. "Of course."
The important parts of the conversation completed, it turned to more idle conversation, and Miss Bingley became more comfortable. At length, however, the Bingleys did say they were invited to a dinner that night which they needed to prepare for, and Madeline saw them to the door.
Viscountess Cassandra Fitzwilliam was a beautiful woman, and the way she interacted with Alexander was endearing. Elizabeth felt very inclined towards affection for her in a matter of moments. She also happened to be well-dressed and displayed good taste. Placing her wardrobe in the care of the Countess' and Viscountess' knowledge of current fashion certainly afforded some measure of relief.
Elizabeth knew that the modiste they alighted at was one of the more fashionable ones that her Uncle Gardiner provided materials for, although she had personally not been to this one. The owner knew her, of course, from her London visits and the dinners attended at the Gardiners'. She wondered, in the way of those used to knowing their relatively mediocre means, if the family "discount" she often received from other modistes would be offered here given the change of her circumstances and company.
The owner, a portly woman who had once been svelte, by the name of Mrs. Smithson, greeted them as they entered. "Lady Matlock, Viscountess, and " a pause of startled amazement, "my dear Miss Bennets! Your uncle said nothing of you being in town!"
"It was," Jane replied sweetly, "a tad unexpected for us as well, Mrs. Smithson."
"Well, well," the lady replied. "If you will let me tend to these ladies first, my dears, I will be right with you?"
"Actually," Lady Matlock interjected, "they are with us today, Mrs. Smithson."
With an expressively startled glance at the Bennet girls, who nodded in agreement, Mrs. Smithson shook herself slightly. "Well, my dears, then you will simply have to tell me why later. What might you be looking for today?" her glance included all four women.
"The Miss Bennets will be part of the Matlock family party for most of the Season, if all goes well," Lady Matlock replied, "as well as at minimum at our opening ball. We wish to augment their wardrobes with this in mind."
Mrs. Smithson raised an eyebrow, and with a quick up and down appraising glance of both girls, nodded. "I understand, milady. Augment or replace?"
"Augment, if you please," Jane answered.
"At least for the time being," Elizabeth concurred. Lady Matlock gave her niece a sharp glance, but let it pass. After all, Elizabeth reasoned, if more clothing of higher quality were required later, the shop would have her measurements, and could surely fashion up a few items.
"This way then, my dears," Mrs. Smithson said to the girls. "My assistants shall get your measurements while the countess and viscountess sort through fabrics and patterns they deem appropriate." She glanced back over her shoulder. "That is what you intended, yes?"
The older women agreed.
Elizabeth took great care to not be caught alone with Mrs. Smithson for the duration, thus avoiding any interrogation where she might slip in her replies. Knowing what she did of the other lady, the information that she was part of the Matlock household would likely be heard by half of the Ton by mid-morning tomorrow. She hoped it had occurred to her aunt to drop a word about discretion into the lady's ear. She whispered this to Lady Matlock towards the end of the visit, and was given a smile.
"Already done, Elizabeth; but good thought." There was a touch of condescension to her aunt's voice, but Elizabeth tried to ignore it. She understood that Lady Matlock probably was unaware of just how long Mrs. Smithson had known her.
Perhaps Lady Matlock realized that fact when Mrs. Smithson gave her the total for the selected purchases. "Mrs. Smithson, if I were purchasing items, my tally would amount to significantly more than this," her aunt began.
"The girls are Mr. Gardiner's nieces, and I have known them since Miss Lizzy was waist high to me. I have wanted to fit her since then I did her dress, a pretty yellow lace dress with red roses, for her uncle's wedding as a favour to her uncle, and have not had a chance since." The matron shrugged. "I have no girls of my own the Bennet girls are as close to daughters as I ever had."
Lady Matlock had a peculiar expression on her face that Elizabeth could not decipher. "Very well then." No other disputes regarding the bill were to be found, once the matron gave her the percentage discount she calculated for the girls.
Elizabeth broached her aunt's reaction after they returned to the Matlock residence. "You are not displeased with Mrs. Smithson, are you?"
Lady Matlock shook her head, and Elizabeth was startled to see tears forming. She reached out a tentative hand to touch her aunt's arm.
A forced smile and a glance away were the response, followed by a voice rough from emotion: "You made a beautiful picture in yellow lace and red roses."
Elizabeth gaped at her aunt, too stunned to reply.
"And I remember thinking she sounds so much like our Elizabeth but the woman it must have been Mrs. Bennet with you kept calling you her daughter and 'Lizzy,' as did Mrs. Smithson. And I did not recognize her which meant she was country gentry, to be in such a shop, and it would be too much to hope you were safe and sound in such an environment. I never dared to hope for more than a kindly pastor or tenant's wife," Lady Matlock added, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief she had dug out of a handbag.
Elizabeth reacted in the only way she could: she stepped closer and gave her aunt a hug, and her aunt returned it with interest.
"If only I had dared hope you were safe, I would have asked questions of the woman I nearly did as it was but it was too much too hope for."
Elizabeth replied, "Understandably so, aunt."
Lady Matlock looked away from her. "Would you be so kind as to not tell your mothers what I just told you? There is no sense in aggravating the situation with what-might-have-beens."
"I had no intention of relaying the story." Elizabeth offered a wry smile. "After all, we do not know how many dark-haired little girls Mrs. Smithson dressed in yellow lace and red roses at that time. Perhaps it was not me you saw."
Lady Matlock's own smile was wry as well. "Perhaps," she agreed, glancing away. "Perhaps."To Be Continued . . .