Elizabeth Bennet is visited by three ghosts one night in Derbyshire.
Accordingly, when she retired at night, she asked the chambermaid whether Pemberley were not a very fine place? what was the name of its proprietor? and, with no little alarm, whether the family were down for the summer? A most welcome negative followed the last question--and her alarms now being removed, she was at leisure to feel a great deal of curiosity to see the house herself; and when the subject was revived the next morning, and she was again applied to, could readily answer, and with a proper air of indifference, that she had not really any dislike to the scheme. To Pemberley, therefore, they were to go.1: Mr. Goulding
Posted on 2013-09-30
Elizabeth Bennett sat on the edge of her bed in a strange room and tucked a stray curl behind her ear. No sooner had she lay back and shut her eyes when regrets threatened her sleep. Mr. Darcy would not be at Pemberley, but did that give her any right to visit? After all the terrible things she had said to him, terrible and undeserved, surely it must show a lack of proper feeling for her to intrude upon his home.This was the very same good sense and propriety that he had rightly accused her younger sisters of lacking.
She considered much how she had wronged him, and felt herself very undeserving to tread one foot upon his lands. Having resolved to feign a headache in the morning to keep herself at the inn while her uncle and aunt toured the house and grounds, there was nothing left for her to do but sleep, and dream sweet dreams if her conscience would let her.
Some time later, she awoke with a start, as if someone had called her name. As she stared into the darkness, listening to the creaks and scratches of a strange room, she recalled she was staying at the inn at Lambton, with her uncle and aunt Gardiner in the adjoining room.
She had just resolved to snuggle deeper into the warm blankets when she heard someone clear their throat. His throat. There was a man in her room!
She gasped and yanked the quilt up to her nose. Her eyes scanned the room for the source of the sound. Finally she found him, a slightly darker shape hidden in a shadow behind the door.
"I can see you," she warned him, her voice frail and breathy with fear.
"And I can see you, Miss Lizzy," he answered. His deep voice sounded too menacing at this late hour to be familiar.
"I shall scream," she announced.
"I shan't stop you." He paused to light his pipe. By the glow of the match, she finally recognized the face.
It was not, in fact, Mr. Goulding, but rather Mr. Goulding's father. Lizzy had known him all her life. He was forever smoking his pipe, scratching his nose, and talking in a deep voice that always sounded displeased even when he was laughing with amusement. He had been a good friend to her father, and the two gentlemen had spent many hours tucked away in the library at Longbourne, talking about whatever they pleased.
To see such a familiar face in such a faraway place under such disorienting circumstances should have been comforting, except Mr. Goulding senior had been dead for three years.
"I must be dreaming," Lizzy whispered to herself.
Mr. Goulding only grunted his confirmation and moved to the matter at hand. "Well, now. Up with you. We haven't all night."
Lizzy gaped at him. "I shall do no such thing!" She was after all, quite clearly, in her night gown.
"If you are dreaming, and I am still dead, there can be no harm," he reasoned, which just showed how ludicrous the situation was.
"I am not getting out of this bed dressed as I am."
Mr. Goulding scratched his nose. "Are you appropriately attired now, Miss Lizzy?"
Lizzy felt an odd sensation wash over her. She peeked under her covers and saw that her white nightgown had been replaced by a blue dress. Before she could ask how this magic trick was performed, he was before her, tugging her wrists and pulling her out of the bed.
But Mr. Goulding was in no mood to be scolded. "We haven't all night," he repeated. "I'm just the first, and I won't have the other two blame me for your tardiness."
"What are you talking about?" Typically, her dreams made more sense than now.
"Hurry up and you may just figure it out," he answered cryptically. "We have far to travel, you and I. And that's nothing compared to what is to come."
"I do not understand you at all, sir," she said, her tone growing cooler.
He looked her in the eyes, unimpressed. "And I thought you were the smart one."
That garnered her attention and got her mind working again. She was dreaming. None of this was real. Anything could happen and none of it mattered.
"Where are you taking me?"
That won back some of his esteem. "I could tell you, but the words belong to others."
As inscrutable as that was, she could not ask him what he meant. At that moment, she was possessed by a sudden urge to sneeze. Before she could even cover her mouth, the sneeze was upon her and her eyes shut tight.
When she opened her eyes again, the light was suddenly blinding. Somehow, in the physics of dreams, they had traveled both time and space during that sneeze. They were now out of doors, in the middle of the day, in some bustling town Lizzy had never seen before.
Lizzy gazed around in wonder, taking it all in. Nothing seemed foreign-- they were still in England if the words spoken by passers-by were an indication-- but there was something alien in the air that Lizzy could not place, a scent entirely new to her.
"Where are we?" she asked at last.
"Almost where we need to be," he said over his shoulder as he began walking away.
After a half-thought's hesitation she took off after him. At first, she took care to weave her way through the crowd on the street, murmuring her apologies as she squeezed between the crowds. She did not know where she was but it was only common civility not to barrel into other people.
Then she saw Mr. Goulding walk through someone. There was that frisson of worry as she realized the collision was imminent, then came the moment of impact, except there was no impact. And they both kept moving in their original directions, heedless of the other.
She gasped and her steps slowed to a halt of their own accord as she absorbed this. While she was trying to decide if she had actually seen what her eyes had shown her, she felt a sensation like a cold blast of winter wind, and then she was looking at the back of a head that had just passed through her own.
What else could she do but shriek?
The noise brought Mr. Goulding but no one else made any response. They could not see her, nor hear her, nor touch her, not really.
"O, Mr. Goulding," she exclaimed when he finally approached her. "Take me back to my bed, please. This is a nightmare."
"This is not your nightmare," he told her. She thought she could detect a touch of tenderness in his voice. "And the only way back is forward." He extended one arm in the direction he had previously travelled, and offered the other to her.
She took his arm, almost amazed that she could feel it, and they walked the streets together. She avoided the others as much as she could, but as Mr. Goulding had been dead for years and felt no need to alter his path, she occasionally felt the icy blast of an intersection.
At length, they turned a corner and Lizzy caught a view of open water.
"Is that the sea?" she inquired with the enthusiasm of a child.
Mr. Goulding merely grunted and led them to a prosperous inn. As he directed her up the stairs, he muttered, "Almost there," so quietly that Elizabeth didn't know if the words were meant for her.
He led her down the main hallway to the door of a suite of rooms that must front the place. Again he paused and directed her to go first.
Lizzy wondered what to do, and began by attempting to knock. Her small fist, however, past through the wood noiselessly with only the intense sensation of cold.
"We must walk through, Miss Lizzy," Mr. Goulding told her.
Having come this far, enduring so much unbelievable happenings, she could not balk on the very threshold, but she still needed to steel herself against the cold that awaited her.
She held her breath and counted to two before pushing forward. The door was as substantial as a breeze, and she was on the other side before she knew it, Mr. Goulding close at her heels.
Lizzy looked about her, gathering her bearings again. They were in a private sitting room. To the left and the right, she could spy glimpses of private bedrooms through partially open doors. The sitting room itself had three windows looking out on the street, and the ocean beyond. It was a charming room, well appointed, and beyond anything Lizzy's parents could ever afford.
There was a pianoforte in one corner, and a girl who sat at it running through arpeggios and scales. She was tall and fair and beautiful with the trappings of a future lady of fashion, but too young to be elegant.
An older woman sat by an open window, letting the light spill across her needlepoint as she listened to her young companion practice. Lizzy wondered if the two were related or if their relationship was strictly financial in origin, but as neither woman spoke, she could detect no clues.
When the details of the room could no longer hold her interest, she wandered over to the windows. From there, she could gaze upon the street but what arrested her attention was the water. She had never been to the shore before.
Finally she roused herself. "Mr. Goulding, am I here to see the ocean? Would it not be better to walk closer to it rather than be in this room? Are we in Brighton?" She thought fleetingly of Lydia manufacturing adventures here, but discounted it when she realized the lack of red coats.
After waiting for Mr. Goulding's reply and hearing none, she began to turn back to face the room. From the corner of her eye, she saw something familiar, someone familiar, in the street below.
She stared, and wondered. It was Mr. Darcy!
He approached the inn with a spring in his step, gazing at the building with such a look of excitement that she had never imagined him to feel. He was carrying a small parcel, neatly wrapped and closely guarded.
"What is Mr. Darcy doing here?" she asked the room.
None but Mr. Goulding could hear her, and that gentleman stayed silent.
Mr. Darcy now turned his face to Elizabeth's window. Lizzy could feel their eyes lock. Then he smiled, but it was more than that. He beamed! He beamed at her!
Lizzy gasped and quickly retreated from the window.
"Do not think that he can see you," her guide informed her.
"But why is he here?"
Before Mr. Goulding could answer-- or perhaps instead of his answer-- the girl at the pianoforte brought her fingers crashing down on the instrument in discord.
"O!" she cried. "I cannot practice anymore. When will he come? I am too distracted for anything!"
Elizabeth briefly wondered if the girl was waiting for Mr. Darcy, but her companion's response knocked the idea clear out of her head.
"All brides grow distracted before their wedding. Grooms too, in my experience. Mr. Wickham will join us for tea exactly when he promised. Never you fear for him."
Lizzy was aghast. As she viewed her surroundings, she saw them with new eyes. With sickening clarity, she knew exactly where she was.
"This is Ramsgate!" she cried. "This is Miss Darcy! She's going to elope with Mr. Wickham!"
"She does not elope," Mr. Goulding corrected her as if she was a dunderhead.
A rap at the door brought forth a squeal of delight from Miss Darcy.
"He is here!" she exclaimed, and ran to the door.
Any disappointment Miss Darcy felt at discovering it was not her fiance come early was immediately replaced by the joy of finding her brother in his place.
"William!" she shrieked happily and threw herself into his arms. "What are you doing here? What a wonderful surprise!"
Mr. Darcy hugged his sister into the room in a maneuver that reminded Lizzie of her uncle Gardiner playing Bear with her cousins.
"You are pleased to see me, then?" he asked good naturedly. "I was worried about my reception, which is why I brought gifts--"
Whatever else he intended to say was overridden by Miss Darcy's squeals as she began the hunt for the parcel Lizzy had seen him carrying in the street.
Mr. Darcy had not made matters difficult for his sister. She quickly found a small box in his coat pocket.
"Those are chocolates from Town," he said, "for you to share with Mrs. Younge." He gave her a look to underscore that the sharing was important, as if she might eat them all herself otherwise.
"And this--" here he removed the package Lizzy had first espied-- "is for you alone."
Miss Darcy passed the bonbons to her companion so that she could focus her attention on her brother's special gift.
"It was meant for your birthday," he explained, "but then I realized the clasp was broken, and I couldn't find a jeweler to repair it in time. I just got it back yesterday."
By now, the lucky girl had opened a jeweler's box and was lifting out a necklace.
She marveled at it. "It's beautiful," she spoke with reverence.
"It was our mother's."
The siblings shared a look and a sad smile.
"I shall wear it on my wedding day," she announced.
Her brother laughed and tapped her nose affectionately. "Yes, but not for years hence, if you please!"
The words were spoken lightheartedly, but their effect was dampening. Darcy saw the disappointment on his sister's face, and his own face went ashen.
"William, I am to be married." It was a simple declaration, coated in the need for his approval. Surely it was fate that brought him here now, before the elopement. Surely that meant her brother was to grant his consent and his blessing to her future life.
"But how is that possible?" he asked as his mind worked to make sense of her words. He looked to Mrs. Younge for explanation, but that woman's eyes were industriously fixed on her needle and thread.
Darcy turned back to his sister. "Georgianna, no one has applied to me for your hand. You are but 15 years old. When is this to happen?"
"We are to elope in two days."
The news practically staggered him, and Miss Darcy was pained to cause her brother such obvious distress. Neither sibling noticed Mrs. Younge set aside her embroidery and sneak out of the room.
"Who is this paragon that won your heart so swiftly?"
A more charitable observer-- Jane for instance-- would have suggested that Mrs. Younge was only giving the two some privacy, but Elizabeth knew this story, and was not inclined to be forgiving.
"She is escaping!" said Lizzy, and gave chase.
Being incorporeal was becoming easier, for she flew through the shutting door without pause, the cold no more bracing than a splash of cold water in the morning.
Mrs. Younge bustled efficiently through her bedroom, snatching up her bonnet and placing a few choice pieces in her reticule before slipping into the hall without ever creaking a floorboard.
Forgetting herself and her dream's limitations, Lizzy fell upon the woman as if to tackle her, but made no impact except with the floor.
When she righted herself, she rushed to the sitting room to enlist Mr. Goulding's help.
"We must go after her," said she. "Mrs. Younge will warn Wickham and they will get away."
Mr. Goulding merely scratched his nose. "But this has already happened, Miss Lizzy. They are already gone. And besides, that is not what you are here to see." He leaned his head towards the Darcys, whose conversation had continued unabated.
"We've talked about it, and we have a plan," Miss Darcy was informing her brother, pacing as her thoughts unspooled. "Directly after we return from Scotland, he shall take orders while I petition you for the living at Kympton. You may not be fond of George, at least not now, but I know you will both grow to love each other as brothers in time."
Mr. Darcy looked horrified to Elizabeth but his sister was too caught up in her day dreams to notice.
"Mrs. Reynolds will be able to give me some advice in running the parsonage, and I know old Rory would love to put a hand to the gardens, especially after Mr. Hitchcock let things decline his last few years there. I always thought the curtains in the sitting room were too dark, but I never said anything about them until now. And perhaps I shall raise chickens and learn how to make custard. O, can you imagine me with my own flock of redcaps! And I shall be able to visit you every day when you are at Pemberley, so in that respect, it will be as if nothing has changed."
Now she turned to face him and put her hands in his. "Doesn't it just sound perfect?"
Mr. Darcy struggled for the right words. She was vulnerable, in grave danger, and she had no idea of it. "Wickham has already refused the living. He was compensated for it and chose to pursue a career in law."
"He regrets studying law; it was a mistake," she announced. "And we have talked about the money you gave him. We will pay you back. Either you can take the whole sum at once from my dowry or we can pay installments over the years."
"Your dowry?" Underneath the shock there was bitterness and disappointment in his voice. "Were you the one to suggest it?"
"We should not be here for this," said Lizzy. "This is a private conversation."
"They do not realize we are here," Mr. Goulding reasoned. "And this is what you were brought to see."
"Yes." Miss Darcy smiled, but under a strain. This was not going as smoothly as she had first hoped. "It is my money, and George said I could spend it as I wished. It would not bode well to start our married life indebted to you."
"And who else will Wickham no longer be indebted to, upon this marriage?"
Georgianna Darcy was astute enough to feel uncomfortable at this inquiry. "A few."
"I don't care if you think I should witness this. I am leaving," Elizabeth announced. She turned neatly on her heel and walked straight into a wall. Instead of a chill as she passed through it, she bumped her nose as she hit it.
"And how much will this bridegroom cost you?" It was becoming increasingly difficult for Mr. Darcy to speak calmly and evenly.
"You cannot go now, Miss Lizzy," Mr. Goulding said. "I suggest you use your time wisely and observe."
"William!" Miss Darcy pulled her hands away from her brother. "I will not answer such a question. You may not like him, but know that I love him and he loves me."
Lizzy averted her eyes and covered her ears, but that could not stop the sound, nor could she prevent her mind from imagining the pained look on Mr. Darcy's face or Miss Darcy's increasing frustration.
"George Wickham is in love with your dowry, dearest. He would be in love with anyone who could hand over £30,000, up to the moment it was all spent. And he is a profligate; he will find ways to spend the money faster and faster until you are destitute, and then he will abandon you for some other unsuspecting heiress."
This was shocking to Miss Darcy. She could not understand it. "Why do you dislike him so passionately?"
"Because I know him, I know men like him. They are not to be trusted."
"Men like George Wickham?" Miss Darcy repeated, her voice rising. "Those who grew up in Derbyshire, were raised and educated as gentlemen? Men who were favored by our father? Men like you?"
"Georgianna, you do not know him like I do."
"No, it is you who do not know him! He has changed. He has told me that he regrets his past actions and he wants another chance. You must give it to him."
Mr. Darcy was silent and unable to look at his sister.
"You must give him another chance, William. I love him." Again, she reached her hands to him.
"Has he compromised you at all?"
Lizzy would have given anything to avoid hearing a dreadful affirmation, but thankfully Georgianna scoffed at the notion. "No! Or course not. George would never do such a thing. He is a gentleman."
"Has he not imposed on you in any way?"
"No," she said again and wavered. "The most he has done is kissed my hand. Mrs. Younge stays in the room when we are together... most of the time."
Darcy looked physically pained, grieved. He met his sister's eye and in a quiet voice told her, "It will break my heart one day to lose you to a worthy man. But it would crush me to throw you away on the likes of a man such as he. He would destroy your happiness on a whim; I have seen him do it before, to others better prepared than you to face the harsh realities of life. You cannot know what you are about. You cannot realize what is at stake. To consent would be to commit a crime for which I could never forgive myself. I cannot allow you to marry him."
She became incensed. "I am not a child!"
"Nor are you an adult. And your fortune is not yours to dispose of, should I withhold my consent." These were the words of the Mr. Darcy that Lizzy knew, cold and manipulating, but he did not speak with the air of authority she had heard so much in Hertfordshire. There was a tremor in his speech that eloquently exposed his own fears. "I doubt that Wickham will still be eager for the match if you came to him penniless. I daresay an offer to settle his recent debts would make him give you up altogether."
Miss Darcy burst into tears. "You are cruel, William! As cruel and cold as he said you were!"
Mr. Darcy was now shocked. The implication was too great: that Wickham had turned Miss Darcy against him.
His sister continued her tirade. "He counselled me not to write to you, not to tell you until it could not be undone. He knew you would try to break us up, that the thought of his happiness would be too much for you to bare.
"You hate him. You always have and you always will. You hate him because you were jealous of him for being so loved by Papa." Here Mr. Darcy started to protest, but the girl would not be stopped. "You hid it from me all these years, but George told me all about it. You despise his charm and his ease. He cannot help it; it is his nature. You might as well hate a man for being born to richer parents than you."
"It is not his--"
"No, William!" Miss Darcy clamped her hands over her ears, with far more success than Elizabeth. "I shall not listen to your lies and justifications. You will never listen to reason about him, your temper is too implacable. You may prevent us from marrying now, but I will come of age eventually. You will not be able to stop us then. "
She ran from the room and slammed the door behind her.
Elizabeth did not know which of the two had the greater share of her sympathy. One could be clearly heard sobbing in the next room, her hopes and vision for the future cruelly dashed by a beloved brother. The other bore his burden in silence.
Miss Darcy had been praised as a paragon of feminine accomplishment by Miss Bingley, slandered as a proud, haughty girl by Mr. Wickham, but to Elizabeth, she was just a girl of fifteen years, ill-equipped to detect ulterior motives in those she trusted, and perhaps a little spoiled by those who loved her. In that way, she was not much different from Lizzy's own sister Lydia. She remembered the colonel's words: a very trying age indeed!
It was stunning, how similar Miss Darcy's arguments sounded to Lizzy's ears when compared with her own rejection of Mr. Darcy's proposal. Both young women had defended the scoundrel and abused Mr. Darcy intentionally and unjustly. Both had been misled by Wickham's good looks and charm into believing lies about a man who did not deserve such censure. Miss Darcy had ignored her entire history with her brother while Elizabeth had discounted anything that did not conform to her original opinion of the man as proud and disagreeable.
With sadness, Elizabeth also realized how both she and Miss Darcy had accused him of breaking up a love match. The comparisons were unavoidable. No wonder Mr. Darcy had fled the parsonage without uttering a satisfying defense of his honor. No wonder he had been compelled to risk the impropriety of handing her that letter the next day.
Mr. Darcy stood momentarily numb, then approached the bedroom door and tapped gently on it.
"Georgie," he said quietly, barely audible above the sobs emanating from the other side. "Georgie, please."
From her position in the room, Lizzy could not see Mr. Darcy's face but she could hear the strain in his voice, and that his heart was breaking just as much as his sister's.
With tears on her own cheeks, she turned to Mr. Goulding and said, "May we go now?"
"Just as you say," came the quiet reply.
With disorienting swiftness, they were back at her room in Lambton without even the sensations of movement or cold. Lizzy blinked and stared blindly in the new darkness. Soon, her eyes adjusted and she recognized her own self lying asleep in the bed. She whirled upon Mr. Goulding for an explanation.
He laughed gruffly. "Back before you were gone. I'd say we're right on time."
From a corner of the room, a familiar woman's voice snapped back, "Don't get ahead of yourself, Mr. Goulding."
2: Mrs. Collins
Posted on 2013-10-03
Lizzy stared into the dark corner, searching for the source of the voice.
"Charlotte?" she asked tentatively.
"Eliza," came the reply. "How was Ramsgate?"
"It was terrible. Mr. Goulding and I--" she paused to look around, but Mr. Goulding was gone. She turned a full circle but saw no sign of him in the room. "Where is he?" she wondered aloud.
"It is best not to think too hard about it," Charlotte counselled. "It will only distract you from more important things."
Mrs. Collins stepped out of her corner and Lizzy could see she was dressed for bed. Mrs. Collins seemed to notice it too.
With a sigh, Charlotte fingered the lace on her nightgown. "I must be back abed in Hunsford before Mr. Collins notices I am missing," she said.
"For how long shall we be gone?"
"A few hours should do the trick," came the reply. "We must travel to London and back, so we had best get started."
"London and back, in a few hours?" Lizzy exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the power of dreams.
"And why not?" Charlotte grinned. "You have been to Ramsgate and back so quickly, that you returned before you even left." She gestured at the sleeping figure in Elizabeth's bed.
Lizzy merely shook her head. "It all seems so strange."
"Of course it does. Otherwise, you might begin to think it is real."
Lizzy looked at her friend, convinced that Charlotte was being witty at Lizzy's expense, but Charlotte's expression did not betray her.
Charlotte led Lizzy to the far side of the bed where they sat without disturbing the sleeper.
"Before we go I need to warn you of a few things," Charlotte began. "This will not be like Ramsgate for I am not Mr. Goulding. People can see you; they can hear you; they can touch you. What I am about to show you, is happening as we see it. The past is fixed, as firm and unyielding as a mountain. We cannot change it. But the present is brittle yet we may bend it slightly with care. We cannot greatly alter the shape of the present but fools may try, at great cost."
"What do you mean?" Lizzy asked. "What cost?"
Charlotte sighed and gathered her friend's hands. "I have not always been Mrs. Collins. I have shown the present to many souls, and some have sought to change it. They all had very good reasons: to avoid hardships, to save reputations, to grow fortunes, to protect loved ones. But know, Eliza, that this is a test of fortitude and discipline. The present is not a scrap of paper to fold and refold until it resembles your heart's desire. Most who interfered brought about the exact situation they sought to prevent. An unfortunate few caused events to deteriorate further."
"Charlotte, you are trying to intimidate me," Lizzy said, trying to lighten the mood.
Mrs. Collins smiled. "I know better than that but I have a duty to warn you, all the same."
From seemingly nowhere, Charlotte the brought forth a small tray with two cut crystal glasses on it. "We will travel by sherry but first we must toast. Would you prefer good news or bad?"
Lizzy accepted the glass. "Why should I want bad news?"
Charlotte lifted her own glass and set the tray aside. "You must have both. You are only deciding which you shall hear first."
Elizabeth couldn't decide which she wanted, so she left it to her friend.
"Very well," said Mrs. Collins, lifting her glass. Lizzy did the same. "To Miss Lydia Bennett. May she succeed where Georgianna Darcy failed: to become Mrs. George Wickham."
The liquid was halfway to Lizzy's stomach when she spat it out.
"Charlotte!" Lizzy exclaimed over the slight burning in her throat. "What a horrid thing to wish." There had been more she meant to say, but they were no longer in her room in Lambton, and the realization disturbed her.
They were sitting on crates in an alley. Dim moonlight filtered down through clouds and rooftops, leaving everything in grey shadows.
Charlotte looked about them, unfazed by their new surroundings. This was exactly where Mrs. Collins expected to be.
Her glow of satisfaction faded the instant she turned her gaze on Elizabeth.
"Mercy, Eliza! What was I thinking?" Charlotte stood up in agitation and began to pluck at their clothing. Where her fingers touched, the fabric began to change: it darkened and grew coarse; trimming and lace melted away; their entire outfits began to change.
Mrs. Collins did not limit herself to their clothes. She also pinched their hair and faces. While there was no mirror in that alley for Lizzy to see what changes were wrought on her own face, she could clearly see the effect on her friend. Charlotte had never been handsome, but now it would be a struggle to find her tolerably plain. Grey hair, wrinkles, and other marks of age had robbed her of her remaining youth.
"There," said Charlotte after studying her handiwork on Lizzy's face. "That should render us unrecognizable should someone spot us."
Lizzy tentatively touched her face, then jerked her hand away. "Whiskers, Charlotte! You gave me whiskers!"
Charlotte merely tucked her hand into the crook of her friend's arm and began guiding her out of the alley. "A woman walking with a man will attract far less attention than two women walking together, no matter how they look," she explained. "You must try to lower your voice, though; my magic can't touch that part of you. And I will call you 'Ben' while you look like this. You should call me 'Maria'."
"Why must we use different names? Who should notice, or care? The only people I know who live in London are currently in Derbyshire," said Lizzy in the infallible logic of dreams.
"Come now," Charlotte said, ignoring the question and propelling Lizzy forward. "We can talk more freely once we are in position."
Elizabeth had many more questions, but as they left the alley, she began to realize how unsavory a part of London they were in. Truly, no one she knew would ever walk upon these streets except in broad daylight and with a pair of stout footmen for escort. She well understood Charlotte's decision that one of them should appear as a man, although a small voice inside Lizzy wondered why it had to be her.
Charlotte directed their steps at last to a public house that looked like it might promise more shelter than was found in the nearest street corner but no more respectability.
They walked in and were ignored by the lone hag on duty.
"Get us a room, Ben," whispered Charlotte, and gave Lizzy a gentle nudge.
Lizzy girded up her courage and approached the crone behind the bar. She started to speak, then lapsed into a cough when her voice came out too high. She barely got out the request for a room for the night when the old woman barked for the money in advance. Lizzy turned in desperation to Charlotte who nodded encouragingly to her but remained silent.
Lizzy patted at her pockets and a reassuring jingle answered her. She pulled out coin after coin until the crone was satisfied. "What's your name?" she barked as she dragged out a log book.
"Miss--" she caught herself with a cough. "Mr. Ben Benn--" she coughed again. "Ben and Maria... Smith.
The crone snorted and copied into the book, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Make your mark here." She pointed to a line in the book and pushed the pen into Lizzy's hand.
Once that business had been concluded, Charlotte stepped mekely forward and whispered for two pints. Lizzie pulled more coins out of her pocket and exchanged them for two weak ales.
The two friends moved to the fire. There was no one else in the common room, but they gathered together on a wooden settee. The back was high enough to rest their heads against, but it was a tight fit.
"Charlotte! Maria!" Lizzy gasped quietly. "You made us too fat." Charlotte picked and plucked at their waists until they remained cozy but no longer painfully so.
"What do we do now?" Lizzie asked.
Charlotte lifted her glass in salute. "We sip our beer and you can tell me all about Mr. Goulding while we wait."
"What are we waiting for?" asked Lizzy.
"You will know when the time comes."
"You are as cryptic as Mr. Goulding," Lizzy sulked.
"And what did my worthy friend show you?" Charlotte's now rheumy eyes twinkled above the rim of her glass.
Lizzy felt a momentary surge of sullenness, then swallowed it. She did need to talk to someone, and Charlotte was a dear friend. "We went to Ramsgate. It was awful. We saw Mr. Darcy discover his sister shortly before she eloped with George Wickham."
"Mr. Wickham?" Charlotte sounded surprised. "He was still unengaged, was he not, when he came to Meryton?"
"Mr. Darcy broke off the match, thank goodness."
"Ah, so do you have hopes that Wickham will come up to scratch? Or does this further prove the correctness of your low opinion of Mr. Darcy, who thwarts young lovers?"
Must the Charlotte of her imagination choose now to be as uninformed as the real Charlotte?
"On the contrary! I have learned such things about Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy, as to change my whole opinion of both of them. Indeed, I feel so foolish of all my old notions and prejudices, I cannot justify myself even in private."
This tickled Charlotte immensely. "It sounds as if you are trying to say that I was right."
"A good memory is unpardonable at a time like this," Lizzy grumbled.
But Mrs. Collins was not done being vindicated. "I suppose you will next admit that Mr. Darcy admires you, Eliza."
Lizzy could only groan. "I think I can safely say that he does not admire me anymore."
"Anymore?" Charlotte was all ears. "Whatever do you mean?"
Lizzy sighed and sipped her ale. "You were right, he did admire me and I never knew. I was so blinded by my initial dislike, and his manners are so reserved, that I did not notice his regard until he offered for me."
Now it was Mrs. Collins turn to unswallow out her drink. "What?" she sputtered. "When did this happen?"
"He proposed in your sitting room," confessed Lizzy, "while I had a terrible headache brought on by his cousin's accidental admission that Mr. Darcy broke up Jane and Mr. Bingley. It would have been an unpleasant surprise in the best of times, but as it was..."
"You refused him!"
"I cannot be practical like you," lamented Lizzy. "And besides, I knew he had hurt Jane. Mr. Collins has his faults but has he ever intentionally hurt your family?"
Charlotte just shook her head. "I cannot believe you would refuse a man like Mr. Darcy."
"I did not just refuse him," Lizzy squirmed on the hard seat. "I refused him in such a way as to make sure he will never want to see me or my family or even Hertfordshire ever again."
There was a moment's pause as they both considered this. Then Charlotte philosophised, "But think on the bright side. What does it matter now what he thinks of you? His opinion finally coincides with your expectations. Your father should rejoice at having such a clever daughter, one able to alter reality to fit her notions."
That little speech resonated so soundly with Charlotte's earlier warning against tampering with time and fate, that Elizabeth was certain it was intentional. For where was the satisfaction in one's notions coming to pass when they were such wretched things?
That was, of course, where the truth lived. "But I don't dislike him," admitted Lizzy in a small voice. "Not as vehemently as before. In time, under the right circumstances, I might have esteemed him properly."
Mrs. Collins searched her friend's face for more, but what secret truths were there to be found in features so disguised?
"And so Mr. Darcy is innocent of so many crimes?" Charlotte asked gently.
"And Wickham is the villain of the piece!" Lizzy exclaimed with more force than sense, anxious to close an uncomfortable topic.
"Oy!" came an exclamation from behind them. "Did I hear you say,'Wickham'?" The hag tending the counter hobbled into view. "Do you know of a Mr. Wickham?" The old woman peered at them intensely searching for answers among their wrinkles.
Lizzy shook her head vigorously, not trusting herself to speak.
Seeing Charlotte equally mute, the woman picked up the thread of conversation again. "I know I heard you say that Wickham is a villain." When it became clear that her customers would not volunteer the information, she added, "Tell me what you said, and the next round is on the house."
Lizzy looked beseechingly at Charlotte, who managed to say that the good woman must have misunderstood them. "Ben said that William was the vicar. Perhaps that's what you heard."
The crone glared suspiciously, then grunted her dismissal and returned to her post.
The two friends on the bench stayed silent a few minutes longer, waiting until they thought their spy was sufficiently distracted with her rum.
Before they trusted themselves to speak again, the door to the inn was thrown open. A clamorous group entered, one of them drunkenly shrieking, "O Lud!"
The voice was so familiar that it nearly made Lizzy drop her glass. As it was, her head spun around so quickly that she smacked the side of her face against the unyielding high back of her seat. For a moment her vision swam with stars and her beer spilled harmlessly onto the floor. She uttered a small oath against clumsiness and rubbed the sore spot on her temple.
But for all the pain of that bruise, she would gladly have tripled it and blackened both her eyes to spare her for the scene in front of her when she finally struggled out of her seat with a good deal less grace and dignity than usual.
Standing in the doorway was her sister Lydia, arm-in-arm with Mr. Wickham.
Lizzy felt her mouth drop open, her muscles go slack. Were it not for Charlotte's quick actions of standing by her and securing her arm, Lizzy would surely have toppled to the floor.
Lydia and Wickham!
Lydia looked upon her sister and former neighbor, seeing them only as two old people, ugly and poor. They were beneath her regard but she could still wrinkle her nose in disgust at them.
"Mr. and Mrs. Wickham," greeted the old woman on staff.
Mr. and Mrs. Wickham!
The news was worse than a nightmare. Lizzy leaned heavily on Charlotte who staggered under the unexpected weight. Lydia laughed derisively at her, and the crone tutted hypocritically against this display of seeming drunkenness.
"Mr. and Mrs. George Wickham, this is Mr. and Mrs. Ben Smith, who will be staying in the room next to yours."
"I hope you're not light sleepers," laughed Lydia with a naughty gleam in her eye that made Lizzy feel sick.
O, that Lydia had ever been allowed to go to Brighton. This was Lizzy's fault, she realized. If she had only shared a part of Mr. Darcy's dealings with Wickham as revealed to her in his letter, Lydia would not be here.
Mr. Wickham's color was high and his attire was somewhat disheveled, due to his own drunkenness, but there was still a keen, suspicious light in his eyes as he looked upon the old couple.
"Ben Smith?" repeated Wickham as if Lydia had not spoken. "Have we met before? There is something about you that looks familiar."
Lizzy felt a jolt of panic run through her. She wondered how Wickham could recognize her when her own sister could not. Not wanting to speak and give herself away with her voice, she shook her head vigorously.
Wickham narrowed his gaze at such an unconvincing disavowal. "Perhaps we met in Derbyshire? I have not always been as you see me today."
Derbyshire! Who did Lizzy know in that part of the country except Mr. Darcy? Who had Charlotte made her resemble?
When Lizzy's silence extended too long, Charlotte stepped into the conversation. "We are from the south," she said, patting Lizzy's arm. "My husband and I live in Kent." All of this was true and at another time Lizzy would give her friend full marks for being clever, but her mind was still reeling from finding her sister in London at the present.
"And what brings you to St. George's Key in London?" His curiosity was not yet sated.
"We are on holiday. We hope for some education and culture not found in the country," said Charlotte with a straight face.
Lydia found this uproariously funny. "London has been very educational," she said without subtlety.
Wickham looked tired and offended, but like her family, he made no attempt to check her behavior. Instead, he only seemed to encourage her to new innuendo with a call for them to retire.
Mr. Wickham then bid the other three a terse good night, with an order for breakfast, and began to guide Lydia to the stairs.
"Wait, Mr. Wickham," the crone stopped him. "Mr. Hennessey has asked me to settle your account thus far."
"Settle my account?" The charm was instantly replaced by a coldness. "Why should I need to settle our account? We've been here a day. What could there possibly be to settle?"
The crone did not wilt under his glare. "Mr. Hennessey does not extend credit to any guests. It is his policy. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, as you see, have already paid for their night. You owe for last night and tonight, plus breakfast if you want it."
"You are being ridiculous." This disdain and contempt would have put Mr. Wickham in close company with Mr. Darcy during his stay in Hertfordshire. Lizzy had never seen this side of him before, but it did not surprise her now.
The old woman merely held out her hand for payment.
"I came to Mr. Hennessey under the recommendation of a mutual friend," his voice was quiet with anger. "This is not how friends treat each other."
"This is business, sir, not friendship," the old woman retorted. "And just because Mrs. Younge recommended St. George's Key to you, it does not follow that she made a similar recommendation to us, nor that we would believe it blindly if she did."
The two glared mutely, neither one willing to give ground to the other. Lizzy did not know what to do but was absolutely resolved to stay out of it.
It was Lydia, after all, that broke the stalemate. She reached into Wickham's pocket and pulled out a wad of paper money.
"How much can it be?" she asked, counting off the bills. "We won enough tonight to stay here for a year. How much do you need to leave us alone for the week?"
With unexpected speed and agility, the crone snatched up the offered fare. "Many thanks, Mrs. Wickham," she said. "I'll see that Mr. Hennessey gets this in the morning."
Mr. Wickham protested, first to Lydia for taking his money and then to the crone for keeping it. The crone was, as before, immune to his venom. Lizzy did not expect Lydia to be equally immune, but Lydia was drunk and thought it all a very good joke.
"Come along, George," she said, taking him by the hand. "We've bought their silence. They won't disturb us now."
She tugged him up the stairs and, curiously, he obeyed.
Lizzy turned to Charlotte, ready to speak her shock and disbelief but she was mercifully interrupted.
"Are you sure you don't know him?" asked the crone. "For he certainly acted like he knew you. I can make it worth your while to tell me what you know. Mr. Hennessey doesn't trust that one."
Lizzy looked at Charlotte, then to the other woman, and shook her head. "No ma'am," said she, her voice low and strained. "As Mrs. Smith said, we're not from Derbyshire; we don't know him."
The woman frowned, clearly not believing them but unable to force a confession. With a final grunt, she hobbled to a back room to deposit the Wickhams' rent.
Alone again, Lizzy could not contain herself. "Charlotte, what is going on?"
"It looks like your little sister has eloped with Mr. Wickham," came the dry reply.
"That is terrible! How could she be so stupid?"
"Who would have warned her against him?"
Lizzy's mouth set into a formidable frown, but the full effect was lost in the whiskers. "She should have known better than to run off with anyone. Only think what it will mean for her family. The knowledge will be such a blow to our parents and--" she stopped mid-sentence. "Charlotte, what about Mr. Collins?"
"What of him?" inquired his wife. "He will be disappointed, to be sure, but he should not be materially distressed. I will try to restrain him but indeed, I expect he would much rather congratulate himself on your refusal, to have spared him from being more closely aligned with such disgrace."
"He will throw us out of Longbourne, will he not, at the first opportunity?" It was the only rational expectation. A scandal like this would probably cut years from Mr. Bennett's life. If he was truly unlucky or rash, it might end all together.
"We must do something! We must stop them!" The thought was wild and incomplete.
Even as the words left her mouth, Charlotte's words came back. This is a test of fortitude and discipline.
"We cannot change it," Lizzy realized dully.
Mrs. Collins shook her head sadly. "Mr. Wickham has already deserted his regiment. Lydia has already fled her friends in Brighton and the protection of Col. Forster. They have already spent a night together on the London road, and another night here. The past-- no matter how recent-- is done and we cannot unravel it."
"She is married to him." The thought hung like lead.
Mrs. Collins made a slight noise of disagreement. "Not yet," clarified Charlotte. "Not officially. She chooses to call herself Mrs. Wickham, and it is easier for Mr. Wickham to allow it for now."
"For now?" gasped Lizzy. She clapped her hands to her forehead in disbelief. "How can my own sister be so utterly devoid of sense and understanding? How could she do this to herself, or to us?"
"At least Mr. Bennett got a bargain," commented Mrs. Collins with a caustic wit she would never possess in the waking world. "He had hoped his youngest daughter would have a chance to expose herself at so little inconvenience to himself, and she has succeeded in ruining his entire family for almost nothing at all."
Lizzy gasped in shock at her friend's callous humor so Mrs. Collins apologized for being out of character.
"Is there nothing we can do?" Lizzy exclaimed in frustration.
Charlotte patted her arm. "Nothing here, nothing now. What could you do? If you were to knock on their door and ask her to leave, they would both kick you out. If you tried to kidnap her or to buy her from Wickham-- he'd sell her for the right price, not that you have that much in your pockets now--, she would fight you, you and him both, and run toward something worse. I'm sorry my friend, but where she is now is the best possible fate."
Lizzy started to protest. This could not be better than all alternatives.
"I speak in probabilities," Charlotte said sternly, "not fantastic ideals. Obviously, it would be better if your father had not allowed her to go to Brighton, if your mother had not let her run wild, if you had done more to check her behavior while she was younger and more impressionable, or if Mr. Wickham had never joined the militia. Heavens! If Mr. Darcy had only given him the living when Wickham asked for it, or had not arrived at Ramsgate in time to spoil the elopement, or had bothered to expose Wickham's true character in Hertfordshire, Lydia would be saved.
"But all that is past. It cannot be undone. She is with him now, and she will not give him up for so slim an inducement as her honor or restoring her family's respectability."
Lizzy was reminded of something she had heard earlier. "The only way back is forward," she repeated.
Mrs. Collins smiled kindly. "I shall have to tell Mr. Goulding that you were paying attention after all." She linked arms with her friend and began to direct their steps. "Come, let us go." Lizzy was too stunned by events to protest or question.
They climbed the first flight. From the landing, they could hear noises that Lizzy knew were her sister and Wickham. Lydia never could be quiet.
The weight of this night's revelations suddenly crashed down upon her. "Why show me this?" She implored her friend. "Why show me Ramsgate? Why show me any of it if I cannot change it? Why torture me with this knowledge?"
Mrs. Collins was not unmoved. "Come, Eliza," she said gently, guiding Lizzy up the steps again.
With each stair upward, she felt lighter, both in body and in spirit. Even her surroundings seemed lighter, cleaner, better maintained.
"What are you doing?" she asked in wonder.
"I'm taking you back," said Charlotte simply. As Lizzy looked at her friend, she could see a younger person again, beginning to emerge from under the layers of age and decay.
After a few more flights at a brisk pace, Mrs. Collins was short of breath. She paused to gather herself. "I think we have gone far enough," she announced before turning down the hallway.
The passage was dark but familiar; they were no longer in London, Lizzy knew. Now with each step, she could see the last of their disguises fading away.
Mrs. Collins led them to a door and stopped in front of it. "I have brought you to the threshold of hope, Eliza," she whispered with a rare dramatic flourish.
"Do not despair of what you have seen tonight. What happens in one breath is done in the next, and cannot be undone, but the future is not yet written though I hear it is a very fine thing. You must--"
Charlotte had spoken so quietly that Lizzy could distinctly hear a sneeze on the other side of the door. Charlotte had heard it too, and it completely distracted her.
"Good heavens," she muttered. "Either Mr. Goulding is early or I am late. In any case, I'll never hear the end of it."
With no thought of finishing her advice, Mrs. Collins swung open the door and ushered Lizzy back into her room at the inn in Lambton.
3: Mrs. Bingley
Posted on 2013-10-07
The bedroom was dim but inhabited. An older woman shrouded in darkness had just lit a curious lamp as Lizzy crossed the threshold. Her first thought was that Aunt Gardiner had decided to check on her, but when the woman turned around, she realized it was her own sister.
"Jane!" she exclaimed loudly, heedless of any sleepers.
Jane was equally pleased. "Lizzy! Charlotte! It has been ages since I've seen you both together."
"Jane, you are looking well," said Charlotte.
With that comment Lizzy realized why it had been so difficult to recognize Jane from the beginning: she was old. Jane had been born a few years before Lizzy but there were now decades between them.
And as Lizzy looked more closely, she noticed other, more unsettling differences. Jane's hair was piled high on her head, but the ends of it kept fading into nothingness before snapping back into sharp focus, occasionally changing style altogether. The details on her dress seemed equally undecided although they appeared fixed when Lizzy stared at them, and the skirt-- along with Jane's stockings, and legs-- slowly disappeared several inches above the floor.
"And you too, Charlotte," said Jane. "Married life clearly agrees with you."
"Mr. Collins," gasped Charlotte. "I nearly forgot about him. O, you must excuse me, but I have to return to the parsonage before he discovers me gone."
"That is perfectly understandable," smiled Jane. "Lizzy and I were just about to go on a walk."
Charlotte turned to Elizabeth and embraced her. "Good bye, Eliza. I leave you in the best of hands."
She then climbed into bed and pulled the sheets back with a flourish, and disappeared as if a conjuror's trick.
It had been a long night, and Lizzy's sense of amazement was drained, yet still she looked at her sister with fear and unease.
"Do not be afraid, dearest." Jane stretched out a hand in greeting.
Lizzy struggled briefly to swallow the lump growing in her throat, then shut her eyes and reached blindly for her sister. She grasped her hand and for the smallest detectable fraction of time, Jane was as slippery as water. Then she felt Jane's fingers tightened around her own, as solid and warm as flesh.
Lizzy opened her eyes to see her sister smiling brightly. Jane was still decades older, but her appearance did not waver as it had at first. After waiting for an alteration that did not come to pass, Lizzy began to trust her eyes again.
She pulled her sister into a tight hug and laughed nervously. "O, but it is good to see you again."
Jane squeezed her in response. "I am sure your head is full of questions, but we have ten miles and more to walk before breakfast, so let us leave now and talk on the way."
Lizzy complied, linking arms with her sister only to give a start of alarm when they shut the door behind them in the passage.
"Jane, you mustn't leave the lamp burning," she warned.
Jane was amused. "It is no ordinary lamp. So long as it burns, no one else will enter your room."
Jane tightened her hold on her sister's arm. "Now, you must not let go of me, or I you, on this walk. We must stay in constant contact, or I fear I will lose you. And we would not want that."
"And where are we going, if I may ask?" said Lizzy as they reached the street.
"I daresay you can figure it out; we are going to Pemberley. There is something there I want to show you."
Here her heart faltered, and her step slowed. "I do not think I want to go there," she said in a small voice. "Besides, we are planning to go there on the morrow, and I don't want to be bored with it a second time."
Jane merely laughed at such foolishness and tugged on Lizzy's hand. "What I have to show you is not on the public tour."
They walked in silence through the landscape of a dream. Every building and tree was placed as Lizzy remembered it from the evening before, but people appeared only as flashes of color and snatches of misunderstood conversations. Leafy branches clouded with fruit then turned green, red or gold before growing bare and springing into bloom again.
As they passed the last building for a great distance, Jane asked, "Are you not curious to see Pemberley and Mr. Darcy, dearest? From what I understand from Mr. Goulding and Mrs. Collins, you have experienced a softening of your original dislike."
Lizzy turned away to hide her embarrassment. "Jane, I was so wrong about him but nothing can come of it now."
"He loved you once, dearest," Jane pointed out gently.
Lizzy grimaced. "Yes, and he will thank his lucky stars that I refused him when I did, before Lydia's disgrace."
Jame patted her sister's hand. "It does not need to end on tragedy and ruin. Did Mrs. Collins not tell you to hope?"
"Name one good thing that will happen after Lydia runs off with Mr. Wickham," challenged Lizzy.
"Mr. Bingley returned to Netherfield," countered Jane. "He asked me to marry him. I am Mrs. Bingley now."
Lizzy was overjoyed for her sister's good fortune, and ran long on her congratulations, delayed as they were by many years.
"Do I visit you daily at Netherfield to teach your ten children to play the piano forte exceedingly ill, and to serve as a cautionary tale about spinsters?"
Jane laughed merrily. "We do not have ten children," she said. "And we left Netherfield soon after our marriage."
Lizzy's eyes lost their mirth. "You move away?" The thought of losing Jane was an ache. "Where will you go? Do you take me with you?"
Jane shook her head light-heartedly. "We moved to the North. Charles has family and friends in that part of the country. We have been quite happy there. And you have occasionally come to visit, but your husband prefers you to stay at home, with him."
This was a revelation. "Am I to receive a third proposal of marriage? I had no idea I was so extraordinary."
"I always knew you were special," said Jane in her typical fashion. "But all of us five marry."
"All of us?" repeated Lizzy. "Even Mary?"
Jane looked stern and disapproving. "Even Lydia."
"And what is my husband like, beyond the fact that he prefers to keep me at home? After refusing Cousin Collins and Mr. Darcy, I cannot imagine the sort of man I would accept. Either I become desperate and accept the next man to offer, fool that he may be, or I find my ideal match, someone more --" but she could not complete that sentence aloud. It would sound disloyal to the man she would eventually marry.
Not giving Jane opportunity to question her on what was unsaid, Lizzy asked after their parents.
"They lived long enough to see all their daughters married, and to become grandparents. But they did not live long enough to worry about their grandchildren's marriage prospects. Not seriously, anyway."
Lizzy knew the last comment referred to Mrs. Bennett. Their mother would be fretting over a baby in its cradle. Still, there was something infinitely sad at the reminder that her parents would die. As a child, she had thought her parents were ancient, but they didn't seem to grow any older for years and years. Only recently had she again noticed her father and mother aging once more. How much time did they have remaining? What would it be like for them, at the end?
The two sisters walked in silence, lost in their own thoughts, for some distance.
They walked until they reached the grounds of Pemberley. She now found the courage to ask, "What of Mr. Darcy? Who will he marry? Is it Anne De Bourgh?"
"Miss De Bourgh?" Jane sounded scandalized. "No, dearest. Miss De Bourgh was never strong enough to marry, nor inclined."
"But Mr. Darcy, he does marry?" Lizzy inquired.
"Of course," was all Jane would say.
"Teasing sister!" Lizzy exclaimed in frustration. "Will you not tell me who?"
"I'd much rather show you," came the reply.
"You are worse than Mr. Goulding," fumed Lizzy.
A sudden, dreadful thought overcame her. "He marries Caroline Bingley, didn't he? That wretched woman! After my refusal, he no doubt prefers someone who won't say no."
"Lizzy." Jane squeezed her arm disapprovingly. "Caroline is Charles' sister, after all. She is not so bad now. She quite reminds me of Mama at times, although she is turning into a bit of a Lady Lucas."
"Does he marry her?"
"You are getting quite worked up about this, aren't you?" asked Jane. "For someone who thought and spoke so ill of a man, you ought to be unconcerned with his future choice."
Lizzy could not look her sister in the eye. "I do not think so ill of him now."
"And how do you speak of him?"
Lizzy plucked at the trim of Jane's sleeve. She did not speak of Mr. Darcy now, because she knew not what to say, nor how it would sound. She had come to regret other things but she did not regret refusing his offer, rude as it was. He had been so arrogant and confident and inscrutable. Innocent of the crimes against Wickham, he had nonetheless hurt Jane.
"Jane, how is it possible that you are Mrs. Bingley if Mr. Darcy disapproves of the match?"
Jane felt sly. "You are becoming so fixated on marriages, you quite remind me of Mama."
This silenced Lizzy for some time.
Finally, they crested a hill which gave them their first view of the manor house. Even in a dream, it was impressive, a union of natural beauty and man's restraint. The grounds were charming without resorting to ruins or other fashionable tricks.
"It is very fine, is it not?" Inquired Mrs. Bingley. Lizzy could but nod in agreement.
As they crunched along the gravel drive, Lizzy felt her courage fail her.
"Jane, I cannot," she whispered, clutching her sister's arm. "Tell me of what you brought me to see, swear to me he lives a happy life, and I will be happy for him. I don't want to know how accomplished is his wife or how handsome is his family. Spare me the details."
Jane gently gathered both her sister's hands. "We have been too rough with you tonight, haven't we?" she asked. "Mr. Goulding and Mrs. Collins have shown you things which have ripped your tattered notions apart, but they have shown you what was, and I am prepared to show what may be. You have come too far to falter. Courage, Lizzy. I have not brought you this far to break your heart."
Lizzy blinked back her tears, and put her trust in Jane.
When the entered the manor, Lizzy became aware again of people. In Lambton, they had flashed, like comets, all around, but once she and Jane had reached the road, there were barely signs of anyone. Now, the comets were back, flashing about as servants went about their duties, and guests wandered the halls. It was more eerie than Ramsgate, to be so near life yet so separated from it. She tightened her grip on Mrs. Bingley accordingly.
Jane walked the halls with easy familiarity, her destination clear. At last, she ushered Lizzy into a study, Mr. Darcy's private study, she realized.
Here Mrs. Bingley slowed her steps, placing her feet carefully, trying to feel out the correct moment in time she wanted to share.
"We are here," she announced, as a comet at the desk solidified into to the figure of a man.
"It's Mr. Darcy!" Lizzy exclaimed, unable to control herself. He was bent over his desk, working intently on a small box. His hair was thinning, greying, but he was still tall and handsome, and younger now than Mr. Bennett had been when Lizzy had left Longbourne.
She looked askance at Jane, not knowing if this dream was more like Ramsgate or London. "Can he see us?" she whispered.
"No, nor hear us, nor feel us," answered Jane in normal tones. "We are not really here."
"He is old," observed Lizzy.
Mrs. Bingley, who was considerably older than the man at the desk, merely raised her eyebrows.
"He looks unhappy," Lizzy fretted.
"He is not unhappy, dearest," assured Jane. "He is just frustrated with his present task."
Before Lizzy could say more, the door opened and a girl entered. From her journey to Ramsgate, Lizzy immediately recognized the strong resemblance to Georgianna Darcy. If this young woman was not Mr. Darcy's daughter, she must be his niece.
The girl began to speak as she approached but the sound was muted, muffled, the words were barely recognisable. Lizzy could just make out the word, "Papa."
Mr. Darcy spared the young intruder a glance as she approached. "Anne," he countered, his words far more clear, "what are you doing out of bed? And where is your mother?"
"She is with the others, in the nursery." Now that the girl was closer, she was likewise understandable. "She said I could stay up an extra half-hour if I played for our guests." However, the pianoforte was now forgotten. "What do you have, Papa?"
Mr. Darcy recognized his daughter as an ally here. "It is a gift for your mother. I am trying to wrap it."
"O, let me!" volunteered Miss Darcy. She flitted around the desk with alacrity so that she was standing directly in front of Lizzy and Mrs. Bingley.
Miss Darcy picked up the box first and opened it. She held up a comb decorated with golden oak leaves and acorns. "O, Papa, I love it," she breathed in appreciation. Lizzy had to agree; it was truly lovely.
Mr. Darcy chuckled at his daughter's patent covetousness. "I am heartened by the fact that the two of you are so similar in taste, but do not grow overfond of it. It is for your mother."
Miss Darcy put the comb back in the box and proceeded to tie the ribbon in a bow.
"Does he seem unhappy now, dearest?" asked Mrs. Bingley.
Lizzy shook her head. "No, he does not."
She drew a deep and ragged sigh. Seeing him here, like this, was almost worse than not seeing him ever again. He had moved on. He had gotten over whatever love he claimed to have felt for her. He had found another woman, and with her he had made another life. They had children, and entertained company. He bought her presents and she... from the look on his face, his wife brought him peace.
Was it so horrible of her to imagine him a confirmed bachelor, still pining for an unworthy, impertinent miss from the south?
She turned to Jane. "We can go now. I don't need to see any more." She really wanted to leave before she learned any more of the mysterious Mrs. Darcy.
Her wishes were not meant to be fulfilled. Before Lizzy could take a step, the door to the study opened again and a woman entered: Mrs. Darcy.
Mr. Darcy's wife took in the tableau before her and made some exclamation rendered unintelligible by distance.
No matter the acoustics of the dream, whatever she might have said was lost to the sound of Lizzy shrieking.
"That's me!" she yelled in a complete and total lapse of decorum. "That's me! I'm Mrs. Darcy! He married me!" She turned in awe to her sister. "How could this happen, Jane? After everything I said to him, after Lydia running off with Mr. Wickham, how could this happen?"
Jane simply repeated, "I wouldn't bring you this far to break your heart."
By now, the girl-- her daughter-- had given the gift to her future self and paused to look back upon her parents before leaving the room.
This time, Lizzy could clearly see the resemblance she would never have guessed before; Anne Darcy had Mrs. Bennett's mouth and chin, and Lizzy's own smaller stature. For all that she was a Darcy-- and there was no doubt of that-- she was lively and whimsical and, Lizzy just knew, impertinent.
Joy bubbled up from deep within Lizzy as she watched her daughter exit.
Mrs. Darcy engaged in some banter with her husband. The words of her future self were lost to her, too distant and faint to be understood, but she could hear Mr. Darcy's replies. If the bachelor Darcy had ever looked upon or spoken to Lizzy in the same manner in which the married Darcy did to his wife, the proposal at Hunsford would not have been such a surprise, and might not have been a disaster.
Then Mrs. Darcy opened the box and saw the comb. Color drained from her face in an instant. She looked at her husband sitting at his desk then immediately swung her eyes to the spot where Lizzy stood with Mrs. Bingley.
Lizzy tightened her grasp on her sister's arm but otherwise froze. "Does she see us?" she asked in a hoarse whisper.
"No, dearest," answered Mrs. Bingley in a normal voice. "She just remembers that we were here when he gave her the comb."
The intricacies of time travelling dreams were overwhelming. Lizzy tried to make sense of it but Jane just patted her arm.
Mr. Darcy had approached his wife the moment he saw her unease. They embraced and whispered soft words to each other that Lizzy could not catch.
It was an intimate moment, and Lizzy blushed to be eavesdropping, even upon herself. Then Mrs. Darcy wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him with abandon. Lizzy nearly choked on her surprise.
Jane laughed lightly at her comical unease. "Dearest, they are long married, and quite alone. But perhaps you are right, it is time to go." Mrs. Bingley shifted her feet. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy vanished in a blur of light. Instead, Mr. Darcy reappeared at his desk, fiddling with the box and ribbon.
Jane shifted again and Mr. Darcy vanished in another blur, leaving the room empty.
"Where are they gone?" asked Lizzy.
"To where they always have been and will be: their proper place in time, of course."
"What do we do now?"
"We walk back to your room in Lambton," explained Jane. "And when you wake up in the morning, you come to Pemberley as planned. What I have shown you cannot come to pass any other way."
Mrs. Bingley began to move them out of the study and into the hall. It was a completely different experience to Lizzy, walking out of her future home compared to walking into the ancestral seat of the man she had spurned. Everything was newly interesting, not from a predatory view, but in wonder of what memories lay in store for her. Her eyes were constantly drawn to flashes of light, her ears were constantly straining for snatches of sound, and she could only wonder who these represented and how dear they would become to her. Whenever she saw a comet closer to the ground, she was consumed with thoughts of children. As they left the manor house and began to walk the long gravel drive, she kept a constant lookout over her shoulder for signs of life and tried to puzzle out their significance.
It was only when they were a mile from the front door of the manor that she could turn to Jane and voice her wonder.
"How can this be?" she asked. "How could he still want to marry me?"
"I have always thought both the Darcys to be very much in love."
"How can I possibly love him, when I barely know him?" she wondered.
"If you believe that then you are in greater denial than I realized."
The accusation made Lizzy a little cross, even though it was with her sister.
"He's handsome. He's rich," she admitted glumly. "Surely I am not so shallow as to be won by that?"
"Of course not," agreed Jane. "Otherwise, you would have accepted his first proposal. But surely you have learned more about him since then, even if only tonight."
"Dreams hardly count," said Lizzy, because they didn't. "If only he was not so reserved!"
"Yes, because you never could stand someone quiet and retiring," said Jane with something like a smirk.
Lizzy saw and understood it with irritation. "The two of you are not the same."
"Nor are we so different," countered Jane. "He will always be shy among strangers, you know. He will always be quiet in a crowd. Years of marriage will not change that part of him. He cannot help his reserve, no more than I."
"He was rude and disdainful. You could never be like that." There was no accusation in her tone, but it was so hard to move past worn-out observations.
"He was hurt when he first came to Netherfield. Must he have put Wickham's betrayal behind him so quickly? Would you have done better were your situations reversed?"
Lizzy pressed her lips into a thin line. She had judged him harshly upon her first impressions and even now that she knew better, she was still prejudiced against him. Would she never learn?
"O, if only..." but Lizzy could not say how Mr. Darcy should have been different, or herself.
Jane volunteered nothing more.
"I can forgive him for... for his pride and reserve, for his initial slight of me, for his well-formed opinion on the rest of our family. But that wasn't all. If only he hadn't come between you and Mr. Bingley. He hurt you, Jane."
"He meant to protect Charles, his dear friend, whom he feared was falling under the spell of a fortune hunting family, similar to how his own sister very recently did. Wickham damaged more than Georgianna Darcy's heart in Ramsgate."
Lizzy shook her head and grappled with the forgiveness her sister had already granted.
"How do you do it?" she asked her sister at last. "How do you be so good?"
"It just takes practice."
The reply made Lizzy feel worse than before. She remembered a conversation with Mr. Darcy when she had scolded him for not bothering to practice better behavior. Meanwhile she had been blind to Mr. Darcy's goodness, blind to Wickham's wickedness, blind to her own faults.
"Is there any hope for me at all?" she wondered aloud.
Jane hugged her. "I pray that I have given you hope tonight."
"You have, in a way. But I am even more confused now to imagine how it comes about," Lizzy admitted, feeling thick-headed. "Did Lydia truly run off with Mr. Wickham? How could Mr. Darcy dare to approach a family so mired in scandal?"
Mrs. Bingley squeezed Lizzy's hand. "You must allow that he loves you. You must admit that you love him. When the times comes, apologize for your part in the misunderstandings and then trust that all will end well."
"I do not think I can be so sanguine." Only Jane could describe Lizzy's misplaced disdain as misunderstandings.
"Then you must try," Jane said. "Try until you get it right. Can you at least try for me?"
Lizzy said nothing for a long while. Even in her dreams it was difficult to voice. "I am sorry for thinking so ill of a man I didn't really know, for believing ridiculous stories about him from another man not fit for polite company, and for losing my temper enough to tell the first man exactly what I thought of him, every wrong, unfounded thought."
Jane gave her sister a small, lopsided hug. "There now. That wasn't as hard as it looked, I'm sure."
"I care for him, Jane. I care about him. I pity and admire him, but is that love?"
Jane scoffed. "What part of you remains unconvinced?"
Lizzy struggled with this. "One thing I know for a certainty is that I don't deserve him."
"I, for one, believe we grow to deserve our fate," said Jane with some internal amusement. "Choose love over pride, dearest, before you lose both, and you will deserve whatever comes your way."
"All of it?" doubted Lizzy. "Mr. Darcy, a daughter, and more children besides? Happiness? Love? Everything you've shown me?"
Mrs. Bingley hesitated, then offered her disclaimer. "What you saw with Mr. Goulding and Mrs. Collins, that cannot be changed, there can be no other way about it. Mr. Darcy foiled his sister's elopement with Mr. Wickham in Ramsgate. No one stopped Lydia from running off with Wickham to London.
"But what I have shown you, that is the future. And the future is not yet written. So much may happen over the intervening years as to make the reality unrecognizable to the dream. But now that you have seen it, you may work toward it, bend your thoughts and actions in that direction. You have been given far more help than most people would imagine possible."
"This isn't really a dream, is it? I've never had one like this before."
Jane laughed. There was something almost not Jane-like in the sound. "Dearest, I don't know what else to call it."
As they climbed the inn's stairs to her room, Lizzy felt she needed to ask more about these three dreams of the past, present and future, that this was her remaining chance. Yet she was also afraid to ask Jane, that this was not really Jane at all, and so she stayed silent and heavy with thought.
They entered her room and secured the door. The curious lamp was still burning but barely. With a final breeze, it snuffed out. A plume of smoke rose from the wick, fading into the air, then the whole lamp seemed to melt like smoke as Mrs. Bingley again positioned her feet just so, at the correct moment in time.
It was morning. Soft daylight came in from a slit in the curtains. Her bed covers were tossed about, by herself and Mrs. Collins, but the bed itself had been barely slept in. Lizzy quickly calculated she must have been awake for six or seven hours already.
A knock came at the door and Mrs. Gardener called to her niece before trying the handle. The noise startled Lizzy and in that instant, she released her hold on Mrs. Bingley who vanished without a word of farewell.
4: Mr. Darcy
Posted on 2013-10-10
"Lizzy," said her aunt, "thank goodness you are dressed and ready to go. Your uncle was growing distracted when you didn't come down for breakfast but I told him that I had knocked on your door and you had assured me you were up. I have saved you a roll from breakfast but we really must be going as the carriage to take us to Pemberley is waiting."
Elizabeth looked down at her clothes. She was wearing the same dress that Mr. Goulding had put her in for Ramsgate. Her dreams had been so vivid, she could recall nothing of her aunt's version of events. She was hungry and exhausted, and she was certain what she needed now was rest and solitude for deep thoughts, but her plan to feign a headache had been forgotten and she found herself down the stairs and in a carriage before she voiced two complete sentences.
Her uncle teased her for sleeping late when no doubt she would rather be off exploring the countryside. She decided not to tell them she had walked to Pemberley and back already. The dreams were too fantastical to share, and already she was beginning to forget or doubt them. Surely, Lydia had not done anything so foolish.
The tour was impressive and the housekeeper was talkative, and spoke more favorably of Mr. Darcy than the affable Mr. Bingley ever had. There had been a moment of unease when Mrs. Gardiner had called their attention to a miniature of Mr. Wickham but the housekeeper dissipated it. Lizzy wished she could have had some time alone in the portrait gallery so that she could apologize to Mr. Darcy's image there. She had felt guilty of her treatment of the original for some time now, but being at Pemberley brought it to a head.
At the end of the tour of the rooms, the housekeeper made a token offer of refreshments. Lizzy, being still hungry and thirsty from missing breakfast hours before, nearly jumped at it, but her uncle was too quick for her and politely declined for the three of them, and there was nothing to do but acquiesce.
The housekeeper then turned them over to the gardener and returned to her duties. As the party was determining what to include in their tour of the grounds, Lizzy looked back upon the house. Just then a figure walked into view and she knew with surreal certainty that it was Mr. Darcy.
What happened next was far too much like her dreams from the previous night to be anything else, or rather, nothing could be exactly like those dreams but this certainly shared commonalities with them. Despite the warm sun beating down on her, she felt as cold as if she was with Mr. Goulding; and while she could see Mr. Darcy's lips move as if he were forming words, she could hear none of it, as if she was with Mrs. Bingley; and when he took a step towards her, the sky suddenly grew dark and she felt a lurching, light-headed sensation as if she was travelling to London again with Mrs. Collins.
When she next opened her eyes, her uncle and aunt were hovering over her with worried expressions on their faces. Her bonnet was off and the back of her head felt as if it had taken a whack. She was lying on the gravel walk in front of Pemberley while the gardener looked on nervously.
She tried to sit up, but her aunt pressed her to remain a moment longer on the ground.
"Lizzy, dear, you fainted," explained her aunt, who then proceeded to blame herself for rushing her niece out of the inn without a sufficient breakfast.
Elizabeth tried to reassure her aunt that all was well. "I am perfectly fine, except for a new headache," she tried to make light of the situation. "For a moment, I thought I saw--"
Then she did see him again, hanging behind the others like a ghost, trying to determine if his duty was to stay or go.
He nodded to her in greeting. "Miss Bennett. We should bring her inside the house where she can rest." It sounded like an absurd non-sequitur until Lizzy realized he was talking about her to the Gardiners.
As the gardener ran off to bring a footman to carry her, she began to protest. She was fine enough to stand and walk. While she was perhaps momentarily not fit enough to tour the grounds as had been the plan just minutes ago, surely her family would be leaving now anyway that Mr. Darcy was at home.
When the footman approached at a pace just slower than a run, she attempted to demonstrate her fitness by standing. Her head got a few feet above the ground before a powerful wave of dizziness hit her and she stopped.
"Please, Miss Bennett," came an unexpected request from Mr. Darcy. "Let James carry you. I can vouch that no harm will come to you in his care."
Lizzy closed her eyes in mortification. If she was to be forced to do this, let it be over quickly. She nodded and let the footman take her in his arms.
The walk back to the house seemed long, and Lizzy was hit by bouts of dizziness every few steps. She did not wish to keep her eyes open but to leave them shut was worse. At last, Mr. Darcy directed them through open french doors into a sitting room near her fall without requiring James to manage a staircase.
Depositing her on a sofa, the footman left to return to his normal duties, the kind that didn't involve carrying insipid females about the property.
Lizzy did not know where to begin but she felt she must say something. However, Mr. Darcy preempted her.
"Miss Bennett! Your forehead!" Then he turned to her uncle and aunt. "Did her head strike the ground when she fell?"
Mrs. Gardener took a seat next to her and examined her closely. She shook her head. "I believe, sir, she had that bruise before we arrived this morning, but I cannot remember how she acquired it."
"What bruise?" Lizzy was beginning to feel piqued that everyone was talking about her rather than to her. She brushed her fingers on her forehead and felt a small and tender bump. In a flash of insight, she knew exactly where and how she had gotten it.
"It happened in London last night," she told them. "Rather, I was dreaming that I was in London with Charlotte-- Mrs. Collins, I'm sure you remember her from Hunsford. We had travelled by sherry, and she gave me whiskers, and we were at the St. George's Key waiting for--" here she paused, not certain what she could say in front of Mr. Darcy, before finding the nerve to continue. "Waiting for my sister Lydia. When Lydia walked in, I was so startled, I hit my head on the bench. I must have hit my head on the bed frame in Lambton, and only dreamt of the bench in London."
"You dreamt you took a ferry to London last night?" asked her uncle, focusing on the first impossible detail.
"It was sherry," Lizzy corrected him to her growing chagrin. "It was only a dream; it didn't make much sense, but I'm afraid it left me more exhausted when I arose this morning than when I laid down last night. Perhaps I did faint, but you needn't worry, Mr. Darcy. I blame no one but myself for it."
The three of them looked at her in bemusement. Rallying her spirits, she continued. "Indeed, it is entirely my own fault, for I had been previously told by Miss Bingley, who is a noted authority on the subject, of the grandeur of Pemberley, and I failed to heed her and left the inn woefully unprepared for the exertions of the morning."
Mrs. Gardiner rued speeding her niece out of the inn without confirming that she was well. "We will take you back there as soon as can be and let you rest."
"Aunt, I assure you I will be well in just a few minutes," said Lizzy, hoping to set everyone at ease. There was no pleasure in being the center of this solicitude.
Mr. Darcy then turned to her uncle and aunt, and belatedly introduced himself. Mr. Gardiner performed the necessary introductions for himself and his wife.
With that done, Lizzy held her breath. She had been so certain that Mr. Darcy would disdain the Gardiners, knowing that he worked in trade and they lived near Cheapside. His expression clouded for a moment and she thought that he would bolt from the room without a word of leave, but he surprised her.
"Ah, then you are the London branch of Miss Bennett's family tree. I believe I have heard her speak fondly of you."
There were smiles all around except on Lizzy's mouth which was hanging slightly open. Mr. Gardiner gave her no cause for shame by replying, "We may live in London now-- between the needs of my business and the desires for entertainment, we could not live anywhere else. But I am much a country lad at heart, and there are amusements the country provides that cannot be found in a metropolis."
"Such as hunting?" Mr. Darcy prompted.
"Such as fishing," answered Mr. Gardiner definitively.
"Then you must allow me to outfit you with rod and tackle while you are here, " said Mr. Darcy. Mr. Gardiner looked disinclined to accept the generous offer so the younger man pressed him. "I have been gone so often this past twelve-month that my gamekeeper quite despairs. You would be doing me a favor."
Then a sudden thought struck him. "Unless you are leaving the country tomorrow?"
Mr. Gardiner assured him that, no, they were to stay in Lambton for another week before business in town required their return. Mr. Darcy looked relieved by this.
A maid entered the room carrying a tray with a pitcher of lemonade, glasses, fruits and other sweets that the kitchen had on hand. As she laid out the refreshments, Mr. Darcy began to take his leave. He had only just arrived and had been walking back from the stables when he had chanced upon their party. While the road dust might be ignored long enough to give aid to a young woman in distress, his housekeeper would not want him sitting on the furniture in that condition. As he left to make himself fit for company, he proposed a small scheme.
"Mr. Gardiner," said he, "after you have satisfied your thirst, you may walk to the stream; it is less than ten minutes away along that gravel path there. From there, you can scout out an ideal location to return some time later this week and deprive me of as much trout as you can catch. I can rejoin you here in an hour to finalize plans for your next visit."
Mr. Gardiner needed no further encouragement, and his wife knew better than to attempt to check his amusement, so it was decided, and Mr. Darcy left with one final bow.
With just the three of them, Mr. Gardiner planned a small snack. He and his wife had enjoyed a long, filling breakfast while waiting for their niece and they were not yet hungry so he balanced his eagerness to see the stream against a guest's duty not to offend his host.
Mrs. Gardiner professed her contentment to sit with Lizzy while her husband rambled the grounds, but Lizzy felt guilty for curtailing any pleasure of her aunt, especially as she was unsure if or when a similar opportunity would arise, for Mr. Darcy had invited her uncle to return but had not included the ladies in his spoken plans.
Pressing Mrs. Gardiner to go out with her husband, Lizzy declared she was feeling much better, and would perhaps lean back on the sofa, close her eyes, and sit in silence. "I shall be perfectly fine by myself, and you will much better enjoy my uncle's company.."
Mrs. Gardiner required more persuasion than her husband, but by the time the Gardiners had finished a glass of lemonade, Lizzy looked much revived and her guardians were both eager to continue their tour of the grounds, modified based on Mr. Darcy's recommendations.
Alone at last, Lizzy relaxed against the sofa cushions and sighed in mortification. That she had fainted in front of Mr. Darcy! That she had dared to come to Pemberley at all!
He was far more kind and solicitous than she deserved. Again, he exceeded her expectations, and she wondered when she would ever overcome her initial inclination to think ill of him.
She could not stay reclined for long, and was soon sitting up, sipping and nibbling. With each morsel of shortbread and slice of nectarine, she felt herself gaining new energy, and the lemonade quenched her thirst and dulled her headache.
Eventually, she moved from the sofa to a chair with a better view of the garden through the open french doors. From the chair, it was not far to stand and walk to the doorway itself. She leaned against the jamb and took in the scene before her. A manicured garden fringed this part of the house, threaded with walking paths and dotted with benches. The garden did not extend far, ending to one side in a sunken lawn that would be perfect for games, and spilling into the front entrance on the other. Nor was it very ornate, lacking the statuary and austere pruning that she recalled from Rosings. Beyond the garden, the wide lawn roamed around mature trees and over the natural climbs and dips of the land before skipping past the stream and tumbling into a wood that circled the entire property. Here the wood promised many interesting walks, and she again cursed her luck that she should faint.
A good night's sleep would have prevented this, but she had been plagued with dreams instead:a dead Mr. Goulding, showing her a scene from Mr. Darcy's letter; Charlotte who wasn't Charlotte, showing her the character of Lydia-- and by extension her entire family-- flawed to absurdity; and Jane old enough to be Lizzy's great-aunt, showing her a life that she had disdained at Hunsford. Who could possibly rest with such thoughts? The meaning of her dreams seemed clear now that she had time for reflection: Mr. Darcy's behavior had not been so deserving of censure, nor had been Lizzy's actions and judgements so sound, that he had earned the full merit her disapprobation. Had she been less inclined to find fault after their first meeting, she could have instead found something to admire. They might have been happy together, had circumstances been slightly different, but that was past now and no apology would change that.
Lizzie frowned. Perhaps an apology wouldn't change the future, but at least she might sleep better.
Resolved to make an opportunity to clear her conscience, she turned her gaze back to the garden and awaited the return of her family. Though the sun was high, the house shaded her, and the breeze was gentle. She could inhale the delicate scents of the garden if she breathed deeply. She was on the middle of one such long sigh when a door opened in the room behind her and in walked Mr. Darcy.
Refreshed from his journey, he took in the room with a glance and saw that not only was Lizzy unattended, but that she also was standing precariously on the threshold of the garden and likely to collapse at any second.
With a cry of alarm, he sprang into action, crossing the room in long strides and seizing Miss Bennett by the arms before she could fall again.
He meant well, truly he did. But he surprised her, and Lizzy snapped at him before she could think clearly.
"Mr. Darcy, I am quite well enough to stand!"
Here he released her from his grasp with a sheepish apology.
Lizzy lamented this beginning. "Even when I know you are being kind, I still treat you terribly! How did you ever--"
She had not the heart to finish that question, and after an awkward glance about the room, Mr. Darcy spoke.
"Where is your aunt? I thought she would remain with you."
"I pressed her to join my uncle," answered Lizzy. "He would lose track of time otherwise, and besides, I am quite well enough to be left alone now."
Mr. Darcy was not convinced. "Miss Bennett, I have never known you to show any similar weakness before now, and if I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would have doubted any report, but you did faint."
Lizzy tried to dismiss his concerns with her characteristic insouciance. Then she realized that, presently as her host and previously as her admirer, she owed him some consideration.
"I had a very restless night," she said at last. "I was troubled by dreams so real yet so fantastical I'm not sure now what to believe. If someone were to tell me that my youngest sister had run off to London in the company of --" here she checked herself just in time.
"You dreamt of your sister?" Months ago, Mr. Darcy had been plagued by nightmares of his own sister.
"It was not just her. I also dreamt of..." She looked at him with a blush and he nearly read her thoughts.
"Did you see me in London?" he asked with dread curiosity.
"No!" Lizzy shook her head quickly. The thought of Lydia eloping with Mr. Darcy was an abomination. "I... I suppose my dreams were the sign of a guilty conscience. I knew we were coming here today and while I had been assured the family was not at home, it was disrespectful to intrude after all that has passed between us."
He began to disagree, but she held up a hand to silence him.
"Please, sir, it is hard enough for me to apologize as it is. If you interrupt me, I doubt I shall be able to finish properly," she warned him.
He shut his mouth. From the set of his jaw, she knew he did not intend to speak again until bidden. He looked at her, too, with such gravity which she had previously ascribed to his disapproval, that she did not wish to continue.
"I did not come to Pemberley with the intention of seeing you," she began again. "I was not trying to throw myself at you, despite appearances. Your good opinion once lost, is lost forever and I have said and done too many irrevocable things to expect a welcome reception. And doubtless, you would prefer never to cross my path again."
His expression was positively stony at this. Lizzy took a fortifying breath and continued.
"Still, I would be remiss if I did not seize the opportunity presented to me to apologize for my past treatment of you. I showed a remarkable lack of intelligence and manners in all my dealings with you, and for that I am ashamed."
With a wan smile, she recalled an earlier debate. "We once discussed vanity and pride, and I tried to highlight what I saw as your excessive pride as a flaw in your character, never realizing what I could not see: that my own vanity and pride would so misguide me with respect to you and Mr. Wickham."
At the sound of that name, Mr. Darcy lost his restraint. "You cannot blame yourself for falling for Wickham's lies, Miss Bennett. He is a practised deceiver."
"But you are not, sir. The evidence was there, in your relationship with the Bingleys and Hursts, in the solicitude you showed Jane while she was at Netherfield. You were no less civil than my own parents in company, and far more tolerant than I. Had I not been determined to find you disagreeable, I would have seen it.
"Again, I am sorry. There is no way to make amends for it, but when my uncle and aunt return, I shall try to encourage them to call for our carriage as quickly as possible and leave you alone. I do not think I could dissuade my uncle from returning to try your stream after your warm invitation, but I promise to stay out of your sight until I can leave Derbyshire. And you may then despise me at your leisure."
It was as much as she could offer to give him the peace he deserved.
He was surprised but otherwise inscrutable. After a moment of silence stretched so long that she began to think that he had resolved never to speak directly to her again, he broke it at last.
"I could never despise you, Miss Bennett."
He seemed unable to make any other spoken commitments, and Elizabeth was left to stand in mute puzzlement until she detected the figures of her uncle and aunt returning from the stream. The time for confessions and privacy was past.
When the Gardiners walked into the sitting room, Mr. Darcy was full of quiet courtesy but his guests could not be prompted to extend their stay once more.
Mr. Darcy made one more unexpected foray into civility, asking to call upon them at their lodgings the next day to check on Miss Bennett's recovery. It was an undeserved honor, but the Gardiners were amenable to it. Then, he pointed out, "My sister will arrive tomorrow. Would it be too much to ask if she accompanies me? She will be quite curious when I tell her what has happened."
Lizzy could hardly believe Miss Darcy would care to meet her if she knew the whole story, but she also wondered if her dream had accurately guessed the girl's form and disposition, so she voiced her amenability.
Satisfied, Mr. Darcy explained further. "My sister is traveling with a small party of guests to stay at Pemberley through the end of next month. Miss Bennett, you will no doubt recognize some of the party-- Mr. Bingley and his sisters. Perhaps you will be free to join us for dinner one evening while you are nearby? I am sure Mr. Bingley will be delighted to see you again."
Mrs. Gardiner's mouth puckered into a small frown. Her memory of Charles Bingley and his near relations was not favorable. Still, their host looked eager for a reunion so she claimed to be more happy to see him than she truly felt.
The carriage was called and arrived in due haste. And after being handed into it by Mr. Darcy himself, Elizabeth watched Pemberley fall away from her as the horses trotted to Lambton.
Upon reaching the inn, Lizzy excused herself and hid in her room, determined to skip the evening meal if necessary to avoid the questions her aunt was burning to ask. That good woman, however, recognized her niece's disquiet if not the cause of it, and after briefly checking on her young charge, she had a tray sent up, leaving Lizzy in blessed solitude until the next day.
The morning sun brought no clarity to the jumble of thoughts she had chased to a dreamless sleep. Mr. Darcy was as indecipherable as always. More so now, it appeared, because she has previously allowed herself the liberty of guessing his opinions, and she had since lost all trust in herself where he was concerned.
That he should despise her was certain. She had earned every drop of his enmity. But he had claimed he did not, could not. Was he, like her dear sister Jane, simply too good to begrudge a error rooted in ignorance? Or did she possess some hold on his affections still, despite all reason and sense?
Or perhaps he had learned to give her the proper amount of consideration: none at all? One did not bother to hate what one could comfortably ignore.
The events of this new day did not settle her feelings. Mr. Darcy appeared at one point to check on her progress, and brought with him his sister and Mr. Bingley. Lizzy exchanged but few words with Mr. Darcy himself and the visit was soon ended. Miss Darcy issued an invitation to dine at Pemberley, and Mr. Darcy settled with Mr. Gardiner the exact date for the fishing outing, which now included the other men of his party.
On the day they were to dine at the manor came the two dreadful letters from home, with news of Lydia eloping with Wickham. Mr. Darcy had come upon her when she first received the news, too shocked to keep this scandal a secret from him.
She told him. What she told him, she could not say, but he sat with her until her uncle and aunt could be recalled from their walk. Then he left them so they could complete their packing in private and leave without further delay.
The ride from Derbyshire to Hertfordshire was as surreal as her dreams, and her thoughts drifted back to her imagined trip to London, and she wondered how it could be possible.
It was not until Lydia was found, and married to Wickham, and Mr. Bingley reopened Netherfield that she began to question and reconsider. If they were not dreams, how else could she describe them?
Epilogue: Miss Bennett
Elizabeth Darcy sat on the edge of her youngest son's bed and tucked a stray curl behind his ear. She had made unnecessary apologies to her guests to visit the nursery as the children were readied for bed. Her eldest son, Bennett, had announced his intention of moving out of the nursery and into his own room that afternoon and the younger children did not yet know what to make of the news.
"But Mama," pleaded Henry, "why does Bennett have to go away?"
Elizabeth pressed a kiss on his cheek. "Your brother isn't going away. He'll be down the hall, like Anne. Anne hasn't gone away, has she?"
Anne Darcy, the eldest, had declared she was moving out of the nursery on her thirteenth birthday and now Bennett was making it a tradition. Yet Anne was still very much attached to the communal room. Elizabeth had to shoo her out just a few minutes ago with the offer to let Anne stay down an extra half-hour to entertain their guests.
Henry had only been two years old when his big sister moved out, but he was four now, and he felt the impending loss keenly.
"I am certain that Bennett will continue to spend as much time in here as Anne, and will still play with you as he always has," Elizabeth assured her small son.
"And if he doesn't," piped up young Will, "We can sneak into his room and play tricks on him."
Elizabeth swallowed her smile. The William Darcy of the next generation was as social and teasing as his mother, but it would not do to encourage him in this instance.
Henry looked hopefully to his mother. "Can we, Mama?"
"No!" came the resounding answer from Bennett.
"I, for one, am looking forward to Benn moving out," said George. Only thirteen months younger than his big brother, George clearly saw the benefits and had already mentally staked out his new bedroom.
"Besides," added Thomas, "he talks in his sleep."
Everyone younger than twelve giggled at this while Bennett protested his innocence against such spurious claims. Elizabeth quieted their laughter before her eldest son could be too much offended.
When peace was restored, little Lizzy offered her contribution. "But you do, Benn, just a bit. You cannot hear it because you're asleep at the time."
Elizabeth sighed and knew she needed to put matters to rest, and quickly. "No one is moving anywhere tonight, or tomorrow," she said gently. "Bennett's birthday is a month away. Let us get used to the idea first. And whatever happens, wherever you sleep, we are still family. No distance can change that."
It was mushy, and the older boys protested, but it did the trick. With that, she kissed all the children and wished them good night.
Downstairs, she inquired of the footman if the gentlemen had joined the ladies. She was told that they were all together in the drawing room except for Mr. Darcy who was still in his study.
Mrs. Darcy thanked him and went in pursuit of her errant husband. When she walked into the study, she was greeted by the surprising sight of not just her husband but also their eldest daughter conspiring together at the desk.
"Both of you!" she exclaimed, fighting the urge to laugh. "What must our guests think of us?"
In reply, Anne skipped over with a small box. "Papa bought you a present. I was helping him wrap it," she said, and dropped the gift in her hand.
"Off with you," decreed Elizabeth with an arch of her brow. "If you're not ready to play for company in two minutes, I'll send you back upstairs."
Anne darted out of the room with no more encouragement. She dearly loved to perform, much like her Aunt Milton, but she also had her Aunt Corning's skill and taste, which greatly alleviated the sin of vanity.
Alone with her husband, she smiled wickedly and looked at the present.
"It is not my birthday," she pointed out.
"No, it is not," he answered on the same familiar tone. How had he ever hidden his admiration for her? How had she ever been blind to it, or her own regard for him?
"And it is not Christmas."
He laughed; how she loved that sound! "Absolutely not," he agreed.
"Well, it cannot be for our anniversary. That is next week," she reasoned. "Have you done something, William, for which you need to atone? Are you attempting to buy your way back into my good graces before I even realize you are out of favor?"
He laughed louder. "I assure you, madam, I have been a perfect husband of late. It is an anniversary gift that came early. You need not open it now, but I know you. You are burning with curiosity, and I will have no peace tonight unless you open it."
"A peaceful night? Is that what you want?" They were alone; she could be bold.
He made no reply but just looked at her. A younger Elizabeth would have blushed furiously; the older Elizabeth still felt the same excitement.
She removed the neatly tied ribbon and opened the box.
For a moment, her heart stopped. On a small square of velvet sat a comb adorned with golden acorns and oak leaves. She had seen it before, in a long-ago dream.
Her eyes shot to the place to the left of her husband's desk where she had dreamt that she stood as she watched this very scene unfold. There was nothing there now, except in her memory.
"Elizabeth," William's voice was suddenly full of concern, "is anything the matter?" He got up from the desk and walked to her, just as he had in the dream.
She blinked and gathered her composure. "It's nothing," she reassured him with a smile. "I had the strangest sensation that this had happened before, but it's gone now."
"Are you sure?" he asked, concerned.
"Absolutely." Her heart was still beating wildly from the shock but she put a hand on his shoulder and he drew her into a kiss. "Hold me a moment longer and I will be better than new."
From a fog, more details from her dream returned to her and she knew what came next.
Her husband sensed her hesitation and likewise paused. "Elizabeth?"
"I was just thinking." Her voice came out as a purr.
He had been well acquainted with that tone for years, and he knew what it foretold. "Good thoughts?"
She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him with abandon.
They stayed that way until Mr. Darcy recollected their guests.
"Mrs. Darcy, hold that thought," he whispered into her ear, "lest our daughter be forced to entertain over long."
His words brought her abruptly back to the present. "O, the Carters. They are not accustomed to Anne's exuberance." There was a note of disapproval in her voice.
"There is nothing wrong with Anne," her husband reminded her.
"Nothing wrong in small doses," corrected Elizabeth.
Anne's desire to perform, and to receive attention, reminded Elizabeth not just of her sister Milton, but also of Mrs. Wickham. While Lydia had been the first to lose the name 'Bennett', it had not brought her long-lasting happiness. Elizabeth sometimes feared their eldest was headed down the same path. It was hard to know what behavior was merely a temporary stage in a difficult age, and what was the sign of more permanent trouble.
This was not a new argument between husband and wife. Mr. Darcy merely looked his disagreement.
"Yes, I know," Elizabeth said with a small grimace. "I just would rather she was less of a Boisterous Bennett than she is."
Fitzwilliam Darcy frowned at such a description. "She's not unnaturally exuberant. You never saw Georgianna throw tantrums at that age; she might have given Mrs. Wickham some competition. Would you rather Anne be a Dull Darcy?" The idea clearly had his disapprobation.
She placed a feather-weight kiss on his lips. "You should know by now that I find the Darcys very dashing."
He brushed her cheek. "And since the moment I saw you I found the Bennetts quite beautiful."The End