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Posted on Tuesday, 13 September 2005
Upon his return to Netherfield, Charles Bingley immediately asks for Jane Bennet’s hand, but Darcy, distressed at Elizabeth’s reticent and anxious manner towards him, concludes that any tender feelings she had may have had for him in Derbyshire have now been lost. Despite his success at finding Wickham and bringing the marriage about, Darcy believes that Elizabeth blames him for all the pain her family has suffered and cannot forgive him. He returns to London broken-hearted.
Lady Catherine makes her infamous journey to Longbourn to warn Elizabeth off, but thinks better of reporting it to Darcy. She has confidence in her powers of persuasion, despite the impudent girl’s refusal to promise to stay away of her nephew! Lady Catherine is convinced that Miss Bennet will not dare to continue her relationship with Darcy, but is nevertheless on her guard for any news regarding their liaison. Some ten months have now passed and her Ladyship’s mind rests easy.
The first two hours of the journey were spent in awkward silence. Every now and then, Colonel Fitzwilliam would look up from his newspaper and murmur something to Darcy, who, thoroughly engrossed in his book, would glance up momentarily and nod. The ladies, equally ill at ease, cast furtive glances at one another and at times, at the gentlemen—always averting their eyes, however, before being discovered.
Georgiana was now painfully aware that for once, she was not the most timid person in the party, and that if she did not take the initiative to speak, not a word would pass between herself and Anne before they reached Scotland. They were cousins, though hardly friends, for they had never had the opportunity to really get to know one another. For one thing, Anne was quite a bit older. But Georgiana knew that that had little to do with the emotional distance between them.
For many years, Aunt Catherine had extended invitations for her to visit Rosings, but Fitzwilliam had always been reluctant to let her go. Then, when she was fourteen, under great pressure from Lady Matlock, he had grudgingly relented, only to have his cautious instincts proved right. The visit turned out to be a disaster—an embarrassment for Anne, and an unhappy experience for Georgiana. Lady Catherine’s frequently given and unwelcome advice, as well as her unrelenting criticism of the way Fitzwilliam was bringing Georgiana up, made the young girl miserable and terribly homesick. Even when the young cousins were not in her ladyship’s company, Mrs. Jenkinson’s austere presence prevented them from really talking to one another. Finally, after many tearful letters home, her dear brother managed to invent an excuse to rescue her, and poor Anne, too mortified to face the friend she so desperately needed, hid in her room and allowed Georgiana to leave without saying good-bye. The memory of that visit did little to make the present situation easier. But riding on in silence was becoming more and more painful.
Indeed, it was awkward for them all. Darcy could not help but wonder at his cousin’s sudden ability to withstand such a long and tiring journey. Anne had always been pronounced too frail to travel. Did Aunt Catherine see this family holiday as the perfect opportunity to push for the culmination of the dream she claimed was so ardently shared by his own mother? Was he now to be pressed into honouring that long-standing, fictitious engagement? He felt a choking knot form in the back of his throat and he swallowed hard before glancing up at Anne. She sat, her small frame held rigidly erect, her slender fingers interlaced on her lap, her eyes fixed on the passing scenery. Who was this slight, sad, and mysterious woman? He spent several weeks in the same house with her each year, and yet he did not know her at all. She never spoke, never smiled at him, never took the pains to establish any kind of relationship between them. He had no idea what her views were on any subject, and if he were brutally honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had never cared to know.
There was a small corner of his heart that felt guilty about the way he had treated Anne, or rather mistreated her. He had thought no more about her than he would a stick of furniture at Rosings. He had neglected her completely—always with the justification that he was too busy with his aunt’s affairs to have time for anything else while there. Perhaps he had been afraid to show any interest in Anne lest her Ladyship misconstrue their friendship for affection. No, he had never dared get close enough to make her out. But when he did allow himself to think of her, the unimaginable dullness of her existence and the lonely isolation she must surely be enduring moved him.
Originally, Darcy had hoped that a month in Scotland, in the bosom of his family, would help him put Elizabeth behind him. Perhaps the distance and the soothing green of the countryside might diminish the pain and emptiness that continued to torture him. At any rate, he had been looking forward to spending a few carefree weeks away from his day-to-day responsibilities. And he would have ample time to spend with Georgiana and Richard, the two people he cared for most in the world…that is, of course, if he discounted Elizabeth. But how was such a thing to be done? How did one discount Elizabeth! Well, it was useless to dwell on it. He would have to find a way to bear the gnawing ache that had become part of his daily existence.
As for Colonel Fitzwilliam, he was very pleased to have been granted leave for this luxurious holiday. Normally, all the fine wine and creature comforts in the world could not entice him to spend a month with his parents—impossible to please they lectured and chastised him at every opportunity. It seemed no matter what his accomplishments, he was never doing enough to distinguish himself in their eyes. His brother Alex, the first-born, was not required to prove himself in any way. He was by right and his eventual inheritance already worthy. Yet he, Richard Fitzwilliam, had to turn himself inside out to make his father proud. He was truly sick of it! And his mother’s constant urging to find a proper wife was becoming intolerable! Was she truly blind to the fact that the “proper” young ladies of their society were not interested in a lowly second son, no matter how dashing he looked in his red coat!
Yet on this occasion, the Colonel believed his parents would behave themselves—at least he would be safe in the company of his cousins! The trick would be to spend as little time alone with his parents as possible. Of course he would be summoned now and again and could not refuse to see them, but he nevertheless had high hopes for a relatively peaceful holiday. His father would, no doubt, be in good spirits! After all, he was beginning his seventieth year in fairly good health, his wealth and honor secure and his loved ones by his side. Few men could boast such good fortune.
Anne’s thoughts were painfully different from those of her quiet companions. She kept her face turned towards the window, blinking back the tears that threatened to pour forth. Her eyes stung and watered, but she was determined to regain control of her emotions. She had fought so hard to be allowed on this journey, had been forced to make such ridiculous concessions in order to be permitted to go, and now all her hopes of being accepted and actually included by this most beloved little group were fading fast. She was determined not to let them see her cry; she would not have them pity her any more than they already did! Having spent the last fifteen years of her life perfecting the art of dissembling, she had learned to keep her countenance serene and unreadable while her mother said the most outrageous things! Where were these well-honed skills now when she needed them so desperately? She would have to make them laugh; she would have to shock them into liking and accepting her.
Having summoned up her courage, she calmed herself and finally turned to them with practiced composure.
“Forgive me, my dear cousins, but this will never do!” she said, her eyes twinkling mischievously as a playful smile brightened her face.
All three turned to stare at her in astonishment.
“Having earned a temporary release from the tower of Rosings, I’ve been so eager to join you in your usual, playful banter, only to find that you are all trying to do a rather poor imitation of me! Please assure me that you are not reticent because you think me a younger version of my mother. Surely I do not deserve that!”
For the longest time they simply stared. It was impossible to take in all that her words implied.
Anne bit her lower lip. She felt at once both giddy and terrified. A nervous giggle escaped her throat as her eyes darted anxiously from one face to another. Not daring to breathe, she waited, her fate suspended in the close air of the carriage. It was Richard who found his voice first and shattered the barrier that had grown between them with his hearty, welcoming laugh. Within seconds, she found herself surrounded by familial affection, with Richard crossing over to seat himself beside her and Georgiana drawing closer and taking her hand. They hastily reassured her that they knew she was nothing like her mother, and that they were thrilled to finally have the chance to really get to know her!
Only Darcy sat thunderstruck. His mind raced. Was this animated young woman truly his cousin Anne? Did this lively spirit belong to the woman who always seemed so withered; the one who habitually sat silent and seemingly unaffected by all that went on around her? He would not have believed it possible! Good G-d, how her face softened when she smiled! Her heightened color brightened her normally sallow complexion and she looked almost…pretty. He felt a pang of guilt strike his heart and was, at that moment, especially glad that Elizabeth was not present to witness this transformation. He knew only too well what she would have to say about all this. His conceit and selfishness had prevented him from seeing his cousin as she truly was. All this anguish had been lying just below the surface, but he had been too arrogant and self-involved to notice.
While the Colonel and Georgiana laughed and joked, trying, so it seemed, to make up for lost time, Darcy withdrew into self-recrimination. All those years of loneliness and isolation! He might have had some influence on her life had he only bothered to notice her. “Your pride, your arrogance, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others!” He swallowed hard and struggled to defend his damaged ego. There was no denying his cruel neglect of Anne, but a sudden rush of childish resentment made him wonder if she was not partly responsible for her secluded existence. Why had she kept herself hidden behind a mask of dullness for all these years? Why had she never reached out to them in any way? Was this newfound strength a recent development, or had it been there all along? Had he truly been that blind?
There was so much he wanted to know and even more that he needed to say, but all he managed to stammer out was, “My dear Anne, forgive me.”
Anne’s countenance turned somber as she leaned forward to take both his hands in hers. It was as if she could read his mind.
“Oh, no! You mustn’t feel responsible in any way, my dearest cousin! It was I who cast us in the roles I believed we all should play. You are not at all to blame, Fitzwilliam!”
He shook his head in obvious disagreement, trying to find the appropriate words to express his remorse at having failed her so miserably. But as he struggled, Anne hastily continued. “Nothing short of kidnapping me and hiding me away forever would have changed anything, Fitzwilliam! You know my mother too well! I could not soften her, though I desperately tried for most of my adolescence. Eventually I discovered that the best way for me to retain my sanity was to live a secret life, completely separate from hers. Obviously, I could not do that physically, but I could do it emotionally.”
“I have lived in what must seem like terrible isolation to you, I am sure, but I did so to save myself. I found Mama’s constant disapproval very painful, and knew I had to do something to protect myself from her oppressively overbearing nature. So I decided to distance myself from her as best I could. I determined to be agreeable, never to challenge her views or commands, …but neither did I ever divulge my true feelings or allow her a glimpse into my heart…And as dreadful as that may sound to you, dear cousins,” she said, now turning from one to the other, for she was fully aware of how shocked they all were by her declaration, “ this scheme has allowed me to remain true to myself, while continuing to live at Rosings. After all, it is the only home I know.”
“But Anne!” cried Georgiana, “how does one live without someone to talk to? How have you been able to keep yourself from despair and madness? Oh, do forgive me for saying that,” she stammered, astonished by her brazen and embarrassing behavior.
Anne only chuckled and kissed her cousin’s cheek. “There is nothing to forgive, Georgiana. Your passionate concern only shows your affection for me. But let me to put your mind at ease immediately. I have not lived in a world completely devoid of companionship and amusement. In fact, I have made two of the very best friends a person could have. And although we have never actually met, I feel as close to them as I believe any friends could be!”
“I don’t understand,” murmured Darcy. “You have never met?”
“The wife of Mr. Collins’ predecessor was an exceptionally kind and perceptive woman. She and I became fast friends despite the difference in our ages, and thankfully, Mama permitted me a weekly visit to the parsonage. She was a matchmaker of sorts—but not the matrimonial kind. She had formed a little network of clergymen’s wives who tried to bring together people who truly needed each other. These were ladies like myself, who for one reason or another could not get out in the world to make those connections for themselves. My dear friend Emily is homebound due to childhood paralysis, and since she and her mother live on their own, there is no one to even carry her out of doors. She sits by the window and reads and writes for most of the day. The vicar’s wife brings her books and supplies her with paper, as do I, for I always send her an empty sheet or two each time I write. We have the most wonderful discussions about the books we have both read, and the way we feel about things, and oh, ever so many other things. She is terribly poor while I have been blessed with so much, yet we view the world in the same way and get such pleasure from each other’s letters. She has become a most precious friend, and I could not imagine my life without her. We write to each other once or twice a week, supporting each other in every way we can.”
“And her Ladyship allows this correspondence?” asked the Colonel incredulously.
“Well…Mama does not know the whole of Emily’s situation. She believes her to be a gentleman’s daughter, in ill health like myself. But as Mrs. Prescott initiated the correspondence, Mama has never questioned it or felt the need to look into the background of either of my friends. But even if she were to discover it, I would find a way to continue the correspondence through Mrs. Collins. She, too, has joined our little conspiracy, and in her, I have found another fine friend. So you see, dear cousins, I have made a kind of life for myself. It may be a small life, and a limited one, but it sustains me. And then,” continued Anne with an impish grin that truly lit up her face, “ every Easter I look forward to the yearly visit of my two most entertaining cousins!”
This was not said in jest or in sarcasm, as one might suspect, but Darcy’s heart sank nevertheless, as he steeled himself to hear Anne’s interpretation of their entertaining behavior. Simply the mention of Charlotte Collins’s name brought him further unease. Why was everything in his life so bound up with Elizabeth? Georgiana still mourned the loss of her, while Bingley’s letters constantly reminded him how happy a man could be with a country girl from Hertfordshire. No wonder he couldn’t cast her from his mind for even an hour!
“When one is not even expected to participate in the conversation,” continued Anne, “one has the leisure to observe others very closely. And I must confess that I have become a keen observer of human nature. I have studied the two of you with great interest and amusement, my dear cousins. Colonel, your open, artless manner and playful irreverence are infectious, and there have been countless times that you have sorely tested my ability to keep my composure. What great fun it is to watch you skirt my mother’s questions at dinner, skillfully change the subject and then tell an amusing anecdote to flatter and bewilder her. I must say it is always masterfully done. Especially when you are forever looking for an opportunity to best Fitzwilliam!
“And you, my most serious and dutiful cousin, your thoughts and gestures are, at times, quite a challenge to decipher, but all the more rewarding when I do. You give nothing away! But I have come to know so well the clenching of your jaw, that almost imperceptible rolling of your eyes, and those little trips to the window that signal the limit of your patience with her Ladyship’s pronouncements.”
Darcy’s eyes widened at the thought of his mannerisms and gestures being studied by the young cousin he had never taken the trouble to know. His discomfort was palpable.
“Oh, do not look so stricken, Cousin! I have not been able figure out everything you are thinking and feeling! For instance, I never quite made out what happened between you and Richard and your rivalry over Miss Bennet! I suppose neither one of you made a very good impression on the young lady, or she would be traveling with us today. It’s too bad, too, for I really liked her. It would have been such fun to have her as a member of our family—if only to aggravate Mama.”
Anne’s teasing smile dissolved as she looked from Georgiana’s stricken face to that of Fitzwilliam’s. She had obviously gone too far, and remorse for her cheekiness quickly followed. “Oh, I am so sorry!” she said in great distress. “I didn’t know it was…well, I mean…Forgive me, Fitzwilliam; I am not used to speaking so freely and got completely carried away. How rude of me! I’m sorry!! I wasn’t thinking! Forgive me!” she repeated.
Darcy placed his hand on top of Anne’s, and shaking his head, murmured, “It’s all right, Anne. I did make a fool of myself that Easter, but it is all over now.” He lowered his head, pursed his lips and looked towards the window.
Silence reigned once more.
Eventually, Colonel Fitzwilliam, in an effort to regain the carefree mood that had been lost, naively quipped about Miss Bennet’s being far to good for the likes of either of them, but this, of course, did nothing to minimize the unease that had taken over the interior of the carriage. They rode for some fifteen minutes or more, lost in their own thoughts until the driver slowed and called out that they would be stopping to change horses and get a bite to eat. This bit of news prompted Anne to bravely face her somber relations with an urgent request.
“Please, my dear cousins, I beg you not say anything of what has passed between us just yet. I think it would be best if my mother believed that we had become fond of one another over the course of the holiday… that is, if you will still think me worthy of your friendship after that last insensitive remark.”
“No, no, Anne, it is I who should be asking forgiveness of you,” said Darcy. “It was just a touch of melancholy that has now passed, and I shall not allow such thoughts to spoil our precious time together. And of course, you have our word that we shall follow your lead when in her Ladyship’s company!”
“Thank you, Fitzwilliam, for revealing our friendship is of particular concern to me. I have been especially vigilant to distance myself from you so that Mama would never have a reason to be encouraged. I’ve always insisted that you and I were not well suited for one another and that she was perpetuating an idea that had no chance succeeding… but to no avail. Any hint of our caring for one another, even in the most innocent way, would give her cause to pressure you. I do not wish to make things any more difficult or uncomfortable for you than they already are, Cousin. So we must be must be very careful, you and I.”
Again, Darcy was confounded by this woman who was his cousin Anne. It was now clear that she had sought for all these years to protect him from Lady Catherine, and at great cost to her personal happiness. He could not wrap his mind around all that he was learning about her, moment to moment. He simply nodded and smiled sheepishly, for now, totally lost in thoughts of his own.
Their first meal together was pleasant enough and rather uneventful until the dessert was brought round. Everyone was enjoying the lemon curd when Georgiana discreetly leaned towards Anne, whispered a few words and tried, though unsuccessfully, to suppress a giggle. Anne glanced up at the gentleman sitting opposite her and drew her napkin over her mouth to hide her amusement. With lips tightly pressed together, they colored, eyed each other and tittered once more.
“Really, Georgiana!” said Lady Catherine, “There are to be no secrets at this table! I must have my share in your little diversion. Come, come, let us hear what is amusing you so.”
Georgiana, now crimson with embarrassment, lowered her head and murmured, “It is really nothing aunt. I’m sure it would be of no interest to anyone else.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, if you please,” was her Ladyship’s stern reply.
“Mama, please,” whispered Anne. “It was really nothing.”
“I am waiting, Georgiana,” said her Ladyship, impatiently. “It is only good manners to include everyone at the table when relating an amusing story.”
Darcy was about to step in to stop this ridiculous bit of high-handed foolishness, when Georgiana, laughing once more, looked up at her cousin and said, “Forgive me, Richard, but I was just pointing out to Anne how adorable you look with a lemon curd mustache. It really suits you.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam colored slightly, then drew his tongue slowly and dramatically over his upper lip, causing all the young people at the table to laugh. Georgiana gave him the most affectionate smile when he finally said, “I can always count on my Georgie to interpret my lack of social grace as an endearing quality. Thank you, my pet! If only there were more ladies with your generous nature, I might have found a wife by now. He lifted his glass as if to offer a toast and winked teasingly at his mother.” The entire table burst out laughing, leaving Lady Catherine to feel the sting of having been somehow, subtly bested by her shy, young niece.
The little drama was now over for everyone but Anne, whose furrowed brow and anxiously pursed lips clearly showed her humiliation. It was an expression Darcy had seen more than once on Elizabeth’s sweet face—once in Bingley’s drawing room, when her mother and sisters had come to visit during Jane’s illness and then again at the ball, when her father had so ungraciously humiliated Mary into leaving the piano. Clearly, Elizabeth was not alone in her frustration over the behavior of her relations. Though, clearer still, was the fact that Anne’s wealth protected her from idiots like himself who would hold such behavior against her and see it as an obstacle to marriage!
Over the next two days the cousins grew closer and closer. All barriers had been broken down, and it was now difficult for any of them to believe that there had once been a time when they did not know and understand each other so well. Darcy, to his great surprise, came to genuinely admire Anne. He found her conversation stimulating and intelligent, was continually amazed at her wonderful sense of humor and appreciated her thoughtful and quiet ways. It was now as comfortable to ride in silence, as it was to chat. They seemed to be able to sense what the other needed.
By the time they reached the great stone Inn at Loc Braemar, Darcy was turning over the most startling thoughts over in his mind. Perhaps marrying Anne would not be such a terrible thing after all. Perhaps it would be the natural solution to both their problems. By offering to Anne, he would be securing her freedom from Rosings. She could lead a totally different life at Pemberley and could participate in some of the joys of London when her health permitted it. But most importantly she would be in the company of people who respected and admired her. It would take time, but she would certainly make new friends and acquaintances, so that, even when Georgiana no longer lived with them, Anne would have a contended life.
Was he being his old, high-handed and presumptuous self for thinking this way? Or was he right to assume that Anne’s chances for a happy marriage, given her restrictions, were slim. It was possible, was it not, that without his interference Anne would be doomed to a bitter life of spinsterhood in the sole company of Lady Catherine.
He was sure that he could grow fond of her, and it was gratifying to know that nothing more than thoughtful affection would be required between them. He could not imagine transferring the passion he felt for Elizabeth to any other woman, and if he could not have her in his bed, he preferred to sleep alone. Would that not be a more dignified arrangement than having to do one’s duty by a wife one did not love? Surely, Anne would not resent his occasionally satisfying his needs away from home, as long as he was meticulously discreet. But then he always was. He would never humiliate her, and in return, she would give him the freedom to be out in society, without the torment of scheming mothers and fawning young women. Her freedom would be his as well. Such a marriage might be a blessing for both of them.
Well, there was no need to make a hasty decision. He had an entire month to get to know Anne better, and he resolved to think seriously about the pleasures and the pitfalls of such an arrangement. The only thing that rankled was the thought of his aunt’s smug satisfaction with the match. He would have to suffer her gloating for the rest of his life!
Posted on Monday, 19 September 2005
Elizabeth gingerly lowered herself onto the tree stump to adjust the baby sling she had fashioned out of an old bit of bed linen. She lifted the baby out, kissed his brow and cradled him up against her shoulder.
“Jonathan Bennington, however did you manage to get yourself so twisted up in this sling?” she inquired of him. “You’ve pulled me completely off balance, and I can’t hold onto you this way!”
Jonathan answered by blowing more bubbles and gurgling happily—an activity that always drew more smiles and kisses from this wonderful creature who cared for him.
“Now if you don’t stop kicking those chubby little legs of yours, I shall have to leave you at home the next time I go rambling!” she mockingly chided as she nuzzled his tummy, causing him to squeal with delight.
“I suppose you know an idle threat when you hear it, eh, my little man?” she said, joining him in his merriment. She had been taking him on her early morning walks ever since the weather had improved, and it was difficult to know which one of them enjoyed the outings more. Like clockwork, Jonathan would awaken at six, hungry, wet, and eager to start the day. Elizabeth would then change him, give him his breakfast and set him back in his crib with some playthings so that she could ready herself. The two of them would then set out together, deep into their first serious conversation of the day. It was a routine they both cherished, and one they both would miss when she returned home to Hertfordshire.
She had been Jonathan’s nanny for close to eight months now, she realized, and for all her urging, Sir Robert had not found a replacement for her. But then, it seemed as if that was precisely what Sir Robert wanted—his scheme being to keep her at Braemar as long as possible. As far as Elizabeth knew, he had not interviewed anyone for the position, and she sometimes doubted that he had ever put those advertisements in the London papers. Had she taken this responsibility on under normal circumstances, she could have simply given notice and left at the prescribed time. But the circumstances had by no means been normal and her attachment to the baby was such that she would never leave him until someone suitable was found. Besides, she had her Aunt Gardiner to consider.
Jane’s wedding day, which should have been one of the happiest of Elizabeth’s life, had been a torment. Darcy’s return to Hertfordshire to stand up with his friend became a test of endurance for her. To her mortification, he seemed to have smiles and pleasant words for everyone but herself! Upon his arrival, he had greeted her formally, barely looking up at her as he offered his congratulations. Then, bowing deeper still, he turned and walked away before she could return the civility. And as they stood facing one another at the altar while the vows were being read, he had kept his eyes fixed on the vicar, never once glancing up at her. What had she done to deserve such treatment after all they had shared in Derbyshire?
Elizabeth could still not fully comprehend what had driven him from Hertfordshire after delivering Mr. Bingley back to Jane. He had seemed solemn and nervous throughout that visit, only casting furtive glances in her direction, but never attempting to speak to her directly. Of course, Mama had behaved abominably—gushing over Mr. Bingley while barely acknowledging him. But surely he was accustomed to that? Or perhaps it was the indignity of being criticized for the wording of the marriage announcement? But neither did that make any sense, for Mama knew nothing of his involvement in the whole shameful affair.
No, the only thing that made any sense was the painful truth that, thanks to Lydia, she and her family were now even more objectionable than before. And surely, Lady Catherine must have made her feelings known. No doubt, he had received a stern lecture on the degradation such a match would bring upon the entire family. She had often imagined that ugly scene and acknowledged that it would now be insupportable for him to associate with her. But to treat her so coldly, so cruelly? She would not have believed it of him. Yet the love that she felt for him did not waver; neither could she remain angry with him for long. He was only being sensible, doing what was best for Georgiana and the rest of his family.
Having made his excuses, Darcy had left the wedding breakfast early, and Elizabeth was convinced that he had hastened away on her account. Emotionally spent and exhausted, it was all she could do to smile, as guest after guest now teased her about being the next Bennet sister to marry. Finally, when the newlyweds were off and most of the guests had departed, she begged to be excused, claiming a violent headache and escaping to the solitude of her room. There, she slipped out of her beautiful new gown and into her bed to weep silently into the bedclothes.
She had not heard the quiet knock on her door or the footsteps that followed, so she startled as her aunt suddenly seated herself beside her and smoothed her damp curls from her face.
“Elizabeth, my dearest. What a difficult day this must have been for you!”
Elizabeth raised herself onto her elbows, and wiping away tears with the back of her hand, tried to smile. “I miss Jane already, Aunt, “ she offered. “I didn’t realize how alone I would feel once she was gone.”
“She will be home again in a month, and you will, no doubt, find Netherfield a wonderful refuge.”
“Indeed, I will in time, Aunt, but for now, I wish to leave the newlyweds to themselves. I know a couple requires privacy so early in their marriage, and it will be a test of my fortitude to limit my visits.”
With a great sigh, Elizabeth sank back down onto the bed. She squeezed her aunt’s hand reassuringly, hoping to make her believe that the loss of her sister was the only thing troubling her. She failed miserably.
“I can well imagine how difficult it was for you to see Mr. Darcy again, Lizzy. I am so very sorry for the way things have turned out there.”
Elizabeth turned her face to the wall and bit down on her lower lip. What was there to say?
“It is no consolation to you, I know, but your uncle and I are convinced that he loves you, Elizabeth. I suppose his family responsibilities have made it impossible to…”
“Yes, Aunt, I know it would now be impossible for him to associate with our family,” interrupted Elizabeth. She needed to change the subject, or she would break down and cry.
“Well, your uncle and I have come up with a scheme to distract you for a while, my dear,” replied Mrs. Gardiner. “As you know, since our tour of the lakes was cut short we have not had the opportunity to take another holiday. But now your uncle informs me that business has slowed and that he would like to take several weeks, perhaps a month, to get away and rest. Will you come with us, Lizzy? We would so much enjoy your company!”
“A holiday! Do you mean it? Oh, Aunt, I would give anything to get away from Longbourn just now. You are both so very good to me and I love you both so much!”
She sat up and threw her arms around her aunt’s neck, hugging her tightly with both appreciation and relief. Then, just as suddenly, she drew back and asked, “You do not intend to return to Lambton and the lakes, do you?”
“Of course not, Lizzy. We know the associations there are far too painful! And besides, we have come up with an even more adventurous destination. We will make a journey to Scotland. It is a long trip, to be sure, but I understand that the beauty of the countryside is a restorative to the mind, as well as the body. Your uncle has always wanted to travel there, and now I have an excellent reason to go, as well. My cousin Robert Bennington has just become a father, and I am very anxious to see him and the baby! Robert is a very distant cousin, related only through marriage, but his mother and mine were the best of friends. As they lived just twelve or thirteen miles from Lambton, we saw each other rather often. Robert was my only male cousin to ever pay me any mind, so he naturally won a substantial place in my heart,” she laughed.
Elizabeth embraced her once more. “Oh, Aunt! This is just what I need: A change of scene, new people to meet and your affectionate companionship!”
They began the journey with everyone in good spirits. Elizabeth managed to cast off her melancholy at times, and when she could not, she did her best to dissemble. There was lively conversation and there much talk of what they might expect at their various destinations. Sir Robert’s home was their first stop, and Elizabeth had endless questions about the family, Sir Robert’s temperament, and her aunt’s childhood memories of him.
“But will not three people descending on the family at such a time be a burden to them, Aunt?” asked Elizabeth when they were some ten miles from Braemar Castle. “As new parents, they will have much to contend with.”
“Oh, we will not be residing in their home, Lizzy. I should have explained that earlier. Sir Robert and his family now live in what used to be a guesthouse on his father-in-law’s estate. Mrs. Bennington’s childhood home is very large indeed, I understand, and when all her brothers and sisters had married and moved away, it no longer suited her father to live there. I suppose it must have seemed rather empty and lonely. As Braemar Castle is situated in such an isolated little hamlet, Fiona’s eldest brother, and heir to the estate, did not wish to make it his primary residence and decided to convert it into an inn. He now draws his income from it but continues to spend the summer months there. One wing of the castle was left for the family’s convenience, and that is where we have been invited to stay. It is less than a quarter mile from Sir Robert’s, I am told, and a very easy walk through adjoining garden paths. All this, I know only from Robert’s letters, of course.”
“Then we shall be very comfortable indeed,” replied Elizabeth, now looking forward to the visit more than ever. The thought of living with a family that she did not actually know had made her a bit uneasy.
They arrived with the highest expectation of spending a few pleasurable days with the family, only to be suddenly thrown into the turmoil and grief that now beset them. Fiona Bennington had suffered through a long and difficult birth, never regaining her strength and tragically succumbing to the complications of her travail. They had buried her five days earlier.
Sir Robert was in a frenzied state as his son howled for his mother’s milk and the sustenance he so desperately needed. He was a good-sized infant with a healthy appetite, and the wet nurse that had been hired to feed him did not have enough milk to satisfy his needs. Her own infant son got much of her milk, and Jonathan was always left hungry. Yet there was no one else to be had in this lonely part of the country. Goat’s milk, cow’s milk, concoctions of all sorts were being painstakingly spooned into the infant’s mouth to try and subdue his hunger, but his immature digestive system could not tolerate them, often causing him much pain. The poor little creature could not be comforted and his father, desperate to the point of madness, was losing his ability to function.
Seeing that her cousin was unable to act, Mrs. Gardiner immediately proposed to travel to the next town, and if need be, the one after that, to find another wet nurse. Perhaps even two ladies ought be engaged to assure the child’s survival. She and Mr. Gardiner left immediately in the company of a trusted servant who knew the countryside and its roads, while Elizabeth was left in the awkward position of making herself useful to both father and son.
Not knowing what to do first, she instinctively picked up the wailing infant and began to pace the floor with him. His pathetic cries were unrelenting despite her rocking and soothing, and she was soon weeping in frustration herself. How could Aunt Gardiner have left her in a situation like this? What did she know about babies? What could she possibly do to calm him?
She began to sing the melodies she remembered from her childhood, as she lovingly massaged his little tummy. He continued to cry, but with somewhat less intensity. Mesmerized by her voice and smiling face, the vigor and volume of his wails subsided to intermittent sobs and whimpers. Elizabeth rocked and sang and affectionately nuzzled his face as he stared into hers, his large brown pupils darting from her mouth to her sparkling eyes.
Sir Robert, anxious to see by what miracle his son was being pacified, came rushing up to see them, but Elizabeth waved him away lest he break the spell. For the next few hours she walked and sang until the wet nurse finally returned to feed him once more. Elizabeth continued to sing as he suckled, hoping that the milk and the music would finally lull him to sleep. And sleep he did, for seven full hours, by which time, the wet nurse returned again.
For the next three days, Elizabeth cared for the babe with the help of the household servants and Sir Robert, who having had his first few hours of uninterrupted sleep, proved to be a very nurturing and capable father. Jonathan was always hungry and continued to cry a great deal, but the sense of desperation was now gone from his voice, and the little army of people that cared for him were often able to distract him until his next meager meal. But it was Elizabeth who was most successful in soothing him when he was at his crankiest, and Sir Robert came to genuinely depend on her.
“Heaven has sent you as a blessing, Elizabeth. I don’t think Jonathan or I would have survived without you!” he declared, as they shared a simple meal while the baby slept. Elizabeth recognized that these were the words of a desperate and grateful man, worn down by fatigue, grief and fear. Yet she was moved by his generous acknowledgement of her efforts. Later that afternoon, her aunt and uncle returned with a young mother and her baby girl. She was no more than a girl herself, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old. She carried one very small satchel, with all the possessions she had in the world, and it was not difficult to guess her situation. She was unwed and alone, and she saw this position in a fine house as a Godsend.
“Well,” said Sir Robert, after the introductions were made, “I believe the first order of business is for you to have a nice hot bath.” He tried to hide his repulsion at the state of her clothes and her person. Was this street urchin truly the best woman they could find to nurture his child?
“Indeed, you are correct, Sir Robert” said Mrs. Gardiner, smiling, “but only after we get Betsy a warm glass of milk and a bite to eat.” She winked at her cousin as she led the grateful girl towards the kitchen and into the capable hands of Mrs.McKane, the cook.
“She has had a very difficult time of it since her parents cast her out,” said Aunt Gardiner upon her return, “but I believe that she is healthy and willing, and for now, that is all that matters. Besides, we could find no other woman who could quit her family to reside here.”
“Thank you for finding her, Madeline,” said Sir Robert, opening his arms to her for the first time. “I don’t mean to appear ungrateful. I could not have done it on my own, and your coming here at this time has saved us.”
It was only then that the cousins had a chance to embrace and to talk of all that had transpired. While the Gardiners and Sir Robert talked in quiet tones by the fire, Elizabeth took it upon herself to see to the needs of the new wet nurse and to smooth the way for Jonathan’s first feeding. And as days went by, everyone seemed to relinquish his or her responsibilities concerning Jonathan to her. The servants no longer went to Sir Robert with their questions pertaining to the baby, and it was left to Elizabeth to schedule his feedings with both nurses, to change and swaddle him, and sing him to sleep. She didn’t quite understand how it had all turned out that way, but with each passing day she became more and more entrenched in her role, with no tactful way of begging out of it.
Two weeks passed in this way, and while the ladies were overburdened with their tasks, it was becoming increasingly clear that Mr. Gardiner was feeling neglected and growing impatient. He had come to get a restful holiday, after all, and although he understood his wife’s desire to help her stricken cousin, he felt it was now time for them to depart. Sir Robert was a gentleman of leisure and had the means to hire anyone he pleased, after all. He, on the other hand, would not get the opportunity of another holiday for an entire year.
The final outcome to all the Gardiners’ meetings behind closed doors was that they would continue on to their next destination, and Lizzy would remain while Sir Robert searched for a proper nanny. It had been Elizabeth’s suggestion, but from the first, her uncle had been uneasy about leaving her in the house of a bereaved widower who had become all too familiar with his beautiful niece. Sir Robert called Elizabeth by her Christian name, thought nothing of putting his arm around her when he came to take his son out of her arms, and insisted on teaching her chess so that they could play together in the evenings. He complimented her on everything she did, kissed her hand at every opportunity and generally acted like a besotted schoolboy in her presence. Now that his son was thriving, he seemed nothing like the grieving widower. Edward Gardiner saw trouble in all of this, but his wife had an altogether different view on the subject.
“Edward, really, would it be so terrible if Lizzy developed an attachment to Sir Robert? He is only thirty-five years old and a very kind and handsome man. I can certainly vouch for the honor of his character, and his wife has left him a small fortune along with this fine house and the attached grounds. With Mr. Darcy gone, I cannot imagine her finding a finer gentleman than Robert—or a more comfortable situation. And if you are concerned about his misleading her, I promise you that he will not. He knows how fond we are of Elizabeth, and would not be able to face us if he did.”
“Aren’t you rushing things a bit, my dear?” replied Mr. Gardiner. “The man only buried his wife less than three weeks ago!”
“All the more reason to trust him. He is not blind to the impropriety of showing an interest in any young woman before the year was up. These few weeks will merely give them a chance to get to know one another better. Elizabeth will be doing a fine act of charity by staying here, and if anything comes of it, I will be only too happy for both of them.”
“Is that the message I am to convey when next I write to my sister and brother at Longbourn? That I left their daughter with a handsome, grieving widower in the hope that they would form an attachment? Really Madeline, it is truly irresponsible!”
But all their arguing was for naught, for Elizabeth insisted that she would not leave Jonathan in the care of the servants, and that Sir Robert, for all his nurturing ways, was not capable of caring for his son on his own. She would stay until a nanny was found and then Sir Robert would accompany her home himself.
Mr. Gardiner was not at all convinced, but Elizabeth assured him that she wanted to stay—as much for herself as for the child. Living at Longbourn and seeing Jane as mistress of her own home would not be easy for her, she admitted. “It seems that as much as I love my sister, I am a jealous creature, after all,” she said, humbly. “Another few weeks here will help me to adjust to these new realities without burdening Jane during the first months of her marriage. Please, Uncle Gardiner, I beg you to let me stay. Here, my own foolish problems are put in perspective. I will be stronger for it when I return to Hertfordshire, I assure you.”
With this reasoning before him, Edward Gardiner could have no argument. And so they left with the promise to check in on her on their return, two weeks hence, and with her uncle’s strict warning for her to guard her heart, as well as her reputation.
Elizabeth rose slowly from the tree stump, centering Jonathan on her chest. “There, now we can be off again, and we must hurry, for your papa is surely waiting on me for breakfast.” This was yet another part of her morning routine–sharing breakfast with Sir Robert and planning out the day together.
Since Jonathan had weaned himself some six weeks earlier, Mrs. Graham had been dismissed, but Betsy had been retained to help look after him, taking over more and more of Elizabeth’s responsibilities. This left her more time to herself and many more hours to spend with Sir Robert. Elizabeth knew that that was exactly how he had engineered it, and was, of course, pleased and flattered to be thought of as a lady again, rather than a nursemaid.
She had also come to admire and respect Betsy’s skills as a mother, and had encouraged Sir Robert to rely on her completely for Jonathan’s care. But Sir Robert insisted on finding an English-speaking nanny, for he had every intention of returning to England one day, and wanted his son to be able to switch off his brogue and sound like a proper English gentleman. This was of utmost importance to him, and he would not be rushed or swayed by any arguments she put forth.
“I shall have to have another one of those serious talks with your papa today, Jonathan,” said Elizabeth, as she strode towards what she now considered home. She had never stayed in any one place so long, and Longbourn seemed so very far away. She missed Jane desperately, and Papa, of course, and there were even times when she longed to hear Kitty’s and Lydia’s bickering echo through the house. She would then be struck by the realization that Lydia no longer lived at home.
After two months had passed and Sir Robert’s delaying tactics had become obvious, her father had threatened to come and fetch her himself. Then a week later, much to Elizabeth’s surprise, he wrote to say that Aunt Gardiner had persuaded him to give the situation a bit more time. But as one week followed another, an exceptionally harsh winter invaded the highlands, making the roads impassable and halting travel for many months. Jane and Charles had planned on coming for her in March, but a difficult early pregnancy had prevented it. Now Elizabeth was resolved to leave in any way possible. She would not be away from her sister any longer!
“He is going to give me an argument, I know; and several excuses, as well, but I must go home. It is time – way past time! If I cannot cast my lot with him, then I have no business staying here.”
She swallowed hard as thoughts of her wavering resolve plagued her. Why could she not bring herself to accept Sir Robert? It would be by far a more eligible match than she could ever hope to make in England. True, Braemar Castle was far from Longbourn, but was the possibility of being content, even happy, greater here with him than with anyone she could imagine meeting in the future? Would she leave Scotland and this exceptional offer of marriage only to find herself settling for someone else a few years later out of desperation? She had come to realize that making a permanent home with her sister at Netherfield would not be advisable and remaining at home with her mother utterly impossible. Had she really come round to Charlotte’s way of thinking? Where was her naïve resolve only to marry for the very deepest love? She was thoroughly ashamed of herself.
At least, she and Sir Robert knew each other very well now. He had long ago convinced her that his love for her was genuine, and she, in turn, liked and respected him. They were so easy together; it would all be so comfortable. In essence, she had been the mistress of the house for some time now, organizing Jonathan’s routines, planning meals and supervising the servants. Their relationship only lacked the physical intimacy that came with marriage. Sir Robert certainly did not repulse her! In fact, there were times when they were laughing together or walking quietly down a lane that she yearned to lean on him or press his hand. She was truly fond of him. He was a good, kind, and honorable man. What more could she ask for, short of the passionate love that would always be reserved for Fitzwilliam? Was she being a fool to refuse him? She didn’t know.
“And you will forget me soon enough, my sweet boy;” she said to her precious little charge, as she put her nose to his feathery fine hair and breathed in his lovely, baby scent.
They were now descending the slope with the magnificent view of the old Braemar Castle to the left and the beautifully restored guesthouse to the right of it. The intricate patterns of the gardens meshed the two together, so that in her mind, the entirety of the estate was home. Indeed, Sir Robert spent as much time at the inn as he did at home, and of late, she had been accompanying him. In this lonely part of the world, Sir Robert had found the male companionship he craved in the guests that visited regularly. There were those men with whom he hunted, those with whom he played chess and those with whom he discussed books and politics. He was a fixture at the inn, often dining there and always attending the musical performances. The inn had gained a most favorable reputation among the elite of London, and Sir Robert often found himself in the most distinguished company.
Elizabeth now smiled as four large carriages made their way around the circular drive to stop by the main entrance of the inn. “Your papa will be very happy to hear that new guests have arrived, Jonathan. Hopefully there are some chess players among them.”
She watched as four ladies and three gentlemen descended the carriages and made their way up the steps. Something in the gait of the tallest gentleman struck a chord and caused her to gasp aloud.
Don’t be ridiculous! Now you are hallucinating! What would he be doing in Scotland, and at Braemar Castle of all places! It is time you went home, Elizabeth! It is definitely time you went home!
Posted on Thursday, 22 September 2005
“A large party of guests has just arrived at the inn, Sir Robert,” announced Elizabeth as she handed Jonathan over to Betsy and removed her bonnet. “Hopefully you will find a chess partner among the gentlemen.”
“Indeed, I am looking forward to meeting them,” said Sir Robert, lifting his son out of Betsy’s arms. With one quick motion, he threw him high in the air and caught him again. Betsy gasped and put her trembling hand over her heart, as she always did when Sir Robert roughhoused with the boy. But the game was only beginning, for neither father nor son would be satisfied with fewer than six or eight tosses, and the higher Jonathan was tossed, the louder he squealed.
Naturally, once Jonathan had been wound up into a frenzy of excitement, Sir Robert handed him back to the servant to deal with the repercussions. Elizabeth rolled her eyes in Betsy’s direction, and they both suppressed a laugh as the baby stretched out his chubby little arms and wailed for more. But by now his father had other things on his mind and, gently urging Elizabeth towards the breakfast room, returned to the conversation at hand.
“Old Simmons told me of their expected arrival the other day. He said the senior gentleman of the party would be celebrating his seventieth birthday tomorrow evening. I understand that four of the finest musicians in the country have been engaged for the occasion and that the pastry chef has been preparing for days. Perhaps I can arrange for an invitation, Elizabeth. What do you say?” he asked, only half in jest.
“No thank, Sir,” said Elizabeth, grinning. “I am not in the habit of imposing myself on other people or their celebrations.”
He pulled out the chair for her, and before seating himself, poured her a cup of coffee. “Your complexion tells me you’ve had a strenuous walk, Elizabeth. Perhaps Jonathan has become too heavy to be carried about in such a manner? I will not have you injuring your back.”
“Oh, no! As long as I have him well centered, his weight is not a problem. He is, however, kicking me black and blue in his excitement to see the birds and the chipmunks. I shall require extra compensation for injuries received in the performance of my duties,” she quipped playfully.
It was a longstanding joke between them. From the very beginning, Elizabeth had refused to take any compensation for her care of the baby, insisting that friends and extended family members did not seek payment for their help in times of crisis. And although Sir Robert continued to urge her to accept it, she continued to refuse it. He had, therefore, unbeknownst to her, finally written to her father, informing him of the account that had been set up in Elizabeth’s name and of the regular payments that would be deposited there as long as she continued on at Braemar in her present capacity.
“Shall I call a doctor to attend to your wounds, Miss Bennet? I would not wish these grievances to undermine your happiness with your position here,” he retorted.
“Position!” cried Elizabeth. “And what position might that be, Sir? Do you forget that I am only here to help you get by until you can until you find a proper nanny?” She leaned forward suddenly and, playfully wagging an accusing finger at him, warned, “Don’t answer that so hastily, Sir, for I believe you conveniently forget that fact when it comes to making any effort to replace me. And it is a serious issue that we must address—yet again!”
“I’m afraid it is very difficult to find someone with your skills and qualifications, Miss Bennet.”
“Tell me truly, Sir, have you made any inquiries at all?” she now said in all seriousness.
Robert Bennington looked thoughtfully down at his coffee cup, then raised his eyes to meet hers. He hoped his boyish charm would soften the impertinence of the remark he was about to make.
“Surely there is no need for me to hire a nanny, Elizabeth,” he said softly. “Jonathan and I are perfectly content. The only obstacle that remains is too persuade you to accept your place here as my wife. Betsy will do nicely as a nanny as long as you are here to guide her. My year of mourning will soon be over and we can be married soon after.”
Elizabeth set down her cup, momentarily closing her eyes and sighing. “Sir Robert, please. We have been over this time and time again. I cannot marry you, and I wish to go home. Please,” she now said in the most solemn tone. “Please understand and respect my wishes. Make it possible for me to leave.”
“But that is precisely the point,” he said, taking her hand and pressing it to his lips. “I cannot let you go, and what is more, I cannot understand your reasons for rejecting me.”
She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off with the sudden gesture.
“Forgive my conceit, Miss Bennet,” he said in a playfully teasing tone, “but if I thought, for even one moment, that you did not care for me or that I was in any way repugnant to you, I would acquiesce to your wishes immediately. But we have spent too much time in each others’ company for there to be any doubt of your fondness for me.”
Again, she tried to respond, but he silenced her with his fingers to her lips.
“What is more, you love my son and feel very much at home in this house. It is already your house, Elizabeth; you have been mistress of it for many months now. The servants acknowledge it, our neighbors look forward to the announcement that it is officially so, …and I long for it most passionately. You are the one that G-d intended for me, Elizabeth! You know my marriage to Fiona was one of convenience, arranged by our families. Had she lived, I would have done my duty by her and pretended to be the devoted husband; but I did not love her, Elizabeth...though G-d knows I tried. We were simply incompatible. Not one day of our marriage was as free and easy as each and every day has been with you!”
“I am fond of you, Robert,” she now hastily interrupted. “I cannot and will not deny that. But I do not love you as a wife should and may never be able to return your ardent affection. It would not be right for me to accept you. Indeed, it would be selfish and cruel.”
“But I accept the fact that your feelings, at present, do not equal mine!” he protested. “And I am willing to risk my heart if you would but give me the chance to make you love me. I know I can, Elizabeth! I know your warm and affectionate nature, and I have every confidence that I can make you very, very happy.”
“I doubt if that will ever be possible,” said Elizabeth, more forcefully now. “I have not wished to say this so plainly, Sir, but you leave me no choice. My heart belongs to another. I love him so deeply, and I doubt whether that shall ever change. Forgive me. I do not wish to hurt you, but I must make it clear that we have no future together.”
He sat stunned for a moment, then composed himself enough to reply, “No, no! It was right of you to tell me. It is best that I know the real reason behind you rejection. But tell me, Elizabeth, where is this man who is so fortunate to have won your heart? You have been here now for eight months and he has not come for you. Is he ill? Is he wounded? If I knew that you cared for me only half as much, I would not allow anything or anyone to keep me from your side. What kind of man neglects the woman he loves so cruelly?”
“It is very complicated,” murmured Elizabeth, hurt and stunned by his words. She folded her napkin very carefully and with trembling fingers set it on the table. “I beg you would excuse me, Sir. There are things that require my attention.”
He took hold of her wrist as she rose from the table. “You haven’t eaten a bite of breakfast. Now I know I’ve upset you, but you must eat.”
“I have no appetite, Sir. Perhaps later I shall ask for a tray to be sent up to the nursery.”
Sir Robert Bennington could not wheedle an invitation to the Matlocks’ private dinner party, but he was asked, along with a number of other distinguished guests, to join the family for the musical gala later that evening. He had begged Elizabeth to accompany him, but no amount of coaxing would move her. Though she would have liked to attend the performance, she preferred not to be seen, yet again, walking into the inn on Sir Robert’s arm. It was true that everyone in this small hamlet, especially the staff and permanent guests of the inn, speculated about her future as the mistress of Braemar House. She had allowed herself to neglect the finer points of propriety in this out-of-the-way place so far from home, and now she feared she would pay the price on her departure. There would certainly be gossip and speculation when she left for Hertfordshire. Uncle Gardiner had warned her to guard her reputation. Why had she not been more vigilant?
She and Sir Robert had shared so many difficult moments together in the care of the child and their casual, trusting relationship had grown out of those shared experiences. They spent many sleepless nights comforting the baby or discussing what was best to be done for him. They had wept and laughed together, seeing him through minor childhood complaints and one rather serious infectious fever. Had Sir Robert treated her like a servant, she would have been offended, but she was neither a close relation nor an old, dear friend to be treated so intimately. Though she herself was perfectly comfortable with the situation, she knew that it could easily be misunderstood. Her position at Braemar House was an odd one indeed—the rules and boundaries of behavior blurred by need and familiarity. Though there had never been any true impropriety between them, Elizabeth had to admit that, to an outsider, their relationship might seem suspect.
Now, as she sat on the large stone portico enjoying the soft night air, the music wafted across the gardens to caress her. These musicians were exceptional—harmonizing and blending so beautifully that she could scarcely differentiate the various instruments. A string quartet had always been her favorite ensemble, but she had rarely had the opportunity to attend a performance. Here I am, so close, and still I cannot enjoy it properly, she sighed. Surely there would be no harm in my moving closer to sit on the bench by the hydrangeas. No one shall see me there and I will be able to hear the music so much better.
Wrapping her shawl about her shoulders, she slowly made her way to the garden bench closest to, but hidden from, the veranda, where the great French doors had been swung wide to admit the cool night air. She twirled and swayed as she floated down the garden path, delighting in the solitude that allowed her such a luxury. As she sat down and settled in to enjoy herself, the sonata came to an end, and her ears picked up the delighted murmurings of an audience eager for the next offering. Then, as the entire room fell respectfully silent, the viola introduced the main theme of the new piece. It was soon taken up by the cello, and then by the violin—with the surprising addition of a pianoforte, rounding out the sound so magnificently.
“If only I could play like that,” mused Elizabeth . “But then I have never taken the trouble of practicing! Perhaps it would have benefited me to remain at Rosings and use the instrument in Mrs. Jenkinson’s room! Then perhaps I would have the right to be dissatisfied with my own performance!” she laughed to herself.
The performer was not only technically skilled, but a true musician in every sense. His phrasing was perfection, his interpretation exquisite. Elizabeth imagined him to be a gentleman of forty or fifty, graying at the temples, with a strong cleft chin. All good and handsome men should have a cleft chin, she decided. She could think of nothing more appealing on a man—and on one man, most particularly.
Joyous applause and the scraping of chairs signaled the concert’s end, as people began to flow onto the veranda to stretch their legs and praise the performers. Mesmerized by the music, Elizabeth had been slow to leave and was now worried that someone might see her. She drew her shawl about her head and shoulders and retreated slowly so as not to draw attention to herself. As she walked away, she overheard a lady speaking to her companion.
“Oh, cousin! You must be so terribly proud of her! Playing before all those people! I’m sure our uncle is cognizant of her brave tribute to his honor. However did she manage to practice with the other musicians without our noticing?”
But her companion’s reply was lost in a sea of voices that now came to praise the musicians, and Elizabeth was soon moving swiftly through the maze of hedges she knew so well towards the sanctuary of her own room. She would have liked to hear Sir Robert’s comments on the highlights of the evening, but knew it would be best to keep to herself tonight. Tomorrow she would give him her notice. He would have till the end of the month to find a new nanny.
The morning air was so fresh and inviting that Robert Bennington had his servants move the breakfast things onto the veranda. Here he would sip his coffee, read his paper and wait for Elizabeth to return from her walk. He was feeling particularly pleased with himself this morning because the evening before, in a moment of inspired genius, he had sent an express to Longbourn, inviting the entire Bennet family, along with Mr. and Mrs. Bingley, to come to Braemar.
Despite Elizabeth’s revelation that she harbored strong feelings for another man, Sir Robert took courage from the reality of her situation. Obviously there were problems with the match, insurmountable problems, or so it seemed. He prayed that time would heal her wound and perhaps open her heart to him. So with great optimism, he had written to propose a month’s holiday at the inn—at his expense of course, as recompense for selfishly keeping Elizabeth in Scotland. If Elizabeth could not see the benefits of becoming his wife, then perhaps her sister Jane would, and her opinion, he understood from his cousin Madeline, was the one that would carry the greatest weight with Elizabeth.
Although his primary purpose was to win Jane Bingley’s esteem and thus make her his advocate, he could hardly have invited her without the rest of the family. He had no assurances that his plan would work, of course, but whatever the outcome both families would then be together to celebrate an engagement or, heaven forbid, take Elizabeth home.
Being a positive person by nature, his thoughts were thus pleasantly occupied with the more joyous of the two prospects, when he heard the muffled voices of two gentleman strolling, yet unseen, in the adjoining garden maze. Their voices were unmistakable. Delighted with the thought of their company, he called out to them.
“Gentlemen, good morning! Have you breakfasted yet? Come join me, won’t you?”
“Sir Robert,” said the taller, dark haired gentleman, as he peered over the hedges, “I’m afraid the Colonel and I are trespassing.”
“Nonsense!” replied Sir Robert, making his way down the steps to greet them. “If I didn’t enjoy the social interaction made possible by trespassing guests, I would have put up fencing long ago. The inn’s guests are always welcome to pass through my gardens. Only once was I irritated by some rambunctious youths that picked all the buds off my rose bushes. So unless you have come with some botanical mischief in mind, I urge you to stay and join me!”
“Indeed we have not,” laughed Darcy. “The Colonel and I are just taking the morning air while waiting for the ladies to come down to breakfast.”
“Yes, yes, I too wait upon a lady to share my morning meal. But the coffee is hot and freshly brewed, and I would enjoy it all the more in your company. Can I not entice you to sit with me a while. I wish to thank you for a truly memorable evening, Colonel, and to tell you, Mr. Darcy, how much I enjoyed your sister’s performance.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam grinned at his cousin, nodded his approval and gestured for them to follow their host.
“And hopefully, you shall have the opportunity to meet my little son, who is presently out rambling. It is not often that this unashamedly, proud papa has a chance to show him off.”
“And how old is the lad, Sir Robert?” inquired the Colonel, accepting the cream being passed to him.
“He is nine months old and already quite a handful!”
Darcy’s eyes widened in surprise, and after a moment’s contemplation, he asked, “ Is he actually walking at such an early age? And rambling, no less?”
“Oh, no!” laughed Sir Robert. “Elizabeth carries him in this ingenious sling that she’s fashioned for just that purpose.”
At the sound of that all too common, but precious name, Darcy startled. The term “rambling” had not been lost on him either. But before he could chide himself for thinking such ridiculous thoughts, there she was, walking towards him! She was still a good way off and totally unaware that she was being scrutinized. Darcy bolted from his chair, his heart threatening to pound through chest. What in the world was she doing here? And why was she…?
“And here they come,” declared Sir Robert, enthusiastically. “I ask you, Gentleman. Are they not a vision? Am I not a fortunate man?”
The Colonel’s coffee made a slight detour towards his windpipe, and he coughed loudly as he saw Elizabeth Bennet, red cheeked and glowing, striding up the walk. The ruddy complexion of the child she carried matched her own, as did the sparkle in his eyes. The babe now began kicking his feet and eagerly reaching out to his father. Miss Bennet on the other hand, froze upon that moment of recognition, instinctively turning away and bringing her hand up to cover her mouth. Within an instant, however, she seemed to recover her composure and continued towards them, though at a much slower and more measured pace.
Keenly attuned to every subtle change in her expression, Darcy noted her mounting distress. The tiny muscles about her mouth were trembling and her eyes darted every which way in an effort to avoid his. Obviously, she was as shocked as he, but while he felt an overwhelming sense of joy at seeing her, she, it was painfully clear, felt quite the opposite.
Unnerved and visibly uncomfortable, she pursed her lips and looked nervously down at the knots of the sling she was struggling to open. When they finally came undone, she handed the child over to Sir Robert and cast her eyes to the ground, not once looking up at either one of them.
“And here is the light of my life, gentlemen. Is he not a fine, healthy boy?”
“Indeed,” answered the Colonel, fully aware that Darcy was, at present, incapable of doing anything more than keeping himself upright.
“Oh, but forgive me! Allow me to introduce . . .”
“Introductions are quite unnecessary, Sir Robert,” Elizabeth hastily interrupted. “Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam are old acquaintances. How do you do, gentlemen. How very nice to see you again,” she said quickly. She then curtsied politely and murmured, “Will you please excuse me, gentlemen?” hurrying away even before they could straighten from their acknowledgement of her.
“But Elizabeth, where are you going?” called Sir Robert after her, completely befuddled by her behavior. “Come and have your breakfast; I’ve waited for you.”
“AHEM, yes, well, speaking of breakfast, I believe Darcy and I ought to be getting back. It would not be in our best interest to keep the ladies waiting,” said Colonel Fitzwilliam, steering his stunned cousin away from the table. “It was a pleasure, Sir, and I am sure that we shall see you again in the course of the day.”
“Yes, I am sure we will,” said Sir Robert, refocusing his attention on his departing guests. “Let me know if I can be of any service to you. I know the countryside very well.”
“Indeed we shall. Thank you, Sir.”
They walked in silence for a while, each trying to digest what he had just seen and heard. Elizabeth Bennet here in Scotland? Living in the home of Robert Bennington as… what? His wife? Darcy had not had the presence of mind to look for a ring, but Elizabeth was obviously not the child’s mother—the boy’s age was proof of that. Why was she here then…and what was her position in the family? The question twisted at Darcy’s heart.
He had given her up for lost so many months ago and had been trying to convince himself, ever since, that he was capable of making a life for himself without her. But seeing her now, being in her presence for these few moments had brought back all the intensity and depth of feeling that he had been trying to bury—along with the realization that a life without her would be empty and meaningless indeed. He needed her! He needed her love, her affection and her esteem. He would never be whole without it.
Pain and pleasure mingled indistinguishably at the thought of how well and happy she had looked before becoming aware of him. His Elizabeth was here, in this of all unlikely places! Was this not a sign that the fates wished to bring them together again? Or was this yet another plan devised to punish and humiliate him?
The Colonel’s voice drew Darcy from his thoughts. “She is clearly not the child’s mother! You saw her at Bingley’s wedding not ten months ago, did you not? Was she heavy with child then?”
Darcy’s shocked expression was his only reply to such an offensive query concerning Elizabeth!
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. “Well, of course not! There, you see, the child cannot possibly be hers!”
“Very astute of you, Richard!” snapped Darcy. “She may not have borne him,” he now said in a more subdued tone, “but she may now be his mother, nevertheless.”
“You are jumping to conclusions, Cousin. Miss Bennet may very well be employed as the boy’s nanny!”
“Nanny? Do you think her family has sunk to that? No, I cannot believe it! Besides, I’ve never heard of an employer waiting upon a servant to share his breakfast…or addressing her by her Christian name. No, they must be married. And yet she seemed distressed to have me know it!” he said, looking utterly bewildered.
“I am not convinced, Darcy. Something is not right!” Suddenly he laughed aloud. “But why in the world are we speculating? We shall have the answers to all these mysteries as soon as I have sent my man out to make some inquiries of the staff.”
“You will do no such thing, Richard! I shall not have you feeding the rumor mill by showing any interest in Miss Bennet …or Mrs. Bennington, …whatever her name may be. Promise me, Richard! Promise me that you will ask nothing and do nothing! And what is more, I do not want Georgiana told of Elizabeth’s presence here—not yet. When she learns of it, she will naturally wish to seek her out, prompting questions from Lady Catherine and your parents! Let it be for now. We cannot prevent the inevitable, but we need not rush headlong to meet it. No doubt, we shall learn all there is to know in good time.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded his assent. Lady Catherine would not be at all pleased to learn that her own sweet niece had become enamored with the very lady who could rob Anne of her right to be Mistress of Pemberley. It would all come out in the end, to be sure, unless Miss Bennet was already married to Robert Bennington. Then, this painful episode in his cousin’s life would be over for good. Yet somehow, Richard Fitzwilliam doubted that that was the case.
Posted on 29 September 2005
Elizabeth shut the door behind her and leaned heavily against it. “What have I done?” she murmured miserably.
She was now thoroughly ashamed of the way she had behaved and utterly humiliated at the thought of how childish and ungracious she had been. But the shock of seeing them there was indescribable, and escape was all that she had been able to think of at the time. Sir Robert’s painful words of the other morning echoed in her ear.
“ Where is this man who has been so fortunate to have won your heart?”
Oh, she knew full well that Fitzwilliam Darcy had not come to Scotland in search of her. Indeed, his sudden appearance at Braemar Castle, of all places, had to be the oddest twist of fate she could ever have imagined—one that seemed especially designed to humiliate and torment her.
She had been doing so much better of late. She had been managing to limit her pining for him to only those times when she was on her own—at night in the quiet of her room, in the mornings while bathing or rambling about the countryside. She could now attend to other people’s conversations without that incessant, internal dialogue that her mind had insisted upon those first few months after he had gone from Hertfordshire. Why then had the fates conspired to have them meet again and throw her back into that cycle of longing and despair?
“What must he think of me?” she cried, as she sank into the chair by her dressing table. Gazing into the mirror she realized that not only had she behaved badly, but that she must have looked a fright as well! Her face was flushed—damp and glistening with perspiration—several beads of moisture resting above her upper lip. As usual, Jonathan had pulled down some of the curls that had been so carefully arranged earlier that morning and there were dark stains on the sleeve of her frock where he had drooled on it. Elizabeth hid her face in her hands. The worst humiliation was that she had left the house without her bonnet, as had become her custom on these warm summer days. “What must he think of me, looking and behaving like a peasant?”
“I know exactly what he thinks!” she declared angrily to her image in the glass. “He thinks you’ve degraded yourself, working as a servant in another man’s house!” Yet in the midst of her indignation a tiny voice whispered from within. “Quite the contrary, he thinks you have married Sir Robert.” Rising abruptly from her chair, she cried into the stillness of her room, “Oh, Fitzwilliam, no! Don’t think that! You mustn’t think that!”
A knock on the door brought her quickly to her senses. Betsy peeked in and asked, “Did you call me, Miss Elizabeth? Is there something you need?”
“Oh no, no thank you,” she replied, somewhat distractedly. Then suddenly remembering her responsibilities, she added, “Yes actually, there is something. Would you go out to the veranda and rescue Sir Robert? I left Jonathan in his care a few moments ago.”
“Of course, Miss,” said Betsy, smiling. She could see Elizabeth’s distress, but knew better than to reveal any concern. She quietly closed the door and hurried off to fetch the child.
With Jonathan’s welfare off her mind, Elizabeth lay back against the cushions of her bed, closed her eyes and allowed her mind to wander. The sounds and images of the past few days invaded her thoughts as she hovered between wakefulness and sleep:
“The elder gentleman is celebrating his seventieth birthday …”
“In front of all those people! Our uncle must be cognizant of her brave tribute to his honor…”
“What kind of man neglects the woman he loves so cruelly?
“I know I can make you very, very happy…”
Elizabeth bolted upright, her eyes now wide as she stared blankly out into the room.
“Georgiana! It must have been Georgiana playing last night!” she uttered in astonishment, “And it was the Earl’s seventieth birthday they were celebrating! They are all here! Oh dear G-d! Lady Catherine must be here as well! Four ladies and three gentlemen! Yes, that is what I counted. Oh, heaven forbid I should meet with Lady Catherine now! I don’t think I could bear it!”
She flew to her window hoping to see the gentlemen still in conversation with Sir Robert, but they were gone. Her eyes turned towards the portico of the inn just in time to see the Colonel follow Mr. Darcy inside. Her heart sank. Had she been quick enough, she might have limited the damage done by rejoining them with some plausible excuse. Now it was too late. The impression she had left would be a lasting one.
Taking the counterpane from the bed, she wrapped herself in it and settled back onto the window seat to stare at the inn. It was far too warm to be huddled in it, yet she needed the comfort it provided and soon fell asleep, thrashing about the events of the morning in her mind.
When she awoke almost an hour later, she peered out at the gardens, the great lawn and the lake beyond. It was a beautiful day—far too beautiful to have created such unhappiness. If she could only leave Braemar this very instant, she would, but she had given Sir Robert until the end of the month and, of course, could not go back on her word.
The great French doors off the inn’s dining room suddenly opened, and Elizabeth saw Mr. Darcy appear in the doorway. He turned to offer his arm to a slender young woman who stepped gingerly down the first steps and then leaned on him as they strolled together through the garden. The distance was too great to actually see their faces, but she had recognized him instantly. His stance, his gate, his demeanor immediately told her that this was her beloved Fitzwilliam. She assumed, at first, that it was Georgiana who was with him, but it soon became clear that it was not—the lady’s hair was dark and her manner of walking altogether different. A sudden pang of envy overwhelmed her as she watched the couple meander arm and arm through the perennial garden, their heads inclined towards one another as people are apt do when engaged in an intimate conversation.
Stopping by a stone bench, they sat down facing each other, their hands clasped. They sat in this way for some time until Darcy took one of the lady’s hands in his and brought it to his lips, leaning ever closer. Elizabeth knew it was wrong of her to stare at them, but she could not tear her eyes away. And as she continued to study them, the lady raised her free hand and placed it tenderly on Mr. Darcy’s cheek. At this, Elizabeth shut her eyes and turned away, stunned by the intensity of her own feelings. She had never thought herself a jealous creature, but the sight of another woman caressing his face was…unbearable.
Yet, after a few moments she was drawn back to the painful scene and saw the approach of a figure she could not fail to recognize—the haughty bearing of a person whose carriage she would never mistake. Lady Catherine was making her way towards the couple, and being obviously pleased with them both, kissed them on the cheek. After a brief exchange, she continued down the path, her self-satisfied demeanor making no secret of her very great pleasure.
“It is Anne!” gasped Elizabeth in genuine surprise. “It is Anne, and Fitzwilliam is going to marry her after all! No wonder they are so intimate with one another! They must be engaged already! How stupid of me.”
She left the window in a daze and came to sit forlornly at the foot of her bed, wrapping her arms protectively around herself. Ever since Fitzwilliam’s departure from Hertfordshire, she had accepted the fact that he would never offer to her again. But seeing him here with Anne—so close, so affectionate—was quite another matter. As painful as knowing that she had lost him to another was the thought that he would now think ill of her…for as long as he lived.
“I’m so sorry that Mama found us together in this way, Fitzwilliam. We should have been more careful, more discreet,” said Anne, as she held tightly to her cousin’s hand.
“There is no point in distressing yourself, dear Anne. We shall have to make her aware of our resolve eventually, but let us postpone that conversation for a while. I would not have her anger spoil this family holiday for everyone—especially our uncle.”
“Yes, of course, we should say nothing for now. Though I doubt that she will have the good sense to avoid the subject.”
“We will deal with it if and when we must,” said Darcy, “but at the moment…I cannot…”
“Oh Cousin! How it pains me to see you so unhappy!”
“And I am ashamed and sorry for having burdened you with all my troubles! But I hope you know how much your sweet indulgence and understanding have meant to me, Anne. Never did I dream that I could speak of it to anyone,” said Darcy, pressing her hand. “Richard knows, of course, but I could not talk about it with him the way I have done with you. Men do not allow themselves the luxury of wrestling with such feelings in each other’s company. And Georgie’s disappointment at the loss of Elizabeth is still too fresh, too painful. She dearly wanted Elizabeth for a sister and I will not add to her regrets. So it all falls on you, dear Anne. Forgive me for having placed so much on your shoulders.”
“My shoulders are broader than they seem and most willing to share the burden of your troubles, Fitzwilliam. Have you any idea how good it feels to be needed, to be of use to another person—especially one so dear to me? Though it hurts me to see you so despondent, I am thankful to be able to be of some comfort to you—even if all I can do is listen.”
“That is a very great deal indeed, Anne,” said Darcy, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. “Just promise me that you will box my ears if I become too troublesome. Knowing how sensible you are, I shall never be offended.”
Anne De Bourgh laughed as she rose to take the arm now being extended to her. The cousins slowly made their way back to the house in search of Richard and Georgiana, whom they had so ungraciously abandoned to the company of the elder members of the family. As much as they enjoyed their quiet times together, they could not afford to separate themselves from the others too often. Then, not only would Lady Catherine, but the Matlocks, misconstrue their attachment.
Fitzwilliam Darcy had not slept for most of the night, and finally, at four in the morning had lit a candle and made himself comfortable with a book in a large winged chair. It was there that his man found him in a fitful sleep at seven—one full hour past the time he normally awoke. Darcy bathed and shaved in great haste, but was nevertheless late for breakfast, inconveniencing some of his relations and merely amusing others.
“There you are, Fitzwilliam!” said Lady Catherine, placing her teacup down on its saucer. “It is not like you to keep us all waiting. And where are you hiding your sister? Is she not with you? I thought you would be coming down together?”
Darcy turned to smile at the other members of his family. “Good morning, Aunt. Good morning, Uncle,” he said bowing to Earl and Lady Matlock. “I hope you slept well. Good morning, Anne, you are looking especially lovely this morning!” To Richard, he simply nodded. “And good morning to you, Aunt Catherine. I apologize for keeping you waiting and am sorry to disappoint you, but my man informed me that Georgiana left her rooms for a walk rather early this morning. I have no idea where she may be at the moment, but I shall find her if you like.”
“Oh, do sit down, Fitzwilliam,” said Lady Matlock. “There is no need for you to go in search of her. I’m certain she will be in momentarily. Did you not sleep well, my boy? You look a bit haggard. Indeed, it pains me to say that you have not looked at all well lately. No doubt, you’ve been pushing yourself much too hard with estate business. Well, I hope you will take the opportunity to rest and restore your strength while you are here. Your uncle and I are most concerned about you.”
“I did have a restless night, Aunt, but you needn’t worry. I am perfectly well and strong, and have every intention of indulging in a rather indolent life style while I am here.” He lifted his coffee cup as if he were offering a toast and grinned at his uncle, who just chuckled at his nephew’s talent for charming the ladies.
When another fifteen minutes had passed and Georgiana had still not made her appearance, Darcy insisted on leaving the table to look for her. He wandered through the downstairs sitting rooms, peered out through several sets of French doors and finally came to a small solarium attached to the west wing. There he spied his sister’s beautifully coiffed curls as they bobbed and swayed to the rhythm of her animated conversation. He heard her long before he was upon her, which was unusual in and of itself, as Georgiana was normally rather quiet and shy. Yet now, carefree giggles burst from her lips.
“What adventures you have had, Elizabeth! I would never have had the courage to accept such a responsibility!”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t given much choice. But then I suspect we all rise to the occasion when there is nothing else to be done,” replied that sweet, familiar voice.
“And now he is a healthy, active boy! It is to your great credit, Elizabeth! I would so much like to meet him! May I pay you a visit this afternoon and play with him a little?”
“You’d be most welcome, Georgiana…but I don’t know that your brother would approve. You had better ask him before you come,” said Elizabeth, her voice now sounding strained.
“But why would Fitzwilliam have an objection? On the contrary, he will be so happy to learn that you are here that he will surely insist on coming along!”
I doubt that very much, thought Elizabeth, as he has seen fit to keep my presence here a secret from you! But instead she said, “I think such a reunion might be a bit awkward at the house. Perhaps I should bring Jonathan to the children’s garden by the goldfish pond after his afternoon nap. We often play there, and you can join us whenever you like.”
Darcy’s countenance fell as he quietly retreated. He was not about to interrupt their conversation or impose himself on their happy reunion. “It would be awkward…your brother may not approve…” Elizabeth’s wishes were clear. Well, she need not worry; he would not inflict himself on her. Indeed, he would keep his distance. As a married woman, she was right to feel apprehensive about his proximity. Had he not professed an ardent and passionate love for her, and then, even once rejected, made subtle overtures to her in Derbyshire? No, he would not wish to make her uncomfortable. He would respect her position here as the mistress of Braemar House and leave her be.
On his return to the dining room he reported that he had not found Georgiana, but that the desk clerk had seen her returning earlier. Perhaps she had gone to her rooms to refresh herself or fetch a shawl?
Darcy resumed his seat and looked down at the plateful of food he had taken from the sideboard. He could eat none of it now. Aware that the others were watching him, he could only imagine the picture he presented. The muscles about his mouth were drawn down, weighted by some powerful force, and hard as he might, he could not raise them.
“Your food has gone cold, Fitzwilliam. Let me fix you another plate,” said Anne, reaching out to take it, but Darcy gently stayed her hand and shook his head. “No, Cousin, I am not very hungry. Just another cup of coffee will do.”
“Fitzwilliam, you must eat something,” said Lady Matlock. ‘You have gotten exceedingly thin.”
To this, the Colonel could not resist adding, “What Darcy? Not eating, not sleeping? One would think you were in love.”
Both his cousins turned to glare at him, and Richard Fitzwilliam now realized the seriousness of his blunder. He had been referring to Miss Bennet, of course, but to the others at the table the likely object of Darcy’s affection would be Anne. The Colonel winced. Yet despite this faux pas and the risk of rousing Darcy’s anger with such teasing, he felt it his duty to spur him into action concerning Miss Bennet.
Turning irritably from the Colonel to his aunt, Darcy continued, “No, Aunt, I assure you my appetite is ...”
“I’m so sorry, everyone,” came Georgiana’s animated voice as she hurried to settle herself in the seat left vacant for her. “I do apologize! I met an old friend in the front parlor and lost track of the time. Please forgive me.”
The Colonel shot a glance at Darcy and then asked, “An old friend, Georgie? Here, in this remote corner of the world?”
“Yes! Is it not remarkable? And you shall never guess who it is!” she said, turning excitedly towards her brother. “It is Miss Bennet, Fitzwilliam,” she said softly. “Miss Elizabeth Bennet is here at Braemar!”
His reaction was far from the one she expected. He looked stunned for a moment, but not at all pleased. His dark eyes narrowed and his features froze, making his countenance unreadable.
The Colonel, however, was determined to make the most of this chance meeting! He would use it to bring this unbearable situation to a head. “Miss Bennet? Is it not Lady Bennington? I thought I saw her with an infant late yesterday afternoon.”
Georgiana looked both puzzled and hurt. “Why did you not tell me that you had seen her, Richard? You know how fond I am of Miss Bennet.”
“Who is this Miss Bennet?” asked the Earl, “Some London acquaintance, I presume?”
“No, father,” replied the Colonel. “She is a very charming and clever young lady that Fitzwilliam met in Hertfordshire and then introduced to me at Rosings. Is that not right, Aunt Catherine?”
“Charming young lady, indeed! Ill-bred, impertinent and altogether too common to be called a lady,” retorted Lady Catherine.
“Mother!” said Anne, now coloring with humiliation. “How can you say so? You yourself invited her to dine with us many times. And I came to genuinely admire her. She is witty, poised and very affable. I believe we all enjoyed her company.”
Lady Catherine glared at her daughter. “I invited her because she was a visiting relation of Mr. Collins,” she said haughtily, “and that was long before I knew about her upbringing, her inferior relations and the infamous scandal concerning her sister! I forbid you to have anything to do with her, Anne. And I would advise that the rest of you do the same, before your acquaintance with her tarnishes the reputation of this family!”
Georgiana was horrified at this injunction and expected her brother to protest it, but he seemed barricaded behind a wall that nothing could penetrate. Indeed, he had not truly heard anything anyone had said after Richard had uttered that painfully offensive name—Bennington. He was nervously awaiting Georgiana’s reply and was incapable of focusing on anything else.
His cousin persevered on his behalf. “Well, Georgie, which is it? Bennington or Bennet?”
“You think Elizabeth is married to Sir Robert?” said Georgiana in genuine amazement. “No, of course not!” she laughed. “She is simply here to help him care for his son until a proper nanny can be found. She has taken care of the little tyke since his mother’s death—poor little creature. In fact, she mentioned that she’d be returning to Hertfordshire at the end of the month. I am very glad we didn’t miss her. I, for one, am truly anxious to renew our friendship.”
Darcy turned to stare at his sister. While his mind was still adjusting to the blessed revelation that Elizabeth was yet unmarried, his heart was moved to breaking at Georgiana’s courage to stand up to Lady Catherine on her behalf. He had never been more proud of her or loved her more dearly. He suddenly rose to stand beside her, and taking her hand in his, said, “Yes, by all means, Georgie. We must visit her together and renew our friendship as soon as may be. Do you think she is still at the inn?”
“No, Fitzwillliam,” said Georgiana, her eyes now filled with tears, “I believe she returned home as soon as we parted. She had only come to see if a letter had arrived from her sister.”
“Well, then we shall see her later today—perhaps in the children’s garden this afternoon.”
Georgiana’s shocked expression widened Darcy’s grin, and as he bent to kiss her, he whispered, “Sh…our secret.”
As Elizabeth Bennet entered the children’s garden of Braemar Castle she was greeted by the welcoming smiles of several of the other nannies and governesses who had come to know and admire her. The children too were fond of her, for she was always willing to give them her attention and took their games and questions most seriously. She stopped here and there to say hello to one lady or another as she made her way to her favorite spot, a shady bench under a large elm whose solid bows bore the weight of several swings— Jonathan’s favorite!
She had bent to admire little Marianne’s doll and, on straightening, noticed Georgiana Darcy already seated on the bench waiting for her. To her great astonishment, she saw Mr. Darcy standing behind his sister, intently watching her approach. She hesitated, casting her eyes down for a moment. Then gathering her courage she raised her chin to look at him, gazing directly into his face. She was instantly rewarded and reassured by what she saw there. In the depths of his dark brown eyes was the warmth and admiration that had held her mesmerized at Pemberley. There was such love and longing there—yet uncertainty, as well. Disconcerted, she knew not what to make of it or how to proceed. She had seen him with Anne and her mind reeled with confusion.
“Miss Darcy, Mr. Darcy, how lovely to see you here,” she said softly. “I hope you’ve not been waiting long?”
“Not at all,” murmured Darcy, not taking his eyes off her for a moment. “It is a pleasure to see you again, Miss Bennet.”
“You see, Miss Bennet, I was right! My brother was so anxious to see you that he insisted on joining us. And we selfishly kept our plans secret from the Colonel so that we could have you and Jonathan all to ourselves,” said Georgiana, bending to smile at the excited little boy balanced on Elizabeth’s hip. “So this is your little man! He is beautiful! And such a happy baby! May I hold him? Do you think he will come to me, Elizabeth?”
“Yes, I think so; he is a very easy-going child. Here, allow me to introduce you,” she said, picking him up in her arms. “Master Jonathan, this is Miss Georgiana Darcy, and she would very much like to play with you. Miss Darcy, this is Jonathan Bennington, who simply adores the swings. Now if you hold him on your lap and push off gently with your feet, he will be happy to stay in your company for some time. That’s right,” said Elizabeth, helping to get them both settled. “He insists on holding onto the ropes himself, so you can just hold onto his little hands.”
“Won’t he slip off, Elizabeth? I’m afraid I’ll drop him!”
“Then I could bind him to you with my sling if you like, but it will wrinkle your gown, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I wouldn’t miss this experience for the world! I love to swing myself, you know! Jonathan and I already have a great deal in common,” she laughed.
When the sling was tied tight and the baby was eagerly kicking his little legs, Darcy came to give his sister that first gentle push. Georgiana took up the rhythm with her legs.
“Now that he is tied to you, you needn’t be afraid, Georgiana. You can go as high as you like—the higher the better, as far as Jonathan is concerned,” called Elizabeth.
“He’s a little dare-devil then?” asked Darcy, motioning for Elizabeth to come and sit beside him on the bench.
“Yes, his father loves to rough-house with him, so he knows no fear. But then I suppose that is a good thing.”
“Indeed it is—for now,” said Darcy.
They sat in silence for a moment, awkwardly searching for a safe topic of conversation. Elizabeth was grateful that Darcy took the initiative.
“I must say that this fresh Highland air seems to suit you, Miss Bennet. You are looking exceptionally well.”
“Thank you, sir,” she replied, a little embarrassed and uneasy. What is he about? she wondered. He kept Georgiana in the dark about our meeting yesterday, and yet now he is here paying me the most particular attention. Remembering that dreadful morning, she thought it best to get her apology out of the way.
“Allow me to apologize for running off so quickly the other morning, Mr. Darcy. It was terribly rude of me, and I…”
“But of course you had to get inside and out from the sun. You were clearly overheated and near exhaustion. I hope you retreated to your room and rested a while, Miss Bennet. The Colonel and I were very concerned about you,” he said, the warmth of his smile only increasing the thoughtfulness of his words.
“You are most generous, Mr. Darcy,” she replied, looking away in embarrassment.
“I must say that I find you looking quite a bit thinner, Sir. I hope you’ve not been ill?” she said with genuine concern.
“No, no! I’ve not been ill, though under some strain, perhaps.”
She looked at him questioningly, but he did not elaborate. Instead, he took a letter out of his pocket, unfolded it and said, “I had a letter from Charles Bingley just before we left town, and I happened to have left it in my coat pocket. I thought you might find this part amusing.” He looked at her as if to ask her permission to begin, and she nodded, a bit stunned, but obviously eager to have him read it.
“Ah, yes, this is the part I thought you’d enjoy:
My dearest Jane is even more of an angel than I first imagined! I find that I love her more each day and cannot understand how this is possible. Is there any other man in England as happy as I? Were it not for the daily visits of my mother-in-law, I would think we were living a dream. We have actually begun to talk of finding an estate a bit farther from Longbourn. I suggested Derbyshire, but Jane felt it was too far.”
Elizabeth’s lips parted in astonishment. Her face paled.
“Have I offended you, Miss Bennet? Perhaps it was wrong of me to share such a private letter. But Georgiana mentioned that you were awaiting news from Netherfield, and I thought that Bingley’s expressions of love for your sister would gladden your heart. If I’ve upset you, I am deeply sorry. I had hoped to amuse you and instead have made you uncomfortable. Please forgive me,” he said, inwardly raging at his stupidity.
“Not at all, Mr. Darcy,” she replied, inadvertently bringing her hand to rest on his sleeve. “It warmed my heart to hear it, and I did find it amusing until you came to the part about Derbyshire.” Here Elizabeth looked directly at him, her eyes moist. “Please don’t encourage him to take my sister so far away from me, Mr. Darcy,” she whispered. He felt his stomach tighten.
“I promise you I shall not, Miss Bennet,” he said, covering her hand with his.
She startled and drew away from him, pretending to search for a handkerchief with which to wipe her tears. He offered his, and she accepted it.
“Elizabeth,” he now murmured, moving closer. “I cannot let this opportunity slip away without asking you directly if you have, with the passing of these many months, been able forgive me…even a little. Do you think that you could ever find it in your heart to do so? I know I am to blame for your family’s misfortunes and wish you to believe that not a day goes by that I do not regret my selfishness and accept my culpability in the matter. But my feelings for you have not changed. If anything, they have deepened and I must know from your own lips whether there is still a chance that you could consider...” There he stopped, for the look on her face stunned him, and he was afraid of what was to come.
“But Anne! I saw you with Anne. I thought that surely you were to wed. You cannot deny your strong feelings for her! I saw you together!” said Elizabeth accusingly. Darcy’s look of surprise and subsequent amusement confounded her further, but made her realize with horror the impertinence of what she had just said. Though deeply embarrassed, she kept her eyes intently fixed on his, waiting for his reply.
“Yes, you are quite right, Miss Bennet. I have come to genuinely love Anne—but only as a sister, a cousin, a dear friend. You see, it is only recently that I have come to appreciate what a wonderful person she is—nothing at all like she would have us believe. Her silence and disinterestedness are a sham to prevent her from clashing with her mother. You must believe me, Elizabeth; it is you that I love, you that I need, you that want for my wife!”
Elizabeth’s lips trembled as she shook her head in disbelief. “How could you leave me then and keep your distance all these months? Had we not met here so unexpectedly, would you have sought me out again? I think not, Mr. Darcy.”
Darcy felt suddenly ill. The conversation had taken a painfully dangerous turn and he knew that their happiness depended on his answer. He took her trembling hand in his and pressed it. “You are right, Elizabeth. I left Hertfordshire too quickly—too impetuously. But when I saw you that horrid afternoon, you did not seem at all happy to see me. Indeed, you would not allow me to catch your eye. You turned anxiously away and made no attempt to speak to me. I felt foolish for even returning! I literally ran from Hertfordshire believing you wanted nothing more to do with me and only stayed away because I believed it was what you wanted. Please tell me it isn’t so!”
She gasped, her breaths coming in short spurts now, her head shaking ever so slightly. “I…I was very nervous about seeing you; it is true. But what else could I have been?” Her eyes searched his for understanding. “I alone knew to what lengths you had gone to save my sister’s reputation, and I was at once both grateful and ashamed.” He grimaced, but said nothing to interrupt her. “What I could not know was how you, yourself, felt about associating with my family. I could not bear to face you—not directly. And after your aunt’s admonitions, I was sure you had been forced to give me up—whatever your feelings.”
“My aunt’s admonitions?” said Darcy more loudly than he had intended. They both glanced quickly about to see if they had drawn attention to themselves, but only Georgiana had looked up at them. She immediately turned her attention back to the baby, pretending not to hear, singing to him softly as they swung together.
“My aunt wrote to you?” Darcy inquired with a pretense of calm.
“She paid me an unexpected visit,” replied Elizabeth. “Did she not tell you that she had come to see me?”
“No! I knew nothing of it…till now. I cannot believe…” he began to say, and then, “…oh, yes I can! Good G-d, what horrid things did she say to frighten you off?” True understanding now dawned in his eyes. “So you believed that I had relinquished your love for the sake of my family and only returned to make amends to your sister! Elizabeth!” he said, nearly overcome with emotion, “I’ve been a fool!”
“Oh dear!” came Georgiana’s sudden cry. “Fitzwilliam, look!”
They both turned to see Lady Catherine de Bourgh rushing towards them, making no attempt to hide her very great displeasure. “Fitzwilliam! Georgiana!” she cried. “You are needed immediately. Come at once! Your uncle wishes to make a short tour before dinner and everyone is assembled and waiting for you!”
“This is most sudden Aunt!” said Darcy, indignant and extremely irritated.
“Don’t argue, Darcy! Just come away this instant! Georgiana, relieve yourself of that child and come with me at once!”
Elizabeth instinctively rose to assist Georgiana, but Darcy stayed her hand. “Miss Bennet,” he now said loudly enough for his aunt to hear, “It seems I am needed by my family and must leave you for now. But pray, would you be so kind as to grant me an interview tomorrow morning? There is something very particular I wish to ask you—after breakfast, perhaps, when you’ve returned from your rambles?”
Elizabeth cast nervous glances at both Georgiana and Lady Catherine. Then summoning her courage once again, she straightened and replied, “Of course, Mr. Darcy. That would be a most convenient time.” She smiled shyly and blushed. Turning to Georgiana, whose cheeks were crimson with humiliation, she simply said, “Enjoy your outing, Miss Darcy. It has been a lovely afternoon and I hope we shall have the opportunity to do it again.”
Georgiana let out a happy sigh and came towards Elizabeth to kiss her. “Thank you Miss Bennet, I look forward to it very much.” And with that she handed Jonathan back to her and took her brother’s arm. Grinning broadly, brother and sister followed a seething Lady Catherine out of the garden.