Chapter 7 ~ continued
Georgiana was just finishing her breakfast when he returned home. She had received a most entertaining account of her brother’s departure this morning when she asked after him and was trying to hide her amusement as he entered the room.
“Good morning, Fitzwilliam. You were out early. Have you breakfasted?” she inquired in her most unaffected tone.
“No, not yet,” he responded, seating himself beside her. “And I find myself very hungry this morning.”
Georgiana could not hide her amusement. “Let me fix you a plate, Fitzwilliam and I shall have another cup of tea with you. Shall I pour your coffee?”
He rose as she did, saying, “I’ll get my coffee while you prepare my plate.” Then suddenly noting her impish grin, he laughed and encircled her with his arms. “So, you’ve heard the servant gossip of my morning’s escapade, have you?”
She twisted round in his arms to face him and making no effort to hide her laughter, said, “Yes, and I wish I were down to see it! But tell me Fitzwilliam, were you there in time; did you see her off?”
“As if you didn’t know the answer to that question already, you tease.”
She blushed. “Tell me what I cannot ask, Fitzwilliam, tell me, please,” she begged.
He kissed her and answered very calmly. “Miss Bennet and I did speak, very earnestly I might add, and it was settled between us that I would come to visit her at the end of the week. She let me know that she would welcome such a visit. … That was what I needed to know, Georgie. Miss Bennet and I have a long and tangled history, which I won’t go into now, but suffice it to say, I was very anxious about approaching her. But I think my present appetite speaks of my happiness,” he laughed. “I can’t remember the last time I was so hungry.”
“Oh, Fitzwilliam! And I am so relieved to see you so! You must know how distressed I’ve been to see you so low. And to think that I shall soon have the joy of Elizabeth as a sister!” She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him once more.
“Wait, Georgie, wait. It is true that I want nothing more than to make Elizabeth my wife and bring her home to Pemberley. But I must and I shall, proceed slowly. I only intend to ask her father’s permission to court her on this visit. I imagine that I will stay a week or so in Meryton, for one cannot live in such a small country Inn for very long. I shall have to travel back and forth for a time, but when Bingley returns from the continent, perhaps I can persuade him to see to his estate and you and I can enjoy a more extended stay in the neighborhood. Would you like that?”
“Of course I would Fitzwilliam! It would give me such pleasure. Oh, but let me get you some food. I have been neglecting you in all this excitement.”
When he had finished his breakfast and was sipping his second cup of coffee he turned to her once more with a very serious expression.
“You do realize, Georgiana, that there will be many in our circle of family and friends that will not look kindly on my connection with Elizabeth, should I be blessed to achieve it?” He waited a moment to let her think about his statement. “Aunt Catherine, I am certain will be greatly displeased and perhaps even aunt and uncle Matlock will think her beneath us. They may not accept my marriage and cut me out of their society. I know that would be most painful to you, Sweetling and I cannot help but worry about how all this will affect you. Do I have the right to ask this of you?”
She spoke without a moment’s hesitation. “Fitzwilliam, I love my aunts and uncle dearly, but your happiness is more important to me than anything in the world. And think of it Fitzwilliam, how could I compare the occasional polite attentions of my aunts and uncle to the love and friendship I would gain with Elizabeth as my sister! As for friends and society, rejection by some will not be pleasant to be sure, but I cannot think of anyone that I love so well as to put their friendship above our future happiness. Surely, Richard would not reject us, or the Bingleys; well, at least Charles will not. Elizabeth has her sisters and the Witherbees. We shall not be entirely alone, and I do believe that in time others will seek our society as well.”
“But Georgie, we must consider that when you come out into society next year, there may be many eligible young men who would spurn an association with us, and overlook you. Does that not concern you?”
“Fitzwilliam, now that you have set the example, you cannot expect me to be satisfied with anything less! Those that would reject me on those grounds could never make me happy. I will simply have to wait until I find someone who loves me as much as you love Elizabeth and is as worthy of me, as you are of her.” She blushed and lowered her eyes to her hands.
“Dearest Georgiana, of course that is what I want for you, but I’m afraid to think how you might be made to suffer along the way.”
“I am much stronger now, Fitzwilliam. I see things more clearly and I’ve learned that if I wish to be happy, I cannot be afraid of life. I must take it as it comes and make the most of it.”
“When did you become so wise, Georgiana?”
“When I saw that you needed me as much as I need you, dear brother.”
She kissed his hand affectionately and held it to her cheek. Then, with a saucy glint in her eye, asked, “Tell me, Fitzwilliam. What would you have done had I felt differently? Would you have given Elizabeth up?”
“Oh Georgiana, do not ask that. My heart could not relinquish her when I thought she hated me. How could I live without her knowing that she loves me? I am a selfish being! For all my love for you, I do not think that I could give her up. Do not hate me!”
“Oh, Fitzwilliam, I was teasing you! There is no need for you to chide yourself. Consider this. If you do not marry Elizabeth, you will be impossible to live with, and make me most unhappy. Besides, I shall never forgive you for denying me such a wonderful sister.”
Elizabeth chatted amiably with her companions for a time and then settled back to reflect on all that had happened. The events of the past twenty four hours had taken her so by surprise that she did not have the time to take it all in. After their meeting at the opera, she had been sure that he wanted nothing more to do with her, yet now…… How had he reconciled himself to the burden of her family’s ruined reputation, she wondered. How could he risk Georgiana’s acceptance in society for her love? She shook her head and bit her lip as she struggled with these thoughts. Did she have the right to ask it of him? Should she not reject his suit for his own sake? All these questions and more plagued her mind as she watched the countryside roll by.
After two hours of such torturous reflections she suddenly focused her attention on the basket on her lap. She had been clutching it to her and now smiled to acknowledge that doing so, had brought her comfort. She unfastened the small wooden latch and opened the lid. There, atop a fine linen napkin, embroidered with the Darcy seal, lay a rose of the palest pink. She lifted it from the basket and held it up to inhale its beautiful fragrance. Closing her eyes and sighing deeply she thanked Providence for his love.
“That young man of yours is quite besotted, my dear,” said the elderly lady, smiling. Elizabeth blushed as she placed the rose on the wicker lid. She folded the napkin in half to conceal the family emblem and lay it to the side as she explored the contents of the basket. There were grapes, apricots and dates in a fine mesh linen bag, a small box of chocolate truffles, some delicate crackers and tiny rounds of cheese wrapped in wax, a small bottle of a fruity white wine and a small silver cup with the same seal engraved upon it. Biting her lower lip to contain her amusement, she laughed to herself, “How clever, Fitzwilliam, to send me off with precious items that must be retrieved!”
She offered some fruit and cheese to her companions and then contemplated how to conceal the remains of the basket before she arrived home. Her mother would torture her with questions and her father would tease her mercilessly. No, at the next stop she would insist on having her trunk brought down and distribute them among her things. She would share the chocolates with Jane, as she related her incredible news, but the silver cup and the napkin would remain her private treasures. Those she placed in her reticule so that the servants would not find them when they unpacked. She laughed to herself as her mother’s words sounded in her head, “ Oh dear, what will become of us?” Yes, what will become of us, Fitzwilliam? What will become of us?
Later that night, as she and Jane slowly nibbled and licked the delicious chocolate morsels, Elizabeth told her sister all about her incredible meeting with Mr. Darcy, his original abandonment of them last summer and most importantly, of her true feelings for him. She had never allowed herself the luxury of complete honesty with anyone, lest she raise her own hopes along with their expectations. But now she needed to talk! She needed to sort out her frayed, perplexing emotions with the help of someone she loved and trusted.
Jane stared at her in disbelief. “How he must love you Elizabeth, to risk his family’s censure and possible banishment! I find it almost impossible to believe that he has changed his mind!”
“I know! I keep wondering how that came to be? Has he really made peace with it?” She stared at the bedcovers and then shook her head. “I know how meticulously he thinks everything through; analyzing it this way and that! He must have gone over it in his mind a thousand times, so how can I question his decision?
She clasped both her sister’s hands in hers and looked anxiously into her eyes. “But what I am most eager to know is how much Georgiana is involved in this decision, if at all.” Here she paused to reflect for some moments. “Something had been bothering me about our conversation at the park and I could not figure out what it was till now. When we first met, Georgiana asked me if all was now well with my family, and I thought it odd that she would phrase it that way. After all, how could it ever be really well with us again? But at the time, it gave me the impression that she knew – that Fitzwilliam had shared the letter with her, or at least parts of it. What do you think?”
“It certainly sounds like she knew something of our family’s misfortunes, but what, exactly, is difficult to tell. Perhaps Mr. Darcy wanted to spare her feelings and simply told her that we had family troubles. It is possible that she knows very little.”
“That is precisely what troubles me, Jane. If Georgiana has not been involved in making this decision, then Fitzwilliam is risking her future without her knowledge or consent. That would be intolerable! And even if she knows it all and has agreed to it, it is more than likely that she is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her brother’s happiness. How can I allow that to happen? I am miserable no matter which way I look at it.” She sank down on the bed and rested her head on her pillow, looking up at Jane mournfully. “This morning I was so elated, so happy to know that he still loved and wanted me. I thought it too wonderful to be real ….. and now I’m questioning my right to such happiness.”
Jane stroked her sister’s hair away from her face, then sought out her hand. “Perhaps it is wisest, in this case, to yield this decision to Darcy. Rely on him to know what is best for himself and his family. I am sorry to sound selfish, Lizzy, but the possibility of your engagement to Darcy gives me some hope…… something I have all but lost for myself. I want to believe that one of us, at least, will have some chance of happiness!.
“Jane, I know that Fitzwilliam loves me, at the moment. But what will he feel after a few years of estrangement from his family and a loss of station in society? Will his love turn to resentment and regret? I cannot bear the thought of it!”
“Lizzy, if Mr. Darcy loves you so completely as to be willing to take your troubles as his own, I believe that you should trust him. You have never been one to allow gloomy thoughts to rule you. Allow yourself to love him Lizzy. He shall never regret you!”
“I pray you are right, Jane,” she murmured. And exhausted from all the emotion of the day, she let her mind rest and fell asleep.”
Within an hour of Darcy’s arrival, all of Meryton was abuzz with speculation. He had sent his valet ahead to prepare, as best he could, the meager accommodations of the Inn, with instructions to say that his master had business dealings in a near-by town, but preferred to stay in Meryton, as he knew the neighborhood and was acquainted with some of its residents. Nevertheless, his curious arrival without his friend was the sole topic of conversation among its inhabitants.
Once settled in his room, he washed the dust of the road off his face and upper body, changed his shirt and ordered some tea to be sent up. While he waited, he paced the room, rehearsing over and over again his speech to her father and dreading the reception he would get from him. “The man has no reason to admire or trust me,” he muttered to himself. “I certainly never made an effort to endear myself to his family, so now I must now reap what I have sown. What has Elizabeth told him, I wonder?” He smiled to himself and then chuckled out loud. “Practically nothing, I dare say, if I know my Elizabeth!”
When he was ready to set off, he inquired as to the whereabouts of an old, historic mill that he knew was in the opposite direction of Longbourn. He would double back through the countryside and hopefully prevent the rumor mill from starting before he even had a chance to speak to Elizabeth himself. Feeling quite clever and extremely happy, he led his horse out of town at a leisurely trot.
He greeted Hill with much civility when she answered the door and she blushed beet red when he winked at her. He had no doubt that Elizabeth would have conveyed his compliments, regarding her cooking instruction. She looked thoroughly unsettled as she announced him to Mrs. Bennet and her three daughters, seated in the parlor. “Mr. Darcy, Madam.”
Mrs. Bennet stared at him for a full minute before acknowledging him, so bewildered was she, by his presence. “Good afternoon, Mr. Darcy. How very nice to see you again. Is Mr. Bingley not with you, Sir?”
“No, Madam, I’m afraid I am on my own this time.” He saw Jane’s back stiffen and her eyes lower to the work on her lap. “The Bingleys are enjoying a grand tour of Italy and will only return in a few weeks time. I had some business in the neighborhood and took the opportunity to come and call on your family. I hope it is not inconvenient.” He bowed again slightly.
“Of course not, Sir. Please do come and sit down,” she said with far more civility than he expected. “Kitty, dear, ring for tea.” She turned back to Darcy with the sweetest of smiles. He was shocked, but kept his countenance guarded. “Do tell us how you have been, Sir. Do you plan to stay long in the neighborhood?”
Darcy never dreamed that he would be having such a benign conversation with Elizabeth’s mother. Perhaps she has opened her heart to them after all. “I have been very well, Madam. My sister Georgiana and I have spent the better part of the winter in London. The weather has been rather mild, so we have been able to enjoy it all the more. As to my stay in Hertfordshire, I’m afraid it will only be a few days. The business that brings me here will be concluded very shortly, I hope.”
Jane shot him an anxious glance, then colored and rose to pour the tea. Her hands trembled as she picked up a cup and she quickly set it down again. “How do you like your tea, Mr. Darcy,” she asked softly, with her back to him.
He left his seat to join her at the table and answered, “I’ll fix it, Miss Bennet, thank you.” Spooning the sugar into his cup, he eyed her questioningly.
She immediately relieved him by saying, “My sister Elizabeth will be sorry to have missed you, Mr. Darcy. She has only now gone to town on a quick errand for our father. Did you not pass her on the road?”
“No, I did not. I came from another direction, as my business had me quite west of Longbourn. “Thought yourself so clever, did you, fool,” he thought to himself. “You could have had time alone with her had you met on the road!”
He sipped his tea and tried to keep up an easy-going flow of conversation, while his mind raced as to how to leave quickly enough to catch Elizabeth on the way home. He looked to Jane now and then for help, but she also seemed at a loss as to how arrange a fast escape.
Suddenly, she rose from her chair and went to look out the window. “Did you hear that, Mary? Was it thunder? I believe it was. We may be getting a storm.”
“A storm? What are you talking about, child! There isn’t a cloud in the sky. Such notions! Come sit down and stop talking such nonsense,” replied Mrs. Bennet.
“Oh, I believe I heard it as well, Mrs. Bennet,” said Darcy. “It sounded rather far away, but you know how unpredictable the weather can be. I believe I should be going then, before the downpour. I hope you will allow me to call again before I leave the neighborhood. Thank you very much for your kind hospitality. It was a pleasure.”
“Of course, Mr. Darcy. Please do come again. In fact we would be honored to have you come for dinner. Is tomorrow evening convenient for you? Mr. Bennet would be so pleased.”
“It would be my honor, Madam,” he said, as he hastily collected his hat and gloves from Hill. “Tomorrow then.” Bowing graciously to all the ladies, who had accompanied him to the door, he put on his hat and left.
He spotted her not five minutes after leaving the house. His pulse quickened, and his neck cloth was suddenly moist against his skin. He hastened towards her, dismounted and bowed. Lifting his eyes to her, he grinned bashfully and extended his hand.
“Mr. Darcy,” she curtsied, placing her hand in his. Her eyes betrayed her discomposure. “I’m glad that you have arrived in safety, Sir.” She lowered her eyes again and gave him a bewitching little smile that melted his heart. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it softly once, then again and again. The blush that had begun at her cheeks now crept to her hairline and Darcy was grateful that they were on a public road, for surely, had they been alone, he would not have been able to control himself.
“I hope that you have left your sister well?” she said, breaking the spell. “I have been thinking of her, these past few days.”
“Georgiana is very well and sends her love to you….er..her fondest regards.” He cleared his throat and then shaking his head in obvious amusement continued. “Just before I left yesterday morning, I escorted her to Mrs. Witherbee’s for her first recorder lesson. I remained only long enough to obtain this letter for you. Master Robert sends his love as well.” He retrieved the letter from his waistcoat pocket and handed it to Elizabeth with a slight bow. “Mrs. Witherbee looked extremely well and asked me to assure you that her mother is back in London and of great help to her.”
“It is very kind of you to deliver this missive, Sir. I am so happy to receive any news from Emily. She is always in my thoughts.”
They walked a few yards further and then realizing that the house was just coming into view, stopped and looked awkwardly about, afraid to look each other in the eye.
“Miss Bennet,” Darcy began hesitantly, “perhaps we could extend our walk a bit before entering the house. I have just been visiting with your mother and sisters, and I am sure that they have had quite enough of my tiresome company. But I would very much like the opportunity for us to have some time to speak together privately. Are you expected home presently?”
“They will be expecting me shortly……. But I have been known to ramble, Sir.” She looked up at him with a cheeky grin and turning around, led them away from Longbourn. He walked beside her, with just a hint of a contented smile playing about his lips.
She led them to one of her favorite country lanes, where huge oaks and sycamores furnished a comforting green canopy in summer, but now stood regal and bare, their limbs extending towards heaven. He tied his horse to one of them, as he knew they would not stray far.
Returning to her side, he addressed her. “Miss Bennet, I would first like to apologize for my abominable behavior to you in London and would appreciate your allowing me to explain myself. Please believe that I do not ask you to excuse my behavior, but only to try and understand it.”
“There is no need, Sir……”
“But there is!” he interrupted. “I want you to know that I did not hide your presence in London from my sister because I did not wish for the two of you to meet.” He struggled to look her directly. “When we met at the opera I..….I am ashamed to admit it,…….I believed that you were betrothed to Mr. Witherbee. You seemed so easy and comfortable in each other’s company, I assumed…. In any case, I had no right to jump to such a conclusion. And when we then met at the park and I saw you with little Robert, I ……took my erroneous thinking one step further. I must tell you, Miss Bennet, that when I think of how you looked holding him, …… I cannot blame myself for thinking so.”
She took in a little gasp of breath, glanced up at him for just a moment, then bowed her head again and waited for him to continue.
“Of course, I should have remembered that when I addressed you as Miss Bennet, you never corrected me, but I was not thinking very clearly then.” He turned from her and stared out into the trees, still wincing from the embarrassment of that stupid blunder.
She, too, turned her face away to hide her amused and flattered expression.
“I wish you to know how very happy I was to see you again and even more, to realize that you were now willing to resume our acquaintance.”
Elizabeth startled at his words. She looked up at him in confusion. “ Why would you ever doubt my wish to continue our acquaintance, Mr. Darcy? Especially after…….” She let the words linger as she shook her head in obvious distress. “Did he not understand me at Pemberley? Have I been fooling myself all these months?” she thought in horror. She anxiously looked to him for a confirmation of their understanding.
He immediately sensed that the mood and their conversation had shifted into dangerous territory. He didn’t know what he had said to upset her, but he knew her too well to doubt that he had. “Breath deeply, man, don’t wreck this now,” he commanded himself.
“Especially after… Miss Bennet?” he asked cautiously, trying to gain more time to understand what was happening between them.
He saw immediately, that this was not the response she had desired or expected.
She closed eyes, visibly upset, and shaking her head ever so slightly, stood quietly for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she looked at him and began hesitantly, “Forgive me, Mr. Darcy, if what I say now seems forward or improper, but I believe you and I are past polite conversation.”
“Of course, Miss Bennet,” he mumbled in a barely audible voice. “Please, tell me, ask me anything you wish.”
She looked at him uneasily and said, “Last summer at Pemberley, in the music room,…. did you ?……I thought we…” She paused, too frightened and humiliated to continue. She looked out into the trees in mortification. She could not believe that she had even touched on the subject! “Forgive me for being so bold, Mr. Darcy; G-d knows what you must think of me!”
Without thinking, he placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him, months of anguish clearly showing on his face as he cried out, “ Yes, I thought we had come to an understanding. I thought you were telling me that you loved me, wanted me for your husband…….I thought you were finally mine!” The words had spilled out of his mouth without thought or restraint.
“Oh Fitzwilliam,” she sobbed, allowing him to draw her to him. “That is precisely what I thought, as well. I knew our understanding could not be in my mind alone.” He encircled her with his arms and pressed her to his chest, allowing his cheek to rest against her head. He kissed her sweet, fragrant curls again and again, whispering to her, “I love you Elizabeth, I love you.” She turned her head up to look at him. He bent slightly to reach her mouth and kissed her, first hesitantly and then more firmly, more deeply ….until he suddenly realized what he was doing and pulled her from him abruptly. “Forgive me, Elizabeth, I…… Please, I meant no disrespect…...I…” But he saw her loving smile and stopped mid-sentence. “Thank G-d for your boldness, Elizabeth,” he said, hugging her to him once more.
She allowed herself sink into his embrace, enjoying the warmth and strength of his affection. They stood this way for some time until she slowly drew back a bit to look him. “Then why,…….I still don’t understand. Why did you doubt my desire to continue our relationship, Fitzwilliam?”
She had never used his Christian name until today, and hearing it from her lips momentarily drew his focus away from the seriousness of her question. He looked at her in disbelief. “What was I to think when you left Lambton so suddenly, and without a word? I thought you had changed your mind during the night, and fled. What else could I think?”
“Without a word? Fitzwilliam, my letter explained everything! I told you everything! I waited for you to come……..” She stopped, all color drained from her face. “Did you not get my letter?”
“Believe me Elizabeth, I came to the Inn early that morning and Mr. Jenkins and I searched for a letter. We looked everywhere! I swear to you, Elizabeth, I received no letter!” he implored.
“I do not doubt you,” she now said rather quietly. “I gave it Hannah. Did you not see her? Was she not there?”
“No, I only saw Jenkins. But he assured me that he would let me know if such a letter turned up.” He felt a rage begin to build inside him, but he was more shaken by Elizabeth’s mournful expression.
“Then you know nothing,” she whispered, almost inaudibly. “You know nothing.” She took a few steps away from him, the shocked expression on her face truly frightening him. “Do you know nothing of Wickham?” she asked a bit louder.
“I know that he’s deserted his regiment, leaving debts and G-d knows what else in his wake! I heard he even persuaded some foolish young thing to accompany him. But what has Wickham to do with……” Even before the last syllable left his lips, he knew with certain horror that Wickham had everything to do with this. “Good G-d, Elizabeth, tell me.”
But she was already backing away from him, shaking her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. “This changes everything,” she murmured, “this changes everything.” She ran from him, back towards Longbourn, but he caught her almost immediately, and forcefully holding her shoulders, begged her, “Talk to me Elizabeth. Tell me! What was in the letter? Tell me what I need to know!”
“I cannot,” she cried. “I cannot bear to have you look at me that way.”
“Elizabeth,” he whispered, placing one hand behind her neck and pulling her head to his chest. “Whatever it is, it is my burden as well. I will not allow you to bear it alone. We have an understanding, you and I, do we not?” He lifted her chin and placed his lips upon her forehead, holding them there as he whispered between kisses, “Tell me, Elizabeth, tell me?”
But her reaction was not the one he expected. She forcibly drew away from him. “We did have an understanding, Mr. Darcy.” He winced noticeably. “But obviously it was not enough to prevent you from doubting my commitment to you the very next morning. Do you know me so little as to believe that I would leave you and Georgiana without an explanation or apology?” He suddenly saw a hint of the rage that had crushed him at Hunsford. “Did you ever, for a moment, think past your own pain? Did it even occur to you that I might be suffering as well?
He couldn’t answer, for he couldn’t breathe. He stood staring at her anguished face. Dear G-d, what had he done to her?
“I long ago forgave you for what I thought, at the time, was your abandonment, but this…………” She could not finish. She turned and slowly walked away from him. She knew he would not try to stop her.
Posted on Monday, 19 January 2004
Jane saw Elizabeth’s approach from the parlor window. While the distance was too great for her to see her sister’s facial features, she could tell from her carriage that something was terribly wrong. She made her excuses to her mother and ran out to meet her.
Walking very quickly, Elizabeth skirted the side of the house and headed toward the potting shed. When Jane arrived there, but a few seconds later, she found her sister dissolved in tears. She tried to embrace her, but Elizabeth pulled away from her. “He doesn’t know, Jane, he doesn’t know!” she repeated over and over again.
“What do mean Lizzy? How is that possible?”
“It seems he never got my letter from Hannah, something I find hard to believe, but I know he would never lie about it. He thought I had left him! He thought I was escaping. It is all too horrible to contemplate! All these months, all the suffering! She covered her face with her hands and wept into them, while her sister stood quietly beside her supporting her back.
“What was his response when you told him?” asked Jane fearfully.
“I didn’t tell him, not in so many words. I couldn’t! I couldn’t bear to have him look at me with pity and …… I blurted out Wickham’s name, so I am sure that he will put it all together very shortly, but I could not tell him myself.”
“But I don’t understand, Lizzy. Surely, he must have wanted to console you when he saw you so distressed. He was so anxious to see you when he left here. His intentions were obvious. Will he not follow you home?”
“No, not tonight at least. I made quite sure of that!” Here she looked at her sister a bit regretfully. “I made him believe that I was furious at him for thinking only of his own pain in this dreadful affair. To be sure, he deserves it, but the truth is, I know him so well that I can see how he would think that, after having been once rejected. After all, our understanding was unspoken. He couldn’t be sure of me, not after Hunsford.”
She now allowed herself to lean into her sister’s soothing embrace, as her breathing finally calmed. She looked up at her and whispered, “I feel like the nightmare is starting all over again. Why must we relive it again, and again? Things were just beginning to look hopeful.”
Her sister had no answer.
Suddenly Elizabeth’s eyes brightened a bit. A sad, tiny smile pulled at her lips. “Well at least I have the comfort of knowing that we truly understood each other at Pemberley. Our understanding was mutual and very real. Just think Jane,” she said sadly, “ had it not been for Lydia …………”
Fitzwilliam Darcy watched Elizabeth walk away from him in shock and despair. Even after she was gone from sight he remained immobilized. His only thought being how he had failed her! She had given him her heart for safekeeping and he had trampled it.
He could not follow her back to Longbourn. That was clear. Returning to the Inn in his condition was also not an option, so he fetched his horse and headed out into the open countryside. He gave himself and his mount a punishing workout, recklessly jumping every obstacle in their way, and racing his anger until only mercy for the animal finally slowed him down. He wound his way back to Meryton, his muscles sore but his hope renewed.
She loved him! He finally knew it to be so. She had told him with her words, with her kiss, with her anguished tears. She loved him deeply and passionately; he could feel it. They had had an unspoken understanding at Pemberley, but now it had been voiced and acknowledged! She was his. It was time he took responsibility for her happiness. He had failed to protect her from Wickham, but now at least he knew the course he must take. Despite her parting words to him, he knew they could not live without one another. It would take time, but it would come to pass.
He summoned his man and instructed him to find out every possible detail of the Bennets’ troubles over the past year. He wanted to know every particular; names, dates, how the family faired through it all, who had come to their aid and who had not; nothing was to be overlooked. He gave him enough money to get the whole town drunk if that is what it took.
Before settling down to the many letters he had to write, he ordered a simple dinner to be sent to his room in an hour’s time and left the Inn to peruse the neighboring shops. At the florists, he ordered a bouquet to be made up in time for him to pick up in the morning and at the sweets shop he bought one large, beautifully arranged box of mixed nuts and dried fruits, and four small, individual boxes of chocolates. One box was to be left unsealed. His errands complete, he eagerly returned to his room to begin his correspondence.
His arrival the next morning was very unexpected and Mrs. Bennet fluttered about gathering her daughters to do him honor in the parlor.
“Jane, dear, do get Elizabeth to come down and pay her respects to Mr. Darcy,” she said. “I’m sure she is unaware of your visit, Sir. Do sit down, please. Have you breakfasted, Sir?”
“Yes, thank you, Mrs. Bennet, please do not trouble yourself. I apologize for disturbing you so early,” he said, handing her the bouquet of flowers before choosing a seat. “I have come to say, with great regret, that I cannot keep my dinner appointment with your family this evening. An urgent business matter demands my leaving immediately for London and I wanted to let you know before too many preparations had been made. I am truly sorry and wish to assure you that no offense is intended. It simply could not be helped. Perhaps you would allow me the honor of your company the next time I am in the neighborhood.”
“Well, we are indeed disappointed, Mr. Darcy, but we do understand that these things happen. Mr. Bennet will be especially sorry to have missed you. He has just gone to overlook the drainage of several acres in the south pasture and he told me this morning at breakfast that he was eager to have your opinion on the matter. Well, that will have to keep, I suppose.”
At that moment, Jane returned and quietly took her seat beside her Kitty. She picked up her embroidery and kept her eyes glued to the cloth.
“Where is Elizabeth, Jane? Did I not ask you to fetch her?” said her mother.
“Elizabeth begs to be excused, Mama. She is feeling a bit poorly this morning.”
“Nonsense, child, she was perfectly well at ……. Actually, come to think of it, she did look a bit piqued. But surely, she can honor Mr. Darcy with a short appearance. Go up and tell her I insist she come down for a few moments. Mr. Darcy will not be with us long, unfortunately.”
Jane looked apologetically at Darcy and started heading back upstairs. She had hoped that he would say that there was no need to trouble Elizabeth if she was feeling ill, but he did no such thing. She thought she detected a hint of a smile as she passed him, but he turned too quickly from her view as the door opened and her father entered.
“Darcy, I thought our invitation was for dinner, Sir,” he said with a smile. “Isn’t it a bit early?”
Darcy chuckled and came to shake the man’s hand. “I have come to make my humble excuses to you and your family, Sir. I must leave for London. Unavoidable I’m afraid. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Yes, well, well. What choice do we have?” said Mr. Bennet.
“I understand you have some drainage problems in the south pasture, Sir. Is that now under control?” he asked as they moved towards the foyer.
At that moment, he sensed rather than heard Elizabeth’s appearance at the top of the stairs. He looked up to see her pale, expressionless face. His heart ached. “You haven’t slept at all, my love,” he thought, allowing himself to gaze at her for a moment, then turned his attention back to Mr. Bennet.
“I’ve ordered the men to commence with the digging, but I am not at all certain that I am doing it in the best location. I was hoping to get your opinion on it, but you must be off. It will turn out well, eventually, I am sure.”
“I would be happy to ride out with you now and see if I can be of service, Sir. I must be going, it is true, but an hour’s delay will not be detrimental. That is, if you are up to riding out again.”
He saw Elizabeth look up at the ceiling and roll her eyes. “Yes my love. I’m glad we understand each other,” he thought, very much amused.
“If you are willing, Mr. Darcy, I am at your service this instant,” replied Mr. Bennet.
“Good, then let me present these small tokens of my esteem to your family and we shall be off. Madam, this box is for you,” he said, handing Mrs. Bennet the larger one, “and these are for each of you, ladies.” He bowed slightly to Mrs. Bennet and then proceeded to hand each of her daughters one of the small boxes of chocolates.
Squeals of delight and appreciation invaded the small foyer as each girl curtsied and accepted her gift. As he climbed the stairs to reach her, his countenance changed to serious, but calm determination. She watched him come, unable to believe that he would be so bold before her parents. Her eyes brimmed.
“And this one is for you, Miss Bennet,” he said, placing the box in her trembling hand. “I hope you enjoy its contents.”
“Thank you, Sir,” she said, hardly moving a muscle in her face for fear that her tears would spill over.
“Forgive me for disturbing your rest, Madam,” he said barely audibly. “I see you are unwell. Perhaps you should return to your room and lie down.” He pressed his lips against hand and whispered, “G-d bless you.” He turned and headed down the stairs with everyone’s eyes fixed on him in astonishment. “Shall we, Mr. Bennet?” he took his hat from Hill and followed the older gentleman out the door.
The Bennet family felt the effects of Darcy’s visit almost immediately. At first, the tradesman could only speculate as to whom the gifts were going, but after Mrs. Phillips’s visit to her sister, there was not a soul in Meryton who did not know of the lucky recipients. Certainly, if the likes of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy could condescend to socialize with the Bennet family, then who were they to scorn them. Within days, old acquaintances were renewed and invitations were accepted and received.
Everyone in the Bennet household was more than pleased with the results of Mr. Darcy’s kind attentions, even Elizabeth, for she saw the veil of grief and anxiety lifted from the faces of those she loved. But at the same time she dreaded the crude and ridiculous things her mother might say concerning him. At first she thought of asking her father to intervene and attempt to curb her mother’s enthusiasm, but then she realized that if she wanted to a job done right, she had best do it herself.
She came into her mother’s room while she was still at her dressing table, her maid fixing her hair. “I’ll do that for my mother, Alice, thank you,” she said, dismissing her. As she picked up the brush and some pins, she noticed the small plate on her night table. “Did you enjoy the chocolate covered apricots you tried last night, Mama?”
“Yes, Lizzy, they were delicious! Wasn’t it generous of Mr. Darcy to bring us all such wonderful treats? You have been quite sly Lizzy. But it was quite clear to your father and me that Mr. Darcy is quite taken with you! And you, not even giving him the courtesy of coming down the stairs! What were you thinking child? Where were your manners?”
“I really felt quite dreadful that morning Mama. I know Mr. Darcy understood. I have come to know him a little, as his sister and I have become better acquainted. I saw them in London, Mama. Did I not tell you?”
“No, Lizzy, you did not. You generally tell me nothing. Why I have to go to the market to find out what is going on in the lives of my own children, I dare say.”
Elizabeth now bent to be at eye level with her mother and looked at her very earnestly. “Mama, There is something I must discuss with you. Please do not think me impertinent. Mr. Darcy has unwittingly done us a great service. His respectful attentions have brought us back into Meryton society. But if there is one thing that I know about the Darcys, it is that they are very proud and reserved people. They abhor gossip and can’t bear to have anyone know their private affairs. If we wish to enjoy their society in the future, we must be very vigilant to protect their honor and not speak about them to anyone. I am very concerned about Kitty bragging to Maria Lucas or some of her other friends about the chocolates or his visits or even his helping Papa. Please, Mama, won’t you speak to the girls about it and make sure they understand how horrified Mr. Darcy would be if he heard his name bandied about? For surely, he would then never honor us with a visit again.”
‘Well, of course, I shall do that, Lizzy. But I dare say that my daughters are so well brought up that they would know when to hold their tongues! Even so, after breakfast, when your father is gone, we shall have a little talk and I shall be very firm about. Not to worry my dear.”
“Thank you, Mama. I knew I could count on you.” Elizabeth kissed her mother and finished her hair. She didn’t really think this little charade was going to work for very long, but perhaps she could rest easy for a few days.
She returned to her own room to fetch a shawl and her eyes fell upon the small box yet unopened on her dressing table. It had been three days now, and she could not bring herself to open it. What was she afraid of? She knew the game he was playing, endearing himself to her family. This box of chocolate was part of that game as well and she was not about to be his pawn! But why was he playing the game at all? Now that he knew about Wickham and Lydia, for she had no doubt that he had made his inquiries, why would he not run as far from her as possible?
After her mother’s “little talk”, Elizabeth excused herself saying she had a letter to write to Emily. The box had haunted her all morning and she had made the decision to open it at last. She shut her door and took it to her window seat. She stared at it for a while, unable to undo the ribbons. “Ridiculous behavior!” she thought, and pulled the ribbons off forcefully. She removed the lid and took in the rich aroma of chocolate, rum and marzipan. Heavenly! But the chocolates were not lying perfectly flat, and when she removed one she noticed the texture of the paper underneath. This was not the kind of wrapping she was used to seeing in a box of chocolates. She quickly removed all the pieces and pulled out the three thin sheets folded neatly at the bottom of the box. She recognized his hand at once, but was startled by the sound of something falling out from between the sheets and onto the floor. She bent to retrieve it and gasped at the sight of it. It was his ruby ring! The very sight of it triggered her uncontrolled weeping, and she covered her mouth to muffle the sound, but could not control her trembling. “Oh, Fitzwilliam, you can not mean this? Not now!”
When she was able to do so, she unfolded the sheets and began to read.
My Dearest Elizabeth,
I am so glad that you have finally opened the chocolates, as I am quite sure that it is at least three or four days since I have left. I wish I could be there to put the ring on your finger, but as this is only a temporary one, I hope you will accept it now as a token of my esteem and a constant reminder of my love for you. I know that you will not wear it openly, although I would be very pleased if you did, but I wish you to have it all the same. Perhaps you will find a way to keep it close to you somehow.
Elizabeth, you are right to be furious with me, my love. I was stupid, weak and totally self-absorbed. I will have to live for the rest of my life with the knowledge that had I followed you to Longbourn that wretched day, we might have found Lydia and Wickham in time to spare you and your family the anguish you have suffered these many months. How shall I ever atone for such sins? I only wish to say that it was not my lack of faith in you, but my inability to trust my own instincts that led me to wallow in such selfish behavior. You may never be able to completely forgive me for this, but perhaps your love for me will allow you to give me the chance to make it up to you in some small measure. I pray that you will.
I have left you with only one goal, to bring Lydia home and Wickham to justice. I admit that I do this first and foremost for myself. Wickham made much of my childhood a misery, often stealing my father’s affection from me with his lies and manipulation. His treatment of my sister has left its painful mark on her and myself, and now he has ruined your family’s reputation. I know that I am partly to blame for this, for had I exposed him two years ago, Lydia would not have been at risk. I promise you that I will not rest until I find them, together or separately and that I shall only act in accordance with the wishes of your family when I do.
I think it best to keep this stressful information from your parents until I have news of them. There is no point in distressing them until that time, as it may be many months before we know anything. I will write to you of each new development through letters concealed in posts from Georgiana, Mrs. Witherbee, and your aunt Gardiner. It is my plan to keep your aunt and uncle informed of all my dealings so that they can assist me as soon as Lydia is found.
My dearest, most precious Elizabeth, what can I say to put your mind at ease? I believe I know what is weighing on your heart. As soon as I get to London I will inform Georgiana, as gently as I can, of these tragic events. It will distress her, no doubt, but she is becoming a strong and sensible young woman, thanks, in part to your fine example, and I believe that she will bear the news well. I know you fear for her future, but I assure you that she does not. Before I left for Hertfordshire, we had a long talk. She told me that what she wanted most in the world was for a man to love her as I love you, and that she would wait for someone worthy. No man who would put your family’s situation above her love could ever make her happy. But she will convince you of that herself.
Now all that is left for me to say is that I am well aware that I have not proposed to you properly, my love. You will, no doubt say that I have been presumptuous! But now that I know of your feelings for me, I will never allow doubt to come between us again. I spoke to your father on our ride out to the pasture and simply informed him of my love for you and my intentions. To my amazement, he seemed not at all surprised. I pray G-d will help me find your sister quickly and that I will be by your side to give you the love and devoted attention you deserve. G-d bless you!
Elizabeth folded the letter and brought it to her heart. Holding it there, she thought of the way he had looked as he had climbed the stairs. She remembered the look in his eyes and closed hers to hold the memory fast. At the time she had thought his little display had been for the benefit of her parents, but now she knew. He had come with a message. He had taken her, and those she loved, under his protection. He had finally come.
She placed the ring on her middle finger and kissed the stone. Then rising from the window seat, she went to unlock her jewelry box and placed the ring inside. “Until tonight, my love.”
Posted on Friday, 23 January 2004
Georgiana was at the piano when she heard Benson welcome her brother home. She rushed out to the vestibule to greet him and was immediately struck by his weary and somber expression. Her eyes betrayed her distress. “What has happened, Fitzwilliam? I did not expect you back so soon.”
Darcy smiled and warmly kissed her cheek. “ Georgie, don’t fret, my sweet. I am well, as is Elizabeth, but there is a problem that has brought me back to town. I promise to tell you everything. Just allow me a few minutes to wash and change my clothes and I shall be down. Will you order me a bite to eat, some broth, perhaps? I’ve been riding all day.”
“Of course, Fitzwilliam. I shall wait for you in the breakfast room.”
When he returned he looked somewhat refreshed and after pouring himself a cup of tea, came to sit beside his sister. He downed much of the hot liquid before he looked directly into her eyes. Then, taking both her hands in his, said, “Georgiana, the news I must tell you will no doubt be painful to you. G-d knows I would spare you if I could, but unfortunately, it is not possible.”
He shook his head in disgust and said, “I have alarmed you from the very first word and now must go back to the beginning, forgive me.”
“Just tell me, Fitzwilliam!”
“Last summer, when Elizabeth and the Gardiners left so unexpectedly, I told you that they had sent us a note. Well, I fabricated that story to spare your feelings and my anguish. I had gone to the Inn early that morning in the hope of spending the day with Elizabeth, but when I arrived, she and her aunt and uncle had already gone. I inquired about a message and when none was found I was sure that she had decided against me and run away. I was devastated, Georgie. I cannot describe the pain I felt. Thinking about it now I see how ridiculous it was for me to believe that she would do such a thing, but at the time, it seemed…… In any case, I could not tell you or our guests the truth and I could certainly not have you see me in the condition I was in, so I lied to you and hid in my rooms. You know the rest.”
Georgiana stroked her brother’s hand as he spoke. The memory of those wretched days overcame her and her eyes brimmed with tears.
He rose from his seat suddenly and began pacing the room, the fingers of his left hand searching out the ring that he would habitually twist in stressful moments like this. He smiled, and finding the strength he needed in the thought of it being in her possession, continued.
“Of course, Elizabeth did write to us that morning. She gave her note to Hannah, a maid at the Inn, before leaving. I don’t yet know what happened to that letter, but I never received it. Sadly, the information it contained was far more serious than my wounded pride. Elizabeth had received a letter from home, requesting her immediate return. Her youngest sister Lydia, had run off to elope with an officer stationed in Brighten, and her family was in great distress and in need of my assistance.”
“Of your assistance, Fitzwilliam? Why would Elizabeth think you could help them?”
He sat down beside her again and took her hand. “Georgie, forgive me, but at Hunsford I felt obliged to tell Elizabeth about Ramsgate.”
“Fitzwilliam, you didn’t! How could you? I’ll never be able to face her!”
“Georgiana, Wickham had told Elizabeth some terrible lies about me and I couldn’t bear the thought of her believing them. I also wanted to make sure that she was not taken-in by him and hurt, as you were. Unfortunately, it was Lydia who fell into that trap. The officer, of course, was Wickham. What is worse, they have never been found and there is no record of their ever having married.”
“Oh Fitzwilliam! Poor Lydia,….. poor Elizabeth! How worried she must be for her sister! And to live with it, every day! Fitzwilliam, I cannot even imagine it.”
“The family has suffered terribly. Of that there is no doubt. Had I followed her to Longbourn or at least written to her, I might have been able to find them in time. Had I listened to you and Bingley instead of indulging my self-absorbed grief …….” He stopped for a moment, raked his fingers through his hair. The sadness in his eyes was heartbreaking. “Elizabeth is naturally and very justly upset with me, Georgie. But I do know that she cares for me deeply and can only pray that she will forgive me in time. For now, my task is clear. I must find them and relieve the family of this constant worry. The shame of it is another matter.”
“I have begun my inquiries of those I thought might know his habits. I’m presently writing to the parish constables of every town and village they might have passed through to see if he left his usual string of debts and the like. I have just begun, Georgie, but I shall not rest until they are found. I owe it to you, to Elizabeth and to myself. Wickham’s evil has played a role in my life for far too long. Enough! Before I can even hope to begin my life with Elizabeth I must know for certain that he can no longer touch us, any of us.”
His body trembled with rage as he turned from her to avoid her frightened stare. He then felt her loving hands stroking his back and heard her anxious voice murmur softly, “My darling brother, how much you take upon yourself! I know you shall find them, but promise me that you will take care. Be careful, Fitzwilliam, please. I could not bear it if something were to happen to you!”
He turned immediately around to ease her anxiety. “Do not be frightened, Georgiana. Believe me when I say that I shall be very careful. I will not risk my life with Elizabeth for that worthless blaggard.” And saying that, he hugged her to him and kissed her brow again and again.
“As it will take several days for me to receive a reply from anyone, I intend to ride home to Pemberley tomorrow and spend a few days there. I must speak to Hannah, but I am also hoping to find some among our servants that still keep a connection with him. It seems reasonable to begin my search there.”
“You will not be too harsh on Hannah, will you Fitzwilliam? We have known the family for years and….”
“I intend to be very harsh with her, Georgiana. But only because I am hoping that her family’s dread of my wrath may loosen some tongues and lead me to Wickham. Do not fret, I know Hannah to be a sweet, hard working girl. I cannot imagine what she did with the letter or why, but I am sure it was not done with malice. There must have been some misunderstanding or error involved. Of course, there have been times when I have wanted to throttle her for the pain she’s caused, but then, I am equally to blame. No, I will not do more than bark very loudly.”
Darcy paced impatiently back and forth as Hannah tried desperately to control her weeping. His stone cold expression and penetrating eyes were terrifying her.
“Tell me again, Hannah. What happened when you returned from the market? Why didn’t you hand the letter in then?”
“I forgot about it, Sir. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I did. I found a clean apron and went to serve in the dining room. I only remembered it later that afternoon and by then it had been in the washtub for hours.” She broke down again and hiding her face in her hands.
“I can understand all that, but what gave you the right to keep its existence secret from me?” he stormed at her. “Do you have any idea of the suffering you’ve caused? Why didn’t you come to me and tell me all this at the time?” he asked angrily. “I assure you, it would have gone better for you!”
Her three brothers, who were standing behind her, eyed each other uneasily. They had agreed, when they were all summoned to the great house, that Hannah would take the blame alone. After all, the Master would surely not be as harsh on a woman as he would a man, and perhaps the family could survive this catastrophe.
“And what about you James, what did you know of this? Do you mean to tell me that Hannah didn’t come to you for help? You’re the head of the family, man! Do you think me stupid?”
James trembled and started to deny his knowledge of it, but Darcy cut him off.
“I should dismiss the whole lot of you. Heaven knows I have every reason to do so! But I shall give you one chance to save your positions here, so listen very carefully. Hannah, this goes for you as well. Normally, I wouldn’t speak of such things in front of a lady, but your position at the Inn may be useful here.”
“I am afraid that all of you will have to choose between honoring the servants’ code of silence and saving your positions on my estate,” he began slowly and deliberately. “I need information from people I cannot approach. I need you to get that information by any means possible and as quickly as possible. Be of genuine service to me and I will keep you in my employ. I give you my word. Is that understood?”
James stepped forward cautiously and answered for the family. “Tell us what you need done Master Darcy, and we’ll do it.”
“I need George Wickham found. I know he has cut many of his ties here, but I’ve heard that he still comes round when he knows I’m from home. He must have contacts here and in town. I want names, connections, dates, addresses…… any stupid thing he has been overheard to have said when sober or drunk in the last six months - anything that would give us a clue as to where he hides. Hannah, I want you to get the ladies to talk----those that still have an eye for him and those that despise him. And I’m sure there are quite a number of those. No leads are unimportant. I want all the trails followed and I want this kept in total and complete secrecy. Is that understood?”
“Yes we do, Master Darcy. And I don’t imagine it will be very difficult to get to people to give up information about him. He hasn’t got many that think well of him around here,” said James.
“Then be on your way. I’m returning to London in two days. That’s all the time you’ve got, so don’t waste it.”
The brothers bowed and backed their way out of the room. Hannah tried again to apologize, but Darcy raised his hand to silence her. “I don’t wish to hear it Hannah. I cannot forgive you, at least not yet. You have done great damage and the pain is still too fresh.”
As he watched them leave, his countenance changed decidedly. “Well, I think that put the fear of G-d into them, all right. Perhaps we shall all get lucky.”
Over the next several weeks Elizabeth received an unusually large number of letters. Her mother was especially curious about them, but her father pointed out that since Elizabeth wrote so faithfully to her friends and family she would naturally get letters in return.
When the post arrived each day, Elizabeth would disappear into her room and not be seen again for at least an hour. First, she would unlock her jewelry box and put on the ring she had locked away after rising. Then she would make herself comfortable on the window seat and open her letters. Fitzwilliam had made it a habit to write to her each evening before he retired and tell her the news of the day. Thus each letter from Georgiana consisted of one page from her and three from her brother. The same was true of her letters from Emily. Only aunt Gardiner’s carried a single sheet from him and it’s tone was always more formal and reserved.
Today’s letter came from Emily and it was full of delicious news. Little Robert was now lifting his upper body to help him look around and twice he had managed to roll himself over. Thomas had two final examinations to finish and then would enjoy a weeks rest before starting with his new firm. Georgiana was making wonderful progress on the alto recorder and was often staying an hour or two longer to help her with marketing or the baby.
Fitzwilliam’s letter sounded a bit discouraged, for all of his searching had yielded nothing. But when he spoke of his love for her and his visions for their future, she could feel his calm and knew all would be well. Reading his words allowed her a glimpse into his mind and heart and she felt comforted to be sharing in his highs and lows. She missed him terribly and wanted so much to be on this quest with him. Why was it a woman’s lot to sit and wait?
Robert would not stop fussing and it was clear that Georgiana’s lesson was not on his agenda for today. “I’m so sorry, Georgiana. I can’t imagine what is troubling him. It is so frustrating when he can’t tell us what is wrong,” said Emily, as she continued her efforts to soothe him.
“It doesn’t matter Emily! Truly, I’m just happy to be here with you. Let me walk with him for a while. We’ll look out the window together. You always like that, don’t you, my sweet boy?” She stroked his head as she walked back and forth with her back to the window so he could peer over her shoulder.
Emily let herself drop into a chair, exhausted. “Have you heard from your brother in the last few days, Georgiana? Is he returning from Plymouth this week?”
“Yes, he’ll be returning tomorrow. The gentleman he was to see there, a ship’s ensign, had just sailed away the day before he arrived and Fitzwilliam was very frustrated. I know he will not let this rest until he knows what has happened to them, and I shudder to think how long it will take. And I worry so about Elizabeth’s feelings as well. Emily, I won’t ask you to divulge any confidences, but is there anything that you can tell me to put my mind at ease. Do you believe Elizabeth will forgive Fitzwilliam and accept him?”
Emily gave her a knowing smile. “Don’t worry Georgiana. Those two are so much in love and despite that, so sensible, that I can’t imagine they won’t find a way to reconcile. Now, if you have the strength to keep walking for another few minutes, I shall make us some tea.”
Robert’s breathing had calmed and Georgiana knew he was close to sleep. She sang softly to him as she continued walking around the little flat, stopping here and there to look at some of Thomas’s architectural drawings that were framed on the walls. She stopped before an exquisitely detailed pencil sketch of a manor house by the sea. It was titled “Kirkcaldy.”
“Kirkcaldy”, thought Georgiana, “where have I heard that name before?” It troubled her that she could not recall. Once she lay Robert in his cradle, she joined Emily in the kitchen to bring the tea things to the table. “That is such a beautiful drawing on the wall beside your bedroom door. Did Thomas do that one as well?”
“Yes, in fact that one is quite old. I think Robert drew it when he was just fifteen or sixteen. It is a picture of his family’s summer home in Scotland. I believe that sketching it gave Thomas his first inkling of his great love of architecture.”
“Yes, Scotland, that’s what it said on the address,” said Georgiana, almost to herself. She looked up at Emily with a startled expression on her face. “ And he was so upset when I remarked about it!”
“Georgiana, I’m not following you. What are you remembering?”
Georgiana rose from her seat and started pacing and wringing her hands. “I ……I have never spoken of this to anyone. Not even to Elizabeth as yet, although she knows of it. Emily, my brother is so intent on finding George Wickham for more than one reason. Two years ago he imposed himself on me, and I stupidly believed he loved me. Fitzwiliam found us in time, just before we were to run away together. But several days earlier, when we were walking together by the waters edge, I noticed a letter that he was about to post, tucked under his arm along with a newspaper. I remarked about the funny sounding name of the town in the address. It was “Kirkcaldy,” and he was terribly upset that I had seen it. He lost his temper and accused me of prying into his affairs. Only after I wept and apologized a hundred times did he finally calm down. I never understood it, but now I think I do! He was keeping the name of the town that we were traveling to a secret from me. He said that he wanted it to be a surprise, but now I realize that he didn’t want to risk my brother’s finding out his intended hiding place. Oh, Emily, do you think it possible that he has taken Lydia there?”
“Possible? I think it probable. He may have friends or family there.”
“Well, I shall tell Fitzwilliam the moment he gets home tomorrow. Or maybe I should wait a day or two so he can rest before he makes yet another journey. You should see what he looks like, Emily. He is thin and exhausted. I don’t know……”
“Georgiana, tell him as soon as he comes home and say that Thomas will visit him in the evening. Thomas knows the people of the town well and may be able to get information concerning Wickham. His knowledge of the area may be useful to your brother as well.”
“Yes, if Wickham is there, Thomas’s help will be indispensable.”
Georgiana sat down at the table again. Taking Emily’s hand, she murmured softly, “It is very odd, Emily, but I feel suddenly very calm. My instinct tells me we have just turned a corner.”
The Darcy coach had been sent to transport the entire Witherbee family to Governor Court and final arrangements were being made to Georgiana’s smaller drawing room in anticipation of their coming. Georgiana’s own crib and changing table were brought down from the attic, thoroughly cleaned and covered with new linens that had been purchased just that morning. Her beloved music box, that still maintained an honored place on her dresser, was borrowed for the evening to entertain little Robert, and Georgiana herself, had picked out the blanket and stuffed animals that decorated the crib.
She had decided that if Thomas was coming to see Fitzwilliam this evening it would be a wonderful opportunity to get Emily out of the little flat as well, and a dinner invitation had been issued post haste. The only problem that arose was the need to settle the dispute among the chambermaids as to who was going to have the honor of caring for little Robert. The entire Darcy staff was buzzing with delight at the expectation of such lively company. Their elegant townhouse had been somber for too long.
Fitzwilliam had been genuinely encouraged by his sister’s remarkable news and knowing that Thomas Witherbee would be able to assist him with particular plans and arrangements, afforded him a calm that he had not felt in weeks. He ate a good luncheon and was able to nap for most of the afternoon. The three or four hours of sleep that he was able to get each night on his journeys had left him thoroughly exhausted. Now well rested, he was anxious to learn more about Kirkcaldy and was eagerly awaiting his guests. As he was pouring himself a cognac, he heard Benson heading for the door and came out to greet them. To his great surprise he saw Charles Bingley, robust and tanned, beaming at him.
“Charles,” he said, extending his hand and smiling broadly, “what a wonderful surprise! How long have you been back?”
“Just arrived this morning. But I couldn’t wait to see you when I heard you were still in town. How are you Darcy? I must say that you look a bit drawn, but your spirit seems to be back. I was afraid what I might find when I saw you. Tell me how you’ve been?”
“I have been…well, that is a rather long story, Charles, which I will begin as soon as I have spoken to Georgiana. Come, let us find her.” And putting his hand on Bingley’s shoulder steered him into Georgiana’s drawing room to find her dancing about the room with a stuffed elephant.
“Oh, Fitzwilliam, Charles, I did not see you there. Forgive me,” she said blushing deeply. The gentlemen laughed and Charles came forward to kiss her hand saying, “Your dancing partner is not worthy of you Madam. May I cut in?” And taking her hand he twirled her about as he hummed a popular tune.
“Oh, Charles, how happy we both are to have you home. You look very well rested and contented.”
“Well, Caroline is now betrothed and that has taken a weight off my mind that has been pressing for some time,” he said with an impish grin and a wink at Darcy. He then looked about him and said, a bit puzzled, “I say, what’s this? Baby things?”
“We are having dinner guests that have an infant and we want both baby and parents to feel comfortable,” said Darcy. “In fact, I hope that you will join us, Charles. You will really like them. They are wonderful people.”
Georgiana looked questioningly at her brother, wondering how they were to discuss such private matters in front of Charles, but he answered her quickly by saying, “Georgie, I feel that Charles should be told everything. He has a very particular interest in this affair as well, and it is high time that he were given the opportunity to help himself and us.” Both Georgiana and Charles looked surprised at these words, but Darcy continued even before they had a chance to form a question. “If you would entertain our guests in the music room for a while, Charles and I will talk in the library. We’ll be down as soon as we can.”
Looking a bit confused, she nodded and went to advise the staff of their extra guest. Darcy led Charles to the library, where he shut the door behind him and went immediately to the bar to fix Bingley a stiff drink. He was going to need it.
“Charles, I have a great deal to tell you and much to apologize for. Please, sit, make yourself comfortable,” he said nodding towards his big armchair by the fire. He handed him the whiskey and stared at his friend. “Will he still be my friend when he has heard what I have to say?” he asked himself.
“Charles, it is difficult to begin, but I must let you know that I have done you a great injustice………….”
When he had finished speaking, Charles sat dumbstruck, glaring at him in disbelief. He rose from the chair and walked about the room, unable to comprehend what he had just been told. When he finally looked at Darcy, his face revealed the months and months of suffering he had endured. “How could you do that to me?” he asked in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve always considered you my very best friend, Darcy. Betrayal from you? It is unthinkable.” He went to stare out the window, clearly unable to look at his friend.
Darcy cautiously broke the silence. “Charles, I would certainly not blame you if you never wanted to speak to me again, but there is much more that I need to relate. “I now know that my impression of Miss Bennet’s lack of affection for you was utterly wrong.” Charles spun around to face him, his eyes wild with hope. “How do you know that? Who has told you? Are you certain?”
“Yes, I am. I have had it from Elizabeth and I have seen Miss Bennet recently and observed her reaction to the very sound of your name. She cares for you, Charles. I believe she still loves you,” he said softly.
Bingley was stunned by Darcy’s words. “Since when has it become Elizabeth, Darcy? Since when have her obnoxious family and low connections become acceptable to you?” he asked in a hurt and sarcastic tone.
Darcy felt for his ruby ring. “I have nothing to say in my defense. There is no defense for what I have done and I am truly ashamed and sorry. But that will not help either of you now. Charles, there is more to relate, I am sorry to say. You will be even more furious with me when you learn what has befallen the Bennet family. Do you remember when Elizabeth and the Gardiners left Lambton. You wisely wanted to go after them. Again, I interfered. This time for my own selfish reasons.”
When Fitzwilliam had finished relating the story, Charles face was grief stricken. “How she must have been suffering, Darcy. My poor, sweet Jane, my angel. She has never done anything to deserve such pain and humiliation. Had I only been there to help her endure it.”
Darcy felt his eyes sting and turned away to shut them for a moment as Charles continued, “It is clear that you have had your share of suffering as well, Darcy. I always believed that you were attracted to Miss Bennet, but I had no idea to what degree! Now I understand your behavior at Pemberley, of course. If only you would have confided in me. I believe my advice would have been valuable then.”
“I know, Charles, I know.”
“But I do commend you for going after Wickham and I intend to do everything in my power to help you. Please allow me to be part of this, Darcy. I need to do it for Jane.”
“I shall Charles. That is precisely why I asked you to stay for dinner. Thomas Witherbee has some knowledge of an area in Scotland called Kirkcaldy, where we believe Wickham to be hiding, and he has come here tonight so that we can plan our next move. Will you shake my hand for now and come be a part of our undertaking? When all this is settled, you can decide the course of our friendship. It is my fondest wish, of course, that you and I remain friends, even become brother’s perhaps,” he said rather quietly.
Charles came to shake his hand, but Darcy pulled him forward for a momentary embrace. As they separated, each gave the other a meaningful nod and headed downstairs.
When they entered the music room, Emily was at the piano playing a lullaby to her son. He was cradled in Georgiana’s arms beside her on the bench and they were casting loving looks at him as they sang. The gentlemen paused to take in the sight.
“Ah, to be blessed like that, eh, Darcy?” whispered Bingley. Elizabeth’s loving eyes suddenly appeared before him and Darcy was struck with an overpowering feeling of joy. “G-d knows I don’t deserve it, but I have been blessed,” he thought. And to his friend he whispered, “You will be, Charles, you will be.”
After introductions were made, Fitzwilliam apologized to his guests for not greeting them on their arrival and invited everyone in for dinner. Emily asked for a few extra minutes to be sure that Robert was asleep before she left him with the maid. When she rejoined them she said rather nervously, “I asked that the door be left open so that I can hear him if he cries.” Everyone, including Thomas, attempted to contain their amusement. “Emily, he is with a sweet, doting maid, who has been instructed to call us as soon as he whimpers. Please, darling, try to enjoy the evening,” said Thomas, kissing his wife’s hand.
“I will. I promise. Thank you both for taking such pains to put us at ease. The little nursery is so comfortable for him,” she said smiling at her hosts.
They began with pleasant chitchat; travel news, Caroline’s wedding plans, Thomas’s graduation. Then half way through dinner Fitzwilliam changed the topic of conversation to the more serious one at hand, Kirkcaldy.
Thomas spoke up immediately. “Darcy, I have connections in Kirkcaldy; servants, friends, all of whom would be very discreet. I believe it best to first write to these people and find out if he’s even been spotted there. It is a long, difficult journey to make for nothing. If you would be willing to bear the expense of an express, I would write to several of them tonight and we would have our answer by next week for certain. I strongly urge you to wait for news of them.”
“My only concern is that he may sense that he is being observed, and disappear into the countryside. If we’re already there, at least we can give chase when he bolts.” said Darcy.
“I assure you that I have complete faith in the people I shall contact. In fact, I shall instruct them to watch his movements and follow him if he does try to run. Once we arrive in the area, we can settle in a small village nearby so as not to be detected and I shall do the preliminary footwork to find him. The element of surprise will be crucial to our success.”
“But do you have the time for such a journey, Thomas?” asked Georgiana. “I know you are to start your new position next week. You mustn’t risk your future for us.”
“I have already given that some thought, Georgie,” answered Darcy. “I will contact Thomas’s employers and hire him to come to Pemberley for a consultation on a building project I have in mind. Then a few days later, you will post a letter that I will prepare before I leave, informing them of my desire for Thomas to stay and begin work immediately. That will explain his absence from London and give us the time we need.”
“Very clever, Darcy,” commented Bingley. “But how will you then explain canceling the building orders?”
“Oh, my proposed project is very real, Charles. Thomas has already been creating sketches for my approval.”
“What do you have in mind, Fitzwilliam? You‘ve never told me about any improvements,” said Georgiana, looking a little hurt.”
“Oh Sweetness, do not be offended. Before my journey to Plymouth, Thomas and I luncheoned together and I told him of my desire to build a glass enclosed breakfast room as a wedding gift for Elizabeth. I know how much she would enjoy dining with nature all around her. And in truth, once we return, Thomas will have to work rather quickly.”
“I wasn’t aware that Elizabeth has accepted your proposal, Mr. Darcy,” teased Emily.
“Well,” he stammered, “not in so many words. But I am trying to think positively.” He looked down at his plate, a bit embarrassed.
“And so you should, Fitzwilliam,” she replied, giving his hand a little squeeze. Everyone at the table smiled as Thomas picked up his glass and proposed a toast. “To love and positive thinking!”
“To love and positive thinking!” they chorused.
“Well now, Darcy, how can I be of use in this endeavor,” asked Bingley once they had put their glasses down.
“Charles, we need all the ammunition against Wickham that we can gather. I’ve begun a list of merchants and tradesman to whom he owes money and I would like you to continue that search. I have names and addresses to follow up on, and with every new contact I seem to be finding more and more. I’d put the man in prison for kidnapping if I could, but at the very least, I want to be assured of debtors’ prison.”
“But really, Darcy. Don’t you think the family will want to force a marriage? After all, that would be the most respectable thing to do.”
“Yes, I suppose they might, and I certainly will follow the wishes of the family. But truly, Charles, I would try to persuade them against it. Marriage would certainly be the easiest solution at the moment, but in the long run I believe that it will only bring them more misery. Even if Wickham agrees to marry her, what assurances do we have that he will not leave her as soon as he tires of her? And if there are children by then, it will be doubly painful. Given Wickham’s character, I can’t imagine that he will treat her well. No, marrying Wickham really condemns her to a wretched life. And she doesn’t deserve that, for all her foolishness.”
“I do agree that her chances for happiness with him are very slim,” replied Bingley. “But I imagine that Miss Lydia herself will have much to say on that subject. In any case, I shall do my very best as detective, Darcy, and I believe that I should also interview those that are willing to bear witness against him. What do you think?”
“Yes, Charles, that is very good thinking! It is best to know who is willing to come forward and who is not.”
“I was hoping to make a side trip to Hertfordshire very shortly, but I realize that it would be best for me to wait until Caroline is married before I do anything to “disgrace the family.” He forced a rather sad little smile.
“Well, we seem to have a growing club here,” said Thomas, as he winked at Emily. “My father will be accusing me of starting a revolution, I am sure.”
“Let us have our coffee in the drawing room, shall we?” suggested Darcy. “And then we shall leave the ladies to begin our correspondence. Agreed?”
Posted on Monday, 26 January 2004, at
When the express arrived, Mr. Bennet had just retired to the library for some peace and quiet after dinner. Elizabeth recognized the hand on the letter immediately, and taking it from Hill, ran to see her father. “This just arrived, Papa. I know it is important,” she said breathlessly.
Mr. Bennet examined the letter and seeing the Darcy seal looked up at his daughter over the rims of his glasses with an amused grin. “Well, I dare say this missive should be important to you, Lizzy. I had wondered what had become of your Mr. Darcy. It has been a good six weeks!”
“Please open it Papa. The rider is waiting for reply, I believe,” she said, trying to sound as calm as possible. Mr. Bennet broke the seal and settled himself back in his chair to read, what he thought, would surely be a very entertaining letter.
Elizabeth watched the expression on his face change to shock and quietly lowered herself into the chair before him. She sat with her hands in her lap, her back straight and her heart throbbing in her throat.
“He raised his eyes from the letter for a moment and looking at her very intently, said, “You have been keeping a great deal from me, Lizzy.”
“Yes, Papa,” was her only reply.
When he finally finished the letter he addressed her again. “How long has your Mr. Darcy been on this quest, Elizabeth?”
“Since he left Hertfordshire, Papa. We thought it sensible to wait and tell you once they had been discovered. We did not wish to worry Mama, unduly. Have they been discovered? Please tell me, Papa.”
He handed the letter to her and replied, “Here, read it for yourself. I must pen my answer directly. It seems there is not a moment to lose.”
Elizabeth returned to her seat and with trembling hands unfolded the single sheet and read.
Dear Mr. Bennet,
I am sure that by now you have wondered as to the sincerity of my attachment to your beloved daughter, Elizabeth, as no amount of “business” could possibly warrant such a long period of silence. Truth be told, I have been searching for news concerning your youngest daughter and Wickham in the hope of bringing him to justice, and have only this morning received confirmation that they are presently residing in a seaside town in Scotland called Kirkcaldy.
It would, of course, be best if you could join me in confronting him and pressing charges with the local parish constables. To that end, I urge you to travel to London as soon as possible so that we may journey together with a friend who knows the area and the people well. May I also be so bold as to suggest that a female member of your family accompany us to help comfort your daughter, and watch over her during our travels home. I hope I have not offended your family or over stepped my bounds in proceeding without your knowledge Sir, but I have my own personal reasons for wanting Wickham found and would have done so for myself alone.
Please let me know by return express when I may expect you. I ask you to give my fondest regards to your family,
She closed her eyes to say a little prayer of thanks for all he had discovered thus far and begged G-d to watch over him. She knew Wickham could be unpredictable, especially when provoked, and she feared for his safety. As her father sealed the letter, she asked softly. “When will you leave, Papa?”
“Early in the morning, my child. Now bring this out to the rider with these coins and wish him G-d speed.”
When she returned to the house, she found everyone in the parlor listening with bewildered expressions to her father’s explanation of what was about to occur. Mrs. Bennet, after a rather short, but extreme attack of nerves, flew about the house ordering Hill and the maids to prepare her husband’s trunk and went herself to gather some warm clothes for Lydia.
Mr. Bennet then turned to Elizabeth and said, “So, my dear, who do you suggest I take on this trip to help control your sister, as Mr. Darcy so tactfully suggested.”
She blushed and lowered her eyes, afraid to meet his. She knew herself to be the most logical choice, but would not say so.
“Well, since strength and determination are the skills required for this endeavor, as well as the ability to hold one’s tongue,” he looked at her teasingly, “I suggest that you pack your things and then get to bed, Lizzy. I intend to get an early start.”
Elizabeth ran to kiss him. “Oh, thank you Papa! I shall not be a nuisance to you, I promise. You shall not regret taking me!”
She then turned to her sisters. “Kitty, Mary, if there is some small thing you should like me to bring to Lydia, please fetch it now. And Jane, will you help me pack?”
For the first half hour of their trip they watched the familiar countryside drift by before them, lost in their hopes and fears for the journey ahead. But as the rhythmic rocking of the coach settled them in for the long ride ahead, Mr. Bennet addressed his daughter. “Well Lizzy, do you not think it a good time to finally tell your old Papa about Mr. Darcy and this odd courtship of yours?”
“It has not been very much of a courtship, Papa.”
“No, I suppose not. More like a fencing match, I suspect,” he said, taking her hand in his and patting it affectionately.
“Yes,” she laughed, “a fencing match would be a very good way to describe it.”
“And now, I assume, Mr. Darcy has proven himself to be the better fencer.”
“Yes, Papa, he has certainly out fenced me. But although I must admit defeat, I believe that I have won everything and lost nothing. Truly, Papa, you were right so long ago when you said that Darcy might not be the black-hearted villain I was making him out to be! He is, to me, the finest, most generous and loving man in the world. I do not deserve him. And G-d only knows why he is still willing to accept me, with all these troubles, but I am so grateful that he loves me.”
“Well, my child, happily, we do not always get what we deserve, but I have no doubt that once you are married, Darcy will be asking himself how he came to deserve you, every day of his life. He is a very lucky man indeed.”
“Thank you, Papa.” She kissed his cheek and proceeded to fill him in on all the painful and humorous events that had brought them to this juncture. The only matter she kept to herself was Darcy’s interference in Jane and Bingley’s relationship. She could not bear to have her father think ill him.
They arrived at Cheapside early in the afternoon, grateful to have some time to rest and visit with the Gardiners. A note from Mr. Darcy awaited them saying that his coach would fetch them at eight the next morning and that all the preliminary arrangements had been attended to. So, both father and daughter were able to calm themselves enough to enjoy a relaxing afternoon with their beloved family.
At about half past five, a large coach pulled up in front of the Gardiner home. One of the children, playing by the window seat, noticed it. Elizabeth came to look, her curiosity piqued, and saw Georgiana get out of the coach. She grabbed her shawl and ran down the stairs to greet her.
“Georgiana, you’ve been reading my mind. I did not want to leave without seeing you!”
“Elizabeth,” she murmured as she kissed her. “I cannot stay long. Fitzwilliam does not know that I have left the house. I came to give you this and ask you not to hesitate to use it.” She brought forth a small Militia insignia pin, wrapped in a linen handkerchief. “If Wickham tries to bribe Fitzwilliam with the threat of exposing me, assure him that he no longer has any power over me. Those that I love most in the world already know what I have done and I am not afraid of the rest. When he sees this pin that he gave me, he will know that your words came straight from me.”
“But Georgiana, why are you hiding this from your brother? He will be most upset if he learns of it.”
“But he will not do what needs to be done! He will pay Wickham any amount of money to protect me. Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I do, Georgie. And if that is what he feels he must do, I will not go against his wishes. It is not for me to undermine his convictions. I’m sorry to refuse you, but it would not fair well for either of us. Do not be angry with me for this, Georgiana.”
Georgiana placed the handkerchief back in her reticule and then slowly looked up at Elizabeth. “I cannot be angry with you, especially when I now know for certain that you are to be my sister. You are already behaving as a good wife should!” She tried to feign distress, but soon burst out laughing and hugged Elizabeth to her. “ However, I will not show Fitzwilliam the pin, for I know it will upset him that I have kept it for so long. Will you at least keep my secret?”
“Of course, I will. Now come upstairs for just a moment and meet my father. My aunt would be very hurt if you left without seeing her as well. Then you can tell Fitzwilliam that you came to see us to wish us a safe journey. No secrets necessary.” As they linked arms and headed for the stairs, Elizabeth whispered, “Georgiana, get rid of the pin.” Georgiana shook her head. “Not yet, it’s evidence. Perhaps when you return.”
After a short, but pleasant visit, Elizabeth accompanied Georgiana to her coach. “Does Fitzwilliam know that I am the one who is coming along,” she asked. “No, not that I know of,” replied Georgiana. “Then don’t tell him. I’ll look forward to seeing his expression when he sees me.” They both giggled as Georgiana stepped into the coach. Once seated, she said more seriously, “Please bring him home safe. I do so worry about what could happen.”
“I shall watch him like a hawk, I promise you. And I will remind him every day to keep his temper for the sake of all our happiness. Do not fret, Georgiana, we will be home soon.” Kissing her once more, she locked the door and waved her off.
As Fitzwilliam Darcy mounted the stairs he saw the trunks neatly stacked outside the door and ordered the men behind him to bring them down and secure them on the coach. He took a moment to straighten himself, took a deep breath and knocked. He was rewarded with Mr. Gardiner’s friendly smile.
“Good morning, Mr. Darcy! Everyone is ready I believe. My niece has just gone to get her warmer gloves.”
He bowed respectfully and then greeted her with genuine affection. “It is very good of you to put up with all this commotion so cheerfully, Mrs. Gardiner.”
“Oh nonsense,” she chuckled. “What is a little commotion when so much is at stake!”
At that moment Elizabeth appeared at the door. Darcy’s eyes widened in surprise and then shear joy. They had not seen each other since he had handed her the box of chocolates and yet their relationship had changed so drastically since then. It was impossible to know how to behave. Elizabeth’s instinct was to rush to his arms and smother him with kisses, but she stood demurely, as she knew she should, and simply gave him a warm smile in greeting.
“Miss Bennet,” he said, looking a bit over-come at seeing her. “I was not aware that you…” He paused to reign in his emotions, then smiled bashfully. “I’m very glad to have your company and assistance on this trip. Your presence will be most helpful to your sister, I’m sure.” All the while he gazed at her with such loving pride and affection, that he was barely aware of Mr. Bennet addressing him.
“Well, Mr. Darcy. You have been a rather busy fellow on our behalf. I thank you for giving us this opportunity to bring back our child. No matter the outcome, Sir. I assure you that we shall never forget your kindness.”
Darcy shook the older man’s hand. “It is not kindness, I’m afraid. It is a great desire to right a wrong that’s been done to your family and an even stronger desire for personal revenge. These are not pretty motives, Mr. Bennet, but they are unfortunately very real.”
Mr. Bennet nodded. They said their good byes, accepted the prayers and good wishes for their safe return and headed down the stairs.