Posted on Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Fitzwilliam Darcy became aware of his wife’s approach from a great distance, her arrival heralded by a great crunching sound. He turned and watched her approach for a moment, before rising and moving to meet her.
‘My love.’ His greeting, succinct as ever, conveyed his joy at her presence.
‘William, I must speak with you.’ She clutched a letter in her hand, crumpled from being repeatedly handled. It was unlike Elizabeth to be so affected, and while the doctor warned that unexpected, and apparently excessive, emotion was to be expected in her condition, Darcy was concerned.
‘What is it? Is there anything I can do for your relief?’
In response, she gripped his elbow, almost hanging on for support, and he guided her over to a crudely carved bench under a large oak tree. He brushed a large amount of bright red leaves from the seat before gently helping her to sit.
‘Another dizzy spell?’ he questioned, concerned. She nodded, closing her eyes and taking several deep breaths. Since the beginning of her pregnancy, she had been plagued by these dizzy spells and bouts of fatigue, which the doctor assured them was not unusual. However, it severely restricted his wife’s normally vigorous activities, and the frustration was slowly affecting her spirits. Nothing less than the fear of harming her baby could have slowed his Elizabeth down, he thought with a mixture of pride and regret, but when that fear was so real, it could almost be paralysing.
For several moments they sat there, he holding her hand and gently stroking her abdomen, she leaning heavily against his shoulder. ‘’Tis a pity I am confined to the indoors so much. Autumn is my favourite season. The magnificent reds, oranges and yellows of the trees. The sound of leaves crunching underfoot. The sight of industrious woodland creatures preparing for the winter.’ She sighed, and turned to look at him. ‘But next autumn I will be able to spend much time outdoors, with our child as a reward.’
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. ‘Yes, my love, yes you will.’ The sat thus for a moment, watching the landscape of their magnificent Pemberley. ‘What was it you wished to discuss with me?’
She sighed again, handing him the crumpled paper in her hand. He read it quickly. It was a missive from her Aunt Gardiner, apprising them of Lydia’s situation. A week before, Mrs. Wickham had turned up on their doorstep, heavily pregnant, dirty and in the worst spirits they had even seen her. Her husband had left her, bound for America, rejecting all responsibility for her or their unborn child. Three days later she had begun to have labour pains, but it had taken a full day for her body to expel the child. The effort of it had cost her life. The child, although a little small, seemed to be healthy.
‘Oh, my darling, I am so sorry.’ Darcy put his arm around Elizabeth and held her close, trying for both of them to banish the fears that would arise.
‘I am well, my love.’ He looked at her sceptically. ‘Truly, I am well. I know that I am being taken far better care of than Lydia could have been. The same fate will not befall me.’ She inhaled deeply before continuing. ‘It is the babe I am worried about.’
Elizabeth inhaled sharply, then let her words tumble out of her mouth in a mumbled rush, like an acorn crashing through the boughs, gathering leaves as it fell. ‘What will become of him? No mother, no father. No one to care for him. He is small, he needs nourishment and care. He will be all alone in the world. No love, no protection. My poor foolish sister. What a life she has condemned her child to! What will become of him?’ She took another fortifying breath, gripping Darcy’s hand with a force he was surprised she was capable of at that moment.
He returned to stroking her hair, mumbling soft soothing words as he did. After a spell, she continued. ‘She is to be buried at Longbourne on Saturday. Mr. Collins has granted us that concession.’ She gave a short, bitter laugh. Mrs. Bennett’s fears had turned out to be well founded; barely a month after Mr. Bennett’s passing the previous spring, Collins had indeed turned her out of her home. Her sons-in-law had been quick to provide a cottage not far from Meryton, that she at least have the consolation of people who were familiar to her.
‘But the babe, William, what will become of her baby?’ Her voice had taken on a pleading note, and Darcy understood the question before it was asked.
Abruptly, he stood up, kicking a pile of leaves at his feet as he did. ‘No! I absolutely forbid it. The son of that man will not be part of my household!’ He turned from her, gazing out over the kaleidoscopic patchwork of colour, but taking in none of it.
‘William . . .’ Elizabeth began in a placating tone. He did not turn, and she repeated the call in an ever more gentle manner several times. The fourth entreaty was firm, a direct command. Reluctantly he turned to face her.
‘Sit.’ She commanded again, and with no choice in the matter, he complied.
‘I am well aware that once your good opinion is lost, it is lost forever. I was unaware that “forever” bridged the generation divide,’ she remarked archly, raising her eyebrow in the manner she was well aware he found beguiling. And indeed, his features softened slightly, so she pressed on while at an advantage. ‘Have you yourself not told me that his father was a very respectable man?’
She stopped, waiting for his response. There was a prolonged pause, but when it came, it was spoken with an air of nostalgia. ‘He was. A truly excellent man.’
‘Then is it not possible for his grandson to be the same?’ He turned to face her once again, and she grasped his hand. She looked at him earnestly, and smiled when he nodded. ‘The material point, however, is that there is no one else. Mama and Mary certainly cannot handle a baby at present. Kitty is but lately married herself, and Jane,’ her voice tailed off for a minute before she continued; ‘dear Jane has her own to deal with.’ Less than a year after her marriage, Jane had given birth to a perfectly health baby girl. But the child had contracted an infection, and while she had mercifully survived, she was deaf, and had problems with many physical activities that most children her age were quite competent in. Her intelligence thankfully did not seem to be affected, but between her education, and the baby due shortly after Elizabeth’s, Jane could not take on additional burdens.
It went against every instinct of his, to allow such a child in his home, near his own child, when it was born. What of the current debates, raging in intellectual circles, of the strength of inherited characteristics? And Georgiana? How would she react to having that man’s child living under the same roof as her? Elizabeth seemed determined to do this, to do the right thing, but what of the effects on her at this crucial time? They had waited so long for this child, no offspring of Wickham’s was going to jeopardize that promise. He looked at his wife, his precious wife, her hand laying on her protruding abdomen, her gaze far into the distance.
Sensing Darcy watching her, she turned to face him fully, reaching out a hand to lightly caress his face. ‘He in my nephew, William, my sister’s child. If we say no, he is for an orphanage. His only chance for a decent life, to overcome his parent’s legacy, is with us. I am not asking you to make him your heir, or to give him your name. All I ask is that we give him the opportunity for an education, and guidance in whichever direction he should choose.’ The simplicity of her words, and the essence of her appeal, affected him. He sighed, then leaned over to lightly kiss her.
‘Let me think on it. I do hear all you say, and I will consider it. We can discuss it again before I leave for the funeral.’ He rose, and extended his hand to assist her from her seat. ‘Come, let us return to the house. The sun sets far earlier now that autumn has come.’
Slowly they made their way back to the house, with only the sound of the leaves snapping beneath their feet, and the chatter of the squirrels in the trees breaking the heavy silence.
Three weeks later, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Master of Pemberley, returned with baby Edward Wickham, son of George and the late Lydia Wickham.
Autumn, 25 years later
The knock on the Library door roused Fitzwilliam Darcy from his deep perusal of the letter from his steward. The preliminary indications were that the new railroads were a good investment, since the introduction of the steam engine had changed the vision of transport forever. But it was still a large sum of money, and careful consideration was justified. He looked up on seeing her nephew enter.
‘Edward.’ Darcy peered at him through his spectacles, a new addition. ‘Did it go well?’
The young man beamed at him. ‘Yes, sir. I have passed my examinations, including the bedside examination. I am now a fully qualified physician.’
With the energy of a much younger man Darcy propelled himself from his firm leather chair, and embraced his nephew. ‘Well done, my boy. You have made me very proud.’ He held Edward at arms length for a moment, looking at his glowing face. ‘Have you told your aunt?’
Gently disentangling himself, the younger man shook his head. ‘No, sir. I wanted to come to you first.’
Blinking back the tears that threatened, Darcy gently patted him on the back. ‘Then go to her. She will be waiting.’
Darcy watched him exit the Library, and thought back on the many years that had passed since his wife had convinced him they should take the boy. She had been right then, of course, as Elizabeth almost always was. With a lot of love, a bit of encouragement, and a fair amount of discipline, Edward Wickham had grown into a man they could all be proud of.